American culture has a bias towards action—we like a can-do attitude. We revere rags to riches stories. We are people that get things done. The 45th president just signed a record 14 executive orders during his first seven days in office. Yet, the resulting chaos is deeply concerning. Is this national bias towards action actually impeding our ability to think?
Actions have consequences, and consequences have costs. Study after study illustrates the benefits of user research. Business journals back up these studies with the very real economic advantages of thought before action.
“Lean” manufacturing principles were developed by Toyota in the mid-20th century. It seeks to eliminate waste such as energy, materials or activity from the production process. It begins with an observational phase; managers are directed to go to the factory floor, observe, ask questions and solicit ideas from the people doing the work.
“Design Thinking,” is a process codified by IDEO, the San Francisco-based innovation consultancy. Design Thinking borrows the discovery principles of the Lean process—observation, questioning and invites users to participate in problem solving and co-creation of products and services.
These are just a few ways to incorporate human behavior and audience need into problem solving. Observation, questioning and thinking prior to solution statistically yields a better outcome. Taking the time to witness what people really do prevents us from being prescriptive at a distance, rehashing old ideas and restrains biases.
Avoiding preconceptions is an important part of innovation; there are many psychologists who have studied cognition in all its forms and their studies shed insight into the human predilection for self-defeating behavior.
Psychologists Charles Lord, Lee Ross and Mark Lepper published a paper in 1979 that analyzed how previously held beliefs influence the way we process and assimilate new information. The findings cite how learning is not always rational—people look to confirm existing beliefs—aka “confirmation bias.”
Dan Kahan, a psychologist at Yale University recently published a paper on identity-protective cognition—a variation on confirmation bias but delves into how information is filtered, and facts discarded in order to protect self-constructed identities.
Michele Gelfand, a psychologist at the University of Maryland researched “cultural tightness,” a concept that seems especially relevant today. Her research poses that when people are stressed, they seek authoritarian leaders with strict rules; they want someone to tell then what to do.
Confirmation bias, identity-protective cognition and cultural tightness are unfortunately widespread when we should be asking more questions to achieve better answers. I see a growing trend to rush to solutions and conclusions without fully understanding people, problems and opportunities.
Yes, you can choose to get something done. Or you can choose to get something done well. By taking the time to understand the factory floor and incorporate ideas from their workforce, Toyota’s management team was able to create new processes to streamline manufacturing and eliminate waste—along with a leadership position, one the Harvard Business Review called “arguably the best carmaker on the planet.”
Stop prescribing from afar. Go to where the work is done, go to the user, understand the audience, observe, question, and learn.
But most of all…think. It will make your ideas better.