“to not see the forest for the trees” idiom: to not understand or appreciate a larger situation, problem, etc., because one is considering only a few parts of it
Stanford neurobiologist and ophthalmologist, Andrew Huberman studies how the nervous system takes in and processes information and uses this information to drive reflexive and deliberate behaviour. (Huberman’s podcast is second to none and Andrew regularly recommends The Innovation Show to his audience). Humans are largely visual animals. The vast majority of the information we collect about the world comes through the eyes, and those circuits are tied directly to our “fight or flight” systems. Our most immediate reaction to stress is for our pupils to dilate, which changes how we see the world — literally — in a way that allows us to better respond to threats.
When we see something that distresses us or even something that appeals to us, our eyes focus on the subject. In such cases, the eye “narrows in” on the potential opportunity or threat and we become blinkered. Huberman shares the visual example of a person looking into a forest when the pupil is dilated. You can see in the image below when a stressed (dilated) eye looks into a forest, it only sees the tree in the forest, everything else blurs into the background.
In contrast, when we are in a calm state, the pupil constricts and we can see the full picture. In the image below you will see how a calm eye sees the forest for the trees, all of them.
I share this distinction to emphasise how organisations are predominantly in “stressed-eye mode” and run by “dilated peoples”. From an organisational perspective (excuse the pun) dilated mode is execution mode. Execution mode is absolutely essential for organisational success, however, we should enable our people to toggle between these two modes of “seeing the big picture” and “hyperfocus”.
In the field of innovation and organisational development, seeing the big picture equates to “explore mode” and hyper-focus equates to “exploit mode”. It is important to note that an organisation can enter a stressed state even more so when they are enjoying periods of success. When an organization stumbles upon a killer product, such as Nokia did with the mobile phone, it starts to defend its competitive advantage and optimise for execution. Nokia for example, forgot its heritage as a reinvention maestro, with previous incarnations of the company ranging from a textile business to a consumer electronics. In line with the concept of being too focused, Nokia became blinkered that their way was the only way. With their eyes so firmly fixed on what they considered was their competitive advantage, they missed the opportunity of not only a touch screen phone, an app store and a tablet, but they missed the opportunity to diversify business models and create an ecosystem as Apple did. Stephen Elop, the former Nokia CEO, reflected on Nokia’s disruption: “Our competitors aren’t taking market share with devices; they are taking market share with an entire ecosystem.”
Let me ensure that I am not advocating for an unfocused organisation, but the focus must not be taken to mean that you overlook factors that help lift the reinvention for your organisation. Focus is particularly useful when work is formulaic and both outcomes and inputs are predictable. We operate in a business environment that is far from formulaic, in such a world, we must be crystal clear on our vision, but flexible on how to achieve that vision. This means building in time for our people to operate with bursts of hyperfocus but creating the environment for them to switch off focus to see what other opportunities await in the forest.
This execution versus innovating mode is a central theme to our discussion with our guest on the Innovation Show today, he says,
“To prepare for the future, every organization has to keep questioning its existing strategy even while implementing it. Continually challenging the accepted dogma, conventional orthodoxies, and underlying assumptions on which your current execution-space activities are based is essential to making change and progress possible. But this is very hard to do during your ordinary daily activities. When you’re immersed in execution, you are so focused on following standard procedures as efficiently as possible that it’s almost impossible to achieve the psychological distance needed to see the possible weaknesses or gaps in those procedures.”Ben Bensaou. in “Built to Innovate”