Cognitive Biases are unconscious processes that influence how we perceive the world and how we take decisions. These mechanisms are a result of evolution
Biases are automatisms of our brain that make our live easier, but they have also a dark side. Specially, in organizations biases are a significant issue, but there is little knowledge and awareness about them.
There are more than 150 biases and here we are going to see only 10 of the most relevant to the context of coaching and agile and, several mitigation strategies. In particular, we will see that we need to rethink how we do retrospectives.
Before going into detail I’d like to give a real example of how biases can be a significant issue in organizations.
Tuckman Model of Group Development
Probably most of you will have used or referenced this model at some point in time in your professional life.
Did you ever wonder where this model is coming from? The origin of this model is the analysis by Tuckman of psychoanalytical studies of therapy groups. It was developed in 1965 and still today is vastly used.
It is vastly used, because it is simple, it resonates with our causal and linear minds and it feels familiar, but it has a problem, it does not hold from a scientific point of view.
I truly believed in Tuckman model since two years ago when I started working on my framework for team performance. A key part of this framework was team and group development over time, and I studied tons of scientific papers, articles and read many books about the topic.
The main conclusion of my work was that I’d never use a group development model or theory in my job. Reasons being:
- Development of groups over time remain poorly understood
- There are many criticisms regarding the kinds and quality of research that has been conducted.
- There are many different models and theories: phased models like Tuckman’s, cyclic, mixtures and systemic approaches. There is no agreement within the research community.
- Last, but not least. In 1988, Gersick published the first study of teams in organizations. Her results did not support the phased view of group development.
Researchers concluded that developmental processes in natural groups remain poorly understood.
However, the concept remains so ingrained in the culture that managers, team leaders, coaches and consultants routinely are taught to consider the phases of group development in their interactions with workplace teams.
This is an example of Confirmation Bias. Highly qualified professionals using a theory that has been proven false just because it confirms their expectations of how a team should develop in a causal and linear way.
The question here is not whether Tuckman was right or wrong, but how we take things for granted without further consideration, because it confirms our beliefs, it is simple or it feels familiar.
Cognitive biases are unconscious processes that influence how we see the world.
These adaptive mechanisms evolved to help us make quick, efficient judgments and decisions with minimal cognitive effort.
On the one hand, biases are helpful and adaptive. Biases help us use previous knowledge to inform new decisions, as we don’t have the cognitive resources to make every decision fresh.
However, many of our biases can also be unhelpful. Biases can blind us to new information, or inhibit us from considering a broad range of options when making an important decision.
The type of decisions our ancestors faced where quite simple, but the world has changed so much in past 200 years and our brains haven’t. In a hyper-connected world where poor decisions can multiply like a chain reaction, breaking free of bias has never been more urgent or important.
If you have a brain, you are biased
If you have a brain you are biased. Cognitive bias are similar to optical illusions, even when you know about them you cannot help seeing it wrong.
We’re all incredibly biased, and incredibly biased all the time. That’s actually a good thing in some ways. You cannot be making a fresh decision about everything. So generally bias is not a problem.
The trouble is for key decisions like whom you should hire, which project is more important or which is the next improvement for our team, these kinds of things, going off unconscious biases can have some quite large consequences.
Take bias out of process
Mitigating bias all the time is impossible and a bad idea. What we need to do is take bias out of the process rather than out of the person.
The very best way you can take bias out is to look at a process, work out the kind of bias that could happen and literally take out the possibility of it happening.
Intelligence, experience and education don’t make people less biased. Systems and processes need to be put in place at all levels of an organization to mitigate bias.
System 1 / System 2
Many biases are caused by the existence of two systems in our brain. Two different ways of functioning, that Daniel Kahneman named after System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is automatic, effortless and often unconscious. Perception and intuition are type 1. System 1 is a mechanism that takes whatever information is available and makes the best possible story out of it, and tells you very little about information it doesn’t have.
System 2 is controlled, slower, effortful, usually conscious, tends to be logical and rule-governed. System 2 it who we think we are, but most decisions are taken by System 1.
If we make decisions based on our quick intuitions instead of taking more time to think and gather relevant information we are likely to let irrelevant, incomplete, or wrong information guide our choices.
Let’s see a few examples that we can find everyday in organizations.
What do you think of Ben and Alan?
If you are like most humans, you will have concluded that Ben is better than Alan.
This is known as the Halo Effect, increasing the weight of first impressions to the point that subsequent information is mostly discarded.
The sequence in which we observe characteristics of a person is often determined by chance, so we can easily create a very limited opinion of a person very quickly.
False Consensus Effect
The tendency to assume that your beliefs, habits, and opinions are “normal” and that others think the same way.
Some people call it Common Sense. “My perception of the world is accurate and everybody thinks the same”
The problem with this implicit belief is that it overlooks all behind-the-scenes processes by which our experience of reality is constructed. Our expectations, past experiences, personality, and emotional state or constitution influence our vision of what is really happening “out there” in the world.
This is one the reasons teams need Working Agreements.
In-group / Out-group Bias
The “in-group bias” and the “out-group bias” are linked to promoting and protecting one’s own group (e.g., your family, your team, your company).
The in-group bias refers to the more positive perception of people who are more similar to us compared to those who are less similar.
The out-group bias refers to the more negative perception of people who are more different than us compared to those who are more similar.
These biases are reflected not only in the perception of in-group and out-group members, but in one’s behavior toward them – e.g., more resources are allocated to in-group (vs. out-group) members. As such, if left unchecked and unaddressed, these can be particularly harmful in organizations.
The brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news. No comparably rapid mechanism for recognizing good news has been detected.
This is an evolutionary adaptation, you will stay alive longer if you remember more quickly that the snake will kill you than that the bunny is cute.
- Bad emotions and bad feedback have more impact than good ones
- Bad information is processed more thoroughly than good
- Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.
Negative is stronger than positive and close is better than far.
We have seen already that we cannot take biases out of the person, but out of the process. We need to design strategies and processes that reduce their impact.
Mitigation strategies for many biases involve engaging System 2. Putting some cognitive effort, rationalizing, slowing down and bringing more information and facts.
There are also some powerful techniques we use in professional coaching with individuals and teams, which are very useful to mitigate biases and support people in taking better decisions:
- Seeing our decisions and ourselves from a more objective perspective.
- Putting ourselves in the mind of someone else. Ask yourself, “What would my best friend tell me?” or “What would my manager do?”
- Getting greater distance between you and a decision is one strategy that might help. For example, you can imagine that the decision has been already been made in the past, and you are seeing it from a later, more objective and distanced point in time. This makes those events less emotional and less tied to the self.
Another important mitigation strategy for biases is data-driven decision taking. It may sound obvious, but that taking decisions based on data is not common practice in organizations.
We have seen already some examples of cognitive biases and general mitigation strategies. Now, let’s have a look in more detail at how biases impact the work of Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters and Managers and some practical mitigation strategies that you can apply.
Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters are impacted by bias as much as everyone else, if we don’t learn to apply some mitigation strategies we can do more harm than good.
One reason professional coaching works is that tools and techniques we use help people take better decisions by reducing chance of bias, as well as engaging System 2 most of the time.
Fundamental Attribution Error
Believing that one’s own errors or failures are justifiable due to external circumstances, but other’s errors are due to their personality.
Fundamental Attribution Error Mitigation
- Avoid gossip. When you listen to gossip you are already biased
- Look for situations when this is not happening.
- Ask yourself: What else could be happening here?
- I see a tendency in Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches to try to fix people. An Agile Coach should care about the system and about the team. Don’t fix people. We are not doctors or therapists.
- As a team coach avoid individual coaching. You never work with one person alone, you always work with the system. If you feel that a team member might need some individual support ask a fellow coach or her manager.
- Always work with the system, mirror the system, provide feedback to the system and make changes to the system.
We see and hear what fits our expectations and beliefs. Once you judge or diagnose someone you start seeing behaviors confirming your assumptions.
Remember the 4 stage team development model from the beginning. Imagine your first day with a team and you already make a verdict. “This team is in Storming, so I will do this or that”. And you will inevitable start looking for evidence that this team is in Storming phase, and neglecting other valuable information.
Confirmation Bias Mitigation
- Use Devil’s Advocacy
- Look for disconfirming evidence and ask for the bad news. Ask yourself: “When is this behavior not happening?”
- Pair coaching or invite an outsider’s perspective
- Remind yourself that you don’t know
Humans have a tendency to make decisions based on the information that comes to mind more quickly instead of objective information. And media, governments and evil marketing guys know it.
Imagine that you are working with a team and, people have told you that there is a bad apple in the team, and obviously, you find a lot of confirming evidence, and you have to decide which is your next move as a coach. What options will you consider?
Availability Bias Mitigation
- What’s covered in the news is NOT what happens in the world. When you arrive to a new client or a new team, activate what we call “coach’s gaze”. Observe the system, the relationships, the culture, the language, don’t pay so much attention to what is said, but how it is said, what people don’t say, taboos, artifacts, etc.
- Look for data or disconfirming evidence and ask for the bad news
- Focus on trends rather than individual experiences
- Remind yourself that you don’t know
Our brain is tuned to detect and remember negative events, much better than positive ones. We remember negative experiences better than positive ones. We perceive negative events much easier than positive ones.
Negativity Bias Mitigation
- Look for things that are working. Focus attention on strengths and move forward.
- Focus on the solution, not on the problem. For instance, when the team says “we want to avoid this situation”, say “ok, you don’t want this, what do you want instead?” Do you want to give up smoking or do you want to be healthy?”
- I have seen teams so focused on negative things that they cannot see a way forward, in this situation coaching approaches like Solution Focus or Appreciative Inquiry are of great help.
- Bring data
Coaching helps people by getting them out of the problem space and supporting them in moving to the creative solution space.
I have been doing retrospectives for while and, recently I start wondering whether retrospectives are effective at all. There is not much evidence out there supporting effectiveness of retrospectives, basically people’s opinions, experience and a few books.
There was a time when I believed that retrospectives were the engine of change, a key to successful agile transformation, but I changed my mind and, eventually I’ve come to believe that Retrospectives don’t work, and one of the key reasons is that they are one of the most biased events that you can find in an organization.
When people gather data from memory, the process is much more susceptible to bias and subjectivity.
Some typical Retrospective exercises: The Boat, Radar, Mad/Sad/Glad and Timeline.
Stop it! Stop this madness! Don’t waste people’s time any more, stop increasing frustration and negativity. Seriously, stop! You should better go to the bar and have some beers together.
Let’s examine for a moment typical retrospective steps. This is how they look like, right? It’s nice, isn’t it? A well-defined process which make sense to our causal minds:
- Set the stage
- Gather data
- Generate Insights
- Decide what to do
Well, this is how I suggest you should view retrospective steps when taking into account impact of bias:
- Gather opinions and judgments
- Generate assumptions
- Decide what to do
We have seen already Confirmation Bias, Availability Bias and Negativity Bias. If you let teams use their intuition team members are likely to recall events that are in line with what they believe already happened. If something can be easily retrieved memory you will flag it as more important than other stuff that might be more harmful for your team but if more difficult to recall. Negativity bias can be particularly toxic in retrospectives, since individuals find it easier to recall negative memories over positive. The result is a disproportionately high number of negative retrospective sessions, which in turn depress the team’s mood and morale.
Let’s see two more biases that have a strong impact in Retrospectives.
Humans are very bad at statistics, we think based on categories, symbols, metaphors, association but not statistics. So, when you believe something is likely it may be not.
This bias is about misjudging that something that is more representative means that it is more likely. It can be problematic when teams evaluate the occurrence of an event or when voting to decide what to do next.
When recalling the past, we recall the last emotional state and the peak emotional state, nothing else.
Imagine, for instance, that you do the typical retrospective opening exercise, the “Car Brand”, people will bring to memory a car brand that reflects his last emotional state or their peak emotional state, but never the average or the most frequent.
So, how can we mitigate effect of bias in continuous improvement and team development.
- Separate process improvement from team development. Do retrospectives on process improvement only. Don’t waste people’s time anymore in biased activities to collect colored stickies.
- For process improvement do data-driven continuous improvement
- For team coaching or team development, start by setting the basics right (Mission, Vision, Goals, KPIs, Working Agreements, Roles & Responsibilities). Do a proper team launch or lift-off and then complement with Team Coaching when needed.
Data-driven Continuous Improvement
- Retrospect in real time in front of the board
- Toyota Kata
- Kaizen Events:
- Systems Thinking
- 5 WHYs
- Value Stream Map
- Design real experiments
What do I mean by “Real Experiments”?
Most times actions from retrospectives are educated guesses, which go like this: “Let’s do this and see what happens”. If you simply plan on seeing what happens you will always succeed at seeing what happens because something is guaranteed to happen.
Since a long time the science community has built in several procedures and safe guards for how empirical research is conducted and how evidence is gathered in order to avoid biases. These 7 recommendations are key to make real experiments in organizations:
- Align with team objectives and KPIs
- Declare your expected outcomes upfront
- Emphasize accuracy, not precision
- Turn assumptions into falsifiable hypothesis
- Time-box experiments
- Use a control group
- One experiment at a time
In summary, biases are a significant issue in organizations and left unaddressed poor decisions can multiply like in a chain reaction. We have to design strategies and processes that reduce probability of bias because we cannot take biases out of people.
In professional coaching we use approaches that can help mitigate bias and support people in taking better decisions.
- “Thinking Fast and Slow” – Daniel kahneman
- “Predictably Irrational” – Dan Arely
- “Brief Coaching for Lasting Solutions” – Insoo Kim Berg
- “Breaking Bias”, Neuroleadership Journal, May 2014, Volume 5 – Matthew D. Lieberman, David Rock and Christine L. Cox
Thanks for reading, sharing and commenting!