Intentions and Attention

Attention is finite. We only have so much to spend per unit of time. Each distraction chips away at this incredible precious commodity until there isn’t enough left to generate virtuous action. We revert to the creatures of habit that we are, with the resulting drop-off in performance which inevitably results in another round of policies, procedures, communications, and noise urgency.

 Written in 2002.


Ah, great organizations. There’s a topic that has occupied pundits, scholars, consultants, and amateur all-of-the-above for quite some time. Like a lot of people I’ve read a lot of the literature. Some of it is interesting. Some of it you really wonder about. One of the better business books I’ve read recently is Good to Great, by Jim Collins. He writes well and the rigor that he brings to identifying and understanding excellent organizations seems impeccable to me.

It happens that I was simultaneously reading Joseph Campbell’s epic The Hero With A Thousand Faces and Carolyn Myss’ book The Anatomy of the Spirit at the same time and I was struck by the thought that truth is truth; greatness is greatness. For some reason, many of us in business don’t want to believe this. 

We have somehow come to the conclusion that there is no place in business for thinking about and talking about fundamental human truths. Instead, we separate business from the rest of life and hope that both work out. A strange way to deal with what most of us spend a third of our lives doing. Perhaps that’s why there are a fair number of good organizations, but not that many great ones.

Greatness, an ineffable notion if there ever was one, is not built on advanced technology, brilliant supply chain management, or steely-eyed cost controls. It does not spring from the forehead of heroic leaders. It doesn’t come from a strategic plan. It does not come from branding. It’s not a result of strategic partnerships. It’s not a result of “digital thinking”. It doesn’t come from any of those things, though all of those may find a home in a great organization. 

No, greatness finds its roots deeper than that. Where you find it, it’s discussed—to the extent anyone can really tell you about it—in terms that are far simpler than most of us are taught to use in business.

Tom Peters is someone who talks easily and with penetrating insight about great organizations. In his world, at least as I understand it, Greatness comes from a revolution in organizations, works, and employees, or what he calls the five transformations for a new world of work:

  • Employees: brand your professionals.

  • Managers: leaders at all levels.

  • Departments: professional service firms.

  • Work assignments: Wow projects.

  • Customer service: customer experience.

Good list. Even if the concepts aren’t immediately obvious, they seem like the right topics. In Jim Collins world, greatness comes from discipline. 

Disciplined People

  • Level 5 Leadership. Not heroic, outside leaders, but self-effacing, humble, and completely dedicated to the success of the enterprise. More like Lincoln than Patton.

  • First Who . . . Then What. First get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and everyone in the right seats. Then figure out where to drive the bus.

Disciplined Thought

  • Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith). Speaks for itself. 

  • The Hedgehog. Build your business at the intersection of three circles: what you are deeply passionate about, what you can be the best in the world at, and something that drives your economic engine.

Disciplined Action

  • A Culture of Discipline. Disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action.

  • Technology Accelerators. Technology for technology sake gets you nowhere but poorer and more exhausted. Yet the right technologies, properly applied, create terrific acceleration.

I like that list better. Discipline is a theme that appears again and again in ancient and contemporary philosophy, metaphysics, and pretty much anywhere anything great gets done. What’s interesting is that Collins and his colleagues arrived at what seem like basic truths and insights through such painstakingly hard work and research. That is either elegant testimony to the obvious, or to a much deeper insight: that it takes a lot of hard work to get past the complex and the convoluted and get to what’s really going on.

I’ve spent nearly twenty-five years as a consultant to and observer of businesses. The list of companies I’ve worked with includes some of the biggest and best known in the world, and some of the smallest and most obscure. Most of my thinking and doing has been focused on the sales, marketing, and service end of things. There is a lot more to building great businesses than that, but I’ve never been able to convince myself that what goes on where people, process, and offers touch customers isn’t the most important part of all.

My observation on greatness? Most large organizations have a tough time getting the customer interface part right. It matters because it’s the symptomatic location of greatness or the lack thereof.

Part of the problem lies with the customers: their expectations of a seamless, wow experience have gotten pretty high. Part of the problem lies with business: we in business are, after all, the ones who raised these expectations through our expansive brand promises and high-toned vision statements. 

The root cause? We’re making promises but failing to match our intentions with our attention. In my mind, greatness pivots on those two words, and the really important one is “attention.”

Intentions and Attention

That mismatch of intention and attention is actually the problem in a nutshell. In business, failure to pay attention to our intentions draws down trust at all levels of the firm, eating away at all the delicate strands and fibers that make up the fabric of a healthy and dynamic organization and its ability to deliver a meaningful experience to its people and its customers. Sound too high-brow? Look at it this way. If a batter steps up to the plate (we’re talking American baseball now), that act presumably represents intention. If his mind is elsewhere, he’ll soon enough be three strikes and out. That’s attention, or lack of attention.

Likewise, if we promise one thing to our customers through our brand messages, earnestly promulgated customer service standards, and eager sales presentations, yet deliver wildly varying experiences to our customers, that mismatch between intention and attention erodes customer trust, then confidence, then belief, and finally loyalty and patronage. It may not take three strikes—it may take ten or it may take one—but it surely leads to yet another “out.”

This same phenomena plays out with our employees. The brand promise, the sweeping new initiatives, the “stretch goals” or just goals that nobody believes, the mission statements, and all the rest all have exactly the opposite affect on employees—or is it team members—when intention and attention fail to match up.

This lack of coincidence between intention and attention doesn’t make you, me, or us bad. It just makes us human. But that doesn’t make it a productive or useful trait. 

The discipline Jim Collins is so excited about in Good to Great—the same discipline that every spiritual master since the very first one has been talking about—is rooted in our ability to pay attention to our intentions. We then open ourselves to the possibility of insight, introspection, revelation, and intuition, which lead us to clarity and change in our intentions. This virtuous reinforcing loop leads to and becomes what Campbell calls the “heroic journey.”

Leaders Pay Attention to Attention

Great organizations have great leaders. Not just the person holding down the big office in the corner, but at every level of the organization. What makes them great leaders? Many things, but the first surely is this point I’ve been ranting on: the ability to clearly communicate an intention, the kind that others can get fired up about being part of, and then holding his, her, and their attention to that intention through all the distractions that will soon enough start screaming for bits and pieces of what is unfortunately a finite commodity (attention).

The finite nature of attention gives rise to what I believe is the second characteristic of great leadership: The ability to keep the social system free of what one person I spoke to recently called “noise urgency”. Love that term. Here’s an example of what it means:

I send out a memo describing a new policy. It’s an important policy that has new procedures and metrics.

For all the reasons we do these things, I instruct all my direct reports to tell their people to hold meetings to go over the memo. Why? I’m concerned that the memo will be lost in all the other memos that are always flying around the place. The real reason is that I also don’t trust my people to pay attention. Why is that?

Because there’s a sense of urgency about this policy and these meetings, the people setting them up send an email, blast fax, and voice mail to everyone telling them about the meeting. These messages arrive on the heels of the other hundred messages that those same people got in the last 24 hours (the average white collar worker spends about two hours a day on e-mail and another two hours in meetings).

The meetings are held. Because we don’t trust our people to communicate to their people, similar meetings with identical agendas are held for people even further into the organization—what is sometimes called “skip level” communication or management. During the meetings, the contents of the memo are read and discussed.

At the end of the following week, more communications are sent out reminding everyone to follow the procedures. As one manager I recently spoke with said, “do you think they could send out a communication at the end of the week telling us which of the communications they sent out during the week we should pay attention to?” Ugh.

Attention is Finite

Here’s the sad part: none of this is really the problem. The problem is that everyone up and down and side to side has their own priorities that show up in their own communications efforts. The really vexing ones are the people and groups with “single priorities.” Like single issue political pressure groups, single function staff groups, product groups, systems groups, etc., have their own charter to do this one thing—usually in service of the larger strategy. The good news for those folks is that they’re specialists. They can place all their attention on this one thing they do really well.

The problem occurs when all those “one things” or “just one mores” arrive at some nexus point: usually the people that work with customers. Unlike the specialists, these folks are generalists and have to pay attention to many things, many priorities, and the many exigencies of dealing with customers day in and day out. The resulting “noise urgency” turns into attention deficit disorder. 

The result is predictable. Attention is finite. We only have so much to spend per unit of time. Each distraction chips away at this incredible precious commodity until there isn’t enough left to generate virtuous action. We revert to the creatures of habit that we are, with the resulting drop-off in performance which inevitably results in another round of policies, procedures, communications, and noise urgency.

Some very small group of people can cope: can pay attention to a lot of priorities, without letting all the balls crash to the ground. How many can? Two percent. One percent. Less.

A larger group of people cope by setting their own priorities. The successful among that group set priorities—and now we’re back to matching intentions and attention—that correspond with organizational priorities, what gets them paid, and presumably what customers want. Other groups pay attention to a less successful mix of priorities with the resulting distribution of results.

Others choose to be confused, a form of passive aggressive behavior that is often an accurate barometer of the toxicity of the noise urgency in your organization. Others simply are confused. The remainder just hunker down, hope, and wait. Not the recipe for a great organization, the point that started this rant.

The Silver Bullet

The silver bullet. Wouldn’t it be swell if there were one? There is and there isn’t. The “is” part is so simple it’s unbelievable.

  • Pay attention to your intentions. Pay attention to your large gestures and the ripples that those gestures send through your organization.

  • Systematically eliminate the clogs, crud, and noise urgency in your system that causes people to pay attention to the wrong things or to pay no attention at all.

The “isn’t” part is that working at the two ends of the spectrum—what I call the mythic and the systematic—is hard work, and work that won’t necessarily lead to results in the next quarter. But as Peter Senge, author of the most excellent The Fifth Discipline points out, “cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.”  But I feel quite confident in asserting that the result of disciplined thinking and action—matching intention and attention and stripping away everything that distracts—is the road to greatness and success. It’s been the case since Og the caveman decided to paint what he saw around him on those cave walls in France. 

It’s true today.

Kevin Hoffberg