Invisible Traps in Project Management Lead to Crisis

Advances in Project Management


By Constance Dierickx, PhD

Atlanta, Georgia, USA


When we think of great project management, most of us imagine very smart people, tight processes and rigor to spare. Calendars, charts, metrics all skillfully employed by people with project management credentials. Yet, things go wrong. Sometimes resulting in disaster. Why? Because projects require humans to create the project, do the project and monitor it. Even smart people have cognitive limitations and emotions that influence their thinking. Even project managers of great experience, skill and intellect are subject these influences.  In my book, High-Stakes Leadership, I talk about the three aspects that make a leader great when ambiguity and risk are both high. These are the same attributes that enable leaders to move through crisis and often avoid it in the first place. They are: courage, judgment and fortitude. Even when leaders have these qualities in abundance, invisible decision traps can get in the way of even the most intelligent people.

What are the things that get in our way? The top three:

  1. Overconfidence
  2. Groupthink
  3. Anxiety avoidance

Who me? Overconfident?   

Regardless of how rational we think we are and no matter how objective we believe our assessment of our abilities, most people are overconfident. Surprisingly, more education doesn’t improve this. Fortunately, it doesn’t make it any worse either. Research by Russo and Schoemaker shows us that executives and undergraduate are equally likely to be overconfident. Neither experience nor recent advanced education creates immunity. This surprises almost everyone.

Russo and Schoemaker devised a very clever test of overconfidence and permitted me to update it for my book. I have used this test with executives for over 15 years and it never fails to yield the same result. What result is that? Surprise. Disbelief. Argument. Regardless of how smart and experienced we are, humans are overconfident. Since the research on this is clear, what should we do?

First, answer the questions in Table 1. Provide both low and high answers for each such that you are 90 percent sure the correct answer falls between the two. Then, check your answers with those that appear at the end of this article. If your answers were all correct or 9 of 10 were correct, ask yourself, “How did I do that? What method was I using?” This sort of reflection is essential to learning so don’t rush! Think about whether or not the approach you used for the test can be applied elsewhere.

If you are like most people, you missed several questions. What might you learn from this? Whether your answers were mostly right or not, thinking about your own thinking is worth doing, especially if you can keep the need to be right tucked away.


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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books previously published by Gower in UK and now by Routledge worldwide. Information about Routledge project management books can be found here.

About the Author

Constance Dierickx, PhD

Georgia, USA



 Constance Dierickx is a sought-after advisor to boards and senior executives in high-stakes situations such as rapid growth, mergers and acquisitions, CEO succession, and crisis. Her merger and acquisition clients succeed 400% more often than the average.

Constance has been quoted in, and asked to write for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Chief Executive, Chief Financial Officer, Directorship, Boards and Directors, and Corporate Board Member.

Constance has consulted with dozens of boards and over 500 executives on five continents. She has worked with companies from the Fortune 50 to high-tech start-ups. Some of her clients include EWI Risk, Johnson Controls, Joy Global, Milliken Research, Porsche, Schnabel Engineering, Tennessee Valley Authority, and Vulcan Materials.

She is Vice-Chair of the board of The Partnership Against Domestic Violence and a member of the Advisory Board of Executive Women of Goizueta (Emory University). She is a member of the National Association of Corporate Directors and the Association for Psychological Science.

Constance received her undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina-Asheville, with faculty bestowed “high honors.”  Her M.A. and Ph.D. are from Georgia State University where she studied psychology and decision science.

Constance Dierickx is the author of High-Stakes Leadership: Leading through Crisis with Courage, Judgment and Fortitude published (© 2018) by Bibliomotion, part of the Routledge / Taylor and Francis Group.