- Joe Benesh is a senior architect with Shive-Hattery and president + CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, diagramming, framework development, and design thinking consulting firm.
Confirmation bias is one of the most dangerous elements of strategic planning and organizational development. There is an entire science behind how individuals draw conclusions based on their own beliefs: attitude polarization, belief perseverance, illusory correlation, and subjective validation all fit into this category.
No one likes being wrong - and I am not arguing that (in certain instances) that you shouldn't go with your instinct about some things. But when you look at large decisions or setting up basic frameworks for long-term development, direction should be rooted in evidence.
There is a natural human tendency for us to show preference for data that support our arguments. This is coupled with our tendency to reject data that interfere with our ability to arrive at a solid conclusion – especially in situations where we feel we need to show strong leadership or be expeditious. Leaders often like to self-identify as being unbiased with their thinking, but it is tremendously difficult to overcome something that they believe is right (as in the case with belief perseverance) or is a long-held belief, even in the face of data that conflict with their baseline or “original” thinking.
Design thinking is a process that helps alleviate some of the individual burden of confirmation bias. To a certain extent, it does not matter if a bias exists in design thinking, because the process itself avails itself of cognitive bias through rapid prototyping and testing – there are many opportunities to learn from failure and combine personal biases into a single, successful outcome.
Subjective validation is another form of confirmation bias. In this case, the individual will feel that data given to them is accurate if they have a personal experience they feel confirms that data, regardless of proof or lack thereof. This is a very dangerous and uninformed way to make decisions.
Overcoming the above biases are some of the most difficult aspects of strategic planning. There are always individuals who feel they are correct, regardless of the opinions of others or other data that may be present. There are also always individuals who feel that past personal experience is the overriding factor in making decisions about the future. Neither one of these approaches is incorrect in a discrete sense. Success means taking each of those viewpoints and adjusting them to take into account unbiased data - that is, in many instances, the difference between success and failure.
Chess is an example of how to apply the solution framework to the above. If you approach the game with the attitude that you are going to win, regardless of the experience and or knowledge of the other player, and solely because you have been successful in a certain segment of the sample population of other chess players, you may win, but it will be due to chance and circumstance rather than proper preparation and skill.
Similarly, if you play the same person over and over and consistently beat them, you may continue to do so. However, if you do not adjust your tactics, the opposing person likely will begin to beat you, because your confirmation bias tells you that you always beat that person, so no adjustment to strategy is necessary. However, your competitor will adjust to your tactics. In a more extreme example, you might feel you always win on days you wear a blue shirt. But do you always wear a blue shirt? Correlation is not causation. As you can see, fallacy is deeply woven into the DNA of confirmation bias.
Combining the points above, in chess or with your organization, the use of personal experience and bias must be combined with a healthy dose of data and non-prejudicial evidence that can be used to generate a conclusion that clearly demonstrates an estimate of the best possible path forward. The unintended side effect of this method is increased engagement and participation by a larger population of the organization, as it will represent a far wider range of opinions and inputs. Confirmation bias generates resentment and can underscore the division and disconnectedness between management and the rest of the team.
When making your plan, remember that the best laid plans are those that explore the greatest range of opportunities to succeed.
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