How many ball passes between the white team?

Before you read any more of this blog post, please watch the video below (even if you think you have seen it before).

(Video courtesy of

As the developers of this experiment, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, emphasize in their book, The Invisible Gorilla: How our intuitions deceive us, the key message is that we are strongly biased to only see what we pay attention to and what we expect to see.  They call this inattentional blindness (blindness to what we do not pay attention to).

A related experiment demonstrated that the percentage of people who fail to see a prominent, but unexpected, object directly in their field of view increases to 90% when the complexity of the ‘attention’ task increases.  In other words, the likelihood of inattentional blindness increases if we need to concentrate hard to pay attention.

Now let us translate these findings to the Observe phase of Adaptive Iteration.  Adaptive Iteration applies primarily to situations that are unpredictable, uncertain and emergent – precisely the situations in which the unexpected may occur.  Add to this the characteristic that these situations are usually complex – unclear cause and effect relationships, many elements, interactions and decision points, dynamic context, etc – and require much effort (attention) to attempt to determine what is happening.  So, in these situations, we have a relatively high likelihood of something unexpected occurring at the same time as we need to concentrate hard to attempt to understand what is happening.  We have the perfect conditions for inattentional blindness.

What can we do to reduce the potential for inattentional blindness?  I think there are several things:

  • Deliberately observe the situation from multiple perspectives. I have summarized this approach, including a range of observational perspectives, in a previous blog post.
  • Separate, as much as possible, understanding the situation from observing the situation.  We can reduce the distraction of attempting to analyze and understand the situation by separating it from the effort to observe the situation.  We focus on observing what is happening rather than attempting to explain what is happening.  In particular, we suspend our theories and preconceptions so that we do not focus on those observations that confirm them.  (This point summarizes one of the key reasons why we have explicitly separated Observe and Interpret in the Adaptive Iteration framework.)
  • Capture a data rich record of the situation.  As with the basketball situation, if we capture a data rich record we can replay it multiple times so that we can observe things that we may have missed.  Replaying the basketball video provides very strong proof that a gorilla did walk through the players even we are convinced from our initial observations that it did not.   One word of caution with this approach – we need to ensure that we do not focus our data capture only on those things that we think beforehand are relevant and important.  This will formalize our observational bias.  The record capture needs to be as broad, detailed and unbiased as possible.
  • Don’t attempt to understand the situation – just focus on what is and what is not working.  Many unpredictable, uncertain and emergent situations are so complex that it is impossible to understand and analyze them in detail.  Often, we should just accept this and rather than attempting to understand and explain the dynamics of the situation, focus on what is obviously working and and what is obviously not.  During the subsequent Interpret phase of Adaptive Iteration, we can then identify what sort of things we can do (design changes) to promote that things that are working and to suppress those that are not.
  • Use multiple observers, some of whom are not specific experts.  The researchers experience with the basketball video is that approximately 50% of observers see the gorilla walk through the players.  Increasing the number of observers will increases the likelihood that at least one observer will see the unusual and unexpected.  However, it is important that there is diversity among the observer.  Especially, it should contain some people who are not experts in the situation (see earlier blog post) and there should little or no opportunity for the group to develop ‘group think’ beforehand.
  • Practice mindfulness. Sam McNerney in an article in TheCreativityPost highlights research that suggests that  mindfulness, defined as “paying attention to one’s current experience in a nonevaluative way,” may provide an effective means of observing a situation or circumstance without seeking to confirm our intuition and expectations.  In other words, by being consciously aware of our own perceptions and thoughts we can learn to recognize and compensate for the filters they place over our observation and attention.
  • Iterate rapidly.  The iterative nature of Adaptive Iteration means that we do not have to be ‘right first time’.   If the unusual or unexpected event is not just a result of natural variation in the situation (i.e., ‘noise’), it is likely to occur again in a future iteration, especially if the iterations are rapid and involve relatively small design changes.  Although this is not the main benefit of rapid iteration, it is a significant one.

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