Mindfulness: Seeing the Constellations of Innovation

Revealing what’s behind the light

In a world filled with increasing number of signals and lots of noise, it can be difficult to achieve focus and determine what to pay attention to. In this third piece in a series, Evaluation: The Innovator’s Secret Advantage, we look at one of the bedrocks of sustainable innovation that is the best representation of something shockingly simple, enormously powerful, but not easy: mindfulness.

Before embarking on an introduction to mindfulness for innovation, let’s dispel some myths about what it is not. It is not religious, spiritual, or some new-age trend, nor is it meditation. While it can and often is be affiliated with all those things, mindfulness is simply the practice of paying attention to what is around you and to yourself in the process. It is about conscious awareness of the present moment and non-judgemental attention toward the thoughts, feelings, experiences that arise from that experience. 

An Exercise in Mindfulness

To many, the idea of mindfulness seems like an odd start to the conversation about innovation and evaluation, but the closer you look at what mindfulness is all about, the more it becomes clear how important it is to what innovators and evaluators both do. 

At a recent talk on innovation and evaluation as part of Service Convention Sweden, Cameron Norman took the audience through a short exercise in mindfulness that looked like this:

  • Close your eyes (or lower your eyelids a little). [This reduces the amount of distraction from visual stimuli]
  • Put your feet flat on the ground and keep your back straight [This also reduces the amount of ‘signal’ coming from the body by getting into a more optimal position for sitting]
  • Breathe easy and relaxed and simply pay attention to what’s going on around you and what you are thinking. [Breathing easy avoids the issues created by holding one’s breath, creating a whole realm of problematic stimuli]

There are variants of this exercise that include focusing on the breath (which is a common technique for mindfulness-based stress reduction) and emphasis on quieting the mind, yet the outcomes are similar: an increased awareness of things that were — up until that moment — unaware and that is where mindfulness comes into evaluation. 

Evaluation serves innovation best when it goes beyond the simple assessment of outputs, outcomes, and process document. Evaluation can be a mechanism for focusing attention on the work of innovation and its context. In the example above, the audience was asked: what did you notice? The answers ranged from hearing the HVAC system, noticing their breath, and realizing how much noise takes place during a talk.

In previous workshops, participants have reported bodily sensations (e.g., getting hungry), temperature changes, physical discomfort (e.g., back getting stiff from sitting), a wandering mind, and often forms of judgement about not ‘doing it well’ (for which there is no ‘well’, but rather ‘practice’). Just like evaluation for innovation, there is only ‘useful’ and not ‘useful’, not ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Linking Mindfulness to Evaluation

The idea of applying mindfulness to organizations is not new and has actually been well-researched. Introducing and practicing the concept of organizational mindfulness has been shown to be strongly correlated with what high reliability in organizations, meaning that they continually produce desirable results, consistently. Innovation is difficult to do and doing it repeatedly and consistently is even more so. What organizations that have fostered mindfulness in the way they work have done is create a mechanism for paying attention that is systematized and implemented consistently.

Mindfulness is not a one-off exercise for those who adopt it into their work, but closer to a way of being. What it does is provide the means for organizations to not only focus on what’s in front of them, but to pay attention to the subtle signals that take place around that focus. (see two articles on our sister site Censemaking that link organizational mindfulness to social innovation and to developmental evaluation)

Mindfulness also cultivates curiosity. Curiosity is what draws an innovator and evaluator to consider what additional things might be happening (which we will explore later in this series) beyond just the intended outcomes. It is what leads us to innovation in the first place. By regularly creating space for mindful reflection into the innovation space, we nurture and cultivate curiosity.

Doing the Work

What does mindfulness practice look like for innovation? As mentioned earlier: we are dealing with something simple, not easy. A place to start is to follow some of these practices:

  • Ask evaluative questions, which include one that focuses on paying attention. We’ve discussed three of the most useful questions for promoting evaluative thinking in a previous post.
  • Create regular reflection space within the organization at each level (program, division, organization). This includes setting aside deliberate time regularly to reflect on what the data is telling you about what is happening, drawing on some of the questions above. This means instilling quiet, uninterrupted time for members of an organization to think and reflect. This involves unplugging from networks and thinking. It may involve tools (e.g., whiteboards, notebooks, cards) or movement (e.g., going for a walk or run), but it must be focused. Switching back and forth from email or other demands won’t work.
  • Bring reflections together. Individual reflection is important as is the chance to discuss those insights or experiences with others. Socialize the process of reflection by establishing a sharing culture. This builds much on what Donald Schon proposed as part of his work on attractor mapping, by enabling innovators to determine where the action is in the face of not always knowing. This means attending to the system that an innovation is a part of.
  • Reserve judgment and avoid labels. The rush to judge something is what kills curiosity and mindfulness. Ever notice that once something is labeled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we cease to ask the kind of questions of it that get deeper into its core? Mindfulness is about being open and then assessing utility.
  • Use learning as an outcome. What mindfulness does is encourage identification and insight into patterns. What comes from that identification and discussion is learning and is a genuine and important outcome for innovators. Document what is seen, heard, discussed, and concluded.

The biggest barrier that we see in our work is time. It isn’t that this takes a long time, although it does require some investment of it, rather it is that organizations are reluctant to prioritize this work and make it a regular part of their practice. Doing it occasionally has some benefit, but making it part of the organizational culture is really what will transform everyday work into something that has potential beyond the original purpose.

By instituting mindfulness into the work of your organization, you are more likely to see the constellations and quiet of night and not just the blue sky of the daytime.

Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

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