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Does Dunning-Kruger, a recently popularized cognitive bias, exist in the Technology world?

August 1, 2017  |  Posted By: AKF.daveswenson

We all suffer from various cognitive biases, those mental filters or lenses that alter or warp the reality around us. With the election of 2016, one particular bias has gained widespread attention - the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Defined in wikipedia as:

“...a cognitive bias, wherein persons of low ability suffer from illusory superiority when they mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.”
(If you’ve ever wondered about the behind-the-scenes process of creating Wikipedia content, look at this entertaining discussion.)

In 1999, while a professor at Cornell, David Dunning joined Justin Kruger to co-author a paper titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, based on studies indicating that people who are incompetent in an area are typically too incompetent to know they are incompetent. Or, simply put, we are often in a position where we don’t know what we don’t know, and therefore cannot judge our level of expertise in a particular area.

This effect or bias, is also known as the ‘Lake Wobegon effect’, or ‘illusory superiority’, and is closely tied to the Peter Principle. Donald Rumsfeld put it this way:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

And in John Cleese’s words, stupid people do not have the capability to realize how stupid they are.

The story of how Dunning came to posit the D-K Effect is an amusing one. He read about an unusual bank robbery that occurred in Pittsburgh. What was unusual was that the robber, McArthur Wheeler, made absolutely no effort to disguise himself, and in fact, looked and smiled directly into the security cameras. Yet, he was surprised to quickly be arrested, telling authorities “...but I used the juice!”.

The juice?

Wheeler told the police that they couldn’t arrest him based on the security videos, as wearing lemon juice, he was of course invisible. He had been told coating your face with lemon juice makes you invisible to cameras, perhaps similar to using lemon juice for invisible ink. Wheeler had even gone as far as to test the theory by taking a Polaroid picture of himself after coating his face with the lemon juice, and sure enough, his face didn’t appear in the print. The police never were able to explain this, but likely Wheeler was as incompetent at photography as he was at burglary. Clearly, Wheeler was too incompetent at burglary to know he was incompetent.

So, does Dunning-Kruger exist in the technology world? Absolutely…

Just as a typical driver believes their driving skills are Formula 1 worthy, until they’re on a track getting blown past by an inferior car driven by someone who has far better braking and cornering skills, we all tend to underestimate what is possible. We live in our own bubbles and are comparing our abilities only against those who also reside in our bubbles. Therefore, we don’t know what we don’t know - we don’t know there are far better drivers outside our bubbles.

You may think your organization is at the peak of efficiency, until you bring someone in from a Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. who reveals what the true peak really can be - what fully Agile processes and cultures can do to reduce time to market, how effective SREs and DevOps can be, how to remain innovative, what continuous delivery can do to, etc.

AKF firmly believes in “Experiential Diversity” to cross-pollinate teams, injecting new DNA into a company or bubble that was grown in a different bubble. We see numerous companies with very static personnel, where the average employee tenure is over 15 years. There have been tremendous changes in the technology world in 15 years, and while reading a book or attending a conference on new processes brings some exposure to the latest and greatest, it isn’t enough. It is incredibly important to continually bring new blood into an organization, and to purposely tap into that diversity of processes, technologies, organizational structures that comes with the new blood.

Other techniques to mitigate the effect of D-K in technology, of eliminating our personal and organizational biases include:

  • 360 degree reviews - Dunning himself has said “The road to self-insight runs through other people”. What better way to get feedback than from periodic 360 degree reviews?
  • Code reviews - The likelihood that some percentage of your developers suffer from D-K means that you’re dependent upon code reviews to flush out their incompetence. Just make sure you’re not pairing up two D-K developers to perform the review!
  • Planning Poker - requiring, in true Agile fashion, a team to estimate a task or project reduces the chance of that D-K estimate from torpedoing your development planning.
  • Soliciting advice - the increasing utilization of open source software means there isn’t a vendor, with hopefully solid expertise, to turn to for advice. Instead of solely relying upon your own developer who only knows how to spell say Cassandra, leverage the appropriate OSS community. Just beware that you might not know whether that solicited advice is good advice.
  • Proper interviewing - Ensure your interviewing process can weed out “confident idiots”. Consider planting bogus questions to gauge a candidate’s reactions, like Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News”. At a minimum, require team interviewing and consensus for new candidates.

In short, Dunning-Kruger is as rampant within the Technology sector as it is anywhere else, if not even more so. Expect it to be present in your organization, and guard against it. Look at it within yourself as well. Who amongst us hasn’t experienced the shock of discovering we’ve failed a test that we actually thought we’d aced? We all have suffered at one time or another from the Dunning-Kruger effect.

 

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