Dramatic distraction

More people are on the internet for longer each day, the working day continues to expand into the evening, and yet TV consumption continues to hold steady . How can that be?

The answer is multitasking. I wrote yesterday about the harm that multitasking can do to concentration, productivity and enjoyment in the workplace, but of course the same applies to the home.

The problem for marketers, whether creative or media-oriented, is that an eyeball just isn’t worth what it used to be when that eyeball is flitting between two or more screens, failing to really absorb or be absorbed by either as a result.

eMarketer has estimated US adults crammed more than 11 hours of media content into an average day in 2011, double-counting for simultaneous usage. That may be US research, but most would agree the behaviour here is the same as the behavior there. The optimists argue that there are as many opportunities for marketers in multitasking TV and internet use as there are problems, citing perhaps Nielsen research from last year that 19% of smartphone and tablet owners reported using their mobile devices to seek information related to a TV ad. I see only an audience already fragmented across channels now increasingly distracted by a cacophony of several simultaneous media.

Last year I had a conversation with a senior TV executive in the UK who said that he had more and more viewers telling him they no longer had time to watch a film. His view, with which I concur, was what they really meant was that they were losing the ability to concentrate for two hours on a film, and that a one-hour episode of a series was as long as they could sit down for at a stretch.

Suddenly this is a huge problem for more than just marketers. If we can no longer concentrate for long enough to sit passively, being entertained; if we are so distracted by modern life that we have lost the ability to truly relax over a film; if we are so distracted we cannot truly escape; then the whole basis of long-form entertainment starts to look threatened.

As a fan of Test Match Cricket, I can still appreciate the 20:20 game – but it’s not the same thing. Short stories have merit but they’re not as engaging as novels. Increasingly, it appears, episodic drama is taking over the small screen. The cinema remains a refuge from the always-on connected world outside – one of the very last places where answering your phone is considered taboo – but for how long? For the sake of our culture and our sanity, I hope it will remain so for generations to come.

Multitasking isn’t working

As demands from work impinge ever more on our family or leisure time, it’s under-standable that we try and fight back by squeezing a bit of our personal “to do list” into the working day. After all if ‘always connected’ means working on a Sunday afternoon, isn’t it only fair that I get to argue with the electricity company on a Monday morning at work?

Or is it the other way round? Maybe it’s not that work takes any longer than the mythical 40-hour week, it’s that we can’t manage, between 9 and 6, what used to fit into the 40-hour week? What if the very technology that was supposed to make us more productive is in fact killing our productivity?

My question marks are, of course, rhetorical. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have for long been concerned with the negative effects of always-on technologies. By constantly interrupting every activity, whether work, rest or play, we end up concentrating on none of them. We lose the enjoyment of everything, including our all-important work, become irritable and lose the ability to lose ourselves in what we love. By tweeting about the moment we forget to live the moment. By stopping to read an e-mail, we lose our place in the narrative flow of the novel we so wanted to be engrossed in. And then we don’t even reply to the e-mail, leaving that to fester ‘for later’.

I blogged last month about how e-mail harmed productivity more than smoking a joint. And a Vanderbilt University study has shown that when we switch attention from one task to do something else, we increase the time taken to finish the original task by 25%. There goes your chance to get out of the office at 6pm tonight. And so arrives your excuse for doing a bit of holiday research while you’re at work – after all you’re going to be here until 8pm anyway. Except of course that the travel agent’s e-mail in response is providing the very distraction that’s stopping you leaving the office at 6pm in the first place.

It’s becoming increasingly acceptable, it seems, to take your smartphone into meetings and check up on e-mails from time to time. The result? Meetings are half as productive and so take twice as long to achieve anything (whether meetings ever achieve anything is too long a discussion to fit into these brackets).

So much for the problem: How do we break out of the vicious spiral? Well here’s my starter:

  1. Refuse any meetings before 10am. Ever. Start work at 8am. Then don’t start with your inbox, start with that discussion paper you have to write, or the thing that will really benefit from concentrated thought. Try it once and you’ll get the habit. Once in a while you’ll find a client or a colleague is mildly put out that you cannot make the 9am meeting, so try explaining why you have the 10am rule and they might even adopt it themselves. If you have a big team meeting at 9am on a Monday, then block out two hours later that day.
  2. Schedule meetings for 30 minutes. Most meetings seem to be scheduled for an hour, but that’s because people’s attention is flitting in and out. At the start of the half-hour meeting demand that no one looks at their smartphones, or pops out to take a call. Explain that the reason you’ve scheduled this for 30 minutes is to allow time for e-mails, or preparation for the next meeting, or time to consider the agenda, outside your 30 minutes.
  3. Go to your inbox at pre-determined times each day. You know when those should be and how often. I am trying to do mine now in three stints each day. Then when you address your inbox, concentrate on it wholeheartedly. Don’t look through it once to see what’s urgent, then a second time to delete some spam, then a third time to start sifting for priority.
  4. Use Twitter the same way. You cannot stay attached to the firehose all the time. So go in and ‘sample’ Twitter at certain times of day and then leave it alone for the rest.
  5. Make sure you develop rules for your leisure and family time too. If you have to work at weekends, make sure you get away from the family to concentrate on getting it done and then back to the things/people you love. Using social media to conduct a conversation about what you’re watching on TV is one thing (a really enjoyable way of sharing the experience), but trying to read the paper and help with homework and cook? Well, I’ll be back with more views on consuming multiple media in my next post. In the meantime I’m off to concentrate on a good book with no distractions.

Innovationeering 2.0 (and other buzzwords)

Incubation is suddenly hot again; accelerators are gearing up and hubs are the centre of the action. In the last week alone Telefonica (owner of O2) has launched its Wayra incubator space in London, while Orange and Publicis have launched a £250m OP Ventures fund to provide early-stage (start-up) and late-stage funding for tech companies. These arrivistes join an already established incubator “sector” from the pioneer and darling YCombinator, now arriving in London to replicate their huge success in the Valley, to locally-born and highly successful Seedcamp.

It’s not hard to see why multi-national giants like Telefonica and Orange want their piece of the innovation pie. Facebook’s IPO is set to be amongst the largest of the decade, Apple’s the largest company in the world, Google is still generating billions in profit. Whether you’re doing so to make money or re-vitalise your own in-company thinking, providing support to new start-ups seems to tick all the boxes. It should bring in fresh new thinking, attract new talent and re-invigorate existing talent, add to your share price and beats concentrating on the knitting.

But will it work – either for the multi-nationals or even for the start-ups? I can find no evidence that hosting start-ups re-invigorates a company’s portfolio. And listen to the “graduates” of YCombinator (the companies that have successfully grown since being incubated there) and they’ll tell you that it’s the energy and excitement of the YC founders as well as the environment, connections and alumni that make it such a uniquely valuable platform for a new company. Contrast that to the dominant logic of most large companies and I’d certainly argue they’re anathema to the vibrant, agile thinking that marks out successful start-ups.

I have never worked for Telefonica or Orange. They may be different; they might be able to make this work. But they will be the exception if they do. Generally, great new companies in the modern era are born of single-minded determination to beat the odds, driven by founders who won’t go through the hoops of investment committees and Board approval procedures, who just get on with it anyway. They do it because they want to bear the risk and reap the rewards themselves, not mitigate the risks and share the credit.

I am currently working on my fourth start-up. Of the first three, two were very successful and one much less so. But all of them were born of plans hatched over the kitchen table, in the breathless excitement of a couple of pioneers thinking they could beat the big guys at their own game. None of them was hatched in an incubator. None of them used VC- (or angel-) funding. What that meant was that we were free to focus where we saw the opportunity; able to spend our time building the business instead of looking for investment; able to act in an agile way. We made plenty of mistakes, and perhaps with different advice we would have made fewer, but the mistakes often went on to help us be successful.

In between those start-ups I have worked for large companies. And I have never seen the start-up mentality of the adopted child be taken on by the parent. Even where everyone in the parent company wants a culture change, it’s asking too much of the start-up to be anything more than a catalyst.

So my experience tells me that the culture of the large parent and the small start-up are and will remain mutually exclusive.

It’s not that I want the huge ambition of Telefonica and Orange to fail. I would dearly like to be proved wrong on this, because I agree with the sentiments that lie behind the plan: “We have an entrepreneurial deficit in the EU,” said José María Álvarez-Pallete López, Telefonica’s chairman and CEO, as he unveiled their incubator plan: “It’s not part of the mindset. If we do nothing, all the talented people will emigrate to the US and innovation is not going to happen in Europe. If you look at the biggest listed technology companies in the world, none of them are based in Europe. It’s worrying.”

It is worrying. And the problem needs a variety of solutions. My first start-up was in the US in 1986 and my entrepreneurial ambitions have never looked back. I, for one, would advocate sending more of our budding entrepreneurs around the work to stimulate truly global thinking. And then adopting a variety of solutions to seeding innovation here in Europe. Yes, we need specialist incubators and we need Angel investors and even VCs who can spot opportunities. But more than anything we need entrepreneurs who refuse to conform, who are motivated by cocking a snook at the established way of large companies. So let’s not assume that large companies can attract those entrepreneurs to work for them Let’s just not put all our eggs in one incubator.