Dave Snowden

Wilful blindness

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Fools_Paradise_colorCopy.jpegOne of the pleasures of returning home is to catch up on the various magazines I subscribe to. For the record these are The New Statesman, Nature, New Scientist & Searchlight and I suppose you should add the The Guardian and The Independent Apps to that list. Searchlight is for wikipedia editing purposes of which more tomorrow as its an anniversary.

To come to the point the 8th of August edition of the New Statesman had an outstanding post-Murdoch article by Margaret Heffernan based on her book Willful Blindness using that books sub-title Why we ignore the obvious at our peril, a title for which Hugh’s cartoon is highly appropriate; it could have been drawn for the Murdochs.

Summarising Heffernan’s article

The basic principle of willful blindness was established in British Law in 1861in the case of Regina v Sleep with the wonderful phrase willfully shut his eyes to the fact. Now this post is not about the Murdoch, father/son, or the Catholic Church’s attitude to pederasts as cases, but it is about power. Heffernan makes the general point well with examples from Lehman Brothers, Greenspan’s blindness to unregulated derivatives and the medical profession continuing to X-Ray mothers long after the evidence was present of the harm to infants. She also summarises a lot of the research in the field. Milgram’s 1961 experiments that showed most people will act in unethical ways when told to do so by someone in authority, Asch’s 1950s work on people conforming, preferring to give an obviously wrong answer than to stand out. Interestingly the MRI scans on more recent repetitions of that experiment show that less conscious thinking takes place at the moment of conformance.s

She also brings out well the nature of cults, referencing Jim Jones’s “Peoples Temple” and the willingness of members of that cult to “surrender critical judgement in exchange for social acceptance”. She makes the connection to business, where most large corporations end up with a cult around the personal of the CEO. Interestingly she quotes from BP’s John Browne: “I wish someone had challenged me and been crave enough to say, ‘We need to ask more disagreeable questions.'” Having had some experience of major corporations I would suggest that bravery here would have been foolhardiness.

Now diagnosis is easy, correction is harder. Although we can make it harder for people to escape the consequences of willful blindness, that is retrospective correction (and coherence), it creates some boundaries, adds some inhibition or caution but it doesn’t get the heart of the matter. All the scientific evidence is that we are (with some honorable exceptions) a conformist species and this manifests itself in multiple ways.

Sidebar on personal IBM history to make a related point.

I remember back in the early days of IBM when I was creating my first waves of dissent, in part as I had no experience of bureaucracy. In DataSciences and Datasolve before then marketing, consultancy, technical staff all worked together in small units. The Genus programme in DSL (which I must post about sometime, I need to go and get the material from the loft) had been put together by a small team (less than five) with my reporting directly to the board. IBM had told us that they had acquired us as we understood services and didn’t want to change the way we worked. So I put together the basic stuff on knowledge management and tried to work with the consultancy group. Then I discovered the politics of a large organisation. The organic approach I was developing then did not match the orthodoxy.

To cut a long story short, there were all sorts of nastiness over the best part of a year. Having failed to have me fired and facing the inconvenient fact that the market, journals and conferences were not subject to IBM control, a senior member of the consultancy group approached me with an offer. They would promote me and move me to another area in return for my giving up KM as a subject. The individual concerned was genuinely amazed when I turned the offer down as he couldn’t understand that I was passionate about the subject, not just playing some clever political game. The latter was the biggest shock, as far as he was concerned the subject didn’t matter, what did matter was targets, position and conformance. Later that year by the way, both Larry Prusak and I were excluded from the creation of the IBM “official KM slide set” which was then mandated. I by then had learnt something about politics so agreed to use the slides in preference to any of my own and from that point onwards simply spoke without slides.

So what do we do?

If we look at history we find lots of ways in which power could be challenged without threat. Lets take a couple of examples

  • The Jester was licensed to challenge those in authority. Of course they had to wear a silly hat (ritual entry into role) but they could prick the conscious of a King. A decade or so ago British Airways appointed a jester who, provided they were ritually dressed, could enter any meeting and say anything to anyone. A form of devils advocate.
  • There are many examples of Kings, dressing as a commoner and going into the streets to listen to what was being said. Interestingly something that also appears on more ancient myths – you should always treat a stranger well as you never knew if they were a God playing games or not.

My point in those examples is that the problem is a long standing one, and ways have been used in the past to resolve the matter, or at least reduce the risk. Now over the years I’ve been involved in a whole bunch or methods and practices that are designed to allow authority to be challenged. They might be considered a matter of self-preservation, or just plane cantankerousness but so be it. By way of contribution to removing the log from various eyes I offer them here for comment/use/adaption.

  • Ritual dissent can be adapted for this purpose either using physical or virtual environments. The key aspect of the approach is that a plan or idea is challenged with the challengers anonymised through ritual or cloaking (I’ve been catching up on star trek via DVD). Ideally ideas should be presented in their early formation period before people get too wedded to them. I’ve used rooms with two way mirrors, actors to respell and rephrase criticisms for third parties, vital chat rooms with user IDs and even run comments through translators at times to make sure harsh criticisms are not traceable. This can be sold to CEOs as a immunization approach to test how ideas will be received. External people can also be used. A process by which all major ideas, policy etc. goes through some sort of anonymous panel review process at key stages in its formation is not to difficult to institute.
  • The virtual world allows for feedback. Some years ago (and I wrote this up but can’t at the moment remember which article) I was working with an enlightened CEO of a pharma company in the early days of virtual communities. Partly inspired by Rosa Stone’s bleak but fascinating book about identity changes in virtual communities we set one up based on IDs. The CEO had three or four IDs and used it to ask questions or present ideas to an audience who did not know who he was. It was very successful and he was also able to take the Henry V role (Act IV Prologue, Henry goes amount the troops dressed as a commoner before battle) from time to time.
  • In more recent times blogging seems to provide aspects of this without the need for disguise. Of course the CEO has to blog for themselves, not get a member of staff to do it for them. There is a honesty to blogging, both in what you say and what your hear, but its not a short term option.
  • Formalised use of techniques such as pre-mortums can again make a difference, they create a fictionalized space in which ideas can be put forward. That said the person who destroys the idea will still be known/visible so it may be best conducted with an anonymous set of actors
  • Medical and academic research requires proposals to be first approved by an ethics committee. Now this is an adventuresome proposal but imagine a company that set up such a committee composed of the worthy but pragmatic; ideally from outside of the organisation. The CEO would be free to peruse an approach without approval (we need to be practical here) but the formal advise would be on record. This is the sort of thing that could become a market differentiator by the way so its not only a restraint its a way of gaining market share.

Five is enough to be going on with for the moment and you may have noticed a common theme. None of the above are about trying to tell the executive how to behave, they are all about setting up processes that change the environment within which the executive acts. That is another of those key distinctions between complexity thinking and systems dynamics not to mention fluffy bunny consultants. We don’t try and create an ideal person with all the right competences, we change the environment and interactions so desirable behavior is more likely to emerge. We don’t assume a false causality, but instead work with the systems dispositions.

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