Cognitive Bias: Racing to the Future While Gazing at the Past
Habitually promoting from within seems sensible, but is it? One team of researchers says this practice institutionalizes cognitive bias and is tantamount to racing toward the future by looking in the rear view mirror.
Most people think it’s chlorine that hurts their eyes in a swimming pool. But it’s actually the PH of the water. I know because I worked my way through college life guarding at a couple of different big, municipal facilities. At both, part of my daily to-do list included routine maintenance—everything from monitoring the pool’s PH to backwashing the massive sand filters that these municipal pools tended to rely on.
Where I grew up, the PH of the water was naturally on the acidic side. Left unattended, it would eat the corneas right off your eyeballs. So we regularly added large scoops of Soda Ash to bring the PH back into proper alignment. To know if we got it right, we’d conduct PH tests, a process that involved adding chemicals to a plastic test kit full of pool water and then grading the outcome against a color scale. Too far to one side of the color spectrum meant too acidic; too far in the other, too alkaline. Too far in either direction and we’d start getting complaints.
One summer I got a job at new water-slide that had opened in the next town over. The slide had a small pool—like you might find at a roadside motel—that served as a sort of splash pool at one end for sliders.
So new was this facility that I was the one who actually filled the pool with water the first time, fired up the filtration system, and then waited a few days for the water to clear. When I ran my first test, I was surprised to see that the water was far to the alkaline side. What? Based on years of experience, I knew this could not be the case. The test kit had to be malfunctioning. Or perhaps the water was so acidic that the test kit simply couldn’t give me a correct reading.
I did the “logical” thing: I began dumping in soda ash by the bag full. To my chagrin, the more I dumped, the worse it got. Before I finally came to my senses, the pool water was so alkaline, it could dissolve a flip flop before your very eyes. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but it was bad.) I finally called the manufacturer of the filtration system for some answers.
Turns out the pool used small, charcoal filters, instead of the giant sand filters I was used to. I knew this, of course, but I didn’t know it made a difference. The charcoal in the filters, as it turned out, was pushing the filtered water to the alkaline side—exactly the opposite of what I’d come to expect from sand filters. In other words, I should have been adding muriatic acid to optimize the PH, not soda ash. By doing what had always worked before (relying on a cognitive bias), I’d messed things up so badly, we had to postpone the grand opening by a full week.
Cognitive Bias in Business Settings
In their book, “Competing for the Future,” Hamel and Prahalad point to this exact phenomenon in business settings. After decades of promoting from within, some companies end up with a C-Suite echo chamber—a bunch of grizzled, battle-scarred veterans who tend to gauge every new situation in terms of something from their massive portfolios of past experiences.
As Hamel and Prahalad put it, such companies are trying to “win the race to the future by looking in the rear view mirror.”
Have you seen this phenomenon in your business? An executive dumping Soda Ash into an already too alkaline pool, while being entirely impervious to any solution unsupported by his past experiences?
The two authors make the point that many large corporations, having been burned repeatedly by this cognitive bias, are now seeking senior executives from entirely different industries, the conclusion being this: that winning the race to the future requires leadership that has an unrelated past—no exhaustive portfolio of prepackaged, albeit, entirely inappropriate experiences—to fall back on.