Attending to Attention and Intention

And so, we turn our attention to … attention itself – especially as we apply it in deliberative and decision-making processes.

As with most reflective practice, this involves us being both participant and observer. While participating in the use of attention, we simultaneously (or intermittently) observe our engagement with attention methods, qualities, and levels. Such observations can then inform our subsequent efforts to improve the quality of our governance activities.

We know that it is difficult to maintain consistent focus at board meetings; more so as the meeting goes on. That’s one governance issue, but there are other issues relating to the nature and quality of attention paid during meetings that also warrant reflection here.


Etymonline advises that words like tend, attend, intend, attenuate, obtain, retain, sustain, extend, etc. all contain the Proto-Indo-European root ‘ten’, meaning “to stretch” – as highlighted in the header image above.

The various meanings we attach to the word “attend” all make use of this stretching concept. Whether we mean being present at a meeting, paying close attention, or ‘taking care’ of a person or thing, we are directing (or stretching) our minds or energies toward something.

Similarly, when we intend something we turn (or stretch) our attention towards it, but with purpose, aspiration, or directed will. ‘Mere’ attention may or may not involve a purpose beyond some general level of awareness.

An early advocate of us each having a ‘field of attention’ – with a centre, fringe, and periphery – was American psychologist and intellectual William James (1842-1910). In describing the flow of awareness, he said:

“Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fully as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows”

(James, W. – The Principles of Psychology, Vol 1:239, 1890).

‘Attending’ the meeting

Presenteeism is not just a management issue. Those of us who have attended numerous board meetings over the years will undoubtedly know of directors who were ‘present’, but disengaged. The worst offenders offer cringeworthy comments or questions that reveal they did not read their papers, or worse still, were not listening to their colleagues, who had already offered similar ideas or comments.

Including a table in your annual report listing the meetings attended by your directors only addresses the bare minimum accountability requirements. It says nothing of the quality of director contributions to governance and the achievement of your organisation’s vision and desired strategic impact. Board effectiveness obviously involves more than just turning up to a meeting.

DAD Disorder

Some directors show signs of DADD – director attention deficit disorder (a subcategory of MADD – meeting attention deficit disorder)*. Witness those who are more interested in their phones or tablets than the deliberations.

*NB – psychologists no longer use the term ‘disorder’ in connection with attention deficit, perhaps partly in recognition that we all experience some level of distraction from time to time.

There is a certain amount of multi-tasking that might be quite valid during a meeting, where for example a director is looking up a relevant background paper on the board portal with a view to being better informed when contributing to the debate and decision-making.

The risk of diffuse or divided attention is that instead of closely examining a line of argument, only a shallow analysis is achieved due to the intrusion of stray or irrelevant thought processes.

One of the many important observations made by Maura Thomas, author of Attention Management, is that:

“… there is no way to improve focus without decreasing distractions”.

Attending with purpose

Consequently, the chair has a key role in focussing directors’ attention on achieving the organisation’s mission and directing their energies to constructive problem-solving and decision-making. Each director also has a duty of care and diligence – which can be seen as legally recognised and required forms of attention.

Attending the meeting is a start, but attending to the matters requiring decision, and attending to the dynamics of interactions with others are necessary if directors are to have a positive impact.

Focused awareness and listening closely are the qualities of attention required to be effectively engaged at the meeting. Attending to speakers during deliberations is just one of the cognitive processes we bring to the table. These also include perception, learning, memory, thinking, intelligence, and aptitude, amongst others.

Taking care of business, or of members, clients, or beneficiaries, are other forms of attending.

Directors attending to their conformance responsibilities will also be paying attention to variances, gaps, and aberrant data. They will not only be attentive to what is presented to them but also to what might be missing, or out of alignment. Four examples of pattern variations are illustrated below as a way to express this somewhat abstract idea a little more concretely.

Attention Types and Models

Various types of attention have been identified by cognitive scientists. These are listed in the following chart, along with some of the quality levels that can associated with each type.

Different models are devised for various purposes: some educational; some promoting productivity or effective time management. A quartet of quadrant models illustrates some of these below.

The AIIDA Model is adapted from the ‘consumer attention funnel’ which describes the stages between becoming aware of a product or service and taking action to purchase. In applying a similar funnel to attention governance in board meetings, five stages are identified from paying attention to a matter through to making a decision and taking action.

Attention factors and quality

In one sense, all attention is selective. None of us can take in more than a very limited portion of the vast stream (firehose) of information available from our external environment and our internal states.

Various internal and external factors determine the nature and quality of attention we bring to our interactions, whether at a meeting or in any other situation. The following chart describes some of the factors cognitive scientists have identified. Related concepts were also explored in an earlier post on filters and factors influencing deliberations.

Directors will each have somewhat different attention capacity, normally called attention span. Hopefully, the cluster of capacity is closer to the ‘laser-focused’ end of the spectrum than the ‘goldfish’ end.

Certainly, paying attention to too many things at once is one way to achieve a poor outcome. Paying close attention to one important matter at a time is more conducive to clear thinking and effective decision-making.

Making sense of an item on our meeting agenda is self-evidently a sensemaking activity. As with design thinking and systems thinking, sensemaking involves divergent (analysis/differentiation) and convergent (synthesis/integration) thought processes. Directors who pay attention to both thought modes (each in their turn) when exploring and defining the problem, and when exploring and selecting preferred solutions, are better able to contribute constructively to deliberations.

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