Design to Eliminate Bias

Last Friday I saw an article on the website of a reputable British news agency asking if female leaders are disadvantaged by media bias. It pointed out that women such as Hillary Clinton (US presidential candidate) and Theresa May (UK Prime Minister) have their choice of clothing discussed in the media while their male counterparts seldom if ever do. Ironically, the article appeared in close proximity to one with the headline “Bikini-clad Swedish policewoman stops thief” and a photo of the officer doing so.

It would seem that even when discussing the media’s attention to female leaders’ attire, the media continues to focus on what women wear when they make headlines. This bias appears to be just as prevalent in the East as in the West – Japanese politician Koike Yuriko (who was elected Mayor of Tokyo last Sunday) is another example of a woman who has been criticized what she wears – in her case apparently “too much makeup”.

The article referenced work by researchers at Northwestern’s Kellogg Business School in Illinois which found that companies see a decline in their share price if they receive a lot of media attention having appointed a female Chief Executive. However, if a company gets a lot of attention having appointed a male Chief Executive, the share price gets a boost.

The current issue of the Harvard Business Review has an article about designing a “Bias-Free Organization”. It focuses on biases that influence diversity. These are biases that managers can act to reduce by – to go back to my previous blog – designing processes to eliminate them.


The article – which focuses mainly on gender bias – points out that corporate “diversity training” has been found to be ineffective in changing attitudes (no surprise really as bias tends to be in the domain of the subconscious and very difficult to overcome). It cites an experiment run by researchers at Yale into anti-bias training effectiveness that found the training had “almost no impact” and then promotes the use of process design to help overcome bias.

Before you decide that your organization doesn’t have bias, I should warn you of a bias known as “the bias blind spot” where we have a tendency to believe we are less biased than others, so you should do some checking to be sure.

A number of years ago, during an Excellence Assessment of a company in India, a BEX colleague and I were discussing diversity with the company’s top management. They were proud to highlight that they had a diverse workforce as they employed Muslims as well as Hindus in key roles and also had a female manager. In their minds they had diversity. My colleague, who is Indian, acknowledged this but also commented that there was no way for a person in a wheelchair to access company’s headquarters so that they were not quite as embracing of diversity as they might believe. It is all too easy to miss ways in which one can be biased, so it is worthwhile having somebody do a sanity check for you.

The pursuit of excellence requires the minimization of bias – it results in better decisions and better teams. The HBR article contains some good ideas on how to eliminate gender bias in your some of your processes, so I would recommend giving it a glance.

Design for Good Decision Making

I saw a tweet recently from a business school about “efficiency in decision making”. Efficient decision making might sound positive but it’s more important to design for effective decision making – the making of good decisions.

The headline worked… I read the article. It gave the example of a door which, although it needed to be pushed, had a handle on it that “communicated” pull. I’ve encountered a similar door in the offices of an innovative company that puts a lot of thought into things including its office space but still has a door in its offices which is glass and has handles to pull on both sides. Every time I went to open it I found myself thinking “is this the pull side or the push side?”… frequently, I got it wrong.

Decision Making

At the best of times it’s difficult to make optimal decisions. If something as simple as the design of a door handle can cause many people to make poor decisions when there are only two options, how much more significant are the influences of poor organizational design and poor decision making processes?

Organizational design – which is about a lot more than just structure – is something that is covered in Chartered Business Excellence Professional training and it’s too big a topic to get into here so, for now, I’ll focus on another factor that influences decision making – cognitive bias.

Henry Mintzberg and colleagues have being writing about the “Cognitive School” of strategy since the 90’s and it’s widely accepted that cognitive biases strongly influence decision making. Being aware of the existence of a bias is not enough to avoid its influence. One must, in the opinion of Daniel Kahneman, design systems to help us overcome them.

Last Monday, while hiking in the mountains south of Dublin, I had a conversation on this very topic. A friend was talking about how climbers attempting to climb Everest establish a series of toll gates or “tripwires” to help them overcome commitment bias and force themselves to turn back if they haven’t being making milestones and the risk gets too high. It’s a great example of how we can use systems to help guide decision making and overcome bias.

Thought on how to design decision-making processes to optimize decision making – including thought on organizational structure – and on how to design operational systems to help mitigate the influences of cognitive bias are investments worth making. Irrespective of if a system is to support investment decisions or other strategic or operational decision-making, to be effective it needs to be well designed. Unless it is, it will drive the incorrect behaviour.

Unfortunately, examples of badly systems – in everything from hiring and performance management systems to risk management systems – are found in almost every sector. There is no silver bullet that will ensure an organization will design good systems. However, brushing up on your critical thinking is a good start and this can be followed-up with some training on how to make decisions as a team.

The Institute has a short Critical Thinking primer which uses a number of exercises to illustrate that it doesn’t matter how smart a person is, we are all susceptible to the same cognitive traps so we need well designed systems to avoid them. We also have a training for teams to help them learn how to make strategic decisions in the face of uncertainty that uses APEX – our boardroom board game – to create a learning environment.

But, while I mention them, the purpose of this post is not to plug them in particular rather it is to prompt people to think about the need to have well designed systems in place to support their decision making. Without them, even if your organization is performing “well enough” at the moment, it is at risk of drifting towards mediocrity.

Testing APEX, the Applied Excellence business strategy game

For the past 3 weeks, we’ve had faculty members and our Systems Psychologist evaluating APEX – the Applied Excellence business simulation game – with a diverse group of people including engineers, accountants, entrepreneurs, and analysts.

It has been fascinating to watch the various approaches to strategy and the dynamics of decision making in the face of uncertainty bring learning opportunities to the fore.

As we’ve polished the simulation, its ability to facilitate learning for executives has improved. This week we are doing another round of testing with yet another group of executives, after which we expect that we will be able to green light manufacture of the final product and will have an exciting new way to help people learn about strategic thinking, management, and how to achieve sustainable excellent performance.

APEX - the Applied Excellence business simulation game
The Power of Play
Games offer the opportunity for context-based learning, which most other teaching methods do not provide, making games a powerful learning tool. They change the learning process from being one of conscious effort to being a fun, subconscious one. Rather than merely discussing topics with an instructor, participants engage in a scenario that enables them to quickly see and feel the consequences of their actions. This enables them realize things and facilitates both new learning and the transformation of old knowledge into new knowledge. In addition, it couples learning with emotion which as Plato reminds us is the basis of all learning.