Tunnel vision is defined as the tendency to focus exclusively on a single or limited goal or point of view.
And that’s not always bad. There are certainly instances where a laser-like focus is required to get the job done. But more times than not, getting locked in on a single goal without considering the context, other points of view, or the broader consequences brings trouble.
In leading teams both large and small, I often say that one of my key roles is “connecting the dots.” I’m trying to ensure that team members consider the context. It is critical for leaders to ensure that someone is thinking about broader consequences and the big picture.
I saw an unfortunate example of tunnel vision play out over the past two weeks. The leaders and their teams did not connect the dots that were right in front of them.
This real life lesson began when my wife and I walked the short distance from our house to a nearby intersection on a beautiful Monday morning. There we joined with other neighbors, bicycling and pedestrian activists, members of the media, and county officials for the official opening of the new dedicated bike lane in our hometown of Silver Spring.
This has been a major project, with night-time road reconstruction, the addition of new bus stops, construction of floating traffic islands, and the installation of special bicycle traffic lights. The county had worked hard to keep the residents along Second Avenue informed of the progress. Over the course of approximately eight weeks signs were everywhere and, once the work began, the evidence of the change was all around us.
Having seen and used the dedicated bike and pedestrian lanes in Copenhagen several years ago, we were strong supporters of this effort.
In the course of watching the construction, I met the project manager. In our conversation, I shared our family’s excitement for the changes and our appreciation for the strong communications coming from the county and from the contractor. I also mentioned—almost as an aside—my concern with the way that area utility companies were active in nearby neighborhoods, tearing up the streets to replace underground lines and then undertaking shoddy road repairs to cover up their work. I could not see what consideration the utilities gave for other neighborhood projects and efforts at design improvement.
According to the project manager for the bike lane extension, the utility companies are supposed to wait at least two years before tearing up a newly paved street, with an exception made for emergencies. But he also mentioned that utility companies have a mind of their own.
The “wait two years” comment stuck in my mind.
And it came rushing back when, only TWO DAYS after the official county dedication of the just-completed bike path, I walked up to see a utility crew in our neighborhood.
Digging a hole in the fresh pavement of Second Avenue.
Smack in the middle of the new bike path.
They were doing this work because there was a major construction project also in progress—the Elizabeth Square aquatic and recreational center—with extensive work near Second Avenue. Everyone working on the Elizabeth Square project had to cross Second Avenue when the bike lane was under construction just to reach their building site. The contractors and project managers for the Elizabeth Square project worked side-by-side with the ongoing bike-lane extension on Second Avenue. They saw the work underway in August and September.
And yet, the only charitable conclusion is that they were too focused on their project and didn’t think about the context.
For they never thought to call the county Department of Transportation and say, “Hey, we’re going to need to do some utility work on Second Avenue. Let’s finish that before you put a fresh coat of pavement down and construct a new bike lane.”
And somehow in the county’s permitting services office, no one saw two projects requiring permits on Second Avenue and put two-and-two together.
As a result, residents, pedestrians, and bicyclists in Silver Spring got to enjoy two whole days of a freshly paved Second Avenue bike lane and street before it was torn apart.
It appears that tunnel vision strikes again.
Our Councilmember and the bike lane project manager are responsive and working at the appropriate levels of county government to attempt to fix the process and ensure that the remediation in this instance exceeds the utility company’s normal shoddy (my term) patching jobs. I’m staying on the case.
If you want to be a leader, look around. Figure out what else is going on. Get the bigger picture. Understand the context. Find a way to involve others, even if they aren’t part of your team or office or organization.
In other words, connect the dots.
Have a good week.
More to come…
UPDATE: After reading my blog, the Silver Spring Urban District Specialist asked me for a meeting, which took place on the morning of October 28th. I learned a number of things about the process the county has in place to guard against this type of tunnel vision…and how that process wasn’t used effectively on Second Avenue. But I also learned that there are good public servants who listen to constituents and work hard to set things right. The Urban District Specialist is working towards a restoration of the road in short order, alerted me to some other challenges with upcoming construction in our neighborhood, had answers to my questions, and was very responsive. She is a “connect the dots” type of person.
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