Can’t See The Forest for the Trees or Selective Attention and What We Can Learn

Posted on June 7, 2013 by


Do a quick search on YouTube(c) and you will find a host of videos, long and short, that illustrate selective attention and it’s basic premise.  In essence, by spending a concentrated effort focusing on one thing, larger, more obvious things get missed.  This notion is summarily captured in the phrase, “can’t see the forest from the trees”.  From a risk management standpoint, however, this can be a costly mistake and leaders must recognize and then act to mitigate the potential for it.

When we think about inherent risks in our organizations, there is typically a singular focus on preventing failures that are both common and maintstream based on the latest company placed in the spotlight for oversight failures.  While this is important, it is also necessary to build into the culture a critical eye, much like we do through lean thinking in the quest for kaizens, incremental continuous improvements.  By encouraging the organization to validate existing processes and question their effectiveness, the leader can build a socratic philosophy into the culture, that questions process, root causes failures and encourages an open dialogue regarding any issue regardless of the impact.

It is often said that, “it’s not the urgent that gets you, it’s usually the important”.  Organizational selective attention is usually in the form of either putting out fires (taking care of the urgent) or arson investigation (figuring out how and why the failure occurred).   One effective strategy is to create internal subject matter experts regarding organizational policy and procedure, who demonstrate knowledge, integrity and a willingness to identify gaps, much to the ire of those involved at times.  Here, the leader has the opportunity to reinforce a message that it is better to find and fix gaps through due diligence than to have an external auditor find the gaps.  Then have frequent meetings with multiple layers of the organization to educate regarding policy and behavioral expectations, validate existing controls, and discuss failures from a problem solving approach.  This helps members understand the why behind the what, create critical eyes for mitigating risks, and engraining organizational citizenship behaviorsso that they can see both the forest AND the trees.