A colleague of mine used to live in Russia and was stuck in more than a few traffic jams on those rare occasions when he wasn’t on the subway or a bus. Moscow, a city of more than 10 million people, had a highway system built for fewer cars.
The Russian word for traffic jam is probka — which also refers to a “cork,” which one might encounter in a bottle. When you think about it, that’s an apt description for a traffic jam.
In a similar way, our thinking and the organizations we lead can get “bottled up” too if we don’t have an effective system for reining in our attention and focus.
Thinking can be a bottleneck
One type of bottleneck that can occur is with our thinking. We have all experienced what one psychologist calls a “response selection bottleneck.” This happens when our brains try to react to multiple stimuli at the same time. For example, the “multitasking” CEO allows bottlenecks to occur when he or she believes that it’s possible to effectively tackle two conscious tasks at once.
We know, of course, that most of us can walk and chew gum at the same time. But, as John Medina states in “Brain Rules,” we are “biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.” Medina suggests that we really can’t listen effectively to the conference call and respond to email at the same time.
What is actually happening when we think we’re multitasking is that we’re doing what some call “switch tasking” — we’re switching our attention from one task to another. Some of us may do it more quickly than others, but our brain isn’t really processing two tasks at once.
The most common contemporary example of this fight for attention in our everyday lives is — you guessed it — talking on a cell phone while driving. Medina points out that those talking on the phone are a “half-second slower to hit the brakes in emergencies” because our brains have to switch tasks, and this eats up critical time. He adds that “50 percent of the visual cues spotted by attentive drivers are missed by cell-phone talkers.”
Not only are there limits for individuals, but the organizations we lead have similar limits. Are there organizational decisions stuck at a bottleneck because you have too many competing priorities?
Our organizations are often very complex, which makes it hard for employees to focus on what will lead to individual, team and organizational success. We’re all working longer hours, often feeling like we’re moving from treading water to drowning.
How do we distinguish the imperative from the important?
Here are five tips to get started:
? Identify what you’re best at.
? Figure out what your key stakeholders value and need most.
? Identify where your answers to 1 and 2 intersect.
? Define how you deliver value differently than your competition.
? Develop a clear and authentic way to communicate your value.
As one psychology professor puts it, “We’re really built to focus.” What are you giving your organization to focus on?
P.S. As a bonus tip, when meeting with your senior team to discuss the tips above, are there at least portions of your meetings when everyone’s smartphone can go into a black box until you’re finished? ?
Andy Kanefield is the founder of Dialect Inc. and co-author of “Uncommon Sense: One CEO’s Tale of Getting in Sync.” To explore how to promote organizational sync through greater focus, you may reach Kanefield at (314) 863-4400 or email@example.com.