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.
It is 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.
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 explain, it’s possible to integrate simple practices of focus and awareness throughout a workday.
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.
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.