Is Negative Target Fixation Crushing Your Opportunities?

In a past life I founded a software company. In that company, I cast a wide net searching for learning and support wherever I could get it. One of the places I landed was at’s bootcamp for entrepreneurs. During my two-day immersion with Guy Kawasaki and entrepreneurs at all stages I heard a valuable story that resonated with me; it still does. It goes like this…

image of clear field with object from plane approaching for negative target fixation blog post - Delight Customers Gregory Olson
Pilots of small aircraft are a highly attentive and skilled group. Some might even refer to them as anal-retentive. They are trained to always look for the clear field; that is the place where they’ll set the plane down in the event of engine failure. This obsessive lot are constantly scanning the horizon, looking out the window, and monitoring their gauges much like an attentive driver rotates glances among the speedometer, rear-view mirror, side mirror, and windshield. With a small plane, you have much more control than a large plane so putting one down in a clear field doesn’t necessitate a grisly crash like one normally associates with the crash landing of a commercial airliner. So you’d expect more fatalities with large commercial airliners. But, statistically this isn’t what happens at all. Most of the fatal airplane crashes are small planes that are more easily controlled by highly attentive and skilled individuals. So, what is going on? Chock it up to Negative Target Fixation.

image of clear field with tree or object for plane approaching - Negative target fixation blog post - Greg Olson

Here is what often happens during the small craft clear field landing scenario. The pilot, upon having engine trouble, recalls the field they saw moments before. They position the plane and begin a controlled descent toward the clear field. As they approach the field they notice an object, it could be a tree, a house, or a goal post; it doesn’t matter, the outcome is the same. Consciously or more likely subconsciously the pilot begins saying or thinking, “Don’t hit the goal post. Don’t hit the goal post. Don’t hit the goal post.” The plane descends further, speed is well within control, and as the plane approaches the field it seems to make a beeline right toward the goal post. Negative Target Fixation captivated the pilot’s attention.

Not being a pilot myself, I’ve been validating this story with pilots of small aircraft ever since I heard it. Granted everybody I’ve talked to has survived and most never had engine trouble that necessitated such a landing. What would be telling would be to interview those who didn’t survive.

The Office Experiment

Interested with the concept of Negative Target Fixation and its applicability to the business world I ran an experiment when I returned to my office. We had a small portable golf putting setup in our open office space. We’d use this to blow off steam and generally take a break from the nonstop pace of our startup. Usually 3 or 4 people would be involved. This day the setup was a little different. In between where we putted from and the receiving cup that would receive our golf ball I placed an office chair, you know the type, thin round chromed steel legs and a curved plastic bottom and backside. Hey, we were frugal Ikea shoppers.

Player number one stepped up to the tee mark, peered over and around the chair and swatted the ball with the putter. The ball went directly to the steel leg. Player number two, same fate. Player three was me and I simply ignored the chair. I don’t remember if I got a hole-in-one, but I did not hit the chair legs. I was focused on the green not even thinking, “Don’t hit the chair.” Player four also crashed his proverbial plane into the goal post.

After that round completed I told the story of negative target fixation and we played another. This time nobody’s golf ball hit the chair legs. The lesson was imprinted in my mind like indelible ink. To this day when things are going rough or not measuring up or there are obstacles in the way, I try to stay focused on the value and benefits, what is possible, and creating a clear path forward. If you are in leadership you have a duty to keep your team positively focused on the path forward. But, you can also employ this bit of team psychology no matter your place on the team. Good luck in your ventures. May all of your opportunities always clear the goal post.

image of goal posts for plane to avoid with Negative target fixation blog post - Greg Olson