Free Decision Guides
For Modern Professionals
Build Your Acumen for Information-laden Decisions
Service professionals whose everyday work is based on sorting through information, such as business analysts, financial analysts, auditors, journalists, researchers or basketball scouters, are liable to three key cognitive traps more than other professionals: confirmation bias, anchoring effect and availability heuristic.
In this modern business environment how can we safeguard professional skepticism from cognitive traps? How can we make good decisions when sorting through piles of information?
The first step? Become aware of the cognitive traps that affect your daily work when seeking and making sense of information. If you missed it, here’s the free guide.
Try to imagine yourself in the place of the auditor. How is the quality of your work liable to confirmation bias, anchoring and availability heuristic?
Becoming aware of these cognitive traps also means understanding that awareness alone does not eradicate them. If only it were that easy. Instead, we need to put processes in place, our own and as a team.
This guide is all about these processes. It gives a list of practical, actionable ways to combat cognitive traps. A list of tactics for you to adopt and adapt to your own context. At three levels, depending on your locus of control:
(1) individual, (2) team, (3) organization.
When the new assignment comes in there is a list of actions you can take and questions to ask yourself throughout your decision-making process.
1. WHILE AT YOUR DESK…
Take the time to think before acting
If you want to avoid getting swayed by emotions and subjective thinking, before the action starts, take some time to think. Think about the problem on your own before consulting others. This will prevent you from becoming anchored by their ideas. Ask yourself what your preexisting beliefs and assumptions are. Be honest. Write them down. Nobody else needs to see these. Go thoughtfully through the list to check if any of your assumptions are unduly influenced by your memory.
Questions to ask: Is this event really as common or uncommon as I think? Is the vividness of this event making me think it is more likely? Is there really a correlation between these two events? If so, what could be the reason for the correlation?
Explore alternative ways of looking at the situation. Try using alternative starting points and approaches rather than sticking with your first line of thought. Adopt different perspectives. Reframe. A question burst session is a practical way to do this.
Questions to ask: What are some questions I can ask about the situation? Is there a question that reframes the problem and provides a new angle for solving it?
Investigate with an open mind
Going down the familiar path means skipping the opportunity to understand how the dynamic business environment is changing. This is how you get left behind.
So, how do you stay relevant? Research with an open mind. Spend some time (at least 30 minutes) to seek out information, news, sources that contradict your beliefs.
Be aware that finding information that supports your beliefs is not enough – it does not mean your beliefs are realistic. It only means some other people share your beliefs. But how about the rest of the world?
Questions to ask: Is there some valid information out there that suggests otherwise? Is there an expert who thinks differently? How can I set up my newsfeed to include sources and analysts that go against my beliefs and positions?
Give each piece of evidence its due weight
Not all information is equally reliable and that means having to check validity and credibility of the source. A good strategy is to use multiple sources of information that are credible and avoid social media reproductions. Make sure to question and critically assess the validity of all evidence, whether confirming or not.
Questions to ask: What information am I using to make this decision or judgment? Is it accurate and relevant? Am I weighing its importance correctly?
Mind the gaps
It’s highly unlikely that all we see is all there is. Especially in complex environments.
So, lay down your reasoning and spot any gaps. Then search for evidence to bridge these gaps.
Questions to ask: If I had to make this decision again in a year, what information would I want, and can I get more of it now?
Dive deeper where you feel you should
If something bothers you, there is usually a reason. Our emotional brain and intuition work hard to learn from our surrounding environment and past experiences. Learning to listen to them when appropriate is a lifetime skill.
If an assumption does not feel right, spend some more time on it. If you suspect a number or piece of information may be an anchor, try to refute or confirm it by researching other sources. Gather opinions from colleagues who haven’t yet been exposed to the anchor. Interview experts who can inform you about the anchor’s relevance, or lack thereof.
Questions to ask: What is my gut (aka intuition, emotional brain) telling me?
Ask people for input
Seeking information and opinions from a variety of people helps to widen your frame of reference and to push your mind in fresh directions. When you are ready to collect others’ input and opinions, here is how to go about it:
Talk to colleagues and people whose opinion you value, minding confidentiality of the situation. Pick wisely.
Ask for their views and be mindful to not ask leading questions that invite confirming evidence.
Be careful to avoid anchoring others to your own ideas. Tell them as little as possible about your own estimates and tentative decisions.
Questions to ask: Who can I ask for a second and third opinion? How can I present the situation in a neutral way? What do their answers tell me about how they handle their own cognitive traps?
Explore the alternatives, again
A key element of making good information-laden decisions is whether credible alternatives have been considered.
After gaining some insights into the situation through credible data, challenge your perspective with a thought experiment: Build counterarguments.
What's the strongest reason to do something else? The second strongest reason? The third?
Consider the position with an open mind.
Questions to ask: Have credible alternatives been considered?
WHEN LEADING A TEAM...
Embrace the chaos
Build teams of people with divergent skills and backgrounds.
Nurture a culture of constructive disagreement and healthy conflict to counter groupthink. Give team members the space to express dissenting opinions.
If you find that team members always seem to support your point of view, try to find out the reason in order to correct for this. Is your style overly abrasive? Are you welcoming to healthy exchanges of different points of view? Do you allow your team time for exploring different possibilities?
Encourage use of the word “why” instead of penalizing it. Use the 5 whys framework when needed.
Establish processes for systematic decision-making rather than purely subjective, emotional and intuitive decisions.
Seek out collective decision-making and use tactical games such as devil's advocate: Get someone on the team to argue against the decision you are contemplating, no matter their personal beliefs.
Plan and manage meetings so as to allow people the space to think and to contribute. Allow time for reflection and critical thinking. Use modern, inclusive brainstorming techniques that work.
When you are closing in on a decision, perform the premortem technique to cast light on blind spots.
Solicit the opinion of outsiders such as other teams, consultants and so on.
Know your team and capitalize on their strengths. Delegate tasks according to area of specialism.
AT THE TOP...
As a company leader, how do you nurture a culture of professional skepticism? It’s all about the infrastructure along these three axes:
Train employees on how to make good decisions. Train them again. Train them often.
Train executives on how to review the decision-making process of their teams.
Hold managers accountable for explaining their team’s decision-making process.
Empower managers to put processes in place to catch decision-making shortcomings.
Reward people on the basis of good decisions, not good outcomes.
Allow time and budget for outsider input.
Even if you cannot eradicate the distortions ingrained into the way your mind works, you can build tests and disciplines into your decision-making process that can uncover errors in thinking before they become errors in judgment.
This may seem a long list for countering a handful of cognitive traps when there are in fact hundreds.
It is long. But it does much more than that.
Many of these techniques simultaneously address other cognitive pitfalls that affect workplace decisions laden with data. To achieve professional skepticism, they nurture a culture that supports it – a culture with the elements of decision sanity, robustness, accountability, self-growth and trust. When employees embrace such a culture, they become more adept at steering through the decision-making challenges that come their way, with greater skill and confidence.
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