“Do not be followed by its commonplace appearance. Like so many things, it is not what is outside, but what is inside that counts.” — Merchant (Aladdin)
What did I miss?
I flipped through the pages of photocopied checks, and squinted at the email on the screen. I stretched my neck as I scribbled notes with a red pen in the margins.
I dropped my pen and rubbed my temples. I had to call my supervisor and relay the bad news about a problem that did not have an easy fix, if any fix at all. This problem happened despite our compliance systems and outside legal counsel.
I lifted my earpiece, took a deep breath, and pressed the buttons on the dialpad.
And waited for the ringtone.
What did I miss?
We pride ourselves on being efficient, on checking off that box, and moving onto that next task. But that very efficiency hinders our ability to notice small anomalies and to ask more probing questions. Hence, perhaps this is why phishing emails are so successful – the email seems like it is from a trusted source, so we feel comfortable clicking the links. And poof, in come malware, viruses, and then your computer’s operating system potentially crashes, or worse yet, you inadvertently deliver all your precious financial information to hackers.
Whenever we are lured into feeling “comfortable,” we should ask the question – “what am I missing?”
Enter Disney animations.
The tension built in most stories result from the characters completely failing to notice that they have permitted a questionable presence into their lives, or refusing to be open to people and things outside their mental models.
In each Disney animation, the writers intentionally set up the ecosystem, incentives, and sequence of events to create tension caused by the characters’ decisions. And, the viewer can clearly distinguish between good and evil. But in real life and in compliance settings, good and evil are not easily distinguished, and good does not always triumph over evil.
We do not control any ecosystem unilaterally. I found myself asking the following questions about compliance systems after re-watching my Disney favorites, especially after witnessing the hero and heroine fall into traps that may seem obvious to the viewer, but not to the characters involved:
What assumptions – articulated and unarticulated – did we incorporate when we designed the system? Can it withstand human bias?
Does the system account for why it instituted additional controls for conduct that may not be technically illegal?
Does the system create the appropriate incentives? Are the proposed consequences appropriate – is there differentiation between deliberate and inadvertent rulebreakers?
Is the system flexible enough to adapt when others identify and seek to implement new and not previously thought of improvements?
The Lady and the Tramp – Trust But Verify
The Lady is delighted when Jim and Dear bring home a newborn baby despite the Tramp warning her that she will be kicked to the curb. The Lady decides to protect the baby just as she takes care of Jim and Dear. Jim and Dear trust Lady, but Aunt Sarah does not.
When Jim and Dear decide to go on a trip, they ask Aunt Sarah to take care of the baby and Lady. Aunt Sarah has her own team: two lovely Siamese cats, and she is completely partial to them. She is so partial that she fails to understand her cats’ manipulative tendencies, and how they are good at setting up others to take the fall. For example, Lady tries to stop the cats from going upstairs, but instead they end up destroying the entire living room and blame the mess on Lady.
What did Aunt Sarah miss? Instead of looking around and asking some basic questions – what happened, what caused the damage – she immediately presumes that her cats are innocent, and that Lady must have caused the damage. Sensing a sympathetic “judge,” the cats start howling in fake pain. Aunt Sarah decides then and there that Lady must live outside of the house.
People have many preconceptions, both conscious and unconscious. In this situation, Aunt Sarah decides automatically that her cats are “good,” and Lady must be “bad.” She does not try to pinpoint what was the cause of the living room damage. But, to ensure consistent fact finding and rules enforcement, we must “trust but verify.” Despite our assumptions, we must ask the questions to verify what actually happened. Otherwise, no one will trust the compliance systems and processes.
The Little Mermaid – Accounting for the Why
Ah, The Little Mermaid. Ariel desires to have a pair of legs and be human, because she has fallen in love with a human prince. But she knows that a rule forbids sea people and humans from interacting. Her desire to have the human prince return her love motivates her to seek an exception from her father, the king of the seas. But he empathetically declines her request and refuses to explain why.
Compliance systems must explain the “why.” Determined people will not accept “no” without understanding why the system has implemented this specific control that restricts their desired states. Instead, they will seek alternatives. Here, it was not technically illegal for Ariel to get legs, but her father forbids sea people from interacting with humans. She does not understand the “why” of his rule so she tries other avenues to achieve her goal.
Enter Ursula, the sea witch. In exchange for Ariel’s voice, Ursula promises her a pair of legs, but with conditions: if Ariel cannot persuade the prince to fall in love with her, she must turn over her father’s Trident to Ursula. And, to seal the deal, Ariel signs a contract without even reading it. She wants the legs, and does not think through the potential consequences..
What did Ariel miss? If only Ariel had asked some skeptical questions before she just signed the contract.
People do not think through the consequences when they are driven to achieve a goal. Here, Ariel assumes the human prince will fall in love with her, because she loves him. She does not think through the potential consequences if she fails. So, it is important to share examples where people who followed a similar path were investigated and suffered the consequences.
The Fox and the Hound- Question the Norms
Tod, a red fox raised by a human for the first year of life, and Copper, a half-bloodhound dog owned by a local hunter, become playmates, vowing to remain “friends forever.” Traditionally, bloodhound dogs are nurtured to hunt down and to kill foxes. Friendships are usually impossible between these two creatures. In fact, Tod’s friends attempt to explain to him that his friendship with Copper will not continue, because they are natural enemies.
Tod refuses to believe them. Although Copper’s and Tod’s friendship is severely tested because of this “natural enemies” narrative and a couple of other incidents that cause misunderstanding, ultimately, it is their past friendship that enables both and their loved ones to survive a grizzly bear attack. Both had to act outside of their “natural” bounds to save each other and their friends.
So what do Tod’s friends miss? They accept that the “natural” world order of bloodhounds and foxes being enemies will be how the narrative will continue. They do not question how changing this narrative could mutually benefit both creatures. It takes both Tod’s and Copper’s stepping beyond traditional “enemies” roles to unite to fight against a grizzly bear attack.
Norms are placeholders, but they are not immutable. Instead, step back from your traditional worldview, and ask what potential relationships are you missing? What voices and perspectives are you not including and hearing? And how can your compliance systems and processes become more accessible and practical while mitigating risk?
Nisha Anand, CEO of Dreamcorps, recently gave a TED Talk about the radical act of choosing common ground with conservatives on criminal justice reform. She realized that she had to move beyond her traditional circle of left-leaning friends and build relationships with the right to make criminal justice reform a reality. She stopped attacking and started listening. Without this realization and subsequent actions, many federal and state criminal justice reforms likely would not have happened.
When my supervisor picked up the phone, I took another deep breath, and explained the problem. We discussed how to remedy the problem: investigate the why and implement procedures to ensure that this problem would not occur again. Over the next nine months, and especially during the next few days, we scrutinized every law, person, and communication – paper and electronic. No one suffered any consequences, because all involved had failed to connect the pieces that would have identified this problem much sooner.
In our day-to-day lives, in the rush to be efficient and check off as many “to-dos” on the list, we often miss small things that lead to advances or disasters. Sometimes, it helps to understand our unconscious viewpoints and reactions when we read fiction, watch movies, or peer at art. In a different setting, we are more comfortable acknowledging that we may have missed something. Practice this and then apply it to improving compliance systems and processes. Environments evolve and so must compliance systems.
Scratch beneath the surface and ask yourself constantly, “what did I miss?”
Thank you to all my wonderful feedback partners – Jackie Williams, Nate Kadlac,Ritesh, Bryan Lee, Thomas Najar, Cullin McGrath, Tommy Nguyen (via Writers Bloc because he does not seem to have a Twitter handle), and Julia Saxena. And a special thank you to my early morning writing accountability partners Dan Greenwald, Abhishek Verma,