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The Pitfalls of Biased Data


It’s been months since the presidential election and I still haven’t recovered.Book_of_Knowledge

Regardless of which party you align with or which candidate you supported, it’s hard to argue that this was one of the most uncivil, polarizing elections in our country’s history.

The rhetoric and biases we saw on both sides of the political spectrum caused a breakdown in intelligent discourse. As a result, we got nine months of name-calling, candidate smearing, and avoidance of meaningful discussion around the important issues facing our nation.

And yet, in a perverse kind of way, the presidential campaign reinforced many of the concepts I talk about in my books, blogs and keynotes about how the human brain so often gets in the way of our success. In particular, it shined a light on the dangers of falling victim to our built-in biases and assumptions.

The most glaring example involved the human brain’s overwhelming urge to see what it wants to see. Take the ongoing Hillary Clinton email scandal. Supporters of both political parties looked at the same information and came away with vastly different perspectives on the situation.

Most Democrats saw a simple lapse in judgment on Clinton’s part. The Republicans saw an overtly criminal act that should land her in jail. Why such polar opposites? Because any other conclusion would have contradicted what each side wanted to believe about their candidate and his or her opponent.

It would have been helpful for both sides to pause for a moment and ask: what if I am wrong about this? In doing so, they might have become more open to data that contradicted their prevailing point of view. Instead, both sides took the same information and twisted it to fit their already established points of view. And so we ended up with millions of people casting their votes based on unquestioned assumptions rather than a rational assessment of each candidate.

Beware the Bubbles

In business, these biases and assumptions are called “thought bubbles.” Only instead of views about political candidates, they pertain to customers, markets, competitors and other factors affecting the business.

Yet, the brain process works the same. Instead of taking the time to investigate whether their thought bubbles (which are usually based on information that was true at one point in time) remain valid, leaders unquestioningly accept them as accurate. This can lead to outcomes that do not serve the organization well, such as complacency, a focus on past successes rather than what needs to change, and losing sight of evolving customer needs.

It can also result in poor articulation of the organization’s destination/definition of winning to employees. When people don’t understand where the company is going and what it will take to get there, it creates a lack of focus around key strategic initiatives. This, in turn, can cause the organization to go off in too many directions, pursuing products and projects and that don’t support winning.

 Diversify the Data Flow

To avoid getting blinded by your own biases, it’s not enough just to question your thought bubbles. It also requires a steady intake of diverse data and ideas, as well as open communication channels throughout the organization.

If you limit yourself to the same data sources, you will continue to reach the same conclusions every time you question your assumptions. What’s needed is to include different and/or oppositional points of view in your data sources so you can see the world in different ways.

For example, make it a point to follow blogs, e-zines, or online newsletters that don’t address your industry. Study demographics and trends not related to your business. Have the youngest and/or most gadget oriented people in your organization update you on what new products they’re using and how they might impact your business.

Every six months, gather your team and conduct a “what aren’t we seeing” session. Ask questions like:

  • Are we thinking that everything we know about our business is still true?
  • Are we focusing too much on what has made us successful in the past?
  • Are we looking beyond our industry for trends and developments that could impact our business?
  • What new technologies are we overlooking because “they don’t apply to our business”?
  • Where could the next big competitive threat come from that isn’t part of our industry?

Thought bubbles aren’t always wrong. It’s the automatic assumption that they’re always right that gets us in trouble. Open your eyes to what’s going on beyond the borders of your business and hopefully the “next big thing” in your industry won’t take you by surprise.


Call to action: Conduct a “what aren’t we seeing” session with your leadership team.

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