. In researching and garnering feedback, Manoj and I were swapping anecdotal stories of cognitive bias. I’m going to share two here. If you happen to be at Agile 2013, try to catch this session as I know it will be great.
The two examples I want to share where I have seen cognitive bias preventing Agile Adoption are what I’ll call Hourly Estimation Bias and Risk Adverse Homosocial Reproduction. It sounds fancy, but your see it is just a situation we take for granted not knowing its adverse effects in catalyzing necessary changes.
HOURLY ESTIMATION BIAS
This bias can be defined as the need for managers who have not fulling embraced “The Agile Way” of Empirical Evidence in planning and tracking. In Agile practices we tend to shift away from hourly estimation of way, relying instead on relative estimation based on NUTS and Throughput Account measures such as Velocity, Cycle-Time and Lead-Time. While it is often dangerous to apply Lean Manufacturing metrics to Product Development due to the vast variation in effort from Product Feature to Product Feature, when sufficiently broken-down into work units that can be completed in 2-3 days, the law of averages in large datasets takes over giving you a nice Guassian Curve.
The anecdotal story I’ll share here is that managers, being unfamiliar with empirical evidence and having relying on vanity metrics so long, they suffer bias towards the vanity metrics even when we have proven that the Paredo Principle applies to these estimations and metrics… they are only correct ~20% of the time. Or stated another way, vanity metrics of Scope, Schedule and Cost in a complex human system are invariably WRONG roughly 80% of the time.
So why would a manager bet their bonus and possibly their job on something that it WRONG 80% of the time? Familiarity. The brain naturally filters and reduces the world around us into simples terms in order to perform sensemaking. This works when you need to know if a Lion is a threat while walking across the Serenghetti. It works poorly in estimation of complex systems and complex human system. Yet, time and again I have managers that ask: “What is your percent complete?” and “How many hows do you have left?” Why? Cognitive Bias towards the familiar. It turns out we favor five-to-one something we are familiar with over something we are unfamiliar with. Paredo’s Principle strikes again (One-Fifth = 20%).
The second cognitive bias I’ll discuss is a phrase I’m hijacking and twisting, called Risk Adverse Homosocial Reproduction. In a study about diversity in the workplace and the hiring habits of managers, it has been found that managers subconsciously hire people that act and look like themselves (homosocial mirrors), and that they favor candidates that are homosocial mirrors over candidates that are more qualified.
I have seen this behavior present itself in the following more times than I am even aware of. For example, say a manager needs to fill a position with someone that has Agile skills. Together, we look to hire someone internally first because it is seemingly less risky as a person is likely to already understand the political landscape and challenges facing the position. But, what often happens in a command and control environment shifting towards a collaborative environment? We look around the company for a likely candidate and don’t find the right mix of technical skills, domain knowledge and soft skills. We have to hire someone from outside. However, when faced with a marginally competent internal candidate and strong external candidate, managers favor an internal candidate over the outside candidate. Thus, the command and control culture is further cemented into place and change becomes that much more difficult if not impossible.
Soft skills (people skills) in an Agile environment are typically the more important than technical skills and domain knowledge. That is not to say that a person should not have a base competency in the requisite technical skills or domain knowledge; however, we have found that a person with the soft skills of mentoring, servant leadership and lifelong learning can overcome not having strong technical skills or domain knowledge.
So why would a manager purposely choose the lesser qualified candidate?
It’s called Risk Adverse Homosocial Reproduction: a cognitive bias that favors hiring people that are “just like me” in order to make you feel good. This feeling of comfort comes from patterns of familiarity in the Superior Parietal Lobe combined with the fear of the unfamiliar in the Amygdala overriding our ability to reason using logic in the Pre-Frontal Cortex.
Unfortunately, knowing this is mostly useless. Typically, the people that need to know how to steer around this Cognitive Bias the most, are the least likely to know that they need to steer around this Cognitive Bias.
It is also the single, most-challenging, and most-obvious “problem to everyone but the person suffering this bias” that I face when coaching.
We all naturally suffer from it in some small way because it is a natural defense mechanism built into the brain against wild animal attacks. It is also the root of racism, prejudice, and class (Caste?) politics.
The bias is that strong. There is one way to overcome this bias, but it is quite ugly.
Generally, the only way out of hiring bias is through judicious use of external recruiting, allowing internal wannabes to apply for the position through an external vetting agency. Corporate recruiters hate this strategy because they feel they don’t have control over the vetting process, so a certain “make HR feel part of the process” tactic has to be employed. Properly engaged, HR becomes your strongest ally in the process.
I’ve successfully used this technique for overcoming my own bias. The result was being able to work some of the most brilliant people in the business.
What examples of cognitive bias in decision making have you seen?
Someone on Reddit asked about my optimism. My response below:
The state in all times and all places wants a population of despairing, dreary, hopeless, and weighted-down people. Why? Because such people don’t do anything. They are predictable, categorizable, pliable, and essentially powerless. Such people offer no surprises, threaten no change, destabilize nothing. This is the ideal world that the bureaucrats, the plutocrats, and the technocrats desire. It makes their life easy and the path clear. Today is just yesterday and tomorrow – forever. This is the machine that the state wants to manage, a world of down-in-the-dumps and obedient citizens of the society they think they own.
In contrast, hope upsets the prevailing order. It sees things that don’t yet exist. It acts on a promise of a future different from today. It plays with the uncertainty of the future and dares imagine that ideals can become reality. Those who think this way are a threat to every regime. Why? Because people who think this way eventually come to act this way. They resist. They rebel. They overthrow.
And yet look around: we see progress everywhere. What does this imply? It implies that non-compliance is the human norm. People cannot be forever pressed into a mold of the state’s making. The future will happen and it will be shaped by those who dare to break bad, dare to disagree, and dare to take the risk to overthrow what is in favor of what can be.
I realized all this some years ago, and then when you begin to look around and see how the power elites do not and cannot rule, you discover the whole secret to social order. It turns out that they are not really in control, not finally. Then it all becomes fun. It is a blast to see the powerful topple from the thrones they want to sit in so badly. It is a thrill to use and hold technologies that no one among the elite ever gave permission to exist. It is a kick to see how the market — meaning human beings acting with vision toward the future — is so constantly outwitting the arrogant planners who want to freeze history, control our minds, and wreck our world.
To defy them is so simple: just imagine and future better than the present. You become a enemy of the state, and you begin to love every minute of it.
I think Tucker is correct in how all States view optimism. Reference The Jungle, Anthem, 1984, Stranger in a Strange Land, etc. All of these authors were giving us fictional versions of Optimism played out. In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, optimism plays an implied key role as part of the John Galt pledge, “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The Pledge implies that man can imagine and create a world of self-sufficiency if left unfettered by governments.
While this looks great on paper, it is true only if you allow God to guide your steps. In Jeremiah 10:23 the Prophet Jeremiah states, “LORD, I know that people’s lives are not their own; it is not for them to direct their steps.” The research of Neuroscientist Daniel Siegel, et al. has been proving this to be true due to the natural wiring of the power of the fast part of your brain (limbic) overpowering the slow part of your brain (Pre-frontal cortex) where logic and reason occur.
Pessimism, usually driven by the limbic system being trigger by some form of fear or the memory thereof, has shown to be 5x more powerful then Optimism in controlling how we think and view the world. This is likely by design as it provides a natural defense mechanism if you are a hunter/gatherer/farmer living in nomadic tribes.
Additionally, optimism has a nasty side-effect of making us puffed up. If you can find ways to temper your pride, such as mindfulness and daily reading of and meditation on the Holy Scripture, you can mostly avoid the trap of pride while enjoying your new found status as non-pliable Citizen.
I approached my gate at O’Hare today and there was a large crowd gathered looking toward the aircraft and tarmac outside. There I saw a ground grew unloading luggage, and two fire trucks with lights blazing. Upon closer glance I realized what the crowd had stopped to watch. The firemen were lined along the baggage ramp from the plane at attention presenting arms. What came from the craft’s belly, was a soldier returning home. The casket, draped in Old Glory, was accepted by the Color Guard and quietly was carried to a carriage. They blew thier air horns in a long call, then raised thier sirens and raced away with the Colors flapping in the wind.
The moment was surreal for me and others. It brought back memories for me of never being able to say goodbye to two men from my platoon in Basic Training.
One, I had fought with both verbally and physically. He thought I was a goodie-two-shoes. I thought he was a stupid swamper from the bayou of Lousianna. Seeing the constant tension, the Drill Sergeant paired the two of us in every possible situation. We never became friends or much more than two guys together in the same situation, but we did learn to work together.
Upon graduation from Basic Training, I left for Fort Gordon. The Cajun remained behind to complete Advanced Indidividual Training (AIT) as an Military Policeman (MP). The other, my bunkmate for the next 12 weeks, became my brother in arms. Both, ultimately went on to Desert Shield and Desert Storm while I went on to monitor North Korea while we had our focus on Iraq.
Neither returned alive.
The Cajun, having saved a lot of his fellow troops, was awarded the Silver Star… postumously.
I wish I could have told him thank you for teaching me the true meaning of the phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”.
I turned from the scene at O’Hare and wondered who wasn’t able to say goodbye to this Warrior who paid the ultimate sacrifice…
… and for what?
Because all men, women and children are created equal and deserve an equal chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, even Afghans men, women and children.
A colleague posted a question to our support forum with the following question:
I try to keep my Sundays focused on non-work. This evening, like many Sunday evenings, my brain is already attempting to plan my Monday. And then it wants to start working my Monday.
What are your tricks for keeping your off-work time full of non-work thoughts?
The irony is that while he would have posting this question, I was dealing with the same thoughts. Yesterday I was running through all the things I had to do, and all the things I was behind on. “Eat that frog!” kept running around in my head. Do I focus on the things I can just knock and feel a sense of accomplishment, or do I prioritize my work by importance/value and burn it down?
Here is my list of “turn it off” techniques for dealing with “Sunday Anxiety”:
10) Contemplate the Frog. What makes is a Frog? Usually, what makes the Frog ugly is that the Frog is really an “Epic” thing comprising a lot of smaller things. One way to turn the Frog into a something more approachable is to break the Frog apart into those smaller things, then throw those smaller things back into the master list and reprioritize without losing the overall sense that you have to now do those N-number of things to Eat that Frog, but you also get the sense that you will be accomplishing something. You are activating the reward system of the brain.
I try to do this everyday. Sometime I fail. When things are really looking scary, I go work out or do something physical like yard work or chores. The trick is to find something that requires me to arrest my limbic system. (Read “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock)
A close friend recently asked me if I liked TripIt after he noticed the automated posts of my travel plans. This came on the heals of almost a year of constant business travel, so I figured I would give back my tips for the Road Warriors out there trying to remember what city and time zone they are in… trying to get back home to their loved ones without getting all wrapped around the travel arrangement axel.
First stop is my chief means of flights of fancy and those homes away from home. The Kayak iPhone and iPad apps are extensions to the powerful online site that harvests deals from Priceline, Expedia, Hotwire, Travelocity, and CheapOair for airline tickets. They also have hooks into hotel sites, car rentals and cruises. The only thing they don’t have is the ability to book tickets on Amtrak.
The thing I like about Kayak is that you can set alerts on fare changes and cheap hotel deals. Kayak combined with the next app has saved me hundreds of dollars over the last year in refunds, vouchers and opportunities to save money.
TripIt Pro for iDevices
Next stop on this journey of travel apps is TripIt Pro. Like Kayak, TripIt Pro is first a Web-based app and the mobile apps for iDevices works in tandem with the mothership.
I use TripIt Pro for itinerary management, awards points tracking and price alerts (I’ve found out about price drops on flights I’ve already booked and received vouchers for the difference.) It also gives me flight info and has quickly told me about alternate flights when I had a flight delayed or cancelled. It also integrates with my calendar and email. It picks up email reservations, logs it in my itinerary, and then puts the event on my calendar. And all of my colleagues use it to know who is in what town on what dates: it also broadcasts this info on our corporate IM feed (Yammer.com). It posts general travel plans to LinkedIn and Facebook in the form of “Devin is preparing to leave for… ” and “Devin is returning to DC from …”. As an added bonus, I can designate people like close friends and my lovely wife as members of my Inner Circle. These members get look at the intimate details of any itinerary. Finally, I can always see my itinerary on my iDevice either through the app or through integration with my calendar.
TripIt also has a version for businesses. I and my colleagues have floated the idea of subscribing to this so that it is easy to coordinate pair-coaching opportunities as we float about the World.
I use FlightTrack Pro for gate information, flight delays, alternate flights, navigation around airports, weather delays, etc. It pulls my flight information directly from TripIt Pro (tight integration). I get notified of delays and gate changes typically before the majority of the crowd (including the gate employees), and can switch flights before the crowd has even figured out what is going on. Another nice thing about combining FlightTrack Pro with TripIt Pro is that I can invite my inner circle from TripIt Pro to view my trips. Then they can know when to meet me at the airport using FlightTrack Pro on thier iDevice. I also love that I can view the map of an airport that I’m not familiar with before I get there and know how to get through the maze of terminals and concourses without looking like a mouse that has lost its cheese.
Another one of my essential iDevice travel apps is TripAdvisor. The TripAdvisor is just a better interface for my mobile device with their Webapp as the back-end. It allows me to find and read reviews of hotels, restaurants, and venues using either an address or geolocation. The app is also integrated with TripIt Pro so I can go from the address in my itinerary to TripAdvisor to find out other places around that address. When combined with the online Webapp, I can monitor airfares between locations that I frequent. I can also check for alternate hotels if I find the one I booked has suddenly had an outbreak of Bed Bugs.
Bed Bug Tracker
I’ve now tacked this one onto my essential travel apps as I have started visiting cities where there are Bed Bug problems in the hotels. So far this app hasn’t failed me. Eventually I need to write a blog about my one and only bed bug experience. I never want to experience that again. That was before a colleague referred me to this app. Now I check this app every time I go to make a reservation.
I’ve been using Egencia for work related travel for a couple months now. It really isn’t that great, but it is worth a mention because when flights are cancelled, changed or when a hotel messes up my reservation or overbooks, I can simply use the app itself to autodial customer service to fix everything for me.
I had a random dinner with a stranger last Friday night while bellied up to the bar at the Legal Sea Foods mothership in Boston, MA. I was on my iPad. He was on his iPad. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed scribble on his screen, like cursive manuscript. This caught my eye. On a glance I noticed it looked like Arabic. Introducing myself, I questioned about how well non-English characters, particularly Arabic characters were rendered and how easy it was to read Right-to-Left. It was surprisingly easy.
After a bit of chit-chat, and upon learning he was studying at a local university, I broached the topic of religion. I simply asked, “I make no assumption about whether you are religious and if so if you are Muslim; however, I recently spent some time studying the [Holy] Qur'an as part of a study of World religions. I downloaded an electronic version of the Qur'an and didn't find the application and presentation very easy to navigate. Would you know if there is a iPad app that is easy to use with English-Arabic interlinear so that I might better understand what the Qur'an says?”
This led to a two-hour discussion of religion, the foolish Zionist movement and by extension the powerful Pre-Millennialist lobby affecting foreign policy decisions and the U.S. meddling in the affairs of other Nation States. It wasn't long until we began to discuss related current affairs, the inflammatory anti-Islamic video that caused the recent outbreak of violence, and then the subsequent attack on the Libyan Embassy, the Death of the US Ambassador to Libya, the Information Officer and their security detail.
My new acquaintance made two very sobering points as we sipped our iced tea surrounded by those imbibing. They were:
Muslims abroad don't hate Americans. They hate our government.
The U.S. Government has consistently and repeatedly allied with the “wrong side” of peace and civility, exploited that relationship to command or provide a presence in the region largely to influence trade relations, often for the purposes of consuming natural resources such as oil, precious metals, and rare earth minerals.
For me these were two painful truths.
There was a third painful truth that my Egyptian dinner guest had failed to grasp, or maybe that I'm naive about.
The truth is that because we are representative Republic, you can't separate Americans and the government of the United States of America. Either this is the truth, or we are no longer a representative Republic made of citizen officials, citizen soldiers and citizen servants serving an involved citizenry. If it is the former, then an attack on a U.S. Embassy, its Ambassador and diplomats is an attach on Americans. Or, we are no longer a representative Republic and our government is an organization bordering on authoritarian rule over its subjects. Of course this is two extremes of a condition and the truth lies somewhere along the continuum between the two extremes.
It does beg the question… towards which end are we currently leaning?
An even more interesting question is what cognitive bias are you bringing to the opinion rolling around in your head. My dinner partner was bringing the cognitive bias of an outsider looking while being inside the very object he was attempting to articulate from an outsider's perspective. Myself, I am an insider looking out through the perspective of someone that has clients and associates in the U.S., Europe, India and China.
I think the jury is out and likely with return with a “hung jury” verdict. There is a part of me that wants to come down on one side or the other, but for our Nation to stop its obvious duplicitous message to our fellow sojourners on this special ball in space.
I dedicate this post to the late Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith and Ambassador Chris Stevens. Two visionary servant leaders who never gave up hope that the People of Libya could rule themselves peacefully and provide a beacon of stability in an ever-destabilizing region. My heart goes out to their loved ones. I can't imagine the pain they must be feeling. For me personally, I do feel a loss having served them in their work.