EXPANDING THE CANVAS AND FINDING THE COMPASS: THE ROLE OF MEDITATION IN DECISION MAKING

Technical innovation is often at the heart of an entrepreneurial venture. The leader’s role is to create the right environment to facilitate and foster such innovation. This requires bringing together people of different skills and specializations, ideally individuals more competent than the leader in their areas of expertise, very comfortable pushing the boundaries of the unknown in their particular domain. Their domain risk tolerance is likely to be very high.

What the leader needs to recognize is that the risk tolerance of the expert in his or her area of specialization may not apply to their tolerance of the uncertainties in other aspects of the entrepreneurial venture. For example, a scientist who may be one of the best in the world at creating new photovoltaic materials and be very at ease with the inherent uncertainty of the discovery of new PV compounds may be very un-easy with the challenges of financing or selling. Just think of the un-ease that scientist may feel when confronted with only a six-month cash runway. The role of the leader is to absorb any extraneous uncertainty that may get in the way of the expert team member, freeing that individual to do the best job possible, to do the job unbridled 

Taking responsibility for the full uncertainty of the company is the logical task of the leader in an entrepreneurial organization. After all, the senior executive has the whole company in his or her hands, and is the one person most aware of all the known factors affecting the destiny of the company. That is the nature of the office. But how does a leader cope with such a large burden?

Two “capacities” make this possible:

  1. The capacity to “see” the whole picture, and
  2. The capacity to access a compass that will point in the appropriate direction.

By seeing the whole picture, I mean the ability to see beyond the obvious and immediate, to cast a wider vista and recognize all the forces and all the opportunities. As an engineer, I am particularly sensitive to the importance of drawing the full perimeter around a problem. We are trained as systems thinkers. We learn to scope an issue, define the relevant influencing parameters, gather data, and then establish some criteria that will permit prioritization of potential solutions. Then we go into action – until either we find the right solution or find out that we chose the wrong path. So we go to the next one. The key in this process is to make sure that we are smart in outlining the envelope of the issue, in defining the frame of the decision-making canvas. Make it too narrow, and we miss some key elements. Make it too broad and the task becomes too unwieldy and will take too much time. Yet someone needs to have the bigger picture, even while the team is tackling the narrower problems. That is the leadership job.

But it is not the only job. At the same time as “holding” the big picture, the entrepreneurial leader must be capable of reducing the scope of the issue, shrinking the canvas so as to concentrate the attention of the team on the most critical issues of the moment. This skill to breathe with the canvas, to maintain flexibility of the frame’s shape and size, is what distinguishes the brilliant leaders. This “canvas breathing” permits the leader to maintain visual acuity, often threatened by constant external disturbances and frequent surprises. It can reveal the silver lining in unforeseen problems, and permits the leader to discover alternative pathways around roadblocks.

To breathe with the canvas, the entrepreneurial leader needs to distinguish between the forces that are important and those that are distracting, to filter the noise, deflect the arrows, prioritize the demands that are constantly calling. This requires stepping back, and finding quiet zones within. For me, the best way to find such quiet zones is through meditation.

Meditation also helps with the second capacity that allows the leader to absorb uncertainty: access to his or her decision making compass. The need for a compass is perhaps best illustrated by a suggestion made in a fascinating book I just read and highly recommend: Incognito by David Eagleman. I found it to be a brilliantly written overview of the functioning of the brain, by a knowledgeable and very eloquent neuroscientist. His thesis is that the overwhelming majority of our actions are determined by the millions of chemical and electrochemical events in our body, and they are deeply influenced by our lifetime experiences. We may believe that we are making “conscious decisions,” when in reality the sequence of signals that leads to our decisions have already taken place before we are aware that we are taking action. And he talks about how to access this unconscious part of us, how we tap into our vast unconscious reservoir:

 “If you cannot always elicit straight answers from your unconscious brain, how can you access its knowledge? Sometimes the trick is merely to probe what your gut is telling you. So the next time a friend laments that she cannot decide between two options, tell her the easiest way to solve her problem: flip a coin. She should specify which option belongs to heads and which to tails, and then let the coin fly. The important part is to assess her gut feeling after the coin lands. If she feels a subtle sense of relief at being ‘told’ what to do by the coin, that’s the right choice for her. If, instead, she concludes that it’s ludicrous for her to make a decision based on a coin toss, that will cue her to choose the other option.”

Meditation has allowed me, at critical times, to “probe what my gut is telling me.” It allows me to withdraw from the mundane hum and the many “demand arrows” that are constantly pointing at me yelling for my attention, arrows that tend to freeze the frame of the picture I am confronting, freezing the size of my canvas. It takes me to a quiet zone within myself that allows the canvas to expand and permits me to “see” problems differently, to hear my perhaps previously undetected inner voice, and to understand the best direction to pursue.

This very important “internal work” of leadership moves to a much broader topic, which I will tackle in a future post. It deals with the ability to expand the canvas to its extreme dimension, to the infinite, where we have a chance to reach a place where everything is one. It is the place the pre-eminent Christina mystic of the last century, Thomas Merton, calls “le pointe vierge,” the place Jesuits are taught in the Ignatian exercises to assess their feelings of “desolation and consolation” as they face difficult moral dilemmas. The seeking of this convergence point, this point of oneness, is my definition of spirituality, and is also closely connected with what I believe should be a holistic vision of the raison d’etre of one’s business or, for that matter, one’s life adventure. This is nicely explored by my good friend Jim Cusumano in his upcoming book, Balance, the Business Life-Connection, to be published this April by Select Books, Inc.