Our business literature is replete with advice to avoid being biased. Counter to this warning I propose you consciously bring your biases; it will help you make better decisions.
We hear this all the time; being biased is a bad thing. When you show being one-sided, lacking a neutral viewpoint, you’re not having an open mind. It’s not the qualities for creativity or innovation. However, bias comes in many forms and relates to prejudice and intuition. Your intuition frames what and how you see. And then you make your judgements; it is a part of human nature. No matter how subtle, most of the time we judge unconsciously or by intuition. I judge others all the time, and you do, too. Right now you are judging this book, and that is okay (really!). From the moment you meet someone, you are judging them. You won’t even notice it, because we do it all day long. Judgment is a loaded word, considering it is nothing but an evaluation of evidence or facts to help us decide. We judge or evaluate life experiences, situations, things, opinions, tastes, sounds and people based on the values, emotions and logic someone taught us. Helping us to test every person or situation. Judge. From our bias.
It is worth understanding the influences and limitations that our ways of processing creative thought may have while creating. At work, our minds are directed by something called ‘a cognitive bias’: a systematic error in thinking affecting our decisions. Resulting in mistakes obvious in hindsight, but probably looked right. Think of a cognitive bias as something obvious that may or may not be factual. We’ve all seen movies where a thief wears a police uniform to pass through a security checkpoint. The real police officers think because the person is wearing a uniform like theirs, he must be a real police officer. That’s an example of a cognitive bias.
What does a fake cop have to do with your innovation choices? You make the same assumptions that aren’t always true. And before you know of it, you fall into ‘The Planning Fallacy.’ When you make a plan around a best-case scenario and assume that the outcome will follow that plan. Even when you have the experience or skill to know better. Entrepreneurs, designers, innovators and managers routinely underestimate how much they will need to invest to bring their ideas to market and how long that will take. And even when we miss quotas or milestones repeatedly, we slug away in belief that soon we will be ahead of that curve. Or that this curve will straighten itself out. It doesn’t even have to be about outcomes; even most our work meetings chronically overrun their wildly inaccurate time estimates. We now cite wasteful meetings as a leading cause of losing a sense of meaning at work. Life, it seems, is rife with our self-made egregious plans.
And full of Confirmation Bias. Have you noticed that you put more weight into the opinions of those who agree with you? Those people do that too. How often do you analyze an idea and then research reports that support your hypothesis instead of seeking information that may poke holes in it? Those who entertain none counter to their thinking are likely seeing things out of a confirmation bias only. While it may happen on a purely statistical basis, the past events do not connect to future events. It’s not because something appears to be a pattern, or even predictable, that this guarantees to stay that way. There may be other reasons a data pattern may not be what we make it to be; but by itself, that a pattern repeats itself will have us believe that it will continue to do so. We then experience our Gambler’s Bias; the belief that data never lies, and that it will give us the expected answers every time. And if it did not do that this time, it will do that next time. So we trust it once again on the chance we get the outcome we wanted to get.
Doing innovative work, you will meet your own or other people’s Status-Quo Bias. Humans are creatures of habit. Resistance to change spills over to innovation decisions through the act of repeatedly coming back to the same answers and solutions instead of investigating new ideas. Although investing in solutions that are already understood could appear to be a sound and proven innovation strategy, it’s more likely that it limits a product or service’s potential. Cookie-cutter alert anyone?
Negativity Bias will cause us to put more weight on bad news than on good. Some might call this risk management, but this bias can cause the effects of a risk to hold more weight than the possibility of a meaningful value. Going back to confirmation bias, most of us feel better when we are thinking inline with the crowd. Commonly accepting what everyone else thinks is called the Bandwagon Bias. One of my early career moments still stays with me today; the founder of the small start up I joined in Brussels, Belgium, routinely would ask us “what do you think?” And would not accept that you would think the same, stating “if everyone here thinks the same, then really only one of us is actually thinking.” He had - in his own passive aggressive manner - an antidote for avoiding bandwagon bias.
My favorite? The “Ikea effect”; a cognitive bias in which we place a disproportionately higher value on products, objects or services you (partially) created. Other signs of thinking out of biases are when we fall in love with our first idea and run with it. When we form decisions on that what we know, without considering what we do not know. We remember only the good or only the bad parts of our work, or overestimate our own capabilities. When someone asks why things are done in a certain way, and you think, “Well, that’s how we’ve always done it” you are displaying a bias. If when deciding, you focus on how much value your opportunities pose rather than on the risks or alternatives others introduce you’re thinking out of a bias. Left unchecked, these biases lead to faulty decision making, derailing personal and organizational productivity.
Emotional biases add to our cognitive ones. These are the influences in your decision-making of how you feel about something or someone, not what you think about them. Emotional biases include loss aversion, overconfidence, regret aversion, and endowment. This “Endowment Effect” is another interesting bias whereby people attach more value to ideas or solutions they already have than to equivalent or better ones they could consider. Undervaluing opportunity. They are harder to correct than cognitive biases, because as hardened professionals, we focus on what we think more than on how we feel. Having knowledge of emotional biases is a first step toward a better decision-making practice.
Cognitive and emotional biases are within each individual. The studios or offices we work in or with today may now have five generations working alongside each other. This means views around scope, objectives, processes, project shifts, ideas, decisions and leadership are each under the influence of judgements and biases. But this is honestly not a bad thing. It allows us to focus on individuals and their actual abilities and points of view. We then get to know all kinds of biases. I completely agree that biases are insidious, subtly influencing our every action. It has us ignore contradictory evidence and fixate on the nuggets of evidence that support our idea or thinking. It makes all that we can see become reasons to believe that it will all happen the way we think it will. And we should allow this to happen naturally. Willingly entertaining that what we realize is faulty, as counterintuitive as this will feel, reduces the effect of the aforementioned biases.
“We are only as blind as we want to be.”
Once we understand how cognitive and emotional biases are contributing to our sometimes poor decision making, we can mitigate those biases and improving our judgments. Counter to the advice and warnings you may receive: accept and give in to your urge to judge. Bring your bias; it will help you make better decisions. However, only if you raise your awareness of how it influences your behavior. Knowing when you are thinking and acting out of emotion or fact will make a huge difference in uncovering that what is meaningful.
It all hinges on being self-aware. Self-awareness is crucial. During these innovation journeys, you will inevitably experience the fears and failures that impact a project. You will see and act on these in reaction to the assessment, or evaluation, you have of these. You will always think or feel out of a bias, either emotionally or cognitively, or a mix of both. What is less obvious is that these will also have a significant effect on you as a person. Self-awareness becomes indispensable in understanding how your bias may influence (adversely) the highs and lows of the interactions you have with those you work with. Your self-awareness will help you remain clear-sighted.
Even in extreme circumstances. Start by recognizing and understanding that when you’re down in the gutter of a grind, or atop a peak of achievement, in both cases, you are likely a worse version of yourself. On a peak is where your ego often takes over, and we are more likely to believe that our opinion is the one that matters most. Bringing with it risks and influences on your decision-making abilities. Conversely, when things get though and ambiguous or seemingly unsolvable, our insecurities will surface. We feel stressed, hesitant, and become sensitive. Even outright grumpy. Some of us will have the habit of putting up a front of confidence, others unfairly blame those around them, or their circumstances, for the problems they cannot handle. Ego can take over here as well, and people can get stuck in believe that only their opinion is of matter. There are those who freeze in indecision and hide by withdrawing emotionally all together. Then there are those whose rage equals that of the Anger character in Inside-Out.
In the best of scenarios, we spend most of our efforts in trying to get everyone aligned to the consensus thinking. We brush over the consensus emotion. Because we accepted the belief that feelings do not have a place in business. It’s ironic that those business efforts are to meet the desired aim to connect with consumers emotionally. Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception of emotion, rather than mistakes of logic. The most open-minded and the least defensive are those who reach the most potential for accomplishment. These are the practitioners who are the most self-aware. Self awareness raises your perception to recognize the influence your emotions have on your thinking, and the bias that comes with it. Armed with the ability to recognize the relationship of emotion and bias in yourself is the first step to recognizing the emotions and biases of others. This takes time, because we have to work out our own patterns before we work out those of others. For me, it is a meaningful practice to sharpen my systems-thinking and develop foresight.
Our brains are excellent at identifying cause and effect and understanding the immediacy of our actions in response to this. It’s a short-term view where we use what we know, what we think to predict, and what our experience has catalogued for us. We do this intuitively. But projecting and envisioning chain reactions and system implications is where we struggle. We miss what comes back to us as ‘obvious mistakes’ or missed opportunities. By disregarding the usual principles of a linear process, such as design thinking, you can (occasionally) avoid this short-term trap. Allowing to spend time exploring emotional and cognitive biases of a group of people offers little hope of any short-term aim. But it will help form stronger working relationships, and more meaningful collaborations. It is a front-loaded investment, bringing broader views and considerations on different perspectives, thinking and - yes - biases that are feeding our decisions and beliefs. This develops foresight: investing time and energy in relationships that may yield nothing in the short-term, but hold the promise to add a meaningful value to the business in the future. This only happens when you can first empty your cup: recognize your own judgements, and even when you don’t agree with this statement, accept it is clouding how you view and feel about things. Yours might feel like the clearer picture, but it is only of meaning to others when your reality overlaps with the reality of others. That is how teams build a shared understanding, and how they bring a collective foresight to success. Team with a collective foresight are those that perform, create and envision things of meaning.
And if you cannot bring your individual, or group, foresight to success, end it with grace. No project turns out exactly as we thought it would. Fewer still produce the results we hoped for at the outset. If you find yourself disappointed in the closing stages of a project, try to resist the urge to slip away quietly from view, avoiding difficult conversations with those who might hold you accountable - or those that you may. It could be inviting to bury yourself into the next project and plow even harder. Keeping your sanity, motivation and reputation intact means you may have to do the opposite. The counterintuitive. Own the outcome of a project, whatever it is, explain yourself and have others do the same, clear your bandwidth and finish gracefully. Projects cannot end with baggage. Because you will carry this with you into the next engagement. Making your practice a little less meaningful.
Let everyone else display their bias - because they do that, anyway. Listen with an open heart and mind. Embrace and share your own bias and emotion. Ask others to learn from it and be willing to learn from other’s biases. Every person’s bias has something special to give you—that is, if you are open to receiving it. There is always a way of seeing things, but there is never only one way of seeing things. Or, as per Maya Angelou’s words, “We are only as blind as we want to be.”