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Cognitive Blind Spots in Team Collaboration

team working together to cover cognitive blind spts

There’s an adage that goes, teamwork makes the dream work. That’s pithy and true. Working as an effective group, we can achieve more working with others. 

As a species, humans are social animals. We want and need to work in groups. Since our ancestors began hunting on the savannah, armchair anthropologists may share this observation: not only are people more physically effective when working in numbers, they are also more cognitively effective. 

Combining the wits of many, a collective hive mind is far more effective at problem-solving than one person alone. Working as a team, we can help sidestep each other’s blind spots and combine collective strengths to produce the best outcome. In a physical sense, such as in the context of driving, people are familiar with the notion of blind spots. However, people are less familiar with the notion that blind spots are also cognitive.

Nowadays, not so many of us are performing as teams on the savannah. But those evolutionary traits that allowed us to intuitively problem solve are not as readily translated to the modern worker. Unconscious biases can cause teams to inadvertently jump to conclusions without taking the time to reflect on all available data. So why do project teams often fall victim to these biases?

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From the early 1970s, behavioral scientist and 2002 Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, has been working to help us better understand our cognitive blind spots, specifically when making judgments (or forecasting) under conditions of uncertainty.¹ In recent years, Professor Bent Flyvbjerg, Chair of Major Programme Management at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, has helped highlight such blind spots or biases in project delivery. In short, project failure is primarily attributed to the underestimation of risk and “the biggest risk is you.² 

Cognitive blind spots can manifest in a multitude of ways. Flyvbjerg has highlighted the two blind spots that most often derail or scupper projects. After years of academic research, his team revealed that professionals often:

  1. Underestimate the resources they require due to overconfidence and political bias. 
  2. Teams can easily become blind to simple wishful thinking or a hidden agenda that does not benefit the greater good without good data management, and in the absence of historical information

Effective communication is critical for project teams. Collaboration is key when articulating a well-defined goal (or dream) and forecasting progress towards a shared objective. Today’s software tools used by project professionals provide a consistent and transparent book of record. When properly configured, such systems facilitate good governance and offer reference data that may serve as a risk radar, helping teams identify a proverbial iceberg and prompt proactive course correction. Such team-wide dynamism can be called “collaborative adaptability”.³  With the right tools, this skill can be achieved both within one organization or, more impactfully, across a team of contracted entities. If you have not tried it already, LiquidPlanner can help teams better communicate, effectively navigate uncertainty, achieve collaborative adaptability, and make the dream work.

About the Author

james arrowWith more than 20 years’ professional experience, James Arrow has played a key role in successfully delivering critical capital assets, in a variety of locations, around the world. Having had the opportunity to work with diverse teams across the globe, James is well-versed on project best practices and applies exceptional communication skills to lead multi-disciplinary teams. An effective hands-on team-player, James is also an acclaimed writer and speaker on topics concerning project risk management, data analytics, data science, including digital disruption in the engineering and construction sector. In recent years, on several occasions, James has been formally recognized by his peers for his contributions to the profession.

 


¹Tversky A, Kahneman D. Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science. 1974 Sep 27;185(4157):1124-31. doi: 10.1126/science.185.4157.1124. PMID: 17835457.
²B. Flyvbjerg et al, “Five Things You Should Know about Cost Overrun,” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, vol. 118, pp. 174‐190, 2018
³D. T. Hulett Ph.D. FACCE & J. Arrow DRMP FRICS, “Principles for Quantitative Risk Management”, in AACE International Technical Paper, Morgantown, WV, 2022

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