Mind The Gap: Perception, Reality, and Project Success
June 21, 2023
As humans, we like to present ourselves in a good light. Not only to our friends and family but also to our inner selves. Psychologists have a fancy term for this. They call it the “social-desirability bias.”
This tendency to present oneself in a favorable light or to conform to societal expectations is closely related to other human behaviors such as “self-deceptive enhancement” and “impression management”.
So the next time a friend asks you, “How often do you go to the gym?” You might respond, “I go five times a week.” Even if your average is twice a week. And you may not even be purposefully lying; you may genuinely believe that you go to the gym five times a week just because you did so that one week about six months ago. Although your attendance has slipped since then, your self-perception has not changed.
Doing Basics Brilliantly
Why is this relevant to project management? Good project management requires doing many good deeds daily:
- Build and Maintain a Schedule: Define and sequence activities. Estimate durations and assign resources and contingency. Communicate the schedule to stakeholders to achieve alignment on the logic and path of construction.
- Prioritize Tasks: Evaluate and rank tasks based on their importance, dependencies, and impact on the project. Focus on high-impact tasks that need to be completed for other tasks to proceed.
- Monitor Progress: Regularly review the progress of each task to ensure they're on schedule. If tasks are falling behind, identify the reasons and implement solutions promptly.
- Maintain Regular Communication: Keep all stakeholders, including team members, sponsors, and other involved parties, informed about the project's status, risks, and issues. Regular communication can preempt misunderstandings and conflicts.
- Address Risks Proactively: Identify potential risks that could delay the project and devise strategies to mitigate them. Continuously monitor for new risks and adapt your risk management plan as necessary.
- Resolve Issues Promptly: Don't let issues linger. Tackle problems head-on as they arise to prevent them from becoming bigger issues that can derail the project schedule.
- Keep the Team Engaged: A motivated and focused team is crucial for staying on schedule. Regularly check in with team members, provide constructive feedback, and maintain a positive and collaborative work environment.
- Check on Resources: Regularly monitor resource usage and ensure that there's no overutilization or underutilization. Make necessary adjustments to align with the project timeline.
- Continuously Learn and Adapt With the Team: Collectively reflect on what's working well and what needs improvement. Use these insights to continuously refine your project management practices.
We call these daily good habits “strategic diligence” in a separate piece. When it comes to delivering projects, it’s not about doing something magical or fancy, but about doing the basics brilliantly every day.
When Psychology Gets In the Way
As project professionals, if we hold up a mirror and ask ourselves, “How often do we do these daily good deeds?” Invariably our response is, “All the time.”
That’s where our psychological bias (the social-desirability bias) is letting us down.
Many project managers intend to do such daily good deeds. In fact, many of us do them some of the time. But few, if any of us, can keep it up all of the time. Just like my example of gym attendance, we may think we go to the gym five times a week when we really go twice a week. Similarly, we may think we are maintaining, prioritizing, and communicating our schedule all of the time when we are not.
This perception-reality gap becomes a source of poor performance. Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian philosopher says, “The great majority are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities.” The first step to improve the performance of our projects is thus to close the perception-reality gap and see the world as it is.
According to Noble Prize-winning research, overcoming psychological bias requires a combination of a “commitment device” and effort. A commitment device refers to a strategy or mechanism that individuals use to enhance their self-control and stick to their goals or commitments.
For example, waking up early in the morning is effortful for most people. So we use an alarm clock (the commitment device) and set up the alarm before going to bed (pre-commitment). This ensures that when the alarm goes off, despite the temptation to remain sleeping, we get out of bed. The commitment device is not sufficient on its own. It still requires diligence to not turn off the alarm clock when it goes off.
Similarly, getting fit may require a commitment device, e.g. an app on which you might count your daily calories or workouts. But also diligence in forgoing tasty food in excess or exercising.
Just like these examples, project management also calls for a commitment device and diligence. We have designed Foresight to serve as the ideal commitment device for project professionals, equipped with all the necessary tools and insights to accomplish your daily tasks efficiently. For instance, it automatically organizes your activities into a prioritized list; all you need to do is follow through by completing, delegating, or following up on tasks. Should any activity become at risk, Foresight promptly alerts you and empowers you to take action by commenting, tagging, assigning, or sharing tasks.
So the next time someone asks you, “Are you maintaining a robust project schedule?”, don’t jump to say, “Yes, I’m doing that already,” as an instinctive response. First, reflect — are you really? Have you stress-tested the logic with your colleagues? Do you communicate the schedule widely and regularly? Do you and your team agree on the sequence and path of construction and recalibrate your understanding weekly? Is the work happening on the site truly in line with the plan or is the site work ruled by a chaotic workflow of Excel spreadsheets that cannot be reconciled with your P6 schedule? Do you know your priorities as a team? Are you working to overcome the blockers?
The more truthful your self-reflection — devoid of delusion or deception — the more value you are producing for your team and project. Even when truths are hard to admit due to social-desirability bias. That is the hard thing about hard things.
1 The Paulhus Deception Scales, or the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR), is a psychological assessment tool developed by Delroy L. Paulhus to measure socially desirable responding and self-deceptive enhancement. It aims to identify individuals who have a tendency to present themselves in a more favorable or socially desirable light. The BIDR was first introduced by Paulhus in 1984 as a self-report questionnaire consisting of two subscales: the Impression Management (IM) scale and the Self-Deceptive Enhancement (SDE) scale. The IM scale assesses the tendency to consciously manipulate one's self-presentation to create a favorable impression, while the SDE scale measures the tendency to hold overly positive and self-enhancing beliefs about oneself. Read more here: Paulhus, D. L. (1984). Two-Component Models of Socially Desirable Responding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 598–609. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1688
2 Read more here:
Bryan, G., Karlan, D., & Nelson, S. (2010). Commitment Devices. Annu. Rev. Econ., 2(1), 671–698. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.economics.102308.124324
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Thaler, R. H., & Shefrin, H. M. (1981). An Economic Theory of Self-Control. Journal of Political Economy, 89(2), 392–406. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1833317