In their new HBR book “Mind of a Leader” Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter from Potential Project describe how focus is such a critical skill for leaders, summerised in their equation:
focus x time x competence = productivity
But when was the last time you had focus training? You may have attended many training programs on how to use your time better and how to become more competent at financial accounting, marketing or strategic thinking, but leaders rarely have trainings on how to be more focused.
However with so many things now competing for our attention, maybe its time for some focus training?
Results from their research with HBR showed that:
73% of leaders feel distracted “some or most of the time”
67% of leaders feel their minds are cluttered
65% feel this causes them to fail to complete their priorities
96% say that enhanced focus would be very valuable
Every time you focus you are training your brain to be more focused. It’s a great self-perpetuating cycle, unfortunately the opposite is also true: every time you allow yourself to be distracted you are training your brain to be more distracted.
Our environment is filled with distractions: emails, phones, other peoples priorities, funny you tube videos and various types of pings on our screens. Unless we actively take steps to reduce these distractions we are unintentionally letting our environment train our brain to be more and more distracted.
In which case, according to the formula, we had better find a load more time, or massively increase our competency, in order to remain productive.
Another option of course is to actively manage our external distractions, and train our brain to have less internal distractions.
Having a daily routine of scheduled focus time is a great technique to try to increase your focus:
Our ability to notice change is usually at quite a course level. We certainly notice if something major goes wrong at work, for example if our new product crashes and burns, if our project timelines get delayed, if we are told that our job is no longer required.
These big changes hit us hard in the face.
But actually they were made up of an infinite number of subtle, small, changes before they got to “the big one”. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to notice these smaller changes earlier?
Then we could make appropriate modifications to our new product before launch, we could have started to onboard more project team members to help meet deadlines, we could have up-skilled ourselves in a new area to make a role transition smoother.
If we intentionally practice noticing change at a finer level then these changes won’t hit us so hard, and we might actually be able to mitigate some of them.
Change is constant and therefore impermanence is our reality.
We know this rationally but we don’t allow ourselves to experience it very often, in fact our minds work pretty hard smoothing out our daily experiences so that as many things as possible seem unchanging.
Choosing to refine our ability to notice change means working against the natural tendency of the brain, and to actively practice noticing constant change.
Take for example our jobs, we may have had the same job for a few years, but really is it the same job? Doesn’t it pretty much change on some level, in some way, every single day?
If we can fine tune our awareness of change then we can be much better at seeing small changes and being able to take action at an earlier stage, but we need to intentionally practice it.
The good news is that we can do this, here a few ways to raise your level of awareness:
If you practice these activities regularly, daily, then your will start to notice your awareness raised in other areas too, and you will be more likely to subtle change where, and when, it matters.
Agile, the “customer-value driven, sprint orientated, small team” way of working has been suggested to increase a number of organizational KPI’s, but of most interest to me is its potential affect on levels of employee engagement.
What started as a way of working to develop software is now being rolled out across whole organizations, so as this evolution takes place its interesting to explore: is there something fundamentally brain-friendly about agile that makes it work so well, and if so, what is it?
From my research into this I have come up with 4 main areas where I feel agile is potentially driving up employee engagement: cultivating a state of flow, increasing presence, reducing fight/flight triggers and boosting intrinsic motivation.
A state of Flow
When an agile sprint is in full-force there is a tremendous focus on what’s to be achieved. Goals are clear, challenging, but achievable, and are re-clarified each day at the daily scrum. Its timed, usually a 2 week sprint and to use the agile phrase “done is done” - its really clear whether you achieved the goals or not. This puts our brains in to a state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as flow. A psychologically good state shared by professional sports people and artists, where we are fully engaged in what we are doing.
A state of Presence
But Agile is not just about sprints. Agile is also about being very focused on customer value (or whatever the main purpose is) but remaining open enough to see, but not be unnecessary distracted by, change. It’s not a sole focus on the goal, as we would then miss changing priorities, and it’s not a complete openness to everything, as we would then lack the focus to reach the goal. It’s a state where we do both. This is called being present, and along with flow, it is an optimum state of psychological functioning.
Both flow and presence give us energy, keep us engaged and fuel positive emotions.
So that’s some of the good stuff, but agile also removes some of the toxic ways of working more traditional organizations have. By having self-managing teams working in sprints a number of our usual ego-triggers are diminished. Using the acronym SCARF from David Rock, we can look at each of these triggers in turn and see how agile ways of working neutralize them.
Safety – is provided in the form of team membership and felt through the role of a scrum coach, who’s role it is to look after the team’s wellbeing and promote harmony.
Certainty - of what is required in any sprint; it’s time boxed and with radical transparency everyone can see what has been committed to. As agile teams get more experienced working together they improve on their level of certainty that they can deliver what they say they will.
Autonomy – you sign up for what you can do in the time given. Task are not handed out, they are self-selected. Autonomy is preserved as a self-managed team.
Relationships – as a team the relationships matter, agile teams are kept small (ideally 5-11 people), which helps all members have a relationship with every other member.
Fairness – in an agile team it is expected that you all muck in together, you don’t just stop when your work is finished, you all pull together to get the job done. Equally, you are not asked to do more than is fair.
We face these SCARF triggers on an almost daily basis at work, kicking off our fight/flight reactions. However many of the factors for intrinsic motivation are also covered in this list above, but agile hits on two more drivers of intrinsic motivation, in addition to Autonomy and Relationships:
Mastery - agile ways of working give people the ability to get really practiced at something, to develop deep skills, but also to add on new skills – a T-model of competencies is encouraged where people can bring their whole range of skills, deep or shallow, to help the team.
Purpose – Most agile teams put customer value at the center, they have a purposeful drive towards this and each decision about priorities or goals is couched in terms of this clear purpose.
So it seems that agile aligns well with what we know about optimum brain states of flow and presence, as well as boosting intrinsic motivation and reducing the toxic triggers of our flight/fight response.
Not bad for a software development technique; one to thank your IT department for.
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