EXPLORING ESCALATION OF COMMITMENT IN
CONSTRUCTION PROJECT MANAGEMENT: CASE
STUDY OF THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT PROJECT
(This is the accepted copy of the article)
Ahiaga-Dagbui, D.D and Smith, S.D (2014) Exploring escalation of commitment in
construction project management: Case study of the Scottish Parliament project In:
Procs 30th Annual ARCOM Conference, Raiden A (Ed.) Portsmouth, UK: Association of
Researchers in Construction Management.
Corresponding email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
EXPLORING ESCALATION OF COMMITMENT IN
CONSTRUCTION PROJECT MANAGEMENT: CASE
STUDY OF THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT PROJECT
Dominic D Ahiaga-Dagbui1 and Simon D Smith2
School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh, EH9 3JL, Scotland, UK.
Successfully managing large construction projects within defined budget and time
constraints has always been a major challenge largely because crucial decisions about
the project's ultimate fate have to be made within an environment of significant
uncertainty at the beginning of the project. It is not surprising that cost and time
overruns are commonplace on construction projects. Existing literature often suggests
economical, technical, political or managerial roots to this phenomenon. A less
explored possible cause within construction management framework is the escalation
of commitment to a course of action. This theory, grounded in social psychology and
organisation behaviour, suggests the tendency of people and organisations to become
'locked-in' and 'entrapped' in a particular course of action and thereby 'throw good
money after bad' to make the venture succeed. This defies conventional rationality
behind subjective expected utility theory. Through a critical analysis of the literature,
we identify different frequently cited enablers of escalation of commitment. Using a
hindsight constructivist approach, we then demonstrate references to some of these
enablers on the Scottish Parliament project. We found strong evidence in support of
possible strategic misrepresentation, confirmation bias, self-justification and optimism
bias. We highlight the importance of setting realistic time and budget constraints to
circumvent escalation and make several recommendations to attenuate unwarranted
escalation of commitment, including the use of an objective outsider to evaluate
responses to disconfirming information and the structuring of incentive systems that
do not punish for inconsistency in order to curb the effects of self-justification and
Keywords: cost overruns, confirmation bias, escalation of commitment, self-
justification, strategic misrepresentation.
Literature in social psychology and organisational behaviour suggests that after
investing time, money, energy and other resources in a chosen course of action,
individuals and decision makers often become "locked-in" or "entrapped" in that
course of action, sometimes even if the venture is failing. Staw's (1976, 1981) seminal
work on escalation of commitment seeks to explain why decision makers sometimes
embark on a questionable course of action and then persist with them above and
beyond what the objective facts suggest. The thesis of his work suggests that negative
feedback on a previous decision often tends to rouse the feeling of self-justification
and regret of that particular decision, thereby resulting in a reinforcement of additional
resources (money, time or effort) to try and make the course of action pay off.
Consider the following situations:
1. A representative of an equity firm makes a decision to invest £5 million in a
new IT start-up that is expected to take about 3 years to develop and
implement. It emerges after two years that the IT firm is having liquidity issues
and that the product might require additional funds of £2.5 million and a year's
extension. The equity firm must decide whether to write-off the initial £5
million investment or commit the additional funds to give the project a chance
of success. Should they cut their losses now, risk losing a total £7.5 million, or
stake their chance at gaining much more should the project eventually succeed?
2. A Government proposes an grand project that will represent the essence and
ideals of a people and be a symbol of devolution and national distinctiveness
at £40 million. Two years later, it becomes obvious that it is impossible to
complete the project at that cost and a new estimate was set at £119 million,
with legislators imposing a cap of £195 million in the third year. By the 4th
year, cost had increased to £241 million, rising twice in the 5th year to £295
million amidst several controversies. By the 6th year the cost reaches £376
million before project completion at £431 million in the 7th year.
Although each of the cases above presents different decision making situations, they
both have a common trait - sequential decision patterns with one decision being made
based on a previous. In each case also, a considerable amount of time, money and
effort has already been committed to the venture and the results do not seem to be
going as initially intended. Arkes and Blumer (1985) suggested that investment of
resources often sets in motion non-rational sequential decision making process, with
one form of commitment begetting further commitment. They further suggest that the
more responsibility a person has for the outcome of an initial decision, the greater is
the inertia towards further commitment. This tendency however, as noted by
Bazerman and Moore (2008) defies the conventional rationality behind subjective
expected utility theory which suggests that sunk costs or past losses should not enter
into decisions regarding future gain (Bazerman and Moore 2008).
Using the theoretical framework described in the discourse above, this paper will
explore the sources of escalation of commitment using the case study of the Scottish
Parliament project. We examine official government publications and documentary
evidence from the public enquiry that followed the controversies surrounding the
project using a hindsight constructivist research approach. We focus on the events
before and during the construction that created an environment for escalation and how
these possibly led to the inevitable cost and duration overrun on the project. The next
section of the paper explores the theory of escalation more closely, before we examine
the Holyrood project for evidence of the locked-in syndrome. We then reveal some
lessons learnt from the case study for construction project management with
recommendations on how to attenuate unwarranted escalation tendencies.
THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK: ESCALATION OF
Decision making experiments have provided a lot of evidence that individuals have a
systematic bias towards escalation of commitment. Some of the reasons provided
include a failure to treat previous investments as sunk cost (Arkes and Blumer 1985),
self-justification (Staw 1981) and anticipated regret (Sarangee et al. 2013). In some
cases, decision makers have used escalation of investments as opportunity to redeem a
previous sub-optimal choice (Kahneman 1994) whiles Brockner (1992) posits that
escalation tendencies may be buoyed by personal responsibility for negative
consequences. Traditional economic decision making models suggest that people are
rational and would make decisions in an attempt to maximise expected utility. Sunk
costs (past investments) must essentially therefore be considered as historical and
irrecoverable, thus should not be considered in decisions regarding future course of
action (Bazerman and Moore 2008). However, Barnes' (1984) work supports the
supposition that decision making is often biased in favour of retrospective rationality-
the sunk cost effect.
Organisations also demonstrate escalation tendencies, albeit in a more complex
manner, according to Guler (2007). The presence of multiple members for decision
making in organisations normally should increase the likelihood of recognising the
irrationality of escalating commitment to a failing course of action. Bazerman et al
(1984) thus found that groups are less likely than individuals to escalate commitment.
They however added that where groups do escalate, they tend to do so to a greater
degree than individuals, possibly because group dynamics tends to increase the level
of justification to continue to support an initial venture. We refer to this here as the
strength in numbers effect.
A tale of two schools
There are essentially two schools of thought on escalation phenomenon. Decision error
theorists, after Staw (1976), maintain that escalation is a result of a systematic bias in
decision making where people, especially those that have personal responsibility for
the outcome of the project or have a vested interest in the project, interpret feedback to
support their point of view (Caldwell and O'Reilly 1982). According to Nickerson
(1998), this can either be intentional or that the decision maker unknowingly falls to
the curse of a confirmation bias - the seeking and interpretation of feedback in ways
that are partial to existing beliefs or expectations.
Decision dilemma theorists, after Bowen (1987), however point to uncertainty of
information and argue that feedback is often equivocal and that it is impossible to
accurately predict how any venture will eventually turn out. Hantula and DeNicolis
Bragger (1999) posit that these uncertainties could explain why it may be a prudent, at
least at the time of making the decision, to continue to give the project a chance.
Whether the project eventually fails or succeed is not necessarily a result of one wrong
decision to rectify a previous sub-optimal choice, but simply a decision made amongst
many alternatives in an environment of uncertainty.
Sequential investment and escalation
Sequential investment projects are particular susceptible to escalation tendencies
because the venture does not generate intermediate financial payoffs until its complete.
There is also some level of uncertainty over the amount and timing of the investment
that will be required over the life of the project. Each investment stage therefore
presents more opportunity cost as well as a milestone to either escalate commitment or
pursue an alternative course of action. As found by Shepherd and Cardon (2009)
however, terminating unsuccessful projects often comes with negative attending
consequences including loss of job or losing face within an organisation. Decision
makers often thus attempt to keep projects running by using end-gaming and using
future-perfect strategies (Clegg et al. 2006). Strategic misrepresentation, the deliberate
distortion or misstatement of the amount of time or resources necessary to complete
the venture is not an uncommon tactic either (see Jones and Euske 1991).
Table 1 summarise some of the factors that create an environment that enable
escalation of commitment.
Table 1: Escalation enablers
1 Sunk-cost effects
Blumer (1985), Brockner
et al (1986)
Tversky and Kahneman
(1974), Flyvbjerg (2007)
Tendency to continue an endeavour because some
amount of money, time or effort has already been
invested in it. Investment begetting more investment.
Overestimating the likelihood of positive events while
downplaying the occurrence or severity of negative
Forward looking projection of ends with a visualization
of the means by which that projected future may be
Deliberate distortion or misstatement of the amount of
resources or time necessary to achieve an aim
Tendency to seek or interpret information in ways that
are partial to existing beliefs or expectations
Consistent and decisive leaders are often viewed as
better leaders. Decisions makers tend to stick to their
initial decisions to main this consistency.
Not wanting to appear indecisive or incompetent
Driven by feelings of personal responsibility
2 Optimism bias
5 Confirmation bias
Weick and Kiesler
(1979) , Clegg et al
Jones and Euske (1991),
Cadwell and O'Reilly
Staw and Ross (1980),
Wellen et al (1998)
6 Norms of
Smith and Terry (2003),
Shepherd and Cardon
Pfeffer (1992), Guler
8 Self-justification Unwillingness to admit to oneself, and/or others that a
previous decision was sub-optimal.
Coercive and normative pressures using institutional
power or authority
9 Organisational &
Construction projects normally involve a series of sequential decisions before actual
construction begins. Most projects will go through long feasibility and gestation
periods before project approval and eventual delivery. These phases involve an
iterative process of information acquisition and incremental commitment over a period
of time, presenting a conducive environment for escalation of commitment. Where a
project has commercial interest and is subject to sequential investment, the project
often tends to be perceived as an end in itself according to Winch (2013), and
therefore must be completed, no matter what, in order to recoup any initial
Winch (2013) explored the three-pronged effects of future perfect strategising,
strategic misrepresentation and escalation of commitment on the Channel Fixed Link
project in an attempt to develop a broader organisational perspective on cost escalation
in major projects. He proposed a hindsight constructivist or historical approach as
research method to help fully comprehend the organisational complexities that led to
overruns. Winch suggests that this approach will help comprehend the idiosyncratic
embeddedness of major construction. We adopt a similar approach in this paper as it
best helps for sense-making of the political and social construct of our case study - the
Scottish Parliament building (Holyrood Project). We explore escalation of
commitment using official documentary evidence from the government commissioned
public enquiry that followed the controversies surrounding the construction of the
Holyrood project (Fraser 2004). We also examine the Auditor General's reports (2000,
2004) and the Spencely Report (2000) submitted to the Scottish Parliamentary
CASE STUDY: HOLYROOD PROJECT
Completed 3 years late in 2004, at a cost of £431million, The Holyrood Building in
Edinburgh houses the Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). Its final cost is
approximately ten times more than the headline final cost of £40million announced in
the Government's devolution White Paper, Scotland's Parliament (1997). The
Government commissioned the Spencely Report (2000) to investigate cost and time
overruns on the project. This was followed by two major probes by the Auditor
General (2000, 2004) before the defining public enquiry, chaired by Lord Fraser of
Carmyllie (2004) after project hand-over to investigate key decisions undertaken
throughout the project delivery. There were 66 witnesses and more than 13,000
documents examined for the Public Enquiry (PE) alone. A full transcript of the
transactions at the enquiry can be found at www.holyroodinquiry.org. These reports,
as well as minutes of parliamentary proceedings, provide a rich source of documentary
evidence to support the empirical analysis conducted in this paper.
The Act of Union of 1707 merged the Parliaments of Scotland and England into the
Parliament of Great Britain, housed in the Palace of Westminster in London. Scotland
was now effectively directly governed from London as a result (Colley 1992).
However, in September 1997, the people of Scotland voted "Yes" in a referendum that
would see the creation of the first Scottish Parliament in almost 300 years. Donald
Dewer was appointed Secretary of State with the mandate to oversee the construction
of a the parliament house. He became the main project champion, a key player and
driver of what was to represent Scottish identity and aspirations. But the euphoria
surrounding the referendum at this time led to many ill-considered decisions that
created a conducive environment for escalation.
First was the unrealistic cost ceiling of £40million. This turned out to be a rather
optimistic estimate, or better still, a guesstimate of final cost of the project by non-
construction professionals. Recall that a central theme of escalation theory is the
increase in resources devoted to a venture in an attempt to redeem a previous sub-
optimal choice. A member of the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body, Andrew Welsh
MSP, stated that "right from the very start, the budgets were totally unrealistic. The
original budgets we inherited were for a fictional building" [11 February 2004]. Rusell
Hillhouse, former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Scottish Office and a member of
the team that estimated the cost of the project at £40million said "we couldn't possibly
have done a thorough job, and this was very difficult because it was a time when
people were working extremely hard on other aspects of the White Paper" [PE 30th
October 2003]2. Sam Galbraith, former Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office
also told the public enquiry, "the figure of £40million in the white document, was
never for Holyrood. That was for a bog-standard building on a greenfield site." [PE
28 October 2003 ]. When asked how he knew the figure was not for Holyrood project,
he responded "That's what Donald [Dewer] told me" suggesting that the project
champion at this stage may have been aware that the cost of the project announced to
the public was unrealistic.
Self justification, Reputation management and Norms of Consistency
Another sub-optimal decision that was made at the beginning of the project was the
unrealistic completion date imposed on the project. Speed to build was priority for the
2 Abbreviations: PE- Public Enquiry; MS/SE - Documentary evidences submitted to the public enquiry
project promoters who wanted the project completed within two years. This was
strongly criticised by the opposition leaders. In a letter to all MSPs, Donald Gorrie
MSP criticised the decision of the Scottish Office and the Secretary of State, Donald
Dewer, writing "There is no need for this haste...There has been widespread informed
criticism of the fast timetable, for which there is no need. Professionals and
organisations favouring the Holyrood site, favour a delay while the plans, timescale
and budget are revised" [MS/16/042 - 043]. Alex Salmond MSP also insisted that
there was no need to try and deliver the project within such a short duration. He wrote
to Donald Dewer, "...it is quite impossible to have any new debating chamber of
quality... ready by the time of the elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999"
[MS/1/071 – 079]. Ignoring these warnings, however, the project sponsors still
proceeded with the 2 year duration.
At least three enablers of escalation might have been at play at this stage - political
reputation management, self justification and maintaining norms of consistency.
Negative feedback on a past decisions calls the validity of the original decision into
question and is dissonant with a decision maker’s natural desire to see himself as
competent. Many decision makers would often escalate commitment to their previous
decision in order to prove that the initial decision was valid. In the case of the
promoters of the Holyrood project, choosing a fast tract delivery method suddenly
became very appealing if they had to meet 2 year deadline. Construction management
procurement method was thus chosen as it has the advantage of allowing both design
and project construction to occur concurrently. Using conventional construction
methods of design before building would have added an extra 18months to the
duration, according to William Armstrong, the Project Manager [PE 3 December
2003]. However, using construction management may well have been the single most
important decision that was largely responsible for the cost and time overrun
experienced on the Holyrood project. The client bears all financial risks associated
with delays and design changes and final cost of the project could not be realistically
known until all designs were completed. In addition, there is little incentive for the
design team to keep cost low when such a method is used. Paul Grice, Clerk and Chief
Executive of the Scottish Parliament told the public enquiry 'It is a fact of construction
management - until you let the last tender, and settled the last claim, you can't know
the final amount' [PE 10 February 2004]. Robert Brown MSP, a member of the
Scottish Parliament Corporate Body that was in charge of the project at one point aptly
explains the source of the problems on the project. He noted, "the signature design, the
contractual method, and the process of developing the design detail, I increasingly
came to the view that most of our difficulties [experienced on the project] were in a
sense inevitable once the button was pressed at the beginning by the Scottish Office
when they let the contract in the first place."
There was evidence of strategic misrepresentation, the deliberate distortion or
misstatement of the amount of time and resources necessary to achieve an aim, at
many stages during the procurement of the project. Five weeks after their election
1999, the new MSPs had to vote on whether or not to continue the project. At this
stage, Alex Salmond MSP, leader of the main opposition party wrote to Sir David
Steel MSP, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, requesting that the project
be suspended and that an estimate of possible cancellation cost be produced "in order
to properly debate the future of the Holyrood project or other alternatives"
(MS/1/083). He further wrote in a follow-up letter, "It is now possible that we may
have to consider cancelling the Holyrood project; in the circumstances it is essential
that no further actions should be taken which would add to the cost of cancellation if
this were the decision which Parliament reached." [MS/1/084]
Faced with the dire prospect of possible project cancellation, civil servants in the
Scottish Office, led by Barbara Doig, the Project Sponsor, decided to hide the fact that
costs were going to be significantly higher than what the MSPs were to vote upon. In a
classic example of strategic misrepresentation, the Project Sponsor did not include an
extra £27million for risk in the estimates submitted to the MSPs. She later insisted that
she was 'confident the £27million could be managed out' and therefore was not to be
included in the information given to the members of the Scottish Parliament
The proposed vote for an amendment urging a termination of the project was defeated
by only three votes. Alex Salmond MSP, later told the public enquiry that the vote was
based on false information, adding, "it is inconceivable that had the proper
information been given to the members of the Scottish Parliament, that there wouldn't
have been at least a delay for taking stock and reassessment... the figures, the facts,
the timeline shows that when the Parliament were told they were inheriting a project
of £109 million, it was actually well over £200 million and was totally out of control...
Parliamentarians being misled and misinformed is a very serious issue indeed." [PE
13 November 2003]
Lord Fraser himself makes a strong case for strategic misrepresentation on the
Holyrood Project by stating "As at the point of hand-over, where there is a very tight
vote in the Parliament on whether to proceed with this particular project or not, that
figure was specifically kept away from them. It looks rather as though, those who were
involved in this were determined to keep the figure down as low as possible, even to
the point of concealing it from the Parliament, in the hope that the project would go
Political end-gaming and future-perfecting strategies
There was a lot of evidence supporting political end-gaming and future-perfecting
strategies in the early stages of the project as well. Donald Dewer and the project team
seem to have capitalised on the newly found nationalistic sentiments and euphoria
around the referendum. The project was continuously presented to the public as one
that will represent the essence of Scottish devolution and be an "important symbol for
Scotland" that will "pay tribute to the country’s past achievements and signal its future
aspirations" (Scotland's Parliament 1997). Riding on these sentiments, Donald Dewer
probably felt the need to build momentum and get the project started quickly.
Consensus regarding some key decisions was ignored as he bypassed the consent of
MSPs at many strategic stages, including the choosing of a site of the project [See
MS/1/071 – 079]. It emerged during the public enquiry that he felt he had to 'endow'
the MSPs with the new building and that if the decision of location of the building was
not made quickly enough, the MSPs will never get around to doing it themselves. He
probably also was aware that once the first concrete was poured, the project would
become like a moving train that could not be stopped.
Confirmation bias, the tendency to seek or interpret information in ways that are
partial to existing beliefs or expectations, played a key role in escalation on the
Holyrood project. William Armstrong, an experienced project professional was the
First Project Manager for the Holyrood Project at the Scottish Office. He resigned
from his role because of frustrations he experienced regarding the spiralling cost and
time delays. He was critical of the performance and commitment of the Architect,
Enrique Miralles writing to Project Sponsor, Barbara Doig, “There is no indication
that Miralles [can] remedy the deficiencies in time, cost and design to meet the
programme." [PE SE-4-044]. His resignation letter prophesied that if measures were
not quickly taken to properly control and manage the project, the "programme will
drift, the cost will increase, the design team will make claims, the contractors will
make claims, and the project will become a disaster" [PE SE-4-044]. As indicated by
Caldwell and O'Reilly (1982) and Kahneman (2011), confirmation bias leads a
decision maker to underplay, and in some cases, even ignore disconfirming feedback
on performance of any venture. William Armstrong's strong warnings were blatantly
ignored by the project sponsor, who later stated that 'I was comfortable that a great
deal was being done to ensure that we continue to be on program, that we got the cost
sorted out and that we got the design to the quality required" [PE 4 December, 2003].
She decided instead that it was better that William Armstrong be removed from his
post. He resigned before he could be fired.
Political and organisational influences
There were very strong political and organisational influences at many stages of the
project as well. For example, opposition MSPs requested a two month delay in the
project to examine the whole project more closely and explore other possible options.
Margo MacDonald MSP insisted during a parliamentary debate that "too many
questions are unanswered at this stage, and we plead with you [Donald Dewer] for
the time to find adequate answers" [17 June 1999]. As is usually the case, those
responsible for the negative outcome of a particular decision tend to maintain the
norms of consistency in order not to appear indecisive or appear politically weak.
Donald Dewer thus responded that such a delays requested by the opposition parties
would "cost more than £3million in contract penalties". He added, "this Parliament
would look like a laughing stock" if the opposition party got its way during the debate
in Parliament. When it became apparent that the opposition might be fighting a lost
cause, Donald Gorrie MSP said in reference to Donald Dewer, "it is a despotism, we
have one man says what happens and we all obediently follow him" [17 June 1999)].
There were other sources of problems on the Holyrood project including significant
scope changes, the death of the architect Enric Miralles, shortly followed by the death
of project champion Donald Dewer. However, we have only concerned ourselves with
some of the factors that may have contributed to escalation of commitment with its
attending significant cost and time overruns.
The present study concerns the escalation of commitment to a particular course of
action in decision making. We identified different enablers of escalation from the
literature including sunk costs, self-justification, confirmation bias and strategic
misrepresentation. We then examined official documentary evidence on the Holyrood
project using a hindsight constructivist approach for possible causes of escalation that
ultimately resulted in the cost and time overruns experienced on the project. We found
overwhelming evidence in support of the use of strategic misrepresentation, self-
justification and reputation management during the project. The study also uncovered
evidence of optimism bias on the part of project sponsors in defining the budget and
time constraints for the project.
The case study suggests that escalation of commitment is a complex phenomenon with
additive causes from different sources. We also highlight the importance of the early
stages of a project, as decisions taken at this stage become increasingly difficult to
reverse. In general, it is important for project sponsors and decision makers to be
aware of the fact that their decisions will tend to be biased by previous decisions, and
that we all tend to have a natural inertia towards escalation of commitment,
particularly after receiving negative feedback.
Knowing why and when escalation occurs can help managers avoid this common
decision bias. However, as escalation may not always be readily obvious, it is
important to put in place organisational structures that will help attenuate unwarranted
escalation. The use of an objective outsider to evaluate our responses to disconfirming
information, especially in situations of sequential decision making can be helpful in
reducing escalation tendencies. It might be helpful to structure incentives so that
decision makers are not punished for supposed inconsistency in order to curb the
effect of self-justification. Increased monitoring, accountability, budget controls and
scrutiny might also be helpful especially on large and complex projects.
While this paper deals with the sources of escalation and how it might be curbed, it is
important to mention that escalation should not necessarily be considered as a negative
tendency. There are situations where it might be economically rational to escalate
commitment to keep options open or maintain personal and future business
relationships. On cursory examination, this might sound divergent to the core of the
foregone discussions in this paper. However, what is proposed in this paper instead is
that decision makers should be aware of the difficulty of separating initial decisions
from related future decisions. It might be prudent to actively search for disconfirming
information to provide a balanced perspective on confirming information that we are
more likely to intuitively seek.
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