“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” - Robertson Davies
Today's Blog (#49) is about avoiding bias. I believe that most people want to make the best outcome for themselves, their company or their community, but we know that bias often makes us fall short. Today's post is in my opinion the most important step to avoiding bias in decision-making. I will use the example of plugging a leak when going through the specifics.
We’ve all been here
Imagine this situation. A deadline is approaching and fatigue with a decision process has set in. In your mind the answer of which way to go is obvious. All your mental wiring is telling you to just conclude quickly and move on with your life.
When you reflect you ask yourself are you really choosing the best option all things considered? Or are you trying to play it safe to minimise the mental strain? This is an example of bias e.g. veering towards a solution for ease.
We cannot turn bias off
Bias is a wrinkle in a decision making process. It results in us irrationally preferring one type of thing over another. Rather than stigmatise it and pretend it is a failing, I think we should accept and manage it. We do not want our biases to negatively impact us or the world around us.
Bias appears everywhere, whether it is the impression you give off at work or your internal reaction on hearing that someone supports a certain football team (particularly Chelsea or Manchester United!).
Write it down
Regular readers of my blog would know that our mind loves to jump to easy conclusions. Writing down our thoughts delays and challenges our biases and gives us a chance to decide what is truly important. This part of the process will feel like an awful drag.
When I write things down and then read them, I am able to unpack the considerations more effectively than if they are all in my head. Writing allows me to think, explain and have someone else understand me more clearly. When decision-making is more transparent and clearly explained, bias is more likely to get weeded out. Those who are going through challenging times, find journalling, the process of writing your feelings down on paper, a very effective way to regain mental clarity.
You best avoid biases by getting your decision-making process down on paper. I see this as a two step process i) work out what is important to you and ii) decide what your choices are. This is the generating choices stage of your decision.
The Anatomy of a decision
So we have a leak in a roof. What should we do? Here is an example checklist.
What is important to us?
1) What must the solution have?
Stop the roof leaking now
2) What are your preferences?
i) A longer-lasting solution is better ii) cheaper is better iii) quicker is better iv) looks good aesthetically is better v) higher probability of succeeding is better vi) working with someone we know and trust is better
3) Other considerations
i) If I go for a shorter term fix, will this mean that I am under-costing the fact that I will need to do something else later ii) If I try and add loads of bells and whistles to this, will the complexity mean that I could have significant time and cost overruns?
Laying out alternatives:
We can all recall a situation where organisations we work with went for a short-term, cheap fix only to then have to do something longer term as well later down the line. We can probably also think of examples where we used a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Laying out alternatives helps us understand where the sweet spot is for us.
At the top of the alternatives, we are effectively choosing to live with the problem, and at the bottom we are trying to make sure it never happens again. This clearly depends on how important the issue is. Nuclear plant safety probably needs a strategic solution whereas something trivial you can be tactical with.
How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:
1) Bias is a wrinkle in decision making. It makes us irrationally prefer one thing over another. Writing down your decision-making process by thinking about i) what is important and ii) your alternatives will help you find your sweet spot.
2) Writing your decision-process down will feel like a drag, but the magic is suspending your decision-making until after you have improved your clarity of thought. This is a proven way to mitigate many biases.
3) Being explicit about what is essential and which preferences you have, and having a well though through list of alternative choices will mean you will be well placed to make a decision in the next step.
Thank you for joining. Next week - 'The decision-making process?'. Don't forget to sign up to the subscription list.
Other blogs in the 'Anatomy of a decision series'