When last did you wonder: How could that have happened? Why did I not see that coming? Why did I not notice the signs that are so clear in retrospect?
Professor Brazerman offers insights into why this happens, how it happens and how to get better at noticing. This book, he promises, “will provide you with the tools you need to open your eyes and truly notice for the first time— and for the rest of your life.”
The type of noticing Brazerman is referring to is not of a trivial type. Consider these two examples taken from the book.
After the awful events of 9/11, Brazerman reports that he jotted down core pieces of evidence that authorities should have noticed.
“The U.S. government knew that terrorists were willing to become martyrs for their cause and that their hatred toward the United States was increasing. In 1993 terrorists had bombed the World Trade Center. In 1994 terrorists had hijacked an Air France plane and made an aborted attempt to turn the plane into a missile aimed at the Eiffel Tower. Also in 1994, terrorists had attempted to hijack twelve U.S. commercial airplanes in Asia, simultaneously. Airline passengers know how easy it is to board an airplane with items, such as small knives that can be used as weapons.”
JPMorgan Chase, the venerable financial institute lead by the brilliant Jamie Dimon failed to notice the bank’s exposure in their London branch. By September 2013, these huge bets failed, creating trading losses in excess of $ 6 billion.
I recall seeing a billboard outside a church that read: “If you love God, hoot. If you want to meet Him, text.” Accidents happen when drivers are focusing on tasks other than driving, such as talking on a cell phone or texting.
Not noticing has many causes, some of which relate to focusing on something else. Chapter 5 has the title: What Do Magicians, Thieves, Advertisers, Politicians, and Negotiators Have in Common?
Magicians, Brazerman explains have mastered the skill of “keeping entire groups of people from noticing what should be clearly visible to them.” Magicians distract your attention and then take advantage of the short time when your mind is attending to other information.
Advertisers do the same thing when they compare the specs of one product with another. Their product always has advantages the others do not.
Like a magician, they distract you with these attributes so that you do not ask the real question: Do these attributes matter to me? Do I care if my phone is lighter by 10 grams? Do I take enough photos with my phone to justify the price difference?
Magicians watch other magicians distract to understand the trick. Once you are aware of how we are distracted, you too will be able to notice when others are doing it to you.
Perhaps the hardest most-difficult issues to notice are the type that are part of our psyche. They come in many forms, one of which is the incentive not to notice.
PricewaterhouseCoopers had been the company auditor of Satyam, the global IT company for the nine years before the fraud that was holding up the company was exposed. A ten day due diligence exercise conducted by Merrill Lynch detected the fraud. “Interestingly Satyam paid PWC about twice the normal audit fees in the industry,” notes Brazerman.
Having a personal interest in not noticing does impair one’s ability to notice. Psychologists refer to this impairment as “motivated blindness.” It stops business people noticing when they are being defrauded by people they have trusted, and parents noticing that their children are on drugs. We are motivated by our emotional relationships not to notice.
In 2012 Barclays paid fines of $ 450 million after admitting to manipulating the calculation of the London InterBank Offered Rate. This manipulation that cost many investors dearly was committed by a number of huge banks and with the knowledge of many members of staff. Journalist Naomi Wolf wrote in the Guardian: “It is very hard… to ignore the possibility that this kind of silence…is simply rewarded by promotion to ever higher positions, ever greater authority.”
There is also “moral blindness,” where people ignore the abuse of others when they could have reported it and stopped it. In many cases, there is an incentive not to notice.
Jamie Dimon commented on the costly error at JPMorgan Chase: “The big lesson I learned: Don’t get complacent despite a successful track record.” Brazerman takes this lesson wider and asserts “successful leadership is defined by vigilance.”
A good place to start is to notice whether there are processes in your company that encourage the wrong behaviour.
Notice that the commissioned salesman is recommending the highest priced product in the range or the waiter the most-expensive wine. Notice whether people asked hard questions have answering what were asked by the time they have finished talking. Were they following Robert McNamara advice: “Don’t answer the question you were asked. Answer the question you wish you were asked.”
This book succeeds in the achieving its aim of assisting the reader to notice more, simply by the exposure to instances of not noticing. Like a magician who focuses on how other magicians are trying to distract, cognizance is a great leap forward.
Readability Light --+-- Serious
Insights High -+--- Low
Practical High -+--- Low
*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works.