The von Restorff Effect – Why Project Managers Should Care

Several years ago I presented 3 options for a plan of attack on a large systems integration initiative using OnePager.  My presentation looked something like the below project view. Guess which option was chosen?

Systems Integration Options

You’re right!  It might surprise you to know the management team was leaning toward a different option until I presented my visual.  To be fair, the project view wasn’t the only factor as there were logical arguments for and against each. But it definitely WAS a factor.

The von Restorff Effect, also called the isolation effect, predicts that an item that “stands out like a sore thumb” is more likely to be remembered than other items. It is a bias in favor of remembering the unusual.


In previous posts we argue that it is a bad thing to lie in your Gantt Charts.  But what about highlighting the important message or calling attention to something that needs it?  My opinion is that it comes down to the purpose of the communication.  Is the forum meant to simply provide data for analytical purposes?  Are you attempting to provide status or elicit a decision?

In this case, it was a part of my job to guide the decision-maker to the best possible option, given my knowledge of the initiative and the accumulation of hours of my own conversations with a variety of experts that led me to the recommendation.  As the person who was closest to the project and who had already done a lot of due diligence, I knew what was important, so why not bring that forth?

Calling out specific things visually by making them stand out could be applied in so many ways in OnePager and across a variety of industries.  You could use colors to call out a resource overlap, or activities that may be behind schedule, or during a period of high risk.  Fills, borders, font colors, and size are all elements that could and should be employed in situations where you are attempting to make the meaningful data stand out, while including other data for additional context and reference.  Check out this relevant post that specifically discusses the von Restorff Effect as it relates to scientific communications.

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