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Annie Shen: How to work through our own biases

When we make decisions, we commonly default to using our intuition rather than basing them purely on logical thought. But what forms these intuitions? Often they are a result of a number of biases, or premature, unfinished thoughts. Therefore, it is important to use some tactics to combat those biases so that we don’t limit our decisions by our own inherent biases.

I also find it hard to eliminate all biases when making decisions. For example, being a product manager at work requires me to drive a lot of cross-functional discussions. When I work with the engineering team vs the marketing team, I already have biases towards how different those two stakeholders are before we even arrive at any conclusions: I assumed that I need to be more logical when talking with the engineers rather than the marketers. Throughout my career, I’ve been constantly reminding myself that I should not let my biases get in the way of professional decisions, and using the tactics outlined below have definitely helped.

Here are some tips and tricks that I find useful:

1. Don’t lead by what I already believe, because I don't know what I don't know. Instead, lead with the facts.

By practicing this, I usually assume that I do not know anything about a matter, until I do enough research and find enough data to back me up. This is extremely important when we design product roadmaps and priorities. If we let ourselves be carried away by our own biases and assumptions without facts, we are very unlikely to be successful in the launch. A good example of this is when Home Depot decided to enter the Chinese market, where DYI (“do-it-yourself”) isn’t the typical way of how people decorate their homes due to the cheap labor market. It is very different from what the market is like in the United States, where labor is expensive and people rather DIY from scratch. Despite that bias, it would have been very helpful to do more research for the Chinese market and get the data needed before making the decision to enter China.

2. Assume good intentions. When needed, give someone the benefit of the doubt.

“Giving someone the benefit of the doubt” means to believe something good about someone, rather than something bad, when you have the possibility of doing either. I learned this the hard way. I landed my first job out of college as an analyst in a consulting firm. During one project, I didn’t feel like I had “clicked” with the senior consultant on the team. With that bias in mind, everything she made me do seemed to be targeted specifically at me even though they were the necessary things to do. I decided to talk it out with her before my bias got even worse, and our open and honest conversation ended very well: she told me to always assume good intentions and when needed, give her the benefit of the doubt. As soon as I practiced that, I was able to get rid of the biases that I had, and we both increased our efficiency working as a team.

3. Ask for different perspectives. If the decision must be made alone, then make two assumptions and take the average.

According to the Harvard Business Review, research shows that “when people think more than once about a problem, they often come at it with a different perspective, adding valuable information.” If you are trying to make a team decision, try to let every member of the team voice their own opinions. You’ll be surprised by how diverse our thoughts are, and maybe someone else’s comment will help you eliminate your presumptions and biases. If you have to make the decision yourself, try to project an outcome and then take a break or even sleep on it, and eventually come back with another projection. When making the second projection, try not to get carried away by the first projection. Getting time to ruminate on something usually tends to give me a fresh perspective and a clean slate.

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