As we grow older, learn more and generally gain more experience – we’d like to think we get smarter, but what if we are wrong? What if the more we know about something, the more vested we become in preserving what we know as the ‘truth’ and the more affected by biases we become?

I suppose biases were good once upon a time, they helped us make faster judgements and often those judgements made the difference between life and death. I’m trying to separate ‘rules of thumb’ (heuristics is the fancy word for this) from biases – because I would argue that rules of thumb are explicit and can be articulated, whereas biases often can’t. And because of this very fact, rules of thumb are easier to modify when they no longer work. Biases affect us, but we are seldom aware of them and the more information we have access to these days, the more biases affect our judgement – we talk about ‘feel’, ‘gut instinct’ – but isn’t that just another word for going with your bias because you don’t know any better? I know I know, Gladwell made millions on his book Blink, arguing how experts apply their snap judgement to consistently outperform even the best computer programs – but can we truly dissect what goes on in our heads in those milliseconds to distinguish bias from the blink-type rapid cognition?

In article I shared in my previous blog post, there is a great section talking about the types of biases that affect change initiatives in organisations. A cognitive bias is a departure from good or rational judgment resulting from a particular situation or set of circumstances. The biases have been confirmed by replicable research. The following examples, referenced in the article, are representative of the many that may be at play.

  • Anchoring is an attachment to the earliest information encountered in decision making. “Anchored” to that information, we are unduly influenced by it. We see new information in the context of the anchor.
  • Ambiguity bias occurs when the information available on two or more options is uneven. We are biased toward the option with more known information even if the other option might be preferable.
  • Confirmation bias is a tendency to favor information that supports our point of view.
  • Loss aversion is a preference for avoiding losses over acquiring gains of equal magnitude.
  • Negativity is a bias that leads us to pay more attention to negative experiences or options than to positive ones.
  • Normalcy is the tendency to underestimate the risk of disaster or catastrophe if we have not previously experienced it. We expect outcomes that are closer to normal.
  • Pervasive optimism is a belief that the future will mirror the past. We believe that we have more control than we actually do.

Seeing this list of biases I cannot help, but think we are hopelessly unsuited for dealing with the change happening around us. Someone even wrote a book about it – called What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Easier said than done. Granted, this book is all about becoming more senior in an organisation and it tries to map out the different kinds of things that make you successful in different parts of your career. Needless to say, it doesn’t talk about avoiding biases though.

I wonder whether these biases also gather a cultural dimension, whereby if you find yourself in one of the innovation hubs of the world, some of these biases have a less powerful hold on the public imagination, because you are surrounded by other people also trying to experiment with problems and opportunities that others may have deemed impossible. Let’s say you are trying to come up with a mapping solution app for the moon (I’m just trying to come up with some off the wall techie idea – which would make people going to SXSW go ‘WHOA – cool!’ and everyone else – ‘WTF – what would you need that for? :)) My question to you is – if you were working on that and you were surrounded by people who unequivocally thought you were nuts, would you carry on? It’s the old nature vs. nurture debate. What would you say if I said – well, you just have to find yourself an environment ruled by less rigid biases (about the area you are working on)?

Some also argue that startups are more able to respond to change than big corporations – and the reasons quoted often include legacy, company history, established product lines and processes.. but I haven’t heard people mention the stronger prevalence of biases at every level of the organisation. Yet, I suspect it is this very cause that stops companies from asking themselves if their processes are still relevant or purely designed to keep out everything that is an ‘anomaly’ – whereas the anomaly is the signal amidst the noise that someone who is not biased would pick up as an indicator that change needs to happen? These are just some of the types of questions we want to ask ourselves and the audience at the Undesign session at SXSW2014. Sign up to our newsletter on the Undesign site to stay tuned to upcoming Google hangouts, posts and goodies on this topic.

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