Confirmation bias in product discovery is prevalent. Something convinced you, and now you’re on a mission to prove it everywhere. That, too, when new information you receive is contrary to your original findings. I don’t know about you, but I’ve experienced it myself, especially in my early career. Do you acknowledge it? And, what you do with it determines your level of success as a product manager or any position that requires strategic thinking.
During product discovery time, your team determines the best next thing to build objectively. Objectivity is your goal. But, when your prior selective knowledge is blurring your judgment, you’re putting your product at risk.
Let’s explore in detail confirmation bias and how you can identify and address it.
What is confirmation bias?
Events and actions are happening all around us. Let’s call that reality. But, then, how you perceive that fact is how you see that reality. Conditioning is another term to use. So, confirmation bias is how you interpret new events — new information — according to your conditioning and confirm your preconceived notions.
In their research published in the Journal of Management Studies, TK Das and Bing-Sheng Teng present four cognitive biases. Source: Cognitive Biases and Strategic Decision Process: An Integrated Perspective.
- Prior hypothesis and focusing on limited targets:
This is your classic bias just sticking to your hypothesis and entertaining only that new information which matches your hypothesis.
- Exposure to limited alternatives:
Sticking to a narrow set of options to accomplish a goal. Also, employing intuition over rational analysis of varied options.
- Insensitivity to outcome probabilities:
Decision makers not understanding or trusting the estimates of outcome probabilities. The research suggests, “the decision makers see the problems as unique. Thus, the probability estimates and statistics from comparable events in the past become irrelevant.”
- Illusion of manageability:
There are two parts to take a note. First, you’re way too optimistic about the outcome (way over the objective outcome). On top of that, you as a decision-maker, have a false sense of control over the outcome.
Second, there is an underestimation of the consequences of decisions. You believe that you can manage the fallout by doing “something extra.”
How does that effect product discovery?
With firmly held beliefs and opinions, every input you’re receiving is either getting discounted entirely. Or you are justifying them based on your prior understanding. In this case, you’re resistant to new information. More importantly, the information that contradicts your beliefs.
As product managers, your judgment determines the outcome. In essence, in senior product roles, you’re getting paid for your assessment and sound decision-making. But, unfortunately, by not seeing things clearly, you make the classic product mistake — build and hope people will come.
Be careful about the lens you use. If possible, shed the lens entirely. Let’s see some suggestions on how to do that.
Is there an antidote for confirmation bias in product work?
I cannot emphasize the need to approach your product responsibilities with the respect it deserves. Your craft deserves the thoroughness from you — to measure twice before you cut. But, to get to any of that, you have to start with an open mind.
Write down your bets before you take up any new initiative
Approaching your initiatives and tasks as bets is a sound way to contain confirmation bias in product discovery. That mindset of thinking in bets forces you to look for ways to do a couple of essential things. First, the amount of professional capital you’re willing to bet. For example, it forces you to think about how well you know the customer problem and the solution?
Second, it forces you to think about the various bets you can make and why you are making this specific one. Answering, “why now?” If your answer is because it’s in my OKRs, stop and review your OKRs — talk to your leadership.
By thinking in bets, you’re not jumping on to every problem out there. The problem is real but is it the right one for your product to address.
Seek out evidence for the assumptions you are making
Connected with cognitive bias is an illusion of control. The sense of false control is one of the dangerous positions to start anything off as a product person. I’m not asking you to second-guess everything you do. However, remember, humbleness is a great trait to cultivate and nurture.
Start with a sense of curiosity and proactively seek evidence that’s contrary to your understanding.
When you receive any such information that’s counter to your beliefs — acknowledge it. But, moreover, do acknowledge the discomfort it causes. In that discomfort lies your growth.
In some cases, you need to connect the dots and make minor changes (e.g., tweaks to your marketing campaign or prioritizing a feature X over Y). It will be a gut punch forcing you to make more extensive changes in some others. You are glad, though, that you can make the necessary changes now when you still have some control rather than a few months down the lane when it’s too late.
Force yourself and your team for three options
I’m making this one a personal practice. I’m not settling down for an immediate answer to any significant decision I make. Usually, the first answer has a recency bias (a topic for another day). With only one solution, you’re not ready to confront the confirmation bias.
So, I ask myself what other options are out there. At least get to three of them. And, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each option deliberately helps in confronting your biases.
Ask your key players and stakeholders what their expected outcomes are
If you’re constantly in touch with your key players and stakeholders, ask what they’re expecting from a software release or a new feature. You will be surprised to see how varied the responses you get.
This exercise of taking in multiple perspectives can immensely build your strength against confirmation bias. Product discovery is about finding the right problem to work on.
Addressing confirmation bias in product discovery or other facets of your product work is a continuously evolving process. Build a culture where you can freely review your hypothesis with your team members and consider their criticism. Psychological safety is a critical component to address confirmation bias.
Finally, have a decision journal to check how you’re making progress in confronting your biases. Explicitly write down your hypothesis in enough detail before you take up a new undertaking.
I’m eager to hear from you. Do you have any specific techniques to check confirmation bias?