Warm Bodies – availability bias and the productivity myth

Behavioural Economics is the study of why real people make the choices that they do – as opposed to the soulless rational actors, or ‘econs’ that have formed the basis of economic theory for the last century.  The field has exploded in scale in the last 10 years, boosted by bestsellers like Freakanomics, Nudge, The Paradox of Choice, and so on, but the daddy of the discipline is Nobel-prize winning Daniel Kahneman, with the book that distils decades of his research: ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.

Kahneman talks about the brain’s two discrete systems:

  • Automatic system – Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, absolute, short term, subconscious
  • Deliberate system – Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, balanced, long term, conscious

One of the main points that I took away from the book is that using the deliberate system is hard work and depletes your cognitive energy, so our brains are always looking for ways to delegate to the automatic system. The psychologists call this a ‘heuristic’ or bias– a simple set of rules and shortcuts that people use to arrive at judgments and decisions.

I spend a lot of time thinking about productivity – how I can be more productive, how we can be more productive as teams, and organisations. The old adage is that ‘if it’s not measured, it’s not managed’, but how do we measure productivity?

In software development, it’s reasonably straightforward (at least in agile software development) – a developer’s ‘commits’ can be counted, the velocity of a development team can be measured against planned activity with burn-down analysis and bugs can be measured with daily automated testing, and projects can be measured by Earned Value, and other methods. But individual contribution in most white collar jobs cannot be so easily measured: how good are we at planning, negotiating, relationship management, administration, writing, presenting – how good are we in meetings?

Trying to measure this stuff is really hard, so we don’t. We use heuristics to help us.

We tend to think that people who talk a lot have a lot to contribute (when sometimes the opposite is true).

We think that people who express their opinions robustly should be listened to (‘they sound very sure, maybe they know something I don’t’).

Most damaging of all, we assume that because people are in the office for long hours they’re being productive (despite long hours and productivity being negatively correlated in a number of studies), because they’re available for work.


I sometimes find myself working long hours, on the train, in coffee shops, or after the kids have gone to bed, and occasionally in the office, because I choose to. However, the more senior you are the more your behaviour sets the tone for others, and if we want well-balanced, high performing teams, we need to think deliberately about the contributions that individuals are making in each area, not rely on a lazy ‘available=productive’ heuristic.

Some of the best members of teams I’ve worked on have been strictly 9-5, and sometimes less – it’s up to all of us to recognise real value if we’re to do better than just counting warm bodies around the office.