• Scott McInnes

63 | Don't fall into a - heuristic - trap

When I interviewed Gavin Bate in episode 31 of the podcast, he talked for a while about heuristic traps - a term I'd never heard before but, when explained, made complete sense.

A bit of time spent on Google helped to paint some colour into the picture and start to create strong links between Gavin's experience of these traps and how they can apply in the workplace.

What are heuristic traps?

Heuristics are defined as the types of decision-making strategies (often thought of as 'rules of thumb') that simplify decision making by reducing the number of cues analysed, thus reducing the cognitive burden on decision makers and increasing decision efficiency.

Put simply, it's about your brain freeing itself up a bit for the big stuff by basing other (seemingly lesser) decisions on past memories and experiences.

So it's a good thing, right? Of course, you COULD look at it that way....

Heuristic traps and avalanches

Gavin talked about heuristic traps in the context of mountaineering - taking the same route or same actions because that's what you've always done. Effectively, as a leader in a situation you're on autopilot but, importantly, that means you aren't taking 'in-the-moment' feedback from the various cues that present themselves at that point in time.

It's the way you've always done it so logic suggests that, if it hasn't gone wrong before, it won't go wrong this time.

FACET - the seven heuristic traps

In fact it can. And it does because we fall into one of seven traps as identified by climber Ian McCammon when talking about his work on avalanche accidents. The issues he identified are as relevant in the office as they are in the mountains.

  • Familiarity: Our past actions guide our behaviour in a familiar setting. You’ve ridden this slope a dozen times and it’s never slid, so despite obvious avalanche warning signs, you ride it again this time. The same is true during change - not looking at today's context and only thinking about what's happened before can lead to poor decision making.

  • Acceptance: The tendency to engage in activities that we think will get us noticed or accepted by people we like or respect. You want to impress others in the group causing you to overlook warning signs. Likewise, it's easy to be blinded by the need to be recognised by peers or more senior colleagues in the business or in your particular sector

  • Consistency: After an initial decision about something, subsequent decisions are much easier if we maintain consistency with previous decisions. We've all heard people say 'We've started so we'll keep going' seemingly regardless of what else is happening

  • Expert Halo: Trusting an informal leader - of which there can be many in a business setting - who ends up making critical decisions for the group. He or she may not be an expert in the field or be best placed to make the best decision.

  • (First) Tracks: Referring to scarcity and the tendency to value resources or opportunities in proportion to the chance that you may lose them. This is called “powder fever” – wanting to ride untouched powder so badly that people ignore obvious avalanche warning signs. Again, for example, wanting to be the first to roll out a programme or make a particular change that's never been successfully made before may lead people to assume that all will be OK

  • Social Facilitation: The presence of other people enhances risk-taking by a subject. You see fresh tracks on the slope you want to ride, so even though avalanche danger is high, it must be safe, right? Similarly, we see projects and initiatives being rolled out in different sectors or companies within your own sector and, because they've done it, it's easy to assume that it's OK for you to do it too.

It's as relevant in the boardroom

Despite these traps being specifically identified in the world of climbing, it's not too much of a leap to see how they can foil leaders in business too.

Just remember that it's always worth mentally checking before making a decision - maybe use FACET as a checklist - to ensure that you're acting on the facts in front of you versus a set of facts that might have been true in the past.

And, of course, it'll also be of use any time you're around avalanche zones!


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