Product Development and Cognitive biases

Project Management and Critical Thinking

To wash away those things that impede clear thinking may be more difficult than we may think.

To wash away those things that impede clear thinking may be more difficult than we may think.

There are a good many cognitive biases that can impact discerning the truth or what is valid and true.  Yet knowing what is valid and true is important for any business decision, product development and especially for project managers.  Project managers are often part of decision arm and execution arm of the business objectives.

If you do not think cognitive biases do not impact you, and that there are so many of them, perhaps you should shuffle on over to Wikipedia an do a search list of cognitive biases[i].  There you will find a long list of biases that can get in the way. These biases are so subtle that you may not even be aware that it is affecting how you think. Cognitive biases are shortcuts for us to make decisions.

For example; let’s consider a few of those biases starting with confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias impacts product development and project management in many ways.  We seek information that supports what we already believe and when we find it, we stop looking and proceed or make some decision.  The problem, as pointed out by the great philosopher Karl Popper, is that finding positive evidence does not confirm what you believe to be true, it just gives you the illusion that it is true. Hypothesis are explored for veracity by finding information that refutes our thinking and the hypothesis (falsification[ii]).  Evidence we find that confirms, does not mean what we believe, is in fact true.  There are many cases where a product after undergoing testing, all is well, the product is good, only to have catastrophic problems in the field, recalls, and legal action.

Another interesting bias is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is the tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their own capability and the tendency for experts to underestimate their own ability. A team consists of a stratum of competencies.  We go to put the schedule together and get estimates from our team members. Something we find the estimates to be quite high or the “I don’t know response” and for some things, we find that the estimates seem too low, or some of the team members indicate some portion of the work to be quite easy.  All of this results in project schedules that have inaccuracies both high and low.

The brain is set up to quickly determine patterns.  The cognitive bias known as clustering illusion is the tendency to overestimate small runs of data, without understanding the sampling and what that means.  Those reviewing the data can see “patterns” in the data and take-action on what we see is a pattern, however, the truth is, there is no pattern, or our view of the pattern is incorrect.  Bad data, or misinterpreted data amount to the same thing, failure.

In general, people are optimistic, in my experience. We occasionally find those “Marvin the Robot” from the book The Hitchhikers Guide by the late great Douglas Adams[iii], but by a large those are exceptions to the rule.  This optimism can become a negative thing with optimism bias, when we are trying to find out what will likely happen.  We delude ourselves of the probability of success and the risks associated with our work and the product.  We choose to set our project up without due diligence to the risks associated, that is there is little thinking about what can go wrong.  Similarly, when it comes time to launch the product, in the absence of information telling us there could be a defect (see confirmation bias), we put on our rose-colored glasses, and off we launch believing nothing can go wrong.

Lastly, we will review survivor bias.  We become subjected survivor bias when we decide to review our successes to find a common theme, thinking if we do what those earlier projects did, we should be successful.  The problem comes when we only look at those success stories. It is possible those things we attribute to those project’s successes were also used in those failing projects, and something else drove the project to success.  Without looking at the failures, we never know.  My friend Kim Pries used to say, “if we walk into Toyota’s bathroom, and it is tiled in blue, does that mean if we tile our bathrooms in blue, would we have a successful project and company”?

It may seem that we are using clear thinking, but there are so many subtle things going on in our brain, some of which we are not even aware, others we are aware, and it seems like we are acting rationally, but perhaps we are not, or perhaps we are not taking the best course of action based upon analytical application rather than some random cognitive bias.

[i] last accessed 8/15/2018

[ii] last accessed 8/15/2018

[iii] last accessed 8/15/2018

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