Cone in the Box or Why Airplanes Crash

This is a chapter from Judy Brown’s book

A Leader’s Guide to Reflective Practice

Trafford Publishing Victoria BC Canada

ISBN: 1-4251-0445-2

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Or from this website.


Cone in the Box or Why Airplanes Crash

About a decade ago I was working with a group of super-smart consultants who were in the midst of a strategic crisis.  Although they were super-smart (by their own definition as well as the assessment of others) they had noticed that the reports they completed for clients tended to simply lie on the shelf and collect dust.  And worse than that, the clients avoided return engagements with the consultants.  When the consultants tried to find out why, they learned that in most cases the clients stayed away because of how they ended up feeling after the work: Something in the process which the super-smart consultants used to produce the reports left the clients feeling as if they were dumb.  Being in the presence of someone who made you feel dumb was not pleasant, so the clients didn’t voluntarily repeat the process.  This was turning out to be a bad business development for the super-smart consultants. 



The leadership of the super-smart consultants had come to the conclusion that the consultants needed better dialogue skills in order to communicate better with their clients.  That, they thought would stem this tide of bad events.   So they had sent the super-smart consultants to dialogue training to be fixed, and I was to fix them by teaching them dialogue.  Of course, the leadership team wasn’t in the room with the consultants and me.  And thus I was standing before a group of skeptics, who didn’t seem to be warming to the notion that a different quality of conversation might change their business fortunes.  

I continued making a case for dialogue, for a different way of thinking about conversation, a different set of skills in addition to the analytical and debate skills that had brought them to such limited (and perhaps, limiting) success in their lives.  In the midst of my expert and analytical case for dialogue, my colleague Bob Ginnett, jumped to his feet and said, “Let me show you why dialogue matters.  And why airplanes crash.”

 He went to the board and sketched something that changed my life, and my way of thinking about conflict, forever:  It was a three dimensional cone in a three dimensional closed box.  He told us that while we could see the box, we were to imagine that the cone was completely hidden from our sight.  The cone represented something very important to us and was key to our success.  So we wanted very much to know what was in that closed box. 

He asked us to imagine that the box had two tiny peepholes, one on the top of the box labeled “peephole A” looking down from above on the point of the cone, and another on the side of the box, labeled peephole B which looked in at the side of the cone.  

What would someone at peephole A report seeing?  “It’s a circle.”  And those at peephole B?  “It’s a triangle.”  Which one is right?  And how do we usually resolve such obvious differences in perspective?

After a startled silence, the consultants began to explore what we need to do if something very important, and unknown to us can be brought into focus only if we share information that comes from two very different, and seemingly conflicting perspectives.  What process do we use then?  Debate or dialogue?  Slowly, the skills of dialogue began to become more interesting to them.

I have continued this conversation about cone in the box for years now, with leadership teams across all sectors.  I draw the box.  And the cone.  But I remind them they can’t see the cone.  It could be a giraffe for all they know.   I ask the half of the room that represents peephole A, “What do you report seeing from your peephole?”  “It’s a circle,” they will say.  “And those of you at B?”  “It’s a triangle.”  Later we will laugh about how quickly we move from the question asking what we see to an answer of what it is.  The answer, “It’s a….” of course doesn’t answer the question as asked.  That shift from reporting ones perspective (“I see a….”) to announcing a fact (“It’s a…..”) happens in a nanosecond and we don’t even realize the shift we have made or how it gets us in trouble.

“So, how do we usually resolve these different reports—It’s a circle, no it’s a triangle?”   

People laugh, and quickly respond, “If the person at A is the boss, it’s a circle.”  “Do we know what we have, by deferring to the boss?”  “No.”  

“How else do we resolve the difference?”   With more laughter, they say, “We debate and the best idea wins.”  Great.  Now what do we have?  A winner.  Do we know what is in the box?  No. 

“What if we vote?”  What do we have?  A majority.  Possibly a democracy. Do we know what’s in the box?  No.  

“What if we all agree it’s a circle, do we have a circle?”  No, we just have agreement.  We still don’t know what’s in the box.  

“What if everybody is at point A and nobody is at point B?”  Does that make it a circle?  No.  We still don’t know what we have. 

Sometimes we end up our conversation with this simple and quite odd formula:

If you win, we all lose.

If I win, we all lose.

If I win, I lose.

A win-win is a win-win.

A win-lose is a lose-lose.

So what’s called for is not a debate or a game where someone wins.  What is needed is a process for placing individual perspectives on the table, side by side, and as a whole group taking them in.   And we need to explore those perspectives, sitting until we are able to pull the disparate data into an understanding of what really IS in the box.  

This may be the most profound and unshakable case for diversity and diverse thinking that can be made.  If there is a perspective missing, we may not know what we are facing, and thus we may not have the data we need to avoid putting our lives at risk. Native American writer Paula Underwood reminds us of the stark reality of that danger in her book Who Speaks for Wolf.    This is a teaching tale about one young member of the tribe who misses a critical decision-making meeting because he is out watching the wolves.  And while he willingly agrees to support the tribe’s decision (since he realizes he wasn’t there when they were deciding) there is nonetheless a very dangerous outcome, which eventually weakens and threatens the tribe.

So in a period of about fifteen minutes, a simple sketch of a cone in a box changed my life.  Pretty much permanently.  Cone in the Box shifted  my thinking about conflict (which I am adverse to).  About difference (which I find difficult).  About deference (which I am prone to).  I realized that I could no longer hide behind the skirts of shyness, or deference, or politeness.  If I really cared about the things that I said I cared about, I had to take consistent responsibility for reporting my perspective.  And I had seen a picture that, for me and for many of the leaders I work with, makes it absolutely necessary to invite other perspectives, particularly those of people who have experience different from our own.  Not because it is in style in leadership circles, and not because it is polite, and not because folks will then “buy into” the results (I HATE the term “buy in”).  But simply because to not do so, means we don’t know what is true, and puts everything we care about at risk. 

But back to why airplanes crash.  That might still be on your mind.  It surely was on mine, as Bob finished sketching the cone in the box.  It turns out that he was an experienced pilot and had focused much of his academic research on cockpit teams, and how they make mistakes that result in crashes.  What his research had uncovered, so he reported, was that almost anytime a plane crashed, the knowledge required to avert the crash was present “within the skin of the plane” but nobody paid attention.  Now as a one-time flight attendant and someone who flies a lot for business, that caught my attention.  Nobody was paying attention?  Why?

It turns out there are lots of reasons, and all of them are relevant to leadership: sometimes folks were not paying attention because their focus was diverted to some unusual event, or they were watching an odd light on the instrument panel.  Sometimes a junior flight officer saw something that seemed odd, but feeling junior, didn’t report it, or reported it with uncertainty and it didn’t get taken seriously.  

Perhaps the most public and profoundly disturbing version of this dynamic would be the case Deborah Tannen cites in her book Talking from 9 to 5.  She recounts the case of a co-pilot reporting ice on the wings who was ignored by the senior captain.  The captain, as they rolled down the runway at take-off, whistled to cover up the co-pilot’s words that “something is wrong here” before they dropped the airliner into the Potomac River.  Seventy four people were on board.  Only five survived.  

But Ginnett reported that it wasn’t always someone in the cockpit who saw something that was ignored.  Sometimes it was the flight attendant who spotted something.   Sometimes it was a passenger.  What would they know, anyway?  It’s only a passenger.

For me the ultimate tale of a passenger being ignored (and this one ended happily) was the experience of an engineer who had helped design the supersonic Concorde.  When the Concorde was being mothballed, the engineer decided he wanted to travel in it just once more for old time’s sake.   Sentimental reasons.   Now picture this guy.  Senior.  Maybe tall.  Probably imposing.   Male.  Settled back in his seat for one last flight from Paris to the US, in this technological wonder of the Concorde which he had helped design.    

The Concorde had a history of blowing tires.  It regularly blew tires on take-off .  That seldom caused problems because of the redundant sets of tires.  Still it was always a nagging concern.  On rare occasions when the rim of a tire touched the runway, it threw off metal shards.  That was considered more of a problem.  

On the day our senior engineer was settling back in his seat as they rolled down the runway on take-off, he heard a tire blow and realized what it was, but of course wasn’t troubled by it.  However, seated by the wing window, as he was, he happened to be looking out as a metal shard thrown from the wheel pierced the wing and the fuel tank, and jet fuel began stream out.  That, he knew was a BIG problem.   

He hit the call button.  The flight attendant came running, and he told her what he’d seen.  “It happens all the time,” she told him. “Sit down and buckle your seatbelt.”  Realizing the import of what he was seeing, he ignored her, unbuckled his seatbelt, and despite the fact that the plane was beginning to lift off the runway, he ran for the cockpit and begin pounding on the door.  

The co-pilot came to the door, and over the words of the distressed engineer, ordered him to go sit down and buckle his seatbelt.  The engineer, realizing his life and the life of everyone else on board was at stake, grabbed the co-pilot by his lapels, and dragged him down the aisle, and held his face against the window where he couldn’t help but see the stream of jet fuel pouring out of the wing.  When the co-pilot went limp at the sight, the engineer let go of him.  The co-pilot ran for the cockpit, slammed the door behind him, and the Concorde immediately went into a tight turn back toward the airport where it landed safely.  

Every time I think of this story it leaves me asking, “If a big strapping, experienced, senior male engineer, who helped design the plane, can’t get heard, what hope is there for the rest of us–for the younger, slightly confused, uncertain people who might hold the critical piece of information that could save our lives?”   And that leaves me always thinking of the stewardship responsibility we have as leaders to create the conditions for conversations that get critical perspectives voiced and listened to.    

And at the same time, as an individual, whatever my role, I always have a responsibility to take my own perspective very seriously.  Each of us may have critical information, perspective---even if we appear to be seeing different things.  

Of course, there are cases where what the other has to say is just plain wrong, untrue.  Neils Bohr, explaining the nature of paradox, talked about the difference between simple truths and profound truths.  A simple truth is clear and not so important:  I say, “It is raining outside.”  Someone who says it is not raining is just wrong.  Lying.  The opposite of a simple truth, said Bohr, is a lie.  

But there are truths of a different kind.  Bohr called those “profound truths.”  So for instance, I might say that life is fragile.  And you might say that life is resilient.  And both are true.  To understand life as it is, we need to hold both those truths at once.  While it seems at first as if these are debatable points, debate misses the relationship entirely.  Both are profoundly true.  And like parents of twins, we have to hold both.  This is the nature of a paradox.  

So when I clearly see a circle, and you, looking at the same thing from your perspective see a triangle, we are dealing with a paradoxical situation—one where two truths, two perspectives stand side by side.  And to choose one over the other is to miss any chance to understand what we really are grappling with. 

Of course, there are also cases, where there are two or more points of view where whatever choice we make is fine as long as most of us go along with it.  An obvious case would be something like “Where and when should we hold the holiday party?”

Meanwhile back at the cone in the box: “Now,” you might say, “but why don’t you just switch to each other’s peepholes, so you see what the other person sees?”  And with our notion of standing in the other’s shoes, this seems at first like a good strategy.  But our “peephole” is the result of our life experience, our entire way of seeing the world built over a lifetime, and so I can’t switch to yours.  Nor you to mine.   You can’t see the world as a woman of my generation from a small fishing village in the Midwest.  Your experience has given you different perspective.  

Or you might say, “Why don’t we just take the box apart?”  But the box that is limiting us is the box of our own way of thinking, of seeing.  We can only see what we are seeing.  And that box can only be “taken apart” or explored, by the quality of dialogue and inquiry that helps us see more and more of each others and our own thinking, that helps us understand more of the structures and experiences that have produced our perspectives.

So hope for our figuring out that there is a cone in the box lies in my asking you a quality of question that will draw out more and more about what you are seeing.  And hoping you will do the same for me.  And that by sitting together with what we are able to offer each other as a perspective we may figure out what could possibly be creating such divergent reports.

Now beyond this challenging matter of the logic of perspective are findings from the science of perception.  The biologist, Humberto Maturana helps us understand the science of perceptive processes.  His findings suggest we must rely on each other’s seeing, if we are to ever see the entirety of what is before us.  And see it whole.  Maturana’s research suggests that when I see a tree outside my office here–that oak for instance, just coming into leaf–that at best only 20% of the picture I have is based on the current data that is coming in through my eyes. (That assumes my eyes are good and the light is good and I am really paying attention to the tree.)   Eighty percent  of the picture that I see in my head right now is based on my prior experience with that pattern of light and color, this time of day, this time of year, when I am sitting in this office chair, typing.  

So we are, in an odd way, mostly captive of our experience.  And yet at the same time, it is only our experience that gives us our ability to see. All we have to offer is our perspective.  All we have to offer is the report on what we can see.  Realizing all this makes me feel dizzy.  And it puts me in mind of the odd research done on kittens years back to see how they learned to see.  Some kittens just born were stitched on the back of other cats.  So they didn’t walk on their own.  Each was just carried about on the back of another cat.  No direct experience of walking.  When the kittens’ eyes opened, as they naturally do at a certain stage of development, the kittens on the back of another cat were blind.  And for life.  No feet on the ground early on, no sight?  I like the metaphor.   No experience?  No seeing.  

Yet Maturana would say, “Experienced?  No way to see, solo.   We need each other.”     

So if the Cone in the Box stands for matters of great importance to us, matters that are complex, and may well be dynamic, we need to be continually sharing reports of what we are seeing with each other.  When what we are looking at and trying to understand is important, systemic and dynamic, then high quality conversation is essential and needs be never-ending.     

Cone in the Box remains a simple way to remind us of our responsibility to offer the truth of our perspective, no matter how shy, deferential, junior or inexperienced we are.  And no matter how experienced, expert and senior the other person is.  It also reminds us that if we are the experienced one, we should be prepared, even anxious, to listen with an open mind and to be willing to shift our thinking as we hear the perspectives of others.  

Cone in the Box also helps us remember the dangers of a system in which anyone, by pulling rank or exerting power, can silence others or any circumstance where one can use intellect to trump other forms of insight.  Recalling cone in the box can make us naturally curious about what the other person is seeing.  And finally, it encourages us to seek out processes and structures that make it natural, and easy, for those around us to offer their perspective, to report what they see from where they sit.