This week I’ve been thinking a lot more about the concept of conceptual blindness. Last week, I stated that our perceptions are limited by our conceptions. We can only see what we can imagine, consider, and understand. If you can’t conceive it, you can’t perceive it. You can find this issue not only in psychology, but also in business, economics, and global events.
Business and Economics
In the world of business and economics, conceptual blindness can be seen in the description of what is called the “principal-agent problem.” This is how economists describe an organization’s relationships with its employees. The principal (the employer) and the agent (the employee) form a work contract. The employer’s belief – or assumption – is that the employee is effort-averse. However, for a certain amount of money, the employee will deliver a certain amount of labor – and no more – thereby offering the employer minimal performance. From the perspective of the employer, effort for the employee is personally costly. So, the employee underperforms unless the employer puts contractual incentives and control systems in place to counter underperformance. From this perspective, the employer is conceptually blind to primary human drives – to connect and belong – that drive human behavior beyond the goal.
Conceptual blindness is not only a problem in business and economics, it is a problem for all of us beyond those two disciplines. The attack on Pearl Harbor, the TET offensive, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 9/11, are all examples of what happens when our leaders display conceptual blindness. Leaders could not consider the possibility of these events because they could not conceive of the possibility of these events.
The 9/11 Commission Report attributes much of the failure to understand and prevent the attacks on 9/11/2001 to “failure of imagination” – or what I am calling conceptual blindness. If you can’t imagine or understand the possibility of a new concept or possibility, you can’t perceive or understand its possibility. In August, 1998, the intelligence community received reports that a group of Libyans hoped to crash a plane into the World Trade Center. In September, 1998, the intelligence community began to receive reports that al Qaeda was planning to hijack a plane, laden with explosives and fly it into a major US city. In August, 1999, the FAA Civil Aviation Securing intelligence office looked at a variety of scenarios, one of which was a “suicide hijacking operation.” It was determined that such an operation would be unlikely. That determination was a display of conceptual blindness.
If you find yourself in a situation where a colleague has tremendous certainty in a situation when you and others do not, your colleague may be experiencing a moment of conceptual blindness. In that situation, consider asking your colleague the following questions:
1. Are there other possible explanations or outcomes? [If the response is “no,” follow up with, “What would it take (what would have to be different) for you to consider a different possible explanation or outcome?”] 2. What would have to change for things not to go our way?
3. How quickly would we know that things weren’t going our way?
4. What would we have to do to adapt, should things get sideways?
5. What would be the possible outcome if we fail to notice or adapt an unanticipated outcome?
Finally, if you find yourself in a situation where you are experiencing conceptual blindness, these same questions can be applied to you!
As leaders in business, our role is not to predict tomorrow based on yesterday – that’s what actuaries do. Our role is to create tomorrow using our mind and new concepts that move us beyond our conceptual blindness.