Here is a blog post I wrote for the Harvard Business Review (HBR.org) that details the “HASTAC method” of collaboration by difference. If you’ve wondered how we keep the HASTAC wheels spinning, here are some insights that you might find useful. Special thanks to HBR.com and editor Eric Hellweg for letting me reblog this. Here’s the original post: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/08/why_you_may_be_blind_to_a_good.html
Several years ago I attended a lecture on attention blindness, the basic feature of the human brain that means when we concentrate intensely on one task, we miss almost everything else happening around us. Since we can’t see what we can’t see, the speaker showed us a video designed to catch us in the act. Six people pass basketballs back and forth and viewers are told to count the number of tosses only between the three wearing white t-shirts, not black. Many people correctly count fifteen tosses. Yet nearly 60 percent fail to see someone in a full gorilla suit stride in among the tossers, then walk away. In some situations with a lot of peer pressure, 90 percent of an audience has missed the gorilla. I saw the gorilla. I’m dyslexic and knew I wouldn’t be able to count tosses on the grainy, confusing video so I didn’t try. And that’s the lesson of attention blindness. Because I wasn’t focused on counting basketballs, I saw what most of my colleagues missed. A cognitive scientist would say the experiment demonstrates a structural limitation of the human brain. But, for me, the management takeaway is that since we all see selectively but we don’t all select the same things, we can leverage the different ways we slice and dice the world. The trick, though, is we can only do this by first accepting that we each have limits: Everything we see means we’re missing something else. It’s that simple. And impossible to see. So we have to use lessons from the science of attention blindness to construct teams in a way that eliminates group think (where the group rallies around one idea oftentimes at the expense of others that may have been “blind”) and yields innovative new ideas they might be missing if they’re not actively addressing blind spots. I see two particularly important practical lessons.
Lesson One: just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It was odd seeing the gorilla in a room filled with smart people who were proud of their toss-counting ability. It wasn’t easy convincing them they had missed something as dramatic as a gorilla. It required rewinding the tape, disrupting their confidence in their own expertise and ability. To get the same result, a team has to structure its interactions in a way that disrupts attention blindness. One way to do this is by ensuring that outliers are assigned the task of speaking up. I’m cofounder of an organization that develops innovative learning practices and technologies. When our team meets, we put on the agenda: “What are we missing?” Someone is then randomly selected to begin the discussion of that agenda item. And it can be anyone. Don’t rule out the cranky person, the intern, or the assistant who usually just takes notes, or the new guy who “doesn’t get it.” The puzzled person may be the only one who can see what the pros miss.
Lesson Two: I’ll count — if you take care of that gorilla. This principle acknowledges that, no matter how we try, no one person ever sees the whole picture. Our brains aren’t built that way. But as a group, we can select the right partners and the right tools to distribute expertise and assignments to compensate for what we lack. My organization calls this method “collaboration by difference.” Or, as one member of our quirky team likes to say, difference isn’t our deficit, it’s our operating system. Like most organizations, in ours we need to keep an eye on the bottom line and we need to see the big gorilla. So we also have meetings designed to see what we’re missing. Each member has the floor for twenty minutes. They present a problem for others to tackle, then shut up, and it’s a free-for-all, with everyone else pitching in ideas. The others might not have a clue about the progress, methods, or solutions being worked on already. We use this method whether we’re talking about technical matters such as performance speed on a state-of-the-art Drupal site in development, workplace issues such as reconfiguring office space, or grant or program opportunities. The point is that each project manager proposes a topic in order to see what others not charged with counting the basketballs are seeing and what they might be missing.
The downside of these methods based on disrupting our attention blindness is they can derail you when you are speeding efficiently along. On the other hand, they can serve as an early-warning signal when you’re heading fast in exactly the wrong direction.