In the dim and distant past I was a teenager. I did all the things a teenager did. Or most of them, as I wasn’t an excessively adventurous individual. But I did go to parties. Invariably I would end up in the kitchen trying to find the last bottle left with some alcohol still in it. I was either doing that or talking rubbish. And sometimes, and who says men can’t multi-task, I did both at the same time. Oh yes, I seem to remember that a lot of rubbish got talked in the kitchen at parties. All this was well before Jona Lewie romanticised the whole ‘in the kitchen at parties’ thing by writing that song about it.
On one occasion I found myself in a kitchen with a mate called Ian who had a lot of frizzy hair, and a tendency to say what he thought. Back then, whilst most of us were still starting to get to grips with the whole thinking for ourselves mullarkey, hardly any of us had the confidence to just say what we thought. But Ian did.
At this particular party, at this particular moment, the focus of the kitchen was centred on a somewhat distraught girl who, we came to learn, was upset because her best friend had gone missing from the Merrydown and Malibu fuelled frivolities of dancing, or more correctly sitting down in a line and swaying forwards and back and hitting the floor first on one side and then on the other (you had to be there) to ‘Oops Upside Your Head’ by The Gap Band.
Quite sensibly someone asked what the missing girl looked like so that we could all rack our drink befuddled brains and discover if we had, indeed, seen her. There followed a long description of what top she was wearing, what skirt she was wearing, what colour and what height of boots she had on, who she’d been hanging out with, what drink was clutched in her hand, what her smile was like, even what her laugh was like. All her friends chipped in with details. I looked at Ian, Ian looked at me. Despite enough details to keep Shaw Taylor more than happy neither of us could visualise the missing girl. And then, for Ian, the penny dropped.
‘Oh’ he said ‘You mean the black girl’.
Why all of her friends had chosen to leave this ‘detail’ out, I have no idea. Looking back I imagine that it was something to do with the fact that being the liberal minded bunch that they, indeed we all, were, they felt awkward about defining a good friend of their’s by her colour. It was, in many ways, an admirable sentiment. It was just that at that precise moment, under those precise circumstances, it wasn’t a very useful sentiment. As it happens the only danger the missing girl was in was from the foraging hands of a really quite small bloke from Penge who had enticed her to the end of the garden and round the back of a large buddleia bush.
But this incident was the first time I had encountered the concept of ‘the elephant in the room’. An ‘elephant in the room’ being the thing that everyone knows, that everyone knows is important, but that no-one wants to acknowledge.
Over the years I have encountered many other elephants, in many other rooms. The obvious problem being that most rooms aren’t designed to have elephants in them. So the whole ‘elephant in the room’ scenario tends to end up with the room in a mess, and the people in the room squashed against the walls.
Especially at work.
For some reason the dynamics of the workplace are a fertile breeding ground for elephants in rooms. I think it’s something to do with the hierarchical nature of most meetings. That plus the fact that if you, as an individual, bring up the elephant, then in some mysterious way the elephant gets associated with you. Of course, there is also the all too often misguided hope that if no-one mentions the elephant perhaps it’ll go away.
All I can say, and trust me on this, the elephant never goes away. Or if he does it’s only to gather some mates and come back for a bit of a stampede. The other big problem I’ve found in these situations is that often the real danger isn’t the elephant in the room, it’s the room in the elephant. That’s because elephants can be really, really hungry.
However, there is another animal, in another situation, that in my opinion symbolises a far more destructive reality for most organisations. I speak, of course, of the gorilla on the basketball court.
Let me explain.
A while back two scientists called Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons conducted an experiment. They made a short film of two teams passing basketballs. One team wore black, one team wore white. Then they showed the film to a selection of viewers and asked them to count the number of passes made by the team in white, ignoring the passes made by the team in black. After they had recorded the results they asked the viewers if they had seen anything unusual in the film. About half of the thousands of people who have seen the film report nothing strange. Which is odd because at one point in the film a woman dressed in a gorilla suit walks into shot, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and walks away.
In all, the gorilla is clearly visible for nine seconds. Yet half the people who have seen the film completely miss the existence of the gorilla.
The explanation for this somewhat bizarre case of gorilla-blindness lies, apparently, in the task the viewers were asked to carry out. By instructing participants to concentrate only on the passes made by the team in white, and ignore the passes by the team in black, Chabris and Simons created in many people a kind of attention-based tunnel vision. In essence they were concentrating so hard on one thing that they didn’t notice something else that was screamingly obvious.
Over the years I’ve worked in many organisations, on many projects, where, in retrospect, exactly the same thing was happening. Everyone worked hard, everyone gave of their best, everyone concentrated on exactly what they were supposed to concentrate on. Yet we never saw the gorilla. And it turns out that gorillas can be just as likely to squash things, and just as hungry, as elephants.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
The Gorilla On The Basketball Court.
You heard it here first.