Perceiving the world differently...and how to make it useful

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

The Foundation Forum, Thursday 6th December, written up with the help of Simon Caulkin.

Every day the sun comes up over the houses at the end of our road, to the left of the front door. And every day it goes down over the trees to the right. It’s obvious that the sun goes around us, and even if you still thought think the Earth was flat, it’s still clear that the sun is doing the moving.

So you can imagine the trouble caused by Nicolaus Copernicus in the early 1500s when he decided it made more sense for the Earth to be going around the sun. He was smart at stakeholder management too. He knew this idea was going to be a difficult to land given the vast power of the church and the way this went against their views of such things. So he diplomatically dedicated his book to Pope Paul III and a note was added that said even though the book's theory was unusual, if it helped astronomers with their calculations then it didn't matter if it wasn't really true.

‘Truth’ is at the heart of this perception challenge. We love our own truths and we believe them deeply. Eye-witness reports are treated as unarguable when the way our eyes and our brains process what’s going on around us edits out all sorts of surprising things. The invisibility of the person in a gorilla costume walking through a group of basketball players is one famous example.

There are many more ways in which our perceptions of the world are affected by influences we may not be aware of. We can find ourselves trapped in convention and familiarity by forces we can’t see.

  • Some of the ways we sense the world are less fashionable to work with than others – what we hear rather than what we see for example

  • The beliefs we have that come from very different life stories and upbringings colour our sense of truth. The mid-West of America is a very different place to New York, and they’re both in the same country with roughly the same religion

  • The effects of being surrounded by a familiar culture, by technology we know, by money and by comfort can dull our imagination. What happens when we take our skills to an alien environment and try applying them there?

These are not just idle suppositions, they are material issues that affect our success on many levels. So we brought together three experts, one from each of the trio of examples above to explain why our perceptions can betray us.

We had a world-leading expert on sound, with Julian Treasure, founder of the Sound Agency and presenter of one of the top 10 TED talks of all time; ‘How to speak so that other people want to listen’.

He travels the world training people to listen better and create healthier sound, and he is author of two books, How to be Heard and Sound Business. His five TED talks have been watched more than 70 million times. What he had to say could make your ears curl – the effects of sound work at a sub-conscious level and the instincts that stopped us getting eaten are still at play in the ways we respond to noise pollution arising from our accidental approach to sound design.

We had a former LSE lecturer, an expert in social psychology and in particular the challenges of diversity and inclusion. Dr Marie-Claude Gervais is founder of Versiti, an agency specialising in research with people from minority ethnic backgrounds.

She understands where they’re coming from and she also understands us. She has applied this insight to large-scale research programmes for government, global brands and charities, helping them understand how to respond to the experiences, needs and aspirations of people from the minority groups that matter most.

And we had a much travelled cultural convenor, Philippa White, born in South Africa, raised in Canada, and after a short time in Thailand, her early working career was in the UK before she moved to Brazil.

Through her business, The International Exchange, she takes people from comfortable jobs in the west and gives them uncomfortable challenges in places that need their help (she also gives them some support of course!) She set out to help people in the private sector provide solutions to some of the world’s big problems, and in so doing has also found she helps them blossom, developing their own capabilities and belief in themselves, AND she has uncovered a route to innovation, necessity being the mother of invention after all.

Perceiving the world differently and how to make it useful

The discussion that followed, summed up by Simon Caulkin

At some level we sort of know that perception rules the world. But it still comes as a shock to realise how particular, relative and arbitrary some of our most basic taken-for-granted ‘truths’ actually are.

Indeed, one of the unspoken casualties of a fascinating December forum on ‘Perceiving the world differently – and how to make it useful’ must be the orthodox Western idea of management, based as it is on a one-dimensional model of rational economic man. It’s not that we should abandon the notion of management as a rational, evidence-based practice – but to do justice to its human raw material the evidence base needs be infinitely richer, subtler and more dynamic than that concocted in a Chicago economics department.

As forum chair and Foundation founder Charlie Dawson noted, the central proposition of the Foundation itself involves, literally, a perception shift: the insight that being customer-focused, the stated Holy Grail of many organisations, is only possible by looking at the world ‘outside-in’ – from the point of view of the customer – rather than the much less challenging inside out, the comfort zone of most companies.

The startling effect of such switches was graphically illustrated by first speaker Philippa White, a cultural convenor who has turned what might be called cultural arbitrage into a social enterprise and a business, to the life-changing benefit of both individuals and organisations.

Briefly, White, with her own much-travelled upbringing, invented The International Exchange (TIE) to do what its name suggests – take professionals from comfortable jobs back home to confront them with uncomfortable challenges in places that need their help. Coming from a public service background, TIE, White explains, was born from a personal conviction that marrying private-sector skills with social purpose would strengthen both.

‘It’s how we can get individuals to feel genuinely proud of their [private-sector] skillset and that it has some kind of purpose; how we can get the private sector to stand for more and reshape itself; and how we do that by developing future leaders and getting them to think and work in different ways,’ she says.

Since 2007 TIE has despatched nearly 100 people to projects all over the world. They have just 30 days to meet their challenge – ‘human rights, street children, rainforests, marine conservation, giraffes, elephants, education: it could be anything’ – which in effect turns them into temporary CEOs, ‘working under huge pressure in ambiguous situations, learning to embrace diversity and gain insight into completely different places around the world.’

One TIE secondee was an ad designer from New York who signed up to work in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, with Hestian, a provider of fuel-efficient clay stoves as an alternative to the open indoor fires whose smoke is the leading killer of children under five worldwide. In his 30 days, he hatched a plan that culminated in orders for 10,000 stoves, 20 times the 500 sold in the previous two years. The total is now 500,000 and counting. The secondee discovered against all expectation that he could do strategy. ‘If you travel far enough, you meet yourself. You realise more of what your purpose is,’ he reported.

Another placement took a young woman to Brazil where she eked out minimal resources to launch a big campaign for a youth-based human rights organisation. The week she returned to the day job, also in advertising, she showed up for a shoot for a prominent makeup brand to find that the budget had been slashed and the team resigned to giving up and going home. But, fresh from her experience of doing more with less, she redesigned the set and galvanised the crew into doing something quite different, changing everyone’s attitude to what’s possible in the process. She summed it up well: ‘Constraint is an opportunity to do something different.’

This is quite a reversal. From one perspective a course of action is obviously unthinkable; from another, it is not only possible, it is a liberation. It illustrates what ought to be one of management’s secret weapons: the power of expectation. As Henry Ford brutally put it, ‘If you think you can’t, you’re right: you can’t.’ But the reverse, cannily exploited by Steve Jobs, is also true. In the knowledge that most innovations fail, the only way to succeed is to convince yourself and others that success is not only certain but can be achieved by tomorrow lunchtime. What’s more, such perceptions can become self-fulfilling – that is, they become true by changing behaviour to make it so.

Social psychologist Marie-Claude Gervais, expert in diversity and inclusion, and founder of research agency Versiti, had interesting examples of self-perpetuating processes working both for and against inclusion. She noted that she is regularly asked to do research with groups that have been deemed ‘hard-to-reach’. But ‘hard-to-reach’ is a loaded term that comes from a specific perspective. It suggests separate, closed, suspicious, resistant, keeping a distance. Using a different term, for example ‘seldom heard’, on the other hand decisively alters the discourse, opening up the possibility that the elusive group might want to be heard, but maybe you didn’t ask?

This kind of unwitting ghettoisation, she found, was routinely perpetuated on supermarket shelves. Why, ask ethnic minority consumers, are some international products separated out into an area called ‘World’ Food’ while others are not? Spaghetti and tinned Italian tomatoes aren’t there, but basmati rice is. Why isn’t basmati alongside Uncle Ben’s?

‘The divisions aren’t arbitrary,’ notes Gervais. ‘They reflect which specific diets and communities are accepted as part of the “mainstream” and which are not. Supermarkets are microcosms of wider society, and their merchandising replicates inclusion or exclusion’.

Inclusion, in other words, is in the eye of the beholder. This became even clearer in further research for Channel 4 on how minority audiences react to their own representation on TV. While there were differences between groups, the overall message was clear: minority audiences just wanted to be mainstream. ‘They wanted to be normalised. They wanted their difference to be acknowledged in mainstream scripts, but not to be the subject of the show’. Channel 4 has vowed to change how it treats inclusion as a result.

‘The biggest lesson’ Gervais has learned is that, as she puts it, people’s sense of self – the bedrock of their identity – is culturally dependent. And cultures, themselves a product of history, geography and inherited values, vary greatly on a number of axes.

The UK, like north America and northern Europe, is strongly individualist. Some immigrant communities, for example Muslim ones, are equally strongly collectivist. This creates misunderstandings not only between dominant and minority cultures, but also within groups. For example, it is traditionally forbidden for Muslims to read the Quran, as the word of God, in any language except the original Arabic. Non-Arab speakers used to learn the texts by rote, happy to obey the values transmitted without understanding any of the words. That was fine for first-generation arrivals, but not for their children raised in an individualist culture in which they were expected to read, enquire, argue and make their own minds up rather than take traditional values on trust. So they read versions of the Quran in English and as a result see the raw material behind the passed-on values and behaviours. As Gervais points out, this represents ‘a big shift in authority in the family, because the kids were now the experts’. This is not just about Islam, Gervais insists – ‘attitudes to knowledge can be very, very different’.

The third exhibit in this Forum’s casebook of perception blindness was sound. Sound, said Julian Treasure, founder of The Sound Agency (and presenter of one of the most-viewed TED talks of all time), surrounds us, but since it is often unplanned, undesigned and not very pleasant (traffic, aircraft, building work, background noise, other people’s talk or music) we spend a lot of time shutting it out.

Yet sound is an essential and extraordinarily potent part of being human. Hearing is the primary alarm sense, sound can warn, make us happy or sad, convey meaning and information, and sound can change behaviour. Violent sound repels, just as pleasant sound attracts. Or vice versa: my tube station plays classical music at busy times of day, soothing passengers and making them more attentive to their surroundings, an ambience that causes pickpockets and troublemakers to shun it like the plague, according to staff.

Unfortunately sound is rarely deployed for its positive potential, notes Treasure. It more usually plays a role that is damaging to wellbeing and effectiveness.

Glaring examples include acoustically primitive school classrooms (‘millions of children leave school simply having not heard their education’), noisy hospital wards (‘a disastrous environment for getting well’), and open-plan offices (‘great for collaboration, rubbish for concentration – you’re one one-third as productive if you are trying to think’).

The power of music is particularly traduced. ‘Intention is very important in sound. Why would you put music on top of baristas banging, terrible acoustics and no soft surfaces? It’s like putting perfume on a bad smell, you just get a worse result. A lot of retailers’ – and restaurateurs (ed) – ‘need to learn that one.’

And they have to learn about sound in all its forms fast, because an internet audio revolution is in train. Smart speakers and all manner of devices connected by the internet of things are already upon us. ‘We are beginning to understand the power of speaking and listening, as opposed to reading and writing’, Treasure says. Many organisations are jostling for position to provide the ‘intelligent agent’ that will mediate communication of this kind, which will be a different world from that based on vision and the written word. ‘If there’s one thing you need to do, it’s listen.’

In The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, Charles Hampden-Turner (a neglected British guru) and Fons Trompenaars note that ‘in any culture, a deep structure of beliefs is the invisible hand that regulates economic activity’ – and is the source of both strengths and weaknesses. One of the weaknesses of the Anglo economies, they argue, is that in keeping with their accompanying universalism (one right way, one size fits all, management as science), they have been misled into believing (perhaps by the collapse of the communist bloc) that capitalism is monolithic, with no room for other cultures.

The Forum showed how blinkered and reductive that view is – and hinted at the benefits of reconciling the apparent differences. White illustrated how third sector and private-sector values can legitimate and complement each other. Gervais’s research demonstrated that self-perpetuating beliefs could be enlisted for positive as well as negative ends. Treasure’s work with The Sound Agency identified an extraordinary resource for good in the sensory perception of sound that is currently almost completely untapped. Harnessing these intangible, intuitive and free resources by embracing them consciously, being inclusive and giving the idea real meaning, must surely be management’s next frontier.

The Foundation’s view

This was an exceptional evening, one in which one’s deeply held and usually unconscious assumptions were firmly shaken up. Four points stood out to us as we listened intently:

1. The ways that we perceive the world, and the ways it differs between us, is invisible in many areas that matter And it matters because it literally affects what we believe to be true.

If you have always seen the world one way, from one perspective, then your beliefs are deep rooted. Three examples were instructive. From Philippa’s experiences, someone who had been through one of TIE’s challenges and had realised what could be achieved with almost nothing, came back and was working on a fashion shoot. At the last moment the budget had to be slashed and the team’s view was to stop because it couldn’t be done. But for the post-placement person there was no doubt – it was going to happen and there was a way through, literally a belief that this wasn’t impossible rather than it was (and they were right too). Marie-Claude told us about working with a business that described their minority audiences as ‘hard to reach’. Language often reveals a lot about our beliefs, and she pointed out the way this view had the business people at the centre and the minority group bringing difficulty. She reversed the idea, suggesting these people were ‘seldom heard’, a wonderfully outside-in idea that starts from where the people concerned are standing and places the onus on the business to listen before doing anything more. Julian started his section by playing common background noises over his own delivery – traffic, fridges, the clutter of a café, voices – and made us aware of what it was doing to our physiology. It was upsetting in a naggingly annoying, distracting kind of way, and yet it was so utterly normal.

2. The accidental effects that flow from our lack of awareness of these different perceptions are severe.

Philippa brought to life the silos or bubbles we live in and by describing the stories of the people she works with, helped us see how different our existence is day-to-day compared to many more people around the world. Her placements often have a crisis moment towards the end of the first week when the sheer bewildering difference of everything starts to take hold and people doubt their ability to cope, never mind achieving the challenge they are supposed to be helping with. But in the 30 day window they have, they adapt, they learn, they realise they are surrounded by people who want to help, and they bring some real value of their own. Marie-Claude described the way some Muslim families are struggling with unintended consequences of being in the west. The Quran was traditionally supposed to exist only in its original Arabic, the language intended by God. It was learned by people who couldn’t speak the language, reciting and repeating until it became natural. They lived by Muslim values but they didn’t know what the scripture meant. The younger generation with western influences is more challenging. They want to read a translated version, to understand what it says, and in so doing they have become more expert than their elders, able to argue their points forcefully with parents who can do little to resist. Julian described an issue with open plan offices. The layout works well for collaboration but is terrible for concentration – we tune in naturally to other conversations and the level of babble is disconcerting. Productivity in open plan offices is just one third of a quiet space designed for thoughtful working. An expensive mistake.

3. Once we recognise the issues, we can take steps to counter them and use our greater perceptual insight to help.

Philippa is doing this through her work. Each person who goes abroad contributes something valuable to the people and the organisation they work for – dramatically increasing sales of safe wood-burning stoves in Malawi was one example. They also come back with changed capabilities, from being a ‘teenage’ manager to becoming a grown-up as one person put it, far more capable of working effectively and more open-mindedly than before. Marie-Claude is doing this through her work. She described the influence on one of our national broadcasters as she helped them see the ways they were making minorities feel distanced, underlining their separation from the mainstream and increasing isolation. Now they have resolved to act more mindfully and they have the tools to do it, aware of the unintended consequences of their desire to make great TV. Julian is also doing this through his work. He designs sound so that the human activity intended has the best possible conditions to take place and to be successful too. Shops that encourage people to stay, workplaces we want to work in, even petrol station toilets with birdsong that people say they love but they’re not sure why.

4. And so we came to one final conclusion from the whole evening. The challenge here relates to our work at The Foundation with inside-out and outside-in perceptions, but now we can see just how common different versions of perception gap really are. We have learned one remedy, but there is a great deal more to be done. The solution is in the title, but with one subtle change…. Perceiving the world deliberately.

About The Foundation

We are a management consultancy working with all kinds of organisations to achieve customer-led success. This means tackling big organic growth challenges; growing faster, growing into new markets or fending off threats to growth by starting with what matters to customers and then making it work for the business as well.

The aim is to influence customer behaviour, but this is inherently tough. Why? Because people in any organisation naturally see the world from the inside-out, with colleagues close and customers distant, and lots of assumptions about how things work that aren't challenged.

We help clients look from the outside-in, re-connecting them with what customers really value (the problem they want to solve, not usually what the client sells), then finding new and better ways to create this value.

This means working both as expert advisors and facilitators. The issue with simply gathering outside-in information is that it lacks impact to get senior teams to tackle inconvenient truths in what customers want, and to believe their own organisation can be different.

By using ‘Immersion’, personal conversations with customers and leaders of organisations in other sectors who have tackled parts of their challenge, we help teams get around the natural and limiting inside-out beliefs that stand in their way. This helps them develop better answers for customers and new ways of achieving lasting success.

We answer three sizes of question:

Small – a new proposition or an improved customer experience

Medium-size – growing value per customer or improving retention (a sub-set of the former)

Large – creating customer-led business success, often by uncovering a true outward-looking purpose and the genuine belief needed for it to be acted on

Our clients include HSBC, JLR, O2, M&S and Ebay, with achievements including helping create Plan A at M&S, adding £100m of value to a Travelex travel money proposition, and giving Morrisons a competitive direction contributing to their return to growth.

Behind our work our most distinctive characteristic is our team and their outlook. Each individual is motivated to and experienced in crossing the border between the worlds of customers and business which often resist mixing well.

This link will take you to more information about us and our Forum events:

Contact Details

Charlie Dawson (Founding Partner): / +44 7785 268 859

Charlie Sim (Director) / +44 7958 574 917

Anna Miley (Director) / +44 7816 261 987

John Sills (Managing Director) / +44 7990 943 402

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