Project Management

Combating biases in IT consulting

Consultants should attempt to reduce the influence these biases (among others) might have on clients: mere exposure effect, hyperbolic discounting, and normalcy bias.

When helping clients make decisions about their plans for the future, we need to be aware of biases -- both those of our clients and our own. Although it's impossible to completely escape the effects of our biases (we're only human, after all), if we don't make our best attempt to elude their influence, then we won't be helping our client to the best possible outcome.

Wikipedia lists more than 40 types of bias related to decision-making and behavior. I'll only discuss a few of them here, and save the rest for another time.

Mere exposure effect. People are biased towards the familiar, and against the unfamiliar. "Go with what you know" is a maxim in support of this bias. I often encounter this bias in the choice of operating systems and programming languages. Their justification usually boils down to "this is what we do, and we're sticking with it." Even when research demonstrates a net benefit from changing to a new product, service, or vendor, most people will prefer to stay with the one they have. In IT, familiarity is a benefit in itself, because of the cost of learning a new system and developing new procedures, as well as the risk that a new alternative may not fulfill all expectations. So it can be difficult to separate that valid assessment from the bias towards the familiar simply because the unfamiliar seems threatening at a visceral, "will it kill me?" level. More detailed research, along with prototyping, can often render a new system more familiar and thus reduce the bias.

Hyperbolic discounting. A risk or benefit seems much less important the further into the future the payoff will be realized or the cost incurred. This seems natural, because a lot can change as time goes by, and perhaps the risk or benefit will never be realized. However, the rate at which people apply this discount follows a hyperbolic curve, which indicates a bias towards the near term. For example, if two alternatives offer a 5% gain immediately versus a 10% gain a year from now, most people will take the immediate 5%. But if the choice is between five years for 5%, or six years for 10%, they'll choose the six year plan. The difference is the same (5% advantage gained by adding a year to the plan), but the closer that year is to the present the more important the near term becomes. The difference between five and six years seems much less than the difference between now and a year from now, and an immediate gain of any size seems more enticing than anything you have to pursue with patience. That could be rational in a highly uncertain environment, but if the relative likelihood of outcomes is the same, then it makes more sense to pursue the greater gain in the long run. I've often seen this bias operate in the decision of what features to include in a product: those we can sell right now, or those that will enable us to grow in the future. Many times I have heard, "Heck, we'll all be retired or working somewhere else by then."

Normalcy bias. When you tell your client that they need to take steps to avoid an impending problem, and they respond "But in all this time, that hasn't happened yet" -- you're seeing Normalcy bias in action. People erroneously believe that just because something has never occurred, that constitutes evidence that it never will. Those who present reasoned arguments for why it might happen anyway get dismissed as "Chicken Littles." It's simply too scary and bothersome to have to account for eventualities that aren't a normal part of their experience. Thus, it could be tough to sell a client on hardening their security if they've never been cracked -- even though it's only because no competent cracker ever made the attempt. After penetration, then it will become a top priority.

Have you experienced these and other biases operating in the minds of your clients or yourself? Share your stories in the discussion.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

24 comments
gechurch
gechurch

I know I'm guilty. We (an IT consulting company) continue to recommend a backup solution that we have now decided is just too finnicky; we spend far more time keeping it working than we should, meanwhile our smaller clients running ntbackup/Windows Backup generally have no issues. We still recommend it because we have invested a lot of time in learning its nuances. We know its limitations and how to work around them now. Oh, and it does have much more powerful features, particularly on restore, than ntbackup has. So its a combination of features plus our own inertia/comfort zone. We have picked up clients from other IT consultants with far less excusable biases though. The most memorable was a guy that recommended a client (a real estate company) move to Linux on the desktop and move to an open source mail program (can't recall its name). This was recommended to a client that already had Windows servers, with Exchange, all CALs and Windows and Outlook on the desktops; again already licensed. Their justification boiled down to him not liking Microsoft's business practices (the client didn't care; they can't run their line-of-business apps on Linux!) and the cost savings. I repeat; the client was already fully licensed (and was very static in terms of number of employees). Never-the-less, he wrote a four-page proposal outlining why open source was superior and that they should immediately throw away all their existing licenses because "it's so expensive to buy them"! The client openly admits they are clueless when it comes to IT, but even they saw through this douche straight away. Keep your personal biases at home people!

reisen55
reisen55

I never forget and greatly respect the power that I have over my clients' systems, servers and workstations. Let's face it - we have enormous control over THEIR business venture and can easily wreck them with, to use an extreme example, bad typing on the keyboard. (Well, how many of us badly type an admin password without really checking where the fingers are going and the sheer hell that follows along!) My own Bias is in favor of THEIR state of mind, their networks, their environment. Has to be. I am therefore very conservative on any NEW ideas that are dramatic. Many consultants love Ubuntu and Linux. They are great, but would they work in my client site? Can I trust patient management programs to run correctly in medical offices on Linux? And the amount of conversion time alone would be considerable, so would the client PAY gladly for something that nets them ONLY something new and nothing else changes? Plus staff training. Oh, the mind boggles!!! On MY network, I am all for open exploration. I would always prefer to destroy my server first than a client server. But clients deserve great care.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Is against special theories when the general is what you're up to.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

One time I told a bank that they had a bug that would allow a person to do currency exchanges in which the "person" could bilk them out of thousands of dollars because of the bug. Their response, "Oh, that won't happen." It did and due to similar decisions they are no longer in business. Another company had a product that allowed only so many admin passwords to be created (another financial product) and didn't allow old ones to be removed. I told software company, their response, "So,what?" and they are being sued by a business who bought their software because an old employee had figured out this bug and stole millions. Ha, Ha your loss, I love it when people don't pay attention, I use it as a stick to get more clients i.e. well you know what happened to X, well let me tell you the story. You wouldn't want that to happen here, would you?

VBJackson
VBJackson

Because everyone seems to want to go with the solution that uses the latest catch-word and extravigent claim, but I have had to deal with a lot of hyperbolic discounting too. I would say that Exposure Effect is my biggest obstacle, but I am also one of those people that wants to try everything. Still, while I have used a multitude of OSes*, when I am working with business clients I am going to recommend Windows because I know that they are familiar with it, and that there is a larger installed base of business apps. If and until that changes, it is "Go with what THEY know" for me. *OSes I have used (and showing my age): CP/M on a Tandy Model 4P. Unix (original Berkley on a PDP11/70, SCO, Solaris, and AIX). MS-DOS, Windows 3.11, 95, NT, 2000 (Desktop and Server), 2003, 2008, XP, Vista, and 7. Mac (before X) Linux (RH and Ubuntu distros, but back in 06 to 08, haven't had time to play recently)

maj37
maj37

However as clients we also have to watch for the biases of the consultants that we hire. Often the consultant proposes things be done a certain because that is the way they have always done them, also sometimes the consultant really is being a "chicken little" and warning about issues that are very unlikely. maj

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

quite easily. Exposure effect is hard one, as it's quite probable I've been consulted because I've been exposed. Will admit to applying erm familiar tried and tested solutions firs, but I'm not one of those people who hangs on to a bad idea, to avoid looking like I had one... What bias is the inverse of hyperbolic discounting, now that I do suffer from... Normalcy bias, well no, I get called in when the wheels have come off, so that is the normal situation...

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... at someone else than it is to see these biases in yourself. We all suffer from a self-justification bias as well.

TGGIII
TGGIII

I agree that clients usually have the information needed to solve their own problems but lack the tools to develop the right questions and answers. But it is their bias that prevents them from being able to see them in a fresh way that allows breakthrough to solution. (I usually find the best data is in the heads of those doing the work.) The Einstein quote of not being able to solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it is in play here. All quality systems (TOC, Lean/Six Sigma, etc.) are designed to help solve for the larger problem and bring more end-to-end insight. Most problems in an organization come from a mindset of local optimization. Achieving the systems thinking to grow up a notch and move to the next set of constraints is the trick. (And there will always be a next constraint in your thinking.) I believe the consultants job is to mentor the leadership to that next level. This will not work if the client is not willing to grow.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

CP/M and PDP11 on mine as well. Also HP's MPE/XL, HP-UX, and my favourite VMS. I wouldn't say I've gone out of my way to try everything, more like everything has been tried on me... :(

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... including the age-revealing CP/M, and Unix on PDP's. Have you ever looked at FreeBSD?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

A consultant's biases are perhaps harder to check if you haven't worked with them for an extended period of time. We consultants have to check our own, and it's hard not to be biased about that.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

is usually noticeable as a growing feeling of discomfort when there doesn't seem to be a problem... that is - when the eventual problem has, as of yet, succeeded in hiding it's presence.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... would, I guess, be putting too much emphasis on long-term benefit at the expense of short-term gains. I lean that way too, but I think it's in reaction to having my grand plans cut off at the knees in order to get something released.

santeewelding
santeewelding

At first I was troubled by the headline. The plural makes for clumsy reading. Probably got re-written by your editor, I thought, and let it go. Nope. Confirmed by your own writing, unless that was re-written, too. Nope. You did special cases, as though "bias" hadn't been invented yet and you were inductively establishing its existence, all the while using the plural of what didn't exist. On the whole, a litany of the special, with promise of more to come.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

That's like your kids getting suddenly quiet. :D

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The brain is the mother of emergence; these things evolve, in parallel in each of us. So, in a way, they must be the result of an optimization... but we know what optimization isn't the end-all be-all. Sometimes the less optimal road is the only one leading to success. Deductive thought is less fast than going by rote and/or intuition, original creativity even less so. But some situations are dead ends without the Big Guns, slow as they are. But what I also meant is, that we can train ourselves to "feel" the part of the mind which accepts the bias. Awareness can tip us off when we're pulling a fast one on ourselves. Bit after bit.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The various forms of bias evolved in us because they promote survival in some way, so they're not automatically "bad." The problem is when they lead us into sub-optimal choices by keeping us from considering some of the important alternatives.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

One thing is the cover term, bias. A shroud like what you speak of. Another thing is the incarnations, the instances - specific ways, like you also speak of. The last thing is what it is, not a cover, but a foundation. Not how it creeps in, but where it's going, what we do for it, what it does for us. We're a mercenary kind, we humans, we do things for specific gain, at the core. Not that it means selfishness, in the normal sense, the currency of the id is not what we expect. If we know what it covers for us, then we know also when to decline. It is, after all, trying to help us.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I don't think we can solve the problem of bias by attacking the general tendency. We need to identify specific ways in which it creeps in, or else we can be completely unaware of it.