3-23 2013 action

The world we live in is noisy and getting noisier. Every day new information channels are being created. Determining which bit of noise is important has become as critical a skill as any in the modern world. Tom Davenport suggested a model in his book Attention Economy for how data transitions from noise to action. Davenport opined that attention leads to awareness, which is a prerequisite to action. Since our capacity for action is limited, having a filtering process so that you only take action when it is needed is another important skill.

If you need to get someone’s attention, then being loud and outrageous makes sense. More noise  means you have to be nosier! It is a vicious cycle. The ability to gather and filter the information from the noise is being taken to new levels, according to the Nova Podcast: Engineering Senses.  People are now engineering themselves by adding sensors to gather even more data from the world around them. One person had magnets surgically implanted so they could “sense” magnetic fields. Unfortunately, even though we might have better data gathering mechanism we still need to time and space to focus before we can take action. Each step acts as both a funnel and a filter. We will always be confronted with a funnel in which our ability to pay attention and then to be aware and then final to take action is a logistics exercise in which our capacity to think about a topic is the scarce resource. Descartes said “ I think, therefore I am” perhaps today he might have said “I filter, therefore I am.”

Competing For Attention

Attention is both the scarcest and most sought after resource. Whether a university bulletin board, television ad or board room the competition for attention is fierce. All of this competition for attention generates an enormous amount of noise and the natural tendency is to yell louder (causing more noise).

Being aware the environment is a noisy competition for attention mean that you have to understand the linkage noise and action. To succeed we need to create an environment where awareness can be channeled so those we are targeting will have a chance at being aware that our message exists. Tom Davenport suggests a model that begins with awareness, which is then filtered by attention to generate specifics from which action can be taken in his book The Attention Economy. This simple model helps us understand that getting someone to take action has prerequisites.

Attention is needed to provide input into the change equation and then to synthesize that input into information. Normal interaction between everyone affected by the change will create some tension because of the difference in day-to-day goals which are needed to generate a specific focus or attention. Tension and clashing, however, are two very different scenarios. Developing an understanding and tolerance for each of the voices matters because each role speaks for a different audience; each role may have separate organizational goals and because unless you recognize these differences you will create conflict. The increase in the environmental noise caused when goals conflict will slow action by clouding awareness and potentially distracting attention from what is important – delivering value.

It is nearly impossible to avoid noise but not impossible to direct awareness and then help focus attention on your message. Remember that you can’t shortcut the equation awareness, attention and action just by yelling louder.

Attention As An Asset In Outsourcing
SPaMCAST Version

Thomas M. Cagley Jr.

Organizations manage many assets; some tangible such as people, buildings and hardware and their processes, and some that are intangible such as knowledge, goodwill and attention. The process of outsourcing transfers many tangible and intangible assets from one organization to another on a contractual basis. Outsourcing, however does not transfer the need for attention to paid to transferred assets by everyone in the equation. This is unlike the direct sale of an asset, and in practice it is easy to loose track of attention. Outsourcing agreements require the development of mechanisms that provide focused, constant, balanced attention to the process and transferred assets. Without this type of attention the gains that were promised in the deal can melt away to be replaced with higher costs, lower quality and miserable satisfaction levels (for everyone involved).

Many outsourcing agreements recognize the need to manage attention through the inclusion of many techniques, such as metrics, service level agreements and stipulations for benchmarking against process standards, such as the SEI Capability Maturity Model Integrated (CMMI). These tools, at least initially, provide the focus and attention they are designed to address. Entropy becomes the worst enemy of attention-focusing devices during the life of an outsourcing agreement.

Based on my observations, numerous outsourcing agreements problems begin in a state of hyper-focus. Everyone is interested in how the new agreement is working and evolving (the reasons are not always benign). The hyper-focus stage is not sustainable and typically reduces productivity and slows the new organizations ability to bring functionality to market. As the relationship matures and trust is built the mechanisms for providing focus need to evolve.

The monitoring portion of the focus tends to relax (the agreement is no longer the next new thing) and the focus moves to capabilities (compliance should not be ignored, just de-emphasized). This stage of the agreement is far more sustainable; the attention paid to the contract by all parties’ swings back to a more rational level. The pendulum swing needs to settle at this point. The contract needs to provide provisions that allow for refinement of how transparency and insight are going to be managed. Without these types of provisions trouble will occur (I have been amazed at the number of large deals that do not include provisions for orderly evolution). Trouble ranges from the aggressive, contract conflict to the passive-aggressive, flooding the monitoring processes with information. The passive-aggressive pattern is seen more often as conflict begins and is a leading indicator of more serious issues yet to come.

The insidiousness of flooding the system with information is based on the axiom that as information increases so does its demand for attention. Data becomes overwhelming, swamping the ability to create information and drive decisions. Kernels of truth are obscured; the analysis to determine what is actually happening becomes more difficult. In extreme cases overload occurs (additional stress) which can cause both parties to back away from constructive measurement when negotiations are reinitiated on the governance components of the contract. The time before the reinstitution of balanced governance leaves the outsourcee blind to potential impacts to the cost model they have forecasted for the deal. Contracts must include covenants that allow for evolution to be effective over the entire lifecycle.

Attention focusing devices such as benchmarking against the CMMI coupled with a simple set of balanced metrics (including indexed an indexed productivity metric) are typically found in agreements that have evolved to a point where capabilities and capacity are important to both parties. These types of devices help focus attention on areas that are business critical and can be sustained for long periods of time. The ability to sustain focus is important since as soon as focus/attention begins to waver it is difficult to re-establish. They are also positive views that help organizations and individuals preserve and extend their ability to deliver value to both organizations. Observed best practices to address this issue include including personnel that are experienced in outsourcing governance while the contract is being negotiated (not just the sales team) and including measurement professionals as part of the team when developing the contract.


Hebert Simon wrote, “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attentions of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Nature abhors a vacuum, attention follows a similar pattern. Stop trying to control or maintain attention and it eases away finding other areas to settle in, much to the chagrin of those who understand W. Edwards Demming’s point about constancy of purpose.

Outsourcing agreements typically do not explicitly recognize that attention is one of the assets that are transferred as part of an outsourcing agreement. Inexperienced outsourcees are always surprised that an arrangement actually requires a substantial investment to manage attention in the governance components of a contract and that managing attention evolves over the lifecycle of the contract.