Creative thinking can help you combat cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases are shortcuts that people use in decision making.  The shortcuts generated by cognitive biases are typically helpful, which leads to people to internalize the bias. These internalized biases are therefore used unconsciously.  Any behavior that becomes an unconscious response can lead to actions and decisions that are perceived as irrational if the context or the environment has shifted.  For example, a colleague recently related a story about an organization with an emergent product quality problem that occurred after they had disbanded their independent test group. The response was to immediately reconstitute the test group based on the belief that if the independent testing had worked before it would work again. The response was based on a cognitive bias, not a root cause analysis or some form of mindfulness.  

Adding to the list of cognitive biases we have explored in the past:

  1. Success Bias.  The independent test example is a reflection of success bias.  A success bias occurs when a person or organization is successful using a technique or framework.  For example, organizations that are successful using Scrum or DevOps will be emulated (this is truest when the news of success is amplified) because they are perceived to be successful.  Adoption of these techniques is a filter bias that often ignores context and with a good definition of success. (Read Paul Gibbons’ book The Science of Successful Organizational Change for an in depth discussion for how to filter for success bias– our re-read can be found here). 
  2. Survivor Bias occurs when decision-making processes focus on people, processes or technologies that have passed a filter or selection hurdle in the past.  Survivor bias (also known as survivorship or survival bias) is general case that spans cases of success bias (success being the filter or hurdle).  IT/Software development organizations often use filters and pre-approvals guide teams towards standard technical and process architectures. The Capability Maturity Model Integrated (CMMI) refers to the organization’s standard set of practices (OSSP) which maintained to promote consistency and transparency.  The downside to the behavior occurs when the approved/filters selections don’t address the current need or context leading to project failure or false conclusions.   

Both success and survivor bias can lead people and organizations to ignore or discount failures because they don’t fit the mental models that success and survivor biases generate. Organizations embarking on the path of change and transformation must address filters that constrain their options.  Success and survivor biases can lead to a false belief that specific techniques are imbued with magical properties that really are coincidence, a reflection of specific circumstances, or lack of disciplined definitions. Every decision is influenced by one or many cognitive biases.  Survivor and success biases are just two cognitive biases that often provide useful guidance.  The problem is that often is not the same as always.  Decision-making processes need to be mindful of the pitfalls that biases can cause without requiring shortcuts to be abandoned or evaluated for every decision.