Uncertainty – A Gateway to Attention

Picture Credits: Mikael Kristenson 

Uncertainty in 2020

I enter into this new year as a different person.  Of course, each year I am a new version of myself.  However, this year I feel it more because I learned a lot in the past ten months.

Most importantly, I learned to make friends with uncertainty.  I thought I had befriended uncertainty long ago, given my love of change.  It turns out that this friendship required a much deeper understanding.

Joanna Macy, environmental activist and author of eight books, revealed to me the five gifts of uncertainty in one of her 2020 talks.  These gifts are:

  1. The gift of presence
  2. The gift of choice
  3. The gift of courage to feel
  4. The gift of a sense of solidarity
  5. The gift of noticing the immensity of time.

These gifts are actually gateways to harnessing attention, one of our most valuable assets for innovation and creativity.

  1. Uncertainty’s Gift of Presence

In a pandemic, we may oscillate between hopefulness and hopelessness. If we can recognize that these are just feelings that come and go like clouds, we can arrive in presence. Uncertainty gets us to the present moment because

“Uncertainty can free us from the need to be constantly taking our emotional temperatures to how optimistic or pessimistic we are in the moment.” 

– Joanna Macy

In 2020, I quickly realized the unproductive result of playing the game of riding my emotions.  When I had something to act on like writing an article, I was right back in the present.  I was able to harness the strength of my own alertness.

Cultivating awareness of emotions is a practice.  Only when we become aware that we are on the emotional roller coaster can we let that go and get back to the present.  This is closely related to the second gift of uncertainty.

Being in the present moment is a primary gateway to harnessing attention.

  1. Uncertainty’s Gift of Choice

The second gift of uncertainty, completely linked to the first, is choice. We choose what we are going to do, only in the present moment.  As humans we have a capacity to choose. We are actually choosing which verb we want to be. So, are we choosing to act from purpose, with intention, or are we choosing to react to an emotional state?  That is our choice in every given moment of the day.

If we are able to be with our deeper sense of purpose, our motivation to choose useful action will ultimately benefit the world and humanity in a positive way.  Being with purpose unlocks value creation at a higher level.

Choice is a gateway to harnessing attention.

  1. Uncertainty’s Gift of the Courage to Feel

In this pandemic time of uncertainty, we also have emotions like outrage, fear and grief.  We are presented the gift of courage to notice these feelings, to turn towards them.  Instead of the habitual running away from these uncomfortable feelings, we can sense into collective grief and pain.  Here we can find golden nuggets of insight that may move us to act in powerful and positive ways.

Courage to feel is also a gateway to harness attention.

  1. Uncertainty’s Gift of Solidarity

Uncertainty unites us in solidarity. Solidarity means unity or agreement of feeling or action.  The COVID pandemic reinforces the interconnectedness of all human life forms.  It helps us pay attention to that interconnectedness.  The uncertainty of transmission, of who believes COVID is real or not, helps us pay attention to how we will act in relationship to our fellow humans, those that we know and those that we don’t.  

Solidarity is a gateway to harnessing collective attention.

  1. Uncertainty’s Gift of the Immensity of Time

Joanna Macy says that to be a human now in this darkness of uncertainty presents great responsibility. The decisions we make right now will have a direct effect on whether future generations, centuries and millennia from now, will even live or thrive. 

“We live in a time when the consequences of our actions, thanks to science and industrial capitalism, extend into geological time…. To hundreds of thousands of generations.”

“The future ones are therefore in our actions right here, now.. These future beings are all plugging for us. Please feel them. Let them laugh in your ear as well as slap you on the back side and pull you forward, because we have great work to do.” 

– Joanna Macy  

When we are able to understand that today’s choices will have a ripple effect into the future, then we will have received uncertainty’s fifth gift.  Thus, the sense of our relationship with the immensity of time  is also a gateway to harnessing the power of attention.

Your Team’s Brain – Rewired

Photo: Dan Dennis

Remote Forever

It is no secret that more remote working is here to stay, even after this pandemic is over.  A new role is emerging in large organizations – the Head of Remote Work.  “Digital first” is a given combined with the fresh term, “Remote – first” ways of working.  Gitlab, Facebook and Okta Inc. hired new Heads of Remote Work in the last year.  Shopify calls its workforce “digital by default.”

Neurodiversity Decline

There is a less talked about impact of more remote work.  What will it do to our brains?  How will the collective brain be affected?  

The December 2020 Globe and Mail article, “Tech is rewiring education – and our children,” shed light on the mounting concern that on-line learning disregards neurodiversity.  This emerging flavor of exclusion negatively impacts collaboration so key for knowledge worker teams.  Thus, the rewiring of work will result in teams that lack neurodiversity. Ultimately, a decline in innovation will occur.   

Tactile, experiential learning is revered by Silicon Valley CEO’s as evidenced by their preference for low-tech Waldorf schools.  This type of learning is key for creativity.  

The core role of knowledge worker teams is to constantly learn and create new products.  Post pandemic, what will happen if they continue to omit tactile, embodied experiences?  I predict the creative process and innovation will suffer deeply.

Remote Rewiring

The fact is, our brains are impacted negatively with increased remote work because it equates to more heads in screens.   The 1950’s book by Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, predicted what we are experiencing now, namely

 “a profound change resulting in the human disconnect from the tactility of material work where the worker  loses contact with the primary element of life and environment, the basic material out of which he makes what he makes.  He no longer knows wood or iron or wool. He is acquainted only with the machine.”

The result is a decline in cognition, learning, and innovation. Embodied cognition researchers T. Ionescu and D.Vasc “consider the body as a key factor in shaping our cognition.”   Without the connection to the body, our brains will be rewired, putting us humans at a disadvantage.

For the past four years I have been helping teams innovate and transform differently by applying embodiment practices developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  During this work I have witnessed the importance of movement and gestural expression.  The physical quality of embodied practice leads to faster solutions, deeper perspectives and news ways of seeing and solving problems.  In short, the collective cognition of teams is improved when such practices are layered-in alongside the digital tools.

So let’s make sure we gather as teams in physical spaces again….often. Engaging with our collective learning, moving bodies on a regular basis will be of paramount importance once this pandemic is over.  

Why?  To preserve and improve the cognitive power of our teams, to prevent the divorce of body and brain.  At the same time, we will maintain our humanness.

Unplug for a Day

Photo: Xjono

Let’s Unplug

There is a growing movement to support each other in taking a technology break.  Why?

  • 79% of people admit technology distracts them from connecting with each other. – Lasting app, 2018
  • 98% can’t seem to get through the day without at least being interrupted a few times. – RescueTime 2018
  • 99% of people still use their phones as an alarm clock. – Bagby, 2018

These numbers represent only a tiny snapshot of the alarming statistics emerging from research reports across the world.  The main point is, the unintended consequences of technology overuse result in addiction, eroding human connection and brain damage.

We can change this!  A baby step includes joining a National Day of Unplugging.  If you are in Canada, join the Canadian National Day of Unplugging on March 5-6, 2021, from 6pm March 5 to 6pm March 6.  MindEQuity has partnered with the Unplugged Collaborative to spread awareness and increase wellbeing for all participants.

If you are in the Greater Toronto Area, the first 120 people to sign up receive a free cell phone sleeping bag, designed by Jessica Tully.

Days of Unplugging

The first National Day of Unplugging launched in the United States in 2009.  Reboot, a Jewish arts and culture non-profit joined another community group who was gathering for tech-free Shabbat dinners.  They inspired thousands of community partners to create local unplugged events.  

For 24 hours, August 1-2, 2020, there was even a Global Day of Unplugging.  People from all over the world connected via a global sign off through a candle lighting ceremony. 

Yesterday, I spoke with Kim Cavallo who is now leading the Unplugged Collaborative.  She shared with me that the movement continues to grow.  So far, over 200,000 have participated in events which are organized through local hosts. Local organizers include non-profits, schools, religious institutions and businesses. 

Help Your Phones Sleep, Help You Sleep

When you put your phones in a cell phone sleeping bag, outside of your bedroom, you are taking a step to improve your sleep and long-term wellbeing.  A Harvard study* revealed that that there are six main reasons to get your phone out of the bedroom:

  1. It will take you longer to fall asleep
  2. It will mess with and delay your circadian clock rhythm
  3. It will suppress your melatonin secretion when you need it most
  4. It will decrease your REM sleep
  5. It will make you more alert when you want to wind down
  6.  You will feel more tired and less alert when you wake up

“Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next morning alertness.” Anne-Marie Chang, Daniel Aeschbach, Jeanne F. Duffy, and Charles A. Czeisler

Choose Effectiveness Over Efficiency

Photo: Nick Fewings

“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” 

– Peter Drucker, management guru

In November, I posted an article about why you can focus better when you are aligned with your purpose. Today’s article is related, diving into the difference between effectiveness and efficiency.

Your level of effectiveness depends largely on how inspired you are. If you are already clear about your higher purpose, you have inspiration to draw from. Also, if the leader of your team or organization is inspiring, the road to effectiveness is clear.

When we are able to focus, we are also effective.

Effective vs. Efficient
Are you a human being or a human doing? In today’s fast-paced world of immediate response and digital noise, we may find ourselves acting more like machines or “human doings”.
How do you wish to be as a human being, effective or efficient? You may answer that you would like to be both but I challenge you to consider putting more energy into effectiveness.
Why? Effective is a quality of being and often relates to people. (Of course a COVID vaccine can also be effective, something we are all hoping for these days.)
As leaders, we manage things as well as people. This is where the nuance arises. We strive to manage things efficiently but it is important to manage or lead people effectively. This is because,

“People, like nails, lose their effectiveness when they lose direction and begin to bend.”

-Walter Savage Landor, British poet

Effective means producing a decided, decisive, or desired effect. An effect is impressive or striking. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Effective is the ability to be successful and produce the intended results; the quality of being successful in achieving what is wanted. (Cambridge Dictionary)

Efficient means being capable of producing desired results with little or no waste, in terms of time or materials. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Efficient means working or operating quickly and in an organized way; using resources such as time, materials, or energy well without wasting any. (Cambridge Dictionary)

Inspiration and Effectiveness

In his book, The Spark, the Flame and the Torch, Dr. Lance Secretan teaches us that inspiration is the source of exceptional effectiveness. He defines effective as,

“Achieving desired outcomes successfully – to reach the goals we have set for ourselves, whether on the spiritual, mental or physical levels.”

When we are inspired, being effective requires almost no effort. When we are inspired, we operate in a state of flow which happens to be a state of extreme focus.

In summary, know your purpose, be inspired and inspiring to others. Effectiveness will naturally result, without sacrificing wellbeing.

Organizations Can Create Conditions for Productivity with Wellbeing


Photo: Andreas Klassen

A recent article in The New Yorker Magazine reveals new ideas on how to improve knowledge worker productivity. I agree that a more organization-driven approach is needed, without constraining the benefits of autonomy gained in remote work.

We need to move away from our flawed commitment to personal productivity….We must acknowledge the futility of trying to tame our frenzied work lives all on our own and instead, ask, collectively, whether there’s a better way to get things done.”

Cal Newport, Professor of Computer Science, Georgetown University


Productivity and Work

Productivity is very much an inhuman term, equating a person to a machine.  It is referred to as an “output per unit of labor” or the “rate at which goods are produced.”  In the industrial age, most work was manual, performed alongside machines in factories.  At the end of the 19th century, employers looked at the physical movements of workers to find time and cost reductions. They viewed employees as the extension of machines that could be optimized.

In the 1950s there was a shift from manual labor to more cognitive work.  In 1999, Peter Drucker, famous for studying the operations of General Motors, noted that knowledge workers in North America outnumber manual workers by about four to one.

Email Arrives

The 1990s brought a flood of emails into work.  At first, email seemed to be a wonderful tool for productivity.  However, it caused us to engage in new behaviors we never signed up for.  All of a sudden we were allowed to bother our co-workers and bosses at any time.  We accepted the constant barrage of tasks, questions, and invitations from our bosses and co-workers as well.  This behavior is still with us today!

A new, unwritten definition of productivity became: number of emails written and responded to.  We felt getting to an inbox of zero was a great achievement.  Soon we realized that email was also a great source of stress.  Maybe it was not as productive as we thought.

As a result, the personal productivity movement was created by David Allen, author of the popular book, Getting Things Done, in 2003.  Merlin Mann, author of the famous 2004 blog, 43 folders, championed Getting things Done.  Mann also created the InboxZero method, made famous after his talk on the subject was posted on YouTube.

From Productivity to Creative Work

A few years later, around 2007, Mr. Mann lost his enthusiasm for personal productivity.  Instead, he became interested in “finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.”  It is our best creative work that creates value and allows us to fulfill our purpose.

In 2016, Cal Newport’s important book, Deep Work, sheds light on how knowledge workers can create value in the 21st century.  In his view, they must be able to “work creatively with intelligent machines as well as be a star in their field”.  To do that, they need the ability to “quickly master hard things” AND “produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Newport states that these two abilities depend on a knowledge worker’s capacity to perform Deep Work which he defines as,

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push cognitive capabilities to the limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.“


Responsibility for Productivity is Organizational

So, is the knowledge worker personally responsible for his/her productivity?  To an extent, yes, personal habits are in the individual’s control, especially if we work mostly alone.  

However, if we are part of a team or larger organization, we cannot control the levels of unstructured communication coming at us. This flood of unprioritized information causes stress, cognitive overload, and overwhelming, especially if we are “always on and connected.”So, back to Cal Newport’s New Yorker article from November 2020.  Below I summarize a list of action steps, supported by quotes from the article on the main points related to the organization’s responsibility for productivity.


    1. Stop Haphazard Work Organization.The fundamental problem is the insidiously haphazard way work unfolds at the organizational level.”
    2. Accept that Productivity is Collective.Productivity can never be entirely personal.  It must be connected to a system that we can study, analyze and improve.”
    3. New Tech is Not the Solution.Many organizations claim to be interested in productivity, but they almost always pursue it by introducing new technology tools – in a piecemeal fashion.”
    4. Leaders Can Seek Holistic Change. “The idea of large-scale interventions that might replace the mess of unstructured messaging with a more structured set of procedures is rarely considered.”
    5. Don’t Micromanage. Do Make Clear Rules. “If I am a computer programmer, I might not want my manager telling me how to solve a coding problem, but I would welcome clear-cut rules that limit the ability of other divisions to rope me into endless meetings or demand responses to never-ending urgent messages.”
    6. Structure the Day for Creative Skilled Work.Introduce processes that minimize the time required to talk about work or fight off random tasks flung our way by equally harried co-workers, and instead let us organize our days around a small number of discrete objectives.”
    7. Apply Management Intervention.  “Ask hard questions about how work is getting done. Make it easier to figure out who is working on what, and how it’s going.

Productivity in COVID

In this pandemic, the problems outlined above got worse and became even more obvious.  It is not morally correct for employers to allow the inadvertent extortion of hard-working employees. Now there is pandemic induced anxiety and uncertainty that is only increasing. Work and home life are blurred. Childcare and school are often in our home offices too.  We are all Zoomed out and forever connected to our screens.

It is not possible to manage productivity on an individual level.  Collective efforts are needed.  Management and organizational support is a must.

Protect and Harness Attention

I say thank you to Cal Newport for making such a clear case that organizations have an opportunity and the responsibility to protect and harness organizational attention.

“The benefits of top-down interventions designed to protect both attention and autonomy could be significant,” writes Newport.

What is a conscious organization?


Photo: Josh Riemer

The Conscious Organizations virtual conference, October 28-30, 2020, hosts 17 global thought leaders with ideas and methods for creating a conscious organization. I am honored and excited to facilitate dialogue on harnessing and protecting attention on October 29.


Photo: Slidebean

Many Definitions

There are many ways to define a conscious organization.  You will have your own definition. I will introduce a few below.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein had a lot to say about consciousness. One of his many quotes on this topic goes,

“We experience ourselves, our thoughts and our feelings as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires, and affection for a few persons nearest to us.” 

Einstein is describing separateness and we can extrapolate his quote to define the unconscious organization.  These operate primarily from their own, siloed interests with little consideration and care about the negative externalities they create that cause harm to people and the planet.


Photo: Mathias Jensen

Conscious Capitalism

The idea of conscious capital was created by Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey and marketing professor Raj Sisodia.  A conscious organization is one that is socially responsible and operates ethically while pursuing profits. There is a holistic intention to serve all stakeholders including employees, humanity, and the environment, not just customers, management and shareholders.

Conscious Leadership

Dr. Lance Secretan, a renowned author, speaker and leadership coach, has given the world important and impactful teachings on this topic. Dr. Secretan builds on Einstein, conscious capitalism and others with a holistic and inspirational vision for the 21st century, namely, that we can move away from separateness through the “practice of oneness”.  This practice means following the principles of courage, authenticity, service, truthfulness, love and effectiveness, as outlined in his book, ONE:  The Art and Practice of Conscious Leadership.

Theory U

conscious organization

Photo: Caleb Jones

A fourth definition I would like to mention arises from the Theory U and ULab movement at the Presencing Institute at MIT, led by Dr. Otto Scharmer who states, 

“The essence of consciousness-based systems thinking, aka Theory U, is to relink the parts and the whole by making the system sense and see itself.

There are a lot of parts that require this “re-linking”.  

The “relink” mentioned above is established by sensing and truly seeing our Earth, sensing and truly seeing our own selves, sensing and truly seeing our teams and organizations, and sensing and truly seeing our educational systems, hospital systems, political systems, etc.

Sensing and Seeing into Five Relationships

conscious organization

Photo: Mario Purisic

I have read most of the “consciousness” books written by the above mentioned authors.  Since 2015, I have been a regular participant in the Theory ULab movement.  I am currently a student of and collaborate with Dr. Lance Secretan.   Since 2018 I am an advanced teacher of the Theory U movement practice called Social Presencing.

Reading is useful but can only teach so much. Until I learned to “sense into” and “see”, at a deeper level, within myself, I did not fully begin to understand the experience of what a conscious organization might be.  The learning and the practices continue forever!

The idea of “sensing into” and holistically “seeing” leads me to add to the definition of conscious organization.  I believe that a conscious organization is an organization whose members continuously practice paying attention, with intention, to the five relationships they are always in.

These relationships are

    1. Our relationship with ourselves (degree of self-awareness of physical and emotional states),
    2. Our physical relationship with Earth, as our bodies are attached through the gravitational pull,
    3. Our relationship with the visible social body – other humans we are interacting within a given moment,
    4. Our relationship with the invisible social field – the level of relational connectedness, history, opinions, affinity,
    5. Our relationship with the space, which now includes both our physical and our virtual spaces.

As humans, when we pay attention, or just notice, these five relationships, we are able to feel…… emotionally, physically, intellectually, spiritually….. that we are part of a larger whole.  We can learn to pay attention by getting out of our tech and back in our bodies, using a variety of practices, from mindfulness to play, developed by reputable organizations such as the Presencing Institute, the Secretan Center, the Strozzi Institute, Potential Project and others.  We can learn to pay attention by cultivating vulnerability and empathy.

Leadership is about Attention

Leading with Attention

In August 2020 I had the opportunity to deliver an interactive virtual workshop for Dr. Anita Nowak’s Leadership class at McGill University in the Desautels Faculty of Management.

About 20 undergraduate students from various majors participated with career interests including management consulting, board management, diversity & inclusion, finance, sustainability, strategic management and business advising.

When asked about issues hindering their ability to focus these days, responses included:

  • “I am reactive and distracted. Time and resources are wasted.”
  • “I have constant stress. The hidden voice of fear, judgement and cynicism are there.”
  • “I can’t focus”.
  • “I feel disconnected.”
  • “I have burnout.”
  • “I have an unbalanced portfolio of work and experience analysis paralysis.”

Digital overwhelm and distraction were with us before the pandemic. Screens had already become an extension of our brains. Students of leadership recognize this is an ongoing problem in themselves and in the teams and organizations they will eventually lead.

Focus is a Skill

We talked about focus as a skill that can be learned. We collectively recognized that none of us had ever had formal training in how to focus, not in school, nor in university, nor in the workplace.

I introduced a simple focusing exercise called “50 Snaps”, which is taught in many U.S. elementary schools. You can do this any time if you need a break from sitting. Stand on one leg, hold out one arm in front of you, then snap your fingers 50 times. Close your eyes if this is too easy.

Students shared that their attention was directed to snapping, counting and balancing. In other words, no one was daydreaming and thinking about their to do lists!

Imagine if we could direct our focus in this way for several hours a day?

5 Elements Influencing Attention

I introduced the 5 elements influencing our attention to this group of future leaders. These are:

  1. Focus
  2. Culture
  3. Body Wisdom
  4. Tools
  5. Environment

Participants were engaged via interactive exercises and generative dialogue around their current state felt experience in relation to the five elements. Some insights which arose from the class included:

1. Focus

Many students have the goal to do up to 28 hours of undistracted, focused work per week. It is challenging to accept that the average person can stay truly focused for only about 2 hours in one day! People who have trained themselves to focus better can do up to 4 hours of deep work per day. (I recommend the book Deep Work by Cal Newport for more information on the topic.)

2. Culture

Students had discussions on how team culture influences their ability to stay focused. Aspects of culture included team values, mindsets, behaviours, and alignment on purpose. We talked about the importance of adopting a new maxim, “Attention is our most valuable asset.”

3. Body Wisdom

The idea of the body mind connection was not new. However, the importance of balancing intelligence and wisdom in a team in order to foster innovation was different. Lego Serious Play, Social Presencing Theatre, the Empathy Toy and Agile games are examples of body wisdom practices which get us out of our heads and into our bodies for new insights. Not only do these practices improve innovation, but they have the added benefit of increasing creativity, wellbeing and empathy. Students commented that they were lucky to learn about such things from forward thinking professors like Dr. Anita Nowak.

The Empathy Toy, photo 21 Toys

4. Tools

One of the easiest ways to get back attention is by using digital tools intentionally. Most of the students shared that they get 10-20 notifications per hour. One student has 150!. A University of California @ Irvine research study shows that it takes 23 minutes to get back to a task after an interruption. This was eye-opening. We also discussed the importance of having the right metrics and agreements in place to track wellbeing, effectiveness and innovation in order to understand how well a team is cultivating and protecting attention.

Photo Craig Garner

5. Environment

Finally, participants reflected on the importance of physical and virtual workspace design and its impact on their ability to focus. This included how both physical and virtual meetings can either be a big waste of time or be effectively facilitated for inclusion and generative dialogue. The topic of psychological safety and “holding space” for everyone to feel comfortable enough to participate was a great area of interest in this class.

7 Mistakes Hindering Sustained Value Creation  

The Problem.

Innovation teams must continuously sustain creative advantage to remain relevant. They are bombarded with exponential change, technology disruption and stress…..and that was before the pandemic!

Only “6% of executives are satisfied with innovation performance,“ McKinsey Global Innovation Survey, 2019.

Innovative organizations are facing three major, interconnected challenges:

  1. Improving team wellbeing AND
  2. Sustaining innovation AND
  3. Enabling team effectiveness.

An environment of digital overwhelm, increased work from home, and virtual meetings means people are high on busyness on the Merry Go Round of Distraction. Many are working on the brink of burnout. People unknowingly behave as though attention is not their most valuable asset.

“75% of workers admit they feel distracted when they’re on the job, with 16 percent asserting that they’re almost always distracted,” 2018 Udemy, Workplace Distraction Report.

woman sitting holding smartphone near laptop

Photo C.G. DePineres

In my recent ten years working with innovative organizations, I noticed that the three major challenges actually stem from one missing organizational value and seven unintentional mistakes.

The Missing Organizational Value

The missing organizational value is, “Attention is our most valuable asset.” When a fundamental belief about the value of organizational attention is missing, innovation is harder, wellbeing is at risk and high effectiveness without overtime is unlikely.

Silicon Valley inventors, revered by many, are essentially hacking our brain power as well as our effectiveness. Does your organization value team attention more than Silicon Valley does?  Their (Silicon Valley’s) most precious asset is our most precious asset, our attention, and they have abused it,” Franklin Foer, World without Mind.

Please note – I am not proposing your organization exploit attention for data acquisition as per the business models of Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc. I agree with Gary Vanderchuk that attention is an asset. However, I believe attention is a human asset that must be protected in order to

  • safeguard wellbeing
  • enable creative flow
  • work effectively without overtime.

“Humans were always wiser at inventing tools than using them wisely,” Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow.

But today, team attention is under attack, not only as a result of the attention economy, but also because of our own behaviours and mindsets.

Photo Siora Photography

7 Underlying Mistakes

Mistake #1: Not knowing how much undistracted, deep work* is needed for sustained value creation.

*Deep work includes, “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push cognitive capabilities to the limit. Creates new value, improves skills, is hard to replicate.” – Cal Newport, Georgetown University, Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Cal Newport

Not knowing how time is spent, per job role, per team is one of the biggest mistakes we see. If people are uncertain about what the right balance of distraction vs. attention should be, it is likely that time for focused work is not supported by organizational culture nor blocked in the calendar. This leads to overtime or working on weekends.  It is the only way people can find “quiet time” to complete important deliverables.

TIPS: Assess your value creation portfolio. Define how much deep work is required per job role. Block time in your calendar for focused work.

As an organizational leader, please model behaviours such as blocking your own calendar for deep work. Protect and encourage undistracted work time in your teams.

Mistake #2: Constant task switching by day, doing focused work at night, on weekends.

Photo www.distel.com

Though most of us know that multitasking is not possible, we continue to do it. Further, many people believe that interrupting smart phones are not something to be worried about.

“In laboratory studies, most of those whose focus is impaired in the presence of their devices later insist that they have not been affected at all. They are oblivious to the brain drain of distraction,” Maggie Jackson, Distracted, Reclaiming our Focus in a World of Lost Attention.

Personally, task switching is my biggest challenge. I very much like the feeling of constant busyness. I love the illusion of productivity it creates. Thus, I have to put technical and physical inhibitors in place to stop myself from doing it.

TIPS: Technical: Close ALL tabs on all of your monitors, except for the tabs you require for the present task at hand. For example, while writing this piece I have two tabs open, one GoogleDoc tab for writing and a second GoogleDoc tab where quotes and research for this article were collected. Physical: Put your phone in a different room. I find these two tips easier than turning off notifications.

Mistake #3. Prioritization of reactive tasks over intentional, high value creation.

Photo www.distel.com

It is normal for humans to unintentionally prioritize reactive tasks like answering emails and instant messaging in apps like Slack, Teams or GoogleHangouts all day long. Responding quickly can make us feel busy, important and productive. Receiving a quick response to what we just sent is also highly satisfying. This is the well-known dopamine effect.

Since email has not disappeared yet, let’s just talk about that. Composing an email can be a valid work activity. Thus, we may not notice its addictive effects in the same way we may be aware of social media addiction. Email is great for procrastination and we can convince ourselves we are not wasting time. “Consumers said they spend approximately five hours a day checking work email.” 2019 Adobe Email Usage Study.

Unintentional use of email causes constant task switching (Mistake #2). It takes us about 23 minutes to get back to the task at hand after pausing too quickly respond to an email. This statistic was revealed through the research of Gloria Mark, University of California, Irvine.

Thus, if you and your teams still have email overwhelm, action must be taken.

TIPS: If you haven’t already disabled all email notifications, including on your computer, do that now. Then block time in your calendar, up to a maximum of two times per day, for email correspondence.

As an organizational leader, please use your influence and set-up the email servers to batch-receive email messages on the hour instead of constantly. Model the same behaviour you want your teams to be doing. Don’t expect an instant response and don’t respond instantly yourself.

Mistake #4:  Favouring data analysis over instinct, body wisdom and the human sensing experience.

Photo Ellen Noon

Too much thinking, talking, and messaging is the norm. In the Western world, linear, analytical thinking dominates.

“In the last 20-25 years of my life we have seen the dominance of rational thought. It’s dominated a lot of our academic institutions, the media, and it’s taken away from the capacity to advance intuitive skills. Now for the first time we are starting to realize that problems are not getting any better. We have to step back and take a whole new approach to these problems. One of the challenges we have recently had in business is by going to the fully rational side and by focusing everything on near term measurement, analytical tools, we have ground out or expunged creativity from our companies and 100 billions dollars are being wasted.”Bill George, Harvard Senior Fellow, emphasized this during a 2016 interview in the documentary film Innsaei, The Power of Intuition,

We need a balance between intelligence and wisdom to sustain innovation. In my own profession of management consulting, I have been trained and rewarded for analytical, cognitive thinking skills and was never formally trained nor encouraged to apply sensing practices or intuition. This gap can mute creativity as pointed out by Bill George above.

We also need balance between the digital and the physical to sustain wellbeing and to cultivate key leadership skills like empathy and vulnerability. That is why I believe we must regularly get out of our tech and back into the body. By anchoring attention in the body, we can regain focus, just like the unicyclist in the photo. In fact, many meditation and awareness practices include anchors in the body, including the breath, as an important brain training technique.

Photo Noel Nichols

TIPS: Engage regularly, as teams, in body wisdom practices. These are analog activities done in an environment free of screens, headphones, often free of dialogue. Examples include movement, embodiment, using hands to create, silence, mindfulness, intentional sensing and play. In the innovation world, examples include Lego Serious Play, the Empathy Toy, Liberating Structures, and Agile Games.

Since the onset of COVID, these body wisdom practices have been adapted for on-line environments.

As an organizational leader, you can offer and participate in these activities with your teams. You have the opportunity to model your own comfort with uncertainty, key for everyone in pandemic times.

Mistake #5: Too much digital talk without enough human interaction.

For the workplace, I define digital talk as having a conversation with a colleague over email, instant messaging or social media. In addition, digital talk happens in the comment functions of collaborative document co-creation in GoolgeDocs, Slides, Sheets, their Microsoft equivalents, etc.

Digital talk is great and can be very effective. However, I have experienced its extreme over use, especially working in technology companies.

Too much digital talk happens when there are too many contributors to one document or when there is a contributor who just adds comments because they think “they have to” or because they fear they will be perceived as “not collaborating”. Some contributors simply participate due to FOMO, a Fear of Missing Out.

Photo LinkedIn Sales Navigator

How many people have emailed a colleague who is sitting right next to them? Digital talk is often favoured over real talking for various reasons. It leaves a paper trail. It enables avoidance of complex or difficult conversations, albeit ineffectively.

The onset of COVID has resulted in even more digital talk for obvious reasons. We are sick of Zooming and are, understandably, reluctant to schedule yet another video call. So we send more emails and instant messages. Many of us will continue working virtually. Thus, we must make the effort to enable human voice conversations and interconnectedness in the virtual meeting room. Please see my June 2020 post on this topic.

TIPS: Schedule non-video “walk and talks” with a colleague when a 2-person conversation is possible. Walk outside wherever you are with your earbuds in, muting yourself when not talking. You get the benefit of generative dialogue, exercise and fresh air.

black and silver laptop computer on brown wooden table

Photo Craig Garner

Mistake #6: “Shiny new tool” syndrome

Most organizations have “Shiny new tool syndrome”, believing that more tools we have the better we can optimize our work and be highly productive. This belief is a myth and all too common because of the Bring Your Own App (BYOA) and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) cultures. Too many tools can create unnecessary complexity and confusion in the organization. Integration of tools is possible but can be complex and costly.

Authors Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever propose the Rule of Three in their book, Your Happiness was Hacked. In Chapter 8, this rule states that, “Teams should try to narrow down their primary tools and applications, beyond email, calendar and word processing, to three choices. This, we believe, will cover the work requirements for 90% of teams in the workplace today. A team’s need for more than three tools is commonly a sign of distress and trouble, though in certain cases it simply indicates that the tools for the team’s job are not integrated.”

TIPS: Assess the degree of “shiny new tool” syndrome in your organization. While the Rule of Three noted above may be difficult to implement, you can minimize the digital tool portfolio by defining it as a strategic priority.

Mistake #7: Abdication of responsibility to “we have no choice…..instant response in this digital age is here to stay.”

Many people will argue that instant response behaviour is not a mistake. I agree that instant response is definitely required in life or death situations, in all kinds of emergencies, if a written contract requires it and in certain professions where it is the only way to get the job done.

Photo Andrey Kremkov

The mistake I observe professionals making is an instant response behaviour that is “just because we can” or “just because we think we have to” or “just because everyone else does it.” It is time to pause and consider the social contracts we are creating in the world, intentionally or unintentionally, that might cause more harm than good.

The same type of thinking can be applied to fast food. If we start eating fast food for every meal “just because we can” or “just because everyone else does it”, our wellbeing will decrease greatly.

I believe we have a choice around instant response, depending on our job role, our team, our organization. We don’t need to confuse “convenient” and “critical”. As organizational leaders, we must consider that “just because” instant response contributes a lot to increased stress and burnout. 61% of employees are burned out on the job,” according to CareerBuilder. No one wants more burned out people. We need teams with high wellbeing to do meaningful work and sustain creative advantage.

TIPS: Internal Communication. Observe the current unwritten rules around instant response for internal team communication via email and instant messaging channels. Co-create a written social contract around behaviour that makes sense for your teams. External Communication. Do the same for external communication with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. Evaluate what makes sense for external communication and specific job roles. Co-create, internally and externally, the best fit communication strategy for intentional response.

As an organizational leader, model the same behaviour you want your teams to be doing. Don’t expect an instant response and don’t respond instantly yourself.

In Summary, One Value, 7 Mistakes

Photo Riccardo Pelati

Embrace the organizational value , “Attention is our most valuable asset.”

Avoid these Seven Mistakes

  1. Not knowing how much undistracted, deep work is needed for sustained value creation.
  2. Constant task switching by day, doing focused work at night, on weekends.
  3. Prioritization of reactive tasks over intentional, high value creation.
  4. Favouring data analysis over instinct, body wisdom and the human sensing experience.
  5. Too much digital talk without enough human interaction.
  6. “Shiny new tool” syndrome
  7. Abdication of responsibility to “we have no choice…..instant response in this digital age is here to stay.”

Feature Photo: Javier A. Barros

Tapping into Team Wisdom at Nathan Cummings Foundation

This is the first in a series of cases highlighting the application of experiential group dynamics modelling to address an organizational or social system challenge from a different perspective.  These practices take us out of our minds and into the wisdom of the human bodies that comprise a team.


Case Background

The Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) is a New York based family foundation, working to create a more just, vibrant, sustainable and democratic society. They are pursuing justice for people and planet and supporting social movements and catalytic solutions for climate change and inequality.

In October 2017, the foundation was embarking on the selection and implementation of a new Grants Management System (GMS).  To facilitate team alignment on the future state of grants management, part of the project team (10 people) spent a half-day applying embodiment practices to inform their project from a different perspective.

The Challenge

A highly motivated GMS project team, keen to optimize technology, processes, and their ability to collaborate, was nevertheless feeling frustrated, overwhelmed from lack of time, and stressed.  There had been many changes to process in a relatively short time as new staff joined during the previous year.   Internal communication and coordination was a challenge resulting in a desire to include a broader program team to shape the future-state.

Tapping into Team Wisdom

The NCF team was interested in exploring a new method of tapping into their team’s wisdom.  The highly intelligent group was used to meetings, discussion, and analysis for addressing their challenges.  Instead of a half day talking meeting, the team invested an afternoon exploring an experiential group dynamics modelling approach developed at MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Presencing Institute called Social Presencing.

Social Presencing – Definition

Social Presencing is a sensing practice whereby members of a group embody (i.e. give a concrete form to; represent or exemplify within the physical human body) a Stuck, i.e. something a team is trying to create, change or innovate.  A group does this by allowing shapes or gestures to arise in their bodies that represent or model a system or challenge they are currently in.

The practice is social, i.e. is done as a group activity. Participants allow movement to arise in the body, together, to form social sculptures or models.  During the activity, the principles of presencing are applied. Presencing is a hybrid of presence, the state of being in the present moment, and sensing, feeling the future possibility (Scharmer, Kaeufer, 2013, p.19).  The social sculptures reveal something of importance in a system where it was not visible before.

Social Presencing may also be referred to as a body-based, experiential learning toolkit, currently consisting of eight exercises, which contributes to organizational learning.  “It is a method for helping organizations and larger social systems get in touch with the knowledge they already have about the deep interpersonal structures that inhibit real changes from happening,” stated Otto Scharmer in a recent interview in Strategy & Business.

The NCF Social Sculptures

During the workshop, NCF participants prepared with meditation and a warm-up exercise for noticing physical sensations in the body.  Then the team formed social sculptures (models) via two exercises, Group Stuck and 4D or Ecosystem Mapping. Please click here for an example video of Stuck and 4D Mapping.

NCF defined their team Stucks in advance of the workshop as follows.  

  • Group Stuck:  “NCF has been trying to change and innovate the grants management process for several years…but has been unable, collectively,  to move toward a future state vision for grants management.”
  • Ecosystem Stuck (4D Map): “NCF’s work enables grantees to achieve incremental, point in time impact………but long term impact goals, i.e. long term systems change, is not enabled.”  
    • The stakeholders in the 4D Map included: NCF leadership team and board, similar Foundations, Grantees, Corporate sector, NCF grants/programs department, Government.

Main Insights Arising

The NCF participants shared feedback after practicing Social Presencing for the first time via a post-workshop survey.  Some of the main insights are summarized below.

    • 71.4% responded 4 or 5 (scale 1-5) that
      • The quality of my attention was higher than usual.  I was fully present with the group and in the moment.
      • My intention for the day was set and top of mind for most of the session.
      • When body and mind are synchronized, we have access to additional information.
    • At the end of the session I felt
      • Energized and motivated (71.4%)
      • More connected to the group (71.4%)
      • Tired or neutral (28.6%)
    • Some participants noted what surprised them during the workshop:
      • “How much movement spoke to a different part of my experience.”
      • “The level of mutual respect and equality in the room.”
      • “It brought out some unexpected tensions.”
      • “The emotional response I had to others’ movements.”
      • “The empathy I experienced during the session.”
      • “The lack of connection I felt between our overall mission, work and purpose of the activities.
    • Some participants noted “aha” moments during or after the session:
      • Increased sense of empathy and shared responsibility with the team.”
      • “It was obvious how incredibly stressed out everyone was.”
      • “The recognition that we need more time for play.”
      • “Physical expression can lead to greater understanding.”
  • The Individual Stuck left most participants unsure about new realizations or how to overcome their Stuck.  
  • The Group Stuck in contrast, resulted in 100% of participants realizing something about the group, their role or themselves they did not know before.

New Actions

Participants expressed the following changes in behaviour since the session:

  • Paying attention to others differently (28.6%)
  • Noticing how you are in your body (14.3%)
  • Paying attention to the feeling of the body on the ground (28.6%)
  • Paying attention to the body as a 360° sensing organ (0%)
  • No change in behaviour (28.6%)

85.7% participants recommended Social Presencing as a useful tool for building empathy and insight and/or would want to practice Social Presencing again.

Michelle N. Moore, Founder, www. mindequity.ca, facilitated the session.  Janet Disla, Senior Grants Manager, Nathancummings.org, provided content.


  • Presencing Institute (2018). Tools. https://www.presencing.org/#/resource/tools.
  • Scharmer, O., Kaeufer, K. (2013). Leading from the Emerging Future, Oakland, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.