Wednesday, April 05, 2020

The Scarcest Resource

The scarcest resource in most companies isn't money or creativity. It isn't even time. It's attention. Everyone competes for it; everyone with an idea, with a need for resources, with a project they want funded, with a change they believe is required. But while companies try to allocate other resources according to their strategies and business plans, attention is usually ignored and allocated haphazardly, so it's frequently grabbed by whoever makes the most noise or wields the greatest political clout.

In our rushed and harassed culture, there's all-out competition for people's attention. Marketers and advertisers spend their lives trying to find better ways to catch the chosen customers' attention, whether it's through more eye-catching advertising or more memorable slogans and offers. Newspapers deploy intriguing headlines in massive type. Politicians and pressure groups use attack advertisements and employ "spin" that borders on outright propaganda. Fashion magazines rely on the "face" of the moment; the tabloids on promises of ever more salacious and unlikely revelations about the rich and famous. All compete for attention from an audience that's becoming less and less responsive as a direct result of this constant, numbing onslaught.

In organizations, attention is similarly under pressure. The busier you are, the less time you feel you have for anything not instantly recognizable as relevant to your current problems. The more you filter out what seems inessential. The less attention you feel you can spare for the long-term and the uncertain, let alone the unusual, the unexpected or the unknown.

Yet many—maybe most—of the most vital signs of coming change appear first in exactly those ways: something unusual in the long-term pattern of business; an unexpected competitor seemingly doing better that they should; an unknown, unexpected technology that may, perhaps, one day replace your own. Then there are all the fresh, unexpected ideas generated by people in the organization itself. Some of them may be winners; many won't. Sorting them out takes time and attention: the very commodities already in shortest supply. Is it any wonder they go to the back of your mental queue?

The situation is worst at the top of organizations; partly because the pressures can be greatest there, but mostly because they've been institutionalized into conventional ideas of business leadership. The top manager who prides him or herself on "cutting to the chase" is the same one whose attention span has been gradually trained to switch off in a couple of minutes, unless the topic falls into that wonder category of "instant answers to our most immediate problems." Demands to have complex ideas explained on one side of a sheet of paper go beyond a normal need for brevity. They become an automatic reaction; part of the prevailing cultural style with its thoughtless emphasis on immediate action over reflection and understanding.

Top executives aren't stupid. They aren't blinkered by ignorance or incompetence. If they fall into the trap of blinkered, short-term thinking that too often misses all the early signs of change, it's because they've been taught to think in that way. Their attention is a precious commodity, so they ration it out. Sadly, the basis most choose for this rationing is badly flawed.

Competition is the heart of a free-market, capitalist system. We're told to trust the market to weed out good business ideas from bad ones. We distrust government intervention as a source of unnecessary regulation and giving subsidies to preserve uncompetitive operations. So what's more natural than to turn to the idea of competition to weed out good ideas from bad within the organization itself; to establish competitive systems to allocate money, resources and attention.

I once heard the system for project approval in a multinational corporation described like this: "Everyone sits alone two sides of a long boardroom table. The person proposing the project sits at one end and lets his or her project go. As it moves along the table, all the rest shoot at it. The ones that get to the other end alive are the ones we act on."

"How many make it?" I asked.

"Almost none."

That's the problem. New ideas are like tender plants, not greyhounds. They need care and nurturing to show their promise. If they're treated as roughly as that account suggests, most won't make it. Not because they're bad ideas, but because the system of openly competitive selection is wrong. It takes time to see whether a new plant will bloom profusely or turn out to be a disappointment. Plant breeders grow tens of thousands of seedlings to maturity to find the one or two that are worthy of putting on the market. If they decided purely on the basis of which seedlings grew fastest in the first few weeks, they'd almost certainly pick the weeds, not the flowers.

And the competition isn't even fair. When the market decides, you're relying on the judgement of millions of individuals. In companies, where attention goes is decided, very often, on the political power of a handful of people.

Attention is the scarcest resource at most levels, and doubly so at the top. If it's right to deploy less precious resources with care and intelligent focus—money, people, marketing support or production capabilities—how can it be sensible to allow attention to be doled out haphazardly through personal whims, political considerations or simply by chance? Open competition isn't the answer, as we've seen. Nor is relying on harassed and overworked managers to defend enough of their time to give new ideas the consideration they deserve. In the speed and short-term results oriented culture so prevalent today, it's inevitable that attention will be seized by what's quickest, simplest and promises the quickest pay-off—even if it's not in the best interests of the business longer-term.

The culprit for attention-theft isn't shortage of time. It's not a rooted bias towards simplistic panaceas. It's not intellectual weakness or even political maneuvering. It's the culture we've allowed to grow which rewards all of these—especially speed—and ignores the dangers…until the crisis comes and scapegoats are needed.

"Slow," in leadership as in food, is taking the time to bring out the best. No amount of frenetic activity will avail if it's misdirected. Nor will a diet of "fast management" fashions nurture a business for the long-term. Leaders who let their attention be hijacked by what's closest and loudest haven't matured enough to see beyond the noise and political chicanery to the substance that will count in the end.

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I thought that was a fantasitic piece of information and opinion.I whole-heartly agree. Think about our society many moons ago.It was much slower.And what did we produce.Products of quality.More integrity.A more human touch.Movies had real plot,books had depth,people had a heart and could feel it and share it.In the quest for more and quick, we've become greedy and we are like the kid who tries to grab an extra large handful of pennies from the jar only to come out with half of what was expected.
Great article!
"Visibility of the project or task " is all important to the manager. Not, its usability or the benefit to the organization. Even if you can make a silly/easiest task but can garner all of the attention, you are the darling of the manager - this seems to be the (Unfortunate) Mantra for the Corporate Manager!
Thanks for your comment, Anon.

I think that you're right. Sadly, this is a product of a society obsessed with short-term, glitzy results, and with an attention span that is shorter than that of the proverbial goldfish.

Look good, fast, regardless of whether it lasts or whether the results are worth anything — because everyone will have forgotten about it long before then.

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