How can marketers, business owners and executives consciously work on improving their decision making skills? How can they see a situation more objectively and anticipate probable (and even unthinkable) scenarios?
Here is a list that affects perspective and corresponding suggestions on how to address these blind spots. They are not mutually exclusive, and can interact and/or merge to cloud one’s perceptions.
- Limited attention – In the corporate world, a competent person is rewarded with more work. More work with the same number of hours means prioritizing deadlines to meet, leading to limited attention given to each task. There is then greater dependency on direct reports or outsourced suppliers to summarize and interpret pertinent information. The recommendation will now be influenced, to a large degree, by the experience, perspective and human biases of the direct reports. Limited direct experience and/or knowledge in a particular subject can also make it hard to do proper sensemaking or the mapping of the complexity of a situation. The decision maker, on the other hand, may rely on their prior closest experiences to decide, even if the situation is totally different. Known as the Teddy Bear Principle, one tends to repeat what has been proven in the past to have given them comfort. High stress jobs and fatigue can also make it difficult to focus, to process new information, and to think critically.
To solve this, ensure there is no overloading of work assignments and/or ensure you have competent subordinates or a deep talent pool.
- Overconfidence – This happens when one overestimates their strengths and the accuracy of their beliefs, while underestimating the difficulty of a task or situation. This can lead to behaviors such as taking on more risks than is warranted, or not mitigating risk promptly. It also happens when previous data has not been properly documented, stored and analyzed. This wastes valuable inputs from past knowledge that could minimize the risk of chance with more intentional efforts. Overconfidence can also come from confirmation bias, or seeking out and giving much greater weight to information that confirms one’s existing beliefs, and ignoring or dismissing evidence or early signals that are contrary. Poor decisions can make firms not just lose money but also miss important opportunities (that is a consequence of losing money).
To help solve this, alternative perspectives from diverse profiles or multi-disciplines are needed to challenge existing mindsets.
- Self-Serving Bias – This is the tendency of people to interpret information favorable to one’s self-interest, leading to distorted reality. For a new initiative, this may mean ignoring the critical step of testing assumptions, especially if the proponent is also the idea generator. No research will be done to guide decision-making, or worse, bad research may be done (slanted toward confirmation bias) to show results intended to convince investors but not the final buyers of the new product or service.
To avoid this, listening skill is critical. Have plans challenged by others who can provide independent views, as well as document the critical assumptions such as target market, features, price, value chain and alternatives that need to be validated or invalidated.
- Privileges and Resources – Imagine an executive getting a weekly grocery pack loaded at the back of their car without having to personally shop in a grocery store. Imagine high ranking public servants never having to fall in line and experience wasting productive time waiting for public transportation. They will never know the true phenomenology of consumers who do not have the same privileges and resources. And this lack of actual experience leads to limited meaningful encounters and therefore, lesser empathy on what is truly important to affected individuals.
To help solve this, management by walking around, immersion, regular ethnography and directly talking to the customers are needed. Remember, the greatest painters do not paint from the description of others!
- Rewards – What gets rewarded gets done, and this is consistent with the old adage that what is measured is what is managed. This leads to a one-sided perspective, like for instance, focusing too much on short-term orientation and sacrificing the long-term implications or consequences of a situation. This inhibits effective decision-making and problem-solving. Rewards can also pressure individuals to do impulsive or hasty actions, or even end up more focused on the reward than on the critical task to be done. Having certain expectations can make it difficult to see a situation objectively and may affect how information is perceived and interpreted.
To help solve this, create rewards that are more long-term with smaller, short-term milestones in order for individuals to focus more on the process, rather than just the reward.
- Social influence – Being around other people, especially prominent ones, who have strong points of view can make one hesitate or even question their own perspective, making it difficult to maintain an independent viewpoint. This can be made even harder if the perspective is shared early (an anchoring bias) and everybody else in the group agrees with the perspective.
To avoid the consequence of social influence, such as conformity, compliance, or obedience, it helps to have self-confidence, and to prepare in advance. Instilling a culture that allows open communications at all levels also encourages people to add value by articulating one’s own perspective that may be different from everybody else or from long established practices.
- In-Group Bias – This is the tendency of people to favor and show preferential treatment toward members of their own group, over members of other groups seen as “outsiders.” This out-group can be from outside the company or even within the company but from another department. This can manifest in many ways, such as through stereotypes, prejudice, or discrimination, including the “not invented here” (NIH) syndrome, which is also affected by organizational culture, history, and power dynamics.
To solve this, look into the strengths of what is being proposed instead of its weaknesses, while being aware of personal prejudices.
- Cognitive Dissonance – Having two opposing views can cloud judgment because this leads to individuals justifying and rationalizing their conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors, rather than confronting and resolving the inconsistencies. Take the examples of fast food and obesity, smoking and cancer, or in the U.S., profiting from selling high-risk subprime mortgages that led to the crisis of 2008. This can lead to people making decisions based on flawed logic.
To solve this, much self-reflection is needed – to challenge existing beliefs, and to consciously seek out new information.
- Mindfulness Gap – People’s minds tend to drift off half of the time while working or in a meeting. Instead of thinking about the work to be done, the mind wanders off to what worries them at the moment. This may be an impending presentation, a conflict, unfulfilled expectations and the like. Fatigue also contributes to this mindfulness gap, especially during this digital age when almost everyone is glued to different screens – – from the big screen at work (PC, laptop) to smaller screens during personal time (phone, watch).
To avert this, avoid multitasking, as well as long and consecutive meetings without breaks. Incorporate periodic screen-free mindfulness breaks and practice vigilance to remain always present and non-judgmental.
- Big Data Bias – More data do not necessarily lead to more insights. Some data may be irrelevant, lacking, redundant, inaccurate or biased.
To avoid being too much in love with big data, identify the specific need for data and balance with a bias for action.
- Availability Heuristic – There is a tendency to rely on information that is readily available to us, underestimating the impact of rare events because they are not as salient in our memory.
To avoid this, be preoccupied with possible failure, do a premortem and consider all stakes when evaluating an initiative.
- Emotions – Strong emotions such as anger, fear, or anxiety can cloud judgment and make it difficult to see a situation objectively.
To solve this, do not make important decisions under extreme emotional conditions – including sending out an emotional email at the end of the day when one is tired and stressed.
- Mental health – Mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, can affect judgment. Some individuals with mental health concerns may have difficulty seeing the positive aspects of a situation and may make decisions based on an overestimation of potential risks. These conditions may also cause analysis paralysis leading to failure to act on time in case of crises.
Practicing self-care is critical, and this includes rest, regular exercise, meditation, good nutrition, adequate sleep, making social connections, and other stress management techniques.
- Negativity bias – Some people have a tendency to give greater weight to negative information or experiences than positive ones. If they have an existing negative preconception toward a particular person or group, they may be more likely to interpret any information or experiences related to that group as negative, reinforcing their prejudiced attitudes.
Self-awareness is key to avoiding the negativity bias. Another way is to train one’s self to ask “Under what circumstance would that person or group’s perspective be correct?”
- Neurological conditions – Individuals with dementia, for instance, cannot remember important details that can affect decision making, due to an impaired cognitive function. This is a medical condition and requires medical consultation.
It is important to always be mindful and to regularly evaluate our perspectives to ensure we are receptive to new ideas, new approaches, and new perspectives. Unless we recognize our own biases and blind spots (as well as those of others), we limit our sense of possibilities that helps us make better decisions, allocate resources efficiently, and avoid unnecessary risks. In the same light, a self-aware leadership helps teams stay motivated, while enhancing their creativity to achieve business goals and avoiding making the same costly mistakes.
Companies that were once household names have become cautionary tales in academic and industry case studies. Most lost their market leadership (even leading to bankruptcy and closure) because of limited perspective and lack of diversity in the decision-making team. Success often creates blind spots in businesses where overconfidence and biases rule, where there is reliance on business models that worked before, where strength is overestimated because of the way the metrics of success are designed. Self-awareness is key in clearing clouded lenses in decision-making.
Gain new perspectives and growth ideas from 16 CEOs/CMOs/C-Suite executives by attending the 14th Mansmith Market Masters Conference. Details at www.marketmastersconference.com
Josiah Go is chair and chief innovation strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc.