Attention Residue and Innovation

by Jeremy Suisted

Attention Residue and Innovation

I recently came across Sophie Leroy’s academic paper, “Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks”

Leroy, an organisational psychology professor from the University of Washington, researched why it was so difficult to maintain productivity from one work-task to the next. Her findings, unsurprisingly, discovered that:

“People need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.”

This explains why in writing this paragraph, I felt like I had to pause, switch to Mail, and respond to an email conversation I was participating in 30 minutes ago. The email conversation felt unfinished – and as I was trying to write, it was playing on my mind.

This phenomenon was dubbed “Attention Residue” and also explains why our productivity tends to tail off during the day, as more and more unfinished tasks take our attention away.

When it comes to innovation – and working on improving the innovation performance of your organisation – this is an important phenomenon to understand. Why?

First, working on organisational innovation is often perceived as a low-priority task. There is constant email chains, phone calls, meetings and deadlines calling for attention. Why prepare for the future, when the present is so pressing? 

In this reality, our minds will default to pursuing the busy over the important. The result? When individuals meet to improve organisational innovation – they do so with the every-day tasks calling for their attention. 

The deep work required to think and plan for the transformation of your business takes a high degree of attention. Unfortunately, most organisations do not plan for this thinking well – and so have half-pie innovation thinking.

In addition, few organisations have developed a clear strategy for their innovation processes. When people gather to talk about innovation – they do so with no clear direction, plan or process. 

This results in a tendency for innovation to constantly feel ‘unfinished’. And – in the choice between working on discrete tasks that can be completed (under the guise of ‘productivity’) or working on large, unclear tasks that appear to be intangible – we default to the completable tasks.

Theresa Amabile’s The Progress Principle served as an insightful reminder that humans work best when they can see the results of their effort.

Amabile highlights, “Our research inside companies revealed that the best way to motivate people, day in and day out, is by facilitating progress—even small wins.”

A key way to improve the work on innovation within your organisation is by breaking it down into meaningful chunks – that can be measured and completed. This mind shift allows work to transition from unbounded to measurable – bringing clarity to innovation and progress to the process.

For example – if you are seeking to improve your organisation’s innovation culture, this seemingly never-ending task can be broken into several key steps:

  1. Define the terms – what does innovation mean for our organisation?
  2. Choose the tools – how will we measure our current reality?
  3. Measure the culture.
  4. Analyse the results.
  5. Identify the strengths – what do these point to?
  6. Focus on weaknesses – what is blocking these?
  7. Identify the changes required.
  8. Implement one change.

Simple and pithy – but more effective than a general idea to “Meet to Improve.”

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Jeremy SuistedJeremy Suisted works across the intersection of Innovation, Leadership, Qualitative and Quantitative Insights and Human Centred Design – drawing on his experiences across Communication, People + Culture, Management and Research. As the director of New Zealand-based innovation consultancy Creativate, Jeremy can engages across disciplines and departments to introduce organisation-wide innovation improvements.

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