Do you want it to be true so badly that you sink the ship? In this Tough Things First podcast, Ray Zinn explores the truth behind one of techs greatest blind spots.
Rob Artigo: I’m Rob Artigo, your guest host for this edition of the Tough Things First podcast with Ray Zinn, the longest serving CEO in Silicon Valley. Hello, Ray.
Ray Zinn: Hi Rob. Boy, so nice to be with you again today.
Rob Artigo: Well, Ray, I’ve got a good subject here, because it’s one of those buzzword types of subjects. Because we always have buzzwords these days, and confirmation bias is one that has come up in conversation in the business world for me frequently, recently. The definition that I found for confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
So in my mind, that means that it’s when you grasp onto those elements that prove your original idea and discount those things that disprove, like surrounding yourself with people who say, “Yeah, that’s good, that’s good, that’s good,” and they’re not really being honest about it. But you get a lot out of it because you’re like, “Hey, this is great,” but it’s not necessarily true. Have you seen this kind of thing occur in the creative environment of research and development?
Ray Zinn: Absolutely. This is kind of the NIH concept, not invented here. You always think that your idea is the best idea, or when you first get the first evidence you have that something is been true that you found to be true, then you don’t look outside of it. It’s kind of like that flat Earth theory.
For those of you who aren’t knowledgeable about geography, back in the day of Columbus, they believed the Earth was flat and you couldn’t convince them otherwise. In fact, my son tells me that there’s still people who believe in the flat Earth theory, that the earth is not round. It’s flat.
And so that’s that NIH, or that you have this preconceived idea of what something is and you won’t look at any other evidence. “Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind’s made up already.” And so the flat Earth theory versus a round, spherical Earth is one that I bring to mind that people can understand, that you have this belief and you refuse to get off of it. We see a lot of it in this green, this world heating up, and there are oceans boiling and whatnot. There’s a lot of controversy in this green deal where we feel Earth is only going to live another few years and is going to disappear or something, and so it’s kind of like that.
If you’ve got this religious belief of a particular concept or idea, flat Earth or spherical Earth or whatever, or green Earth or green this or that, the global warming, it is hard to get off of it, because that’s that confirmation bias that we’re… In other words, you want to believe for some reason, whether you want to believe that the Earth is warming up, because it matches what your belief is.
Rob Artigo: Yeah. And I was watching something the other day on television on, I think it’s called American Greed, but it’s where they talk about these huge scams and whatnot. And I saw one about the Nikola electric semi-truck, the fuel cell electric semi-truck, and they had built a truck that the CEO or the guy who created the company tried to pass himself off as the Elon Musk of electric or alternative fuel semi-trucks. And the big thing was that he put this truck, this semi-tractor on display and he said, “Look at all the gadgets. Come in. Look at it. This thing, this is a running, working truck,” and he really just had the thing wired in through the floor and it was being run off of, plugged into the wall somewhere.
Ray Zinn: Well, it’s the same thing with that Theranos, with Elizabeth Holmes, that blood sampling machine.
Rob Artigo: Right.
Ray Zinn: She was so convinced that it could be done, and I believe she really thought it could be done. It’s just that it wasn’t done before. She actually was out raising money, raised like $835 million, and she had a number of real key people on her board, like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz and people like that. And so she had convinced a lot of really bright people that this was possible, but she start promoting this machine before she actually developed the methodology to do the blood workup that was necessary to be accurate and correct.
She probably believed in it, but again, she wasn’t able to get it to work. And so at some point, people started looking into the original concept of it and said, “Wait a minute. This is not going to work.” Of course, now she’s been convicted and she’s probably going to prison.
Rob Artigo: Yeah. And Ray, by that point, they’ve already lost their investment, their original investment. And I think the thing is, is that because of confirmation bias, people will, because they want it to be true so badly, they’re willing to be blind to the red flags.
Ray Zinn: Well, that’s that confirmation bias thing, where you want something to happen so bad that you’re unwilling to look at other aspects. Could be a marriage. Maybe you want your marriage to work so well that you don’t notice the red flags that are coming up in your marriage and therefore, you got this confirmation bias that he brought you home flowers one night and so, “Oh, my marriage is solid.” Well, that’s just a fluff. That doesn’t mean your marriage is solid just because he brought you home flowers one night or vice versa.
So again, this confirmation bias is something that we really have to take a look at. You have to be willing to question things. As you would look at alternatives, look at, “What is my bias?” And in fact, we all need to do that. We all need to say, “What kind of biases do we have that prevent us from being truthful?” And that’s what we’re talking about in this podcast.
Rob Artigo: Yeah. I mean, we can make a list. The question that I really want to pose here is when you’re managing a team that’s involved in R&D, your job, your profit going forward, lots of things rely on continuing to have forward momentum in research and development and making things new and better, and improving on old products or creating new ones. But how, in that environment, Ray, do I encourage my team to avoid falling into the trap of confirmation bias?
Ray Zinn: That’s exactly what we’re talking about is questioning everything, not just believing the first thing you see. “My husband brought me home flowers, so therefore, my marriage is solid.” You need to work on it all the time, questioning some of the data you have, making sure that your data is correct. The worst thing you can do as a golfer is get a hole in one in the first tee-off, because then you think you’re indefensible and you’re such a great golfer. And so we want to make sure that just because something worked right the first time and this time, doesn’t mean it’s going to be that way every time. Again, just because your husband brought you home flowers, doesn’t mean your marriage is solid.
Rob Artigo: Right. And just because you have a couple of bucks in the bank, doesn’t mean your finances are solid. You got to have good footing, and the idea behind managing teams is really to help them be creative. You had this one, when somebody brought a product to you at Micrell, you said, “Hey, what are the potential negatives here? And I want to see a list of those negatives.”
Ray Zinn: Exactly.
Rob Artigo: And they tended to give short shrift to the negatives because they want their product to be successful, but you said, “Go back and check.” That’s one thing you can do. But we in smaller teams, can’t we encourage our folks in the smaller teams to spend a little time just writing down a list of those things that they can bring back to the group that are the negatives?
Ray Zinn: Yeah, that’s the whole concept of this having equal number of cons that you do pros. If you have nothing but pros for doing something, then you just aren’t looking at your project well enough, so you want to have equal number of cons. It means that you’ve looked at all of the negatives. I get a kick out of sometimes, what we call PDPs that we had, product definition proposal, that it was interesting just to read some of their cons, their reason why their project wasn’t a good one, because they were nonsensical. It’s almost hilarious to read the cons more than the pros, because you can see where their bias is, because their cons really aren’t cons. They make them almost sound like pros. So again, you want equal number of valid cons as you do pros.
Rob Artigo: Yeah. Well, Ray, appreciate the conversation. Again, this is one of those things I think that will be a very popular podcast, because the idea of confirmation bias is something that comes up in the business world, and we all know that we want our products and our businesses to be successful. So it’s super easy to sit back and say, “Oh…” Again, I go back to the yes man. We know that people will surround themselves with people who will just validate everything they do without worry about the consequences, because they just want to continue to validate that person’s stuff.
Ray Zinn: Exactly. Yeah.
Rob Artigo: Well, this is a fast-growing podcast and we enjoy having everyone listening here at Tough Things First, and joining Ray and collecting some great wisdom every week, every two weeks on the podcast. So please make sure that you are going to wherever you’re listening to this podcast now, rate the podcast, get involved. If you want to talk to Ray, you want to send him a message, you can do that by going to toughthingsfirst.com and leave a message there. Ray does read the messages.
Also, if you haven’t yet picked up Tough Things first, the book, make sure you do that, because it’s really, if you’ve got that book in your hand and you’ve gone through that, then you’re continuing that education. You’re making yourself a better business leader. You’re making yourself a better developer of products, which we’ve talked about here. You’re going to find yourself not being drawn into confirmation bias. You’re not going to be involved in frivolous activities.
You’re going to be able to focus your business mind on the success of your business and profitability, which is what Ray’s all about here at Tough Things First, and helping you also navigate life in so many ways. Which is why the other books, Zen of Zinn One, Two, and Three will help you out with some daily affirmations and some great thoughts that you can make sure you put yourself in the right frame of mind every day. Looking forward to the next time, Ray.
Ray Zinn: Thanks, Rob. Appreciate your time.