the Missouri Approach: How to Minimize Cognitive Biases During the Technology Selection Process

Kathleen McQuilkin | 08.18.16
Topics: Software Requirements & Selection

Imagine this: After a long selection process, you’ve finally settled down with a technology vendor who seems like a good match, yay! But the honeymoon comes to an ugly end when, in the midst of testing your new system, you discover it doesn’t provide a specific functionality you thought it would, yikes!

You were led to believe it did, or that’s how you remember it. The vendor insists that they never said it would work exactly that way. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who can say?

Neither your vendor nor your association wants a scenario like this to occur, but, unfortunately, it happens more often than you’d think, especially when an association goes it alone during the selection process without the help of a business analyst. Just don’t do it.

Don’t blame it on the rain, blame cognitive biases on your brain.

Usually, this problem has a very human cause: cognitive bias. In fact, a few different cognitive biases can impact the discussions you have with sales teams during the technology selection process.

  • Blind-spot bias. The first step in avoiding the influence of cognitive biases is to recognize and acknowledge that you have cognitive biases. We all do. Be on the look-out for signs that you could be falling under the spell of one of these cognitive biases.
  • Confirmation bias. You only hear the information that confirms your preconceptions about a vendor or system. Often called ‘selective hearing’ or ‘selective memory,’ this bias causes you to focus on what you want to hear. We’re each susceptible to this during election season!
  • Ostrich effect. Over-worked staff are particularly susceptible to this cognitive bias—the tendency to ignore or avoid hearing negative information by ‘burying your head in the sand.’ You consequently avoid addressing issues that might cause discomfort. You don’t ask tough questions or start conversations that have the potential for conflict.
  • Choice-supportive bias. Once you make the decision to select a particular system, even before you verbalize that choice to others, you see it in a more positive light and avoid dwelling on its short-comings. Knowing this tendency will help you be more objective about a system’s pros and cons.

Anticipate unruly brain behavior.

Why do we only hear what we want to hear? Why don’t we try to validate our assumptions? Your reasons may vary, but usually it’s because:

  • You’re eager to complete the time-consuming selection process.
  • You like the sales person and believe they mean well. (They usually do.)
  • You’ve invested so much time already with this one vendor that you feel it’s best to keep plowing ahead. (Sunk-cost bias!)
  • You want to believe it will all work out in the end.

And, you’re human. This is what we do. But, if you are aware that cognitive biases could taint your objectivity and judgement, you’re more likely to catch yourself in the act.

Beware the Personal consequences of cognitive biases.

You must overcome any discomfort you feel when pushing your vendor on specific issues or asking tough questions. If you don’t, the consequences of your inaction will come back to haunt you.

  • Your stress level will continue to rise.
  • Project and system expectations won’t be met.
  • Colleagues, management, and leadership may wonder why issues weren’t addressed.
  • Your professional reputation will suffer.

Minimize the influence of cognitive biases.

Here are some tips to help you minimize the influence of cognitive biases while maintaining cordial and productive relationships with vendors.

Write comprehensive, explicit requirements. Avoid using subjective language, like ‘user-friendly’ in the requirements documentation. Everyone has their own opinion about what ‘user-friendly’ means.

Instead, use objective performance standards, like these two examples:

  • System automatically expires active committee assignments when membership is terminated.
  • System presents certification expiration to user upon logging in to self-service portal.

Use the requirements documentation as a checklist. Go throug

h requirements item-by-item with the sales team and refer back to it regularly to make sure you’ve covered everything. It’s not personal, you’re doing your job by being thorough.

Don’t make any assumptions. It’s tempting to make an assumption about a function rather than continuing to press the sales team on it. But don’t accept a vague answer. Ask for specifics and get it in writing. It’s better to experience a little discomfort now than be surprised and disappointed later.

Adopt the Missouri approach—show me—to defeat cognitive biases.

Believe it when you see it. The best way to ensure you’ll get what you expect is to ask the vendor to demonstrate the functions and processes you intend to use. The ‘show me’ approach is particularly important when discussing intangible attributes like ‘user-friendly.’

You say the system is user-friendly? Show me it’s user-friendly. Show me how to renew a membership, process a registration, or set up a product. Don’t just tell me, show me. And, show me how that looks for an organization like ours.


If you’re a trade association with tiered dues for company memberships and several contacts for each company, your membership renewal process will require a different approach than a professional society with individual members who all pay the same amount of dues. Ask the vendor to show you how the join and renewal processes work for an organization like yours. Talk to clients with similar membership and dues structures to make sure it does really work in real life.

If you have chapters, don’t be satisfied with the existence of a chapter management model. Dive deeper. Request a demonstration of how it functions. Ask to speak to clients with similar chapter membership and governance models as yours.

If the vendor’s customer service performance is a key decision factor, request the participation of the implementation and customer support team in your sales meetings and demos. Ask for the opportunity to hear directly from the people who will be delivering support, not just from their enthusiastic colleague, the sales person.

Remember, you’re not being rude or difficult. You’re doing your due diligence. Vendors respect that. They’re proud of their technology. They want to brag about it and show it off. But, like you, they’re subjective too. Make sure your definitions align, whether it’s of an attribute like ‘user-friendly’ or a function.

During the selection process, you’re judging whether the product is a good fit for your association’s needs, but let’s face it: everyone involved is also judging each other. What will they be like to work with? Are they on the up and up? What aren’t they telling me? Emotions run high, but hidden, on both sides.

The sales team is emotionally invested in their product and team. You’re emotionally invested in the project. That’s why it’s so easy for cognitive biases to influence behavior in the intensity and stress of a selection process. But now you know what you’re up against—your own brain, that’s all. Put your knowledge to work, muster up some grit, and pretend you’re from Missouri.


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