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Pay Attention!


This week’s article from FTdynamo looks at the importance of overcoming attention deficits in today’s information-saturated workplace.

A new book, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business by Thomas Davenport and John Beck (Harvard Business School Press), argues that the new scarcest resource isn’t ideas or even talent: it’s attention.

The book claims that trillions of documents circulate in US offices every year; Internet traffic doubles every 100 days; and about 200 messages flood the average manager’s desktop every day. Davenport and Beck, academics and consultants at Accenture, argue that today’s businesses are headed for disaster unless they can overcome these dangerously high attention deficits that threaten to cripple today’s workplace.

According to the book, dangers for managers lie on both sides of the attention equation. On one hand they have to secure and manage the attention of information-flooded employees, consumers, and stockholders. On the other, they face the need to parcel out their own attention in the face of overwhelming options. The brutal truth is that they have to learn to manage this critical yet finite resource, or fail.

The authors have a point. This sounds like information overload with a vengeance. But the problem, of course, is not new and not purely a result of the increased use of information technology. The fact is that managers have always had problems fixing their attention and in gaining the attention of others.

Nearly 30 years ago in his 1973 book The Nature of Managerial Work (Harper Row) Henry Mintzberg found almost exactly the same short attention spans in managers and their subordinates – and that was a long time before e-mail.

Mintzberg’s aim was to track what managers actually did during their working day and contrast it with what they were classically supposed to do – forecast, plan, organize, command, communicate, control, and so on.

He found that in reality managers’ jobs are highly fragmented, with individuals effectively reacting to whatever is happening at the moment – usually a crisis. What’s more, they seemed to like it like that, thriving on any activity that let them escape for giving attention to what they were supposedly hired to do – like strategic thinking.

In other words, maybe a short attention span is an intrinsic part of the way humans work. Indeed, we almost seem to have designed the way we work to lower the attention we can give to a subject. Open-plan offices surely guarantee distraction, while hot-desking is simply a further refinement. Yet the enclosed office – with a door that could be closed – is now rarely seen outside the executive suite. And any policy that is not “open door” – ie “please come in and interrupt me” – is viewed as anathema.

Yet we like it like that. Work is, after all, work, and there are usually far more interesting things to do. The workplace is essentially a social place. That’s why if we really want to focus our attention on something we usually opt to work from home, where distractions are much fewer, or if we are lucky find a quiet place at work.

What Davenport and Beck are really talking about isn’t so much attention deficit as information overload, which isn’t quite the same thing. We like to let our attention wander from crisis to crisis – it is, in effect, a kind of time management or time prioritization. But when we are overloaded with information even that system starts to break down. With too much information we simply don’t know what to switch our attention to.

Mintzberg found that managers far preferred to work on the basis of verbal communications rather than written. That’s because they’re human. So when the e-mail inbox starts to overflow, go and switch your attention to finding a colleague to talk to. You might find out something important.

FTdynamo features writings and opinions by leading people in the the world of work and business.

One Response

  1. Isn’t this something to do with sociability?
    The way some managers respond to any personal interruption to avoid having to spend time in contemplation sounds like the classic problem of choosing the wrong person for the job.

    We promote people on the basis of their good (read outgoing) personality and then are surprised when they’re miserable and ineffective at solitary strategic thinking.

    None of this has anything directly to do with information overload. It has to with isolation (or, contrarily, social interaction) overload. We’ve known all this for years: so why do we keep on making the same mistake?

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