5 Cognitive Biases that Breakdown Agile Teams

This article was first published in Agile Today - May 2014

"A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion." - Wikipedia

We are all guilty of these at one time or another--a pattern of thinking that, when examined, is clouded by our own judgments and has only a passing acquaintance with logic and reality. Even when we are aware of our biases, they still, insidiously, act upon us.

Agile, by its transparent and collaborative nature, is resilient to many of these biases, but, at the same time, susceptible to others. It is some of these that I want to share with you today:

1: Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to favour information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. This is most commonly expressed during our beloved stand-ups. We will focus on the positive information if we believe that the iteration is going well and vice-versa, should we believe the iteration is going poorly. This can lead to scrum masters and team leaders not acting on negative trends (what Deming described as special causes) or falsely acting to "correct" a team operating within expected bounds (what Deming described as common causes).

2. Self-Serving Bias

Self-serving bias is the distortion of people's perceptions due to the need to maintain and enhance self-esteem. In a strong collaborative and team environment, especially one where failure is encouraged, the impact of a self-serving bias is extreme. Individuals who base their self-esteem on their seniority within an organisation or their ability to deliver will, unconsciously, present biased information on progress, capabilities or defects, limiting the ability of a product owner or other team members to make informed decisions.

3. Information Bias

Information bias is the tendency for people to seek additional information before making a decision, even if that information will have little to no impact on the outcome. There is a tendency in agile teams to collect a significant quantity of metrics from workload management systems, tracking systems, CI environments, etc., but then not using that information in any substantial way. It should go without saying that this management behaviour is a waste (in the lean sense of the word) and can have both a human and financial cost.

4. In-group Bias:

In-group bias refers to the tendency of people to favour members of their "group" or, in the agile case, team. This can be seen in teams that regularly self-organise with the same people or teams that compete for common resources (such as access to DBA's or user groups) without consideration for the project or organisation as a whole. This bias can subtly damage, and ultimately destroy, the ability for an organisation to operate in a collaborative, transparent and agile manner. Efforts to build agile organisational structure can counter this, but still requires business leaders to maintain vigilance.

5. Bias Blind Spot:

The last bias is probably the most insidious. The bias blind spot is the failing of people to identify and compensate for their own biases. In various studies, the majority of participants have consistently rated themselves as less vulnerable to cognitive biases than the average person. If you have read this article and thought, "These don't apply to me--I am very self-aware", then you are probably succumbing to the bias blind spot. Be aware that biases operate subconsciously and may be contrary to your conscious decision-making behaviour.

Final Thoughts

There are hundreds of these biases, and psychologists are discovering more all the time. As agile leaders and practitioners, we need to remain aware of them in our teams, and more importantly, our own behaviour.