Over the course of a couple of decades, you’ve seen meditation and mindfulness migrate from the Himalayan hilltops and Japanese Zendos to corporate boardrooms and the corridors of some powerful companies like Apple, Google and even the U.S. House of Representatives.
In my own business, I have more requests from professionals and entrepreneurs for sessions on mindfulness and meditation because they are taking note of the empirical research documenting its potential for reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and improving emotional regulation. Mindfulness meditation – the practice of cultivating deliberate focused attention on the present moment – has caught on as a way to bring focus, authenticity, and intention to the practice of leadership. Daniel Goleman has described mindfulness “as a means to listen more deeply and guide actions through clear intention rather than emotional whims or reactive patterns.”
In an age in which corporations and public organizations are increasingly under attack for short-term thinking, lack of vision, and knee-jerk reactions to events, don’t you think it’s worth posing the question: Can mindfulness help organizations – not just individual leaders – behave more intentionally? Practically speaking, can organizational leaders integrate mindfulness practices into strategic thinking and planning processes?
Mindfulness Creates Space to Innovate
One of the major pivot points in my career was influenced by Viktor Frankl. Seventy years ago, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who spent years as a prisoner at Auschwitz, shed some light on the question with what many know as, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space, In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” That was written in 1946.
Mindfulness – the practice of watching one’s breath and noticing thoughts and sensations – is, at its core, a practice of cultivating this kind of space. It’s about becoming aware of how the diverse stimuli you experience, both within and outside of you, can provoke automatic, immediate, unthinking responses in your thoughts, emotions, and actions.
Believe it or not, your brain is not equipped to handle the millions of bits of information arriving at any given moment. For the sake of efficiency, you tend to make new decisions based upon old frameworks, memories, or associations. Through mindfulness practice, you can notice how the mind reacts to thoughts, sensations, and information, seeing past the old storylines and habitual patterns that unconsciously guide behavior. This creates space to deliberately choose how to speak and act.
Through mindfulness practice, you can notice how the mind reacts to thoughts, sensations, and information, seeing past the old storylines and habitual patterns that unconsciously guide behavior.
I would consider then that organizations, like individuals, need this kind of space.
As UCLA’s Richard Rumelt, a leading expert on strategic planning, writes in his book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, one of the quintessential components of good strategy is the ability to take a step out of the internal storyline and shift viewpoints. “An insightful reframing of a competitive situation can create whole new patterns of advantage and weakness. The most powerful strategies arise from such game-changing insights.”
From my training in Transformational Leadership with Dr. Claire Zammit, we learned to craft strategy on the basis of generative thinking – it’s not only necessary to identify a set of principles or actions in response to a problem or opportunity, it’s also necessary to get clear on values, assumptions, and external factors at play in a decision-making situation. It’s essential to step back and ask not only whether the team has identified the right plans or solutions but whether they have identified the right questions and problems in the first place! All this requires space between stimulus and response.
Three Ways to Use Mindfulness When Planning
So how can organizations bring more space to strategic thinking and planning? Do we teach leaders to engage in contemplative practices?
I looked into where this has already occurred…
Steve Jobs, a regular meditator, made use of mindfulness practice to challenge operating assumptions at Apple and to enhance creative insight in planning. Another leader, Ray Dalio of Bridgemwater Capital has likewise used mindfulness not only as a tool for increasing productivity but also enhancing situational awareness as a strategist.
But it’s also possible to build mindfulness directly into strategic thinking and planning exercises. Here are 3 ways:
- Take mindful moments: One simple approach is to integrate straightforward mindfulness activities into meetings and retreats. By punctuating planning exercises with deliberate time for those present to simply connect with their breath and recognize unnecessary distractions, you can create the conditions for intuition to arise.
- Explore alternative scenarios: It’s also possible to inject an element of mindfulness without meditating at all. Scenario planning exercises, for example, open you to numerous, plausible alternative “stories of the future” that inherently challenge assumptions and mindsets. Much like meditation, the practice of nonjudgmentally assessing different plausible futures is a practical way of shining light on old unexamined thought patterns and making room for new ideas.
- Visualize positive outcomes: As Daniel Goleman argues, positivity is part and parcel of focused attention. “Pessimism narrows our focus whereas positive emotions widen our attention and our receptiveness to the new and unexpected.” You can benefit from imagining organizational “end-states” during strategy sessions. This can be as simple as posing a question like, “If everything works out perfectly for our organization, what would we be doing in ten years?” – and taking time to contemplate.
Mindfulness practices like these can help you as leaders – and your organizations – identify which ideas and aspirations are important and which assumptions limit your growth. They’re useful not only for attaining enlightenment but also for making sense of a changing world.
Hope this is helpful for you today! If you’d like to learn more, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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