I went to see the psychologist Susan Blackmore give a lecture the other night and she was drawing attention to the phenomenon of how we are only capable of paying reduced attention when we find ourselves in dynamic situations: we are not able to take in and make sense of everything that is going on, but have to select what to pay attention to. She illustrated the point by showing this video. If you want to experience what she was demonstrating then stop reading this blog, watch the video carefully counting the number of times the team in white passes the ball. Otherwise what I write below will give the game away.
Now go back to the video again and just watch it without screening it for a particular set of actions. Do you see anything that you didn’t see before?
In the lecture room where Blackmore showed the video clip there were probably forty or fifty people, 80% of whom did not notice at all one of the remarkable things about the video, including me. The principal point for the original researchers Simons and Chabris (1999) who undertook the experiment is the inevitability of the human brain being selective, particularly in situations which are complex and fast changing. However, having noticed a similar phenomenon myself in group situations it seemed to me that there are some additional observations that one might offer about our selectivity, particularly in the dynamic and fast changing circumstances of groups and organisations.
The first is the influence of the power of participants in group processes, including a facilitator, to point to what is important to pay attention to. In other words, if Blackmore had just invited us more openly to watch the video without directing our attention to a particular aspect of it then we would have had a much bigger chance of seeing a wider variety of what was going on and deciding for ourselves what was important. I have often been dumbfounded in groups in which I have been a participant where others are ignoring or seem unaware of the most obvious thing to me about what is going on: no doubt I have been unaware of what is obvious and compelling to others. In more orthodox meetings where facilitators do facilitatorly things they have a strong hand in influencing the group about what is important and will often try to impel the participants to stick to a plan that they have devised in advance. This often expresses itself as a two-way dynamic because it has become expected that this is what a facilitator should be doing. So in groups where I am a faciliator and am trying to negotiate what we might do next, or chose what is important to talk about, sometimes groups have tired to impel me to tell them.
The second observation is about the influence of anxiety in particpants in group situations, which can introduce a powerful dynamic to steer the engagement one way or another. Group members will often express anxiety about ‘not achieving their outcomes’ even if we have all admitted that we are not quite sure what the outcomes might be in advance of having the conversation. This can sometimes have the effect of driving the group into undertaking some complicated, seemingly ‘rational’ exercise involving flip chart paper and lots of bits of sticky paper where they think they are ordering a complicated world. These exercises may or may not be useful but they certainly have the effect of closing down observation of and reflection on the way people are working together.
I think powerful processes of selectivity happen more generally in organisations because of habitual ways of working and because of anxiety that gets manifested in a hundred different ways. In order to proceed we have to choose, but in choosing we potentially screen ourselves from seeing what might be important to pay attention to.
The selectivity of our attention and how we blinker ourselves about what we consider important has implications for very accepted ways of working like strategy-development. To develop a strategy implies paying attention to some things and excluding others. What is it that we are excluding and how can we be sure that this is the important thing to exlcude? And next time you are asked to undertake a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) how can you be sure that collectively you are not ignoring the gorilla in the room?