*The original name of this post was “Have some focus to spare?” but since Passover is around the corner it seemed nice to use the famous statement made by Charlton Heston(Moses).

Very often when we detect a problem, we have a tendency is to shift attention to the area where the problem is in an attempt to solve it. Just ask my kids if you don't believe me…
This approach, while sometimes useful, overlooks two very important factors: We have a limited amount of focus to distribute & looking at a problem may make it worse.

 We have a limited amount of focus to distribute

Whenever we make a decision to increase our attention level in a specific area, we will give less attention to other aspects (this happened to me with a burnt cake). In complex systems (and just like my kids, organizations are complex systems) it is really hard to predict where that impact will be and how this will affect the overall.

For example: Let’s say that a manager detects there is a decrease in the quality of the code and decides to pay more attention to that, assuming she is super-busy as all managers are, she will need to put less attention on something else. That something else might be the well-being of the employees, customer satisfaction or even her own well-being. 

looking at a problem may make it worse

What we are often overlooking is that there are situations in which the right thing to do in order to solve a problem is reduce focus and attention (did anyone mention kids?). Moreover, one of the causes of the problem we experience is a result of our own focus and attention. An example is much needed for clarification:

As in the previous example, a manager detects that there is a decrease in the quality of the code. Yet, the manager overlooked that the reason for the problem is that, until recently, she was checking the team's code and pointed out errors, and the team got used that. This, in turn, led to an increase in code quality, which enabled the manager to reduce attention since the code quality was clearly improving.
The attention that the manager put on code quality created a safety net for the team that resulted in them paying less attention to code quality, which led them to shift their own focus to other areas. As soon as the manager paid less attention to the code, its quality was reduced. Again.
The manager immediately realized that she needs to go back to supervising the team’s code quality…. Can you detect the infinite loop here?

In complex systems, the simplistic linear “cause and effect” is almost always wrong and leads us to create “sub-optimization” and wrong actions which leads to unwanted results.

So, what's the alternative?

One of the alternatives to adding attention is to do the exact opposite. By reducing the focus from a specific area we allow that area to fail (and I realize is not always an option - yet it often is) which motivates us to learn and adapt (except for kids J).
In addition, by “letting go” we gain some focus that we can use in other areas such as reading this blog post and learning about problem solving in complex systems :)

So, the next time you detect a problem that you really want to shift focus to, i invite you to make an experiment:

  1. Understand the problem and its causes by examining the history and dynamics of it.
  2. Figure out how risky it is to allow a short term continuation of the problem.
  3. Decide when would be that last responsible moment for a corrective action.
  4. Make the problem visible to the relevant people.
  5. Wait, and use the time and attention you gained to do something important such as learning,
  6. Go to step 1 again.

 

May the force be with you.