Tuesday, February 7th, 2017
point of view

If you are of a certain age and have attended a significant number of plays and concerts in your time, something is easy to remember about any one of them:  where you were sitting and what the scene looked like from your perspective.

The details fade over time, but a general impression remains.  And that impression is anchored in your location and your point of view.

Recently I attended The Front Page on Broadway, a production featuring a handful of big names and a number of recognizable faces who have supplemented their theater work with appearances on Law and Order and other television shows.

I happened to get a ticket in the front row.  When John Slattery made his entrance and slid a suitcase across the stage, I thought it was going to end up in my lap.  I was one of only a couple of people in the theater for whom it was a possibility.  (It didn’t happen.)

In fact, although I saw the same play as those in other seats, I saw it in a different way.  Neither better nor worse, just different.  For example, as the curtain rose following the production, the entire cast was stark still in a clever tableau; as interesting as it was from my angle, I found myself wanting to be further back, so that I could take in the entire scene, to get the effect that was intended.  Following that, as the actors locked arms to bow at the close, I could have reached out and touched Robert Morse, but a broader view of the troupe was not possible.

Another differentiating aspect of witnessing and interpreting a performance is that we each bring our own experiences and beliefs along with us.  The same production can produce many reactions.  A song can evoke memories for some and fall flat for others.  Our personal point of view is powerful.

And limiting.

One of the most difficult things for any person (or team or organization) is to see the challenges and opportunities of the moment clearly.  A single, overwhelming point of view makes that difficult.

The task, then, is to break the barriers that impede our awareness.  Somehow, during the vaunted Information Age, when everything is supposedly at our fingertips, it’s actually quite a chore.

We live in a time of filter bubbles and political enclaves.  Our networks are shaped by algorithms in ways that we do not understand, exacerbating the human instinct to herd.  We find it increasingly easy to harden our point of view.

Investment organizations, like other collectives, can suffer a similar fate.  Having a core philosophy is thought to be very important, but when it strangles the observation of reality, it is a weak philosophy, not a strong one.  Certain investment principles are worth clinging to, but which ones?  In an environment of change, adaptation is important, but many organizations hold fast to precepts and processes that have outlived their usefulness.

A series of litmus tests as to beliefs might seem to be a good foundation for building an organization, but enforcing a narrow point of view usually restricts the ability of a group to succeed over time.  Skillful leaders gauge the proper balance between uniformity and diversity, between the comfort of the known and the uncertainty of the emerging reality.  Cultivating other points of view is critical.

They may come from inside the organization.  Often there are repressed or ignored opinions of worth that can be unleashed by shaking up the existing norms and decision making processes.  There is nothing more sad than seeing valuable ideas and people go to waste.

Certainly, proceeding without truly understanding the needs of clients or other stakeholders is dangerous.  There’s a reason that the popular development process known as design thinking starts with a focus on the ultimate user of the product or service.

Sometimes, an outside view can be helpful in throwing light on otherwise unseen possibilities. I’m a consultant, so you can expect me to proclaim the value of bringing an outsider in to offer another perspective.  But I also understand the reluctance of those who toil day in and day out close to the action, who don’t see the potential benefit.

“What can you possibly see that I can’t from my front-row seat?” someone might say.  Quite a bit, as it turns out.  Our point of view is critically important.  But we don’t see all there is to see on our own.