Focus and Fixation

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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 in the group with the explanation that the children would be rewarded with a second marshmallow if they did not touch the first. Then the researchers left them alone for 15 minutes. Some subjects 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 success in doing so as a grownup.

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 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 Daniel Goleman, the Emotional Intelligence guru. In his book “Focus”, he actually claims that this ability is one of the more important leadership skills one can possess. It is certainly powerful, but what does it mean to focus? What should we focus on?

The aviation industry 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 — navigating, interpreting instrument readings, and manipulating controls in takeoffs and landings. The second level is to keep track of the surroundings; pilots are trained to never lose situational awareness. A pilot might focus on the landing strip during landing and still retain the whole situation in mind: wind direction and strength, airplanes in the pattern to land, airplanes on the ground ready for takeoff, animals that may jump onto the runway, and the control tower’s continuous instructions.

Without the pilot’s situational awareness, the focus on the task at hand becomes fixation. A positive fixation could be when the pilot concentrates on the landing and does not hear the tower command to ‘go around’. Negative fixation occurs when the 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 this principle is found in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. During World War II, a British colonel and his regiment were in Japanese captivity. In a struggle of wills against the camp commander, the colonel insisted his soldiers be properly treated before they help build a bridge that the camp commander wanted. Once he won this battle, he became fixated on building the bridge and showing his captor the superiority, ingenuity and civility of the British soldier. He lost the situational awareness that there was a bigger war to fight and that his work was aiding the enemy. When he realized his mistake and understood the damage he is causing, he used his last breath to undo the damage.

This attention to fixation dichotomy is similarly pertinent in project and portfolio management. 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 gyration that limit our thinking and actions.

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