Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 41;   October 11, 2017: Missing the Obvious: I

Missing the Obvious: I

by

At times, when the unexpected occurs, we recognize with hindsight that the unexpected could have been expected. How do we miss the obvious? What's happening when we do?
Not a gorilla suit, the real thing

A popular video floating around the Web is the "selective attention test" by Simons and Chabris. It shows a group of six basketball players, three wearing white, and three wearing black. Each group of three is passing a basketball among their group. Viewers are instructed to count the number of times the white team passes the ball. In the midst of the action, someone in a gorilla suit walks across the court. Because most viewers are focusing on the white team's basketball passing, they completely miss the gorilla. They just don't see it.

This failure to notice the obvious illustrates a phenomenon called inattentional blindness, which happens when we're so focused on one visual task that we literally don't see something else that's in plain view. It suggests the possibility that other phenomena can account for our failures to notice or take account of things that are obvious in retrospect. Here are the first two of six tips for reducing the chances of missing the obvious, emphasizing causes that apply to individuals.

Inattentional meta-blindness
We can What accounts for our failures to
notice or take account of things
that are obvious in retrospect?
generalize inattentional blindness, which is a visual phenomenon, to the non-visual. Sometimes we become "thought blind" to events, concepts, or information that's obvious in retrospect. If we're intensely focused elsewhere, we might be unaware of the "gorilla" that just walked across the mental scene. In risk management, for example, we might plan for some risks, and miss others altogether, even when the ones we misssed are more likely. See "Ten Project Haiku:iv" for more.
When we're engaged in observation, meta-blindness can arise from a cognitive bias known as the focusing effect, which is the tendency to place too much importance on one aspect of a situation, ignoring others that might be equally or more significant. This tendency also applies to abstract contemplation. For example, the risk of inattentional meta-blindness is high when we focus intensely on difficult subject matter, or when we're under pressure to complete complex tasks. In those circumstances, we often forget to take breaks, or we feel that we have no time for breaks. But that's just when breaks are most important. See "The Shower Effect: Sudden Insights," Point Lookout for January 25, 2006, for more.
Not looking
Inattentional meta-blindness is looking, but not seeing. Not looking is another matter. When we have a favored outcome, when we believe we understand a situation thoroughly, when we have preconceptions about how something came to be or how it will develop, we're less likely to look for alternative explanations or alternative predictions.
The more certain we are that we understand what has happened, or what is happening, or what will happen, the more important it is to ask ourselves, "What if we're wrong?" Here's a quick way to do it: ask yourself, "If it turns out that I'm wrong about this, what would I have been most likely to have overlooked?"

We'll list four more next time, two of which are of special interest to groups or teams.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Missing the Obvious: II  Next Issue

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See also Project Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) speaks at a recent Senate hearingComing October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
A man, standing, explaining something to a woman, seatedAnd on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.

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