Is Collective Blindness Holding Us Back? A Lesson from 9/11
Was the Swan Black?
Many people over the age of 30 will be able to remember exactly where they were when the first plane struck the Twin Towers. It was a seminal moment which remains burned in your memory, as may the deaths of JFK, Elvis or Princess Diana. It was a moment when everything stopped, and the world changed. Twenty years later, as we all remembered the tragedy that unfolded at the World Trade Centre, Nicholas Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’ theory provided me with some reassurance: the event was unexpected, catastrophic and obvious only in hindsight. This idea is logical and somewhat comforting, but does it allow us to abdicate responsibility? If such a disaster can’t be foreseen, then we blame only the perpetrators and allow ourselves off the hook. But what if our lack of foresight is actually collective blindness?
This occurs when a homogenous group operates in an echo chamber, perceiving its problems through one lens and finding solutions accordingly. In Matthew Syed’s ‘Rebel Ideas’ he suggests that the CIA, as a largely ‘white, male, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant’ organisation, was collectively blind to the threat of Osama Bin Laden. The warning signs were there but a lack of diversity within the group prevented it from perceiving the threat: the unknown known. He sees diversity as crucial to collective wisdom. It is a convincing, yet unsettling, argument because it puts the onus back on us as individuals to act and to take more responsibility. As Chief Medical Advisor to the President, Dr Anthony Fauci’s stance on the COVID pandemic was influenced by his experiences in the late 1980s, when AIDS activists were unhappy with his leadership of research groups. After engaging with them, Dr Fauci recognised that the clinical trials would benefit from including African American, Latino and other groups, and he applied the same thinking to his COVID research. He was prepared to learn from the past, listen to opposing views and embrace diversity.
Leaders who surround themselves with people who look and think like them (even unconsciously) can do their organisations a huge disservice. It’s a pleasant surprise when an employer bucks the trend and to great success. James Timpson, the CEO of Timpson, is a staunch advocate of employing ex-prisoners. He has taken on over 1500 offenders, some of whom are now on his senior management team. He sees this as good business sense, because they are ‘so bloody good’. His last year’s turnover of £209.3m bears that out, but it is not an easy path to take. It is far easier to explore opportunities and tackle issues in familiar ways, particularly if organisations are already successful. It strikes me that standing back to see if there is a better way, by looking through a different lens, takes a certain level of creativity and humility. Timpson has embraced cognitive diversity to bring people together who think differently. It can be risky and confronting, but the results can be inspiring.
The warnings about blind spots have always been there, from the slave whispering in the ear of the triumphant Roman general ‘you are only mortal’, to the fools of the Tudor Court, such as Will Sommers who dared speak the truth to Henry VIII about his ‘fraud-iters’. Sadly, such wisdom is rarely heeded. The temptation for leaders to encourage and promote mirror images is strong, but there is danger in assuming that everyone agreeing with you makes you right. As individuals, we can reflect upon whether we also bask in the comfort of mutually held opinions or seek out alternative views. Do we only read articles which agree with our own politics and listen to leaders we like? How do we react to those who disagree with us? If we can learn anything from 9/11 after 20 years, let it be that diversity of thought and humility in the face of certainty bring wisdom.