5 Biases every Product Manager should be aware of
Yes, you are acting irrationally! And yes, it’s bad for your success!
„One of the hardest skills for a PM to learn is to take their own emotions and feelings out of the equation when it comes to decision-making.” Rian van der Merwe, Making It Right: Product Management For A Startup World
Biases are mental shortcuts for decision making. It’s like applying automatically and subconscious a rule of thumb. That is fast and saves energy but can lead to errors. For a product manager theses biases can lead to bad decisions. That’s why you should know about mental biases. There are a lot of biases in your head, some worse than others. But today let start with just five.
Warning: Just because you know about a bias doesn’t mean that you won’t run into it anymore. You will, but you might be able to catch yourself doing so later (seconds, minutes or days later).
The shiny new stuff is blinding you — Neomania and Lindy-Effect
The Lindy-Effect says that „[…] the longer a technology lives, the longer it can be expected to live” (Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile). That means most (not all) existing technologies will outlive new technologies. Don’t you believe that? Take a look around! Most technologies around you are quite old: the chair you’re sitting on, the bicycle you’re riding or the shoes you’re wearing. Sure, there were improvements over time, but the idea stayed the same.
By intuition, we’re not aware of this effect and we overestimate the likelihood of new technologies to survive. When forecasting the future we tend to take the present as the baseline and add things that seem to make sense. But this forecasting just takes into account what we know and not all the million of things that we don’t know.
So next time you hear about a new killer-app/technology: breath! Probably things won’t change as fast as predicted. Still, there is always enough time to do more research before jumping on the train.
Groups are so stupid (sometimes) — Groupthink
Sometimes groups of smart people make stupid decisions. This happens especially when groups seem to have a homogeneous thinking because people don’t speak their mind immediately and align instinctively with what the others say. This is called Groupthink.
But we all have made different experiences in our life, learned different things and are experts in different topics, so we have different opinions and should share these because this is the value of a great team. A good method, to prevent that people align to fast with the group without participating their own opinion, is that everybody writes down his opinion before the discussion starts then you start the discussion by reading out loud every opinion.
You’re living in a bubble — Availability Bias
Our brain creates a picture of the world using the information that comes most easily to our mind. That saves energy and is good enough to survive in wild nature.
What kind of information comes easily into our mind?
- Things that were repeated often (like an airplane crash in the news)
- Things that people — of whom you have a lot of respect — say (like experts, friends or stakeholders)
- Things where emotions were involved (you fought hard for something)
- Everything that’s made by you (all your actions and results)
- Simple things (e.g. a single number or a single cause)
- Good stories
This can lead to a bunch of systematic errors, e.g.:
- We overestimate how many others will think the same way as ourselves because we don’t take into account how many other ways of thinking are actually possible (this information is not immediately available to us). So next time you (and your team) assume your customer behave similar to you, back it with real data! (Oh yes, that’s why we do user research)
- We use the available information even if its validity is uncertain instead of looking for more sophisticated information
How do you fix it: Ask yourself if the information you’re building on is statistically relevant or just what was available.
Stop acting, start thinking — Action bias
Waiting and doing nothing is difficult, especially when others are watching you and waiting for you to do something (like your boss). We feel the immediate pressure to act. This was a good trait for our hunting ancestors because it’s better to run away one more time than be eaten by a tiger.
But for a product manager acting overhasty and too often under new and uncertain circumstances will lead to bad decisions. Make sure you can assess all your options before acting (waiting and doing additional research are always two options).
There is no simple answer — Fallacy of the Single Cause
Our brain doesn’t like ambiguity so it tries to find causes of everything that happens. But our brain isn’t searching for ALL causes, it’s actually already quite happy if it just finds one cause because then the ambiguity is solved. Afterwards, its motivation towards finding more causes decreases significantly.
As a product manager, you know that there never be one single factor. So you force yourself to write down several causes. And this will be good enough for most stakeholders. But if you really want to succeed as a product manager, you have to do more. One way is to ask several times ‚Why?‘ for each reason to find all possible causes. Afterwards, you have to test every cause under scientific circumstances. But probably you won’t have the time and money to do so. So you will do as much research as you can with your limited resources. This means there will always be ambiguity and you need to learn to accept it. Stay open minded and don’t believe too much in the causes you found.
This can be quite difficult because often people understand uncertainty and ambiguity as weakness, but it’s not. It’s just the result of a complex world.
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