Mindfulness is often viewed as yet another esoteric theory that has little practical application. The truth is mindfulness is proving to be a powerful tool for promoting innovation and creativity in the workplace.
By Joseph Warren
One of the consequences of technology has been mental overload as cell phones constantly ding; emails demand answers; web Face Time meetings are held at any time; mobile phones turned work into a 24/7 proposition; and technologies require near constant attention in terms of upgrading, tweaking, and repair.
The typical employee mind is having enormous difficulty focusing on what is really important, leading to higher levels of stress and lower productivity. There are few opportunities for creative or innovative thinking due to the ongoing mental struggle to cope with the constant information flow.
Organizations are increasingly embracing mindfulness programs to help employees focus nonjudgmentally in the present, and that promotes creative thinking because the mental clutter is removed.
Making Room for Creative Thinking
In 2012, Intel was one of the early companies implementing a mindfulness program named Awake@Intel that is widely popular with employees. The program was customized to incorporate Intel values of innovation and creative thinking. Now a 10-week program, it puts employees on a path to utilize concepts such as mindfulness, relationship intelligence and intention. Once mastered through practice, employees know how to focus their thought processes on a single project without succumbing to distractions that fully occupy the mind.
The reason the Awake@Intel mindfulness is open to all employees is due to its success from initiation. Mindfulness does reduce mental and physical stress, but for Intel it was important for employees to become better problem solvers. Each 90-minute session includes journaling thoughts and sharing problem-solving techniques. One employee shared an experience reflecting the benefits of mindfulness. A project team was multitasking, stretched thin and concerned about meeting a deadline. At a meeting, the ability to focus on a major project component, without getting distracted, led to a previously unimaginable solution. In the opinion of software engineer Anand Sharma, it was what was learned in Awake@Intel that led to the creative problem solving.
Mindfulness also improves relationships, which will further promote innovation as people focus on the moment and discussion, without judgment or bias, and experience higher levels of engagement. For Intel, mindfulness is about getting results through greater mental clarity, more insights and new ideas.
Google, one of the most innovative companies in the world, has also instituted an in-house mindfulness program. Its "Search Inside Yourself" program is all about developing emotional intelligence, focus, awareness, empathy and compassion. The program at Google was so popular that it is now offered through an independent nonprofit organization. One of its important benefits is teaching people how to deal with difficult emotions which can get in the way of logical thought. It is nearly impossible to think creatively when stressed or anxious.
Mindfulness and Diversity & Inclusion
Innovation and creativity are created in different ways, and mindfulness can play a role. Numerous studies have proven many times over that companies that have developed a truly diverse and inclusive culture and workplace are more innovative and creative.
Patricia Thompson explained in "How Mindfulness Helped a Workplace Diversity Exercise" (Harvard Business Review, Jan. 16, 2017) how she used mindfulness to facilitate a training workshop for the diversity committee for a Fortune 500 company. Thompson is a corporate psychologist, a person of color, trained in mindfulness, and the committee was open to new ideas. The conditions were ideal for seeing if mindfulness could help people overcome their biases, emotions, and judgment in order to be more open to discussions on diversity.
Thompson discussed mindfulness with the group first, reviewing the concepts of staying engaged, coping strategies like deep breathing, having empathy for each group member, and being supportive even when uncomfortable topics were introduced. The result: An honest, productive group conversation about diversity. People of color openly discussed the challenges they face on a daily basis, and white males revealed they seldom discuss diversity and inclusion because they are worried they will inadvertently say something offensive or be judged poorly. By the end of the meeting, a lot of important discussion took place by creating an environment where people could better tolerate feeling discomfort.
Scientifically speaking, mindfulness reduces the activity in the area of the brain where emotional processing takes place.
Relating to the World in a Different Way Through Mindfulness
Mindful people discover they relate to the world in a different manner. Creative thinking is referred to with terms like "thinking outside the box." But how does an employer encourage employees to think differently?
This has been a real challenge as people spend most of their day just trying to mentally cope with constant bombardment of information that defines life today. It is not a coincidence that tech giants like Google and Twitter offer mindfulness training and meditation classes. Employees are getting mentally dragged down and find themselves just trying to get through the day. This is certainly not conducive to generating innovation or creativity. They want more quality work time, more productive networking and collaboration, and the mental ability to solve problems. For a growing number of companies, mindfulness training is proving to be the tool that perfectly fits the needs of the workforce.
To learn more about the successful application of mindfulness, start with the book written by the man who first used it as a training tool: "Wherever You Go, There You Are" by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has written several helpful books that take a deep dive into the power of mindfulness to help people live in the present through improved cognition.
There are also apps like Insight Timer and Headspace that Google uses and are likely well-tested as to their usefulness.
Every company of every size – especially those struggling to produce innovation – should explore mindfulness. At the least, take a hint from companies like Prentice Hall Publishing, Nike, Deutsche Bank, and McKinsey & Co. and consider creating quiet spaces where employees can meditate during work time. From these rooms flow the desired creative thinking that can be so elusive.