I’m not talking about the proverbial “800-lb. gorilla” that dominates a market. Almost every industry has one of those. I’m talking about the gorilla we don’t see.
There’s a well-known experiment in which a researcher shows a videotape of six college students standing on a basketball court. Three students are wearing white shirts, three are wearing dark. A coach gives one basketball to the white shirts, one to the darks, and instructs them to randomly pass the balls amongst themselves. The researcher then instructs the audience watching the video to count only the number of passes between the white-shirted students in a one-minute time frame.
The researcher gives detailed instructions for counting, and also suggests that one gender typically performs better than the other in this type of exercise. The students begin passing the balls, and audience members focus intently on counting the number of passes.
About halfway through the exercise something very unusual happens. A man in a gorilla suit slowly walks through the group of students, who ignore him and continue passing the balls. At one point the gorilla turns to face the camera and vigorously pounds his chest. He then turns away and walks out of the circle.
Here’s what’s amazing about this exercise: in study after study, 60+ percent of the audience DOES NOT see the gorilla! They’re so intent on counting the passes correctly that the image of the gorilla walking through the group of students simply doesn’t register on their brains.
The researcher then shows the video a second time, instructing the audience to forget about counting the passes and just watch the scene. Of course, almost everyone sees the gorilla the second time around, an awareness usually accompanied by much laughter. Interestingly, of those who do see gorilla the first time around, only about half count the number of passes correctly.
The moral of the story?
Our brains have an amazing ability to overlook the obvious. Especially when we have been primed to focus on something else.
In this case, the researcher primed the audience’s brains by setting a clear objective and giving detailed instructions about how to count. He then stirred the competitive juices by suggesting that one gender typically outperforms the other (not true). As a result, even when presented with strong visual and auditory cues (people who spot the gorilla the first time around usually laugh out loud), 60+ percent still don’t see the gorilla.
This begs the question: if we can’t see a gorilla on a basketball court, what are we missing in our businesses because we’re paying attention to something else or so busy focusing on our to do list that we never left our head up?
In business, the “invisible” gorilla shows up as changing demographics, evolving industry trends, new technologies, and new ways of communicating (social media). It’s the new competitor that comes out of nowhere. It’s the unexpected event that turns the entire market upside down because “that will never happen in our industry!” Then we look back and wonder, “How did we miss that?”
We miss it because that’s the way our brain works. When we focus on one thing, the brain actively filters out information that might distract from the task at hand. In business, we miss the gorilla because we’re too busy running fast, answering emails, and hurrying to meetings to pay attention to anything else.
The solution lies in learning to balance the big picture with the details. Every now and then, pause to ask, “Is there a gorilla in my market?” “What am I missing?” “What is going on in the world that I should pay attention to?” Then look for ways to build space into your life for balancing the big picture and details.
- At weekly management meetings, talk about an idea or technique from another industry and how it might apply to your business.
- Visit www.ted.com to hear short presentations from some of the world’s best minds. Once a week, have someone watch a TED video and present a lunch-and-learn session for the rest of your staff.
- Spend 30 minutes a day studying news from several different sources.
- Take a day off from your business. No cell phones, no PDAs, no checking in to see what’s going on. You’ll be amazed at how this invigorates your thinking.
- Invite a business associate to lunch and talk about their business. This will force you to think about your own business in new and different ways.
We can’t change our propensity for screening out gorillas. That’s what the brain is hard-wired to do. What we can do is stay aware of this tendency and build in habits that allow us to pause and balance the big picture with the details on a regular basis.
What gorilla are you currently overlooking?