A couple of years ago, I was standing around outside my house with my father-in-law. We were talking about how we could connect the main part of it to what the previous owners had referred to as their Granny Annex.
I was trying to work out how I could make a credible case that this was an infrastructure project worthy of his investment, but in subtle terms so as not to cause offence. ("I think you would both be very happy in here, at some point in the future.") He was busy studiously ignoring the bait. But we were both trying to work out how to connect to the two properties with the least expense and smallest disruption.
We worried about the different ground levels, the load-bearing capabilities of the walls, the fire risks in extremis. Our discussion was a welter of tape measures, sight-lines, access points with external walkways, workarounds and dead zones.
After a good 30 minutes of animated conversation, my wife wandered by to see what was going on. We sketched out our two best options, both involving external construction, permission from the local authority planners and significant lumps of cash.
Too much information and context can be a bad thing when it comes to seeing things clearly and making a good plan.
She listened patiently, looked at us deadpan, and asked simply: "Why don’t you just knock directly through the wall? You could put a door in here." Anticipating our masterly retort on the difference between the two levels, as she walked away, over her shoulder she flung out: "…and put some stairs in to get from one level to the next."
She was, of course, completely right. It was her utter indifference to all the extraneous things that we had been worrying about that led her to the obvious answer – one that had been staring us in the face. Ever since, I have held that moment as a perfect example of how too much information and context can be a bad thing when it comes to seeing things clearly and making a good plan.
(At this point I had hoped to include a similar story about how my clear-eyed detachment had cut through the chaff of a conversation in which she had been entrenched, to similarly remarkable effect. Except I can’t immediately bring one to mind.)
Lies, damn lies and polls
I was reminded of this incident in the gigantic wash-up that followed the general election. For the six weeks preceding it, the opinion polls resolutely stuck in a technical dead-heat between the two major parties, with almost no movement, despite the increasingly frantic policy proclamations being made on each side.
And yet, if you locked any experienced politico in a room and asked them to study the situation as an exam question, free from polling data, they would probably have concluded that the Tories were likely to win.
Part of their reasoning would include a stark comparison of the things that really determined how the electorate votes on the day, versus what people said was important to them in the run-up. In opinion polls, people may say that factors such as public services and immigration are their number-one voting motivations, but, in reality, this election was always going to be about the economy, an area in which the Tories had a sizeable lead.
We may want to appear public-spirited in the face of the opinion poll, but we are innately selfish about our livelihoods and the wellbeing of our families in the privacy of the polling booth.
We may want to appear public-spirited in the face of the opinion poll, but we are innately selfish about our livelihoods and the wellbeing of our families in the privacy of the polling booth. The party that looks most likely to improve or preserve our economic fortune often gets our vote. Bill Clinton recognised this with his fabled "It’s the economy, stupid" message in his campaign centres during the 1992 US presidential campaign.
Crossing over into marketing for a moment, it is the same difference between why people say they buy a BMW ("performance, handling, innovation") and why they actually do ("I want my friends to see me driving a BMW"). It’s a very well-established marketing and behavioural norm.
Except that we all blinked in the run-up to election day, and were guilty of committing what George Orwell might have called groupthink. After those politicos stumbled out of their rooms, they looked at the dozens of polls showing the two parties locked together, doubted their instincts, and declared a hung parliament the most likely outcome.
So, too, the politicians themselves, as subsequently published accounts show all too clearly. The excellent Guardian Long Read on why Ed Miliband lost, by Patrick Wintour (bit.ly/WhyEdLost), shows groupthink operating as a constant uninvited guest in the Miliband inner circle.
Good leaders occasionally create conflict in order to pull an issue apart and destroy a consensus before it becomes a conclusion, but it’s something that our modern desire for management harmony doesn’t always encourage.
The quest for clarity
So, if you accept that a broad spread of views is a good thing when it comes to creating a plan and then acting upon it, you have two choices. Either you psychometrically test everyone to within an inch of their lives in order to create a disparate range of personalities (or a bunch of like-minded sociopaths who have learned how to game the system) or you ensure that you have a good mix of gender in any decision-making body you have.
A good balance of men and women working together is less likely to result in them falling for groupthink, and more likely to examine a problem from every angle. Put simply, we see the world from very different perspectives.
I have a friend who ran the risk portfolio at one of the biggest UK banks before the crash. He spent the five years before the financial crisis being berated by his peers in the leadership team about how his decisions were costing the bank money, as he was more risk-averse than the rest of the banks. I don’t know whether he relented or not, under this constant barrage, but we do know that it all ended in tears.
It's only fair and right to have an equal balance of men and women in business, but that's only half the story.
Would the outcome have been different if that board had been a mix of men and women? Is it too much of a stretch to say that a proper balance in the financial sector would have averted the worst of the financial crisis? I’m not sure we will ever know, but I do note that the long string of disgraced bankers who have appeared in our newspapers since then are, without exception, men. This, of course, is the intellectual case for a balance between men and women in marketing departments (and every other walk of life). It’s more far-reaching, in my view, than the moral case, which only gets you so far.
It’s only fair and right to have an equal balance of men and women in business, but that’s only half the story. That logic leads you to company-wide ratios, which may look good in annual reports, but won’t necessarily make the decision-making more broad-based and diverse. Knots of men making decisions are just as flawed as groups of women taking control. You don’t solve one problem by creating another, and my hope is that the next iteration of the women-in-business debate is about the intellectual argument. The moral one seems to have been won some time ago, but only half-solves the problem.
For proof that women can thrive in the construction industry, come and see the splendid integration of the former Granny Annex into Harris Towers. For suggestions as to how I can get my wonderful father-in-law to pay for it in retrospect, please see me on Twitter (@willharris).