Why do we miss the signs and misread information?
Obviously, these are important questions for IT leaders, enterprise architects and IT governance pros who are often managing or developing plans for large and complex IT budgets. And where the soundness of decisions on IT investments can mean technological superiority, market leadership and profitability or failed IT projects and sinking organizational prospects.
An article in MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter 2009, provides some interesting perspective on this.
“Organizations get blindsided not so much because decision makers aren’t seeing signals, but because they jump to the most convenient or plausible conclusion, rather than fully considering other interpretations.”
Poor decision makers hone in on simple or what seems like obvious answers, because it’s easier in the short-term than perhaps working through all the facts, options, and alternative points of view to reach more precise conclusions.
Additionally, “both individual and organizational biases prevent…signals from getting through” that would aid decision making.
How do these biases happen?
SUBJECTIVITY: We subjectively listen almost exclusively to our own prejudiced selves and distort any conflicting information. The net effect is that we do not fully appreciate other possible perspectives or ways of looking at problems. We do this through:
- Filtering—We selectively perceive what we want to and block out anything that doesn’t fit what we want to or expect to see. For example, we may ignore negative information about an IT investment that we are looking to acquire.
- Distortions—Information that manages to get through our mental and emotional filters, may get rationalized away or otherwise misinterpreted. For example, we might “shift blame for a mistake we made to someone else.”
- Bolstering—Not only do we filter and distort information, but we may actually look for information to support our subjective view. For example, “we might disproportionately talk to people who already agree with us.”
GROUPTHINK: “a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas.” (Wikipedia)
“In principle, groups should be better than individuals at detecting changes and responding to them. But often they are not, especially if the team in not managed well, under pressure, and careful not to rock the boat.”
Interestingly enough, many IT investment review boards, which theoretically should be helping to ensure sound IT investments, end up instead as prime examples of groupthink on steroids.
If we are going to make better IT decisions in the organization then we need to be honest with ourselves and with others. With ourselves, we need to acknowledge the temptation to take the simple, easy answer that is overwhelmingly directed by personal biases and instead opt for more information from all sources to get a clearer picture of reality.
Secondly, we need to be aware that domineering and politically powerful people in our organizations and on our governance boards may knowingly or inadvertently drown out debate and squash important alternate points of view.
If we do not fairly and adequately vet important decisions, then we will end up costing the enterprise dearly in terms of bad investments, failed IT projects, and talented but underutilized employees leaving for organizations where different perspectives are valued and decisions are honestly and more comprehensively vetted for the betterment of the organization.
If we shut our ears and close our eyes to other people’s important input, then we will miss the planning mark.