Can Neuroscience Improve the Project Brain? 3 of 3

PART THREE: CULTIVATING “FLUID ATTENTION”

 

To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often. “

Winston Churchill

We began considering why people in project environments, who can clearly explain the best practices likely to resolve the problems they are facing, fail to act on those beliefs under “real world” conditions? The state of constant urgency (“I need it yesterday!) permeating project culture keeps people in a state of chronic stress that neurologically predisposes them to these behavioral contradictions (say one thing, do another.) Because these disconnects function like a biological “operating system” they often prove to be incompatible with the technical and behavioral fixes provided by training. In this last section I would like to suggest some approaches that can produce positive change at this deeper level.

You can’t fix a problem you don’t know you have. The fact that their actual behavior is deviating from what these people know to be best practice is often not even on their radar. Making the problem visible is the first order of business. Blaming others for the breakdown is one of the most common strategies for sustaining the blind spot: unrealistic deadlines are caused by upper management, resource constraints are being caused by the lack of cooperation from other departments or groups, scope creep is being driven by unreasonable customers, etc. Since you can’t “fix” someone else, people conclude that these problems are just something they must live with.

Project simulations and related experiential exercises have been an effective way to address this misunderstanding on two counts. First, participants are shocked to discover that they have done things or failed to do things that fly in the face of what they know to be effective. Second, they see that they have reproduced these frustrating problems without any of the usual suspects being present.

For some people seeing how they have contributed to the breakdown is all that is necessary. They are immediately ready to find better approaches, and practice applying them. Others, however, will begin vigorously defending behavior that has clearly contributed to a failed or suboptimal outcome. This is where we start encountering the deeper layers. Why would anyone fight for failure? Sometimes it’s because they are afraid, often unconsciously, that the alternative will be even worse, and that alternative is the direct, somatic experience of their own anxiety.

FDR made famous the statement “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Although catchy, I’ve always found it a little cryptic. What does that actually mean? We know that some people develop phobic patterns of disattention to somatic feelings of anxiety. This is fear of fear itself — fear of the conscious experience of fearful feelings. One reason for this is that the headaches, stomach distress, and painful muscle contractions accompanying these experiences can create high levels of physical/emotional discomfort. For some people suppression may be the only remedy in their toolbox. Others may feel defensive because they believe or have been told that the anxiety is “not real,”  “all in their head” or signals some form of personal weakness. This mind/body split can seriously undermine performance.

For example, here is the report of a police officer forced to fire on an armed assailant grappling with his partner, Dan, who he was afraid he might shoot inadvertently:

I fired five rounds. My vision changed as soon as I started to shoot. It went from seeing the whole picture to just the suspect’s head. Everything else just disappeared. I didn’t see Dan anymore, didn’t see anything else. All I could see was the suspect’s head.

Fortunately, he didn’t shoot Dan, but because of this contracted focus, he could have. People often experience this kind of out-of-body contraction of focus, and loss of context in moments of high stress. A milder form of this contracted awareness may explain why actual workplace performance falls short of best-practice understanding. Teaching people how to maintain “fluid attention,” the ability to shift effortlessly from big-picture contextual awareness to laser-like task focus and back again, under stress conditions can correct this performance shortfall.

Using a range of simple techniques that direct people’s attention to their internal experience (introception) unifies their attention with their visceromotor sensations in the body. These body-based somatic markers often lie at the border of consciousness, and can be brought into awareness by noticing such typical displacement responses such as:

• lack of awareness about how they feel (“I don’t know,” “I wasn’t aware of anything.”)

• perceptions, phrased as feelings (“I feel as if he doesn’t like me.”)

• action tendencies phrased as feelings (“I feel like I want to get out of there.”)

• an externalized explanation of why they are anxious ( “I’m worried about what might happen.”)

We don’t have EEGs or fMRIs available as we rush to get projects out the door, but becoming more skilled at noticing our own physical cues can tell us a lot about “stuck” or counter-productive neural patterns.

You might also take a look at “The Open Focus Brain,” by Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins for a simple, but highly effective practice for cultivating this state of fluid attention. This is obviously a huge topic for such a brief format, but I hope that it can invite a larger discussion about the incredible possibilities presented by this frontier of performance improvement.

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