Innovation and Cognitive Biases: An Interview with Beth Storz

01/16/2017 09:12 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2018

I've long been a student of cognitive biases, a topic that I discovered as an undergraduate. It turns out that we're not nearly as good at making decisions as we think. We routinely fall victim to any number of issues that inhibit us from making "correct" decisions. Of course, only remembering what happened recently doesn't make us evil; it just makes us human.

Against this backdrop, I recently sat down with Beth Storz, President and innovation Process Consultant at Ideas To Go. Along with Adam Hansen and Ed Harrington, Storz is the co-author of the new book Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation Approach Drives Your Company Forward. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

PS: What was your motivation for writing this book?

BS: As innovation consultants, our job is to help our clients be more innovative. Once we connected the dots between behavioral science--particularly cognitive biases and how they impact innovation--I was fascinated to discover the influence our brains' cognitive biases have on day-to-day attempts at innovation. I wanted to get the word out and help people identify when and where these behaviors are happening, as well as provide tools and techniques to overcome them in order to become more innovative.

PS: Talk to me about the import of negativity bias. What is it and why is it so toxic?

BS: Negativity bias is one of the greatest enemies of innovative thinking. We humans are risk-averse and fear loss more than we appreciate gain. Research has shown that negative experiences, information, and even people have a stronger effect on us than positive ones. Because we're wired to focus on the negative more than the positive, our natural reaction when hearing new ideas, solutions, or concepts is to point out what's wrong with them and why they won't work. When it comes to innovation, negativity bias is toxic. New ideas are immediately shut down, even though there might have been something good about them or they could springboard to something exciting. But, once they're shut down, they're gone. Negativity bias leads people to gravitate toward the safer, less exciting ideas, which are less innovative.

PS: In the book you discuss an improv trick: Moving from "Yes, but..." to "Yes, and..." language. Why is this so important in business?

BS: The "yes, but" to "yes, and" improvisation demonstrates the impact of negativity bias. It shows how the impulse to lapse into judgment mode ("yes, but") kills off ideas before they can be sufficiently incubated. Instead, "yes, and" steers people to discovery mode, where they pull out the positives in an idea--what they're "for." From there, they go on to say what they "wish for" to make the idea better, which puts people in problem-solving mode. In an idea-generation session, or any meeting for that matter, it's important not to shoot down ideas without giving them a fair shake. In my experience, the best ideas often come from something that started out a bit bizarre.

PS: Talk to me about the importance of humility.

BS: Humility allows us to be self-aware. When we're humble, we're less likely to assume our way is the right way. It lets us become more open to other's ideas (and helps avoid negativity bias). Humility hopefully helps us curtail confirmation bias--when we only seek or pay attention to information that supports our point of view. Humility plays an important role in innovation because it shrinks the ego and makes room for ideas.