Assumptions, Assumptions – Stereotypes and project teams

Stereotypes are familiar to most people via initiatives to reduce discrimination in the workplace and news reports highlighting the wider impact it has on the society we live in. Most people know of them, even if they have never heard of Cognitive Bias.

They were first identified in 1933 and are described as overgeneralized beliefs about a category of people. People develop stereotypes from a mixture of facts, experience and cultural understanding.

When we use stereotypes, we assume the stereotype holds true for every individual person in that category.

Stereotypes are bad? Right?

Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Why do we stereotype?

Humans are social creatures. We have this intrinsic need to be part of a group and know where we belong. We want to feel ourselves part of a group with shared aims, ideals and values.

When we come across someone who isn’t part of our group, we need to assess them quickly to see if they are friend or foe. So we use our stereotypes firstly as a survival mechanism when we can’t treat everyone as a tabula rasa and discover what they’re like over time. It gives us somewhere to start when dealing with new people.

After that we use stereotypes as thinking shortcuts to help us build relationships without expending too much mental effort.

And we use them throughout our daily lives. Do you know the phrase “First impressions count”? We change how we look to make other people think we are competent, or intelligent or successful, because we know how to play to their stereotypes. It’s a big part of how we interact with people.

And our lazy brain loves stereotypes. Look at our affinity for personality questionnaires such as Myers Briggs, Belbin or even BuzzFeed quizzes. We delight in and can learn much from categorising both ourselves and other people.

The two stereotypes

Explicit stereotypes are ones that people are willing to verbalise and admit to other people. So you, might hear someone say “Everyone who works in accounts is boring” or “Everyone who works in IT is nerd”. People are aware they hold these stereotypes and use them to judge other people.

Implicit stereotypes are part of an individual’s subconscious and they usually have no control or awareness of them. Gender or ethnicity stereotypes are generally implicit stereotypes.

So this is just about how we view other people?

Whether they’re explicit or implicit, people don’t only believe stereotypes about other people, but they believe them about themselves. So if you have a stereotype that Creative people can’t do maths, and you identify as a Creative then you may believe that YOU can’t do maths and so just not try. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What’s the link between stereotypes and discrimination?

A problem with stereotypes inside (and outside) the workplace is that they can lead to discrimination.

  • Stereotypes are thoughts.
  • If that thought gets an emotional component with it, then it becomes a prejudice. And this can be either a positive prejudice for someone you feel favourably towards or a negative prejudice if for someone you feel unfavourably towards.
  • When you act on that, the behaviour component then becomes a discrimination.

Based on your stereotype of a person you may treat them better or worse than the evidence of their behaviour towards you would warrant.

What does this mean at work?

1) In your team, you may have stereotypes about other parts of the business, “Those process heads in QA” or “The Mavericks in Sales and Marketing.”

These stereotypes impact how you collaborate and hinder delivering well as a team.


  • Get to know them as people – what are they REALLY like
  • Understand what their working day entails. Does their behaviour fulfil your stereotype, or are you creating problems that don’t exist with your assumptions?
  • How do they like to be communicated with? How can you collaborate with them most effectively?

2) In projects, make sure that you have a real stakeholder representation rather than just making assumptions about groups of people. And make sure that you have a way of engaging them to hear their true voices.

3) One of the best ways of overcoming stereotypes is peer challenge. It’s hard to see your own biases, but if you see them in other people, highlight them.  You can always ask, “Is that true or are we just working on stereotypes here?”

We can’t get away from using stereotypes when dealing with people we are unfamiliar with, but we should be aware how they can constrain our thinking and behaviours, and develop approaches to make sure we get the best from everyone we work with.

Posted in Behaviour, Cognitive Biases, Psychology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Because we can, does it mean we should?

  • Do you think you behave ethically at work?
  • Have you ever thought about it?
  • Why am I even asking this question?

What’s the future bringing Business Analysts?

This year I’ve been fortunate to attend some large Business Analysis conferences where a current hot topic is Digital Transformation.

The sessions tend to go something like this: 

A respected thought leader stands up on stage and tells us all how customer experience is everything and business analysts must change how they think about what it means to interact with customers.

Now; instead of viewing customers only from the point they start to use our services, we should be with them in all parts of their daily life. This means as soon as they are awake, online, and interacting with the world. A prime example here is the way electronic personal assistants have integrated into people’s daily lives.

And the change will be huge. This approach needs business agility, is data driven and will integrate robotic process automation and artificial intelligence into services. Business Analysts need new skills and competencies to work in these areas.

That all sounds great! Doesn’t it?

Inevitably some companies get held up as exemplars of digital disruption and customer experience. Companies like Spotify (I mean, who’s enough of a dinosaur to buy CDs any more? Just stream your music!) Companies like Amazon and Uber.

But, but *I* buy CDs, because that is how smaller artists make money. If I stream music from a streaming service,  the artist only gets pennies or fractions of a penny when I listen to them.

Plus, Amazon and Uber are experiencing a significan backlash due to reports of poor treatment of their employees and suppliers. As a result of this I now personally avoid using these companies where I can.

While it is clear that digital transformations benefit many people, others are losing out to the point where it affects the reputation and image of parent companies. Does it have to be that way?

Is there a role for ethics in business?

Ethical considerations in the world of work are nothing new. Will you work for a tobacco company? How about one that sells armaments? Maybe you would prefer not to work for one that performs animal testing, but you would modify that poition if the testing is for a pharmaceutical company to save peoples’ lives rather than on personal products

Some people work in the charity sector where they feel they can make a difference significant the lives of others while others focus on the nature of the job. They are keen that it challenges them and provides an interesting role and career opportunities and are less influenced by the sector it is in. As long as the company operates within the law then ethical considerations rarely raise their head.

However, as the nature of IT changes, ethical considerations are starting to creep into the daily lives of people that have not had to consider them before

Including Business Analysts.

Digital transformations are implemented by huge projects but maybe the Business Analyst needs to consider the ethics of a situation as part of their strategy analysis

Where should we consider ethics?

We’ve already discussed how digital transformations affect workers in the supply chain.

However, the area that springs to most people’s minds is data.

There are laws drawn up to protect the rights of individuals, especially around data privacy, but there are still many concerns about people’s information being abused. Organisations such as CambridgeAnalytica are willing to abuse the data of millions of people to influence the outcomes of elections.

Another area of potential concern is automated decision making

For example

  • Do you qualify for a mortgage?
  • Does your hospital scan show evidence of illness?
  • Will your CV be put in front of the recruiting manager?

These are all areas where decisions can be made quickly and effectively by an algorithm. These decisions change peoples’ futures, so it is vital that they are correct and fair. How can we be sure they are and, if not, how can they be challenged? Do those afftected even know when assessments are no longer being made by a person?  Who in the organisation understands what these algorithms actually do?

A recent example of budget airlines actively separating travelling groups in order to make more money from seat bookings shows how easy it is for these algorithms to flip from making manual processes quicker into something working against the customer.

Good practice is growing!

In the field of digital design, the concept of ethics is more firmly embedded.

“Design is applied ethics”

Cennydd Bowles

The design of many websites relies heavily on understanding peoples’ responses to layouts and patterns, and that way that these play into how people process information and make decisions.

The line can be a fine one between on, one hand, helping make a site simple and easy for people to use and on the other, using so-called dark patterns that trick them into actions they might not want to take. 

The modern addiction to social media is a good example. Ease of use and appeal to our social needs has been designed into the interfaces we use every day specifically to keep us coming back time and time again. Whether this is either necessary or even good for us.

Where does this leave the business analyst?

  • What is our role as business professionals to include ethical considerations?
  • What is our role as members of society?
  • Even, for the more cynical, where is the business case for it?

I think that ultimately we must consider ethical issues in business strategy the same way as we do political, legal and environmental ones.

Business Analysts can ensure that the impact on ALL stakeholders is considered as part of business change. This is both a benefit for stakeholder and can prevent future backlash against organisations’ poor operating practices.

The UK government is currently consulting on the ethics of AI, so why not let them know what you think?

I’d love to hear your views in the comments.

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Industrial espionage isn’t what you think it is!

The thief is out of office

As a director of an industry body, I send e-mails to a large mailing list. And as soon as an e-mail has gone there is the inevitable ‘ping’, ‘ping’, ‘ping’ of incoming Out of Office messages. Lots of them. From people I probably don’t know and who don’t know me.

Scanning through a long list of mails (well, it was summertime) I was struck by how much information some people put in their Out of Office messages.

  • Why they were away
  • Where they had gone
  • When they were back.
  • Which projects you might be contacting them about
  • Who you should now contact about those projects and how to get hold of them

On a personal level, this was a lot of information to send a stranger.  Recent figures show there were over 174,00 cases of identity fraud in 2017 and Swinton Insurance know burglars target homes using information on social media. This is a good incentive to be careful what we share,

Building the jigsaw.

Jigsaw puzzle

However, things started to get really interesting when I looked at messages from people who worked for the same organisation. I realised that it was easy to build up a much more complete picture of the company.  I had

  • Roles in the organisation
  • Names of employees and their contact details.
  • Project names
  • Project types

It was like putting a jigsaw together. The more bits of information that came together the bigger picture I had. With gaps, obviously, but I could start to see what their project portfolio looked like in some areas and where they were investing their money. And, due to some unimaginatively named projects, which systems were going in!

What are you telling your rivals?

An article published by the Havard Business Review!

Why you should put more thought into your out of office message.

This recommends adding more information to your out of office message to build relationships with people. Yes, it may make for great conversations with some people but what are you giving away inadvertently?

All this adds up to a shed load of information that we would never TELL people outside our company BECAUSE it might be useful to a competitor.

We give away more than we realise

This is exactly the information industrial spies seek. They want to know names and contact details of people within the organisation as this provides a possible ‘in’ if they are looking for particular information. They gather lots of small pieces of information together to build a bigger picture of the business plans of an organisation. A trawl around LinkedIn, a bit of a google search and researchers can build many insights about a company.

And it seems they don’t even have to try. People hand out the information on a plate.

Is Functional Fixedness to blame?

This sort of behaviour, which is slightly irrational sounds like there is a bias involved!  And indeed, one of the reasons is surely Functional Fixedness. We fix on one idea of how an Out of Office message will be used and it never occurs to us to consider other uses. Maybe we think people will delete a message that we don’t think is relevant to them and we don’t entertain that some people may have other uses for it.

The Out of Office message has its place

People who e-mail you expect an Out of Office message when you are away. In these days where we believe everyone lives online, it is viewed as rude not to have one.

Plus, it lets people know when you can get back to them so they don’t feel ignored.

So, next time you write an Out of Office message, maybe you should think

  • How much information do you NEED in your message?
    • Does everyone need to know where you are and why, or are you oversharing?
    • If someone doesn’t know anyone on a project, apart from you, is their request urgent? Can it wait until you return?
    • Do you need to give colleagues’ details, or is there an office or support contact to use?
  • Who could receive this information?
    • Should that information go to every newsletter, commercial organisation and mailing list that you are signed up with?
    • Many e-mail system can send different messages to internal and external contacts. How could you use this feature?

    And all that information I had been sent…?

    Reader, I hard deleted it.

    So what is your Out of Office message like? Is it full of helpful detail or do you keep it to a bare minimum?

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Our Poor Brains

Cognitive Bias Codex

The amount of information we have to manage on a daily basis is quite phenomenal.


In 2010, Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google) told us that every two days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up to 2003. We all know the amount of news and social media we receive on a daily basis. This is on top of our daily routines, where we’re meeting people, navigating traffic, completing our work and running our social lives. This is an enormous amount of information for our brains to have to deal with, and we just don’t have the time to consider all the options for every decision we need to make.



But we need to keep making decisions. “What shall I have to eat?”, “Is this person safe to talk to?”,  “Where shall we live?”, “How do I solve this problem with this client?” And, as Daniel Kahneman said in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow,


“What you see is all there is”.


When the brain only has partial information, it fills in the gaps itself and we’re not normally even aware it has done that. The brain grabs on to something, makes a decision, and allows us to move forward.


Coping with all this Information.


The brain is a very energy hungry organ and has to be as efficient as possible when making decisions. As a result, it uses shortcuts, some intrinsic and others based on previous experience, called heuristics. And sometimes, these heuristics, while they enable us to move forward, don’t come up with the rationally correct answer. They provide solutions that, when you analyse them, are not the most logical option. These heuristics are called cognitive biases.


Falling prey to cognitive biases is nothing to do with being stupid or not thinking enough. A 2010 study of parole judges showed, that when they made repeated rulings, they had an increased tendency to rule in favour of the status quo. So the more decisions they made in a day, the less and less likely people were to be given parole.


This is shown in the following graph. Along the bottom is the time into the day, adjusted for the fact that the judges controlled their own timetables and up the y-axis is the proportion of favourable decisions made.

Bias has little to do with intelligence


These were well-educated, intelligent people who, I’m sure, believed they were making rational decisions. But the evidence showed otherwise. People who arrived in the court early in the day were likely to get parole while people who arrived towards the end of the day were unlikely to get it.


What this also showed was that after lunch and rest breaks this trend reversed somewhat. The break restored their cognitive function.


Where do Cognitive Biases affect us?


As project and programme managers, we work on long-term, often strategic, projects. It is important that decisions we make in those projects are rational, rather than instinctive to deliver the maximum value to our organisation. This is why we, in our roles, need to be aware of cognitive biases and how they impact us. And they will impact us because cognitive biases are all about how people think.


Around 200 cognitive biases have currently been identified. To make them easier to digest they have been categorised in a variety of ways by a number of people. The cognitive bias codex (Buster Benson & John Manoogian III), is one of these.

Cognitive Bias Codex

In this model, they fall into four main categories.

  • Cognitive biases that we use with when we have too much information. We need to filter out as much information as we can. So we home in on things that have changed or stick out, or maybe find something that matches what we already believe.
  • Those we use because there’s just not enough meaning and we need to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. We imagine that things and people we like or familiar with are better than things that we don’t. We simplify probabilities and numbers to make them easier to think about, and we believe that other people think like us, so we know what they want without needing to ask them.
  • Biases that kick in when we need to act quickly. Often, we go for the thing that’s right in front of us. Or we carry on with what we’ve already started as we like to complete things we’ve already invested time and energy in. We do what we feel is important as it makes us feel good.
  • The cognitive biases we use when we are dealing with a lot of information and we don’t know what we should remember and take forward. Then, we generalise and discard details. We reduce things to their key elements.

Everything that the brain sees or hears or touches has multiple interpretations, and the one that’s chosen is the brain’s best guess at interpreting what flows into it.

What can we do?


So what can we do about cognitive biases in our work?


One of the things we can do is break people out of their standard ways of thinking. There are very many workshop facilitation techniques that help people approach problems in new and different ways, and ideally come out with logically thought through conclusions, rather than just going for the status quo.


As the parole judges mentioned at the beginning of the article demonstrate, taking regular rests and food breaks help us make better quality decisions. The brain needs to recover, and slogging on through hours and hours of meetings is rarely productive. Giving people time to rest and have a break helps them make better quality decisions.


Cognitive biases kick in when we need to act fast, so we need to ask ourselves  “Do I need to act fast? Does a decision need to be made right this second? Can I sleep on it? Can I go for a walk round the office and grab a coffee?” Talking things through with people also helps. Saying something out loud slows our thought processes down and explaining it to other people makes us think it through again. Other people may come at a problem from a different perspective and provide new insight.


Cognitive biases affect everyone and can catch us all unawares. Developing strategies to minimise their effects helps everyone make better quality decisions, and avoids some of the pitfalls they bring.


This article was first published as a guest post for the Association for Project Management


To find out more about Cognitive Biases I recommend this book.


Posted in Cognitive Biases, Psychology | Leave a comment

Can BA’s neutralise their biases?


A question from Andy in the UK, “How can you train BAs to neutralise their unconscious biases?


I thought this was an absolutely brilliant question. You can’t train people out of their cognitive biases because they are too instinctive. Plus, it would help nobody to move all their instinctive decision-making process to logical decision-making processes. They are so much slower, you would get nothing done!


However, people can learn techniques to overcome them where it matters.


The first step is awareness


To overcome cognitive biases you firstly need to know they exist and the effect they have on people’s decision making.


Awareness is just the first step though. There is such a variety of cognitive biases that keeping them in your head is a full-time job.


Support the general awareness with checklists that your team can run through when arranging meetings or workshops to make sure you have considered ways of mitigating common ones.

Does your organisation use BA’s properly?


A BA is not just a documenter of requirements. There are too many projects where people think the role of a BA is to, “Just write down what you’re told and make it nice”, and then they sign off the document.


This does not use the skills of a business analyst as they should be used. The business analyst should be a prober who knows how to question effectively. The BA is the person who should challenge the facts and opinions they are given, ask open questions and expect to speak to the right stakeholders.


In some projects, stakeholders claim they are “too busy” to talk to a Business Analyst. You must talk to representative stakeholders, including end users to get past assumptions, biases and known patterns to the real needs.


Training makes all the difference


I find, in my mentoring, that too many BAs are just left to ‘get on with it’. They have very little in the way of support to develop themselves.


I strongly believe all BAs should be trained in facilitation, rather than just being expected to be able to facilitate.


Facilitation techniques teach you how to manage a wide range of cognitive biases.


A very common one that appears in workshops is the Bandwagon Effect.


The Bandwagon Effect is where everyone agrees with the first person who comes up with an idea or states a position, and never then put their own position forward. They’ve all climbed on the bandwagon with that person.


When I started out, I didn’t know about this effect but, like many other people I found it to be a problem. Over the years I picked up and developed strategies to try and prevent it happening.


So, I now know to allow a period of quiet reflection at the beginning of an ideation session where people to write down their own ideas on post-it notes without hearing other people’s. Then, when all the post-it notes are up on a wall we can examine all ideas together.


If in-depth discussion is needed in a workshop it is also common to divide people up into small groups to work them through. Again this helps prevent a single voice dominating the discussion


Those are just a couple of techniques to manage the Bandwagon Effect. There are many others you can use for problem-solving, they help stretch people’s ideas, give them different ways to think and stop them just relying on patterns and the first thing that jumps to mind. These techniques are hugely valuable in getting people to innovate.


Try for Variety!

BAs need a range of techniques in their ‘toolbox’.  These techniques are not gimmicky, when you give people a different way of approaching a problem, it can bring to the fore aspects they haven’t actively thought of yet and gets them exercising their logical, rational brain rather than their instinctive one.


And yes, it can feel a bit uncomfortable trying a brand new technique for the first time. But push yourself to do it.


The quality of the decisions you make in your teams is what creates the value in your projects.


I was a guest on Penny Pullan’s BA Virtual Summit early in 2018 talking about cognitive biases and the Business Analyst. As part of this attendees were invited to submit questions to speakers. As Penny was kind enough to provide me with a transcript of my discussion with her, I am sharing the questions and my answers as a series of blog posts. Edited, of course, to make me sound like I can string a coherent sentence together!

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Overcoming Availability Bias as a BA


A question from Steve in the USA

  • “How does a business analyst reduce the instance of availability bias when asking stakeholders about problems and issues?”

What is the Availability Bias?

The availability bias determines the facts that you pick to support your case when you are reasoning something through or making a decision. The brain uses the data that it can pull from memory most easily. You are trying to make a decision, and need to make it quickly, so you take the first thing from memory, without assessing whether it is actually representative of what you are trying to sort out. It’s just the first thing you think of.

Common examples of these are :

  • People believe that they are more likely to be killed in a shark attack or murdered by a stranger than, say, in a car accident. This is because, although these events are extremely rare, when they do happen they are widely reported in dramatic fashion and so create a strong emotional response.
  • In the wake of a train or air crash people start to use other forms of transport. However, once the event has faded from their mind they go back to their previous travel preferences.

Overcoming availability bias.

Be a good BA

The role of a BA is to challenge and probe a problem area. Using your skills will help overcome availability bias. Firstly you are coming at the issue with a different set of experiences than your stakeholder, The first thing that springs to your mind won’t be the same as the first thing that springs to theirs. One of these comes back to what I said about using a BA as a BA: probing, asking for more examples. Using questions such as

  • “Can you explain that to me? “
  • “Have you got any examples of that?”
  • “Has it always been this way?”

Good questions all help your stakeholder to think more deeply about the problem.

Use a structured approach

Another way of overcoming the availability bias is to use a structured problem-solving technique. One of my favourites here is the Ishikawa or fishbone diagram. It is a really useful way of getting past the first thing stakeholders think of, especially when you are looking for the root cause of a problem.

It achieves this by getting people to think of other examples around that problem in different facets.

Ishikawa diagram


To use an Ishikawa diagram you first identify your problem, and put this in the head of your ‘fish’.

Then you look at the things that could be causing it. These are the spines of the ‘fish’. Standard groupings are:

  • Is this problem caused by the technology?
  • Is it caused by the process?
  • Is it the information we have?
  • Is it the people?
  • Is it the environment we’re working in?
  • Is it the management?

But you can pick whatever works in your environment.

You list your possible causes out along the spine of the fish. If you need to you can look at the causes of the causes too.

This gives people a different way to look at the problem, helps pull out different aspects and moves people away from that first thing they thought of, to what may really be the cause.


I was a guest on Penny Pullan’s BA Virtual Summit early in 2018 talking about cognitive biases and the Business Analyst. As part of this attendees were invited to submit questions to speakers. As Penny was kind enough to provide me with a transcript of my discussion with her, I am sharing the questions and my answers as a series of blog posts. Edited, of course, to make me sound like I can string a coherent sentence together!

Posted in Cognitive Biases, Hints & Tips, Psychology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Confirmation Bias and the BA

Doors to go through

A question from Steve in the USA:
 “Assuming that it is important during elicitation to get accurate information, how does a business analyst overcome confirmation bias in him or herself, and in the person providing the information?” 

What is Confirmation Bias?

Confirmation bias describes the behaviour where you look for, analyse and remember facts in a way that matches what you already believe.
It is very common and we easily spot it in other people (but rarely ourselves, of course!)
A familiar example is when people believe that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day. They list off dreadful things that have happened to them on that day but manage to ignore or disregard any wonderful events on Friday the 13th!
That’s a very day-to-day example, but it happens in projects as well. People pick problems or solutions that fit with how they view the world.
Business cases are frequently subject to confirmation bias. You might hear things like “We need to implement this new system immediately to replace the current one as it is always going down” or “We need 3 more people to do analysis as we spend so much time helping other people we can’t get our own work done”. As it is easy enough to find examples of the bad experience we assume that the person making the case has the evidence to back their case, but they may be exhibiting confirmation bias.


Overcoming Confirmation Bias

To overcome confirmation bias you need techniques that support decision making based on real data.


Confirmation Bias in ‘As-Is’ situations

One method I find really useful for exploring problem or process issues is the DMAIC Process which is a cornerstone of the Six Sigma approach.


DMAIC stands for Define-Measure-Analyse-Improve-Control.


Define – Clearly articulate the problem you want to solve and identify the data you need to gather.
Measure – Measure that data
Analyse – Analyse the data
Improve – Based on the analysis, do something that helps solve the problem
Control – Monitor the problem, using the same data, to make sure the improvement sticks
The focus on measurement and analysis is where the real value comes when trying to reduce confirmation bias.
Once you have measurements relating to a problem you can sensibly ask questions such as
“How often does this happen in our situation?”
“How often does this happen compared to other situations?”
Then you can ask the question
“Is this actually worth fixing, or should we be focussing on something else??”
The analysis makes it clear whether somebody is highlighting a problem because they think they see it (confirmation bias) or because it’s a real problem (supported by data).
Gathering data is frequently as simple as getting a group of people to keep a tally of how many times they come across a problem in a given time-period. Alternatively, your organisation may have work or problem logging systems that you can analyse. Or you may have to be a bit more inventive!

Confirmation Bias in ‘To-Be’ situations

Another area where confirmation bias can creep in is when you are assessing different vendors for a new product or service. Actually, it doesn’t creep in this situation, it tends to storm in with hobnailed boots on!
People can only judge something new and unknown against past experiences and those are different for everyone in the team. So, in advance, you agree how to evaluate a vendor, the criteria to use and how important each criterion is. Then you can generate what is called a Weighted Scorecard.
As you assess each vendor you score them against each of the agreed criteria. At the end of the process, there is a set of data that you can use to decide which product suits your needs best. You can be confident that key information hasn’t been forgotten or glossed over.

There may be push back

Sometimes you get resistance to using these techniques. Some people resist hearing that they are not completely rational and logical.  Others see them as unnecessary and time wasting. Disparaging cries of “Let’s not get into analysis paralysis” may be heard from those who just want to DO stuff. So just make sure that the amount of measurement or assessment you do is proportionate with the size of the problem you are trying to solve, it doesn’t have to be statistically significant or have identified every possible option but it does have to be able to answer the questions. Is this problem really a problem and is this the solution that we want?
Let me know what you do to try and overcome confirmation bias. What problems has it caused for you?

I was a guest on Penny Pullan’s BA Virtual Summit early in 2018 talking about cognitive biases and the Business Analyst. As part of this attendees were invited to submit questions to speakers. As Penny was kind enough to provide me with a transcript of my discussion with her, I am sharing the questions and my answers as a series of blog posts. Edited, of course, to make me sound like I can string a coherent sentence together!

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BA Summit 2018 – Cognitive Biases and The BA

Sit into it!

Early in 2018 I was a guest on Penny Pullan’s BA Virtual Summit, talking about cognitive biases and the Business Analyst. As part of this attendees were invited to submit questions to speakers. Penny was kind enough to transcribe our discussion and I am sharing it as a series of blog posts. Edited, of course, to make me sound like I can string a coherent sentence together!

The Question

Penny: The question from Mark in the UK was, “Outside of business analysis, how extensively understood is the principal of cognitive bias?


Me: Quite well, and it’s increasing in those areas where you have to deal with people, understand how people behave and how they make decisions.


One of the areas of course, is economics. Economics theory has been based for years on the belief that people act rationally. However the evidence shows that people do not act rationally with money. Researchers have elaborated and identified a whole series of cognitive biases that people make around money and numbers, and how we behave instinctively. Economists can now use those to build different models and different understanding of how people might react in different environments.


In the accounting and finance arena, I’ve seen huge documents on how to overcome optimism bias, which is the belief that the project will always go well. Obviously they’re very keen to make sure their forecasting is done well.


The intelligence services have a great interest in cognitive biases. Because the nature of their role means they work without all the information they need. If, for example, their analysts start to stereotype people based on their assumptions rather than facts, then they’ll make the wrong decision.


Key for IT?

Another area that’s been taking advantage of them for centuries is sales. They may not have known they techniques they were using were taking advantage of cognitive biases, but boy have they been using them.


At a market it was/ is a common practice to have one or more stooges in the crowd. Their job is to try and create a rush by making items look like they might become scarce. There was always a belief that people were stupid if they fell for that. A better understanding of cognitive biases shows that is not true. At a fundamental level, people do these things not because they’re not intelligent, but because it’s what we all do. You have to put in effort to think your way out of it: why has that person done that? Is that really scarce? What’s going on here? But by that time, the brain has made the decision for you, and you’re moving along with everyone else.


Taking that into the modern world, there is the whole digital arena of website development.


Good website design is all about making sites easy for people to navigate. Designers use patterns, so people don’t have to think, and the approach actively uses cognitive biases. When used well it means companies design websites that people can use easily, to find the information that they need as quickly as they can. And when it is a sales site, to persuade you to buy stuff. We’ve all seen the little timer that ticks down, saying that this price will only be here for the next three minutes… well, no it won’t! But it creates a sense of urgency and your brain goes: ‘Timer, timer, got to buy it now’.


This is just scratching the surface

These are just a few examples. There are many areas where people want to understand how people react, how they make decisions and are trying to work on influencing them.

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Glued to your phone? Of course you are!

Cake, coffee and phone

There is an ongoing hum of concern about the effect the smartphone has on our lives. For many of us, the first thing we do in the morning is reach for our smartphone. People complain that others are glued to their phone and don’t talk to those they are with. We have laws to criminalise people using their phones while driving, as people die when drivers look at their phones instead of the road.

Why is that?

Well of course, it is full of useful tools.
We have tickets for planes, trains and cinemas at our fingertips. We can translate documents from one language to another. All our contact information is there to contact friends and work colleagues. Our calendar to plan our day. It has the news to keep up with the world around us and games to amuse us when we have a few minutes downtime. Oh, and we can phone people and talk to them too.

Are we really so bad?

The current narrative seems to be that people who use their phone inappropriately are weak, lazy, inconsiderate, venal and generally all round bad eggs. But really, is that true? Or are we all purely responding to the subtle and deliberate psychological manipulations designed into the apps we use?
Social media apps and games are programmed to draw us in. Companies like Facebook make money from our data so train us to use their products. Just today I was told me that my posts have been liked 49,000 times. That’s a lot of data tracking.
Every like and comment on our posts, every firework burst on the screen when we go up a level on a game gives us a little dopamine hit. We get addicted to it, our brains crave the next. We build the habit of reaching for our phones at every opportunity. It’s not by accident that everyone’s first question in a strange building is “what is the wi-fi password?” They are the same techniques that gambling machines use. And they work

I’m not sure we are

So we shouldn’t be surprised when we do reach for our phone without thinking of the possible consequences.
The reason that we use the phone when driving is because the thing has trained us to do that. When the phone is sitting next to us on the seat of the car it’s like an itch that we have to scratch. It has created a habit in us and we all know that habits are really hard to break. They bypass the conscious mind and sit in the subconscious mind. We don’t really need to think to do them. That’s why we have habits – they reduce our cognitive load.

How do we change?

If we don’t want people to use their phones then we must design that in as surely as we have designed in encouraging them to use it. Telling people that they are bad has never really been an effective way to stop them doing something.
Social pressure and nudges may work, helping people build new habits works. The new iOS11 for the iPhone has an automatic ‘driving mode’ that disables the phone when it detects you are driving. I like that. It allows us to make a moral choice with our conscious mind when we are away from temptation. Or maybe self-driving cars can take care of the driving and leave us to play with our phones to our heart’s content! What ideas do you have?

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Don’t do a Dory

Photo of blue tang fish

Is this your natural approach to a problem?

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” is proverb many of us are brought up with. Try harder, try harder. That’s what we get at school every time we get poor results in a Maths test or an English test. Just try harder.
So, we do. We keep on doing the same things, in more and more detail, and applying more and more expertise in the hope it will bring us that change. We believe, like Dory in “Finding Nemo” that if we just keep swimming we will reach our goal”. And up to a certain point, it can work. But sometimes we find it doesn’t. We try and we try and we try, but things don’t improve. We get disheartened and start to think we’re rubbish at what we do.

What if it doesn’t work?

So are we approaching this the right way? Maybe what we need is not to continue to do things harder, but do things differently. Einstein supposedly said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different answer.” The first time I came across this idea it was a revelation to me because I’d always believed that success followed effort. At school, you’re taught just one way to do something; you follow the process, and the right answer comes out at the end. Just as night follows day.
Effort is important but I believe effort should be focused towards the goal you want, not the method you use to get there. As Mark Twain said, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.” When you have a problem to solve you don’t want what you’ve always got.
There is rarely, if ever, one right way to solve a problem. A friend observed to me, recently, “You know, Liz. The difference between you and me is that when we’re looking at problems, I go too far inside and I cogitate and I think and I think, and I try and find the right solution for the problem.You just get on and do something, anything, that changes it around.”
Incremental improvements have their place. And going in and throwing everything in the air as soon as you hit a problem is not the most efficient way to start. But you have to recognise when you’ve reached the limits of what you can achieve with just refining or repeating what you’re doing. There comes a point when you need to take a step back and think, “Is it possible to do this differently?”

Doing something different is, er, different!

Remember though that some people are very, very tied to their process. And doing something differently scares them. You will hear phrases like “But we’ve always done it this way.” I remind them that different is not a synonym for wrong. There’s nothing dreadful with different. For anything you’re trying to do or any what you’re trying to achieve, there can be myriad ways to success.
The next time you are struggling with a problem that won’t resolve itself however hard you try, stop. Think how you can approach it differently rather than how you can apply more effort and see if that helps. I have learnt that sometimes what you need to do is just perturb the system a little. Put in a bit of agitation and a bit of irritation, and see where that gets you.

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