Obstacle Illusions


Do you remember when eggs were bad and margarine was good for you? We were told that cholesterol was bad for us and contributed to heart disease. (Read “Everything You Know About Cholesterol Is Wrong” for a fascinating exploration of this myth.) Those were the days when car seats and bike helmets were unusual. We had smoking sections in airplanes and used baby oil to get a nice tan. There were lots of things that we didn’t know that we didn’t know. (There still are!) In some ways, these illusions of reality were obstacles to our own health and safety, as well as our happiness and effectiveness.

Who said the following?

  1. There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.
  2. There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.
  3. It will be years—not in my time—before a woman will become Prime Minister

To be fair, none of the speakers of these words had the benefit of our present-day 20/20 hindsight. Each person, though, suffered from obstacle illusions created by assumptions, bad data, and/or being caught in a rut.

Those “wise words” above were from:

  1. Albert Einstein, 1932
  2. Ken Olson, President, Chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), 1977
  3. Margaret Thatcher, 1969

You may have seen the recent reporting of a multi-year research project in which 100 psychology experiments were replicated. Ars Technica reported that a team of 270 researchers from around the world worked to replicate “100 psychology experiments from three important psychology journals.” (Replication studies are an important part of research in many disciplines, but, as you’ll find in reading the Ars Technica article, not done often enough.) In the 100 original experiments, 97 were reported to have statistically significant results. However, in the replicated work, only one-third did!

Does that mean the original results were wrong? Results were misreported? Experiments were poorly conducted? Results were falsified? No. No. No. and No.

There are many potential explanations for the differences in the results. Replication studies are difficult to conduct and, just like the original studies, certain strategic and practical decisions must be made, and assumptions held, that can impact the results.

Why is this important? As Cody Christopherson, of Southern Oregon University, said, “Getting it right means regularly revisiting past assumptions and past results and finding new ways to test them. The only way science is successful and credible is if it is self-critical.”

Read that last sentence again: “The only way science is successful and credible is if it is self-critical.”

Let me borrow and apply that to a different realm:
The only way leadership is successful and credible is if it is self-critical.

Christopherson pointed out the need for science to be rigorous, self-critical, and disciplined in its thinking and acting. Leadership is the same. To do so we must engage in the ABCs of breaking down our obstacle illusions.

  • A: Assumptions and beliefs must be discovered and discerned, then assessed for their impact and validity. Sometimes, it’s important to take well-founded assumptions and, taking risks, throw them out. Leaders ask, “What would our world look like if that assumption were not true?” That’s why we have nuclear energy. That’s why we fly airplanes. That’s how early explorers discovered the western hemisphere. That’s even why you have Post-It Notes!
  • B: Bad data needs to be rooted out and thrown away. Sometimes decisions are made on the basis of faulty information. We don’t often hear about the impact of bad data on successful experiments. (After all, it’s the good data that produced the results we read about.) However, nearly every effort of research and of leadership involves at least some bad information. Not clearing out bad data would stop us in our tracks.
  • C: being Caught in a rut is one of the most common causes of obstacle illusions. How often do we do things because they work? All the time. Why? Because it works! So why mess with it? Trust me. Mix it up. Do things differently than you did yesterday. Take a different route to work. Ask your team for a new way to conduct a process. Ask a different team of people to solve a problem. Eat at a new restaurant. Find new vendors for products.

Check your assumptions. Find bad data. Don’t get caught in a rut.

They all create obstacle illusions and forge a false reality that limits your effectiveness.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by tpsdave. Photo available at Pixabay under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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