Culture

Eliminating bias in the ideation process: the power of anonymity

Post by
Shereen Qumsieh
Eliminating bias in the ideation process: the power of anonymity

It is no secret that innovation and inclusion go hand in hand: diversity of perspective is vital to a company’s success. When it comes to generating ideas, breaking down hierarchy within an organization is key. Understanding the intrinsic value of each employee not only fosters a more positive atmosphere, but optimizes a greater potential for excellence of ideas by broadening the pool of contributing voices.

While the movement towards a more inclusive environment is deemed a top priority within the contemporary workforce, this straightforward concept has proven easier said than done. Human psychology and unconscious bias are the strongest factors behind the slow evolution towards a more democratic organizational system. Today, we’ll flesh out some of the reasons behind this, as well as looking at one of the main driving forces behind the creation of Pondr: the power of anonymity to eliminate bias. 

What is ideation and why is it important?

Ideation is simply the formation of ideas or concepts, and the creative process behind generating, gathering, sharing and actualizing those new ideas. It can be conducted in a number of ways, but most often takes place within a group setting through brainstorming sessions. It creates a structured environment where ideas can be shared or evaluated and is an essential component of a healthy business.

The role of ideation in nurturing and stimulating innovation cannot be underestimated. Managing and prioritizing this process is a fundamental part of a company’s tool box, and explains why idea management software is such a fast growing market. Because of a broader changing work culture, more and more businesses are making it their focus to find new ways of organizing and evaluating this process.

Exploring new methods of ideation through online Idea Management software programs was already becoming widely popular before the current pandemic hit. Covid-19 has certainly forced the majority of businesses to reassess how they organize employment, but it is just one of many reasons why online communication tools are being utilized. It allows companies to gather ideas into a centralized online platform, maximizing organization and efficiency across locations.

Here at Pondr, we are interested in harnessing the benefits of an online workplace specifically, rather than using the software to replicate the experience of in-person sessions. Pondr was built as a tool to collect ideas from multiple avenues, tapping into the value that distance and asynchronous communication can provide.

Ideas are universal. An idea can come from anywhere or anyone, from any age. They are not dependent on experience, education, background, identity or personality type. The concept of ideation is rooted in this ethos, and innovation is birthed from having a complexity of voices interacting. The varied experience, viewpoints, education and background of each employee is not only a positive addition, it is crucial. But while ideas themselves are free from bias, the ideation process unfortunately is not. There are a number of factors at play that hinder the fluidity of ideas from flowing.

So, what is unconscious bias and how can we better understand it?

Innovation runs on good ideas, and good ideas can get stifled by unconscious bias. Whether you’re an intern, an HR manager or a product director, it is important to understand its effects, and confront the invisible influence that manifests within ourselves and towards others.

The individual bias towards oneself is perhaps the most relatable and well understood. We’ve all been there: an idea pops into your head. You’re pretty sure it’s quite unique and exciting, but what if it’s not? Maybe it already exists and you’re convinced you will look stupid if you make that mistake. With only yourself to bounce the idea back and forth to, you begin a conversation with two sides of your brain. Someone with more confidence will feel more comfortable to take this risk, while someone with more shy or self-conscious tendencies will elongate the decision process, and potentially never say anything if they manage to talk themselves out of it.

These situations create a type of athleticism, where more robust personalities outperform their quieter peers. Body language does not solely belong to the realm of IRL, these patterns play out in any space, online or off, where identity and communication is present. But as we know, this is not how good ideas flourish.

The hierarchical organization of employment also gives rise to unconscious bias, with higher level employees overvaluing their own ideas. Depending on a number of factors related to rank, title or expertise, one's elevated status can cloud their judgement. According to a report by Harvard Business Review, those with more seniority tend to oversell themselves, relying “too heavily on what experts call System 1 thinking—automatic judgments that stem from associations stored in memory—instead of logically working through the information that’s available.” Those with more seniority also hold more secure positions and can take more risks. This contributes to an atmosphere where other members may also believe those with a higher status have better ideas, or feel undervalued in comparison.

The article also notes that unconscious bias is much more pervasive in group settings, than when working alone. Doubts about one’s own ideas may be heightened in this environment, as well as a number of other complex factors that arise from group dynamics. A combination of personality types or employment rankings all contribute to an atmosphere that overcomplicates the process and ultimately influences which idea gets taken up.

The majority of companies functioning today do see diversity of voice as a top priority. There is a push towards finding inventive ways to tackle this ongoing hurdle, whether it’s holding workshops where people can feel safe to experiment with different methods and find their voice, or fostering one-on-one time with their employees.

These solutions are mostly based in human interaction, and idea management softwares tend to replicate this environment. But how can we use this technology to tweak what it means to connect and communicate with each other? How can we find simplicity and concrete solutions to an issue that is both murky and elusive, subtle yet all pervasive? How can we ensure the best ideas are being found, regardless of expertise, rank, gender or personality type?

Removing the hierarchy through anonymity 

Here at Pondr, we believe in merit based idea generation and see anonymity as being the single most important tool to get there. Too many great ideas are stifled through fear, lack of value and single source contributions. As Brian Paulen writes in the West Monroe, “innovation without inclusion can lead to investment in bad ideas, while good ideas may get passed up.”

The Pondr style system allows users to submit anonymously: until the idea has been approved, you cannot tell where it originated from - a method that discourages bias and ensures only the best ideas win. When you create a culture of idea generation within your business, you create a culture of motivation, inclusion, and problem solving which leads to higher rates of innovation by:

  • Stimulating creative energy
  • Encouraging transparency
  • Prioritizing Simplicity

As humans, fear of judgement instills a level of inertia within us. The age-old advice, “just start!” is a reminder to get over ourselves, and the perfectionist or self-conscious tendencies that arise from trepidation or doubt. Anonymity bypasses the characteristics that tend to hold us back, and creates more flow and speed in the idea generation process as a result. Creating a safe environment without the pressures of sharing to a group creates efficiency through sheer lack of inhibition. It feels ironic that the best way to tap into the intrinsic value of each employee is to create a nameless filter!

Voting anonymously also helps to gather, share and evaluate ideas with speed and agility by creating a system of visibility. Because the algorithm automatically ranks which idea has received the most traction, it is easy to see which area the employees feel most passionate about. It allows for democratic organization, and ensures the idea is being voted on solely for its merit and no other external values. This creates an atmosphere of transparency which also has a knock on effect for succession planning. Whether you’re an employer looking to identify rising leaders and acknowledge efforts, or an employee looking to move up through a clear demonstration of your skills and a history of participation, visibility provides clarity.

Simplicity is key. At Pondr, one of our mottos isDon’t overcomplicate what doesn’t need to be.” Anonymity wipes the slate clean. It prevents any potential bias infiltrating the process, and allows the whole team to zero in on what matters most: the idea. Reducing the amount of noise that results from synchronous communication or brainstorm sessions, ideas can be easily made, seen, stored and organized. They are collected and ranked from anyone, anywhere and at any time. Whether it is a brand new idea, or an existing problem waiting to be solved, a system of anonymity fosters an environment where only the best ideas win.