December 4, 2020


News for Agilists

How Cognitive Biases Affect the Product Owner’s Decisions?

Cognitive Bias

Product Owners are on the frontline of making tough decisions. ‘What User Stories should be in the next sprint?’ followed by ‘Do they deliver enough value?’ are the most crucial questions, I believe, which every Product Owner should answer before the start of a new Sprint.

The decision-making process of a Product Owner heavily relies on the amount of valid information that should be acquired through numerous human interactions. Whether it’s the crowded meeting rooms filled by hot debates of the Scrum Team or the noisy conference calls where the stakeholders are projecting their vision toward the product’s future, the Product Owner should consciously absorb the necessary information.

Perceiving, comprehending and interpreting this enormous amount of information requires a cognitive bias-free mind. So what exactly is cognitive bias and how does it affect the Product Owner’s decision?

Cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that affects decisions and rational judgments.

The rest of the article is addressing the two most impactful results of the cognitive biases and also respective cognitive biases that affect the Product Owner’s decision makings.

Human mind encountering cognitive biases

According to the ‘neurophysiological factors in human information processing capacity’, the human brain has a limited capacity to process complex events and huge amounts of information.

In order to overcome these limitations, during the evolution the human brain has equipped with superpowers of simplifying the complex events and automating the cognitive functions.

The simplification functionality gives us the ability to divide the unknown world into simple and understandable pieces and eventually, it helps us to make decisions based on our cognition. The rapid decision making had given us the ability to move forward which had been vital for mankind’s survival.

On the other side, the automatization of cognitive functions exists which is known to increase the capacity of simultaneous information processing. Automatization also leads to a decline in brain activity and as a result, it simplifies the complex events.

The mentioned brain functionalities seem quite useful but in the modern era, these primal instincts are the cause of multiple cognitive biases like anchoring bias and functional fixedness which have the most negative impact on the Product Owners decision makings.

Anchoring Bias and its Impact on the Product Owners’ Daily Work

The anchoring bias tends to rely on the first piece of information that we learn. This bias happens when at a subconscious level we neglect the possible complexity and just act based on the very limited information which we already have.

Setting the expectations of stakeholders or clients by just applying the early stage achieved information without diving deep into the topic, can navigate the Product Owner to write invalid User Stories and as a result, lead the Scrum Team to develop functionality that doesn’t meet the real expectations.

Functional Fixedness and Its Impact on the Product Owners’ daily life

Functional fixedness is another bias that tends to simplify the uncertainty. This bias is the tendency to see objects as only working in a particular way.

There are many ways of doing things! Imagine you have a screw and a dime, but you insist on using a screwdriver to drive the screw, rather than using the dime, which will also work.

In the daily routine of the Scrum Teams, the Product Owner describes the team ‘what to do’ by proposing the User Stories and then the team comes with ‘how to do’ them. That’s the Product Owner who decides whether to start working on the topic based on the initial proposed solution or spend more time to discover hidden aspects of the topic. So in this stage, the Product Owner should be free of functional fixedness bias.

Too many ideas!

In a 1932 study, Frederic Bartlett demonstrated how telling and retelling a story distorts the information recall. He told participants a complicated Native American story and had them repeat it over a series of intervals. With each repetition, the stories were altered.

Even when participants recalled accurate information, they filled in gaps with false information.

This research demonstrates that people tend to place past events into existing representations of the world to make memories more coherent.

Instead of remembering precise details about commonplace occurrences, people create frameworks for typical experiences, which shape their expectations and memories.

With this regard, the human mind is able to manipulate the past event or even distort them while is recalling them. This functionality makes the human mind to be vulnerable to being biased by misinformation effect and optimism bias.

Misinformation Effect and Its Impact on the Product Owners’ Daily Work

Misinformation effect happens when a person’s recall of episodic memories becomes less accurate because of post-event information. Essentially, the new information that a person receives works backward in time to distort the memory of the original event.

In order to easily retrieve the massive stored information, the human brain has an astounding ability to categorize them into information clusters. But even this amazing ability has processing limitations which somehow leads to disarrangement of the order of the stored events.

This means that previously obtained information might be distorted by the newly received information which eventually causes information validity confusion.

Imagine a scenario in which the business development’s crew presents an abstract customer need to the Product Owner.

As the Product Owner starts the journey to clarify the feasibility and the scope proposed feature, in various time frames a vast amount of information accompanied by doubts and uncertainties gets poured into the Product Owners’ mind.

In such a condition, it would be really tough to retrieve the right narrative of the story and figure out the contrast between invalid and valid information.

Optimism Bias and its Impact on the Product Owners’ daily life

Optimism bias leads us to believe that we are less likely to suffer from misfortune and more likely to attain success than reality would suggest.

This bias is based on previous experiences. While we can not retrieve the whole aspects of the event that happened in the past, we give ourselves much more credit to succeed.

The Product Owner is in charge of providing estimations of set deliverables to stakeholders. In the Scrum framework, deliverables estimations are a cooperative activity between the team and the Product Owner.

Since the User Story points are mostly determined by comparing with the previous experiences, it is very common that the Product Owner and also the team gets stuck into optimism bias which leads them to provide unrealistic estimations and as a result, missing due dates.

All of us, no matter our position, education, intellectual commitment, or good intentions, are susceptible to cognitive biases.

In fact, the human brain is not designed to be data-oriented, which means our judgments or decisions by nature are not based on the processed information.

On the other hand, the human brain is equipped with some tricky remedies to simplify the complexity of the surrounding world and also automating the cognitive functions which increase the capacity of simultaneous information processing of the brain.

The essence of the Product Owner’s profession which is filled by uncertainties following by the above-mentioned natural factors makes the Product Owner’s susceptible to fall into the cognitive biases and unconscious distortions.

Developing insight and awareness toward the possible cognitive biases along with appreciating the uncertainty and accepting the errors will help the Product Owners to thrive the best throughout their careers.

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