Lesson Number Two – Beware your Bias … (third in a series of 7).
Another great lesson from the Lewis & Clark Expedition is to see the impact their biases had on their ability to effectively achieve their mission goals.
As their expedition was coming together, and throughout the journey, Lewis and Clark did not often get what they were expecting. What were they expecting? It seems they expected to execute their mission with “clarity”. After all, their mission objectives were clear to them, they were educated gentlemen and capable military men. They had access to the best maps available! Beautiful, colorful maps labeled with lovely calligraphy made by respected European explorers of the day.
Jefferson, Lewis, and Clark also had ambition … in fact some level of Imperial ambition. The West, they thought, was theirs to conquer and to exploit. They had visions of capturing and dominating the fur trade and trade routes from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi. They thought they could give a few articles of clothing and some coins to the leaders of Native Indian tribes along the way and get them to pledge their loyalty to the President of the United States as their new “Great Father”.
Instead what Lewis and Clark found was a complete lack of clarity and lots of ambiguity! Every day they were encountering murky and complex events consisting of people, places, and things they had never before encountered or anticipated. And frequently, the ambiguity was an unwelcome discovery!
Grizzly Bear? … No Worries!
For example, Lewis was warned by the Indians to look out for grizzly bears. His journal entry on April 29, 1805 revealed his rather “cocky” perspective. “The Indians may well fear this animal…but in the hands of skillful riflemen (the bears) are by no means as formidable or dangerous as the Indians indicated.”
Less than a week later, Lewis’ journal entry of May 5, 1805 reveals a less cocky perspective. Clark and Drouillard killed a grizzly… “a most tremendous looking animal and extremely hard to kill notwithstanding he had five balls through his lungs and five others in various parts, he swam more than half the distance across the river to a sandbar (in pursuit of the shooters) & it was at least twenty minutes before he had died; he made the most tremendous roaring from the moment he was shot.” Clearly, the grizzly was more formidable and dangerous than Lewis thought!
Here are some other examples of bias shown by Lewis & Clark*:
– Selective – Geography of the West will be the same as the East
– Illusion of Control – The West is ours to take and conquer
– Anchoring – The Missouri River should be like the Ohio river
– Overconfidence – Prior Indian interaction prepares us for any future encounter
– Planning Fallacy – We can cross the Rocky Mountains in a week
– Regressive – Shoshone will be at the end of the Missouri and they’ll trade with us for horses
These examples and many more show that the judgement of Lewis and Clark was frequently impaired, putting themselves and their mission at considerable risk!
Another indication of the expedition coming to grips with complexity and ambiguity over the course of their journey is the massive expansion of their expedition goals. When the expedition was announced, there were five major goals. Once the expedition began, the documented goals ballooned to sixteen, and by the time they returned, they had multiplied to over sixty mission objectives!** I’ve experienced a bit of “scope creep” in my life but this is remarkable!
I’ve Been “Cocky” … Have You?
All of this reminded me of an experience earlier in my career working for a large office products company. We were on a mission to realize efficiencies and grow our brand by transitioning from a holding company to an operating company with standard processes and systems. We were excited about the market opportunities we would realize. Consolidating disparate sales and fulfillment entities spread across North America into a unified entity with standard processes and systems.
Everything looked clear! We would implement a brand new Oracle ERP and CRM solution to standardize our processes and support every part of the business. Like Meriwether Lewis, we did our homework in advance! We learned about all the software modules we would implement, we mapped out a plan and assembled a team to go execute.
No sooner had we started than we encountered things we hadn’t anticipated! Automating our business processes required more customization than we thought. Communication was challenging with our offshore team. Integration between modules that we assumed would be automatic did not exist. The project scope expanded and so did the timeline! Much like Lewis’ grizzly we had underestimated how formidable this project would be.
How to Avoid Bias
Think about it … we’ve all made it through situations that did not happen the way we expected. I think the key to altogether avoiding risky bias, or at least “making it through” instead of “stalling” in an enduring crisis, is to take on the mindset of being “attentive” instead of “attached”.
It’s easy to get attached to our ideas. After all, they are OUR ideas and we like to see ourselves as wise planners and predictors of how things “should go”. But when things don’t go as we imagined, we can either remain “attached” to our ideas or muster the courage to be “attentive”! We can be attentive to the input from other unbiased parties and design ways to get rapid feedback on our ideas! By doing this, we can learn what reality is teaching us that could be quite different than what we made up about reality.
It takes courage to admit and correct our mistakes, but the sooner we do, the sooner we can resume our journey of discovery, the further we’ll get, and the more impact we’ll have on the mission we are pursuing.
“Beware your Bias” is the second of Five Lessons about Courage that are as applicable for business leaders today as they were 200 years ago when they were first encountered and learned by the leaders of the Corps of Discovery. Here’s a recap of the five lessons:
- Start with Why
- Beware your Bias
- See your Guides
- Prize the Power of Good Books
- Find your North Star
Watch for my next post where we’ll discuss lesson number three – The Courage to See your Guides.
Plus, if you’ll follow me through the series, I’ll reveal a surprising sixth lesson that ties all the other ones together!
* Matthew Wells, Uncharted Leadership – Lewis and Clark in the Unknown – Obstacles to Effective Decision Making, May 2014, Slides 29-33 https://www.slideshare.net/MatthewWells3/uncharted-leadership-10
** Wells, Slides 41-42