This is a guest article by Chris Cook from The EntrePMeur.
Project managers want to make the best decisions for themselves, the project, and the project team. In order to do so, project managers must be aware of biases. Based on experiences, people can come to different conclusions when presented with the same scenario and that’s where biases come into play.
Project managers make decisions all the time, by the hour, minute, or even second. They get paid to make decisions. Understanding why those decisions are made can help them become more effective. Understanding one’s psychology is of utmost importance. Biases factor into psychology.
Three biases that impact a project manager’s decision making are:
- Regression to mean
- Illusion of control.
Not only is it important to recognise the presence of these biases but it’s also critical to know how to handle them.
Biases also impact your ability to interpret a message. Biases can create an agenda. Anything outside of that agenda may be seen as a threat. Recognising this slant and deterring its impact makes you a better project manager.
Below is more about the three biases that impact current and future decision making. Let’s start with regret.
“Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human – however imperfectly – and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
When tackling difficult decisions, I turn to philosophy. Stoicism and Taoism have become part of my daily reading to help frame my mind for the tasks ahead.
We all have regret, be it personal or professional. Regret comes from inaction or misguided action. Regret from inaction is caused by overthinking potential outcomes rather than focusing on what happened and dealing with the consequences.
Misguided actions create regret because the outcome is negative. The decision can be based upon trusted information yet the result is unforeseen. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. Correct actions can still lead to poor outcomes.
“What if?” questions are an example of regret, not only from inaction but also from choosing the ‘wrong’ action. Technically, inaction is an action.
Failing is learning. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor leading his people into wars. Projects are not wars, but we can learn from Aurelius. Think of how many times he must have felt regret when people died because of his decisions. Project managers rarely, if ever, live through an outcome like that. Look at how he responds to a failure. “Get back up,” he says. Celebrate the imperfection and move forward.
When faced with a decision, make the best possible decision, note it, and sleep on it. The key is making the decision, the action based on the information given.
Regret is a bias created after the fact. You know the result and questions start to enter your mind. The next bias, regression to mean, occurs during the project.
Regression to Mean
“And if marquises and kings were not by means of it noble and high, they would, I’m afraid, topple and fall. Therefore, it must be the case that the noble has the base as its root; And it must be the case that the high has the low for its foundation.” – Lao Tzu, Te-Tao Ching
Like in any profession, there are highs and lows, ups and downs, ebbs and flows. There is an average, or mean, to a project. There may be weeks of high productions and outputs far surpassing the planned quantities. You have to remember those planned quantities represent average production. Be prepared for the weeks of sub-par performance to offset those over-performing durations.
However, remember that there is a good argument to say that there is no such thing as a bad decision, as at least taking a decisions helps you move forward and take action.
Lao Tzu, known as the founder of philosophical Taoism, gives great insight to the highs and lows. He states the loftiest of individuals will fall if their foundations are not built properly. This regression to the mean is a protection. Your rise will result in a hard fall if your foundation is not strong. Build from the bottom.
An important note on the mean is it has the ability to rise. The way to do so is consistent results over time. Praise and punishment are short-term fixes. When things are good, praise is high. When things go wrong, punishment is in order. These short bursts were thin on a team. Consistency should be the focus. You know performance regresses to the mean. Raise the mean so the regression creates less impact.
Like regression to the mean, illusion of control is a current bias affecting the project in real time. When reflecting on the outcomes, you may see how little control you have on the project. This real time reflection impacts future decisions.
Illusion of Control
“Honor and revere the gods, treat human beings as they deserve, be tolerant with others and strict with yourself. Remember, nothing belongs to you but your flesh and blood – and nothing else is under your control.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Project managers are in positions to lead. The illusion of control comes from leadership. Your team is a group of individuals who are experienced and technically sound. They have their own agendas and biases. Leadership is not synonymous with control.
A leader gives their team the tools to succeed. A plan is created with tasks, durations, deadlines, critical path, and so on. These individuals have to perform their roles for the team to succeed. These individuals are not robots. There is no remote control or program to ensure they perform the way you want them to.
Marcus Aurelius reminds us of that. While you cannot control them, you can control yourself and your responses.
“Be…strict with yourself” stands out to me. It is along the lines of “Do as I say, not as I do.” If you are strict with yourself, others will recognise. You will set a strong example of your expectations. Bill Walsh, the former Hall of Fame coach of the San Francisco 49ers, used a Standard of Performance to take a 2-14 team to the Super Bowl three years later.
You cannot control your team, but you can set an example of your expectations. Your team will start to recognise and hold each other accountable.
Recognising these biases not only makes you a better decision maker but also a better influencer. Your messages will become clearer. Stress, chaos, and disorder will be lowered because you recognise the influences occurring and can adapt faster.
Philosophy helps bring a peace. These messages are hundreds, even thousands, of years old. The situations you are going through are not new. There are tools to help deal with them.
I like to use the example of video games when discussing if you are on the right path. In a video game, you know you are on the right path when you come across new bad guys or monsters. If you continue to run around and nothing is popping up, you are probably running in circles. The same goes for projects. New issues and conflicts arise because you are making progress. Most likely, there is a standstill if nothing new is popping up.
Challenges, like bad guys in a video game, should be relished. You are on the path to progress. Continue to face these challenges and overcome them with an awareness of how biases impact your ability to succeed.
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