Unconscious Bias : A killer when pursuing innovation

by Deb Assheton

While working with the future leaders of one of Symmetra’s major clients in Hong Kong recently I was provided with vivid insight into the importance of counter-acting unconscious bias for those organisations wishing to adopt Lean innovation principles in their future service and product developments.

Lean thinking requires that leaders enable an environment that consistently seeks diversity of thought; one that continually generates opportunities to explore new ideas. The better leaders then consider these opportunities with an attitude of not knowing, that is ‘I don’t know…let’s test and see’ and then iterate through experimentation. This framework and approach is a vast departure from a traditional organisational leadership role where a leader is often the ‘expert’, and the decision maker.

The ability to suspend judgement and allow the experimentation and testing process to unfold requires that leaders acknowledge their biases. In the world of Symmetra’s client some examples of the strong biases which surfaced during Lean workshops were:

Interest bias – where leaders were reluctant to ‘throw away’ their own ideas, even after testing demonstrated they weren’t viable

Social bias – subjecting one idea to less than rigour than others because the idea had the support of several leaders

Diagnosis bias – during customer discovery this emerged as asking leading questions of customers. That is, leaders were subtly asking questions that ‘herded customer responses’ to a pre-determined outcome – the outcome the leader thought would be best.

Action bias – there was a very strong tendency amongst this group, as we see in many organisations, to rush into action before all the questions were answered, and all the risks were understood.

Company ‘think and speak’ was the major enemy when discussing ideas with customers during real interviews. Company speak meant executives talked about features, when customers wanted to understand benefits. Company think meant time and money were being spent on non-value add activities out of ‘institutional’ habit rather than productive ones.

Perhaps the biggest call out was learning to sit side by side with ‘failure’ everyday, and to embrace it as a necessary step in the innovation process. Just about every founder knows that 90% of start-up’s fail, yet they start-up anyway – why? Because they believe they can find a way.

They seek success, but the search frequently runs into dead ends, encounters false starts and missed opportunities, and perhaps ends in the failure of the whole venture. Sometimes the search may yield a new and initially unimagined business opportunity that is scalable and ultimately successful. Either way, re-framing the ability to fail and learning from failure as a necessary, valuable and competitively advantageous skill -set is a major challenge for most leaders and organisations. This particular group demonstrated a deep willingness to learn, using activities which provoked their thinking, created awareness and challenged their assumptions. They adapted quickly. They re-framed failure as practice, and got better at asking questions to leverage diversity of thought. They owned their biases and mentally parked them; demonstrating that they too could create a culture that finds a way.

 

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