Justin Talbot-Zorn and Frieda Edgette in Harvard Business Review
Over the course of a couple of decades, meditation has migrated from Himalayan hilltops and Japanese Zendos to corporate boardrooms and corridors of power, including Google, Apple, Aetna, the Pentagon, and the U.S. House of Representatives.
On a personal level, leaders are taking note of empirical research documenting meditation’s 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. Harvard Business Review contributors Daniel Goleman and Bill George have 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, a dearth of vision, and perfunctory reactions to quick stimuli, 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 planning processes?
Seventy years ago, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who had just emerged from years as a prisoner at Auschwitz, shed some light on the question with a now-classic teaching. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” he wrote in 1946. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
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 internal and external stimuli we face can provoke automatic, immediate, unthinking responses in our thoughts, emotions, and actions. As the University of Virginia’s Timothy Wilson has argued, our brains are not equipped to handle the 11-plus million bits of information arriving at any given moment. For the sake of efficiency, we tend to make new decisions based upon old frames, memories, or associations. Through mindfulness practice, a person is able to 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.
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” he writes, “can create whole new patterns of advantage and weakness. The most powerful strategies arise from such game-changing insights.”
To craft strategy on the basis of what Harvard’s Richard Chait and other scholars have called generative thinking, it’s not only necessary to identify a coherent set of policies or actions in response to a problem or opportunity, it’s also necessary to elucidate the full range of 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.
So how can organizations bring more space to strategic planning? Is the answer to simply recruit leaders and board members who engage in contemplative practices?
It can’t hurt. Steve Jobs, a regular meditator, made use of mindfulness practice to challenge operating assumptions at Apple and to enhance creative insight in planning. Ray Dalio of Bridgewater 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 planning exercises.
One of us recently had the opportunity to test the concept of mindful strategy with a group of middle managers and senior executives from the legal, advertising, finance, and non-profit sectors in the Bay Area. The experience gave us a clearer practical understanding of what works when it comes to integrating mindfulness practice into strategy retreats.
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, organizers can create the conditions for intuition to arise. As Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter wrote in HBR in March, it’s possible to integrate simple practices of focus and awareness throughout a workday. Google’s Chade-Meng Tan, has developed dozens of such workplace meditation modules that could fit neatly into planning retreats.
Explore alternative scenarios: It’s also possible to inject an element of mindfulness without meditating at all. Scenario planning exercises, for example, open decision-makers to numerous, plausible alternative “stories of the future” that inherently challenge assumptions and mindsets. Corporations including Shell and governments including Singapore have used such practices — first and foremost for their heuristic value — with considerable success for decades. 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,” he writes, “whereas positive emotions widen our attention and our receptiveness to the new and unexpected.” Organizational leaders can benefit from imagining organizational “end-states” during strategy sessions. This can be as simple as posing a variant of the question Goleman suggests— “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 leaders — and their organizations — identify which ideas and aspirations are important and which assumptions limit their growth. They’re useful not only for attaining enlightenment but also for making sense of a changing world.