Recognizing the Proximity Paradox
“The experts told us to do it this way.”
“It’s worked for us in the past, it will work again.”
“That’s a good idea, but they would never go for it.”
If you’ve ever heard someone utter those statements, you’re seeing the Proximity Paradox at work. It’s what drives smart people to reinforce stability and predictability at the expense of creativity and innovation. And while each statement is delivered by an individual in response to a small action, over time, they shape the people and processes responsible for an organization’s success or failure.
The Proximity Paradox is the theory that the closer you get to a challenge, the harder it is to really see it for what it is. It may seem like common sense, but it is an extremely difficult issue for businesses to manage. Consider Kodak – the company that owned 1,100 digital imaging and processing patents. They failed to switch to digital photography, filed for Chapter 11 in early 2012, and sold their patents to Apple, Google, and Facebook.
We can scoff at Kodak’s blunder, but when we scratch the surface of the problem it faced, we realize that we are all more vulnerable than we would like to think. When you’re dominating an industry, the Proximity Paradox makes it hard to see the outlier product with grainy image resolution coming to knock you down.
How can we see our own digital imaging iceberg before it hits the photography Titanic? Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote about this phenomenon in his book The Black Swan:
Think about the secret recipe to making a killing in the restaurant business… The next killing in the restaurant industry needs to be an idea that is not easily conceived of by the current population of restaurateurs. It has to be at some distance from expectations. The more unexpected the success of such a venture, the smaller the number of competitors, and the more successful the entrepreneur who implements the idea.
In business, we put a lot of stock in the current population of industry players. That’s the Proximity Paradox at work again. We are close to our competitors because we benchmark our success against theirs. We set up Google Alerts on their company names, dig for clues on their product development pipeline and challenge our own product development team to one-up them.
But if we take Taleb’s example, none of the big players are going to come up with the next killer idea for their industry. When we race to perfect the film camera, we overlook the newcomer who is figuring out how to fit one on the back of a cell phone.
The Birth of Proximity
While it’s tempting to point blame at the people who reinforce the Proximity Paradox in our organizations, it’s not their fault. Proximity isn’t a choice.
Our brains are wired, and rightly so, to look for what is familiar. We are programmed to identify risk so that we can avoid it. Our schooling and training have imposed homogeneous thinking on us from the day we entered the system. As a society, we celebrate expertise and entrust the big decisions to the most tenured among us.
People tend to crave routine – the actions we know and the experiences we can excel at. People also tend to like rituals, as they have a causal impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski suggested that people are more likely to turn to rituals when they face situations where the outcome is important, uncertain, and beyond their control. That’s why taking the risks needed for creativity is so fundamentally hard to do, particularly when the outcome can impact our livelihood.
There is a sameness of curriculum throughout elementary, high school, college, and university. Georgetown University’s Centre on Education and the Workforce recently conducted a study on education. They found that workers with a post-secondary education in 1973 held only 28% of all jobs. In 2010, they held 59%. By 2022, they are expected to hold 65%. That means two-thirds of Americans will bring roughly the same education, experience, and problem-solving abilities to the workforce.