Published 10 February 2014 16:45
New York Times
“On an average day we spend 2.1 hours on distraction,” says Robin Sharma, a best-selling author and personal coach. “We’re distracted by technology every 11 minutes, and it takes us 25 minutes to refocus our minds on the deep, creative work we were doing before we were distracted.”
Compulsively checking Twitter feeds and emails is only one of the multitude of distractions that can keep us from becoming an asset to our co-workers and companies.
As Daniel Goleman explains in his book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” (Harper, 2013), focus is not only a scarce resource among leaders today, but also one of the keys to their ability to achieve excellence.
Alberto Ribera, Anindya Ghosh and Pablo Maella would agree. Recent work by the three, all professors at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa at the University of Navarra in Spain, sheds light on what leaders and organisations can do to recover focus as a means of nurturing the creativity, productivity and innovation that strengthen performance and often lead to success.
START WITH YOURSELF
Focus is essentially a discipline. Exercising it requires starting with the basics: a focus on the self. For leaders charged with managing departments, divisions or entire organisations, honing in on the self may seem counterintuitive, but it is not.
“The importance of exercising clarity and focus in self-management cannot be overstated,” Maella says, “for it is a key pillar of personal and organisational productivity.”
Identifying and managing your own personal resources is an important aspect of self-management, and one of these resources is time.
“Science says that we are at our energetic best first thing in the morning,” Sharma says, “and that’s when we have most of our focus. So, for the first 90 minutes of your work day, do only important work. Use your best hours to do your best work.”
Perhaps the most important resource at the heart of self-management is to know yourself, Ribera says.
“We all come into this life equipped with an array of strengths and personal resources,” he says, “though we may not even be aware of most of them.”
Ribera offers insights and tools to help individuals with the process of discovering what their strengths are and attaining the self-realisation known as “flow,” the state of concentrated or complete absorption with the activity at hand. Aligning attention, time and habits with one’s vision of the self is the ultimate aim, he says, because “it is the direction of our attention and its intensity that will determine what we accomplish, and how well.”
HOW TO CREATE A ‘FLOW FRIENDLY’ WORKPLACE
The focus achieved through the practice of self-management spreads out from individuals to benefit the organisation as a whole. It’s therefore important for companies not only to recruit individuals who understand their strengths and priorities, but also to create flow-friendly environments which maximise employees’ ability to reach and contribute their potential.
Former Patagonia CEO Michael Crooke, for example, has acknowledged the benefits of this ripple effect of flow from individuals to large management teams: “When you get a high-powered team together and you really get into a zone,” he says, “you’ll synchronise and achieve excellent results.”
Certainly such environments are fertile ground for creativity and innovation. Nonetheless, Ghosh says in a research paper published in Organization Science, channelling the creative talents of individuals too generally toward innovation can risk missing the mark. Strengthening focus on an organisational level, especially when it comes to innovative efforts, reaps important benefits.
He gives the example of the innovative ambition that earned Kodak’s Advanced Photo System an Innovative Digital Product Award in 2002. The ambition without the right focus, however, couldn’t help the company survive past the next decade.
COMBINING AMBITION WITH FOCUS IS KEY
Ghosh and his colleagues explored the factors that produce high-impact inventions, those that allow companies to shape the evolutionary trajectories of their market or to create new markets entirely. Inventive focus emerged as a key ingredient, along with a company’s prior experience of bundling disparate strands of technology in corporate research and development.
“The highest impact rewards those firms that master the art of combining ambition with focus in the leveraging of experience,” Ghosh says.
Although it may be elusive in our hyperconnected, fast-paced world of distraction, focus is an asset worthy of every leader’s and every organisation’s attention. Leaders who are able to step out of the immediate demands inherent in managing others to master the art of focus will tend to be a greater asset to their companies and colleagues. By developing a better ability to understand and mindfully manage their own strengths and priorities, leaders can then turn their attention to the larger challenges of their organisations and the world around them.
As Unilever CEO Paul Polman told a continuous-education session organized by the I.E.S.E.’s alumni association, companies can achieve much more if they focus on the right things. This means not putting the sole focus on the shareholder.
“If we keep focused on what we do best,” Polman said, “then the shareholder will be rewarded. So the shareholder is an outcome. Companies should focus on what they are supposed to do in the first place, which is to serve society, to focus on consumers, and do that well, do that responsibly.
“That is what I call intelligent growth.”