We also call these System 1 shortcuts “cognitive biases.” In this article, we will take a closer look at some of these biases and ask ourselves the question: What influences us in our decision making and how can we deal with it?
Cognitive biases in the agile context
Slowness or slow thinking helps us to consciously think through and make decisions. This allows us to do the right things (effectiveness) and not just merely do the sometimes-wrong things right (efficiency). At the same time, we experience a negative connotation of the word “slowness.” This is because our western economic image is shaped by the belief that “time is money”. In connection with slowness, this means: If we are slow, then we are also wasting money. However, it would be more correct to say that if we take the time to do the right things, we ultimately save time and money. So, what prevents us from making slow decisions?
For this, let’s take a look at the cognitive biases we are subject to. Kahneman and many of his colleagues have explored a whole range of biases, but at this point we will only go into a few essential ones.
Priming: The stimulus A influences the perception and processing of stimulus B. An example from practice could be the hiring process of a new applicant for a scrum team. Before the team makes its decision, a team member who has already met the applicant is enthusiastic about her professional and technical skills (Stimulus A). If the rest of the team now gets to know the applicant (Stimulus B), further impressions are influenced by the evaluation of the colleague.
Anchoring: The first piece of flow of information influences our processing of all subsequent information. We know this as a common tactic in price negotiations: the higher the first-mentioned price, i. e., the anchor, the higher the negotiation’s outcome. Anyone who has ever experienced a product owner presenting his user story for estimation with the words “It can’t really be more than a three!” knows the challenge: the anchor is in place and the team has a hard time coming up with a higher, but probably, a more realistic estimate.
The first two effects teach us: if you want to receive honest feedback, use neutral language as most as possible and use open questions. At the same time, prior information should be kept to a minimum and, in the best case, should only reflect a context for decision making. Providing the context – in which everyone can think for themselves – is essential to making good decisions in the group. As a result, some decisions may take longer, but it is time well spent, because the team members are committed to and are highly bought-in.
Availability of information: This term covers a whole range of effects. What these effects have in common is that they describe how our thinking deals with the availability – or rather unavailability – of information. This is relevant because we never have all existing information available to us and sometimes do not even have all the necessary information. Since it is tedious to identify and fill these information gaps, System 1 in our brain likes to take mental shortcuts. As a result, our evaluation is permanently made under uncertainty, which we often hardly perceive as such. This is because our brain inconspicuously fills in incomplete information and gaps, forms unconscious associations, and thus lulls us into a deceptive sense of security. Two effects stand out in particular:
– Substitution heuristics: Here our brain plays a special trick on us, because it replaces difficult things with simple ones. A question that is too difficult for our brain to answer is replaced by a simple question without us being aware of it.
For example, the question “Are we agile?” is not easy to answer, so we like to replace it with the question: “Are we doing Scrum?” And then we state, “Yes, we do because we have Daily Scrums, a Sprint Planning, a Sprint Review and sometimes a Sprint Retrospective. So, we are agile!” However, how the individual events are lived and whether they reflect scrum values is much more essential to answering the question “Are we agile?”
– Halo effect: This effect describes a disproportionately strong impact of a single characteristic or an aspect on the overall impression and therefore independent characteristics are perceived as interrelated.
For example, a person whom we find likeable could at the same time appear to us as a good and competent Scrum Master. While a likable appearance is certainly important for the tasks of a Scrum Master, it says nothing about how well the person knows agile development practices, conflict resolution techniques and coaching.
All these aforementioned effects occur because we do not have enough information available, but our brain needs its own causality to interpret the environment. We remember: System 1 (modus operandi) constantly checks whether there is a need to act or a danger, and quickly derives decisions in order to deal with it.
How can we deal with cognitive biases to make good decisions?
First, we must realize that we are always subject to these effects, no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Moreover, we are usually not affected by just one effect, but by several at the same time. Most of the time this is not a problem, on the contrary: System 1 takes over important functions for us and helps us to efficiently make countless daily decisions. But some decisions need more attention and awareness and for such decisions System 1 is not a helpful mode.
To make a decision, we are helped by the questions: Should everything stay as it is? Trust your System 1 – our intuition. Do we need a conscious decision, a purposeful change? Activate System 2 – our conscious thinking. Just by doing this, we have already activated System 2 and are now better able to make a conscious decision.
So, what specifically can we do to deal with bias and make good decisions?
- Solicit feedback and self-reflection: What are our blind spots? What haven’t we thought of yet? Who can we talk to for a contrarian opinion? Although it can be uncomfortable at times, feedback is the fastest and best way to incorporate other views and perspectives into our decisions. To do this, work with open questions that are phrased as neutrally as possible to avoid priming and anchoring.
- Maximize transparency. Decentralized decisions offer numerous advantages and are indispensable in a complex environment. However, they can only work if decision-relevant information also reaches the people, who have to make the decisions. What information can management share to help departments and teams make better decisions? What information could help our environment? Where do we have bottlenecks? Where might I be currently acting as a bottleneck for information?
- Very specifically, in hectic situations: “Sit on both hands!” This prevents impulsive, reactionist type of activism and thus makes you force to slow down. Positive side effect: physical discomfort activates System 2.
- Make decisions like in the airplane cockpit – together with your crew! The captain on board never makes critical decisions alone. The only exception: when it’s a matter of seconds. However, how often in our daily work is it really a matter of minutes or even seconds? Involve your crew!
- Pairing: Many appreciate pair programming and the quality improvement it can bring. But also Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches and Managers can pair in their daily work and, thus, include additional perspectives. So, what is stopping us from exemplifying it ourselves?
With all attention for deliberate slowness, sometimes it’s okay to give your System 2 a break and just let System 1 drive you. What cognitive distortion have you already observed at yourself? What shortcuts has your System 1 already taken? And what helps you activate your System 2? Let us know in the comments below!
Follow this link to part 1.
Kahneman, Daniel (2011) Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York