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Welcome to the People and Projects Podcast where you'll find interviews and insights on how to deliver projects and lead teams!

Aug 18, 2011

Check out this quote from Daniel J. Boorstin. He said,"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge."

How often have we kidded ourselves that we knew something only to get more data or evidence later that made it clear we didn't have the full story? It happens all the time. Probably more than we realize.

I find a related observation when it comes to attention. We think we see the world or situations or people clearly but inevitably it's all being filtered through lenses. It could be argued that we have an illusion of observation.

Have you ever seen the famous video that asks you to count the number of times a basketball is passed between a group of college students? Check it out:


Interesting, eh? Selective attention is alive and well, and for all of us who desire to lead and deliver, we need to be acutely aware of how it works.

In this premium episode I want to take time to highlight some points from the interview with Cathy to help you put the learning into action.

First, let's start getting our arms wrapped around Cathy's point that our schools and workplaces are often more designed for the early 20th century instead of the 21st. We may not have control of how your schooling was structured, but let's start thinking about how we best go about helping ourselves and our team learn and work going forward. How about finding ways to embrace collaborative technologies in new and interesting ways instead of making people check them at the door? For example, typical meeting protocol is to discourage people from using their laptops and cell phones during meetings. But why not encourage people to be texting and chatting during meetings, especially virtual ones? If this seems dangerous or rude or a recipe for chaos for meetings, that's OK. It's the years of conditioning that we've had! IBM has found that by actively encouraging chatting during virtual meetings, it keeps people more engaged. I've experimented with this myself and found that it can significantly change the culture of web-based meetings for the positive. In Cathy's book she lays out a strong case for how IBM uses "backchanneling" to leverage technology in meetings.

Second, and related, here's a tip I learned years ago. If people are moving their attention to their laptops or other devices, it may not just be that they're rude. That's a possibility, of course, but here's my point: it just be that the meeting is boring and irrelevant. I've learned that if someone isn't paying attention when I'm facilitating, the problem may not be them: it may be me! Find ways to more fully engage people. Maybe a different venue? Maybe on Second Life! How about this? I love using Poll Everywhere to allow people to respond to a poll by texting their responses. It's an expensive tool and shows results real time. I love it! It's fun and engaging. Let's realize that asking people to check their electronics at the door causes us to miss opportunities to engage them.

Third, a proven project management and leadership principle is to involve others in the planning. I've often said we need to make sure that n is greater than one! But the point brought up in the discussion with Cathy is that it shouldn't just be "in addition to me" but also "different from me." Diversity of thought is not just something to do because it's politically correct. It's just plain more effective. Cathy's organization calls it collaboration by difference. As she mentions in the interview, we often say we want diversity of thought, skills, and opinions, but then we recruit in our own image. Whether at work or in our personal lives, there is value in collaboration by difference: surrounding ourselves with people who don't just look, think, and see the same as we do.

Fourth, remember that technology is here to serve us, not the other way around. If you're finding that social networking or your handheld device or some new software tool is chewing up too much of your time, the problem may not be the technology. It might just be you. We need new habits for the new technology. I've found this simple little cube timer is a handy way to block out some time to focus on one thing. When it goes off, then I can (in Tony Schwartz's terms) pulse to something else. In some situations I find it best to close my web browser or shut down my mail client. At times I completely turn off my phone. I love Cathy's idea of using a different computer for some of the more fun things, or at least get up and move as part of your switching. Make the technology work for you. It's not the enemy—we just need new habits.

Finally, as much as interruptions from others is frustrating, remember what Cathy and I talked about regarding Gloria Mark's research on distractions. 44% of the distractions didn't come from others. Rather, it came from us. As Cathy said, "Heartache and heartburn are more distracting than technology!" Work on calming your own distractions. I'm finding that using a Kanban board is helping me and my family stay focused on the most important projects at work and home. David Allen's teaching on getting things out of our mind and onto a list can be helpful as well. Realize that we are often our own distraction problem.

Cathy's book isn't for everyone, but the lessons are relevant for us all. If you are particularly interested in how to improve education and the workplace to be better prepared for today's demands, I recommend you get a copy of Cathy's book.

What's a challenge you're having in managing your attention? Send me an e-mail at I love hearing from Premium Subscribers.

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Thank you for being a premium subscriber to The People and Projects Podcast! Please let me know what questions you have and if there's anything I can do to help you lead and deliver. Thank you for joining me for this premium episode of The People and Projects Podcast! Have a great week!

Total Duration 6:54

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