The idea of ‘willful blindness’ has its origins in the legal system and refers to situations where a person (or persons) seek to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally keeping themselves unaware of facts that would render them liable. ‘I didn’t know’ is the last desperate line of defence. For this reason it is also sometimes known as ‘contrived ignorance’ or ‘Nelsonian knowledge’ after the British Admiral who famously put his telescope to his blind eye and declared ‘I see no ships’.
In business the idea of ‘willful blindess’ was popularized by the writer and management guru Margaret Heffernan in her book of the same name. In it she argues that the real threats to business viability and ongoing success are precisely those things that are deemed so material, so integral, so critical to the business model, product or service that they are considered ‘beyond question.’ The flaws that might drag down your company are hidden in plain sight. It’s just culturally or commercially (or both!) impossible to talk about them.
Sustainability offers a stark choice. You can stick with the existing business model, product or service. Devise clever ways of proving progress: decarbonizing, lightweighting packaging, improving the ethical provenance of ingredients etc. All of which are laudable but are essentially about doing pretty much the same thing slightly more responsibly and efficiently. But if the fundamental proposition of your business is effectively indefensible from a sustainability perspective, you can only embrace this incrementalism by also embracing willful blindness.
You can see this tension playing out all around us. Major fossil fuel companies persist with further exploration for new reserves even though we know we already have five times more fossil fuel reserves listed as valuable assets on global stock exchanges than we can actually burn if we wish to constrain climate change within two degrees. That is a sub-prime ‘unburnable carbon’ bubble of staggering scale. That’s not just short-sighted, it’s white stick, dark glasses and friendly labrador territory.
Or bottled water businesses whose carbon intensive model of trucking ‘natural mineral water’ around the world in plastic, often to places primarily already awash with affordable decent quality, potable water, is highly profitable, but also highly problematic in the context of climate change, ocean plastic pollution (1M plastic bottles produced per minute) and perceived ‘need’. Especially when most brands champion their ‘natural purity’…or more supreme guff such as “[bottled water] offers us the mythical vitality and potency of nature, combined with the safety of science and a reassurance of our place in the world”. Yes. Of course it does.
The alternative to these ‘marginal gains’ strategies (do the same old stuff a little leaner) is to go back to a genuine sense of business purpose. For fossil fuel majors this is obviously ‘providing energy’ or for a water business ‘providing hydration’ or ‘access to water’. And then creatively and strategically rethink how that fundamental need and purpose is best met through radical sustainability innovation.
That sounds complex. But is doable with courage and a determination to do what’s right and needed when your eyes are wide open. DONG (Danish Oil & Natural Gas) Energy has made this transition from black to green energy and rebranded itself as ‘Ørsted’ (after the Danish inventor of electromagnetism Hans Christian Ørsted) to mark this transformation. If an energy company can change its ‘what’ this dramatically then every business should be paying attention.
And with the explosion in public awareness and concern around oceanic plastic pollution post Blue Planet 2, the movement to ‘ask for tap’, restaurants offering free chilled, filtered and sparkling water, cities like London installing new systems of water fountainsand the refillable water bottle becoming the keep-cup/jute bag du jour, something also has to give in the world of water.
This is where the enlightened self-interest kicks in. As we’ve noted time and again with clients – you do not decide whether to disrupt your own business model or not, you either do it to yourself, or someone else does it to you. The path of commercial corporate history is littered with the casualties of those who failed this disruptive innovation test, from Kodak to Blockbuster. Which is why I only half joke about ‘insultancy’ – the art of being strategically rude to clients in order to bust open the lazy collusion of mediocrity that willful blindness leads to.
Trust me, your willful blindness and incrementalism is not just an unhealthy risk. It could be a death sentence – ‘disrupt or die’. And no-one will come to your funeral.