I looked at the marks he had made on the paper. They defined a circle about the size of a golf ball -- a circle that represented an area of such total invisibility I hadn’t even known it existed. When I look around, the world seems contiguous to me, but that’s because our eyes work together and in constant motion to piece together a cohesive picture. The illusion that we are seeing everything there is to see is near total. As the optometrist wisely noted, “We cannot perceive what we cannot perceive.”
I was reminded of our invisible blind spots today by an article in the Harvard Business Review, “The Hidden Indicators of a Failing Project.” Focused more specifically on megaprojects, author Gretchen Gavitt describes blind spots in recognizing -- or admitting -- when these are destined for failure.
One big issue she identifies is that project managers can sometimes put more effort into tracking time and money -- both of which are quantifiable -- than into tracking progress toward business outcomes. Risks are articulated, mitigated, transferred, or accepted, expenses are brought back into line, timelines are adhered to vigorously -- and the underlying assumptions that brought the project into existence are rarely questioned.
As a result, the number-one action recommended by Gavitt is to check and revise your business case regularly. Note that it’s business case she refers to, not project plan. Not, “Are we delivering on the project as defined?” but “Why are we doing this project in the first place, and does our plan still make sense in light of changing conditions?”
This way of thinking is consistent with that advocated by futurist Stuart Candy, who spoke at our TEDx event last week. The act of contemplating a range of possible futures 10, 20, 50 years out needs to be ongoing, he said. “Plans are brittle without a living layer of foresight wrapped around them. The future is an ever-moving target, a process, not a product -- and the same is true for countries, cities, organizations, and communities. However foolish, it's still surprisingly common to pay attention to 2030 or 2050 just once, and then wait for some surprise to come along and blow the plans out of the water.”
He’s right, it is surprisingly common, and a likely reason is the same as the reason I’ve never noticed huge gaps in my vision: We cannot perceive what we cannot perceive. The secret to addressing our all-too-human limitations is to build in processes that accommodate them: the regular reviews of business cases suggested by Gavitt, or the continual and systematic exploration of a range of possible futures offered by Candy.
The farther out we are aiming to look, the more likely we are to be wrong. We need to take that as a starting point, and integrate structures into our operational plans that force us to continually question the assumptions and environment that gave rise to our projects. We cannot perceive what we cannot perceive, but we’re truly destined to fail if we don’t even realize we’re blind in the first place.