When getting there at any cost becomes the only option

I mentioned target fixation in a post the other day. Here is a piece I wrote for this month’s edition of ISA’s Arborist News.

I find this topic fascinating and very meaningful, as it offers explanations for situations you encounter in daily work on a fairly regular basis. Certainly something worth discussing in your team.

And it goes like this…

When the going gets tough, our minds can play tricks on us, creating unexpected spots of selective mental blindness. The following article discusses the phenomenon of target fixation, the ways in which it manifests itself and affects us and possible strategies to combat it.

When fighter jets approach an aircraft carrier, the pilot is required to land a 24 tonne machine on a runway which is a mere 150m long by 20 meters wide, often during bad weather, in strong crosswinds or at night on a boat that is also moving at 30 knots. The arresting wire system slows the aircraft down from 240km/h to zero within two seconds in a scant 100m landing area. The men and woment flying these mulit-million dollar machines are highly-trained and competent. In order to assist the pilots, there are a multiple visual and aural guidance systems, aiming to ensure correct approach to the flight deck.

Despite all these precautions, accidents occur when pilots approach too low, resulting in the aircraft ramming the stern of the ship. Why does this happen? Psychologist refer to this pheonmenon as target fixation. This describes situations in which a person is scared, severely stressed or over-loaded, subsequently getting fixated on the target he or she is attempting to reach, blanking out the intermediate steps of how to get from here to there. This can lead to blind spots or blackouts, resulting in accidents such as an aircraft approaching the flight deck to low, despite all the precautions taken.

A further classic example for target fixation are the Fisher and Hall expedtions to Mount Everest in  1996, a tragic event revisited in Baltasar Kormákur’s 2015 film “Everest”. Scott Fisher and Rob Hall were both very experienced mountain guides whose companies enabled paying tourists to achieve the summit of Mount Everest. A fatal chain of events, involving amonst other things financial pressure, severe weather and a disregard of their own safety protocols led to both Fisher, Hall and a further six of their clients perishing on the high slopes of Everest, as well as several other climbers having to be resuced with severe injuries.

How could two competent and experienced operators make such bad calls? A central reason seems to have been that Hall went against his gut feeling, in an effort to assist his clients to reach the summit, despite having passed the defined turn around time, after which he should have returned to the relative safety of the advanced base camp. Fisher, it would appear, followed Hall’s example.

The more people have invested in an enterprise, the more they are susceptible to becoming fixed on a target.

An example for the arb world might look like this: In order to dismantle a tree, a crew have decided to install a speed line.

The installation is both equimpent and time intensive. Once they start speed-lining pieces out of the canopy, it becomes apparent that it is not possible to tension the line sufficiently to clear an obstacle below. In a case of target fixation, the crew, stressed out by the tree owner sceptically looking on, might decide to launch a really big piece into the line, despite the warning signs, to make up for lost time. This in turn could lead to a system failure, e.g. an anchor point failure. Simlar to the Navy pilots flying into the stern of the aircraft carrier, the arborist crew were fixated on gettting the limb from up into the canopy down to the ground that they blanked out the in-between steps. In such an instance it can be helpful to define turn-around points: If we have not achieved the result X by point Y, let us consider alternative courses of action. If the first reasonably sized bit does not clear all the obstacle, let us explain to the owner what the issue is and examine what our alternatives are.

Target fixation can be recognised by a number of symptoms:

  • The operator is determined that the target shall be attained at any price
  • The sense of a task it not questioned, even when difficulties start to accumulate.
  • Killer phrases are used increasingly, e.g. “This is how we have always done this”, “If it has been good enough for the past ten years, it is also good enough for now”, “end of discussion”. Killer phrases exclude any further discussion.
  • Alternative routes of action are not considered.
  • Danger is played down, risks are accepted that would usually not be.

A further factor which can be conducive to target fixation is planning optimism.

When the job was priced, the sales person based his or her price on the assumption that all would go as well and smoothly as possible, that the A team would be on the job and that the weather would be perfect. Yet on the day, all did not go smoothly, it was the B team which was sent out to get the job done and it was raining. In such instances, perception can become selective, leading to indicators of things going wrong being ignored and a type of groupthink, where competent operators influcence each other with their behaviour and this in turn leads to bad decisions (“the others were doing the same, so I thought it would probably be ok”).

What are strategies suited to defuse a target fixated situation?

For one to understand how and when it occurs. The closer one gets to a target, the higher the risk acceptance becomes – because the target is almost within reach and one has already invested a considerable amount of time and effort. Sometimes a controlled emergency landing is better than a crash: in case of having misjudged the size of the limb being lowered in the rigging system, it may be better to let the piece run and smash the marble fountain below rather than risk compromising the climber’s anchor point by suddenly decelerating it. It is imporant to observe your innner dialogue and to pay attention to warning signs. Defining and observing turn-around points can be helpful to keep a route open to alternative plans of action. And finally, keep an eye on risks, bearing worst-case scenarios in mind.

Check lists, documentation and encouraging and practicing a good communication culture are central to preventing teams from becoming trapped in situations in which the target becomes the primary and only consideration – and all else gets blanked out.

Lastly, give it a name: target fixation, learn to recognise it – and to defuse the situation by taking another route to attain your target.