Mindfulness is now seen as a crucial skill in business. Meditation practices have the capacity to calm the mind, relax the body, boost resilience, and even increase situational awareness. The study of mindfulness — often defined as paying attention, nonjudgmentally and on purpose — is a regular part of the creativity and wellness culture at firms around the world.
But although mindfulness may seem to be a fairly new phenomenon, it’s not. It first influenced business decades ago, through the development of an unmistakably hard skill that senior managers must master: strategic planning. Leaders today would be wise to learn from the past and to view strategic planning and mindfulness together. Before explaining why, though, a bit of history.
Pierre Wack, who was head of Group Planning at Royal Dutch/Shell in the 1970s, studied meditation extensively with teachers in Asia and, later, with the famous 20th-century mystic G.I. Gurdjieff in Paris. Wack perceived the world differently than his colleagues in the energy business. Through his unique lens, he came to create what we know as scenario planning — a widely used strategic planning practice that now spans all sectors. An HBR contributor, he wrote two seminal articles about Shell and scenario planning in 1985.
As Art Kleiner described in the The Age of Heretics, Wack had “a lifelong preoccupation with the art of what he called ‘seeing.’” To see, in Wack’s understanding, meant not merely being aware of an element of the environment, but seeing “through it,” with full consciousness. Planning well, in his estimation, required “training the mind.”
As a longtime practitioner of scenario planning who met Wack and studied his approach, I consistently find that stories about his early days at Shell captivate executives’ attention as instructive lessons on how to look ahead. One scenario, in which it was presented that governments in Middle Eastern countries would effectively act as a cartel, largely came to pass with the rise of OPEC. Shell changed strategies and actions based on the findings of the scenario planning work, eventually allowing the firm to become an industry leader.
The oft-missing piece of the story is where Wack got the insights. From taxi drivers in the Middle East to garden designers in Japan, Wack sought ideas from a huge range of sources — including many people who had no ostensible link to oil industry data. For Wack, this approach was inextricably linked to mindfulness practice: “Quieting the mind” made it possible and natural to open up to new and unexpected sources of information. He trained his mind to hone intuition, take in diverse sources of information and emerging patterns, and, in turn, do the serious work of illuminating alternative futures.
As consultants Justin Talbot-Zorn and Frieda Edgette have explained, mindfulness can help leaders to see past the storylines and narratives that unconsciously guide their traditional thinking. This can help individuals and firms break free from the tyranny of unexamined assumptions.
In my scenario planning work with companies, I find this element essential. Groups of executives are often prevented by their mental frames of reality from perceiving what’s really happening. Having led the early scenario planning work at Kodak, I remember when it sunk in that the digital wave had already hit and the business model would soon need rapid reinvention. Companies across sectors facing global competition and rapid technological change are continually struck with such strategic surprises. The sooner they can open to new insights and sensemaking, the better.
Fundamentally, this is what scenario planning is all about: creating insightful stories about the future using good research and analyses, and identifying important patterns unfolding today that will shape the future for a company and its possible strategic options. This is as important today as it was in Wack’s era. Companies must adapt to rapidly accelerating digital technology trends (think big data, predictive analytics, and artificial intelligence) that require careful planning to understand how industries may change, business models may need to evolve, and decision points may take shape.
In health care, for example, a recent scenario effort I worked on helped a leading hospital realize that the future may be more patient-driven, with consumers taking control over their health data. As a sign that this scenario dynamic was unfolding, Apple announced an update to its Health app earlier this year to help patients see medical records from multiple providers — effectively helping consumers gain more control over their records. In the automotive industry, another project I was a part of helped executives understand that the internal combustion engine is in decline and that the future will likely involve a new, challenging mix of electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and ride-hailing like Uber or Lyft. In my over five years of work with Intel, scenario planning provided extensive insights and innovations, earning recognition from top leadership as an essential strategy tool.
Further, a recent report from BP used scenarios to highlight the decline of the internal combustion engine. And even Singapore and the United States have adapted to changing global and environmental realities using such exercises.
But like mindfulness, successful scenario planning doesn’t just happen on the first try. Megan Reitz and Michael Chaskalson, a professor and mindfulness expert, respectively, found that sustained, regular practice is what produces significant improvement in leadership. Scenario planning exercises require the same. As Pierre Wack emphasized, planning is a continuous and iterative process. It’s not enough to try it once and then drop it for a new approach in the next year. It’s the continuous work of challenging mindsets that enables innovation and insight and leads to improved decision making.
The rise of mindfulness is unquestionably a positive development. The practice is helping people manage stress and maximize creativity. But mindfulness is much more than a mental fitness tool; it’s an asset for leaders seeking to perceive — and re-perceive — the world and make better strategic choices.