Picture the Great Sphinx of Giza, calmly fixed in its gaze, unable to look left or right. The view is profound, but limited.
The sphinx's gaze is profound, but limited.
Leadership teams befall a similar fate, and may unintentionally fix the gaze of their entire organization in only one direction, unable to elevate a diversity of focus and attention, unable to foresee dangers ahead.
The great risk organizations face is that they create cultures that simply cannot see what they most need to see in order to avoid ruin and losses.
The solution is attention diversity.
This is why the attention of women and minorities in leadership have been such necessary and critical disruptors, as leadership teams have begun to reflect the entry of more diverse viewpoints.
The most successful companies embrace this evolution in attention diversity – not to check a box to diversify, but to authentically reflect and construct a model of focused attention that wisely sees in all directions.
Alignment of purpose; diversity in attention
To be clear, attention diversity does not mean misalignment of goals or elimination of a unified strategic plan. Sound leadership practices still apply. Organizations clearly need a common vision and shared values.
The best companies achieve alignment of purpose, but allow diversity in how to get there. They recognize that a unified corporate community is filled with both attention alignment and attentional diversity. Collective and individual attention.
Attention diversity is how different people see totally different things in the same situation or moment. When looking at a mountain, the rock climber sees something different than the painter, and both perspectives are different than that of the ecologist.
Note how "attention diversity" differs from traditional conversations about plain "diversity". On that topic, most organizations end up focused on “fit.”
As in, “we need someone with different color of skin, sexual orientation, etc.—but they must be in all other ways similar to us.” That’s tokenizing diversity, where fit is the true, central focus.
When optimizing for attention, remember that attention is the selection process of what matters. Each person's past experiences help them make that selection. We see what our past has said matters.
The danger, then, is that as organizations develop, more and more experiences become familiar and similar.
The cure for legacy behaviors
In our work with Fortune 100 companies, we often see organizations driven by legacy behaviors. The written and unwritten rules are driven by the person with the most authority.
What a leader has experienced in the past becomes an attentional filter for them. Which of course gets reinforced then codified.
And, left unchecked, that codification becomes a systemic risk. Because now the leader has programmed a team to see a threat that isn't a threat. Or they reward an old approach that no longer influences the outcome.
These codes are unwritten, but strikingly clear. The more entrenched and familiar, the more a business risks relying on patterns that reinforce outdated ideas.
An example that may resonate: “I don’t care if an entire generation wears them, jeans are not professional.” In our consulting work at Focuswise, we see countless examples of leaders who define loyalty by alignment to the leader’s viewpoint, rather than the broader mission or values.
In doing so, they create a culture where responsiveness and agreeability become everyone’s top priorities. Innovation suffers.
Reflecting the norms of the times, historically all-white male leadership teams naturally had an alignment in attention and focus born of their similar backgrounds and mentors and role models they embraced.
As women and minorities have entered the workforce and ascended to leadership teams and management roles, they have brought with them radically different experiences, a diversity of role models that shaped them, and most importantly, a diversity in attention and focus.
And what we have seen is that when a company embraces these new viewpoints - a “diversity within shared community” – it continues to flourish and adapt to today’s norms , and fuses what is legacy and tested with what is innovative and disruptive.
Cultivating focus from many angles
The only way to cultivate focus is to have an alignment of what does and doesn’t deserve attention. Shared attention is both the cause and result of a cohesive community—and the reason why it's true that "culture eats strategy for lunch."
If a company truly wants to disrupt and adapt, it will create space for more perspectives. That will eventually create conflict—not regarding what the company must achieve, but only on the method to achieve it.
We’ve seen that this conflict can strengthen the overall endeavor. True diversity always leads to, at least, the perception of conflict. Leaders are wise to remember that their role is not to end conflict, but instead to cultivate a culture in which diverse perspectives lead to a more thorough approach.