In a world without care, it is concern all the way down

Care enough to create change?

Introduction: Concerned but Uncaring

In the fifth week of a customer experience nightmare over a fundamentally simple transaction, I am in the midst of a stark reminder of the difference between concern and care. Every agent I deal with in my customer experience disaster is deeply concerned at the incovenience, the delays, their failure to deliver over and over again and concerned that this be fixed. At least, the scripts they cite endeavour to convey that concern.

However, neither they nor their organisation have any care for me. The system is established to move me through a series of deeply concerned transactions with no interest in the overall care for the customer. Nobody has enough care that the process doesn’t work to change it. Everyone accepts their role in the broken process to pass the customer on to the next broken process. Achieving an outcome for the customer is lost in the concerned delivery of tasks that never end.

In a world without care, it is concern all the way down.

Enough Concerned Voices. We Need Care

Everywhere I look I hear deeply concerned voices. So many of our global challenges are roiling debates of earnest concerned voices. We have battles to demonstrate our great concern and the conflicts of our concerns. There’s so much concern that we lose sight of people, action and the specific outcomes of change.

In all this concern, we have lost sight of the obligations of care. Care is not talking. Care is action. Care is taking specific actions for specific people to achieve meaningful outcomes. Care is delivering an unique individual or a unique group a specific outcome that matters to them.

Care involves moving beyond transactions to change the system to deliver better outcomes for those specific people.

If you are concerned, you have started the journey to care. To complete that journey you will need:

  • Understanding of those affected by your concerns
  • Clarity of their goals and how they want them to be achieved
  • Compassion with their circumstances and the experience that you create
  • A passion for action to create change for those people
  • Willingness to care about those who share your concerns, find them and collaborate with them

Concern without care is simply theatre. Empty voices shouting into the wilderness will not enable the change we need. We need to partner our concern with care to deliver the meaningful action that will make change.

Care in community is the way forward. We can leverage our concerns to make the first steps to change.


Of brick and scale, I can say

There are other unfathomable things
that speak to both moment and beyond.

Anne Coray, The Egyptians Had It All Wrong

We tend to think of success built in stone and steel. However, both of these substances can be brittle when it is time to flex. Long term success is about our ability to flex, to learn and to build new capability.

The last year has been a massive shock to the global economic system and our own personal experience of work and life. We are coping with a significant magnitude of adaptation in a compressed timeframe. The forces of those changes can reveal our capabilities and our organisations to be flexible or brittle.

Flexible enough?

If you have seen the cities of Asia, one of the extraordinary sites is the bamboo scaffolding around construction sites. That scaffolding of sections of bamboo tied together can reach many dozens of stories high. The material is cheap and plentiful. Tied together by expert teams it is also flexible enough to cover the needs of construction crews and survive moonsoons.

I live in a house that is over a hundred years old. It is a weatherboard. The foundations aren’t always great and much has been replaced over time. The walls shift and crack a little. However, while a house has been here for a hundred plus years it is not the same house. Over that time it has been renovated, renewed and changed in an ongoing way to suit the needs of its occupants and the wear and tear of use and weathering. The ability of the house to flex can be an advantage in storms, heatwaves and other sudden changes.

Our bodies too go through a process of renewal. I may not be as old as my house, but I know that every part of my body is adapting to changes, renewing itself, learning and growing. Luckily I haven’t broken bones but I know that it is a consequence of the body facing too much stress and being unable to flex. Something has to give.

I must renew my bones in your kingdom,
I must still uncloud my earthly duties.

Pablo Neruda, Still Another Day I

Built to Last?

Careers and lives need to flex and be renewed, but that isn’t always part of our discussions. We can tend to see careers as monoliths built stone by stone, reinforced by steel. This discussion can bring a brittleness to our experience of careers. We assume that the stone and steel is the outcome of successes, when much of the advancement in our careers follows failure. Our flexibility and our growth comes from these moments. Failure helps us adapt because we can become too settled and cease to keep adapting to what comes next. Small shocks help us correct cause before bigger shocks arrive.

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 have all met people who have risen quickly, one success on another. These careers like steep towers of stone can look impressive. Surprisingly many of these careers are not deeply planned. Success followed success and the stacking of stones inevitable. However, these people and their careers can be particularly brittle. Continuing that run of success can become central to a person’s identity. They chose to succeed, not the path. Pretence creeps in to cover gaps. Image overcomes the focus on listening, learning and adaptation. Fixed mindsets of the drivers of personal success don’t prepare people for the shocks that always come.

Success can also make our relationships brittle. Instead of a fluid two-way flow of information and authority, like in a wirearchy, we become increasingly fixed on power relationships and managing the flow of information. Building the capability of others which was once part of our success becomes a threat to our position. Without the flexibility and support of a network we are tied into a rigid structure of unforgiving relationships. Power increases the expectations and if not carefully managed can reduce our ability to flex and adapt.

All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness

David Whyte, Consolations

Long term success is built on the flexibility of renewal. Lifelong learning is a key attribute of the ability to anticipate, to build capability and to recover from shocks, breaks and loss. None of us are born predestined for a path, a career or a life. We make that life in the living and by how we adapt and change to the circumstances as they arise.

What got us to this point is much less important than how we adapt to this moment. Success in our last role or career can provide a foundation but the work is how we build something suited to the challenges of now. The heart of this flexibility is asking ourselves “what do I need to do to succeed in this moment now and to prepare for what might come next?”

but when the spill
comes the brook will have
another heap
in its way, another
shambles to get
through or around; or
over: how much time does
a brook have: how much
time a brook has!

AR Ammons, The Brook Has Worked out the Bend


We have a strange array of language to discuss confidence. People have and show it. We find it, whether ours or some generic stock. Some times confidence is given lightly or bestowed on others formally. It comes from within. For others, confidence is structure that crumbles, is rock-solid or builds.

The vagaries of this language reflect the fact that confidence is a feeling – a feeling of belief in or reliance on someone or thing. That status also highlights a limitation of some of the language above. Feelings are fragile and ephemeral. Feelings are contagious and transferable, but they aren’t simple gifts; what is received may not quite match the intent of the giver. Feelings surface and can be discovered but it is not a process of search. Feelings are influenced by thoughts, but they are part of being, not thinking. Feelings are human and that very human experience means that they don’t fit well into predictable business processes that seem to demand confidence in everything everywhere all the time.

Few people are confident about everything. Most people restrict their confidence to specific tasks and situations. Advice to ‘Be Confident’ doesn’t well meet the feelings of uncertainty that resolve around specific situations and tasks. Many of the people perceived to be confident are simply better at disguising their uncertainty and have learned techniques to paper over the cracks. Simply having techniques to give you more time to think, like paraphrasing the question back or a standard introductory patter that buys time, can make you feel more confident by avoiding the perceived pressure of silence and eager ears.

Confidence in your own performance

As hard as it may be, confidence in your own performance begins within. It is your own feelings that need to be sure about what you will achieve. We all have the ability to doubt. We especially doubt those who may seek to build our confidence when we don’t share the appraisal. That is why the gift of confidence is so fragile. However, remember you don’t need to establish universal confidence. You need only feel confident in this task for this time.

Confidence is a classic example of an area in which you need to act yourself to a new way of thinking. Nobody improved their confidence by focusing on the risks and the negatives. We need to concentrate on what we can believe in – the positives, what works and what can be done. Remember you just have to feel confident and hold that to the end. Some times it is preparation and effort. Other times it is dress and attitude that helps us feel confident. Whatever it is, put in the efforts sustain that feeling throughout. When things begin to crumble remain focused on the feeling of confidence and doing what you can do to get through your performance.

The Confidence of Others

Winning the confidence of others is often about performance – both delivery and the acting. Remember you are playing to a feeling, not a fact. People will be most convinced by your own feelings of confidence or the confidence others show in you. They will never be convinced by a hint of your doubts.

Remember that others need not love you universally. They need only have confidence in you for a specific task, a specific role or a specific challenge. Confidence in the relationship can grow over time. Again act yourself into their thinking (and your own).

The confidence of others is rarely transactional. Depth of relationships will drive relationships. Invest time in others and allow them to understand your specific skills and expertise. Invite others to provide feedback on what works and learn from their advice on what you do well. Encourage them to share their opinions with others.

Hidden Collaboration

Trees in a forest can work together to share resources and support each other. The universe is held together by the gravity of dark matter we can’t see. There’s a lot going on we can’t see and that includes the collaboration in our organisations.

We focus on the successes of individuals. We celebrate these highlights. What we tend not to see at all the little moments of support, encouragement and enablement that make success possible. The human equivalent of the ‘world wide wood’ or ‘dark matter’ holding our organisations together is everyday collaboration in everyday work.

We may set individual targets but our organisations run on collaborative efforts powered by trust and norms. Imagine if you had to negotiate each individual element of support or every step in an organisation process that supports your work. In functional organisations, this support adapts and changes as needed to just everyone performs. That change is powered by purposeful change agents making things better for everyone.

In a worldwide wood, the vehicle of sharing is fungi woven with the roots of trees. In our organisations, this collaboration and adaptation runs along the lines of communication from informal corridor conversations to formal strategy presentations. The give and take of the organisation flows from its interactions.

An engaged and agile workforce is one that is constantly communicating- customer needs, market changes, problems and opportunities. It is also communicating the less visible interpersonal elements of mutual understanding, shared context, alignment and trust. Little moments of give and take build powerful cultures of trust and support.

Nilofer Merchant coined the Success Equation as follows:

Success = (purpose x talent) raised to the power of culture.

As I have said before, the rewards to a collaborative, learning, and supportive culture are exponential. However, too many let this be the hidden and unmanaged part of their organisation.

We invest a massive amount of time development and resources to support individual achievement. We run the risk of missing the networks of support and learning that make that achievement possible. Spend as much time and money on the hidden collaboration that powers performance and you will be rewarded.


Brave or foolhardy?

Bravery is an outcome, not an input.

The internet is full of exhortations to be brave. Thoughtleaders love to tell us to be brave, rock boats and take risks. It’s one of those simple exhortations that’s heroic and nonspecific enough to sound motivational and yet inoffensive.

Most change agents understand bravery differently. They didn’t set out to be brave. Usually they wanted to make things better in a small way. Many expected it to be easy or straightforward. Over time they were drawn to make purposeful, meaningful change.

Bravery comes when the push back hits. Change always faces opposition. The bravery is a response to the need to continue and to do more when there’s resistance. Whether the risks are deliberate or entirely accidental, risk is secondary to the outcome of the change.

Successful change agents are rarely foolhardy. Their risk tolerances may be greater than others. However, the risk appetite is combined with a calculated consideration of the challenge and the strategy to make change acceptable. Foolhardy enthusiasm is admirable but rarely effective. It’s often frightening short lived.

So if you feel you need to be more brave in work, life or other domain, don’t go looking for risk. Risk will always find you wherever you are. If you want to be more brave, go looking for those people or things that matter enough to you to keep going, especially when it would be easier to stop.

Bravery is an output of relationships or purpose. That’s why it’s so often correlated with success.

Flexible Working: Beyond Binary Thinking

The work is where the heart is

If your organisation is only talking about working at home or working in the office, then you are missing the potential productivity and other benefits of flexible working. However, to realise these benefits you will need to move beyond binary thinking and lean into the tension and choices for employees, teams and the organisation.

Flexible working is about…flexibility. The choice for organisations is not a binary one between working at home and working in an office. There are multiple dimensions of work arrangements and patterns that can be leveraged to meet the needs of the work involved, the people and the strategy of the organisation. Escaping the binary of in the office versus at home is essential to an effective strategy.

Before You Begin

Before you even consider the choices for flexible working, there are a few foundations that you and the team need to understand in your organisation. These elements are what shape your approach to flexible working:

  • What is the purpose of the organisation?
  • What culture do you wish to practice?
  • What are your performance management & career development models?
  • What kinds of work does each team and role do to fulfil the organisational strategy?
  • What constraints do you have from a time, security, technical or legal perspective?

You may look at the list and see a lot of work to do to be ready for flexible working. However, this work isn’t preamble. These questions shape what you want work to achieve and how you expect it to happen. The outcome of these questions is a major part of your chosen employee value proposition. If your flexible working strategy does not align to that will fail. A flexibile working strategy fulfils your work and your strategy. It cannot be independently determined.

Any attempt to impose a working model that doesn’t reflect these factors will fail or cause ongoing major issues for employees and the organisation. The better you understand the questions above, the better you can work with leaders and teams to change their work.

A Menu, Not a Compliance Process

Flexible working is flexible. You are designing a menu of choices for individuals and teams. The teams are going to use the menu to fit their work to their needs, the organisations needs, and the outcomes that they need to achieve. If you are designing a watertight step-by-step compliance process, stop you are going the wrong way. Employee and team choices are fundamental.

Choice means tensions. There won’t be a one size fits all. You also won’t make 100% of people happy 100% of the time. Because the flexibility options need to meet so many conditions and also suit both the needs of individuals and teams there will be some need for compromise. Teams and individuals will have to discuss and agree how they balance the work and personal tensions using the choices from the menu.

Your sales director may want to work from the hiking paths of Nepal, but if a major part of that work is engaging clients in Australia, wifi is spotty in Nepalese mountains, and the role involves working with other teams in the organisation, that ambition will likely have to be compromised. Otherwise your sales director needs to find a role that better fits their lifestyle. However, working from home or a regional location for work, client or family reasons might be a better option for all involved.

The Minimum Menu Options

Some work is timebound and must happen at particular times. Let’s call this synchronous work. Other work is able to be done at any time. Let’s call this asynchronous work. Organisations need also to realise that their work is both internal and with external partners. Your flexible working menu should include options to cover the following patterns of work at anywhere and in the office:

  • Synchronous, External Partner Work
  • Asynchronous, External Partner Work
  • Synchronous, Internal Work
  • Asynchronous, Internal Work

All four modes above can be delivered anywhere. There is no location built into those options by design. Much of the asynchronous work can be done anywhere by definition. However, the menu and the choice of your teams will shape where those patterns of work occur.

There are another two dimensions that need to be factored into this menu to cater to the needs of focused individual effort and collaborative creation and problem solving:

  • Individual work
  • Collaborative work

Mixing these together gives us a menu like this:

It is important to recognise that location is only a small part of the menu choices. We obsess over our offices, office design and meeting spaces but they aren’t all of our work choices. Much more important is the infrastructure and tools to support the breadth of work arrangements required. After all only 3 of the 8 triangles might require physical co-location. Even in these 3 we have seen through our recent experiences of lockdown work can go on without physical location.

Requiring physical location is an unnecessary strict standard and one that it is very hard to meet. The hard part about flexibile working is that there are no binding rules, just choices and tensions. Employees, teams and the organisation may choose physical location when not strictly required for social, cultural or other reasons. There is a lot of informal interaction and context sharing in a workplace that is critical for relationship building, alignment and productivity but hard to capture when separated. I’ve long been an advocate for the kinds of tools that we have used in recent months to work remotely. They have for too long been underleveraged by organisations to their detriment. However, every utopia has its underlying dystopia. I also understand that being forced to work remotely is suboptimal for much work and for many many people. The social stresses of recent times highlight that clearly.

Every organisation needs to remember that the entire menu of choices contribute to culture and engagement. Engaging individuals and teams across the organisation in developing a menu and thinking in a detailed way about where to work and for what tasks will help drive new levels of organisational productivity and engagement. Because there are choices and tensions, the best way to make decisions in your organisation will be to involve the employees and teams involved in a detailed consideration of how best to manage the work. That process alone will contribute new productivity ideas and new levels of engagement.


Storm clouds brewing in the digital fields

Of many one
engaging the ear as if the Pacific

meant its name, as if the edge of
continent contented us with boundary.
Draw a line from A to B. Live there.

Bin Ramke, Curve of Pursuit

2020 was going to be my year of better managing boundaries. Instead all the boundaries came down as we all battled to #WFHIADGP (‘working from home in a deadly global pandemic’). Soon we found that all of life was a digital melange of work mixed with family and friends with voluntary responsibilities and other commitments. Calls blended with chat, texts flew, communities proliferated and emails just kept coming. Overlayed over the top was a mild case of existential dread. We had realised the long sought future of work digital working nirvana overnight, but like any good utopia it was secretly dystopian.

So what did I learn from this experience for the way we work flexibily in organisations going forward:

Boundaries Matter

If boundaries aren’t there because of the need for physical movement to different spaces or because of clear transitions between different time periods, we need to create them. Work days need to end. Time blocks are useful for productivity. Breaks in work matter. Projects and even relationships end. There is a time to switch off, to stop and we don’t have to be always on to work or to live.

Planning for ‘digital commutes’, scheduling a morning and evening walk, finishing a day or a week with social activities are all important parts of signalling transition. It is also important to manage the interruptions that cross boundaries. We don’t have to answer work calls out of hours or in the middle of other tasks and commitments. Email doesn’t have to be read and managed 24×7

It is also important to ensure that in a flexible working environment that projects have begining and ends. It is easy for project tasks to drift on after a project is complete and become a new level of support and work with little reward of achievement and much less return.

Understanding Context Matters More than Knowing with Certainty

For much of 2020 and even into 2021, we didn’t know exactly what was going on. We may never again manage with our usual false senses of certainty, confidence and security. However, we learned that knowing everything was much less important than understanding the context in the bounds of what we had to do.

I could have spent the last year in the many twists and turns of epidemiology, US Politics or any other controversy, especially as a distraction from the here and now of a lockdown, but gradually I turned my attention to understanding my own context more deeply. Drawing clear boundaries within which I need to understand context and letting other things go, helped me manage the complexity a great deal. The goal was not always to achieve perfect certainty on an ever shifting environment within my own narrow bounds, but to pay greater attention to what was going on and how it influenced me. That was a big win and that presence is ongoing work.

In the trees on the other bank
a solitary startled wood pigeon
flies towards me

Bei Dao, The Boundary

No is More Powerful than Yes

I have long known the power of saying no but it became much clearer to me since we started grappling with WFHIADGP. I have a very strong bias to say yes, to do things, to make things work and to stretch for more. I am an enthusiast and I hate missing out.

At the beginning of last year there was a flurry of interest in working from home. I had a lot of interest in my expertise and ideas. I had to work very hard last year to resist that temptation, choosing only the opportunities that I could do and also those to which I added unique value. I also had to accept that this meant ceding the space to others.

I turned down roles and opportunities. I didn’t pursue client engagements. I wound back my social media and social activity. I chose not to do more. I even put my long planned book project on hold as I worked to make all the pieces of my life hang together. No was my boundary enforcer.

It’s a Small World After All

One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is that the narrower our focus the bigger our impact. Small things done well make big changes possible. Instead of dreaming for the biggest changes possible in one step we can benefit from leveraging small changes in nearby adjacencies. We achieve more if we go step-by-step after a clear and narrow goal. We need to manage boundaries to make the most of our impact. Boundaries provider constraints that help focus, make us creative and help us find those evolutionary changes.

I achieved far more last year in a fully flexible environment than I had thought possible. Productivity was increased and importantly my colleagues and contacts adapted well to the need to redesigning work and projects to an asynchronous, virtual flow. There were undoubtedly new work, social and emotional pressures of lockdowns and a pandemic but the one binding boundary constraint of social distance was not a barrier to engaging with people effectively within an organisation, within a city or across the world. All that was required was to explore the small evolutionary steps to improve performance and to evolve the work outcomes towards success. We did that well.

Let’s not talk
about rampages, disasters,
conflicts or coupes that never
ruined a perfectly good year
during which the sun shined
on the moon, the earth,
and six billion who, for once,
got everything right and not
a single thing wrong.

Hayan Charara, Nothing Happened in 1999
Small evolutionary steps to better work together


Where will this go?

Wonder is underappreciated, So much of our creative and innovative potential flows from the simple act of wondering ‘what if’.

When I put together the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration, I had worked with people in organisations as they move from using collaboration platforms for communication then to solve their problems and on to creating new problems by asking curly ‘what if’ questions. Employees would ask “what if we did this another way?” or “how could we better meet customer needs?” or even “what if we didn’t do this at all?” The resulting conversations and work built on that wonder and drew others into the complex work to scale and sustain change. The last stage of the model, Innovate, is driven by that curiosity, creativity but above all the power to wonder about what might be.

As children, we have direct drive imaginations that can apply a sense of wonder to anything in our environment and beyond. As adults we don’t loose that capability, we just layer on top of it other pressures – power, social, work and time that make it less commonly applied. The questions are still raised and still there we just don’t as often take the time to share them with others or work on bringing these wondrous ideas to life in community.

Rekindling wonder in the organisation for the benefit of innovation involves engaging with those pressures and giving employees back the time and the freedom to dream a little more, to work a little differently and to come together in the pursuit of a purpose. The Value Maturity Collaboration Model reflects this because it recognises that for employees to feel ready to wonder they need to:

  • Be aligned on shared purpose and feel safe to share their ideas
  • Have the context to understand the organisational capabilities, work, priorities and issues
  • Have the agency and freedom to make choices about their work and their contribution to the organisation
  • Have time and resources to wonder, to collaborate and to create

In our lives, wonder can be prompted by an unusual sky, a dark wood or the site of another person going about their lives. We want that same curiosity in our organisations because that attention, effort and creativity is the heart of great customer service, creative problem solving and the ability of our organisations to adapt sustainably to change. Just as importantly, that wonder is how employees discover their potential and improve their performance by reaching for something not yet achieved or not yet done. In the transactional performance oriented hurly burly of our organisations, we need to invest time and effort to help our colleagues to wonder. We can’t loose the human magic of curiosity and a creative imagination. The rewards are as manifold as the paths that our curiosity and imagination may take.

Ask a ‘what if’ question today and take your colleagues on a journey of adventure, dreams and discovery.

Feeling Good

I have come to a frightening conclusion.

I am the decisive element in the classroom.

It is my personal approach that creates the climate.

It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.

I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.

I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.

In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

Haim Ginott, a variant of this is often wrongly attributed to Goethe

Our emotions are complex ambiguous, shaped by many factors and influences. Much of the time we have choices as to how we shape our own and other’s experience of our emotional state. We need to bring presence and emotional intelligence to all our interactions more than ever.

A New Dawn

I was recently reminded of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good. As is so common with Nina Simone’s amazing talent, the song is beautiful, engaging and highly evocative. From its spare ambiguous opening the song ramps to a big band celebration of the potential of ‘a new dawn, a new day and a new life’ to bring the chance to feel good and find new freedom. The listener is taken on a journey as Nina Simone leads us through the discovery that she does indeed feel good and that better times are as real as the natural beauty referenced in the song.

As human beings, our emotional state is influenced by narratives of our own making. We carry emotions from day-to-day and moment-to-moment reinforcing both negative and positive emotions based on the stories we are telling ourselves, telling others and creating as we go. At times, the emotion we experience whether a high or a low can be widely divergent from the circumstances of our situation. As social creatures, we can also be drawn into the contagion of the emotions of those around us.

Those narratives play a major role in our emotions but there are also times we can choose to drop them or swap them. Finding that moment of choice, that new dawn, is often about our ability to find presence and see with new eyes and think with new thoughts.

The House of the Rising Sun

Presence is an opportunity for us to reset our emotional narrative, escape our bubbles and its cascade of self-confirmation. Presence gives us a chance to choose which of our own personal ‘Big Lies’ we continue to carry and which we discard. Remember in emotions we are always both experiencer, giver and receiver. Staying present helps us make choices as to how the ‘decisive element’ of our emotional state plays out for others and ourselves.

Discovery of the emotions lying beneath the narrative can be a powerful learning opportunity. Dissatisfaction can be driven by the power of yearning, as an emotional state that signals to us the need to change, to act and to move toward something new. The emotional energy that comes from new and different conversations can signal more work that can be done and will be productive.

Not everyone gets to choose their emotional state. For those that have the option, we should take care to explore presence and how we can be a constructive influence for our own development and those around us. After all, what we think and feel underneath the imposed stories and unnecessary ones, is one form of agency that can never be taken from us whatever we may be obliged to perform. Finding that also enhances our unflappable power to make change. Our emotional comfort gives others confidence and is often confused with wisdom.

so they wouldn’t do anything except listen to the songs in their
heads which were sad ones like nearly all good songs and watch
this feeling rolling in, sunshine or rain, we don’t know yet,
it’s a good one, it’s the best one, though it has no name.

Emily Berry, No Name


So much of life, business and management is the art of survival. However, we rarely discuss the importance of hanging in against the odds and outliving the competition. We suffer from a survivorship bias. We are disproportionately focused on the outcomes and methods of those that survive as if they delivered success but rarely consider what actually enabled them to survive long enough to succeed. Survival becomes invisible.

Surviving to the Second Half

Riding off into the sunset

I worked with a leader who constantly reminded his team that “the white hats only win in the second half of the movie”. While that is a neat summation of dramatic narrative, it is also contains a few reminders about life:

  • success is not easy: there will be ups and downs and shocks along the way. There will be moments when it feels like it is over or when the opposition to your success is too much.
  • survival counts: you have to survive to the ‘end’ if you want to be on the winning team. Persistence and resilence matter but so do other survival techniques like husbanding your resources, picking battles and even playing for time. If luck comes occasionally, the more you hang around the luckier you will be.
  • survival isn’t always doing: Survival is mostly being, still being. It can be a matter of who you are, who you know, where you are standing, what you have and so on. Health, networks, wealth and wellbeing can be as important as your strategy for survival. This is what success and privilege have strong correlations – privilege increases the resources to survive.
  • each story is just one part of phase of play: beginnings and ends of movies are chosen for narrative reasons; the most interesting bits of action lie in between. However, there is always a lot that goes on before, after and off screen. Much of that uninteresting stuff is the work of survival and only makes it into the movie version in passing or a quick montage – preparing, accumulating capabilities, learning and practising skills, winning support and waiting. It is also important to remember to leave enough to survive beyond the ‘end’.

Looking Beyond the Frame

I had an insight into the value of survival in the 1990s dot com crash. I was working for an Australian ecommerce player in the lead up to Christmas, the biggest sales period of the year. Our business had capital to survive to the new year and spent it carefully. We watched our two highest profile competitors run out of money in the month up to Christmas spending money aggressively to win. Because of their spending, they needed more capital and investors had become nervous because of a number of high profile global collapses. All of sudden we were the largest remaining player. We had the market almost to ourselves, we had time to adapt and it propelled that business to survive for years afterwards. Our willingness to ‘lose’ the battle for Christmas online was our winning proposition.

When we start to look at the role of survival in success we see other examples where our studies of successful individuals and organisations suffer from a survivorship bias that we rarely consider:

  • The Talent that Leaves: Most successful people benefit from better talent leaving the organisation for better opportunities or because they couldn’t stand the culture. No CEO profile mentions their luck in this regard.
  • Competitor Stumbles: Almost all success stories have examples of competitors who were better placed at some point but stumbled opening an avenue for the survivor. In many cases, that is all the difference between success and failure. Execution matters but it can also be that relative execution is what matters.
  • Survivable Setbacks: Setbacks are not evenly distributed. Some get small setbacks early and big ones later when they are better able to handle the challenges or manage the impact on reputation. Big setbacks early can drive people and competitors out of a game before they get a chance.
  • Adaptation takes time: Successful businesses and people have had the time to recover from setbacks. Others don’t always get the time and space.
  • Risk Avoidance: Many survivors avoid risks but benefit from the risks taken by others to propel them or their organisation forward. You can look like a star just by having your peers crash around you and leveraging their work to propel the organisation to success.
  • Delegating Danger: Leaders who view their teams as expendable and fungible resources will have a tendency to delegate danger to the team or another business to protect themselves. Those who try to save others are rarely as well rewarded for their efforts as they should be and often blamed for their involvement in a problem that they did not create.
  • Study Failure: We can learn from failure, but we rarely deeply consider the drivers of success let alone failure. Our temptation is to quickly adopt a heroic narrative. Once the white hats go on, the outcome was inevitable.

We better understand strategy, success and failure if we seek to understand the role of survival in life and in business. Working out how to hang in there and prepare to survive is an important skills. We can also help to address inequities that are lost in the narrative when we only study survivors.