I’m Wrong…and So are You

I was listening to a TED talk by a gentleman named Tim Harford recently and thought it was good enough to share with my teammates. I also felt like a total heel as it reminded me of the cognitive biases that I tend to exhibit and it prompted this post.

Tim Harford: Trial, error and the God complex http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_harford.html


There are literally dozens of cognitive biases….and I suffer from most of them. The good news for me? So Do You

The brain has an astounding ability to simplify, narrow focus, protect itself, pat itself on the proverbial back, attribute positive outcomes to itself, and negative outcomes to others. The rate at which the brain does this is, in a word, staggering.

I happen to work in technology where the solution set for new applications is near infinite. Software systems begin as figments of our imaginations. We interpret other peoples words, intonations, their businesses, and their emotions and we start creating. It looks controlled from the outside, probably because it’s simply text on a screen at this point. Make no mistake, its messy. It’s akin to a potter’s wheel spinning out of control with a wet mass of clay in the middle, not quite centered.

At some point, we mush other peoples messy work (and interpretations) together with ours, test it (a little) and show it to the customers. The problems that come spinning out of such a complex and chaotic process are nothing short of, well…staggering.

With that as the backdrop, I’ve worked diligently to understand my own reactions, emotions, and behaviors. Over the years, I have begun to recognize times where I will launch headlong (read: “with bravado”) into solutions without truly and deeply understanding the issues at hand (Framing). I see events in the past and think, “that was so obvious” (Hindsight Bias). I see other teams in my organization as “those bureaucratic nimrods” (Fundamental Attribution Error).

I regularly meet people who exhibit these traits in spades. I realize they don’t know they do it, but with reflection (and education) you start to see the absurd position our brains put us in. Below is a list of some of the most regular “cognitive biases” to look out for:

Via Wikipedia (where else):

  • Framing by using a too-narrow approach and description of the situation or issue.
  • Hindsight bias, sometimes called the “I-knew-it-all-along” effect, is the inclination to see past events as being predictable.
  • Fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior.
  • Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions; this is related to the concept of cognitive dissonance.
  • Self-serving bias is the tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way beneficial to their interests.
  • Belief bias is when one’s evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by their belief in the truth or falsity of the conclusion.

With the simple act of learning about these biases, and how the brain works, I have been able to direct outcomes that are more powerful and meaningful for me and the people I interact with on a regular basis. I recommend, as a step one, that you read through some of these and reflect on times where you’ve used these biases.

Do any of these feel familiar?


Be Patient, Be Silent, and Let Some Answers Come to You

Last June, while at a conference in Salt Lake City Utah, I found some time to meet with the professor emeritus (wildlife biology) at the University of Utah. Never mind it also happened to be my uncle, Fred Montague.

As he and I visited on the car ride back from his home in Park City, we began a discussion about software development and my simple views on the subject. I didn’t really expect much engagement from a wildlife biologist on the topic. My comments about software development are typically about the artistry of the whole endeavor. I love that software affords its craftspeople the opportunity to create things. I spoke to him about the work we’re going through to teach people how to experiment and learn before they commit themselves too deeply to a direction. I also mentioned our need to truly reflect on what we’ve done and how we can consistently improve.

Well, the typical response to “Software Development is such an artistic endeavor (yada-yada-yada)…” is “Hmm….Sounds interesting” …(followed by immediate segue to the weather). Rarely is this interesting outside of other developers who know what I’m referring to.

Well, he didn’t answer me in this way, and it threw me a bit. What he did do was speak about his passion for teaching, about topics bigger than himself and what’s become his life’s work, healing our food system through sustainable community gardens. Here’s what he said closely paraphrased:

“Jason, as I’ve traveled, taught and spoken to people over the years, I regularly ran into people young and old who can’t fathom the concept of truly understanding their subject and treating something with the dignity it deserves. New students want to run outside and build beds and dig and…. go! I tell them something they can’t really understand at first. I tell my students to sit and be still for a while. Quiet down and view your landscape. Spend time in your environment and just watch. Witness where the shadows fall and water collects after a rain…let your subject tell you where to experiment….don’t run into your space and immediately create squares and layout the land in constrained gridlines…be patient, be silent, and let some answers come to you. Keep doing what you’re doing Jason. Over time, they will understand you’re giving them some of the best advice they’ve ever gotten.”

Ok, at this point I’m stunned. For one thing, rarely do “non-techies” engage in this discussion. Not only did he engage, he spoke about something so personal to him and his life’s passion. It gave me such a boost in my resolve as a leader and teacher (and person). Secondly, it was some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

So …be patient, be silent, and let some answers come to you.