Cognitive Science Insights into Decision Making

Those of you who know me understand how my company relies on cognition principles and experts to make our projects successful.  Dr. Karen McGraw, the founder of Cognitive Technologies, has said on many occasions that “Cognitive is the first word in our company name because if you don’t focus first on the way people think, work and learn, technology will not make any impact.”  I try to use this guiding principle in all of my management roles and projects.

Making decisions—selecting the best action among alternatives—is a key management responsibility. The higher in the organization a person sits, the greater the impact their decisions have. Because decision making is closely tied to company profitability, the “how” and “why” of decision making has received a great deal of study from cognitive scientists and business professionals.

Project managers often are called upon to provide expert opinions to support decision makers.

Here is a possible scenario …
Your boss’s boss calls on you to present your advice about an IT related decision under consideration, such as securing proprietary data, timing the transition to a new computer system or finding a teammate or subcontractor for a proposed project. If you do not have a personal or professional stake in the eventual decision, your task is to provide factual information and perhaps a professional recommendation.
However, when you, your project or your team will be directly impacted by the decision, you would be well served to apply some of the lessons learned by cognitive scientists on factors that influence people in making decisions.
Cognitive science research tells us that the influence of what you say will be enhanced or diminished by how you say it.

  1. Do some homework about the decision maker. Either based on your experience or the observation of others, try to determine:
    1. What types of information sources the person “values”. Some people are persuaded by academic research and published data, while others disregard “ivory tower” recommendations. Some managers may be motivated by industry standards and best practices. Other managers may prefer information sources that reflect innovation and outside-the-box thinking.
    2. Are there other managers whose opinion affects the decision maker’s preferences? (Sam really distrusts Joe and would not want to do anything that Joe recommends.)
    3. Do the manager’s past decisions reflect the desire for high risk / high reward or slow, measureable progress?
    4. Does the decision maker want quick results or long term impact?
    5. Are there issues outside of the question at hand that are important to the decision maker, such as customer needs, security, worker satisfaction or the environment? (All managers care about cost)
  2. Remember cognitive biases and their impact on processing information (see Does Your Organization Have Cognitive Biases that Influence Management Decisions?)
  3. People generally prefer the decision option that requires the least amount of cognitive effort (“Examining cognitive functions with fMRI”) reports cognitive science researchers from Carnegie Mellon. This may explain why some managers find just saying “no”, easier than actually weighing alternatives or committing to actions. The research further suggests that individuals expend less cognitive effort deciding in favor of a small “for-sure” gain over a potentially risky, but higher-value, gain. “Conversely, the cognitive effort expended in choosing a sure loss was equal to the cognitive effort expended in choosing a risky loss.”
  4. Frame the discussion by choosing descriptive words that resonate with the decision maker’s view of herself or the world. According to George Lakoff, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, people often make decisions based on the way they cognitively represent (or frame) a potential action. Lakoff calls these metaphors and they are the associations one makes to certain words. For example, because of unconscious frames, some people are more persuaded to “become fit” than to “exercise”. Some managers want to “Win the fight”, while others prefer to “protect our assets or position”.
  5. Even though cognitive scientists study differences between the decision-making influences in men and women and have research findings such as, “…women perceive greater risk across many real and hypothetical scenarios relative to men…” (Scientific American, September 20, 2011), beware of changing words or stories based on assumed differences in gender or cultural cognitive style or stereotypes. I would not do it.

An interesting thought piece by Gary Williams and Robert Miller published by Harvard Business Review in 2002 entitled “Change the way you persuade”, suggests some words and concepts may be more effective when making recommendations to managers based if you consider their decision-making style. Based on 1600 interviews with executives, the authors divided decision making styles into five categories: charismatics, thinkers, skeptics, followers and controllers. Here are a couple of their suggestions:

Decision Making Style

Persuasive Words and Concepts

Charismatic Use words like, “proven”, “easy”, “results”; use simple concepts and visual aids that focus on benefits and features. Acknowledge risks. Keep presentation short.
Thinker Have lots of data from different, but relevant, sources. Complexity is okay. Do not emphasize risks. You may be better off just giving them information and letting them reach a conclusion.
Skeptic Establish your bona fides first. Tie your recommendations to those of someone they trust. Expect disagreement and questions. Willing to take risks based on the recommendations of a trusted individual.
Follower References and testimonials can be helpful. Emphasize success others have achieved when following this recommendation. Provide instruction on technical issues. Help them feel confident that they are making the right decision.
Controller Do not emphasize risks, focus on benefits. Provide details to backup recommendations. Do not push for a quick decision.

So are do you know how you make your decisions?  Are you watching for other cognitive clues from staff and stakeholders?

Asking for Help

Do you ever ask for help or assistance?  I don’t know why so many people (And organizations!) feel like they cannot go get help when they need to.  Perhaps because people see asking for help as a sign of personal failure, they are reluctant to do it. Instead, they continue to struggle and hope for a miracle or stick their heads in the sand and deny reality. Project managers can be as guilty of this as anyone. However, good project managers know when and how to ask for help.  Trust me on this one – I have to do it more than I like to admit!

When to Ask for Help

Situations that lead to eventual project problems or outright failure come in two flavors—project specific and systemic. As part of effective project management, before beginning work you created a project schedule and a risk management plan, which included indicators of potential problems. Missing milestones or falling behind on interdependent tasks are yellow flags to project managers that may signal the need to ask for help. (see: Spotting a failing project and How to create and use predictive project scheduling)

I purposely recommend considering schedule slips as caution flags rather than red flags. Although project managers need to be alert to missed deadlines, they should not over-react. Consider the circumstances. Did the team learn something during execution that changed task order and priority? Should the schedule be revised to reflect this new knowledge? Did customers change requirements and agree to the schedule impact? Judgment is required to discriminate between manageable schedule slips and problems requiring help. On the other hand, be careful not to cheat at solitaire here by telling yourself that the problem is manageable without help when it is not.

Potential risks that become reality should be analyzed for their impact on cost and schedule. When a project manager creates the risk management plan, they consider what could happen. (see: PMBOK: Project Risk Management and  Is Project Management a Risky Business?) The manifestation of a risk indicator should lead to detailed analysis and perhaps management review. Based on analysis by the project manager and lead technical personnel, you may need to seek help to achieve original project goals or significantly modify expectations.

Systemic problems cannot be fixed by the project manager. Poor communication with senior management, shifting priorities, restructuring and frequent resource reallocation reflect an organization’s culture. Although the project manager has limited ability to change a culture, they must be aware of its potential effect on project success and do the best they can to accommodate the resulting problems.

Do not wait until senior management or the customer notices a problem, be proactive.

How to Ask for Help

One of those annoying management phrases is, “bring me solutions, not problems.” Unfortunately, this attitude is present in many corporate managers. So, the project manager is well-advised to bring not only details and implications of the project’s problem status, but also suggestions on how senior management can help. Here is my advice on how to ask for help (and get it):

  • Focus on facts of the problem and the short and long term implications. Do NOT blame anyone or any circumstance.
  • Explain technical challenges or roadblocks in layman’s terms not technical jargon. It may be obvious to you and the team that integrating a legacy database presents unforeseeable challenges, however you will need to explain why and give examples to help non-technical managers understand.
  • Develop at least two optional approaches to dealing with the current situation. For each option specify:
    • State what needs to be done
    • Delineate new resources or processes are required to implement the approach
    • Propose a revised schedule and risk management plan
    • Quantify methods to assess progress and success
    • Remember that senior managers consider solutions (and all decisions) as a trade-off between cost and benefits. Give them the information they need to make a strategically and tactically correct decision
  • Summarize any actions that result from the meeting and follow up through email or personal visits with key decision makers.

If you have succeeded or failed to gain help in solving project problems, share your strategies and recommendations.

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