Great Product Managers Leverage Cognitive Bias

All humans are susceptible to cognitive biases. As a product manager, your job involves turning those weaknesses into strengths for the team.
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
October 1, 2020
Updated: October 2, 2020
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
October 1, 2020
Updated: October 2, 2020

Product managers (PdM) don’t make anything.

Well, at least they don’t in the traditional sense. When it comes to product development, the product manager, unless under duress due to a lack of resources, bad planning, or maybe both, isn’t writing production code or crafting customer interactions. What they are doing at their best, though, is managing the decision science of the team.

PdMs spend their time making decisions that affect how the team decides ... well, anything. They are busy prioritizing the needs of product development, managing the velocity of the decisions that the team is facing, or working on any number of projects that shape how the team makes decisions.

Today, I’d like for us to take a trip with cognitive science and talk about two concepts: availability bias and recency bias. Whether you realize it or not, you’re susceptible to both of these biases. In fact, they can even shift how product teams operate. The good news is that you, as a product manager, can actually leverage them to improve your team’s decision making.

More From Adam ThomasMake Your Product Research Matter

 

The Biases

Recency bias is exactly what its name implies: A bias that privileges things that have recently happened. Have you ever sat in a meeting and noticed that decisions seem to largely get made at the end of the meeting, and the players inside of that meeting only reference data from the last 15 minutes? If so, you, my friend, have seen recency bias in action.

Availability bias is similar to its recency counterpart in that it privileges data based on ease of access rather than quality. It involves making decisions using whatever information is immediately available. You’ve also probably seen this one in practice as well. If you’ve ever been in a meeting and watched people choose the first idea that comes to mind, that’s it. Its main difference from recency is that availability bias isn’t time-locked. Someone may have research they rely on that they’ve collected months or even years ago.

As product people, one of our roles in an organization is to improve the decision-making process for product development. Both of these biases affect our output, which we can think of as the company’s “decision fitness,” or how well we make the decisions that affect our outcomes. Without managing these biases, you’re lowering the fitness of the company and are on a sure road to shallow decision making.  So let’s ask how well we’re making decisions.

 

Where Does Product Management Come Into Play?

Since we product managers don’t have any tangible output, upgrading everyone’s ability to make decisions is a way for us to show our value and also functions as a metric for us to gauge ourselves. Our battlefield is often the research lab. For product managers, this isn’t the stereotypical science lab that comes to mind, but rather the place where we do research and one-on-ones with other stakeholders. We also ply our trade in the meeting room, and, in both spaces, we need to be vigilant in watching for the following red flags from our teams.

On recency bias:

  • Meetings without any agenda or facilitation. If no one is managing the conversation, our brains will default to the last thing we heard.
     
  • The roadmap is just the highest-paid person’s opinion (HiPPO). The tactics you use to get to the outcomes you want should have a variety of sources. If you only have one source, you have a problem.

On availability bias:

  • Quick decisions and buzzer logic. We’ve spent all the time in the meeting talking about potential strategies only to take the first one available.
     
  • Teams not using research. Research always has curveballs. For example, it might show that your customers are using features to solve unforeseen problems and maybe causing new ones. If the decisions you come to haven’t considered even the possibility of alternatives, you’ll have shallow outcomes.

 

So We Can Identify Bias. Now What?

Now that we know how to spot bias, let’s leverage it. We can’t change how the human brain works. Trust me, I’ve tried. You aren’t going to get rid of cognitive bias but if you have, please, email me!. What we can do instead is put processes in place that understand these biases exists and use them to help our decision making.

So, let’s talk tactics.

  • Strive for short decision-making cycles. Ask yourself, “How can I make the decision-making cycle in a meeting as small as possible?” Far too often, teams wait until the end of meetings to make decisions. That timing falls into the traps we saw earlier. This likely means structuring meetings in decision cycles instead of theme, which brings us to our next tactic.
     
  • Meeting discipline. We all hate meetings, and I get that. Despite their unpopularity, they’re a useful tool for finding alignment and making decisions. PdMs should own meeting management for product development and ensure that people walk into meetings with context. Those cycles should leverage availability bias by making the right artifacts available at the right time and recency bias by making decisions in each cycle instead of waiting until the end of the meeting. That way, you’re structuring the meeting to take advantage of the bias instead of letting it derail your process.
     
  • Research discipline. Much like meetings, your participants, whether they are internal or external, will fall into the trap of biased thinking. Make sure you have a few good questions and set the table for those who want to understand the research can access the information. If the team trusts the research, and it’s available, they will add it to what’s “available.”

These strategies are just a few things you can implement immediately to manage those biases and improve decision fitness.

 

When We Leverage Our Biases, Some Things Change

Large-scale shifts in team thinking take time. Some things will start to happen immediately, however.

  • You’ll have more collective insight into the customer. Shorter decision cycles with more “just-in-time” context that includes different voices, including some that often don’t get into the conversation, means more voices will feel comfortable joining the conversation.
     
  • Less HiPPO wrangling. As a shift occurs in the power structure, the HiPPO will see that there are plenty of voices that are contributing and feel less pressure to “fill air.”
     
  • More usage. People will feel comfortable with product artifacts (research, strategy). Teams will have better inputs for their own decision making since they know where it is.

When a PdM manages this process, the team and org get better outcomes.

 

Bottom Line: Find Bias, Understand It, Leverage It

Product managers, since they are usually outside of the solution business (read: making shit), are far more useful when they understand the mental pitfalls an organization may fall into. Since they have the mental space to look at things from both the customer and business P.O.V., as well as associate with the product makers, they should see where cognitive bias is helping or hurting an organization.

The best work we can do as PdM’s is to understand the outcomes we’re going for and use the environment around us to give it the best chance of success. Cognitive bias is a part of that environment. In particular, recency and availability bias have some silent consequences that affect the day to day that can lead to sustained mediocrity in product development.

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