Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to notice when I am unseeing. It’s hard, falling into the realms of the ‘known, unknowns’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’. But it’s useful to practice as I’m wondering how much of organisational life we unsee and what effect that has on us.
Unseeing is the concept that underpins China Mieville’s detective novel, ‘The City and the City’ which I’ve just finished reading and now discover is a TV series (that I can’t bring myself to watch, in case it destroys my sense of the book). The book is gripping and brilliantly written, set in two cities, each with aspects of their own dress codes, language, culture, subcultures, control systems, and system challengers – no different from two organisations.
The difference that makes the book compelling is that the two cities are set in/on exactly the same geographic/physical space. ‘The city of Beszel exists in the same space as the city of Ul Qoma. Citizens of each city can dimly make out the other but are forbidden on pain of severe penalties (administered by a supreme authority known simply as Breach) to see it.’ They must ‘unsee’ the city that they are not a citizen of. The word ‘unsee’ comes up repeatedly.
‘A person in Beszel can be walking the sidewalk right next to someone in Ul Qoma. They are side by side, but a whole city, and a whole reality away.’ Citizens of each city are taught the habit of ‘unseeing’ any aspect of the other city – ‘The cities have different airports, international dialling codes, internet links. Cars navigate instinctively around one another; police officers cooperate but are not allowed to stop or investigate crimes committed in the other city’. This is deliberate and controlled ‘unseeing’ – a different concept from simply not noticing.
The habit of ‘unseeing’ doesn’t always have to be taught in a conscious way – cultural norms imbue patterns of ‘unseeing’, sometimes, as in The City and the City, in ways that act to reinforce the deliberate control mechanisms. Additionally, what we see visually, heavily influences what we think culturally, and conversely, our culture influences what we actually see. Some interesting research explores this link between culture and visual interpretation. The start-point for the research was the statement: ‘We presume that people from different cultures, who grew up in different visual environments, associate different words with the same object. By analyzing the nature of cross -cultural word associations and word category frequency counts in respondents’ answers, we are hoping to understand the connection between culture, verbalized thoughts, and object judgments.’
What the researchers found was that, ‘Comparison of the most frequent words has shown [when subjects were asked to freely associate words with a picture of an animal] that American and Japanese subjects are quite different in terms of what they think when they look at an object (an animal, in this case), except in aesthetic judgments.’
You can’t generalize from one research example, but this finding continued my thinking on what it is that people unsee and what effect it might have on organisational design and development.
The film Hidden Figures, for example, exposes the way the contribution three real-life African-American female pioneers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson made to NASA’s organisation design/development as they gradually moved from being unseen to being seen.
‘There’s a moment halfway into Hidden Figures when head NASA engineer Paul Stafford refuses the request of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) to attend an editorial meeting about John Glenn’s upcoming mission to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Stafford’s response is dismissive—”There’s no protocol for women attending.” Johnson replies, “There’s no protocol for a man circling Earth either, sir.”
Another protagonist, Mary Jackson, ‘needed to take after-work graduate courses held at segregated Hampton High School [in order to become an engineer]. Jackson petitioned the City of Hampton to be able to learn next to her white peers. She won, completed the courses, and was promoted to engineer in 1958, making her NASA’s first African-American female engineer.’
As the unseeing scales drop so positive change starts to happen. But the scales don’t just drop. It more a question of consciously removing them and you find when you start the removal processes that the scales are more like onion layers – you have to keep peeling them off.
For example, it’s easy to look at spreadsheets of organisational management information and yet unsee much of what they are telling you. Once you ask yourself if you might be unseeing something you may be able to discern a pattern about, say, pay differentials, and then this leads to seeing something about gender imbalance, and moves on to telling a story about social mobility. All of these elements might be present in the original spreadsheets but it is not easy to see them either initially or in one go if they are in your realm of unseen.
Learning what you’re unseeing is, as I said, not easy and doing something about it is even less easy. In the same week I finished reading The City and the City, I read the quote from Miyamoto Musashi, who, in The Book of Five Rings, tells readers to ‘Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye’ in order to be successful in any endeavour. He spent a lifetime practicing this.
Now that the concept of unseeing is with me, I am practicing walking down a familiar street trying to see what I’ve previously unseen. Moving into plain sight are the many, previously invisible to me, homeless people that I’m now wondering what I can do to help. James Attlee writing (a whole book, Isolarian) about Cowley Street, Oxford, noticed the names of the phone services he passed: Mama Africa, Pakistan Connect, Hello Arab, Jamaica Direct, Eastern Eurovoice, Taj Mahal. In his case, it started him musing on the patterns of immigration and ‘inflammatory politicians articulating (or set on creating) a fear in the native population’.
It’s very easy to ‘unsee’. It is less easy to stop unseeing, but I think to stop unseeing is a skill to be practiced. What’s your viewing on unseeing and stopping unseeing? Let me know.