The Twin Problems of Noise and Bias

pebblesEveryone wants to make good decisions. But the “good” part is often the challenge.

We make decisions all the time. Some are terribly inconsequential like which flavor candy so I want, cherry or sour apple. Some are not so inconsequential and can have long-term and long-lasting impact.

October’s Harvard Business Review includes an article on the cost inherent in bad decision-making because of the impact of noise and bias in the process. So, where do we see noise and bias in ministry decisions and what impact can they have?

Let’s start with some basic definitions. “Noise” prevents us from looking at the problem or situation accurately; it creates diversions and scatters our vision and thinking. “Bias” shifts our focus, and it is usually a shift in everyone’s focus.

Some examples? Bias is the committee thinking that we can hire a part-time youth minister because we only see 20 or 30 teens involved when the facts are there are more than 150 teens engaged in various ministries and activities (real life example.) Noise is asking 5 different people what youth ministry at the parish like and getting 5 totally different answers.

How do we correct for these?

Bias tends to reflects what we “know” (or think we know) about people and situations. Letting go of the “thinking that we know” moves us toward a solution. Before making a decision, list what are the things that we think we know about the person and/or situation (think about those assumptions.)  Identify what is irrelevant or prejudicial to making a sound and open-minded decision based on fact. Deeply consider the question, “What don’t we know about this person or situation?” before going any further. What remains is likely closest to the unbiased truth.

Noise is like throwing pebbles in the air and watching them drop to the ground–they fall all over the place. But we can control the noise just like we can control the trajectory of the pebbles by putting them inside one container before we toss them. Noise requires that we ask what the traits, characteristics, or qualifications are that we are looking for. What should be on our checklist of things that would make the decision the right one for this parish or school or organization?

The road to good decisions leads through reducing bias and noise so that we end up with the reasons and needs that are truly at the core of who we are and what we believe–usually our mission or in the service of the Gospel.

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