The Endowment Effect: The Ultimate Organizational Rose-Colored (Risk-Enhancing) Glasses

Fifteen or so years ago, I was a member of a review team that assessed a major, multi-million dollar software project. We were asked to perform the review because the project had some issues — it cost nearly $2M a year, was not yet delivering value to users, and had been running for 17 years.

Were I the ultimate decision-maker, my plan of action would have been simple: shut down the project, reconstitute a team with some representation from the old team, and use the lessons learned to rearchitect a newer, more robust solution. It would have customer involvement from the start to ensure a short time-to-value (and continuous flow of value). But there was one complication: the subject matter for this software package was highly specialized and required active involvement from people who had deep knowledge of the problem domain… and the team already had about 60% of the world’s experts on it.

Still, I was focused on the sunk costs. I felt that the organization should not choose to keep the project going just because over $20M had been poured into it… the sunk costs should not factor into the decision.

But then something very curious happened two years later, as the project was still hemorrhaging money… I was put in charge of it. So what did I do? Launched a two-month due diligence to reassess the situation, of course.

I was not on the review team this time, but their assessment was not a surprise — can the project, reconstitute the team, use the lessons learned to plan a new approach to delivering value quickly.

So that’s what I did… right? NOOOOO!!! I decided to try a little harder… because of course we could get the current software project to be stable and valuable, if we just gave it a little more time.

Even I was shocked by my transformation. Why was I feeling like this? Why was I ignoring the facts? Why was I, all of a sudden, powerless to make the appropriate and most logical choice?

Turns out, I was just demonstrating human nature via the Endowment Effect — which says, simplistically, that once you own something you value it more than before you own it. This is not just a curiosity though… because it can get in the way of effective decision-making.

Think about it:

  • Before you buy a house, you psychologically devalue it because you want to get a better deal. But once you move in, your psyche inflates the value because you stand to win as the value increases.
  • Why is it that leaders often value the opinions of consultants more than the opinions of full-time staff? Because consultants are more expensive, and once their reports have been submitted, you now own the intellectual property… and value it more.
  • The same effect occurs if you buy a company. You may be sensitive to issues and opportunities for improvement prior to the sale, but once your signature is on the dotted line… the endowment effect kicks in, and the rose-colored glasses are donned.

This has a huge implication for quality and process improvement. Once you own something, you are less able to see the problems that need to be solved. This is why we use external auditors for our ISO 9001 programs, or review panels for our government projects, or a quality award assessment process for evaluating how well we are translating strategy to action.

Other people can see areas for improvement that you can’t, if you’re an owner of the process that has problems. The lesson? Get external eyes on your internal issues, and pay attention to their insights.

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