You’ve probably heard phrases such as “You’re too close to it.” and “You always have blindspots when it’s your own business.”
These cliches are bandied about with such frequency that they’ve become commonplace in organizations ranging from first-year startups to Fortune 50 behemoths.
But is there any real truth to these so-called truisms, or are they simply unfounded ideologies being peddled by consulting firms as they cobble together your latest SOW with associated six- or seven-figure invoice?
Something often overlooked when mulling this one over is how the human brain operates, specifically the vast amount of time and resources it delegates to keeping us alive.
With such a predisposition to perpetuate the species (and not just in the fun way), we each carry with us several ever present and often undetectable cognitive biases.
These biases shape the way in which we see the world around us, filtering the vast swaths of information available to form easily processed bite-sized chunks that don’t always (or often) represent reality.
In this article we’ll be unpacking three such biases, discussing how each could be hampering your business growth, and how hiring a consulting firm could help to overcome said biases.
- Confirmation Bias
- Known Outcome Bias
- Status Quo Bias
Full disclaimer, C\R Strategy Partners (the organization currently paying my six- and seven-figure invoices – if you include the decimal point and all subsequent zeros) is an innovation consulting firm. So let’s go ahead and add my personal bias to the three we’re about to discuss. Consulting firms are awesome.
What Is It?
Our species didn’t always have such easy access to “energy” in the form of a fast food joint on every corner and processed food that costs less than the packaging it comes in (which is pretty damn cheap!) In order to survive this long, the human brain has become quite extraordinary at preserving any energy we do get our greedy little hands on.
One of the techniques it employs to do this is known as the Confirmation Bias. Believe it or not, it’s metabolically expensive to change our mind about something. The amount of processing power required to accurately assess all incoming information and adopt a new point of view is much higher than the power required to keep seeing things in the same old way.
Putting it plainly, once we’ve made up our minds about something, we’re as stubborn as the proverbial mule. We see this playing out on a daily basis. We already believe someone’s a bit of a butthole, we ignore all of their kind words and gestures, focusing solely on, well, the one or two things they do that make them a bit of a butthole. We do the same with the latest viral news on social media, tending to form an initial opinion and sticking with it, rather than being open to a change of heart when contradictory evidence is presented.
Impact on Business:
There are myriad ways the confirmation bias could be stunting your business’ growth:
- Continuing to see a single product as your “Cash Cow” when the numbers simply don’t agree
- Believing a member of your team to be a star, when his or her performance has dropped significantly in recent times
- Failing to see a new competitor as a genuine threat, when all the evidence points to the fact that they’re gaining fast
- Denying that your technology needs to be updated; what’s worked for you in the past will continue to work into the future, right?
- As above but for hierarchy, infrastructure, operations, etc.
To find out whether the confirmation bias is holding your business back, you’re going to have to practice some self-reflection, as well as carefully observing the decision makers to see if you and/or they display any of the following:
- An unwillingness to accept the validity of evidence that defies the person’s previously held beliefs
- Placing greater weight or emphasis on “facts” that appeal to the person’s underlying assumptions, to the exclusion of contradictory evidence
- Actively seeking out information that “proves” the person’s point
- Selective (and often incorrect) recollection of events, fact, or statistics
Known Outcome Bias
What Is It?
A few hundred thousand years ago, before the days of low budget airlines and on-demand driver services, journeying to new lands was fraught with danger and was therefore to be avoided whenever possible. Far better for the tribe to stay in pastures known than to journey to new lands where there may be dragons. Or at least angry neanderthals with big pointy sticks.
While exploring new territory represents less of an unknown quantity these days, our wonderfully cautious brains still prefer the known to the unknown. Logically speaking, it’s a better survival strategy to assume the worst about something new and novel. Sure it might be the best thing to happen to us, but it might destroy everything we’ve ever cared about. This is precisely why I will never stray from Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ben & Jerry’s. What are the odds that a different flavor will be any more delicious? Slim to none.
Impact on Business:
Business suffering from an abundance of known outcome bias may well be seeing the following outcomes:
- Staying in the same market, long after it becomes saturated
- Keeping operations centered around a single location or geographical region, when expanding would be a smarter strategy (assuming no dragons lie in wait)
- Remaining in current partnerships that have ceased to be fruitful, in favor of branching out to new organizations
If you’re starting to feel like there might be some known outcome biases perforating your business strategy, take a look for the following telltale signs in leadership:
- Decision makers favoring choices that come with familiar outcomes
- A general reluctance to try new things (how many times can your suggestion of “unicycle soccer match” as the next team building activity be poo-pooed before you grow suspicious?)
- A leaning towards near-term benefits that come and go, placing your business on a neverending rollercoaster, as opposed to longer-term strategies that promise a bigger yield in the future
Status Quo Bias
What Is It?
Although we are thought of as the dominant species on our Goldilocks planet, humans can only survive within a relatively narrow bandwidth of conditions. Too hot, we die. Too cold, we die. Too thirsty, we die. Too hungry, we find ourselves at Taco Bell. And then we die.
Our survival bandwidth is so narrow, it’s a miracle we’ve been around as long as we have. That “miracle” would better be described as the brain’s exceptional ability to keep us in our happy place, AKA “homeostasis.”
Every second of every day throughout our entire lives, trillions of adjustments are being made across every cell in our body to perpetuate the blissful state of “I’m OK.” Thankfully the vast majority of this is carried out at the subconscious/autonomic level. I’m pretty good at multitasking but trillions of decisions? That’s pushing it.
With so much going on inside the body, the brain adores things in the outside world to remain largely the same. Fewer changes mean fewer predictions to construct, fewer calculations to make, and fewer chances that we’ll end up at Taco Bell, eating our feelings as we cry into a cheesy gordita crunch.
Impact on Business:
Personal anecdotes aside, the status quo bias has obvious repercussions on any business. But this wouldn’t be a great blog post if I left it there, so here are some of those repercussions in a bullet list:
- Sticking with the same products and services, long after their heyday
- Failing to dismiss familiar members of the team who are underperforming
- Lack of diversification into new offerings and/or verticals
- Fear of expanding/scaling
We’ve all been gripped by the desire to have things stay the same. It’s why reruns of shows like Cheers cycle around and around for decades. For younger readers, Cheers was a sitcom like Friends but set in a bar. For even younger readers, a “rerun” is what we had before streaming. If you think this sneaky little bias might be impacting your business, keep an eye out for the following:
- Decision makers opting to iterate on existing products and services, rather than building something new
- A tendency to hire from within the organization/family/yacht club
- A general hesitation to try new technology, management systems, tools
- Remaining loyal to suppliers, distributors, etc. despite being provided with an inferior service
How to Overcome Cognitive Biases:
Firstly, let me say categorically that we don’t want to overcome all cognitive biases. They keep us alive and stop us from going batsh*t crazy, to use the anthropological term. What we do want to do is identity and reduce the impact that said biases have on our business.
In order to do this, you need to do everything in your power to shake up your current routines, habits, rituals, and echo chambers (often described as “meetings”). Your brain will eventually open up and see things differently but it’s going to take a bit of effort on the front end.
Here are a few practical tips you can try:
- Read as much information from “the opposing side” as possible; for example the most negative reviews of your products and services you can find (it’s going to hurt, but from that pain comes growth!)
- Invite different team members to join your usual meetings; holding a marketing meeting? Invite someone from admin. Holding an admin meeting? Invite something from accounts. Holding a c-suite meeting? Invite the janitor! You get the idea.
- Drive a different route to work. No kidding, this has been proven to open your brain to new possibilities, which can have a knock-on effect, allowing you to see new possibilities (just make sure you map the route first, lest you hit traffic on your bold quest and arrive 2 hours late for the morning huddle!)
- Reshuffle the furniture; whether you’re working in an office or from home, changing the look and feel of the room will have a similar impact on your brain to driving a new route to work, i.e. opening you up to new insights
- Dive into the world of a business that has nothing to do with yours or the market you operate in; get to know how milk is made, or where chairs come from, or who manufactures the glue that holds celebrity wigs in place; you’ll almost certainly be inspired to make a few changes (and/or buy a wig)
Or… Here it comes… You could hire a consulting firm.
I know, you did not see that coming!
Cognitive biases are far more pronounced when we hold the organization close to our hearts. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our very survival can sometimes feel dependent upon the survival of our business. Can we really be expected to make unbiased and therefore purely strategic decisions with potentially millions or even billions of dollars on the line? Of course not.
Hiring “outsiders” (we don’t appreciate the nomenclature but we know it’s true) is a powerful way to uncover blindspots and take steps towards overcoming any biases that are keeping your business stuck in a rut. We’re not as close to it as you are, but that sure doesn’t mean we don’t care. We just have a way of managing that care so we don’t fall into the same cognitive traps as the business owners we partner with.
Let’s circle back to the original question: Is there any real truth to so-called truisms, such as “You’re too close to it?” and “You always have blindspots when it’s your own business.”
My personal biases aside (I hired an outsider to help me write this paragraph), this is not something that might be happening in your organization. This is happening every day. In your business, your personal life, your book club, your fantasy football league (“Go Rams!”) and every other tenet of your life.
Whether you hire a consulting firm or not, the more time and energy you put towards jailbreaking your mind from cognitive biases, the happier, more fulfilled, and more prosperous your life will be.
On a slightly less philosophical note, if you are interested in learning more about how C\R Strategy Partners operates as an innovation consulting firm, we offer a free 60 min consultation, which you can schedule HERE.
FYI, the “free consultation” model is taking advantage of your brain’s bias towards staying safe; what can go wrong if it’s free, right?
MWAH HA HA! SURPRISE DRAGON ATTACK!!
Thanks for reading!