Phil Gilbert on sidestepping cognitive biases in group design activities

When you give voice to more people, the best ideas win, not the loudest ones | Phil Gilbert

I heard IBM's general manager of design speak at an IBM event in New York City recently, and I was impressed by his observations about trying to inject design thinking into IBM's product planning. In a NY Times Preoccupations essay, Gilbert explains how to use diversity and inclusion to get better results from product ideation efforts.

Phil Gilbert

The sad truth is that we are wired in certain ways --- both psychologically and culturally --- that can lead to groups not processing information effectively, which leads to bad decisions.

One of the most fundamental barriers to effective group ideation is a cognitive bias known as sharedness bias, and a second is called preference bias. These are explained by Ulrich Klocke, the author of How to Improve Decision Making in Small Groups: Effects of Dissent and Training Interventions, in this way. First, sharedness bias:

Groups communicate predominantly about information, which all or most group members share before entering the discussion, and neglect unshared information, which only one or few members have initially.

[...] group members individually judge shared information as more important, relevant, accurate, and influential than unshared information. This bias seems to have two reasons: First, shared information can be confirmed by more than one group member. Second, individuals evaluate their own information as more valid than information from other members. Thus, unshared information, even if mentioned in the discussion, is not seriously considered by other group members and therefore has less impact on the final decision than shared information.

Second, preference bias:

Even when all information necessary to identify the correct solution is exchanged during discussion, individual group members often stick to their initially preferred wrong solution. People bias their information processing to favor an initially preferred alternative. Other studies show the same phenomenon at the group level: Group decisions can often be predicted by the initial preferences of its members. If a majority favors a certain alternative before the discussion, the group seldom decides to chose another alternative. Thus, frequently, group discussions are superfluous, and groups would be better off using a decision shortcut like an immediate vote or an averaging procedure.

The counter to these problems is creating a situation where all information --- whether shared or not --- is treated in a consistent fashion and not evaluated by preference. This is best handled by techniques like Gilbert employs at IBM:

I used to lead start-ups and have found that the same basic meeting practices can be used no matter what the size of a company. These strategies are effective with design thinking because they not only unleash everyone's creativity but also give voice to every idea.

It has been my experience that the biggest impediment to getting people to think about what's possible --- instead of what's not possible --- is the difficulty in exposing everyone's ideas to the broader team. So we focus on two things: getting everyone to contribute and letting everyone's contribution be heard.

That doesn't come naturally. Sometimes organizational hierarchy might prevent a good idea from being considered because it wasn't shared. So at IBM, we intentionally assemble teams that span skills, levels of experience and points of view.

Gilbert --- without talking about the biases specifically --- is clearly attacking the two biases head on. His techniques include diversity and inclusion: a team with many different perspectives, and practices that lead to all participant's observations afforded the same consideration, even if they aren't shared.

His tools are sticky notes and silence: members of the group write --- silently --- until all information they think is relevant to the issue or design has been captured, and affixed to a wall. Later, meeting leaders might array similar or related ideas, and all reflect. As Gilbert wrote,

Then, the team leader groups the sticky notes into overlapping and logical areas. People take it all in, reflect, and then they disappear. They are free to leave the room --- or the building --- to brainstorm with colleagues face to face, on the phone or via a group texting tool. This opens up the playing field to less-vocal members of the team who are more apt to speak up online.

After this freestyle brainstorming, the group returns to the room, sometimes after minutes but it could be hours or even days. Invariably they bring at least a couple dozen new ideas.

This cascading of ideas coming out of the meeting also leads to members cooperating to improve ideas and come up with new ones, and all are free to do so in the ways that best suit their character and inclinations.

Note also that Gilbert does not push for convergence or consensus: he allows a period of time --- minutes, hours, or days --- where there have been no decisions, and no voting. The group remains in a questioning mindset, and doesn't attempt to quickly come to an answer.

As he concludes,

When you give voice to more people, the best ideas win, not the loudest ones.

And to make that happen, you have to design around our cognitive blinders by changing the way we process information and make decisions.