'But Did You See the Gorilla?!' How to Make Your Blind Spots Work for You.
“The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” - Carl Sagan
One of the most famous experiments in psychology includes a 1999 video by researchers Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. In the brief clip, six people – three wearing white shirts and three wearing black – repeatedly pass a basketball back and forth. Viewers are asked to count how many times the white-shirted players pass the ball.
After less than a minute, the pass-count question repeats and the following text appears on screen: “The correct answer is 15 passes. But did you see the gorilla?!”
That’s right. In the midst of the exercise, someone wearing a gorilla suit walks on screen, thumps their chest to the camera, and wanders off. When the researchers conducted this experiment at Harvard University, half of all participants missed the ape’s unexpected cameo.
The study demonstrates a form of invisibility called “inattentional blindness,” which highlights the limits of our mind, rather than our eyes. “We consciously see only a small subset of our visual world,” says Simons, “and when our attention is focused on one thing, we fail to notice other, unexpected things around us – including those we might want to see.”
Researchers aren’t sure whether inattentional blindness is an issue of perception or short-term memory, but it feels like another cognitive error. From confirmation bias to the anchoring effect, our brains are constantly tripped up by a combination of biology and habit, creating a variety of mental blind spots.
We all have blind spots, from personal biases to knowledge gaps, and they range from small oversights to major chasms. Most importantly, we don’t know they exist. In other words, we don’t know what we don't know. If the Harvard researchers hadn’t pointed it out at the end of the video, half of all participants would never have known about the gorilla.
Instead of feeling stressed about what we’re missing, we can view blind spots as opportunities. They represent fresh territory to explore and missing pieces that might complete an important puzzle. Our blind spots can also guide our work – revealing problems we can solve to build stronger, more resilient businesses.
When I started JotForm in 2006, I didn’t care about sales. As a developer, I was far more interested in product technology than cryptic acronyms like PQL and SAL. Eventually, I realized that without an enterprise sales team, we would continue to lose big customers. We hired some smart people, got the ball rolling, and now, this former blind spot is a lucrative revenue source.
It’s not easy to find what you can’t see, but addressing your blind spots is essential for growth and innovation. The following four strategies can help you get started.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” - Marcel Proust
Make time for learning and curiosity
Reading is my favorite way to learn. I’m constantly devouring new books and asking for recommendations. I also read widely online, from Hacker News to Slashdot to blogs and forums. Despite the golden rule of the internet, I also read the comments section, which can bring context to the story. For example, why are people excited about a new product? What’s on their minds? What are they fired up about?
Online classes, conferences, and webinars are another COVID-friendly way to expand your perspective. The format is irrelevant; staying curious is key. Keep an open mind and regularly question your processes, technologies, tools, and even your beliefs.
Collaborate whenever possible
Teamwork accelerates innovation. Bringing together people with different knowledge and experiences can illuminate corners that might otherwise remain dark – a process that’s essential for startups and entrepreneurs.
“Bringing an idea to life requires the talents, ideas, feedback, and execution skills of others,” Abbey Lewis writes in a Harvard Business blog. “Collaboration is an especially effective tool for innovation when employees are working with a diverse team. Collaborating only with those who have similar backgrounds can end up magnifying blind spots, not eliminating them.”
Don’t stop with formal meetings or work sessions. I have a standing monthly call with a friend who’s also the founder of a digital product company. We talk about our projects, what we’re learning, and we examine our respective blind spots. Sometimes, we’re oblivious to ideas that are right in front of our noses, but another person can see them with perfect clarity.
Psychometric tests like Gallup’s Clifton Strengths Finder and the VIA Survey of Character Strengths can help you to discover your personal gifts and potential blind spots. The value of these tests, however, lies in what you do with the results. Whether your answers reveal hidden qualities or they reinforce what you already know, like “I prefer to avoid conflict,” it’s worth digging deeper.
Consider your strongest traits – whether they feel positive, negative, or neutral – and ask how they benefit you. Then think about how they hold you back. For example, avoiding conflict might seem like peace-keeping, but it can prevent you from speaking up when someone tramples your personal boundaries. It can also foster resentment when issues aren’t clearly tackled and promptly resolved.
Encourage (truly) honest feedback
Leaders don’t always want to hear the truth. It’s easier to imagine our teams are happy, our customers are thrilled with our products, and we’re steering the ship with grace and confidence. Yet, we’re human. We will make mistakes and step on toes. The key is to ensure people feel safe enough to share the unvarnished truth in every situation.
As leadership experts Amy C. Edmonson and Aaron W. Dimmock explain, “The human tendency to judge ourselves by our intent – not our impact – makes occupants of influential roles blind to how others perceive their behaviors. Social scientists have long documented how such blind spots can thwart productive conversation.”
You can espouse a candid, open-door policy all day long, but people respond to actions, not words. Mean-spirited comments and personal attacks are never okay; constructive conversations are always welcome.
Do whatever is necessary to set your ego aside and listen for the truth. It’s in there. Reward those who have the courage to come to you with problems – and then try to make real changes. This powerful feedback loop will help you to avoid gorilla-sized blind spots, both as a leader and across your business.