In a world filled with so much that demands our attention coupled with even more distractions that pull our attention away, how do top performers cut through the clutter and find those vital few components that matter?
Our research with top performers across multiple roles in numerous industries has produced an intriguing theory that we would like to present for your consideration.
The best way to represent what we’ve found is through a matrix with focus on one axis and value production on the other:
Top performers seem to naturally spend most of their attention in the top right quadrant, with intentional attention to specific items that produce high value in their roles. Average performers, on the other hand, spend much of their time and attention in the bottom right quadrant, adding up activity points that deliver little to no value and fail to produce the results they or their corporations desire. Those who spend the majority of their attention in the bottom left quadrant seem constantly distracted by activities that don’t matter, so consequently they make up the lowest portion of the performance bell curve.
In the rest of this series, we’ll look at examples from the field of how both managers and performers alike contribute to selecting which quadrant to spend their scarce attention.
Question to ponder:
- How would you rate the use of your attention budget?
In 2002, Thomas Davenport coauthored a book challenging some of the basic assumptions of the new economy. In that book, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business, Davenport asserts that the old currencies of ideas and talent are no longer sufficient. He says that the new currency of attention is giving rise to what he calls Attention Management and explains how pioneering organizations are using it to win in the marketplace.
While we agree with Davenport’s basic premise, we don’t think he fully appreciated the importance of his thesis on the workplace and specifically on individual performers. He was concerned mostly with the notion of corporate attention and how organizations can win our attention against the many competing factions present in the information overloaded world of mass media, social media, texting, and other evermore temporal media.
Today’s corporate employee faces the same flashy, fragmented shattering of attention in the workplace. Increasingly, typical performers find it impossible to determine where to place their scarce attention. How individual performers choose what to pay attention to has become one of the most pressing questions in organizations today. In other words, where do they focus their fragmented time and energy or, in Davenport’s terms, their attention?
The inherent danger we see all too commonly is that people focus their attention on multiple things that are flashing in front of them but that provide little or no impact for the business. Said another way, average performers often excel at doing what doesn’t matter, while top performers have developed filters that allow them to excel at doing what does matter. Top performers know where to spend their scarce attention! Developing a deep understanding of the filter used by top performers offers the hope of a cure for one of the most prevalent ailments of today’s workplace.
Question to ponder:
- How do you decide what to spend your attention on?
Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has become a life-altering book for many. In that book, Covey advises prioritizing one’s time by balancing urgency and importance. He presents a grid with four quadrants. Items in quadrant I are important and urgent (crises, deadline-driven projects); items in II are important but not urgent (planning, relationship building); items in III are not important but urgent (interruptions, meetings, reports); and those in IV are not important and not urgent (busy work, time wasters).
Almost everyone agrees that Covey’s principle is sound. But people are often challenged with applying the principle in a practical way.
In Covey’s model, the urgency scale pretty much takes care of itself. Phones ringing, clients calling with problems, e-mails arriving from the boss almost by the minute— these are all easy mechanisms that help us define urgency. But what defines importance? That seems to be our biggest challenge.
We contend that role-based outcomes provide the answer to that challenge for the workplace. One of the key differentiators between top and average performers is that top performers know what to focus on; they implicitly use a few proven outcomes to determine what is important and what is not.
It seems that in today’s world everything is urgent. So urgency itself is not an adequate measure for the workplace. Again we can turn to top performers for a clearer meaning of urgent. A clear differentiator among top performers is that they focus the right amount of time and energy—attention—on what they deem important. We use the word attention deliberately and will explain our interpretation in more detail next week. We’ll also begin to draw on real scenarios to illustrate the balance between attention and importance and how understanding our role-based outcomes helps achieve the focus required for success today.
Question to ponder:
- How do you decide where to focus your attention?
The last several weeks we’ve been discussing human interaction skills and how important they are to exemplary performance. During the time we’ve been writing this series of blog posts, we’ve encountered a real life example that illustrates our point.
We’ve been mapping a highly technical role involving specialized programming skills coupled with data mining and analytics. In other words, it is the epitome of a highly technical job—exactly the type of job where we would expect people to be appreciated and recognized for their technical excellence, but those expectations would be misleading.
We asked the managers of these highly technical people what key factors they looked for when hiring people into this role. Frankly, we expected to hear answers about technical depth or strong programming skills or extensive subject-matter expertise. But that’s not what we were told.
Instead the managers said that the secret ingredient was the top performers’ ability to translate their technical findings into stories that would influence business leaders to change their behavior. For the most part, all of the performers were equally adept at the technical side of the work. But the best were able to glean insights from their technical work and convert those insights into actionable results via the proficient application of human interaction skills.
Question to ponder:
- Are you valuing the right skills in the right proportions as you build a top performing team or organization?
If, as we have been arguing, human interaction skills are critical to workplace success, then what should people who aspire to excellence do? Conventional wisdom says our innate personalities drive our ability to interact with others in the workplace. We are who we are—we just have to accept that. But what if this conventional wisdom is wrong and is serving simply as a convenient excuse for poor outcomes in this area? What if we can move some of those innate human interaction behaviors in a positive direction?
The media constantly reminds us that reading proficiency is strongly correlated with overall academic performance as well as our well-being as adults. Yet a recent study from Pew Research—Who Doesn’t Read Books in America?—finds that one quarter of Americans did not read a single book in the past twelve months. As authors of a book we hope people read and enjoy, that statistic is pretty depressing. But it also raises a more significant question: if people don’t read, how will they improve their reading skills and glean at least some of the insights possible from reading?
We believe the same principle applies to human interaction skills. If people don’t make it a point to interact with other people in the workplace, then how will they improve their human interaction skills? If you want to improve your relationship-building skills, build relationships. Of course, we’re not asserting that it’s easy. It’s not. In fact, it’s quite difficult. When relationships don’t come naturally, voluntarily taking the difficult actions required to develop and nurture new relationships is often painful.
But looking back at the list of differentiators between top and average performers and realizing that so many of them are related to human interaction skills, we are confident that the pain is worth it!
Question to ponder:
- What have you done recently to develop your ability to interact with those around you at new levels?
As we think about human interaction skills, it’s worthwhile to put the idea into balance. In our last post, we talked about Geoff Colvin’s assertion that human interaction skills are significant contributors to performance success. Let’s add Harvey Coleman’s perspective that excellent technical performance is only the price of admission and that the game is won through human interaction skills. Taken together, we could easily focus too heavily on human interaction skills to the exclusion of technical excellence.
We like to think about the interaction of technical skills and human interaction skills in respect to their importance to top performers in producing outcomes of value. This comparison is set up in the following quadrants:
Note that focusing too much on technical excellence only results in compliant execution. But ignoring technical excellence results in nothing more than hopeful frustration. Only through balancing both are top performers able to produce the game-changing outcomes that drive success.
Question to ponder:
- How well do you balance technical excellence with skillful human interaction?
In 2015, Geoff Colvin wrote Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will. His ostensible purpose was to highlight those factors that are uniquely human—characteristics that will likely never be replicated by machines. But his underlying message about the skill sets uniquely employed by humans struck another chord with us.
It is those uniquely human skills, the skills of human interaction in particular, that weave a common thread through what we’ve observed as perspectives shared by top performers. Take another look at the list of top performer perspectives:
- dealing with bureaucracy
- team oriented
- team alignment
- technically competent
- willingness to share
Notice that all of them—except being technically competent—share a couple of attributes. One, they transcend the technical aspects of getting the work done. Two, and most importantly, they describe how top performers think about themselves and relate to those around them in their work environment. Those top performers don’t view others as obstacles to getting their work done. Instead, they view people, whether above them, alongside them, or below them in the organizational hierarchy, as an integral part of the work itself. That’s important enough to repeat: people are not in the way of getting the work done, they are an integral part of the work itself.
With that acute understanding of the critical role that human interaction skills play in their success, we should not be surprised that top performers often focus on outcomes such as trusted advisor relationships, aligned teams, or similar people-oriented elements. The more we study the range of outcomes produced by top performers in varying roles and industries, the more we find the simple truth that human interaction skills are absolutely critical for top performer success.
Colvin realizes this as well and is voicing a clarion cry when he writes: “Businesses can’t even begin to get better until leaders acknowledge that these [human interaction] skills are the key to competitive advantage.”
The implication of that statement is enormous. Organizations have yet to awaken to the reality that faces them. We agree with Colvin. If they want to experience success within their modern workforce, organizations must wake up and begin to take proactive measures to improve their performers’ ability to become experts at human interaction skills.
Question to ponder:
- Has your organization acknowledged the critical importance of human interaction skills?