How Entrepreneurs Can Overcome Confirmation Bias
Is your next billion-dollar idea really all it's cracked up to be?
Whether you're a fresh-out-of-college intern or an experienced CEO, biases shape our social reality based on past experiences, perceptions and emotions, instead of data-backed objectivity. But our brains' efforts to simplify information-processing could turn out to be either a life-saver or a Pandora's box.
As entrepreneurs, we are particularly susceptible to cognitive biases. One reason is we tend to be balancing multiple tasks and risky decision-making. Another explanation could be that entrepreneurialism attracts personality types that are more inclined to act on hunches. But to heed Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."
Confirmation bias, or the tendency to search for information that confirms our preconceived notions, can be especially pervasive. For instance, if a CEO introduces a self-proclaimed "million-dollar idea" and directs his team to conduct market research into its potential, the team is more likely than not to develop positive results endorsing the concept. I would sum it up in author Paula Stokes's words: "People are always clinging to what they want to hear, discarding the evidence that doesn't fit with their beliefs, giving greater weight to evidence that does."
Bias shouldn't creep into the research methodology
Large organizations have the luxury of enough data to experiment and base decisions on. For small businesses and startups, data is limited, and surveys or interviews are often the research methodology of choice. In these cases, it's best to stick to neutral questions; leading questions supporting a point of view could spell disaster. It might be worth roping in a third party to vet the questionnaire before it's administered.
Let's say I'm tasked with market research to find out pain points within ticket-management tools. A leading question would be, "What are the problems you face with your current solution?" as this presumes there are problems that should be the primary focus. A neutral alternative might be, "Describe a solution you applied in a recent circumstance." To determine if a product feature is good enough, try employing a ranking question to assess it.
Fighting the devil within
Find an individual who can play devil's advocate to fight the devil of confirmation bias within yourself. However, make sure the appointed individual demonstrates sound reasoning and logic. The task is to highlight faults in the proposal and counter them to satisfy the devil's advocate. The result could be exploring all the possible alternatives and critically analyzing each one of them. To quote author Andy Stanley's, "Leaders who don't listen will be eventually surrounded by people who have nothing to say." Leaders who don't listen are often doomed to corporate calamity.
Premortem as a practical workaround
Most of us can come up with 10 different causes that have led to past failures? But how about walking through hypothetical future events? This is a proven strategy for anticipating obstacles that don't always occur with plain foresight, posssibly preventing a future fiasco.
We are hardwired to fall prey to confirmation bias, but these biases prevent us from growing and achieving our goals. Be sure not to let your guard down, and you'll avoid mistaking subjective reasoning for time-tested common sense.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor