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Thinking traps from the field to the boardroom

I once advised a company that launched a promo to increase revenues from a specific customer segment. The marketing team members who designed the promo were experienced experts. Yet, the promo flopped because the winners were NOT the segment they set out to target. Worse, the promo suffered severe delays because they underestimated the review process required before launch. These mishaps begged the question, “How could this promo have gone wrong when everyone on the team was convinced of its success?”

I delivered a workshop on “Thinking Traps: A NextGen CEO’s Survival Checklist” as part of the 2022 SGV-MAP (SyCip Gorres Velayo & Company –Management Association of the Philippines) Transformative Leadership Program for next-generation CEOs. A few weeks ago, I also did a more extensive three-day workshop for the management team of a large insurance company. During the workshops, I witnessed thinking traps that pervade companies from the field to the board room. I’ll highlight three common thinking traps from the sessions and three antidotes for surviving these traps.

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Thinking trap No.1: Groupthink

This is the tendency to think like the group and avoid expressing a differing opinion to preserve harmony. Sometimes, the fear of voicing a contrarian view stems from the fear of being “punished,” “left out” or labelled as “mema” (“may masabi”, Tagalog for “for the sake of saying something”). Groupthink is common when the boss doesn’t model openness to differing viewpoints, or when there is a lack of psychological safety in the organization.

Antidote No.1: Devil’s advocate

Appoint a person whose role is to challenge the proposed plan, targets and assumptions. Set up the role openly and let the team know that the scrutiny from the devil’s advocate will sharpen your plan and improve decision-making. The failed marketing promo I wrote about above would have benefited from the devil’s questioning.

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Thinking trap No.2: Overconfidence

This is the tendency to overestimate our abilities relative to other people. Ask an MBA (Master of Business Administration) class to secretly answer, “Do you think you rank higher than the average student in your class?” Ask a room of drivers to secretly answer, “Do you think you’re a better driver than the average driver in the room?” In both cases, more than half will say they’re better than average, which is false. This is overconfidence bias at work.

Antidote No.2: Outsider view

Ask for advice from people outside the project team or those with no stake in the project. They have no interest in weaving a self-promoting success story around the facts of the case.

Thinking trap No.3: Planning fallacy

This is the tendency to underestimate the time and resources required to complete a project. Product launches suffer from last-day rush or common all-nighters, despite meticulous planning and experience. We unconsciously miss examining the confluence of all assumptions behind our time and resource estimates.

Antidote No.3: Pre-mortem

This is a post-mortem but at the start of a project. Imagine you’re at the end of the project. Ask yourself what failed, trace those failures to the potential causes and mitigate these risks upfront. The chances of success of the project will drastically increase.

Groupthink, overconfidence, and planning fallacy find their antidotes in devil’s advocates, outsider views, and pre-mortems. These antidotes aren’t limited to one thinking trap and may work for others too.

While examining different thinking traps will raise awareness, studies show that awareness doesn’t guarantee avoidance. The traps, aka cognitive biases, are so ingrained in us that they are automatic. It takes deliberate practice to escape them.

During the workshops I give on thinking traps, managers have the opportunity to identify specific work scenarios where these pitfalls emerge and define a checklist for survival. Examples of action items are “appoint a devil’s advocate for every promo submitted for approval” or “conduct a pre-mortem for all investment projects over a threshold amount.”

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If you think your team discussions, management meetings and board deliberations are immune to thinking traps, THINK AGAIN! INQ

The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and not the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP. He is chair of MAP NextGen Committee, founder and CEO of technology firm Synerbyte Ltd. and author of the book “Sh*tty Places & Selfish People: 7 Rules of Engagement.” Feedback via [email protected] and [email protected]

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