Guest Contributor: Adam Hansen
February 2nd always brings me to one question – why have I seen Groundhog Day so many times? Sure, I’m a Bill Murray fan, Andie MacDowell is perfectly cast, and we get to enjoy the great, departed Harold Ramis at the peak of his powers as auteur. But it’s not—in viewing or on paper—a great movie. So why have I seen it so many times? And for that matter, why have you?
Because we want to learn how to release ourselves from our own Groundhog Days – both professional and personal.
Just like Murray’s character Weatherman Phil at the start of the movie, most of us move through much of life on autopilot, using a type of thinking that behavioral-science folks call System 1. We don’t want to break a sweat mentally, it’s not efficient, so we rely on what we already know. We use mental shortcuts called Cognitive Biases – pesky, non-conscious bugs in our thinking that keep us rooted in our routines rather than moving forward towards what we really want.
Cognitive Biases are a feature of all human thinking – yes, we all have them. While they developed for really good reasons a long time ago, in today’s world they often stand in the way of innovation, keeping us stuck in a Groundhog Day idea loop. So what would Weatherman Phil do? In order to escape his Groundhog Day, Weatherman Phil has to overcome three key Cognitive Biases including:
Negativity Bias—this idea that bad is stronger than good clouds our judgment. We imagine disastrous outcomes before we’ve taken the first step, and nip so many potentially great ideas in the bud before we even get the chance to give them a fair hearing. But, as with Weatherman Phil, the solution we’re seeking is often in these new, riskier ideas. In other words, have a little faith, break out of that System 1 autopilot thinking, and take a chance.
Availability Bias—the idea that we’re apt to make decisions based on what’s most available and handy in our immediate memory. The problem is that those items aren’t representative. They’re skewed by emotion, cultural milieu, what happened on your commute that morning, etc. When you learn to take a few minutes to gather stimulus, it helps you make a better decision and get past the traps of the proximate and the pressing. You won’t need to do this for most of the small decisions you make every day, but you’ll be surprised how much better your decisions will become when you take a few minutes (how about five?) for thoughtful input.
Confirmation Bias – the tendency to seek out evidence that supports decisions and positions we’ve already embraced. This is comforting, but misleading. We want to reinforce what we already have decided, so we thumb the scale for anything that looks like it might support our decisions, and then argue that anything that puts a dent in our argument doesn’t really apply. But we know that this is lazy System 1 thinking again. Truth bears scrutiny. So take a pause and do some quick assumption busting. Play with the assumptions behind your thinking and see what would happen if you broke or relaxed them. We can always come back to where we were, but it’s helpful to see if we should trade in our hypotheses for sturdier ones.
As we learn more about how what’s really going on inside our head, we too become more effective, first in our immediate personal efforts, and then as a group member, helping others better understand their own thinking. We do this not by acting as judge, but as someone else working on it.
These cognitive biases are persistent hummers. They evolved over millennia and we’re not going to expunge them in a team-building exercise. Steady as she goes. Just like Phil, we’ll almost see our way out and then get trapped again. So we have to dig in and commit for the long haul.
As Phil overcomes his cognitive biases, we see his humanity emerge and he gains greater perspective. He becomes a better person as he uses his opportunity to experiment and learn. Seeing the reality of his own and others’ foibles slowly helps him grow.
Having a well-grounded understanding of our being in this boat together, and some humility, curiosity, and sense of humor about it is the way forward. Undoing our expectations about what we thought was going on is the necessary first step in the whole process.
For those interested in learning more about how to move innovation forward, we invite you to check out Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation™ Approach Drives Your Company Forward, where you’ll find insight about what’s going on with Negativity Bias, Availability Bias, Confirmation Bias and five more cognitive biases tripping up innovation and discover what to do about them.
ADAM HANSEN is VP of Innovation/Innovation Process Consultant at Ideas To
Go and a career-long innovation leader, student and devotee. He received his
MBA in product management at Indiana University. He has served on the
board of the Product Development and Management Association and as an
innovation and strategy expert with select causes in education and public
health care. For more information go to www.ideastogo.com.