Collaborate: the concept is so ingrained with agile development that it’s one of the four components of Alistair Cockburn’s simplified Heart of Agile approach (along with Deliver, Reflect and Improve.) Yet, collaboration has an “achilles heel”, a Kryptonite of sorts, that no one really talks about: Bias.
Before we get into the roots of Bias and its effects, let’s explore what’s at the core of Collaboration.
To collaborate (according to Google Dictionary) is to
cooperate, join (up), join forces, team up, get together, come together, band together, work together, work jointly, participate, unite, combine, merge, link, ally, associate, amalgamate, integrate, form an alliance, pool resources, club together, fraternize, conspire, collude, cooperate, consort, sympathize…
Collaboration relies on a combination of team skills: listening, communicating, connecting, cooperating, observing, and setting aside personal agendas and opinion.
Bias is like Kryptonite to Collaboration
Bias creeps in innocuously while we’re truly practicing our good communication skills; it can coat our words and can jade our thought process without us even being aware of it. At best, bias skews our creativity, at worst, it kills trust and collaboration.
While we may not perceive bias in ourselves or others (“after all, we’re open and honest professionals doing our best”) – it’s there.
The good news is that Bias is like the iceberg below the surface that we didn’t know was there, and once we’re aware its there, we can dismantle its effects.
Through conscious practice and exercises, our awareness of our own biases can increase and we can override its effects.
Types of Bias
Bias comes in a variety of flavors and styles – and, we all have it in one way or another. The first step to overcoming bias is to recognize and acknowledge it in ourselves.
What kind of bias(es) do you hold? I’ve condensed the list of bias types (from data analytics and psychology sites) and added examples for agile projects:
- Confirmation Bias – We skew our observation of an event, concept, person in a way that confirms our already held belief. A pattern of highlighting news that agrees with the agenda of the left or right, and ignoring the other side.
Example: Changes are needed to a delivered report because legislation changed (fact), and we think “Typical of the users always changing their minds” (confirms our belief.)
- Attribution Bias – We attribute an action to someone based on their personality (flaws) rather than the situation.
Example: The project is delayed because testing isn’t finished. We think: “the tester doesn’t know what they are doing” (attributing it to a personality flaw) rather than looking at the situation of tester work overload.
- Commitment Bias – Continuing to invest in a derailed project because of the sunk costs already committed (time/effort/money.)
Example: We think: How can we bail on this project after we’ve already spent a year and $500K on it?
- Labeling Bias – We (un)consciously describe or label a person/group in a way that influences how we think about them.
Example: We think marketing (people) have no clue about technology (so why ask them for input)?
- Spin Bias – We accept only one interpretation (ours) of an event or policy to the exclusion of the other.
Example: We spin the news (especially when there is a gap): China banned cryptocurrencies, so it must be because of… (nefarious financial dealings…)
- Spurious Correlation Bias – We believe causality (without checking) between two potentially (un)related events or circumstances.
Example: Gas prices always go up before a long weekend.
- Omission Bias – Leaving out important information/people (certain facts or details) on a project because we don’t see its relevance.
Example: We didn’t think of including IT folks in a renovation project meetings (we omitted the importance of moving the network…)
- Not like Me Bias – Dismissing information or ideas because of the source or group generating it.
Example: We think that new hires have no idea about how our company works (when their input may be fresh and show us new ways to work.)
When we allow these unconscious biases to influence how we send or receive information, we stymie true collaboration.
What biases do you see in yourself and your workplace? When I, personally realize I have a particular bias, I make a conscious effort to pause before responding. When I’m prone to say something that would block collaboration (words like “we can’t do that…” or even the seemingly innocent thought in my head like “what on earth?” I try to stop and ask myself why I would think that. Pausing to reflect and see the part that my unconscious bias plays, really helps me to collaborate better. Might it work for you?
Would you Play Along?
Over the coming weeks, please join me in a new blog series called “The 5% Social Experiment” where I’ll post some easy social experiments to identify and overcome workplace bias.
Can I count on you to play along?