How Confirmation Bias Slows Down IT App Delivery

Image "the downside of yes"

"the downside of yes"

The New York Times recently posted an interesting puzzle that sheds light on a critical issue affecting businesses everywhere. Participants are presented with a simple sequence of three numbers. They are then asked to identify the rule that governs the sequence — in this case the three numbers increased in size from left to right — and test other sequences to see if they can figure out the rule.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Most people will focus on testing sequences they believe adhere to the rule, and will guess the answer before testing any non-conforming sequences. In fact, 80% of puzzle takers guessed before testing a single sequence that might break the rule — despite the lack of any penalty for doing so.

The reason behind this is confirmation bias. People have a built-in desire for “yes” over “no.”

“This puzzle exposes a particular kind of confirmation bias that bedevils companies, governments and people every day: the internal yes-man (and yes-woman) tendency. We’re much more likely to think about positive situations than negative ones, about why something might go right than wrong and about questions to which the answer is yes, not no,” according to the Times.

What does this have to do with IT app delivery? Glad you asked. At the Intuit QuickBase EMPOWER 2015 conference, I had the good fortune to interview John Rymer, Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research and a leading expert in app development and delivery models. Among other things, we discussed the demise of traditional IT app delivery.

“Traditional software delivery is breaking down, primarily because it’s just too slow to deliver,” Rymer told me. “If we’re going to spend six to twelve months to deliver an application, the world changes within that time. It’s just too slow to deliver.”

Moreover, the same kind of confirmation bias demonstrated by the Times puzzle is partly to blame, according to Rymer. Traditional app delivery requires IT to perfectly understand business requirements before starting on development. This is unrealistic, says Rymer.

“Part of the problem is that we have this fiction that we can somehow elicit specific requirements from our business partners and get a perfect list of exactly what they need. Then we’ll go away for six months and produce that exact software. That never happens because people don’t know exactly what they want and need, and they don’t know exactly what’s going to work. Traditional software delivery processes have no toleration for that at all. There’s no ability to stop and reset and say, ‘Hey, we thought we had this great idea but it really doesn’t work for the business so let’s drop back and make a change.'”

In other words, traditional IT app delivery is rife with assumptions that end up causing failed apps and wasted money. Confirmation bias creeps into this delivery process as IT develops for what it assumes the business needs and only tests to those (often false) assumptions. In other words, IT prioritizes “yes” when “no” would better benefit the user.

Delivering Apps Faster with Less Bias

Thankfully, some IT leaders are getting smarter about how they deliver apps. Instead of embarking on a huge requirements-gathering quest and coding in the dark for six months, a new breed of IT leadership has adopted concepts like agile development, continuous delivery, and rapid prototyping.

At Ceva Santé Animale, a global veterinary pharmaceutical company, CIO François Tricot uses Intuit QuickBase as a platform to rapidly develop applications that fit his users actual needs. Ceva’s internal app store includes more than 120 QuickBase apps, which can be customized and deployed quickly by IT. Apps that would require six months of development in a traditional IT organization can be delivered in a matter of days or weeks.

“QuickBase helps me deliver, in a matter of days or weeks, applications to users according to their needs. The classic development process takes about six months to finish anything, if not a year. If I do that, I lose my job because the users would not be happy with the service they’re getting from IT,” says Tricot.

At Ministry Health Care, CIO Will Weider also uses QuickBase as a rapid application development platform to deliver new apps to users, many of whom are empowered to customize their own apps after IT has delivered.

“We’re able to deliver solutions faster because we don’t have to stand up a server. We don’t have to order parts. We don’t have to go through a software selection process. We don’t have to do extended testing because we have new applications that we’ve never seen before. We have a platform that we can automatically add applications to in an instance. We’re confident in that platform. We’ve used it for thousands of different things. Essentially people can just go from the time they know they have a need for a solution and just take it and run with it. That’s how things have gone much faster,” says Weider.

Ultimately, rapid application development on a low-code platform is a way IT can mitigate the effects of confirmation bias. Users can be full participants in the design and prototyping of their own apps, removing the burden on IT to get to “yes” without all the information they need.

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