How we’re trying to get better ideas by dealing with cognitive biases.

By Dr. Christopher Farrington

In the Northern Ireland Public Sector Innovation Lab we are a catalyst for innovation in public services by facilitating people to generate and develop new ideas.

That means that we work with systems of stakeholders to identify places where new ideas are needed, help them come up with new ideas, and then work out whether those ideas are any good.

However, working with systems of stakeholders is tricky insofar as there are usually:

  • dynamics which preference professional knowledge and expertise;
  • an existing base of ideas which haven’t been developed;
  • divergent and competing visions of the problem to be solved; and
  • different criteria applied to judging existing ways of doing things and new ways of doing things.

From working in this way for the last three years, we’ve seen four cognitive biases raise their head more often than not.

Confirmation bias: ideas which match peoples’ pre-existing ideas will be prioritised.

Availability bias: ideas will be generated which are the easiest to think of or which are easily seen in other contexts.

Status quo bias: disruptive ideas are much less likely to be developed than those that tinker with or improve the status quo.

Authority bias: systems of stakeholders preference their own insight and the insight of professionals over the insight of service users, citizens, and other fields of expertise.

These biases create challenges for facilitation exercises and in leading systems to think about and implement change. We’ve learnt some hard lessons and have ducked out of some early projects because we didn’t have answers to these problems.

Here are the ways that we have begun to tackle them:

  • stakeholder surveys before we do anything as a simple way to capture the ‘as is’ and the ‘as we want it to be’;
  • theory driven analyses and models to drive rigor into our problem definition phase;
  • emphasizing the scientific method for generating learning by developing shared hypotheses and projects which aim to answer system wide questions and gaps in knowledge;
  • emphasis on design methods for developing and testing new ideas;
  • developing criteria for success at the start of a project against which every idea can be evaluated; and
  • extensive literature reviews and horizon scanning so that we can challenge stakeholders and provide our own assessment of ideas.

We’ll iterate these strategies as we learn what works and what doesn’t (as any good designer should do!). In the meantime, our advice to other labs and people interested in facilitation is to pay attention to cognitive bias — it could be sabotaging your efforts to be truly transformative and disruptive.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Innovation Lab NI’s story.