The speaker held up a big white poster board at the beginning of his speech that had one thing on it – a black dot right in the middle.  “What do you see?”, he asked and then he was silent.  ‘Well”, I thought to myself, “I see a big black dot.”  Then he said, “Look again. What do you see?” After he paused for another minute, I realized that I had fallen into the same trap most do and it’s one that can afflict us well beyond a white poster board.

What’s the trap? Immediately focusing on the dot and not investing the time to consider the possibilities in the white space.  

The black dot.  It’s obvious. It is distinguishable.  It draws you in.

In business, this could be:

  • Our comfort zone.
  • The way we’ve always done things. Our structure, process, or policies.
  • Continuously mediocre or poor performers.
  • Actively disengaged employees who spread negativity and create a downward pull on the team or office culture.
  • A choice between two seemingly binary, yet not ideal, solutions.

If we concentrate a significant amount of our focus and energy on these “black dots”, we can miss the potential that exists around them. Think about the opportunities if we intentionally shifted part of the focus and effort from the items above to:

  • Combat complacency, embracing discomfort, and setting true stretch goals that we might miss, but we also might hit!
  • Preserving the core, but continuously stimulating progress through innovation, process improvement, and foresight/future thinking.
  • Further developing performers who meet and exceed expectations and focusing on playing to employee strengths.
  • Proactively cultivating engagement as a part of the culture, developing managers who make engagement a priority, and “counseling out” the actively disengaged so they can find an environment in which they are a better fit.
  • Avoiding “or” thinking and pushing to identify a third alternative, a new option or creative path.

To make this shift, its not just a matter of noticing the white space. It’s a matter of investing time and attention to the art of possibility. It’s seizing the chance to shape and define the “blank” part of the canvas. It’s a matter of leading in ways to promote growth and the pursuit of potential for what the ultimate picture can be. 

It’s less tangible. It’s less certain. And it’s less predictable. But a re-imagined context can yield a vastly different impact and results. 

With a little imagination, the black dot on the poster board can be turned into just one connection point on an elaborate watercolor painting, the iris of an eyeball, a city on the map of an entire country, or one hub in a vast social network. It depends on if and how you take advantage of the white space.

What do you see? Do you see the white space in your organization or do you get distracted by or drawn into the “black dots”? If you see it, how are you intentionally investing in it for impact? How are you defining the broader picture in a way that your people see and feel the vision?

As leaders, we owe it to ourselves and our team members to push the boundaries and engage with the art of what is possible rather than be limited by the black dots.