The Reality of Perception

We all see the world from where we stand. Our Managing Director John Sills argues that unlock real insight, we need to continually challenge our perspectives…

Before we start, I want you to get a piece of paper, and draw a map of the world, like you’d see in an Atlas.

No really, go on. I’ll wait.

Ok. I’m going to guess it looked a little bit like this:

Unless you live in Australia. And then it might look more like this:

Doing this exercise holds up a mirror up to the inside-out way we see the world – not just in geographical terms, but also in how we interact and understand people close to and far away from us.

When asked to draw this, most people in the UK do three things:

  • They draw the UK in the middle.

  • They draw the UK disproportionately large.

  • They forget Japan. That’s Japan, one of the most famous countries in the world.

Of course, when people in the Australia are asked the same question, they put their home country in the middle. And will remember Japan – but almost certainly forget Iceland.

Naturally you see the world from where you stand – hence people in the UK starting with the UK. But this is also true psychologically, meaning you’re closer to your own opinions – and those of your friends & colleagues – than those of your customers. Because of this, you give those views and ideas more importance, creating a vicious circle of confirming beliefs and forgetting what it is your customers might truly value.

The further away you go from where you stand, the more blurred things become. In map-drawing terms, this means forgetting Japan. In life, this means failing to understand – or sometimes even acknowledge – those people that aren’t in the circle of people closest to you (Brexit, anyone?). It also means you’re more likely to make decisions based on what you know (such as how a wonderful piece of new technology works) as opposed to what actually matters (such as whether customers will actually get any value from said new technology).

We work hard to reinforce and maintain our view of the world, too. Here’s a picture of the earth taken by NASA in 1973. Notice anything unusual?

When you look at Earth from space, the idea of ‘top’ or ‘bottom’ makes little sense. However, because we all learned in school that the Earth is a certain way up, with the Sun on the left and the Solar System spreading out to the right, Nasa decided to flip this image around ‘the right way’ to avoid confusing people.

How often in your business do you change inconvenient truths to suit what you want to believe is true?

The gravitational pull to see the world from the inside-out is relentless, and nearly impossible to resist. So to unlock real creativity for customers, your company, and yourself, you need to continually challenge your perspective, looking from the outside in to understanding what your customers truly value. And here’s three ways to do just that:

1. Be interested

Where does your information come from? Perhaps TV channels that show you things closer to home or that involve people that you can more easily identify with. Maybe celebrities and social media influencers who command a disproportionate share of your attention. Or it could be newspapers that already confirm your view of the world. How often do you question your sources, and seek a balanced view?

2. Put yourselves in their shoes

In every interaction, there are at least three possible positions – the person communicating, the person listening, and a third position looking from the outside. To really understand other perspectives, put yourself in the 2nd and 3rd positions and see what the other person might be seeing hearing, feeling, and thinking.

The good news is there’s no special equipment needed except the eyes, ears, and brain you’ve been given, and the desire to get out there and do it yourself. Step away from the Powerpoints and pretty Customer Satisfaction graphs, and walk in the other person’s shoes. And stop saying ‘treat people like I wanted to be treated’ – because they might not have the same view of the world as you.

3. Find the opposite view

Dan Dennett once said that ‘you should only assign yourself to a position when you can equally argue the opposite point of view’. So next time you’re gathering research or holding a workshop to come up with The Next Big Thing, deliberately involve people unlike you, who hold views that disagree with your own. And then make sure you only use the words ‘I think’ when you’ve exhausted the questions ‘what do you think and why do you think it?’

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