Willful blindness is a legal term used in the legal profession and means that you’re holding back some sort of piece of information that you know could render you liable if you were to say it. It’s almost about concealing something. In a business context, willful blindness is a very interesting concept to consider because, all too often, we want to try and avoid things that are really unpalatable and things that we don’t want to confront because it is all too difficult.

In the first of our new Quirk Solutions Podcast Series we consider the concept of Willful Blindness in business and the consequences of allowing willful blindness endure in your business.

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Full Podcast Transcript can be found here:

What is Willful Blindness?

Now what do we mean by Willful Blindness? Well it’s actually a legal term and it is used in the legal profession. It means that you’re holding back some sort of piece of information that you know could render you liable if you were to say it. It’s almost about concealing something. And, I picked up on this and decided this was an interesting concept to think about in business because in business, all too often, we want to try and avoid things that are really unpalatable and things that we don’t want to confront because it is all too difficult.

And the best way in which to describe it is as this willful blindness, where you recognise it is there and you know that it’s there, we know it’s something we’ve got to deal with but actually, we’d rather not. We’d rather just put it to one side. And if you have a look and start to search into willful blindness you will find a book that is really interesting by Margaret Heffernan called “Willful Blindness: Why we ignore the obvious at our peril”. She also did a really good Tedtalk on it where she highlights the issue of a small community in America and how being deliberately ignorant of a problem caused a health issue for the whole community. And it’s a fascinating Tedtalk to listen to.

I recognise in myself that sometimes it is really difficult to deal with difficult issues or challenging issues you would rather avoid. I recently had a health scare and ended up having a tumour taken out of my head. Now, when I was diagnosed it was a challenging thing to confront because you’re thinking about your mortality all of a sudden. You’re thinking about what about my family? Who’s going to look after them? What about the business? How is that going to survive and go into the planning of that? It came as second nature to me, it came as something I knew I had to do because that’s what I do for a business. I go into the what-if’s, I go into the challenges and the worst-case scenarios. But it was still a difficult thing to confront. So I recognise actually at times that people much rather keep things to one side and pretend it’s not going to happen.

‘Optimism Bias can be so damaging for any business’

I’ve had conversations with some people in Government and at quite high levels of Government in the UK, and one of the phrases that one individual within there uses is Optimism Bias – if we keep believing everything is going to be ok, then it will be ok. It’s a bit like that Field of Dreams quote: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ And just having that Optimism Bias of as long as we believe everything is going to be ok, we’ve got to confront that because it can be so damaging for any business not to think about the more negative consequences of what might go wrong.

If we are being very honest, if we are being very candid with ourselves, I think that is part and parcel of this, then we need to accept the fact that things are going to go wrong. The military has this phrase which comes from the 1870’s and Prussian Generals of ‘No plan survives contact with your Opponent.’ But I think for me it goes beyond that, it’s more ‘No plan survives contact with reality’. Especially no business plan. Plans are always going to go wrong. Plans are going to go wrong is some shape or form. If a plan or a strategy or an idea or a concept rolls out without flaw then fantastic. But it is infinitely rare to find that happening. Nine times out of ten what is going to happen is that there might be a slight glitch here or there or there might be a catastrophic hiccup that we need to deal with.

Crossing the Rubicon

It’s kind of like a Rubicon that you need to cross as a business. A point when you need to stand there and say ‘Look, let’s get beyond this point where we assume all things are going to be fine and let’s understand that not everything is going to be fine’ and it’s a bit like sitting there as a recovering addict and sticking your hand up and saying: ‘Hi, my name is Chris and I’m an addict.’ It’s that point at which as a business you say ‘well let’s accept this, let’s confront this, let’s deal with the fact that things aren’t going to go right’. So if we accept that, we stop ourselves from being willfully blind. It’s kind of like the first step to recovery. Because then you’re starting to say, ‘Look, if things aren’t going to go well, where are they going to go wrong?’

Concept of premortem and avoiding cognitive dissonance

There’s all sort of ways to deal with it. There’s the one I advocate which is business wargaming but you also have Gary Klein’s concept of premortem in which you say let’s go to the future and imagine we fail and let’s work back from that and understand why we might have failed and give reasons for failure.

And that starts to draw out ways in which you can address future problems and start to avoid future failures. And I think it’s really important to do that and to be fresh and open and honest about it because if you are not careful, being willfully blind and choosing to deliberately ignore a difficult situation you are going to be confronted by, running a plan and a plan not surviving then goes into what Matthew Syed calls in his book ‘Black Box Thinking’, cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is where you turn around after the event and saying ‘actually our plan did work’ and you manage to twist and shape it and manipulate it so you can justify that the plan did work and you begin to believe your own hype and this plan was always mean to work in the way that it did. And it’s that lack of honesty and lack of integrity in yourself, that vulnerability and being able to sit there and say: Actually I am going to sit here and be very vulnerable and say I understand that this won’t work, I understand that this will be a challenge but I am going to be honest and vulnerable (and again another great Tedtalk worth listening to is Brené Brown on the whole issue of vulnerability).

Being vulnerable and honest allows us to deal with difficult situations

So how do you make yourself vulnerable and how do you allow yourself to have that honesty to deal with difficult situations whether that be my tumour, or a problem in the business, or a crash in the market or a subprime mortgage or endemic failure? It’s about creating a bubble in which you are safe. A bubble where you feel you are able to deal with these situations and you’re creating it conceptually. Now there are physical ways in which you can help yourself, ie shutting yourself away into a particular room with a particular group of people. But it’s also about process. About repeatedly going through a regular process. A bit like a golfer stepping up to take a swing. They go through a regular routine every time before they take a shot because they know the routine helps them get into the right mindset before they take that shot.

It is the same for this bubble. This bubble is a space within which you are going to be happy to take on some of these difficult challenges and to confront some of these difficult challenges you are going to have to consider. And once you get yourself in such a place where you and your team or you and your organisation or people within it can start to be in that bubble temporarily so you then can feel confident to have the honesty and the courage to take on some of those challenges. And then once you’ve looked at them and have reflected on them and stepped back out of it again, that’s the point at which you’ll start to turbo charge your organisation, at which one point you’ll start to achieve even greater success than you thought you would have done because everybody gets to see that honesty. Everybody gets to see that integrity of the organisation actually saying ‘no these are difficult issues and we are going to face up to them and we are going to deal with them.’.

Wargaming helps us to avoid willful blindness

I’m an ex-Royal Marine and one of the cores values that we have in the Royal Marines, unsurprisingly, is courage. And I think that I would be always seeking to help people to have the courage to confront difficult issues. And that’s why I am such a big believer in the wargaming approach because it’s about helping people and that’s what drives me. That’s what makes me get out of bed in the morning and that’s my ‘Why’ if you like. If you want to look at the Simon Sinek purpose – my why is all about helping people and I love seeing the fact that we can get people into a room, get them into a safe space and help them confront these difficult things and stop them being willfully blind because all that’s going to happen if you don’t do that is you’ll fall straight into a catastrophic situation possibly which costs a lot of money, will cost the business a lot of money and at the end of the day business is about survival, it’s about profit and it’s about being a viable organisation and that’s why I think we really need to address this issue of being willfully blind and having the courage to get out and do that. I hope this short talk today gives people the courage to face these difficult challenges and we’re going to have the courage to do so because it’s going to make a big difference to us as an organisation.

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