top of page

Tick box past unconscious bias

Is this possible? The question came up during our August 2020 presentation about our brains and bias. The answer: possibly not, but the exercise of drafting one is worth a go if you are serious about getting past your unconscious biases.

In our presentation, we suggested that some bias is unconscious and inevitable, a consequence of our brains being primarily focused on survival. The survival strategies favoured by our brains are pattern seeking, meaning making, and energy conservation.

Our brain's strategies have proven effective for survival because they keep us on an autopilot that favours safety. But favouring safety also favours homogeneity and exclusion at the expense of diversity and inclusion. And that perpetuates a lack of safety for those who are not part of or do not identify with the dominant culture.

I traced a line from unconscious bias through to (our take on) the 4 Ps of business: people, policy, process, product. Yes, everything we do is shaped by our biases. No, we can't use that as an excuse to do nothing.

What can we do to ensure that our work is not limited by our biases? Unconscious bias training might be the first item on a checklist. To make a difference, it needs to be followed by a series of specific actions.

Checklists help get things right

Checklists came into the picture by referring to Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right. Gawande is a surgeon. His goal with checklists was to minimise error in potentially life-threatening medical procedures; he looks mostly to engineering and aviation for examples.

The checklists Gawande observed and developed have common features. They are short, simple, specific, and have a clearly identified trigger. The trigger may be the start of a routine, or an unexpected event. They may be ‘do/check’, where you perform an activity and then record completion. They may be ‘see/do’, where you identify a phenomenon and respond to it.

Put aside your hesitation about comparing the potential drama of medical, engineering, and aviation failures with a badly designed form, a sloppy process, or a vague policy. Because it is in these everyday things that unconscious biases erode the safety of those our brains make ‘other’. The consequence of errors in what you do may not lead to bleeding, breaking, or burning—but if you fail to 'get things right' in your work, you’ll cause unnecessary pain.

Gawande’s surgical checklists included a remarkably mundane first item that offers a bridge to any type of work. The first item is introductions: the team introduce themselves and their role in the joint endeavour. This brings the team together and unites them in a common purpose. This item is vital if the goal of your checklist is to mitigate the impact of unconscious bias. Having people state their name and their role says that everyone has a voice and has something to offer.

If the first item holds up, what else might you add?

A handwritten checklist
A checklist can be very simple. Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Everything starts with people

After item one, introductions, a checklist for dealing with people feels like the opposite of overcoming bias. It might even feel like you are attempting to put people in boxes.

So rather than making a checklist about other people, make the checklist about you.

Reflect on your interactions with others. Next time you walk away from an exchange or a meeting feeling great—like you’ve been understood and they’ve understood you—stop and ask yourself, why did that work? What were you thinking and doing in that exchange that generated that feeling? If possible, wind it back: what did you take in to that exchange?

And next time you walk from or end a conversation that leaves you feeling bad—like you haven’t been understood or you don’t understand them—stop and ask yourself, why didn’t that work? And the same questions as above.

Other questions on your personal checklist might include:

  • Who do I consult?

  • Who do I really listen to?

  • Who do I make time for?

  • Who do I delay, postpone, cancel?

Plan for inclusive policy

I’m not one for reinventing the wheel—the Policy Quality Framework includes a checklist. The checklist includes at least three points that are relevant to our experiment:

  • Are Treaty and te ao Māori frameworks used in the analysis?

  • Does the analysis reveal diverse views, experiences and insights?

  • Does it [the advice] reflect diverse perspectives?

What is the trigger for this checklist? The intention appears to be that these responses will reflect decisions made much earlier in the development. If the checklist only gets tabled at the end of the policy development, it can not have much impact. (And the temptation to check each box is great.)

Tabling the checklist early creates more opportunity for it to inform the policy development. After all, those early planning meetings are when time and resource are allocated.

What would you add to a policy checklist to ensure you build in time and resource to thoroughly address these questions? And when would you use it?

Process can be a tool for exclusion

Most times you develop a process, you are attempting to solve a specific problem that others face in accessing services, products or expertise. You are at risk of falling into the knowledge trap, where your expertise and engagement means you assume the same in others. Those assumptions can lead to exclusion.

A process checklist can prompt you to think about what will stop others from using the process.

While your focus is on the specific problem you are trying to develop a process for, the general problems our brains constantly deal with continue to exist. In our presentation on our brains and bias, we used Buster Benson’s model that connects all biases to four general problems . These are useful prompts for questions focused on potential users in a process checklist:

  • What do they really need to know? (too much information)

  • What will they remember easily? (we can’t remember everything)

  • How might they interpret things differently? (not enough meaning)

  • How quickly can they complete this process? (we need to act fast)

People are likely to give up on a process that overwhelms them with information or requires them to remember things or assumes knowledge or takes time. This isn't about a assuming a lack in others; it's about acknowledging what they have going on before they had to deal with your process. And if your process is made for people like you, you risk excluding everyone who isn't like you.

Products are for people

A checklist to counter unconscious bias in product development has to include user testing with the people who use the product.

Pull up, pull up. The product may potentially have a wider audience than those who currently use it, but who have been excluded by some feature of the design.

To develop a product checklist means starting at the very beginning to brainstorm potential barriers to using a product. Here is a starter list of barriers:

  • physical - height, strength, flexibility, mobility, age, youth

  • sensory - sight, hearing, taste, smell, dexterity

  • cultural - languages, literacy, customs, clothing or uniform

  • financial - discretionary spending power, cash, credit cards

  • technological - devices, connectivity, knowledge

Find out who is using your products. Who isn't using them who could be? What changes would make the product more accessible for them?

The packaging or presentation of your product can also create barriers for some users. What language and images might tell potential users that this is not for them?

You won't lose, you might win

The exercise of creating a checklist as a mitigation for unconscious bias may not result in a short, simple, specific list with a clear trigger. You might end up with lots of crossing out instead of ticking off. But you will have an increased awareness of your biases, who your workmates are, and what barriers you create for others.


bottom of page