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Countering confirmation bias in Product Teams

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

Confirmation bias is one of the most common traps in product teams. Put simply, it is the tendency to research, recollect, infer or interpret information that supports one's prior beliefs. (Source for image above: Sprouts, 2019). Michael Shermer shared here that:

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”.

Confirmation bias becomes particularly challenging for product teams because it does not allow their perspective to change based on data, facts or evidence. Therefore, people will seek out stories or information to support their beliefs. E.g. a real-life example of confirmation bias might be when people tend to prefer watching or listening to news from specific channels that support what they believe in.

Brain’s in-built biases that shape our confirmation biases

Our brain has two parts; subconsciousness, and consciousness.

Our consciousness is the active thinking we do e.g. when we process new information or earn something new. On the other hand, our subconsciousness is the core memory that our brain uses to speed up our processing. It’s the stored information that we have already learned and so we don’t have to use our mental capacity to consciously think every time we do something. E.g. walking, writing, speaking, walking routes to the nearest grocery store or cafes or office.

Therefore our subconsciousness becomes a shortcut that our brain uses to access the stored information. Therefore when we see or hear something that contradicts this previously held information, we find it challenging to accept it. Why? This often requires erasing our subconscious information before the new information can be processed. Instead, we might subconsciously find it a lot easier to reject new information and confirm with the status quo. This results in confirmation bias.

Pitfalls in teams when faced with confirmation bias:

Confirmation bias is very inherent in how people think and generally speaking results in a number of team-level challenges. When not acknowledged, they can create havoc in business too. Some of the main challenges I have seen are:

  • Lack of clarity

  • A narrow point of view

  • Erroneously connecting information or patterns

  • Not open to different perspectives in the team

  • Lapses in critical thinking

  • Inaccurate information being used to make decisions

  • Broken trusts, frustrations and team dysfunctions

  • Limited solutions ideas

  • Inability to see forests from tress

  • Overcomplicating information and use of weasel words

How do we know if we might be experiencing confirmation bias?

  • Our discovery or research makes sense and does not reveal anything new. Essentially, we have not learnt anything and hence there is nothing to question

  • There is general consensus during team discussions and this is characterized by a lack of tension. Not all tension is bad and a healthy level of conflict is needed so that as a team we are challenging ourselves to ask the right questions

Common traps to be aware of:

Here are some of the common traps of confirmation bias I have made myself and also what I see in product teams:

  • Asking questions so that we hear what we want to hear: This can happen when we might frame research questions (survey or interview) to tell us what we want to hear e.g. “What are your biggest challenges in X” assumes by default that there is a challenge whereas X might have some value drivers that we are ignoring completely

  • Listen to only users or stakeholders you agree with: This can happen when a user or a stakeholder we like mentions something that somewhat aligns with what we are thinking, and we are quick to agree with them. Again this does not help us learn something new and simply confirms our previously held beliefs

How do you counter confirmation bias in the product team?

Here are some of the tactics I have found useful in my career:

  • Stick to the facts not opinions: Everyone talks about making data-informed decisions. However, what do you do when we do not have enough data either from surveys or even user interviews? This is when it is really important to reflect and ask more clarifying questions before deciding on questions to add in the survey, interview questions or drawing out inferences.

Some of these clarifying questions might be:

  1. What is the business problem here?

  2. Are there specific goals the business has? (PS: This is not about the feature)

  3. Who might the target users be?

  4. What are the pain points or value drivers for the users?

There is a lot of balancing act that needs to be done here between how open-ended the questions need to be and when we need to narrow down to start developing a point of view. Else the risk is opening up a pandora's box and experiencing the dread of analysis-paralysis (this needs a whole new blog post on its own).

  • Seek feedback or a different point of view: It helps to seek advice from others to help see a different point of view. What is key to understanding here is that asking the same thing, again and again, will not result in new insights. Often seeking advice from naysayers can give a new perspective and questions some very grounded beliefs to learning something new. One way is to ask the other person: (credit: Shreyas Doshi):

Is there a question I need to ask but have not asked OR Did I miss a key question that people in this situation
  • Allow yourself to be wrong: If we want to get closer to the facts objectively then we have to be OK to admit that we were wrong. If you are unable to do this, then it greatly hinders our ability to learn or make sense of the ever-changing world with new information. It is easier said than done but it starts with being completely aware of our biases and belief systems and then comfortable to be proven wrong in light of new information. The key here is not reacting to single pieces of information but patterns which is repeated information that is inferred from data. A common trap I have seen in product teams is to change direction from 1 survey response, interview or conversation with a single stakeholder.

It is really key to acknowledge that when we receive feedback or a point of view that is different from what we believe in, it is not always a personal attack. A mantra that I have lived by is:

We are debating ideas here, not people...

Share with us your experience of confirmation bias in product teams, and how you have countered them

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