The Busy Paradox

Last year was exceedingly busy, for good and for bad reasons. The good was a rush of achievements in many domains of work and life. The bad was a feeling of being overwhelmed, falling behind, missing out and a constant storm of pressures. If you had asked me in the dying days of late December the latter was in the forefront of my thinking.

When I sit back and reflect with care, the positives outweighed the negatives by some measure. However the nature of busy is that there is an urgency and an immediacy of the negatives. We feel overwhelmed by what is to be done. As a wise boss of my once said:

When you stare at the pile of sand ahead, it’s easy to forget how much we have already shifted

The Busy Paradox

With this challenge in mind, I started 2020 with a focus on being aware and deliberate about my busyness in both work and life. This deliberate intent includes having some priorities, planning what can be planned and saying no more often. No is the greatest and most underused prioritisation tool. I aim to let go the anxiety of busyness with deliberate practice.

After a week of new practice 2020, time mostly on vacation, a paradox of busy is clearer to me. Doing nothing has been amazingly productive. This paradox has two corollaries:

    You do a lot while doing nothing
    There’s a lot of nothing in doing a lot

Less is More

The best defence against busyness is focus. Know what little you are doing and you will achieve more. Lack of focus destroys productivity, purpose and ultimately energy to achieve what you want.

When you are focused you are surprised by how little time tasks take. Focusing on only one thing is the best way to get it done. Work in progress, switching time, interruptions and other distractions are the enemy. Focus is key.

1 Awareness is a Problem

As part of my preparation for the year ahead, I started making notes on the meaningful things that I did each day. These simple bullet points highlighted to me how much meaningful achievement there was in each day of ‘doing nothing’ on vacation.

While I was telling myself I was doing nothing, I was blithely unaware of all the work I was doing. Much of the pressure of our busy lives come from this work. These every day achievements are unrelenting. These pressures are often greater for women who may be experiencing uneven workloads in the often unrecognised managing life of family or relatives.

To manage through our busyness and take care of ourselves we need to be realists and be conscious of exactly how much work there is. We can’t ignore important work just because our attention or the attention of others is focused elsewhere. If we want to look after ourselves, we need to take breaks and give ourselves the latitude to do nothing properly.

Importantly, take care to check the validity of the stories you are telling yourself. If you don’t you can end up frustrated by a flawed vision of reality.

2 There are Lulls in any Storm

If we don’t accept there are lulls in the storm of our always busy lives, we miss the opportunity to recover, relax and do more. Our unwillingness to accept down time, leads to all kinds of unhelpful behaviours:

  • Forcing the pace of activity
  • Over committing to fill the lulls with more work
  • Over-complicating work with makework
  • Confusing duration with effort
  • Digital distractions to fill time (email and social media is a major culprit here)
  • Multi-tasking, especially the unproductive versions with partial attention to multiple concurrent tasks or excessive switching.

If there is a lull in our work or life, we need to make considered choices as to how to use that time:

  • Is it time for a break? Me time is OK. So is Us time to be shared with others.
  • Is there something small and defined that I could do while I wait? Many tasks are much quicker than we think (or at least the next step in the task can be completed quickly)
  • Do I need to think about how to do this better or differently?
  • Who can help us?

The approaches, effort and achievement are what matter in life, not the time taken. Don’t feel obliged to fill lulls just to be busy. Nobody values busyness and time served. Everybody values effectiveness

A final word

As your 2020 develops, I wish you much less so that you can achieve more

Carrying Mountains

A final thought for 2019:

These mountains that you are carrying, you were only meant to climb – Najwa Zebian

We make our challenges more complex than they need to be in manifold ways. When our challenge is simple we make it complex. When our challenge is small, we make it large. When our challenge is unclear we set out for perfection. When the challenge demands a team, we go it alone.

The best proof of our talents is not solving the bigger problem that is all absorbing. The best proof of our talents is solving the challenge quickly and having time for Life.

Question your challenges. Is the goal clear? Is there less that can be done? Is there an easier way? Can you get help or a new perspective? Can you stop carrying the mountain and climb it instead?

A simpler life awaits you in the answers.

Reflections and the Work Ahead in 2020

Wishing all the readers of this blog seasons greetings and best wishes for 2020. Thank you for continuing to follow along.

I have had a regular practice on reflecting on the year of work at the end of each year. That reflection is also an opportunity to set some goals for the year ahead. I missed last year’s opportunity in the rush. Here is this year’s reflection and some plans for 2020.

Reflections on The Year that Was

Innovation is Work. Hard Work.

Across a number of work, board and other advisory roles this year I have been working on innovation in its many forms. None of it has been easy. All of it has been hard work with ups and downs, setbacks and real need for persistence. Much of it reflects the adage that ‘most overnight successes are a decade’s work.’

Above all, this year has reiterated the need to be clear on the problems that innovation is seeking to solve. Those problems shouldn’t be assumptions. They should come from listing and engaging the market and also from ongoing testing in the market. The path to success is not paved by genius or talent. The path to success is hard work, persistence and iteration.

Persistence includes the need to push through in face of failure. Let the doubters and the critics have their say, but focus, set goals and keep pushing for change.

Transformation isn’t the work of a Hero. It is a Community effort

We often see transformation expressed as the work of a hero (my choice of gendered language is deliberate). Transformation is the opposite of an individual effort. Transformation is the work of a community coming together to scale change and to build something new that leverages their collective talents and fulfils their collective potential. That work must include everyone and leverage their many diverse contributions.

You can never forget that your work exists in, for and depends on a community. I had doubts this year on whether another International Working Out Loud week was needed. However, the response of the global WOL community to taking the inspiration of a WOLWeek and making it their own showed me that I was wrong. Sometimes you don’t understand the value of your own work until you see it in the community context.

The organisational design challenge at present is scaling change. We are iterating towards new solutions that leverage accountability, transparency and alignment to accelerate adaptation. Encouraging and enabling communities to come together to lead their own transformation in relation to the opportunities they see and the talents that they have. The skills of community management and agile change will be critical in the decade to come.

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Collaboration matters more than ever to the strategy and success of organisations. All organisations need to be leveraging the collective potential of their people to create new value.


More effective and more valuable collaboration is the key ingredient in organisations addressing their challenges with speed and effectiveness.  I recently posted an overview of my learnings from the last decade of collaboration. If I would add anything to those insights, it is the importance of taking a relationship view over a transactional one and keeping clear the differences between chat, conversation and collaboration which is more important with the rise of new work apps.

Aware Aligned Action

Earlier this year, I shared some insights into the drivers of value. Keeping value at the centre of our work remains key.


Personal Leadership

The pressures of the work this year made it clearer to me that personal leadership is a key part of success in the modern era of work. The pressures will not grow less. We need to make choices and take action on our work and our lives to give ourselves back control. Those choices most importantly involve saying no and setting boundaries.

Those boundaries include setting digital boundaries in an era where there are more addictive demands on our attention. Unplugging, meeting face to face, finding time to read, converse and relax became ever so important in 2019. Trust and understanding come from shared context and deep relationships and that take time, effort and engagement. Rapid digital conversation can give us chat, but conversation and collaboration require us to give and to invest more.

The Work Ahead in 2020

I sat down on Monday night and mapped my 2020 workload. 2020 promises to be a year that is busy with activity, projects, deliverables, learning and commitments. Across my work, consulting, advisory and board roles, I will be stepping up to the next level of activity.

At the same time I am also planning to take on some additional creative challenges and set some boundaries so there will be great demand for creative solutions and a real continuing to learn the lessons of mindful choices, personal purpose and productivity. Busy isn’t an answer or an excuse.  Busy is a challenge we must all beat. I will be stretched in the year ahead.

I will continue to focus throughout the year on the future of work, the power of community and accelerating the value of collaboration. As noted above, this is core capability to underpin all of the activity and opportunity ahead. Excitingly, we are increasingly seeing organisations all around the world focus on the potential of collaboration and working out loud. Stay tuned as I will share the lessons of this work on this blog.

Reviewing my 2017 reflections and the update for 2018, the elements highlighted still hold as areas of work. In 2020 two additional areas, seem urgently in need of work: enabling the continuity of a functional civil society in a global economy going through transformative change and addressing our sustainable future.  In 2020, two challenges will be on the forefront of the work that I do:

  • supporting the transformation of disability, health and care through enable consumer choice and control and new ways of efficiently managing care through LanternPay.
  • enabling new degrees of freedom in work and scaling agile change in communities to deliver the innovation, transformation and human work we need through Change Agents Worldwide.  That includes finishing the book and addressing the themes that I discuss in this Disrupt Sydney talk.

Life. Be in it.

Life is too much important a thing ever to talk seriously about it. – Oscar Wilde

Life. Be in it. – Australian Government Advertising Campaign


We race towards the end of the year and a decade. When once our lives might have been calming down into holidays, we feel more pressure than ever: pressure to deliver, pressure to be busy, to keep up, to be on, to do more.

Our always on ever present digital companions offer us the options to be absorbed and to be absorbing all the time. Oddly, this pressure to do more, mostly results in less: less satisfaction, less entertainment, less sense of purpose, less fulfilment. We have discovered a digital expectation gap that is ever growing – the difference between what we can see might be and what is.

I was reflecting this morning on my desperate desire to waste a day, when it struck me that I wasn’t planning to waste anything. I was simply allocating my time in a choice that involved celebrating life. Like Norm of the famous Australian government fitness campaign, I wanted to ‘Be in Life’ instead of charging through it. Our time demands more mindful present choices than ever. We can’t be reactive or just carried by the flow of busy. We need to decide. We need to choose the life that suits us best. Every single day.

So in the spirit of prompting reflection on what really matters here are a few prompts that have been guiding me over the last decade on how to Be more in Life:


“Tell me, what is it you plan to do. with your one wild and precious life?” ― Mary Oliver.

“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” ― Mary Oliver.


Late Edit Postscript: My one final piece of advice is this: Embrace your potential to be a Dark Horse – we are each unique and we do better to emphasize our uniqueness than battle to be similar.

Transactions vs Relationships

Effective collaboration in organisations is built on relationships. Employees and their leaders need to move beyond thinking of work as transactional interactions and focus on the opportunities to adapt and improve within relationships.img_2387-1

The Need to Be Perfect is Transactional

A transaction is once and done. It has to be perfect. There is no going back, no improvement and no adaptation. You have to get it right then and there.

We have engrained a machine metaphor into thinking about our day to day work. This approach reinforces our views that work is transactional, a flow of inputs into outputs executed with perfect efficiency. Email communication even reinforces this model with its inbox and task oriented form of work.

This metaphor flows on to the use of social collaboration tools like Yammer when there is a sense for employees that they need to be perfect in each transactional communication. Employees, and especially their status conscious leaders, express concerns that they might say the wrong thing, make a mistake, or they might not act on every message.

Collaboration is not a transaction. It is not once and done. Collaboration is about a human flow of give and take in an ongoing relationship. Much of our work now is knowledge work that demands relationship interactions. We need to know more than our inputs. We need to be able to evaluate information, build on it, interact, challenge and create together with others to produce the value that our organisation’s need. We have moved from machine input-output to a creative iterative human flow.  

Relationships are Adaptive

The Value Maturity Model starts with connection because it is a reminder that collaboration is an activity that is founded on human relationships. Importantly, real human relationships support the kind of iterative activity that enable value creation collectively.

If you have ever read a transcript of a conversation, it becomes quickly evident that when humans interact they don’t speak whole perfect sentences. A conversation is an exchange with people talking over each other, making assumptions, correcting themselves, building on shared context, addressing misapprehension and working together towards shared understanding. Collaboration in social collaboration tools reflects this kind of iteration and development. The stages of connection and sharing build trust and shared context that enable people to work in much more efficient ways even if they don’t communicate perfectly.

Employees and leaders should not fear a lack of perfection.  Instead of focusing on a single interaction, they should focus on the power of relationships built to deliver collaboration and value creation at scale. The gain from developing these relationships and using the potential of the platforms to influence others, solve problems, scale change and innovate far exceeds the potential embarrassment of a single interaction.

Relationships are adaptive because they are built on shared purpose. Just like everyday conversations, we forgive mistakes and imperfections when we are in a continuing relationship with another person. A leader or employee who views these tools as a relationship gets the chance to go back, improve and adapt, leveraging the relationships and trust that they have built. When we talk about working with others with authenticity and empathy we are describing this process of learning and adaptation, along with sharing a few weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Employees who treat the tool transactionally will be judged on their interactions alone.

Leaders and employees need to focus on the power of the tools to support the work they do with others to connect, share, solve and innovate at scale.  An ongoing focus on the value of these relationships will accelerate their success and reduce the risks of each individual interaction.

Thanks to Steve Nguyen for asking great question

In the moment


We can easily cloud our present decisions with issues we bring in from the past and concerns about the future. Realising our life and career opportunities requires us to be present here and now.

I see a very common situation in business. Before a conversation, a meeting or a presentation begins, the room is clouded by the history between the participants. The parties to the discussion aren’t really ready to listen and engage. They have come to filter the discussion through their expectations of the others. Nothing productive can come from a fixed mindset in a world of rapid change. I’ve seen opportunities thrown away because people couldn’t overcome their history.

At the other end of the spectrum, people often lose opportunities because they are a paralysed by choices in uncertainty. The future is unknowable. You can manage risks, but risk and uncertainty should not be an excuse for delay or inaction. We need to decide now based on what we know now. If the world reveals more later, then we adapt.

We are all more productive when we are truly in the moment examining each moment for what it is and what it offers. When we are present we can listen and explore what we are being offered. We can pick up the clues on what is not said. Most importantly we can make choices based on today, not yesterday or tomorrow.

We only get one chance to use each moment. If we use this moment to replay the past or foreshadow the future we lose our chance to interact, to learn and to adapt. The best future comes to those who use each moment as best they can.

Listen for What You Can’t Hear

Listening is a disappearing skill. We need to practice and to learn to move beyond what is being said.

The Lost Art

In a world where it has never been easier to shout, shut ourselves in bubbles of likeminded folk and react angrily, listening is becoming a lost art. We no longer listen to understand. If we listen at all, we listen to react.

Many don’t listen because they are wrapped in their ego, their worldview or other distractions from the pressing reality of others. Too many listen only partially to the barest surface of the words said.

Active listening is essential in a world that gives us access to many more diverse opinions than ever. Active listening is an essential tool to navigate complexity and to truly meet the needs of others. We need to engage others as unique people that we mostly don’t know and mostly don’t understand. We need to listen for tone and observe body language.

We need to question. We need to confirm understanding and we need to explore ambiguities and differences, not by accident but as a deliberate part of process of understanding. True active listening will expose our biases and assumptions creating a much stronger foundation for a relationship.

Listen for What You Can’t Hear

The most challenging part of listening is listening for what you can’t hear. What you can’t hear is what never gets said and may not even be discoverable in tone and body language.

This form of active listening involves listening for the architecture of the speaker’s choices, their worldview and their drivers. If that is not clear or is potentially doubtful in what is being said, then this active listening increases in importance.

Listening for what you can’t hear is an exercise of actively engaging with all the clues and using those clues to prompt new questions and new lines of discussion to draw out perspectives. Clues may include:

  • choice of language: language that is more vague or more precise than expected can be a clue to missing information. Choice of words can also signal mindsets, worldviews or intent that require further discussion.
  • gaps of information or missing logic: no matter how favourable the discussion is, gaps in the other party’s logic is a topic that requires further exploration. People get conned because they are told what they want to hear. Deals don’t stick when people make mistakes of fact or logic that they discover later.
  • incongruities: big or small inconsistencies are always worth further exploration.
  • bluffing: Exaggerated confidence is a signal to ask more questions. Always call a suspected bluff
  • unnecessary haste: rushing might be a factor of life but it is a poor contributor to important conversations. Explore the need for haste.
  • delay: avoiding bad news can be a common cause of delay. It’s always better to know and address it earlier.
  • discomfort: intuition is an important tool in any discussion. If you or the other party in a conversation seem uncomfortable, it is worth exploring that experience. Something is amiss. Great understanding is build on trust, not discomfort.

Many years ago I inherited a deal that was being negotiated from a colleague. Our counterparty was super-enthusiastic and really keen to rush the deal to conclusion. My colleague explained it was all good to go and I just had to get it all signed. Everything sounded great.

When I met the counterparty to discuss finalising the deal, I felt uncomfortable about the way he described the partnership. It didn’t quite reflect the terms of the written document. It was a big deal and our organisation needed the deal to close. When I reflected on the discomfort, I realised I didn’t understand why the other organisation was doing the deal on these terms. Rather than ignore that discomfort, I asked a few questions. It quickly became apparent that the counterparty had misunderstood the deal and would never be able to proceed on the terms. Signing that deal would have been a waste of time. We won so much trust and a much better partnership by resolving the misunderstandings before they embarrassed our partner.

We need to be active listeners who seek to understand in all our interactions. The bigger challenge is to learn to listen for what is not said.

#YearofYammer: Yammer as a Platform for the Value of Community


At Microsoft Ignite 2019, the Yammer product team has debuted its updated product strategy. This strategy focuses Yammer on its core roles, redesigns the user interface and mobile experience and improves integration across the Office365 suite, including SharePoint, Outlook and Teams integration patterns.



Bringing the Outer Loop to Life:  Yammer as a platform for Community

The Yammer community advocates are passionate advocates of this new product strategy because we have always seen Yammer as a way to connect communities enterprise wide. Much of the debate around Yammer in the wider tech community has been due to lack of clarity of how it plays a role in Microsoft’s Collaboration Strategy.

The Yammer team’s discussion in 2017 of Inner and Outer Loops of Collaboration clarified this role but we are now seeing the product roadmap and integrations focus us all on the potential of these use cases. I am excited we can now begin to accelerate the conversations about the leadership, change and community potential of Yammer.

Core to Yammer’s updated product strategy is an clear statement on Yammer’s core use cases:

  • Communities
  • Sharing Knowledge
  • Leadership engagement

Yammer Use Cases.jpg

Photo credit: Amy Dolzine

These use cases align perfectly with the Value Maturity Model (seen above and explored on this blog) and highlight why the focus on adoption of Yammer as a platform for collaboration in community has always been a journey of focus on connection, sharing, solving problems and innovation.

Year of Yammer

Realising the Value in Community

Strong adoption support will be essential to help any organisation realise this value of collaboration in community. The Value Maturity Model and its supporting practices offers a roadmap for community managers to begin to leverage this new Yammer focus, particularly as it becomes more widely available to the organisation through other Office365 integrations.

Here a few key reminders for community managers planning to leverage this new Yammer product strategy:

  • Focus on value in your strategy: Yammer is just a tool to fulfil your strategy. Understand the value you want to create and align your plans around that value. Employees should be engaged in and aware of this alignment. Here is your chance to engage employees directly in alignment to strategic value creation.
  • The best engagement is action: Employee engagement is often the responsibility of employee communications or HR teams. There can be a tendency to see the challenge of employee engagement as one of better communication and employee experiences. It isn’t. Employee engagement is a tool to leverage employee’s capabilities into value creating action. Employee engagement is how you leverage discretionary effort and hidden capabilities to create surprising value. Give your employees the chance to do things to add value. Don’t just talk with them.
  • Employees are leaders too: Leadership engagement is deliberately vague.  Leadership is work. It is not a title or a role. Any employee can lead and given the chance on Yammer they will. The higher tiers of value in the Value Maturity Model represent the distribution of leadership, change and innovation that is possible in community. Make that a part of the plan for community in your organisation.

I am very excited about this Year of Yammer. Let’s create some value in community together.


Your Ego is a Liability in Management


The first challenge of management is not letting it go to your head. Get your ego out of the way and you have a chance to contribute to the development of your team.

Management Inflation

With promotion to a management role comes the first taste of status and power. With increased responsibilities, increased recognition and moving in new circles, it is common for a manager’s ego to begin to inflate. Status is a powerful human experience and shapes a lot of our behaviour and relationships in unthinking ways.

Doubts drop away. Listening declines. Opinions rule. The egocentric view of the manager becomes the reality of the team, whatever the actual facts.  Very quickly everyone is managing the manager.

Smart managers will catch their ego before it gets in the way too much. If you are lucky, your team will have the confidence to burst your bubble. Poor managers don’t notice, feel threatened or push on to defend their power. Management quickly becomes an all consuming ego exercise for them.

No Manager Knows Enough

Whatever the manager’s talents, they can succeed if they are egocentric. The work of the team is the team’s, not theirs. Scaling up the potential of the team is the challenge, not scaling up the manager’s expertise.

Even the most talented manager fails if they fail to leverage the knowledge and capabilities of the team. Micromanagement fails because managers just can’t know enough. The gap between their knowledge and the team’s reality will only demoralise and distract. Critically, they can’t know individuals capabilities and circumstances well enough. Imposing ego on others is debilitating for those people. You are leaving those people powerless in the moment to moment decision making that teams must manage together.

Managers can’t learn and adapt on behalf of other people. A manager wrapped in their own ego can’t learn and adapt at all.

Get Out of the Way and Enable Others

Great managers recognise that they work is the work of capable individuals and teams that learn and grow. Rather than focusing on their own agenda and power, these managers support employees to learn and to work together effectively. They aren’t dictators. They are enablers of higher performance.

These managers use questions, coaching, challenge and inspiration to enable employees to discover their own path to higher performance. They bring employees together into aligned, collaborative and creative teams to achieve more than any individual can on their own. Importantly, these managers take responsibility and create a safe environment for the team to learn and grow, whatever the external pressures. These aren’t easy tasks. Selflessness rarely is.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. – Lao Tzu


Stop the busy. Take a break.

A late videoconference meeting dropped into my diary today. I had to schedule it on the road to another event. I stopped in a park to take the call. As I waited for the start, the meeting was rescheduled.

I had been given an enormous gift. I went from being overly busy to having time to stop.

In Melbourne today, the sun is out and the park was quiet with only the distant noise of traffic and construction. I decide to take a break on the grass for the half hour of the lost call. I didn’t do email. I didn’t do calls. I didn’t read the news. I stopped and took a break.

This simple break outside let me recharge, find my calm and relax into the work that is to come. I have a much clearer focus for the afternoon ahead now. My body’s and mind’s gratitude tell me that it was overdue.

Take a break. Find 10, 15. 20 or 30 minutes. Go lie on some grass and stare at the sky.

The productivity boost is worth it.

PS Hayfever tablets recommended.