The human brain sees through attention. Focused effort improves mastery. Managing attention shapes success. Where’s your focus?

We see that to which we are paying attention. Our brain screens out things that aren’t changing and can ignore the raft of elements irrelevant to our focus. We are programmed for confirmation bias. This also means that focus often brings us that we seek. Shifting focus enables us to see things we missed before.

Focus also creates the positive sensation of flow. When we concentrate on matching our rising skill to rising challenge we become absorbed in the task. We enjoy the timeless feeling of growing mastery in that focus. Sustaining focus is essential to continued development over time. Focus and you create your own unique expertise.

In coaching, you often find people can’t see the opportunities and the strengths that they have. They are so focused on barriers, issues and threats that the opportunities surprise them. That has been my personal experience of taking the leap from corporate life to consulting. I was so worried by the risks that I was surprised by the opportunities. I needed to retrain my attention to the opportunities.

Where’s your focus? How is your focus helping you achieve your purpose?

Practices vs Procedures

I have been asked by a few people who have seen the slides only whether the audience at The Change Management Institute found my talk practical. At first the question made no sense to me. How could a talk recommending four well documented practices not be practical?

Some of the issue is missing the text of the talk. You don’t get the whole story through pictures without the accompanying stories and discussion.

Then I realised the point of the question. In the presentation I talked about moving away from rigid process to adaptive learning. It would have been inconsistent with that theme to outline a 5-8 step procedure. The practices I recommended are about fostering mastery. The involve choices and learning. They are not procedures to be executed.

We are so used to the process mindset that a process is seen as the only practical option. I am very pleased the members of the Change Management Institute embraced new practices and saw the potential to learn and adapt through practice.

Learning and adaptation is the only practical way forward.

Much Loved Tools: Pyramid Principle

In a summer job during university I was introduced to Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle as a structure for communication. I’ve used the logic ever since. The lessons of that approach dig me out of all sorts of presentation messes.

Here are the big lessons I’ve learned applying the Pyramid Principle approach to fix communication:

– Remember to have one message: it is surprising how often you see a presentation without a message. These presentations forget to make their point succinctly because they are overfilled with ideas and with elaborate introductions, narratives and evidence
– Structure promotes simplicity: Structure clarifies thinking. Structure clarifies for the listener too. Best of all understanding the structure also makes you more adaptable to change. Only got 5 mins for your half hour presentation? Knowing your key points will help you home.
– Support ideas with evidence: Others forget to support their assertions. In those that do use evidence, in many cases the charts usually tell a different story to the text. Make it easy for your audience to see your evidence.
– Pyramids beats chains: Many presentations are long fragile chains of logic. I’ve seen someone fly around the world only to have the presentation fail at the first question. That presentation depended on all of a long chain of premises. The failure of one idea left all the work bereft. Pyramids stand on other support when one element falls.

Mastery takes Time

Before we connected the world in an instantaneous network, we understood mastery takes time. Now we often forget that we can’t leap to learning.

I’ve had many conversations recently where people have wanted to move quickly to mastery. Stakeholder expectations are high. Everything else is available at the push of a button. Where’s the shortcut to mastery?

Mastery takes learning. Remember the apprenticeships of the pre-industrial era were seven years long. Seven years lifted you to journeyman practice. A lifetime of learning and teaching others lifted you to master.

While access to information has changed, we have not necessarily transformed the pace at which we learn by putting skills into practice. We can find best practices easily but using them and moving to mastery is something else

Mastery depends on context. Mastering your particular purpose in your domain is unique to you. Your practice will be in a specific domain. Other’s practices may not fit. Discovering this context, purpose and clarifying the domain can take its own time.

Mastery takes continuous practice. Mastery is the ever continuing quest to learn, experiment and improve. Mastery is the domain of next practice. Practice takes time. We like to hear sorting superstars talk of their success. We often fail to focus on the decades of dedicated practice that makes that brief moment of mastery.

Our obsession with speed can mean we devalue the slow. That is a mistake when it comes to mastery. Mastery is something we have a lifetime to practice.

Expertise in the Way

Clients often say something to me along the lines of ‘I don’t want to offend you, after all, you’re the expert, but I think we might need to change this recommendation’. I am not offended. I am relieved. I can’t possibly know everything about their problem and circumstances.

Their ideas and knowledge improve mine. I am learning. We are learning together. We can’t let expertise get in the way of mastery.

The advantage of Big Learning approaches in organisations is that they break down the barriers that form around expertise. When an expert says no, trying to move forward can be hard because of both the reactions of other less expert stakeholders and because the expert has now invested ego in blocking.

Shifting the focus to gaining new external perspectives, testing ideas in practice, learning more or experimentation can be a great way to validate all opinions but judge on results. The learning from the tests will move everyone forward. Momentum is your friend.

An expert who doesn’t want to pursue mastery used to be an expert. Never let expertise get in the way of learning more through work.

By definition to be exceptional, you have to be the exception, not the rule – Dharmesh Shah in Inc Magazine

Traditional organisations push people to fit in, to fit boxes and processes. The future of work organisations push people to realise their human potential.

Boxes and processes can be automated, copied and commoditised. Unique value is in the grey space of exceptions, obstacles and other human forms of mess. Insights, innovations and incremental value aren’t mechanistic process outcomes. They are human flashes of brightness in the grey.

Those flashes take work and new capabilities. Find the exceptions and exploit them. Push yourself to work into these grey spaces around your role, your customers and your organisation. Be led by purpose. Leverage your potential and the potential of others. Learn and build systems to learn together. Purpose, practice and mastery of working in the grey spaces are underpinnings of the new work.

Practice and Persistence

Developing mastery of new future of work practices is essential to individuals being able to leverage the networked economy and also organisations ability to adapt to become Responsive Organisations. However, new practices don’t develop overnight they take persistent repetition and gradual mastery.

Your way to Carnegie Hall

There is an old joke that an out-of-town violinist is walking through New York and stops a passerby to ask for directions to Carnegie Hall, the site of many famous concerts and recitals. The answer from a wiser old New Yorker is “Practice. Practice. Practice”

We have a current example of this insight in the hacker quest to demonstrate you can become an expert in a year through consistent practice.  For example, this man’s effort to reach the top table tennis players in the UK.

The key points here are that:

  • the practice is voluntary
  • the practice persists
  • the practice develops in mastery with a determined intent on improvement 
  • the challenge of the practice raises over time

Allow Time. Design for Flow.

In our rush to implement new practices in organisations, we can miss these characteristics of growing mastery. We choose target state behaviours. We impose them transactionally through short change management programs. We are often disappointed by the results.  Not surprisingly they rarely develop into consistent practice, let alone mastery. Alien behaviours can take time to make sense, to practice with confidence and to learn new capabilities required.

The ideal programs to the introduction of new behaviours leverage the concept of Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Individuals need to be presented with purposeful activities where the challenge raises over time as their practice grows in capability.  Keeping the developing practice in the zone of flow provides personal rewards to sustain the development of mastery.

The development of individual practice in this way may not fit within our traditional management timeframes.  This is not a 90 day challenge. Developing new mindsets and behaviours will occur on a human timescale.

The Gap & The Value: Mastery, Professionalism and Self-confidence


Mastery is important to success as a knowledge worker.  However, a danger lies in the quest for improvement. Knowledge workers can confuse the road ahead with the achievement behind

Mastery focuses on the Gap

Mastery means always looking for ways to improve performance. There is always a gap.  Being self-aware means understanding where those gaps are and working hard to improve on them.  This challenge of improvement is an all consuming quest for many. It is the heart of professionalism.

The challenge of an awareness of shortcomings is that it can distort perceptions. Many highly talented people undervalue their contributions because they measure against perfection not above the bar for performance. It is not uncommon to find the greater the expertise the greater the awareness of the shortcomings and the less aware people are of their unique contributions. 

Performance management processes often reinforce this impact because of the economic incentives in managing down perceptions of performance and reinforcing the quest for improvement. The imposter syndrome is another consequence of awareness of shortcomings. A much more common consequence is a lack of confidence in sharing one’s work, promoting one’s expertise and the value that you bring. This can be devastating for career success when there are significant benefits to sharing your work and building a reputation for expertise.

Success requires focus on the Value

The unique value a professional knowledge worker creates is how they bring their expertise, skills and networks to bear on each problem and how this exceeds the standard of the average peer. An individual who is practising mastery will soon find themselves moving ahead of this level of performance. To understand their value, this professional must keep their eyes on the goal ahead and the bar behind. Both are moving all the time.  

The gap from average performance is unique value. A professional knowledge worker needs to understand this well and capable of being articulated. Self-awareness demands an understanding of both strengths and shortcomings. This self-awareness helps measure the value that is the basis of rewards to knowledge work.

The value and quality of knowledge work can be hard to assess. Price, reputation, networks and confidence all play a role in assessing the quality of knowledge work. Many talented knowledge workers are frustrated that less capable people have higher returns and bigger reputations. Unsurprisingly the difference is usually self-confidence and a willingness to promote. Nobody will believe in your value if you don’t.

Confidence in this value is an important foundation of success because it will influence your ability to argue for the value of your work and promote your achievements. Measure yourself not just against the road ahead but also by the achievement behind.

Give Purpose, Autonomy & Mastery, Not Direction


Last night I came across a reference to A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard, which was once an influential essay describing a model of personal leadership. The essay reflects its origins at the turn of the 19th century, particularly in its description of manager & employee relations. However, a determined & talented employee who displays personal leadership and asks no questions is the goal for many organisations.

The essay contrasts between Rowan’s personal leadership & responses of other hypothetical examples. In describing these examples there is one difference that Elbert Hubbard missed. This missed difference highlights why so many employees might still disappoint when assigned tasks. The difference is the leadership involved in assigning the task.

President McKinley’s request is not the assignment of a mere task. His actions are far more powerful as acts of a leader than Hubbard’s own examples. McKinley allows Rowan to complete the task with purpose, autonomy and mastery:

  • McKinley assigns Rowan a whole & heroic task to deliver a message to an uncontactable General in unknown terrain. This is done where the purpose of this task is extremely clear to all involved – his country needs his unique talents to achieve an important goal in a difficult war.
  • Rowan is given autonomy. There is no direction on how to achieve the task, because he knows he is best placed to achieve it. There is no request for progress updates and no expectation that Rowan do more than achieve it. Once Rowan accepts the message, the outcome it is his to achieve (or to fail). 
  • Mastery is inherent in the selection of Rowan. He knows he has been chosen for his talents, his ability to improvise, to perserve and to improve to achieve a purpose beyond the capabilities of others. Rowan asks no questions because he knows it is his mastery that the others need.

Consider in contrast, Elbert Hubbard’s example of asking a clerk to write a memorandum on the life of Correggio. The task is arbitrary and hence purposeless. The only reason it is being done is that the employer asked for it. The lack of purpose also limits the autonomy. The memorandum fits in some plan not shared with the employee, rightly creating an expectation that further instruction or steps will be forthcoming. Unless the clerk is a scholar of Italian Renaissance painters, of writing or of biography, the memorandum is unlikely to match some arena of personal mastery.

Leadership in every role is a key refrain in the future of work. The world cries out for someone who can ‘get a message to Garcia’. More importantly, the world cries out for leaders who knows how to ask in ways that allow purpose, autonomy and mastery.