This is your mind on overload!

This is your mind on overload!

Hand Drawn Chart Saturday

We live in a noisy world.  Between email, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of the internet, we are simply awash in information. The economic theory, rational expectation, assumes that people fully and quickly process all freely available information. Unfortunately, humans only have a finite processing capacity. Enter the theory of rational inattention, which recognizes our limited ability to process information.  Rational inattention theory, like rational expectations, recognizes that information is freely available, but since it can’t be quickly absorbed people need to make choices about what they’ll pay attention to.  Attention becomes a resource, and as a scarce resource, it needs to be budgeted wisely[1].Budgeting translates to filtering.  Filtering is one reason that some process improvement messages get heard and some seem to go in one ear and out of the other.

As change agents, we have a better chance of being heard if we recognize that the potential impact of rational inattention. Our audience is not going to be moved to action if 1) they are not aware, and 2) don’t pay attention, both prerequisites to taking action. In his book The Attention Economy, Tom Davenport outlines a model that begins with awareness, which is then filtered by attention to generate specifics from which action can be taken. This simple model helps us understand that getting someone to take action has prerequisites.

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How do we break through the wall of noise? Yell louder? One popular approach is to wrap the message for change around a burning platform.  The burning platform is a metaphor for a problem that if not solved will cause significant pain or anguish. There is data that shows we respond to negative shocks faster than to positive shocks[2] This means that our audience’s natural risk aversion may induce them to process negative news faster than positive news. In other words, a solution that solves a current, real pain will be heard faster than a promise of future benefits. Instability is change’s ally while stability is changes natural enemy (if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it).

Rational inattention helps change agents understand why some messages are heard and some aren’t. Our audiences will make the most of available information by analyzing those bits that are relevant to their decisions and to disregard the rest. Our goal when packaging change is to increase the incentive to be aware of the need to change and then to pay attention to the message. On many occasions we will convince our audiences that the world is not only noisy, but unstable so they can hear our message.


[1] Economic Letter, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Volume 6 No. 3 March 2011, p 2

[2] “Some International Evidence on Output Inflation Tradeoffs,” Robert E. Lucas, Jr., American Economic Review , Vol. 63, No 3, 1973, pp 326-334

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.