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Executive Edge and Your Brain Series: Apollo 13 - Focus averts Panic

Continuing on from CLICK HERE

In my last post, I shared insight about how traditional Leadership Theory has a dependence on Crystallized Intelligence, or the “what you know” kind of smarts. Your Crystallized Intelligence probably had a lot to do with getting you where you are today.

Today’s problems, however, often cannot be solved by that type of “expertise.”

Instead, your organization needs to develop a Fluid Thinking capacity. That is, the ability to solve problems in a volatile, complex, uncertain and ambiguous environment – just as the Apollo 13 flight control crew needed to do on that fateful voyage. As I wrote in my last post, there was no manual on what to do when an explosion occurred aboard a spacecraft.

In fact, when everyone became aware of the magnitude of the Apollo 13 problem, most panicked and simultaneously shouted information at Flight Director, Gene Kranz.

As I wrote, he quickly intervened and took control: “Stop, everyone, I can only process one piece of information at a time.”

In doing so, he quickly restored everyone’s FOCUS; calm and clear thinking needed to prevail in this terrifying situation.

Focus is a core underpinning of Fluid Intelligence. Let’s explore that a bit further in this post.

The 47% Dilemma

Processing one piece of information at any time seems almost impossible – even a luxury - for today’s Executive. You’re hammered all day, every day with competing priorities, interruptions, and multitasking (which is really just a quick switching between tasks) and more.

A Harvard Gazette article posits that “People spend 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy”.

I would also say it makes them extremely unproductive. (And if they’re driving a load of timber down a mountain road, it makes them very dangerous!)

Leading with FOCUS is extraordinarily difficult in today’s business environment. Without it, though, leaders inhibit not only their personal productivity but the collective productivity of their team as well.

Our research bears this out.

86% of all Executives we test score only Low to Moderate FOCUS capability.

Why is this so from a brain perspective? And what can we do about it?

Focus and the Brain 

We explain to Executives that FOCUS is akin to the Signal to Noise ratio of their Brain.

If you think back to analogue FM radios, a low Signal to Noise ratio meant that the music (the Signal) was interfered with by background hissing (the Noise).

So, unless the dial was exactly positioned on the radio station frequency, the continual background noise was distracting you from enjoying the music.

How Does This Relate to Your Executive World?

Let’s start by defining your Signal and your Noise.

● The “Signal” is that key priority on which you’re working, say preparing for an important meeting, producing a report for your CEO, or composing the financials for a major pitch.

● The “Noise” is whatever grabs your attention - even though it is of less importance and a lower priority. I’m talking about emails, telephone calls, ad hoc meetings, the person that says “can I just see you for 5 minutes” (even though you it will take at least 30 minutes).

Thus, as an Executive, you are literally and unwittingly outsourcing your executive prioritization process to others.

You have let the “Noise” interfere with your “Signal.”

How many times a day does that happen to you?

Does Your Brain Lead Your Attention, or Your Does Your Attention Lead Your Brain?

Why do Executives let this happen?

It happens because when your FOCUS competency is Low, you literally have no control over it. FOCUS is a subconscious brain habit, analogous to an inefficiently written ‘subconscious software subroutine’.

In other words, with Low Focus, you don’t have conscious control over your FOCUS. This results in ‘your attention leading your brain’, rather than ‘your brain leading your attention.’

Subconsciously, you welcome distraction and interruption to take you away from the more important, but often more boring, high priority Signal you need to work on.

The human brain hasn’t changed much over the last 10,000 years – shrinking or growing slightly depending on nutrition and disease levels.

Think back to the time of hunters and gatherers, where that rustle in the bushes could become your dinner; or you could become its dinner!

So, at that time and in those circumstances, the brain was ‘wired’ to be distractible and continually scanning the environment was key to very survival.

Fast forward, and recognizing that evolution is a slow process, most people are still ‘wired’ to be distractible, rather than focused.

Now, we want the brain to have a laser-like focus on our key priority and to deal with today’s business world of information overload, attention overload, and continual interruptions. So, it needs an upgrade to rewrite the ‘subconscious software routine’ which controls an Executive’s ability to stay focused on the highest priority in any circumstances - just as Gene Kranz did.

Impact of Low Focus: Activity doesn’t equal Productivity!

Most Executives have abundant life skills and training development to cope with these never-ending, conflicting priorities, and yet they still find that at the end of each day there is an imbalance between ‘what was achieved’ and ‘what was planned to be achieved.’

As an Executive, Low Focus capability impacts your ability to execute as quickly, effectively and strategically as you should.

  • You often don’t delegate early enough, so you end up working ‘hero hours’ to meet the deadline. Impact? Poor work/life balance.

  • You continuously juggle competing priorities, often only partially completing a task and then needing to go back to it. Impact? Inefficient and ineffective use of time and low personal productivity.

  • You overcommit to others, but then have difficulty delivering commitments in a timely manner Impact? Negative for your personal brand, plus causes a high level of internal frustration.

  • You unwittingly allow others to determine your priorities. Impact? Poor time management and inefficiency.

  • Your Low Focus doesn’t just affect you; it also affects your team. Here’s what it’s like for your direct reports:

  • Little opportunity to do higher-value work as their boss is often very late in delegating and so often decides to do the job themselves

  • Minimal mentoring from their boss, as they have difficulty managing their own time, and always seems to be short of time

  • Scheduled meetings are often moved with very little notice, so the direct report has difficulty managing their own time/productivity

  • With poor and untimely delegation by a manager, direct reports are often left with a range of activities but little direction/guidance in terms of priorities; i.e. everything becomes urgent.

In summary, the Executives who leave things to the last minute do so because they often need the stress associated with a rapidly approaching deadline to drive up adrenaline levels, thereby enabling them to finally be able to concentrate on the task at hand.

However, after a week of continuously operating on high adrenaline levels, the Executive comes drained and often needs the weekend to recover energy levels - only to do it all over again the next week. Does any of this feel familiar to you?

What is your personal Focus like?

Contemplate how much these aspects of Low Focus resonate with you:

☐ I am quite distractible.

☐ Have difficulty remaining focused on the most important issue and easily get derailed by more interesting, but lower priority activities.

☐ I start addressing issues/problems/challenges later than is ideal.

☐ The stress of an impending deadline pushes me to be able to fully focus on an activity (and therefore often tell myself that I operate better under pressure).

☐ I often run late to meetings or get there just in time.

☐ I overcommit to others as I frequently underestimate the time to undertake an activity.

☐ Frequently, I feel exhausted/drained by the end of the week.

If you are an Executive, or an aspiring leader, you must develop this key brain competency of Focus in order to lead effectively in today’s changing business landscape. Without it, you risk losing the competitive edge you need to win in today’s marketplace. And you also risk losing the war for talent as well if you don’t create enough time to develop and mentor your team.

By enhancing your Focus, you can continue to give your people and your organization the Executive Edge.


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