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What's staring you in the face that you're just not seeing?

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

You’re busy, right? You’ve got a million things to do. You’re dealing with slack messages, emails, texts, phone calls and zoom meetings while also dealing with your home life. Everyone expects you to answer them instantly even though you have a huge workload. You’re maxed out, exhausted from context switching under pressure.

Maybe you then get a breather in a well-run meeting. Where everyone agrees to switch off digistractions. You can breathe, you can think. Maybe it’s a retrospective. You collaborate and come away motivated and optimistic that you’ll carry on continuously improving. That’s great and hopefully you have data to measure success.

But is it enough?

You go back to multitasking and the work you’ve agreed to do. Are you fiddling while Rome burns or are you seeing the bigger picture? What’s staring you in the face that you’re just not seeing? Do you have the courage to answer this question honestly?

It’s easy not to notice, or to ignore, what’s really happening. I remember many, many years ago I was working as a software engineer in a company where the annual target was to increase the quality of what we delivered to customers. A new policy was brought in. A record was kept of the number of bugs (raised internally and externally) that each of us had “caused” by our changes to the code. Each month, the people with the fewest bugs were congratulated in front of the office and those with the most were named on a wall of shame and frowned upon.

There were two of us who were normally on the wall of shame. Now of course none of us want to produce buggy software and we do our best not to. The reason the two of us were on the wall of shame was that we were re-architecting and improving a legacy code monolith containing complex algorithms. One small change affected many results and calculations. We were in the days where only testers could do substantial testing of the algorithms using massive databases of data. A test run would sometimes take days to complete.

While in the naughty corner, the two of us did a bit of investigation and it turned out that we rarely introduced new bugs. Instead we’d update an area of code and remove many high priority bugs. This then made it possible for testers to find other pre-existing bugs that had previously been hidden. We told “the management” but no one would listen so we stopped re-architecting the code and instead just made small updates. This slowed down the improvement of the quality of the software we provided to customers but “the management” didn’t see what was staring them in the face.

Or there’s the example of Amy Edmunson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, who was involved in research at hospitals to see how often patients were given the wrong dose of medication. Results were surprising, showing that the lower-performing hospitals were giving the wrong dose less frequently than the high performers. She could have left this here and thought no more about it but she was curious. What was staring her in the face that she just wasn’t seeing?

She sent a researcher to the hospitals to observe what was going on. It turned out that the higher-performing hospitals had a culture of openness. They were willing to discuss mistakes and learn how to improve. Lower-performing hospitals didn’t have psychological safety and didn’t dare report mistakes.

These examples show how easy it can be to miss what’s happening in the big picture. With this in mind, I ask you…what’s staring you in the face, that you’re just not seeing?

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