CONTEXT: Focus here on Strategic (Willful) Blindness.
The opposing forces of what I’m calling civil disobedience and strategic blindness underlie the gig mindset inside the organization. They are the fundamental forces that will make or break the gig-mindset way of working inside companies and are the subject of an early chapter in my upcoming book. This article about strategic blindness is part two of a short series. Part one, about civil disobedience is here. (You may wish to check out a couple earlier articles on the gig mindset inside organizations for background on my work: The emergence of the gig mindset and How a gig mindset inside organizations will shape our future.)
Why strategic blindness?
A well-known analyst and journalist, based in India, explains how he sees the resistance of senior management to change:
“I think it’s a form of willful blindness, strategic blindness that they’re unable to step back and see why they’re losing relevance, especially if they’ve been successful in the past… But if you get caught in operations and if you think that you can shut out the world and keep doing what you’re doing forever and ever, and follow the processes that you’ve done all your life and keep working at it, that you’ll continue to remain relevant, it’s a fallacy. If you look at any industry, whether it’s in India or in the U.S., the mortality of companies is frightening. It’s getting shorter and shorter, and there’s enough research to prove that. But why don’t more people get it then? That’s the key question.”
Some top-level managers get it. A CEO of a company specialized in workplace design for education, healthcare and retail industries, explained why gig mindsetters represent a threat to most organizations and leaders:
We are seeing roles and processes being converted into skills required for performance. When you eliminate roles, you start to fracture hierarchy. The culture, the technology, communication, employee performance reviews, and nearly every other aspect of traditional business structure is stressed.
His analysis and interpretation are uncommon. In most organizations, gig-mindset behaviors are misinterpreted. They trigger negative reactions that discourage people who work that way. Gig-mindset behaviors are perceived as individual aberrations to be ignored, corrected or punished because they do not fit the way the organization is accustomed to working. Seen through the lens of traditional corporate ways of doing things, gig-mindset behaviors give the impression of impatience, lack of discipline, indifference to organizational values, and, above all, a disrespect towards hierarchy.
Here are six reasons high-level managers are often uncomfortable with gig-mindset work behaviors:
- Pride in past success
- Faith in best practices and benchmarking
- Fear of losing power
- Fear of speed
- A false sense of safety in silos
- Living in filter bubbles
Let’s look at them briefly, one by one.
Pride in past success–blinders in a fast-changing world
People who have worked for 10 or more years to reach where they are in the hierarchy, are not at ease with someone who challenges the status quo and questions how the system works. The traditional mindset believes there is no reason to interfere with something that has worked well and continues to do so.
Faith in best practices and benchmarking–leaning on the past, not leaning to the future
You can avoid a slow march to irrelevance by focusing on the future rather than on traditional benchmarking and best practices. This does not mean forgetting the past. It does not mean ignoring what other in your field are doing. It does mean looking forward and not using the past as your guide to the future. And not assuming your traditional competitors are the most relevant organizations to watch today. As corporate strategy specialist C.K. Prahalad states in a Harvard Business Review column, “During a corporate transformation, the forgetting curve is sometimes more important than the learning curve.” He observes in another piece that “Companies become winners by spotting big opportunities and inventing next practices.”
Fear of losing power–weakening of the hierarchical crutch
People fear losing what they have. For senior leaders, the premise of the gig mindset disrupts long held views about themselves and how they work. They are being challenged, indirectly, by people throughout their organization who are beginning to act independently of hierarchies and taking initiatives that are not pre-approved. When recruiting and making hiring decisions, decision-makers who value power based on hierarchy are likely to hire new people who show respect for the status quo. They are unlikely to threaten the “way things are done here” with new ideas, new ways of working.
Fear of speed–slow and cautious, step by slow step
People with a high gig mindset perceive change happening much faster externally than internally. They tend to be impatient with slow, methodical approaches because, with their extensive networking and awareness of the speed of change in the external world, they are motivated to move fast themselves. Data from my gig mindset survey of 300 people worldwide show that people with a high gig-mindset score are 25 percentage-points higher in perceiving external change to be faster than internal change. People with a lower gig-mindset score see relatively little difference between internal and external.
A false sense of safety in silos–protected by illusions of independence in one’s own space
I always remind my clients of this phrase from a conversation I had years ago with an digital strategy manager in a global industrial company: “My silo is my neighborhood. But my neighborhood is part of a city”. This was the way he made people in his company stop and think about the difference between closed silos and open silos. It’s the city part most people forget. It also makes sense to go beyond that, as the city is part of a country, which is part of the world.
Living in filter bubbles–isolated in the center, disconnected from the edges of the organization
The people on the edges of organizations, especially those who are customer-facing, see more of the external world than do the people inside the corporation. Unfortunately, these people are often forgotten or left to the last to be interviewed when initiatives and strategies are being defined. Too many well-intentioned management initiatives end up serving no purpose. For example, an off-site gathering of senior management is not the best way to go about breaking through the filter bubble. Walking around the factory floor or the front lines of customer service brings more insight. Too bad most managers, especially at high levels, prefer to stay in their bubble.