Have you noticed that whatever you focus your time and attention on, you end up with more of it, both good and bad? If you spend a chunk of your day on the Internet, as I do, you know what I’m talking about. If you focus heavily on email, you get more email; if you focus on social media, you get more likes and more messages through social media.
This isn’t necessarily an Internet-only phenomenon. If you’re a manager, the decisions you make in allocating your time and attention have always had similar ramifications, and it’s easy to let most of your attention get sucked up by demanding, persistent problems. For example, if you need to read and absorb your financial reports, will extra time spent digging into the detail help your decision-making as much as getting out and talking with customers or researching new opportunities in the market?
One way to secure time for both is to make intentional use of a framing technique in scheduling and setting limits around certain tasks. This is also called “timeboxing” in software development and project management. Whether the task is writing emails, making phone calls, project planning or meeting with team members, carefully framing up a series of times for specific focus topics helps to ward off what I call “Internet brain” — when we lose control of what we’re focusing on.
Losing Ability to Focus?
In the 1980s, Michael Goldhaber predicted that the Internet would rewire our brains. In a recent story in The New York Times, author Charlie Warzel zeroed in on Goldhaber’s notion that human attention is a finite resource and that competition for it would become ever more strident, outrageous and polarizing.
Warzel writes: “Here’s a short list of things he saw coming: the complete dominance of the Internet, increased shamelessness in politics, terrorists co-opting social media, the rise of reality television, personal websites, oversharing, personal essay, fandoms and online influencer culture — along with the near destruction of our ability to focus.”
Warzel also quotes from the writer Howard Rheingold: “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.” The question we’re left with is how do we allocate the attention we have in more focused, intentional ways?
That’s where creating a frame can help. In my work as a leadership coach, I approach a coaching session by first making an agreement that creates a frame around our time together, establishing a boundary on each side that reads like this: How long are we talking? What are we talking about? What do we want to have when we finish? Why are we focusing on this?
This agreement has several positives on our discussion. Once we have answered these questions in a cursory way, we know what to leave out of the discussion that follows. When we start to go off on a tangent, in effect, we run up against the edge of the frame and refocus on the agreed topic.
Typically, by keeping our focus within the frame, we finish our session on time and have captured next steps, new ideas and/or new insights, and a sense of real progress. Along the way, we’ll have generated other ideas for steps we’ll take before we meet again.
The same can be said for any business meeting. All too often, the conversation wanders, we run out of time, and we leave without clear action steps toward a desired outcome.
If, instead, you set a clear frame, identifying the topic and what you want to have in hand when you all walk out of the meeting, and manage the meeting within the frame, the outcome is more likely to be creative and constructive. The team leaves with clear direction, energy and momentum.
Constraints Equal Innovation
This may seem counterintuitive, but whenever managers establish constraints in a project, greater innovation and creativity can be achieved, says research published in a 2019 Harvard Business Review article titled “Why Constraints Are Good for Innovation.” One would think that by getting rid of rules and boundaries, creativity and innovative thinking would thrive. Yet in a review of 145 empirical studies, authors Oguz A. Acar, Murat Tarakci and Daan van Knippenberg found that “individuals, teams and organizations alike benefit from a healthy dose of constraints.”
A key for fostering creativity and innovation in your organization is to strike a balance by orchestrating different types of constraints. The authors describe how limiting inputs (time, people, money), processes (rules of teamwork or brainstorming) and outputs (product or service specifications) can “provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas for new products, services or business processes.”
Why do limits help generate innovation? As we run up against a challenging constraint, we’re forced to be more focused and more creative, to think differently about the project and to look beyond the status quo for new ideas and solutions.
Setting a Company Frame
Setting an intentional frame can impact an entire company. That was apparent from start to finish of the Marine Culture Summit organized by Correct Craft that I attended last month. I was struck repeatedly by stories of the power of focusing on a company’s culture, which is to say, focusing on its people.
To set a frame around your business that emphasizes people, Bill Yeargin and other speakers during the summit recommended identifying a common mission or purpose and communicating it consistently, for example, about why we build boats and what our values are. Within that frame, invest in people, engaging them as learners, and you’ll build a more dynamic, powerful team. To paraphrase one speaker, don’t focus on building your business; focus on building your team.
Investing in individuals generates huge employee energy, which delivers what all company leaders are looking for — improved products and services, improved customer satisfaction and improved financial results.
There are no guarantees of consistent business success, but a disciplined approach to setting healthy frames — and resetting them when needed — will generate in ourselves and our teams a habit of innovation, productivity and efficiency that surely increases our odds of success.
And when we let our guard down, we can be sure the Internet will be there to put its own frame around our brain. The choice is up to us.
This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue.