by Tom Rieger
We Simplify. We Unify. We Justify. And Then We Fail.
And after we fail, we look back and ask ourselves why we didn’t see it coming. There are spectacular examples of this, including US Steel, Lehman Bros., Sears, and 38 Studios, but there are smaller lesser-known examples that happen all the time, in literally every organization we have studied.
Picture a situation where a team is under tremendous pressure to ensure that an initiative is successful. They have to show that the idea is correct, and need to muster that proof right now. Gut instinct, seeking out data that proves they are right, and judging the merit of new information against what they already believe to be true are all traps that they may fall into. When that happens, contradictory information may be discounted, and feelings may rule over facts.
When we don’t have time to do careful and deliberate analysis, we try to simplify and find the quickest and easiest way we can to support our position. That may be expedient, but unfortunately, in reality science tends to win out over hope and convenience.
One data scientist told me that she did an analysis which didn’t prove what the requestor wanted to prove. He made her repeat it. And then repeat it again. And again. Each time, the requesting manager tweaked the assumptions until it proved he was “right,” even though the facts proved him wrong multiple times.
As economist Richard Coase once said, “if you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”
The pressure to “be right” and “prove your case” can be intense. So intense, we may end up taking mental shortcuts without even realizing we are doing it. Or make up a reason to think it’s OK.
Once we are convinced that we are right, we then need to unify our team to ensure that others are on board. That might mean open conflict with other teams that disagree or are competing for resources, or at a minimum, it could mean taking a very parochial view of what is best for the overall mission. It can also mean that with all that manufactured excitement, and with all of that pressure to succeed, people with objections may be hesitant to speak up.
As one business analyst told me, “I am too low of a level to tell an executive producer they are wrong, even if I know that I am right.”
The cost of unify blindspots can be immense, even tragic. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was defeated in a day; afterward, many members of Kennedy’s cabinet, including the President himself, asked themselves why no one spoke up when everyone suspected it was a bad idea. The Challenger disaster could have been averted, if the concerns of the engineers could have been raised and heard in time. The list goes on and on.
Under all that pressure to conform and unify, we become tribal. When we form a tribe that’s separate from the broader organization, we risk creating a mission of our own that may not be in the overall best interest of everyone.
And then finally, the organization needs to make a decision. At that point, are the champions of an idea objective evaluators of the truth, or are they salespeople making a one-sided pitch? Is good money thrown after bad, or are programs viewed on their own merit? In other words, do we evaluate an idea objectively, or do we try to justify our position?
Vulnerability to these blindspots comes from threats, stress, and pressure. When under the gun, the more logical part of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex) gets flooded with cortisol and other biochemicals that tend to shut it down, so that our emotions, survival instincts, and rapid-reaction ability can take over. We think we are still being deliberate and logical, but it becomes nearly impossible to act that logically under intense emotions and threats.
If you start with an assessment of what triggers you, and what types of things are most important to other team members or decision-makers, you can map out how and where the organization is vulnerable to blindspots, and where damage may occur… as well as how to overcome these blindspots in a targeted and specific way.
Through a validated and field-tested online assessment, it is now possible to determine, for both individuals and teams, their individual threat profile, their vulnerability to simplify-unify-justify blindspots, and the organizational barriers that can occur as a result.
And once you know where you need to shore up your armor, you can emerge from the darkness of these blindspots and fully engage yourself, your team, and your organization on a path toward success.
Tom Rieger is President and CEO of NBI (National Business Innovations, LLC) and President of NBI’s sister company, NSI, Inc. Both companies help unleash the potential of organizations and individuals through applied behavioral economics and the latest research in behavioral science. Tom is recognized as a pioneer in the study and science of organizational barriers, and is an expert in applying behavioral economic principles to help understand why large complex systems self-destruct.
His first book, Breaking the Fear Barrier, was named by 800-CEO-READ (now Porchlight Books) as one of the five best management books of 2011. It was also named one of the 30 Best Business Books of 2011 by Soundview, and one of the ten best strategy books of 2012, among numerous other awards. His writing style was described by the US Daily Review as “smart and practical.” At one point in August 2011, Breaking the Fear Barrier was ranked as the #1 best-selling workplace book on Amazon.com (#105 overall across all books).
His next book, Curing Organizational Blindness, was released in July, 2020. The Simplify-Unify-Justify set of blindspots and how to address them have already been adopted for various organizational performance initiatives at a variety of corporations in the USA and Europe. Tom has spoken and consulted for numerous large organizations on barrier busting, and is also an expert in developing and applying statistical models to a variety of complex issues. He has over 30 years’ experience in organizational and consumer behavior, including 17 years with Gallup, Inc. Prior to that, he designed and ran a global customer measurement program for a Fortune 100 company and worked with predictive models for new brands and strategies.