Authors and Consultants | GP Strategies Corporation


Attention Matrix: Recap

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We’ve discussed each of the four quadrants in our attention matrix. We’ve given an idea of what characterizes people and organizations who find themselves in each quadrant, and we’ve outlined a bit of the results from being in that quadrant.

So as a recap, here are the four quadrants again:

Quadrant Characteristics Results
Distracted Management’s flavor of the month with lots of   constantly changing priorities Frenzied workplace, little focus, no clear purpose
Activity Focus Lots of energy and attention spent on activities that don’t really matter People meeting or exceeding targets for goals that don’t have an impact on organizational success
Missed Opportunity A few key people overtaxed and stretched too thin; relies on a talent-only strategy Not enough capable talent producing at the levels needed for the organization to grow and thrive; development is ignored


Outcome Focus People know the critical outcomes they should produce and spend focused time producing them; coaching and organizational systems support production of the outcomes Across the board positive shift in performance. Same cost yields more to the bottom line. Individual role excellence driving organizational and business success!


Questions to ponder:

  • Is your organization in the outcomes focused quadrant? If not, how do you begin the journey to get there?

Attention Matrix: Outcome Focus

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Now we come to the fourth and final quadrant, the one that all companies should strive to be in: the outcome focus quadrant.

In the outcome focus quadrant, people concentrate on areas that are important to their success, managers support them through coaching, and measurements and reward systems are aligned to support the focused use of time. The net result, as you would expect, is to produce outcomes that benefit the organization and directly improve the desired returns. It all sounds so easy, but if it were, every company would be operating smoothly and efficiently. Unfortunately, getting to the outcome focus quadrant is actually quite a challenge.

In part, the challenge stems from the changing nature of work in organizations. In simpler times, work was essentially explicit and task based. What was important was evident. Whether the work being produced was to standard was easily evaluated. Alignment, focus, and attention to the tasks that mattered were practically self-evident.

The nature of work today, however, is mostly abstract. Though some explicit and valuable tasks still exist, the majority of work consists of mental activities such as analysis, planning, and synthesis. The best performers most likely have developed effective mental models that guide their use of time to focus on producing outcomes that add value to the roles they play—and ultimately to the success of the organization. In earlier times, teaching explicit tasks was important to developing the organization. Today, understanding and teaching successful mental models is the key to individual and organizational success.

For example, on a recent project involving a complex sales role, we learned a simple territory planning strategy from the top performers that was a critical element to their top-tier performance. They had discovered what mattered, incorporated those elements as a part of their mental model, and were devoting a significant percentage of their time to focusing on those elements.

Unfortunately, leadership was mostly unaware of the importance of these particular focus areas, and there was significant tension between what management wanted and what top performers knew mattered. To the managers’ credit, when they were made aware of the critical nature of the top performers’ mental model, they immediately began to coach other performers to spend more focused time and energy on the elements that comprised the top performers’ mental model. That began a virtuous cycle where management coached performers to focus on things that matter, performers began to produce those outcomes more consistently, and the organization benefited from improved sales results.


Questions to ponder:

  • What does management in your organization focus on? How do they ensure attention is properly placed on outcomes that matter?



Attention Matrix: Activity Focus

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This week we’ll look at the third quadrant: the missed opportunity quadrant. In many ways, the missed opportunity quadrant can be the most frustrating of all.

Being in this quadrant is a result of identifying areas that matter but being unable to focus appropriately on those areas. It’s like seeing the finish line, but for some reason not being able to reach it.

Too often missed opportunities stem from our success. Allow us to explain.

How many times have you heard (or said), “If you want something done, give it to the busiest person”? Or, perhaps, “We need to put our best people on this effort”?

While we have all successfully deployed these strategies from time to time, the basis of this concept relies on top talent. All good organizations rely on recruiting and deploying talented people. The trap, when this is the principal approach, is that as the organization grows, finding and bringing on new talent at the levels required to sustain the growth is extremely difficult. And because systematic development to grow talent within the organization has been ignored, those who have proven themselves tend to be called on repeatedly. As a result they become stretched too thin, and in an effort to juggle all the we-need-you-on-this requests, even the most important requests fail to receive the attention they need and deserve. Whether this phenomenon exists at micro or macro levels within the organization, it produces missed opportunities.

Five plus or minus two is a rule from neuroscience that suggests that we as individuals can truly focus on only three to seven items of importance. Our study of top performers confirms that optimum performance comes from focusing on four to seven discrete outcomes. More than that and attention is divided between too many worthy endeavors to complete any of them with excellence.

Next week we’ll discuss what happens when we first determine what matters and then appropriately focus our attention on those things: the outcome focus quadrant.


Question to ponder:

  • Are you and your best people spread too thin on too many we-really-need-you-on-this endeavors?

Attention Matrix: Activity Focus

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This week we’ll move on to the second quadrant, which is also not desirable: the activity focus quadrant. Activity focus is the byproduct of good attention but attention on activities that contribute little value to a role or the organization.

In the distracted quadrant, we learned that people bounce from one shiny object to the next, never really accomplishing anything. As we discussed last week, that is usually the result of a management team’s chasing the latest and greatest miracle cure.

Organizations end up in the activity focus quadrant when too little time is spent up-front to determine what will produce value. Instead the managers pick a few easy tasks to focus their time and attention on, often convincing themselves that sheer action will produce positive results. What’s frustrating about this quadrant is that success at the task level does not bring success at the role or organizational levels.

At the risk of offending some organizations, we’ll offer one such example: measuring average call time in a call center. Average call time, or ACT, is an easy and tempting measurement for call centers. The premise is simple: calls cost money; therefore, it’s good to handle customer calls quickly. If calls can be dealt with in less time, then more calls can be handled by fewer representatives at a lower cost. All good, right?

Not so fast.

If short calls are good, then really short calls are even better. So call center representatives are given incentives to make their calls as short as possible. All of a sudden, representatives are curt, calls are mysteriously dropped or transferred, customer requests are short-circuited, and customer satisfaction decreases. The ACT is low, but so too are sales and customer retention.

So management focuses its attention on and measures something that is easily assessed but doesn’t deliver real value. Performers follow the management’s lead and deliver exactly what is expected: short, ineffective calls that not only fail to retain customers but also all too often push customers away.

Performers turn their scarce attention to areas of performance that are unlikely to produce real value. They produce what they are asked for, but those goals don’t really matter.

Next week we’ll look at what happens when we first figure out what matters, but then don’t properly focus our attention on those things: the missed opportunity quadrant.


Question to ponder:

  • Are you focusing on and measuring activities that are easy but carry no evidence of being linked to performance?

Attention Matrix: Distracted

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Let’s start with the least desirable quadrant in our attention matrix: the distracted quadrant. Distraction comes from attempting to juggle too many things that carry little or no value for the organization or individual.

This quadrant would seem to be the least of our concerns. It’s obviously worthy of so little attention that both individuals and organizations should be able to easily avoid it. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. All too often, we find ourselves wondering how so many people get caught in the trap of distraction.

Let’s start with the choice of what to focus on: the value-production axis. Tasks of little importance also tend to be items of little risk. They spring up as the next bright, shiny object. They are easy to attain, project great promise, and tend to be easy to measure. They are, however, shallow and often provide misleading information.

At the risk of offending some organizations, allow us to paint a word picture using some all-too-common brush strokes: the management flavor of the month.

We’ve all heard about it before, usually laughingly and disparagingly, when the memo or e-mail arrives from the executive team about some new program. Last month it was total something and this month it’s holistic something else—always presented with glowing accolades amid the promise of improved morale, better results to present to Wall Street, and a smooth, painless path to execution. Until next month, when yet another bright, shiny program is rolled out.

It’s so common that most organizations have even adopted language to describe the reaction: the corporate immune system. There are two typical reactions in this phenomenon:

First, ignore it. Like everything else new, this, too, shall pass. Perhaps that’s not an altogether bad reaction. At least no harm is done to the organization.

Second, try to implement each and every bright, shiny object that is announced. The result, of course, is chaos. No program has time to gain traction. No focus is allowed. And no value accrues.

The net result is that performers turn their scarce attention to areas of performance that are unlikely to produce real value. The bright, shiny object becomes a surrogate, fooling the organization and luring it away from determining what really produces value and then developing measures that encourage the right focus, attention, and ultimately, behavior.

Organizations that are run like this spend their time fruitlessly bouncing from the HR initiative to the IT initiative to the sales initiative to no initiative at all. The frenzied pace distracts employees from customers and the core improvements that truly drive the business. And maybe worse, it burns out employees who, despite their best efforts, can’t seem to make sense of it all.

Next week we’ll look at what happens when we increase the attention focus but fail to first determine what’s important: the activity focus.


Question to ponder:

  • What bright, shiny objects are distracting you or your organization?



Top Performer Perspective: Dealing with Bureaucracy

Top Performer Perspective Dealing with Bureaucracy

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How many times have you heard someone say something like: “It’s just too hard to get anything done in this organization”? Or maybe you’ve said it yourself. Organizations create bureaucracy. Bureaucracy creates friction. Friction makes it hard to get things done. We all understand that—well, maybe not all of us.

We recently met with a top performer in a Global 2000 organization. We had already connected with several people in various leadership roles, so we thought we had a pretty good handle on what to expect from our discussion with the top performers. Leadership had primed us to expect some complaints about the administrative hassles of getting work done. So we probed the top performer about how she deals with those difficulties.

Imagine our surprise when she responded: “It’s not really a hassle. It’s just the way things are around here.” She clearly did not share the view that bureaucracy prevented her from accomplishing her goals. Instead, she had what we’ve come to call the hygiene perspective of bureaucracy.

That perspective is shared by top performers across roles and industries. Getting things done in a bureaucracy is just a hygiene factor: It is the way it is, so get used to it. Don’t complain about it. Just do what you have to do so you can move on to other, more valuable tasks that produce outcomes that really matter.

Now this was our question to leadership: if you thought a problem was impacting performance, then why haven’t you already done something about it? But that’s a topic for another day.


Question to ponder:

  • How do you view bureaucracy?

Knowledge versus Performance


In the automotive industry, painting cars is a critical and exacting process. So much so that the technicians don’t actually paint the cars, they coat them, a subtle but important difference. Of course there’s paint involved, and that paint is sprayed onto the cars—and that is the source of a key lesson about knowledge versus performance.

Within the training required of the paint-booth operator was a somewhat lengthy course on paint viscosity. It turns out that different colored paints have different viscosities leading to different spray characteristics—different enough that imperfections in the finished paint job could result if the operator wasn’t careful. Hence the course in viscosity. It was naturally thought that an operator who understood viscosity thoroughly would be better equipped to anticipate and eliminate any possible issues. In other words: superior knowledge would bring superior results.

To confirm this hypothesis, interviews were conducted with the operators who consistently produced the best results in the paint booth, such as fewer imperfections and higher quality finishes. If the hypothesis about superior knowledge was correct, those top operators would also be the most knowledgeable about paint viscosity and the potential implications in the paint booth. Imagine the surprise when just the opposite was discovered. Those top operators not only didn’t have superior knowledge about viscosity, they claimed knowing more would not help them in any way. But how could that be?

Instead one of the top operators pulled a simple cotton swab out of his pocket and said, “What I know a lot about is when and how to clean the nozzles to get the best possible results.” In other words: superior performance trumped superior knowledge!

Which would you prefer among your top performers: superior knowledge or superior performance?



Question to ponder:

  • Are you training your people to have superior knowledge or superior performance?


What about Performance Management?—Part 4

Performance managementIn our last post, we discussed how a role could be defined as a series of outcomes that would provide the basis for an effective performance feedback system. In this post, we’ll consider how to handle aspects of a position that don’t fall neatly into a role definition.

The example we looked at was the role of a project manager. We considered that a project manager might have these desired outcomes:

  • A project plan that is appropriate to manage the project
  • Project team members who are aligned on scope, plan, and responsibilities
  • A customer who is fully aligned and whose expectations are managed throughout the project
  • A customer who can be used as a reference

Performance feedback clearly could be given for each of those outcomes. But in many, if not most, cases, people don’t fill just a single role in their organization. In addition to being project managers, they may also be a team leaders or department heads. They will, of course, also be considered representatives of the organization to the community at large. So how can these or other aspects of a position be incorporated into an effective performance feedback system?

Let’s consider the first of those examples: leadership.

For leadership, outcomes might include an identified and prepared successor or perhaps an informed and aligned team. Those are just a few examples. In either of those cases, feedback could be provided that meets our key principles of being

  • Timely
  • Objective
  • Frequent
  • Helpful

Similarly, other aspects of a position could easily be expressed as a series of outcomes that would enable effective performance feedback.


Question to ponder:

  • Are you measuring objective outcomes or vague traits in your quest to provide solid performance feedback?


What about Performance Management?—Part 3

Performance ManagementIn our miniseries of posts about performance feedback systems, it’s time to consider an alternative. Let’s first consider the basis of most feedback systems and then look at a different approach.

Most appraisal systems have a series of ill-defined traits, or sometimes competencies, against which performance is measured. Some of those traits are maddeningly vague. A couple of our favorites are

  • Strategic Thinking. Of course we want to think strategically, but how does one measure that? Or better yet, how should feedback be given so it will cause improvement over time?
  • Integrity. How can any organization even consider measuring integrity on a one-to-five scale? “Sorry, you only measured a three out of five on integrity this period. You lied to customers and your fellow workers fourteen times over the last year. If you tell the truth more often, you can probably bring your score up to a four next year.” Are you kidding?

Now for the different approach. As an example, consider the role of project manager. If the job of project manager were expressed as a series of outcomes, those outcomes might include

  • A project plan that is appropriate to manage the project
  • Project team members who are aligned on scope, plan, and responsibilities
  • A customer who is fully aligned and whose expectations are managed throughout the project
  • A customer who can be used as a reference

Based on those outcomes, the process of looking at each project planned and managed by a given person and providing objective and helpful feedback would be fairly straightforward. In fact, providing immediate feedback after the completion of each project to give not just feedback but also constructive ideas for improvement would be very easy.

Take the first outcome as an example: a supervisor could easily sit down with a performer and review a completed (or better yet, a draft) project plan with an eye toward how well the plan would allow the project manager to manage the project. So feedback can be timely, objective, frequent, and helpful and thereby meet our four key principles.


Question to ponder:

  • Are your roles well defined enough to provide the basis for solid performance feedback?

What about Performance Management?—Part 2

Performance ManagementLast week, we posed the dilemma of how to reconcile two opposing trends in performance management:

  • Millennials increasingly want performance feedback more often and in a more meaningful way.
  • Organizations are scrapping formal performance appraisal systems altogether.

This is not a new problem. When we were in the US Navy, there was an unwritten rule: the top 50 percent of naval officers were given top grades—often in the top 1 percent. Put another way, if you received anything lower than a top grade, your chances for promotion were significantly diminished. Of course, everyone knew it was a game, and everyone quickly learned how to play.

But that’s the essence of the problem. Performance feedback should not be a game; it should provide meaningful feedback that helps an individual improve his or her performance. Instead, the game is simply who can write the most glowing prose without crossing some imaginary line into pure fantasy.

Performance feedback and the accompanying performance appraisals should follow several key principles. They should be

  • Timely
  • Objective
  • Frequent
  • Helpful

Let’s take each of these separately:

Timely. Feedback should be provided soon after the performance concerned. Waiting months to tell someone he or she had fallen short of the mark is not very helpful. Most of us have trouble remembering last week, let alone several months ago. So feedback should be given in a timely manner.

Objective. This is perhaps one of the most critical, and most often overlooked, points. To be really meaningful, performance feedback has to point to a previously agreed-upon, measurable standard that both the performer and the supervisor view the same way.

Frequent. The often-used once-a-year model is a complete mess. To be truly helpful, feedback should be provided as often as possible. Anyone familiar with steering anything—from cars to boats to airplanes—knows that a series of small course corrections is more effective than infrequent major course changes.

Helpful. This principle is a bit of a touchy one and depends largely on the culture of the organization. In some organizations, performance appraisals are used mostly in a punitive fashion to justify firing someone. In other organizations, the opposite is true, and appraisals are used to justify a promotion or raise. Either way, the feedback culture is one of manipulation. To function properly, a performance feedback system should be viewed by employees as helping them improve their performance.

If these principles are followed, then a performance feedback system should help people consistently perform their jobs to standard.


Question to ponder:

  • How well does your performance management system measure up against these four key principles?
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