Solutions, Costs and Confirmation Bias

It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I guess it can also be said that the best solution is also in the eye of the beholder. It probably also depends on who you ask. The problem is that the best solution depends on the relative criteria associated with the issue that requires a solution. It also depends on the lens that each individual looks through when they are trying to craft a solution.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who was most notably remembered for his ideas on the hierarchy of human needs. That in and of itself is pretty cool in my book, but that is not why I am citing him here. He also said:

“if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

and variants thereof, which is from Maslow’s The Psychology of Science, published in 1966.

And here-in lies the issue.

What seems to occur is that if you are trained as a lawyer, you are taught to view every issue from a legal standpoint. If you are a marketer, you view every issue from a marketing point of view. If you are in finance it is always about money. The view you have of business influences the view you have of issues and their respective best solutions. And so on.

This is absolutely the case for engineers. It seems that if you are an engineer, everything is an engineering problem, and therefore an elegant engineering solution is probably not only possible, it is highly desirable. For engineers, it doesn’t seem to matter what the specific issue criteria are. Topics such as cost and time required take a back seat when it comes to engineers. It always comes back to engineering the best engineering solution.

For those of you (like me) who are not engineers, and who have argued with engineers in the past, you will probably very clearly understand the following. For those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to argue with an engineer, be patient. I am sure that you will get your opportunity to argue with one in the near future.

There is an old saying regarding arguing with engineers. It is so old that no matter how I researched it (two or three variants of searches on Google) I could not find any direct attribution as to the original author. The saying goes:

“Arguing with an engineer is a lot like wrestling with a pig in the mud. After a while you realize that the pig is enjoying it.”

But I have digressed enough. With the possible exception of noting that engineers are usually much more associated with costs than sales. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The point that I am trying to make here in my own clumsy way, is to point out that regardless of what the defined criteria may be regarding an issue’s potential solutions, we all have a bias as to how we would go about creating our best solution. This type of bias has a specific psychological name: confirmation bias.

Between my earlier discussions regarding Maslow, and now confirmation bias, I seem to have taken on quite a psychological bent here.

Shahram Heshmat (Ph.D.) in his blog states confirmation bias occurs when we have formed a view on a topic, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions. (

I brought this idea up to an engineering friend of mine. He said every problem should be viewed as an engineering problem, and started arguing with me again. Having just cleaned the mud off from the last time, I didn’t engage.

Confirmation bias is an interesting topic when it comes to management, leadership, and issues. This is especially true when it comes to looking at two very important aspects of any business: sales and costs. I will hedge my comments here with the qualifier “for the most part” in that there are definitely exceptions to every generalization. But for argument’s sake, I will go ahead and generalize a little.

When it comes to setting sales targets, who sets the goals?

Those of you that said sales are wrong.

Management usually sets the sales goals. They ask for bottoms up forecasts and expectations from the sales teams, which they will usually review and find lacking in that they do not meet the financial and or growth expectations for the company. They will then ratchet up the targets to be more in line with the company’s needs and requirements, and issue them to the sales team to achieve.

The confirmation bias here is that management believes and expects that sales will provide them with a lower set of sales forecast targets because it provides the sales team a higher probability of achieving those targets. When sale provides a forecast, regardless of its veracity, that is lower than management expectations, this bias is confirmed.

I really don’t think I have ever been part of an organization where the sales team ever provided a sales forecast which was greater than management expectations. Perhaps my own confirmation bias is that management sales expectations will always exceed the sales team’s expectations, regardless of the market conditions.

On the other side of the spectrum lie costs. When it comes to setting costs, it is usually engineers that set them. While there is usually a similar process of setting up costs and budgets associated with products and services (I am not going to look at specific disciplines or functional groups here, just the costs associated with deliverable products and services) where the cost groups (usually containing at least some engineers) are consulted regarding their input into the costing model.

Herein is where the processes begin to diverge. Management has the ability and bias to step in and alter or impose their sales demands on the sales experts, but does not have nearly the same inclination to alter or impose their wills on the cost experts and groups.

Their confirmation bias is that the cost groups are doing their very best to keep costs low, even though the cost group has the same rationale as the sales group when it comes to setting targets. Higher cost targets for the cost group are obviously much easier to achieve than lower cost targets.

The resulting higher costs drive higher prices and a sales team that is invariably told to “sell value, not price”.

This may have been an acceptable mantra when there was discernable value (and price) differences associated with products and services. In some instances, there still may be, but the race to the bottom regarding minimally acceptable product quality and service levels at the lowest compliant price seems to have mitigated all but the basic pricing and functionality topics as differentiators.

Customers do not particularly care what a supplier of products or services costs are. They care about the supplier’s price. And quality. In that order.

A colleague of mine mentioned that the incentives and commissions associated with sales incite the striving behaviors associated with good sales teams, while there is no similar incentive plan in place to incite a similar striving approach to reducing cost budgets for the cost groups. Sales teams make at least partial commissions, proportional to their sales target achievement, even if they don’t fully meet their sales objectives.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the compensation plans associated with the cost teams so that they more accurately reflect the need for continued cost budget reduction instead of the current cost budget achievement structure.

Nominally the market sets the price for a good or service. The market is made up of customers. Even Apple with its ubiquitous iPhone faces market challenges from the likes of Samsung, LG and other smartphone producers. If Apple raises its price too high they risk losing share, and profitability to competitors.

Apple is immensely profitable. They are also a veritable tyrannosaur when it comes to working and controlling their costs. If you don’t believe me, try becoming one of their suppliers and selling them something. I have been a part of organizations that have done this. It can be a challenge, to put it politely.

It would seem that Apple’s culture may have evolved out beyond the confirmation bias dichotomy associated with sales and costs to the point where they continue to challenge themselves with respect to their cost structures, and engineering solutions. They seem to have created a market cache, expectation and demand that may have enabled them to restructure their cost model focus in order to maximize their profits.

That is truly speculation on my part, but it is a theory that would seem to be supported by the empirical observations of them in the market.

Companies that are looking to maximize their profit potential probably need to do a little internal analysis to understand their own costing processes and capabilities. There are many that are still looking at them from a bottom up, confirmation bias based point of view. Apple has recognized that their costs and their product price really have very little relationship and should be treated as almost totally unrelated items.

This approach would allow product and service providers to focus on their sales strategies and their costs strategies in separate, but similar ways. It would seem that the best solution has proven to be to engineer your products and services, not your costs, and instead to treat your costs with the same type of aggressive objective setting that you treat your sales.

Don’t Do Your Job

Although we all like to think of ourselves and our careers as fully and totally unique, I think there are some experiences that we have all probably gone through, to one degree or another, that are probably somewhat similar. It is how we react and respond to these experiences that creates the differences in careers and career trajectories. As I think back on all the roles I have had in the same organizations as well as in new or different ones, I think of one thing that pretty much all of them had in common. They all had a specific job description.

They didn’t all have the same job description. Each role had a somewhat different or unique job description. It was usually that job description that helped the then hiring manager define the combination of experiences, traits and capabilities that led them to choosing me to fill that role. I think it’s probably the same for just about everyone else who doesn’t have some sort of genetic or familial tie to also trade upon in the organizational world.

I think we can all remember those first days in a new position (any new position) where the first thing you do is try to ascertain both what is expected of us and what we will be reviewed and rated on. This is only natural. We all want to do what is expected of us. We want to have objectives to work toward and be measured against. We like to know what we have to do to get ahead.

We then dig in and go on our merry way in trying to achieve or even possibly exceed our goals.

The end.

When review time comes around we are then tasked with the objective of trying to define whether we exceeded our goals in such a way as to merit an excellent “super-star” status (or some such similar ordinal ranking), or just merely a good, exceeded what was expected. Was it really an “exceed” or was it just in reality a “strong achieved”. Did the objective get achieved, or could it in reality have been done better.

It seemed what was once a defined and specific object has now turned out to be open to some interpretation, as it were.

Then there is the ever-present worry regarding whether the ratings that are being discussed are a true reflection of actual individual performance, or is it influenced by, or the result of the organization’s requirement that only certain percentages of the organizational populace can and must fall into certain ranking categories. The dreaded forced rank stacking.

This sort of ranking has been put in place to make sure that managers don’t neglect their responsibility to differentiate employee performance. Instead of having real, and sometimes difficult discussions with their individual team members, some managers have been known to give everyone a “good” rating, regardless of organizational performance.

It’s sort of like this grade inflation thing that everyone seems to be talking about in schools these days. I still don’t understand how you can do better than a 4.0 (straight “A’s”), but apparently, it is possible.

This employee ranking and review is also a good thing in that even outstanding organizations probably have some team members that could benefit in some areas by increased focus, and poorly performing organizations probably have some team members that have performed above and beyond the call.

What this has all led up to, and the point I am trying to make is that when you follow a job description and just do your job, it becomes a question of relative ratings when it comes to reviewing your performance. There is a certain amount of qualitative that inevitably seeps into the quantitative review.

Contrary to what you might think, in this age where the “process” has taken on ever increasing importance, where you would probably think that as a result the quantitative aspects of performance review would be at their strongest, the qualitative aspect of reviews has probably increased.

Think about that for a minute.

As processes continue to ever more granularly define roles, jobs, and their inputs and outputs, the ability to differentiate performance among similarly defined jobs, at least at the high level, becomes smaller. It can almost come down to interpersonal and soft skills as one of the differentiators between similar performers.

Now think back for a minute about that last statement. Have you ever seen that occur?

So, what do you do when just doing your job leaves you open to these types of performance interpretation vagaries?

Don’t just do your job.

Just doing your job is the easy thing to do. You have a job description. You were probably selected because your experiences and abilities matched that job description in such a way that there was a perceived high probability that you would be able to perform the tasks that were outlined in that job description. That was what made you uniquely qualified to fill that role. You were the chosen one.

Don’t flatter yourself.

There are a significant number of people in any organization that can perform any and each specific role in that organization. You may have been selected for that new role, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t anyone else around that could do it. Chances are that there were several candidates for that role, and from them they selected you.

I have had it explained to me in a couple of ways, that I will share. The first was that in business, all candidates that make it to the interview portion of the job search are judged to have all the requisite technical and experiential capabilities for the role. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be called in to talk. All candidates enter the interview process as relative equals. It will be their soft skills demonstrated in the interview(s) that differentiate them.

Remember what I said about soft skills and reviews earlier?

The next is that if we each are truly “one in a million” as the old saying goes, and there is in fact close to eight billion people on the planet, then there are at least eight thousand people that are like each one of us.

There are a lot of people that can fulfill each and every job description.

I guess the point I am making is that the job description is the table stakes in the game. It is going to be what you do above and beyond that job description that sets you apart. Performing against only that job description, regardless of how well you feel you have, or even how well you may be able to demonstrate you have, still puts you somewhere on the “achieved” continuum when it comes review time. You are demonstrating that this is the role or job that you can do and no more.

Regardless of how well things were going, every role that I have been in had facets or areas that could be improved. Sometimes these opportunities for improvement were within my defined responsibility, but many times they were not.

This is where for leaders; the process focus must change. There must always be a bigger picture view that the leader must hold, and be able to rationalize against the more detailed and specific needs of the business. It is not enough to just do your job and fulfill a job description.

You have to recognize on the larger level what needs to be done, and then chart the way to do it. What needs to be done may not reside in your job description. It may not be within the realm of your responsibilities. It may not be immediately obvious and may take time to identify.

The issues that are causing the business issues will however become clearer for you as you perform the tasks that are expected of you. It will not be so much the identification of these business issues that will set you apart. Chances are that the issues are already very well known. It will be identifying the causes of these issues, and the resulting solution that you create (and potentially implement) that will be what sets you apart. Remember what I said earlier about how we react and respond to these issues will define careers and career trajectories?

Again, in short, it will not be doing what is expected of you via fulfilling your job description and objectives that will enable you to continue to move forward. It will be doing the unexpected. It will be questioning some of the basic business assumptions that “everybody knows are correct” and creating a new model. It will be questioning and causing issues as people are challenged by you to move out of their comfort zones.

It will be looking at old problems through the new eyes of someone coming into a new position. New employees in new positions are not yet beholding to the status quo. They have not yet become stakeholders in the existing process. It will be those who are not content to do their job that see the answers to questions, many of which may not have even been asked, and identify the new ways to move forward.

It is not how well you do what you are supposed to do that sets you apart from everyone else. It will be how well you do what you are not expected to do that will differentiate you. It will be important to don’t do just your job if you are to get ahead.


Automation used to be a word that was welcomed into business. Back then we were a disconnected, manual world. If you needed to get more things done, or if you were growing, you had to go get more people to help meet the demand. There was a time that I remember seeing competitors driving advertising trucks around the outside of our business campus in an effort to lure our employees away to meet their growing demands.

But times have changed.

It’s fashionable to discuss off-shoring and out-sourcing when companies now reduce their staffs, but the force that is now causing the largest reduction in demand for employees is automation.

It has been easy to look at China, or any other relatively low wage country and discuss the economics associated with moving production and manufacturing to those locations. It is a very easy way to reduce the cost of labor associated with that production. I have discussed it in the past. We all can probably name several companies that we are aware of that have taken advantage of the economic model.

But do you know what is even cheaper than paying people less in low cost countries to manufacture goods that used to be manufactured in relatively higher wage countries? It’s really a simple answer.

Not paying anyone to manufacture your products.

From 2007 to 2013 manufacturing in the US actually grew about 2.2% per year (~17.6% total), however the number of manufacturing jobs fell. Approximately 13% of those job losses came from off-shoring. More than 87% of the job losses came from automation. (

Now let’s fast forward only a few years. When you hear the word “automation” it can strike fear in the heart of anyone who is currently working. The active word in that last sentence is “currently”. And it is not restricted to just those in production or manufacturing based positions.
As I have also noted in the past, business and organizations continually try to apply those successful approaches used in the reduction of costs associated with production and manufacturing, to other disciplines in the organization. An example of this is where once only manufacturing were outsourced, so now are other disciplines such as finance, accounting and human resources.

So how does this trend affect automation?

The same rules of organizational cost reduction are going to apply. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has recently released a study that is predicting that up to 38% of all jobs in the US are at risk for being replaced by automation in the next 15 years. These are not just manufacturing sector positions. They also predict the finance, transportation, education, and food services sectors are also going to be significantly affected. (

In case you missed it, that means that automation isn’t just for manufacturing anymore.

Just about any position that has any sort of a repetitive nature to it can and probably will be a candidate for automation. It is predicted that many of the first positions to go will be those focused on the consumer sector. The continued automation of teller based functions will further reduce the number of people in your local bank. Baristas at the local coffee house may also be endangered. How repetitive is it to take an order for a fixed set of options and then write a name on a plastic cup? If there are relatively similar activities being repeated, the function will be looked at for automation.

Look what Amazon has done to the previously brick and mortar based appliance product purchase process. What was once a trip to the store where you dealt with sales associates and waited downstairs for them to bring out your purchase, is now an online search for the best price, the tapping of a few keys and then answering the door when they deliver your purchase, in some instances in as little as one day.

Of course these trends will be somewhat balanced by many consumer’s distaste for dealing with systems instead of people. But even that is changing. Each new generation of consumer has less and less of a tie to the human touch and is more technically savvy than the previous. And even the preceding generations learn the value, simplicity, speed and most importantly the economic benefit to their own personal finances of the new automated model.

Amazon has been successful not only because they have worked to improve the shopping and purchase experiences. They have been successful because they have also reduced the customer’s cost and simplified their search. No more driving around, visiting stores and malls and looking for a sales clerk to answer your questions and wondering if what you want is still in stock.

If you don’t believe that this is the case, the current number of retail stores that have announced they will be closing starting in 2017 now stands at over 4,500.

These are also concepts that will be applied to organizations and business to business commerce.

However, as noted above, I think they will be primarily focused in internal corporate activities, instead of any functions that deal with corporate customers. I have already noted customers distaste for not being able to deal with and have direct human interaction when it comes to their requests for support when they have an issue. I think we could expect an even stronger reaction if corporate customers were asked to interface with a machine for their complex equipment and service needs.

I would also expect even this type of resistance to reduce in the future as each successively tech comfortable generation matriculates up through management to positions with purchase decision responsibility.

The drive for automation within corporations and businesses has started with the internal functions. Just as the automation of spreadsheets reduced the need for the number of accountants in business, so is the drive for on-line processes, tools and tracking systems reducing the need for the number of other types of support staff.

As processes continue to be implemented and refined, and as tools for the tracking of work continue to expand and go on-line, the business environment becomes ripe for automation. Sales opportunities are now tracked from suspect to prospect to bid to contract to implementation in on-line tools. How much data resides in that tool that can be automatically reviewed, with the generation of sales forecasts, booking reports and expected profitability projections made available with just a few key strokes.

Costs are likewise automatically tracked via on-line time charging and the utilization of already automated production and shipping capabilities. How much easier will it then be to generate booking, shipping, revenue and profitability reports.

People in these support and accounting roles who have up to now been providing these periodic reports and functions need to be aware of which way the automated wind is blowing.

So where does that leave us?

First I think everyone is going to need to “up their game”. People are going to have to get reacquainted with the risk-reward scenario. The relatively safer “support” type roles are going to get squeezed almost out of existence. You are going to have to be able to “do” something, not just support the people who actually are doing something.

It is always the “new” or next great thing that is prized in business. People will have to relearn that following the past methods of success will not now provide them with success. They will have to get used to looking forward and trying to predict what will be needed and then trying to move in that direction instead of relying on what was once needed. The creative spark will need to be reignited in all workers as those who wait to be told what they need to do will probably be automated (or off-shored) out of their current roles.

Everyone will truly have to get used to and good at selling. Selling their products, their services, their vision, their ideas, their value, their future. It will probably not be good enough to align with and support someone else who is able to do this.

Everyone will also have to get good at delivering. Customers will want their solutions in ever shorter time frames. Look at how Amazon is driving toward same day – immediate gratification – delivery for their customers. Customers will be defined as those that use your particular service or value. That means that they can be internal to the organization, external to the organization or both.

And value will not be a report. It will have to be more along the lines of an idea, or the fulfillment of an idea.

Automation is coming. The capability to automate will only continue to expand. However, it will be the ability to generate ideas and conceptualize that will be the most difficult to automate (if ever) and will hence increase in value. The person who can think of new ways of doing things will increase in value.

It will also be the person who can actually deliver and implement the products, services and processes of the future who will also be in demand. As I said, it will be those that are able to “do” things as opposed to those that enable others to “do” things that will be in demand in the future.

I guess it has always been that way to some extent, except with automation the gulf between the two will become that much greater.