The Brief #5: Cloudy with a risk of bias.

How to make our unconscious, conscious.

Benjamin Hardman

As you read this, your brain is receiving 11 million signals. Even for such smart and discerning readers as yourselves, you can only rationally comprehend about 40 signals at a time. Our brains create shortcuts and filters - known as heuristics and biases - to navigate this information overload and make decisions quickly. We depend on unconscious biases to survive. It's how we walk down the street while also talking on the phone.  It's how you are focusing on this article right now despite other demands on your time.

But there's a darker side to unconscious biases. Subconscious influences shape the way we see and treat each other, even when we're trying to be objective. From the people we hire, to the products we design and even the ideas that get brought to life and funded, biases shape the world around us. It's partly why 36% of UK firms still have no women in leadership despite the fact they'd experience 15% more profitability if they did, or why female entrepreneurs in the US only receive about 2% of venture funding, despite owning 38% of the businesses. 

This week we unpack a few of the most unconscious of biases in the world of innovation, startups, tech and design. What are they and how can we overcome them? 

5 things we learned about biases this week:

1. Investors ask male and female entrepreneurs different questions and it affects how much funding each gets.

Male founders: What are your hopes, achievements and ideals?
Female founders: How will you prevent failure and mitigate risk?  
Surprisingly, investors of both sexes show the same biases in their questioning and they don't know they are doing so. Read more on what funders and founders can do to overcome it in HBR >>>

2. There are twice as many FTSE 100 bosses called 'John' as there are women bosses.  

We unknowingly hire 'people like us' based on superficial things like appearance and name, and it's hurting our companies. Thankfully, excellent new hiring tools are coming to market, setting out to remove biases from hiring.

Textio helps remove bias from job ad wording, whilst Applied strips away bias from the recruitment process in the latest excellent venture from the Behavioural Insights Team >>> 

3. Designers tend to design for people like them.

Which sounds innocuous until you realise the implications. For example women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash because crash-test dummies were historically male. Now, designing for a broader range of users (and for extreme use cases) gives designers an edge and benefits everyone. Actually, designing beyond the obvious brought us the typewriter, telephone and email, as this classic behavioural design post explains >>>

4. Well at least computers and aren't biased, surely?

In fact they are. Designed and trained by humans, machine intelligence is based on our own. Consequently the coming AI boom is already rife with biases. We are unintentionally uploading the implicit human biases that pervade our culture into our machines, as Joanna Bryson explains beautifully here>>> 

5. By making the unconscious, conscious, we can begin to address our negative biases. 

Thankfully, tools for dealing with our biases are getting better. Harvard has an implicit bias test which reveals any preferences  you have for different kinds of people that you weren't even aware of.

Meanwhile Google's unbiasing training is its most popular staff programme. Over half of all Googlers have elected to take the voluntary training so far. And now you can too >>>


My colleagues, they study artificial intelligence; Me, I study natural stupidity.
— – Amos Tversky, world leading decision expert, academic partner of Danny Kahneman, and researcher of humans.

Image by Benjamin Hardman:

That's all for issue #5. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and pass on to anyone who'd be interested. You can tweet or email us with articles, events or findings you'd like to share: 

Until next time.

Interview with Dave Gray, Author of Liminal Thinking: Create the change you want by changing the way you think.

Why do some people succeed at change while others fail?

In his latest book Liminal Thinking, Dave Gray argues it’s because of the way they think! Based on the principle that beliefs form the basis of everything people say, think, and do, Liminal Thinking refers to a mindset of creating change.  It is the art of understanding, shaping, and reframing beliefs to create the change you want. When people change their beliefs, they change their behaviour, which changes their lives.

Liminal Thinking is powerful and beautiful in its simplicity. It outlines six principles of how our beliefs work, followed by nine very practical steps on how to address our beliefs and practice liminal thinking. It's a set of skills that anyone can learn.

When not writing books, Dave can usually be found pen in hand, using illustration and 'visual thinking' as a way to unblock teams who've become stuck. We were fortunate enough that he stepped away from the whiteboard long enough to answer a few questions for The Mindset Co on his book.

How did the book come about, what triggered you to write it?

In the software business there’s a way of working called Agile Software development. I was interested in it as a way of working. It's actually just a much, much faster way to get programming done. The reason that it works is that it involves constantly putting very small bits of functionality and prototypes in front of customers, so your ideas are continuously being validated. I was of the opinion that this will be the future of how work gets done.

As I went through the interview process, I found there are many people who are working in Agile Software development, who are unsuccessful in introducing that as a new way of working within a large organisation. So I expanded my search for people who have to act and operate where they have very little control of the environment around them.

I started talking to people like mountain climbers, fire fighters, soldiers, documentary film photographers, and humanitarian aid workers.

As I started talking and exploring the things that these people did, I found some common themes, I started trying these out myself, and found that they were extremely effective.

What I realised was that these people who are very effective in working in an agile way within unpredictable and volatile environments, were often very good at examining their own perception and thought processes and beliefs.

So that was the story. As I wrote the book, I was learning, and as I was learning, I found some things that resonated with personal experience and other things that were new to me. I started trying them and finding that I was having tremendous amount of success in change in my own life, so that's how the book happened.


Liminal Thinking talks about winning hearts and minds. How should we deal with people who are not receptive to change? 

Hold your theories loosely

Well, I think everyone's receptive to change. I haven't met a person yet who doesn't have something they would like to change in their life. People are resistant to being changed. The fact is that people change their behavior because they want to. They see a reason. They have a belief or they change a belief, and that causes them to change their behavior. The way that I think we should deal with people who seem to resist change is to try and understand where they're coming from, why it is that we see a need for them to change that they don't see, and try and understand and see things from their perspective.

I think once we start trying to understand and see things from their perspective, then we can start to empathize and understand maybe there are good reasons why they don't want to change. Fear is often a reason. I think that one way to help people who are fearful of change is to find ways to reduce the fear and increase the amount of certainty, and reduce the risk for them of change. We must find ways to do that.


When organisational change or transformation programmes fail, why is that? How does Liminal Thinking address the problem?

The most common theme I see is leaders going around the organisation telling everyone they need to change, while the leaders themselves are not visibly and demonstrably changing their own behavior. That creates a lot of skepticism and often will cause programs to fail. In those cases people will think this is a lip service thing. That it's a fad of the month. That leaders aren't really behind it. And usually they're correct. Leaders are expecting other people to change without changing themselves.

People will follow the behaviors they see, as opposed to the things that they hear leaders say. 

From a perspective of a leader, I think they have to actually address their own thinking and start finding ways to understand and change their belief, so they can change their behavior.


Beliefs are matters of both heart and mind with plenty of emotions involved. How can you reconcile the science of behavior change with those emotions?

Emotions are key. In fact, people do don't anything unless there's an emotional reason to do it. People can rationally understand that they need to go on a diet, start an exercise program, quit smoking, and so on, but until you have that emotional fuel, it's very difficult to get people to do those things.

The reason that people do anything is because of emotion.

Should we bury our emotions to get the job done? Absolutely not. We should put our emotions to work and we should help to engage other people in bringing their emotions to work, so they can thrive. We should find ways to make that rewarding, and pleasurable, and enjoyable for them.


Which of the nine practices do you most enjoy and why? Is there one you personally find the most challenging? (See the full nine practices here)

I really like them all. In fact, it was very hard for me to get them down to nine. Probably my favorite and the one that I would propose to anyone is to disrupt routines.

If there's one thing that you can do that's going to create change in your life, it's to disrupt yourself, disrupt your own routines, change the way that you are doing things. 

That will change what you notice and pay attention to, and that will end up being the most likely thing to change in your life. It's also the practice I find, personally, most challenging. I think we love routine. To mix it up and change routines is something that you have to consciously remind yourself to do, because the whole nature of a routine is that it becomes buries an becomes something that is somewhat hard to see.

The fact is, even identifying those routines is very challenging and very hard.


Share a story, share a belief

How should practitioners approach the techniques in the book?

You can tap into any one as a starter, but I think number one ["Assume that you are not objective. If you're part of the system you want to change, you're part of the problem"] is probably one of the best to start with. They do have a sequence to them, in terms of understanding them, but you can start anywhere. But cultivating the assumption that you are not objective is a very, very good and important starting point


Finally, any last reflections or tips for budding change agents and liminal thinkers out there?

I do think that at its core, finding ways to turn off your autopilot is absolutely the most important thing. Because your autopilot is basically what allows you to be elsewhere, turning off your autopilot will automatically bring you back into the moment, paying attention to what's going on around you.

The fact is that we can't change the past, the future doesn't exist yet, so the only place you can create change is now.

The only place that change is possible is in the present moment.

So by turning off your autopilot, bringing yourself back into the present moment, paying very close attention to what's going around you in the immediate moment, this is absolutely the most important thing that you can do to create change in your life.

Liminal Thinking is out now on Amazon and you can read more about it on the Liminal Thinking website


The best behaviour change and business psychology books of 2016

2016. Never have books on creating positive change for yourself and for those around you felt more relevant.

It's been a cracking year for literature. Some much-needed bright spots and inspiration in what, for many, have been challenging times. From the behavioural science of how to have a good day, to insights into the attention economy and how to overcome it we hope you enjoy these books as much as we have. 

Read More