Focus is good, right? For years we have been admonished as managers to maintain focus: design strategies centered around focused factories that produce better goods less expensively, weed out the product line, grow a business from its core competency, develop priorities and address the first two or three, and organize our time so that we can concentrate on complex issues without interruption.

But sometimes focus can be detrimental to our health, both individually and organizationally. For example, Jerome Groopman, in his book How Doctors Think, advised us as patients to ask what might be the most important question of our lives when consulting with a doctor who has reached, and too often focused mentally on, a diagnosis and method of treatment. The question we patients should but rarely ask is, “What else could it be?” It’s a question designed to disrupt focus.

Max Bazerman, in his new book, The Power of Noticing, concludes that excessive focus, among other things, is one of the reasons leaders fail to notice important facts relevant to their decisions. To make his point, he cites the popular example of an audience of leaders asked to focus on counting the number of times that a ball is passed among a group of people being shown on film. In the middle of one version of the film, a woman with an umbrella walks through the middle of group. Invariably, far more than half of viewers focus so intensely on the ball that they fail to see the woman with the umbrella. They are better focusers than noticers.

According to Bazerman, too much focus is one of several causes of our inability to notice. Among others are the use only of information that is readily available (searching for the lost key at night under the street light where the light is better), limiting options to what’s placed in front of us, biases regarding information or its sources, undue trust in a complex system whether or not it is understood (such as trusting the financial system to detect and defuse causes of the recent Great Recession without understanding the system itself), and a tendency to discount the future (ignoring long-term effects on global warming in making short-term decisions).

Possible antidotes start with a realization that noticing is something that can be learned, both individually and organizationally, something that Bazerman believes strongly (or he wouldn’t be teaching and writing about it). It requires leaders who, among other things suggested by Bazerman, develop a habit of asking the equivalent of Groopman’s “What else could it be?” and then listening carefully for the answers.

Is this an argument for leaders to disrupt focus from time to time? If so, how? Are individual and organizational focusing and noticing antithetical to one another, or can they be achieved concurrently? How do we avoid the downside of focus? What do you think?

About the author

This article is written by James Heskett. He is a Baker Foundation Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School.