Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Analogy #198: The Magic Eye

Back in the 1990s, there was a popular entertainment diversion called the “Magic Eye.” These were colorful pictures that at first glance looked like just random patterns with no meaning. However, if you changed the way you looked at them, you could see a 3D image pop out of them and float in the space in front of the picture.

The secret to finding the hidden 3D shape was in the way you looked at the Magic Eye picture. If you focused your attention too sharply on the picture, you would never see it. Instead, you had to let your vision relax. Then, all of the sudden, the 3D image appeared.

It was a strange sensation. At first, you would look and look and look at the picture and be frustrated that you couldn’t find the 3D shape. Then, once it appeared, you were amazed that you had not seen it sooner, since it was now so clear to you.

At the top of this blog is one of those Magic Eye pictures. Later on, I’ll tell you what 3D image you should see in it.

Finding the proper vision for your company can be like trying to find the 3D image in a Magic Eye picture. Somewhere in that messy looking future is the proper vision, but at first it is hard to see.

Like with the Magic Eye, sometimes you need to relax your eyes in order to see the vision. Then it will pop out and look incredibly obvious. Once the obvious vision pops out, you can rally the troops to create the path which will make that vision a reality.

In this blog, we will look at some mental tricks to help make your vision pop out and become obvious.

The principle here has to do with taking advantage of the way your brain functions. In a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine (dated July 28, 2008), Jonah Lehrer wrote an article entitled “The Eureka Hunt.” This article looked at some of the recent brain research focused on how we, as humans, create moments of great insight—called Eureka moments.

In studying people who have had great insights into difficult problems, the scientists detected a pattern. First, the person would focus on the difficult problem at hand—gathering information, pondering the issues, struggling for a solution. Eventually, this effort would lead to an impasse—a dead end, a mental block. After all of that mental effort, no solution would present itself…it would seem impossible.

After the mental block, the person would walk away from the project and spend time in some innocuous activity—either some rote routine activity like taking a shower or some form of mind-numbing entertainment. Whatever the activity, the point would be that the former problem had slipped out of the conscious mind and the person was not aware that any further consideration was being given to it. It was as if the mind had taken a mental vacation from problem-solving and was in a passive mode—like on autopilot.

Then suddenly—out of the blue—the solution would present itself. It would be clear and obvious. There would be a sense of certainty that the problem was indeed solved. It would just take a little time to work out the little details.

How did the brain do this? Scientists said that first the brain intensely focuses on the issue. It shuts down a lot of the sensory areas in order to block out distractions. Then, primarily the left side of the brain goes to work seeking information and looking for a solution. This left hemisphere searching tends to reach that impasse.

That’s when the problem is shifted over to the right side of the brain. Although the right side of the brain tends to be less logical and less precise, the right side is better at connecting the dots for the big picture. It can draw from a larger, more diverse, more abstract world. This is all going on in the background while you are unaware.

When it finds a solution, the right side of the brain gets the attention of your consciousness, creating that eureka moment. Although it appears to be a sudden flash of insight, it is really the result of hard work in the mental background.

But here is the true secret. If you spend all of your time consciously focusing on the issue, you will keep the brain too isolated in the left hemisphere. You will never get past the mental block. To get the problem into your right hemisphere—where it is solved—you need to walk away from the problem, unfocus yourself and sort of let your conscious brain vegetate.

To quote the New Yorker article, “The relaxation phase is crucial. That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers…The big ideas seem to always come when people are sidetracked, when they are doing something that has nothing to do with their research.”

It’s like that Magic Eye. You can only see the 3D image if you stop staring intensely and let your eyes relax. Similarly, you can only catch the vision if you stop focusing intensely and let your mind relax.

So what are the implications for vision hunting?

1. Stop Focusing So Much On Focusing.
Yes, initially one needs to focus. But then, one needs to relax. Some people are known to use focus enhancing drugs, like Ritalin, to help them find insights. This article says to stop that. Those drugs keep the mind in the wrong place.

2. Walk Away and Find Diversions
It’s okay to take a leisurely break every once in awhile, even on company time. The article praises firms like Google that put ping pong tables in their headquarters. Firms need to encourage some of this more playful behavior. It was even suggested that companies might encourage sleeping on the job, since many great ideas come in that half-conscious state when one first wakes up (for more on this topic, see my blog “Genius Sleep”).

When I used to work at the former Best Buy headquarters, at those times when we would hit an impasse I would suggest a trip to the “automotive sculpture gardens.” Although it sounded glamorous, what I was referring to was a path on the property that went through a wooded swamp. There was a rickety bridge going over the swampy area. From the swaying bridge, you could see where someone had dumped old auto parts into the swamp. A few of the larger pieces stuck out of the wet and mucky goo. Hence, the “automotive sculpture gardens.”

The point was that a walk through a wooded swamp (with the accompanying insects and smells) was a distinct departure from the sterile and intense world of the corporate headquarters. It was a chance to get away from it all, so that your brain could subconsciously shift to the right hemisphere while you were mentally diverted into a more restful activity. This diversion helped create great insights.

3. Don’t Force Visioning Onto a Timetable
The more you force a timetable onto visioning, the less productive it becomes. Just because you take an Outlook calendar and block off 10AM as the time when a vision occurs does not mean it will happen that way. Studies show that great insights tend to come when people are in good moods more often than when under pressure.

Rather than trying to force an entire strategic planning cycle into a single, tightly-scheduled, meeting-packed week, let it be running in the background all year round. Annual strategic offsites are better served for communicating that “obvious” insight (which popped out at you earlier) and rallying the troops around it, rather than as the time when the insight is forcibly created.

If you want great visionary insights, first spend some time focusing intensely on the problem. But then walk away and relax. Both tasks need to be encouraged in your corporate culture.

The item you were supposed to see in the Magic Eye picture at the top of this blog was a dollar sign. If you follow these principles, you should see more dollar signs in your business as well.

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