Focus on the Right Things

Volume 12 Letter 6

You’ve always heard that what you focus on determines your actions. Well, it turns out that the old adage is true and it has big implications for you as a leader.

A few years ago Disney World in Orlando hired a cultural anthropologist to find out what captured kids attention. They lined up all the Disney cast members and animated characters alongside the spinning rides, the yummy treats and the colorful Disney toys. As kids marched past the idea was to log what caught the kids’ attention. The results were completely unexpected. To Disney’s surprise, kids weren’t all that interested in the Disney “Magic”. Of more importance to the children, even in that stimulating environment, were their parent’s cell phones. The fascination with the mobile device was especially noticeable when the kid’s parents were glued to it rather than paying attention to them!

Kids clearly understood what held their parent’s focus and it wasn’t them. Bottom line it’s impossible to communicate with, yet alone bond with someone who won’t pay attention to you. Sandy Pentland who runs MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab says he can capture where people put their attention. By understanding where people concentrate their focus he claims that he can determine how well a team will perform and can accurately predict which group is likely to win (and lose) in a competitive situation.

The MIT team has developed something they call sociometric badges – wearable sensors that capture human communication in real time. These badges capture things like voice tone, amount someone talks (and listens) and which direction they’re facing when they talk. The MIT people put all this data together mathematically on a map to see who is communicating with whom. To visualize what this looks like think of those airline route maps but instead of flight frequency the map shows the number of times that different team members communicate. Here is what he found:

  • Frequency of communication is important: in a project team about 12 communication exchanges per hour is about optimum. More or less than that number and team performance declines
  • Listen and talk in equal measures: teams with dominate players and quiet followers perform significantly poorer than teams where all members equally contribute
  • Informal conversations are important: high performing teams spend about fifty percent of their time communicating outside of formal meetings. If you think its not important where the coffee and water cooler are located – think again!
  • High performing team members communicate with people outside the group looking for information and report back

What we haven’t discussed to this point is anything about the content of the conversations. So how important is “what is said” in conversations to the team’s performance? Interestingly it’s not! Based on the MIT data Pentland says that ‘how we communicate’ turns out to be the most important predictor of team success. So what can we do differently as leaders:

  1. Turn off your phone and give your people your undivided attention
  2. Watch for conversation dominators and team members who’ve clammed up – both are indicators of a poor performing team
  3. Encourage your team to look for answers to complex problems outside of your business team and report back
  4. Organize places for informal conversations to more readily happen.

Focus on the right things – keep the lines of communication open and balanced among team members. Build a great team!

1.What Captures Your Attention Controls Your Life posted Tuesday June 5, 2012 by Kare Anderson
2.The Hard Science of Teamwork by Alex “Sandy” Pentland | 10:15 AM March 20,

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