Dispelling Tunnel Vision

Tunnel-VisionTunnel vision is a medical condition where a person can only see part of what normal vision allows, thus diminishing peripheral vision. Without being able to see one’s surroundings, a person easily runs into things when moving from one place to another and risks injury.  Imagine what it must be like to only see the center 20 or 30 percent of your current field of vision.

In business, tunnel vision relates to leaders that see an outcome, but fail to account or plan for the perils that lay ahead. Put simply, the loss of peripheral visions disconnects one’s actions from the desired outcomes.   This leadership trap most often occurs when a business decision must be made in an environment of uncertainty, complex inter-relationships, and changing circumstances.  The leader identifies the goal and races toward it without consideration of associated costs or unintended consequences.

The affliction might be as old as humanity.  Imagine the hunter who saw a wounded animal on the ground and immediately concluded it would significantly improve tonight’s meal with less time and effort than normal.  The hunter would race over to collect the meat with nothing else in mind but his or her own hunger and pride while forgetting that some other, larger predator might be waiting nearby in the trees.  The Greeks recognized this type of shortcoming and referred to it as “hubris” or the pride that robs us of the ability to understand the consequences of our actions or circumstances. More than a few Greek heroes possessed great intentions and even admirable goals, but failed to rise above his or her limited perspective.

Although life would be easier if tunnel vision only ailed those that tried to fly to the sun, experience demonstrates it is much more common.  As leaders and professionals, what tunnels should be careful of?

Once a good idea, always a good idea

Some “fall in love” with our ideas and delude ourselves over its value.  We refuse to dilute our idea’s beauty by considering other alternatives.  In pronounced cases, the idea becomes the universal solution to every problem.  For example, how often do we decide to reduce staff as soon as our numbers go down or assume that changing the staff will automatically change the results?  Early in my career, I worked with a leader that thought every problem could be dealt with by using his favorite software package.  After several years, the staff played a game where they would pose an issue in a staff meeting and count the minutes before the leader would scratch his head, smile broadly, and recommend his favorite package.  The first time we used the software it had been a huge success.  It was the right tool for the problem.  However, this success led to blindness.  Just as challenges change, so do the best solutions.

No decision, rarely is a good decision

Sometimes the best option to deal with a challenge involves waiting and not taking action.  More time allows for greater data gathering, comprehensive analysis, and discussion.  Yet, some problems simply require immediate action.  Similar to when an idea or solution works well in certain situation, the optimal timing varies by each issue.  In other words, waiting might have made sense in the past, but that approach has little universal value in every situation.  I worked with a client last year that constantly talked about “studying” issues.  Regardless of the sophistication or complexity of the issue, considerable time was allocated to “study” the required decision.  The organization slowly and painfully lost customers, talented staff, and eventually its existence as more day-to-day decisions were studied.  The leader sat dismayed as the organization failed. After accepting the inevitable, he stated, “I waited before the recession on making major decisions and it saved the organization from what a lot of folks went through, but I don’t know why that didn’t work now.”

I can do it alone

As leaders, we invest considerable energy and effort in reaching a position of influence.  A combination of will, commitment, and opportunity lead to our success.  Even in the best environments, an individual makes many personal sacrifices to rise above his or her peers.  However, once we become leaders, the formula for success changes.  Where our own commitment and effort contributes a sizable portion of our success before being promoted, we become dependent on the abilities, commitment, and efforts of others to further our success.  A leader that assumes that he or she can get to next level alone not only does not understand leadership, but has only a marginal chance of success.

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