Tripped-Up

When project teams “put their best foot forward,” perceptions are distorted.

There’s one more culprit on our growing list of manipulations that distort our judgment. I first heard about this one last week at a presentation by Dr. Peter Boyle from Central Washington University. Dr. Boyle conducted research with Dr. Dennis Hanlon and Dr. Edward Russo into how we evaluate information based on the order in which it is received.

Their research confirms that receiving the positive information first produces a much more favorable perception of a business plan than when positive and negative attributes of a business venture are meted out equally. The information is identical, just the order of presentation is tampered with.

…and it gets worse. Not only does the venture look more attractive, our confidence of its success steadily grows. Even though the later information is predominantly negative, just the fact that we have more information makes us feel more certain of a positive outcome.

We’ve all been taught to “put your best foot forward.” Most project teams lead with the proposal’s strength, unintentionally sabotaging the perceptions of even seasoned decision-makers. From my own experience, this effect is amplified when decision-makers receive information over multiple meetings before a decision is required (e.g. acquisitions or very large, complex capital projects). The time delay seems to firmly fix those early impressions in everyone’s minds.

Self-Defense
There are effective steps leaders can take to defend themselves against this unconscious bias:

  • Establish a standard presentation format all project teams follow. It should focus on the more important investment facts (values, costs, and risks) up front. This removes the unconscious temptation of project teams to lead with all the positive information.
  • Assign an independent, mid-course evaluator on big decisions. For major projects appearing multiple times in front of the decision maker (e.g. an acquisition), the decision-maker needs a trusted advisor who has not been biased by early information. This advisor steps in only later in the due diligence process with a fresh set of eyes.

“Put your best foot forward” now has research to back up its very real influence. It’s easy to feel immune to these biases but the evidence is against us — these distortions do influence us.  The question is, will we do something about it?

© 2011 Verax Point Consulting, LLC

About Dave Wittenberg

I am all about equipping business teams to enjoy greater payoffs on their biggest bets. I bring a unique combination of evaluation expertise and behavioral insights developed over the course of more than 300 major strategic initiatives. Applying a highly effective, disciplined framework, teams unleash their full capabilities to generate better solutions, wring out hidden waste, and deliver superior returns. Specialties: Investment Evaluation, Decision Excellence, Strategic Analysis, Mergers and Acquisitions, Investor Relations, Leadership Development, Education & Training
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