Seeing the wood for the trees: beware organisational blindness

blind-spot

Can’t see the wood for the trees: the whole situation is not clear, because you’re looking too closely at small details, or you’re too closely involved.

trees

It is probably true that the longer we lead, teach or support within an organisation the blinder, more conditioned we become to accepting how things are. Our organisational blindness restricts our ability to be shocked or provoked into action; our ability to see the ‘brutal truths’ (Collins) of our situation decreases with time (and surprisingly quickly). We are less able to see the reality of our present situation and less able to seek the required improvement.

“Organisational blindness inhibits individuals and teams from seeing the brutal truth of their reality; leading to missed opportunities, an inability to not see what really matters or be agile enough to strategically move to a brighter future.”


Which begs the question, how do we correct our organisational blindness; overcome our biases and conceptions that grow through time and be alive to the brutal truths so that we can focus on the things that matter; those things that will address the reality and not our perception of the reality? So how do we provoke fresh thinking and fresh perspectives?

g2g-confront-facts

“You absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without first confronting the brutal facts.” (Collins)


What if we fully understood that we learn to live with and accept things over time. That over time we become organisationally blind to our reality. The story goes that if you place a frog in water and gradually boil the water, the frog sits happily until death, but throw a frog into boiling water and it will jump straight out…the difference between becoming conditioned and normalised to our organisation and seeing it through fresh eyes and from a new, wider perspective.

frog-in-pan

What if we understood that when we move organisations we have our sharpest understanding and insight during the first 6 weeks and after that we gradually become part of the system (Dr Patrick Dixon). What if we worked harder to find ways of re-creating this opportunity; to more often see through fresh eyes?

What if we realised that our institutional blindness is our greatest risk? As the future becomes increasingly uncertain and the educational landscape shifts often, an organisation that is sleepy and fog ridden with organisational blindness is very vulnerable to “wildcard” events as well as to normal rates of change. There are a number of island Academies who have required reinvention; a significant contributing factor being organisational blindness and a poor perspective on what matters now.

fog1

What if we recognise that decisions, strategies and approaches are often only appropriate and right for a point in time? Great organisations are able to be agile and evolve practices so that they stay on the leading edge. Our vulnerability increases where organisational blindness is deep and widely shared such that we are unable to see what is right for now.

What if we realised a key strength of being part of a collaborative network or Multi Academy Trust (MAT) is the ability to connect, compare, contrast and have the wider view that improves our organisational blindness, enabling a greater identification of the brutal truths. What if we accelerated our connectivity, because together Academies in firm and soft collaborations can raise standards and overcome the blindness and vulnerability caused through isolation?

What if the most dangerous institutional blindness is when it occurs at the top. If the Head/Principal is the most significant leader then blindness at this level can cripple an organisation. More than ever we need all leaders to be system leaders…

“All leaders, South West leaders.” (Sir David Carter, RSC)

What if the fragmented nature and isolation of some academies increases organisational blindness? Where island organisations exist and/or there is significant blindness there is significant danger that the organisation becomes less attuned to reality and less successful.

“We still have an education system that is fragmented and unstandardised (adapted from Lord Nash); one where there are too many island schools/academies whose viewpoint is unavoidably organisationally blind.”

What if we recognised that much of what we see and think is hugely vulnerable to selective perception: seeing only the things that fit with our own preconceptions or prior beliefs? Whilst we rely on internal scrutiny these perceptions will limit our notion of performance and this worsens over time.

“Selective perception is the tendency to not notice and more quickly forget stimuli that causes emotional discomfort and contradicts our prior beliefs.”

What if we accept that the people within organisations are least likely to be able to evaluate its quality? What if we fully exploited, embraced and sought external scrutiny, because as leaders we understand that this perspective will be truer, more balanced and less open to bias than our own?

What if we grew more system leaders to horizon scan and have a wide perspective that can correct blindness… to find coherence, to light the way, to reduce blindness so that the system as a whole saw more of the light; lifting our young people and communities up?

5886864693_d512f83368

What if system leaders connected the dots and collaborated; being strategically altruistic. Recognising that where we strategically give and collaborate we reduce our institutional blindness and contribute to correcting institutional blindness in others. By connecting the dots and by being a deliberately altruistic system leaders we reduce blindness in ourselves and others.

dots-and-circles-purple-24173866-2560-1600

What if we spent more time out of our organisation? What if we actively supported leaders and teachers to spend time in other Academies? So that we eased and removed organisational blindness, provided perspective and shifted the frame of reference such that we were better able to see the brutal truths and plot improvement. Fresh eyes provide a new perspective; in the land of the blind the one-eyed person is king…

Basic RGB

“Complacency in leadership limits our ability to notice the unacceptable and maintain high expectations. Leaders need to welcome and proactively seek challenge and peer review.”
(adapted from Steve Munby)
What if we recognise inhibiting hubris. Jim Collins in “How the Mighty Fall” identifies the dangers of hubris, the excessive pride that brings down a hero – following success, leaders often become arrogant about their success and almost view it as an entitlement.  As a result, they become complacent and lose sight of (become blind to) what caused/s their success.  Organisations that were perceived to be successful can be vulnerable to disruptive changes (occasionally dramatically)…

There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers.” -Phillip Franklin, White Star Line Vice-President

Der Untergang der Titanic

What if by recognising the problems caused by organisational blindness that we are better able to avoid catastrophes and to find an appropriately risk-aware approach based on the true realities of our performance and provision?

What if we protected ourselves from this false sense of security, the false notion of being able to control situations or understand present performance. It is this that compromises our ability to cope and evolve to meet the demands of the present and the future. Perhaps this is about remaining students of our work and seeking external opinion and thoughts; taking every opportunity to vacuum the brains of others for insight and perspective…

“Like inquisitive scientists, the best leaders remain students of their work, relentlessly asking questions–why, why, why?–and have an incurable compulsion to vacuum the brains of people they meet.” Jim Collins.
What if we sought peer review and scrutiny as the best way to avoid both complacency and organisational blindness? Even if this makes us feel uncomfortable and exposed to the truth… perhaps a humbling truth, but with this comes new understanding, insight and perspective to enable improvement.
 “What makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful.” (Brene Brown)
“What do we see when leaders are at their best. – a balance between confidence and humility.” (Steve Munby)
What if Ofsted valued system leadership more? Valued the system contributions made to other organisations and the wider community? After all Ofsted wields significant power to nudge the education system in the direction it chooses.
What if we also recognised that unless leaders, teachers and staff go beyond the organisation there is significant danger of Cabin Fever; becoming conditioned (negatively) to everyday experience, with little ability to measure quality or what is normal? It is healthy and desirable to offer and ensure that all staff gain wide perspectives – as organisational blindness can be damaging and provide a warped sense of performance or quality…(often selectively perceiving the organisation based on low amounts of evidence or restricted perspectives).
2009128-quiet_cabin

Maybe then we would recognise the prevalence and harm of organisational blindness…understanding that our ability to see with fresh eyes lasts around six weeks, after which, without corrective approaches, we become increasingly blind to the brutal truths of our reality, less able to identify improvement and actions that are right for now.

Maybe then we would have far less complacency within the system; the sort of complacency born out of hubris and organisational blindness.

Maybe then we would see the brutal truths in ourselves and our organisations. Enabling our organisation to avoid dangers and to be agile enough to cope and thrive despite the present pace of change.

Maybe then we would see the huge opportunity that presently exists for shifting our fragmented island system of Academies into local hubs and multi Academy Trusts to reduce blindness, create coherence and shift the quality of education for whole communities.

Maybe then we would connect and collaborate not just to see again, but so that we could treat blindness in others and be system leaders.

Maybe then we would welcome scrutiny and peer review as a way to reduce blindness, bring better perspective and focus and to therefore accelerate improvement.

Maybe then we would seek opportunities for staff and ourselves to “get out more often” to improve our blindness and that of others? … as well as reduce cabin fever and the dangers of selective perception.

Maybe then we would connect more and be strategically altruistic to improve the wider system; playing our part in removing organisational blindness. After all great organisations don’t settle and achieve greatness through conscious choice…

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice.” (Collins)  (A choice that needs to be seen through the fog of organisational blindness)

Slide39


April 2015

4 thoughts on “Seeing the wood for the trees: beware organisational blindness

  1. Certainly didn’t realise the timeframe was as short as six weeks. I have just moved jobs, so thanks to this timely reminder I keep a notebook and list everything that appears inefficient to me (and there will be some among the many new processes at my new school) over the crucial first six weeks. Hopefully the list will keep the blindfold off for a little longer.

  2. It is good to be able to recognise the need for change either within yourself or the organisation (or both!) I’m wondering if those within the organisation can help bring about the change or whether they don’t try because they don’t realise the leader wants that change. Do you need to bring new folks in?
    I’m just moving to another governing body because I feel I have done what I can at my present GB and can see things I can help change in the new one so this idea of change to refresh covers a variety of roles and not only within education!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s