Understanding Bias

I often write about the importance of alignment in goals between IT and vendors and how critical it is to avoid getting advice from those that you are not paying for that advice, because that makes them salespeople, basically the importance of getting advice and guidance from a buyer’s agent rather than directly from the seller’s agent.  This leads to questions about bias; clearly the idea is that a salesperson is biased in a way that is likely unfavourable to you.  But, it should be obvious, that all people are biased.

This is true, all people have bias.  We cannot seek to escape or remove all bias, that is simply impossible.  In fact, in many ways, when we see advice whether it be from a paid consultant whose job it is to present us with a good option, from IT itself doing the same or getting feedback from a friend on products that they have tested – it is actually their biases that we are seeking!

What we need to do is strive to understand the biases and motivations of the people with whom we speak and receive advice, be self reflecting to understand our own biases, have a good knowledge of what biases are good for us and attempt to get advice from people who have a general bias-alignment with us.

Biases come in many forms.  We can have good and bad biases, strong and weak ones.

The biggest biases typically come externally in the form of monetary or near-monetary compensation for bias.  This might be someone being paid as a sales person to promote the products that they are available to sell, commission structures would take this to an even more acute level.  Someone paid to do sales might face two of the strongest biases: monetary (they get money if they make the sale) and ethical (they made an agreement to sell this product if possible and they are ethically bound to try to do so.)  These are the standard biases of the “seller’s agent” or sales person.

On the other hand a consultant is paid by the buyer or customer and is a buyer’s agent and as the same monetary and ethical biases, but in the favour of the buyer rather than against them.  (I use the term buyer and customer here mostly interchangeably to represent the business or IT department, the ones receiving advice or guidance on what to do or buy.)  These biases are pretty evident and easily to control and I have covered them before – never get advice from the seller’s agent, always get your advice from the buyer’s agent.

If we assume that these big biases, those of alignment, are covered we still have a large degree of bias from our buyer’s agent that we need to uncover and understand.

One of the most common biases is one towards familiarity.  This is not a bad bias, but we must be aware of it and how it colours recommendations.  This bias can run very deep and affect decision making in ways that we may not understand without investigation.  At the highest level, the idea is simply that most anyone is going to favour, possibly unintentionally, solutions and products with which they have familiarity and the stronger that familiarity often the stronger the bias towards those products will be.

This may seem obvious but it is a bias that is commonly overlooked.  People turning to consultants will often seek their advice from someone with a very small set of experiences which serves as a means by which the resulting recommendations are likely drawn.  In a way, this is effectively the buyer preselecting the desired outcome and choosing a consultant that will deliver the desired outcome.  An example of this would be choosing a network engineer to design a solution when that engineer only knows one product line; naturally the engineer will almost certainly design a solution from that product line.  In choosing someone with limited experience in that area we are, for all intents and purposes, directly the results by picking based on a strong bias.  This happens extremely often in IT, presumably because those hiring consultants base this decision on what they think are foregone conclusions about what the resulting advice will be and forgetting to step back and get advice at a higher level.

Of course, like with many things, there is also an offset bias to the familiarity bias, the exploration bias.  While we tend to be strongly biased towards things that we know, there is also a bias towards the unknown and the opportunity to explore and learn.  This bias tends to be extremely weak compared to the familiarity bias, but far from trivial in many IT practitioners.  It is a bias that should not be ignored and is important for helping broaden the potential scope of advice from a single consultant.

Of course there are more biases that stem from familiarity.  There is a natural, strong bias towards companies that we have found to have good products, have good support or interact well.  Companies with whom we have experienced product, support or interaction issues we tend to be strongly biased against.  These, of course, are highly valuable biases that we specifically want consultants to bring with them.

One of the worst biases, however, and one that affects everyone is marketing bias.  Companies with large or well made marketing campaigns or that align with industry marketing campaigns can induce a large amount of bias that is not based on something valuable to the end user.  Similarly, market share is an almost valueless and often negative factor (large companies often charge more for equal products – e.g. you “pay for the name”) but can be a strong bias, one often brought to the table by the customer.  Customers commonly either directly control this bias by demanding only well marketed, seemingly popular or large vendor promoted recommendations be made or fail to react properly to apparently alternative solutions: both reactions heavily influence what a consultant is willing to recommend.  This is known as “no one ever got fired for buying IBM” from the 1980s, and is often an amazingly costly bias and a difficult one to overcome.  Of course it applies much more broadly than only to IBM and does not primarily pertain to them today, but the term became famous during IBM’s heyday of IT.

Of course the main bias that we seek is the bias of “what is the best option for the customer.”  This is itself, a bias.  One that we hope, when combined with other positive biases, overpowers the influence of negative biases.  And likewise there is a prestige bias, a desire to produce advice that is so good that it increases the respect for the consultant.

Biases come in many different types and are both the value in advice and the dangers in it.  Leveraging bias requires an understanding of the major biases that are or are likely at play in any specific instance as well as having empathy for the people that give advice.  If you take time to learn about what their financial, ethics, experiential and objective biases are, you can understand their role far better and you can better filter their advice based on that knowledge.

Take the time to consider the biases of the people from whom you get advice.  Likely you already know a lot of which biases affect them significantly and may be able to guess what more of them are.  Everyone has different biases and all people react to them differently.  What is a strong bias for one person is a weak one for someone else.  Consider talking to your consultants about their biases, they should be open to this conversation (and if not, be extra cautious) and hopefully have thought about it themselves, even if not in depth or in the same terms.

The people from whom you get advice should have biases that strongly align favourably towards you and your goals.


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