Willful Blindness Review
Deloitte - April 2011
Intrigued by numerous examples of large scale business failures, such as the collapse of Enron and the BP disasters in Texas City and the Gulf of Mexico, author Margaret Heffernan asked herself how these events could have happened when so many people were involved as seemingly willing participants? The same people who would be on a path to losing their livelihoods, lives or families. In essence she asks two deceptively simple and related questions "What are the forces at work that make us deny the big threats that stare us in the face? What stops us from seeing that burying knowledge makes it more powerful, and us so much more vulnerable?".
Although the size of the outcome is writ large, Heffernan takes time to identify the biases or processes that impact individual behaviours, and, in the aggregate, institutions. Far from a dry or academic tome, Heffernan keeps the reader engaged by linking major events and psychological research through the words and experiences of real people (for example Harry Markopolos who exposed Bernard Madoff's fraud and Deborah Layton who survived the Jim Jones cult).
At heart, Heffernan explores our need for diversity of thought as a strategy to 'see' broadly and thus anticipate and respond to risk: "Diversity, in this context, isn't a form of political correctness, but an insurance policy against internally generated blindness that leaves - institutions exposed and out of touch". In contrast, over a series of twelve chapters, Heffernan explores our bias for homogeneity and homophily ("Affinity and beyond"), which causes us to cluster in like-minded communities and workplaces with limited exposure to people with different experiences and values. She supplements this fundamental bias with an exploration of confirmation bias, namely the psychological and emotional pressure to only notice information consistent with our world view and to ignore the dissonant. In this chapter ("Dangerous convictions") Heffernan deftly illustrates the strength of confirmation bias through the Congressional evidence of Alan Greenspan and his continued support for an ideology of unregulated markets notwithstanding the market failure evident in the 2008 banking crisis. Further chapters cover the impact of tiredness on perception and organizational pressures to overwork ("The limits of your mind") and the comfort in conformity and the difficulty in speaking out ("The ostrich instruction", "Just following orders", "The cult of cultures" and "Bystanders").
The cumulative impact of Heffernan's exploration is a double line underneath her primary point, namely in order to mitigate organizational risk, individuals (and particularly leaders) need to understand the psychological pressures which limit our fields of vision, the aggregate impact on business health, and the criticality of taking measures to actively manage this risk. To her credit, Heffernan goes further than merely stating her case and in her final chapter "See better" she provides a range of practical ideas about how to enable individuals to see more broadly (by adopting a model of mindfulness, curiosity and courage) and how to create touch points to inject diversity of thinking into organizations. The ideas about organizational change are more scattergun than systemic (e.g. asking leaders of business units to swap debating positions, collecting weak signals data and allocating the role of 'Devil's advocate') and therein lies the challenge. What Heffernan has done so adeptly is to connect diversity of thought to risk mitigation in multiple settings, and the test will be whether leaders 'hear' that argument and take action, or whether confirmation bias and inertia maintain the upper-hand.