July 29, 2013

Look Out! When the Visible Becomes Invisible

“Clutter blindness” is a term for losing the ability to notice the sky-high piles on your desk or the hundreds of unread emails in your Inbox. Your eyes roll right past the piles, with barely a mental note that you’re squeezing your laptop onto the farthest corner because that’s the only space left on your desk. Functionally speaking, your clutter becomes invisible to you.

In general, the term applies to file folders and mail that you step around to get to your desk chair. Yet you can also develop a kind of “clutter blindness” toward the teams you manage or entire companies you lead. Powerful phenomena take place right before your eyes. But you don’t see them. What should be visible becomes invisible. Like the captain of Titanic steering in the icy North Atlantic, these are precarious waters for a leader to navigate.

Take Martin, the head of a business unit I advised a few years ago.

Martin invited me to work with his team because they weren’t hitting their targets. Other units were picking up slack for them, which was not only damaging their internal brand but also creating hostility toward Martin from his peers. Something needed to change.

But what?

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

I attended a few weekly team meetings and interviewed the executives. I also spent time around the office, quietly observing, looking around for places clutter blindness had set in. I watched for dynamics where the mess was so ever-present, it had long since stopped standing out.

Who even noticed the way the team conducted meetings, jumping from one topic to the next, never closing any issue before opening a new one? Why make note of the constant interrupting each other, the vague decision-rights, or the combative tone of conversation?

“That’s just the way we work,” Martin told me about his team clutter. “But what do you think is causing the under-performance of the business unit?”

Clutter blind. Dangerous.

The Mess of Managing People

A similar problem confounded Raj, a newly elected partner at a professional services firm. He’d made his way up the ladder as a standout individual contributor. But now he needed to lead more than projects. He needed to lead people.

People are a messy business.

Indeed, people working with other people create piles of clutter every day.

Difficult feedback that isn’t shared. Clutter.

Resentments that aren’t aired. Clutter.

Anxiety and confusion during company transitions that go unacknowledged. More clutter.

To an experienced manager, pent up frustration between colleagues that’s near the breaking point, or widespread fear that’s paralyzing the workforce, are as visible as a neon sign in the desert. They stand out.

Not for Raj.

By the time I met his direct reports, they were nearly buried by the team clutter that Raj couldn’t see.

  • “We have no idea what’s going on.”
  • “He expects us to deliver but gives no direction. We can’t read his mind.”
  • “We wait for him on the conference line for half an hour before we give up.”
  • “He took all the credit with the client. But the team had worked around the clock to produce that strategy.”
  • “I don’t think he cares about my career at all. The only thing that matters to Raj is finding more clients for Raj.”

Piles and piles of clutter on Raj’s metaphorical desk. But he couldn’t see any of it. He walked right past it every day without any of it catching his eye.

Clutter blindness. Not good.

You’ll Get More Success When You Can See the Mess

What can you do about this common problem? How can you start to see things that you simply don’t see?

Here are a few places to begin.

FIRST, go looking for it.

Let me show you what I mean.

For five seconds, look around the room and then look back at the screen.

What did you notice in the room that’s green?

Now, look around the room for five seconds, and look for things that are blue. Then look back at the screen.

How many things did you spot that are blue? How many more do you recall than things that were green?

Yes, you miss a lot of stuff when you’re not looking for it. But amazingly, the minute you start actually looking for it –boom! There it is, hidden in plain sight.

SECOND, ask other people what they see.

There’s no law against asking for help. Consider the whole profession of people who’ll help with the clutter in your bedroom closet. Other people can very often see the mess when you can’t.

Think back to Raj. He couldn’t snap his fingers and overnight have years of managerial experience. Fair enough. But he gained a lot of insight when he sat down with his direct reports at an off-site. He asked them how things were going. They painted a vivid picture for him that became quite clear in one day. New sight, overnight.

THIRD, and here’s the tough one, ask yourself what you’re pretending not to see.

The hard truth is that sometimes you don’t see the clutter because you don’t want to see it. The implications are too painful. Or too uncomfortable. Best to look the other way.

Clutter? What clutter?

Let’s say you have an employee who isn’t adding any value. She’s been with your firm for a while, and people are fond of her. The unspoken reality is known to everyone: she doesn’t pull her weight. Her salary isn’t the right use of overhead. You could do a lot better.

If you recognized the need to give her notice, your stomach would tighten and you’d feel terrible. Better to step around the mess and keep walking down the hall.

Although this mindset might save you some short-term pain, it’s a losing strategy.

Think of the night crew on Titanic. Maybe they saw a few patches of ice here and there. Maybe they considered sounding the alarm bells. Then maybe they imagined the consequences, realizing those blocks of ice could signal large icebergs ahead. Maybe the thought was too terrible, the repercussions too frightening. So they didn’t connect the dots, told themselves it was lots of loose ice, and kept on going toward that fateful frozen mountain in their path.

So, if you want to see what’s become invisible to you, ask yourself the question. The one that could reveal a pile of important papers or a long-lost treasure: what are you pretending not to see?

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