Psychologist Gary Klein thinks that corporate management is too wrapped up in monitoring and reviewing its staff, forgetting that the type of insight that leads to innovation can get stifled in the process.
Anyone who has ever worked in a large corporation will be familiar with feeling marginalised, distanced somehow from the main purpose of the business, of being tolerated and yet not very involved. Once a company reaches a certain size, its cultural imperatives tend to pay more attention to how projects are approached rather than whether the outcome is successful. The net result is that sometimes we wonder why we ever turned up in the first place.
Psychologist Gary Klein thinks this is partially due to lack of management insight: their inability to see what needs to be seen. His new book, 'Seeing What Others Don't', investigates its causes. But right out of the gate he dismisses perhaps our most natural reaction to being confronted by managerial indifference. 'Situations like this don't occur because the bosses don't care,' he says, before qualifying the statement with: 'I think that the people at the top of the corporation really believe that they care. But we all have these delusions. They may think they do, but they don't act in a way that shows they care about the people at the bottom.'
Klein thinks that as a result of the increasing number of corporate pressures related to large-scale collective issues, people at the top behave in ways that demonstrate that 'they just don't have time, which makes them look contemptuous of the people at the bottom, who are getting the message that there are lots of priorities up there'. Klein cites the example of a business that recruits personnel to consult on a particular area of expertise and promptly ignores them. Spending the money and appearing to have addressed the issue satisfies what is required in the HR handbook, the boxes are ticked and everyone goes home. Unhappily.
What this has got to do with insight is crucially that 'no one has lied'. Everyone thinks that they are behaving properly and yet the system breaks down because no one can see clearly what issues are affecting the other party. In the world of engineering management this is never more apparent than in the context of wider corporate concerns at the top trumping more localised individual-focused issues somewhere underneath. We've all seen it: the managers complain that the managed can't see the range of compromises that necessarily go with seeing the whole picture, while those managed complain that the managers are only interested in issues that affect overall profitability. 'There is a breakdown in common terms. It's not simple disagreement. What makes it frustrating is that everyone believes they are on the same wavelength, because they use the same words.'
Carry on regardless
For all of our discussion about lack of insight on a business management level, Klein feels that humans are fundamentally insightful, and his book is crammed with 120 case studies of how we are able to incubate instinctive solutions to real world problems. The discovery of pulsars is to Klein's mind a classic example of how the brain 'knows more than we think it knows' and also of how, by allowing ourselves to work in environments where we can think outside the constraints of the rulebook, we have the potential to come to up with insights that can change the world (rather than set up walls between management and staff.)
But of all the case studies in 'Seeing What Others Don't', Klein's favourite is that of Crick and Watson's discovery of DNA, 'because it has so much richness in it. They started out with the wrong idea, which they recovered from, rather than getting stuck in it. I like the fact that, even though they were so young, they had so much expertise, representing different specialties, while other teams working on this tended to be over-specialised. They failed a lot and they were ridiculed for their failures. But who can resist the magical moment where Watson is pushing all of the pieces together and suddenly it hits them? When we talk about the flash of insight, it doesn't come any flashier than that. As Crick put it: 'this is so beautiful it has to be right'.'
Perhaps one of the reasons Klein is so attracted to accidental insights is that his own career trajectory was for the most part unplanned. 'I always wanted to study how people think and so was always interested in psychology.' Having worked in laboratory conditions dealing with simulation as a form of pilot training, he also became interested in the concept of expertise, 'and that got me started on wondering about how people become good at things. And that led to me wondering how people are able to use their expertise to make tough decisions.' This led in turn to Klein studying firefighters in the field, and based on this research he came up with his own insights about decision-making 'that was very different from what was in the literature and which got me into the area of what's called naturalistic decision-making in a real setting.'
Back to business
Armed with this knowledge, is there something that Klein can say to the managers described at the beginning of our conversation? Is there a behaviour change that they can adopt to make their approach more cohesive, inspire more innovation or simply generate more happiness in the workplace? 'The one thing to take away is that there are almost inescapable management pressures on what I call the 'down arrow' ' of increasing predictability and reducing errors. These pressures make it a continual struggle to maintain a balance between appreciating and encouraging the creation of new ideas and the submergence of the individual in schedules, concern over resource use and the other minutiae of project management. These pressures are unrelenting and so managers need to be constantly on the lookout for anything that might be creating imbalance.'
If they really want to nurture insight in the corporate space, says Klein, managers need to continually look for ways to cut down their slavish dependence on the review process and reducing errors. 'Even though they don't realise it, managers are working at cross purposes and are so wrapped up in the process of reducing errors they are stifling creativity.'
'Seeing What Others Don't' by Gary Klein is now out in paperback from Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £12.99