It has been 26 years since the publication of Ellen J. Langer’s groundbreaking work, Mindfulness. Although powerful in its impact upon the management and cognitive sciences, few leaders have even a simple understanding of what mindfulness can mean to them. The challenge of understanding what mindfulness is rests, paradoxically, in understanding what it is not – mindlessness. Until leaders and their teams are able to recognize how often mindlessness inhibits creativity, stymies execution, and consumes productivity, they will not recognize just how powerful a mindful team can be.
When you stop and think about it – when you become mindful – we do some profoundly mindless things throughout the day. We drive to work and home without consciously recalling how we got there, or any idea about what happened during our journey. We dutifully grind out our work day focused on any given task with little understanding of why or for what greater purpose we do it. Lamentably, we spend hours upon hours in meetings that end with no decision or course of action. We talk mindlessly as a team without focus. Thus, when the year ends, we wonder why it was that we did not achieve our annual goals and advance in a strategic way. Such is the cost of mindlessness.
Being mindful as a team, on the other hand, looks very different. Mindful teams have a bias for action. They interact frequently, but efficiently to plan and perform tasks with purpose and focus. They do not waste time in endless meetings. Mindful teams understand the value of autonomy and accountability. As Langer pointed out, too much control, or what we often call micromanagement, inhibits mindfulness. “Highly specific instructions,” she writes, “encourage mindlessness. Once we let them in, our minds snap shut like a clam on the ice and do not let in new signals.”[I] Since Langer’s earlier research, we have learned why this is true. Concentrated thought requires energy and, as evolutionary biology demonstrates, conservation of energy is a ubiquitous quality within living systems. Our minds are designed to be more efficient rather than waste energy on routine tasks. Thus, we often behave mindlessly. It is rooted in our DNA. We take the well-worn path of habit, even when such a path may be at odds with our goals or wasteful of our precious time.
In his memoir, My Share of the Task, General Stanley McChrystal shares a life lesson in which he highlights how important it is that teams recognize that mindlessness is a part of our individual and organizational character. We cannot fully overcome it. The secret to mitigating its effect is to develop standards and processes, and the discipline to abide by them. McChrystal learned that “. . . the best way to take care of soldiers was to build standards and processes into a routine until predictable things worked smoothly. That gave leaders the ability to focus on the unpredictable as needed.”[ii] The lesson for mindful teams is how to engage our limited energy for being mindful in an efficient and effective way through standards, processes and shared mental models – so long as they are continuously validated for efficacy.
One of the secrets to building more mindful teams is knowing what things require very little mindfulness and allowing them to be carried out with discipline and habit while setting aside more challenging cognitive tasks for the limited mental energy we have. This means allowing members of the team the freedom to choose, decide, and solve challenges on their own. Langer understood the value of individual accountability when she wrote, “If a manager is confident, but uncertain – confident that the job will get done, but without being certain of exactly the best way of doing it – employees are likely to have more room to be creative, alert, and self-starting.”[iii] Such is the foundation of mindfulness in teams.
Six Ways to Build a Mindful Team
As General McChrystal learned, standards enable greater mindfulness by creating efficiency of mental effort. Through two decades of applying such team-oriented standard procedures in the Flawless Execution methodology, the same lesson arises. What follows is some general guidance on how to create greater team mindfulness.
1. Develop and enforce standard operating procedures. When the routine tasks and operations of a team are codified, teams can relax their cognitive energy for routine tasks and direct it toward new and more complex challenges. With standards, teams don’t have to continually reinvent the wheel. But, standards and processes must be continually evaluated through experience and frequent debriefing.
2. Develop checklists. Closely related to standards, checklists help prevent errors during the performance of mindless activity by reminding individuals of critical actions. Checklists should also engage other team members at appropriate points as a check on quality and accuracy. Mindless activity is often error-prone. Thus, a second pair of eyes can identify and prevent such errors.
3. Plan according to a standard, collaborative process. When teams share a common and effective model for planning and decision making, they can get straight to the mindful effort needed rather than wasting time mindlessly chatting and struggling to reach consensus. Most important, however, teams must drive toward individual tasking and accountability – and no further! Let people figure out how to do things on their own.
4. Brief plans to your team. Planning, when performed properly, is a mindful activity. Give the team a break afterwards, but brief the completed plan to them in a formal way after the break. Good briefing techniques communicate details and accountabilities to refocus a team toward mindful execution.
5. Hold frequent, short-but-focused meetings during the execution of a plan. These meetings should have a single objective, to identify execution shortcomings and emerging challenges in order for the team to address them and take mindful actions to keep the plan on track.
6. Debrief successes and failures frequently. Turn learning from what you do into a habit. The quarterly debrief, retrospective, after action review, post-mortem, or whatever you wish to call it, is too infrequent to develop a habitual commitment to learning. Continuous learning through frequent debriefing is essential to mindfulness because it forces teams to concentrate on what’s happening and what they are doing in the here and now.
The term mindfulness has unfairly acquired a flavor relating it to new age spirituality. But, as outlined above, there are simple, concrete, and empirically-proven ways to developing more mindful teams.
[i] Ellen J. Langer. Mindfulness, 25th Anniversary Edition. (Da Capo Press, 2014) Pg. 140-142.
[ii] General Stanley McChrystal. My Share of the Task: A Memoir (Portfolio Penguin, 2013). Pg. 44.
[iii] Ellen J. Langer. Mindfulness, 25th Anniversary Edition. (Da Capo Press, 2014) Pg. 140-142. Pg. 19.