Once we’ve formed an opinion, we tend to look for evidence that supports that opinion and minimize evidence that contradicts us.  This is called “confirmation bias”, and it’s probably the root of most bad products, bad hires, and bad relationships.

So how do we avoid it?  In any situation filled with subjective information, we have plenty of opportunities to “believe what we want to believe”. In customer development, we may find ourselves subtly altering the questions we ask or interpreting responses in the most favorable light.  In interviewing potential hires, the same thing may happen.

One way around this is the Trick Question.  Identify your bias, and then ask a leading question in the opposite direction.  We know from social psychology that people are likely to agree with an interviewer out of politeness/deference to authority.  So most people will only disagree with you if they feel strongly in the opposite direction.

Here’s a customer development example:

  • Suppose I’m really excited about an “Uber for babysitters” concept. Tap a button on your phone and a babysitter will be there within the hour!”
  • The bias: I’m likely to ask questions about times when a parent has needed care urgently, about instances where a parent had to cancel an event when care plans fell through, about the hassles of getting cash for the babysitter, etc.  Most likely I’ll get a lot of “yes” answers, which may lead me to minimize the potential risks.
  • Finding the trick question: Identify the positive aspects and find a way to turn them into a negative. For example, speed of finding a babysitter means parents don’t have time to vet them.
  • Asking the trick question: “Tell me about the last time you used a new caregiver. What steps did you go through before you felt comfortable leaving them with your child?”  or “Tell me about a time when you or someone you know pulled a child out of a care situation because it ‘didn’t feel right’?
  • Why this works: Both of the above questions assume fear and uncertainty around the “Uber for babysitters” model.  They give permission for the parent to express skepticism, so you’ll probably get negative responses.  But if your hunch was right, you’re likely to also identify potential solutions (i.e. “Jen babysits for my friend Dave’s kids, so I didn’t need to ‘vet’ her.” –> connecting social graph to your app may alleviate fears around caregiver trustworthiness).

Interviewing candidates has a different twist.  An interview is short: it’s hard to tell if a candidate is just saying what you want to hear.  (If you blog and tweet regularly, as I do, it’s particularly easy for someone to figure out what I’ll likely agree with.)

  • The bias: Introduce myself as director of user experience.
  • Finding the trick question: Look for an example of a product or service where customers experience short-term pain but longer-term gain (i.e. Craig’s List is ugly but it works if you need to find an apartment)
  • Asking the trick question: “Craig’s List is ugly.  What elements would you prioritize in giving it an improved look and feel?”*
  • Why this works:  My job title gives candidates permission to jump right into describing small visual tweaks or usability improvements – they assume I’ll care a lot about those elements (and I do). But a good product manager/designer/researcher should make sure they identify the problems before thinking about solutions — which means they should push back and ask why a redesign is needed, or what goals I’d hope to achieve.

Double negative leads to proof positive!

* FYI, I don’t ask this Craig’s List question any more, prospective Yammer employees.

Let me tell you about the best people who have worked on my teams:

  • They’re insatiably curious.  That means they ask a ton of questions, which gives them deep insights into what we’re trying to accomplish, from a variety of perspectives.
  • They’re highly biased towards action. That means that when they spot a problem, they don’t wait for permission – they start testing out solutions.
  • They take ownership. That means I don’t need to keep monitoring the problem – they’ve taken it on and will continue trying new things until the problem gets resolved.
  • They embrace challenges.  That means their skillsets are constantly evolving, because they’re frequently doing things that they’ve never done before.

Now let me tell you how many of these people walked in the door with these skills on day 1: 0.

The technology community is in love with the idea of the self-starter.  We are obsessed with fighting over the prospective hires who boldly state their abilities and leap forward to take on new challenges. These people, we say, are the ones with the passion and the drive to get stuff done.  We aren’t interested in the people who don’t display that passion.

The problem is, almost no one figures out on their own how to do these things and be an amazing self-starter.   It’s something you learn from observing others and having that type of role model or sponsor.  Which means that if you came from a non-college educated family (as I did), or a lower socioeconomic background (as I did), or simply came late to technology, you don’t start your career already having been exposed to these role models. (I went to Harvard and I still didn’t start my career realizing that I needed to volunteer for stretch projects and greater responsibility.  It’s not an easy mindset to ‘fix’.)

Recently a number of tech companies – Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter – have released their diversity data, and it’s universally pretty dismal.  And I keep thinking of this myth of the self-starter.  No one wants to hire people who aren’t “self-starters”, except there are probably genuinely disproportionately few innate minority “self-starters”.

And I highlight “innate” because I absolutely believe that a good manager can build self-starters.  Not every prospective green hire will turn into a rockstar, but surprisingly many can, if given some explicit sponsorship and guidance.

In my experience, it doesn’t take long.  You find one stretch project for someone and tell them that you trust them.  They deliver on it.  You tell them how they could have exceeded your expectations, then you find them one more opportunity for growth.

And often, that’s all it takes.  The experience of being successful becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Delivering results gives people the confidence to be more curious and push back more.  Asking more questions allows people the ability to spot potential problems on their own and formulate solutions.  Figuring out one or two problems reassures me that I can delegate more responsibility to them.

I have (and have had) some really incredible people work for me.  It’d be nice to credit that to my amazing management prowess, but honestly that’s not it.  It’s that these were people who had tremendous potential — but wouldn’t have been “pattern-matched” as self-starters.  Any manager who gave them opportunities and recognition could have uncovered that potential.  But it means that we need to be mindful that we aren’t prematurely excluding people because they don’t (yet) show that self-starter potential.