Embracing Risks

Without a safety net

Life is full of risk. Managing risk isn’t about elimination. Managing risk is choosing what risks to embrace and which risks to mitigate. In no arena is this more important than in the personal relationships which underpin our work. Focusing on taking more risk in these relationships is the path forward to higher individual and team performance.

Psychology Safety to Take Risks

Through the work of Amy Edmonson we have come to understand the importance of psychological safety in teams and organisations. Edmondson defines psychological safety as

‘a shared belief the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking’.

The critical point and the benefit to individuals and the team of psychological safety is the willingness to embrace risk. Risk is associated with return. The safety to take risks in that team will enhance performance. Embracing risks in interpersonal relationships also provide an environment that mitigates performance risk through respectful and supportive feedback. Edmonson’s work has consistently shown that teams with psychological safety manage risk and quality better. Interpersonal risk enables lower performance risk.

The embrace of risk in psychology safety can be lost in some discussion of the concept. People commonly confuse the term with risk elimination, avoiding conflict, making people feel comfortable and even political correctness. It is essential that we understand that psychological safety is the opposite.

Many team dynamic models highlight the critical role of conflict and feedback in team performance. From Tuckman’s stages of group development to Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of a team, conflict and feedback are key elements of alignment, performance and adaptation in teams. Every situation of conflict and feedback involves interpersonal risk. Performance demands more interpersonal risk, not less.

Embracing Personal and Interpersonal Risk

Alan Watts reminds us that all relationships are founded on an act of faith. That faith is called trust, a belief to some extent in the reliability, integrity or performance of another.

The moment that you enter into any kind of human undertaking in relationship, what an act of faith. See, you’ve given yourself up. But this is the most powerful thing that can be done: surrender.

Alan Watts

With that trust comes some act of surrender and its consequent risks. We give up part of our knowledge, will, work, life and concerns to another for their care and management. We cannot eliminate this trust or its related elements of risk. The more we seek to exclude trust and resist this surrender the greater the overhead burdens we place on our relationships.

In organisations, we drown in this overhead, because we are unwilling to take interpersonal risk. Unwilling to take interpersonal risks, we have pursued mitigation of our doubts through poor substitutes for interpersonal trust like trustless transactional relationships, contracts, surveillance, supervision, measurement or compliance processes. Because trust is reciprocal, our unwillingness to trust sees others unwilling to trust us. One reason blockchain has no transformed organisations or even contracts is the path to better performance of relationships is enabling higher trust, not trustless ledger machinery.

Melissa Beck recently wrote a wonderful post, In Praise of Risk. She highlights that these personal and interpersonal risks are a key part of moving forward with our lives. To paraphrase her conclusion we need to carry on and, perhaps stupidly, ridiculously, take more risks.

By taking these personal and interpersonal risks, we will find new relationships – new ways of living, working and performing. The lessons and adaptations we make after embracing the risk is how we will improve ongoing. The next level of individual and team performance is in embracing risk.

404 – Not Found

404 – Not Found. The HTTP Status Error for a URL not Found

We spend a lot of our life searching. Sometimes we search for the wrong things. Far too often we are searching in the wrong spot. No wonder that search can feel unending.

This morning I was reminded of an old joke. A man comes along the street at night to find a drunk looking for his car keys under a lamp. He joins in the search but neither of them can find anything. Eventually, the man asks “Are you sure you dropped them here?” to which the drunk replies “No, I dropped them over there, but the light is better under this lamp.”

The anecdote came to mind this morning as I was searching through my social media feeds. I realised something that had been creeping up on me:

Whatever needs had prompted me to scroll the feeds was not present in what I was seeing. Whether it was distraction, good news, validation, connection or hope, the best those feeds could offer was a proxy for that experience, a tease of the possibility that experience was out there. I could keep waiting or I could log out. I chose the latter.

I need to retrain my brain. I’m going to find another place to search. I’m going to step away from the bright lights and go search in the dark where there’s a hope of finding something meaningful.

  • If I want distraction, I have much to read and music to stream.
  • If I want good news, I can go read it at source in credible publications
  • If I want validation, I can do the work
  • If I want connection, I can reach out to others directly or re-engage with small communities with meaningful connection
  • If I want hope, I can dream

Social media feeds are still a powerful way to reach others around the world, learn from differing perspectives, benefit from the curation of others and to find surprises. Over time my use of these platforms has evolved from these purposes. Using them effectively involves searching in the right place with the right tools for the right content.

My brain threw up the human equivalent of a 404 error message. It is time to refine my search.

Losing What You Never Had

You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.

Louise Gluck, Vespers

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop, One Art

This has been a year to grow fatigued by loss. The relentlessness of disaster has magnified the very real losses of life, of health, and of livelihood. Strangest of these losses and perhaps the most inconsequential is the loss of that which we have never had. With loss of travel, connection and gathering has come a raft of grief for things we never had.

I lost a summer to bushfires. As an Australian, that was expected. Fires happen in a dry continent. However, the scale was extraordinary and skies grey or orange with acrid smoke belonged more in Blade Runner 2048 than the Melbourne suburbs.

General Petraeus, when the death-count of American troops
in Iraq was close to 3,800, said ‘The truth is you never do get
used to losses. There is a kind of bad news vessel with holes,

and sometimes it drains, then it fills up, then it empties again’—

Andrew Motion, Losses

As I prepared for my first trip to Seattle in over a decade, the Coronavirus pandemic broke out there and I lost a trip to see much missed colleagues and much loved family. This early warning and the worrying news from China meant that I moved my work to home before my city faced its first lock down. I began to miss my rituals and my regular haunts from the morning coffee to a lunchtime trip to a bookstore. From my privileged position at home, I watched the mounting damage around the world. as chaos mounted, I grieved for a safe just and equitable world of which I’d dreamed.

I am supported by multiple global communities that are versed in virtual tools and have provided comfort, distraction and companionship in this time. Never has community been so important to me as when we come together to battle a global public health crisis.

I have been lucky in that I have had no major losses, just the inconvenience of isolation, and yet I still have experienced moments of grief for a world that might have been. I thought perhaps it was strange to mourn that you have never lost, but a quick search revealed it is well known and that there is lots of advice on how to handle this experience. Even still my story seems a little trivial compared to those stories of loss of dreams and ideals. At best, my life has been a mildly inconvenienced and perhaps delayed.

If it became impossible to touch and be touched, to see
and be seen, to love and trade ecstasy for risk where risk
is ecstasy, to be hidden in plain view, to be perfectly lost
which means lost to the world, lying side-by-side arms linked
in a bond so intricate it could never unfold or break

David Harsent, Loss

We can’t live life backwards. Our losses and our grief are real. We will seek what closure life will allow. We can tell ourselves all kinds of stories about the past, some for comfort, some for validation, and some as inspiration. Some of these stories are even true. Other stories we tell are those of the future. These are the stories that inspire us to get out of bed and to go on with our lives. Whether these are true or not remains in our hands. If we mourn the loss of these stories too much now, we determine their fate.

Whatever the circumstances, we do not lose the ability to yearn and to dream. These stories may tease our hopes and bring future losses. However, they are also the vehicles for us to come together with others, to create new things and to realise our potential. We cannot be afraid of the stories that may not eventuate. Our future is full of them, just as it is full of so much other potential.

An hour comes
To close a door behind me
The whole of night opens before me

WS Merwin, Memory of the Loss of Wings
Of course, just for an added bonus for the dedicated who made it this far, there is an Elvis song

Othering

We get this. They don’t.

We are strategic. They are tactical and operational.

We work in responsive, agile and flexible ways. Our employees ‘work from home’.

We don’t enable our leaders. We focus on an employee engagement crisis.

We don’t talk about inclusion. We focus on gender, sexual, and racial diversity.

We don’t address workplace stress. We encourage resilience.

We don’t look at our customer experiences. We discuss customer loyalty.

We don’t trust our employees. We are shocked that they don’t trust us.

We don’t consider power. We are concerned that they don’t speak up or act up enough.

We leverage precarity, risk and threats. They are so timid and fearful.

We know what’s going on. We are disappointed in their lack of innovation.

We seek every advantage as long as they behave fairly.

We are ok. We are sure that they will be fine.

We judge ourselves by our intent. We judge others by their behaviour.

We are us. They are them.

We are fine. When are they going to change?

If only they weren’t so Other.

Entangled

Ah need I say, dear friend, that to the brim

My heart was full? I made no vows, but vows

Were then made for me; bond unknown to me

Was given…

William Wordsworth, The Prelude

I sat down on Sunday to write about our entangled lives, how we are caught up in networks of connection, obligation and expectation. I was reading David Whye’s Three Marriages which looks at these networks of commitment to love, work and the self. The tangle of these often contradictory commitments is what makes up a life. We may focus on the ease or the happiness of our lives but often the obstacles are the work. David Whyte references William Wordsworth’s Prelude and the bonds that come to us unexpectedly and even, at times, unwanted.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things

Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

As I tried to start writing about our everyday tangles, commitments and frustrations, the word skein came to mind as a wind of yarn. That idea brought with it a distant echo of memory that I found I needed to untangle before I could write. Like our many invisible connections, the word skein had a hidden pull on me. A dictionary confirmed my understanding of the meaning of skein, but offered another clue.

To my surprise, skein has a secondary meaning, the formation of geese in flight. The ever-shifting form is its own entanglement, as geese share the load of leading the formation and manage their three dimensional relationships through simple rules that maximise the performance, efficiency and safety of the skein. A reference to wild geese brought to mind Mary Oliver’ famous poem, but I knew I had not yet got to the heart of my own tangle.

Je jalouse le sort des plus vils animaux
Qui peuvent se plonger dans un sommeil stupide,
Tant l’écheveau du temps lentement se dévide!

Charles Baudelaire, De profundis clamavi

By this point, I knew it would have been better to let the mess go. I was now deeply distracted and unsettled. A connection broken or unfulfilled was taunting me and standing in the path of my progress. I couldn’t write anything until this lost idea stopped tugging at me. I wasn’t even sure at this point that there was anything inspiring my search. I no longer was clear why I had even wanted to write about entanglement. With a sense that there were likely better things to do, I searched on obligated to find the end. The tangle I was unravelling fell apart a few poems deeper in my search when Charles Baudelaire’s De profundis clamavi was pulled from the mess. The last line of that poem has been often translated:

‘So slowly does the skein of time unwind!’

That idea of ‘the skein of time’ was what the word skein had brought to mind. I found what I had been seeking through a lifetime of half-remembered threads. Life unravels slowly and these yarns entangle us more each day. Whether we want it to be so or not, we are on a thread of life stretching back and pulling us forward. We are our own narrative, other’s stories of us and a few unfulfilled dreams. I love Baudelaire’s poems and that phrase had been buried deep in a tangle of other memories of love, life and work. By the time that my curiosity was satisfied, I had lost the day. I had also lost the thread of the entanglement that I set out to explore.

Perhaps, I even got there through all the unravelling of half-remembered connections. After all, yarn has a second meaning too.

Seven More Ways to Make Work More Effective

Tanmay Vora’s sketchnote of my last post on productivity

One of the more popular post on this blog is my effort at five productivity tips. The post is popular mainly because Tanmay Vora rendered it into the wonderful sketchnote above. I have mocked the top five format, so this is a next seven. In my work and experience since writing that post, I have learned more. Now I need to add to my list (one of the many dangers of a top five). So here is my list of seven more ways to work more effectively.

Remember as you take these forward they are suggestions, not rules. Your work, your organisation and your mileage may vary. Productivity tips are just tips. Everyone needs to evolve their own system to suit their unique preferences, skills and work.

Manage energy, not time

We are taught to not waste time. Supposedly, it is all we have. However, it doesn’t take much life experience to realise that not every moment is equal. Some times we have the energy to move fast. Some times we don’t. Persistence matters but grind is pointless. Take breaks. Manage your energy. You will get more done working when you are productive than staring at the screen for the point of it.

Manage goals & priority, not tasks

Anyone can fill a to do list. It’s much harder to do the most important and most valuable things first. We often confuse the urgent, the mundane and the easy for the most valuable things we can do. You don’t need to micromanage yourself. Put your energy against the highest priority. Make sure you can see the goals of the work. Do the administrivia when you are barely there.

Hire future peers

You don’t want people to work for you. The best people work with you and may some day replace or surpass you. Hire people who are or can be peers to work for you. Develop your people to do all you can do and more. The only way to multiply our effectiveness is through growing the talents of a team.

Delegate goals

Micromanagement sucks. Don’t delegate tasks. They are demeaning and put both of you at risk of irrelevant goalless work. If you manage your work by priority and value, allow your team to do the same. Allow them to create new ways to work and surprise you. Giving over the whole goal, lets people play to their strengths, not yours. Delegate the whole goal and then coach your team to achieve it.

Work outside-in

A lot of organisational politics is devoid of an external reality. A lot of time wasting tasks have no value to customers, the community, shareholders and other stakeholders. Work problems from outside your organisation back in. It’s amazing how many issues and problems disappear when you have external stakeholders on your side.

Asynchronous Work

We have more tools to work asynchronously than ever. As much as we love our real-time chat and video conferencing asynchronous work is the great productivity gain. Calendars don’t always align. Energy doesn’t always align. Let people make their contributions to work when they can and how they want. Asynchronous sharing, commenting, editing and more can be a powerful way to get more done with more people. The first simple step is to gather the feedback before the meeting. That way any meeting can be deciding what to do with the feedback.

Weave. Don’t multi-task

Nobody is as effective at multitasking as they think. There are real costs of task switching. At a minimum we need to understand each task in its context. However tasks have different cycle times and all tasks have big and little gaps. Not everything is real time and synchronous. If you plan your work to do other things in the inevitable gaps, you can get more done. Allow blocks of time for high value creation, problem solving and synchronous interactions. Weave other activities around these blocks. Phone calls, follow-ups, status checks and re-prioritisation are all great in-between tasks.

So that’s my next seven for now. I’ll keep learning, experimenting and adding to my practice. Maybe you can see a not-so-hidden theme emerging of working in a more human way with a focus on human relationships, talents, value and the up and down of energy. All these tips are pointless if the systems we work in don’t let us do that work.

I’m sure there will be more tips and themes. I’m keen to learn from others. What works for you to make your work more effective?

Clever

How clever are you, my dear! You never mean a single word you say!

Oscar Wilde

Five point plans, three word slogans, infographics, buzzwords and thought leadership. We are drowning in cleverness.

There are so many different kinds of stupidity, and cleverness is one of the worst.

Thomas Mann, Magic Mountain

The cleverness gets in the way of our ability to consider complex solutions, to persist with difficult problems and to connect with others. Why do the long hard work in community to create real change when there is a simple clever solution? We would be all better to embrace the foolishness of effort, understanding and slow shared creation.

I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.

Oscar Wilde

The on-rush of cleverness also creates chatter, distraction and entertainment. We don’t have time to be present. We don’t have time to consider. We don’t have time to understand, share, & solve together. We need to ‘get the right people on the bus’, ‘start with why’, ‘embrace the problem’ ‘recognise what gets measured gets done’, ‘eat strategy for breakfast’, ‘eat our own dog food’ and by the time we add another dozen or so smart snaps the time to do work has passed.

One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.

Will Durant

Gimmicks

I wrote recently about a recent definition of gimmicks is that they strain too hard to earn our attention. In the outrage economy, we are stuck in battles between gimmicks each demanding our time and attention and none particularly concerned about effectiveness. All that matters is the cleverness and the attention it brings.

Clever gimmicks of mass distraction yield a cheap soulcraft of addicted and self-medicated narcissists.

Cornel West

We need to start questioning the clever. Much of this cleverness is so shallow that nothing lies below the surface. The more a thought leader vehemently defends their cleverness, the weaker I consider their proposition. Absolutism works for ideologies but not valuable programs of work. Ideas that matter are rarely clever on their face, but they are tested and capable of robust and deep exposition when required. If your cleverness feels like it is supported by ‘turtles all the way down’, it is mere trumpery.

I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.

Oscar Wilde

Humans aren’t always clever. They aren’t neatly packaged. They aren’t always rational. Let’s lean into that messy dumb and engaging life of community. For all it’s tosses, turns and silences we will be better for the work.

Here we stand in the middle of this new world with our primitive brain, attuned to the simple cave life, with terrific forces at our disposal, which we are clever enough to release, but whose consequences we cannot comprehend.

Albert Szent-Gyorgi

Thriving

New growth in wreckage

Life in itself Is nothing,
An empty cup,
a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Edna St Vincent Millay, Spring

In Melbourne, it is spring. Green shoots are breaking out all over the garden. Nature is reminding us that we can move beyond survival. This is a time to thrive.

For many, it may feel odd to talk about thriving. Unequivocally, we live in a time of overlapping crises – climate, income inequality, authoritarianism, pandemics and more. However dark the circumstances, we can still focus on our individual and collective potential. Making steps to realise potential however tentative and however small is still progress. We can’t rely on nature, history or others to bring us a better world. We must go make it.

Making a Thriving World

Almost always new growth, development and potential starts small, just like those shoots on the branches of the trees. By summer, those shoots might be a new branch. Now they are just a tentative green bud. We can only continue to do the little things individually and collectively that move us towards a richer and more vibrant thriving. If we work on our individual and collective potential together in the darkest times we will recover eventually. We can only to take one step after another.

Small actions accumulate over time. Some times transformational change needs to be fostered in small actions in small groups away from the wreckage of the main systems, as the Berkana two loops change model highlights. As it begins to thrive at a smaller scale, it can refine, strengthen and ultimately attract a wider community. Individual development is the same, we need to persist through the difficulties of new skills and new starts learning as we practice on a path to a new and wider mastery.

The time to prepare is now. The time to work on growth is now. Now is the time that we thrive. Together.

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is now

traditional saying

The Power of Conversation

Try Again

We don’t talk enough. Not text or chat. Talk. The kind of conversation that fosters relationships and deepens understanding. The conversations that explore assumptions and remove misunderstanding.

These conversations don’t have to be long. Usually it is preferable that they aren’t. Short but engaged conversations with active listening can make a lot more progress than a long broadcast conversation or a formal meeting.

A consistent schedule of conversations enables people to pick up and build on previous discussions. Context changes so more conversations enables better currency of understanding. Making these conversations predictable enables people to prioritise urgent issues for immediate discussion and leave the other issues for a regular update.

The biggest gain in your working strategy is more conversation. You don’t need a new tool. You have plenty of phones, videoconference options or if you are lucky enough to be outside lockdown then you can chat face-to-face. A short conversation will achieve far more than an email, a survey or an expensive employee engagement project will ever address.

If you are worried that employees may not be prepared to talk, then you have a much bigger problem, We know that a lack of psychological safety directly impacts quality, effectiveness and performance of teams. It might well be that new conversations are the only way to solve that problem.

The conversations are rarely as hard as you expect. Especially, if you engage one human to another. There’s all sorts of human experiences like shared purpose, connection, compassion, empathy and forgiveness that make even the toughest conversations productive and far more valuable. If the conversation is tougher than you expect, it is often better to know now and be able to address issues, rather than leave those discussions until later.

Talk. It’s surprisingly easy. Talk. There’s no better productivity tool.

Relentless

‘The lone and level sands stretch far away’ – Percy Bysshe Shelley

As days drag into months there is a relentless nature to 2020. For me, escaping that experience involves a rediscovery and recreation of my boundaries.

We had barely escaped the summer bushfires and their hunt of climate crisis when the pandemic surfaced. The pandemic led to ever tighter lockdowns, economic upheaval and working from home. It also provoked a series of mini crises, projects and responses. On top of these challenges we have had cause to reflect on devastating illness and death, racism, poverty and discrimination of many kinds. Meanwhile here and around the world our discourse and community began to feel fractured. 2020 has become a year of relentless shocks and relentless doing in a state of relentless liminality. This environment tires the soul.

Liminality exists because boundaries exist. As I have noted before 2020 has drawn some boundaries ever so close. It has also drawn into starker relief two boundaries that I consider less often.

Between Doing and Agency

I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.

Tess Gallagher, from Choices

We do a lot. However not all of our doing is our choice of goal, approach, team or timing.

Agency is how we demonstrate and realise our potential. Not everyone has the privilege of making choices. In a year full of consequences, having choices without consequences has been a rare luxury. However it a luxury that feeds the soul.

I have leaned into writing in new ways, reading poetry and other small acts of creation to clarify the realms of agency. At the same time I have embraced the idea of needful work. Doing that is neither needful, a purposeful contribution to others, nor an exercise of my agency must be questioned. Work for distraction’s sake is a temptation in bleak times but contributes rather than relieves pressure.

Focusing on purpose and agency has been helpful. Seeing more clearly the boundary between mere doing and what I choose is a key way to shape a new boundary in the uncertainty and relentless efforts.

You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gifts at all.
It’s clear that you are now too old
to trust in good Saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
—But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realize:
your life is a sheer gift.

Joseph Brodsky, from 1 January 1965

Between Doing and Being

Reflecting on agency has also led me to reflect on the boundary between doing and being. The smaller and more pressured my world in 2020, the more urgent has been the need to have presence in it for me and for others.

Our busy busy lives can mean being gets lost in the day-to-day. We can distract from work doing and other doing like exercise, reading or more. We need to recreate the space to just be. One benefit of the restrictions of Melbourne’s lockdown has been time to walk each day. I have used that time to get out of my house and my head, appreciate my world within 5 kms and move to more presence.

Always on, always working and always connected presents challenges for us to find the boundary between doing and being. We need to treasure this boundary and find time to uncloud the mind. Just as agency helps realise our potential so does the clarity of who we are that comes with presence.

So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.

Edna St Vincent Millay