Target Fixation

target-fixationAnyone who has done a basic riding course, or raced, or flown as a pilot will tell you about “target fixation” – the natural risk we face of colliding with what we are focused on.

A major cause of accidents for beginners at cycling is that they focus on what they want to avoid, rather than where they want to go.

We more we look at the apex of an approaching corner, or a pot hole in the road, rather than beyond it to where we want to go, the more we increase our chances of hitting it.

It always seems strange to me then that in organisations, we spend our time looking at what we want to avoid. We spend a lot of time looking at problems and analysing risk, rather than looking at possibilities for growth, or impact, or opportunity. Even just a quick look back at the BREXIT campaign is instructive – by focusing on the downsides, it seems we are going to encounter them. I wonder what might have happened if we’d looked instead at where leaving, or staying, might have offered possibilities?

There’s an interesting working paper from MIT Sloan with the catchy title “Identifying viable “need-solution pairs”: Problem solving without problem formulation“. A serious read, unless you’re into this type of thing – but important.

At the heart of the thesis is that focusing on solutions to identified problems restricts us. If on the other hand, we focus on identifying possibilities, the solutions to problems appear more effectively, and move us beyond conventional solutions. A classic example they quote is roller luggage:

“Mr. Bernard D. Sadow, now 85, had his eureka moment in 1970 as he lugged two heavy suitcases through an airport while returning from a family vacation in Aruba. Waiting at customs, he said, he observed a worker effortlessly rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid.

“I said to my wife, ‘You know, that’s what we need for luggage,’ ” Mr. Sadow recalled. When he got back to work, [Sadow worked at a luggage company] he took casters off a wardrobe trunk and mounted them on a big travel suitcase. “I put a strap on the front and pulled it, and it worked,” he said.” (Sharkey 2010)”

At a time of volatile and unpredictable change, our brain’s natural focus is often directed by fear rather than reward. The last thing we want to do is welcome the threat we see as a platform for possibility, let alone ignore it and look beyond it to where we want to be.

But that’s what we need to do.

Of course we need to understand and manage the risks we see as best we can – but not to the exclusion of possibility.

Mind where you place your attention.

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