Maintaining Attention: The next core strategic skill for your business


People’s attention spans have been steadily decreasing over time. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you. Much has been written on this subject. 

The response to this issue has been interesting. Instead of showing concern or alarm, we’ve accepted it. In fact, we’ve embraced it.

Conventional wisdom suggests that we need to cater to this lack of attention. Think of the tools, techniques, and technologies that are built around catering to people’s lack of attention.

This is a mistake. Lack of attention is hurting our society, our business performance, and even personal relationships. Disinformation campaigns on social media have demonstrated how dangerous our collective lack of attention can be.  Individual lack of attention is equally dangerous.

Recently I noticed that one of my invoices appeared to be stuck in my client’s approval process.  The invoice had been listed as “in process” for over a month.  That was unusual.  At this company, invoices generally move from “in process” to “approved” status within a few days. On rare occasions, it can take a week to ten days.

I looked at a different system. It confirmed that the invoice was “in process”. 

However, the second system also showed that the invoice was “due to pay” on December 15.

My past experience told me that something was wrong. “Due to pay” was simply a calculated field.  It was based on adding 75 days to the invoice date.  I’ve had several invoices in the past whose “due to pay” date came and went without payment.

I contacted the accounts payable support team to report the problem. I received a response within a day.

They said that everything was fine with the invoice.  It would be paid on December 15. 

I followed up and asked if they knew why the invoice was still listed as “in process” after a month.

Their response surprised me.  “We aren’t sure why it is still in process, but you can be rest assured that it will be paid on December 15.”

That didn’t make sense.  Invoices that are “in process” are not released for payment.  If they didn’t know why it was in process, how could they be confident that it would be paid?

I reached out to my local contacts in the accounts payable department. I explained the situation.  I asked if he could look into it.  He asked for a few days to look into the problem.

About five days later, he emailed me back.  He said that it took the entire week to track down the issue. 

Their system had a software error preventing the invoice from being forwarded for approval.   If I hadn’t, the invoice would have never been paid.

I suspect that the contact center person simply looked at the same systems as did I.  

Once they saw the due date listed, they stopped working the problem.  They had an answer.  They didn’t challenge it.  They didn’t consider it against the “in process” issue.  They simply stopped paying attention and moved on.

This isn’t an isolated case.  I regularly encounter service or quality issues that weren’t due to a person’s lack of knowledge or skill.  As with the invoice story, people just don’t pay attention long enough to get things right.  Try asking for an exception or  “special order” at a fast or casual food restaurant. If you’re like me you’ll probably only get the right thing about half of the time.

We are being exposed to more information than ever.  That information has become more complex and diverse.  A good leader helps to make that information clearer. However, people still must be able to engage an idea or problem long enough to understand it.

Sadly, the response has not been to help people get better at paying attention.  Rather it’s been the opposite.  We’ve begun to cater to the workforce’s lack of ability to maintain focus.

There is a huge problem with this. Actual problems and issues don’t present themselves in short, discrete, simple packages. My invoice problem required more attention that simply looking at a field on a computer screen.  It required thinking about how the process normally works, what is currently happening, possible causes, and possible solutions. 

Problems, questions, and issues that can be addressed with minimal attention aren’t the ones that make or break your business. Not surprisingly, those issues are increasingly being handled by automated systems and AI solutions.

The strategic, operational, financial, quality, and customer issues that make or break your business require attention and focus. If your workforce can’t provide that your business will ultimately fail.

Knowledge, skills, processes, analytics, policies, and technology won’t help your business if your people don’t pay attention long enough to use them.

It’s time to stop catering to people’s lack of attention.  

Instead, we need to treat maintaining attention as a core, strategic skill at both the individual and organizational level. 

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Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author with Avail Advisors.  Avail helps leaders simplify their problems, decisions, data, and communication. Contact Brad at brad.kolar@availadvisors.com.

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