Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Do I Have Your Attention Yet?

Recently I’ve been reading a book called “Mind Hacking: How to Change your Mind for Good in 21 Days” by Sir John Hargrave. This book introduced me to the concept of the “Attention Economy”. The idea of an “attention economy,” named by Babson professor and management consultant Thomas Davenport, states that “human attention, not money, is the scarce and valuable commodity.”

 Lately I have been observing a trend; I’m not sure if it is a product of my age or a real phenomenon that needs to be researched closer. My observation is that in this age, people lack a critical skill that is essential to doing well in our jobs, being safe in our personal lives, and leading successful, productive lives: Attention to detail.

Today when you play a video game and fail at it, you get a “do over”; thirty years ago it cost you a quarter. How many quarters are you willing to pump into a machine to learn a vital lesson on a game? Not many — at least that is how it was for me growing up. In 2016, there are fewer consequences to imperfect actions, and the tactical skill of paying attention to specifics is dwindling in quality but not in necessity. It is a product of technology’s ability to provide us with do-overs.

In my IT career, I witness good examples of this ability and plenty of bad ones too. When it comes to the intersection of humans and technology, whether it be software or hardware, the ability to ensure that the work you do is done with a high degree of attention to detail is essential. When an IT admin or software developer makes changes to the environment, bad things can happen if attention to detail is not practiced. Technology do-overs in business cost companies millions, and result in poor service quality for end users.

Many have written about the need for checklists or following procedures as a way of preventing catastrophes from happening. One book that deals with this topic is “The Checklist Manifesto, How to Get Things Right” by Atul Gawande. In this book, the author’s main thesis is that by implementing a simple checklist in the surgical room, it can have a profound positive impact on treatment and surgical success.

However, a checklist by itself will not be a solution to everything. Checklists are useful if everything goes according to plan, but when they don’t you still have to be able to think on your feet and solve problems real-time. Good attention to detail can never be completely replaced with a checklist; the two go hand in hand. Let me stress- I am a believer in process, procedures, and checklists, but having those things is useless if the person is not skilled to begin with.

Today, driving while using a phone is a major problem because it divides attention. For example, when you drive and try to do something else such as talk on the phone you are implicitly not paying attention to the task at hand. We witness this first hand during our daily work commutes while driving home after a long day. If the driver in front of you is not driving the speed limit, oftentimes when you look closer you find they are often leaning to one side holding a phone up to their ear. You can clearly see they are not engaged in the task of driving. We all know the eventual consequences of this lack of attention to detail.

Over the course of the last 30 years, paying attention to detail has personally served me well. Generally, it is a skill that doesn’t come naturally and must be consistently practiced. One set of experiences that allowed me to hone that skill was in my years of service in the Army. Being able to focus and having a careful eye are both important by themselves, but when combined, create an even greater leverage. In the military, the importance of paying attention to detail was reinforced in us on a moment to moment basis, whether we were marching, at the rifle range, or jumping out of a plane. Those moments just did not offer us the luxury of a do-over. Failure was catastrophic.

While attending parachute training or ‘jump school’ in Fort Benning Georgia, I asked a parachute instructor (a.k.a. Black Hat) how much time I had to activate my reserve chute in the event of a total failure of the main chute. His reply was priceless: “Son, you have the rest of your airborne life to activate that reserve!” In other words, my life depended on my ability to pay attention to detail, and if I failed, there would be no do over — there would be a funeral. The lesson was impactful, and although I never had to pull my reserve chute for my 47 jumps, I was always ready and knew exactly what to do in the event of problems.

As you go about the rest of your day, take note of where you witness people either paying attention to detail or not. This could be one of the most important skills that we can develop in the information age. The ability to pay attention to detail will always yield a high return in this “attention starved economy”.