Mindfulness, a concept originally characterized by Ellen Langer in 1989 as a state of alertness that is manifested in active information processing, includes creating new categories rather than relying on categories present in our memory; welcoming new information by being open and attending to changed signals, welcoming more than one view and being aware of multiple interpretations, and avoiding being on auto-pilot.
In 1999, Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe extended the concept of individual mindfulness to the collective dimension, describing it as the widespread adoption and diffusion of mindfulness by the organization’s members. Mindfulness helps organizations to notice more issues, process them with care, and detect and respond to early signs of trouble. Weick and Sutcliffe describe five cognitive processes that constitute organizational mindfulness: Preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify interpretations, sensitivity to operations, commitment to resilience, and deference to expertise. These, they contend, are prevalent among members of high reliability organizations.
So how does organizational mindfulness apply to the management of organizations?
Let us look at these five processes one by one.
Preoccupation with failures
Mindful organizations demonstrate an ability to learn from failures and breakdowns. The organization learns from what did not work and identifies gaps to ensure transformational success. These firms see failures as an opportunity to learn and to try again instead of getting discouraged and throwing in the towel.
In no way does this mean that you ought to get totally absorbed with failures. Mindful leaders spend equal time celebrating successes and analyzing failures to move the organization forward.
Reluctance to simplify interpretations
High performance organizations refuse to simplify interpretations, especially when facing intense competition, increased complexity and large amounts of data.
Business professionals are exposed to an enormous amount of internal data and market information. They face variations in the degree of analyzability of market information, in the degree of information commensurability, and in the equivocality of information coming out of multiple sources in the organization.
The inherent levels of information uncertainty and ambiguity require they focus on complex problems without reducing and oversimplifying them.
Sensitivity to operations
Leaders of mindful organizations purposefully invest in developing capabilities of their front line personnel. They pay attention to all organizational actors whether in leadership or in the “trenches.”
Mindful leaders listen actively to the rumor mill and embrace feedback coming from organizational skeptics. Being sensitive to operations also entails adjusting strategic programs by taking into account the knowledge of people who actually do the work.
Commitment to resilience
Resilience is one of the dimensions of the organizational confidence construct.
Leaders of mindful organizations commit to the success of all organizational programs. They purposefully develop shared beliefs, courage and resilience when implementing business strategies so that the organization keeps going when facing adversity.
The role of organizational champions and change agents is equally important to build collective confidence in teams.
Deference to experts
Decision-makers in business units should rely on the expertise of specialized centers of excellence to optimize business decisions and firm performance. Business leaders should avoid improvising and ought to defer tough decisions or complex problems to internal experts.
The five characteristics of high reliability organizations proposed by Weick and Sutcliffe can be applied and operationalized by any company in search of business excellence. Organizational mindfulness and mindful champions can play a critical role in the success of organizations. I call this mindful business management. I encourage you to read more about this emerging theory on organizational mindfulness.
Stephan Liozu (www.stephanliozu.com) is the founder of Value Innoruption Advisors and specializes in disruptive approaches in innovation, pricing and value management. He earned a Ph.D. in management at Case Western Reserve University and can be reached at email@example.com.