Mining What You Cannot See
Assumptions, in business and life, are some the quickest things to get us into trouble. I’m speaking from experience here, as I recently made an assumption about a client prospect that I now regret.
I’d bet good money that I’m not alone in the frustrating feeling of missing something that, in hindsight seemed so obvious, you wonder how you possibly missed it. It’s humbling to confront again, and again.
Yes, dear reader, even you may have blind spots. This fits squarely into the category that we are all human and therefor imperfect. And, hopefully we’re constantly trying to improve.
Catching Blind Spots
We all know what blind spots are from our days in Driver’s Education. It’s the part of our life that our peripheral vision and mirrors cannot see or detect. “Always, always, always look over your shoulders as you change lanes” was repeated until it became a safe-driving habit.
Knowing our blind spots can help keep us from unintended consequences. If we’re driving, it’s why we check over our shoulders. If we’re moving through life, it’s why we employ deep noticing and reflect on our past doings.
The Blindness of Bright Spots
Also true is we have bright spots that we can be just as blind to. These could be strengths that we have some awareness of, but don’t fully see how we effect those around us. The truth is that it’s unlikely we really know how we positively effect or influence the people around us.
I’d bet if you tried to make a list of strengths, virtues, and positive influence about people you are close to, it would be an effortless and joyful task. The same would be true if you listed what you admire in other leaders. Or, if you were to list what other brands in your space are doing so well you want to “borrow” their ideas. All this would be relatively easy to identify and there would be clear benefits in doing so.
But what’s not so easy is to list our own strengths or how we really impact those around us. Why’s that? Two reasons.
First, in the healthiest parts of our society, we’re conditioned to be humble. As the Aussie saying goes, “Don’t be the highest poppy.” Taking constant stock of your strengths — what makes you truly great (even genius!) — might be judged as a narcissistic action. It isn’t.
Second, as much as we may try, we don’t have crystal-clarity in our self-awareness. Self-awareness comes in two forms: internal—the clarity of our beliefs, motivations, passions, purpose and values; and external—the clarity of how we are in the world and how that effects those around us.
While we may strive a for high degree of self-awareness we live in a dynamic, ever-changing and relational world, which requires us to perpetually seek to uncover and discover what is changing and where it’s changing. We’re always playing “catch-up” in this game of noticing.
Getting to Know Your Unknowns
Investigating both our blind spots and bright spots has value and can shed priceless ah-ha’s. Stating the obvious, we can’t understand, manage, or fix what we’re not aware of.
From what I know, there are (at least) four ways to view what we think we know:
- Known knowns (the things we know we know),
- Known unknowns (the things we know we don’t know),
- Unknown unknowns (the things we don’t know that we don’t know).
- Assumed knowns. (Things we think we know, but don’t. These can be blind spots or bright spots.)
Knowing the differences between the above can:
- Launch a brand to a new height, or miss the mark because assumptions were made.
- Attract the right employees for the wrong job, or vice versa.
- Market a product with the right offering to the wrong people, or vice versa.
- Create an employee retention program with the wrong incentives, or the right conversations.
- Help you make the right decisions about a partner, investor, board member, consultant, advisor, coach, or community partner.
The list above could be nearly endless. Maybe you’ve come up with a few of your own as you read those examples.
These examples could be true for individuals, leaders, businesses, and cultures — all at once.
Again, what we don’t know and don’t see is most dangerous because it can’t be managed. Know this: that blind spots and bright spots exist. You have them, and so do I.
Cultivating a regular practice (see the toolkit below) of discovering them helps to deepen our self-awareness, therefore minimizing blind and bright spots. And, with higher degrees of self-awareness, we can manage our way to our greatest potential — in business and in life.
Below are a few practices that can reveal Blind Spots and Bright Spots.
For individuals and leaders: The reflective best-self exercise.
Reach out to 15-20 colleagues, team members, friends, and family members who know you well, and ask them to tell a story about a time when you were at your best, and worst (two stories).
When you receive your feedback, analyze the common themes and create a portrait of your weaknesses and strengths through the eyes of others.
Though this probably sounds terrifying, you’ll likely be surprised by the feedback that you’re not as terrible as you think you are — or at least not for the reasons you think you are. Do this once a year and compare year-to-year results to see how you’ve changed (or haven’t) over time.
Workshop it for Teams: Bright Spots & Blind Spots Mining.
Note, the below questions should only be asked in a trusted circle where the people know each other well, you’ve spent significant time together, and you trust one another. This should not be done as people are just getting to know one another.
- Ask those around you two questions, evenly weighted: Tell me the characteristics you witness in me at my best; and at my worst.
- Bonus: if you have one for each, tell me a story of a time when you saw me (witnessed me) at my best, and at my worst.
- As you listen, note and search for the things you weren’t aware of. Listen for the attributes that may help you gain greater self-awareness.
- Then, thank each person who’s given you feedback. Don’t apologize or explain, just thank them.
Personal Journalling Exercise: Trait Listing & Review
The process here is to find a quiet time where you can sit, think, reflect, and write (ideally, with pen or pencil and paper in a journal).
Make a list of your traits, the things that make you uniquely you. You might start by listing the things you do when you feel most alive, energized, secure, and at your best. If it helps, think of situations and scenarios where you feel most alive, and most drained. List at least 20 traits.
Your traits might include things like, “I am highly creative when there’s a deadline, or there’s a big problem to solve,” or “I was most present and supportive when my close colleague was thinking of quitting their job.”
If you get stuck, here’s a framework to play with:
“I am/was/can be ______(trait)_______ when _____(situation)______.”
After you’ve gone through the Trait Listing (at least 20), explore these questions:
- Search to identify when you first determined these traits were an indelible part of who you are. Search for the origin of the trait. Where did it come from? Is it a trait you believe is yours to keep? Do you still think they’re indelible, or do you feel empowered to make changes according to a new guidance system, or evolving life values?
- Next, assess the insights and potency of your traits. What traits do you take for granted about yourself? Do you consider yourself creative or not creative? Do you believe you’re bad at math but great with words or vice versa? Are you the nice guy at the office everyone greets or the curmudgeon everyone avoids? Did you become aware of these traits on your own or at the suggestion (training) of someone else? Notice what’s truly yours to keep, and what’s no longer yours to continue.
- Finally, analyze the gaps. Do you think of yourself as disciplined and hardworking, or spontaneous and carefree? List your memorable life experiences that inform this conclusion, and try to think of life experiences that contradict this conclusion. In reflection, do you estimate yourself to be as conscientious as you’d like to be, or do you have some work to do? What might be the traits you aspire to, but haven’t yet cultivated?
Bonus: Exercise Combining — If you do both the Personal Trait Listing exercise and The Reflective Best-Self Exercise or The Bright and Blind Spots team exercise, compare the traits (what you notice about yourself) and stories (what others say about you). Here, I recommend doing the Trait Listing first, so you won’t be swayed by what others reflect back to you.
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