Paying attention to paying attention

Failure to pay attention to paying attention is one of the surest ways for an IT executive to kill his career

Economics is the study of how human beings allocate scarce resources. And in this Age of Big Information, when we all must be knowledge omnivores able to digest a steady diet of news and information coming at us through media as diverse as smart phones, computers and televisions, there can be little doubt that the scarcest and most precious resource is attention.

Executives, like everyone else, can pay attention to just so much. They have to be careful not only to pay attention to the most important things, but also to know when to completely block out some information. The price of not doing this is to be on partial alert at all times but unable to fully focus when required to. Failure to pay attention to paying attention is one of the surest ways for an IT executive to kill his career.

Crimes against attention have gotten the attention of researchers at the IT Leadership Academy at Florida Community College in Jacksonville. As they seek to chronicle frequent and potentially avoidable lapses in judgment in this area, they have already spoken to dozens of decision-makers at midsize and large companies. But this project has a long way to go. (Please contact me if you are interested in participating.)

The preliminary data demonstrates that the most frequent mistake -- though one that's easily rectified -- is simply to be ignorant that an active market in attention is at work in the enterprise. It is dangerous and naive to believe that your organization will, as a matter of course, pay attention to the right things.

Many IT executives are convinced that just doing the job is enough. But that leaves them vulnerable to being sidetracked by every stray bit of information that floats their way. Organizations are not whales gorging on every info-plankton within reach.

Linda Stone, a former researcher at Microsoft , coined the phrase "continuous partial attention" -- that is, paying partial attention to everything continuously. It's OK in small doses, she says, but "in large doses, it contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions and to think creatively." Stone has also noted that those of us in this industry "think that if tech has a lot of bandwidth, then we do, too." And that's how we sometimes miss the really important things, even though we think we're tuned to catch everything.

Here are some attention strategies we've seen executives use to successfully troll the info-waters:

- They pay attention at the appropriate level of detail.

- They're aware of where regulatory attention needs to be focused.

- They pay granular attention to the things that key current customers are paying attention to.

- They pay attention preemptively to the things that future customers will be paying attention to.

- They tame the devices that have the ability to steal their attention and distract from the things that require their total focus.

- They manage the attention of the organization, keeping it away from areas of dysfunction.

- They pay attention to relationships.

What are you paying attention to? Are you even paying attention to the need to ask that question?

Thornton A. May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. Contact him at thorntonamay@

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