Based in Sydney, Australia, Foundry is a blog by Rebecca Thao. Her posts explore modern architecture through photos and quotes by influential architects, engineers, and artists.

Magic Tricks, Gorillas, And Leadership

There's a great psychology study out there, and subsequent Noble Prize and book, called the Invisible Gorilla. The authors, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simmons, do an incredible job at showing us how our own intuition can be so incredibly deceptive. Nobel Prize winner and Princeton professor Daniel Kahneman references the study in his own book, "Thinking Fast and Slow", in which he discusses similar issues. The basic premise of the study is quite simple. A group of students appear on a video with a few wearing all white and a few wearing all black clothing. They proceed to move around in a random group and pass basketballs between them. The test subject is asked to watch the video and count how many times the basketball is passed between students wearing white clothing. It's a difficult task that takes all of one's focus, similar to watching those darn cup and ball magic tricks. During the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks right across the screen. Shockingly, many people are so focused on counting that they never see the gorilla. More shockingly, they don't believe that they missed it. They are absolutely sure they would have seen something like that. They where looking at the video intently the whole time, how could anyone miss a gorilla? The researchers have to show the subject to prove the blindness that their focused effort caused. Once they see the gorilla, it becomes so obvious.


We want to draw conclusions, assumptions, and patterns, to make sense of our world.


The magic and illusion industry will always be a thriving one because they play on our hard wired blind spots. Our brains (yes, that means you too) are wired to direct attention in certain ways and focus on certain things. We want to draw conclusions, assumptions, and patterns, to make sense of our world. This serves us well many times in life. Often experts have well tuned intuition that leads to taking a creative risk, a great stock trade, or avoiding a sure failure. The full science behind why this happens is beyond the scope of this post, but the point is that we all are wired the same way. In business and leadership, this presents a unique issue. You see, we all have blind spots. We all have a gorilla (or two) in our work that we probably can't see because of our assumptions or laser focus. The busier we get, the more we tend to create processes, routines, and shortcuts, to limit the amount of resources needed to achieve our goals. This isn't inherently bad, but we need to realize our tendencies. We can't afford to over look our blind spots - our gorilla's.


We all have a gorilla in our work that we can't see because of our assumptions and laser focus.


I have a few suggestion for you. First, take time to slow down and process regularly with your best resources. If you're a morning person, reflect in the mornings. For your organization, reflect with your best people. Second, become a great questions asker, and encourage this in others. Don't ever be afraid of working through the "why" - even when you are convinced you know the answer (because you would have seen the gorilla, right). Third, don't be adverse to bringing in a consultant or outside voice for perspective. Sometimes you just need someone else to put their eyes on something and give feedback. A mentor can do this for our own lives, and consultant or friend can do this for your team or business. Finally, use research and data whenever you can. Numbers don't lie (usually), and can be the best way to challenge assumptions. Measure, test, survey, and interview, to get the data you need to prove your assumptions.

Don't miss your gorillas. Don't get lost in the illusion.

Unfinished Doesn't Count

NYT Innovation Summary