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What psychology and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. can teach us about managing focus

The scene is a dreadfully common one. An importer or distributor holds a meeting where an executive or supplier asks that attention be paid to a forthcoming goal. Upon finishing, the audience offers polite acknowledgement. Then a new speaker starts on a different topic and kindly requests the group’s effort. There are repeated demands for the team’s focus. Furtive glances and eye rolls are exchanged by attendees. The meeting ends.

“You been crying?” he said to Hazel.

“Yup,” she said.

“What about?” he said.

“I forget,” she said. 

That dialogue isn’t between two frustrated salespeople. It’s from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s short story Harrison Bergeron, where some characters are “handicapped” by having their thoughts interrupted and focus disturbed.

There’s an endemic failure to recognize that human bandwidth is finite. Attention has its limits. The implications for the wine and spirit industry are great because unmitigated pleas for focus and attention undermine productivity and efficiency. Such appeals take varied forms:

  • Multiple suppliers running simultaneous incentive programs.

  • Too many accounts needing to be serviced by too few salespeople or customer service representatives.

  • Managers tasked with the responsibility of helping employees hit a dozen or more KPIs

  • Companies launching multiple new suppliers or products at once.

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In the drinks business, companies attempt to manage nearly everything—margins, logistics, cashflow, and portfolios. Rarely do importers and distributors manage their employees' attention. Here are some tips for execs, managers, and salespeople who want that to change:

Executives

Executives and senior leadership should engage with employees without further dividing their attention.1 This can be accomplished sans micromanagement.

Executives must be vigilant in defining what success looks like for the company and paring that down to a few reasonable and actionable goals. Consistency with this approach will yield the greatest outcomes, but beware of “strategy creep,” the excessive expansion of goals spawned by initial success.2 The excitement of early success often invites unwanted distractions in the form of ill-devised stretch goals.

Managers

Sales managers and portfolio managers need to be aware of the limits of human cognition. There’s only so information anyone can practically juggle and redirect into meaningful and effective work.

While historical psychological studies have argued that the number of objects an average human can hold in short-term memory is seven plus or minus two, more contemporary studies put that number closer to four.

Are you having your team “prioritize” more than four things? Psychology aside, see the issue?

When we attempt to focus on everything, everything loses focus.

Sales managers would be wise to familiarize themselves with the notion of Dunbar’s number, the “suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.” It’s 150.

Assuming your salespeople have family and friends and you believe that this is a “relationship business,” it’d be wise to cap the number of accounts a rep could reasonably service between 80 and 100.

Salespeople

Laura Shin offers practical advice on overcoming the obstacle of information overload. Her instruction on clumping, or clustering, similar tasks can be readily applied to grouping comparable accounts so that marketing emails can be thoughtfully and appropriately targeted.

Any email, other than an invitation or general newsletter (such as this one), should never be sent to more than a dozen customers. Again, attention is key. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s thoughts on writing for a particular audience translate well to the premise of focus:

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

When people sense that neither they nor their needs are being specifically addressed, they zone out; this is the reason why we throw out junk mail and click on Instagram ads. Junk mail speaks to everyone and thus no one. Instagram ads talk directly to their recipients and thus captivate nearly everyone’s attentions.

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1

If you didn’t have attention or inclination to click the link in this sentence, here it is again. Read this article by Adam Grant.

2

See also: feature creep for software examples and mission creep for military examples.