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Focus less and succeed

You must eat, sleep and breathe your work to succeed. How often have we heard this mantra? There are many cases of people who have ‘focused’ and succeeded.

However, for many people the more they focus, the more they get bogged down in the minutia of day to day problems. As a result they do not move forward. They get distracted into fighting-fires and and applying ‘sticking-plaster’ to small operational problems. The larger strategic problem do not go away, they remain unsolved and the business remains stagnant. It is what Franklin Covey describe as the ‘Whirlwind of our day jobs’. Note: if you have not seen the Franklin Covey video The Four Disciplines of Execution, we highly recommend it!

There is a need to temper our desire to ‘work harder’ and ‘focus’. Thought processes tend to work better when we step back and consider not only related issues but free our minds to allow unrelated subject matter to play its part.

A study by Glick and Holyoak, Analogical Problem Solving, in 1980 illustrates this very well. Although old, the results of the study are still clear and obvious today. Glick and Holyoak asked a group of subjects to consider the following problem and suggest an answer:

“Suppose you are a doctor faced with a patient who has a malignant tumour in his stomach. It is impossible to operate on the patient, but unless the tumour is destroyed the patient will die. There is a kind of ray that can be used to destroy the tumour. If the rays reach the tumour all at once at a sufficiently high intensity, the tumour will be destroyed. Unfortunately, at this intensity the healthy tissue that the rays pass through on the way to the tumour will also be destroyed. At lower intensities the rays are harmless to healthy tissue, but they will not affect the tumour either. What type of procedure might be used to destroy the tumour with the rays, and at the same time avoid destroying the healthy tissue?”

This experiment resulted in 3% of the subjects being able to provide a successful solution. A different group were asked to solve the same problem, but in advance they were provided with the following passage:

“A general wishes to capture a fortress located in the centre of a country. There are many roads radiating outward from the fortress. All have been mined so that while small groups of men can pass over the roads safely, any large force will detonate the mines. A full-scale direct attack is therefore impossible. The general’s solution is to divide his army into small groups, send each group to the head of a different road, and have the groups converge simultaneously on the fortress.

Many of you reading this will have reached a solution to the first problem by the time you had read the first sentence. Many more by the time you reached the end of the passage. In fact, Glick and Holyoak found that 67% of the subjects were able to find a solution to the problem if they were given this passage to read first.”

For those of you who are still wondering, the answer is as follows:

“The analogous solution to the radiation problem is to simultaneously direct multiple low-intensity rays toward the tumour from different directions. In this way the healthy tissue will be left unharmed, but the effects of the multiple low-intensity rays will summate and destroy the tumour.”

The use of analogies to solve problems is called ‘conceptual blending’. This theory is put forward by Fauconnier and Turner in their book The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities. They conclude that elements and vital relations from diverse scenarios are “blended” in a subconscious process, which is assumed to be ubiquitous to everyday thought and language.

What does all this theory mean for us? Simply this: focus less and succeed. By taking a step back or by engaging in an unrelated activity, we provide our minds with alternate scenarios and ability to subconsciously draw on our experiences and blend them. The blending activity then increases our ability to solve problems and think creatively.

This and many other ‘tricks-of-the-trade’ are included in Intrafocus Balanced Scorecard Training.