Strategy as Thought and Focus

In your mind, picture a highly spiritual person praying. His eyes are closed; he may be swaying back and forth ever so slightly. Maybe his lips are moving, but you can’t quite tell, since the movements are barely perceptible. His entire being is focused on prayer; he is undistracted by the chaos that goes on around him. He may have said the same prayer a thousand times, but his mind is sunk so deeply into the prayer that he is experiencing new insights and feelings from it today that he has never experienced before.

Now, imagine if you spent the next hour thinking about your business with that kind of focus and concentration. What would you learn? What new insights would you have? Would you be more prepared to succeed tomorrow than you were yesterday?

The Hebrew word for this kind of concentration during prayer is kavanah. (All 3 a’s sound like the a in car; the accent is on the last syllable.) Kavanah is a state of mind that is highly desired by Jews in prayer, and, of course, other religions have parallel concepts describing this kind of spiritual fulfillment. But it’s not easy to achieve kavanah; the world is a busy, noisy place, and there are many obstacles to kavanah that people face every day.

And, similarly, there are many obstacles to a kavanah-like focus in business.

If you are a typical American who works in an office, you are interrupted about once every three minutes, or more than 150 times per day. Phone calls, beeping email alerts, chirping text message alerts, people who barge into your office, papers dropped onto your desk… all of these conspire to threaten your concentration and your ability to get things done. Your schedule is likely to be chock-full; you have way too much to do, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel… or, for that matter, at the end of the day, since your personal life is also overflowing. Your reaction to the suggestion that you could achieve some kavanah-like thinking about your business might be:

Sounds great, but fat chance. I can’t find that kind of time.”

That response is typical– and understandable. People are so overwhelmed with their to-do lists and the demands other people put on them, that they believe they are too busy to think.

Thinking deeply is difficult, so it’s easy to avoid it when other priorities provide distractions. Yes, it’s difficult to bring a kavanah-like focus to your business, but it is a very healthy thing to do. Just like kavanah in prayer can help a person bring holiness into his or her daily life, kavanah while thinking about your business can help you bring a strategic approach into your daily business activities. My premise is simple: We can do a lot to advance our businesses if we just practice a little “strategic kavanah,” — devoting time and concentration to focused thought about the key issues that concern our businesses, then using the fruit of that focus to infuse all of our actions with the appropriate intent.

The word kavanah comes from the Herbrew word for direction, and is related to the word for aiming. Concentration isn’t just the ability to hold onto a concept in your mind. Concentration helps you get a grip on a thought and move it in a positive direction to the next step in its evolution. Focus. Aim. Direction. Isn’t that something most businesses need?

If you start practicing strategic kavanah, you’ll enjoy tremendous benefits from this practice. If you think you don’t have time, think again. Strategic kavanah is like a down payment; you’ll move yourself so far ahead that you’ll need to spend less time later. If you’re worried that you don’t have the skills, confidence or experience to practice strategic kavanah, rest assured. Strategic kavanah is a skill that can be learned.

The first step is noticing when you are practicing strategic kavanah, and when you are not. Like everyone else, sometimes your mind wanders, step to step, and you don’t realize it for many minutes, as your thoughts have traveled from the important matter at hand to the lousy family vacation you went on in 8th grade. Notice when you don’t have kavanah. Be aware of interruptions that come from the outside, and when they are distracting you, but also be aware of those interruptions that you impose on yourself. (A moment after I hung up with him I suddenly discovered I had started reading a story in the SundayNew York Times, while this article waited patiently, and quietly, on my computer screen. Fortunately, I noticed this self-imposed distraction pretty quickly.)

In an interview with Gallup Management Journal, Dr. Gloria Mark of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, says that 44% of our interruptions at work are self-imposed. Awareness of your kavanah, or lack thereof, is the first step, as many of you who have practiced meditation know. (I just got interrupted again, by a call from my good friend and client, Shomari Scott, director of tourism for The Cayman Islands. This time, after a short productive conversation with Shomari, I returned immediately to my focus on writing. Phew.)

Next, you’ll need to get better at strategic kavanah. I’ve found that when I’m practicing strategic kavanah, my thinking about business issues falls neatly into these 3 categories:

  1. Know the issue: Exploring the issue, learning about it, and figuring out how to think about it.
  2. What to do: Figuring out the right things to do to address the issue.
  3. How to do it: Figuring out how to do the things identified in step 2 (or how to get others to do them).

It’s important to separate out your focus on these different categories; don’t get hung up on defining action steps before you understand an issue, and don’t get distracted by the intricacies of implementation before you define what it is you need to implement.

Practice an awareness of these three categories.

  1. Know the issue: Be willing to invest in a focus on getting to know an issue. Explore the issue, with patience, as you get well acquainted with it. As I wrote in a recent article, The Things That Matter,it’s always possible to “pan for gold” and find the things that are most important to a situation. Pick the issue up, hold it, turn it around and look at it from different angles, talk about it, think about it. Find analogies and metaphors for its parts. Look for its finer details, its hidden secrets.For example, take one of your toughest issues with customers or co-workers and really get to know it. Think about it in ways you haven’t thought about for awhile. Don’t get too distracted by action steps; quickly jot them down if they come to mind, but return quickly to getting better acquainted with the issue. No matter how well you think you know it, I guarantee that you will find new insights and angles if you are open to seeing them.
  1. What to do: Next, move on to category 2, figuring outwhat to do. The toughest thing here is shutting out category 3, how to do it, so you don’t focus on all of things that make implementation tough. That will come. Focus now, untainted, on what action steps are indicated by the thinking you’ve done so far.For example, if your know the issue thinking has surfaced a new opportunity within a certain group of customers, focus yourself on the actions that will help you exploit those opportunities. And, more importantly, don’t shoot down your ideas because of implementation challenges… you’ll get to implementation. Now, just focus on what the right things are to do, without judging your ability to get them done. As Peter Drucker taught us in The Effective Executive, our success hinges much more on doing the right things than it does ondoing things right.
  1. How to do it: Then category 3, how to do
    … focus on how you can do the things you’ve come up with. You were very careful about avoiding these types of thoughts in your earlier phases, but now you have to pay attention to implementation. Ironically, implementation challenges tend to distract our thinking about categories 1 & 2, but then we frequently don’t devote enough effort to implementation at the appropriate time. Many projects fail because we never appropriately scope out what it is going to take to get the job done, and we never allocate adequate resources. This is an important step, but you must take it at the right time and with adequate kavanah.Start with some of your best ideas from the earlier phases. Chances are you’ve identified some great opportunities and have defined some action steps for addressing them. You are probably already frustrated by the lack of available resources for making these action steps a reality. But, hasn’t your strategic kavanah put you in a better position to compare priorities and reallocate resources? My experience is that, with almost universal consistency, everyone is short of resources, but much of their scarce resource is dedicated to things that aren’t as important as the ideas that surface through productive strategic thinking. Yes, you have to reallocate, but this process of strategic kavanah makes it much easier to do that.

As you practice strategic kavanah, you’ll be able to move freely back and forth between these categories, purposefully, without losing an awareness of where you are. Be intentional. Be the paddle, not the ping pong ball.

Most importantly, be willing to practice strategic kavanah even though most of those around you aren’t doing it. Impetuousness is inappropriately admired in our fast-moving age. We tend to confuse movement with direction. But these busy times demand strategic kavanah more than ever, because the perspective it provides and the preparation it enables are critical for dealing with the rapidly changing world your business lives in.

Ignore these distracting forces. There is a telling story about Gunther Plaut, a famous modern rabbi, which illustrates these forces. Rabbi Plaut reserved a few hours every morning for thinking time. He instructed his secretary to hold all of his calls and tell the callers that he couldn’t be interrupted because he was thinking. His congregants were livid and indignant that he refused their calls just so he could think. The problem went away once he instructed his secretary to say that he couldn’t come to the phone because he was busy. Busy is ok. Thinking isn’t. Isn’t it ironic: The rabbi was expected to bring kavanah to worship, but not to the rest of his life.

Ignore these forces. Think. Practice strategic kavanah. It will improve your aim. Infuse everything you do with intent. Strategic kavanah is not difficult. It just takes practice. Daily practice. Hourly practice. Moment by moment practice.

When should you start practicing strategic kavanah? Why not now?


  • Amanda Cullen
    Nov 17, 2009 - 09:01 am

    Happy birthday Caroline! ~– (that’s a birthday candle for you)

    Steve, I really like when you take a religious, philosophical or scientific concept and apply it to business. It reminds me that our business can be deeply meaningful and should be full of purpose.

  • Judith Ellis
    Nov 17, 2009 - 09:43 am

    Beautiful thoughtful applicable post, Steve. Just beautiful! I shall refer to it often. Thank you.

    “In my experience, we don’t generally lack resources but often lack resourcefulness.”

    David – This is great! Thanks!

  • David Porter
    Nov 17, 2009 - 09:32 am

    Excellent post. I kept thinking about the distinction between human beings and human doings. I like your three-step approach and will quibble with one statement that we are short of resources. In my experience, we don’t generally lack resources but often lack resourcefulness. I have caught myself saying, “I have tried everything” after trying two things. The good news is that strategic kavanah can help us tap into that resourcefulness and reach a better outcome.

  • David Porter
    Nov 17, 2009 - 09:36 am

    By the way Steve, in my experience asking a higher quality question gets us higher quality answers. You always ask good questions. Thanks for that.

  • Steve Yastrow
    Nov 17, 2009 - 12:24 pm

    I was just listening to Jonah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide, this morning. He talks about when your “gut,” emotional thinking works best, and when focused, “frontal-lobe,” rational thinking is best. Each kind of thinking has its place, and each has its dangers.

    When writing about productive focused thinking he was telling about the United DC-10, flight 232, that failed in 1989 and had to make an emergency landing in Sioux City … the pilot’s thinking process was a great example of intense kavanah. The pilot, Al Haynes, was able to shut out all extraneous thoughts, in a period of amazing pressure, and focus himself on only the things he could control. He, apparently, figured out new ways to fly the disabled plane that were counter-intuitive, and managed to bring the plane down and save about 2/3 of the passengers, who otherwise would all have died. When the conditions of Flight 232 were recreated in a flight simulator, no other pilot could bring the plane down with fewer than 57 crash landings.

    Lerher writes about how our brains can associate different ideas in our working memory when we manage to have only the most relevant information in working memory. That’s why great focus on “the things that matter” is so productive, and why distracted multi-tasking and constant interuptions make us so unproductive.

    The human mind is a tricky thing! Learning to apply it well, in the right ways at the right times, to our businesses can have a major impact on success.

  • PaulH
    Nov 18, 2009 - 03:13 am

    Great post Steve,

    What I find useful when coaching people around interruptions is to talk about choice. Outlook allows your to work offline. Messenger allows you to set I am busy. You can choose to answer the phone. Book a meeting room and hide if you have to!

    Another area I explore is honesty about interruptions – many people like being interrupted -sure they moan about it but it’s the ultimate excuse for procrastination on things you should be doing.

    One area that concerns me in office culture is the – “I get more emails than you” or “I am drowning in email” type conversation. It’s become a badge of honour. Why???

    I am fascinated by the deliberate use of subconcious – I read an article about shamanism at work now I know that may raise a few eyebrows in an office but the deliberate changing of mental state is something we have not really explored in depth. Coaching uses relaxation and empathy to guide mood etc. That’s a start.

    Music is another area – I sometimes work from home and often choose music to get into a certain groove.

    There are many ways to change this – the choice is yours!

  • Steve Yastrow
    Nov 20, 2009 - 08:17 am

    Great point, Paul. As the article I referenced in the newsletter said, 44% of interruptions are self-imposed, but how many of the other, external interruptions could we choose to ignore … but instead we choose to let them interrupt us?

  • Larry Kaufman
    Nov 20, 2009 - 17:06 pm

    If you want to define kavanah to mean intense focus, you still have to pair it with its non-identical twin, keva, the fixed routine of prayer.

    Is it fair to say that Brand Harmony sets out the liturgy, the words that must be engrained and recited from habit,the keva, while WE adds the concentration, the intentionality, the recognition that you can’t be in the moment every moment, but you don’t have to be if your auto-pilot is functioning properly?

    • Steve Yastrow
      Nov 20, 2009 - 19:35 pm

      Very cool connection Larry! Thanks for the insight.

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