“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
It never ceases to amaze me how prescient Sun Tzu was, writing more than a thousand years ago. Simply put, this passage says before you are able to beat your enemies, you must first know yourself.
This seems like a simple, common-sense adage, but too often we forget to apply it in life. Our human instinct is to overthink the external competition while ignoring our internal strengths and weaknesses. We too often ask “Are we better than they are?” before asking the question “Are we any good?” Before we judge the enemy, we must first gain insight into ourselves.
This applies to our managing ourselves as well as armies. Many people reach this insight through the study of mindfulness. I will not pretend to be an expert in this area, but mindfulness is the meditative practice of focusing on the present moment and leaving aside the regrets of the past and worries about the future. Being a typical, mildly stressed middle manager working in a large corporation, I personally find this to be extraordinarily difficult to achieve, but during those very rare moments of mindfulness, I was able to focus on the present with a clear, focused mind.
Unfortunately, seconds later my mind would generally bring up that email I need to write for the management meeting tomorrow, and my inner peace would scatter like leaves blown around by a tornado. And my insight of the day would be that I need to relax a whole lot more.
But during these few, all-too-brief seconds, I felt everything that happened in all parts of my body as my senses became heightened. By focusing on the present moment, unfettered by past distractions I could not change and by various futures that may never come to pass, I was able to make profound insights and decisions.
Let us expand the scope of this discussion from the self to your workplace, your company, or your organisation. How does your organisation know yourself so that it can enjoy success and growth?
To analyse how to enjoy success, let’s first look at the flipside: What represents failure in the business world?
More often than not, it is the missed opportunity. You may have realised too late that your product line was no longer competitive in the marketplace or that rising supplier costs doubled your overhead and reduced profitability.
Does this sound familiar to you? If so, don’t worry—you’re in good company.
Studies show that as many as 50% of small and medium enterprises fail within the first 5 years, many due to incorrect decisions made at the management level.
How are decisions made? Even with current advances in technology, key strategic decisions in companies of all sizes continue to be made by humans. And we humans like to think we are rational beings so we like to base our on data—the better the data, the better decisions we make. If we have bad data, we make bad decisions. If we have no data, we go with our experience, or our “gut feel,” or sometimes we just flip a coin. And that brings us to the crux of the problem.
Let’s now go back to the idea of how we can turn our organisation to a mindful organisation.
As I was sitting on that mat struggling to forget the annoyances of the day and the worries about next week’s project deadlines, isn’t that very similar to a board meeting where everybody’s arguing about 3-month-old data from last quarter and sales projections that are based on that data? But nobody in the room is talking about what’s happening today.
What if we ask for today’s data? We get a lot of answers along the lines of “We haven’t closed the books yet,” or “It will take us a week to gather the data from the 3 different systems.” The organisation has failed to live in the present, as it is obsessed with the past and afraid of the future, even if those fears are based on data that may no longer be relevant.
How to obtain the elusive insight
Here are a few questions your business needs to answer:
– How do you know what are your strengths and weaknesses?
– How do you know how to allocate your resources and the finite amount of time you have?
– How can your company not get distracted by the failures of the past and the sales projections of the future to gain real insight into the true present state of business?
– In short, how does your organisation become a mindful organisation?
Being a software person, you may have guessed that this is where I’ll bring in the benefits of technology, and you would not be wrong. Simply buying and implementing software packages might allow your company to do things faster and in greater volume, but there is no guarantee that these are the right things to do. You could be like the Incredible Hulk without a Bruce Banner mode.
Power without thought is wasted
What is the key to getting the right software solution to achieve organisational mindfulness? As I have been far more successful in helping companies achieve self-understanding than achieving inner peace in my own mind, allow me to offer a few tips:
1. Think of your whole organisation, not just parts of it
There is a mindfulness exercise called the “body scan,” where you focus on each individual body part in turn to understand how it feels but ultimately return your awareness to your overall being. Similarly, when looking at software packages, you will want to focus on each business area—finance, HR, operations, procurement, and so on—however, ultimately you must gain an understanding of how they will all work together.
Too often in the software selection process, I see companies focus on only one solution area. They buy a decent package solution that does its job for that specific area only, failing to realise that it is creating a silo of information that’s very difficult to reconcile with other systems running in the company.
The ultimate aim of a business software implementation should be twofold: to improve business processes and to allow the organisation as a whole to make better decisions. Without the latter, the former is of limited value. Consider finding a solution that has the depth and breadth to cover your whole business, not just parts of it.
2. Focus on data captured, not just process improvement
The right software can provide the infrastructure that allows you to manufacture, process, and ship faster, but ultimately it will be the software that allows you to gain an understanding of the corporate self.
As each shipment, purchase order, or accounting journal is processed, for example, it will build the overall knowledge base of the company, and as it accumulates, the right software will allow you to make the right decision at the right time. During your software selection process, ask the vendor how their tools will help you arrive at the insights you need.
3. Live in the now: Real time
In the study of mindfulness, we live in the now, the present, this exact moment. That means we are focusing on the stream of data coming from our senses at a specific point in time. In the corporate world, we call this real-time information.
You need to make the right information at the right time. If you review information that’s a week, a fortnight, or even a day old, you are making decisions based on conditions that might no longer be true. This might have been okay in the past as everybody was in the same situation—but can you afford to make this assumption today?
Choose a software solution that will give you real-time information on your business as it happens. To do this, look for a solution that will allow you to do deep analysis from your production system as it happens as opposed to having to wait for data to be pushed to a reporting system, which could introduce delays.
4. Be open to possibilities
In the search of inner peace, I have often read that the cause of stress and anguish in our lives is our inability to accept how things are. Think about it: Every time we frown or raise our voices, it is usually because we think something is not how it “should be.”
While this very human response is necessary to bring our attention to potential problems, the rise in adrenaline also causes our emotions to rise, sometimes limiting our ability to analyse the problem objectively and find a solution.
When implementing software, you should apply this principle.
There will never be a 100% match between what software can do and what you want to do. There will be gaps and workarounds. As you do your business analysis, focus on the end result: Are you able to get insights to make better decisions?
Everything else is just means to that end. Do not let yourself become so consumed and stressed that you make emotional decisions. Evaluate the software objectively without feeling overly passionate about your existing processes or desires. Once you remove the emotions, you can accept the gaps in what the software can and cannot do, and you will be better able to calmly evaluate options:
– Should you change your processes?
– Does it make sense to configure the software differently?
I have seen too many software implementations fail to achieve their objectives because of political issues or emotional decisions. Apply a bit of mindfulness here: Accept the present, evaluate your options, and calmly make a decision. This approach will do wonders.
The advantage of mindful management
You should now understand the importance of knowing yourself, from ancient Chinese generals to the study of mindfulness. In order to know yourself, you must be able to live in the present without being distracted by events of the past or worries about the future.
In the corporate world, this translates to your organisation truly understanding the present state of things without distractions. The right software will help you achieve this, and if you implement it properly, you will achieve organisational mindfulness.
May all your decisions be profound and all your outcomes be fruitful.
For more insight on mindful management, see Risk Management And The Butterfly Effect.