When my oldest son was in middle school he wrote a paper for his creative writing class where he took a picture of the family and had to describe everyone in detail. He said some very nice things about all of us but there was one line that I will always remember. He said, “my dad is always right, and even when he is wrong he is right.” I was proud that he finally understood that his father, through his vast experience and wisdom, was right on issues that he was too young to have figured out. It wasn’t until a couple years later when I was discussing the paper with my wife and son that I found out that that is not what he meant at all. He meant that even when I was wrong, I thought I was right.
I remembered that story when I read the following blog from the Harvard Business Review on how to eliminate bias when making decisions. The first step towards eliminating bias is to understand that it exists in the first place. Take the time to read through the short blog and you will see that bias comes in a variety of forms and can be very detrimental to the decision making process if not properly managed. We see numbers and are proud that we use data to decide without questioning if the numbers are valid. Our experience has taught us a lot and yet sometimes the past biases the current situation. We allow fancy presentations to influence our decisions as the presenter must know what they are talking about because the slides are so organized.
Over my career I have been a huge proponent of market research and customer interactions. It is critical to completely understand the environment if you are to properly market a drug. I like to look back at the research after the fact and see if success or failure was accurately predicted by the research. I have always been struck by the fact that the signals were always there, but since they were not always the majority opinion and because it was not our current thinking, they were often downplayed or even ignored. It is critical to listen to the minority opinion as they often will push against your bias.
The HBR blog has some very good ideas for how to fight back against bias in order to make better decisions. Perhaps the key is to guard against the quick and the obvious decision. There is a huge need to have contrarian and outside thinking in the process in order to challenge the obvious. Trouble makers or pessimists should be included as they are valuable to the decision making process even though their presence is often disconcerting. They, like the others, are trying for the best answer. Information needs to be gathered from a variety of sources and an effort should be made to look at data that doesn’t support the obvious answer. This takes time and effort and quite frankly it is an art when done correctly.
Everyone is way too busy and many don’t feel they have the time to really examine all sides of an issue before making a decision. I would agree that for many decisions where the outcome is insignificant, decisions can and should be made quickly, but for the more important decisions it is critical to take the time to get it right. The dilemma is in recognizing which decisions fall in which category. By understanding and putting in place guards against bias this will help all your decisions, both big and small. I think I am right about this, unless the blog has biased my thinking.