• joe@jhanderson.biz   
    (206) 351-5607   

  • Our ancestors did not spend all their time developing cognitive optimizations that would inadvertently lead to failed technology projects in the 21st century. In fact, one of the skills they developed gives us a great image for the kinds of remedy that can help our teams function better today.

    In Sibudu Cave in South Africa stone points have been found that date back 64,000 years. While it’s not certain that these were used for archery, we have solid evidence of bows and arrows from 8,000 years ago. For just about as long as we humans have been getting distracted, reacting, and making biased decisions, we have been shooting things with arrows.

    We’ve been able to do this because, along with all our challenges we are built with two awesome capabilities: we can learn new skills, and we can strengthen our ability to execute those skills, even in difficult circumstances, over time. Our ancestors developed the skill to aim arrows at targets, even when that meant adjusting for trajectory, even when the targets were moving, and in all kinds of conditions. And they developed the strength to pull back bowstrings to propel arrows to those targets.

    Learning to manage cognitive disruptions that pull teams out of alignment has many similarities with learning to shoot an arrow. First, in both cases you need to acquire new skills (or, more likely, fine-tune skills you already have), and you need to strengthen those skills over time. Second, you need to be able to use those skills when you’re on the hunt and the stable circumstances of the practice range have turned into chaos. Finally, you need to be able to coordinate your activities with your fellow hunters, so you don’t stick one of them with your arrows.

    But there’s a deeper connection between archery and the kinds of skills you need to manage the cognitive disruptions that cause teams to fail. In both cases, in order to see the target clearly, you need a steady hand and a steady eye. You need to stay very focused on the target but also stay aware of your own physical and mental state. And, at the crucial moment, you need to make the no-going-back commitment of releasing the bowstring in a split second to transform your intention into a direct hit on the bullseye.

    The Key Skill for Keeping Teams Aligned: Mindfulness

    Steady concentration, awareness, and commitment to the present moment: these are all great descriptions of the term mindfulness. Mindfulness is the skill of disengaging from your identification with your thoughts and witnessing your experience with curiosity.

    And mindfulness is the key to addressing the disruptive optimizations that compromise team alignment:

    • It specifically targets distraction by improving attention and focus.
    • It provides the foundation of self-awareness you need to manage your reactivity.
    • It enables you to slow down your thinking enough to see your biases as they emerge.
    • It gives you the space to observe your network of relationships, including tendencies toward tribalism, with curiosity.
    • It offers perspective on the ways you are embracing change (or resisting change).
    • It makes it easier for you to notice the habitual patterns of thought that hinder creativity—and explore unexpected connections.

    Mindfulness might seem esoteric, but just like archery, it’s a practical skill that can be learned and improved over time.

    And in fact, the practical utility of mindfulness is becoming more widely recognized. Mindfulness is being adopted by many organizations as a basic employee productivity tool: Intel, Google, SAP, GE, Spotify, LinkedIn, and a growing number of other companies have formal mindfulness training programs, and informal programs are springing up even faster.

    The other thing that makes mindfulness attractive in the contemporary tech workplace is its vast array of possible implementation scenarios. It can be highly configured and adapted without losing its core strength, to accommodate both organizational and team needs and also account for individual preferences and priorities.

    Mindfulness is the key to overcoming the disruptions that get teams out of alignment, but it’s not quite enough. More on that in the next post.