THE NOTION OF MINDFULNESS
For better self-management and better leadership
By Professors Cyril Bouquet and Ben Bryant - May 2009
You must avoid two common extremes in reacting to events. How you respond to the world can affect how fast your company responds to an economic downturn.
On March 27, 1977, two Boeing 747s, one KLM and the other Pan Am, collided on the runway at the Tenerife airport in the Canary Islands, killing 583 people.
The KLM captain was deemed to be largely responsible for what remains the worst accident in aviation history. He had taken off before receiving official clearance to do so, failed to heed the air traffic controller's instruction to stand by for takeoff, ignored his copilot's requests for clarification and didn't abandon takeoff even though he had evidence that the Pan Am aircraft was still taxiing. Yet he was one of KLM's most able and experienced pilots, with nearly 12,000 flight hours to his credit.
What could have gone wrong? The Spanish Ministry of Transport and Communication's investigation of the crash found that the KLM captain had acted as if he "was a little absent from all that was heard in the cockpit." He communicated several times with air traffic controllers, but ultimately appeared to be immune to their instructions.
Decision makers often suffer from poor attention management, being obsessed with the wrong types of signals and ignoring possibilities that could significantly improve the fate of their undertakings. The KLM captain is an extreme case, but the problem is widespread. Our research shows that two kinds of attention disorder often exacerbate the difficulties companies face in economic downturns and their subsequent attempts at recovery. These kinds of disorder are fixation and relaxation.
It is always likely in any crisis situation that managers will become so preoccupied with a few central signals that they largely ignore things at the periphery. In the case of the Tenerife disaster, the KLM pilot was undoubtedly focused on three important matters: (1) the need to proceed with a quick takeoff (the KLM crew was approaching the legal limit of time it was allowed to fly in a month), (2) the complex maneuvers of turning around a 747 on a short runway and (3) clouds that reduced visibility in important traffic areas. Because the crew members were so preoccupied, they didn't give sufficient attention to the presumably very important communications coming in from air traffic controllers.
This is almost the opposite problem, and it tends to follow sustained periods of high concentration. Managers who have achieved a certain level of success often become less vigilant toward subtle changes in the situations they face. This was also explicitly cited as a likely contributing factor in the Tenerife disaster. The Spanish Ministry of Transport reported: "Relaxation - after having executed the difficult 180-degree turn, which must have coincided with a momentary improvement in visibility, the [KLM] crew must have felt a sudden feeling of relief, which increased their desire to finally overcome the ground problems: the desire to be airborne."
Similar, if less tragic lapses, occur frequently in the business world. One company we've worked with over the years nearly collapsed in 2002. A new chief executive officer was brought in to take drastic measures to diminish expenses and cut overall costs. In the short term, he improved performance by ensuring heightened sensitivity to the most pressing immediate concerns. But he continued to rely on this strategy well beyond the necessary turnaround period. In so doing, he slowly eroded the company's innovative capability, and its sales and profits have stagnated ever since. His managers got fixated on a strategy that initially worked, and they failed to adapt as things changed. They were inflexible not because of poor intelligence but because they relaxed and paid less attention after a time of initial success.
How can you avoid fixation on the one hand and relaxation on the other? The key is related to the notion of mindfulness, and how you make sense of the thoughts that cross your mind at any given moment.
Mindfulness means being able to notice the content of your thoughts, emotions and motivations as they appear. It is not an easy ability to develop, but neither is it some kind of idealistic philosophy appropriate only for hardcore adepts of Zen Buddhism. Talented executives need to meditate in their own way, find ways to step back and reflect on their thoughts, actions and motivations, and decide which ones are really supportive of their strategic agendas.
Another company we've worked with began incorporating contemplative techniques of reflection, yoga and meditation as part of all its regular training activities. Ultimately, though, it is the responsibility of individuals, not companies, to pursue mindfulness. So don't just accept or reject ideas and concepts; try to become aware of what ideas and concepts are central to your thought processes.
Similarly, don't just feel important aspects of a complex business situation; become aware of exactly what you are feeling and why. This process of self-awareness can be frustrating at times, but it will detach you from situations in which you would normally find it hard to pull back. Your thoughts and emotions will stop controlling your strategic destiny. And you will be back in the driver's seat, for better self-management and better leadership.
To avoid serious crashes, you have to be mindful.
This article first appeared in Forbes, April 21, 2009.