Training The Heuristic Project Manager


Project managers must avoid indecision as much as hasty and error-prone decision-making. Unfortunately, the unconscious mental quirks “heuristics” and “biases” frustrate these conflicting demands. Thus, a successful project manager must firmly command traditional decision-making techniques, and create awareness of these unconscious, deeply ingrained human traits. Traditional methodologies facilitate decisions with analysis and dispassionate facts. However, unless the project manager avoids cognitive heuristics and biases, he will inevitably suffer the consequences when seemingly objective decisions prove subjective in the end. Hence, good project management training teaches both the clinical methodologies and the human elements of decision making.

Heuristics are natural cognitive functions with risky implications for project managers, and three are particularly damaging to objectivity: anchoring, availability and representativeness. They can turn common sense into irrational decision-making, which can derail a project and the project manager’s success. Anchoring occurs when a project manager adjusts an estimate closer to a number he previously heard or saw. For example, he may not charge the reasonable and necessary $20,000 for a change order after he witnessed the sponsor telling another vendor that “$2,000 is a lot of money!” Even if the project manager consciously knows that the two estimates are unrelated, unconscious anchoring has happened. The availability heuristic makes salient memories and current events irrationally important. For example, if the project manager saw a contractor fall off the ladder, he may spend time and money procuring additional safety training, even though the chance of another accident has statistically not increased. Finally, the representativeness heuristic can also affect projects. This occurs when a decision uses a small sample to generalize a situation. For example, if a welder has made 3 consecutive bad welds, the project manager may decide that the welder produces inferior work, even though careful consideration would have shown 800 perfect preceding welds. Superior project management training teaches students objective decision-making techniques and illustrates techniques to mitigate heuristic distortions.

State-of-the-art project management training must also address naturally-occurring biases, because they substitute logic in decision-making. For example, the framing bias leads to seemingly intelligent decisions that, on second look, simply reacted to the choice of words that described the problem. For example, humans are more averse to losses than they inclined to windfalls, and a project manager who must decide whether to spend $700 to avoid a 10% chance of an $8,000 loss or a 15% chance of a $9,000 profit should choose the profit option, even though it “just doesn’t feel right” to most people. (The savings investment is likely to yield a $1350 benefit, whereas the other yields an $800 benefit.) The confirmation bias is another concern, since most people involuntarily rely on data that supports their prior decisions.

For instance, a project manager may search data to substantiate a new report that the project is succeeding because past reports were positive, even though earned value analysis may question the conclusion. Project managers should also learn to recognize the belief bias; people accept and reject facts by matching their belief rather than objective reflection. For instance, a project manager may believe that some good engineers are extroverts, but that extroverts cannot be good engineers; if even one good engineer is an extrovert, the statement that extroverts can be good engineers must be true. Believing one and disbelieving the other would be evidence of an irrational belief bias. High-quality project management training can show students how to mitigate biases with objective tools and techniques, e.g. a proper cost-benefit analysis that diffuses the project manager’s framing and confirmation biases. Advanced project management training includes scenarios that demonstrate how biases can become failures.

Anyone involved with projects has experienced the negative consequences from these heuristics and biases. Proper training can convert this abstract theoretical science into useful tools, thus improving job skills and success. To be sure, project managers need not know how to attribute an academic heuristic or bias to every event. But, the project manager should learn to recognize hidden motives in decision-making before they cause problems for the organization, the stakeholders, or the project manager’s career. Hoffmann Conseho’s andragogy-based training approach merges awareness of these heuristics and biases with the traditional elements of project management. The Project-Lab approach allows participants to safely review, reflect, and discuss motivations and decisions before taking them into the real world. This practice creates knowledge that the training recipients remember when appropriate.

Ultimately, project managers must learn how heuristics and biases can affect decisions through experience. The goal is not a project manager who questions every action and decision, but one who makes critical decisions with the use of due diligence to avoid human shortcomings. The performance improvements will bring real benefits to the individual and the organization. As Garry Marshall points out, “It’s always helpful to learn from your mistakes because then your mistakes seem worthwhile.” Now imagine taking a class that prompts you to make worthwhile mistakes so you do not repeat them in real life!

Click on to learn more about adult learning science.


  1. […] Training The Heuristic Project Manager This occurs when a decision uses a small sample to generalize a situation. For example, if a welder has made 3 consecutive bad welds, the project manager may decide that the welder produces inferior work, even though careful consideration would have … Read more on Project Accelerator News […]


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.