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Don’t Just See, Observe: How to Prevent Blindspots

November 12, 2021

“You have not observed, and yet you have seen.”

– Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia

Pattern recognition is a superpower of strategic communicators. In the midst of a crisis, we have the ability to connect the dots out of a cacophony of signals, personalities and data. We see a pattern. We recognize it as something we have seen before. We already know which tactics and messages work best in this situation. We apply them in the same order and cadence as we did the last time we saw this pattern. It’s practically automatic. 

Pattern recognition grants us speed and precision in our response. It enables us to demonstrate mastery of our craft. It is obtained through years of experience, seeing the same patterns over and over and over again. 

Seeing Isn’t Observing

This superpower can also be a glaring weakness. We know we have seen it before. Our ability to recognize patterns may actually keep us from observing what is really happening. 

Sherlock Holmes once admonished Dr. Watson for failing to know how many steps lead up to the door of their Baker Street flat: “You have not observed, and yet you have seen.” Watson, like Holmes, had gone up and down those steps hundreds of times, but only Holmes knew that there were 17 of them. The number of steps was not Holmes’s point – it was that Watson was on automatic pilot, which can describe even the best strategic communicators when they see a pattern they recognize.

This phenomenon is described as selective attention or inattentional blindness. They are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes we choose to ignore something we may see. That’s selective attention. Sometimes we “see” something in the literal sense – photons from a thing land on our retinas – but our brains never process the stimuli. That’s inattentional blindness. 

Nobel Prize-winning psychologists Daniel Simons & Christopher Chabris demonstrated this phenomenon with a simple test they ran back in 1999.

To take the test yourself, watch the video before you read on

Simons and Chabris asked viewers to count the number of passes basketball players make back and forth to each other. Many viewers focus so strongly on the basketball passing that they fail to notice a man in a gorilla suit walking into the frame, thumping his chest repeatedly and exiting stage left. The image of the gorilla-man surely reached the viewers’ retinas, but the brain ignored it entirely.

When we recognize a pattern and focus our attention on it, we risk missing something important. We may choose not to observe it because we want to focus on something else (selective attention), or we fail to observe it when we see it (inattentional blindness). To reduce this risk, we need to break the pattern. 

I’m not suggesting that you abandon pattern recognition altogether or throw out the playbook that matches the pattern you see. Remember, pattern recognition is our superpower. Applying a pattern-breaking mindset to the pattern you see may enhance your powers to observe.

Five Ways to Prevent Blindspots

Seek to observe something that would cause our response strategy to no longer fit the pattern. Here are five ways to implement a pattern-breaking mindset. 

Tipping Process

Tipping points are singular moments that cause a situation to change dramatically, but it’s rarely that simple. Tipping points don’t just happen. Processes were already at work destabilizing the situation before any tipping point was reached and our pattern broke. These buildups can be easily seen, but they can just as easily be ignored if we are focused on our pattern.

Ask yourself, “What kinds of processes would lead to a tipping point? Can I observe signs of those processes and anticipate the destabilizing event before it happens?”

Question Assumptions

When we recognize a pattern, we make assumptions about a number of circumstances based on how we saw them unfold previously. It can lead us to making the facts fit the pattern we see rather than observing the facts as they are. For example, the backup generators have kicked on the last six times there’s been a power failure, but what if they didn’t? Would our team be able to get emails with instructions on what they need to do? 

Ask yourself, “What would be different if I changed my underlying assumptions? Do I observe any variations from what I have assumed?”

Chase the Outlier

We expect events to follow the pattern we see. If we’ve seen a circle followed by a triangle followed by a square several times, we expect to see a square when we see a circle followed by a triangle. We might have contingency plans in place if it turns out to be a hexagon and can adjust our strategy on the fly. But what if it were a duck? 

For example, there have been thousands of protests in Washington D.C., and they follow a similar pattern: people gather, people make speeches and wave signs, people depart. Sometimes there’s some violence, and we plan for this. Our pattern, and thus our planning, did not anticipate the protesters storming and occupying the U.S. Capitol.

We at Kith believe planning for every possible contingency is not worth the energy, but a pattern-breaking mindset should lead you to consider improbable, outlier events that would be very damaging if they occurred. Don’t let pattern recognition squash your imagination. Ask yourself, “What outlier events would severely disrupt the pattern I see? Do I observe any early warning signs for these outlier events?

Make It Strange

Pattern recognition is based upon prior experiences and knowledge. Take a moment to forget all of those experiences and everything you did to respond the last time this pattern occurred. Try to observe the situation as though you have never experienced anything like it before. Be a tourist. Seeing something for the first time opens our eyes to observe it for what it is, not what we remember it to be. Ask yourself, “What would I observe if I had never seen any of this before? What would I consider to be important that I might normally ignore?”

Ask a Child

Relating a complex situation to a child so that he or she will understand is itself a great exercise for a strategic communicator. When it comes to having a pattern-breaking mindset, children are naturals. They are not burdened with past experiences, assumptions and memories. They have a keen sense of right and wrong. Ask yourself, “What would a child think about what is happening? Can I observe things through a child’s eyes that I cannot see myself?”

Using these techniques, you can enhance your pattern recognition superpower with a pattern-breaking mindset. When the game is afoot, you’ll recognize the patterns you see while you observe what’s happening behind them.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Filed under: Blog

Jeff Blaylock

Jeff is an experienced strategic communications and public affairs professional who has advised organizations through challenging media and political environments, public affairs campaigns, reputation management, message development and crises.