It was Winston Churchill who once said, “Things do not get better by being left alone. Unless they are adjusted, they explode with a shattering detonation.” He was right, and it is this problem of things “being left alone” I want to talk to you about.
We humans have an immense capacity to not see clearly what we see often. I have come to call this phenomenon the “Vision Callous.” We all know that a callous on our feet becomes an area where we stop feeling. The skin has been rubbed so intensely in that spot that nerves have deadened and the spot has become thick and insensitive. My professional athlete friends tell me that they try to prevent callouses on their feet. This is because if they can’t feel fully on every part of both their feet, then they aren’t fully in control. This makes sense. If you can’t feel, then you can’t control. I suppose it is the same for airline pilots to some degree. If their gauges aren’t working—if they can’t “feel” the plane through their instruments—then they can’t fly accurately.
Very much the same is true for leaders. We see the same things over and over until we stop seeing them. We’ve seen the building a million times. We use the same forms, digest pretty much the same numbers, have the same meetings, assume the same customs, envision the same organizational chart month after month, year after year. In time, we stop seeing. We develop callouses on our seeing that keep us from perceiving what we see. That’s when trouble sets in.
History has been shaped by the blunders of those who saw but did not perceive. It happened at Pearl Harbor. It happened in the townships nearly Auschwitz. It happened during Watergate. It happened at My Lai. It has certainly happened in some of the great corporate implosions of history.
So, how do you prevent it? Here are some suggestions.
First, go away. If you visit another church, you see yours differently when you return. If you visit another country, you see yours more keenly afterward. A visit to a foreign factory, law office, corporate headquarters, testing ground, or sales convention changes your way of seeing. Remember the T. S. Eliot poem that says we travel, in part, to return home and “know the place for the first time.”
Second, look around you as though you are someone else. When I have led larger organizations, I have walked through facilities imagining I’m a visitor or a competitor or a critic or a disgruntled employee, etc. I see things as though not through the eyes of Stephen Mansfield.
Third, send spies. Several times in my work, I have sent people wearing hidden cameras through firms I was in charge of. Don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t trying to get dirt on anyone. I was trying to see as though for the “first time.” How did some folks view our website? How were customers greeted? What was the lunch room experience? Were the facilities as sterling as I imagined? You get the point.
There are other ways, of course, but here is the bedrock principle: Your constant seeing is the enemy of perceiving while you see. You have to work on the perceiving, the understanding, of what you see often. Then, change and upgrade will follow.