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Managing Attention – The Key Challenge We All Face as Managers

Julian Birkinshaw is a professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School and  co-founder of the Management Lab. His main area of expertise is in the strategy, organisation and culture of corporations, and on specific issues as corporate entrepreneurship, innovation and organisation design. Julian will be part of the international faculty on the upcoming Senior Executive Programme, IMI’s flagship development programme for senior business leaders which begins on May 27th.

What is your scarcest resource during the work day?


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Most people answer, without hesitation, that time is their scarcest resource.  Well it is certainly finite, but actually I don’t think it’s your most scarce resource.  After all, everyone has the same amount of time, and yet individual differences in productivity are enormous.

The correct answer is your attention – your personal capacity to attend to the right things for the right length of time.

So perhaps the biggest challenge we face as individuals at work, and as leaders of others, is attention management.  This means being thoughtful and disciplined about how we split our time between different activities, and also about how we encourage others to focus on the right things. 

Consider yourself as an individual contributor:

Firstly , discipline yourself to avoid interruptions 

If you are working on something that needs real focus, say writing a report, then switch your phone to silent, and close down Outlook and Facebook. This is obvious stuff, but it’s amazing how easily we get side-tracked.

Figure out when to stop gathering information.

When I was a doctoral student, the cost of acquiring information was high, today, such costs have shrunk dramatically, but the net result of easy access to information is we often keep on collecting long after we have enough to make a decision. How can we avoid this “analysis paralysis” problem?  The best approach is to develop your hypothesis or argument early on, so that your search is focused on supporting or refuting that argument. If that doesn’t work, just give yourself a deadline.

Bring your intuition and emotion to the table.

It is tempting to seek evidence to support every argument we make, but the most successful business leaders – from Welch to Jobs to Bezos – have always sought to combine rational and intuitive thinking.  An ounce of real insight is worth a pound of data.

Find time for reflection

Think of this as a low-tech version of meditation or mindfulness: it simply means creating breaks in the day, perhaps during a commute or while taking exercise. When I am feeling distracted, a half-hour swim is the best way I know for clearing my mind and clarifying my next work priorities.

Now as a manager of others:

Your team are as easily distracted as you are.

They are also highly sensitive to stimuli and cues that come from above.  If you start talking about, say, an impending cost-cutting initiative, you are manipulating your team’s attention, whether you like it or not. Changes to job titles to the layout in the office are examples of attention “cues” and collectively they shape people’s view of what is important and, thereby, how they behave.

Keep the message simple and clear

If you emphasize different things each week, people will become confused, and will learn to tune out. But if you come back to the same message each time, the effect on your team’s behaviour is likely to be substantial. For example, most mining companies start every meeting with a “safety” share.

Shift your team away from what the default focus of attention is

For example: a global software company was losing out on opportunities in Asia to Europe. The CEO moved himself (temporarily) to Asia; global team meeting times alternated to suit both time zones; the agenda always included region-specific as well as global concerns.  By manipulating these relatively symbolic cues, there was a marked shift in behaviour towards a greater focus on Asia but without a loss of attention to Europe.

Our key job as managers is to make efficient use of scarce resources.  In the industrial era, the scarce resources were capital and labour. In the knowledge era, we have become accustomed to thinking of knowledge and information as the scarce resources we need to harness.  But increasingly, information is ubiquitous and knowledge is shared widely across companies.  In such a world, the scarce resource is our own and our employees attention. We need to become smarter about how we manage it.





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