Avoiding Strategic 'Tunnel Vision' And Corporate Blindness

Strategy

This blog was written in advance for its usual scheduled publishing day of a Monday, but that’s a public holiday, so I’m taking the day off.

It has not always been that way. Holidays have typically been interrupted with work matters that are either pressing or simply seem that way. Truth be known, in large part it may well be the addiction to the excitement and challenge of the work that brings me back, when in fact I should be taking a break.

I say should be taking a break, because as we all know, it is not possible to keep working at high intensity without rest and recovery. Athletes know this well – they schedule rest, sleep and active recovery with as much importance as training and competition.

The strategist needs a break from work for another reason: to regain perspective. 

Throughout the year, we are often so focused on the tasks at hand that it is difficult to take a wider view of the context within which we are operating. This is particularly a problem for the strategist. Strategy is, after all, about widening one’s view to make informed choices among competing alternatives. 

Thinking broad and narrow

The need for simultaneous focus and broad view is analogous to the way the human eye operates.

The eye is comprised, inter alia, of rods and cones. There are some 120 million rods and 7 million cone cells in the retina. The rods are responsible for peripheral vision, whereas the cones provide central vision functions. Both are obviously important: central vision allows you to read these words while your peripheral sight allows you to be aware of what is happening around you without having to turn your head or move your eyes.

Babies have peripheral vision at birth and the ability to focus comes as the baby develops. As we age, genetic disorders that cause night blindness and diseases such as glaucoma can severely restrict our peripheral vision, resulting in what is known as tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision is a terrible and dangerous affliction in life. It is terminal for the strategist.

Kenichi Ohmae uses the term “strategic tunnel vision” in his book, The Mind of the Strategist, in discussing cases where corporate failure could have been avoided had choices been made to change direction before it was too late. 

“In each case I have observed, management, at a certain point in time, simply lost sight of the range of alternatives that were still open and rushed with ever-narrowing mental vision to their own destruction.

“The more severe the pressure and the more urgently a broader view is needed, the more dangerously their mental vision seems to narrow down.”

Taking a break from the intense focus demanded by our daily work is like widening our field of view to create some peripheral perspectives. To do so we need to de-tune the concentration on what is directly in front of us.

The CEO of a client once commented on as much when, during a strategy workshop, he said, “You know, we each have our best ideas when we’ve come back from holidays.” He cited a list of seminal ideas that each executive team member had brought to the group, each of which had been raised after taking some time off.

So during the holidays, try to relax without consciously thinking about work and let your “strategic rods” do their work. You might restart with some breakthrough ideas.

  • John Barrington is a leading strategy and governance expert, and founder of Barrington Consulting Group. For more information, email john.barrington@barrington.com.au

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