The IT business case backfire effect

Maybe IT managers would be better off lying through their teeth after all.

When you’re trying to make the business case for an IT project of any kind, senior management expects you to do your homework. That means having all the facts in order about costs, projected return on investment, business impacts and so on. And the expectation is that these facts will be accurate. It’s probably safe to say that most IT managers, in turn, expect that executives will listen with an open mind and be guided by those facts.

Okay, so it doesn’t always work out that way. Now there’s some research to suggest why.

In a recent issue of the Boston Globe, John Keohane wrote about a study from the University of Michigan which showed that people with strong beliefs about something don’t necessarily change their minds just because contrary facts are presented to them. Worse still, they seemed to become even more convinced of their beliefs. Pig-headedness? That’s one word for it. According to Keohane, however, it’s also known as “backfire,” a defence mechanism that is only beginning to be understood:

Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information.

Keohane was looking at the notion of backfire in the context of political science, but the same issues around policy and decision-making apply in the enterprise. If a CFO sees business intelligence software as a waste of time, all the Gartner or Forrester reports in the world may not be enough to dissuade them. If you’re trying to implement ITIL, there better not be a Doubting Thomas in the president’s office who simply refuse to believe in the numerous case studies of companies who have benefitted from such a project.

IT managers may feel like throwing up their hands at this point. If the backfire effect simply created more entrenched beliefs around misinformation, what are they supposed to do? Koeohane’s story suggested that self-esteem has a role to play. Insecure people (which includes most of us, but not infrequently high-powered executive types) tend to be more prone to ignoring the facts in front of them. Recognizing those insecurities and working through them is one avenue. Another is going after the sources behind the information rather than the believer. In other words, make sure they understand the poor reputation of whoever convinced them virtualization is too expensive, or that cloud computing is too risky. Difficult as it may be, the only way to deal with the backfire effect may be to fire back.  

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