On Context Blindness

September 21, 2010

I am sure most of us have had this happen; you run into someone familiar and then stand there drawing a blank.

You are completely lost for words.

You know that you recognize this individual, but you  just can’t place from where.

Then the light bulb clicks on! the familiar face is a child’s teacher, the owner of your local dry cleaner, or the gas bar jockey you see twice a week.

This disconnect when we see people that we are familiar with, but outside of the context that we usually see them, well – it can throw us for a loop. Our mental circuitry seems to have difficulty in making that association without that associations familiar context.

Let me relate a story, and then ask how this type of context blindness may be affecting us as leaders and managers in our businesses.

A Tech Guys Context Blindness (mine)

It started simply enough, about two years ago we bought a new, fairly high end refrigerator. Over the past couple of months we have been getting frustrated as this new machine has been acting up. The first service call had the technician basically tell us that nothing was wrong. (lets not get into service call ‘sometime between 9 and 5’ here)

But the issues persisted, so we called for service again.

I gave the service technician the outline of what the symptoms were, and the technician instantly replied;

I know this area, you have lots of power surges out here….

Before he finished the above phrase – it smacked me like a punch in the stomach.

Because?

#1 I have been in technology for 20 years, and I know rule number one!  And that rule states that if there is a computer style circuit board anywhere in a device, put it on an electrical surge suppressor to protect it from power spikes.

#2 Logically I knew that the refrigerator had a computer circuit board, simply because all of its controls for the temperature settings,  automatic defrost etc. are all digital!

The Blindness

Simply put – my mental context of protecting computer circuit boards with electrical surge protectors, failed to connect the mental dots between what I know about protecting electronic devices, and what I know about this refrigerator.

And yes – the problem with my refrigerator? that circuit board had blown, usually caused by power spikes.

And Our Business?

Do you have a context specific form of tunnel vision? where you know A and you know B, but is there a piece missing that could turn out to be a new product or service?

Have you mechanized your thinking too the point where you cannot notice the pain point that could be crying out for a solution?

Have you been desperately searching for some way to purchase innovation, when managing this missing context is right before your eyes?

The SMB Takeaway

I am entering this week determined to take a new look at everything that I know within the context of our business. Because who knows if another piece of context blindness is lurking around.

PS, I purchased a new computer grade surge suppressor for my refrigerator.

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2 Responses to “On Context Blindness”

  1. elliotross Says:

    Thank you so much for dropping by Susan –

    You have touched on a follow up post I am doing, aside from the manufacturer, think of the high margin, incremental revenue at this high end retailer!

    When you are purchasing this type of expensive durable good – odds are pretty high that picking one of these units off a rack in the store and stating about power would be a ‘throw it in moment’

  2. Susan Mazza Says:

    Great example of contextual blindness.

    I think the manufacturer has a blind spot here as well – if they are going to put technology into their machine that is sensitive to energy surges then why don’t they also build in the surge protection that keeps it safe or at least advise the customer?


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