Barriers to Change: Recency Bias

Leaders are under pressure to make quick decision for the organization as a whole—which means some problems get lost in the shuffle

You have the worst feeling of déjà vu: the leadership team has had this conversation about change before. They’ve agreed that it’s important, and that the organization should take action… but inevitably, some other emergency pops up, or a new opportunity presents itself that they have to take advantage of, and change is forgotten—at least, until the next time you present it. 

Recency bias is the tendency to focus on what’s happened most recently, as opposed to events that have happened in the past.

Recency bias is the tendency to focus on what’s happened most recently, as opposed to events that have happened in the past. It’s particularly a problem for senior leaders because:

  • Their role within the organization means that they have to keep the bigger picture in mind, which includes learning from history
  • They are required to hold multiple problems and opportunities at once, rather than just focusing on one problem for a sustained period
  • They’re under pressure to make decisions and solve problems quickly 
  • They’re probably not the ones experiencing any one particular pain on a regular basis, so they’re not as motivated to fix it
  • They might not have full visibility to progress or understand the solution as well as teams do
  • And, of course, they’re only human, and human memory is focused on immediate problems

To remind leaders of the need for a more balanced approach:

  • Create a cadence for reviewing the “grand plan.” If your tendency is to follow the shiny object, create a monthly or quarterly cadence for revisiting your entire change landscape, and create systems for tracking what you discuss along the way – bringing back agenda items from the previous meeting to review each time. This will allow you to at least be intentional if you are going to make a pivot.
  • Build a cross-functional and cross-level coalition. There’s power in numbers, from an influence standpoint and when it comes to focus. Garner a lot of people around your change work overall, and it will be harder to pivot without good reason, or without someone noticing and calling it out. 
  • Create principles for deciding when to pivot. With your cross-functional group that you have so smartly assembled, agree on 3-4 simple principles that help you know whether to veer away from a particular change or priority. This gives everyone in the room a tool to pull out (and some air cover against being “the naysayer”) if they see things going astray.
  • Encourage incrementalism. Sometimes we get pulled to the most recent challenge because everything feels large—how could we NOT tackle this new problem; it’s so huge! But it’s likely the old problem is, too. Find ways to help your organization change in increments, and you’ll be likely to make powerful adjustments that feel both more digestible and more satisfying. Making a small change every two weeks is more manageable than making a huge change every two years, and that helps the organization stay focused and celebrate progress.
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Barriers to Change: Recency Bias
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