Dilbert does Confirmation Bias

At your next stop on your tour through uncharted decision making territory, Dilbert will safely guide you around one of the most dangerous animals to let into your modern world – confirmation bias. Widely feared for its ability to disguise itself as exactly the proof, you were looking for, it also comes with the benefit of quickly searching through vast environments – basically whatever you are looking for will light up like a wildfire in the jungle and everything else will fade into the darkness.


Confirmation bias is your tendency to seek, interpret and retrieve information consistent with your prior beliefs simply by ignoring or underweighting the aspects that does not fit – some of the closest bias family members are your persistence even after proven wrong, your 20/20 hindsight, your ability to see non existing correlations (average age of successful entrepreneurs is ~40, but people think of college dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates) and your preference for first information (what you say first matters most – and your impression of a person or a company in one area automatically extends to other areas – but even mere repetition will automatically make you believe a statement more). Dangerous animal…


But a dangerous animal that you can recognize, when all evidence in your strategy paper points only in one crystal clear direction – the world is just never that black and white. Or when you have an innovative idea and there seems to be many good reasons to do it but few come to your mind not to – in fact you know this in the form of the advice “kill your darlings”. For example Blackberry had the same information as everyone else, but focused on keyboard phones for B2B communication, when market went to touchscreen B2C entertainment.


Just like the other animals you will meet, confirmation bias is here for a reason. It does help you sift through tons of data for the famous needle in a haystack. But remember to always pressure test your ideas – what are the most powerful counter arguments, what are the best alternatives, why do some disagree – a good trick here is wisdom of crowds. It has been proven that experts are excellent at explaining the facts of the past but are no match for a group of average people in guessing the future – simply use the average of the group after learning the facts but before debating.


If you are working on a strategy try the Playing-To-Win concept. It is a simple, cohesive and iterative approach to identify strong answers to the key strategic questions of what is your winning ambition, where do you want to play in terms of which offerings to which segments, how do you intend to win each of these focus areas, what core capabilities are needed and how do you support them with management systems. Take out two days and facilitate discussions around these five questions – individually to ensure deep input, in small groups to ensure broad input and plenary to build commitment.


The two first animals of availability and confirmation bias kills 1/3 of all strategies, so do take the proper precautions. In the next weeks you will meet the last three and learn how to handle them, but if you are already in the deep end with some of these animals, then contact me now at brian@behaviouralstrategygroup.com or +45-23103206.

Stay safe…

70% of your strategies fail

We previously talked about how our 35,000 daily decisions are all at least semi automated and this automation is the culprit behind the well known 70% failure rate in strategic initiatives.

This failure rate has spurred a debate about whether you prefer good strategy or good execution. Obviously the answer is both and the research does show that the underlying reasons behind failure comes from both camps. But what is striking is how everyday those reasons are – from misinterpreting the opportunity over not aligning competencies to forgetting to allow for external change. Not really rocket science is it?

Imagine strategists explaining to the board some years later: “yeah, execution was awesome, but we did not really understand what we were working on” or “everything was going great, until the market dared respond!”. But is it fair to tease strategists like that? Or is something else going on? Lets examine each of the five reasons identified by McKinsey:

  1. Opportunity misinterpretation. So you failed to fully comprehend the environment and strategic positions five years into the future. Well that is the job right? Maybe, but we are all – regardless of intellect, personality and background – subject to availability bias, where we focus on our existing information aka WYSIATI – What You See, Is All There Is. For example Blockbuster completely misunderstood, where the market was heading and kept investing in their brick & mortar network.
  2. Poor design. So you understood the opportunity, but failed to design a fitting strategy. One of the most devastating biases in decision making is confirmation bias, where we look for information to confirm our hypotheses. For example Blackberry had the same information as everyone else, but focused on keyboard phones for B2B communication, when market went to touchscreen B2C entertainment.
  3. Competency misalignment. So you understood the opportunity and designed a fitting strategy only to forget to align organizational structure, processes and skills. No biggie – boards habitually add substantially different work to existing organizations, as most people are prone to overconfidence bias, where we believe we do not need much preparation or resources to complete a task. For example Sony never lost faith in their proprietary Betamax technology, even as the open VHS standard was quickly outpacing them .
  4. Lack of follow through. So you understood, designed and prepared for the opportunity, but the organization never got it done. Well, we have a preference for status quo – an emotional bias. It might seem lazy, but imagine this “hypothetical” situation: You worked as a top performing manager for 10 years and seen many strategies with limited impact. Suddenly the board sends you a new approach after a strategy retreat. Do you a) try to implement the high level thoughts in the slide deck or do you b) continue to do what has made you successful for 10 years? This also happens at company level. For example Newscorp kept investing in MySpace despite major market share losses to Facebook and they eventually got USD 34m for at USD 580m investment.
  5. External change. You are in the clear – you got the strategy and execution right – but the world changed. When we commit publicly to a course of action, it is extremely difficult to change and we prefer to avoid any risk of losses. Thus it can take long – sometimes devastatingly long – for a company to change strategy. For example think of how long it has taken for traditional car makers to embrace electric vehicles.

So maybe it was not fair to tease the strategists. There are powerful biases created millions of years ago to ensure our survival that now prevent even the smartest of people from rational decisions – let alone the complexity of strategy. We need a new way of doing strategy…

You are not nearly as rational as you like to think

We make 35,000 decisions every day. If you stop to count your decisions in a day, then you will probably be hard pressed to come up with more than a few, where you actually thought them through. So where does the rest go?

Well, the marvel of our brain developed millions of years ago to ensure our survival, is that we have an ever vigilant automatic system 1 based on our human instincts around what is safe, interesting, valuable – and what is not. This system will make +95% of your decisions in a day – and that is great for fast decision making.

What is not so great, is when this system 1 proposes decisions to it’s more thoughtful brother, system 2, in a way that sounds great, feels great and makes it easy for system 2 to endorse, but really makes very little rational sense, if you actually stop to think about it. This is the reason that we are rarely stupefied – we almost always have an intuitive answer, that we can relatively quickly rationalize afterwards.

Now many decisions are not that difficult – and many are not that critical. But sometimes you make strategic decisions that make or break a career, a company or even a country. Even if you decide you want to think that one through, you will constantly be bombarded with your system 1 suggestions – and most of the time you will take them, because they certainly sound rational. This is why 70% of all strategic initiatives fail.

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come – Maybe it is time for a new way of doing strategy?

Take your own medicine!

Growth strategy in consumer products

Nobody told us that – but maybe they should have…

I have worked on commercial, operational, financial and organizational strategies in retail, logistics, aviation, pharma, energy and consumer products for almost 25 years – so forgive me for having trouble limiting myself, when we founded Behavioural Strategy Group:)

Our focus back then was purely on combining what seemed like a bloody obvious idea – why don’t we use decision science on decisions? Crazy right? Or in other words why not apply the field of behavioural economics to the most important decision arena in the world – strategy. Great idea – easy win.

The idea is still great, but I like to think that I am now wiser, more mature – after all, that idea is just shy of its 5th birthday and after many fun strategy projects, where we have repeatedly stressed that strategy is firstly about deselecting options (it even says so on Behavioural Strategy Groups website, so it must be true), it is time to take that awful medicine.

Except, this medicine will be awesome, because the focus will be purely on the exciting area of growth strategy for consumer products, where Behavioural Strategy Group really have an edge – a tried and true way to generate deep insights and make solid strategy decisions, that I am proud to say has resulted in the most powerful strategy processes, I have seen. Hands down.

Now my network in consumer products and retail is not bad – in fact I am working on a growth strategy for a retailer right now – but I would love your help to put out the word to senior commercial managers in midsized consumer products and retail companies in Denmark, that the new kid on the block is now all grown up.

Thanks in advance friends! 
Brian

Cofounder of Behavioural Strategy Group