Business blind spots

2014

It is a well known fact among those of us who ride motorcycles that drivers of other types of vehicles often cannot see us. When I mention that they cannot see us, I'm referring to the fact that human beings are sometimes physically incapable of processing what the eye is witnessing into an image that our brains can translate into something that we can recognize - in a sense, we have a virtual blind spot.

Why is that so? There are many factors. However, part of the answer is related to the "Theory of Incongruency" which suggests that our expectations cloud our perception. If we don't expect to see a bike on the road, we simply will not see it - even if that Harley-Davidson is right in front of us.

Simply put, we see what we expect to see. The rest falls prey to a virtual blind spot created by our brains when something appears that is not expected.

The same type of blind spot can exist in business. Due to the Theory of Incongruency, many breakthrough ideas are ignored or dismissed because business leaders are unable to see the value of a new idea that doesn't fit within their current expectations of what will work within their firm or industry.

There's a classic example that had a devastating impact within the Swiss watch making business. Did you know that the Swiss invented Quartz movement watches? Indeed, the technology came out of one of the Swiss watch industry labs, but, was quickly disregarded by industry thought leaders because they considered the quality of the quartz design inferior to the traditional, mechanical way of doing things.

Seeing the potential while visiting a widely attended industry trade show, the Seiko watch company of Japan adopted the quartz technology to fill the demand for inexpensive watches, and within 10 years, the Swiss watch maker's market share fell from 65% to below 10%. Sadly, it is estimated that as many as 50,000 Swiss watch makers lost their jobs because of the blind spot.

How do we, as business leaders, avoid the blind spot? There is no formula. However, taking steps to get out of our personal comfort zones is a good place to start. It expands our horizons and shrinks our blind spots by developing a greater awareness of other ways of thinking and doing. Some simple suggestions may include:

  • Drive a different route to work for a month
  • Go to an art gallery
  • Talk to somebody new every day
  • Try some new food
  • Get your news from a different source
  • Ask for help
  • Forgive someone
  • Take a dance lesson

By expanding our own consciousness we open ourselves up to seeing more of what there is to see.

Shifting the Business
But pushing ourselves out of the comfort zone is not enough to ensure success. In order to shrink business blind spots, we need to shake things up a bit at an organizational-level, too. Some ideas include adopting some of these practices:

Leave Your Stripes at the Door - create opportunities to discuss "big ideas" with subordinates and listen carefully to their ideas. Don't dismiss something that sounds silly, it may be the Theory on Incongruency kicking in.

De-Emphasize the Hierarchy - break tradition when in the process of problem-solving on broad organizational issues, skip level down into the organization and gain new perspectives. Just be sure to let your management team know that you're going to be doing it, so that they don't overreact.

Confront Fear - if you witness behavior that may be construed as posturing among your management team, call them on it. Discuss the behavior try to get at the underlying cause. It could be that an unfounded fear or concern is stifling breakthrough thinking.

Discourage Group Think - rather, promote speaking for one's self. Whenever you hear someone on your management team begin a sentence with something like, "I think we all believe…" it is quite possible that you have fallen into some form of group think.

Squelch it immediately. Ask your staff member to speak for just his or herself. In this way, you're encouraging others to express their opinions, too. This establishes an environment where topics can be debated and counter views can be expressed without fear of reprisal.

Encourage Diversity and Inclusion - people at different levels of status, with different skills, styles, and backgrounds, can all earn the right to participate, influence, decide, lead, and succeed. Include different people with diverse backgrounds and experiences in the discussion. You may be surprised at the outcome.

Create Recognition Opportunities - sometimes terrific opportunities (think Swiss watch makers) are repressed by a corporate culture that has demonstrated that it is not open to new ideas. By establishing mechanisms that foster ways for individuals or work units to be recognized for "out of the box" thinking, a leader can begin to change the very culture that has inadvertently muted the growth potential of a business.

Just Shake It Up - force the organization out of its comfort zone by doing things that break tradition. Bring a boom box to your next quarterly staff meeting and play some upbeat music while your people are gathering. Host a question and answer session with subordinates and toss a candy to a person that asks a good question or raises an important issue. Do something that shakes up the norm.

To Close
Don't let the Theory of Incongruency create organizational blind spots that can hinder your enterprise's ability to see all there is to see - even when your firm is confronted by something that it didn't expect or predict. By seeking out ways to shake things up, both personally and professionally, we can create an environment that enables the kind of thinking and problem-solving needed to identify the next "big thing."

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About The Author

James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr

James M. Kerr is the Global Chair of the Culture Transformation Practice at N2Growth and the author of The Executive Checklist. A specialist in organizational design and cultural transformation, he has been helping clients re-imagine the way work is organized and performed for more than 25 years. Kerr’s next book is due out later in 2016 and focuses on leadership and strategy-setting.