I Always See the Gorilla

Silver_back_gorilla_-_Gorilla_beringeiBy now most of you have probably seen one or more variants of the “Gorilla Video.” I’ll do my best not to spoil it in case you haven’t, as the experience can be quite illuminating. What I’ve always found most interesting about those videos is that I always see the gorilla, and in similar videos, I tend to notice more of the “changes” or the “hidden elements” than most.

As part of the LeanUX14 Conference I attended a Cynefin Workshop hosted by Dave Snowden. It was a wonderful experience and he provided an explanation for why most of us miss the gorilla. We normally take in a very small portion of what’s in front of us; 5% appears to be typical for those of us from a western background. We don’t “see” everything. We filter things out based on a system of pattern recognition, even if those things—like the gorilla—are right in front of us. In other words, we observe what we’ve been conditioned to see.

This thought sat fermenting in my head for a good while. It made perfect sense from a scientific and evolutionary perspective. What was it then about my own experience—my own conditioning—that made me more likely to observe more than my peers? I wasn’t ready to accept the idea that I was just unusual; I like to have explanations for things.

It wasn’t until Michael Cheveldave (a colleague of Snowden’s) was giving a presentation later in the conference that a potential explanation hit me. Michael was talking about the concept of Cynefin and its meaning as “place of multiple belongings.” He had a picture of a green valley in Western Canada up on the screen, and he said that although he travels many places, that place—that green valley—was his home.

I don’t have a place like that. My family moved around a lot when I was young. I can feel “at home” in the upper Midwest where I was born, in Indiana and Illinois, and in Virginia where I live now. Wild places, like the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota and the desert plateau of Utah, feel like home. London, Paris, and Munich feel as much like home as Washington, DC. In a similar way, the streets of Chennai always feel welcoming when I return to them.

Many places feel like “home” to me, but I have no place like Michael’s valley, no place that is definitively and absolutely home. When I realized that, I thought I had an explanation for why I see the gorilla.

We are conditioned by our surroundings. We learn what to expect. When we have a home, we adjust to it; we learn what we need to pay attention to and what we can safely ignore. I think my youth and my frequent movements conditioned me to expect new situations—new places, new things, new contexts. For me, being able to see and take in subtle variations meant the difference between a fun day at school and an unwanted bullying. I not only learned to pay attention but became conditioned to do so.

The important implication is that our environments—our management systems, our Kanban boards, and our tools—are conditioning us. Are yours triggering the kind of behavior you want to see? Are they enabling people? Are they fostering learned helplessness? What gorillas do you see? Which ones are you missing?

2 thoughts on “I Always See the Gorilla

  1. Another outstanding post, with which I can relate both perhaps because I immediately saw the gorilla, but also because there isn’t either a place I can call “definitively and absolutely home”, as a Frenchman having lived and worked in Britain for over 20 years and now residing in Canada.
    What you say about how our environments are conditioning us is very true.
    I have in the last couple of years conducted two little experiments with radically different designs for my own Kanban board which have really forced me to really how the usual type of design can condition the way we think and accordingly to stretch my mind. One was with a right to left orientation which was quite disorientating to start with. The other one was with a design inspired by the Cynefin framework on which I ought to blog on of those days (a photo is available here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pascalvenier/16538203553/)

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