Why BP’s engineers should take a break

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Why BP’s engineers should take a break

Pre-frontal cortexOne of the most enjoyable parts to many of our workshops is watching the reaction of people who fail to see a very obvious gorilla in a video clip because we told them to focus on counting basket balls being passed between two teams of players.  I’m not going to link to the video, because more and more people have already seen it and it spoils our fun!

A recent post on Jonah Lehrer’s Frontal Cortexexplains this phenomenon in a very interesting (if technical) way, looking at how certain parts of our brain (the prefrontal cortex to be exact) enables us to focus but at the same time reduces our ability for divergent thought, or thinking outside of the box.

Here’s an extract from the post:

“Consider an experiment which investigated the problem-solving abilities of patients with severe damage to their prefrontal cortex. These patients all had severe attentional shortcomings. Here’s a sample problem:


The task is to move a single stick so that the false arithmetic statement becomes true. (The answer is to move the first “I” to the right side of the “V,” so that it now reads: VI = III +III.) Not surprisingly, nearly 90 percent of prefrontal patients and control subjects were able to correctly solve the puzzle. But here’s a much more challenging problem, which requires a creative “restructuring”:


Only 43 percent of the control subjects were able to solve this problem. Most stared at the roman numerals for a few minutes and then surrendered. The patients with the prefrontal damage, however, were much more successful, with an 82 percent success rate. This incongruous result – a brain lesion leads to dramatically improved performance – has to do with the unexpected nature of the solution, which requires an ability to embrace alternative and unconventional approaches. The answer to this problem involves moving the vertical matchstick in the plus sign so that it becomes an equal sign, and the equation is transformed into a tautology: III = III = III. The reason this puzzle is so difficult, at least for people without brain damage, has to do with the conventions of math problems. We’re used to changing the answer, not the operator. As a result, our prefrontal cortex fixes our attention on an extremely narrow range of possibilities. Once we exhaust those possibilities, we assume the problem is impossible. In contrast, those patients with prefrontal damage were unable to focus, which allowed them to cast a much wider cognitive net. They didn’t just contemplate the obvious and the expected: they contemplatedeverything.”


This has some serious ramifications, especially when dealing with a crisis.  Lehrer applies this to the people who are deperately trying to find a solution to the BP off-shore oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, saying it would probably be good for them to relax a little, take their mind off of the problem and stop concentrating.  Maybe then they’ll be able to find the “non-obvious” solution that seem to be eluding them at the moment.  People also get stuck in the “bias of funtional fixedness”.  We are often pretty terrible at coming up with new functions for familiar things.  When faced with a problem that requires us to do so, we’ll try the known function over and over again till we eventually give up.

It’s interesting how often a counter-intuitive approach yields the greatest results. Any “normal” person would think that when faced with a crisis all the people who could potentially play a role in solving it should work overtime at coming up with a solution.  This suggests the opposite.  So often in organisations we find people fixated on an “extremely narrow range of possibilities” which they throw at the same problem over and over again.  Maybe after the month-long distraction of the Soccer World Cup we’ll find more people oven to some lateral thinking and counter-intuitive approaches!

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