Where Does an 800-pound Gorilla Walk?

February 2, 2016

Anywhere It Wants To.

Quick, before you do anything else: watch this 90-second video and follow the instructions (Don’t scroll down!):


OK…so, did you see a gorilla?

It turns out that half of the people who watch that video don’t actually see the guy in the big hairy gorilla suit walk through the basketball game.

When you watch the video in slow motion, it seems impossible to miss. He’s on the screen for nine seconds, impeding the game and thumping his chest. But it turns out that completing the task you were given – counting the number of passes made by the players in white shirts – can capture your focus so completely that it is possible to ignore the gorilla, even though he is standing right there.

If you’re just skimming this blog right now and skipped watching the video, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “well, I would have seen the gorilla.” But we know that half of the people thinking that are wrong.

When we hold our Strategic Approach to Strategic Planning workshops for Dodge grantees, I always start by talking about the Invisible Gorilla test, a now-famous study conducted by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.

Their work has illustrated, as they put it, that “We think we see ourselves and the world as they really are, but we’re actually missing a whole lot.” And this is particularly crucial when it comes to nonprofit success, since we are often forced to make decisions at the same time that we are busy counting passes, which diverts our focus from the major issues that are standing right in front of us. It’s a literal interpretation of the classic joke about the 800-pound gorilla that is so big and powerful that it can sit anywhere it wants.

I find the Invisible Gorilla exercise instructive when I’m working with a group that feels that it doesn’t really need to do strategic planning, or can skip the situation analysis phase and just write down what they want to do. When you approach planning in that way, you miss the opportunity to really look for the gorillas that are lurking nearby, and see how you can plan to respond to them. Remember: if everyone in your organization feels confident that they can accurately describe current conditions, it’s likely that 50 percent of them are wrong.

So, how do you ensure that everyone gets a good long look at those invisible gorillas during your planning process?

Creative Commons brokinhrt2

1) Start your process with research and analysis, before you move on to decision-making. Take the time to do a situation analysis that includes both a fair assessment of internal strengths and weakness and an evaluation of external conditions. Looking at things in this in-depth way will give you a fresh perspective on reality. Some ideas for how to do this.

2) Involve people beyond the inner circle. Seeking participation from people beyond your board and executive staff can be a great way to tackle gorillas. Their input can help you to avoid the trap of “group think,” in which people who frequently work together tend to conform to prevailing views. Group think both discourages creativity, and reduces people’s sense of responsibility for the results of decisions (making it less likely that they will work to implement the plan).

Some ideas for involving others in your planning:

  • Interview external stakeholders (like partner organizations, community leaders, funders, donors, politicians, and other people who understand your community) and use the results of those interviews to inform planning conversations.
  • Research your constituents thoroughly…conduct surveys, focus groups, or interviews in a way that allows clients to provide honest feedback. Check to see if your perception of your services matches that of your clients.
  • Invite outside experts to visit. A planning retreat is a great opportunity to have an expert come and speak to your board and staff about trends in your community or service area. While some of their ideas may not be big news to key staff that follow these trends closely, this big picture view can be game changing for board members and middle managers.

3) Plan differently. While there is still value to the “traditional” planning model that includes mission, vision, goals, and strategies, your organization may be looking at gorillas that can’t be contained within that linear structure. If that’s the case, don’t worry about following the beaten path – design a planning process that will help you to achieve your goals. We’ll be talking more about these alternative planning strategies at our upcoming Advanced Strategic Planning workshop, but you can also check out Alternatives to Strategic Planning, a helpful article by Jan Masaoka on Blue Avocado.

Regardless of how you go forward, remember: most people do not sign up for nonprofit careers or board service because they were so enamored of the everyday business of running a nonprofit. They got involved because they wanted to change the world.

Strategic planning is place where that work can actually happen – where big ideas can come forward and become reality. Just make sure you’ve noticed the gorilla standing in the middle of your game, and figured out how to turn him into a team player rather than a distraction.

Allison Trimarco is the founder and principal of Creative Capacity (www.creativecapacity.net), a consulting firm that collaborates with nonprofits to find creative solutions to management challenges. She is also an affiliated consultant and instructor at The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business (www.lasallenonprofitcenter.org). 

Gorilla photo via Creative Commons brokinhrt2