In an earlier article, 6 Mental Maladies That Could Impact Your Project - PM Tips, we presented some information about Cognitive Bias. Here we are sharing more information that will help you identify these behaviors as you execute projects.
Table of Contents
- Cognitive Misers
- Cognitive Blindness
- Cognitive Laziness
- Cognitive Flexibility
Cognitive misers tend to act in two ways: ignoring some of the information to reduce their cognitive load or overestimating some type of data so that they do not have to search for or process different information that could destroy their beliefs or assumptions1. Even if when forced to acknowledge something that could destroy a person’s belief, there is yet another hurdle. Cognitive dissonance puts a person in the mental condition of confronting their beliefs in the face of evidence that runs contrary to that belief. This creates an internal contradiction that is often uncomfortable.
Over the years we have interacted with Cognitive Misers on various teams. What we hope to do is shine a light on what might be happening in project teams the world over and provide some help with identifying and working through issues from cognitive misers.
If you are working with Cognitive Miser, you might hear:
- Get to the point.
- Just outsource it.
- Why should I care?
Cognitive blindness is the inability to understand something due to the lack of a precept of knowledge, understanding, or belief in a necessary fundamental concept. Cognitive blindness can be a result of inadequate intellectual capacity for understanding something or it can be a result of emotional, cultural, or cognitive biases2.
There are cultures that value learning. An organization that values continuous learning often has benefits to the employee, such as tuition assistance or fully paid tuition. We are surprised when we see so few take advantage of this benefit.
Hanging around engineers, you will find that extreme conditions, in our experience. Experience can make this worse, that is we may believe we detect a pattern, that is not really a pattern or a cluster (see the noted article). This can distract us from other possibilities, we have witnessed this set of outcomes, numerous times. The converse is likewise possible, the range of outcomes that can be envisioned, is so broad, that it is difficult to decide, we sometimes hear the term analysis paralysis.
If you are working with Cognitive Blindness, you might hear:
- Not focused on the present environment
- Not focused on the task at hand
Thinking is hard. Our brain takes shortcuts to answers, and we are likely not even aware that we are taking shortcuts. There is a good reason for this automation of the thinking and decision process.
“As an energy-consumer, the brain is the most expensive organ we carry around with us,” says Dr. Marcus Raichle, a distinguished professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. While the brain represents just 2% of a person’s total body weight, it accounts for 20% of the body’s energy use, Raichle’s research has found.3"
One of the many ways in which we have become cognitively lazy is to accept our initial impression of the problem that it encounters. Once we settle on an initial perspective, we don’t seek alternative ways of looking at the problem4. Those familiar with root cause analysis understand how often this goes into the weeds, or insufficient time spent exploring to get to the ultimate origin of the predicament. Sometimes this shortcutting is due to management pressure to get to the bottom of things, while not understanding that to get to the bottom or origin of the visible symptom, requires time for exploration and experimentation. There are times when we need relief from the symptom quickly, especially from the project perspective. We need to keep the project on track and perhaps this requires abatement of the symptom, before resolution. The last thing we want to do is spend time finding the root cause of the aircraft anomaly while the plane is in the air.
This will lead us to a desirable attribute for project managers. That of the ability to adapt, to see things in many ways, to find solutions in a myriad of ways.
If you are working with Cognitive Blindness, you might hear:
- Someone who sticks to their initial belief considering new information
- Someone that responds to change with “we have always don’t it this way.”
Cognitive flexibility has been described as the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously5. It should be readily apparent how this is important for the project manager and the team. Projects are unique, with unique challenges that come with a set of circumstances or situations. Not everything can be scripted, we are going to have to think our way through. The ability to come up with several possible solutions for exploration is often better. One way that we help our project teams to be flexible in their thinking, is to ask questions. Not in a challenging manner but it a way to extract information: ‘Help me understand. Why is…?”, “What if…?” Some experts refer to Cognitive Flexible as Rethinking.
Project Managers need to be flexible in their thinking. Cognitive Flexibility has been identified as an executive skill. We like to think that Project Managers are executives of their projects.
Cognitive Bias affects everyone everywhere. Cognitive skills or Cognitive capabilities are the primary skills our brain uses to read, memorize, perceive, process, think, learn, reason, pay attention and move the muscles or bodies6. These skills are how each of us develops our decision-making, inspiration, motivation, and live our life. The responsibility of the Project Manager is to be able to recognize the cognitive skills and biases displayed by individuals working on their project. By working we mean from the team members to the clients to all the stakeholders and contractors. Sometimes we need our teams and ourselves to rethink decisions, estimates, execution (or how do we accomplish this), etc. Learning to identify a cognitive bias being displayed will help a project manager rethink their approach to that individual. The goal is a successful project and it takes many techniques and tools to make that happen.