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Is confirmation bias a risk for your project?

Adeline Teoh ed.
August 18, 2015

When we see both sides of the story it helps us see threats and opportunities—and find solutions—that may be out of the box. Here’s how to play Devil’s Advocate.

Of all the project managers I’ve come to know, and there are hundreds of you, the one defining feature I would use to summarise your general disposition is ‘agreeable’. Now, this doesn’t mean you’re a doormat or a yes man (person), just that when someone says or does something that seems out of line, you tend to take a moment to evaluate the situation.

If the incident is harmless, you simply get on with the project. If the incident is problematic, you have a tendency to find ways to work around it. That might mean pulling the person aside for a chat, or making sure there are protocols in place that ensure it doesn’t happen again. It’s a wonderful trait that makes project managers great at what they do.

But there’s one area where this agreeability can actually be an issue: it can be a barrier to seeing alternative views that might not fit the story of the project. That can become a risk in both senses of the word, blinding you to possible threats and closing off your radar to opportunities.

If you have time, I recommend playing a little game that was recently published in the New York Times. The game tests your problem-solving skills, but it also has a few things to say about how confirmation bias drives our decision-making.

When you seek to disprove your idea, you sometimes end up proving it—and other times you can save yourself from making a big mistake. But you need to start by being willing to hear no. And even if you think that you are right, you need to make sure you’re asking questions that might actually produce an answer of no.

The only way to counter this is to instil a culture of being wrong and resistance as okay. What resistance indicates is that there is another view you’re not including in the parcel of change your project is trying to deliver.

Do what you do with an incident: examine it, find out why the answer is ‘no’, and then strive to better accommodate the other side in your solution. Playing Devil’s Advocate may be difficult, but it will make you a better project manager.

Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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