Leaders need to spot gorillas
Leaders need to spot gorillas
A business will soon hit trouble if it counts the passes but doesn’t spot the gorilla, or if it clocks the gorilla but not the passes.

By Dan Fine, Business Adviser at Hive Business.

Towards the end of the 90s two psychologists, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, conducted an experiment at Harvard University. It led to a book called The Invisible Gorilla and became one of the best known modern experiments on the human mind.

It’s fairly simple; candidates are shown a video, in the video there are three people in white shirts and three people in black shirts passing basketballs. The candidates are asked to keep a silent count of the number of passes made by people in white shirts.

At some point a gorilla strolls into the middle of the screen, beats its chest, and hangs around for a total of nine seconds. No one can accuse these scientists of coming up with a half-baked distraction, this is a nice big, hairy and in your face one. Impossible to miss.

Yet half of the candidates did just that; it was as if the gorilla was invisible. The reason the experiment made an impact, other than it’s ridiculous aesthetics (which bagged Chabris and Simons the 2004 Ig Noble Prize), is that it proved two things:

  • We miss a lot of what goes on around us
  • We have no idea what we are missing

These are two pertinent truths for business owners to meditate on. Your natural, default position — for sanity-preserving reasons if nothing else — is that you’d like to think you’d spot a gorilla whenever it jumps out, even on a video. We all would. But the experiment shows attention doesn’t work like. It’s powerful, but narrow and finite.

So, when you’re running a business, you can count on two things:

  • You will be missing things and you will not know you have missed them
  • People can see an identical series of events and come out with completely different interpretations of what has occurred

The utility in this knowledge is that it is humbling, or at least it should be. Being humble and able to accept that you can be wrong is in the foundation of every great leader. So next time you almost fly off the handle, thinking, “It was clear as day what needed to be done, why would they just not do it?” remember that nothing is that simple. Pause and think, “How do I resolve this issue more effectively?”

I believe there is also a meta point here. The experiment is a great analogy for management and leadership and their mutually supportive roles. The standard American definitions are that management deals with the known and leadership the unknown.

If we apply that here, the manager measures and tracks a specific occurrence that we know is going to happen. Here it is passes made between white shirts, but in your practice think of your KPIs (new patients, ADYs etc). All businesses need this information because it allows you to make strategic decisions, and so all businesses need a management function to focus on the agreed metrics. They also need leaders to pay attention to the market and the wider environment — and spot the gorilla.

The leader’s role can’t be more specific than that because you never know what’s around the corner, but I would suggest there are three modes of action that will put you in good stead to capitalise on emerging opportunities:

  • Pay attention — it seems simple but is often overlooked. Watch carefully how this unfolds in your business; listen, read widely, question assumptions. The more information you gather the more effective you will be
  • Make sense — you need to detach from the business to honestly reflect on what you have observed and make sense of it. By removing yourself you can transcend the bias and emotion that you inevitably harbour to think freely, away from the parameters of the day to day
  • Speak clearly — now you have made sense of the context, explain it to people. Remember, they may not have seen it. Show them the events that are happening and explain how they will play out in your shared vision for the business

A business will soon hit trouble if it counts the passes but doesn’t spot the gorilla, or if it clocks the gorilla but not the passes. This is why we must spread our attention carefully, delegate, and make it known that each member of the team is equally vital to the business’s success.

Without a manager, or a receptionist, a nurse, or a cleaner paying attention, you won’t be able to deliver the experience you are promising your patients. They trust you to apply your attention elsewhere because they’re not looking out for gorilla-shaped opportunities and threats, nor should they be. Remember, you’re bound to miss things as a leader, but when you stay humble and don’t waste your attention counting passes you’ve got a much better shot at spotting the gorilla.

If you’d like to explore how your approach to leadership can transform your business and your state of mind, get in touch on01872 300232 or email us at hello@hivebusiness.co.uk.

Dan Fine
By Dan Fine Management Consultant
If you have any questions or comments about this article, please get in touch.
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