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 nonvisual. 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 Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- Nine Project Management Fallacies: II
- Some of what we "know" about managing projects just isn't so. Identifying the fallacies of
project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.
- Project Improvisation and Risk Management
- When reality trips up our project plans, we improvise or we replan. When we do, we create new risks
and render our old risk plans obsolete. Here are some suggestions for managing risks when we improvise.
- Personnel-Sensitive Risks: II
- Personnel-sensitive risks are risks that are difficult to discuss openly. Open discussion could infringe
on someone's privacy, or lead to hurt feelings, or to toxic politics or toxic conflict. If we can't
discuss them openly, how can we deal with them?
- Unnecessary Boring Work: II
- Workplace boredom can result from poor choices by the person who's bored. More often boredom comes from
the design of the job itself. Here's Part II of our little catalog of causes of workplace boredom.
- Yet More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded
— or failed.
See also Project Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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