You’re in your blind spot

We’re all biased. It’s the way evolution has shaped us, and it really isn’t (always) such a bad thing. These cognitive biases developed for good reasons, namely helping us to survive and thrive as a species. But the issue is that these biases are more suitable for the African savannah than for the urban jungle. These biases (also called heuristics or mental shortcuts) are part of what Daniel Kahneman describes in his book “Thinking, fast and slow” as System 1, or the “fast thinking” part of our cognition. System 2 is the slower, more deliberate form of cognition that we use to make complex decisions. There are loads of biases and they’re fascinating to learn about, especially because you realise you encounter them everywhere, all the time! Because of the sheer number of them, there’s been an effort to categorise them into the problems that they try to solve, which might be seen as the following:

1 – Too much info

Our senses are constantly bombarded with information. However, we really need to know what information is critical. Take, for instance, that gold-coloured flicking tail just sticking out of the grass on the savannah. Ignoring that might be limiting. But we would come to a standstill if we had to try to process all the information we receive. So we don’t. We use all sorts of techniques to filter this information to find that which is relevant or important.

2 – Not enough meaning

Even though we have all this info flying at us, it’s often not connected and doesn’t make that much sense. So we impose our own meaning on it. We string together stories that link the information and then we act on that. Sometimes this can be very powerful, sometimes not so much. Often we simply climb up the ladder or inference.

3 – The need to act fast

When we see that flicking tail in the grass, it’s important to act fast. We’ve developed all sorts of shortcuts to facilitate with fast decision-making to ensure our survival. But these same shortcuts can have very detrimental effects when we really need to take the time to think before acting.

4 – What should we remember?

With all this information, we have to decide what’s important for us to remember. With your survival on the line, it’s best to remember the colour and shape of the root that might poison you. We tend to generalise to make it easier to remember things, but by generalising you can often miss important details.

The first step to any problem is to gain knowledge, so to understand what we’re dealing with, here are a few of the cognitive biases that I find play out often in the coaching space and are important to be aware of.

Bias Blind Spot

Probably the most important bias to know about is this one. The bias blind-spot is the ability to easily spot the proverbial speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye, but fail to notice the log in your own. This is also something that coaches are as prone to as others. Not me though – only other coaches. But seriously, if you can’t admit you have biases, you may as well flick to another website now. There’s no hope for you.

The Curse of Knowledge

Here’s another one that coaches struggle with. The curse of knowledge is the inability to take yourself back to the place and time before you had the knowledge you have. You can no longer see the world like you used to and you can’t understand how others can’t see the world as you do now. This can be fatal for a coach. How are you supposed to help people change if you can’t understand where (and indeed when) they are?

The other way this manifests is in our communication of ideas and concepts. We use jargon, lingo and industry-specific acronyms, which can have the unintended consequence of pushing your clients away from you, not bring them closer.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

It may have a fancy name, but you’ll know this one. Those with the least knowledge of some topic are the ones spewing forth wisdom on that topic. They’re the same people that read a blog post about agile and the next day walk around the office telling everyone they should be having 15 minute ‘scrums’ if they want to be agile.

What’s quite ironic is that there is an opposite effect called Imposter Syndrome, where those that are the most qualified feel like they don’t know enough and that any minute they’ll be found out. I guess somewhere in the middle we’ll find the balance.

Confirmation Bias

When you believe something to be true you can bet you’re going to find lots of evidence to prove it and avoid any evidence to the contrary. Google is great fuel for this particular bias. We find those articles that complement our beliefs but shun any articles that don’t.

Semmelweis Reflex

Your clients want to go agile. But they say: “It won’t work here. We’re different. Our circumstances are special. We’re not [fill in the agile company name here]. They don’t have legacy systems like ours.” Welcome to the Semmelweis Reflex. People reject concepts, technology and any new ideas that don’t fit into their current paradigm. Don’t get me started on the DevOps pushback!


Probably the most common bias of them all. We simply have to put people in boxes – we can’t help it. How often have you heard the developers talking about ‘business’ and how they just don’t get it? They push and push, they’re always trying to get more work into the Sprint, etc. And what do the business people say about developers?

Law of the Instrument

You know that story about having a hammer and seeing every problem as a nail? We do that too. Take Scrum. We hammer that in everywhere. Doesn’t matter if it’s really suitable or not, godammit it’s agile!

Actor-Observer Bias

Observer: I was driving to work the other day and this idiot cut in front of me! What was he thinking! He shouldn’t be allowed on the road!

Actor: I was driving to work the other day and I accidentally cut in front of someone. It wasn’t my fault – there was a glare from the car next to me and the damn coffee I was drinking was too hot (I’ve told that barista a hundred times not to make it so hot!) and it burnt my tongue, making me spill it over my new shirt!

Yeah, when it’s someone else, it’s their fault. When it’s you, it’s still someone else’s fault. Go figure.

These biases are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other ways your brain takes shortcuts. So what can we do about it? (see how I used ‘we’ there and not ‘you’?) Well, it’s a bit like the 12 steps in the AA – you’ve gotta admit to having these biases first before you can move forward. However, just like alcoholism, you’ll never get rid of cognitive biases. You can become better at spotting them and stopping yourself from acting out, but your system is wired to play out in this way.

Here are some tips that might be of use.

  1. Stop. Think. It’s really basic, but it can work. Before you act out, take a few moments to calm yourself and think. Usually just getting over the initial emotional flush can help you deal with situations better. Take a few deep breaths. Then take a few more.
  2. Ask questions. This is an extension of the point above in that it also allows you a bit of extra time to gather yourself. By asking questions you potentially have more knowledge and information at hand and could make better decisions.
  3. Create Tripwires. A tripwire is a mechanism that you set up for yourself before a potential situation occurs, that will trigger when that situation is reached. If, for instance, you know that it’s difficult to back out of a project once you’re too far in (the Sunk Cost fallacy), set up an agreement with your colleagues to review the project at regular intervals with exactly this issue in mind.
  4. Find a devil’s advocate. You may not like her, but that colleague that always has a different opinion is actually good for you. If you allow yourself, you might see things from her perspective, opening up other ways of thinking and potential options. Don’t surround yourself with ‘yes’ people.
  5. Create a backlog. You’re probably thinking, like, ‘duh’! But the practice of managing a prioritised list of tasks will force you into System 2 mode and stop you from being reactive and playing into System 1.
  6. Avoid Group-Think. Not as easy as it may seem, but powerful once it becomes second nature. Some people are just really good at this and are contrary just to be different or prove a point. This can be a really good trait as it can help you see situations from a different perspective. Cultivate it.
  7. Consciously break down stereotypes. This may seem a bit forced, but a good way to break stereotypes is to place images of non-stereotypical people or events in your everyday path (how about a pic of a gorgeous ginger…). You should try to enrich the stories you tell yourself of those around you as much as possible to make them less 2D and more 3D and alive.
  8. Get feedback. You can’t see yourself as others do, but you can certainly ask them to tell you what they see. It’s not easy hearing about your blind spots, but knowledge is power!

This isn’t an easy journey. We’re human and we’re born with an operating system full of strange programming. With a bit of discipline and lots of self-observation we can learn to harness the best of ourselves.


Quote of the day

“Like most people who go on diets, most companies that go lean fool themselves into thinking that the change effort is a time-bounded exercise. The company just needs to eat less and exercise more for now. It doesn’t understand that if it is to stay lean, a company, like a person, has to live lean … forever. It is literally about resetting the corporate metabolism, even restructuring its DNA. That cannot be done just by shifting a process, implementing a methodology, or running a change program. Real systemic change has to happen at a company’s core, with its people. Most critically, it needs to be embodied in the company’s leaders.”

– “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership: Achieving and Sustaining Excellence through Leadership Development” by Jeffrey K. Liker, Gary L. Convis –


Quote of the day

“Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.”

“21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari –


Quote of the day

There are 2 things I don’t like: change, and the way things are now.


Learning vs not

I’m going to take a break from the series I’ve been writing for the last few posts. It’s not that I’m getting bored with it, but rather that I’ve had another realisation after attended another Servant Leadership course. And here it is.

The 2 models that are contrasted in Servant Leadership are unilateral vs mutual learning. The key word for me in that is learning. It feels to me that the unilateral model doesn’t allow the individual to learn from others. Their position is right and everyone else is wrong. Perhaps there is some learning involved, but it certainly isn’t done willingly. Rather, it is more likely a forced learning.

Mutual learning believes that there isn’t a right or wrong, but rather differences that can help us understand the world better. When we are presented with someone else’s perspective we have the opportunity to grow and integrate that perspective into our own. This is a learning experience.

What’s fascinating for me is that these 2 a completely different mindsets. They represent fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. When I’m unilateral, I have an anxious, closed view of the world. There are clear boundaries around me. I have a view of how things are and how I want them to be. These views and perspectives are within my boundaries. Anyone else’s views are outside the boundaries and in order for me to feel safe within my boundaries, I have to see your perspectives as ‘wrong’. This creates distance between us. This reinforces the ‘us’ vs ‘them’.

When I’m mutual learning, I’m filled with an open sense of curiosity. I want to know more about you. I see the things I know as simply a small part of a much bigger whole. The things I know or have experienced are the edges of my boundaries and I feel a hunger to stretch those boundaries further and further, to learn more, experience more and bring that into a more fuller ‘me’. With this mindset, every interaction is an opportunity to learn more, become more, experience more.

Unilateral values the finite. It’s a scarcity mindset. Mutual learning celebrates the infinite. It revels in abundance.

Which do you choose?


For example…

One of the issues that often arises in teamwork is that of terminology. You’re in a meeting explaining yourself using what you think are perfectly understandable words but after a bit of back and forth you realise that the others aren’t understanding what you’re saying in the way you mean it. Or worse, you don’t realise that there’s been a misunderstanding and you leave the meeting thinking everything is sorted, only to discover a while later that the team has gone off on the wrong path.

Thus the 3rd Ground Rule is:

Use specific examples and agree on what important terms mean.

This rule is all about specifics – specifics in situations and specifics in language usage.

Situational specifics

Abstract thinking may be great for philosophy, but when we’re trying to communicate in a high-performing team and we need action, it’s so much easier for us to relate to specific concrete examples. This is especially true when we’re trying to resolve issues in the team. In these instances, a clear situational example of what happened when and by whom helps to set the context within which further discussion can take place. If you’re trying to air a grievance and you start with “you always do [insert that thing they do here]”, there’s a big chance that the person can deny your grievance, as it’s almost impossible for someone to do something all the time.

Language specifics

One of the first artefacts I try to establish during any project is a glossary. Besides the usual role of clarifying the meaning of terms, I often find that the glossary is also used to define the single term that the team agrees to use whenever there are multiple terms are in use in the organisation. I know it might sound silly to go to the trouble of clarifying the words we use in a project, but you’ll save yourself quite a bit of time and frustration in the long run.

This is a relatively simple rule, but it’s surprising how easy it can be to get it wrong!

Agile Coaching

The boons and busts of assumptions

I’m assuming we all know the choice phrase: “Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups.” If you don’t, well there is the problem with assumptions right there.

In my previous article I listed 8 behaviours that contribute to a high performing team. The first on that list is:

  1. Test assumptions and inferences.

It’s first for a reason. Humans have evolved advanced behavioural traits to ensure survival on the wild plains of Africa. We are great at pattern recognition, until we’re not. Our assumptions and inferences are examples of our application of pattern recognition. When we see someone behaving in a certain way, we review our memory for events that match that behaviour, then we infer the reason behind the current behaviour from the reasoning behind the historical behaviour. Many times our assumptions are correct, (After all, we did manage to survive this long!) however that’s not always the case. In our modern world, cause and effect can be a lot more complex than: “see a rustle in the bush – must be a lion! – run away and climb tree immediately!” In a business team context we are faced with people from many walks of life, cultural backgrounds and personal experiences. We also have the issue that language doesn’t fully express the nuances of what’s really going on in our thoughts, and that’s not even taking into consideration that many people in our teams are not even communicating in their native language. Put this all together and it becomes obvious why working in a corporate environment can often resemble a war zone.

But it doesn’t have to be. A lot of conflict can easily be avoided by making sure that the initial messages exchanged between people are understood properly. This is where the behaviour of testing assumptions comes into play.

Practically, there are 2 steps to this process:

  1. Becoming aware of the assumptions and inferences you’re making; and
  2. Testing these assumptions with the other party in a way to minimise defensiveness.

Becoming aware is the most difficult. We’re remarkable good at seeing when others are making assumptions but not so good at observing it in ourselves. Understanding the Ladder of Inference makes this process a lot easier. If you understand the steps you go through to come to a decision based on the data that has been supplied, you can stop and question yourself at any point on the ladder.

Testing these assumptions with the other party then becomes easier.  You first replay what you’ve seen or heard and ask whether they see it differently. Then you play back the assumptions or inferences you’ve made based on that data. If they see it the same way, you are at least seeing or understanding the situation in the same way. If it’s different, you have the opportunity to clarify the situation.

This technique helps both parties realise they’re at least looking at the same hymn-sheet. Whether or not everyone wants to sing that particular hymn is another issue. You may still need to have a difficult conversation.


What makes a good team?

Communication is tough. Many of the issues that arise in the workplace relate to miscommunication in some form or another. We think we’re saying something but it’s being interpreted differently, or we are actually saying the wrong thing. Miscommunication can lead to an erosion of trust, which is crucial to a high performing team.

Roger Schwartz came up with a list of Ground Rules for effective groups or teams to help with this situation. They are:

  1. Test assumptions and inferences
  2. Share all relevant information
  3. Use specific examples and agree on what important terms mean
  4. Explain your reasoning and intent
  5. Focus on interests, not positions
  6. Combine advocacy with inquiry
  7. Jointly design the next steps and ways to test disagreements
  8. Discuss undiscussable issues
  9. Use a decision-making rule that generates the level of commitment needed

They sound so simple, looking at them written down like this. But these rules are based on a Mutual Learning model of the world, rather than a Unilateral Control model and it’s not easy to change your mental model. It takes discipline, commitment, self-control and persistence.

Each of these rules have a lot behind them, so I will be unpacking each of these rules over the next few blog posts to delve more into why these are so important for teams.

Stay tuned!

Coaching Motivation

When is the tipping point?

The more I delve into organisational transformation and development, the more I realise that the ‘new way’ of working is not actually that new. The ideas and principles that underpin the Agile movement have been around for quite some time. Way back in 1969 you’ll find the following in the Industrial Management Review (Tannenbaum, Davies, 1969):

  • Away from people are bad towards people are good
  • Away from individuals as fixed towards seeing people as being in process
  • Away from status and prestige for power towards status for organisationally relevant purposes
  • Away from competition towards collaboration

In the same year, Richard Beckhard published his classic Organization Development: Strategies and Models, in which he explains his assumptions:

  1. The basic building blocks of the organisation are groups (teams)
  2. An always relevant change goal is the reduction of inappropriate competition
  3. Decision making is located where the information sources are
  4. Controls are interim measurements, not the basis of managerial strategy
  5. Develop open communication, mutual trust, and confidence between and across teams
  6. People support what they help create

It’s almost 40 years since 1969 and it’s clear that we haven’t yet reached the point where these beliefs are pervasive across industries. We still work in highly authoritarian environments where human-ness plays second fiddle to mechanical efficiency. We still try to keep our emotions bottled up in favour of logic and rationality. Our workplaces are still dominated by disempowerment, fear and angst, rather than autonomy, mastery and purpose.

That’s not good enough for me. That’s not good enough for any of us. I’m working on pushing us over the tipping point. I’m devoted to living in the new world that I can see in the distance. I’ll do whatever I can to get there.

I hope you’re with me.


Quote of the day

“I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” ― Tom Waits