Kahnemann’s seminal book, Attention and Effort, gives us clues on how attention acts sequentially (mostly) and how capacity for attention has to match with the demands; with fixed capacity of the human mind, attention cannot be so sequenced that every demand can be met efficiently.
Human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, by the way, thanks to digitization.
This is where the subject of attention, or management attention, becomes murky. With all kinds of demands, the limited span of attention is squeezed between the vital ones and the trivia.
Even the most gifted managers and leaders have a limited span of attention; if they can scan five hundred pages a day worth of material, it is a lot, in fact some of them do not even scan a hundred but are highly successful in leading large organizations. It could simply be that some managers are highly attentive to the most vital things and can involuntarily leave the rest.
The same is true for conversations and hearing people talk and debate in meetings; management attention can at best be divided between voluntary and involuntary efforts.
This is slightly different from the challenges of prioritization; if an important meeting is being held where a major decision is to be taken, the conduct of attention to be able to decipher signal from noise or make sense of the trend from the maze of data would need voluntary effort.
A skillful presenter would be able to catch vital attention to the things he would like decisions on while a novice would be struggling to take the attention to the point.
Attention to the point gets vitiated with the plethora of mundane and trivial tasks that we are tasked with; answering calls, looking at mails where you are marled a copy, signing documents, participating in meetings where you are invited but you do not know what is your role, are some of them.
Not having a clear agenda and what are the likely decisions that the meeting is attempting to achieve is one of the misgivings of our times; much of management attention gets pulled by the demands that stem from running a routine, which sometimes is important as a regimented approach, but could be taxing for management attention.
Scheduling management time and making powerful touch points holds the key to high level of attention to puzzles that need solving.
Management at the end is about puzzle solving that could range from human issues to highly technical ones, but attention could be diverted from the vital ones to the trivia.
While we have progressed a lot on managing times well, we are not doing so well on attention.
Human attention span is smaller than that of a gold fish, it is fraction of a second less. It could well be that this fraction could be better utilized if we could work on the pareto of the vital ones that need our attention.
Working on the capacity to improve attention is the other area yet unexplored. Some practicing managers do this better, they remember names better, they can recall from memory better on events and data.
Attention holds the key when even in the middle of the presentation one can relate with a past presentation on the similar subject and decipher trends that could be at variance with the hypothesis.
Working on mobile phones comes as an added demand on attention.
We better watch out if this is actually improving our efficiency or is it that we are more drawn to the trivia.
Balancing the vital and the trivia is where good managers will be drawn apart from the ordinary. Drawing from memory, sequencing and multi-tasking in the digital space is a whole new demand put forth.
We better be aware of the nuances.