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The Consistency Trap: How to Avoid Predictable Mistakes

Jason Stack is a Program Officer at the U.S. Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Va. and a member of the MIT Sloan EMBA class of 2014.

While working at my previous company our senior management made a bet-the-company move to fundamentally redesign our product lines. Unbeknownst at the time, the new design had a subtle yet fatal flaw. Once discovered and alerted to leadership, the reactions were all too familiar: “We have to make it work,” and “We’re committed to the way forward,” and “This is too important to fail.” Unfortunately, this was not a minor detail that could be fixed by clever engineering, and the firm declared bankruptcy as a result.

At work here was the Consistency Principle, which is based on a predictable human behavior, that often leads us into trouble.

The Consistency Principle

The Consistency Principle is founded on a psychology theory known as cognitive dissonance. This theory states that humans experience discomfort when they realize they hold conflicting beliefs. This threat of discomfort causes people to then think and behave in ways that justify their prior decisions.

For example, experiments show that placing a bet on a horse actually increases the bettor’s belief in how well that horse will perform. In the experiment, absolutely nothing changes about the horse or its probability of winning the race; the only thing that changes is that the person making the bet has made a commitment to that particular horse.

Questioning Our Judgment

The Consistency Principle predicts that people who are given responsibility for a project are going to be more confident about their ability to execute it than they would have been just prior to becoming responsible for that project. Given this increase in confidence, we must question if their ability to analyze and think critically about the project’s success is as reasonable as it would have been prior to feeling the burden of the commitment.

As a result, it’s important to ask if and how we afford our teams the chance to critique an opportunity prior to commitment and how we may recognize the effects of the Consistency Principle in ourselves and others. Looking back, I believe that if our design issue had been framed in a strategic context (e.g., customer needs not served, impact on future pricing, warranty costs, etc.) rather than a tactical design problem, it would have been politically acceptable for senior leadership to engage earlier and in earnest on the issue.

Getting Out of the Trap

One reason that the Consistency Principle is such a common trap is that when faced with tactical issues (e.g., minor design problems), behaving according to the Consistency Principle often pays off. That is, tactical issues are quite frequently solved by adding funding, people, or expanding the schedule. However, when the issues are strategic in nature, they require the attention and decisiveness of senior leadership and quite often a change in course.

Once we recognize this behavior in our projects or our organization, getting out of the trap is possible although it often requires making unpopular decisions. A helpful tool is to use strategy as a way to talk about these elephants in the room. Specifically, you can use an analysis of long-term competitive strategy to tee-up controversial discussion topics and assess if they actually support the long view or merely justify prior commitments. Another technique is to frame the discussion around customer needs and purchasing requirements.  As these behaviors typically stem from our fundamental cognitive biases, they are not trivial to recognize but with conscious effort we can avoid some predictable traps.

How have you experienced the Consistency Principle? How have you managed this behavior? How has it affected your ability to seek funding on future projects?

Originally Published: MIT Executive Insights Blog
Author: Jason Stack