Authors and Consultants | GP Strategies Corporation


Mental Models: Barriers

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You’ve probably heard the old saying that the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude. While that may be true when it comes to travels, it’s especially true when it comes to the mental model of top performers.

Too often people focus on barriers and decide that fighting through the barrier to get things done is just too hard. Barriers make performance an ordeal. They make everything more difficult and, in many cases, people are stopped altogether.

Top performers, however, view barriers as mere speed bumps to be overcome—sometimes quickly—sometimes over time. Once over the speed bump, top performers are free to continue their relentless pursuit of excellence. Barriers are just part of the adventure. Or, in the words of another pithy saying “the best views come after the steepest climbs.” Top performers know that and keep their focus on the view at the end of the climb.

What kind of barriers fit this description? In a recent project involving senior executives, average performers often talked about the complex matrix organization as a significant barrier to their being able to accomplish their goals. The matrix was too complicated, required too much time to understand and navigate, and left communications channels too confused.

Meanwhile, the top performing executives talked about the same matrix in very different terms. To them, the matrix was a key to how they got things done. They welcomed the matrix because it offered so many avenues to build relationships, enlist help, and accomplish their goals.

To one group, a barrier is an ordeal; to the top performers, it’s simply part of the path on their adventure.


Question to ponder:

  • How do you and your team see obstacles, as barriers or as speed bumps that are part of the adventure?


You Can’t Unsee This

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We recently completed a client presentation on the importance of top performers and how their view of their work provides valuable data for management in the creation of procedures, training, organizational design, and other important elements in a high-performing culture.

At a casual lunch afterward, we were asked how we got started.

We immediately began sharing stories about early clients and some of our first investigations of top performers. This was followed quickly by some unintentional chest thumping about significant successes with other clients.

Later, on the drive home from the airport after a two-hour plane ride, it dawned on us: we both trace our starts in this rewarding field to the guidance and mentoring provided by Dr. Paul Elliott, who, in the late eighties and early nineties, was deeply involved with the concept of top performance and the importance of accomplishments or outcomes.

Nothing of significance seems to come easy. Though it seemed to make common sense that we could learn from those whose performance stands out from their peers, it took several months and many attempts by Paul for the significance of outcomes to sink in. The resultant perspective has forever changed our views on performance inside and outside the workplace. The significance of this shift in perspective is best summed up by another of Paul’s pupils who said, “Once you get it, you can’t unsee it.”

Should he be asked, Paul would likely credit his own “conversion” to mentoring by Dr. Joe Harless, creator of Accomplishment Based Curriculum Design. And before his death, Joe, in turn, credited his insights to his direct work with psychologist Thomas Gilbert, author of Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, who is considered by most to be the father of human performance technology (HPT), and the better known B. F. Skinner, founder of what is called radical behaviorism.

As you can see, we are privileged to be able to stand on the shoulders of a long line of studied individuals who make it possible for us to see farther than we thought possible. We most certainly and simply say thank you to all—and mostly to Paul—for now that we have seen it, it’s impossible unsee it.


Question to Ponder:

  • Can you see it?


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?



Corporate Attention Deficient Disorder (CADD): Finding Focus

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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?


Corporate Attention Deficient Disorder (CADD)—Today’s Newest Reality

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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?
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