Posted By - Geoff Watts
Perhaps you’ve heard the term cognitive bias but aren’t quite sure what it means…or you know what it means but aren’t sure how the concept relates to the role of product management. In this article I will explain what cognitive biases are, how they relate to product managers and what you can do to mitigate their negative impact on your products, teams and organisations.
Now our brains are probably the most fantastic asset that we have when tackling complex problems like product development but simply because of the sheer volume of stimuli and information just coming at us all the time our brains have developed shortcuts for filtering out what we think is necessary and important and what isn’t.
And most of the time that works brilliantly because we simply wouldn’t be able to function if we tried to pay attention to every piece of data that was coming into our eyes and our ears and our brains.
So that shortcut and filtering stuff is great BUT…
there are a number of times when it doesn’t work brilliantly.
We call those cognitive biases and there are tonnes and tonnes out there. Just look at the number of cognitive biases that some people have mapped out. There’s loads of them.
However, from a Product Owner’s perspective, here are some that I think are really worth being aware of.
If you would prefer to watch this as a video rather than read it as a blog post then head to the bottom of the page
You’ll have probably heard of the phrase already; it’s not one of the clever, scientific names for these cognitive biases; they’re coming later.
And most Product Owners will have come across this quite consciously because most Product Owners I’m aware of have used some kind of visual demographic representation such as personas.
Now a persona is just a tool or technique that Product Owners use to visualise or represent one of their users – past, present, current – and it’s really useful in terms of product design, in terms of solution emergence, in terms of engaging a development team for example.
But it’s really really easy to slip into lazy stereotypes of personas and just thinking of a generic millennial or a US soccer mom, or a Star Wars geek developer…whatever…those stereotypes are often less helpful than having no person at all.
They really prejudice our thinking and can sometimes even alienate our user base so being aware of our potential to stereotype is probably the first thing I would encourage Product Owners to just be a little bit more mindful of.
The second cognitive bias that I think is really important is anchoring. So anchoring refers to once we get something into our heads…an idea, perhaps a way of working, even a value or a belief…something…once it’s in our heads, it’s very difficult to shift it.
So as a Product Owner, if I’ve somehow made my mind up that a feature is a good thing or a release date is a really good thing then I can become anchored to that.
It can be in terms of negotiations, in terms of the cost of something or the price of something. Once that first figure or that first date, or that first priority has been put out there, we become anchored to it.
So, as Product Owners, we need to be aware of that for our own decision-making but also how our users and our customers can be influenced. Perhaps even by us and perhaps even by others in focus groups or what have you.
And this anchoring doesn’t even need to be very explicit or blatant; it could be really subtle or unconscious, or could even be accidental. So being really aware of the environment we’re putting our users in when making our decisions or our teams is really really useful.
Some Product Owners will use the knowledge of this in perhaps a more manipulative way; that would be very similar to a magician who’s sort of forcing you to pick a particular card they want you to pick. They know the little triggers that affect our unconscious choice that undermines our free will.
And I wouldn’t endorse that whatsoever and so if I were to ask you to choose your favourite between these two animals, then there’s a very good chance that you’ll be pulled towards the elephant and that’s not your fault. It’s because of some subtle, or perhaps not so subtle, triggers and anchors that I’ve put into the video.
But equally if you are aware of what’s going on…if you saw that elephant in my video…then you might know what I was trying to do and that would consciously push you towards the other animal which is another form of anchoring and manipulation.
So being aware of this cognitive bias is very important for Product Owners.
Confirmation bias is a well-known cognitive bias and it refers to how, as human beings, we generally want our views, our beliefs, to be proven correct.
To other people, but also to ourselves so if we have a view about something and we’re picking up data…could be reading a news article or could be interpreting customer feedback…then we subconsciously select out that backs up our previous and existing view and tends to filter out contradictory evidence.
You’ll probably be aware of the placebo effect. People in a control sample given basically a sugar pill but they believe that that pill is going to be successful for them and, quite often, just the belief that that pill is helping will cause some of their symptoms to go away.
So think about how you can set up really quite neutral experiments; very scientifically structured experiments to take your prejudices and preconceived ideas out of the equation and make the results a lot more objective.
The fourth cognitive bias is the endowment effect. Now this isn’t really anything to do with mortgages or house purchases but it is to do with the ownership of something.
Now the ownership could be of a material possession, such as a house or it could be to do with a product. It could even be to do with something a little more abstract; such as our ways of working, our views, our beliefs, our values.
Whatever it is, if we own it, if it’s ours, then the endowment effect says that we place a greater than objective value on it. So if I had bought a £2 lottery ticket, lucky dip, and someone came to buy that lottery ticket off me (before the draw) I would want more than £2 for it which is it’s nominal, objective value.
Because it’s mine; I’ve invested something of me in that. OK? Now I can explain that by “Well if it won, I’d be kicking myself”. So the endowment effect is really important when thinking about shifting users to our product or convincing them to stop using one piece of functionality and use another.
The fifth cognitive bias is gambler’s fallacy. Now if I were to flip a coin and it came down heads; and I asked you instinctively what you think the most likely outcome is if I flip it again, most of you would probably if you are honest with yourselves be instinctively drawn to tails.
Even though, logically we know it’s a 50% chance that it’s tails and 50% chance that it’s heads, if I forced you to pick an outcome the chances are that most of you would pick tails.
If I flipped the coin twice and it came down heads…and heads… and then I asked you to pick what you think’s going to happen next, just on gut instinct, you would probably have an even stronger instinct for tails.
The more you have in a row, the more you think…even though those results are completely independent of future results. So as Product Owners if we, if there’s a chance we might be inferring a sort of dependence or sequence when actually those events are independent of one another, perhaps our users are doing that.
Then just bringing that to the surface, rationally detaching the past events from the current and potential future events could be enough to help us just break that bias.
The sixth cognitive bias is the sunk cost fallacy, also known as “throwing good money after bad” or “chasing our losses” and just like the gambler’s fallacy stems from the world of gambling and is often explained with a poker analogy.
So we place multiple bets during a game of poker. I would place a bet, put some money into the middle based on the cards that I see at the moment, and that money is now gone.
I can’t get it back. When the next card comes down I have the opportunity to place another bet or I could walk away. Now the good gambler will make that decision based on the cost to play against the value of walking away…NOT how much I have already invested.
Because that money has gone. And Product Owners are the same. If we’ve spent money trying to build something in a sprint, and it hasn’t worked out, we would choose whether to carry on with that development purely on the objective future cost and the future benefit. Not on the sunk cost of the previous sprint.
We don’t carry on throwing good money after bad.
Number seven is the Ostrich Syndrome. Now I’ve written about this The Coach’s Casebook with Kim Morgan and I’m very aware that the idea of the ostrich burying their head in the sand is an urban myth…very aware of that.
But the metaphor has stuck. And it describes a situation whereby we are trying to avoid becoming aware of information that we kind of know we don’t want to hear.
So we metaphorically bury our head in the sand and try and avoid it. Now that could be something quite conscious, we could for example choose to cancel a sprint review because we know we haven’t really got something worth showing and we don’t want the negative feedback.
Or it could be something unconscious where we don’t realise we are trying to avoid meetings or calls but great Product Owners know it’s best to get that bad news early because it gives us greater time and opportunity to deal with it and turn it round.
Cognitive bias number 8 the white coat syndrome. So this refers to the idea of doctors usually; I mean that’s historically where it came from, being seen as a fairly universal source of authority.
And there’s good reason for that; they’ve studied for a long time, they know a lot about our health that we don’t. And we’re sort of in their hands if you like, we trust them because they must know what they’re talking about.
And it’s been expanded since to any position of authority; it could be formal authority like a doctor or a police officer for example. It could be informal authority. It could just be someone who you respect; perhaps we’ve seen them in a movie and we like them and then somehow put greater emphasis and value on what they think or what they’re saying about politics.
That white coat…it could even be (and there are some really funny experiments about this) just somebody wearing a uniform. We tend to place greater value on their opinions, their actions, so separating out the white coat syndrome, and trying to be objective as possible.
Number nine is the status quo bias. And this is nothing to do with the rock group but it’s the view that, generally speaking, all things being equal, human beings would prefer things to stay the same.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “better the devil you know” that’s a description of the status quo bias. It’s not that we are lazy and we just can’t be bothered to avoid change. The status quo bias we will actually expend often very significant amounts of energy and even money to try and preserve the status quo.
Sometimes for nostalgic reasons but usually to avoid risk because as human beings we are risk averse, we are loss averse, and any change in our minds has the risk of not working.
I used to work with a guy that said “Um, Scrum could add value here…and yeah I know our current processes are a bit broken but do you know what, I’d rather fail with something I know than fail with something I don’t know.”
That’s a classic example of the status quo bias. Now there’s one good way that I really really like to help with that. And that’s visualisation.
So in other words visualise, the alternative future, the proposed change. Literally, close your eyes and imagine, picture, this future whether it’s a feature on a product, or what you are able to do with this new product, or how life will be different if this change happens for your personal life, professional life.
And actually sit in that alternative reality for a while, perhaps with the help of a coach who can really help you sort of stay present, stay in that moment, and feel what you would feel in that environment, see what you would see, hear what you would hear, so that you become a little bit more attached to it.
And that way, we can take advantage of the endowment effect, because now I know that future…I have that future…and potentially I might not want to give that back. That’s called the reversal test.
And the reversal test is also useful – this visualisation exercise is also useful – with my final cognitive bias; number ten which is technically called temporal discounting.
Some people also call it short-term hedonism. Now I tend to explain this as short-term Geoff versus long-term Geoff. Let’s say is I was on a healthy eating diet or perhaps I’m in Dry January or something, so I know the long-term benefits for me to be on this healthy lifestyle, but equally if I walk past a chocolate bar or I get offered a pint of beer then short-term Geoff sees the short-term pleasure. I can almost taste it before I’ve got it.
And short-term generally wins out over long-term and this is why quite often we can be seen to almost be acting against our own self-interests, where we can sabotage ourselves.
Because we will make suboptimal short-term decisions at the expense of more optimal long-term decisions simply because we find it difficult to imagine that far into the future.
How often have you heard for example, “well we don’t prioritise the fixing of technical debt because we’ve got this cool new sexy feature”? That’s temporal discounting. At the logical level we know that fixing this technical debt is a good thing to do but the benefits are so far in the future, and the sexy new feature we can have now.
Classic temporal discounting for Product Owners.
I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed by this because they are natural; they’re normal. And sometimes just awareness of them is enough because once we’re aware of them, we can actually do something about them.
So the best Product Owners have some kind of rituals in place to help them just check themselves against some of these cognitive biases. Perhaps it’s literally a checklist, you know, “how do I feel I’m doing against confirmation bias? Short-term hedonism?” These things…yeah, yeah yeah…oooh yeah probably that one.”
And then we can do something about it.
As I said, there are tonnes and tonnes of cognitive biases. I’d love to hear your opinions on what the more important ones are for Product Owners. Add them in the comments.
If you’d like to learn more about product ownership, we have an excellent read for you: What is Product Ownership?
Download the free infographic of the Top Ten Cognitive Biases for Product Owners below: