Is it a coincidence that we are living in times of revolution? Revolution in the sense of paradigm shifts. Revolution in the sense of changing how we do things rather than what we do. Revolution in the sense of cultural and attitudinal change.
Maybe we have got as far as it is possible to get with the reductionist approach of breaking problems into sub-problems for which we then look for a solution. This naturally leads to specialisation, meticulous planning and measurement, which, for well known and well defined problems, has shown to be very effective. But uncertainty, ambiguity, a rapidly changing environment and inter-connectedness very quickly give rise to a level of complexity that is not handled well by this silo-ed approach.
We tend to think of the scientific method as being reductionist. But there is one crucial element which seems to have got lost in the translation to industrial applications, and that is the practice of experimentation. To perform an experiment, we first form a hypothesis and then conceive of a controlled test of this hypothesis, the results of which will provide some useful information (whether or not the test is “successful” or a “failure”). This is the spirit that underpins Lean manufacturing, Agile management and Mindfulness practice.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the Agile methodology is with the pithy motto “Fail fast, fail often”. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is an explicit recognition of the fact that things are uncertain and constantly changing. It is more important to “fail” as soon as possible in order to be able to quickly learn how to better adapt to this environment. Thus every failure is an opportunity for learning, so the more often you fail, the more you learn. The focus shifts from measuring how far away we are from our end goal to monitoring continuous feedback from the process itself.
If the Agile management is about reducing time, Lean manufacturing is concerned with reducing waste. Minimal Viable Products are created to test hypotheses in a controlled manner, while committing as few resources as possible.
It is easy to talk of failure as an opportunity to learn, or of shipping Minimal Viable Products of a quality low enough to make most CEOs blush, but how does one work this way in practice? If you are lucky enough to land in a department where this way of thinking is already part of the culture, then it may be just a question of going with the flow. But what if you have to be part of that cultural change?
As human beings, we have an innate tendency to cling to things we like and to avoid things we don’t like. In a simple environment comprised of prey and predators, evolution has demonstrated that this behaviour works pretty well. In a more complex environment, this behaviour tends to make us become overly attached to our ideas and expectations, as well as to ignore all the evidence to the contrary. In other words, we make rather poor scientists by nature.
The practice of Mindfulness is a training of the attention and awareness under simple conditions and with particular qualities that can be applied to much more complex situations. The qualities we train are those of curiosity, openness and even-handedness. We simply pay attention to our experience (including sensations, feelings and thoughts) as it changes from moment to moment. And, of course, if we find our attention has wandered, it is not considered a failure: as soon as we notice this has happened, we are able to bring our attention back and it is from this movement itself that our brains learn to be more mindful.
If we practice Mindfulness regularly, we can learn to be able to become aware of many more things that are going on, including the things that we don’t like, as well as our own tendency to cling to our preconceived ideas. It becomes much easier to coolly take rational decisions based on unbiased information. It is also contagious: if we are more open to other people’s ideas, they tend to be more open to ours.
Mindfulness also allows us to become aware of the mental energy that we are wasting wishing things were a different way from the way they actually are. The sooner that we are able to let go of an idea that is not working, the sooner a new one will come to take its place.
“To get from A to B, you must start at A”
There is an extended misconception about Mindfulness practice. It is not about “doing nothing” or “emptying the mind”. It is perfectly possible to do things mindfully. Instead of focusing just on where you want to get to, you instead focus on what you are doing right now and the effect it is having on the whole.
Mindfulness can help us be Lean and Agile in our approach to life and the projects we undertake.