September 2019 | Point of View

Bias in the ideation process: Equalizing the opinions of everyone in the room

Leaders have an obligation to ensure ideas are generated in a constructive and unbiased way

As we’ve grown to more than 1,400 people in nine offices across the United States, fostering an inclusive environment becomes more challenging—but all the more important. 

As part of a journey to strengthen our culture of inclusion, we began writing quarterly letters designed to stimulate discussion about relevant and sometimes challenging topics. The idea is that healthy and open dialogue is an essential prerequisite to breaking down the barriers to inclusion. Over the past two years, we’ve tackled several tough topics: unconscious bias, equality of networking opportunities in and out of the office, the value of employee resource groups, and integration of talent at the senior level. Now, as we are into our third year of this conversation, I want to respond to one of the most common questions we hear from our people: What should I be doing on a regular basis to make inclusion real? 

While we focus on inclusion because it is the right thing to do and central to our values, it is also essential to our strength as a consultancy. If we want to win in the consulting marketplace, we need diverse perspectives at the table when we are crafting ideas and solutions— and to make sure we are advancing the best ideas, we need to hear and evaluate all perspectives equitably. 

According to the 2018 Gartner Global Technology and Service Provider CEO Survey, innovation has been deemed a priority by the highest levels in corporate organizations—45% of CEOs say they are carefully planning for and investing in innovation by taking   an “offensive approach.” However, a recent Harvard Business Review article, “How to Overcome the Bias We Have Toward Our Own Ideas,” indicates that ideation processes tend to include bias. I believe the way we act in the ideation process gets to the very heart of whether or not people feel included in an organization, and could be stifling good ideas. 

The basic premise of the report is that people— particularly those who are more seasoned executives or experts in a particular area—tend to oversell and overvalue their own ideas. This can lead an organization to pursue an idea or innovation that may not be the best one presented. It may also make some people feel that their ideas are not as valuable as others. As we have discussed in the past, that is one common reason why people feel excluded rather than included in the workplace.

The authors found that a key factor driving overconfidence in one’s own idea is status (level, title, or seniority) in the organization: their data showed that ideator’s bias is, on average, 53% stronger among employees who work at a higher versus lower organizational level. I agree this can often be the case. Just by nature of experience and likely a sense of protection based on seniority, a manager or director will feel more comfortable tossing an idea out and going to bat for it. On the other hand, a more junior employee may feel they have more to lose by strongly arguing for an idea or pushing back on feedback from more senior team members. 

While seniority can certainly be a factor, I think there are other ways that “status” bias comes out in group settings. For example, it may also may evolve from an individual’s background or experience in a particular topic (“Jane is a guest at our meeting today because she just finished working with ABC Company, our biggest digital strategy project to date, and I think she will have some good ideas to share with us,”) or simply based on how confident or assertive someone is. The potential for such bias is something we always need to consider in our work to make sure that we are soliciting and eliciting ideas from everyone, listening to everyone’s assessment of ideas, and acting on the ideas that are the best—not just those coming from the “experts.” 

The article’s authors were more surprised to find that ideation bias is stronger when employees generate ideas in groups than it is when individuals work alone. As the article states, “This flies in the face of intuition: people expect groups to be more impartial than individuals, and the larger the group, the wiser it is.” 

I can see how ideating in teams may offer a feeling of “protection”—that is, I am not taking as big a risk   by hanging myself out with respect to my own idea. I think that the debate that comes with broad, group generation and development of ideas is healthy. But I believe certain group dynamics—including the degree of diversity or extent to which the members feel connected as a team—can influence confidence in an idea. Certainly, this points to the importance of having a broad group with diverse thought, particularly when assessing ideas and determining which one(s) to advance. 

It also points to the importance of effectively managing meetings, a topic we covered last quarter in this series. Meeting facilitators must ensure everyone has the opportunity to have a voice at the table and provide feedback, particularly if an individual wants to challenge an idea. That may mean using techniques such as asking pointed questions, specifically allocating time for people to speak, or establishing multiple channels for feedback, before, during, and after a scheduled discussion. 

I’m sure we could debate some of the findings in this research all day, but the important point here is to recognize that status (or similar) bias does exist in and influence the ideation process that is so important to our business. What the data doesn’t do is address how to fix the issue. 

I believe this issue hits at the heart of why it’s so important to build a strong culture of inclusion within an organization. As members of a consulting firm, we all participate in ideation—for many of us, we very frequently work with our project teams and clients to ensure we’re coming up with the best solution to their challenges. Therefore, I believe it is relevant for all of us to think about bias, look for signs that it may be happening in our teams, and take steps to ensure that we are doing what we can to equalize the opinions of everyone in the room. Innovation without inclusion can lead to investment in bad ideas, while good ideas may get passed up. 

Leaders have an obligation to ensure ideas are generated in a constructive and unbiased way—and, separate from idea generation, that ideas are assessed for the value they create for either the company or its customers. At our firm, we’ve established different mechanisms to ideate and evaluate. Some are relatively easy—for instance, offering time for both one-on-one ideation and conversations as well  as large group workshops to allow people with different styles space to contribute. 

More significantly, we’ve invested in building an innovation center that supports a structured process for raising and progressing new ideas. Recently, the innovation team launched an online idea hub that enables the firm to crowdsource ideas for growth from all employees through a virtual platform for idea submission, collaboration, and voting. Those whose ideas gain the most traction are invited to pitch their idea for funding to turn it into reality and receive support through our innovation development process.

Rather than stifling innovation, we’ve found applying structure and processes helps employees focus and define how their idea can create value for the firm or our clients, and provides a forum for feedback from other functions within the firm that might be impacted by the idea. These processes not only create a level playing field for ideation, they also separate idea generation from idea assessment, one of the Harvard researchers’ recommendations. 

Lis Moore also shares a few thoughts on how to draw out and pursue the best of our collective ideas in  the sidebar of this article, based on her experience. I welcome your feedback and best practices, as well.

Strengthening our culture of inclusion is a team effort, and we want to share additional perspectives from across our team and community. This quarter’s contribution comes from Lis Moore, senior manager on our Strategic Growth team. She is involved with an array of strategy and corporate development initiatives, including developing and facilitating our firmwide strategy with leadership, innovation engines, and full-cycle merger and acquisition execution. With previous experience in corporate finance and transaction services at several Big Four and other firms, Lis has had extensive exposure to ideation and innovation exercises in a consulting environment.

Lis Moore, senior manager 

What have you experienced to be a particularly effective tactic for minimizing status bias in a team or group environment? 

When I worked at a previous firm, we often had meetings that would involve a range of levels: a senior partner, a manager, a consultant and an analyst. When we were brainstorming or discussing ideas, our standing rule was that the most junior person in the meeting would speak first and then so on, up to the most senior person. This helped ensure that all team members could share their views without being biased by the senior partner’s status and perspective. It also offered newer team members the valuable experience of presenting to more senior audiences. 

What are some other tactics you’ve seen that are effective for equalizing the opinions of everyone in the room? 

I’ve learned a few tips and tricks over the years for counteracting bias. Here are some examples that may work in certain ideation scenarios: 

Silent brainstorm:

Start a meeting by presenting a question, topic, or something to read. Ask the participants to spend a short period of time processing the request. Then, go “around the horn” so that everyone has a chance to respond and share their idea or reaction—before the broader discussion ensues. Amazon is well known for using a version of this approach that it calls the “silent start.” 

Contrasting ideas:

Ask participants to come to the discussion prepared to share two potential ideas, explain them, and then tell the group why they think one idea is better than the other. 

In addition to allowing everyone to share ideas, this approach draws attention to the presenter’s thought process and logic rather than just the idea(s). 

Structured debate:

Assign certain participants to debate and negate an idea posed by others in the group, regardless of their personal opinion. Assign others to support and promote the idea, also regardless of their personal opinion. I think bias tends to come into play the most when evaluating ideas and making decisions about which ideas to develop or advance, so this tactic can work well in those scenarios. 

Not fully baked:

As consultants, we have a tendency to want to demonstrate that we have thought of everything when “selling” an idea to our colleagues. But instead of going into a meeting to sell a 100-percent baked and bullet proof idea, leave some open ends and ask the group to discuss: “I have an idea, but let’s have a discussion around what I haven’t considered.” Showing a little vulnerability can make others more comfortable opening up—particularly when it is coming from a more senior member of the team. 

Voting technology:

In large group ideation sessions, such as 20-person team meetings focused on prioritizing ideas to take forward, it can be challenging to keep biases of the most senior people from influencing the discussion. In these cases, voting technology provides a way to “hear” everyone’s voice. This is easy to do today: There are apps that allow people to vote on their phones, with the results imported to a PowerPoint slide for everyone to see. This can also prevent group think. 

What advice do you have for people leading or facilitating an ideation effort?

Facilitation is an art form, and it becomes particularly critical in a setting where we are ideating or assessing ideas. If I can’t figure out how to get everyone in the room engaged and included in the discussion, then I will lose out on the diversity that can come from all viewpoints. 

It is important to be particularly thoughtful about how you approach and structure these sessions, as bias can quickly invade ad hoc discussions. I’ve found that, in planning, it is helpful to think about how I have felt and/or battled status (or similar) bias in the past. Have a clear goal and express it. Be clear that all opinions are welcome: “I’ve intentionally invited all of you for your diverse expertise.” Be attuned to who is speaking up and who isn’t, and make sure you purposely engage everyone in the discussion: “John hasn’t had a chance to share his opinion. John, what do think of XYZ?” And keep one or two of the above tips and tricks above in your back pocket to try out. 

In the Harvard Business Review article, the authors concluded from their research that separating idea generation and idea assessment can help reduce bias. Do you agree? 

In theory, yes. I think that focusing on idea generation without assessment can elicit a more robust set of ideas from everyone. In practice, it is hard for us to talk about ideas without beginning to evaluate them. Here again, the meeting leader needs to be clear and specific about the purpose of the session: “We are here to generate ideas, and our number one rule is there are no bad ideas—so let’s hear them all. We will assess and synthesize them at a later date.” Then, the leader needs to run the meeting that way and stop assessment when it starts to happen—as it undoubtedly will. 

How can you bring out the best of introverts in a group setting? 

This will always be an issue in an organization with many Type A, extroverted personalities. There are a lot of reasons why people may not feel confident speaking up in a room of vocal personalities. It could be shyness, it could be a need for time to think about and “process” something before speaking up, or it could simply be confidence in one’s own thought process (perhaps already under the influence of status bias). 

One idea is to send pre-reads and ask for initial feedback by email before the meeting. This gives “processors” the time they need to think through the matter at hand, while also having an initial chance to speak up without having to do so in front of more vocal colleagues. Again, voting technology can also be a way to give everyone a voice in certain settings. 

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