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  • If you have an intention to work with cognitive bias, there is no more powerful or beneficial place to direct your attention than the planning fallacy. Anyone who’s been within a stone’s throw of project management knows about this one. First defined by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky in 1979, the planning fallacy says that humans routinely underestimate the amount of time needed to get a task done.

    The planning fallacy is a wicked combination of wishful thinking, overconfidence, and convenience. The dynamics of organizational life don’t help much, since executives are eager to get a rosy picture of the future and teams are eager to provide one–no matter how much work is thrown into the queue.

    By routinely breaking the work down into smaller pieces, methodologies like Agile and Lean are great tools for helping to reduce the impact of the planning fallacy. But the human psyche doesn’t give up easily on its desire to put the brakes on assessing the truth so it can get on with the enjoyable business of skipping down the primrose lane.

    The lurking presence of negativity bias complicates matters. The accusatory label “Eeyore” (the skeptical donkey friend of Winnie the Pooh) can invalidate the legitimate concerns someone might raise about planning assumptions. And negativity bias inhibits teams from breaking open those assumptions to examine them carefully. “We suspect what’s in there is not pretty, so let’s just not do that right now.” As a program manager, I have been guilty of this more than a few times.

    Cognitive bias is a given of our experience, and the planning fallacy is no more susceptible to easy or rapid elimination than any other form of bias. The remedy is simple, but not easy:

    • First, cultivate self-awareness, humility, and honesty so your team can recognize the planning bias when it shows up.
    • Second, cultivate psychological safety on your team and beyond, so you can name planning bias when you see it, no matter how inconvenient that may be.
    • Finally, stay committed to seeking out and acting on the truth as the project proceeds, recognizing that you’ll be forever swimming against the tide of fallacious thinking.

    The planning fallacy is a tough nut to crack. To the extent that you can offset it, your team will deliver faster and more valuable results. But even if that success is limited, exercising your skills of self-awareness and courage to address the planning fallacy will make your team stronger and more resilient.

    Try It: Take a look at a current plan for work your team is doing. How has the planning fallacy impacted the accuracy of your timelines? How has wishful thinking about project scope and overconfidence in team abilities contributed to any inaccuracies? What can your team do to bolster your self-awareness and your ability to tell the truth about those inaccurate estimates? How can you all stay aware of your tendency to fall into the planning fallacy as you continue to work together?

    Image: Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons