“What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.”Isaac Newton
The Blind Men and The Elephant
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had arrived in the town. None of them was aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. When they found it the elephant, they groped about it.
The first man, whose hand landed on the trunk, said: “This being is like a thick snake“.
The next man reached the ear and said, ” It is a kind of fan.”
The next, whose hand was upon its leg, said, “Elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk.”
The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, “Elephant is a wall“.
Another who felt its tail described it as “a rope”.
The last man felt the tusk and reasoned that elephant is, “smooth like a spear”.
None of them could agree.
This parable highlights the limited and subjective behaviour of experts. It is increasingly relevant in our world today where we are creating information much faster than we can digest it. Estimates tell us, we have created 90% of the data on the internet in last two years and that we create more data every two days than from dawn of man to the year 2000. With such an exponential rise of information, we do not have the mental capacity to know it all. Therefore, collaboration and the ability to work well with others has become a top desired skill. This is the case within organisations and in the very fabric of society itself. If we behave like the blind men and the elephant, we may know a lot about a little, but we will never survive as a society. We are facing a multitude of wicked problems, defined as “Social or cultural problems that are difficult or impossible to solve for reasons including: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. One expert alone will ever solve such problems, to do so we need to work together.
The global environment is transforming at a rapid pace, even before this global pandemic. Covid-19 is an accelerant to the change, which was already in motion. If we do not transform our organisations in line with change in the environment, we accelerate our demise. The people who make up those organisations must also evolve, because you cannot change business models until you first change mental models. For this Thursday Thought, I want to highlight a mindset we can foster in our organisations, “the obligation to dissent”.
The Obligation to Dissent
“We should be inherently suspicious of experts, because experts are knowledgeable about what the previous framing was. While in a world where the framing changes quickly, expertise can blind you to more creative solutions.”Charles Conn (Innovation Show EP:221)
Charles Conn is the author of Bullet Proof Problem Solving. Charles works with the world’s top CEOs and business leaders. Charles emphasised how skilled leaders recognise the need for diverse opinions and respect dissenting voices. As a former senior leader with McKinsey, he enjoyed the firm’s “obligation to dissent”. When organisations cultivate psychological safety, everyone from intern to board member does not have the “opportunity to dissent”, they have an obligation to do so. Speaking up when you disagree with something is not optional, it is obligatory. Why is this?
The average human brain makes up only 2% of our body weight, but accounts for 20–30% of our energy and oxygen. Despite its relatively small size, the brain has a large energy budget. To optimise caloric consumption, our bodies conserve energy wherever possible. One way we conserve energy is to develop habits, biases and mental shortcuts known as heuristics. One result of such shortcuts is that our brains become prediction machines and seek evidence of our existing beliefs. This bias towards confirming information is so strong that we often miss information that is staring us in the face. We call this inattentional blindness and it can cause disastrous consequences.
Dr Trafton Drew designed a study to investigate inattentional blindness with a group of highly skilled experts. He developed a research protocol in which he took a picture of a man in a gorilla suit shaking his fist, and he superimposed that image on a series of slides that radiologists typically look at when they’re searching for cancer. The gorilla was roughly the size of a book of matches or forty-eight times larger than an average cancer nodule. He then asked a group of expert radiologists to review the slides of lungs for cancerous nodules. He wanted to see if they would notice a gorilla the size of a matchbook glaring angrily at them from inside the slide. Have a look below.
Doctors who have rigorously trained to view the details of a lung scan, given the fact that people’s lives could be on the line, should easily spot a picture of a gorilla superimposed on it, right? 83 percent of the radiologists did not notice the gorilla. The problem was not that they couldn’t see the gorilla. The problem was that their brains did not register what their eyes were seeing. Their minds were so focused on looking at cancer nodules that something as seemingly obvious as a picture of a gorilla, albeit in an entirely unfamiliar context, was essentially invisible! When we are so focused on one thing, we can often miss things that are unexpected, even if they are highly unusual. Even experts are subject to limitations of our attentional systems. In a world where information is flowing faster than ever before, we need others to cover our blind spots; we need colleagues to dissent and we need to have the humility to accept disconfirming information.
I am not saying we do not need experts, more than ever we need people who are passionate about certain subjects. What we need is experts who will collaborate, share their findings, collaborate with others and solve wicked problems. That starts with each of us individually and then the organisations we work for.
THANKS FOR READING AND IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN WEBINARS, MODULES OR KEYNOTES ON BIAS AND COLLABORATION PLEASE GET IN TOUCH, I WOULD BE DELIGHTED TO WORK WITH TEAMS SEEKING LASTING CHANGE
2 Great Episodes on this week’s Innovation Show:
EP 221 is “Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything with Charles Conn”
More about Charles here: https://bulletproofproblemsolving.com/
EP 222 is “The Drama-Free Workplace: How You Can Prevent Unconscious Bias, Sexual Harassment, Ethics Lapses, and Inspire a Healthy Culture” with Patti Perez
More about Patti here: https://persuasionpoint.com/the-drama-free-work/
Both episodes available below: