Biases and Bees

Being aware of cognitive bias and how we can learn to make better decisions from biomimicry.



Cat got your attention?


Assumptions and biases drive our outcomes more profoundly that we’d like to admit. We get stuck in incremental improvements and marginal outcomes and the busyness of being productive keeps us from asking bigger questions.


If your solution isn’t solving a real need, and you need a nudge to get you unstuck, ask yourself the following questions and you may discover the right problem.


The problem with problem statements

As information increases exponentially, decisions get harder to make, more choice, more risk of failure and our fear and lizard brain (thinking fast) kicks in. We resort to authority, automation; cognitive biases to influence our decisions, ignoring contradictory information even if it may be correct. I typically ignore what my spouse tells me, despite trust, until I hear consensus from at least 2 other people, much to his dismay. Sorry honey but at least I’m aware of it…


Risk mitigation in digital transformation initiatives is really about addressing human bias in decision making. The missed opportunity is approach problem solving from a creative and scientific way. Generate a hypothesis board and experiment to learn.


In healthcare, cognitive bias could lead to misinformation and flawed evidence based medicine:


With all the evidence in the world, most of our digital solutions are based on the premise that humans are rational and mostly make rational decisions when the opposite is true, especially when time is a constraint.


Learn to investigate with curiosity. The problem you’re trying to solve may not be the right one. Look at patterns of behavior, behind the task. What behavior are you trying to shift? What are the new anchors?


Always be in a learning mindset. Asking the right questions is harder than you think. And be open to contradictory ideas.


De-biasing Questions

To get to the right problem, ask yourself these questions and answer them honestly. I tried to make them as general as possible, to apply to any industry, and for most problem solving situations.


1. What evidence are you seeing that makes you believe this is your problem? In illusion of validity, we overestimate our ability to use data to accurately predict an outcome, especially when the data analyzed tells a coherent story. As much as we’d like to believe we’re rational creatures, don’t just rely on yourself for evidence.


2. What gaps are you trying to close now, and tomorrow? There are lots of improvements we can make today but if we reimagine what X might look like in the future, what problem should we really be trying to solve first? The real problem might be harder but more important to what you need to learn first and to fail fast.


3. What are the factors driving the need? We assume people have the knowledge or background to understand a subject as well as we do, it’s the curse of knowledge. If a factor is misalignment, i.e. how many times have you been in a team who seems to contradict each other, only to find out the real problem was miscommunication? Look for nuance gaps and create teachable moments to bridge knowledge gaps.


4. Who are your social influencers? With the halo effect, overall impression of someone or something influences our feelings about that entity’s character or properties. Question authority and you’ll find what’s meaningful to you.


5. Who are you really solving for? Beware of group attribution error — we believe characteristics of an individual are representative of a group and the group decision representative of all individuals within it. Personas are stereotypes — overgeneralizing group characteristics or behaviors. Don’t solve for “who”, solve for the human trait or behavioral model.


6. How do you prioritize where you put your attention and focus? Are there flaws with the test? With outcome bias, we let the outcome of a decision affect our evaluation of the decision quality. It may not be the idea that didn’t work, but how it was implemented. Investigate the fails.


7. How might your decisions impact others? With projection bias, we project current preferences onto future events. Try a new lens and practice empathy.


8. What could be automated so you could spend time on things that matter more? The bandwagon effect - doing things because others are doing it too, regardless of your beliefs. If you want to shift from mediocre to great, don’t see things as they are, but what they can be.


What problem really keeps you up at night? The right solution is usually one we can find in nature, biomimicry.


When it comes to collective intelligence, we can learn a lot from honey bees. The bees’ rules for decision-making? The process of making a choice consists of a competition between the options to accumulate support… the winner of which is determined by which option first accumulates a critical level, or quorum, of support, according to Thomas Seeley.


Thomas Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University, has been looking into the uncanny ability of honeybees to make good decisions. With as many as 50,000 workers in a single hive, honeybees have evolved ways to work through individual differences of opinion to do what’s best for the colony. If only people could be as effective in boardrooms, church committees, and town meetings, Seeley says, we could avoid problems making decisions in our own lives.”, excerpt from AskNature


According to Thomas, the analyses of collective decision-making by honey bee colonies indicate that a group will possess a high level of swarm intelligence if among the group’s members there is:

  • diversity of knowledge about the available options

  • open and honest sharing of information about the options

  • independence in the members’ evaluations of the options

  • unbiased aggregation of the members’ opinions on the options

  • leadership that fosters but does not dominate the discussion

And in a paper on team effectiveness, lessons in biomimicry, the combined and consensus decisions of ants and honeybees yield highly impressive group-level performances.

The key factors include (communication) positive feedback along with nonlinear responses to social frequency information, in the case of the bees, the waggle dance.


Find out more about creating hypothesis boards to accelerate creative problem solving.

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