How to reduce bias in decision-making when evaluating new projects & products

We all have bias when we make decisions. It's not bad.

The other day I saw this tweet. I don't know Louis Nicholls directly, but a quick look at his Twitter feed and site, and I can tell he's sharp. Also, I don't disagree with the emotion behind the tweet, because I see this dynamic a lot. But I did reply that I disagreed.

Today I thought it was the perfect way to dig deeper into a few tips on how to reduce bias in decision-making when you're evaluating new projects, new products, or a new side hustle.

Because here's the truth. I don't just disagree. I actually have a framework that helps people navigate past their own biases to create some rigor around their prioritization.

But this post isn't to pitch you on my specific framework. It's some tips to help you create your own framework for the world you live in.

First, recognize the shortcuts your brain is taking.

Before we get started, we just need to agree that we all have shortcuts we take when making decisions.

If we were talking about something at work, and I said, “that's the way our CEO likes to do it,” I'm guessing we might wrap that conversation up pretty quickly. We have an intrinsic self-preservation shortcut that suggests we don't want to fight with people in authority (above us) unless we have deep convictions. But we don't even process all of those thoughts, most of the time. It's just a shortcut.

If we were talking about building a new piece of software, a situation I'm regularly in, someone will regularly come up with a simple and a complex way to do things. And we're likely to create this false narrative that suggests there's only two ways to solve the problem. At that point, most of us in the room will punt to our normal bias – either to get something out quicker and iterate, or to dig in deep and solve something for “quality.”

These approaches help us in some contexts, but hurt us in others.

So the first step is to recognize what's going on so you can re-frame a decision in the context you prefer, rather than one that you've not even thought about.

Long before I could point you to Nudge and their description of “choice architecture,” I was formed by the work I did with Dr. Ralph Keeney. He has two clear and great books on decision making. The most recent is “Give Yourself a Nudge,” and the older one is “Smart Choices.”

But if you want to go deep on this material, I suggest Value-Focused Thinking.

And if you want a list of 16 different cognitive biases to be on the look out, I really like the article by Mike Pinder.

Second, reduce bias by evaluating more than one option.

I mentioned Dr. Ralph Keeney before and back when we first met, in the late 1990's, he would correct me every time I fell into the trap of only looking or evaluating a single option, or a pair of options. Why not come up with 5 or 10 options, he'd ask.

Initially I thought he was crazy. But the more I embraced evaluating (and comparing) several options at once, the more I came to appreciate the approach.

Let's say you're talking about building a simple mobile application or building a complex one. You'll likely evaluate the costs of each approach. You'll also compare the time to build each. And if you're bias is towards using your own cash, you'll likely choose the cheaper approach. Likewise, if your bias is to get something into the market first, you'll choose whatever gets you to the first version of your product.

But nothing in this process helps you generate a bunch of additional approaches. Did you consider white-labeling something that was already built? Did you consider wrapping a mobile skin around an existing SaaS application?

Not if you got stuck comparing two approaches.

The trick here is to create as many different alternatives as early as you can to evaluate, all at the same time.

Third, reduce bias in your decision-making.

In the framework that I teach the folks I coach, I ask them 10 questions. I invite them to evaluate every option from ten different angles. You may not need or want all ten. But you should have more than just time and cost. Two variables isn't rigorous enough for a real comparison.

Here are three more questions to ask yourself to reduce bias in your evaluation of options:

  1. Will this open up adjacent markets for us to explore / for long-term growth?
  2. How easy will it be to sell this back to our existing customers?
  3. Is this something we're going to have to do anyway at some point?

The questions aren't magical. They simply push you to ask more than just what's easy, fast, or cheap. And the more questions you create (again, I have a worksheet with 10 questions), the harder it is to fool yourself into the kind of justification dance that Louis was talking about above.

Fourth, leverage your team to reduce bias.

The last thing I'll recommend – which won't eliminate but will certainly help reduce bias as your looking at the different kinds of projects, products, initiatives and side-hustles you are thinking about –  is to do this with your team. In other words, it may be easy to fool yourself, but it's a lot harder to create a group think dynamic where you're all lying to yourselves.

Whatever worksheet you create, put it in front of others. Get more than yourself scoring your ideas. And then talk about your scores. As you debate each person's understandings of the concept, scores can change. The discussion will get most everyone in agreement on each score, and the final calculus will rank all of your ideas.

At that point, you'll have a prioritized list of projects to tackle. Without bias. And when you see that list, and present it to others, you'll know it's going to hold up much better than it would have before. Because of the work you've done to add rigor to your evaluation process.

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