Social, Psychological and Cognitive Factors in Project Decision-Making

Projects, Facilities and Construction


Engineering is a technical discipline.  But in practice, a great deal of engineering is non-technical.  In Discussion of the Method, Koen describes engineering as (paraphrasing): "the use of heuristics to find the best solution to an ill-defined problem subject to constraints."

So, if we work on ill-defined problems, our first task is to define the problem and identify the objectives. Different people and different teams will derive different problem definitions, have different objectives and will favor different solutions. Getting multiple players from multiple teams to agree on the objectives and the solution is an important part of engineering.

In general, the more important a decision is, the more important is the role that social, psychological and cognitive factors play.  And yet most engineers are largely unaware of the science fields that apply.  This course will introduce you to a variety of fields relevant to engineering decision making; fields of study that you may never have even heard of including:

Action Science: This is the study of how we design our actions to achieve our objectives in social situations. Insights from action science explain some very important problems including defensiveness between team, and our difficultly learning from projects. Action science is the most important field of study that you never heard of.

Sense-making:  This is the study of how we use our preconceived notions to evaluate new data. Once we have formed an opinion we are able to use new data, even disconfirming data, to confirm that opinion. The Macondo leak-off test is a good example.

Biases and Heuristics:  This school of psychology has been hugely influential in many fields.  Here we find some important reasons for our inability to meet project schedules.

Naturalistic Decision Making (NDM): Most research on decision making is done by college professors in labs using college students as subjects. But that environment is so unlike the real world that many of the findings of this research are wrong. NDM is the study of how people make decisions in the real world.

Social cognition and team dynamics: Cognitive science is the science of how the brain works. Unless you are designing cutting edge HMI’s, cognitive science may not be a useful area of study for you. But the specialty areas called social cognition is very informative of how engineering groups work.

Topics Include:

  • Belief Generation and Sense-making—How we collect and evaluate data to generate conclusions/beliefs and how we use preconceived notions to make sense of new data.
  • Identifying Objectives and Alternatives—On using a structured focus on our values to improve our skill at setting objectives and identifying alternatives
  • Decision strategies and methods for selecting between alternatives
  • Individual and organizational learning—why learning from projects is difficult and why the most important lessons are the most difficult to learn
  • Naturalistic decision-making—the study of the impacts of stress and expertise
  • Team dynamics—The nature of team processes, team decisions and team action.  The causes of inefficiency and ineffectiveness of teams.

Learnings and insights from the course are used to develop a strategy for improving decision-making and to develop answers to four questions of key importance in project design:

  • Why do so many changes occur late in projects?
  • Why do we have so many problems at interfaces?
  • Why do we repeat mistakes from project to project?
  • Why do projects usually finish late?

The book, Making Sense and Making Decisions, An Engineer’s Guide to Project Decision Making, authored by the instructor is the handout used for this course.

Learning Level


Course Length

2 days

Why Attend?

This course is about improving the effectiveness of all project decisions, not just the big ones.

Who Should Attend

Engineers, operations staff and other technical professionals involved in project design, execution or operation.


1.6 CEUs (Continuing Education Units) awarded for this 2-Day course.

Cancellation Policy

All cancellations must be received no later than 14 days prior to the course start date. Cancellations made after the 14 day window will not be refunded.  Refunds will not be given due to no show situations.

Training sessions attached to SPE conferences and workshops follow the cancellation policies stated on the event information page.  Please check that page for specific cancellation information.

SPE reserves the right to cancel or re-schedule courses at will.  Notification of changes will be made as quickly as possible; please keep this in mind when arranging travel, as SPE is not responsible for any fees charged for cancelling or changing travel arrangements.

We reserve the right to substitute course instructors as necessary.

Full Regional cancellation policies can be found at the “Cancellation Policy” link on the SPE Training Course Catalog page:


Howard Duhon, PE is a process engineer with over 38 years’ experience in process design and project management roles. He is a systems engineering manager and a principal at GATE Inc. in Houston. He is also chairman of an SPE workshop series on Final Commissioning and Initial Startup, a member of the SPE Projects, Facilities, and Construction Technical Advisory Board, a member of the editorial board of the SPE magazine, Oil and Gas Facilities, and was recently elected to the SPE Board of Directors. This course is the result of a career-long obsession with the theory and practice of decision-making. He is author of the book, Making Sense and Making Decisions: An Engineer’s Guide to Project Decision Making.

Duhon earned a BS in chemical engineering from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1974.