Not all puppies and kittens.

Cognitive biases are important decision-making tools.  The help to make snap decisions based on patterns of behavior that have been successful in the past. However cognitive biases are not all kittens and puppies.  Cognitive biases can also lead us to miss problems we are not trained to recognize or to ignore better solutions to problems we have solved before.  With some rules, effort, and support most of the problems caused by cognitive biases can be avoided. Tools to avoid the downsides of cognitive biases include: 

  • Stepping back from the immediate problem or decision and look at the big picture.  Take a bigger picture view or by applying systems thinking helps to break a decision-maker out of silo thinking.
  • Using different decision-making frameworks.  If you tend to use group think or consensus decision-making models, experiment with non-group models.  Mixing up the decision-making model you use can be useful for breaking out of ruts.
  • Collect data to be used in your decision-making process from different sources than you typically use.  We often reinforce our biases based on our search preferences.  Clear your history, try a different search engine, or (gasp) look beyond the first page of results. Different data might suggest a different answer!
  • Get others involved in decisions.  A diversity of perspectives will generally provide a wider range of alternatives and a group with a homogeneous set of experiences.
  • Critiques and peer reviews are powerful tools to expose biases and flaws in logic.
  • In some circumstances, oversight with the potential for intervention are tools for avoiding or at least letting personal biases creep into the decision process. Examples of this type of procedure are often seen in audit committees or architectural oversight committees.  Oversight is often combined with some form of critique or review process.  Outside benchmarks and reviews are needed to ensure the committee(s) don’t fall into a rut based on organizational biases.

These are all great tools for reducing the negative impact of cognitive biases.  The problem is that all of them add to the overhead burden for making decisions.  Holding a peer review when deciding how to recover the server that controls a firm’s e-commerce site during the Christmas shopping season might be problematic.  Deciding when to avoid cognitive biases are as important as understanding those biases.

The classic Eisenhower Box is useful as a framework to sort through how urgency and importance interact deciding when you need to challenge your cognitive biases.    As a reminder, the classic Eisenhower Box is represented as:

Not all decisions, problems or tasks have the same degree of importance or urgency.  Each of the four combinations in the matrix can (and probably should) be subject to different decision-making rules and processes.  In some of the quadrants, making sure we address the possibility of bias is more valuable than in others.   

  • Important and Urgent decisions are the reasons many cognitive biases exist.  Cognitive biases are the short cuts to a decision based on a heuristic.  For example, the reason classic example of a cognitive bias is when the grass rustles our ancestors would run in case a lion was hunting them.  Making decisions quickly is facilitated by cognitive biases.  One possible mechanism for guiding some types of important and urgent decisions are decision trees.  These are most valuable for decisions that recur.  For example, decision trees are often used to guide help desk personnel who must triage user problems.
  • Important and Not Urgent decisions are typically more strategic in nature.  Cognitive biases can create scenarios where we are apt to fall prey to missing a solution or to silo thinking that make it difficult to see the flaws in any specific possible decision.  The time and effort to avoid cognitive biases are critical.
  • Not Important and Urgent decisions are the most difficult to determine whether the extra time required for techniques to combat cognitive biases are valuable.  Management gurus suggest delegating these types of decisions making some form of oversight and intervention approach is useful to avoid some forms of bias from those that are at the end of the delegation chain. Rules based decision processes are more empowering than oversight models.
  • Not Urgent and Not Important decisions represent the easiest category to address.  If at all possible ignore these decisions or find some sort of autoresponder to keep these items off of everyone’s plate.

Mentally, I see Lady Justice and the scales of justice in my mind when I think about cognitive biases.  Cognitive biases represent tried and true decision processes, but they come with a potential cost.  Finding a way to reap the benefit while not heaping an enormous burden on the myriad decisions made every day is a balancing act.  That balancing act represents one or more decisions each shaped by some form of cognitive bias.  The circle of life is bound by the circle of cognitive biases!