It’s more than 40 years since psychologist Ulric Neisser conducted a series of experiments to highlight what is now known as “inattentional blindness”. Neisser demonstrated that when individuals are paying close attention to one thing, they can fail to see something unexpected even when it passes directly in front of their eyes. In his original experiment, Neisser showed a video tape of two teams passing basketballs, one wearing white shirts and the other wearing black. He asked participants to count the number of passes made by one team and to ignore the other. They were told that to score accurately it was necessary to pay careful attention to the task.
When asked at the end of the video whether they had seen anything unusual, only twenty percent of participants reported seeing a woman with an umbrella walk across the court; though she was on-screen for several seconds.
Over the next thirty years, this phenomenon was successfully repeated by other researchers. In one experiment fifty percent of participants failed to notice a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the basketball game, face the camera, and beat it’s chest before walking off again, even though it was on-screen for almost ten seconds.
Why did so many people fail to see the woman with the umbrella or the gorilla?
The answer to this question was provided by Max Bazerman and Dolly Chugh who identified a fundamental management concept which they termed “bounded awareness”. Similar to inattentional blindness, Bazerman and Chugh suggest that when focussing on a particular task, people often fail to notice and process information which is easily available to them.
Might this management concept explain how overall performance can be constrained by limiting workers’ capacity for innovation through the way in which business objectives are set?
For many years managers and leaders have been taught that great results come from SMART objectives which by their very nature demand that people focus on very specific outcomes; might they be missing opportunities to add even greater value?
There is no question that there are times when it’s entirely appropriate for workers to be focused onto specific, measurable and time-bound objectives; some projects for instance require this level of discipline to ensure they deliver the required outcome on time and within budget. However, narrowing the field of vision onto one clearly defined objective will also constrain creativity and innovation. Additionally, if the specific outcome is subject to a reward there may be no incentive for the individual to identify or act on information which is unrelated to their immediate task.
In highly transactional environments, clearly defined and specific objectives will help to deliver results which are planned in advance, but for transformational leaders who are working towards an inspirational vision there is a need for creativity and innovation to drive real progress. Companies such as Apple and Google do not rely solely on SMART objectives for this very reason; by creating open environments and setting wider goals which are more open to interpretation these companies achieve results which are often unexpected but which drive their market leading advantage.
So whilst there will always be a need for people to focus on clearly defined, pre-determined results, we also need managers and leaders to create objectives which are not constrained by bounded awareness and which encourage collaboration and true innovation. Over many years of working with some of the UK’s most successful organisations I have observed that some of the leaders who create the most value do so in a way in which the results are almost unexpected; seemingly the result of serendipity or accident rather than by design. However, the fact that they are able to do this consistently over long periods of time suggests that there is more than simply good luck at the heart of their approach.
These highly successful leaders appear to use a set of common principles to drive progress; as well as setting specific planned outcomes for their people they are able to create environments which are open to creativity and innovation, allowing people to add value in unexpected ways. A study of these principles has led me to identify five key requirements for transformational outcomes which can be realised through the acronym TEAMS.
T is for Tangible. The outcome must be tangible rather than simply measured; it might be felt at an emotional or cultural level. This doesn't mean it can never be measured but transformational leaders accept that some important outcomes might not fit easily on a spreadsheet. Albert Einstein once observed "not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted".
One of the corporate values of First Direct Bank is “fun”; objectives are set around this value and yet the outcomes may be difficult to measure in a traditional way. Making “fun” a desired outcome requires an acceptance that what constitutes “fun” will not be the same for everyone so it would be almost impossible to plot results on a graph or measure them in a spreadsheet. Yet we can all “feel” when an environment is fun or not and there may be other measurements (attrition, sickness) which indicate a positive or negative trend.
E is for Evolutionary. Change doesn't need to be revolutionary but every objective should be moving people forward towards a vision, even if it's only a small step. We should be able to view our objectives and their outcomes as a step on our journey and we should recognise that not every journey is a straight line. Sometimes, the places we pass though on route to our final destination inspire us the most, and sometimes the unexpected and unplanned detour will take us somewhere wonderful. Objectives should also be evolutionary for the individual or team receiving it; moving them forward and developing their knowledge, skills and capabilities.
A is for Aligned. Objectives should be aligned with our vision, values, culture and strategy. The transformational leaders I’ve observed create objectives which move their people towards a long term vision and which are congruent with corporate and personal values. Their objectives are aligned with the objectives of other individuals and teams and help to ensure that everyone is pulling in the same direction. This also helps create environments which are more conducive to collaboration and shared results.
M is for Motivational. Motivation is like fun; it’s different for every individual and group. To create motivational outcomes leaders must consider the individual or team responsible for delivery. A combination of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards based on individual preferences and style, and which recognise cultural as well as organisational values will motivate people to deliver extraordinary results without the need to make them time-bound.
S is for Supported. There's no point in giving someone an objective without committing the resources, time and effort they'll need if they're to achieve it. So the leader and the organisation must ensure that the appropriate support is in place, particularly if the objective's been made evolutionary and motivating. Support creates the right environment for success and recognises that success comes from collaboration at all levels and not simply individual efforts.
In today’s highly competitive environment we need to stay SMART, but we also need to explore new ways of creating competitive advantage and staying ahead of the pack. Objectives which are truly SMART allow for only two possible results; success or failure. In an effort to ensure success, people may suffer inattentional blindness and miss opportunities to add even greater value. Objectives which are based on TEAMS are broader and less specific but by widening the goalposts the definition of success is also opened in a way which promotes creativity and collaboration.
The most successful leaders in today’s organisations are able to balance planned outcomes with innovative progress; these are the leaders who truly have SMART TEAMS.
To try Ulric Neisser’s experiment for yourself visit http://youtu.be/wcjnJ1B7N0E and count the number of passes made by the team wearing white. Ignore the team wearing black completely.
For help in creating inspiring performance in your organisation contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org