The Business Improvement Network

What is Intention and Attention in Business?


PJ Stevens


What is the difference between Intention and Attention?


Intention and attention are two related but distinct cognitive concepts.


Intention refers to a mental state or a conscious decision to perform a specific action or achieve a particular goal in the future. It involves setting a purpose or objective and planning to act upon it. Intentions are often tied to our desires, goals, motivations and ways of being; such as values. They reflect what you intend to do or accomplish. Intentions can range from simple, everyday actions like intending to make a phone call or popping round to see a parent, to more complex and long-term goals like intending to save money for a holiday or changing job.


For businesses good intentions can be about the way they will treat staff, committing to a more purpose-led future or aligning to the SDGs (United Nations Sustainability Goals).


Attention, on the other hand, is the cognitive process of focusing our mental awareness or concentration on a particular stimulus, task or objective. Attention involves directing mental resources to a specific thing or activity. Attention is about being fully engaged with what you are doing at a given moment. Think of it as the mental spotlight that highlights one thing while filtering out other distractions, in other words what you focus you attention on. Attention is essential for learning, problem-solving and effective task execution for individuals.


It is often assumed in business that people know where to focus resources and attention. But what if people are unclear what needs attention, and they focus on the wrong things or activities they like to do or feel good about doing, rather than what needs their attention?


In summary, intention is about planning and setting goals for the future, while attention is about being present and focused on what's happening right now. Intentions guide your actions and decisions, while attention influences how effectively you can carry out those intentions by concentrating on the relevant information or tasks at hand. Both intention and attention play crucial roles in human cognition and behaviour, and both vital in business.

For businesses, it is not enough to simply have good intentions, they must be clear where their focus of attention is currently, and where it needs, to be to make good on their strategy, goals and intentions.


Over the years we have worked with all manner of clients on this matter, and helped them save many millions of pounds/dollars whilst greatly improving their performance and reducing time to value.


In business, the cost of poor attention can be significant

The cost of poor attention in business can be significant and can manifest in various ways, impacting negatively both individual employees and the organisation as a whole. Here are some of the potential costs associated with poor attention in a business context:


1. Poor attention can lead to decreased productivity as employees may struggle to focus on their tasks and complete them efficiently. This can result in longer turnaround times for projects and lower overall output.


2. Inattentiveness can lead to errors and mistakes in work, which may necessitate rework or corrections. These errors can be costly in terms of time, resources and reputation, and can erode trust and team work in business.


3. Failure to pay attention to market trends, customer needs or emerging opportunities can result in missed business opportunities. Competitors who are more attentive may capitalise on these opportunities instead.


4. Poor attention to customer feedback, complaints or concerns can damage a company's reputation. Negative online reviews or customer dissatisfaction can harm the brand's image and lead to loss of customers.


5. In industries where safety is paramount, such as manufacturing, healthcare, oil and gas, construction and aviation, poor attention can lead to accidents, injuries and even fatalities. These incidents can result in legal liabilities, financial penalties, challenges with recruitment and lower retention.


6. Constant distractions, excessive multitasking and a culture of overwork can lead to employee burnout. Burnout can result in increased staff turnover, absenteeism and decreased morale, all of which have associated costs.


7. Inattentive leaders and decision-makers may make poor judgments or decisions, leading to strategic errors and financial losses. Poor decision making can pervade the whole business if staff are unclear on the strategy and goals, and inadvertently focus their attention on the wrong things and make decisions that are not in keeping with the company’s needs.


8. Misunderstandings, miscommunications and lack of attention during meetings or discussions can hinder collaboration and teamwork, impacting project progress and innovation. We need to pay attention to what matters and needs out attention, be that meetings or projects, failure to do so can cause all manner of conflict in business.


9. Poor attention can contribute to stress and mental health issues among employees, which can lead to increased healthcare costs, absenteeism and decreased job satisfaction. Staff who focus on the wrong things can waste time, lose interest or even feel devalued. The resultant stress can become part of the business and its culture.


10. When employees and resources are not deployed efficiently due to poor attention, it can lead to wasted time, money and other valuable resources, which impact on previous points such as stress and financials. In a world where resources are ever more scarce, wasting them unnecessarily seems unacceptable.


How to mitigate poor attention 


To mitigate the cost of poor attention in a business, organisations often invest in strategies and practices that promote mindfulness, employee training in time management and prioritisation, and the creation of a workplace culture that values focus and attention. Additionally, implementing tools and technologies that reduce distractions and improve workflow efficiency can help minimise the negative impact of poor attention on business operations.


Sitting above this must surely be that business understands precisely where its attention currently is, and where it needs to be to deliver the overall strategy and goals. It remains sadly true that far too many people and businesses pay attention to the right things but in the wrong proportion or priorities, and even pay attention to things that simply do not need to receive the level of attention or resources they are getting. Therefore goals, activities or opportunities that require attention (resources) are not recieving the level required causing risk and loss to the business.


We have a Five Step Process called EXACT which helps businesses deal with this very topic. Steps 1 & 2 are about Intention, the future, strategy, goals and purpose. Step 3 – Attention – uses our unique Business Tool called MAE (Management Attention Explorer), tried and tested at Cranfield, which shows management where their attention is currently, and where the business needs to refocus attention – resources and energy – in order to greatly improve any projects, change or strategy.  


Companies who have used this process have note 15-200x ROI and in some cases - such as M&A - significantly more. 

About the author

PJ Stevens is an expert in organisational change, performance and improvement, with 20 years experience. He is chair of the business improvement network.

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