When Focus Backfires

Officer Kenny Conley was in hot pursuit. It was the middle of a cold Boston night in January, 1995 as Conley chased a suspect through a dark South Boston alley. Another police officer had been shot at a shady night spot, and four suspects were on the loose. Conley saw the four men pour out of a car. They separated, and Conley followed one. As he chased the suspect around a corner and over a fence, Conley’s focus was fixed on catching the bad guy.

During his pursuit, Conley ran directly past several other Boston police officers brutally beating a man they thought to be a fleeing suspect. But the beaten man turned out to be an undercover cop. Conley claimed he never saw the beating. But investigators – and a jury – didn’t believe him. Conley was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and he was sentenced to three years in jail. The jury figured Conley was covering up for his fellow cops. To this day, Conley vehemently denies seeing the beating incident, even though it happened within ten feet of his path.

Fifteen years later, two scientists who created the term “inattentional blindness” – the notion that deep focus on one thing can prevent us from noticing anything else – recreated Conley’s pursuit in a series of exhaustive studies. They found that Conley was almost certainly telling the truth. When our focus is so deep, it’s stunning just how many critical factors we miss.

In my forthcoming business book, I'll describe the three-step action plan to put out the focus backfire at work.

  1. Widen Your Gaze. How to actively seek out peripheral signals instead of focusing only on the task ahead.

  2. Find New Eyes. How and when to ask someone who isn’t focused on the same task to give you a fresh perspective on what you might be missing.

  3. Check Your Confidence. How to guard against our persistent tendency to underestimate just how much we’ve missed.

My new book will reveal the unintended consequences of focus and eight more sacred cows at work. Ultimately, the book provides a hopeful message and specific solution steps that show readers how to benefit from the best of their good intentions without getting burned by the backfire.