Business leaders often solve the wrong problem, or focus on the left when the threat or opportunity is coming from the right. Seeing around corners is hard in business as well in our personal lives. We have limited mental resources and therefore block out signals deemed irrelevant.
Learning how to pay attention may sound odd, but it's fundamental. We don't do it well, and the key is to stay away from attention sinkholes. As Nobel laureate Herbert Simon forewarned, "A wealth of information creates a paucity of attention."
The Psychology of Attention
Attention researchers study what people notice as well as what they filter out in terms of seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting. If a few random digits are fed into your left ear and different ones into your right at the same time, which side will get more attention (in terms of your recall later)?
Deliberate as well as automated processes are involved in attention. We can surely decide at a cocktail party whom to speak to or not. But when shown an object and asked to describe its shape, we cannot ignore its color because this is instantly processed by our minds. When asked not to think about an elephant, for example, it is already too late to banish this image from your brain.
Attention involves a complex interplay between sensing and interpreting; what we see is often determined by what we expect to see. When people are asked to remember five playing cards that are briefly shown to them, most will fail to notice that some had the wrong color, such as a red spade or a black heart. We can be so focused on a single task that we fail to recognize things in the periphery.
In a widely seen short video, people are asked to count how often a basketball is passed among various players. Then a person dressed in a gorilla outfit slowly walks through the basketball play and less than half notice it.
Northwestern professor William Ocasio defines organization attention as the socially structured pattern of focus by decision makers within the organization. Unlike individual attention, it is not easy to turn the head of an organization in a different direction. As Thomas Davenport and John Beck noted in The Attention Economy, "Before you can manage attention, you need to understand how depleted this resource is for organizations and individuals."
What Leaders Can Do to Manage Attention
1. Use available digital technologies to measure where organizational attention is high and low.
For example, by analyzing work-related emails in a firm, suitably anonymized, leaders can track what issues are trending. Such text analytic approaches are widely used to assess consumer sentiments in the travel industry or for early detection of shifts in the appeal of political candidates. Sentiment analysis software can handle massive amounts, from everything published in the popular media about a person to emails, intranets, or other corporate communications formats. One downside is that many may view this as overly Big Brother.
2. Recognize that prior knowledge shapes and constrains the creation of new knowledge inside a firm.
New information can only create value if it connects with existing know-how, akin to a new drug needing to bind with cell receptors to work. If not, it will be in one ear and out the other. The richer a firm's existing knowledge base is around a topic, the finer will be its sieve for catching new information.
If leaders feel that more attention should be paid to customer service, regulatory compliance, or some promising new technology, they need to train people in those domains. This will enhance the firm's absorptive capacity in those areas and draw organizational attention there.
As Louis Pasteur noted, chance favors the prepared mind, and various techniques--such as scenario planning, scanning exercises, and war gaming--can help prepare the corporate mind to get lucky or smarter.
3. Know that although focused attention is crucial in comprehending new information, too much of it can backfire.
Focusing intently on one area comes at the price of highly reduced peripheral vision about things happening elsewhere. To avoid walking around with blinders, or running through red lights, leaders must create slack to explore beyond the firm's narrow fields of vision.
One way is to encourage curiosity about interesting topics seemingly removed from present concerns. Another is to create task forces that counter the prevailing focus areas of the organization, such a red team tasked with challenging whether a new strategy is really working or a special scouting trek to explore a potentially disruptive technology that most others are ignoring.
4. Encourage managers to develop a third ear or eye, which is all about noticing hidden cues or soft signals that matter.
When meeting with customers or external partners, also pay attention to what is not being said and learn how to read between the lines. The brilliant fictional detective Sherlock Holmes did that when, examining the murder of a horse trainer, he asked a local constable about the curious incident of the dog not barking. Holmes deduced from this missing clue that the dog knew the murderer.
A more disastrous example of not spotting missing data occurred when NASA examined a data chart of previous shuttle flights the night before the scheduled launch of the Challenger shuttle in 1986. The concern was that low temperatures could cause O-rings to fail, but the chart showed no correlation between past O-ring damage and ambient temperature. However, the chart did not include flights with zero O-ring damage, and including those would have clearly established a link. NASA proceeded with the launch, and a few minutes later the shuttle exploded midair, killing all aboard.