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It’s awful, but it’s natural, and it happens to us all: you become so focused on a particular task that you lose sight of the bigger picture, only to then realize that the assignment in question was actually quite trivial. The result? You wasted time and energy, and worst of all, your project has stalled. Though frustrating, this situation is not as serious in a personal or social engagement as it is in a business setting.

Indeed, there is rarely a justification for a project to stall in business, especially in an organization that’s dependant on many players such as customers, suppliers and partners; add to this the risk of increasing costs and decreasing revenue, or the threat of hindering relationships or losing a competitive edge, and you can now see why it’s a whole different ball game. Consider the Selective Attention Test for example, where viewers of a video are challenged to keep an accurate count of the number of passes thrown between players wearing white.

Completed at Harvard University’s Department of Psychology, this experiment conducted by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons became an instant classic. It is referenced by business leaders, psychology professors, clergy, widely circulated magazines, and even popular television news shows. It has also been repeated numerous times in a wide variety of highly entertaining and instructive iterations. The experiment sounds simple, sure, but everyone in business will tell you that nothing is ever simple—and if it is, it’s probably because you missed something.

If you haven’t seen the video (it’s about a minute and a half long), it’s important to view it before reading the rest of this article. You can watch the video here.

Nearly half of the people who participated in the experiment did not see the gorilla at all while they were counting the passes. For those who have seen the video, you may find that a second viewing is a bit of a disappointment. Just as you can’t “unring” a bell, you were also unlikely treated to the same surprise ending you saw for the first time. Try as you might, your brain has been cued to attend to the truly salient piece of that video, and even if you still count the passes correctly, you will also see the gorilla in the room.

Identifying the metaphorical “gorilla in the room” can be one of life’s most vexing challenges. Whether in business, personal, or social life, we often fall victim to the very function and design of the brain we use to process such information. The incredible skill humans demonstrate to ignore distraction by tending exclusively to that which is seemingly important may also blind us from seeing the bigger picture.

In business particularly, where costs, revenue, profit, and other operational metrics and KPIs are often seen as the gold standard, we are particularly vulnerable to the impact of selective attention. There are times, for example, when we miss an obvious opportunity to protect the company’s competitive edge because we’ve become hyper-focused on optimizing results on a marginally important performance indicator.

In family and social life, we may fall into a similar trap. Rather than noticing that your spouse has, for example, gone out of his or her way to show you love and affection, you become hyper-focused on “counting up” the number of ways in which he or she has disappointed you in the last couple of days. When your son or daughter is repeatedly requiring correction, you may get so wrapped up in issuing time-outs that you fail to notice the larger problem, which may explain why he or she is acting out.

Agile Innovation Management Helps You Spot the Gorilla

A well-managed and funded Innovation Management program and system will help your team fight the institutional blindness that is caused by the illusion of attention when the organization is primarily focused on day-to-day operational matters. Without an innovation system you fail to see important trends and cues that are likely to have significant impact on your agility, competitiveness and overall effectiveness.

By investing in Agile Innovation, your organization will continuously plan and execute activities that lead to the discovery of what problem areas or new opportunities to focus on, develop new insights, and experiment until you have developed new actionable solutions.

What “gorillas in the room” have surprised you in your work, personal, or social life? What stopped you from seeing them? How did you eventually come to discover them?