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Would You Get a Goldfish to Design a Submarine?

Keith Stacey
Would You Get A Goldfish To Design A Submarine

Would you get a goldfish to design a submarine?

Such a ridiculous question and yet, research undertaken by Microsoft indicates that the attention span of a goldfish - nine seconds, is longer by one second than human beings (8 seconds). The research detailed a drop in human attention span from 12 seconds in 2000 to the current 8 seconds in 2022. This decline by a third, corresponds with the digital age and the ubiquity of the mobile phone. Jump onto any form of public transport and observe what the overwhelming majority of people are doing; scrolling. What did they do before the mobile phone? Most read books or newspapers - there were morning editions to read on the way to work and evening editions for the journey home.

This decline has been documented by Johann Hari in his book Stolen Focus - why you can’t pay attention. The average time office workers currently spend on a task is now three minutes - hardly a formula for concentrated effort. These trends will no doubt have been accelerated by the ‘work from home’ model. One possible piece of good news in the Microsoft research is that the ability to multi-task has been significantly enhanced, presumable by lots of practice. However, the research did not include texting while driving.

We now consume our news in small bites rather than long articles capable of deep and sustained analysis; articles that can inform and educate us and give us a wider understanding of the issues of the day or the human condition. I think all of us would concur with Johann Hari that our attention is more fragmented and our ability to concentrate on a single problem or issue has declined.

So why does this even matter? The problems we face both nationally and internationally are significant, complex and multifaceted. Climate change, decarbonization of the economy, widening inequality, infrastructure replacement are but a few examples of issues that will take years of concentrated focused effort to address successfully.

In many of these areas, long protracted procurement processes need to be put in place which span the term of multiple governments and prime ministers. The issue for negotiators is: “How do I develop the discipline in our planning and strategies that overcome our declining attention span?”

Understanding the complexity of these procurements or large infrastructure projects will lead to the adoption of a number of activities to ensure the project success.

These include:

  • Clear articulation of the problem being solved and the requirements for a successful solution
  • Establishing a core project team
  • Having external reviews and evaluation of projects on a regular basis
  • Working with suppliers to examine alternative solutions
  • Linking negotiation objectives to the original problem definition and clarification of high level outcomes.

So, let’s leave the goldfish to do what they do best, while we focus on acknowledging our shortened attention span while planning for success.

Happy negotiating!

Keith Stacey
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