Project Irrationality

This post originally appeared on on June 28, 2010.

Right now I’m reading a book entitled ‘Predictably Irrational’ by Dan Ariely. As a regular contributor to APM’s Marketplace, his opinion pieces have always intrigued me as they relate to the human side of economics. When I saw his book, I just couldn’t help but pick it up for a good read.

I purchased the book while on a business trip, killing time at a mall bookstore. It wasn’t until the next night, as I sat in an airport restaurant killing more time until my flight home, that I had the opportunity to actual begin digging in to the book.

The first chapter, about Relativity (not Einstein’s concept, but strangely enough has some parallels), proved especially interesting due to the behavior of the elderly gentleman, who we’ll call Tom, that was sitting in the seat next to me. Ariely postulated that everything in life is relative. He built his argument around a principle that people don’t know what they want until they see it in the context of their options.

Dinner and Comparative Options
As I was a few bites into my salad, Tom placed his order and it wasn’t exactly a normal one. Despite a menu that contained half a dozen rich, succulent options for grilled, ground beef, he wanted a plain hamburger. With onions. Nothing else. The waiter, Cater (this is his real name, and he did a phenomenal job of ‘catering’ to his customer’s needs), was a bit taken aback and asked additional questions, hoping to better understand what ‘plain’ really meant. After a few moments of back and forth, it became clear that the man wanted just what he said. No cheese, no condiments, no lettuce; just meat, bun and onions.

The really interesting part came when they discussed the side items, of which Tom wanted none. Cater explained that the fries are ‘basically complementary with the purchase of the burger’ but he could substitute other sides if Tom didn’t want the fries. Despite a dizzying list of potential sides, Tom settled on the fries, but only after Cater first explained that the bill would not be reduced in price with Tom’s refusal of the fries.

At this point, Tom changed his mind, agreeing to the fries, but only if Cater had the kitchen make them very well done. Up to that point, Tom hadn’t even wanted sliced potatoes to touch his plate, but when seeing his options in relation to one another, seeing their relative value, he agreed to the fried tubers.

It wasn’t that Tom thought the burger by itself was a bad value as the menu clearly indicated the price of the entree. Only after Cater explained to Tom the value of the potatoes did Tom change his mind and want them.

All of that happened as I read my book and chewed my lettuce. Nothing I can think of would drive home Ariely’s point more than that dinner. But dinner selections are not the only place this theory appears. The more I pondered what I had just witnessed, the more I realized situations such as this happened to me on a daily basis.

Project Irrationality
Take, for example, a conversation I had with a stakeholder a couple of years back regarding a recently implemented system enhancement for which he had supplied the requirements I managed. The project allowed users of the software to change the methods used to pay a particular type of employee. The change didn’t result in employees being paid less but could be perceived as such if the employee didn’t understand the numbers behind their pay. Being concerned about the well being of out employees, and wanting to avoid any potential frivolous legal action, we spent a great amount of time training employees about the differences between how their pay was previously calculated versus how it would now be calculated. We went so far as to change their pay stub to show a full breakout of their pay.

It was this detail that caused such an uproar. Half of the employers who used the software thought it was a great idea to show the detail and the other half thought it only invited potential legal action, demanding we hide the detail from their employees. As my stakeholder and I discussed hiding the detail, he came upon an idea… what if we allow the employers to decide if the detail should be shown or not? We’re going to make a change to hide the detail, but since we already have the code written to show the detail, why can’t we just keep what we’ve already done, too?

From the position of my stakeholder, it wasn’t any more work for him to have it both ways, no matter what the real cost to the development team in terms of requirements management, coding, testing and maintenance. It wasn’t until he compared the value in each option, turn it off completely or allowing the employer to decide to turn it off or leave it on, that he decided he wanted it both ways.

So, what was a rational choice for my stakeholder was an irrational one for the project team. As the title of Ariely’s book states, this irrationality was predictable. We, as project people, need to spend more time explaining to our stakeholders the problems inherent with decisions such as this one. While an occasional option to allow a user to make small changes is fine, when you start making allowances like this for every single decision, you find yourself with a process or application which is difficult to measure and maintain.

The next time a stakeholder decides to hedge their bets and ask for the option to do two contradicting functions in the same process, push back to the business need and see which of the multiple options really best fits the requirement. Don’t be forced into irrationality because a stakeholder is unable to make a business decision.