11/1/2001 | 5 MINUTE READ

Speed & Attention: Key Factors for Business (& Personal) Success

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The old slogan has it that “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” But that no longer holds because if you’re doing today what you did yesterday, there’s someone else who is innovating and who will leave you way, way behind.


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Did you ever notice that people tend to do the same things over and over again: Listen to the same music; eat in the same restaurants; watch the same TV shows (and feel an emptiness when the shows are canceled); take the same routes to work...? As an organization is nothing more than the sum of its people, there is a tendency for companies, divisions, groups, teams, etc. to perform the same way, day in, day out. While their may be something to be said for why this is advantageous if the people are performing what is known in the Toyota Production System parlance as “standardized work,” chances are, this repetitive performance is nothing more than an active effort to maintain yesterday’s status quo. That is, assuming that a company is doing OK, then the managers within the firm figure that doing what they’ve always done will keep them doing OK. A slight snag in this line of thinking, one that is about the size of the rift in the HMSTitanic, is that other companies are driven to do something different, so the context is entirely different today than it was yesterday. These other companies are called “Creation Companies” by Tom McGehee in Whoosh: Business in the Fast Lane; Unleashing the Power of a Creation Company (Perseus Books; 188 pp.; $25.00). The opposite of Creation Companies are “Compliance Companies.” (McGehee, incidentally, is vp of Cap Gemini Ernst & Young’s Accelerated Solutions Environment in Dallas; velocity is obviously something that is of abiding interest to him.)


Why is being a Creation Company important? According to McGehee, “Wealth creation comes from companies that figure out how to do new things more effectively and efficiently, and form companies that create new business models.” And as the First Law of the auto industry is to make money, that’s a pretty good reason. It should be pointed out, however, that not all Creation Companies succeed: arguably a whole lot of non-existent dot-coms could have fit the description.

An important point that McGehee stresses is that it isn’t enough for an organization to have people whose job it is to be “creative,” people who are in another part of the building or in another building or in another state or...Rather, it should become part of the day-to-day way of work. (Being creatures of habit, if people can get in the habit of being creative, then that certainly is valuable.)

While many people might think that being a “problem solver” is a good thing—and often consultants figure themselves as problem solvers who can come in and make everything right—McGehee is actually not very impressed by that whole approach. He maintains, “A problem-solving mentality keeps you always looking backward, trying to fix past mistakes, and always looking inward, when you need to be looking ahead and outside the organization...Solving problems always leads to diminishing returns, while creating opportunities leads to increasing returns.” Which returns us to that First Law, which is about increasing returns. Face it: In this industry, the firms that are going to succeed aren’t those that are good at “fixing” things. Step-change improvements, yes. Grudging incrementalism, no.

McGehee recommends that companies promote conversations. Discussions. Exchanges between people. Many—if not most—people are awfully creative when it comes to their hobbies (consider the people you know who have rebuilt vintage cars), to say nothing of being incredibly dedicated (anyone who plays golf certainly fits into this category). But when they come to work, they turn that off. Those companies where such behavior is supported so that it is applied to work tasks will blow by those companies that don’t...with a whoosh!


Of course, there is one not-so-slight problem associated with this. Which is simply that most people won’t get the message about the need to engender a creation environment. This is because, as Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck point out in The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business (Harvard Business School Press; 272 pp.; $29.95), there are plenty of things vying for our attention; consequently, they write, “More information will be ignored, and many key business issues will not receive the benefits of concerted human attention.” Voice mail. E-mail. Postal mail. Memos. Brochures. White papers. Websites. Newspapers. Magazines (yikes!). TV. Radio. Books. On and on, an endless torrent of information assaults us. The amount of information that people have access to is tremendous. Consequently, what anyone chooses to pay attention to is going to be a small fraction of that.

Davenport and Beck argue, “The problem for businesspeople lie on both sides of the attention equation: how to get and hold the attention of consumers, stockholders, potential employees, and the like, and how to parcel out their own attention in the face of overwhelming options. People and companies that do this, succeed. The rest fail. Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success.” While one part of this is limiting the amount of information that attains attention, the trick is determining the right information. (Otherwise it is too easy to pay attention to only the things that one has always noted.)

Although this book might sound as though it would be of primary interest to people in advertising or marketing, in point of fact, it is valuable to anyone who needs to communicate with other people, especially in a business setting, where the aforementioned tsunami of information is a way of life. (Of course, being aware that your family and friends are similarly deluged is worth keeping in mind.)

One thing that I need to commend is the format of this book, a format that I first became aware of the Harvard Business School Press using with Gary Hamel’s Leading the Revolution, which was published last year. (If you haven’t read that book, get a copy—fast. As Hamel warns: “Somewhere out there is a bullet with your company’s name on it.” He asks—pointedly, not rhetorically—“Dream, create, explore, invent, pioneer, imagine: do these words describe what you do?” [I’ll pause while you ask yourself that question.] “If not, you are already irrelevant, and your organization is probably becoming so.” His solution to relevance? “Business concept innovation,” which he defines as “the capacity to reconceive existing business models in ways that create new value for customers, rude surprises for competitors, and new wealth for investors.” Of course, you could ignore all this and just wait for that bullet...) While business books have long been characterized by layouts with long stretches of type broken only by various charts, The Attention Economy has a variety of sidebars, lists, bulletpoints, footnoted facts, and other visual elements that, well, keep your attention.

Hand holding a crystal ball

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