What is Target Fixation?
Target fixation refers to the nature of humans to fixate on the problem in front of them and to ignore the obvious path forward. It was first coined by fighter pilots who had a terrible habit of flying into the targets they were trying to hit. It is well understood by most motor bike riders who tend to focus on the apex of the corner as they ride into the corners and not on the road ahead. It is why most racing drivers will tell you to drive at the gaps and not to look at the accidents as they happen around you.
We Can’t Help It.
It happens unconsciously. Our brains focus on what we are looking at and our hands and feet follow, subtly, even though we may not know it. It is easy to prove for yourself, in fact most advanced driving courses include a practical example.
Don’t Believe me? Try it for Yourself.
Simply find a large open space, like an empty parking lot, and setup some cones in a row, so you can slalom your own car through them. The gap between the cones should be close enough to be challenging but not so close that you don’t think you can make it. Here’s what will almost certainly happen. You will focus tightly on making sure you don’t hit the first cone, and you may be successful. But you will find yourself out of position for the second cone because your hands and feet are subconsciously following your eyes. You will almost certainly hit the second one, and you will definitely hit the third. The worst part is the harder you focus, and the harder you try, the worse it will get.
It is not obvious at first. You can do this successfully and almost effortlessly if you just set up a large flag at the end of the run and watch that at all times. Don’t take your eyes off the flag, and trust your ability to successfully steer around the cones. You will sail around the cones. Really.
How this Applies to the Workspace.
This is a perfect analogy for how we run projects in a work context. We set up programs of work with challenging projects, which initially go well. Then, slowly, the project delivery becomes more stilted, delays increase, people become frustrated, and quality suffers. The reason is most likely a lack of shared vision for the program team. You probably set up the cones (the program), but you failed to set up the flag (a vision statement, repeated often). No one knows what ultimate success looks like, and if some have an idea, it is not shared and obvious to all. The only thing that anyone can do is to focus on the project at hand.
Create Your Vision and Share it with the Entire Team
You can create your vision in many ways, but before you embark on your next program of work, just make sure you have one, and you communicate it.
Can you think of a time in which you may have been affected by target fixation?