Innovation teams must continuously sustain creative advantage to remain relevant. They are bombarded with exponential change, technology disruption and stress…..and that was before the pandemic!
Only “6% of executives are satisfied with innovation performance,“ McKinsey Global Innovation Survey, 2019.
Innovative organizations are facing three major, interconnected challenges:
- Improving team wellbeing AND
- Sustaining innovation AND
- Enabling team effectiveness.
An environment of digital overwhelm, increased work from home, and virtual meetings means people are high on busyness on the Merry Go Round of Distraction. Many are working on the brink of burnout. People unknowingly behave as though attention is not their most valuable asset.
“75% of workers admit they feel distracted when they’re on the job, with 16 percent asserting that they’re almost always distracted,” 2018 Udemy, Workplace Distraction Report.
In my recent ten years working with innovative organizations, I noticed that the three major challenges actually stem from one missing organizational value and seven unintentional mistakes.
The Missing Organizational Value
The missing organizational value is, “Attention is our most valuable asset.” When a fundamental belief about the value of organizational attention is missing, innovation is harder, wellbeing is at risk and high effectiveness without overtime is unlikely.
Silicon Valley inventors, revered by many, are essentially hacking our brain power as well as our effectiveness. Does your organization value team attention more than Silicon Valley does? “Their (Silicon Valley’s) most precious asset is our most precious asset, our attention, and they have abused it,” Franklin Foer, World without Mind.
Please note – I am not proposing your organization exploit attention for data acquisition as per the business models of Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc. I agree with Gary Vanderchuk that attention is an asset. However, I believe attention is a human asset that must be protected in order to
- safeguard wellbeing
- enable creative flow
- work effectively without overtime.
“Humans were always wiser at inventing tools than using them wisely,” Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow.
But today, team attention is under attack, not only as a result of the attention economy, but also because of our own behaviours and mindsets.
7 Underlying Mistakes
Mistake #1: Not knowing how much undistracted, deep work* is needed for sustained value creation.
*Deep work includes, “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push cognitive capabilities to the limit. Creates new value, improves skills, is hard to replicate.” – Cal Newport, Georgetown University, Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Not knowing how time is spent, per job role, per team is one of the biggest mistakes we see. If people are uncertain about what the right balance of distraction vs. attention should be, it is likely that time for focused work is not supported by organizational culture nor blocked in the calendar. This leads to overtime or working on weekends. It is the only way people can find “quiet time” to complete important deliverables.
TIPS: Assess your value creation portfolio. Define how much deep work is required per job role. Block time in your calendar for focused work.
As an organizational leader, please model behaviours such as blocking your own calendar for deep work. Protect and encourage undistracted work time in your teams.
Mistake #2: Constant task switching by day, doing focused work at night, on weekends.
Though most of us know that multitasking is not possible, we continue to do it. Further, many people believe that interrupting smart phones are not something to be worried about.
“In laboratory studies, most of those whose focus is impaired in the presence of their devices later insist that they have not been affected at all. They are oblivious to the brain drain of distraction,” Maggie Jackson, Distracted, Reclaiming our Focus in a World of Lost Attention.
Personally, task switching is my biggest challenge. I very much like the feeling of constant busyness. I love the illusion of productivity it creates. Thus, I have to put technical and physical inhibitors in place to stop myself from doing it.
TIPS: Technical: Close ALL tabs on all of your monitors, except for the tabs you require for the present task at hand. For example, while writing this piece I have two tabs open, one GoogleDoc tab for writing and a second GoogleDoc tab where quotes and research for this article were collected. Physical: Put your phone in a different room. I find these two tips easier than turning off notifications.
Mistake #3. Prioritization of reactive tasks over intentional, high value creation.
It is normal for humans to unintentionally prioritize reactive tasks like answering emails and instant messaging in apps like Slack, Teams or GoogleHangouts all day long. Responding quickly can make us feel busy, important and productive. Receiving a quick response to what we just sent is also highly satisfying. This is the well-known dopamine effect.
Since email has not disappeared yet, let’s just talk about that. Composing an email can be a valid work activity. Thus, we may not notice its addictive effects in the same way we may be aware of social media addiction. Email is great for procrastination and we can convince ourselves we are not wasting time. “Consumers said they spend approximately five hours a day checking work email.” 2019 Adobe Email Usage Study.
Unintentional use of email causes constant task switching (Mistake #2). It takes us about 23 minutes to get back to the task at hand after pausing too quickly respond to an email. This statistic was revealed through the research of Gloria Mark, University of California, Irvine.
Thus, if you and your teams still have email overwhelm, action must be taken.
TIPS: If you haven’t already disabled all email notifications, including on your computer, do that now. Then block time in your calendar, up to a maximum of two times per day, for email correspondence.
As an organizational leader, please use your influence and set-up the email servers to batch-receive email messages on the hour instead of constantly. Model the same behaviour you want your teams to be doing. Don’t expect an instant response and don’t respond instantly yourself.
Mistake #4: Favouring data analysis over instinct, body wisdom and the human sensing experience.
Too much thinking, talking, and messaging is the norm. In the Western world, linear, analytical thinking dominates.
“In the last 20-25 years of my life we have seen the dominance of rational thought. It’s dominated a lot of our academic institutions, the media, and it’s taken away from the capacity to advance intuitive skills. Now for the first time we are starting to realize that problems are not getting any better. We have to step back and take a whole new approach to these problems. One of the challenges we have recently had in business is by going to the fully rational side and by focusing everything on near term measurement, analytical tools, we have ground out or expunged creativity from our companies and 100 billions dollars are being wasted.” –Bill George, Harvard Senior Fellow, emphasized this during a 2016 interview in the documentary film Innsaei, The Power of Intuition,
We need a balance between intelligence and wisdom to sustain innovation. In my own profession of management consulting, I have been trained and rewarded for analytical, cognitive thinking skills and was never formally trained nor encouraged to apply sensing practices or intuition. This gap can mute creativity as pointed out by Bill George above.
We also need balance between the digital and the physical to sustain wellbeing and to cultivate key leadership skills like empathy and vulnerability. That is why I believe we must regularly get out of our tech and back into the body. By anchoring attention in the body, we can regain focus, just like the unicyclist in the photo. In fact, many meditation and awareness practices include anchors in the body, including the breath, as an important brain training technique.
TIPS: Engage regularly, as teams, in body wisdom practices. These are analog activities done in an environment free of screens, headphones, often free of dialogue. Examples include movement, embodiment, using hands to create, silence, mindfulness, intentional sensing and play. In the innovation world, examples include Lego Serious Play, the Empathy Toy, Liberating Structures, and Agile Games.
Since the onset of COVID, these body wisdom practices have been adapted for on-line environments.
As an organizational leader, you can offer and participate in these activities with your teams. You have the opportunity to model your own comfort with uncertainty, key for everyone in pandemic times.
Mistake #5: Too much digital talk without enough human interaction.
For the workplace, I define digital talk as having a conversation with a colleague over email, instant messaging or social media. In addition, digital talk happens in the comment functions of collaborative document co-creation in GoolgeDocs, Slides, Sheets, their Microsoft equivalents, etc.
Digital talk is great and can be very effective. However, I have experienced its extreme over use, especially working in technology companies.
Too much digital talk happens when there are too many contributors to one document or when there is a contributor who just adds comments because they think “they have to” or because they fear they will be perceived as “not collaborating”. Some contributors simply participate due to FOMO, a Fear of Missing Out.
How many people have emailed a colleague who is sitting right next to them? Digital talk is often favoured over real talking for various reasons. It leaves a paper trail. It enables avoidance of complex or difficult conversations, albeit ineffectively.
The onset of COVID has resulted in even more digital talk for obvious reasons. We are sick of Zooming and are, understandably, reluctant to schedule yet another video call. So we send more emails and instant messages. Many of us will continue working virtually. Thus, we must make the effort to enable human voice conversations and interconnectedness in the virtual meeting room. Please see my June 2020 post on this topic.
TIPS: Schedule non-video “walk and talks” with a colleague when a 2-person conversation is possible. Walk outside wherever you are with your earbuds in, muting yourself when not talking. You get the benefit of generative dialogue, exercise and fresh air.
Mistake #6: “Shiny new tool” syndrome
Most organizations have “Shiny new tool syndrome”, believing that more tools we have the better we can optimize our work and be highly productive. This belief is a myth and all too common because of the Bring Your Own App (BYOA) and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) cultures. Too many tools can create unnecessary complexity and confusion in the organization. Integration of tools is possible but can be complex and costly.
Authors Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever propose the Rule of Three in their book, Your Happiness was Hacked. In Chapter 8, this rule states that, “Teams should try to narrow down their primary tools and applications, beyond email, calendar and word processing, to three choices. This, we believe, will cover the work requirements for 90% of teams in the workplace today. A team’s need for more than three tools is commonly a sign of distress and trouble, though in certain cases it simply indicates that the tools for the team’s job are not integrated.”
TIPS: Assess the degree of “shiny new tool” syndrome in your organization. While the Rule of Three noted above may be difficult to implement, you can minimize the digital tool portfolio by defining it as a strategic priority.
Mistake #7: Abdication of responsibility to “we have no choice…..instant response in this digital age is here to stay.”
Many people will argue that instant response behaviour is not a mistake. I agree that instant response is definitely required in life or death situations, in all kinds of emergencies, if a written contract requires it and in certain professions where it is the only way to get the job done.
The mistake I observe professionals making is an instant response behaviour that is “just because we can” or “just because we think we have to” or “just because everyone else does it.” It is time to pause and consider the social contracts we are creating in the world, intentionally or unintentionally, that might cause more harm than good.
The same type of thinking can be applied to fast food. If we start eating fast food for every meal “just because we can” or “just because everyone else does it”, our wellbeing will decrease greatly.
I believe we have a choice around instant response, depending on our job role, our team, our organization. We don’t need to confuse “convenient” and “critical”. As organizational leaders, we must consider that “just because” instant response contributes a lot to increased stress and burnout. “61% of employees are burned out on the job,” according to CareerBuilder. No one wants more burned out people. We need teams with high wellbeing to do meaningful work and sustain creative advantage.
TIPS: Internal Communication. Observe the current unwritten rules around instant response for internal team communication via email and instant messaging channels. Co-create a written social contract around behaviour that makes sense for your teams. External Communication. Do the same for external communication with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. Evaluate what makes sense for external communication and specific job roles. Co-create, internally and externally, the best fit communication strategy for intentional response.
As an organizational leader, model the same behaviour you want your teams to be doing. Don’t expect an instant response and don’t respond instantly yourself.
In Summary, One Value, 7 Mistakes
Embrace the organizational value , “Attention is our most valuable asset.”
Avoid these Seven Mistakes
- Not knowing how much undistracted, deep work is needed for sustained value creation.
- Constant task switching by day, doing focused work at night, on weekends.
- Prioritization of reactive tasks over intentional, high value creation.
- Favouring data analysis over instinct, body wisdom and the human sensing experience.
- Too much digital talk without enough human interaction.
- “Shiny new tool” syndrome
- Abdication of responsibility to “we have no choice…..instant response in this digital age is here to stay.”
Feature Photo: Javier A. Barros