In the past five months or so, I have been in on-again, off-again negotiations with a prospective client to participate in fairly large-scale organizational transformation initiative. The engagement would involve coaching, mentoring, training, consulting with management, travel to interesting cities, the chance to introduce effective methods to some 1,200 people, and the opportunity to work closely with some of the top people in the field. The agreed daily rate was just sufficient to cover expenses in the pricey home city of New York and still provide nominal income. Everyone involved was enthusiastic. We signed. I started to outlay cash to arrange for housing, and purchased the initial airline ticket.
With less than 24 hours remaining until flight time, a new manager took over at the client company. He abruptly terminated the entire organizational improvement initiative and all associated contracts.
This sort of thing happens from time to time. It isn’t the sudden reversal that caught my attention. Something else about the situation piqued my curiosity. It has nothing to do with the client, although one might justifiably question their handling of the matter. It has to do with the way I arrived at the decision to accept the engagement.
In weighing the pros and cons of the opportunity, I thought I had considered the facts carefully and objectively. Yet, somewhere in the back of my mind there was a lingering doubt. I never felt excited about it; never felt that sense of anticipation that normally comes when I’m about to start on a new engagement. It was as if something, somewhere deep inside knew it wasn’t going to be real, even with a signed contract in hand. My conscious mind did not acknowledge my intuition; as far as it could tell, everything was in order. I did not trust my gut.
What was going on? My intuition and my analysis were at odds. Had I fallen prey to attentional bias? That’s the cognitive bias in which we selectively pay attention to the facts that support the conclusion we wish to reach. All the positive characteristics of the engagement add up to a relatively rare sort of opportunity. The strong management support, the sheer scale of the improvement initiative, and the quality of the people involved were compelling. Perhaps they were too compelling. Perhaps my judgment was clouded.
There must have been clues in the situation that pointed to the potential for a negative outcome. Maybe I could see those clues, and chose not to look at them. Maybe my brain was trying to tell me to pay attention. In hindsight, it seems clear enough that the people setting up the initiative didn’t seem to be very well organized. Why did I not heed the warning signs that surely must have been evident?
The question that comes to mind is this: Is it possible that intuition or gut feel or hunches are a signal that we are not paying attention to the right information in our conscious analysis of a situation? Can we train our minds to be alert to those signals and to interpret them correctly? Might this be a key to avoiding the trap of cognitive bias?