Have you noticed how optical illusions are similar to business strategy issues? Some, like the illusion to your left, are very obvious when you’re not investigating them closely. You know something is happening, but you can’t find an example to investigate. Some illusions become stronger as you closely investigate them. Others are seen more easily from a distance. Some can be even more confusing, looking clearly like one thing when you’re close, only to morph as you gain perspective – going through a period of fuzziness before crystallizing into a new vision that everyone with your perspective sees. Some disappear once you understand how you’re fooled, others, like Shepard’s Tables, will fool your brain no matter how many times you’ve seen them. And for those that are ambiguous or have multiple messages, you’ll see the thing you’ve seen before, whether faces or vases – often without noticing the alternative interpretation. What do they all have in common? You’re seeing something that isn’t really there – or missing something that is.

The same thing can happen when you’re considering you’re strategic plan. This is the time of year when plans are typically updated, and this year nearly everyone is taking another look at their strategy. A crucial part of that process is looking at the world around us, at our competitive challenges and opportunities. A lot has changed in the last two years: consumer behavior, business priorities, and responsibility for our environment to name a few. Most didn’t predict the nature or scale of this change, and even those who did could do little to prepare for the economic challenges.

It’s important to remember that in times like these, people reach for meaning that isn’t there. Just as optical illusions take advantage of shortcuts in our visual systems, fear and lack of control exploit the weaknesses of shortcuts in our perception and decision-making systems. We’re predisposed to see what we’ve seen before, or to weave a tapestry of connections supporting our view, only to find it unravel with the first tug on the string.

A series of studies by Whitson and Galinsky found that after simply thinking about a time you lost control, you’re far more likely to

  • see non-existent patterns
  • make false connections
  • be more swayed by quantity than quality of data
  • develop superstitions, rituals and conspiracy theories
  • attribute poor results to false causes outside of your control than to your own actions

All systems are in place to predispose you to a strategic mistake.

What can you do as an alternative? This is the time for both analysis and intuition, for using your gut instinct but testing the broad assumptions supporting it, and for employing the tools of blue ocean strategy, innovation and TRIZ.

And to help counteract the distorted perceptions that come from that feeling you may have lost control? Whitson and Galinsky help out there too.

Ready? Spend some time thinking about and affirming the values that are important to you, and about times when you felt in control.

Now you’re set. Let’s go.

Thanks to Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science for his great summary of the Whitson and Galinsky study, Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117