Association for Project Management
How to identify and tackle biases during change
Blog posted by: Donna Unitt, 06 May 2021.
When a business case is put together for a project it’s common for any barriers to the change to be discussed, but most often this is focussed on the tangible elements like costs. Leaders don’t necessarily focus on the people who will drive the change forwards and embed it, and the effect of their objections to the change which may be driven by deep rooted biases.
There are various types of bias and in this blog we’ll talk about unconscious and cognitive.
Unconscious bias is a term used to describe people making assumptions about groups within society. They are not automatically conscious of those assumptions, or the impact they have on their own behaviour and reasoning. Unconscious bias can lead people to draw unhelpful conclusions or ignore potentially better delivery approaches or technological options.
Unconscious bias is a constantly evolving phenomenon, informed by new learning and experience. It is therefore essential to keep unconscious bias under review, to ensure that it doesn’t creep back into your subconscious thinking.
Biases rely on our past experiences and ways of applying prior knowledge, particularly in decision-making. The more previous success you had in applying that knowledge, the harder it is to imagine alternatives. Most decision-making is instinctively guided and controlled by these rational shortcuts, without us even being aware of it consciously. These shortcuts can be particularly damaging when something which wasn’t possible, permissible, or achievable previously now is, or vice-versa. This reduces the effectiveness of a programme by not fully utilising the available possibilities.
Not everyone experiences biases in the same way or extent, but some or a mixture of just a few can distort creative and critical thinking, and optimal decision-making. This can result in not best serving the interests of the organisation or project, but in satisfying personal biases, subconscious egos and agendas.
Cognitive bias is where people used flawed and subjective judgement to assess data. Those flaws are caused by the brain’s tendency to be biased according to various factors.
Cognitive biases are essentially mental shortcuts, and they actually make a lot of sense as they are designed to help us survive in the hunter-gatherer primitive sense. We need to recognise that the world is now vastly complex and as humans we have never bombarded by so much information. We simply cannot process all of it so we resort to shortcuts whenever possible to make quick and effective decisions.
The two terms are related, because cognitive biases may well inform some of our unconscious biases, but they are not generally used in quite the same context.
On a personal and organisational level, it is essential that you realise that everyone is biased in some way. To effectively combat those biases emotional intelligence is a key skill for change managers as it enables us to:
- Empathise and communicate effectively with others by listening
- Manage relationships with employees and between colleagues to eliminate conflict
- Help others to manage their emotional responses to changes and uncertainty
It’s important also to understand diversity and the benefits that it can bring to our projects such as differences in approach and new ideas.
It isn’t only individuals that suffer unconscious bias - your processes, practices and systems may do as well. By encouraging open and honest discussions, listening to people and allowing feedback to be part of your decision-making, biases can be diluted.
Here are some signs that biases are in play when people, affected by a change, including ourselves, say:
- “It’s already been done, and it didn’t work”
- “That’s the way we’ve always done it”
- “It’s too uncertain, we need a spreadsheet”
- “That’s too disruptive”
- “How do we know it would even work?”
- “I have too many meetings anyway”
Here some solutions to help combat bias:
Be open and honest
Identify specific biases affecting you or your team at key moments by listing them individually. Make it a topic that you openly discuss. There are lots of tools that can be used for lateral thinking methods. For example: opposite thinking, analogy thinking, six thinking hats etc. Brainstorming in workshops with post-it notes (even virtual ones) is a healthy activity. It enables us to diverge free associative thinking, devoid of biases, in a structured way to trigger more creative ideas and concepts.
Encourage new thinking
Reflect and challenge biases identified by openly discussing impacts on current decision-making at key decision-making points. Remember that a long, heavy session with people when teams are tired and fatigue sets in, can encourage them to easily revert to decision-making influenced by bias. So encourage new ways of tackling change and share ideas in shorter meetings early in the week.
Try different things
Use independent skilled facilitators or bring in people not directly affected by the change to provide different perspectives as well. Try and reverse or flip questions when asking them to try and eliminate any bias they may have. You could also allocate regular sessions for bias reflection at key decision points.
It’s important to understand and accept that everyone has biases including yourself. These biases cloud our judgments and decision-making processes which may make you feel anxious and unsure about the work that you’re doing.
But don’t worry, it’s not a disease and not all bias is bad; relying on it can sometimes be a good thing as it can help us reach decisions sooner. Bias is the way we as humans are made, but if we are aware of it, we can acknowledge it and if we make others aware of it, we can deal with it.
Raising awareness and encouraging your colleagues to develop a more mindful approach to key decision-making is a step in the right direction for successful change management.
You may also be interested in:
- Understanding unconscious bias – a silver bullet for equality?
- Harnessing the power of difference (APM Learning 🔒)
- Diversity and inclusion in project management
About the Aurthor
Donna Unitt is a Head of Delivery with experience in managing business relationships across an array of levels and cultures through large IT, organisation and process change projects and programmes. She has a proven track record of successful project delivery and management in large multi- million pound projects. Donna is actively growing the change management capability within Rocket Consulting Ltd, based on her experience of rolling out a similar programme at her previous company and brings over 20 years of IT solutions implementation experience including multi-implementation lifecycles across the supply chain industry to the SIG.
Donna is the APM Enabling Change Specific Interest Group Chair.
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