Does this sound familiar?
I was a Program Manager for over a decade, during which time I must have facilitated dozens of “project post-mortems”, a term that always bothered me, since in none of those projects had anyone died. One of the key “Lessons Learned” from nearly every post-mortem I facilitated was some variation on this: “We Should Have Planned Better”.
Also known as the knew-it-all-along effect, Hindsight Bias is the inclination, after an event has occurred, to see the event as having been predictable, despite there having been little or no objective basis for predicting it.
Some common examples of this bias include:
- I knew that stock was going to rise.
- Of course my team came back to win the game at the end–they always do.
- I told everyone that candidate x would be elected, and I was right.
Of course, if people actually knew all of these things, they would have made a fortune by now, either through playing the stock market or gambling on their team (or candidate).
In an article published in the September 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Neal Roese of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Kathleen Vohs of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota review the existing research on hindsight bias. The authors break this bias into three levels that stack on top of each other:
The first level, Memory Distortion, involves misremembering an earlier opinion or judgment (“I said it would happen”).
The second level, Inevitability, centers on our belief that the event was inevitable (“It had to happen”).
The third level, Predictability, involves the belief that we personally could have foreseen the event (“I knew it would happen”).
Impact on Complexity
Complex work is by definition unpredictable. But Hindsight Bias tricks our brains into believing that past events were more predictable than they were. Unmitigated, Hindsight Bias leads us to treat complex work as predictable. Instead of using empirical processes based on transparency and frequent inspection and adaptation loops, we do extensive up-front planning and implement stricter controls to meet the original plan. Years of “lessons learned” sessions caused us to move further and further fromt he right approach.