I recently attended the 2017 PMWorld/BAWorld Conference held in Toronto. The opening keynote speaker, Curt Steinhorst from FocusWise, presented a motivating talk about managing one’s focus and attention.
Of course, having attention deficit disorder myself, and having worked as a high school teacher, I found his discussion interesting and I could easily relate. In his speech, Curt articulated the factors that affect our ability to focus, which are energy, emotions, environment, and experience. He also categorized the things that can distract our attention which are internal and external interruptions that may influence our ability to focus. As a Business Analyst, I started to ask myself how these distraction factors affect group sessions and what could be done to mitigate distractions and facilitate the collective focus-ability so that we could feel more productive.
Meetings, workshops, walkthroughs and large team sessions can be draining on the individual’s ability to focus and on the team’s as well. Since our energy will decline during meetings, and as people begin to lose focus, they can contribute to an environment that distracts others, or emotionally begin to lose sight of the value of the overall output, the value driven from group activities begins to take a downturn as well. We can prepare for these distractions, be aware of the effectiveness of focus throughout the meeting, and evaluate the factors that influence or impede focus afterwards. I have organized some tactics to overcome distraction in three categories; pre-event, during-event, and post-event. The intended applications of these tips are for longer or larger in-person events since they would be exhaustive for smaller update meetings.
- Plan ahead of the meeting. At the beginning of a project, while planning stakeholder engagement approach, consider and plan to communicate not only the meeting roles and responsibilities, but also strategies to maintain team focus.
- Lay out the ground rules with the stakeholders. Identify the various meeting types in the engagement plan with the various stakeholder teams and create guidelines that allow for management of distractions.
- Distribute agendas ahead of time and identify your expectations of the attendees before and during the meeting. Articulate the intended output of the meeting well enough in advance so that attendees understand their purpose for being present. This allows them to prepare not only the materials they may need to bring to the session but also their minds to that they can feel engaged.
- Schedule meetings for the latter part of the day if possible. Allow team members to conduct their individual work in the morning and come to an afternoon session with a feeling of relief and appreciation for the change in pace.
- Schedule shorter sessions. The anticipation of long sessions can set the tone by exhausting participants before they even get started. Avoid this by limiting the length of time you expect to maintain their attention.
- Plan for distractions. While conducting stakeholder analysis, as a meeting facilitator, assess how you can them remain focused when the going gets tough. If you have a plan on how to handle distractions beforehand, you are more able to guide the group past them with little disruption.
- Consider doing some team-building sessions or getting to know what motivates your stakeholders during the early days of the project so that you can identify how to plan for distractions.
- Make sure that the environment is suitable for the activity and that it does not contribute to distraction. Seating, ventilation, noise, light, and sight lines can all influence one’s ability to pay attention. It may help to evaluate the location for these impacts in advance.
- Prepare to have enough variety in the visual aids to maintain audience attention when necessary, but not so much that it distracts from the conversation.
- Come up with a mantra for the team or work ahead – this can be a sentence that defines the goal and anchors commitment. When things get tough, remind the audience, or have it posted on the wall in sight of all participants.
- Set some meeting SMART goals. Begin the session with a recap of the meeting purpose, expected output, and what is possible to achieve.
- Pay attention to the influencers that can motivate or negatively affect the focusing ability of others and the group throughout the session.
- Give participants the floor and encourage the sharing of information. Then echo back their message so that they feel heard and valued. As a result, they are more likely to engage in the task. This also allows others to absorb the information twice!
- Take planned recap moments throughout the session to re-iterate the purpose, expected output, and any findings or discoveries. The number of recaps depends on the length of the meeting, the audience, and the complexity of discussion.
- Take breaks! Allow the attendees to shift gears shortly to tickle their brains, move around, change their sight line, be creative, or to take care of small distractions. When they return, they are more likely to stay on task. Plan these carefully. You do not want the breaks to become deterrents.
- Provide participants with the items they will need to satisfy distractions without losing focus. Giving in to distraction in small doses can sometimes maintain focus over long periods. Consider providing tactile items such as a variety of papers, pens, marker, stress balls, and fidget toys at tables so that distractions can be satisfied without entirely losing focus.
- Use the parking lot. Allow off-topic questions and comments, but do not allow them to derail the group. Put those on a predetermined easel or whiteboard and call it the “parking lot”. Do not discard these! Go back to review the parking lot at the end of the meeting. Have the team decide if the topics are worth discovering and if so, action them. If not, discard them with consensus.
- Recap the meeting to highlight accomplishments and outputs, and identify if discussions remained on track.
- Evaluate how well the team was able to remain attentive at the end of each meeting to recognize what works and the potential need for other strategies.
- Monitor the results of post-event evaluations over time throughout the project. There may be a re-occurring issue affecting a team’s ability to focus.
- Monitoring results from a larger scale. Analyze what has worked and not worked over long periods and many projects.
- Share with others what you discover. Others may benefit from your experience and results.