Take Off Those Blinders and See the Truth
In many ways, The Power of Noticing, the latest book from the prolific Max Bazerman, will somewhat dishearten his readers - if not enrage them. In sometimes horrific and often damning detail, Bazerman exposes the disastrous consequences of having leaders with blinders on who fail to notice - or pretend not to notice - what is truly happening around them.
From Cheating to Tragedies
The litany of cases described by Bazerman involves many incidents barely known by the public, such as the story of a medicine whose price grew in a few years from $50 per vial to $28,000 - yes three zeroes- per vial; the Harvard professor who was faking his data; and the egregious misdirection used by politicians and marketers (and magicians) to fool the public. There are also some well-known cases:
- Morton Thiokol and NASA scientists failed to notice the pattern of low-temperature failures of its O-rings and, as a result, went forward with a low-temperature launch of the Shuttle Challenger. Seven astronauts lost their lives in the ensuing mid-air explosion.
- Penn State officials and staff, from the president of the university, to the famed coach of the football team, to other coaches, failed to take decisive action, not even calling the police, in the face of recurring reports of rapes of young boys by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
- Enron’s Board of Directors, despite specific accusations from a whistleblower and a warning from the company’s auditors that Enron was “pushing the limits” of accounting propriety, did nothing to investigate the possibility of wrongdoing.
Solutions for Ending the Madness
Although based at both the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, Bazerman is not an ivory-tower pundit criticizing from the sidelines. Instead, he travels the world, pushing for solutions to unethical behavior and decision-making. In this book, Bazerman offers concise suggestions for preventing the abuses and crimes he documents. Three of these suggestions include:
- Ask for the data. Many decisions are made based on the data presented. Decision-makers need to determine if more data is needed and what kind, and then to request that data. NASA scientists could have received the cold-temperature test results from Morton Thiokol and prevented the loss of seven lives.
- Attack motivated blindness. Often, leaders who look the other way in the face of wrongdoing have deep-seated motivations to do so - such as protecting their university (the Sandusky scandal) or the church (in the case of the Catholic Church scandal).The solutions are clear: leaders have the responsibility to fully notice the facts and to act when it’s appropriate. And those who fail to act on reports of wrongdoing must face clear consequences. Finally, leaders must provide decision-makers in their organizations with the incentive to speak up.
- Systemic changes. Bazerman has been working for years to convince policy makers to reform the auditing industry, in which companies pay the auditors - thus creating an almost insurmountable incentive for auditors to please their paymasters. Industry blindness occurs in many other industries and must be equally addressed with reform.
As with most of his works, The Power of Noticing offers Bazerman’s uniquely qualified insight into how the world works and how it should work.