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Some football-related thoughts as the world turns its attention to the 2018 FIFA World Cup over the next few weeks. There’s a famous 1972 film by German director Wim Wenders called "The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty," which, if nothing else, is a great title for a movie. It’s a powerful metaphor for the anxieties that go with any role we must play. And it’s something with which we can all identify: the buck literally stops (or doesn't) in the hands of the man or woman standing in front of the goalposts.  

banner from the final game between real madrid and liverpool fc

A few weeks earlier, before the World Cup kicked off, football fans glued their attention to the UEFA Champions League final. Liverpool had been on a rising tide and looked to have a strong chance of winning its 13th title. Instead, the team failed, suffering a significant defeat to Real Madrid. The failure came because of some disastrous mistakes made by the young goalkeeper, Loris Karius. Leaving the field in tears, Karius later wrote on Twitter that he was "infinitely sorry" for letting the side down.

Yes, it’s a setback for his career and a disappointment for Liverpool fans. But, if we take a step back, we can extract some interesting lessons that have broader implications for crisis situations.

Many commentators complained that Karius lacked focus in his game. Yet, an intriguing piece by Matthew Syed, writing in The Times newspaper, suggests the opposite may, in fact, have been the case. He suggests that the young goalkeeper was concentrating so hard on his coach's instructions to distribute the ball wide and deep that he somehow missed seeing the six-foot Madrid striker running in on him and about to score.

This point was also made by ex-pro goalkeeper turned ESPN commentator Shaka Hislop. His post-match analysis suggested that Karius had become too preoccupied with this one objective. He was too focused – lacking the awareness of the wider situation.

'Inattentional Blindness'

Syed based his argument on psychological research which suggests that, when under pressure, there is a tendency to zoom in on apparently critical tasks and miss out on the other tasks going on in the background.

There’s a well-known phenomenon called "inattentional blindness." This video of students playing a game of basketball aptly demonstrates it. Those watching the game focus on the white team and count how many times the ball changes hands. Participants usually fail to notice the six-foot gorilla wandering around in the middle of the game. 

It’s one of many such demonstrations in which we miss something big and close because we are too busy focusing on something else. The psychological explanation is that we have limited attentional resources. We have evolved by developing crisis responses that allow us to concentrate these responses where (we think) we need them most. In other words, to focus.

Whether missing six-foot gorillas or strikers from the opposite football team, focusing on what we think is the task at hand can blind us to other important information.

Situational Awareness

Syed’s prior work focused heavily on safety in aviation, medicine, and other domains. It made the point that one of the key skills needed by aircrew is the ability not to zoom in and focus. Rather, a necessary skill is to take in the big picture and remain aware of what is going on across a broad front. Pilot training has learned a lot from past disasters. It now includes developing skills in "situational awareness." This means remaining open to information from across a broad front and resisting the urge to concentrate only on a small subset.

Syed gives several examples, including the 1972 crash of a DC-9 into the Florida Everglades. The crew was so fixated on solving a problem with the landing gear that they failed to notice the plane was losing altitude until it was too low to correct. Something similar happened in 1978 when a DC-8 crashed in Portland, Oregon after running out of fuel. The crew was again preoccupied with problems with the landing gear.

By contrast, interviews with Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger highlight the way he resisted the temptation to focus in. Sully managed to land his Airbus A-320 plane on the Hudson River after a devastating bird strike blew out both engines. As Sully explained, "My immediate reaction to the engine failure was a normal, human physiological response. I was aware as it happened – I could feel my pulse shoot up, my blood pressure spike, and I sensed my perceptual field narrow because of the stress."

Sully had 208 seconds between the time they hit the birds and the time they landed. He told Newsweek that part of what helped them that day, "… besides forcing calm on ourselves, was forcing order on this situation that could have become chaotic. In the first few seconds, I realized I couldn’t save both the people on the airplane and the airplane."

Deciding to land the plane in water meant losing the $60 million plane but saving the lives of the 155 people on board. Had he focused on trying to save the plane first, he may not have been telling his story today.

plane in the hudson river

Something similar happened in April this year when Southwest Airlines pilot Tammie Jo Shults managed to land her badly damaged Boeing 737 at a Philadelphia airport after an engine exploded. Listening to the calm exchanges with air traffic control highlights once again the way in which she and her co-pilot kept broad situational awareness, watching and managing a variety of complex challenges including flying on only one engine, calculating the approach to the alternate airfield, and preparing the ground emergency response. 

What happened here – and what was missing at Champions League final – is overriding the instinct to zoom in. Instead, they took the "zoom out" approach, which keeps the bigger situation in view.

'The Blinders of Dominant Logic'

Zooming out is relevant beyond the field of aviation or football. There’s a valuable lesson for innovation management as well. One of the persistent problems of established players – incumbents – is that they are too often blind-sided. They're caught off-guard by developments in technology, markets, and business models.

We look at some of the most dramatic examples and wonder "how did they miss that?" in much the same way as spectators shouted at Karius as the ball rattled into the net behind him. How could Kodak have been so stupid? Why didn’t Blockbuster see it coming? Wasn’t it obvious to the music industry giants that MP3 and streaming music were going to change the game forever?

a cassette recorder on the ground

The reality is, of course, that these were far from stupid organizations. They had built a strong position over decades. They turned early entrepreneurial success into a global business. They became adept at innovation of a sustaining type, doing what they did better and better. 

The trouble was that they lacked peripheral vision – the bigger picture. Or, perhaps more worryingly, when their sophisticated intelligence gathering networks picked up signals about changing context, they were filtered out.

The famous management writer C. K. Prahalad called these "the blinders of dominant logic." He argued that the trajectory on which successful businesses find themselves can act as blinkers which stop them from seeing or appreciating the relevance of new and different information.

Dorothy Leonard-Barton of Harvard Business School makes a similar point. She argues the very things that make an organization great – its core competence – can end up dragging it down as they become core rigidities.

Mobilizing Multiple Minds

So innovating organizations – just like pilots or goalkeepers – need to develop approaches which allow them to both focus in and maintain a broader perspective, scanning for the wider situation. They need capabilities to exploit the advantages of focus – deep technical knowledge, close customer relationships and insights, and key partnerships with suppliers. But they also must think like an entrepreneur, viewing their industry from outside and wondering how it might be disrupted.

It’s a tall order. How does an organization manage this? The diagnosis is fine, but the prescription seems to call for having eyes in the back of your head – and on the sides as well! How can they develop an antenna array able to pick up weak signals and get those signals at least as far as the main processing center for evaluation? And, as if that isn’t hard enough, how can they also make sure that information can bypass the filters of other elements of the corporate immune system?

One way is to mobilize multiple minds on the job. Sourcing ideas as widely as possible from as many people as possible adds to the range of options. Broadcast search is powerful, especially for identifying new trajectories and unexpected directions.

post-its on a wall

Research increasingly shows that "crowdsourcing" of ideas – whether by mobilizing employee insights through high involvement innovation programs or widening to working with suppliers, customers, or the world – offers a powerful resource for the "front end of innovation."

Crowdsourcing ideas can also help with the immune system challenge. It can help act as a counter to the organization’s tendencies to focus and zoom in on what it already understands. The wisdom of crowds is also a powerful way to evaluate and explore radical ideas. Idea markets and judgment collectives are becoming an important addition to the portfolio management toolbox. 

And much of the "agile" approach to innovation emphasizes the importance of prototyping, using "probe and learn" methods to help build a working and viable picture of emerging fields. It’s about holding the focus open for longer, allowing a degree of exploration and pivoting around new directions. Once again, doing this across communities allows for diverse interaction. It brings in important pieces of information and insight which is easily lost in a more focused approach.

None of this discussion takes away the need for a "mainstream" innovation model, one which maintains focus on sustaining and enhancing innovation. But it might provide the additional capability next time that opposing team’s striker is hovering on the edge of the innovation penalty box. 

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John Bessant

John Bessant

Originally a chemical engineer, John has been active in research, teaching, and consultancy in technology and innovation management for over 30 years. He currently holds the Chair in Innovation and En