Cognitive Repairs: How Organizational Practices Can Compensate for Individual Shortcomings

by Chip Heath, et al.

  • Humans are limited, their decision processes are biased, and they often make costly mistakes on important decisions
  • Organizations can overcome individual shortcomings by deliberate analysis, trial and error, and in some cases using statistics or economics
  • Thesis: 
    • Individuals face cognitive limitations and shortcomings, but organizations can provide individuals with norms and procedures to mitigate limitations/reduce shortcomings
  • Practices that repair shortcomings are called “cognitive repairs”
  •  Effective learners must: 1) generate hypotheses that explain causal structure of world 2) collect information to distinguish among hypotheses 3) Draw appropriate conclusions
  • 1) Generating hypotheses
    • People search for hypotheses that confirm their bias or that make them look good
      • cognitive repair: “don’t confuse a bull market with brains”…a warning given to wall street traders; think about luck or circumstance when evaluating success
    • People have a tendency to focus on the actors in a situation rather than the situation. Also known as the Fundamental attribution error.
      • cognitive repair: use vivid statistics to emphasize most problems are caused by bad systems, not people (i.e. “94% of issues come from the system”)
    • People stop searching for causes as soon as they find a plausible enough cause
      • cognitive repair: use processes like Toyota’s ‘5 why’s’; these processes leads to finding the root cause instead of superficial reasons
    • People generate narrow, rather than broad, hypothesis
      • cognitive repair: cue individuals to think about problems from different perspectives; encourage people to recruit others with different expertise; or force people to generate hypotheses independent of one another
  • 2) Collecting Information
    • People collect small amounts of information, because it’s easier (and more available)…and they underestimate the power of larger samples
      • cognitive repair: encourage large sample sizes
    • People tend to collect biased information
      • cognitive repair: institute a process that collects data more systematically to overcome availability bias towards collecting information
    • People collect biased information based on pre-existing theories
      • cognitive repair: encourage employs to do primary research rather than rely on their pre-existing theory
        • A maxim from the company Bridgestone: “Go to the actual place; see the actual problem; talk to the actual people”
    • People only collect part of the relevant information
      • cognitive repair: provide people with schema that encompasses the full range of relevant information they need to find (i.e using acronyms like the 5 C’s to hit all relevant bases)
    • People who collect biased information fail to correct for bias
      • If you get the right outcome but have biased info, you won’t change your ways the next time around
      • cognitive repair: force people to collect unbiased samples from the outset
  • 3) Drawing Conclusions
    • People weigh extreme evidence more heavily, rather than weighing evidence based on its quality
      • cognitive repair: require people to consciously and appropriately classify information according to their appropriate weight
        • Stalin: “A single Russian death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic”; people attached higher weight to what is vivid
    • People use pre-existing theories to interpret evidence
      • cognitive repair: “deviant searches” encourage people to think outside of the box and consider nonstandard theories by which to interpret evidence. Also, ensure people interact with others who are inherently skeptical of their opinions
    • People draw overconfident and overoptimistic conclusions (planning fallacy/optimism bias)
      • i.e people grossly underestimate how long it takes them to do something
      • cognitive repair: allow people to be overconfident and overoptimistic then adjust them overtly
        • i.e. give people a constraint where you have already baked in an additional buffer time. Also, frank feedback can be helpful here
  • “Cognitive repairs” are efficient mental shortcuts and are helpful, but they are not always exact– they’re not going to solve everything, all the time.
    • Always consider the cost/benefit of each repair when assessing their relative potential success
  • Trade offs associated with “Successful Cognitive Repairs” (6 dimensions)
    1. Simple versus complex
      1. Simple repairs have advantages over complex repairs because they have small costs, are easier to remember, and are easier to implement. They are also less likely to be distorted
      2. That being said, simple repairs can be less accurate
    2. Domain-specific versus domain-general
      1. Domain-specific repairs are easier to remember and apply
      2. Domain-specific repairs are not always transferable to other domains so they have limited value, and don’t deal with ambiguity well
    3. Familiar versus Novel
      1. Familiar repairs are less costly
        1. but, could be too familiar and not innovative enough to be adopted; people will lack enthusiasm for it
      2. Novel repairs demand you learn more things from scratch
    4. Corrective versus Preventative
      1. Not all things are easily corrected
    5. Social versus Individual
      1. Successful repairs are social because they overcome individual shortcomings and limitations (per the article thesis)
    6. Top-down versus Bottom-down
      1. Top-down repairs may be perceived with hostility…people don’t like directives from the top
        1. can also seem too political
      2. Bottoms up repairs are familiar, local, homegrom
        1. are more memorable and appealing
  • Reasoning and decision making CAN be improved through social structure and cultural bootstrapping (bringing people along)
  • Managers should think about how cognitive repairs can positively affect their organizations
    • i.e thinking about whether you take a bottoms-up or top-down approach to deliver a message
    • Can use cognitive repairs to design more effective training…
  • Organizations that provide norms, reminders, protocols, and procedures move beyond individual limitations and cognitive shortcomings

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