How do cognitive biases impact innovation and business design teams pursuing sustainability-based projects? Which specific cognitive biases should you be looking out for and why? What should you do when you spot biases negatively influencing your sustainability innovation team performance and outcomes?
In this article you will learn how to deal with and mitigate negative side-effects of cognitive biases when pursuing sustainability innovation and business design projects. So, let’s get to it!
Key learnings from this article
- How cognitive biases impact sustainability innovation business design projects
- Which specific cognitive biases to look out for
- What to do when you spot them sabotaging your projects
- How to mitigate their negative impacts, fast!
TL;DR: Unconscious cognitive biases can ruin chances of sustainability project impact success. Learn the most common 28 sustainability related biases. Identify them, mitigate them; then make better conscious decisions to create lasting impact the world needs.
What are cognitive biases exactly and why do they exist?
C ognitive biases are unconscious errors in the ways our brains make decisions when interpreting information about the world around us. They have significant impacts on our decision making and value judgements because they can happen so quickly, without question.
They exist because our brains have processing limits, just like those of computers. There is just too much information around us in the world. Our brains evolved over time to simplify the job of trying to process everything in our immediate environment, so we can quickly react to adversity and dangers to aid survival.
Biases do serve us well in certain situations in our everyday lives. They act as ‘rules of thumb’ or intuitive ‘gut feelings’, helping us make decisions when there is a lack of clear information.
We use biases as general principles about how the world works in certain situations and contexts. We’ve been learning them since infancy. These general principles act as guides to our judgement and decision making and occur so quickly that in most cases, we don’t even notice a sub-conscious bias made a decision for us.
Interestingly, the older we get, the harder it is for us to mitigate our biases. This is due to a decrease in our cognitive flexibility, which is our mental ability to change and switch between multiple tasks.
Other contributing factors to cognitive bias impacts include:
- Our emotions
- Our social pressures
- Our motivations
- Our cognitive limits
Cognitive bias research
Cognitive biases originate in work by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s lifetime of work in his book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. Kahneman refers to our ‘Thinking Fast or System 1’ brains alongside our ‘Thinking Slow or System 2’ brains.
Cognitive biases & your thinking-fast brain
Now you have an understand about your thinking fast and slow brains, you can see where cognitive biases actually originate and why: cognitive biases come from our thinking fast brains.
Cognitive biases make us unintentionally and unconsciously associate new information with existing patterns and thoughts from our previous experiences of the world. In essence, they prevent us from making entirely new associations and patterns for new experiences as they happen to us.
Absorb this thought for a moment:
”Cognitive biases force us to associate new ideas, concepts and information with our previous personal experiences of what has already occurred in our past experiences.
Innovation and business design as a process seeks to fundamentally do the complete opposite! It attempts to commercialise new ideas in novel, useful, desirable ways by people and stakeholders. It requires us to look to the future; to generate and propose future concepts in new ways based upon new thinking, mindsets, culture, technologies and value exchanges.
The Innovation process tries to enable us to make new associations and patterns of new experiences in conscious ways. It is a systematic process of knowing by purposefully and intentionally using our thinking slow brains.
Cognitive biases in opposition to innovation process
Cognitive biases go in complete contrast to the nature of what innovation and business design are trying to achieve. It is therefore very clear to see how detrimental cognitive biases are on the potential outcomes of the innovation and business design process in general.
They instantaneously, and worse, subconsciously, make us take decisions and judgements from the past ways of doing things, not the future. The future is where positive change, continuous improvement and better ways of doing things to improve our world reside.
This helps to understand why innovation and business design are so hard to achieve. Even when you have the right culture, mindset, capabilities and methodologies; our subconscious minds are there to sabotage our intended outcomes!
6 most common cognitive biases
Here are some of the most common ‘normal’ innovation related biases.
Getting emotionally attached to existing work, for fear of losing it altogether
Favouring the ideas already created or generated by others
Being influenced by how information is presented, rather than actual information
Becoming influenced by dominant cultural norms, in spite of personal perspectives
Making decisions based upon information already known to us prior
Deciding on options which are more known, than uncertain up-front
Next, we look at 28 cognitive biases, specifically related to sustainability innovation projects.
28 cognitive biases quietly sabotaging your sustainability innovation world impact
Some of the most important cognitive biases to be aware of when pursuing sustainability innovation projects.
How cognitive biases specifically impact sustainability innovation projects
The next step is to see how they specifically impact sustainability innovation projects and their intended outcomes.
Increased complexity and uncertainty levels
Sustainability challenges are more complex than standard customer-centric innovation projects. As a result, there is generally increased uncertainty across the sustainability innovation process to manage.
For example, to name a few:
- The increased number of overall stakeholders involved
- The conflicting goals and outcomes of stakeholders
- The ‘wicked’ nature of problems to address
- No one final solutions being the possible outcome
- The level of collaboration and alignment needed to address them
- The level of knock-on system unintended consequences
- Needs and problems located across systems and borders
- No single understanding how sustainability systems work
- Problems may never be completely solvable
- Exact problem origins difficult or impossible to define
Low-hanging fruit for uncertainty levels
One way we can easily, quickly, cheaply and effectively reduce levels of risk and uncertainty in sustainability innovation projects, is to optimise the minds of those people working on addressing such complex challenges for People, Planet, Profit and Progress perspectives.
We can easily reduce sub-optimal, subconscious judgements and decision making from the innovation process. We simply need to be more self-aware and mindful of the ways in which we think, judge and act throughout the innovation process at each stage.
TIP: learn to identify and mitigate negative cognitive biases throughout your innovation process. It is a cheap, simple and low-hanging-fruit way to increase team performance.
How to combat cognitive biases on sustainability innovation projects
Here is a quick and practical approach to enable you and your team members to mitigate the subconscious negative impacts of cognitive biases when running the sustainability innovation or business design processes.
1) Learn your biases
Get you and your team to learn these cognitive biases list here by heart
2) Regular reflection moments
Have regular reflection moments during innovation projects about bias impact
3) Nominate a spotter
Nominate a team member as bias police person to identify biases
4) Make them conscious
Make your biases conscious and mitigate their impacts
5) Challenger questions
Ask openly: which biases are influencing our process or decision making?
6) Adapt decision making
Modify and adapt your approach openly after discussing biases at play
7) Move forwards objectively
Make better conscious, objective decisions and move forwards with purpose
Meta thinking (thinking about the way you’re thinking)
Once you develop the reflex to continuously think about the way you are thinking and make adjustments accordingly, you’ll be operating as a much more efficient sustainability focussed innovation team.
You’ll be able to spot when you are making decisions and choices based upon your intuitive instincts rather than well considered, hard evidence.
Download The Little Black Book of Cognitive Biases for Sustainability Innovation Projects for FREE!
To help you become more aware of your subconscious cognitive biases, we created ‘The Little Black Book of 28+ Sustainability Cognitive Biases’.
It was created to help supercharge sustainability innovation & business design teams.
The book is designed to help make our unconscious errors in decision making, conscious with a focus on sustainability innovation projects and teams.
The best way to use the book is to download it to your smartphone. Then quickly refer to it during workshops, team meetings, pitch presentations & investor meetings…
Well done for making it this far!
We can all make subconscious errors of judgement and decision making when running the innovation and business process from time to time. Sometimes with few consequences and other times with severe consequences.
Make sure you and your teams are familiar with how our brains function when faced with extreme uncertainties, like when tackling sustainability challenges.
Once you understand the biases at play, you can easily spot them and make conscious corrections, so that you reduce the amount of additional uncertainty whilst innovating.
- Which biases do you see commonly occurring?
- Which ones did we miss out that we should include?
- What other strategies have you put in place to minimise bias impacts?
We’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts on how you manage team member cognitive biases. As well as feedback on how useful you found our little black book.
Reach out below
We’ll discuss your specific sustainable business-innovation challenges and what to do about them
Mike Pinder is a cross-industry business innovation expert & consultant, thought leader, author, lecturer & international keynote speaker on innovation. He’s driven by using innovation to leave the world a better place than we found it. Mike is a co-founder of Wicked Acceleration Labs (an industry-academia research lab aimed at tackling wicked problems), Member of Board of Advisors at Global Innovation Institute (GInI), & Honorary Practice Fellow at Imperial College London Business School.
Mike consults and leads across innovation strategy, Design Thinking, Lean Start-up, Business Model Innovation in both B2B and B2C, guiding c-level innovation strategy, innovation accelerator design, co-creation, capability programs, academic research, executive education (Exec Ed) university program design, intrapreneurship, digital transformation, sprints & more.
- Kahneman, D. (2013) Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Pinder, M. (2022) The Little Black Book of 28+ Sustainability Cognitive Biases. Antwerp, Belgium.
- Wilson CG, Nusbaum AT, Whitney P, Hinson JM. (2018) Age-differences in cognitive flexibility when overcoming a pre-existing bias through feedback. Journal of Clinical Experimental Neuropsychology.