Friday, 5 December 2014

'Wilful Blindness' by Margaret Heffernan - a review

Where to start with this book?  It's brilliant.
Margaret Heffernan is a businesswoman, writer and academic whose book, ‘Wilful Blindness’ examines how individuals and organisations alike fail to see or acknowledge things that common sense or hindsight suggests should have been obvious.
In the field of Knowledge Management (KM), we often encounter issues that cause, or have been caused by, such poor vision.  Lessons capture workshop discussions usually reveal facts that were known to all but were never acknowledged at the time when to do so might have made a difference.  Furthermore, the reluctance or inability of some organisations to act upon such lessons can be partly explained by the ideas explored in this book.
Using examples from personal relationships, academic experiments, oil companies, the City, the military and healthcare, the book sets out many different ways in which we blind ourselves to what is happening:
·        Affinity and ‘love is blind’ – the book starts with us as individuals, exploring the concepts of ‘affinity’ and love blindness – whereby we usually end up in relationships similar to us and allow our feelings for partners, family or friends to obscure certain negative aspects of their lives (e.g. unpleasant traits or even health problems).
·        Ideology, convictions and cognitive dissonance – ideologies provide a framework within which we try to make sense of the world but when facts appear to contradict our interpretation, many of us will ignore them as inconvenient or will refuse to act in ways that go against our beliefs, because to do so would force us to admit such beliefs are flawed.
·        Tiredness and distractions – there is a limit to how many hours of work anyone can do before becoming tired.  Furthermore, chronic tiredness (i.e. the result of a lack of sleep over many days or weeks) can result not just in ‘blindness’ but hallucination.  The book also looks at the ‘myth of multi-tasking’ and sets out how we can actually only focus on a limited number of activities or information feeds at any one time.  Against such a backdrop, the case for well-rested aircrew and bans on mobile phone use whilst driving makes a lot of sense.
·        ‘Sticking one’s head in the sand’ – like the myth of the ostrich, we refuse to acknowledge information that, deep down, we know will require us to act.  As individuals we let debts accrue, ignoring the letters from the bank and loan companies.  We indulge in habits such as smoking, drinking and tanning despite the evidence of harm.  Within organisations, people often prefer the status quo to change and so remain silent, not wanting to ‘rock the boat’.
·        ‘Blind obedience’ – strict hierarchies enable effective execution of strategy but without feedback mechanisms or the ability for employees to exercise discretion, unintended consequences are common.  It’s not just military orders that result in unforeseen outcomes, poorly-designed business targets also lead to short-cuts, accidents and death.
·        Cultural conformity – cultures can be positive and enabling just as they can be negative and restrictive.  In the latter case, the unspoken, implied requirements to conform inhibit employees’ creativity, restrict free discussion between them and lead them towards tribalism and ‘groupthink’.  In such environments, anything approaching honesty is tantamount to career suicide.
·        By-standers – the book reveals that when passing someone having a heart attack in a busy street, most people will walk on by, each presuming that someone else will deal the situation.  However, when faced with such a situation on one’s own, most people will try to help.  Additionally, scrutiny actually reduces with every extra layer of oversight.  Again, this is partly explained by a reluctance to stand out, a fear of embarrassment and a presumption that others know better than oneself.  This chapter notably concludes with a chilling letter from a farmer, complaining of having to witness the brutal treatment of prisoners at the nearby Mauthausen concentration camp in World War Two Austria at which, he wrote,
“…inmates are being shot repeatedly; those badly struck live for yet some time, and so remain lying next to the dead for hours and even half a day long.  My property lies upon an elevation next to the Vienna Ditch and one is often an unwilling witness to such outrages.  I am anyway sickly and such a sight makes such a demand on my nerves that in the long run I cannot bear this.  I request that it be arranged that such inhuman deeds be discontinued, or else be done where one does not have to see it.”

·        Out of sight, out of mind – distanced leadership cannot lead; at least, not in the fullest sense of the word.  Remote leaders can be geographically removed from the bulk of their staff but also by structure and attitude.  Just as organisations can be structurally dysfunctional, so the behaviour of management filters out unwelcome truths, reducing yet further its chances of making well-informed decisions.
·        Cassandras and whistle-blowers – perhaps the most depressing chapter is devoted to those brave few that not only see what is happening around them but are prepared to tell others.  To begin with, they use the proper internal channels and find their concerns ignored, belittled or denied – some are sacked at even this point.  Then they resort to leaking information to the media, risking the wrath of their former employers and colleagues whose guilt leads them to attack the messenger.
Margaret Heffernan concludes by suggesting what organisations (businesses, notably) can do to “see better”.  Obviously, with so many ways in which we can hide the truth from ourselves and others, some significant effort is required so that those with the power to make decisions do so with all the facts before them.
We’ll look at these ideas in a future blog post.
For now, suffice to say that this is an excellent book for anyone interested in management, leadership, politics or those with a curiosity about why some things go wrong and how we can learn from them. 
My only slight criticism relates to a couple of minor assertions that appear to belie the author’s own political viewpoint instead of flowing from rational argument but then, as she is good enough to concede, we all have our own biases.
To discuss how your organisation learns, if at all, or to explore how KM can help it to avoid some of the issues discussed here, please visit for the Knoco website or contact me direct.

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