Essays on Management: On Seeing

When asked by an admiring student what it was to be poet, Henrik Ibsen answered “to be a poet is to see”. Homer and Milton were blind, however they saw clearly  what many with twenty-twenty vision could never see.

Seeing means perceiving reality as objectively as possible, and things as they are. It means X-ray eyes seeing through celebrities to products being marketed, through a board’s trusted politicians to finances lying hidden.

The greatest poets, scientists, entrepreneurs and managers are so because they see things others don’t, without social norms and herding behaviour blinding them.

Innovation involves seeing possibilities where others see nothing.  Innovation can be a future vision of the unlooked for, longed for event that customers know cannot happen, until it happens.

Seeing involves contrarian spirit and unusual cultural backgrounds.  Fish do not see the water they are swimming in.  Most in mainstream cultures see only what surrounds them and are blinded by it.  People from different cultures (and those with learning or other “disorders”) see different things, or the same things differently, and this gives insight.  Ethnic minorities such as Lebanese, Armenian and Jewish people contribute disproportionately to business, science and creative endeavours.  Nouriel Roubini, of Iranian Jewish descent predicted the bursting of the US housing bubble and the 2008 financial meltdown.

Some people within mainstream cultures do see more clearly than others.  Charles Merrill (who founded Merrill Lynch) anticipated the 1929 crash.  He doubted his own sanity because he disagreed with the collective “group wisdom.”  Merrill could see, and also let others see.  He was a leader in financial transparency, publishing an annual report that revealed his business’s true financial state, and let others see it.

It is important to see the world, not how others have modelled it, and to see the variance and not just the high salient extremes, to see through symptoms to underlying problems.

Seeing also involves granularity; the scale of what is seen, and the ability as William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour

Fundamental to good decision making is being able to see the detail, in the Maori expression, “he karu miromiro” – to have a tomtit eye.  Most great entrepreneurs have an eye for detail, and if they fail it is because they miss a detail.  Robert Morris bankrolled the American revolution.  He had an American eagle’s eye for detail – most times.   However he was bankrupted in a land boom fever – ignoring his earlier advice to a junior partner: “It is absolutely necessary that you should never curb that very keen eager desire of missing nothing.”

John D. Rockerfeller had an extraordinary eye for detail and this interacted with his frugality.  Once he developed a process to save a few solder drops on an oil barrel – a detail he was sharp enough to see and frugal enough to economise on.

Seeing and frugality interact in other ways, including with the need to focus on what matters.  Seeing involves knowing where to look and what not to see or look for.  As William James remarked, the art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.

Choosing what reality to look for can be a key to effectiveness.  Good managers have the ability to avoid distractions, see underlying principles and address problems not symptoms.  They see the world, rather than how others model it.  They know that when the world doesn’t correspond with the model, change the model and not the world (unless of course you have a vision to change the world). 

It is important to see people who would otherwise go unnoticed.  There are no uninteresting people, and some of the least visible have the most to contribute.

Policy makers must see things that may be invisible to others because they are diffuse, hidden beneath, taken for granted, second order or distant in time.  An example is taxation’s hidden costs and compliance costs.  Land and resource managers must see how their practices impact on soil or water quality, on downstream catchments, on biodiversity, and sometimes on people yet unborn.

Often governments take visible initiatives to pander to concentrated lobby groups and in doing so impose invisible costs because impacts are diffused across millions of people, none of whom notice individual impacts.  Politicians often create visible, problem-specific agencies to react to symptoms without addressing underlying problems.

European farm subsidies and New Zealand’s interest-free student loans are good examples of policies with visible beneficiaries and invisible costs.  Campaigns to remove GST from food focus on a visible checkout counter benefit and ignore the diffuse cost of tax revenue foregone, costs transferred to others, and transactional overheads generated.  R&D tax incentives appeal to those who measure simplistic metrics such as national R&D data yet don’t see the wider sources and forms of innovation going beyond and transcending systematic R&D.

Seeing has a strong behavioural and construal element.  A rhetorical message or invocation can get you nowhere, however a visual cue or gesture may change behaviour.  Sometimes it is worth burning a $50 note in front of a worker who is wasting materials without understanding the financial costs.

In any customer or public service role it is important to help people see rather than be blinded by manipulative framing and choice architecture.  Credit card providers (who market debt not credit) set minimum repayment rates to benefit themselves at consumer expense.  This imposes massive costs on consumers compared to benefits that would come if repayment rates were set in consumer interests.

Policy makers and managers need to see the whole picture and not just part.  Policies and initiatives go wrong because specialists do not see the wider context – they are like blind people touching the different parts of an elephant and not seeing the whole.

A failure to see causes macro-economic crises.  Developed economies depend on a property rights substructure that underlies and validates market transactions, who owns what, and the economic and human rights that depend on these.   The 2008 global financial crisis was caused partly by abstract property rights representations being leveraged in such remote and multiplicative ways that underlying property rights and transactions relating to them became invisible.  In some cases mortgagee sales could not occur because the real property underlying mortgage-backed derivative financial instruments could no longer be linked to actual properties.

Focus, or the lack of it, can be a warning bell.  When what you would expect to see clearly is blurred it tells you something is wrong and you must take extra care.  When you are mountaineering or tramping and things don’t seem right, stop and take stock.  In a job, if things feel out of focus, stop, reflect, and if need be rethink your plans.

For leaders and innovators concerned with the future, vision is part of seeing.  Vision is seeing a future state when a veil of ignorance masks variables and there is uncertainty rather than risk.  It is fundamental to innovation and can be idiosyncratic.  Tesla’s vision for alternating current was what he but not Thomas Edison could see.

Visions can be delusionary, and have fantasy elements.  This is not always a bad thing.  Fantasy can blur ‘reality’ in ways that make it possible to see underlying reality more clearly.  Thought experiments can be fantasies about what might be, and this can help envisage possible futures.  Innovation can be a vision of what future customers may value and yet cannot articulate needs for.  Innovation may involve envisaging as possible things others thought impossible, and seeing things others don’t see.  That is why the ability to see is needed for both poets and innovators.


About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
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