A frequent challenge in delivery is the tendency to underestimate complexity


The Illusion of Explanatory Depth is a cognitive bias

It provides a perspective into why sometimes we think we understand a complex phenomenon with far greater clarity than we actually do. Being aware of this can improve how change is implemented.

In a ‘busy world’, issues are often glossed over leading to delays and cost overruns further down the line.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth is based-on research conducted by Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil. Their experiment involved asking students to rate their understanding of what were perceived to be simple ideas (e.g. explain how a bike works).

What was interesting was the student’s ratings lowered after they had to explain the concept to other people. This indicates the participants thought they knew more about an idea than they did.

This is frequently played out in organisations. For example, when issues are raised in meetings there is a tendency to use a veneer of understanding to oversimplify, enabling packed agendas to quickly move on. This can lead to systemic problems not getting resolved, increasing the risk profile.

Fortunately, there is a fix. When people are asked to explain what they have mistakenly understood the illusion disappears. The trick is to create an environment where ideas can be challenged and worked through.

Doing this is easier said than done. Programmes need to foster a culture that promotes knowledge sharing and creates a safe space that allows people to challenge ideas.

Through taking time out to hold deep-dive exploration sessions, you can encourage participants to question assumptions and collectively identify solutions. This is particularly effective in the early stages of planning.

This promotes critical thinking, collaboration and a holistic mindset. It provides the opportunity to identify risks and pitfalls early in the lifecycle that mitigates uncertainty and ultimately enhances delivery.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth is a powerful idea that can help improve how changes are delivered. By embracing the cognitive bias and leveraging it to drive collective exploration, organisations can improve outcomes and minimise setbacks.


" “Creating space that enables teams to collaboratively challenge assumptions and work through issues is critical to successfully implementing complex change.” – EA Partner, Julian Thornley




Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil, “The Misundersood Limits of Folk Science: An Illusion of Explanatory Depth,” Cognitive Science 26, no. 5 (2002)
Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner, “How big things get done: The surprising factors behind every project, from home renovations to space exploration and everything inbetween.” February (2023)