Managing blind spots

What you don’t know is easy enough to manage, just ask the experts or request help from competent people. But what do you do with your blind spots – the problems that you are not even aware of? It has been our observation, over the years, that many Top Managers operate unaware of their own blind spots. The same can be said of Middle Managers and Co-workers. Let’s have a look at what some serious scientific surveys have to say about this.

The Iceberg of Ignorance
Sidney Yoshida’s 1989 study, ‘The Iceberg of Ignorance’, called our attention to what he calls an ‘ignorance gap’. Using the metaphor of an iceberg, he suggests that only a small percentage of a company’s problems is visible to Top Managers, while Co-workers are able to see the majority of the problems. Hence the gap.

As you can see, this indicates that Middle Management are simply unaware of about 95% of the problems that a company struggles with as a whole. To put it another way, they run a severe risk of taking decisions in the dark that may end up being counter productive and, if they are unlucky, truly detrimental for the company.

More recently, in a 2015 blog, Larry McManis revisited the iceberg metaphor, confirming its relevance. He added some data from ‘Think Points® transformation survey’. His main points are summarised in the following charts.

Once again, we see a gap, in this case between what Top Management sees and what people in the rest of the company can clearly observe.

Is this really a problem?
You may object to this and say, is it really relevant for Top Management to have a detailed grasp of the problems in the company at large?  And you would be right, obviously Top Management need not know everything going on in a company – that is not the issue.

However, if there are major problems regarding how the organisation works – big problems that co-workers are painfully aware of, since it impacts their work heavily – then, equally obviously, this becomes something that Top Management should be fully aware of.  And not merely aware of – in such situations, attention and action is absolutely needed from Top Management. If we have an Ignorance Gap where some 35% of Top Managers happily cruise along, unaware of severe malfunctions in the company – that is not a small problem!

Referring back to the graphs above, if Top Management live in a world of optimistic illusions, ignorant of the fact that their company lacks:

  • efficient, effective processes with minimal waste and bureaucracy
  • ‘ways of working seamlessly across departmental lines to achieve common goals
  • ‘ways of working collaboratively… so the best ideas are surfaced, made better, and acted on quickly

… then we have a very serious problem indeed. Then we are talking about a Top Management Blind Spot that can severely damage the competitive power of the company.

Dealing with Management Ignorance
‘The Iceberg of Ignorance’, and other similar studies, long ago triggered a number of managerial ideas, such as suggestion boxes, quality circles, and other forms of engagement in continuous improvement programs. Many of these ideas were short-lived and quite a few were unsuccessful. We believe the reason for many of these failures has to do with not placing these initiatives firmly enough into a strategic context. In addition, most of them also lacked a sustainable work structure to support them.

Furthermore, many of these programs reek of a patriarchal, condescending attitude, out of tune with modern values: “We do it to keep the co-workers and unions happy. But we better monitor and evaluate all proposals carefully, we cannot waste money on useless ideas.”

With such an approach we end up just one step away from simply ignoring what the local expertise have to say. This patriarchal way of asking for help in improving the company, without also providing people with the authority to take decisions and move into action by themselves, lacks the mutual trust you need if you honestly want their full participation and substantial concrete results.

Co-worker Blind Spots
In any traditional company setting most Co-workers act as if blind folded. They are simply unaware of many of the most crucial strategic priorities; they are often far removed from the customer and his needs; they have limited, if any, knowledge about what their competitors are up to. They are also often blissfully ignorant about the true meaning behind the numbers they see at Quarterly Updates from management and in general lack a good grasp of needs and working conditions in other parts of the workflow. No wonder this gives rise to Co-worker Blind Spots, where actions and initiatives are misguided, if they are even started at all. Mistakes that could be avoided with a fully informed helicopter perspective.

Blind Spot Remedy
The interesting thing is that all of these Blind Spots respond well to the same remedy – a Strategic Dialogue and a workstructure where Top Management, Middle Management and all Co-workers can have a ‘meeting of minds’ on a regular basis.

Some hands-on advice and proposals:

  1. Set up a re-occurring strategic dialogue with everyone in your company. Preferably in groups no bigger than 50 people, to make a real honest dialog possible.
  2. Make sure it is a two-way dialogue, not just a top-down communication. Make sure everyone feels comfortable enough to speak their mind. You want them to feel free to ask difficult questions and dare to give voice to differing opinions. This takes quite a bit of Top Management trust and humility, but it pays back heavily in terms of increased mutual trust and eliminates a lot of blind spots.
  3. Then you ask everyone for help! You split up and let everyone move into the teams they belong to in their day-to-day work. You invite them to discuss, identify and then publicly share their best contribution to your strategy.

By: Mats Eriksson and Lasse Ramquist