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Identifying and addressing common biases in product management

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 on Unsplash

Product management is “thinky” work. 

As a product person, you need to bring about organizational alignment through product strategy while also keeping things running smoothly with product operations. I don’t need to tell you this is a delicate balance. And without time to sit and think, you’ll end up making rash decisions based on your biases.

So, what is bias? Well, our good pal Wikipedia defines bias as:

“Disproportionate weight in favor of or against an idea or thing, usually in a way that is closed-minded, prejudicial, or unfair. Biases can be innate or learned. People may develop biases for or against an individual, a group, or a belief. In science and engineering, a bias is a systematic error.”

The first sentence of this article was about “thinky” work, so let’s add something to our bias definition that focuses on the brain: the word cognitive

Cognitive biases

Here is the definition of cognitive bias, once again from our friends at Wikipedia:

“A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment. Individuals create their own ‘subjective reality’ from their perception of the input. An individual’s construction of reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behavior in the world.”

The word system is there, too.  In fact, we should discuss systems before we go any further (especially because product exists somewhere between science and engineering). Our bias is an error in a system. If you don’t think your work involves systems, it does. And if that took you by surprise, take some time to audit your product organization to see just what systems exist. Org charts and meeting lists are a great way to start, as are team retrospectives. 

Once you have a basic understanding of the system(s) your product development team exists in, this article may be helpful. If not, bookmark this article and come back to it after you’ve got a clearer picture of the system(s) your team is part of. 

If you’re still with me, I’d like to spend some time talking about three biases that are affecting your teams, how they affect your teams, and some ways to identify them. These biases — confirmation bias, availability bias, and recency bias — can leave a product team spinning its wheels and keep your organization from reaching its goals. 

Confirmation bias

Wikipedia defines confirmation bias as:

“The tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. It is an important type of cognitive bias that has a significant effect on the proper functioning of society by distorting evidence-based decision-making.”

Confirmation bias is the most common bias within product teams. In fact, it’s the “patron bias” behind feature factories. Since every result seems to “make sense” to the product team, they end up proceeding, full speed ahead, with their plans. Feature factories are incentivized and tracked by “feature release velocity (FRV)” and “can’t afford” to stop shipping things as rapidly as possible.

The problem? Your product strategy is about customer outcomes, not how many features you’ve created.

Your team may be experiencing widespread confirmation bias if:

  • Research always “makes sense.” If user research always goes smoothly and never reveals anything surprising, then it’s worth questioning how deeply you are interrogating the world around you.
  • There is no tension in meetings. Teams come from different perspectives, and there should be a healthy level of conflict that comes from those perspectives.

Recency bias

“What just happened?”

If we are always thinking about that, then we’re focused on recency bias:

“Recency bias is a cognitive bias that favors recent events over historic ones. A memory bias, recency bias gives ‘greater importance to the most recent event,’ such as the final lawyer’s closing argument a jury hears before being dismissed to deliberate.”

Recency bias means we aren’t actively listening to different perspectives  — we’re just checking boxes until we hear the last word. Too often, this ends up being the highest-paid person’s opinion (HiPPO). When product operations is very top-down or if there is no rigor behind your decisions, then your teams are really just waiting until the end of the meeting for a decision. The problem here is that the work you are doing ends up not mattering to the product strategy. And in the long run, teams can slowly lose their agency, which harms operations and slows down processes.

Some symptoms of recency bias include:

  • Meetings not having any agenda or facilitation. If no one is managing the conversation, our brains will just remember the last thing we heard.
  • The “roadmap” being the list of the HiPPO’s thoughts. The tactics you use to get to the outcomes you want should come from a variety of sources. If there’s only one, you have a problem. 

Availability bias

Relying on “what’s on hand” might seem like a smart practice, but it can lead to trouble:

“The availability heuristic, also known as availability bias, is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision.” 

I left this one for last because it’s a bit complicated. While the other two biases are almost always bad, this is one the pros can use to their advantage. Unfortunately, many teams can’t, which means we get stuck with the downsides, including lower decision quality. Our work isn’t a game show. How quickly you hit that buzzer doesn’t really matter — outcomes do. This bias leads to shallow outcomes and releases that may get even worse when combined with the other two biases mentioned which is an operational waste.

Your team might be struggling with availability bias if: 

  • You’re reliant on quick decisions/buzzer logic. For example, you spend entire meetings talking about potential outcomes, only to take the first option available. 
  • Research is being ignored. Research almost always comes with curveballs, and if the decisions you come to haven’t considered them, you’ll end up with shallow outcomes. 

The importance of time

Biases come into play when teams don’t have time or space to carefully consider their decisions. In short, they are acting too fast with little time to process. If you feel that the team just moves from project to project, you’re most likely running right into bias traps. As a result, you’re probably making lower-quality decisions that can hurt your team long-term, both in how product development operates and when it comes to strategy.

The solution is often simple: SLOW DOWN. Identify what’s important to the system you operate in and spend time paring away any processes that don’t make sense to your product strategy and operation. This includes projects as well. More often than not, it means getting rid of things and prioritizing so the team has time to think.

This is “thinky work,”  and without allowing time for real thought, you’ll ultimately need luck for success. And I’ll end with a word of caution — luck is biased toward the patient and the prepared.


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