Confirmation bias is among the more nuanced challenges PMP®s face. In project management, this phenomenon is often encountered in the form of people who maintain their position on a topic even when confronted with information that should take them in a new direction, or the tendency of team members or stakeholders to twist data in a way that reinforces their existing beliefs or preferences.
In extreme cases, confirmation bias can keep project teams mired in inefficient practices or convinced that long-standing problems can’t be fixed. But with concerted effort and a few key strategies, there are ways PMP®s can help stakeholders and those within the Project Team tackle their confirmation bias. They can then work toward increasing the team’s efficiency and solving difficult project problems.
Review benchmarking data. Overcoming confirmation bias and allowing for evolving viewpoints can often be helped along by examining impartial benchmarking data. External information—industry or regional statistics, for example—may be the most useful, as these datasets are neutral and free from stakeholder influence. However, internal benchmarking can also be used to better understand historical trends within the organization, whether they relate to efficiency, funding, or even recurring problem areas. No matter the source of the data, PMP®s might also consider including an outside expert’s interpretation of the information and how it correlates to the Project Team’s efforts. This neutral insight will help project participants identify if (and where) their biases conflict with reality.
Implement robust project controls. A proven project control methodology can be useful for many reasons, not the least of which is the assistance in reducing confirmation bias. Because project controls give PMP®s the ability to spot potential issues early in the process, the triggers for those problems can also be more precisely identified and examined in greater clarity. Team members who are convinced that recurring problems are destined to plague the Project Team forever may change their mind when they see they have the ability to intervene earlier and achieve better results. Similarly, a leadership group that assumes the fault for budgeting or other issues rests in one functional area may finally acknowledge that problems are actually being created elsewhere.
Explore the details of existing concerns. Confirmation bias can be particularly difficult to exterminate if incorrect or outdated assumptions are routinely pointing people in the wrong direction when it comes to making decisions or addressing challenges. Take the time to discuss where stakeholders and team members see problems with the project process. Are budget worries driving executives to routinely under-fund projects? Are inefficiencies being perpetuated by other departments that aren’t sufficiently invested in bringing about improvements? If these conversations are difficult to keep on track due to internal political pressures or other forces, consider bringing in a skilled facilitator who can act as a neutral third party while still helping everyone involved get down to the meat of their concerns.
Conduct more extensive post-project reviews. Along with proactive strategies, retroactively examining past projects can also be an effective approach. If confirmation bias likely affected the outcome of a previous effort, review everything from early decision-making discussions to late-stage crisis management. When did confirmation bias first begin influencing the team’s actions? What effect did it have? Are those problems being repeated in current projects? Single instances of confirmation bias are as important as larger historical trends, and PMP®s will want to look for indicators of both. By conducting in-depth reviews of past projects, stakeholders and team members may be able to see where their biases pushed them off course and where better input or data can be used to avoid making the same mistake again.