Unleashing Social Super Powers – Part 1

What you see is all there is.

Getting out of your comfort zone pays off.
Understanding social heuristics in this ‘IT-world’ does too.

Last May, at NewCrafts Conference in beautiful Paris, I got out of my stage-comfort zone for the second time. After a great experience at Domain Driven Design Europe in Amsterdam, I went on stage again in Paris to just talk about social heuristics and dynamics in software development. And I had a blast. Again. (Oh, if you want to see me eliminating an elephant in the room, the recording is available.)

Will be able to give you a definite answer after the third gig (because charm), but I’m starting to believe that this should become my new comfort zone.

And yours too, for that matter.

Understanding how social heuristics and dynamics are affecting everything you do — from writing code to deciding what you’ll have for dinner — will make you a socio-technical developer (or architect, or technical leader, or whatever it is that you call yourself). And that’s exactly what the world needs.

Dealing with First World Problems

Ever consciously thought about every single little step and decision you had to make to get to your work this morning? Thank God you don’t have to do that. Thanks to super brilliant strategies your brain uses to make sense of the world, so you can focus on all the other First World Problems you have to deal with every day. (As a millenial, I’ll be the last to downplay the seriously substantial decisions you’re facing at Starbucks every morning.)

I discussed two sensemaking perspectives in one of my previous posts — Thinking, Fast and Slow, and the Cynefin Model. I also briefly explained how combining them helps me to categorize the world and deciding if I should celebrate heuristics or overcome them, actively addressing my system 2.

Because of these social heuristics, or mental shortcuts, you brain uses most of the time, you can spend some time on problems and decisions that require you to think rationally, use calculation and use your system 2. That doesn’t mean that heuristics (or your system 1) are only helpful when it comes to making trivial decisions and solving easy problems. These mechanisms are so intelligent that they help you make the best decisions of your life.

The tricky part is that in some cases, these heuristics take over. In situations where you could (and probably) should have used your system 2, that can be problematic.

So if you are able to determine in which ‘world’ you’re operating, and are able to recognise some of the most resilient social heuristics… You gained some new super powers.

Allow me to be your Robin here and provide you with some examples and useful insights on some of the most influential social heuristics.

The availability heuristic

What you see is all there is

I’m sorry if I sound like a psychologist, but we are all suffering from past experiences. Let’s say you got really sick once after eating some shrimps at a restaurant. Next time you’re in a restaurant and the person across the table says that he’s thinking about having the shrimps, you’ll be making a weird face and disapproving noises. Enter the availability heuristic.

This heuristic is about you estimating the likelihood of future events to happen based on past experiences and memories. And the easier these come to mind, the more likely you’ll be to estimate that this situation, or any future situation, will be the same as it was in your memory.

Spoiler alert: statistically this won’t be your best effort.

System 1 does not only take over when we’re deciding what to eat. This also happens in our software development projects. When someone mentions that you will be buying or building a new application, past experiences will pop up right away. ‘Please let us do/don’t do this…’. And instead of defining and formulating the problem first so you can make an unbiased decision and pick the truly right solution for your problem, we jump to conclusions and start writing code and picking technologies that are in our comfort zone.

Let’s take a step back here.

This is a situation for system 2 — clearly. We can use calculation to make a less biased decision. Why aren’t we doing that??

I believe this has a lot to do with the fact that in software development, we’re not always overseeing the bigger picture. We don’t always fully understand the entire domain we’re working in. Meaning we don’t always foresee the impact of our decisions on the greater good. Especially when there are lots of dependencies between teams and team members.

This is different in lots of non-software development situations, by the way. If I’m, for example, about to buy a new bike, I formulate my problem (or goal) precisely before going to a shop or doing online research. Does this bike needs to get me from home to work, or do I want to win the Tour de France with it? Subtle difference worth making explicit.

Then, I’ll go actively seeking for information, using calculation and my system 2, to gather all the information I need to make a rational decision. ‘I’m about to spend quite some money, so it better be worthwhile.’ I am overseeing the entire domain I’m working in, and using my system 2 to make a non-biased decision.

Interesting, right? That’s why I think we should always convey the bigger picture. So that we can determine if we could (and should) use our system 2 and suppress the availability heuristic.

When you don’t have to use your brain

Not consciously, that is. When you’re relying on heuristics, it feels you’re not using your brain. Because these highly intelligent mental shortcuts are guiding you and helping you make brilliant decisions. The good news is — most of the time you can trust them!

Especially in situations with lots of uncertainties ann complex domains. Let’s say you and your team are building a new product. That will leave you with lots of uncertainties on many different levels. Desirability and usability uncertainties for example. Will our customers find value in this idea? Will the solution we build be something our customers want to use? Fair questions. Calculation is not enough here. It will get you some answers, but it will mainly slow you down and have you doubt and overthink every single decision you’ll have to make.

The thing is, this team collectively has gathered so much knowledge, experience, data, customer feedback and information over the past weeks/months/years, that it would take forever to consciously go over everything, use calculation and then make a decision. (Which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily needs to be the best decision…)

If only we would have a brilliant mechanism that would help us retrieve and browse all the relevant information, data, experience, etc. to help us make a quick and effective decision…

Oh wait! We do!

That’s exactly what the availability heuristics does for you! And because you have all this information to go through, in this case, if you can think about it — yes, it probably is important. Go with it. Trust your gut. Start working on that new product!

And even if it’s not your best product ever — you are operating in a complex domain. A domain where you can safely fail. Where you can gather feedback, include it in a next release and make it better.

When I was preparing my first talk about social heuristics, I came across a tweet from Nick Tune.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. The best product ideas come from talking to customers frequently and the teams who build the products. They have all the information, experience, data, customer feedback, and knowledge to not only come up with the best ideas, but also to make the best non-biased decisions. That’s why we should let them do this. Trust these teams to make the best decisions and to build the best products.

As said, in most cases we can safely rely on our heuristics and go with it. The situations where we should overcome them are the ones that require our attention and reflection. Recognizing heuristics in different situations will help you making less biased decisions.

“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”

– Sherlock Holmes

Observing a situation and doing just that, without any judgements, is a true skill. One I wish I mastered… If you can do that before jumping to conclusions (or solutions), you can overcome the availability heuristic when needed. Now that’s what I would call a super power.

Anyway, in order to prevent me from rambling on about social heuristics and how they are affecting everything that you do, I decided to spread the flood of information over several posts.

Next time, I’ll dive into experts and why we should be aware of them. Stay tuned!

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