Even Google Gets It Wrong Sometimes

By Barry Pruitt

“I work with some of the top executives in the world and none of them read. And then they pay me to talk about what I read – which really seems the wrong way around.” – Margaret Heffernan

Keep Smart is one of our core values. It’s a rhythm that we cherish, encourage, and one in which we invest heavily. At the Fortune Leadership Summit in Orlando this year, Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness, was sharing details of the 2006 trial of Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron fame. Below I’ve encapsulated her ideas with my thinking and experience. In the 2006 transcript of the Enron trial, one reads near the end that, just prior to jury deliberations, District Judge Simeon T. Lake, III, instructed the jury on a legal concept called willful blindness.

If there are things that you could know, and that you should know, but somehow manage not to know, then the law deems that you have been willfully blind. As a result, you must be treated as if you had that knowledge. This is a very high legal standard. It means that legally, as leaders of an organization, we are literally expected to know everything that we could know, and should know.Book_Willful_Blindness

As I write this, I realize that as a former CEO, leader of teams, team member, and as consultant and coach to CEOs and departmental leaders in companies ranging in revenue from a few million to tens of billions – that there have been many times that I did not know everything that I could know, and should know. And as part of this realization, I came to the conclusion that willful blindness was not just a corporate issue – it is a human issue. We see it all the time from banking to the boy scouts, from elected officials to evangelicals, and everywhere in between. Ask yourself, “Am I being willfully blind to risk? And, as a result, do I expose myself (or my company) to more of it?”

Next, consider the reverse. Is it possible that this same blindness is a filter used when looking at opportunities that are staring us in the face? And if yes, how do we overcome it? Years ago Microsoft quite famously (and spectacularly) missed the advent of the Internet, and when Netscape launched, they had to do an emergency, last minute, about face to develop a browser. Did they simply not see it coming – or, was it willful blindness?

What about Google? Stories abound about how they are the smartest, most innovative company in the universe. A company of young, creative, even disruptive minds - yet, they completely missed social networking. It strains credibility when we know that there must have been thousands of Google employees on Facebook, yet not one thought to stand up and say this is cool stuff, or we should consider putting our energy, manpower and resources towards something like this. By the time Google did come to this realization, it was too late.

This leads me to believe that if Google got it wrong, and if Microsoft got it wrong, then it can’t be an intelligence question. I cannot be persuaded that either company is full of stupid people. As much as I endorse Topgrading and hiring only A players, I know that among the thousands of employees at Google and Microsoft that there are plenty of smart people. So how can willful blindness happen to you, your organization, and more importantly, what will you do about it? How will you keep smart?

One reason for willful blindness is due to load balancing in the brain. Our brains are inherently lazy (which explains our use of only a small % of capacity), and there is an incredible amount of information coming at us daily. As a result, one of the things our brain does is sift through information looking for the stuff it already knows – what I call as a coach, pattern matching. Our brain is looking for, and matching, patterns seen before. Since we are very familiar with ourselves, one pattern we easily match is anything just like us, or that has patterns that are familiar. This recognition gives us confidence in the idea, approach, and thinking whether warranted or not. Organizations and teams behave the same way … and this is one way willful blindness can happen to you.

So what ultimately will you do about it? Below are two steps to reduce willful blindness:

  • Diversity: Are your meetings full of people who think differently from each other? Look for ways to bring a broad range of different experiences to the table. I estimate 70% of my ideas are worthless to companies. Why? Because I don’t know their business. The remaining 30% range from pretty good to great, and occasionally, good enough to be called a winning move. Why? Because I don’t know their business. Who can you involve in strategy that doesn’t know your business?
  • Stop multitasking since it is a misnomer: You can only focus on one task 100% at any one time. So stop doing three all at once, stop accepting every opportunity, stop saying yes to every request. If you need help, read Essentialism by George McKeown.

How can I encourage my team to keep smart?

  • Give credit frequently and generously (including the details).
  • Allow ideas and suggestions freedom to grow (beware of your quick judgment).
  • When you’ve made a mistake, talk about it. Let others know that mistakes are expected steppingstones to getting, and keeping, smart.
  • Share information widely and ask for help often.
  • Make fewer promises and accept fewer assignments - but always follow through on the ones you do accept.
  • Invest time in getting people (your team) to know one another.
  • High performance teams are not comprised of the smartest people. They must be socially sensitive and give each other equal time to speak and contribute. It’s your job to create this environment and expectation.

How can I build an organization that gets smart and keeps smart?

  • Create a flat hierarchy
  • Include some collective (not just individual) rewards
  • Measure trends and progress rather than just financial goals
  • Care passionately about the “how” as much as the “what”
  • Invest in people and their research

Our core value of Keep Smart helps us build a rhythm of doing just that. What exactly does that mean? It means that as core we will hire people that continually practice getting smart. It’s likely part of their DNA, something that they can’t stop doing. It means that if a team member stops keeping smart for any period of time, that they may be set free for new opportunities. It’s core. As leader, you should continue to create the environment where your team keeps smart, and where you apply Margaret Heffernan’s description of your job: “The job of a leader is to create conditions where other people are their smartest.” This is your stand against willful blindness. Remember, even Google gets it wrong sometimes.

Start a Keep Smart rhythm and share your success below - Barry.

Executive Summary from Patrick Thean's book Rhythm

Barry Pruitt


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