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Belief Challenging

This is a tool for challenging existing, often implicit, beliefs and arrive at better pivot/persevere decisions when evaluating existing product investments (projects, features, etc…)


Why do I need this tool?

We are all subject to cognitive biases. When we work together in groups, these biases become more pronounced and unfortunately, as individuals, we cannot ‘de-bias’ ourselves or mitigate the effects - but we can mitigate the impact of biases in teams.

This tool is specifically designed to combat biases impacting portfolio management; that is, the reasons we tend to start or stop things too early or too late. With this method, we don’t focus on the investments themselves - we focus on the why behind the investments. We focus on challenging the foundation that drives these investment decisions.

What will this tool help me do?

This tool will help your team remove the blinders of status quo bias and avoid escalations of commitment. It will click a proverbial reset button on the beliefs and assumptions that led to your current state and provide a framework for challenging them.

This concept of ‘challenging’ beliefs is strongest when it’s incorporated into planning cadences. It will help your team have hard conversations about where you have been, where you are now, and where you are going without directly challenging pet projects or bruising egos.

When should I use this tool?

Incorporate this tool into your planning cadence. These will be helpful when having conversations around ‘what should we start, stop, or keep moving forward with?’ (Pivot/Persevere Decisions)

In ad hoc situations, use this tool when it feels like the team is stuck working on projects only because they have to - when it feels like the only outcome is just ‘getting it done’. In these situations, this tool may be helpful in clearing the gridlock and opening capacity by making it clear what investments are no longer viable.

Steps and Instructions

What you will need

  • The right group of people (see ‘Gather the team’ below)
  • The right context: There needs to be a clear context. What are you making decisions around? Typically this is something like a product, a campaign, or a company policy (e.g. work from home)
  • The investments and their timeframes: What are you doing now? What are you actively not doing now?

Gather the team

  1. Assign a moderator: The moderator should be someone who does not have a vested interest in the outcome - typically meaning they don’t own any of the projects, features, etc…
  2. Identify who will be part of this exercise: This would typically include anyone who owns or is supporting anything in the portfolio - e.g. product managers, engineering leadership, designer, marketers, support, etc…
  3. Identify stakeholders in groups that typically dissent the current investments: These groups may include sales, operational groups, security. These are the groups who may feel underrepresented in the strategy.
  4. Draft an intro to the exercise: Explain what this is, why we’re doing it, and who will be leading it. You can reference the same on our site
  5. Put the meetings on the calendar: This exercise typically takes two 1.5 hour meetings. Include the intro in the invite. If you can do any part of this process async, opt for that (this typically depends on the tools available and the culture of the team)
  6. Give the team homework: If it’s not done already, the team will need to bring to the table all of the ongoing work (or the current state of things)

Understanding the ‘why’

It’s important that pre-meeting tasks be done anonymously. Participants should not be able to see what other participants are doing. It’s also important to understand the difference between beliefs and assumptions.

What is the difference between a belief and an assumption?

These are often used interchangeably, but in this context, we would define an assumption as something we know we don’t have evidence to support, but accept as true. We use assumptions as tools to augment decision making and test them.

Beliefs are typically held with much stronger conviction (and may in fact have compelling evidence to support them). We’re focusing on beliefs here because they shape our strategic decisions, and have a heavy impact on our investments.

This exercise may result in a mixed bag of beliefs and assumptions, that’s okay.

It’s typically best to ask these questions with a survey tool to easily collect the data

  1. Ask team members to come up with general ‘Beliefs’ that the group holds about the product, customers, market, etc… These statements should start with “We believe…”.
  2. For each statement, they should answer a simple explanation for ‘Why’ this belief is held.
  3. Collect and consolidate the responses. Remove duplicates and make them clear without altering their meanings
  4. Now for each belief, have team member score, on a scale of 1-7, whether they strongly agree or disagree with the belief (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree)
  5. For each answer, have the team member give a simple explanation for their answer (Why did they score the way they did)

At this point, you should have a spreadsheet that shows each individual’s rating of each belief

Share and Discuss

  1. Segment the beliefs into three groups: one group shows general consensus that we agree with the belief, the other shows a general consensus that we disagree with the belief - the third is a bucket of beliefs where there was no consensus.
  2. Walk through the third bucket with the group. Let those who strongly agreed or disagreed state their point for each of these beliefs without directly disagreeing with each other. Synthesize the points on either side.
  3. Instead of individual beliefs, run a convergence exercise that consolidates and clarifies the beliefs into a concise, clear set of beliefs. It’s helpful to have everyone ‘sign off’ and give a thumbs up to the final list.

Beliefs tend to be clarified through these conversations - capture where clarifications are made and iterate on the beliefs. The better beliefs are communicated, the better they help guide decision making.

A few rules for the conversation:

  • Only focus on the beliefs where people disagree
  • When people are stating their points, they should not be able to directly disagree with another person. They can only explain their own point
  • People must explain their point of view. They cannot disagree without providing support for their reasoning.

How it impacts the ‘what’

Now we have two sets of information. We know what we believe as a group and we know our current portfolio of investments. What we won’t to do is understand if our existing portfolio of investments aligns with our beliefs using our goals and measures as evidence.

  1. For each belief, map them to each investment it impacts in some way.
  2. Focus on the beliefs where there was dissent to identify if these changes have any impact on the ongoing investment they’re tied to
  3. We should see these conversations either shape our beliefs or rethink our investments

It’s important we ‘author’ the beliefs anonymously. There’s a downside to making beliefs known in public - people tend to double down on them when it becomes part of their ‘identity’.

The principle here is to put things out in the open so they can be scrutinized on their own, not through a person that holds that belief.

Set up a cadence

Now we have two sets of information. We have the initiatives we’re planning for the upcoming cycle (month, quarter, etc...) and we have the beliefs the formed the decisions to focus on those things.

Moving forward we can:

  • Set up a cadence to challenge these beliefs as we learn from the initiatives and new information
  • Relate new information directly to our beliefs and challenge them on their own
  • Add new beliefs that may shape future investment decisions
  • Understand which beliefs strongly correlate to our investment distribution