This weekend was my son's first Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. He's six years old so I had the privilege of helping out with all the cutting, sanding, drilling, etc. We decided that we would build a skateboard looking car that looked something like below, except red.
Our game plan was to cut the block into the skateboard shape, sand it, paint it, and then put on the wheels. Seemed like a good plan. Unfortunately, I'm more of a software guy than a hardware guy and the design had one big flaw. I had cut the wheel axle thingys too narrow and when we tried to nail the wheels in, the wood exploded. I then attempted to glue the wood back together by using some krazy glue and a clamp. This worked wonderfully except for the fact that some of the glue leaked onto the axle and the wheel, which made the wheels all stick in place. I had successfully created the first unmovable pinewood derby car. Yikes, this wouldn't do!
In my neighborhood, when you have a tool problem, there's only one guy to call - Mark Huselid. Mark is a professor at Rutgers, an international consultant, and most importantly for me and my son - a tool guy. He's Tim Allen on Tool Time except he knows how to use all of his tools. Anyway, he hooked us up instantly using his drill press to cut some new holes, a caliper to measure the width of the drill bit to use (so that's what that's for), special files, sand paper, levels, etc and voila, we were in business.
So where was I. Oh yeah, the point of my post. Mark mentioned to me a blog he reads by Bob Sutton, a Professor at Stanford and also an accomplished author. He had a post last week entitled John F. Kennedy on Myths that has some absolutely great stuff in it including something called Confirmation Bias. Confirmation bias is essentially hearing what you want to hear to confirm beliefs that you already have and ignoring contradictory information that might lead you to a different conclusion. I see this happening with my managers, and especially myself, where we have a preconceived notion of the right strategy simply because we think it's right, without any hard facts backing it up. Sometimes we might winding up being right. However, acknowledging that there might some confirmation bias I believe will allow us to make much better decisions.
Meanwhile, back to the pinewood derby. In the 30+ years since I was a cub scout, a lot has changed. Some people take this very seriously. There are some generally accepted principles for making a fast car. It should be aerodynamic, the extra weight should be placed toward the rear of the car, and you need to make sure your axles are well lubricated and as straight as possible. There were about 50 cars entered and they all pretty much conformed to these rules. With one major exception. I'll call it the Monster Truck. It was big, it was boxy, and all the Dads agreed this baby had no chance. An hour later, the Monster Truck finished in the top 10, easily beating many cars that had a "far better design". How could this be?
To make a long story even longer, you guessed it, the answer is confirmation bias. We all were told to make our cars aerodynamic and not knowing any better, we believed it based on information we read and images of dragsters in our head. My guess, which I haven't confirmed, is that aerodynamics for a pinewood derby car have a near zero impact on the cars speed. It's a small track, there's no wind, so the effect is negligible at most.
So if you've read this far, keep in mind, that maybe that decision you're about to make that you're so sure about could be influenced by confirmation bias.