Business focus: Don’t do it!
Many parents lament at their children’s distractibility. Their ability to play Call of Duty in team mode, whilst catching up on Netflix is both amazing and bewildering to witness if you are above a certain age. That they are concurrently keeping track of their social feeds on another device is incredible.
One might conclude that the next generation is evolving into unfocused and shallow thinkers, though with an impressive degree of dexterity. Nick Carr, former HBR editor, identified this issue back in 2011 in his book entitled The Shallows.
This parallel processing / multitasking approach goes against conventional wisdom, ‘if you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither’.
Are we not encouraged to have laser vision both personally and professionally? “Clearly define your goals!” Tighten your market focus!”
Attention v focus
In my day the teachers would exhort, “Pay attention!” And today with smart devices added to the classroom mix it is likely they still do. Though the order suggests a possible misunderstanding of the terms focus and attention. They likely mean to focus on what the teacher is saying.
So what is the difference? Try these two thought experiments. Imagine you are out driving your car.
Experiment 1: Imagine you are on the motorway and have entered a reduced speed section. In order to not get caught for speeding you have decided that you will not take your eye off the speedometer.
Experiment 2: Imagine it is a balmy Sunday summer afternoon and you are driving up a twisting mountain road. You are really concerned about colliding with other cars, cyclists or trekkers. Consequently you are continuously scanning your surroundings to ensure you don’t hit a fellow road user.
Experiment 1 was an exercise in focus. Experiment 2 was one in attention. With focus you are considering a specific object or thought. In some respects, attention is the opposite of focus. Begrudgingly, I might say that attention is defused focus, which is of course an oxymoron.
You may argue, correctly, that both are needed when driving a car. My point is that in this modern world we are not paying enough attention. One of the key pillars of the industrial era was certainty. That certainty ensured that it would be worthwhile building a car factory because cars would be needed for quite some time after the factory went into production.
That certainty ensured that doing a university degree would ensure a career. And that career would result in a steady climb in terms of your financial situation and your social standing.
That’s all gone now, though many have yet to realise it. Back then, you focused on your business and your career.
The world is returning to the uncertainty of the pre-industrial era. Though because of technological connectivity and improved communications in general, we are now entering the era of hyper-uncertainty. An era where the threats and opportunities not only appear with increasing regularity, but also in unrecognisable forms. So, attempting to anticipate threats and opportunities by simply focusing on your corporate radar / dashboard won’t cut it.
Focus can be deadly
Like a Samurai warrior on a chaotic battlefield, who knows that the price of focus could be death, we too must ‘soften’ our focus and monitor all angles in order to stay in play. In the industrial era, we were dart players. Today, we need to be fighter pilots. Strategic plans are works of fiction the moment the ink dries.
Our senses are well used to coping with large volumes of sensory input. Most of it has and does go straight to our unconscious and thus does not carry a cognitive burden.
But the emergence of social media, email, infinite choice buffets and of course hormone-rich shoot-em-up games are placing an unprecedented load on our consciousness and cognitive capacity.
In essence, this impacts our cognitive ability and consequently we make poor choices. Not a great starting point, for a world defined by increasing volatility and uncertainty. But if that is the new world, then we have to adapt to survive.
Multitasking isn’t good, but it is necessary
To a large extent, young people already know this. They know that falling behind on their social feeds could lead to ostracization and thus ‘social death’. Their insistence on multi-tasking goes against the prevailing wisdom of ‘eye on the prize’, ‘one thing at a time’. We are told of the burden placed on computers when they try to run too many tasks concurrently. But like computers, we increasingly don’t have the luxury of being single-tasking, despite the productivity gains it delivers.
As the robots and algorithms take up their places in the world of work, our creativity will give us the edge (at least for now).
That creativity will increasingly come from the ability to link together unrelated themes, for example, nutraceuticals and anthropology, or quantum physics and netball.
Welcome to the digital hunter gatherer
Increasingly the unrelated themes will be arriving in real-time. Our ability to form patterns and identify weak signals from the deluge of incoming data will require what some will call shallow thinking, but I would propose terms such as digital foragers or digital hunter gatherers.
In many respects, the post-industrial world is a digital savannah. It will be both beautiful and cruel.
We no longer have the luxury of manufactured certainty or even manufactured safety. The ability to multi-task, whilst swapping tasks in and out in real-time, might be an adaptation that both individuals and corporations need to acquire if they are to thrive in the digital age.