Change brings about the unknown, and the idea of not knowing brings about fear. The fear for change has had many executives dragging their feet or even digging in their heels when it comes to making bold changes. Just like a bad cycle, change causes fear, and fear stifles change. Everyone has fears, just like how everyone has their own cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases are like reflex action that occurs unconsciously. may impede the company’s growth and sustainability.

It is common for cognitive biases to occur when insufficient information is present. It also occurs when data is not being analyzed in a neutral manner. But as the saying goes, “To err is human”. We cannot escape the fact that people have their own set of belief and mental conflicts.

Why Design Thinking?

The core concept of Design Thinking is the “human-centered design”, whereby the User (i.e. the customer, client, etc) is placed in the center of attention. It starts by considering the desirability of the Users, taking into account the needs of the User.

In the case of an organization, Design Thinking requires the organization to view itself as an assembly of people. Not just people within an organization, but also the extended parties such as the end users, suppliers, stakeholders, shareholders and more. And that human beings are “an entity of cells filled with emotions” further pushes the need to see the emotional aspect (i.e. feelings, motivation, etc).

So, how can Design Thinking help organizations make better decision?

Design Thinking course offered at the Nagaoka University of Technology

Admitting that everybody has cognitive biases

The first step to “recovery” is always by realizing and admitting that one has cognitive biases, whether it is a conscious or an unconscious one. And usually, it is the unconscious ones that are more dangerous because one does not realize it.

According to the University of California, San Francisco, unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values. Certain scenarios can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs. For example, biases may be more prevalent when multi-tasking or working under time pressure.

Knowing that biases becomes more prevalent under stress, one has to then take the next step:

Identify the Biases

When groups of people are involved in creating solutions or coming up with suggestions, biases could happen in different ways. Here are some of the examples of common biases

  • The Bandwagon Effect (Herd Mentality
Herd Mentality. Illustration by Michelle Lim

A type of cognitive biases causing people to think or act in a certain way because they believe others are doing the same.

In group-led problem solving with the lack of centralized coordination, it is difficult to avoid falling into groupthink, whereby individuals strive for thought conformity within the group. As the Japanese saying goes, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered”, people may choose to blend in, so they do not stand out. It also happens when one makes decision in reliance on another person’s judgment. It is always the desire of people to “bet on the winning horse”.

Think food reviews on the internet. Those with higher ratings usually see an increase in customers. People also tend to trust people more (truth bias).

Related to: Truth bias, emotional bias, social bias, heuristic simplification

  • Confirmation Bias
Confirmation Bias. Illustration by Bennett via mappingignorance.org

When one becomes attached to one’s belief, the tendency to search for facts and information that further corroborates the belief increases. Two simple explanation to why people experience confirmation bias are: (1) People don’t want to know they are wrong; and (2) People want to know that they are right. It plays into people’s desire to minimize cognitive dissonance (i.e. inconsistency in thoughts, beliefs or attitudes).

  • The IKEA Effect
Ikea Effect. Illustration by Gabriel Krieshok via everydayconcepts.io

A bias that makes one place higher value on things one help to create.

While this bias could contribute to an increase in motivation of the people who were involved in creating (e.g. department goals, SOPs, etc), it could swing the other way into sunk cost fallacy because they are not able to part with something just because they have invested too much resources (e.g. time, money, effort, etc). What’s worse in a design thinking process? People becoming too attached to their ideas that they stop listening to others.

  • Functional Fixedness
Functional Fixedness. Image via thetechrabbi.com

Imagine not being able to see beyond what’s presented. Functional fixedness is the inability to imagine other functions or uses of a particular thing other than the way it is intended. Being too specialized in something might create silos that prevent cross-functional exchange of ideas and best practices.

How Design Thinking helps?

“Fail fast, fail often” is a phrase used often by design thinkers. Dan Pontefract, a Canadian businessman and writer said, “the real aim of ‘fail fast, fail often’ is not to fail, but to be iterative. To succeed, we must be open to failure – sure – but the intention is to ensure we are learning from our mistakes as we tweak, reset, and then redo if necessary.”

Failure in Design Thinking is seen as something positive. The team would take time to convene and discuss the points of failure, the reasons and to make important changes to better the idea. Learning from failure instead of penalizing people for it is a great way to overcome confirmation bias. The idea of deferring judgment and staying on topic (i.e. focusing on the problem to be resolved, rather than the character of the person) helps.

It is realities like the challenge for a junior employee to disagree with the boss or people with a higher position or asking soft-spoken people to voice their opinion in a room filled with extroverted people that complicate matters more, bringing about the problem of “groupthink”. But there is a solution: using the “brainthinking” technique instead of “brainstorming”.

By “brainthinking”, the bandwagon effect could also be minimized when every individual is given the chance to make their own decision quietly instead of hearing the thoughts of others.

There is no reward in going through the entire process carefully to create a perfect prototype but starting off on the wrong hypothesis. By rapid prototyping and testing, one can ascertain if they are on the right track or not. In a way, one is pushing the failure point earlier, instead of only noticing the flaw at the end stage.

The opposite to Functional Fixedness is the attempt to search for novel methods or approaches. In order to come up with new ideas, one has to have a fresh set of eyes.

The Secret to Success

It is indeed nice to have a fail-proof way to succeed. But as with life, one only gets better at something through a lot of practice and “enlightened trial-and-error”.

There is no secret to success with Design Thinking. Do a quick search on the internet and one would stumble across videos and articles on how Design Thinking has failed them or did not work. But as with many failures, there are also many success stories of hoe Design Thinking has helped companies to innovate.

The choice is in your hands.­­­


If you are a student at the Nagaoka University of Technology (NUT), do consider enrolling in the Design Thinking course offered in the Summer (May 2020) onwards.

Michelle Lim

Michelle Lim

Creative Consultant, JCE Japan Creative Enterprise