Written by Kevin Heisey
on September 01, 2021

xScion’s Product Genome framework is based on the idea that every successful product addresses a specific problem customers face. Product Genome isn’t a cookbook, one-size-fits-all approach. It is based on exploring the customer’s unique context, testing hypotheses and creating a custom approach drawn from a menu of tools and best practices that help you fully understand why a Product is needed and how you can best meet those needs. What’s implied is that there is an optimal solution to a customer’s problem and using Product Genome is the best way to achieve it.

The New York Times bestseller, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement, by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, Oliver Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein, highlights one of the biggest challenges to successfully implementing the Product Genome framework. The theme of the book is that there are two kinds of errors in judgement; bias and noise, and wherever there is human judgement, there is noise and there is a lot more noise clouding our judgement than we think.

When examining insurance claims, executives estimated a range of a plus or minus 10% in how different adjusters assess identical claims. Experimental and empirical findings show that the range is greater than 50%. The noise isn’t only evident among different people, it also exists within the same people assessing the same claim at separate times. Criminal sentencing and asylum decisions are significantly influenced by things like the time of day, whether the decision maker is hungry, the weather or if the local sports team is doing well. Where there is human judgement, there is the influence of noise interfering with optimal decisions.

Anant Dhavale’s blog post, When “We Know It All” Really Means “We Don’t Understand Our Customers”, points out the tendency of Product Managers to jump to conclusions and action before truly understanding the customer’s problem and highlights the need to check our judgement and the influence of our prior knowledge. Noise brings out specific challenges to be aware of and strategies to reduce the influence of noise and make better decisions.

Leverage the Wisdom of Crowds

The “wisdom of crowds” idea is that the average of a number of independent assessments is closer to the true value than most of the individual assessments. You can demonstrate it by having individuals try to guess how many jellybeans are in a jar. While Product Management scenarios are typically singular (meaning they are unique, one-off situations), aren’t usually driven by a quantitative estimate and are non-verifiable (we have no way of verifying if our solution is the optimal one), leveraging the wisdom of crowds is beneficial in pursuit of an unknowable optimum.

In Product Management you often interview customers to understand them and their Problem Space. You can apply the “wisdom of crowds” by having team members independently assess the interviews to define the problem and create customer personas. Combining multiple independent interpretations of the interviews typically leads to a more accurate understanding of the customer than any one person’s judgement does.

In Noise the authors extend the “wisdom of crowds” concept to a crowd of one. People judge identical scenarios differently at separate times and research indicates that the average of a person’s two different judgements is more accurate than either of their individual judgements. Product Managers can put this into practice by revisiting and reassessing information and then using the whole picture to include both their original and revised judgements for a better understanding of their customer and the Problem Space.

Scholars took the idea of revisiting judgements further and found that if people are asked to revisit their previous judgement, assume it was wrong, think of reasons it was wrong and revise their judgement, the average of both assessments is more accurate than simply revisiting and reassessing. This emphasizes the value of revisiting and challenging your initial understanding of the customer Problem Space and needs before moving on to developing a solution.

In Product Genome a mindset of exploration and discovery is needed to understand the Problem Space that is a foundation for building the right product that optimally meets customer needs. Considering independent perspectives from team members reduces noise and improves your understanding. As a team of one, individually revisiting, challenging and updating your initial judgements also reduces the influence of noise.

Groups Amplify Noise

Leveraging the “wisdom of crowds” is heavily reliant on each person’s independent assessment. Group dynamics amplify noise and lead to wildly different outcomes. Random, small variations in the sequence of discussion and/or presentation of information can have major effects on outcomes. When making a group decision, who speaks first and whether they are a proponent or a skeptic, can completely drive the outcome. Initial bursts of positive or negative viewpoints can cascade and be self-reinforcing.

If the first person to speak is a skeptic, other skeptics are more likely to speak out in agreement which makes proponents more doubtful and less likely to express their position. The dynamic can take a group from an initial, true unclear position with both proponents and skeptics, to an extreme confidence built entirely on social amplification and verification, rather than the true nature of the decision at hand. If the alternative position was expressed first, it could have just as easily led to the alternative outcome.

To avoid amplifying noise, be conscious of the influence of both the sequencing of information, how it is expressed and by whom. It is better to aggregate multiple, independent judgements and present them to the group first, so all perspectives are known before discussion occurs.

Reduce Noise to Better Understand Your Customer

Noise: A Flaw In Human Judgement gives insight on how to shift from a dangerous “We Know It All” mindset toward a better understanding of customers and the problems they face. Noise influences every judgement, assessment or conclusion a person draws. If we had an argument, a check bounced, we heard our favorite song, our retirement fund is flourishing or our favorite team won a big game, it influences how we view a situation and can lead us in the wrong direction.

To overcoming the noise interfering with your judgement, first recognize that it exists and the impact it has. Businesses can implement “noise audits” to measure and understand the impact of noise on their judgements and decisions. To minimize the impact of noise, adopt “decision hygiene” strategies. When learning about your customers, intentionally seek out multiple independent viewpoints. If your team is small, have each person revisit and challenge their initial conclusions for a broader perspective and improved understanding before fully defining the Problem Space. Guard against group dynamics that amplify noise by carefully sequencing information and discussions. Intentionally recognize and minimize the impact of noise for a better understanding of your customer’s true needs and Problem Space, which sets the foundation for an optimal solution and the best possible Product.