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

My world is pretty small at the moment. I’m inside my house 95% of the time. I can walk to a supermarket so I don’t even drive for shopping. Travel and movement is one thing that used to bring stretch, challenges and new perspectives into my life. Work will continue to do that but in its own limited domain. The smaller my physical & work worlds the more I must bring the stretch.

Travel stretches us because it takes us into the beginner’s mind. It takes us to places where we don’t know the way, the rules or the language. We become alert and stretch ourselves to try new things, to experiment and to adapt. We grow because we stretch. We gain new experiences, new capabilities and new confidence because we stretch.

We don’t inherently know the limits of our capabilities. Many of us underestimate what we can achieve. A few overestimate. Either way, it is through a process of reaching out for the edge that we discover what is possible and what next we need to learn. When our stretching fingers hang out into open air we have a new boundary and a new place to hang on.

Physical stretches help our muscles to recover and to lengthen improving our movement and our agility. Mental stretch can play the same role. If you have recently tackled a difficult new idea or new practice, you will remember how exhausting it can be as your brain or your body grapples with skills that are unfamiliar and starts to build new strengths.

If we constrain ourselves, we know what we get. If we stretch, we can surprise ourselves and others with what is possible.


Looks fine until it is not

In 1954, a series of BOAC DeHavilland Comet aircraft crashes were attributed by a public inquiry to metal fatigue. The stresses of repeated pressures and landings in the aircraft caused a failure in a window in the plane. The planes broke up in flight when experiencing additional stress such as sudden air turbulence. The discovery of this metal fatigue in planes led to a general improvement in aircraft safety and new testing and maintenance routines to catch fatigue before it became disastrous.

Fatigue is more than tiredness. We all get tired when the effort or the duration is large. Fatigue is an extreme response as a consequence of extended stress. Just as metals fatigue and fail, so can individuals and organisations. Running an always on digital and global organisation in a global pandemic is a test of any individual and any organisations ability to avoid fatigue.

There were multiple BOAC plane crashes because it took time to identify metal fatigue as the cause of why the planes broke up in flight. The fatigue was invisible, hidden in the metal. It took engineers to take the planes apart and test the metal to discover the stresses and the dangerous flaws that were developing. People died in at least 3 more crashes after the first because of the inability to anticipate the cause of crashes and the delay taking preventative action.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge when a design is extended without mitigation for the stress of high wind

Henry Petroski’s book “To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure’ is an examination of bridge failures. Petroski highlights that bridges tend to fail when new designs become standards and slowly are extended beyond their initial design. For example, the famous Tacoma Galloping Bridge collapse occurred when the known risk that a suspension bridge to act as a wing in fast air met unusually high speed winds and a lighter than usual bridge. The new bridge was a longer and therefore less stable than usual. The result was a costly and embarrassing disaster.

This desire to do more, to reach further, to last longer and to push harder, creates new stresses and risks that were beyond the focus of the initial designer. Like the Comet crashes, hidden risks and stresses can lead to new forms of fatigue and failure. Petroski discusses the need to understand competing objectives in designs, bound designs to a lifecycle, to engage in testing and prevention to find hidden flaws and to learn from past failures.

We are asking people to work beyond the bounds of our designs for remote work and working from home. This is no longer an emergency response. We are shifting to a point where our patterns of work are enduring and changing for the longer term as organisations make real estate, technology, organisation and other decisions to lock in to new patterns of work.

As we start to redesign the systems of our work, we need to consider again the new stresses caused and the old stresses that are magnified and exacerbated in these changes. We will need new testing and new preventative measures to ensure that individuals and our organisations don’t move from tired and stressed to catastrophic collapse. This time calls for more than just an employee engagement survey. Organisations, managers and colleagues need to be actively involved in considering what their design choices mean for the future of work in their organisation, when those designs might break, what risks are created and what mitigation is required.

Remote work can mean that stresses and failures are hidden until it is too late for individuals and for organisations. Anticipating these issues, factoring them into the design of work and acting on mitigation is critical to prevent catastrophic disasters. Most important of all given we are dealing with humans and not metal, is that we need to have the forums in which to have safe conversations about the risks, mitigation and signs of fatigue. Unlike silent metal, people can help us spot and address these issues early, if we let them and support them to do so.

Conforming to the Algorithm

Our Robot Overlords

Confirming to an algorithm removes our human individuality and uniqueness. It also makes us more easily replaced by an extension of the algorithm.

‘How would you feel being managed by an algorithm?’

I was asked this question few years back on a panel for the University of Sydney’s Digital Disruption Research Group. I responded that I hadn’t experienced that with an algorithm run on a machine. However, I’ve had human managers who mechanically applied their management algorithm. In fact, management practice is full of them.

Like the algorithms of the digital world, these management practices tend to standardise, commoditise and simplify the complexity of human behaviour, creativity and performance. How many organisations lost the leverage of unique talents because stack ranking of employee performance made the middle of the bell curve the safest performance zone?


Earlier this year there was much debate on twitter why recipes online are so terrible. They all begin with really long mostly irrelevant narratives. The only defining feature of these narratives is that they mention the recipe name repeatedly. You are standing in your kitchen ready to get started and you have to work your way through long story about an Italian or French holiday to get to the recipe. The simple answer was search engine optimisation.

Recipe authors use those long inconvenient narratives to hack the algorithms that determine their traffic. We can appeal to the algorithm or we can appeal to our audience. I note to many people that this blog is hardly SEO. It would be more effective but less valuable to me (& many others), if it was tightly focus, stuck to mainstream topics and patterns and scripted to suit keywords. If this blog said what everyone else said, it might have more traffic, but it would be pointless. Nobody needs more mindless lists and repetition. Curiously the one post on this site that consistently wins a small amount of SEO traffic is an accident. As part of advocating for capabilities in strategy and learning, I explained the difference between competency and capability. That explanation seems to have found a gap its own somewhat unique place in the market.

No Luddites. Just Rebels

We aren’t going to smash the machines that enable algorithms. As I have noted, some of those machines are human heads. The power of analytics and the march of automation will continue. There are real benefits to be had from their application. However we need to be alive to the costs.

What we can do is make the choice between aiming for the safe standardised middle and exploring ways to emphasize our unique human value. We can also advocate for change for those who are experiencing bias, exclusion or other issues interacting with a world that is driven by algorithms.

Over the last decade, I have recruited a number of senior management positions. Often the losing candidates are disappointed. They know they are qualified and ready for the next step. Often, I must explain that this was obvious to everyone. The challenge at a senior level is that aiming for the algorithmic middle of the market is unsafe. Everyone who makes the short list is qualified. Everyone can do the role. The one person who wins the role is unique in their fit for the strategy, the needs or the problems that they can solve. Worse still, the everyday middle skills are those that can be learned on the job when the unique skills take experience elsewhere. Nobody became a senior manager because they are the best at running team meetings.

Finding our place in world of algorithms is a question of how we find and develop our unique talents and capabilities. Individual human experiences, creativity and potential will play a key role in this path. Differentiation may be the critical element to enable you to be recognised uniquely or at least in a differentiated cohort from the mass. There are risks in targeting and aligning ourselves to the mainstream algorithmic path. As managers of organisations, we also need to ensure that we allow people the latitude to show us this potential and curtail any algorithms, human or machine, that chop it off this rich and valuable data.

Beginner’s Mind

Image by Gerd Altmann

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few

DT Suzuki

We come into situations with stories, expectations and answers. The beginner’s mind challenges us to be open to learn, curious and adaptive. Our work has never demanded a beginner’s mind more.

Not to Specification

2020 isn’t performing up to specification. We had plans. We had goals. We knew what we could do and what it would take. All those expectations are being disrupted one by one – by bushfires, by pandemics, by changing economies, political turmoil and by climate change.

We can approach this mess through our hopes, our expectations and our standards. We will be disappointed. 2020 cannot live up to the narrative that we brought into this year. The pain and anguish that has been caused around the world is too obvious even for the most oblivious.

We can apply a different approach. We can grieve for what has been lost, but we also can start to work on our way forward. We can be open to search for learning and opportunity in all the turmoil. We can be present to what is and apply a beginner’s mind.

Beginner’s Mind

Once we delete the story we brought into the year and all that we tied to it, new paths open to us. The beginner’s mind is where we approach our circumstances with openness and a keen eye for learning.

The beginner’s mind makes us entrepreneurs of our lives, our circumstances and our work seeking to make value where we can. In place of our imaginings, we can focus on the present and the needful. With the naive open eyes of a beginner we will see opportunities that did not exist in our preconceived narrative. Lifting our eyes from a chosen path we see there are other ways through and around.

Working in new ways will challenge us to be more agile and adaptive, to create new value through new conversations, collaborations and approaches. If 2020 is a kick in this direction, it is also a reminder that the most important element we bring to our challenges is not some new piece of digital kit, it is the creative potential of human curiousity, openness, learning and creation. The beginner’s mind releases us from the bureaucratic constraints, accepted ways and deeply engrained stories to leverage that potential.

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.