In today’s blog post, we break from our usual format to bring you an interview with Dr Liz Calder of Blue Raccoon . I saw Liz’s presentation discussing cognitive biases at the BA Conference Europe 2017, and was keen to find out more (particularly as Liz had developed an entire course on the subject)! Liz has such a wide range of experience, in organisations large and small, and she brings insights from psychology and behavioural economics into her work.
I recently caught up with Liz for a ‘virtual’ chat, and she shared some really interesting insight:
1. You’ve spoken at a number of conferences about cognitive biases. What exactly is a cognitive bias?
A Cognitive Bias is an intrinsic error in the way people think. Every day we make hundreds of decisions, some big and some small. There isn’t enough time in the day to weigh up all the facts for every decision we make so the brain uses mental shortcuts for speed. These shortcuts are a mixture of inherent behaviour and previous experience and, in order to be quick, the brain simplifies issues and throws out a lot of the information available to it. Because of this simplification the outcome is not always the one you get if you take the time to logically analyse a situation. Because they happen so quickly we aren’t even aware these shortcuts are happening; we just decide on something and move on.
2. That sounds really interesting, are you able to give a few examples that will be particularly relevant for the BA community?
A common one is Confirmation Bias where people select information that confirms their beliefs, and ignore information that disproves them. Most of us have been asked to ‘just implement this software’ in our work and confirmation bias can mean proof that a particular software package is not fit for purpose is simply ignored. As BAs our job is to understand the problem our customer wants to solve and confirm the chosen solution is the right one.
Another one is the Sunk Cost Fallacy. This is when you continue with a project or activity because of the time or money that has been invested in it, even when it has no benefits in the future. Logically, if a project has no future benefits then you should stop it.
3. BAs often play a key part in helping organisations make project decisions. So are cognitive biases all about such decisions, or are there other ways that they are relevant to BAs too?
Cognitive biases affect many areas of our thinking, including how we interact with people.
Some examples are:
- The Bandwagon Effect where where one person’s view is accepted by everyone, and diverse viewpoints are lost.
- The Authority Bias where we put greater weight on the opinion of an authority figure than we do on our own.
- The Halo Effect when our overall impression of a person influences how we view their character. So, an overall impression of a person (“He is nice!”) affects how we assess other traits (“He is also smart!”).
These all show why it is really important for BAs to understand and manage stakeholders carefully in a project.
4. So how can we help ourselves and others from falling into the traps laid for us by our cognitive biases?
It’s hard to completely avoid biases as they are the result of thinking patterns and shortcuts that we aren’t even aware of.
The first step in overcoming them is to be aware that they exist – then you can watch out for them! So, if you know that the Confirmation Bias means people latch onto information that proves a point then you can consciously decide to look for information that disproves it.
Studies also show that we rely more on our mental shortcuts when we are tired or hungry as it is easier for our brains. So take regular breaks in workshops and design sessions so you get the best out of the participants.
5. What would be your biggest three tips for ensuring a smooth, and ‘bias-free’, project (if such a thing exists!)?
- Be aware of key biases.
- Use your BA toolbox – structured problem solving methods help people explore all facets of an issue rather than jumping to conclusions.
- Prevent yourself, and other people working long hours without rest.
6. Liz, thanks so much for taking part in this interview. I am sure many readers will want to connect with you, and read more about the topic. How can people stay in touch–do you have a website/blog? And tell us a bit about your upcoming course.
In my talks on Cognitive biases I discuss various biases and what BAs can do about them in their projects. People always want to know much more than we have time to discuss, so I have developed a full day course that I am running in October in central Manchester where BAs and other project professionals can take that time. Readers of this blog get 10% off the course price with the code BlackM10. You can find out more on my website http://blueraccoon.co.uk/cognitive-biases-project-professionals/
Dr Liz Calder is a consultant Business Analyst based in Cheshire. Her experience ranges from leading cross functional and global teams in large organisations to being part of a small digital agency team. Whatever the environment she knows that what makes a project a success is the combination of good project practice and getting the best from the people in your project. In her work she uses insights from the fields of psychology & behavioural economics to get for the best outcomes for all those involved and speaks regularly on this. Liz is Director of Blue Raccoon Ltd, a Business Analysis consultancy and is currently the IIBAUK Communities Director for the Scotland and North regions.
A massive thanks to Liz for sparing the time to take part in this interview!
What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!
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