Where Is Your Blind Spot?
For a business, being able to clearly analyze your own weaknesses may be the secret to fully uncovering your greatest strengths
Every working stiff would like to succeed in business. I think we can take this as a given. Success is impossible without really trying, but trying may not always be enough. For no apparent reason, things can go awry at critical moments. Try as we may, we never quite “get there,” and if we reach our goals, the rewards are somehow less than expected.It’s all too easy to blame disappointments on other people, external conditions, even goblins and gremlins. But what if the recurring obstacle is actually something that you keep doing at the wrong time? Or something that you continually overlook, can’t see, never take notice of?That something is your own personal blind spot. Since blind spots are notoriously hard to spot, even harder to penetrate and understand, and virtually impossible to change, perhaps ignoring them is the best option. Every car has a blind spot in the rear view mirror, but we have to keep moving forward. Otherwise, what’s the point of sitting inside a ton and a half of steel and plastic?So on we go, cruising down the highway. Until we have to change lanes. Then what’s in the blind spot becomes critically important. Ignorance may be bliss, but it can be very counterproductive.Searching out patternsBreaking through the barrier of ignorance is difficult. Ignorance, the state, is the result of the act of ignoring something. This act could become a habit so instinctive that we no longer recognize it. To investigate individual blind spots, we have to construct a 30,000-foot overview of our own lives. This is not easy. It takes time and preparation to get up to 30,000 feet. It takes persistence to keep looking without focusing too tightly, so the patterns can emerge. When you begin to see how one unfortunate incident resembles another, you’re getting close. When you can entertain the possibility that your own actions or inactions contributed to those consequences, you’re even closer. Whatever parts other people may have played, the only part that you have any chance of changing in the future is your own. Character and fate are interlinked: change one and you change the other.But before you can change your character, you have to see it. This is not easy: one blind spot shows up as many different kinds of behavior. What links them is the thing that they allow you to ignore. Shakespearean tragedy provides some clear examples. Othello was rendered vulnerable to manipulation by his jealousy, Macbeth by his ambition. Hamlet retreated from action into analysis and introspection. In classical tragedies, reversal of fortune leads to self-awareness, but understanding dawns too late to escape the blows of fate.That makes for a neat and tidy, if somewhat depressing third act. Fortunately, real life is messy and disorganized. Chaos creates moments of freedom. But we have to be able to see the light through the cracks in order to slip through them.Organizations have blind spots too. For example, procedures that worked perfectly well when they were put in place may have become counterproductive. The way things are right now often gets confused with how things were some time ago. Now that we’ve figured out how to win the last war, it’s tempting to fight it over again. Except, the world has moved on.Complicity vs. ComplianceI’m not advocating improvised anarchy in the workplace. People cannot cooperate without some kind of rules and guidelines, some set of shared assumptions and goals. Over time, many of these rules become implicit, which means they’re strictly obeyed, but never openly discussed. In fact, not talking about implicit rules is almost always one of the prime rules of an organization.Prohibiting discussion of first principles is a way of ensuring stability. But the world in which our organizations have to operate is not static—it’s constantly changing. If our assumptions become invalid and no one notices—because no one is allowed to notice—difficulties will arise. Soon, fingers are pointing as people look to assign blame. But picking a scapegoat is only a way to keep everyone’s eyes averted from the blind spot.Working through organizational blind spots is hard because they are so tightly entwined with in-house politics. Power relationships get confused all too easily with wisdom relationships. The people who can shed some light on an organizational blind spot are almost always those who have a small stake in maintaining the status quo. Those without political authority may have more knowledge and insight into a particular situation than the leaders and managers who are supposed to deal with it—and who probably had a hand in creating it.The Toyota Way is a famous example of how a very large organization managed to open its eyes. Toyota did not send a squadron of engineers, supervisors and managers onto the factory floor to improve its processes and products. Toyota opened its hierarchy by creating quality circles that encouraged hourly wage factory workers to point out things that were inefficient or ineffective. When Toyota began to gain market share in America during the 1980s and 1990s, Detroit made some attempts to implement quality circles, lean manufacturing and other buzzy terms that attempted to simplify Sakichi Toyoda’s technique of the “five whys.” When these failed, management put the blame on the workers, rather than looking at their own personal blind spots. The results are there for all to see: American auto manufacturers almost went out of business, and only a combination of government bailouts and massive rethinking of assumptions by owners, managers and workers has allowed these companies to continue in operation. Things don’t always get this drastic, but every organization needs to reinvent itself periodically, or fail. This is how, and where, individual blind spots become organizational blind spots. The more power you have in a situation, the greater your responsibility to exercise it wisely.
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