Blindspots Revisited

Some of you may recall a previous blog post I did on Blindspots (“Understanding Blindspots”).  A quick refresher about that concept before I take another crack about that topic—we have areas of ignorance—things we don’t know but usually we’re it’s a weakness or deficiency.  For instance, I know nothing about horse riding or dressage–I’m aware that is an area of ignorance for me.  Then we have blindspots—areas we not only don’t know about but we don’t know that we don’t know.  In other words, blindspots are particularly dangerous because unlike an area of ignorance (where we might tread lightly or avoid because we know it’s a weakness or we’re cautious), blindspots typically involve overconfidence.  Individuals can have blindspots and organizations can as well—in fact, most examples of military or intelligence failures involve blindspots.

I wanted to revisit this topic because I’ve been working with two recent clients on their strategy, plans and high-level goals.  One client is in the US intelligence community and another is in the private sector (plus plays in the national security space).  A key part of both pieces of work has involved identifying the collective blindspots within each organization.   While I’ve done work like this plenty of times before in my career, it’s always fascinating to see what emerges as a blindspot within the client organization.

Both clients have bought into the value of identifying what their blindspots are.  Only one of the two though has really committed to any action to then deal with those blindspots (other than going “yep—that’s spot on!” and then ignoring it).  At least by publicizing it and talking about it, we have a chance of mitigating a little bit of the blindspot—just turning it into an area of ignorance—perhaps!

How do you spot blindspots?  There are a number of techniques.  One is too look at what doesn’t get talked about in the organization or what isn’t funded.  While that’s not a full-proof way of identifying a blindspot (sometimes something doesn’t get talked about because it isn’t important!),  it’s a good starting point.  Another is to look what blindspots the organization had in the past and then test to see if those conditions have changed.  A third approach is to identify critical assumptions the organization or leadership is making.  Assumptions aren’t bad—we have to make them all the time.  But most people make assumptions and aren’t aware we’re doing so.  It’s either unconscious or we consider them to be “facts.”  A fourth approach is to identify the mental models that the leaders and organization share (mental models and assessing them is a topic for another blog post!).  Degree of confidence on particular issues is also a clue as to potential blindspots—issues that an organization has had success with in the past and is confident that “we have this nailed” often forecast a cockiness and a failure to look for disconfirming information. Finally, organizational culture (if there is a strong, cohesive, dominant culture within the organization—and usually there isn’t, usually it’s a series of subcultures) can be a clue about blindspots.

Understanding Blindspots

I’ve been doing work on strategic and strategic planning with a number of different clients lately and it’s gotten me thinking about the issue of blindspots. There are things that we know to be true (or we suspect them to be so). I don’t mean dogma or blind faith, but rather through data, research, experience, customer feedback, measuring performance—there are some things that we can confidently say “this is something that we know to be true or accurate.”

Then we have areas that we know we don’t know. For instance, I know that I’m pretty uninformed about the tax code. Because of my awareness of my ignorance, I can make smarter decisions about taxes—by hiring an accountant. Or being especially careful when I fill out my taxes each year.

The reality is that no person or organization can know everything. So ignorance about particular topics or situations is a reality of being in the world.

But a blindspot occurs when a person or organization is ignorant about a situation and doesn’t realize the ignorance exists. It may be due to dogma. It may be because the situation has changed—what used to be true no longer is but people haven’t recognized that. It may be due to a lack of depth—someone doesn’t realize the degree of complexity to a particular issue. In short, a blindspot is a case where we don’t know that we don’t know something.

Blindspots are particularly damaging to organizations. That’s because most big surprises (especially environmental or market ones) to organizations tend to occur because of a collection blindspot that meant the organization and executives simply failed to perceive the potential for surprise with that specific issue.