Why Focusing on a Problem can Make it More Difficult to See


“The real issue is not how do you find your voice, but… getting rid of the damn thing.”

[Philip Glass]

Our first untrained attempt to draw something by hand may disappoint us. To function in the world and recognize objects, we need to carry models in our heads. But we cannot possibly carry all possible versions of something, like a shoe, in our head. The three-dimensional image needs to be something general to become a viable mental model of the object.

We all have this ability to generalize; some people people have the ability to be more specific. Those who can be more specific have more clarity, for example, they can draw better because they see better. With practice, we could learn to see better. Seeing better is the result of being able to set aside our preconceptions about what we see.

For example, in drawing a face, we tend to draw the eyes and mouth larger, out of proportion from the rest of our facial features. That's because we tend to focus on these two parts of another person in our conversations with them.

In Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull provides a few examples of ways to practice drawing shapes while getting away from our preconceived mental models. Placing an object upside down forces us to see it as a shape and not what we thin it represents. Another way to preserve proportion is by drawing what is around an objectwhat we call the negative spacerather than the object itself.

We need to help our brain not to “correct” for what it thinks an object is by presenting a shape we cannot easily match to a preexisting mental model. This process forces us to go beyond looking to observing. Says Catmull:

Whether or not you ever pick up a sketchpad or dream of being an animator, I hope you understand how it is possible, with practice, to teach your brain to observe something clearly without letting your preconceptions kick in. It is a fact of life, though a confounding one, that focusing on something can make it more difficult to see. The goal is to learn to suspend, if only temporarily, the habits and impulses that obscure your vision.

In fact, what we are suspending when we do this is our premature labeling of an object. This is how we discovered design is a useful way of working, a lens and set of tools that allows us to make in order to understand, and to understand in order to make. While what we make is open to interpretation, the system we use for making allows us to see things we may have previously overlooked.

Catmull says:

The real point is that you can learn to set aside preconceptions. It isn't that you don't have biases, more that there are ways of learning to ignore them while considering a problem. Drawing the “un-chair” can be a sort of metaphor for increasing perceptivity.

Just as looking at what is not the chair helps bring it into relief, pulling focus away from a particular problem (and, instead, looking at the environment around it) can lead to better solutions.

Fixing a scene on a Pixar movie, he goes on to say, “usually requires making changes somewhere else in the film and that is where our attention should go.” Looking elsewhere in the story for solutions is a good idea for business as well.

But we rarely do questions our premise, the set up or preconceptions that precede a problem.

For example, we often look at the low hanging fruit and optimizing as something desirable. But a new initiative or program should include an assessment of whether it actually contributes to our vision longer term and our intent as represented by our culture and organizational habits. So “the path of least resistance is only half the picture,” says Peter Tunjic. Because “Ethics, culture and values all resist false opportunity.”

Artists learn to see more by turning off their mind's tendency to jump to conclusions, and using  observation skills. Drawing and using design as a lens is about learning to see. In some respects, they help us resist false opportunity by understanding as we make. A similar process happens when we use conversation as a tool to notice what is going on and connect personal values to increasing value.

When they needed to address conflict at Disney, says Catmull, rather than being an admonition to behave better, the solution came from questioning the premise on which the oversight group was formed. Questioning the set up is not just looking at the strategy, willpower, talent, and resources of how an organization applies energy to doing things, but getting into how we do those things through culture, ethics, and organizational habits.

In Disney's case, production and the oversight group had historyi.e. culture and organizational habitsaround how things needed to work. Tunjic says culture, ethics, and habits are the multiplier, what creates resistance. We may see resistance as a negative thing, but it is that which allows us to draw the outline of what we want to see come to life (for another example, we can look at athletic training).

See also what it takes to bring something new to the world.


[image via Unsplash]