Attention Training: The Fundamental Pillar of Success?

Attention Training: The Fundamental Pillar of Success?

“Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success.”  ~ Tom Davenport, former director of Accenture Institute of Strategic Change

My childhood home had a steep driveway, sloping up to the road. Dad wanted to leave to go on a cycling trip, but it was very icy that day and he couldn’t get traction to move backward up the drive. Thankfully, there was an easy solution: to roll forward into the garage so that he could get up some momentum before hitting the ice. The problem was, he had already attached his bike to the roof of the car so that he could drive to the start point. As soon as he rolled the car forward, it hit the wall above the garage and the bike was ripped from its mountings.

How could we both have failed to see something so obvious? I was standing right next to the car, and could clearly see that the top of the bike was much higher than the garage door, yet still missed it.

This is a great example of the problem called inattention blindness. If you’ve ever seen the popular “invisible gorilla” video, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Originally created as part of an experiment conducted at Harvard University, it is of two teams of basketball players. Viewers are invited to count the number of passes made by one of the teams, unaware that, in the middle of all the activity, a person in a gorilla suit will walk through the group. Despite how obvious the gorilla is to anyone who already knows about it, scientists have discovered that most people miss the gorilla the first time they watch it, and in other, similar experiments this number can be as high as 80 percent.

Interestingly, without the task of counting the passes, pretty much everyone watching the video will see the gorilla, and this gives us the clue to what happened with my Dad’s bike. Focusing on the task of counting passes causes most of us to miss what would otherwise be obvious, and similarly, it was the fact that our attention was overly focused on the problem of the ice that led us to fail to consider the broader consequences of our solution. When focusing on one task, it can be hard to notice much else.

These examples are highly representative of life. There are always multiple objects or streams of thought that we could concentrate on, and if we become locked onto any one of them it will dominate our attention, leading to us becoming unaware of other things around us.

The solution needed, which is core to all such problems, is the ability to manage attention more effectively. Today, this capability is commonly referred to as “mindfulness”. This is a mental state where the contents of the mind are very stable, enabling us to pay attention in a deliberate way, able to choose and maintain our focus, rather than having it pulled around by distractions.

In the examples above, the core problem is driven by the inappropriate focus of attention, which then blocks awareness to such an extent that even critical, and obvious, information outside the area of attention gets completely missed. This article discusses one of the most effective and accessible approaches to developing attention – meditation – describing how it enables us to change the way the brain perceives the world, thus creating a shift in awareness. It also covers some of the other, many benefits that we can gain from this practice.

Read the Article: How Meditation Works in Your Brain – The connection between attention, awareness, and emotion

My Advice

Despite its historical links to religion, there’s nothing mystical or weird about meditation. Whatever form it takes, meditation is brain training, pure and simple. Amongst other things, it enables us to develop the mental skill of being able to focus attention with intention, which is a skill which has many modern-world benefits.

While the article is largely about attention, I want to reinforce the importance of intention in the process. This is because so much of what we do, and experience, is driven by the subconscious mind according to deeply buried rules. Even our perception of ‘out there’ is a construction which gives us the impression that we are able to see a full rich picture of “reality”. However, because the processes by which this happens are so effortless and unconscious, anything we miss will be completely invisible. To change this, we must introduce the power of intention.

An example of how powerful intention can be is observable when people listen to music. Research has shown that if they do so with an intention to feel happier, they actually become happier, whilst if they only seek to relax their happiness levels don’t move. It is the intention to become happier that makes the difference, which is achieved by consciously directing attention towards the desired outcome.

Thus, intention gives us the ability to bring conscious choice to the act of placing attention. As we develop the capacity to interrupt the automatic, unconscious processes, though mindfulness, we can literally change the way we perceive things and reduce problems like inattention blindness. Meditation enables us to develop this mental capacity. It takes time and deliberate effort; however, like going to the gym, if you are willing to put in the work, the benefits can be assured.

The Best Way to Decide: Fast or Slow?

The Best Way to Decide: Fast or Slow?

There can be few things more important to leaders than their professional judgment. As Jim Collins clearly demonstrated in his best-selling book, Good to Great, leaders have the power to build spectacular success stories or drag their companies into decline. Which way they go is largely determined by the quality of their decisions.

The challenge for leaders at all levels, is that making decisions, whether relating to strategy, operational crises or people, cannot reliably be boiled down to the ‘science’ of pure reasoning in a process that will provide all the answers. In this rapidly changing and highly complex world, judgement calls are often riddled with far too many intangibles, complexities, unknowns and variables to allow every option to be identified, fully analysed and understood.

Because it is unclear to many people how this uncertainty impacts decisions, opinions as to what constitutes the best decision-making approach are often divided into two camps: the first believing that slow decision-making driven by clear, structured processes is most effective, whilst the other preferring to trust in speed and accuracy of their intuition. Essentially, it’s a question of slow vs. fast. Even those that attempt to use a combination of the two approaches rarely know which to apply in a certain set of circumstances, ultimately allowing their intuition to decide!

This article examines this hidden dilemma, exploring how different combinations of confidence and speed of decision-making impact leaders’ ability to make effective choices. The answer might surprise you…

Read the Article: Slow Deciders Make Better Strategists

My Advice

I have written previously about the dangerous overconfidence that arises from the belief that “I know” which is highlighted by the article Leading When Uncertainty is Pervasive. The evidence is clear cut that, once we lose our willingness to consider alternative ideas and perspectives, the quality of our decision making, particularly when facing uncertainty, will be badly affected.

This idea points to another dimension that can be overlayed on the analysis presented in this article, to help you to find a better balance between rational and intuitive approaches. This is the level of complexity, ambiguity and pace of change of the environment.

When complexity is low, there will tend be a relatively clear cause-effect relationship between actions and outcomes. This allows a slow, logical, “problem-solving” type of approach to work well, as long as we guard against falling into the “conventional wisdom” trap, assuming that just because a strategy has worked before, it will continue to do so!

At the other end of the spectrum, where uncertainty and pace of change are high, the many variables and potential outcomes make rational analysis much less effective, with the potential to introduce huge errors. Here, intuition and creativity become much more important, because they provide the means of identifying solutions to unknown and previously unexperienced situations. However, keep in mind that this makes it impossible to “know” what the outcome will be, and to plan accordingly.

“Because the Answers Have Changed”

“Because the Answers Have Changed”

The title of this section is probably one of Einstein’s less well-known quotes. Nevertheless, I believe it’s also one of the most powerful and important things he said, particularly because of the way it relates to our ability to learn, grow and handle change.

The story goes that, while administering a 2nd year exam at Princeton University, his teaching assistant noted that Einstein had set the same paper as the previous year. Dr. Einstein, he asked, “Isn’t this the same exam you gave this class last year?”

Einstein paused, then replied, “Yes, it is.”

Puzzled, the assistant enquired, “Why would you give the same exam two years in a row?”

“Because,” Einstein replied, “the answers have changed”.

This observation highlights a critically important concept: what we hold as “true” now can, and very often will, change. For leaders, there are two sides of this coin, one relating to maximising future potential, and the other to do with over-relying on the past:

  1. It is essential to be able to recognise new insights and discoveries as they emerge, because this awareness can open up new possibilities, creating the potential to gain a competitive advantage or improve results.
  2. Changes in the external environment can have the effect of making any current solution less effective, or even invalid, irrespective of its usefulness in the past. Strategies, systems and processes that were once “best practice” can become past practice virtually overnight, and this is happening right now, at a rate that has never been seen before.

Most people have already become fairly well aware of this challenge. However, understanding the need to remain alert in order to spot changes as they occur is the easy part. Being able to put that awareness into practice is a completely different matter, because of the way our unconscious mind prefers the familiarity of the known. This can create a feeling that we “know”, or are “right”, even when our certainty has no basis in reality whatsoever.

Unfortunately, we get no mental or emotional “warning bell” as we pass the point where ‘knowing” turns from strength to weakness: when we are wrong, but feel certain we are right, the way we feel matches the belief, not the fact. This article provides six recommendations, with details as to why each can be of great help to overcome our tendency to over-rely on expertise and/or knowledge, these being:

  1. Maximise learning by listening attentively and reading critically.
  2. Cultivate diverse sources of trusted advice who are willing to disagree with you.
  3. Avoid your experience becoming too narrow.
  4. Seek to overcome biases by actively looking for differing perspectives (stay detached).
  5. Keep questioning when options are offered.
  6. Think carefully about the risks during delivery/implementation.

Read the Article: The Elements of Good Judgment

My Advice

To respond more effectively to changes in the business environment, it is essential to remember that even practices that worked very well in the past may not get you to where you want to go tomorrow. The most powerful approach for overcoming the ‘knowing/being right’ trap is also the core principle of scientific thinking: take what you believe and actively seek to disprove it, especially if you feel certain! Doing so will help to protect you against out-dated assumptions and be hugely transformation to your decision-making.

As the Einstein example highlights, to stay in front it is essential to keep questioning your beliefs, because you never know when the answer will change!

The Need for Psychological Safety

The Need for Psychological Safety

Understanding the dynamics of effective teamwork is becoming ever more important, as businesses face relentless pressure to increase their profitability. Studies, however, consistently and convincingly demonstrate that structuring people into teams may be counterproductive to decision-making since, unless the culture is right, individuals outperform teams much of the time.

In Project Aristotle, Google researchers sought to understand how team composition and dynamics impact team effectiveness. They analysed 180 teams, including a mix of high and low performers, and conducted hundreds of interviews. What they found was that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together.

At the top of Google’s list of the things that matter when it comes to team performance is psychological safety – a concept originating from the work of Amy Edmonson, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School. What she showed is that people will not give their fullest contribution to their team unless they feel safe. For teams to do well, the people in them MUST be:

  • Unafraid to share their ideas.
  • Willing to challenge and be challenged.
  • Prepared to risk failure.

Only by solving the safety problem can teams maintain the creativity and openness needed to make complex decisions and function effectively today. This article summarises some of the steps Google took in order to do so.

Read the Article: High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It

My Advice

We now live in a world were old styles of leadership are unlikely to achieve better than basic levels of productivity. To be successful, leaders now need to create a team culture within which employees will commit their discretionary effort and bring their full creativity to work. For you to be successful in this area, it is essential that you do everything you can to remove any obstacles that block your team from feeling safe.

Developing Inner Agility

Developing Inner Agility

This article, from McKinsey & Co., suggests that, “To navigate effectively, we must learn to let go—and become more complex ourselves“.

The concept of developing greater personal complexity encapsulates the approach that I’ve adopted in virtually all of my work. Because great leadership is critically dependent on emotional intelligence (EI), we can see that it has more to do with our mindset than any skills we might possess. This means that it must be constructed, from the inside out, by creating learning environments, not instructed from the outside in, as has traditionally been the case when teaching skills.

Let’s look at this in the context of one key point from this article, which is the statement that, “The problem isn’t the problem; our relationship to the problem is the problem”. In relation to resilience, this would suggest that it is not stress that is the problem, but our perception of the situation that is the problem. This recognition is incredibly powerful, because it puts us in a better position to find a solution.

At the heart of this challenge, of changing our relationship to our environment, is one of the biggest paradoxes of dealing with the unknown.

Current thinking in psychology, which is supported widely by research, suggests that we all experience stress when faced with change or uncertainty, to some degree. This is thought to be the result of deep conditioning that evolved to aid our survival.

The problem today is simple: very few situations we face are genuinely life-threatening, but our mind reacts to uncertainty as though faced with a predator: by triggering our fight-or-flight response. We experience this as stress, and it drives behaviours that may be highly inappropriate, such as acting on instinct, falling back on old habits, or to becoming so preoccupied with seeking more information that we cannot make any decision at all.

So, what is the paradox I referred to above?

Let’s assume for a moment that our stress is not the result of misperception. The root cause of the stress that arises when we face the unknown is that we don’t know how to resolve the situation we face, and we therefore worry about the outcome. If we knew what to do, we wouldn’t feel stressed!

It follows that what we most need in such situations is a new solution; however, that would require creativity, and – here’s the paradox – creativity is blocked by stress. How ironic! Because our brain is maladapted to modern challenges, just when we most need to be creative is when this mental resource is least available to us. It occurs because the part of our brain that triggers our fight-or-flight response, the amygdala, also suppresses activity in our prefrontal cortex, which is the part that gives rise to our creativity (as well as many other higher human functions).

To remain agile and creative when confronted by unpredictable change, it is essential that we learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty. I believe that this article conveys some useful insights to help you move towards this goal.

Read the Article: Leading with Inner Agility

My Advice:

When we resist a situation, wishing it would go away because it feels uncomfortable, that resistance increases the stress we experience. This puts us into a vicious cycle where, as the article highlights, our poor relationship to the problem only increases the magnitude of the problem as we see it.

Try to shift your perception of challenges, to see them as opportunities to learn and grow. Every world-class athlete knows the importance of this mindset, having achieved success by continually pushing him or herself into situations where they are stretched beyond their current physical, mental and emotional limits. Without the stress this creates, the growth they seek is impossible. If you can use your challenges in a similar way, as melting pots that create the conditions necessary to become stronger, they will immediately feel less stressful.