Jun 12nd, 2018

How Ego Gets in the Way of Good Decision Making

Adam PerlisCEO & Founder
Kirra DickinsonConsultant

Can you think of the last time you admitted to being wrong? What about being asked a question at work and you responded: “I don’t know”. Pretty difficult right? The problem is, we are constantly conditioned by society, culture and our educational system to crave wanting to feel right, validated, and competent. That makes it really difficult to say “I don’t know”, and largely we can blame our Egos for this. But Ego isn’t always a bad thing after all its job is to make sure you feel safe, it looks after your physical, emotional and social well-being. However, when these needs are not met, it can take control of your decision-making and lead to irrational decisions.
The Ego and Decision Making, Dummies.com

The problem with ego in product teams

So what does this have to do with design? It’s important to recognize that while the ego allows for our basic needs of validation, control, and security to be met, it may also hinder our ability to embrace uncertainty. This ability to look beyond ourselves and critically engage with alternative viewpoints is crucial in order to design products services and solutions that meet the needs of your users.

This to may come as a surprise considering many of us have been taught through the lens of what is “right” and “wrong”. I’d like to preface this by saying I understand in many contexts there will be only one right answer such as in medicine when survival depends on the “right” diagnosis or in astrophysics in which we need the “correct” calculations. However, I would like to address areas where the problem is not always so black and white. How might we tackle the gray areas, how might we find solutions in ambiguous and broad problem spaces, where there could be multiple right answers?

Many of us have navigated a variety of institutions in which we have been conditioned to expect a reward for the correct answer and punishment for the wrong one. As author Mel Schwartz writes, “Our educational system is rooted in the construct of right and wrong…As students we learn to avoid as best we can the embarrassment of being wrong. Getting the right answer becomes the primary purpose of our education.” For instance, in kindergarten, if you wanted the gold star you needed to recite the pledge of allegiance correctly, in college it was selecting the most relevant answer from the test bank (which I must say is a useful tactic if your only goal is to get an A).
Why it’s so Important to be Right, Psychology Today,

Not only are we conditioned to think this way in school, but also our brains become part of the problem. For instance, Ivan Pavlov’s research has demonstrated the ability of neutral stimuli to trigger physiological anticipation of an upcoming reward. In Pavlov’s experiments, dogs were conditioned to associate a neutral stimulus (such as a bell or the presence of a lab assistant) with an unconditioned stimulus (food). Over time this learned association led to the neutral stimulus eliciting a behavioral response (salivation in anticipation of food).
Pavlov’s Dog’s 1927, psycnet.apa.org

Thus, classical conditioning can help explain how we begin to associate “being right” with an upcoming reward, thus releasing feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine, making it even harder to break the cycle. As in her HBR article notes, “we get addicted to being right, Judith E. Glaser”
Darvas et. al, 2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.govJudith E. Glaser, hbr.org

Unfortunately, the problems in the real world aren’t ever presented as multiple choice answers. This conditioned pattern of thinking can lead us unprepared to tackle the larger complex problems. Particularly within the field of product and service design, there may be several correct answers because we are being asked to design for several user segments and needs.

We’ve been conditioned to evaluate our sense of self-worth on the basis of “being right”, uncertainty can be scary and challenging to address. However, by reframing it as a space for innovation and creation, we can develop a sense of agency to act efficiently and be empowered to challenge our own assumptions. Thus, the goal in product teams is to not necessarily eliminate our need to be correct, but allow others to be as well—we must challenge ourselves to critically engage with other ideas and become aware of the limiting beliefs and assumptions we hold. By inquiring about our designs vs. advocating for our designs, we can recognize our own perceptions, biases, and assumptions and we are better able to open ourselves up so that we can create better user experiences and ways of addressing problems.

The challenge

Feeling discouraged? Don’t be, we’ve all been there. As Adam Perlis, CEO of Academy UX & Design Thinking Studio laments…

‘ In my career as a Jr. Designer, I often felt the pain of the need to be right. I was averse to criticism and would say things to myself like “what do they know about design”. This was simply my ego and own subconscious defending itself. It was making sure I felt safe, secure and validated but what it really was doing was exposing my own insecurities. Although inwardly I may have been cursing the person, outwardly I would diplomatically argue my position. If I was successful my ego was validated but if I was unsuccessful I felt damaged and hurt.

HBR’s article “What You Don’t Know About Making Decision”, reveals that often, What You Don’t Know About Making Decisions

“We take the least productive approach: advocacy. We argue our position with a passion that prevents us from weighing opposing views. We downplay our position’s weaknesses to boost our chances of “winning.” And we march into decision-making discussions armed for a battle of wills. The consequences? Fractious exchanges that discourage innovative thinking and stifle diverse, valuable viewpoint(s).”

This is no way to approach problem-solving, as it is mired in issues and distracts from good solutions.

Nobel Prize-winning Author and Psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, in his book – Thinking Fast and Slow examines how humans make decisions. He identifies 2 systems of thought: System 1 is the intuitive, “gut reaction” way of thinking and making decisions. System 2 is the analytical, “critical thinking” way of making decisions. Now System 1 is what many of us currently engage in, it’s that part of us that advocates for our decisions and narrows out the validity of others. However, it’s System 2 that allows us to inquire into diverse ideas and logically discuss multiple viewpoints. Knowing this, why do so many engage in System 1? Because quite frankly, it requires more brain power to use System 2! But just as Adam was able to do, by going through this process and becoming aware of our own advocacy approach and the mechanisms behind it,  we have the opportunity to pivot and seek on a more inclusive, open approach to problem-solving—Design Thinking.

The opportunity

By engaging in Design Thinking, we can transcend our ego and challenge our need to be right in order to practice effective decision making. IDEO defines design thinking as a process for creative problem solving that centers around empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions.

When you engage in the process of design thinking, you also cultivate the following skills that allow you to step into the designer’s mindset and challenge our need to be right, thus counteracting irrational decision making.

  • Mindfulness: By becoming mindful of our own thoughts regarding what we believe is right and wrong, we can identify where there is resistance and instead allow ourselves to accept other ideas with non-judgemental awareness. This is crucial because it helps us challenge our desire to be right and instead make space for other solutions to live thus contributing to the creative process
  • Vulnerability: Another key step is allowing ourselves to admit that we may not have all the answers or might not know what the next step may be. As Mel Schwartz states, “being comfortable with being wrong is actually powerful and strong. Once we free ourselves from the need to be right, our thinking and our discourse open up. Not being tied to defending the need to be right opens up wonder, inquiry and a quest for learning.Schwartz, 2011 Ultimately this creates a space for creative problem solving and ideation of a variety of solutions.
  • Curiosity: By cultivating a genuine desire to go beyond ourselves and inquire about others, we can begin to question the status quo and allow ourselves to explore innovative solutions. This helps us become more receptive to alternative viewpoints which culminate in a higher level of knowledge and understanding and as a result, we can create better solutions and better products.
  • Empathy: Last and most importantly, being attuned to the thoughts and emotions of others while actively listening help create an atmosphere in which you allow others to share their own perspectives freely, cultivating a sense of psychological safety. This is important because it allows us to really listen

A process around Design Thinking: The Design Sprint

I also want to point out that you don’t have to be a large tech company or designer to employ this framework. Using the design thinking framework, many industries and companies have adopted the process to create constructs such as design sprints that are accessible to all. According to Google Ventures “The sprint is a five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers…it’s a “greatest hits” of business strategy, innovation, behavioral science, design thinking, and more—packaged into a battle-tested process that any team can use.” GV, Design Sprints

The Design Sprint includes 5 key phases

  • Discovery: In this phase, all members of the team collaborate to explore the problem space by gathering research from diverse viewpoints and perspectives and carefully interviewing the users and stakeholders involved.
  • Sketch & Wireframe: After identifying the design challenge, the team utilizes their diverse set of disciplines to collectively ideate on solutions and democratically decide on a set of ideas to explore further.
  • Design: Start creating a Design Language System and bring your product to life.
  • Prototype: Taking the selected set of solutions, the team works rapidly to generate prototypes for users in multiple scenarios in order to gain constructive feedback and to iterate on design decisions. Prototypes allow us to create a simplified way to show a product and quickly acquire feedback without having to extend a tremendous amount of resources or time.
  • Testing: Using our prototypes throughout the design process, we want to make sure to test them and gain real feedback from our stakeholders. This requires a sense of empathy in order to thoughtfully listen to our customers and address their needs and concerns.

With that being said, what impact might design thinking have on your business?

Personal and professional development: Design thinking will not only allow you to excel in your profession, but also expand your sense of self-awareness, empathy for others, and empower you to create innovative and meaningful products. By engaging in this framework you practice making well-informed decisions based off of real-time data.

Happier customers: To reiterate, design thinking is a human-centered approach that starts with the people who you are designing for. Instead of assuming that we know what others may want or need, design thinking encourages us to test our assumptions to effectively support or challenge our decisions in order to create the most meaningful products and experiences for those engaging with it. As a result, the voice of the customer is heard at every step throughout the process.

For instance, furniture company Herman Miller and Continuum Innovation collaborated to develop a special chair for hospital patients recovering from an operation. “Rather than spending most of their time in-house, the design team went out to meet patients and caregivers in 19 hospitals to understand what worked and didn’t work in the types of chairs currently on offer. As a result, they found a chair needed to benefit patients both physically and psychologically. By addressing the users’ real needs, they designed a chair that helped speed up recovery and also successfully boosted hospitals’ throughput and productivity.”Stigalini, 2018

More effective teams via psychological safety: Design thinking also helps facilitate effective, high-impact teams to internally transform the dynamics of your organization. By encouraging others to defer judgment and engage with a wide variety of ideas, we create space for everyone’s opinions to be heard and cultivate a sense of psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson, Harvard organizational psychologist, first coined the term psychological safety to refer to the “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”. She states psychological safety is

‘ a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up…It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves’ Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business Psycologist

Amy Edmondson, 1999

A recent study on teams at Google revealed that psychological safety within teams when presenting ideas led to better functioning teams. “One engineer, for instance, had told researchers that his team leader was ‘direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.’ That team, researchers estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups.” What Google Learned from it’s Quest to Build the Perfect Team, 2016

The main takeaway

Although it can be difficult to challenge our assumptions of what is right and what is wrong and what we think is the best for others, design sprints and Design Thinking allow us to transcend the ego and as a result, create meaningful products and experiences for our customers and make a lasting impact on our teams and businesses.

Design Sprints
Design Thinking

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