The start of a new calendar year triggers many of us to reflect on what we want to do new or differently in the coming year, whether personally or professionally. Professionally it’s a moment where many of us start with new plans, new budgets, fresh, eager and ready to achieve more than we did the year before. Though we are starting a new year, what we do and how we get things done stays unchanged unless we consciously make an effort to recognise and break out of our biases.
As humans, we are inherently biased, it is part of our neurological programming and helped us survive and evolve over centuries. Buster Benson writes a great overview for why our cognitive biases exist and why they are helpful: to overcome information overload (by filtering information), construct meaning out of that information (by mapping to our mental models), act quickly (making split-second decisions for our survival, security or success) and to choose what to remember (helping us to adapt & improve over time). In today’s modern world, not every challenge/problem/opportunity is a lion wanting to eat us for breakfast. The downside of our biases in our professional lives is an inattentional blindness –some of the information we filter out is important, we imagine details that do not exist because we have filled in the blanks, our quick decisions can lead us to jump too quickly to incorrect solutions and our memory continues to reinforce the same models even if they have led us down the wrong path in the past.
Taking the time to set out what you want to do and achieve in the coming year is important and equally so is to be aware of and challenge your own biases and automatic filters as they will inform what you choose to work on and how you will work towards your goals. Awareness is a start, and in our experience, there are several ways to break free from our biases. We apply these practices below (which find their basis in the latest neuroscientific studies) in our own work with clients helping to improve their decision-making processes and especially in ‘bias’ breakthrough sessions which we run through our Breakthrough Studio.
1. Do not jump too quickly into a solution
Our own neurological programming combined with the pressure to get results fast can trigger us to jump too quickly into solutions. We need to consciously add time between action and reaction, between facing a problem and jumping to a solution. Problems can have multiple root causes and jumping into solutions too quickly often addresses only the symptoms. A simple exercise such as asking why five times to understand and scope the problem leads to better solutions which address the root causes and not only the symptoms.
2. Adopt a beginner’s mind
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Have you ever taken a walk with a child and let them lead the way? In the same walk, they will notice and observe things that you simply did not see; because they are beginners nearly everything they see around them is relevant and therefore little is unseen. Asking open questions, checking for a second or third opinion from a non-expert colleague, challenging your solutions before acting are all ways to adopt a beginner’s mind to your work.
3. Look at the problem from multiple angles
Take the time to look at the problem you are trying to solve from different lenses. You can do this by looking at the problem through the eyes of different roles/persons that are affected by the issues, looking at the different organisational levels or functions, etc.
4. Look for inspiration from non-typical sources
We often design experiences to challenge the thinking of our clients and expand their creative thinking by getting them to engage with non-typical sources of inspiration. This can be meeting with the teams of a company in a different industry, running a physical simulation, applying techniques from the world of the arts; non-typical sources of inspiration help us to be more conscious and break out of our own patterns because they look at and interact with the world in a very different way.
5. Set the problem aside and do something completely different
Our brain when focused too intensely for too long gets tired. By doing this, we let the brain recover while we know that it is unconsciously working on a solution. That is why we sometimes get our best ideas when jogging, or in the shower!
6. Harvest your insights before jumping into conclusions
Do not go from insights into action with a single leap. Summarising your insights and then thinking of how those insights can apply or not to your challenges forces you to not simply copy paste and then get disappointed when the solution does not work. Transposing the insights by thinking through how they are relevant and how to put them into action will result in more tailored and impactful solutions.
7. Safe-to-fail experiments that you can test
We often look for fail-safe solutions, the imaginary silver bullets that will solve everything in one fell swoop. Some problems are more complex or opportunities we want to capitalise on are too new to us. Identifying safe-to-fail experiments, agreeing on how to track their success or failure and how to amplify or recover is a more dynamic and agile way of working towards your goals.
We do have to live with our biases, and the good news is there are also ways that we can consciously, explicitly and structurally break ourselves out of them. The beginning of the year is a great moment to reflect and get clarity in different and new ways (breaking out of your typical biases) on what problem you are really trying to solve or what opportunity you really want to capitalise on and on how to address it to have a real impact.
Araz Najarian is partner at ELP and together with her colleague Aranka Zondag she coordinates ELP’s Breakthrough Studio-practice.