Need an extra set of eyes?

Paul Gibbons suggested in the introduction to Part One of The Science of Successful Organizational Change that every generation thinks it’s path is shaped by great upheavals.  Much of this perception is due to availability bias. Availability bias leverages the most relevant immediate example to evaluate a concept or idea.  The availability bias is only one of a myriad of cognitive biases that humans have developed to deal with the complexity of the world around us.  Steven Adams recently asked, “What biases/fallacies might a developer fall prey to when testing code that he or she developed?” If we broaden the question to which of the cognitive biases would affect anyone reviewing their own work (based on the 16 we have explored over the past two years), there are several cognitive biases that would suggest that reviewing your own work is less fruitful than getting a different set of eyes.  Some of the leading culprits are:

  1.   Curse of Knowledge – When a person creates a solution, that solution typically embodies the body of knowledge they have accumulated as they have developed a specialty (even T-shaped people are better at one thing than most others).  Expertise often generates a filter that makes it difficult to see a different solution or mistakes that would conflict with the expert’s knowledge.  Avoiding the curse of knowledge does not mean we should eschew knowledge, but rather seek reviews and alternate opinions outside the boundaries of our specialty.
  2.  Availability Cascade – An availability cascade occurs when an idea or concept is perceived to be more true or believable because it is seen more often. Reviewing your own work can generate a mini-availability cascade in which the material being re-read or checked is perceived to be truer just because you have reviewed the material over and over. I can’t tell you how many times I have known I have an error in an equation because the outcome was correct but after staring at the equation for hours been convinced that the problem was elsewhere,  only to have a colleague look over my shoulder and point out the errant keystroke before I can even ask for help.  As with the curse of knowledge, breaking an availability cascade requires a second set of eyes.
  3.   Confirmation Bias – The author of a piece of code, document or test plan can easily fall prey to confirmation bias.  When an author is reviewing or validating his or her work it is easy to search for/or interpret information in a way that confirms a preconception(s). Shankar Vedantam (Hidden Brain Podcast), said, “we search the way we write,” which suggests that we seek out information that confirms our ideas. A second set of eyes or a process to redirect how we search for validation is required to break this bias.

There are other similar biases that make work hard to review.  Part of improving any output is a review of the material and the process used to develop the material.  No one likes having their work reviewed and judged (people who say they do are shading the truth).  However, most of us are apt to fall prey to common biases that make it difficult to see the flaws in our work (and probably behaviors). In order to break free of our biases, we need to have someone else look at our work and our processes.  A diverse set of eyes will expose blind spots that don’t need to exist.