Change Blindness: Can You See the Changes in Your Industry?

Last Updated Aug 6, 2010 7:21 PM EDT


Many business legends revolve around stories of big, smart successful companies who completely failed to notice that their environment had changed. It's often taught as the 'buggy-whip syndrome,' based on manufacturers of carriage accessories who failed to notice that the advent of the automobile had rendered them redundant. Microsoft and the Internet is the more recent example. Other contemporary analogies are the film studios and book publishers who persist in their belief that digital distribution won't revolutionize, or maybe even wreck, their businesses. To many standing on the sidelines, the only question is: how could they not see what was happening?
According to Daniel Simons and Chris Chabris's new book The Invisible Gorilla, the answer is: Easy. Most people don't see change. Simons and Chabris are foremost authorities in 'change blindness' and have done a myriad of experiments illustrating that the human mind pretty much sees what it expects to see. My favorite tells the story of a group of psychology students who were being taught about change blindness. Most of them indignantly maintained that they would never be that stupid. So they were asked if they'd like to take part in an experiment. The authors write: "As they approached a counter to complete some paperwork, the experimenter ducked down behind the counter -- ostensibly to file their papers -- and a different person stood up. All of the students missed the change!"


To me, what is important about these experiments is not just that we miss something that (in retrospect) is blindingly obvious; what's important is that we think we will notice. When it comes to powers of observation, most of us suffer from hubris. We base many of our decisions on a talent we lack.

What does that mean for business people? It means that, instead of working from the assumption that we will notice big changes, we should start from the assumption that we will miss them. That means we have to put in place structures and processes to catch information and changes essential to our companies. And, because different people see different things, we need to surround ourselves with people who are not like us. Diversity, in this context, is an essential safety net.

The other day, I was lunching with the chairman of a large, publicly traded business whose technology -- printed paper -- strikes me as potentially redundant. Was he, I asked, worried about that? "Oh no", he said. "We think we've seen about as much technological change as we're going to see." He sounded so confident, and his track record is so outstanding, I was tempted to believe him. But then I remembered change blindness and wasn't so sure. Are you?

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.