What's the value of mindfulness as a strategic planning tool?

Evidence suggests that silence and quiet reflection are indeed hugely overlooked as tools for better and clearer strategic thinking.

If there is one thing that a lot of leaders are going to take away from spending weeks in self-isolation - it's that 'silence and quiet reflection' are hugely overlooked as tools for better and clearer strategic thinking.

In a previous post I touched on the value of quietening the mind before trying to think strategically about how you are going to guide your business beyond the challenging time of the lockdown. Since then, I've been doing a lot more research into the topic and have uncovered some interesting research that's worth considering further.

In an article published in March by MIT Sloan the research suggested:

'Successfully responding to disruption requires executives to simultaneously reinvent today’s business while creating tomorrow’s business. More specifically, they have to find new ways to solve customer problems while at the same time scoping out new growth opportunities. The challenge isn’t just that these missions are in conflict and involve periods of chaos and uncertainty; it also is that they require fundamentally different mindsets and approaches.

Research by longtime Harvard professor Robert Kegan found that most leaders lack the cognitive flexibility required to “toggle” between being disciplined and entrepreneurial. Kegan terms this flexibility self-transforming, where leaders have the ability to “step back from and reflect on the limits of our own ideology or personal authority; see that any one system or self-organization is in some way partial or incomplete; be friendlier toward contradiction and opposites; [and] seek to hold on to multiple systems rather than project all except one onto the other.” Unfortunately, other research suggests that no more than 5% of high-performing managers have achieved this level of leadership.

It’s not surprising that so many leaders lack this capability. Most grew up in a world that was either disciplined or entrepreneurial but rarely both and almost never both at the same time. And leadership development (with rare exceptions) hasn’t caught up with this emerging need. To transform themselves, leaders must focus more on mindsets, awareness, and inner capacities to combat basic biases that make it hard to make decisions in uncertainty and toggle between different frames. There are no quick fixes here. But research increasingly suggests the best starting point is to embrace what broadly goes under the term mindfulness.

To some, the word might sound squishy and New Agey, but meditation and related practices that use breathing to tune into thoughts and sensations have widely documented health benefits, such as boosting energy and lowering stress. More critical, and for our purposes here, mindfulness boosts awareness, increasing a person’s ability to step back, pause, and become aware of not just habitual thought patterns, but also emotional reactions. As Potential Project managing director Rasmus Hougaard has noted, mindfulness is not about just doing more but also seeing more clearly what is the right thing to do and what is just a distraction.'

In a 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review - they take the theme even further:

'But although mindfulness may seem to be a fairly new phenomenon, it’s not. It first influenced business decades ago, through the development of an unmistakably hard skill that senior managers must master: strategic planning. Leaders today would be wise to learn from the past and to view strategic planning and mindfulness together.

Shell has long been an avid user of scenario planning

Pierre Wack, who was head of Group Planning at Royal Dutch/Shell in the 1970s, studied meditation extensively with teachers in Asia and, later, with the famous 20th-century mystic G.I. Gurdjieff in Paris. Wack perceived the world differently than his colleagues in the energy business. Through his unique lens, he came to create what we know as scenario planning — a widely used strategic planning practice that now spans all sectors.

As Art Kleiner described in the The Age of Heretics, Wack had “a lifelong preoccupation with the art of what he called ‘seeing.'” To see, in Wack’s understanding, meant not merely being aware of an element of the environment, but seeing “through it,” with full consciousness. Planning well, in his estimation, required “training the mind.”

As a longtime practitioner of scenario planning who met Wack and studied his approach, I consistently find that stories about his early days at Shell captivate executives’ attention as instructive lessons on how to look ahead. One scenario, in which it was presented that governments in Middle Eastern countries would effectively act as a cartel, largely came to pass with the rise of OPEC. Shell changed strategies and actions based on the findings of the scenario planning work, eventually allowing the firm to become an industry leader.

The oft-missing piece of the story is where Wack got the insights. From taxi drivers in the Middle East to garden designers in Japan, Wack sought ideas from a huge range of sources — including many people who had no ostensible link to oil industry data. For Wack, this approach was inextricably linked to mindfulness practice: “Quieting the mind” made it possible and natural to open up to new and unexpected sources of information. He trained his mind to hone intuition, take in diverse sources of information and emerging patterns, and, in turn, do the serious work of illuminating alternative futures.

Fundamentally, this is what scenario planning is all about: creating insightful stories about the future using good research and analyses, and identifying important patterns unfolding today that will shape the future for a company and its possible strategic options. This is as important today as it was in Wack’s era.'

There is a lot of value in developing an ongoing practice of mindfulness when it comes to better leadership and foresight. One feels that the research into this is just at the beginning stages of where it will one day go, but developing a quieter, more holistic view of the world is perhaps a good start.

Related: #makethefuture – Shell’s scenario planning video goes viral - Cherryflava