Noticing the Gorilla

Leaders are prone to decision-making errors when they don’t notice information that’s readily available if only they’d ask for it. Apparently the skill of noticing isn’t widely practiced, as Harvard professor Max Bazerman reveals in his book The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

With every important decision, leaders should really be asking themselves:

  • “What information should I gather, beyond the basic facts?”
  • “What information would help inform my decision?”

Check out this YouTube video for a great example of poor attention where viewers are asked to watch a basketball game and tally the number of passes made.

The social scientists behind the video don’t really care whether you accurately record the passes. What truly interests them is whether you notice the man in a gorilla suit who walks onto the court. (In earlier research, they featured a woman with a red umbrella.) You can search for similar experiments on YouTube using the terms attentional blindness or selective attention.

Many viewers are so focused on counting passes that they miss seeing the gorilla or red umbrella. The same phenomenon frequently occurs when we problem-solve and make business decisions. We see only what we define as the “important information”—something 1978 Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon termed “bounded rationality.”

More recently, Daniel Kahneman, a 2002 Nobel Prize winner, demonstrated that systematic and predictable biases affect even the best and brightest among us. Even when we strive to be ethical and rational, we miss—or fail to seek out—critical information that’s readily available in our environment.

Noticing pertinent information is essential to successful decision-making, and it has become a defining leadership quality. Too many avoidable failures remind us of the consequences:

  • NASA’s Challenger explosion
  • Enron’s accounting irregularities
  • Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme
  • Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky scandal
  • USB, Barclays, LIBOR and other bank frauds
  • The housing-bubble collapse

Apart from these infamous disasters, untold decisions are made every day by leaders in charge of maximizing profits while ensuring customer safety and trust. How many leaders are truly vigilant in today’s complex marketplace?

What’s been your experience in noticing pertinent data for optimal decision-making? I’d love to hear from you! You can contact me here and on LinkedIn.