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Pitching to the Cognitively Biased

Creative ideas will always live and die in a world of subjective interpretation. Brilliant ideas everywhere are cut-off-at-the-knees before their true potential is even realized. Conversely, dumb ideas are lauded all the time. Too many ideas are dismissed, not because of true merit, but from the cognitive biases of those rejecting it. How can this happen when even the most savvy business leaders are very careful to make the right choices?


Intuition vs. Reflective Thinking

According to Daniel Kahneman and colleagues in a Harvard Business Review article[1], it's a case of intuition getting in the way of reflective thinking. Most decision makers aren't aware of their biases towards an idea, yet it plays a pivotal role in the outcome of their decisions.

To address this psychological dilemma, Kahneman recommends applying a 12-question checklist to expose and prevent the biases involved during the decision-making process. The checklist tackles everything from self-serving behavior to blind optimism to flawed statistical relevance.

“Reducing bias makes a difference. We may not be able to control our own intuition, but we can apply rational thought to detect others' faulty intuition and improve their judgment." HBR[2]. June, 2011

While this checklist is effective at giving business owners a way of gauging their own thinking, how can we, as customer experience designers, anticipate our clients’ cognitive biases when crafting our pitches to better influence those decisions in our favor?


Nine Cognitive Biases

Here are some of the most relevant biases mentioned by Kanheman — plus two additional biases — to consider when developing the next big pitch.

The Affect Heuristic.
Are we too "in love" with our idea? Love is blind. Always be objective regarding the idea you pitch, demonstrate that objectivity by being open to challenging questions and avoiding any defensiveness.

Saliency Bias.
Are we stuck on a single analogy when describing our solution? The use of just a single analogy is short-sighted. Avoid repeating the same analogy; always try to come at an idea from a different perspective.

Confirmation Bias.
Are we looking only at the data that supports our idea? Valuing just the information that validates our assumptions is dangerous.

Availability Bias.
Are we trying to make up for what is lacking? Or worse, ignoring it? If our idea does not consider things that may be missing, it will be flawed from the beginning. Be careful not to ignore what might be a concern for a client (e.g., operational limitations).

Anchoring Bias.
Do our numbers lie? Be very careful that statistics being presented are not guesses/initial estimates, based on "extrapolated histories," or too obviously positioned to favor the proposed solution.

Endowment Effect.
Are we favoring this solution because of a previous success? Be sure to position every new idea as a stand-alone first. No idea should be placed deliberately on-the-shoulders of a past success.

Optimistic Bias.
Are we blinded by our confidence in an idea? Being overly optimistic is not wise. We should always appear objective to our idea and consider it from an outsider's perspective. Consider presenting alternative ideas to strengthen the one we are selling to our client. Show them that we've thought of other options and why our idea remains the strongest.

Cognitive Dissonance.
One desires something, finds it unattainable, and reduces one's dissonance by criticizing it. Essentially, we can't have something, so now we don't want it. Such can be the case of a client pitched an idea that they believe is perfect for their business, but upon learning the cost, immediately criticizes the merits of the idea. The greatness of an idea is only equal to its perceived value.

Illusory Correlation.
The phenomenon of seeing the relationship one expects in a set of data even when no such relationship exists. Our client may see something in our presentation this way and it could jeopardize our whole pitch.


Stay Informed

Most importantly, when possible, we must know our clients’ business philosophies and try to see business problems from their perspective. Always craft presentations to cater toward that perspective, be it cost-conscious, data-focused, customer-focused, or operations-focused. For many decision-makers, that focus can change depending on the climate of their businesses. Always stay as informed as possible of their most top-of-mind business concerns when pitching a recommendation.

Before assembling that next big pitch, understand the advantage in knowing which intuitive biases may potentially plague a decision-maker’s mind.

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