People are still talking about that moment. It was the final day of the ISA Annual Business Retreat, and members sat anxiously awaiting the marketing audit from Equiteq’s Pat Webb, eager to see how the different firms’ value propositions and messaging stacked up. Who would stand out? Where might inspiration come from? What glimmer of insight would be picked up from Pat’s face or tone as she reviewed the different messages? (And, deep down, won’t everyone be impressed with my firm’s work?)
No one was expecting what actually happened.
As the moment arrived, Pat began to click through the PowerPoint slides, and that’s when the harsh reality kicked in. One after another after another, near-identical messages flashed on the screen. The benefits were indistinguishable, the personalities uniformly . . . generic. Some members even had trouble figuring out which one was their own company’s message.
These were all well-informed leaders, with unparalleled depth of industry knowledge and a keen focus on the competitive landscape, market opportunities and the latest marketing concepts. So is it actually possible that they were completely unaware of this? Did they really have no idea they were saying pretty much exactly the same things as every other leading firm in the industry?
Were they that oblivious to the obvious?
In a way, yes.
What We Manage Not To Know
Margaret Heffernan, our kick-off keynote speaker at the 2018 Annual Business Retreat, is an entrepreneur, former CEO and author of a number of books, including “A Bigger Prize” and “Willful Blindness,” which the Financial Times named one of the best books of the decade in 2014. In that book and her TED Talks, she examines this phenomenon of willful blindness from all angles, with a particular focus on why businesses and the people who run them often ignore the obvious. As she explains:
Willful blindness is a legal concept which means, if there’s information that you could know and you should know but you somehow manage not to know, the law deems that you’re willfully blind. You have chosen not to know. There’s a lot of willful blindness around these days. You can see willful blindness in banks, when thousands of people sold mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them. You could see them in banks when interest rates were manipulated and everyone around knew what was going on, but everyone studiously ignored it . . .Willful blindness exists on epic scales like those, and it also exists on very small scales, in people’s families, in people’s homes and communities, and particularly in organizations and institutions.
One question Margaret will challenge us with in Tucson is this: “How come the problems we write about and talk about don’t seem to be getting any better?”
You could easily become depressed by such a thought, but the question can also become the spark that energizes you to take off the blinders, look at problems in a new way and find new paths to success in your business and personal life.
Thinking Fresh to Find a New Way Forward
A Schumpeter piece in The Economist, bluntly titled Management theory is becoming a compendium of dead ideas, notes, “Management theorists need to examine their church with the same clear-eyed iconoclasm with which Luther examined his. Otherwise they risk being exposed as just so many overpaid peddlers of dead ideas.”
Sure, that’s a bit extreme. But as Margaret points out — and as we can all agree, if we’re not being willfully blind — the world of business thinking is filled with the jargon of failed ideas. Sometimes we’re solving the problem, but sometimes we’re creating it. As a result, employees, consumers and citizens have less trust in business than ever. When everything has changed, and the stakes keep getting higher, we can’t just keep going along like we always have.
The good news is, there’s something liberating about looking at old (and new) problems with fresh eyes and giving yourself and your team the permission to get real about them. The even-better news? ISA members don’t have to figure it all out on their own. In addition to speakers like Margaret, who will be bringing the insights from her research and hands-on work with CEOs around the world, you’ll have the benefit of the incredible brain trust of the ISA member community at this year’s Annual Business Retreat — and all year long.
Meanwhile, as we look around in 2018 and see the big institutions failing to live up to their promises or getting mired in chaos and gridlock, it could be that business has not only an opportunity but a critical role to play. Are we in a position to inspire and encourage more, from our own organizations and our clients’ organizations? What can we contribute from our thinking, expertise, observations and work with people in organizations across the globe?
In Tucson this March, you’ll have the chance to tackle these provocative questions head on and take back practical strategies for creating your game plan for the future. As Margaret says, “Let’s not play the game, let’s change it.”