Cards On The Table

The first step in conquering biases is identifying them.

You’re reviewing a proposal for a major strategic initiative. The rationale and numbers look good, but what biases may have infiltrated the project team’s judgment? Knowing your advisors’ preconceived notions and conflicts of interest is critical when making a big decision. As Warren Buffet cautioned, “Don’t ask the barber whether you need a haircut.” (see A Tip From Warren Buffett)

Ineffective AND Destructive

Practically speaking, asking what biases may have influenced a finished proposal is both ineffective and destructive.

  • Ineffective because, at this late stage, team members cannot see how their biases may have distorted their judgment – our brains don’t work that way.
  • Destructive because it sounds like the CEO doubts the team’s competence and/or integrity. This is NOT an issue of competence or integrity, but that’s how we perceive this kind of question this late in the game.

Best Practice: Start At The Beginning

So addressing biases is critical, but asking about biases when the work is completed is counter-producing. What to do?

Ask at the beginning

A best practice in decision disciplines is getting everyone’s leanings out on the table before the work starts… before we are prone to take offence.

When launching the project team, poll each team member with open-ended questions such as:

  • What type of solution would you like to see or rather not see, and why?
  • What solutions would your boss like to see or avoid?
  • How would your department or division be affected (positively or negatively) by various possible solutions?

Take Action

Next, evaluate the information gathered for dominant biases. For example, if everyone benefits from installing a big IT system, that’s a bias that, unchecked, will almost certainly impact the quality of the final proposal.

You have to take action because mere awareness does not reduce its harmful influence.

The project sponsor must:

  • Ensure critical roles such as team leader and evaluation are staffed with individuals who do not share the dominant biases.
  • Mix up the team’s membership with folks with neutral or, if none are available, competing biases to balance the existing biases.
  • If the above actions are not feasible or may not go far enough in highly charged issues, bring in a neutral, skilled outsider to monitor and manage the biases throughout the process.

Preemptive action against biases improves the quality of information delivered to CEOs – and only with high quality information can CEOs make high quality decisions!

© Dave Wittenberg