Focus on the 800-pound gorilla

by | Jul 23, 2012 | Blog | 0 comments

Eighty percent of success is showing up, observed Woody Allen, American screenwriter, director, actor, comedian, author and playwright.

When you show up and focus, you can be a total success.

Focus—the ability to concentrate—is a powerful skill. When you direct your mind plus all your senses on a single topic, you can think more clearly and powerfully. And you’re able to perform higher quality work with better results.

Yet, these days, with so many WMD (weapons of mass distraction) and options facing us, it’s all too easy to divert our attention elsewhere. We lose focus and overlook our key priorities.

Rather than take a break or put out an SOS so we can refocus with renewed energy, we and our brains often get high-jacked by the SOS (the shiny object syndrome). And off we go pursuing something else.

As another popular saying goes, “When everything becomes a priority, nothing is a priority.”

So if you can train yourself to focus on just a few key priorities, you’ll be better off.

Focus is one of four key habits that are necessary for individuals to practice in order to thrive in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. The other three behaviors are listening, involving and personalizing. (For more about these FLIP behaviors, see FLIP to thrive in our VUCA world.)

Focusing applies not just to individuals, but also to teams and organizations.

In fact, in her thought-provoking new book, The Outstanding Organization: Generate Business Results by Eliminating Chaos and Building the Foundation for Everyday Excellence, Karen Martin spends an entire chapter on the value of focus. She makes a convincing case with data that the lack of focus, clarity, discipline and engagement are the four causes of organizational chaos that hurt organizational health.

(Her examples remind me of a former client that identified 19 focal priorities one fiscal year. Each priority had at least two executive sponsors who were charged with conducting regular review meetings to work with the assigned team members to gauge their progress. In addition, the executive sponsors often sat on at least two priority teams. When I did the math on the meetings, I questioned whether the executives had any time left in their days to do anything but attend these priority meetings. My client contacts just shook their heads. This company continues to make great products, but not surprisingly it lags in its industry’s ratings.)

Yet, while I totally support and advocate the power and discipline of focusing, I do want to caution against the danger of too much of a good thing.

Yes, that cliché, “everything in moderation” can apply to focusing at times. If you have doubts, watch and listen for the gorillas in your midst.

More than 10 years ago, two researchers published the results of their study, “Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events.” That was the basis of the study by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabis shows a group of people throwing balls back and forth. Viewers are asked to count how many times the balls bounce.

About halfway through the video, an individual in a gorilla suit walks on screen, pauses in the middle to beat his chest and then walks off. Many people never see the gorilla, which demonstrates what the researchers named “inattentional blindness” — the tendency to miss something in plain sight if you’re focused on something else.

In a new study, “Gorillas we have missed: Sustained inattentional deafness for dynamic events,” the researchers Polly Dalton and Nick Fraenkel discovered that people also can be deaf to gorillas. The researchers asked their subjects to listen to a short audio clip of four people preparing for a party.

In the recording, two women wrapped presents and two men prepared the food and drinks. At one point one of the men repeatedly exclaimed “I’m a gorilla.” The majority of the study participants who were told to listen to the men noticed the non sequitur, but fewer than a third of the participants who were asked to listen to the women reported hearing anything unusual.

What’s the moral of these studies? Focus on your priorities by looking down and in. But take breaks every now and then so you can look up and out and listen, especially if you’re supporting a change initiative. Something—not just gorillas—may be there worth noting and adapting to. Then return to focusing.

What do you think?


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