Author B.J. Neblett once said “We are the sum of our experiences. Those experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are…and those [experiences] yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become.” This concept can and should be applied not only to individuals but also to organizations making data-informed decisions. The more experiences and perspectives available to an organization, the better and more complete picture it has, the fewer blind spots exist, and the better-informed decision they can make.
When trying to make data-informed decisions, everyone usually has the right intentions to make the best decision from their perspective. But what can you do to try to avoid blind spots? You can be aware of bias that may exist in your decisions, and you can seek diverse perspectives in an inclusive manner.
Awareness of Cognitive Bias
Cognitive bias is described as a mistake in reasoning, evaluating, remembering, or other cognitive process, often occurring as a result of holding onto one's preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information. Bias exists everywhere. It is actually what helped humans stay alive and evolve into who we are as a species today. However, it can also negatively impact your ability to take data and information and turn them into knowledge and wisdom.
Three specific bias I want to highlight as examples are confirmation bias, survivor bias, and first-conclusion bias.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that supports your beliefs/hypothesis and ignore information that contradicts them. This is one reason diversity and inclusion is absolutely critical, as it forces you to hear alternate perspectives that may try to disprove your conclusions instead of having people just validate it.
Survivor bias is another type of cognitive bias which occurs when you are making a decision using only part of the data based off past successes, and not based off past failures. This could include only using data from projects that succeeded rather than all projects, as an example. Another famous example is when an analysis was performed on World War II bombers to find where to fortify planes with armor, based off where they had the most damage. The analysis originally only took into account planes that landed safely. The planes that were destroyed in combat were not part of the analysis.
First-conclusion bias highlights that humans typically tend to make decisions and solve problems by using the first solution that comes to mind. This is where the term “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” comes from.
There are some situations in decision making where the bias is willful. In this case the decision maker is aware but willfully ignores the information and fails to act on it. I can tell you first hand the negative impacts this can have. Ever get on a scale and see the number, but try in your head to ignore that the number is high and come up with reasons to justify you do not need to act on it? There are many reasons people do not act on it: fear of failure, fear of change, fear of the unknown, etc. However, those fears can and will have dire consequences if they win out over acting on the information.
Diversity and Inclusion
One of the major flaws of decision making is that people make decisions from their perspective only and do not understand other perspectives that are relevant to see the big picture. When individuals and organizations are inclusive and truly open to an exchange of ideas through diverse groups, collective genius happens and the best data-informed decisions can be made.
Collective genius is only one benefit of being inclusive. There are many other benefits as well, including:
- Increasing innovation
- Attracting top talent
- Avoiding negative unintended consequences
- Changing cultures to embrace differences
This is all well and good, but we stated much of this happens sub-consciously. How can we act to overcome our bias and lack of inclusion?
- Become more aware of your bias. The best line of defense against cognitive bias is awareness. There are tools like the Ladder of Inference or the Process of Abstraction which you can use to understand your thought process that can lead to a wrong conclusion.
- Celebrate inclusion to truly harness collective genius. Make sure when you need to make a decision, you are not just looking for people who will say what you want them to say. Look for people who have different opinions and learn about their perspectives. When you do this, you have a diverse perspective, and this is the absolute key to the importance of diversity in the workplace.
- Leverage systems thinking and lateral thinking methods in an organization to expose and recognize unintended consequences with your decisions. Systems thinking is a technique of analyzing relationships between various elements of a system. Rather than breaking down a system into elements to analyze separately, look at the entire system and how each element balances or reinforces other elements.
So, next time you need to make a strategic decision at work, or next time you get on a scale and want to act, but fear acting on it, remember to look for any bias, work to conquer any fears, and truly overcome the bias. Please step out of your comfort zone and partner with people with different perspectives so you can see the whole puzzle, and not just one side of it. That is the true power of inclusion.
To learn more about bias and data-informed decision making, please take a look at our free Data-informed Decision making modules on Qlik Continuous Classroom.