Several years ago I participated in a training session in which the instructor asked participants to watch a video of several young people passing basketballs to one another. The instructor told us this video would test our powers of observation, and he asked us to count how many times the people wearing white shirts passed the basketballs.
When he played the short video, we dutifully followed his instructions, tallying the passes as well as we could. Taking turns, we reported how many passes we had observed. The instructor applauded our powers of observation and then asked, "Did any of you see the gorilla?"
Seeing the puzzled looks on our faces, the instructor explained that the video we had just watched featured a 6-foot man in a gorilla costume who walked into the midst of the group passing basketballs, turned to the camera and beat his chest before walking off. None of us could recall seeing a gorilla, let alone one that turned to the camera and beat its chest. But when the instructor replayed the video, we all saw the gorilla for the first time and could not believe we had missed it in the first place.
You can watch this video yourself on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo. If, on doing so, you can't believe anyone could possibly miss the gorilla, test your powers of perception by watching a similar video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=voAntzB7EwE.
Although my classmates and I were a bit shocked that we had not noticed something so obvious taking place right before our eyes, it was just one manifestation of a phenomenon we all are intimately familiar with. Think, for example, of a time when you were focused intensely on a television program and developed a faint, indistinct awareness of an annoyance in the background-only to discover later that your spouse had been talking to you for some time. Or consider the times when you've sat through a long sermon or a speech only to walk away with no recollection of what was said. You know your ears must have been collecting the sound, but your attention was elsewhere, perhaps on a problem at work or an important question like where you were going to play golf that afternoon.
All of these common experiences are manifestations of "perception blindness." They show there is no perception without attention. This universal trait has profound implications for corporate leaders interested not only in winning in the marketplace but in avoiding significant business disruptions over the long term.
It is entirely too apparent when you pick up the newspaper and read about yet another company dealing with a crisis that could have been avoided if someone had been on the lookout for the "gorilla" bedeviling its operations. Today, for example, I picked up the Wall Street Journal and noted an article about a national retail chain that apparently had sold counterfeit products. This gorilla will likely be a significant distraction for management and cost the corporation dearly in damages paid to settle lawsuits and in loss of consumer confidence.
I don't mean to suggest that all corporate operational, ethical or legal lapses are a consequence of perception blindness. There are bad actors in the corporate world, as in all walks of life, who make deliberate choices to pursue unduly risky, unethical or illegal business plans. Moreover, no business plan is risk-free, regardless of how well-conceived, and bad things can happen even with the best of intentions and the best risk management systems. Nevertheless, my guess is that a very high percentage of the corporate crises we observe result from the people in charge being blind to the gorilla in the room.
It's not hard to imagine how this happens when you consider the intense focus that business leaders must have on profit and loss, cash flow, the competitive landscape and day-to-day operations. An army of gorillas could dance around in plain sight and remain unnoticed until they begin to do serious damage. The important question is "What can business leaders do to avoid the perils of perception blindness?"
I think this question can best be answered with two words: "structured vigilance." Corporate leaders can significantly mitigate their risks by carefully evaluating the types of legal, ethical and operational crises likely to sneak up on them when they are not looking and by investing in the systems necessary to detect them and bring them to management's attention. This recommendation might seem too obvious to bear mentioning. But before you dismiss it as one your firm has already implemented, ask yourself whether you and your management team could both list your primary legal, ethical and operational risks and, more importantly, accurately characterize the reliability of systems in use to detect and respond to them. I suspect the answer is "no" to both questions in many companies.
As anyone who has watched the video described above knows, the gorilla in the room is very easy to see when someone points it out to you. So act now to make sure you see your gorillas heading toward your business in time to do something about them, by investing in the people and the processes to keep a lookout and sound the alarm before they can do any harm.
Jim Nortz is on the board of directors of the Ethics and Compliance Officers Association and a member of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and may not reflect those of the ECOA or the RABEF. Nortz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org/1/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.