Managing attention to manage change

Managing attention to manage change



“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it”  ― Daniel KahnemanThinking, Fast and Slow

We want people to support our change, but it takes effort to cut through the noise and distraction. Their aversion to change in general, us in specific, or any number of other factors we can’t control is exhausting, and it can drain your change management resources.

Knowing how attention shapes perception --and where people are investing attention-- can decrease the friction of your change. A careful attention manager minimizes the drag that comes from speculation driven to negativity.

Let’s explore some options for using the impact of attention to be better change managers.

Kahneman on Attention and the Two modes of thinking

Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow is a must read for all change management practitioners. Understanding the biases that cause people to misjudge the world around them, gives you tools that help make sense of people and how to talk to them.

Kahneman explores attention --and how our attention pulls us toward faulty conclusions. The fact that we look at something makes us feel like it is important. Our brain wires this connection to motivate ourselves to avoid distraction. It’s a circular loop.

You think something is important because you pay attention to it, then you feel the need to pay more attention to it. Compulsions are sometimes a result of this tighter loop of attention/validation/attention.

We are sometimes led by our attention to the wrong things. When that happens, the actual importance of the thing gets distorted out of accurate proportion.

When we facilitate change, our audience sometimes falls into this trap. Triggered by some clue or impression, they focus on a detail that associates with something the already have feelings about. It becomes a highway to the substitution bias. They think they are answering a question about your change, when in reality, they have moved to a much easier questions that tells them nothing of how to react to the real issue.

But the same way attention can steer our people away from the right things, it can also be used to convey importance to what really matters. 

Using attention in change management

If we know that attention can shape what is perceived as important, and therefore drive behavior, we know attention can be used to lead change.

What does that look like?

You would start by identifying the items that are the most important to gain perceived importance, and then trigger attention. Let’s talk about both of those steps.

Attention is important for messages you need to stick. You already knew that, and have probably been trying to find ways to get your audience to pay attention to your critical messages.

But there is another side to this: The ability to pick areas of attentional focus to convey the importance of things that might otherwise be overshadowed.

There are elements of the change that shouldn't be getting most of the attention. That doesn't mean they won't. When the attention drifts to the trivial or the negative, you can be strategic to make adjustments. With this goal in mind, you can devise adjustments to your plan that don’t require much effort, but provide small nudges in the direction of the change.

Choosing the focus

What needs attention? That depends on your overall change management plan.

Based on your assessments of the audience, and the interventions you’ve identified in the plan, you can now connect outcomes to what can be perceived as important.

You want the change aspects to which your audience is paying attention to be the things that will encourage adoption. You don’t want them to be the elements that are likely to drive people toward their own biases, fears, and unsupported conclusions.

When your audience and stakeholders go to those places, it will be very hard to bring them back.

Here are some change elements you may want to drive attention to:

  • Benefits —anything that will provide value to the stakeholder groups should get attention
  • Positive stories —examples of places where the change has already helped people somewhat like them, especially for skeptics
  • Examples of the counter-case —what would happen if the change did not happen? What are the drivers for the change that can't be ignored?
  • The relationship of the change to the audience's priorities —by connecting the change to the identity of the stakeholders, this connection can gain importance in their mind. That makes it more likely they will support it.

How to adjust attention

We have plenty of times where we would like attention. It’s not always easy to capture, because it depends on so many things:

  • The context where we ask for attention
  • Our message
  • The history and idiosyncrasy of our audience

As the serenity prayer would have us accept the things we cannot change, we too must ignore what we cannot control and focus on what we can.

Fortunately, there are a few elements that impact attention that we can control.

  • The message — what you say matters for how much people pay attention. If it relates to them, or their interests, the audience will focus. Think of what happens when you overhear someone talking about you at a crowded party...
  • The Medium — some mediums are more engaging than others. Visual and video are more likely to grab the audience’s attention than text. [sorry for all this text… -PJ]
  • The novelty — when something is known or expected, our minds go into autopilot. Think of how you can drive your daily commute and remember none of it when you arrive. But when driving in a new city, you remember it in detail. The same happens with stories and ideas.
  • Surprise — surprise triggers the mind’s need to pay attention. Typically this reaction is meant to sort out threats from non threats. It's a great tool for getting people to closely assess your message and therefore give attentional importance.
  • Mystery —the Zeigarnick effect is a description of our inability to accept a mystery (or specifically, unresolved tasks). It's why we love crime novels, and how good movie trailers hook us. When introduced to a question, we will keep turning it over until we have the answer. This desire to close the loop brings our attention to the area with the possible solution.
  • Word choice — good word choice that is interesting and varied can bring attention. It should be used sparingly, but a striking image or metaphor can get people thinking or processing the idea at length.

What to Adjust

The change manager’s art of drawing attention requires you make the things that facilitate the change the most important.

You want to draw attention to the items that will resonate with the audience, and that will explain the change in a meaningful way rather than being distracted by things that confuse the issue.

One of the most immediate areas of focus could be on the benefits to the audience that will arise from the change. As we’ve learned, the more attention these get the more they will be seen as important.

So, if you have to choose an element of the change to gain importance in the eyes of your audience, your project will be best served by choosing to highlight the benefits.

The benefits are the most important part of the change. That are the whole reason you’re changing!

Getting started

When building out a change, it can be comforting to focus on the mechanics of that change. We might want to talk about what we will be doing. That we are talking about something concrete.

The problem in this approach is that it does a bad job of focusing attention on the important stuff. Sure, the audience needs to understand the mechanics of the change. They need to be able to act when the change happens. But the logistics are less important to the act of changing than the justification and what is in it for them.

An Example

If you aren’t careful when you focus attention, you might find them thinking that the differences in what they were doing before and what they will be doing after to be the most important thing. And no one likes changing the way they do their job.

Suppose you are shifting away from an open office plan back to cubicles. The reason might be that the company found after talking to employees that the distraction was hurting morale and making it harder for people to get excellent work done. People were coming in early and leaving late just to get quiet time to work. Conference rooms were always booked. People were just not happy with the open-offices. (Full disclosure: I'm not a fan of open-offices for getting good work done, so I'm focusing your attention here --PJ)

The change involves mechanics. You will need to move your desks. You’ll have to pack. It will take time out of your day. Your neighbor might not be your neighbor anymore. You’ll all lose the foosball table.

How would you communicate this change?

If you focus on the deadlines for packing your desk, for when you will need to take your box, for who will get what cubicle based on what standards —people might start thinking of the move itself as the most important thing.

But it’s not!

What’s important is that the change is meant to make people happier and make it easier for them to work in peace and get quality work completed without distraction. The why, the what --the everything-- are all about giving employees the gift of focus and the removal of distraction.

What's not important: the four hours of inconvenience to pack up and move.

But if all your communications focus on that, guess which will be seen as the most important?

When putting together your communications, try to give the attention and space to the why, which includes the benefits and the values that they might latch on to. There are real, meaningful reasons there.

Don’t give the importance to the drudgery by over-communicating or over-exposing it.

Learn from copywriters

Marketers are excellent at using attention to their advantage. They may be calling attention to something that is technically true, but its importance is minimal.

A few years ago I was in the grocery store, and I happened to look in the meat section where the bacon was displayed. Prominently at eye-level was a rack of bacon sold by one of the larger brands (they pay grocery stores to get this prime location).

There was a large call out, stamped on the package like a badge of honor: “Now Gluten Free!”.

Given that at the time, Gluten was public enemy number 1 in the health collective conscious in the US, people were paying attention to it. This was on their minds. People maybe wanted to try to minimize their gluten intake based on the importance this seemed to have (it was exposed often, so it has to be important.)

Low and behold, this package of bacon is gluten free! What a relief. It’s practically a health food!

Someone who was intending to try gluten free food may have purchased that bacon as a treat. Someone buying bacon anyway may have opted for the one labeled Gluten-Free over others that were not (labeled as, but certainly were) gluten free.

Again, this was when the trend was just starting, and maybe people didn’t think too much about where gluten comes from. But the fact that all of the bacon was most likely gluten free, and always had been, meant nothing. This called their attention to the question of gluten. It prompted their attention to something they now felt important re:the question of bacon, and they had a new buying criteria that had not existed before. One that this brand of bacon was uniquely qualified to fill (but not really).

It was the impact of attentional importance and substitution bias all at once. It was a brilliant copy-writing and persuasive move.

I think you can do the same for your change, without selling people bacon.

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