Friday 25 November 2022

Wilful Blindness

At a recent Time to Think Collegiate meeting, we were joined by Margaret Heffernan, the academic, coach and author who wrote Wilful Blindness ( a book I'd already found fascinating and enlightening). She gave a fascinating insight into her work, with particular reference to how it relates to the Thinking Environment. Needless to say, my summary notes here do not reflect the richness (and in particular the research and the examples) or Margaret's talk. But the price of Wilful Blindness is very high: just ask BP...

The first point she made is that we are naturally attracted to people like us. So we are likely to recruit people like us, not just formally to positions, but also informally into project teams, or simply the people we turn to for advice and ideas. The risk being, of course, that people like us will not only share our particular view of the world, but also our blindspots. This is one of the reasons why Difference is one of the ten Components of the Thinking Environment.

Secondly, we can only focus on one thing at a time. We (and in particular some of our senior clients) may believe we can multi-task, but that is largely an illusion. For serious thinking tasks, we need to stay focused: and interruptions kill focus. Which is why Attention, with its attendant veto on interrupting, is another of the Components. 

Thirdly, we all operate with mental models: our understanding of how the world works.  These are valuable, as they save us form having to start from scratch each time we think about anything. But they are also risky, as they may rely on embedded assumptions, which may be inaccurate; and also because we are so prone to confirmation bias: noticing and attaching meaning to what conforms to our mental models, and ignoring, discounting, or even failing to notice, anything that contradicts them. That is why Incisive Questions that seek out and replace untrue assumptions are another Component.

Fourthly, our behaviour changes when we are in an organisational context. In particular, there is an interesting phenomenon of organisational silence. We might imagine that if someone sees that something is going wrong, he or she will speak out. But research and experience demonstrate that is simply not the case; and is, in fact, a very dangerous operating premise.  In fact, Margaret quoted research that suggests that 85% of executives have issues or concerns that they don't raise (which is a stunning, and frightening, figure!)  The reasons for that being both fear of retribution, and concerns about utility (ie it won't actually make a difference). Which is why Equality is so important in a Thinking Environment.

Margaret went on to explain how her attention had shifted from how do we eliminate Wilful Blindness, to at least understanding the contexts and cultures in which it is most likely to flourish.  Some of the key characteristics are:

•     Steep hierarchies (which inhibit dialogue between people who know what's going on at the sharp end, and people who make decisions)

•     Bureaucracies (particularly because they define what is important [eg via KPIs] therefore causing lots of other things to be overlooked)

•     Scale - not least because large organisations are more likely to have steep hierarchies and bureaucracy; (unless they work hard to prevent it, for example by organising into small operating groups).

There was lots more, and all of it good; not least her client examples, some of which resonated uncannily with issues that are live for some of my clients.  But that's enough for now!  Maybe I will write further on this another day.

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