Briefing #4 – Invisible gorillas and the disruptive fringe
In briefing #1 the chessboard and wheat story gave us a good look at the potential for exponential growth to result in explosive change and disruption. In briefing #2 we saw how Moore’s law describes the reality of exponential growth for an increasing array of technologies. And in briefing #3 we introduced the idea that our natural instinct is to see the future in terms of linear change rather than exponential change.
In this briefing we’ll continue exploring why exponential change and disruptive threats and opportunities can be difficult for business leaders, strategists, innovators and entrepreneurs to foresee.
Let’s take a look at the video below (it runs for a little under two minutes).
This video describes a phenomena called “inattentional blindness”.
Daniel Simon, the psychologist responsible for this video says that in inattentional blindness you don’t see something that’s right there in front of you because your attention is already engaged on something else. Importantly he goes on to note that, when asked in advance, most people (perhaps as many as 90%) argue intuitively that if something important happens right in front of them, they will of course see it.
The problem is that for most business leaders, their attention is engaged on the short to medium term, on operational matters, on reviewing the past rather than looking for the future. And they do that because they’re very confident that they will see the gorilla should it ever be in their midst.
The Invisible Gorillas video demonstrates just how easy it can be to miss change when it’s going on right under our nose. But, in the commercial world, being aware of the gorilla when it is right under your nose might still be too little too late. If the gorilla is a new technology that enables a radical shift in the prevailing business model for your industry, only seeing it when it’s right on your doorstop may mean that the window for action has largely closed.
You don’t just need to be able to see the gorilla when it’s on stage. You need to see the guy putting on the gorilla suit in the dressing room. Or even better, you need to see him renting the gorilla suit a few weeks before he gets anywhere near centre stage.
Just as there was a long series of events that led to the gorilla finishing up in the middle of the stage, so too there is usually a long series of events that precedes something emerging as a major disruption. The fact is that disruptions generally first emerge on the edge of the system rather than in the middle of it.
Unfortunately it’s often difficult to separate signal from noise at the edge of the system. How could you possibly know that the guy you saw renting the gorilla suit two weeks ago would suddenly (or so it seems) show up on stage in front of you? But if you’re attention is always focused only on what’s going on at the centre of the system (that is, on stage in front of you) it’s unlikely you will ever pick up on the things that might disrupt you until it’s too late.
In our final briefing , “Being aware of the need to be aware”, we will switch gears and pull the ideas we’ve covered together. We’ll also connect with Clayton Christensen from the Harvard Business School to make some of the connections between disruptive innovation and strategy.
In the meantime, please take a moment to reflect on the things that might keep us from seeing signs of disruptive change around us and what they might mean for your business or industry.