Bias is an Innovation Killer

My Wife and My Mother-In-Law, by the cartoonist W. E. Hill, 1915 (adapted from a picture going back at least to a 1888 German postcard)

Before you begin reading, have a look at the image above. What do you see?

You may have already seen ambiguous images like this. Ambiguous images can be interpreted in two ways. Interestingly, you can be influenced by suggesting certain words before you make a decision. If I was to say: “Glamourous, Beauty, Young” you might be more likely to see the young woman in the picture. If I was to say: “Haggard, Wrinkled, Old” you might be more likely to see the old woman in the picture.

If you have not already heard the following short riddle, please give yourself time to solve it before reading on.

A father and son are in a car crash and the father dies. The son is rushed to the hospital for surgery. The surgeon says, “I can’t operate — this is my son!”… Explain?

(Some people guess that the surgeon is the boy’s homosexual, second father.)

Only a 15% minority guess the surgeon is the boy’s mother. There is an automatic association with surgeon being a man. This is exactly why we need to think differently!

Question: “So, why do you write these strong female characters?” — Reporter

Answer: “Because you’re still asking me that question.” — Joss Whedon (screenwriter, director, producer)

60–60 Vision?

60% of US CEOs are over 6 foot tall, but only 15% of the total population is over 6 foot. 36% of US CEOs are over 6.2 feet, but a mere 4% of the US population is over 6.2 feet tall! This limits the selection gene pool. This limits the mental selection pool.

It is very common for major roles to be filled with someone who shares similar physical attributes to their predecessor. If not, the role is often filled by a person who matches a preconceived notion of how they should look.

60% of Global graduates are female. Women make 80% of major purchasing decisions cars, houses and financial services. However, only 15–16% of top corporate jobs and board positions are held by women.

The 60/80 Rule

Innovation (as different thinking) aside, it does not make any sense to overlook the 60/80 rule. When 60% of Global graduates are now female and women make 80% of major purchasing decisions, then we need women in operational roles. To satisfy the customer we need to think like the customer, even better, we need to be the customer.

It is not just about creating an inclusive workplace from the standpoint of gender sexual orientation or race. It is about creating an inclusive workplace from the standpoint of the more diverse thinkers, the more likely your organisation will think differently.


Groupthink occurs in organisations when groups prioritise avoiding conflict and reaching consensus over making the best decisions possible. Such decisions are rarely in the interest of the company itself, but rather in the interest of the people within the group. Group members minimise conflict and reach consensus decisions without critically evaluating alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences. They do not rock the boat.

There are ways to break groupthink. The first thing is to change the organisational executive structure. Those in power need to be reassessed, are they the best people to change the culture? Are they the best people to think critically about the future of the organisation? Are they sufficiently free of vested interest to bring about meaningful change?

Psychological Inertia

Psychological inertia describes our inclination to rely on familiar assumptions and exhibit a reluctance and inability to revise those assumptions. This remains the case even when the evidence supporting them no longer exists.

Organisations experience this when managers fail to update and revise their understanding of a situation even when that situation changes. This is one of the biggest barriers to organisational change and breakthrough innovation.

Even companies, who are not steeped in political wrangling nor groupthink still fail. If they fail in spite of their desire to succeed and their avoidance of status quo, then you have to question if they are a victim of psychological inertia?

If people in the company are good at their jobs, (which we assume they are) and their strategy is failing, then we need to call out what is broken.

The first thing to question is the information that feeds strategy. The second is that these senior executives are victims of psychological inertia.


There is a lot of talk of diversity lately. When a company talks of diversity, for most of us, the mind conjures images of skin colour, race, sexuality, gender, mental and physical handicaps. As an experiment, do a search for the word diversity in Google images and you will get lots of pictures of different races holding hands.

This is literally small-minded thinking.

If you picture your company as one big brain and you consider that we all have our strengths and weaknesses. We all excel at one thing but not at others. This is ok, this is excellent, this is why we need diverse thinking in the world.

In a balanced company, the job of a leader becomes that of a master tactician, the leader needs to know where to place the pieces on the chess board in order to win. Every plays in the position in which they can excel. When this happens, the company can excel.


Think about the interesting people you know whether they be in business or life. Those people have had some life experiences such as living overseas within different cultures (The latter is important because going overseas and seeking out your own nationals and your national local bar won’t help). Those people usually have some interesting hobbies or career choices and they usually have some different information input than most people. They might read, write or be involved in the arts some way.

A good piece of advice is to seek out experiences that are always slightly outside your comfort zone, that is where the learning happens and that is when you add a new valuable lens.

Recall for a moment a visit to the optician to get an eye test. The optometrist would place various lenses onto a lens holder and test your eyesight.

Now think of life experiences, education or art as those lenses; except each lens stays in place once you see through it. In the end, you would see the world in a unique way, your way, with your set of unique lenses. That is the point, that is great, companies need to embrace that.

When an executive team has varying viewpoints and each member is secure and independent and knows their opinions are valued that will result in critical decision making, critical thinking and avoidance of groupthink.

Team turnover is also a welcome thing, a regular cycle of “new blood” means new thoughts, new opinions and leads to continued cognitive diversity. This seems to fly in the face of keeping a core team together. The latter is also good, but only to a point.

Diversity in your Teams

In a previous, Thursday thought we have discussed the huge value of those who were undervalued in the past, those hugely talented people with dyslexia, add and autism. Their brains literally work differently, they are literally wired differently and despite this so many companies still entertain the insanity loop where they rely on the same people with the same information to save their companies.

This is why boards of directors from diverse backgrounds with varying skill-sets makes a lot of sense. This is why if 60% of Global graduates are female, then female executives should be rising through corporate ranks. Cognitively diverse teams bring different perspectives, skills and talents to the table. Gender balanced teams are less competitive with each other and under these circumstances, critical thinking can lead to better decisions.

“If everyone has to think outside the box, maybe it is the box that needs fixing.” — Malcolm Gladwell

Katawave works with such leaders to change what they see, to give them new lenses through which to see their opportunity or threat and to consider possibilities they never did before. Find out more here.

On this week’s innovation show we talk to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is CEO of the leading gender consultancy, 20-first, and a world authority on leadership, gender and business. Avivah suggests we stop Fixing the Women, and start adapting the workplace to 21st-century talent and markets.

That’s where innovation lies. Right here, right now. Not on the other side of the world, or in Silicon Valley’s latest app. But sitting right there, on the other side of the kitchen table.

The show is broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 extra 3 times weekly and is on iTunes, TuneIn Stitcher Player FM and Google play. The website is here and below is Soundcloud.

(Visited 25 times, 1 visits today)

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.