Is your “Confirmation Bias” Backing you into a Corner?

are your confirmation biases blinding you?

Confirmation Bias + Misplaced focus = Epic Failure

Confirmation Bias is a common phenomenon where humans view large quantities of evidence and choose to give greater weight (or even all the weight) to those items that support their theories. Think of it as a recipe for disaster:

Confirmation bias + Excess focus on the areas we know best (regardless of their importance)Epic Failures a.k.a. Projects that consume a ton of energy and yield little in the way of results.

In her recent book, “The Upside of Down” Megan McArdle gives two great examples of “confirmation bias”, one dealing with the “Truthers” who claim the 9/11 bombings were a secret government project and the other example an examination of how different groups view the reasons for the recent financial crisis, each “team” selecting the evidence that support their theory and rejecting other bits of evidence.

Lately it has become easier and easier for all of us to ignore or reject information that runs contrary to our internal views. Depending on your politics you can select a news channel that will then present the news in a slant that will endlessly confirm your world view. Any dissenting opinions will be cut off, minimized or mocked.  The speed at which an internet based news society disseminates information also allows for a minimum of in-depth journalism, much less fact checking.

Unfortunately we do that inside of the business world as well. Labels such as “negative,” “nit-picky” or “impractical” can be accurate, but they can also be used to ignore dissent, or worse yet, critical red flags. As a business leader, if you’re committed to doing great things, you need to be open to listening to your critics. There may be a nugget of gold in there.

Years ago I worked at a dot com. After working there for several months, I was told we’d be launching free websites for real estate agents, then charging for them at some distant later point. Having come from an accounting background I asked some questions about the timing of the future revenues vs. the cost of extending the free sites for an indefinite time. I remember being told very clearly (and somewhat condescendingly,) that I “didn’t understand the model.” I went home that evening, questioning myself, my brain, even my ability to function in a changing world. I ran the numbers, researched other similar models, and calculated the rough costs of the tens of thousands of dollars I knew that the company was spending each day. (Our “burn rate” was to the tune of about 500K per week). I decided I was simply “not getting it” clearly a dinosaur unprepared for the new world of the internet based business model. I was 33 years old and a dinosaur.

I was wrong. I understood the model. The company, however, did not. They shut down 8 months later, having been unable to convert the “business model” into a sustainable business fast enough. The investors were unwilling to provide any more funds as well. They apparently didn’t understand the “business model” either.

As you create your plan, your vision, listen to the dissenters. Ask questions, probe for why. Punch holes in your own plan. Play devil’s advocate and picture a model that operates on entirely different assumptions than the model you chose. Why is your model more valid? Where are your confirmation biases? When you’ve uncovered them, and examined the dissenting evidence and factored it into the model, that’s when you’re ready to begin!

Need some more ideas on how to make sure your project is ready to go? Start here.

Worried about your blind spots? Read this.

Afraid you aren’t seeing the bubble you live in? Try this.

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Are you Settling?

If you settle too often you might as well quit swinging

What’s your batting average? When was the last time you swung for the fences?

There are times when only a “duct tape” fix will do. You may not have the resources to do things exactly as you wanted or planned.  It may have to wait. But at what point do you need to insist on doing things YOUR way?

If you are ALWAYS settling, and your products or projects are becoming something you wouldn’t really want to put your name on, or can’t imagine talking about if asked to describe any career highlights in the last year or so, it’s time to do a self-inventory.

1. Are you settling to get something truly more important done?

2. Are you settling just once, or does it happen every time?

3. How important are the details you are compromising on?

I realize this might sound contradictory to the advice to consider a minimum viable project, but being an effective change manager means you try to hit a delicate balance that ultimately, moves the team forward. Holding out for perfection at all times gets you nowhere, but compromising into an endless series of “meh” results also will get you nowhere.

“Sometimes you win, Sometimes you lose, Sometimes, it rains” Bull Durham.

What’s your batting average? Are you winning? Are you losing? Bunting? When was your last home run? If you’re losing more than you’re winning, it may be time to change your approach. Or at least your batting stance.

Pick your pitch and connect. Hard. Get the free steak (but put your headphones on if you’re watching in the office! )

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If you can’t figure out why you’re losing, maybe you need to look at your company and your place in it with fresh eyes. Get our free guide to Reading the Terrain and do a deep dive on what’s going on.

 

Can you Make it Simpler?

Kiss graphicSometimes you need a fully designed, perfectly branded, heavily tested, peer reviewed and approved solution or product. (Highly recommended if you’re a brain surgeon or drug manufacturer). But if you’re not risking lives with your solution or product, what would happen if you kept it simple?

Lean Methodology uses the concept of a “Minimum Viable Product”, primarily as a way to test market response. Have you considered trying that approach on your next proposed business project?

You should consider all the angles and implications of a change strategy. But once you have, if a simple solution will increase efficiency and revenue for 95% of your core business, and not materially damage the rest, wouldn’t it be best to put your efforts there?

Start simple.  Start today.

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5 dumb things people do when they try to change the workplace. Especially # 2

  1. Choose your actions carefully when you are the replacement for a weak leader

    Try to avoid these bad approaches!

    Constantly talk about how another company does “it” (i.e. whatever change is being made). Google may be great, Joe’s Ribs up the street may be dandy as well, but if all your points of reference as to why the company should change refers to how one other company is doing whatever you do, eventually people will tune you out, and the less polite will suggest you go work there, preferably immediately. If you are using other companies as a reference point, make sure to vary your examples and also be aware of your own company’s particular strengths. And if your reference point is a defunct company, make sure the item or behavior you’re proposing to adopt was not a key reason for the company’s demise.

  2. Place too much weight on their business unit’s corner of the world vs. its relative importance to the overall company success. It’s great to play to your strengths, its also good to streamline and perfect processes under your control. However if your area of expertise is only delivering .5% of the bottom line and all of your change plans aren’t likely to significantly change that, don’t expect the whole company to change to accommodate your plans.
  3. Insist on leading a change project because it was your idea.  Yes, it’s important to get credit for your good ideas. Unfortunately you may not have the skills and connections yet to lead the whole change. Don’t sulk if you don’t get to lead the charge. Ask for a position on the team, just don’t expect to be the chief.
  4. Expect the change plan to remain exactly as first envisioned. Tweaks, detours, roadblocks and Version’s 2.0, 5.0 and 6.0 are to be expected.
  5. Ignore the “unwritten rules” of the prevailing culture. If the team is predominantly highly competitive, slightly hyperactive people, they’re not going to sit through too many “talk through our feelings” sessions. If the team is a group of highly sensitive, keenly attuned to human behavior, social work type professionals, you won’t turn them into sales people overnight. Don’t take the company’s written values statements at face value, look at its actions, its people and its internal culture before mapping out your plan.
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Need some more things to consider before creating your plan? Read our 10 rules of turnaround. Want to make sure you’re identifying the “unwritten rules” of your workplace? Get our free field guide to ask yourself the right questions.

Just need a whole new approach this year? Try this instead.

 

Turnaround Rule #10.5 Know When to Go.

 

Know when to exit a turnaround situation

The dirty secret of completing a turnaround is knowing when to leave.

One of the dirty little secrets of being a change agent is that sometimes it’s time to go once your best work is done.  It’s good to go out on top.  The part no one talks about is that sometimes you have to create such a shakeup, there will be those with their knives out waiting for your first misstep the second your triumph becomes public.

Classic example.  I was a senior director at a large government services agency where the entire management team had been brought in to create an amazing turnaround. The executive director had taken on a complex, politically fraught (and, given the environment, often life-threatening) job, and executed an amazing turnaround. She was feted first in the industrial journals, then more publicly. The majority of the turnaround took three years culminating in national recognition. The agency, previously rated at a 33, was given a perfect 100 score by its regulator. There was talk of a Cabinet appointment. The director demurred, feeling there was more work to do.

A few more years went by. A different political party took office for the next 8 years. No more Cabinet appointment-speak…but still some acclaim. And slowly but surely, those whose apple cart she had upset were waiting with knives drawn.  Suddenly there were whispers about her salary, two of her contract arrangements, and talk of having her removed. By the time the next “friendly” national  administration was in place, the damage was done.

Was she perfect? No. As a matter of fact, I didn’t care for one of those contracts and felt a better deal could be negotiated locally.  But she took one of the single most daunting tasks of cleaning up a notoriously corrupt agency and turned it around.  In record time.  Which everyone conveniently forgot about 8 years later.  They forgot what it was like when the post office decided not to deliver to one of the facilities because the hail of bullets were so bad. That area that now hosts national golf tournaments, a model community and a fantastic magnet school.

Go out on top. Go out when the work is 99% done. There is nothing over 100%, no awards that equal A+++. If you’re good at this, you need to move on to the next challenge.  I am in no way advocating a “band aid” cure as a permanent fix but get out while the next opportunities are flying in the door. Otherwise you’ll forever be talking about your triumphs in past tense, because once you have everything thriving, the world collectively forgets what it took to get there all too quickly.

Have you ever overstayed after a project was done? Share in the comments box!

Did you miss rules 1-10? Get them here.

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Rule #10: Celebrate the Victories, even the Small Ones

Victory Celebrations

It’s okay to celebrate “4 out of 5” of our solutions worked today!

When you’re leading a significant project, especially one that may not generate instant results, it’s important to celebrate your victories along the way. When you first create your plan, put in some milestones to celebrate, and rejoice at some of the milestones you couldn’t predict.

Celebrate when the computer coding finally works the correct way. Celebrate when half of the employees fill out the new form. Recognize those who “got with the program” and did something to support the plan.

Let the whole team know when any progress is made, was there an uptick in sales? Did the supplies bill go down by 10% last month? Did 5% of the donors give more than they usually do? Client cancellations decrease? Chart it; use one of those old fashioned thermometer posters if the workplace has a central gathering place. Post your scorecards. Show the progress in some tangible way.

It’s rare to get dramatic results overnight. Some days a victory may even consist of “At least Joe in Accounting only rolled his eyes three times when we were presenting.” (Those victories are best celebrated privately by your working team, don’t post them on the scorecard!).

Momentum comes with motivation. As the leader, it’s your job to keep the momentum going.

Next up: The Super Duper, Top Secret Rule You need to Know from the Very Beginning.

What’s the best Victory Celebration you’ve been a part of? Share in the comments below:

Did you miss the first nine Rule of Beginning a Turnaround? Find them here.

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Rule # 9: Change Does Not Occur in a Vacuum

Shadows of change

Great Strategists understand they operate in the shadows of the history that came before.

Seth Godin said this so much more eloquently than I can; he calls it “The People Who Came Before You.”  When you begin to share your strategic plan with your team or your organization, you are standing in the shadow of all the ghosts who enacted change, or attempted to, with the same group. You are standing in the shadow of their experiences in other workplaces, at home and in past relationships.

If cost reduction strategies have always started with massive layoffs in the past, regardless of your words, the team will only hear “layoffs.”  If revenue growth meant giant sales goals that bore no relationship to reality, your “increase sales with our new strategy” will be reinterpreted as “We’re going to get some new scripting to take to the field and then they’ll raise our goal numbers.” Did the last strategic planning session feature a boring four day retreat followed by a zippy new mission statement and a binder that was shelved for all eternity the day after the retreat? Well, your call for a new focus on strategic planning will likely be met with some new mission statement suggestions and a request to vet the hotel location so everyone can set their tee times up front.

Ghosts take a heavy toll on team progress, especially when they are confronting change. Respect that the people you are asking to make that leap are carrying the baggage of many past adventures, the good, the bad, the awful and hopefully, the fantastic.  Having the right team in place before your unleash your plan is an important step. Asking that team about what has happened in the past, will help you unroll your plan to the larger audience in a way that can help people trust you enough to make the leap.

Want to get all 10 Rules for Beginning a Turnaround? Click HERE

What Baggage have you had to address when rolling out new plans? How did you handle it? Please share in the comments below!

P.S. Think you covered all of that and your project still isn’t getting any love? Try here.

book by Jeanne Goldie

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Rule #8: Understand the Art, Science and Use of Duct Tape

box covered in messy duct tape

There is a time for elegance, and there is a time for Duct Tape

There is a time for elegant fixes. Breathtaking strategies that will be the subject of Wharton case studies for generations to come.  And then, there are times when only duct tape will do.

A duct tape fix can be many things. A temporary patch used while working on the elegant solution which will take time and money.  It can also take the shape of a workaround, a set of processes that mimic the structure of a true fix, but are a temporary substitute until you can find the resources for a permanent fix.  It can also be a compromise, when the opportunity cost of a true fix is simply too high.

It’s important to be clear when you are implementing a duct tape fix, to know the rationale behind choosing this option, and how long the tape can hold before rotting away or springing a leak. The danger comes when the duct tape fix becomes permanent, and really can’t do the job.

Just to be clear, duct tape is not a “smoke and mirrors” fix. It’s not meant to fool anyone, just a necessary evil at times. Use your duct tape fixes wisely and selectively.

P.S. Somehow I imagine this book was written by a change agent who decided to toss in the towel on “duct tape” fixes and expand their horizons!

What’s the most creative “duct tape” fix you’ve had to utilize? Share in the comments below!

Want to see all 10 Rules for Beginning a Turnaround? Start here.

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Rule #7: Locate the Elephants

How do you navigate operational change when there's an elephant in the room?

How do you navigate operational change when there’s an elephant in the room?

Almost every business has an elephant or two; the problem everyone pretends isn’t there. How do you successfully create change without the elephant crushing your plans?

Elephants can take many forms. They can be a troubled department that creates a permanent roadblock, or a dysfunctional team.  Sometimes they can be a poor technology choice, where the cost was so great replacement is prohibitive but functionality is far less than optimal. Other times the elephant is the ghost of past decisions, a bad outsourcing decision, or a poor acquisition.  In a smaller firm it might be a ledger full of “accounts payable” where the elephant is that those accounts are likely to never pay, but no one takes them off the books because the reality would just be too bleak if they were removed.

In many workplace cultures, pointing out the elephant is actively discouraged.  In some rare cases, it’s career suicide. Pointing out problems can be viewed as negative, or whining, so sometimes it’s best to figure out what the elephants are, and how you’ll work around them in your strategy rather than charge the elephant head on.

Creating a strategy that derives results that may allow the group to put the elephant to rest is a win-win. If you do decide to “tackle the elephant” head on, it’s critical that you have strong supporters, a great plan and a reasonable timeline. When you create your strategy you may not name the elephant in your plan, but you need to absolutely account for it in your design.

Have you ever had to work around the elephant in the room? How did you conquer it? Share in the comments below…

Want to see all 10 Rules for Beginning a Turnaround? Start here.

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Our Guide: Reading the Terrain: A Short Field Guide to Understanding the Corporate Landscape, will give you some great observational questions to help you identify the obvious and not so obvious elephants.  Get it free when you subscribe to our site! Simply put your email in the box at right. We will send you site updates and will not share your address with anyone.

 

Rule# 6: Build a Measuring Stick.

Find a way to measure the benefit of your plan, bonus points if you can tie it to costs or revenues!

Find a way to measure the benefit of your plan, bonus points if you can tie it to reducing costs or increasing revenues!

I was raised to be “of service” to others. My mother is the first to volunteer for any task that needs doing and we all developed a strong sense of duty towards others.  Most likely that is why I spent much of my early career in government and non-profit work before turning to the corporate world.

I was very effective in getting financial and executive support for my projects because I had a secret weapon. I majored in accounting in college, and it gave me a firm grasp of the numeric value of any activity and the importance in being able to attribute activities to the revenue or expense ledger. At a non-profit or government agency I was always the person trying to measure our results, determine the activity’s value relative to costs or expense and then find someone who would be willing to pay for it.  We were famous for having all of our employees able to recite chapter and verse how many people we had helped at what cost and with what results, preferably tied to a monetary measurement. Later, when I worked for an insurance company and had to evaluate non-profits for partnership opportunities, an instant mental “No” was rendered when they couldn’t reasonably demonstrate some quantifiable results or outcomes, and the “No” was doubly reinforced if the staff gave me significantly different answers than the director or development director.

It’s not easy to measure things, some defy easy quantitative measurement.  If I keep fifteen teenagers in an after-care program that keeps them from going home alone in the afternoon and possibly getting into mischief, how do you quantify it? Graduates of your program may not have made it to college yet, so you don’t have a warm fuzzy story for the fundraising brochure (but as soon as one of them does, put that kid in a college t-shirt, on campus, holding a bunch of textbooks and get that picture! Sells ’em every time).

In for-profit businesses there are initiatives that can also defy easy quantification. What does “deliver better customer service” translate into in dollars and cents? What about community outreach or sponsorships?  What exactly does reducing customer response time yield that will make a dent in earnings season?

Find a way to measure it. There is almost always a way.  Talk to people in similar arenas, and talk to some not in the industry.  Talk to your Human Calculator, give them all the approaches you came up with and have them get creative.

If you can measure the value it adds or the costs it saves, and if you chart incremental progress, you can demonstrate success, which keeps enthusiasm high for your project, even if there is a bobble along the way.

So how DO you measure the Teenager After-Care example?

One approach:

Studies show that kids between 13 and 15 are X times as likely to get pregnant  and Y times as likely to get into trouble that will do Z to their criminal record when they go home alone after school.

A pregnant  teenager costs the American taxpayer (or county taxpayer or city taxpayer) $___, while a juvenile arrest costs the taxpayer $____.  By funding aftercare for these 15 teenagers we are greatly reducing the odds of these things happening, and saving taxpayers $(all of the above multiplied by the results expected if the 15 kids weren’t in care) which is ten times (or hopefully some other ridiculously high number) the cost of providing funds for the program. So we save our community 9 times every dollar we spend!

How have you found ways to quantify things that defy easy measurement? Share in the comments below, you’ll be helping everyone!

By the way one of my favorite Albert Einstein quotes is “Everything that can be
counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily
be counted.” Very, very true. But to sell your idea, you need to try to count it!

Want to see all 10 Rules for Beginning a Turnaround? Start here.

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© Jeanne Goldie 2015