Can you spot something unusual on this scan of a patient’s lung? More than 80% of radiologists couldn’t? How about the gorilla on the right? Once you notice it you cannot help but see it. Eye-tracking software showed that half the radiologists who did not see the gorilla had actually looked right at it for about half a second (Drew, 2013). The results showed that the radiologists narrowly focused their attention on set issues at the cost of missing something much bigger. Like a gorilla.
You can apply the same thinking in organisations. Overly stretched leaders are often so focused on putting out fires and dealing with crises, they develop a narrow focus on the problems they are working so hard to solve. This reactive approach means that they are allocating precious time trying to solve the symptoms of a bigger problem or they are trying to fix the wrong problem altogether. This is an example of problem blindness. Reactive problem solving is addictive, the outcomes are tangible and you get a nice shot of dopamine to boot. What overworked, reactive managers don’t do enough of is spend time in the prevention space. What are the actions they can take to zoom out and look further up the process to fix their problems?
This requires a change in mindset, as you’re spending time trying to make sure something never happens. This is harder to measure and who will actually reward you for this? You’re not the person who created this problem, but you need to be the one who takes responsibility for fixing it. So if you find yourself faced with the same recurring problems, think about how do they affect the system as a whole? Who else could you work with to address the different dimensions of the problem? What are the bigger problems facing the organisation that if tackled would eliminate your problems? A good place to start when developing a prevention mindset is to pick a small problem at first. As things start to improve and things become easier, pick the bigger more complex problems.