I was reading some papers from the ‘must read one day’ pile (Yes, I finally got a chance to do that, because after all, that is what long flights are for.) and I came across the inattentional blindness study (I didn’t make that up!). It was a great reminder to keep your eyes open and not just focus on the downturn news.

Here’s a quick background of Simons and Chabris' study of inattentional blindness known as “Gorillas in our midst”. The researchers asked participants to watch a video in which two groups of players pass basketballs. One group wears white shirts; the other group wears dark shirts. When the research participants are told to count basketball passes among people wearing only white shirts, they subconsciously block out the black shirted individuals. Because of this narrow focus, most participants fail to notice when a man wearing a black gorilla suit saunters into the middle of the screen, pounds his chest, and walks off screen. Intense concentration on the counting task causes people to overlook a striking element of their visual world.

The inattentive blindness study shows that goals focus attention, which unfortunately leads to people overlooking other important features of a task. So what is the relevance of this to Workforce Planning and the economic downturn?

Well, when companies are constantly bombarded with news of the downturn, the temptation is to set drastic goals to reduce expenditure, often within a very short timeframe. Think about the study. A strong goal means a narrow focus. You are so focused on cutting costs or other short-term goals that you miss a golden opportunity that would enable your organization to succeed in the long run.

So how can we avoid disaster?

Most of the time, attention is “grabbed” by events (like the bad news from the economic downturn) rather than deliberately directed. As Workforce Planners we need to ensure we don’t zoom in on some things to the detriment of others. We need to stop and take a good look around. Get a fresh perspective. See the big picture. Or as we like to call it, do an Environment Scan.

Yes, there’s some gloom out there, but there are also plenty of opportunities right now, particularly in the loosening labor market. C-Net’s “spreadsheet of sunshine”, which I discussed in a previous blog, tells us that a number of high-profile companies have recognized this, with big names such as Apple, Intel, Cisco, Facebook and Salesforce.com already targeting skilled staff who are likely to be in high demand in coming years. Yes, they’ve got their eyes on the ball like the rest of us, but they’ve seen the Gorilla too! Find our more about workforce planning in a downturn by reading our whitepaper, Making the Right Business Decisions in an Economic Downturn.