Wisdom from symphonies about data-driven decision making


Living in Chicago I am fortunate to have access to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO).  The CSO is one of the premier orchestras in the world.

As with any organization, the CSO’s recruiting process plays a key role in helping to build a world class workforce. And, as with any organization, recruiting is a process that is especially susceptible to bias. Despite most people’s confidence that they are unbiased and objective, research has proven that’s simply not the case.  We intuitively know and research has shown that attractiveness plays a role in hiring decisions[2]. Other research has shown that women still have a more difficult time getting hired into certain positions than men. One piece of research shows how seemingly random pieces of data can influence a hiring decision.  Candidates whose resumes were placed on heavier clipboards tended to be judged as better overall or more serious about their interest in the position[3].

What’s unique about the CSO, and symphonies in general, is that they have figured out how to reduce the impact of these biases to improve their data-driven decision making.  Their solution is simple.  They don’t give people data that they don’t want them to use in making a decision.

When a candidate comes to audition for most symphonies, they do not sit directly across from the recruiter (or in most cases a panel of recruiters).  They are seated behind a screen or curtain.  This creates a “blind” audition.  This simple process plays an essential role in increasing good data-driven decision making.  It removes any data that the organization does not want to have used as part of the decision.  And it works!  A January, 1997 study on blind auditions[1] found that

“the screen increases by 50% the probability a woman will be advanced out of certain preliminary rounds. The screen also enhances, by severalfold, the likelihood a female contestant will be the winner in the final round.”

Unfortunately, businesses haven’t caught on . In fact, businesses generally do the opposite.  They’ll gather and provide as much data as they can find.  Then during the interview the candidate sits directly in front of the recruiter allowing for more irrelevant data to enter the decision making process.  A quick Google search provides plenty of advice on how a person can make that work in his or her favor (hint:  always offer the recruiter the hard, stiff chair).

This isn’t just a problem with recruiting. Business people tend to pride themselves on their ability to filter out irrelevant data.  As a result, they ask for or provide way too much.  Most would say that they do not allow their bias to influence their decision process. Yet, study after study reveals that the more data that your brain has available, the more likely it is to fall prey to bias.

Despite all of the articles that provide advice about managing your bias, it is impossible to control your unconscious brain. It will use whatever data is available and often uses it to confirm and support its pre-existing biases.

So, what can we learn from the symphony?  If you don’t want someone to use a particular piece of data to make a decision, don’t provide it.  Providing data and then telling people to ignore (or hoping they will) is a losing proposition.

Look critically at the data that you are providing to others (numeric as well as visual, environmental, auditory, and graphical). Eliminate or reduce any information that you do not want used as part of a decision. And, don’t overlook the obvious. Something as simple as the name of a person, product, or team, can significantly influence the way you view their data.

[1] Goldin, Claudia and Cecilia Rouse. “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact Of ‘Blind’ Auditions On Female Musicians,” American Economic Review, 2000, v90(4,Sep), 715-741

[2] Marlowe, Cynthia M.; Schneider, Sandra L.; Nelson, Carnot E., Gender and attractiveness biases in hiring decisions: Are more experienced managers less biased? Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 81(1), Feb 1996, 11-21.

[3] Ackerman, Joshua M., Christopher C. Nocera, and John A. Bargh. “Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions.” Science (New York, N.Y.) 328.5986 (2010): 1712–1715. PMC. Web. 26 June 2015.

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