Musings on Strategic Investigation, Performance Improvement, and Rhetoric

Types of Blindness

There are various degrees and kinds of blindness, widow. There is the connubial blindness, ma'am, which perhaps you may have observed in the course of your own experience, and which is a kind of wilful and self-bandaging blindness. There is the blindness of party, ma'am, and public men, which is the blindness of a mad bull in the midst of a regiment of soldiers clothed in red. There is the blind confidence of youth, which is the blindness of young kittens, whose eyes have not yet opened on the world; and there is that physical blindness, ma'am, of which I am, contrairy to my own desire, a most illustrious example.
Stagg, the blind man in Barnaby Rudge, by Charles Dickens

I’ve no doubt you’ve followed the recent bickering among the political classes about the NHS in the UK, and the proud blindness being used by all parties in their selective and romantic championing of that institution’s cause. I’ve got no idea whether this kind of deliberate or programmed blindness works in power politics; but in the areas I do know: in science, in sport, and in the subject of this blog, business and enterprise, it is a road to ruin. I’ll look at Stagg’s three types of blindness.

Let’s start with Stagg’s first example, the connubial blindness that men and women have about their lovers. People making business cases have often already fallen in love with their ideas or products. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a passion that fires the imagination for options and possibilities. The flip side is that, too often, these same people exhibit this connubial blindness, and they want to see the best of every side of the situation. They make over-optimistic assumptions, under-estimate threats and assume the market will love the idea as much as they do. Too often the consequences are the same that Dickens’ Nancy suffered at the hands of her beloved, murdering Bill Sykes.

A second kind of blindness, the blindness of party, comes when people start to believe the rhetoric espoused by their colleagues, like dyed-in-the-wool Tories, or socialists, or Republicans, or whatever. They are selective in their choice of facts, of sources of information, and of assumed consequences. People can be tribal, and there can be comfort in shared views, but this tribalism only increases the likelihood that those same people won’t challenge their own received wisdom, and will ignore some real opportunities and threats that don’t fit their group paradigm. A political example of this is communism; a business example is any bank you want to choose.

Stagg’s third example, the blind confidence of youth, is horribly apparent in new businesses and in businesses that have confused their own ability with a bull market. There’s nothing wrong with this confidence if it’s supported by some resilience in a company’s management and business model; if it can cope with a downside scenario. But this resilience is all too often absent. I’ve rarely seen such an over-confident company hit its too-lofty targets, and I’ve seen many felled by the first major blow or downturn that comes its way. Example: choose any one of 99% of companies from any boom – dotcoms in the early 2000s, property investors from financial bubble, or almost every social networking business from the last four years.

The lesson in all this? We all need to open our eyes and prop them open: to where we might not want to see something bad about our service; to where we’re not challenging the party line; or where one bad month or lost customer would sink us. Better to see the truth than suffer Nancy’s fate.

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