Focus and Fixation


How situational awareness stops us from fixating on the narrow aspects of one task and helps us find the right level of concentration.

Some years ago, researchers conducted studies on delayed gratification with a group of children. A marshmallow was placed in front of each child with the explanation that the he or she would be rewarded with two marshmallows if they would not touch the one in front of them. Then the researchers left them alone for 15 minutes. Some children were able to hold off, but others could not resist the temptation. The researchers followed these same children into adulthood and discovered that a child’s ability to delay gratification was a good indicator of his or her success as an adult.

A recent reexamination of the study uncovered that the delayed gratification was actually an ability to manage focus. A review of the original research videos showed how each child was fighting to focus their attention away from the marshmallow, and those who were successful at shifting their focus were able to resist the temptation and receive their reward.

The ability to control focus has captured the attention of many scholars of management and leadership, including psychologist Daniel Goleman, the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence. In his more recent book Focus, he actually claims that this ability is one of the more important leadership skills one can possess.

That is a great promise. But as leaders, what does it mean to focus? What should we focus on?

One example that might help us answer this question can be found in the aviation industry, which has struggled with this question quite a bit. Pilots are trained to operate at two levels of focus. The first level is the task at hand — aviating, interpreting instrument readings, and manipulating controls such as in takeoffs and landings. The second level is to keep track of their surroundings; pilots are trained to never lose situational awareness. A pilot might focus on the landing strip during landing and still retain the whole airport situation in mind: wind direction and strength, airplanes in the pattern to land, airplanes on the ground ready for takeoff, the continuous instructions of the control tower, and even animals that may jump onto the runway,

Without this situational awareness, focus on the task at hand becomes fixation. Fixation directs all of the person’s cognitive capacity to be concentrated on one task exclusively. While fixating on performance, a pilot concentrates on the landing, does not see potential danger, and does not hear the tower command to stop the landing and ‘go around’. Fixating on avoiding a certain danger or risk may create the opposite situation, a pilot concentrates on avoiding the line of trees at the edge of the runway with such intensity that he or she ends up flying into them.

A powerful depiction of fixation is found in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. During World War II, a British colonel and his regiment are held in Japanese captivity. In a struggle of wills against the camp commander, the colonel insists his soldiers be properly treated with civility before they help build a bridge that the camp commander wants. Emboldened by the Japanese commander’s acceptance of his terms and eager to maintain this display of civility, the colonel becomes fixated on building the bridge and demonstrating for his captor the superiority, ingenuity, and civility of the British soldier. He forgets that there is a bigger war to fight and that his work was aiding the enemy. His idealism caused him to lose situational awareness, and when he realizes his mistake and understands the damage he has caused, he uses his last breath to undo the damage.

We see this in our day to day life, people speaking on the phone or texting while driving get into accidents. This is especially important for project and portfolio managers. Project and portfolio managers are usually type ‘A’ personality. We are goal oriented. When charged to manage projects we are eager to complete them successfully. Sometimes when issues and problem arise during the management process, we may attempt to resolve it in such intensity that may lead to fixation. This could be getting stuck on solving software problem, fixing a report that is not coming out as expected, winning an argument, or attempting to satisfy a special request from powerful stakeholder

Situational awareness of the total project stops us from fixating on narrow aspects of one task and helps us find the right level of concentration, giving us the agility to change focus as needed. Situational awareness also helps us remain sensitive to nuances in stakeholder communication, leading us to translate and clarify required changes as well as search for and consider new ideas while managing the project. This approach also helps us become confident and avoid negative fixation on project risks for example, which can add unnecessary fears and complications that limit our thinking and actions.

In fact, situational awareness goes beyond the project. It offers a constant reminder of the higher purpose: the client’s needs and their organization’s challenges and strategy.

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