Rational, Logical, Product People

We all know that biases exist and we are all very much aware of them. We are all extremely logical and rational product managers and we never let our biases affect our prioritisation efforts.

Or maybe not.

I really like how Ellen Chisa describes product managers as “continuously going back and forth between the 10,000-feet view and the 2-inch view” in the book Product Leadership. Product management requires conscious efforts to maintain innovative, efficient and successful discovery and delivery processes, to build and ship products that people love.

This is hard work. More than one might think at the outset. And because of all the things we have to think about, it is extremely easy for us product managers to miss out on certain biases that crop up on a daily basis. 

We can be blind to the obvious and we can be blind to our blindness

If you’ve never seen this clip, I suggest that you take a minute to watch it and follow the instructions.

The video shown above is based on a book written by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, called The Invisible Gorilla. In their experiment, Chabris and Simons noted that more than half of the viewers were convinced that there was no gorilla in the clip. This highlights how difficult it is notice things other than what you’re focusing your efforts on. As Daniel Kahnemann highlights in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.

The effects of biases

As product managers, we need to make sure that we are building products that our users love, and we can only do that by shipping products that our market finds valuable. The presence of personal biases is not desirable as these can skew our view of what the market desires, which leads to decision-making based on inaccurate information.

Here are a few examples of biases and how each of them may affect us in our role of Product Managers.

Confirmation Bias – Searching for and interpreting information in a way which confirms previous beliefs. 

We all have our opinions on what we should be building/improving in our product, and sometimes it is extremely easy to validate our ideas by looking at data that will favour these ideas, and ignoring additional data points. 

Availability Bias – Information that is readily available in our mind is given more weighting than other information.

When we’re looking at our options for what to build next, it is easy to give more importance to the options that we’ve been thinking about recently, even though there might be other areas that will give us greater benefit, but for which we don’t have enough information on.

Overconfidence Bias – Being overly confident in our or other people’s ability to make good decisions.

Experience always helps, however it’s easy to think that some decisions will work simply because the person taking the decision “has done this before”. When we follow this train of thought we are likely not giving enough thought to the differences between the current scenario and what’s happened in the past.

Sunk Cost Fallacy – Pouring more and more effort in a feature/endeavour as a result of previously invested resources.

The more effort we put into a given endeavour, the more we become emotionally tied to that effort. It’s easy to keep on putting more and more effort into a feature that we’ve taken a long time to build, because we “might as well get some return on all that investment”. In these cases we would probably be turning our backs to other opportunities which will benefit the product to a greater degree.

Ostrich Effect – Avoiding negative information.

We will always find some data which could suggest that our hypotheses are wrong. As product managers we should be investigating this data and not shrugging off, to make sure that we are really delivering on sound hypotheses that will ultimately improve the value of our product.

3 Steps to Overcome Bias

The first thing that we need to be aware of is that biases will always be present – it’s human nature. Everyone is susceptible to biases and nobody is able to completely overcome them. At the same time we also need to be aware that it is also impractical to constantly question our thoughts as this can easily lead to brain fatigue.

There are ways, however, how we can overcome cognitive biases. I suggest following these 3 steps to becoming better at overcoming bias:

  1. Bias Awareness – Awareness is always the first step. By being aware of the different biases that exist, we are more inclined to self-challenge our thoughts, thus reducing the amount of bias in our hypotheses and decisions.
  2. Bias Salons – The more you think about a particular scenario/hypothesis/idea, the more difficult it becomes to identify any biases that are present. It is therefore important to walk through your hypotheses with peers and key stakeholders, have some discussions around the data backing up the hypothesis, and to reflect on any biases that may be affecting the decisions.
  3. Decision Transparency – We should always be transparent with our peers when we take decisions, by clearly communicating the rationale behind each decision that we take. Being open and transparent allows for constructive criticism which could highlight aspects that were not considered in the product discovery process.

This post was inspired heavily by Janice Fraser‘s session on Uncovering the Truth at Mind the Product, London, 2018.

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