Each year when back-to-school bells ring, I recall some of the key lessons I learned there. Some of the best had little to do with course content—and a lot to do with the process of gaining knowledge. My first day of high school chemistry, for example, had little to do with chemistry — but provided a lesson I have used ever since.
Our teacher (Mr. Keith of Nether Providence High School in suburban Philadelphia) gave us a whacky homework assignment: light a household candle, then write down a list of observations about it. No right or wrong answers; no time limit; and no quota, either low or high, for the number of things observed.
Easy—borderline stupid. That evening I went into our kitchen, turned off the lights, lit a candle, sat there with a paper and pencil, and started my list. The flame is yellowish-white…and gets reddish as you go toward the top…but has a blue base…It gives off heat…The solid wax of the candle melts and pools around the base of the flame…The wick turns from white to black as it burns.
And so on, you get the idea. My observations started quickly, I could barely get them down fast enough. After a while they came more slowly, then finally gave out. I had a list of around 75 things about a candle.
I kind of got lost in the exercise, and don’t remember how much time had gone by. It might have been 45 minutes, even an hour.
I don’t recall what my list contained, and it’s not important — the exercise was only marginally about the content.
Mr. Keith was preparing us for the inevitable drudgery of doing chemistry experiments and tests. There are long periods of time (I was to learn later) in which nothing much happens, punctuated by times when something important happens quickly. Kind of like baseball — or life itself!
You have to pay sustained attention, or else you may miss it when something finally does happen. The process of observation has to somehow become a structured opportunity for focus and attention — rather than an annoying chore.
From this Zen-like lesson, I learned first-hand the power that sustained focus and attention have on one’s ability to observe and document any given reality. I’ve often had the occasion during my business research career to use this to my (and my clients’) advantage. In conducting expert interviews, for example, I typically take in the content at least three separate times. The first, when I conduct the interview. I take hand notes to reinforce what’s being said — for me, typing on a computer is both distracting (for me and my subject) and significantly slower.
After a day or two, I go back and type my notes from the interview. This reinforces the information a second time, and alerts me to questions or contradictions that I may use as the subject of further contact with the interview subject.
Finally, when preparing an analytic report or presentation, I review my notes, in order to firm my grasp of what was said, to develop the ‘so whats’, and to integrate it with results from other threads of inquiry. If I’m paying attention, and not just on auto-pilot, this deepens my understanding of the contents.
I’ve had the same experience with secondary research materials. I’ll read an article quickly, then read it again for deeper meaning. Sometimes I’ll then review it together with a client, and together we develop further insights. Whenever possible, I will then dig further, even sometimes contacting the article’s author for more background.
There’s no substitute for deep focus and attention. You can’t rush it, and you can’t scale it.
Many organizations have problems with focus and attention. Since they’re made up of people, it’s only natural that this would be the case. But organizations have the additional distraction of crises — which on the one hand mobilize everyone’s attention, but on the other divert attention from other issues that, though less pressing, may be as critical to organizational performance.
All the distractions of modern life render focus and attention even more rare and precious commodities. I can remember a time where meetings were mechanisms for marshaling the collective focus, attention, and expertise of a work group. These days, people are checking messages, texting, and so on…
Big Data promises to wash us with enlightenment using new sources of data and analysis. But we also need mastery of ‘Deep Data’ focus, in order to avoid drowning in noise and distractions.