The Optimism Bias

Posted by in Project Management

Optimism can often be the worst enemy of a project. Many times, even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, project stakeholders will swear to a pre-set date or deliverable. The history of digital development is fraught with examples of optimism leading to catastrophic failure. I like to always remember one of my favorite sayings when embarking on a new project: “I hope for the best, but I’ll plan for the worst.” See, there’s nothing inherently wrong with an optimistic SOW or timeline, as long as everyone understands what the backup plan is.

In fact, optimism is essential. Lowered expectations generally lead to self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. At the TED conference this February, neuroscientist Tali Sharot discussed a fascinating study on what she calls the Optimism Bias. In her presentation she discussed how most people believe they will be successful even in the face of staggering evidence otherwise. As a project manager I am always fighting this overwhelming emotion both in myself and in the project team. But ironically, it’s also that very bias that allows us to achieve unprecedented results in the face of defeat. Balancing the two mindsets ist an interesting challenge and one that I’m not sure anyone has completely figured out. Check out her talk and leave a comment if you have any good ideas about how to manage for the Optimism Bias in your projects or even your day-to-day life. Also, if you find this as fascinating as me you might want to check out Dr. Sharot’s new book The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain.