• Joel T. Sanders

Structure Your Business Environment to Act More Intelligently

Updated: Jul 4



Structure our environment thoughtfully, and our intelligence and effectiveness can soar. But structure it sloppily, and we and our teams literally become cognitively impaired.

I've maintained a consistent meditation practice since 2014, when a friend introduced me to guided meditations on Headspace.


Every morning when I rise and every evening just before bedtime, for fifteen full minutes, I place my attention on each individual breath, and nothing else. At least that's my intention.


On the outside, all is quiet and still. But inside my head, my attention gets continuously hijacked: Scenes from a Netflix episode; An imagined argument with someone over politics; A work project that's stuck.


My intention is to focus only on my breath, but my attention just doesn't cooperate.


Which raises an interesting question: If I can't get my own brain to pay attention to my own breath, how can I expect anyone else's brain to pay attention to anything I ask? What does this mean for leadership?


How Our Environment Impacts Our Thinking


Fortunately, business doesn't require us to rely solely on our own brains. Psychologists have long noted that our cognition is embodied. We "think" not just with our brains, but in combination with our bodies and resources in the environment. How those resources are structured literally make us more or less intelligent.


Structure our environment thoughtfully, and our intelligence and effectiveness can soar. But structure it sloppily, and we and our teams literally become cognitively impaired.


In Jim Collins' timeless classic Built to Last, the number one category cited for enduring business success is, "Organizing Arrangements." This is described as, "Hard items, such as organization structure, policies and procedures, systems, rewards and incentives, ownership structure, and general business strategies and activities."


At the most basic level, a company's "organizing arrangements" consists of its physical spaces, calendars, financial reports, operations plans and other frameworks that direct the attention of employees and align work in a logical way.


Yet as simple and obvious as these tools are, perfectly competent people forgo using them all the time.


Some Business Environments Make us Dumber


Instead of consciously directing their workflow, knowledge workers allow their thinking to be fragmented into a thousand pieces. Most professionals compulsively check email and slack messages, take unscheduled phone calls, allow impromptu "do you have a minute?" meetings, and read text messages or other notifications on their smartphones on average 80 times per day.


This unstructured sloppiness in knowledge workplaces literally lowers intelligence. Multitasking has been shown to lower IQ, shrink gray matter, and lower productivity by 40%. Yet in the same way it's difficult to stop eating junk food even when you know it's bad for you, the ping of an incoming email or text message often proves irresistible in the workplace.


One morning this past week, a successful and very smart client of mine accidentally quadruple booked his calendar. Another client mentioned that he immediately and reactively says, "yes" to any and all requests, without first checking his calendar or projects list.


The most fundamental allocation of resources in any knowledge business is the allocation of time and attention, and yet these two otherwise intelligent professionals didn't use the most basic tool available to them: the simple calendar.


Instead of using systems to intelligently structure work, they're relying on their brains alone, or their brains and unstructured interruptions that keep them working reactively instead of proactively.


Gently Bring Your Team's Focus Back


In a 1964 speech, Dave Packard of Hewlett Packard asked, "How do you develop an environment in which individuals can be creative?...You have to put a good deal of thought into your organizational structure to provide this environment."


The right organizational tools in your company's environment can enhance the creative efforts of your team, but they must be used consistently and with discipline.


Turn off email. Turn off the phone. Close the office door and place a "do not disturb" sign on the door handle. Block time on your calendar. Make organizing and structuring the flow of work in your business your #1 priority.


Throughout his guided meditations, Andy Puddicombe, the founder of Headspace, gently reminds newbie meditators: "If your mind has wandered off, just bring it back to the breath."


That's it.


A successful meditation isn't one where your mind never wanders off...it's one where you catch your mind wandering, and bring it back to your object of focus.


When you catch your or your team's focus wandering, gently bring it back to the tools you already have: your calendar. Your operations plans. Your research notebooks.


Get out of the office and go for a walk with another leader on your team. Then come back, turn off distractions, and sit down with your team and these basic structuring tools.


Our brains alone are inadequate. Our brains and interruptive systems like always-on email or slack messages are worse.


Our brains working with other brains in a well-structured environment makes us more intelligent, our work less stressful, and business more profitable. It's not easy to get right, but nothing worth doing ever is.


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