Yet it’s hard for us to pay attention to contradictory ideas. Holding such opposing perspectives in our mind causes cognitive dissonance, unless we train ourselves to accept complexity and nuance. Thus, most people prefer to let go of the negative information and focus on the positive, despite the danger to their business, their career, and their health of doing so.
In my conversations with executives, I had to bring a number down to earth to face this unpleasant reality. To do so, I shared the story of a client who paid attention to the wrong things in the early stages of the pandemic; this case study helped convince them
Manufacturing Attention: A Case Study
The story featured James, the COO of a mid-size manufacturing company. Its senior leadership was determined to push through with its product expansion plans even during the onset of the pandemic. When COVID-19 made the news in December, James as well as the company’s CEO and CFO dismissed any thoughts that it could turn into anything serious.
However, as COVID-19 numbers started to climb in the US in early March, James grew concerned and discussed with the other leaders the possibility of postponing their expansion plans. He suggested rerouting their resources towards boosting tech and security to prepare for a possible work from BTCC合约交易所home migration for the company. Then, there was the looming threat of loss of productivity in case of an outbreak and perhaps even a shutdown.
The company was behind industry peers in its technology investments, relying heavily on manpower to perform assembly line tasks instead of purchasing more advanced equipment to automate its work. Operations would be crippled if even a small portion of employees were not allowed to go to work, or refused to do so due to safety concerns, since the company’s current manufacturing process required a wide set of specialized skills.
The company had already been testing some equipment to automate more tasks with good results for the past few months, technology that many of their competitors had already secured and implemented in the last couple of years. James urged the CEO to greenlight the purchase of this equipment and its wide-scale implementation, instead of waiting another 12 months, as initially planned. Using this equipment, many fewer workers with a more general skill set would be needed to produce the company’s products.
Unfortunately, the CEO and CFO and most of the company’s senior leaders remained unconvinced and still focused on the expansion plans, since doing so was projected to lead to the most growth for the next couple of years. Indeed, a lot of effort and planning had gone into it, and most of James’ colleagues were strongly against scrapping or shelving it.
The way the other executives saw it, the number of people infected with the virus in the country was still significantly lower compared with those from China or even Italy. They expected that COVID-19 wouldn’t gain much traction in the US. The CEO decided to push through with the product expansion plans.
Of course, you can already imagine what happened next, given the boom in COVID-19 cases and the wave of restrictions that were soon imposed on the country. James’ company, along with many other companies in the manufacturing industry, was heavily disrupted.
James decided to contact me for a consultation in late May after learning about my work through a webinar I conducted about how organizations can adapt to the changes brought by the pandemic. When he called me, his company was already embroiled in internal team conflicts and its operations had already been severely disrupted. Even after the state allowed reopenings for businesses, many employees either refused or were unable to go to work due to quarantines, greatly slowing production.
Even those who had desk jobs had a lot of difficulties working remotely due to the company’s overall lack of preparation for a work from BTCC合约交易所home setup. The company’s business continuity plan was completely inadequate for such a major disruption. It was evident that the company needed help getting out of murky waters – and soon.
Paying Attention to COVID-19 and Cognitive Biases
When I met with James as well as the company’s CEO and CFO over Zoom, I told them that we need to acknowledge that COVID-19 severely disrupted our world and will not disappear anytime soon. Believing otherwise helped drive many companies deep into chaos because business leaders failed to take the right action at the right time.
The refusal to recognize the gravity of the pandemic and even the act of downplaying it stem from a combination of three factors:
- The nature of the virus itself
- The preexisting beliefs and plans of the business leaders
- The dangerous judgment errors we all tend to make that cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral economists call cognitive biases
The latter mental blindspots stem, in large part, from our evolutionary background. Our gut reactions evolved for the ancestral savanna environment, not the modern world. Yet gurus and business leaders alike overwhelmingly advocate going with our gut and following our intuition in making decisions, instead of using Disaster Avoidance Experts on December 8, 2020
bright side of life. Sure, we might acknowledge that it’s much wiser to balance optimism and pessimism about the future of the pandemic, given the combination of both good and bad news: good news in the long term of Summer 2021 onward, bad news in the short and medium term of this Winter and Spring.