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  From the March 2009 Issue of Prestwood eMag
Industry IT Water-Cooler for Power-Users:
Work Ethic v2: Attention Control
Posted 11 years ago on 2/12/2009
Take Away:

Work Ethic v1 was about working hard, and working long. Straw-boss managers tried to boost productivity by cracking the whip. And it worked, up to a point, in certain sectors.

In recent years, the concept of "working smarter, not harder" has gained acceptance. It is, howver, just the harbinger of Work Ethic v2.

Work Ethic v2 is about an always "on" work force: People that have mastered control of attention, and are gratified by being in "the now."

Here we talk about how to get there.



"Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them."

So wrote columnist David Brooks, commenting in the Dec. 16th New York Times about Malcolm Gladwell's latest book called "Outliers."

There is a great article about this, and its relationship to the "new" work ethic at  Here's the link:

You might find it helpful to read that article before continuing this one, because, rather that repeating what's in that article, I'd like to enlarge on it.

Caveat: In this article, I may seem harsh on certain people and/or behaviors. That is not my intention; I've chosen my examples to illustrate the main theme of this piece, not to pick on anybody.

Better Than Layoffs

In these difficult economic times, businesses are paying close attention to costs. Layoffs are an all-to-common reality.

Layoffs may be necessary, but before you take that step, consider:

Your existing staff represents a significant investment.  You paid to recruit them, you paid to train them, and it's probable that you've paid to retain them. One does not discard such investments lightly.

Your existing staff are (or should be) an important asset. They hold large parts of your "institutional memory," and they've probably formed valuable relationships with your customers.

If they're especially good, they're selling your products and services even if "sales" is not in their job title. If they're not, this article may shed some light on a possible problem, and give you some ideas about how to correct it.

There are alternatives to layoffs, and one of them is increasing staff productivity. In other words, if your staff can generate more business, and handle it more profitably, you'll be way ahead of the layoff option.

I'm not going to talk about cracking the whip, which might have been effective under Work Ethic version 1 (work long, hard hours).  I'm going to talk about getting your staff ramped up for Work Ethic version 2, which is, in great part, about attention control.

Volkswagen's Contribution

Thirty-some years ago, I was working in the automotive industry. During my tenure at a Volkswagen dealership, I had an incredible stroke of luck. Volkswagen of America hired a brilliant psychologist to visit their dealerships and train workers in two areas vital to productivity and profits.

The first was about "attention control," though he didn't call it that back then.  He talked about two mental states that he called "random" and "intentional." (Please note: His approach didn't try to carve out new territory in psychology.  Like the purveyors of Transactional Analysis, he offered a "model" that anybody can apply.)

To introduce the idea, he used the example of driving to work.


We can all drive to work without giving it much thought.  We can do it on "autopilot," while our minds are on other things.  We might be listening to the car radio or CD player.  We might be talking on our cell phones.  We might be eating breakfast.  We might even be doing more than one of those things concurrently with our driving.

All the while, our "autopilot" gets us to the office.


But there is another way to drive, he said, and that is to do so with our attention focused exclusively on the driving itself.  It's not as boring as it sounds.

We can pay attention to our car's noises, alert for any anomalies that might signal impending problems. We can revel in the experience of driving well, feeling every nuance of the car's performance, handling, and braking. We can pay attention to the other drivers around us, and anticipate mistakes they might make. We can pay attention to road and weather conditions, and adjust our driving accordingly. We can focus on driving so smoothly that any passengers will be entirely at ease.

This is the "intentional" state of mind.  Our every move, our every decision, is made with pure intention.  We are living in the "now."

For an example of the opposite, think about the times you've heard a person, when called to account for something unfortunate they said, reply, "Oh that was unintentional."

How telling their response! "Unintentional."  Precisely! They spoke without intent.  They were not in the intentional mental state.

More likely, they were indulging the "privilege" of floating about in the random state, letting their mind run on auto-pilot, and abrogating that ultimate personal power, control over attention.

Volkswagen's psychologist went on to explain that it takes effort to train ourselves to operate in the intentional. It doesn't come automatically. Most people have spent their entire lives without ever giving the matter a thought.

The key, he said, is in knowing that the two states exist, and to practice being aware of our own mental state. The idea is to develop our own internal "watcher," or "executive," to ride herd on our mental habits.

It's also helpful to observe others to distinguish the mental state they happen to be in at any given moment. 

The Interrupter

An extreme, but common, example of the random state is the "interrupter" in conversations and meetings.

Here is a person behaving as if  they know their mental faculties are so unreliable that this gem, this thought more valuable and more important than what's being said (or who is saying it), will be forever lost to their loosely connected synapses if they don't blurt it out the moment it flashes across their radar. 

Giving this a little thought, one other thing is clear: The interrupter, while not taking responsibility for the "memorableness" of his own thought, behaves as if he expects everybody else to retain their trains of thought during his blurt.

This is a little incredible: They behave as if everybody else in the conversation is their intellectual superior.  Which, of course, isn't necessarily the case; and probably isn't the case.

Surely it cannot be that they are truly intellectually challenged?

They aren't. But they know, intuitively, that lots of things get lost when running on auto-pilot, and they don't seem to know that they have a choice in the matter.

They are simply untrained.

Training Exercise 1

As a teaching exercise, the psychologist facilitated meetings for groups of six to ten people.  The rules were simple.  Everybody was required to bring a notepad and pencil.  The pads were the only places where "blurting" was allowed.  

He also brought a wand, just a stick with a few colorful feathers at one end. During the course of the meeting, the wand was passed from speaker to speaker.  Nobody was allowed to talk unless they held the wand.

Even though the meeting topics were complex and controversial, each speaker was limited to three minutes at a time.  When the timer beeped, they had to pass the wand.  No exceptions.

When you received the wand, you could speak or pass.  If you had something to say, or you'd recorded a "blurt" on your notepad, now was the time to say it.

Message Planning

We'll come back to the meetings in a moment, but first I want to describe a secondary purpose: They were instrumental in teaching skills in what the psychologist called "message planning." The key idea, is that effective message planning happens only in the intentional state.

And effective "message planning" is key to effective communication: to sales.

For message planning, the psychologist used the example of a service manager explaining to a customer what was wrong with their car, and how much it would cost.

He asked us to think of the customer's mind as a calm pond. Each part of our message would be a pebble, or stone, tossed into that pond, causing ripples through the customer's mind.

"Now," he said, "you have one, big cinder-block to throw in the pond. That's the total price of the repair.  Your smaller stones and pebbles are the facts that justify the cost of the repair. 

"What do you suppose will happen if you heave the big rock in first, and then toss in the smaller objects afterward?

"That big rock will roil the waters so violently that the smaller objects will go unnoticed.  Your customers' �pond' will be so suddenly and thoroughly disturbed that he will either ignore your smaller objects - or never give you a chance to present them. He's off in search of a second opinion.

"Your job, then, is to plan your message in such an order that, by the time the big rock is all that remains, the customer will be ready for it."

For most people, message planning is a foreign idea. Somehow, we've grown up believing that we must answer every question in an instant; respond to every assertion with lightning speed. And we tend to do it on auto-pilot.

But, where, pray tell, is the contract you signed with the rest of the world that obligates you to do that?  It doesn't exist!

Training Exercise 2

At the second round of meetings, the psychologist explained that, when we got the wand, we could use whatever portion of our three minutes we liked to sit silently and plan our message.  Furthermore, he encouraged us to use our "blurt" pads to begin planning our message well before we obtained the wand.

The differences between the two meetings were amazing.  In the first meeting, people had trouble controlling their urge to interrupt. Anxiety was evident among all. When people spoke, many of their messages were tentative, disjointed, and unconvincing.

In the second meeting, we had new information under our belts. We knew we could choose to be intentional, to plug in, to be in the "now."  We knew that no harm came of not blurting, and we knew we had both the obligation, and the permission to plan our messages.

The second meeting was calm, focused, and productive. It was actually fun to give the other person time to think because we knew that he'd have to say less - and say it better.

And we learned one more lesson:  Just prior to the second meeting, the psychologist asked us to jot down all our "blurts," just like before, but this time, to cross out the ones we didn't use. 

Quick Results

After the meeting, our trainer collected our notepads and ran a quick tally: There were nine people in the meeting.  There were 42 potential blurts.  28 of those blurts were crossed out.

Out of nine people that would have previously made 42 interruptions, and caused a fragmented, frustrating meeting, 28 of those "so important" gems were passed over by choice. They were either covered by another speaker, or deemed not so important after all.

Then our mentor told us something else: The intentional mind can do two amazing things:

  1. With practice, it can learn to plan messages quite quickly, and
  2. It can actually manage its own "blurt pad" without a piece of paper in sight. 

Practice is key

Living in the now, maintaining an intentional mental state, and thoughtful message planning are hardly the norm for most people. These are acquired skills, they take deliberate practice, and, in the workplace, management needs to encourage this practice.

Imagine, now, a workforce that knows how to operate in the intentional state, that comports itself with order during conversations and meetings, and that's mastered effective message planning.  The potential for saving costs goes way up - as does the potential to maximize sales and profits.

Obtaining an always "on" workforce

One of the great advances of the industrial revolution was the idea of "division of labor."  Instead of every worker building, say, a complete bicycle from start to finish, the necessary tasks were broken into specialties.  One worker might assemble wheel hubs.  Another might assemble a wheel with hub, rim, and spokes.  Other workers would perform similar, specialized tasks.

This led to great efficiencies, but it poses a grave danger for Work Ethic v2. If workers are doing mindless, repetitive tasks, they almost have to slip into random mode to preserve their sanity.  How long can a person endure, applying tape to handlebars, without daydreaming to make the boring task tolerable?

The answer is - not long at all.  The human mind wants to be busy, and it will be.  To get an intentional staff, a group of workers that are always "on," you have to ensure that each has a variety of interesting tasks to perform.

Cross-training is one part of the solution.  Over time, everybody on the assembly line learns how to assemble hubs, how to spoke and true wheels, how to mount and adjust brakes, etc.

Then you can rotate workers to different tasks throughout their shifts.  With enough cross training, you could return to the pre-industrial revolution practice of having each worker assemble the entire bicycle. You might even find that you get better bicycles and greater productivity.

Cross-training has another benefit: When your best wheel man teaches a saddle fitter how to spoke up and true a wheel, you get positive interaction between workers. It builds a sense of team and camaraderie.

The onus, here, is on management, and it's a big task.

Personal Ethics - A potential problem

Obtaining such a workforce can be done, but you face one, major hurdle along the way:

You will encounter people that feel that operating in the random is a privilege, or right.  They won't come right out and say it, of course, but they may be tenacious in their hold on that comfortable old entitlement. They'll resist your every effort to get them to embrace the "here and now" adrenaline-rush that the intentional state can bring.

It may be that they are simply resistant to change. Or it may be a problem with their personal ethics.

The former can be addressed by patience and by surrounding them with good role models.  The latter probably qualifies them as the first candidates for layoffs.

The Vital Need for Champions

"Trickle down" may not work so well for an economy, but it is essential when it comes to giving workers role models.  It has to start with upper management embracing the value of the intentional, and setting the standard.  Most normal people do not respond well to "Do as I say, not as I do."

As others "buy in," your pool of role models grows. The goal is to get that pool to "critical mass," a company culture that encourages even new workers to buy in rapidly.


Work Ethic v1 was about working hard.  In more recent times the idea of "working smarter, not harder" gained acceptance.  It's the harbinger of Work Ethic v2.

A work force that's mastered attention control can do amazing things:

  • They can rapidly adjust to changing priorities without having to be told.
  • They can "time-splice" to allocate their efforts in the most productive manner. 
  • They can be sensitive to even the most subtle hints of sales opportunities, and do what it takes to turn opportunities into sales.
  • Best of all, they get to go home each day knowing they gave their best.

People will do that, if given the tools.

More Info

Article:  I.T. Strategies for Hard Times


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Article Contributed By Wes Peterson:

Wes Peterson is a Senior Programmer Analyst with Prestwood IT Solutions where he develops custom Windows software and custom websites using .Net and Delphi. When Wes is not coding for clients, he participates in this online community. Prior to his 10-year love-affair with Delphi, he worked with several other tools and databases. Currently he specializes in VS.Net using C# and VB.Net. To Wes, the .NET revolution is as exciting as the birth of Delphi.

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