The Spotlight Effect in Team Decision-Making

Posted by Kristin Arnold on August 9, 2013

There is an old joke about a man searching for his keys at night underneath the street lamp in the parking lot.  Another man joined in the search and innocently asked, “So where do you think you dropped your keys?”

He answered, “Over there,” and pointed to an area in the dark. When asked why he was looking under the street lamp, he replied, “That is where  where the light is!”

I see teams all the time looking under the street lamp.  They tend to stop searching for possible answers when it seems as if the answer is immediately visible.

shutterstock_277372325Yes, a solution is visible and seems right because that is what you know; it’s in your field of vision.  There is a “spotlight” that illuminates the most obvious path of action.  It may actually be the best course of action, but what about what you don’t know – or haven’t thought of?  Is there a better option that you haven’t even considered because it isn’t in your field of vision?

Think of some of the past debatable decisions you or your team have made. Did you evaluate all the possibilities thoroughly before making your decision? Knowing what you know now (hindsight is always better!), would you have made the same decision?  Would you have been more open to investigating other possibilities?

To prevent this “spotlight effect,” when your team is starting to generate possibilities, really explore all the options.  Not just the obvious ones.  Or the most palatable ones.  Stretch your thinking.  Research what others have done in a similar situation.  Ask others.  Shine the light over into dark areas you haven’t explored yet.  You may even find the discussion prompts some other possibilities that are a combination or synergy between options.

For example, in the mid-1990’s I received a (very) small inheritance with the express stipulation that it must be “invested in real estate.”

The Arnold Building

Since I already owned a house, I bought an office building in Downtown Hampton – the world I knew.  It didn’t even occur to me that I had other options (roll the money into my current mortgage, invest in a REIT real estate investment trust, partner with another investor, etc.) because that was a world I didn’t know or even consider.

In hindsight, I don’t believe I made a bad decision, but was it the best decision?  Hard to say, although I wish I had opened my field of vision rather than look only where the light was shining.

Are you victim to the spotlight effect?  Consider your many options, even though initially, they might sound a bit “off” or “ridiculous.”  Let it percolate and you just never know what possibilities might arise!



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