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Friday, December 27, 2013

Self-herding: or decision making without thinking (part 2 of 2)

Antibiotics
Last week I started this article "Self-herding: or decision making without thinking" about this cognitive bias called self-herding (short for replaying past decisions for the same problems) and its impacts on Project Management. The first part of the article was about the subjectivity in numbers and this time I'll talk about perpetuating mistakes. Pretty easy to do that, really: all you have to do is to make a wrong decision the first time you're posed with a problem - which is not a difficult thing in the Project Management profession. In fact, that is one of the reason why "lessons learned" are so important in the profession.
But if it's easy to make mistakes in Project Management and if self-herding is a cognitive bias affecting us all, are we doomed as Project Managers to make the same mistakes over and over again?
Back to part 1

We're not doomed, not really

If we know that we tend to repeat the same decisions for the same problems without reconsidering (which is generally an option that makes sense when the problems really are the same) all we have to do is make sure that problems really are the same. And when they're not the same, we should force ourselves to remake and rethink the decision and not just replay the last decision we made on the same issue.
And this is not just about ourselves, the same goes for others: when we see someone in the team making a bad call (like the project sponsor who invested so much money in the project that she just can't bring herself to cancel the project) make sure that they're not just replaying a past decision.
The thing is: this is not very easy to do when we're involved ourselves...

A story with antibiotics

But what does this have to do with antibiotics? I have a short, recent and personal story to tell you. I was recently taking some antibiotics. And I had the belief that you couldn't take any alcohol with antibiotics. So when the chance came to participate in a wine tasting event where some exquisite wines would be available for tasting, that was the motivator for me to re-think this antibiotics/alcohol incompatibility and make sure I was making the right decision.
For starters, let us admit that alcohol kills the little bugs in the antibiotics. If this is so, then alcohol should also kill the little bugs that are causing your infection (or whatever your conditions is) in the first place right? And if that was to be the case, antibiotics should only be available if you could have any alcohol at all for some reason: maybe because of your religion or just because you are a 6 month old baby. And any other such case should be treated with alcohol alone instead of antibiotics. So there's a logical and reasonable case supporting the cause "antibiotics and alcohol are compatible"...
Next step was to check what was available on the internet. So I googled for "antibiotics and alcohol consumption" and I got this interesting link on the English National Health Service right in second place: "Can I drink alcohol while taking antibiotics?". In short, the NHS says that there are 5 kind of antibiotics that you really don't want to mix with alcohol. But the first paragraph there says it all: "It’s sensible to avoid drinking alcohol when taking medication. However, it is unlikely that alcohol in moderation will cause problems if you are taking most common antibiotics.".
Ah-Ha! So I could go to this wine tasting, no harm done! But better safe then sorry: last step was checking with my doctor. And yes, I was off the hook, I could go. And I did go!

A plausible explanation based on self-herding

I don't want to go on all the things going on related to this story, I just want to focus on the self-herding bias involved. The truth is I had taken antibiotics before and I never had any alcohol while on antibiotics. So this time came I automatically, without questioning, decided not to take any alcohol while taking antibiotics. I believed that I made the best decision possible before (after all, it was me making the decision), and so the next time the same issue came along I made the same decision as before, without considering it any further.
And in general, having no alcohol for a week or so is no problem for anyone. Except this time I would be paying a high price for it, so I reconsidered my previous decision and went through the entire decision process again. The price I was paying, not going to this event, could be really cheap for someone else, but not for me. That is, the price I was paying is a subjective measure: really high for me and not worth a second thought for someone else.

Lessons learned

This problem was not based on the way we feel about numbers, like in the first part of this article. This time it started with a bad decision. Only it wasn't so bad because the consequences were just about the same: it was all the same having an occasional glass of wine or no alcohol at all for a week. But when that changed, when the consequences were making a difference, then we are forced to make sure we are making everything in our power to make the best possible decision.
So the next time you're making a decision, just consider this: are you replaying a past decision of yours? Does the outcome really matter? If the answer to any of these is affirmative, please do take a second look at the issue at hand.
It could also be that you're watching someone making a mistake because she's replaying a past decision of hers. Now you know how to call her to reason: just make it obvious to her that the issue is not the same as before!

Conclusion

I hope these past to posts that compose this article were fun for you to read and that you've learned something useful. And better yet, that this will get you off the hook in the future! Because we are all irrational in our behaviour and on the way we make decisions as well. When rationalizing these biases of ours, we can see where we go wrong. But that doesn't mean that we will not behave the same way again thus making the very same mistake again!



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