While many of us have read about the ways we are wired to react rather than wisely choose how to act, it sometimes takes a practical book, offering actionable insights to enable us to see exactly how to actually think and act smarter, for ourselves and for those around us. The down-to-earth ways co-authors of Outsmart Your Instincts authors Adam Hansen, Ed Harrington and Beth Storz describe how to overcome our cognitive biases can enable us to innovate, at work and in our lives.
That’s why I decided to interview Adam Hansen whom I met at the Business Innovation Factory Summit.
Anderson: There’s been lots of negativity in the world lately. Why does it always seem easier to be negative, than positive?
Adam Hansen: When life was mostly lived at the survival level, it was adaptive to see novelty foremost as threat, not as opportunity. The inquisitive types who went to explore the new rumbling in the bushes were more likely to get culled out of the herd. The savants of risk aversion we call “our ancestors.” We come by this negative leaning honestly and it’s still easy to see first the resistance, barriers and even failure when approaching challenges.
Behavioral science tells us there’s a reason why humans have this tendency, and the term is Negativity Bias. This bias is responsible for making negative thoughts or events more prominent in our brains—even when we have an equal amount of positive things going on. For our brains, bad is stronger than good. You can see it in the business colleague who can be relied upon to be the first to criticize new initiatives, or the family member who regularly recites Uncle Fred’s many business failures. As much as we’d like to believe we are supportive and open-minded to new ideas…it isn’t our default mode.
In our book, Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation Approach Drives Your Company Forward— we talk about how Negativity Bias is the first and chief of many other biases that impede human progress and innovation. We believe that once you learn to overcome a big one like Negativity Bias, you can start knocking down the other bias barriers that all humans have.
Anderson: What’s one of the ways you teach people to overcome Negativity Bias?
Hansen: We teach something called Forness thinking. First imagined by our company’s founder—Fred S. Meyer—38 years ago, this way of thinking encourages people to resist the default mode of going first to the negative and looking instead first at what’s good about an idea, what they’re FOR. By finding what you are FOR, you discover ways to constructively think about an idea and its merits. Once you find out what you’re FOR, you can move on to list all the ways you WISH to make it better—and push towards actionable solutions. It’s like making a “Pros and Cons” list, except we change the “Cons” into “Constructive Solutions.”
It helps expand thinking into new territories and opportunities that may not have been previously known or seen. It’s a more resourceful and practical approach, getting the benefits of positive thinking without lapsing into an overly idealistic “Pollyanna traipsing down a golden highway” slant that doesn’t deal with the real issues.
An example – years ago, our founder, Fred, was working with a client to make milk more appealing to families and teens and asked the team to stretch in a big way to do so. One participant, in a moment of frustration said, “OK, I’d send a plane of teenagers down to Cancun, fill the plane with drugs and milk, and bring it back.” Using the Forness approach and working with what they were FOR, the team took the ideas of transportation, fun, water, and family and came up with the idea that became a key feature of the annual Minneapolis Aquatennial, the Milk Carton Boat Race, with boats constructed of yes, empty milk cartons.
Anderson: Speaking of seeing, one of the other biases you address in your book is Availability Bias. How can people open their minds to “see” more and go beyond what’s right in front of them?
Hansen: Availability Bias is necessary in some situations. It enables us to make decisions about newness quickly, by directing our searching minds to the most recently available and/or most-often-accessed information. Many of our daily tasks don’t require deep analysis—automatic pilot can take care of the job: so, what immediately comes to mind provides the criteria for most of our decision-making.
To illustrate, I’ll call out a common business situation that many of us encounter on a regular basis: building a PowerPoint deck. Creating a compelling, informative report is no easy feat. Especially when there’s Availability Bias sending your brain back to the same old charts, clip art and stock photos you always use. You’ve probably even pulled up an old deck as a template to, you know, save time. When you’re trying to pull together a powerful, innovative presentation that will grab and lock your audience’s attention, doing what you’ve always done is not the answer.
One way to see past the obvious is with the Path to Visuals exercise. It’s designed to drive you to more compelling presentation content by helping you to:
1. Run through your most obvious ideas.
2. Push you to think of newer, fresher possibilities.
For each concept, the first, second—and even third visual idea you have is not novel enough to make an impact. By the fourth and fifth idea you’ll start to mine the deeper, less readily available thoughts in your brain, leading to truly innovative and memorable visual collateral, getting past the clichés that numb and fail to grab the imagination of the audience.
For example, if you’re trying to convey the idea of heat, go past the most obvious clichés of fire or red-hot metal and work forward to other examples with more dimension, such as a steam train, a teakettle, or sizzling food in a wok.
For those of you who fly United, you’ve noticed that they use this principle in their safety video at the start of every flight, and have the language that we’ve heard over and over, but now acted out by people standing on cliffs, on surfboards, in the most improbable contexts so that it can’t wash over us like so much audio-video numbness.
Just the fact that everyone else goes for the first page on Google Image Search and you go further in will make your images more memorable. You want to cut through the automaticity of thought in your audience, and have stopping and holding power with your communication.
Anderson: So why does this exercise work to overcome Availability Bias?
Hansen: We’ve seen exercises like this work in our ideation sessions. It’s something we employ regularly to uncover newness, called Excursion Theory. Excursions are a series of guided exercises that force your mind to diverge from the beaten track. This detoured thinking allows you to come up with new areas of opportunity that might have never seen the light of day if you only relied on what was immediately available to your brain.
In Excursion Theory, there really is no such thing as stretching too far. It’s always easier to make a wild idea possible, than to make an old or boring idea exciting. Given that our human tendency is to retain existing models, you need to consciously be doing things to help you break out of this natural limitation on new thinking. The breaking away to get to fresh idea territory brings ideas that have the uniqueness that will give customers the reason to pause and consider.
For example, an Excursion as simple as List Building, such as “Things That Contain” if we were trying to come up with entirely new packaging ideas and wanted to cast a broad net. We might go as far as an industrial vat, a bladder, an abandoned mine, a paragraph (words, letters, punctuation, syntax, spaces, etc.), and so forth. We can then take each one of these different “containers” and focus on the different ways that they contain to give us fresh thinking about packaging.
Anderson: What other biases limit new thinking?
Hansen: They all do, really. But certainly Confirmation Bias is one that limits the depth and breadth of research because, as humans, we tend to see what we already think is true. Conspiracy theories are a vivid example of this bias, and while it’s easy to make fun of those who succumb to them, none of us is immune to the bias – it’s merely a matter of degree. Social media has been a notorious enabler of this. Our “news” feeds are dictated by algorithms that cater to our interests or that are potentially relevant to us—often at the expense of a counterview. And even with traditional media, a journalist may interview experts that corroborate a story’s angle, potentially excluding contradictory evidence. We simply don’t have access to all our impulses “thumbing the scale” even when we think we’re being objective.
Of late, we’re becoming aware of the need to be conscious about our media consumption, and just as we need to have a well-balanced food diet, we should be thoughtful about the sources of media we consume, and to make sure that we have the right “nutrition” and range in our media diet. We might consider not merely getting sources within our own country, but making a point of getting good sources from outside. We should make sure that we’re not merely trying to confirm what we already believe to be true, but that we’re learning from qualified sources and adding to our perspective palette. Truth ultimately bears scrutiny. Good mental hygiene involves regularly testing our assumptions.
One way we counteract Confirmation Bias is through something we call Assumption Busting. By listing all assumptions, even the most obvious, you can ask yourself, “What if that’s not true? What would that mean/do/create/imply?” By pushing people to think in contrary ways and to adopt other personas and perspectives, they can come up with not just “great ideas” but a great “range” of ideas as well. Elegance in creative thought comes through consciously playing with different perspectives.
Anderson: If we are constantly fighting these biases—and essentially, our instincts—what else do we need to know to move past them?
Hansen: Great question. Remember, biases carry the force of thousands of generations. And while psychology and behavioral economics have recently become integral to business innovation, they haven’t merged as one cohesive solution until now. Our Behavioral Innovation approach is based on understanding—and identifying—what inherent biases trip us up and how to work overcome them so innovation opportunities can emerge. It’s innovation that goes into your head, your daily work, and ultimately into how you approach life. It helps you look for opportunities and makes you stop and think about what motivates a particular decision.
The Behavioral Innovation approach starts with the eight cognitive biases that are causing most of the mayhem in innovation: Negativity Bias, Availability Bias, The Curse of Knowledge, Status Quo Bias, Confabulation, Conformity Bias, Confirmation Bias and errors of Framing, shows you what they look like in detail (you’ll recognize them), and then gives you the specific steps to combat them.
Anderson: So beyond Behavioral Innovation training, what else can people can do now to combat the negative results of all these Cognitive Biases—not just in their professional lives, but also their personal lives?
Hansen: A huge thing is to stay humble—it’s what keeps us honest. Once you’re aware that we all succumb to Cognitive Biases, you must always nurture that nagging suspicion that you might be slanting things your way. Just own it. Plus, staying humble is just good human capital. It’s inspiring to see leaders say, “I don’t know,” when they really don’t. The best leaders push for better results while still staying human. And in turn, humility keeps those leaders in the game—which helps them get the most out of every idea, and stay curious about what else might be possible.
In fact, curiosity is another “secret weapon” we can rely on. As far as we know, we’re the only species who look up at the stars and wonder what they are—pure curiosity is unique to human beings. And that’s great news if you’re feeling conflicted with all of these Cognitive Biases swirling around your head. Because, thankfully, curiosity is just as innate. For every bias tripping us up, we have an equal drive to take a step out and figure out our world. And figuring things out is thrilling, as well as being important for our mental health and ongoing sense of well-being. Our brains get a pleasant hit of dopamine when we learn something new. We’re the strand of DNA that gets to try new things, adapt, move beyond what evolution handed us. When we do so, we’re fulfilling that niche that no other life form can.
The key is to stay curious and work with our cognition, not let our once-helpful instincts get the better of us. Our culture needs adventurers who acknowledge the reality of Cognitive Biases, but are still willing to ask, “Why?” or “How” or “What else?
Anderson: My Wrap Up Thoughts
After reading Outsmart Your Instincts and interviewing Adam Hansen, here is my final takeaway. “Just trust your gut” is great advice when your instinct tells you to run from a lion in the jungle, yet when you are trying to innovate at work, those primal instincts can sometimes be your own worst enemy.
For example radically new ideas may appear too risky. Or you may discount data when it doesn’t match the hypothesis you and your team are attempting to prove. And even like-minded innovation enthusiasts, who are too similar, may miss some opportunities because they do not have sufficiently different eyes on the situation. As Hansen wrote, “Once we learn to outsmart our own instincts, can become smarter innovators because we can rely on all of our brains’ powers.
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