Development Crossing

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability

Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees

This is a common problem, where people are so focused on certain details, that they are unable to see the “bigger picture.” A simple example of this would be a parent who criticizes their child’s penmanship, while their child is bringing home straight A’s. A more complex example would be that of a coach or CEO who is so focused on the bottom line numbers that they fail to see that their game or industry is undergoing a paradigm shift.

The technical name for this is ‘Attention Blindness.’ Our brains automatically learn what is important to pay attention to (and what not to pay attention to) in our environment and our culture. This rudimentary feature in our brains was essential to our survival when we were cavemen. It was imperative that we pay attention to noises that signified predators in order to avoid being eaten alive.

Unfortunately in today’s fast changing world, this very same mechanism that was once a key component to our survival, may now help precipitate our downfall. As mentioned in the previous example of attention blindness in a coach or CEO, rather than help them stay alive, this mechanism is likely to make all they are doing obsolete and cause them to lose their job.

When humans get comfortable, they tend to become complacent. Often, what we are in the habit of paying attention to makes the things we are not paying attention to invisible to us. The fact that we are not paying attention to the things that appear to be invisible, does not mean that the other things are less important or do not exist; they do. Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris did an excellent experiment years ago (shown here), which is often referenced, that illustrates the power of attention blindness. I suggest you give it an honest try.

I was at a conference about developing creativity last week, where this very same video was used as part of the keynote speaker’s presentation. It was ironic that attention blindness was clearly at work when the organizers hired him to speak. He possessed a long list of very impressive credentials (three Ivy League degrees BS, MD and MBA, as well as 15-years as an Ivy professor & many business accomplishments) but it was one of the worst presentations I have ever seen. He failed to localize his message, connect with the audience, and he was using the same stale material that he has obviously been using for well over a decade. The organizers had clearly bought into his credentials and missed the larger picture, that he was a horrible speaker.

The speaker himself exhibited attention blindness in the form of both his arrogant manner, and his belief that his reputation alone was enough to carry him and his stale material. He seemed ignorant to the fact that much of the audience had lost interest early on in his presentation. Two of the people at my table mentioned that he was scheduled to speak at their organization last year, but a change in leadership nixed his engagement.  While they were disappointed at the time, they now realize that they dodged a bullet.

Attention blindness is so pervasive that even so-called experts, presenting on its existence, fall victim to it. We are all at risk. I have seen myself, as well as coaches, athletes and business leaders I have worked with, victimized by it. That’s why I think it is crucial to force disruption into your life, as that is the only way to keep from getting too comfortable and falling into the traps of attention blindness. Disruption is what fuels our growth. Though disruption is uncomfortable initially, as you deal with the disruptive force you begin to feel more confident and alive… and a little less blind too.


You can follow Sam on Twitter: @SuperTaoInc


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