The Needful

Cut Wood. Carry Water

Zen Phrase
Cut Wood. Carry Water

The last two years have given me a deeper recognition of the value of doing the needful tasks. As much as we all desire to leap, hack and accelerate, there are parts of life and work that need sustaining with deep and consistent effort and attention. Focus as much on the presence of the needful as on the transformative opportunity. They come together.

A Dreamy Impatience

I see better futures, a big picture, think strategically and have an impatience for change. Add an entrepreneurial streak, a fair appetite for risk and you get someone who is always looking for a way to leap, hack and accelerate. In my default setting, there has to be a way to improve the process and get there faster. For much of my career, that has been productive and rewarded with success, especially where I was smart enough to reinforce my impatience with team members who could bring the discipline and relentless execution that I so often overlooked.

Exercising strength should be encouraged. This dreamy impatience has worked well in my career and led to lots of opportunities that either didn’t appeal to others who couldn’t see the vision or lacked appeal to others because of the risks or the clear path. I have gravitated to communities where people share the same vision of potential and I have learned from their ability to execute and get the job done.

Stretching and creating new things also comes with the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. When things are good, they are great. However, much more of the time, there is challenge, failure and difficulty. Change agents know that all of the time the system opposes their work. You get used to disappointment and set backs. You come to recognise that even innovation is a grind.

The Needful

Some time recently, I saw the phrase ‘the needful’ somewhere on twitter. Who shared it is now lost to me. However, the phrase resonated deeply and has become a useful reminder to me on how to complement my strengths. I not likely to become the greatest completer finisher but reminding myself of what is needful has become a key to improving my performance and reducing my frustration at the challenges we now face.

Dreams, wants and desires are great. They inspire and motivate us. However, we have work to do to be present for and satisfy our needs, the needs of others and the needs of our community. ‘The needful’ has become my refrain to reinforce this work and to find joy and presence of mind in it.

The needful is not self-abnegating. It is a reminder that both my needs and the needs of others must be fulfilled for happiness and success. Equally, the needful is a challenge to remove all that is unnecessary that usually fills our lives. For example:

  • My needs: Do I need to take a break? Do I need to do this now? Do I need time off? Am I giving this the effort, care and attention it needs? How can I make my performance more sustainable? I am really doing the necessary things and eliminating the unnecessary?
  • Needs of others: Do I need to do this? Am I best placed to do it or would another be better? How can I be sure that we are truly meeting the needs of others? What more need I do? Is this request truly necessary or do we need to discuss another way?
  • Needs of work: What is most needful to do now? Am I continuing to do what is needed for success? What else do I need to succeed in this task? What else can be stopped to improve focus and performance?

Focus on the needful also acts as a reminder to me that some drudgery is required and that I have made efforts to remove the drudgery. The needful is not an alternative to dreaming of a better future, but it is a complement to yearning for change.

Our present circumstances have changed the scale and shape of our world and our ambitions. We need to balance our ambitions with attention to the needful if we are to maximise our happiness and performance.

It’s a small world after all

A friend from interstate asked me yesterday how Melbourne was doing. I had to admit that I didn’t really know. With various forms of lockdown since March and our recent curfew and 5 km limit, my world has shrunk to my house and its immediate neighbourhood. Yesterday, I posted on managing anxiety and the post has received views and responses from around the world. Many of my Melbourne friends responded on Twitter expressing their recognition of my experience. We may be hyperlocal, but we are living in a connected world and coping with shared experiences.

Connected in Community

Community is now central in our lives. We are dependent on others to achieve control this virus. We ourselves are guardians of ourselves and others by practising social distance, washing our hands and following guidelines. As we have seen in Victoria, reckless actions by a few can generate widespread risk to health and life of others. We are dependant and at the same time a part of public health that involves the whole community.

For some this is a revelation and a threat to their independence. We have emphasized individualism in our work and our society so heavily that a requirement to wear a mask is seen as an infringement of liberty. Usually a mask signals the opposite, new freedoms and rebellion.

We are developing new rituals of community that signal our care and concern for others and help bind us together in this time from the wave at the end of our teleconference to new grocery shopping routines. These will continue to mature as our practice of this time develops.

Before the pandemic individuals and organisations could pretend they were an island focused purely on their own outcomes. That is no longer the case and most evidently demonstrated by businesses being shutdown to protect the wider community. As employees, customers and business owners, the challenge we have going forward is how we now think of community as running within and through our organisations. Our employees are community members & customers as well as participants within the internal community of the organisation.

Understanding these connections and their flows out to the whole world offers us new ways to understand purpose, the impact of our actions and how we might execute strategy. Strategy is no longer the heroic realm of smart senior executives. The future of organisations depend on their frontline adapting and responding to community as much if not more as the decisions of the chief executives. The challenge of strategy has always been execution and aware of community that execution is much more dynamic and demanding.

As we start to see the communities around us and around the world, there is an opportunity to leverage this awareness and this connectedness for change to tackle big problems such as systemic racism, inclusion, equity and climate change. That won’t happen with black squares, black and white photos and filters. That change will require us to treat these issues with the seriousness and the widespread community engagement that we have given to public health. In each of these we are guardian, participant and beneficiary for the community and the consequences of our actions reach far around the world.

Living Between Anxiety and Presence

Still waters run deep

From Anxiety

I have found it hard to write over the last week. Between the continuing international crisis and the challenges of work & family, I was struggling to add anything of meaning for myself or others. At some point late a Sunday, Stage 4 of lockdown settled in the pit of my stomach as a lump of discomfort. Anxiety had arrived in force.

Anxiety can be a creeper. For me is starts when stress is elevated for an extended period of time. That’s usually the result of taking on too much, pushing myself harder than I should at work and judging myself on a harsh curve. However, that stress can be exacerbated by circumstances from the stresses of friends and family, the stories on social media through to anticipating the consequences of a global pandemic.

Like stress, a little anxiety can be productive. It helps me to focus and to be on my better performance. I don’t know I could present, pitch or negotiate without some edge to help me pay attention, concentrate and assess and tune performance in real time. There’s little to be gained by coasting through work. However, too much anxiety is destructive of performance and ultimately health. Nobody performs at their best paralysed by fear and the physical symptoms of mental stress.

To Presence

Last night, I tackled the lump in my stomach and the growing stress with some deep breathing and just being. Quieting the ever busy mind is a needed part of these circumstances. The more prescribed our lives, the harder it is to quieten the mind walking in nature, exercising, absorbed in sport or lost in crowds. After some sleep, I am better for the presence that I found.

We cannot be what we want to be for others and in the world, unless we can sustain ourselves. Learning to spot the hidden stress and anxieties and tackle those before they overwhelm us is an important part of performance. Simple mindfulness techniques like deep breathing can bring a great relief in times of stress to the mind and the body. Continued performance requires the ability to stop, take breaks and be present. Your body and your mind will thank you.

Watch out for the signs of stress and anxiety in others too. These are challenging times and your questions or conversation might bring welcome relief or distraction to others. We can all look out for those around us and encourage them to look after themselves and get help when needed.

Noble Eightfold Path Beads

An Absence of Ambition

Going nowhere?

In the first weeks of the pandemic response, we were focused. Now that we know we are focusing on a short term long term problem, we need new ambitions.

Ambition – Greasing the Wheels

Australian’s have a complex relationship to ambition. You ideally have some but not too much. You know you have to get a little dirty with it. It is on everything we do. It will get on your hands and clothes. Just makes sure that it is not so much that it shows to everyone all the time.

Ambition is an important part of performance. As a colleague once said to me:

if you don’t stretch, how do you know where the edge is?

Reaching for the edge

Stretching for boundaries and limits is a key part of the contribution of ambition. Another part is that ambition is choice and brings with it focus. To seek to succeed in one thing, means chosing that thing over others. Focus is a critical component of success in a world of many distractions. We need to know what we go back to and put our efforts behind.

An absence of ambition suits some but can be devastating for others, particularly those who may still yearn but act out their lack of ambition. The wheels of talent and capability can grind to a halt. Whether because of hostile circumstances, past disappointments, a desire for comfort, or other issues, I have met many talented people who have surrendered their ambition to do more, to do different, to change themselves and their circumstances. Their lack of ambition flowed into lesser performance, growth and their personal satisfaction. If you always choose to step off the path, don’t be surprised if you don’t get anywhere.

We tend to associate ambition with ruling the world. If any time demonstrates that vexed ambition, it is this one. Ambitions don’t have to be big or even to be more. However, they have to be ambitions to at least make change – slighly better, a little more, a bit different or something less. In what domain this change occurs is entirely ours to choose.

We can even have an ambition to stop. The difference between abandonment and an ambition to stop comes in the choice, the control and the sustainability of the latter.

Sustaining Ambition in a Pandemic

When the Pandemic began, our ambitions were clear and focused. Projects rocked forward under the simple ambitions of “We can do this. We can keep going. We will survive.” There was surprise and elation as people showed themselves that collaboration technology worked and that working from home, while different and stressful at times, could be productive.

As we move out of the short term experience and into the longer term response, our ambitions are less clear and less focused. It is time for new choices. We need to set out goals for December, for next year and the years beyond. We need to find new stretch and start to contribute to it day-by-day and week-by-week. We can find new partners and new collaborators to help us live up and grow up to this stretch.

I’m fond of the old mantra that

a vision without execution is a delusion

Our ambitions will not be realised if we don’t make choices, focus, get some grease on our hands and start working forward and learning day-by-day. Now is the time to decide what it is we do next.

The Short Term Long Term Challenge

From minutes to seasons and years

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

We often set ourselves short term challenges. Transitioning those to long term efforts can be a motivation challenge. However, most success requires years of effort and we need to plan for that continuing contribution.

We are at a delicate point in our response to the coronavirus pandemic. We are at the end of short term responses and given the ongoing issues around the world, we must start to move to longer term efforts.

Short Term

In our lives and our work, we love quick wins, 90 day sprints and the short sharp shock. We are used to seeing performance as a short term effort.

Now is the only time we have, so there will always be an immediacy to our needs to make change and improve performance. Extra efforts can make a significant difference and can be part of shifting to new paths and systems of performance. Adaptive leadership focuses on the need to make sure interactions are part of creating and sustaining the tension to create enduring change.

However, many of the common high impact short term activities amount to asking for extra effort. Asking for extra is a drain on the individuals involved. When we release that request for extra effort, we can see performance decline to the original level or in some cases below.

Shifting to Long term

However, in most change there are deeper systemic and structural issues at play. This kind of change requires years of consistent effort from many individuals. There’s no heroic leader or effort that will transform these situations.

When we shift from the urgent now to thinking about this longer term effort, our motivation can crash. We ask ourselves ‘how can it be this hard? how can it take this long? why are there setbacks?’ All the effort we put into the short term can feel like a waste when there is more work to be done. Starting over is hard and feels unfair.

To make change that lasts and addresses the largest issues in our lives, work and society, we need to prepare to slog the long term change. We have to work with others to ensure that the short term does not cause a detriment to our motivation and performance in the longer term.

Balancing the short and long term requires us to work with empathy for the individuals working on change and those involved in the system. Sustaining hope for a better future is key along the journey. New rituals that signal a transition to the longer term can help us with the change and work ahead. We can focus on the now and see continuing progress day-by-day.

The long term effort helps us to focus on our community and that we cannot do this alone. If we need to support our mood in this transition, then we can lean on each other to help with the support and assistance we need.

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Catching Empathy

Empathy is caught, not taught

Erin and David Walsh, How Children Develop Empathy

We need more empathy. However, empathy is not something that we develop with lists of 5-10 more ways to develop empathy. Empathy is not an intellectual project that one can learn from a text or a blogpost. Empathy is human and that means it is rich, multifaceted, social, emotional and experiential. Empathy is also a shared experience which makes it contagious.

Intellectual empathy

Lots of obvious practices can make us more receptive to empathy: being present and paying attention, active listening, putting ourselves in the shoes of others, investigating their situation, stories and experiences, respecting their views and so on. However, no matter how empathetic the concerned nodder has limited value at work and in society.

Messy (Human) Empathy – Emotional, Experiential and Active

Every been so upset about the situation of another that you cried? Shouted? Wrote a fierce letter? Protested? Baked a cake? Started a political movement? Ate a block of chocolate? Ranted for an hour to a friend? Hugged someone?

The point of these list is not that the responses are equally effective. The point is that they are all valid human emotional and experiential responses. Real humans respond to empathetic understanding with emotion and action. They immerse themselves in experiences to dig deeper and to make a difference. They share their experience, sharing the empathy in wider circles. Action is the right answer to empathy. Action validates the other’s experience and makes the moment a shared one, reinforcing the value to them of the moment. Otherwise is it just arid nodding. You might start with a chocolate bar now but that empathetic experience won’t leave you and you can use that chocolate to consider what you do next.

The emotional and experiential nature of human empathy is why creative experiences like literature and film can help you understand another’s world more deeply and more richly. A novel, a story, a poem or a film can help you dig deeper into the lives, challenges and hopes of others. Non-fiction is an important way to get the facts, but real humans are rich, multifacted and more than a little irrational. Creative arts can help us experience empathy in this diverse and rich way. They are also shared experiences which helps us to share and reinforce the value of empathy in our society. At a time where we can’t always go an experience another’s life in their circumstances, creative works can take us someway there. That is one reason to worry that the arts has been so badly affected by the pandemic – it weakens our empathetic response in a time of isolation.

To put this discussion in a corporate context, one of my frustrations with employee engagement programs is that they are ultimately anti-empathetic. They aim to take a range of emotional and experiential elements of the employee experience and reduce them to intellectual questions and data. The arid nature of the debates that follow is why many managers view the surveys as a joke, employees are discouraged to share their opinion and nothing substantive changes. People are reluctant to deal with the real human, messy experiences and emotions. It is far easy to invest in better onboarding and neater employee communications as if intelligence and knowledge will address all the issues. Most employee engagement can be addressed far more directly with a rise in empathy in the organisation. That empathy is wildly contagious.

Empathy is ultimately a path to action. Our understanding can motivate and shape our actions to help others and make a richer society. If you have the tears or the anger, find a way to make a contribution to others. You don’t have to work at it alone. Find others to share your empathy and the need for action. If you need to start with a chocolate bar to gain the energy for the messy human struggle ahead, do so.


Darling, do you ever wonder how others live?

When people become better at seeing themselves in the lives of others, feeling other’s suffering and easing their pain, the life in that community gets better

Melinda Gates, Moment of Lift

We aren’t at risk of a surfeit of empathy. A quick glance around our world shows the need for a lot more effort to understand the lives, suffering and pain of others.

Our isolation is an opportunity to reflect. That reflection need not be introspection and despair at what we are losing. Reflection can be a time to consider the position of others and seek to understand more deeply.

Empathy is a source of so much power in our world. Great products are built from the insights of deep empathy for customers. Great influence comes from putting oneself in the shoes of the other and speaking to their position and their needs. Great relationships are founded on empathy and care for others.

Others don’t have to be alien and unknowable. Projecting our own opinions is unforgivably lazy. We can all learn more by watching and asking questions. Simply putting the question “what might others think of my view?’ into our thought process we step a little towards an understanding of other’s perspectives.

Empathy is uncomfortable. Rightly so. That discomfort is a source of understanding, learning and change. Empathy takes us beyond our own careful constructed edifices and shows us the systems and processes that harm others. When we can see those processes and that harm we have a chance to make change.

True compassion is more than flinging coins to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring

Martin Luther King Jr

Omelettes and Boundaries

You don’t make an omelette without breaking eggs

Traditional saying
Transgressing boundaries

Creation of something new requires people to cross boundaries set by the old. Transgression doesn’t mean destruction, disrespect or lack of care are required. We just must make a choice to support the new.

Boundaries of Creation and Innovation

The biggest challenge for most innovation projects is the need to cross barriers and boundaries. Organisations are full of systems, structures and rules that reinforce the way things are done now. Creating the new inevitably means making smart decisions on when to work across and around those rules.

I have seen teams tie themselves in knots and ultimately compromise their project’s success fitting within the existing system and processes. When many of those boundaries are scar tissue rather than real rules to facilitate safety or success, that presents a major cost to organisations.

Policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again. They are collective punishment for the misdeeds of an individual. This is how bureaucracies are born.

Jason Fried, ReWork

Teams need to recognise that change and creation requires crossing boundaries at times, if not always. Many of these boundaries will be nearly sacred and scary. The question is how to make the right choices on which lines to cross and to do so respectfully.

Breaking eggs

Too often, we see the ‘breaking eggs’ saying used to justify wanton reckless damage. That’s not how you make an omelette. An omelette takes care and attention. You may need to crack the shells to start the omelette but from there it is gentle stirring, careful heat, close attention and so on. An omelette is not smashed eggs burnt in a pan.

You can’t disregard boundaries entirely. They aren’t all bureaucracy. Many exist for valid reasons of safety or performance. We must also take care to respect and understand those whose lives and roles are shaped by the boundaries. Challenging their givens can be traumatic and threatening.

Often it is the exact people who live and work on the boundaries as guardians or maintenance who best understand the reasons for and workings of the frontier. Take the time to listen to their stories, hear their insights and seek their support. You may just find a light that can guide you forward here. Their doubts and concerns will get you outside of your own project bubble. Having a guide across the edge can be essential to your success. They may turn out to be some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the new as they know the cost of the old boundaries so well.

Even more important is to recognise that our customer or ultimate beneficiary of our work is outside our organisation. That is a boundary we need to cross to look back in to the organisation. Many times standing with the customer looking back, all the carefully tended boundaries inside the organisation look like fiefdoms and powerplays rather than essential steps in a process. That perspective shared within the organisation can be an essential agent of change. Align with your customer or external stakeholder to create it.

Despite the violent language of disruption, hacking and the like, great innovation is an act of careful creation, much like the process of making a fine omelette. Make sure your change has the same degree of attention and makes careful choices about the boundaries to cross.



Where did everyone go?

We have built a culture that idealises the individual. Our future depends on those who can collaborate and work in community.


We make it hard for ourselves. Our narratives are about going it alone. We tell stories about heroic single leaders and change agents. We measure and reward people for individual effort. We stress individual freedoms and individual potential. We are relentlessly encouraged to ‘go it alone’, ‘to look out for number 1’ and to ‘make our mark’

For much of my career I have ended up in isolated roles as a business developer, as a change agent or as a consultant. Sometimes by my choice and some times by consequence of the choices of others. Working alone takes broad shoulders to carry the burdens, determination to work through the challenges and a strong sense of passion to fight for what you need to achieve

It isn’t easy being alone. I make terrible company for myself. The rewards of my heroic solo efforts weren’t worth that much. The best things I achieved while in roles ‘on my own’ weren’t my own work but the outcome of collaborations, especially across silos or organisational boundaries. The disappointments were endless and entirely my own. It’s much less easy, much safer and much more rewarding to be part of a community or a team.

From Autarchy to Autonomy

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose

Kris Kristoffersen

Freedom can be a rush, but when it signals ‘nothing left to lose’ it is ultimately devastating. We often confuse freedom to shape our work and make choices with autarchy, working truly isolated economically independent of others. They are different things. Few people ever work as an island. Attempts to work as an autarchy are guaranteed to fail in organisations and in our economy, just ask North Korea. Autonomy demands that we have a say in the governance of our work. That can and should be a part of any community, any team and any work.

We have to stopped encouraging autarchy, stop designing for it and stop promoting it. Nobody works, lives or succeeds alone.

We can foster autonomy. It isn’t the anarchy that many in power expect. Autonomy is where our societies and our organisations began. Before modern communications technology and the modern factory all work was autonomous. Even the apprentice was expected to make decisions about their work on the path to mastery. We will be better for teams, organisations and communities taking responsibility for the work and lives and seeking to shape them in ways that make them better, more liveable and more productive.


We can’t travel, we can only discover ourselves

Our bounds are constrained to our homes and our heads. Time for some rediscovery.

Boundary Constraints

I recently reflected that I had planned to make 2020 a year of focusing on boundaries. Perhaps I wished too hard. With a renewed shutdown, I am in the narrowest physical & social boundaries of my life. As my good friend, Geoff reminds me above, I need not let these boundaries define me.

I may be constrained by tight boundaries but constraints are a source of creativity. We have already seen so many people demonstrate extraordinary creativity in reinventing their work, their business model or their lives to suit the new circumstances. One can rail against boundaries, but these appear likely to be with us for some time to come. Let’s not let them define us and get creative in how we discover and rediscover ourselves.


Boundaries help us focus and explore what we have. I have found these last 6 months a period of a focus on capabilities, broadly defined. I have focused a great deal on making what I can from my circumstances and my resources. With time and attention, I have been surprised with how much can be done.

Turning back to rediscover my own world has led to all sort of new opportunities, many due to my privileged position as someone later in my career with resources, successes and networks already established. With commutes & travel abandoned and the pressures of lockdown, I have explored more deeply passions for poetry, baking and cooking. I have turned to all sorts of bits of digital detritus to support the needs of a busy home office. I have reshaped the way I deliver my work to make more progress and been totally surprised by how much progress I can make with colleagues and clients in these times. I have watched the organisations I am involved in make similar transformations and progress. Some of my capabilities and history have enabled me to make new and useful contributions to others. We are discovering and sometimes rediscovering ways of living and working.

The hardest and most challenging part of this process is rediscovery of myself. I have only made a small part of this progress, but what I have found is now precious to me. I value family, friends, colleagues and community more highly because that time now stands in starker relief. I have spent much more time seeking out social activity now that little comes by chance. I now ask myself harder questions about the value and role of purchases I make now that casual browsing and shopping as an activity is lost. I don’t miss travel for work, conferences or pleasure and I know it may be years before that experience returns to what it once was.

With the events of the last months, I am more aware of my circumstances of privilege and advantage. I don’t battle poverty, discrimination, disability or other forms of disadvantage. I blithely share my opinions when those options aren’t always available to or respected in others. I have much to learn and more that I can contribute to help others be heard and to make change happen. The stories of those making this change continue to inspire me to make a bigger difference.

There is more good in the world to find when I go looking beyond the dark headlines and shouty debates. People realising their potential still inspire and encourage me. I get down but I still hold hope and still believe we can make change. Life is light and shade. I am wiser for coming to a greater acceptance of both sides. Perhaps I am being more realistic in my expectations of the world but mostly of myself. I can stop. I can take a day off. I need to be mindful and relax some times. The world won’t end. All I can do is all I need do.

Ultimately, the last few months have been a reminder that if there’s no happiness inside you won’t find happiness out in the world. That’s a rediscovery worth much indeed.

What have you discovered?