Bias Talk at a Product Conference?
Last week I had the pleasure of being a speaker at the New York Product Conference, hosted by Industry. The thing I love the most about these conferences is that they’re not about the products we own. Sure, we talk about them as an ice breaker for a few moments. Sure, there are always great companies representing their brands at the sponsor halls, or someone selling their product and company as a recruiting tool since they know some pretty smart people are in their presence. But, these types of conferences serve to remind us that we’ve come a long way, and have a long way to go - from individual contributors to senior leaders, and as a collective group of product passionate people.
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Session talks this year covered topics from identifying your own persona as a product person, to becoming comfortable facing our fear of killing our beloved features, to embracing both giving and receiving feedback at all times.
Many of these sessions focused on soft skills and the behavioral side of being a product person. I recently mentioned the more I grow in this space, the more I realize how important it is to double down on this side of the fence and not just on execution. I stand by that realization, and will always recommend avenues like these conferences as an essential part of career growth and progression.
The topic I took the stage with was how cognitive bias shows up in product managers and teams, and how we can recognize and combat them. It’s tricky bringing science to the party, but I was pleasantly surprised. More on this later.
We openly explored ten common cognitive biases product managers face today and how to combat them. Pendo has put together an incredible interactive resource for us to learn about each bias and how to combat them.
Ahead of diving into the biases, I felt it was important to highlight the connection between our brains and our guts, especially in Product Management. My brilliant colleague Jeanette Fuccella wrote an awesome article explaining how these are connected, and how research should be used as the yogurt of the product gut. At the end of the day, going with our gut and going with our brains are not mutually exclusive - they’re actually dependent on one another.
As a quick overview, these biases were: confirmation, ostrich, clustering illusion, halo, sunk cost fallacy, authority, recency, availability heuristic, survivorship, and bandwagon effect. Each of these show up differently, but cause discomfort all the same. Some of them - as in the case with confirmation and ostrich or authority and recency - may be a follow-on bias or close cousin to one another.
Some biases are sneaky and scary, like confirmation bias where we privilege our idea over all others. Some are sensitive when we think about confronting them, like authority. In this case we get nervous thinking about what a person in a higher role might think or do if we challenge them. Some biases like clustering illusion cloud our big picture thinking, and broad data set lenses.
All of the biases lead us to make decisions based on too little information and some form of either ego or fear. And all of these biases affect product teams, not just product managers.
While each bias has unique characteristics and shows up in different ways, there are a few common threads we can weave while working on combating them. As a matter of fact, these threads are also common as a mitigation tactic for virtually all biases we encounter in our lives.
Name the bias. Putting a name to anything makes it real, and it instills awareness that helps you as an individual understand something needs to be worked on.
Be vulnerable. Be open to sharing with your team and others that you are aware of your bias. Ask them to check you and ensure you’re not making quick and/or poor decisions based on bias.
Look at feedback as a gift. Be receptive to feedback on both your product, and yourself.
Explore other perspectives. Once you open your mind to different perspectives and points of view, you not only hear other opinions, but you gain knowledge from individuals who bring their experience to the table. Most of the time, those experiences carry more than just a thought. They carry context that may help you think differently.
Feelings, relief, reality.
I mentioned I was nervous doing a talk like this at a product conference. You never know how science will be met when people don’t generally think about it when they want to network, or focus on their craft and skills. This topic in particular forces us to question our own behavior and encourages us to openly call out where we need to get better.
But I was met with so many smiles and thank you’s after the talk. Also, there were many sighs of relief. ALL of us encounter bias in life and in work, and to many at the conference, it was refreshing to just hear them called out, hear how they show up for us, and think about ways they can work through them.
Here’s what I know about product people. We’re built differently.
We always try to get better and do better for ourselves and our products and our companies. At the heart of a product person is that desire to build something great and drive delight for our customers. And those focused on exploring their individual ways of thinking, deepening self-awareness, embracing different perspectives, and challenging their assumptions are the ones who stand out from the rest.
Check those biases.
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