The Attention-pool: a tragedy of the commons

We used to live in a time of boring Sunday afternoons. Information was sparse. It was pored over intently. Its meaning was mulled. Its context was bolted down.

A book would retain our attention. A novel would be finished. A reference work would be retrieved many times. A letter would be cherished, re-read and kept possibly forever.

Those Sunday afternoons have been replaced by a constant Friday evening in Piccadilly Circus. Information arrives in volume. Some people call this information overload, although we always had more information than we could cope with in the library, or even a well stocked newsagent. What has changed is our attention, for it is attention that is limited. It is attention, within organisations in particular, that is at breaking point. We have spent the last 30 years using tools that allow us advances in productivity and creativity, by allowing data and information to be shunted around at great speeds. It is my conjecture that if we want to progress any further we must deal with organisational attention as a communal resource.

The tragedy of the commons

The tragedy of the commons is a well known economic principle. If we consider the premise of common land, where the community grazes their livestock, everyone has the incentive to graze their flock beyond the capacity of the land to cope. Solutions to this puzzle include some form of management that provides disincentives for this behaviour, either by placing rents on the farmers, or some other form of regulation that might promise some other disbenefit onto the cheats (let’s say a good kicking for starters).

Let’s begin to consider attention within an organisation to be a commons. Anyone can use the collective attention pool to get-work-done. The distribution of power to use the attention-pool is not necessarily equal: The CEO and the Internal Communications department have the means to use more of the attention-pool, but even Joe Bloggs can call a meeting, send an email or otherwise demand attention from his colleagues.

But the attention-pool is finite.

Highrise living

Where does attention come from

Let’s consider what attention is and where it comes from. When you are unexpectedly handed a hot plate, it immediately has your attention. Understanding doesn’t even come into it, the conscious mind isn’t even trusted to be able to take action quickly enough – you have a reflex action as part of your lower nervous system to drop the plate.

Many other things that we learn to do don’t even need your attention. I’m typing this on a keyboard – I acquired the ability to type well over a decade ago so it doesn’t really have my attention. Many processes within organisations become very clear about what should happen next (the phone rings, you pick it up; the boss asks you to print the presentation, you press CTRL+P; you need to do your expenses, you do your expenses). These things become work and doing them are what we are all paid for. These are things at work that are unequivocal – you don’t need to think about what to do next. They don’t consume attention, only time.

Then comes the main body of our concern – the equivocal, the ambiguous, the uncertain. Organisations are chock-full of stuff that we need time to work out what to do with. The information needs to be parsed, read, understood, given context, explored and then either it has something that must be done (an action or task), or something that we might need to know later (filed).

Whatever is left after we have done the easy stuff, the collective process of understanding what to do next, is what I define as the attention-pool, and at the moment we are drowning in it.

What’s killing attention?

I believe there are three main sources of noise that are choking the collective attention within organisations.

The largest by some margin are demands from others. Someone needs something. A boss needs something, a peer needs something. The first problem is volume, which is typically immense and this has been notable for years. But it is the nature of these requests that are not easy to interpret, because they are typically not communicated well. It is difficult to be able to extract an action out of a 1000 word email, or out of a long rambling meeting.

The second largest is the world of FYI and CYA, the periphery of CC: emails. Things that might be damned useful to know, if only we look for long enough, amid the impenetrable clouds of people insuring themselves from future criticism in cultures of mistrust. My good friends, the twin brothers of knowledge management and internal social media, are also in this group, manfully trying to calm everyone down by shouting loudly.

The smallest of these three, and the most professionalised are the demands of change that typically come from Internal Communications departments. The organisation would like us to behave differently, know something new or more ephemerally would like us to feel differently. This is the world of employee engagement, comms plans, news articles on the intranet and slickly managed management events.

So all of this is thrown at the tender mercies of employees’ attention within large organisations. People say they don’t have the time, or they are drowning in email, or they don’t have the bandwidth right now.

Dynamic systems

Firstly I would say that I don’t think this is specific to any particular tool. Tools come and go, and how we use them changes over time, but this comes down to how people behave — both in how they wish to use other people’s attention, and how they personally extract what they need from the attention-pool.

I have always believed that information systems are dynamic systems — that is they change over time. If you look at one you are only seeing a snapshot.

Take email. Employees weren’t able to deal with all of this on the desktop alone, confusing time for attention. Email went mobile, but that didn’t solve it. Feeling that email is a lost cause there is the move to new and exciting social tools. Like capitalism, attention doesn’t solve its crises. It’s like the old gag: “That place? No one goes there anymore it’s too busy.” As email becomes intolerable, the malcontents become early adopters and move to a new platform such as Yammer, where they meet like-minded refugees. For a brief moment all is clear, but then everyone one else comes along and ruins it for the chosen few.

Do the cool kids move on again? Probably, but unless organisations and their employees begin to deal with the commons of attention nothing will really change.

Possible solutions

Enough of my mewling, how can this be solved? Firstly does it need to be solved. Perhaps we shall shortly hit the limit of personal productivity? I don’t think so, we all see muda everywhere in fluffed interpersonal communications, rubbish meetings and failed initiatives, and we all know what it feels like to have a golden week when stuff flies off the to-do list.

For employees as individuals there are behavioural changes on both transmit and receive. People need the skills, frameworks and tools that allow them to focus on the relevant, and harvest the personally actionable. This is where Clay Shirkey’s supposed filter-failure lays on the provision of tools that allow the crap to be filtered out. I have hope that AI will help us here but that may be forlorn, either as another abrogation of personal responsibility, or as something we never really learn to trust.

There is plenty of help available in organising oneself productively with skills encapsulated in various methodologies such as (my preference) David Allen’s Getting Things Done. There are also the social mores in news ways of holding meetings, and how collective decisions can be made.

The main point for change in that of how we engage with other people’s attention and how we can do that far more responsibly. They say a true artist is one who can, but chooses not to. Before we put something out there, perhaps we will begin to be much more circumspect in doing so. But remember this is a commons. If you choose not to email everyone on the project, you may be at a disadvantage to the person that does. Your responsible action has made space for someone else’s irresponsible action. They have cheated, you have suffered. There needs to be an incentive to not communicate, or a disbenefit for doing so. Meeting tokens have been mooted, putting a value on shared resources. Many organisations now strictly regulate broadcast email, ensuring it is used only in crisis-communications with everything else collected into a weekly digest newsletter. Employees should be encouraged to block out time in their diaries, and advertise times when they can be contacted, or to explicitly control their attention with checking email and social for only limited times, and controlling their availability to others with status on instant messaging. The source of much of internal email is people copying each other in to cover their arses and many commentators have pointed to increasing trust within organisations for employees to get on with their jobs (and this is where social tools in the enterprise can really rock).

Crewing is another answer and games company Valve are the darlings of this. There are no managers and people work on what has their attention — things that do not have their attention die. This is not democracy, this is a market — it is essentially Darwinian. [It gets my goat when people confuse democracy for egalitarianism as one is about rule and the other is about treatment. Even if your voice is heard, there is nothing to say that your plan gets done in a democratic system.]

Do management care about the commons of attention. Broadly no, because I suspect that they are keen to grow the amount of time they have available by providing incentives to make their employees work longer hours. The management attention-pool is of course the most stressed of all and it is inherent to the nature of the job. If you think you are stressed just think for a moment about poor Antonio Horta-Osorio the CEO of Lloyds Banking Group, who in 2011 went into abject mental and physical meltdown — in short the poor fellow couldn’t switch off his attention.

So organisationally we might consider to making things unfair and I would like you, dear reader, to entertain this thought and not discount it out-of-hand:

Relationships are not symmetrical; we do not have equal voices; we do not all have the ability to be equally heard.

This goes against the grain of the high priests of some of these new tools that were ripped from the womb of Californian Internet Utopianism. Enforced flatness is encouraged as silo-busting as existing management structures are considered stifling and “uncollaborative”. Silos exist and people within organisations can be unhelpful, but that said a project manager has more rights to a project team member’s attention than anyone else. A line manager similarly has more rights to a direct report. I heard a zany tale once, and as I recall it, Volvo (it was definitely Scandinavian) once created an electronic mail system that didn’t allow you to email anyone superior to you except your boss. The fact that business rules aren’t applied to systems of communication doesn’t mean that they can’t be. An email from your boss should figuratively be the size of a flip chart. An email from someone demanding something from you outside of your responsibility should be the size of a Post-It note. The power of restricting access to groups to increase trust and improve stability has been noted by many, including Clay Shirkey and David Snowden. The point is that the design of these systems is not locked-in, we can tinker with them if we have the will. What could we make more difficult?

This is problem that I feel I have largely solved by becoming a freelancer – I am no longer overwhelmed with any form of communication [cue jokes: ask my accountant.] Asking me to do something usually costs money, therefore I tend to get asked to do things formally, and the bulk of work that I do follows an easily communicated pattern. My remaining capacity for attention is my own (that doesn’t mean I use it wisely, I am usually thinking about photography or writing this sort of thing).

Employees don’t have this luxury, and broadly both their time and attention is a commons, loosely bounded by job descriptions, cost centres and (sometimes) project codes to book their time. Not everyone can ask them to do work, but anyone can ask for their attention. When you are next making a decision about how to organise the organisation, perhaps consider how the attention-pool will be affected.

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2 Comments on “The Attention-pool: a tragedy of the commons”

  1. Paul Levy says:

    Brilliant. It also casts some shadows over the concepts of freeware and Creative Commons.

    What are we overgrazing here? The field of human attention – for each life has a finite number of valuable breaths.

  2. […] and information appears to be grinding inexorably towards some form of maximum level of attention, and there doesn’t really seem to be a way […]


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