What product owners can learn from chess players

What product owners can learn from chess players

“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” — Warren Buffett

There is a part of your brain that has the role of cherry picking only the evidence that support your current beliefs. If you are a decision maker it’s critical to be objective in your analysis. You can become more objective by using a simple heuristic that the great chess players use.

Executive Summary

Our brains are wired to preserve our current beliefs. To do so our brain automatically validates only the evidence that supports our beliefs and discards evidence that contradicts them. This is called 'confirmation bias'. To overcome confirmation bias chess players are actively looking for evidence that a specific decision they are considering is wrong.

Confirmation bias is our tendency to cherry-pick information that confirms our existing beliefs and ideas.

Reseach[1] shows that novice chess players fall victim to confirmation bias, because they usually only consider how they might be right. By contrast, experienced chess players minimize confirmation bias by seeking to invalidate their decisions. This is extra work, that’s why most people don’t do it.

💡 Note

To make better decisions you can study the mental models of people that have high incentives to be right, like chess players or investors. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people who benefit from having an opinion and have low or no cost attached to it being right or wrong (i.e. politicians and journalists)

When you are developing a product it’s easy to fall in love with your vision and not take into account the market realities. This is how a lot of businesses waste resource building products nobody wants.

The role of a product owner is to maximize value of the product. The value is always outside the company, it’s with the clients that pay money for your goods or services. Thus, as a product owner you need to be able to look outside the company, at the market, objectively. Furthermore you need to make decisions with incomplete information in a complex system. It sounds pretty similar to making a move in a chess game, doesn’t it?

The practical application of this heuristic in product development translates into:

  1. Identify your biggest assumptions and risks about the product.
  2. Get data to validate those assumptions.
  3. Adapt and repeat.

If you are currently managing a product consider the assumptions you have about the product and market and put them to the test.

1. Confirmation Bias as a Default Heuristic in Novice Chess Players (research link )

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  • product management