Overcoming cognitive bias for greater innovation

What stops us from being innovative includes failing to recognise the importance of creating the right environment

Overcoming cognitive bias for greater innovation

Business Strategy


“We need new ideas!” “We want our staff to be more innovative!” These are just a couple of the common catch cries being repeatedly heard in a world desperately trying to keep up with the flurry of rapid technological and societal change in order to stay relevant and at the leading edge. What stops us from being innovative includes failing to recognise the importance of creating the right environment. But it’s more than just brightly coloured bean bags and funky mood lighting, it’s about acknowledging the presence of bias.  It can be somewhat confronting to realise that despite having what we think is an open mind, our biases both conscious and subconscious influence all our thoughts and decisions.

What is cognitive bias?

Cognitive bias occurs when we draw conclusions and make assumptions based on cognitive factors rather than the evidence before us. We like to think that we are rational creatures who weigh up all the evidence before pronouncing our verdict, but this is not the case. As Dan Ariely author of Predictably Irrational describes, “We think of ourselves as in the driver’s seat, with ultimate control of the decisions we make – but, alas this perception has more to do with our desires – than with reality.”

Why are we so biased?

The brain’s primary function is to keep us safe. It is also inherently lazy, it will do almost anything to save energy, so we create patterns of behaviour and thinking – those habits that allow us to operate on autopilot at a subconscious level rather than   consuming lots of energy for conscious thought. When faced with something new or different, our brain alerts us to the fact that our regular patterns have been disturbed. It then responds in one of two ways, either driving us towards the new situation or pushing us away from what could be possibly dangerous. Because the brain operates at the level of “Safety First!” the default response is – “Assume anything new is potentially dangerous, so move away.”

At an evolutionary level this was very helpful. It kept more of us safe from being a sabre tooth tiger’s breakfast. But today a negativity bias can work against us where new ideas are called for, but then challenged, dismissed or worse still ridiculed. Mark worked in a national firm that had been operating for 75 years. He got on well with his immediate boss, but felt frustrated by the attitude of “this is the way we do things.” He could see the opportunity for improvement in several areas in his department but attempts to discuss with with his manager were stymied at every turn. Frustrated, he attempted to speak to his manager’s boss who while sympathetic, made it clear that Mark was doing himself no favours by trying to take his ideas to a higher level without the blessing of his immediate manager.

The firm lost an innovative employee who had only wanted to make the system work better. How many companies are missing out on innovative and creative ideas because individuals are not afforded a voice? The key is to promote an atmosphere of enquiry; where the norm is to question (without fear of judgment or penalty) and to explore possible ways to improve a given way of ‘doing.’

Innovation has two potential paths.

When it comes to solving problems the brain can use either logic and reasoning, or insight. What is remarkable is that our clever brain determines which method will have the greatest chance of success long before we have even determined where to start.  Our bias here is that we think it is our conscious thought that matters more, whereas in reality it is the mighty subconscious that the majority of the brain’s work.
We all have the capacity for creative thinking if we provide the opportunity for our brain to disconnect from our overburdened conscious thought and allow our minds to go for a little meander.

Which cognitive biases do we need to be aware of when it comes to boosting innovation?

  1. Confirmation Bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. This form of bias is extremely common. Our world-view is derived from our perception of what is real, based on our values and beliefs. Once formed, we like to seek confirmation of that, to support us in the correctness of that view. Unfortunately this can lead to shutting out or dismissing alternatives because they don’t fit in with ours. The classic case of such ‘groupthink’ occurred in the Bay of Pigs Fiasco, where JFK’s inner circle closed ranks on how they looked at a problem and failed to see the risk of being closed off to alternative views.

  2. Functional fixatedness: This limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used. When we have been trained or educated to think in a certain way, it then becomes much harder to think ‘outside’ the box. The brain loves patterns and seeks familiarity of those. For example, what is a brick used for? It may be used to construct a wall but it might also be a doorstop, a stepping stone or a bed warmer. The book “101 uses for a dead cat” was hugely popular not because it was bought by cat haters but because it was a wonderful quirky nonsensical approach to overcoming functional fixatedness.

  3. Status Quo bias: Because the brain hates uncertainty, which is seen as a threat, we avoid it. Moving away from the status quo involves change and this can be seen as requiring time, effort, hard work and risky because it may be wrong. Overcoming our status quo bias starts with checking in, are we resisting simply because we don’t like the idea? Promoting change is about outlining clearly what’s in it for all the stakeholders, being transparent on what is expected (to allay uncertainty) and creating a clear framework that allows everyone to keep track of where the change is heading and to check in the benefits (rewards) are visible along the way.

Innovation is becoming increasingly important for companies to distinguish themselves, to stay relevant and ahead of the pack, but our biases can hold us back. What is needed is greater awareness of how our biases play a role in our thinking and to use our conscious awareness to manoeuvre our way around them. This includes fostering a brain safe environment where new ideas are encouraged and captured and then discussed openly without preconceived judgment.

Dr. Jenny Brockis specialises in the science of high performance thinking. She is the author of Future Brain: The 12 Keys to Create Your High Performance Brain (Wiley) www.drjennybrockis.com

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