Aligning Across Cultures

My book, Align: Discovering Customer Insights that Matter, is with the publisher and should be available for purchasing soon. In the meantime, I’ve been rereading The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, published in 2014.

I wish I’d had access to Ms. Meyer’s book back in 2012 when I first moved to Penang Malaysia. I was assigned the job of leading a small team to analyze our competitors. I jumped right into the job.

Operating from my American work style, I clearly stated our goals, and collaborated with the team on ways we could achieve each goal. At least that was my intention. However, as much as the engineers seemed to go along with me, I felt like something was missing, and it wasn’t only enthusiasm. I thought that maybe the goals I’d set were too lofty. So I broke them down into concrete and achievable steps. I continued to urge my team to think about how they wanted to achieve each piece. Still, I received very little input.

In the second week, one of the engineers spoke up. He was exasperated.  “Can’t you just spell out what you want us to do? Just prescribe each step, and we’ll do it.”

I was taken aback. Who would request such a thing?

Well, after reading The Culture Map, I can tell you who: Hokkien Malaysian engineers.

For one thing, Hokkien Malaysians communicate in a high-context manner, meaning they see the big picture first, and read between the lines. And there I was, zooming into the project and, as a low-context American, laying out on the white board all of the objectives and challenges that I saw.

Secondly, Hokkiens tend to trust after getting to know a person personally. Well, I failed at that style of trust-building straight away. I started our conversations with our task at hand, without really getting to know my team beyond a few minutes’ introduction.

Confrontation is typically avoided in Malaysia, especially with higher-ups. So while I expected some back and forth, and discussion, I was met with silent nods.

Lastly, leadership and decision making tend to be hierarchical in Malaysia. So subordinates expect their leaders to spell out exactly what they want them to do. This was something I’d never experienced in my career in California. Sure, a boss might have given guidance, or pointed out a well-established (and required) policy in say, a manufacturing context. Otherwise, we Americans like to set a goal and figure out our own paths. Not so in Malaysia.

If I’d read The Culture Map back in 2012, I could have seen my team’s behavior as cultural, and perhaps avoided judging them based on my own cultural norms. I could have adjusted my leadership approach to best make use of their talents. Oh well, what’s done is done. I know better now. And The Culture Map pointed out my errors – in painstaking detail.

My book, Align, is American centric. The advice I give is with American sensibilities in mind, and it assumes that customers from foreign cultures will be knowledgable and comfortable with the ways of the American. I touch on cultural considerations in one chapter, and i n it, I cite a few tips from Ms. Meyer’s book. However, anyone who works with global cultures regularly should read her book, and not make due with my one single chapter.

Now that I’ve lived and worked in Asia (between China and Malaysia), and I’m planning to move to Italy, my second book is coming into focus: Take the advice in book #1 and transpose it to working with customers from various cultures.  In addition to my own face-planting experiences, the book The Culture Map will be a valuable guide.

Moving to Italy – But Wait, What About Taxes?

We’ve wanted to move to Italy for years.  In 2009, when we first set this goal, we looked for jobs that might take us there. At the time, we both worked for a Silicon Valley semiconductor company. So, we looked at jobs that needed filling in our Torino office. Unfortunately, they weren’t good fits for us. We sent resumes to other companies, but nothing seemed right. We resigned ourselves to waiting to achieve financial independence (FI) before moving to Italy.

FI, or Financial Independence, is achieved when invested assets exceed 25 times one’s annual expenses. In other words, $1MM in invested assets can support $40,000 in annual spending. $2MM can support $80,000 in annual spending, etc.

After setting our specific FI goal, which, at the time, seemed very far off, we wondered, “If not Italy, why not move somewhere else?” We discovered there were great jobs available in our Malaysia office. What the heck … we made the move. All the while, we focused on FI. With lucrative expat perks, we were able to save more than 50% of our income. I closely managed our investments, and put our savings to work as it came in.

Lo and behold, by the summer of 2014, we reached FI! After considerable deliberation, we ‘retired’ from our jobs. We then stayed put in Malaysia. For one thing, we wanted to prove to ourselves that we truly could live off of savings. Having already established a home base, it made sense to remain for at least a year. Plus, our son was attending an excellent international school, and staying put seemed the right thing to do for his continuity.

During this time, I turned my attention to writing a book about lessons learnt during my career, and I started a charity for local Rohingya refugees, as they seemed to have less-than-zero support from the Malaysian government. My husband started a unicycle business – selling and coaching.

After a year and a half, we discovered that our little experiment had worked! Not only were we able to live off of savings, but we increased our net worth by 8%.

By then, however, it was time to go. I’d come to the realization that I couldn’t stay in Malaysia permanently. The main reason may seem silly, but let me tell you, it’s a big deal both emotionally and psychologically; it’s the weather. I’m going out of my mind with the constant heat, and the lack of seasons. Malaysia is too much endless summer for me. Also, I’ve come to realize that it’ll never feel like home – for various reasons.

So, having proved we could live off of our nest egg, we decided it was time to move to the place that was our ultimate goal. We began planning the move to Italy.

Before booking tickets, shipping stuff, applying for elective-stay visas, and finding a school for our son, I first had to determine the tax situation. Here’s why: if the tax bill was too high, we’d stay put in mega-tax-friendly Malaysia, or more elsewhere (IDK where, though, my heart is set on Italy). Malaysian income tax applies only to income earned in Malaysia. Italy, on the other hand, taxes worldwide income.  Plus, Italy taxes overseas wealth. (O_o!) Moving to Italy would come with a tax increase. But by how much? That was the question. If it was a few thousand dollars, we could handle that. But if it was tens of thousands of dollars? Er, maybe not-so-much.

I started this tax evaluation a year ago. Now, I think I’ve got it. Well, for now. Here are my findings. There are four main taxes to consider

  • IRPEF (Imposta sui Redditi delle Persone Fisiche)
    • Italy’s income tax.
    • Rates range from 23% to 43%.
    • Pronounced ‘ear-peff’
    • High rates of 38% kick in after just 28,000€ in income
    • Applied to individuals; there doesn’t seem to be an option to file jointly.
  • Local taxes – range from 1-2% of income.
  • IVIE (Imposta sul Valore degli Immobili situati all’estero)
    • Italy’s wealth tax on all foreign real estate holdings.
    • .76% on the cadastral (assessed) value.
  • IVAFE (Imposta sul Valore delle attività Finanziarie detenute all’estero)
    • Italy’s wealth tax on all foreign financial assets.
    • Rates are .2% on the end of year market value.

Not one, but two wealth taxes? A 43% top marginal tax rate on income? Scary stuff, right?  At first, yes.  But having tangoed with US tax code on for years, I’ve learned that often times, deductions and exemptions take the bite out of what otherwise seem like hefty tax rates.

Before getting into details on the three main taxes, let’s take a step back. Months ago, I came to believe that by moving to Italy in August 2016, we wouldn’t be subject to taxes for 2016. Tax guides, such as this one from KPMG seemed clear; you need to be in the country for more than 183 days in order to be considered a ‘tax resident.’ So I set about learning all I could for 2017 tax planning.

Then, I stumbled across this article on Regarding tax residency, it read, “If you’re registered as a resident ( residenza anagrafica) in your comune [sic], you’re automatically liable to income tax in Italy.”

WHAT? Uh oh. That meant that by living in Italy as residents from August through December, we’d be taxed like residents who lived there more than 183 days. Here’s the thing – we have to register as residents – that’s required in order to enroll our son in the international school we’ve reserved a spot in. All of a sudden, figuring out the tax situation became urgent.

The thing about Italian tax code, well, any tax codes actually, is that you can do a ton of research, think you have a solid understanding of how it works, and then the rug gets pulled out. You come to realize you were thinking about it all wrong.

I investigated further into IVIE, the annual wealth tax levied on the foreign real estate. I read expat forums and online articles. Exasperated by conflicting opinions mixed in with proclamations from people standing atop Mt. Stupid*, I did what I’d learned to do in the US – go to the source. I sought out the actual tax code on, the Italian equivalent of It’s difficult enough to read tax code in English, much less Italian. But I persevered, and found a clause that said, “Dall’Ivie è possibile dedurre l’eventuale imposta patrimoniale versata nello Stato in cui è situato l’immobile.” In English:

“By IVIE it’s possible to deduct any property tax paid in the State where the property is situated.”

Yes! If I could offset IVIE with property taxes paid in the US, the effective IVIE due would be 0. In 2016, in 2017, and forever ( or at least until the tax code was changed, which, apparently, happens quite often in Italy). All of a sudden the tax situation seemed reasonable.

To make sure of this, and other conclusions I’d come to, I emailed my Italian tax buddy, Mauro, to hire him to give me final answers to all my questions. It’s been a couple weeks and he still hasn’t confirmed whether this assumption about IVIE is correct. In his latest email he said something about determining whether the property taxes are paid to valid patrimonial taxing authorities. What does that even mean? Oh – another phrase he asked about: “Are your stock holdings harmonzed assets.”  … What? So I we have more work to do on those two items.

The thing is, when the rug is pulled out, it’s not always bad news. Remember that residency issue about whether we’ be taxed in 2016? The issue I thought I’d determined once and for all – because the article on sounded so darned certain? Turns out I was wrong in believing what that author wrote.

Mauro emailed, “Under Italian tax Law you will be a tax resident if you spend more than 183 days in Italy in the solar year. So if you come in Italy after July 7, you cannot become Italian tax resident till 2017. You will be subject to tax starting 2017.”

Wait, what? Could he be wrong? Could he be right? I had to be sure, so I did some more research. I’d looked at articles before, like this PDF tax guide from KPMG, and online discussions. They had all confirmed Mauro’s assertion. In fact, that one sentence I’d read on seemed to be a lone anomaly. But I couldn’t be sure. So I went to the source. It took a while, but at last I found, article 2 of the tax code.

God bless it, it’s tough to make sense of tax law is written with double negatives. Even so, this seems to confirm what Mauro wrote. Note: it’s a google translate version.

“For the purposes of income tax they are considered non-residents who are not registered in the municipal registry of residents for most of the tax period, ie for at least 183 days (184 for leap years), and have not, in the territory of Italian State nor the domicile (principal place of business and interest) or the residence (habitual residence). If there is even one of these conditions the taxpayers concerned are considered residents. Non-residents who have received income or own assets in Italy are required to pay taxes to the Italian State, subject to certain exceptions provided for by any agreements to avoid double taxation concluded between the Italian State and that of residence.”

But see – the way it’s written, I’m still not 100% sure. However, I’m going to go with our tax advisor on this.

Goodness. What a wild, time-consuming, ride.

Here are the main considerations for each of the four taxes.

  • IRPEF (Imposta sui Redditi delle Persone Fisiche)
    • Italy’s income tax, rates range from 23% to 43%.
    • Interest income is taxed at a flat 20% rate
    • Qualified capital gains and dividends: half (actually 49.72%) of these are taxed at ordinary rates, the other half are not taxed. This only applies if the income derives from an asset held in a non-tax-haven jurisdiction (which the US is).
    • 4800€ deduction for each tax payer (9600€ for two)
    • 950€ deduction per dependent child over 3 years old.
    • 19% deductions – from health care to disability costs. You can deduct 19% of your expenses against income.
  • Local taxes – range from 1-2% of income.
  • IVIE (Imposta sul Valore degli Immobili situati all’estero)
    • Italy’s wealth tax on all foreign real estate holdings.
    • .76% on the cadastral (assessed) value.
    • Property taxes paid in the local municipality can offset the tax due.
  • IVAFE (Imposta sul Valore delle attività Finanziarie detenute all’estero)
    • Italy’s wealth tax on all foreign financial assets.
    • Rates are .2% on the end of year market value.
    • There’s really not much you can do to get around this.
    • I believe it applies to 401ks and IRAs as well :(.

In the end, I estimate our total Italian tax bill, for 2017, will be between between $5,000 and $8,000. That’s accounting for IRPEF, IVIE, IVAFE and local taxes, and considers all deductions, and allowances. It’s a steep price to pay. Fortunately, our FI math will just barely allow for it.

Mauro tells me he has an office in Verona, where we’re moving. He wants me to come work for him. After our latest exchange, he was emphatic: “Definitely I want enroll you in my Office !!!!!!!!!!!!!”  I dunno Mauro. As much fun as I’ve had wringing my hands over taxes these last few months, I’m not sure it’s something I want to do full time. But … I’m getting pretty good at it. Well, I can think that until the rug is pulled out the next time.

*Full disclosure, I’m still ascending Mt. Stupid as far as I can tell.

Combating Confirmation Bias

Ah schemas. We’ve discussed them earlier in the book, but we need to take a closer look, as they are a major component in confirmation bias.

Imagine you want to offer your friends a pitted, pithy tree-fruit encased in red, edible skin. What do you do? You ask them if they want an apple. In this case, apple is your schema for a pithy, red fruit. Our brains rely on such schemas to make sense of the world. Without schemas, the complexity of reality would overwhelm us. According to

A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas can be useful because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.

As you can see, schemas are powerful. They allow us to communicate efficiently, and at high levels of abstraction, all in one word. With schemas, we easily convey complex concepts without getting bogged down in details. Schemas play a key role in how we think.

But there’s a dark side. What we gain in flexibility and lucidity, we lose in objectivity. Here’s the rest of the definition:

… However, these mental frameworks also cause us to exclude pertinent information to focus instead only on things that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and ideas. Schemas can contribute to stereotypes and make it difficult to retain new information that does not conform to our established ideas about the world.

Uh oh. This, my friends, is confirmation bias. Tackling confirmation bias is by far the most difficult of the ‘aligning tricks’ to master. Because of schemas, we hear what we expect to hear. When we have a strong belief system, we hear what we want to hear. None of us are exempt. We’re all are guilty of cherry picking facts that support our preconceived ideas. It’s simply how our minds work. We all do it, whether aware of it or not.

Some of us, however, seek confirming data purposefully. We ask loaded questions to prompt answers we want to hear. The hallmarks of these ‘fishing expeditions,’ are, closed ended questions that steer customers toward specific answers – answers that might be used to justify a pet project, for instance. This behavior is unprofessional and intellectually dishonest. People who ask such questions are contemptuous of the customer, the truth, and the team.

Remember Cunningham bombs? When deployed, you sacrifice your dignity in exchange for a bit of information. The beauty of the Cunningham bomb is that the information you gain is generally unbiased, truthful, and useful. Contrast that with casting out a line on a fishing expedition with a closed-ended question. In this case, you sacrifice your integrity for biased, and often erroneous information.

Take, for example, the particularly egregious example of William J. Casey. Mr. Casey was Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager, and then, CIA director.

Before Reagan took office, Casey read The Terror Network, by Claire Sterling. This book connected the dots between various news articles that, taken together, seemed to link the USSR to global terrorist organizations. These revelations outraged Mr. Casey, and he shared the book with friends and colleagues.

Soon after his swearing-in ceremony, he called a meeting with Melvin A. Goodman, then CIA Division Chief and Head of Soviet Affairs. Casey asked Mr. Goodman to corroborate Ms. Sterling’s facts and conclusions. Mr. Goodman said he couldn’t do that. Casey demanded to know why not. In an interview with Adam Curtis, Mr. Goodman explained.

MELVIN GOODMAN, Head of Soviet Affairs CIA, 1976-87: “… when we looked through the book, (The Terror Network), we found very clear episodes where CIA black propaganda–clandestine information that was designed under a covert action plan to be planted in European newspapers–were picked up and put in this book. A lot of it was made up. It was made up out of whole cloth.”

INTERVIEWER (off-camera): “You told (William Casey) this?”

GOODMAN: “We told him that, point blank. And we even had the operations people to tell Bill Casey this. I thought maybe this might have an impact, but all of us were dismissed. Casey had made up his mind. He knew the Soviets were involved in terrorism, so there was nothing we could tell him to disabuse him. Lies became reality.”

Voice Over: “In the end, Casey found a university professor who described himself as a terror expert, and he produced a dossier that confirmed that the hidden terror network did, in fact, exist.”

This instance of confirmation bias is alarming. This wasn’t a simple case of subconsciously missing a few facts. Mr. Casey’s staff outright told him that they themselves had fabricated the evidence. He had to do some convoluted and disingenuous mental gymnastics to justify what he did next. He purposefully disregarded the evidence before him, and sought out alternate ‘facts’ to support his steadfast view that Moscow was directing global terror. Tragically, this ‘evidence’ contributed to Ronald Reagan’s decision to fight covert wars. American troops fought against an invisible, and largely imagined Soviet threat. It cost lives, resources, and America’s integrity in the eyes of the world.

Unfortunately, the case of William J Casey is hardly unique. People in similar positions of power and responsibility have acted in the same way. The Dulles brothers, who came to power decades before, behaved at least as irrationally. Stephen Kinzer documents many such incidents in his book, The Brothers. He wrote:

“both (Dulles brothers) suffered acutely from … confirmation bias – the tendency to reject discordant information. When their own envoys advised them to tolerate Mossadegh, and Arbenz, or to accept neutralist regimes in Indonesia and Laos, they could not hear. Instead they replaced the envoys with others who gave them the reports they wanted.”

Sound familiar? It gets worse. He continued,

“An American scientist, Ole Holsti, studied the way Foster made decisions, and found that he dealt with ‘discrepant information’ by ‘discrediting the source of the new information; reinterpreting the new information so as to be consistent with his belief system; [or] searching for other information consistent with preexisting attitudes.”

History is riddled with such examples.

The stakes involved in aligning with customers are hardly so high. Over time, however, if a culture values justifying beliefs over learning the truth, if people regularly discount disconfirming information, chances increase that the wrong product might be built, market share could be ceded, and profits forgone.

You’d think that leaders and planners would be rational stewards of their roles. You’d expect them to gather all relevant facts, and evaluate them dispassionately. To be sure, many do. Those rare people have faced up to their own prejudices, and come up with techniques to maintain some measure of immunity to confirmation bias.

Two people come to mind. John Costello and Richard Cliff. They were Vice Presidents of Engineering at Altera Corporation. They attended my customer meetings regularly. They would listen to customers with full interest. Their questions suggested they sought information that bucked their personal views. John might ask a question like, “You stated that you need x feature achieve y, however, my understanding is that x is usually used to achieve z. Could you please elaborate on how using x to achieve y will get you closer to your goals?” Open ended, not loaded, genuinely curious. Awesome.

I remember sitting next to Richard in one customer meeting when he poked me in the arm. He leaned in and whispered that one of my colleagues had just asked a loaded, leading question, and maybe I should correct his behavior. He said that he couldn’t trust information collected in that manner. Double awesome.

Both of these gentlemen had profound respect for the customers. They’d never go on fishing expeditions to manipulate the customer into saying something they wanted to hear. They had a job to do, and that was to build the right products for a given market at the right cost structure. Beyond that, they never seemed to have an agenda. It was evident that at some point in their lives, each of them had learned how to minimize confirmation bias. Whether they worked at it, or it came naturally, they were examples to follow.

And You Can Too!

As you now are all too aware, schemas are an integral part of cognition. So how does one overcome them? It’s kind of like someone with an eating addiction. They can’t simply not eat, like an alcoholic can do with drinking. That’s how it is with schemas, you can’t stop calling an apple an apple. I mean, you could call it a Gala, but, well, that’s still employing a schema. Like a person with an eating disorder, the healthy course of action is to acknowledge the challenge, and nurture new habits. The condition can’t be cured, but it can be managed.

A marketing professor, Mohanbir Sawhney, said, “To gain customer insights, we must understand that we are prisoners of what we know and what we believe.” The bars of this prison are our schemas. But there’s a way to unlock the gate.

Awareness of confirmation bias is a start, but it’s insufficient. Stamping out confirmation bias takes conscious effort, vigilance, well-established processes, and disciplined habits. If the director of an intelligence agency can succumb to confirmation bias so flagrantly, so too, can you. I advise you take action now.

Here’s the good news: if you’ve read the whole book up to here, you’re already half way down the path to managing confirmation bias. Most of the tips that counteract bias, are the very same techniques you’ve already learned in The Art of the Question, The Art of Taking Notes, and the Art of Listening.

Take verbatim notes. Write down everything the customer says. If you write down every word, it’s harder to then, later, willfully ignore or misinterpret what’s been said. You can still do it, but it’s more obvious when you do.

Ask ‘Active Listening’ Questions (ALQs). Ask open ended, customer focused questions that don’t ‘lead’ to particular answers you want to hear, but instead get the customer telling their story from their perspective, freely. Use restatement until the customer indicates they’re done. Make sure you get the full answer.

Write down questions prior to asking them. Until asking ALQs becomes second-nature, writing down complete questions makes you less likely to ask leading questions. This isn’t always possible, but it’s worth trying, especially when you’re learning how to ask ALQs.

Be comfortable not knowing the answer. Practice saying, “I don’t know.” We often want to resolve the unknown, or save a situation with an answer. It’s okay to not know what the answer is. Double down with uncovering the customer’s goals and challenges. Don’t worry about tying up loose ends.

Hold a post-customer-alignment meeting. Discuss what was heard and what it meant. Hear various interpretations and discuss them openly. Write down the team’s conclusion, and document alternate interpretations. Consider assigning some people to argue as devil’s advocates. These contrarians should challenge assumptions, premises and conclusions.

Publish meeting summaries and raw notes. The minutes and takeaways from every alignment meeting should be accessible to everyone involved in planning products. Invite questions and alternate interpretations. Make sure this data complies with customer confidentiality rules and procedures.

Bounce the meeting notes off the customers. Within a few days of the alignment meeting, send the customers your collated and verbatim notes along with a list of action items. Ask for corrections to the record or for missing information. Confirm the veracity of the record. No one can spot glaring errors, omissions, and misinterpretations like the customer can.

Create a culture of truth seekers. If you’re a leader of the group, go out of your way to appreciate the comments made by devil’s advocates in the follow up meeting. Demonstrate comfort and calm while holding two incompatible views at once. For example, acknowledge that many customers only care about cost, while many other customers care about performance. These cases can coexist.

Actively seek out disconfirming data. If a customer makes a statement that is contrary to conventional wisdom, ask follow up questions to explore their comment further. This is easy to do when a customer says something that is obviously contrary. Those comments can be so jarring, that missing them is impossible. Less obvious are comments that are only slightly off. Be on the lookout for those, and, when the time is right, ask for more details.

Appreciate the Contrarians
If you’re a leader in the organization, go out of your way, during the follow up meeting to compliment people who asked the customer about comments that were contrary to the conventional wisdom within your organization.

Keep in mind that, often, customer comments seem to be inline with your pre-conceived biases, when in fact, upon examination, they differ slightly. These are the comments that often go unexamined. As much as you tell yourself to keep an eye out for disconfirming comments, it is the slightly different information that will slip through. The only way to catch these comments is by taking verbatim notes, and as insurance, having both a meeting and a session scribe recording the meeting at the same time. Taking verbatim notes is critical.

Meet with customers who prefer your competition.
Talk to customers who hate you. Strive to understand what they’re trying to achieve, what their goals are, and in what ways they expect your competitors will help them make progress. Get them on a roll, espousing their angst! Again, double down on uncovering comments that run counter to your beliefs. Ask for goals and challenges with an open heart and mind. Whatever you do, do not disparage the competition. That’ll only make you look petty.

Ask deliberately stupid or naive questions. Disregard everything you know, and see if you can get the customer to explain even simple concepts. Employ Cunningham’s Law (explained earlier in the book). You may find the customer’s view on the world is completely different from your own. Record what they say.

Test yourself. Remember the video (discussed in a previous chapter)where Officer Bruch used discomfort with silence to get suspects to start talking? As an optional exercise, I encourage you to watch the entire video. It’s a treasure trove of examples of confirmation bias. How many instances can you count? Can you think of alternate approaches that the detectives or prosecutors could have taken in order to minimize confirmation bias? A link to my tally is in the appendix.

Adopt the mindset of a scientist / Don’t get married to your plans.
The act of planning products should be based on inductive reasoning, where you start with a set of objective observations and facts (that are future focused, Gretzky), and then come to a conclusion based on those. That conclusion is assumed good until observations or facts come along that disprove it. This is in contrast to deductive reasoning, whereby a set of facts leads to a conclusion that is, itself, a provable fact. There’s no way to be absolutely sure that a product plan will perfectly address a given market. New information is always coming in. Its everyone’s job to be on the lookout for new, disconfirming information at all times. They don’t need to bugle horn them to the entire company, but they should be discussed among the key members of the product development team.

Product plans are like theories that, at any time, can be supported or disproved with new evidence. If you’ve spent months creating a particular product plan, it only makes sense that you might become attached to it. You’ll want to support it with as much evidence as you can find. Careful. This is when confirmation bias flourishes. Take care to wear your scientist’s lab coat and be on the look out for new, disconfirming evidence.

We called this “getting married” to our plans. Resist! Don’t be a bride or groom, be a scientist who’s equally happy to find evidence that disproves a theory, as she is to find evidence that supports it. I know, it’s hard. The product you’ve been working on can feel like your baby. Why would you want to destroy your baby? The trick is to not think of it as your baby, but as a scientific theory – a theory that you’ll be lauded for disproving as much as you would for proving. If the leaders of the group are on the lookout for such clear eyed analysis, and praise it, you’re going to be fine.

This is the kind of thinking it takes to overcome confirmation bias. It requires focus, maturity, and strength.

Be fearless.
An occasional complaint I heard from colleagues was that we were blind to what our customers were saying because we operated from a place of fear, some more than others. The idea being that people were reluctant to propose risky changes to the product architecture plans because failure could result in them losing their bonuses or worse, their jobs. I’m not sure I was so cynical, but I could relate to operating from a place where retaining the status quo felt more comfortable than taking risks. The thing that helped us most, was to formally establish the goals of CA meetings: to fully understand the goals and challenges customers were facing. We strove to divorce ourselves completely from any personal wishes, at least for a few hours.

We allowed ourselves permission to understand the viewpoints of customers without feeling like we had to act on what they said. That’s the key. I’m not saying to not act on customer feedback. I’m saying you need to understand that you are not obliged to act on all customer feedback. That can be very freeing. Use that understanding to cultivate genuine interest for truly learning what the customer is trying to do.

If you can’t beat schemas, join them.
It’s not enough to simply know the definition of a schema. You need to know what your particular schemas are. In fact, I’d urge you to document the latest schemas. What are the goals and challenges of your typical customer in the automotive control systems end market? What are their preferences? How about the cloud storage market? What about the network infrastructure customers? Do the same for all of your end markets or end applications. Put together your best understanding of each type of customer. Document, and formally evolve your schemas with each CA meeting. Then, go into meetings and listen for comments that don’t fall in line. Probe them, and understand them.

Talk to many customers
There’s a tendency to believe that one customer represents all customers. This was Herb’s mistake in the Simpson’s episode, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (as discussed in a previous chapter).

When people extrapolate from a single data point, they can conclude anything. This can cause real damage as half cocked understandings are expressed with confidence and authority. It’s better to require that people attend a couple dozen CA meetings. Require them to contribute to the corporate schemas before materially participating in product planning activities. More on this in the chapter, Nineteen or None, which provides further insights on how many customers to talk to, and how to put the schemas together.

The Confirmation Bias Paradox.
If you seek out disconfirming information, meet with customers who don’t conform to your idea of what’s typical, and hash out alternative theories of what customers are truly trying to do. You may find your head spinning, as it can become too much information. Your job may already be confusing enough, and here I am, asking you to complicate things further by doubling down on understanding data that doesn’t jive with reality as you understand it. Sorry. Do it anyway. Here’s why.

Imagine your boss asks for your report on what should be done to address a particular market. You’re swimming in ambiguity, and find it impossible to give clear direction. How do you tease out a simple course of action from this jumble of qualified data points and tepid conclusions? Do you write up a memo that outlines various theories of what’s going on? Probably not. That’s the last thing your boss wants. Your boss is getting these reports from your colleagues as well, and has to make sense of them all. Ambiguous reports from all sectors could drive your boss mad. You think you have it bad? Imagine your boss’s dilemma. Indeed, this is why you’ve been asked to be decisive and keep your recommendations clear and simple.

I’ve seen this in action. People who tended to rise up the ranks were often people who proved themselves to be decisive authorities on specific subjects. They would confidently declare what course of action needed to be pursued. When proven right, they would be promoted. Usually these were highly qualified, and knowledgeable people. However, sometimes these were the very same people who got married to their ideas. And why wouldn’t they? They’d been rewarded handsomely for such ideas.

The problem was, that if they hadn’t developed habits of checking their assumptions, or of seeking out disconfirming information, they could become blind to changes in the market. Thus oblivious, they got further married to their ideas. Their bosses might love this, as their reports and suggestions came across as clear and confident. However, in time, they became victims of their own confirmation bias. Back to individual contributor they’d go.

This paradox – where one strives to dig up information that challenges assumptions, all while being expected to make decisive recommendations based on a sharp understanding of the situation – has a solution. It’s this: talk to more customers. And then talk to more customers. Keep talking to them, and approach each one with a curious mindset, with ALQs at the ready. Prepare to be confused. Get comfortable with it. Be patient, and wait for answers to emerge. Then be ready for those answers to be upturned by new information. This isn’t a magic bullet. It takes time, patience, focus, and hard work.

Consider sleeping on a bed of nails. That’s about the level of discomfort a truth-seeker needs to cultivate in order to overcome confirmation bias.

Confirmation Bias Summary.
It’s impossible to eradicate confirmation bias, as it’s built into how our brains process information. However, it can be minimized. The first step is to acknowledge that it exists, and understand how it works. Then, review your premises, and check the veracity of your observations and facts. Keep your eyes open for new information, especially anything that challenges conventional wisdom. Think of plans dispassionately, as scientific theories, rather than sweet cuddly babies. Use the techniques listed above to cultivate such a mindset.

When you ask ALQs, take verbatim notes, and listen actively. If you do all this, you’re well on your way to overcoming this insidious bias. The rest of the process is simply having an open mindset and actively paying attention. You can do it.