Overcoming Bias: Learning From Your Track Record

Worth a Listen on IT Conversations Overcoming Bias.

We live in a world of cognitive biases and polarized opinions. We consider ourselves to be largely rational, yet we are often prone to systematic errors such as overconfidence, wishful thinking, and the attraction of strong opinions. This means decisions are often driven more by personalities and passions rather than technical merits. Economic theorist Robin Hanson explores common errors, and points to innovative tools such as prediction markets which can help overcome bias and promote truth.

George Mason economics professor Robin Hanson gave this short speech at the O’Reilly Open Source Conference last year about how cognitive biases get in the way of our accomplishing goals that would make our organizations function better. Bias is the a systematic tendency to produce errors in our judgment. (One way of defining the purpose of education is to help individuals understand these typical human errors and overcome them for the betterment of society.)

Most of know that intellectually. We know that our inability to accurately estimate project times and costs creates all kinds of wasted effort, and that it’s incredibly hard to get ideas accepted on many of our campuses because of our natural tendency to glamorize our own ideas and discount those not invent here. This tendency toward wishful thinking and over optimism is so pronounced, that managers of software developers really

Most of us are passionate about something–vegetarianism, open source, the Red Sox–but, in this talk, Hanson suggests that our greatest passion should be for doing the hard work to overcome biases to come to the truth. One key to betting better at reducing errors in our judgment is to invest some time in investigating our actual track records. Most organizations would be well served by spending some serious time analyzing both failed and successful projects to establish better estimating procedures.

After one of my academic advisors worked with me for a while, she came with what she called the half-it/double-it rule. She’s ask me when I might get her the next draft, and I’d tell her 20 pages, end of next week. She’d half-it (reduce the goal to ten pages) and double-it, (increase the time to two weeks). Having goals that were tied to the time it actually took me to write–rather than speed I wished I could write–made the whole project more manageable.

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