I have been driving vehicles for many years now and enjoy the experience. One of the big problems faced by any driver of all vehicles is the inherent blind spots – areas outside the vehicle that the normal rear-facing mirrors can’t pick up. To overcome this problem, most vehicles have split rear-facing mirrors to reflect any vehicles that may be creeping up, overtaking or lurking in that visual void. Some vehicles even have sensors to warn the driver and prevent any potential accidents. All drivers need to stay alert for safety reasons – acutely aware of any potential “blind spot” danger.
Organisational blind spots arise when leadership or others from operational management are unable to acknowledge unworkable strategies. Blind spots develop as an organisational defence mechanism for coping with problems resulting from attempts to implement unrealistic strategy or policy goals. Marianna Fotaki and Paula Hyde, in their research on this topic in the National Health Service (England) note: “Unrealistic strategic aims mobilise and reinforce blind spots through processes of splitting, blame and idealisation, thus enabling organisations to persist with unsuccessful courses of action. These blind spots sustain an illusory possibility of success while commitment to a failing strategy escalates”. These dysfunctions of strategy thus develop and become institutionalised, placing organisations in jeopardy and threatening their survival.
Organisations need an escalation of commitment by those in leadership to identify and address blind spots – failure to do so could lead to disaster: Swiss watch manufacturers, highly regarded as the best in the world, invented Quartz movement. It was, however, disregarded by industry thought leaders because they considered the quality of the quartz design inferior to the traditional mechanical way of doing things. Japan’s Seiko watch company adopted the quartz methodology to fill the demand for inexpensive watches and, within ten years, the Swiss watch makers market share fell from 65% to just below 10%. Sadly, it is estimated that as many as 50 000 Swiss watch makers lost their jobs on account of the blind spot.
Organisational blind spots are common and they creep up on you. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, talks at length about this reality in his book, Creativity Inc. He cites three levels of blind spots and mysteriously refers to them as “the hidden”:
- People bring the best versions of themselves when they interact with their bosses and save their lesser moments for their peers, spouses, or therapists. Catmull says, “Unfortunately most leaders aren’t aware of it when it’s happening. They either forget or don’t even realise that when they get promoted to a leadership position. No one will ever actually say, ‘Now that you are a manager, I can no longer be as open and brutally honest with you.’ Instead, many new leaders assume, wrongly, that their access to information is unchanged.” When information is lacking, you must train yourself to believe that blind spots are present and growing.
- Some people choose to tell the boss only what they want to hear instead of what needs to be said. When this happens, it’s impossible for the leader to get a clear picture of reality. What makes it even harder is that by telling the leader what they want to hear, they end up endearing themselves to that leader. Who doesn’t like that? Catmull says, “When viewed from a single vantage point, a full picture of the dynamics of any group is elusive. While we are all aware of these kinds of behaviours because we see them in others, most of us do not realise that we distort our own view of the world, largely because we think we see more than we actually do.”
- The people doing the day-to-day work in the trenches deal with complex processes that are accompanied with their own challenges and specific nuances. The leader is typically capable of understanding those issues if they are brought to him and explained. But the people who are directly involved have the clearest understanding of the issues because they are in the middle of the action. If a disaster is looming, they will know about it before the leader does. The biggest problem is that employees typically don’t bring those problems up to the leadership right away. Even employees with the best track records can be too tentative to speak up when they sense trouble. They could feel it’s too early to involve upper leadership, or they might assume that management is already aware. Catmull makes an outstanding point, “Complex environments are, by definition, too complicated for any one person to grasp fully. Yet many managers, afraid of appearing to not be in control, believe that they have to know everything – or at least act like they do.”
Organisations need “split rear-facing mirrors” to identify blind spots. Leaders need to:
- Embrace differing view-points – as Catmull notes: “If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse.”
- Refuse to be blinded by success – success persuades us to believe that we are doing everything right. Refuse to believe your own press and build deeper relationships across the organisation. When you do, it will be easier to dig deeper into the views of your employees because you will have established trust with those that live in them.
- Create feedback mechanisms – organisations that do well with this create regular rhythms where employees, who are known for telling the truth vs. saying what’s convenient, sit down with upper management to give important feedback. Title is not a ticket to get into the boardroom. Instead, a consistent history of sound, candid feedback along with innovative solution design establishes the value the leadership needs to avoid imminent disaster.
Overcoming organisational blind spots requires split rear-facing mirrors – feedback mechanisms that illuminate what we are missing in terms of our understanding. If we continue missing impending danger, our competition will overtake us.