Seeing Truths Can be Hard

By Paul Sullivan,
Georgetown University

This morning my young daughter asked me a very important question: “What is perspective?” That is not as easy to answer as it might seem.
There is a famous story about the blind men who tried to describe an elephant. Each was at a different part of the elephant. Each description was quite unlike the others. Then there is the famous scene in the move Rashamon by the famous Japanese film maker Akira Kurosawa. A crime was witnessed by four people. When interrogated each had very different descriptions of the crime based on their perceptions of what happened.
Different people have different qualities of memory and analyses of those memories. The context of their observations can also affect their perceptions of events and the importance of certain ideas and data. People under great stress or angry may have very different perspectives than those who are calm and content.
Ask any policeman or detective how many different descriptions they might get of even a simple traffic accident. When military and other people in important security positions come back from a battle or whatever they need to report what happened, what they saw, their ideas of what could be done to make things better and so forth.
Sometimes there are things called “after action reviews” on projects by companies and others. A whole group of people from the company or a government get together to discuss what happened in the events to be looked at, and what might be done to be better the next time. I have never been in any meeting such as these in the government, private sector, when I worked for law firms, or whatever, where there was universal agreement on what happened and what should be done. There were always very different perspectives involved. Sometimes contradictory perspectives seemed to hold validity given the lack of information or the complexity of the situations involved. In all of these meetings there were always the silent people. I often wondered what they were thinking and what their perspective might be.
Understanding differing perspectives is crucial for a business, a military, or just about anyone who has to make the difficult decisions. There is an American statement that often catches a problem with some leaders’ abilities to understand different perspectives: “They are good at transmitting, but do not receive.” This means that these powerful men and women are good at telling others their perspective, but they do not listen to others about their perspectives. Given the complexity of some of the decisions leaders have to face, and the complex and often foggy environments they need to work within, receiving the perspectives of others is vital toward making the right decisions.
Sometimes these different perspectives come from other leaders who work for them or with them. Sometimes the best perspectives come from those at the shop floor in a company, the research assistants in a laboratory, or the lower ranking soldiers or sailors who were right in the middle of the battles or other stressful situations.
When leaders just listen to other leaders, especially leaders who think just like they do, mistakes are often made. One of the biggest faults leaders can fall into is “group think”. That is when everyone at the table or in the field takes pretty much the same perspective without any debate or real discussion. In order to really have a discussion about perspectives and the realities of a situation there has to be a sense that they will be no retribution for contradicting leaders.
Open debate is vital. Sometimes this open debate can stop wars, save lives, revive an economy and more. The “debates” about some of the wars were really not debates at all. It was peer pressure crushing real debate. Data was secondary. Emotions captured the day. Politics ruled decisions. The results were sometimes disasters. If one looks at the history of conflict going back to the first written works one can see thousands of examples of poor decisions based on wrong perspectives. Those perspectives were often based on incomplete or simply bad information.
If we look at the financial crises of 2007 to date we can see other examples of perspectives that simply proved to be wrong. The fact that most of the data on the mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps and more were not publicly available to most people helped create the faulty perspectives that lead to bad decisions being made. Lazy leadership in the big banks, those too big to fail behemoths of finance, also led to bad decisions. Many of the leaders did not have a clue what was happening at the ground level of their companies, and especially what was inside of the very complex trading models that were written mainly by Ph.Ds. in mathematics and physics or other who were before the crises considered geniuses of finance.
The people in charge of the risk departments in some of these companies seemed to not have a clue what was really happening until it all came crashing down. I say seemed to not have a clue because surely the best and the brightest must have had this figured out, but were just making too much money to really look into things. The top people in some of these companies were getting very rich very quickly and were too busy counting their money and feeling important to see the icebergs they were approaching.
Greed can blind perspectives. Incomplete information can stifle perspective development. Then there is the almost all-encompassing problem of bounded rationality. Do we really ever have all the information we need to make proper decisions and build proper perspectives? Waiting to develop perfect information and prefect perceptions is often too expensive, takes too much time, and in some instances makes the decision making too late.
So people from leaders down to the people doing the jobs they are ordered to do have to do what they do often with imperfect information even for some of the simplest tasks. Day to day this does not seem like a big deal or even a source of a minor worry. However, if some unusual events happen then the importance of the imperfect information and distorted perceptions kicks in. Most of us muddle through and hope these unusual events do not happen. For most of us the costs of making mistakes are often not that large. For others they could be quite large and could affect millions of people.
Think of the costs and effects of going into a major war? Think of the costs to a company if it does not understand its consumers, its competitors, its suppliers, and, for some this is really important, the potentially disruptive technologies that may be coming around the bend. Starting a certain company in a certain place may seem like a good idea now, but how might things change in the next few years and how will the leaders of the company react to those changes? Uncertainty is a big part of the development of proper perspectives and decisions for a company CEO, a general or any kind of leader — even a parent.

Short URL: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=1179

Posted by on Sep 28 2012. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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