At a recent conference I attended, the keynote speaker talked about a study that I realized had surprising implications for effective leadership.
In this study, people watched a video of kids passing basketballs. Half the kids were wearing white shirts, and half wore black shirts. The instructions were to count how many times the kids in the white shirts passed the ball. Halfway through watching, a kid the same height as everyone else, dressed in a gorilla costume comes walking onto the court from the right-hand side of the screen stops in the middle of the kids, looks directly at the camera, pounds his chest, and walks off the far-left side of the screen. When asked after how many people saw the gorilla, only 50% responded yes. That is because the other 50% were so focused on the instructions to count the kids in white shirts passing the ball that they completely missed this gorilla in the room.
Why is this important, and what does this have to do with leadership?
It’s important because it highlights how much we can miss when we have selective attention, which is defined as the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time while simultaneously ignoring irrelevant information. Our attention is a limited resource so it makes sense that using selective attention allows us to tune out unimportant details and focus on what really matters.
The everyday purpose for selective attention is that by focusing on too many new ideas and opportunities people become overwhelmed and can’t make a choice about how to move forward, analysis paralysis sets in, so selective attention is imperative.
But what happens when that selective attention turns into tunnel vision? We often think that what we are focused on is the most important thing, the only answer. But what If you and your team are so focused on what you think the answer is that you miss out on new ideas and opportunities?
I propose that selective attention should be done deliberately and with intention in order to ensure that it does not turn into tunnel vision. This means that instead of being so focused on your solution that you only see the ideas, people, and research that support that decision; what if you spent some time each week with your team or a partner deliberately focused on new ideas, open to the possibility that your idea is not the best solution?
The goal for this time is for your team on a weekly basis to get together and discuss their specific focus and the tasks they are currently using selective attention to complete. Each member of the team can then ask questions to see if tunnel vision has taken over, if new ideas are needed, or if new opportunities have been missed.
This should be a healthy conversation that allows debate, conversation, and challenges to keep everyone thinking in new ways. If nothing new comes from it, they can go back to their selective focus on that task or project for another week. However, is something new sparks from this, they should be allowed to explore what that might mean for the project and the team.
This is especially important if you are responsible for a team or project. Of course, you want your team to focus on their tasks in order to reach the desired outcome for the project. Selective focus is necessary in order to get work done without distraction, but it can also lead to missed ideas and new innovation when done in isolation.
The intent of being deliberate in selective attention and making time to ponder new ideas and opportunities is to help avoid tunnel vision and realize that the details you tune out might actually matter.
If you have examples on how selective attention has affected your team for better or worse, email email@example.com to share your experiences.
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