Inventing our own narrative

Everyday we reinvent our story. Living is choosing in the flow of moments. The stories come later. What’s your next one?

Life tells you things in small tumbling coincidences. I stumbled across Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield this week looking for a film. I love his work and the cast led by Dev Patel was exceptional so I dove in. The film brought me great joy in particular the portrayal, by Peter Capaldi, of Mr Micawber. Why? I once played Mr Micawber in a school production foundering every performance over my efforts to repeat Micawber’s sound advice:

‘Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 19 [pounds] 19 [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 20 pounds ought and six, result misery.

While you’d think that advice would be seared into memory, to this day I look it up. I noted it was omitted from the film. I’d have been better to remember it. I’ve risen and fallen like the tide on my ability to follow that advice throughout my life.

Flowing on from the film, I discovered a wonderful New Yorker article by Joshua Rothman about the lives we did not lead. That article includes the quote:

Part of the work of being a modern person seems to be dreaming of alternate lives in which you don’t have to dream of alternate lives.

The article does not quote David Copperfield as one of its many literary sources, but the Copperfield story draws heavily on Dicken’s reinvention of his own life. I followed that idea to the Wikipedia page for David Copperfield where I found a discussion of autobiography and this gem:

It consists of splitting one’s life into parts, choosing decisive phases, identifying an evolution and endowing them with a direction and then a meaning, whereas, from day to day, existence has been lived as a cluster of shapeless perceptions requiring an immediate adaptation

Wikipedia discussion

The greatest master of this adaptation must be Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa who constructed a great diversity of his heteronyms to expressed himself. These diverse identities had unique styles and even their own biographies enabling Pessoa to live multiple lives without leaving his desk. I keep Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet to dip into when in need of provocation.

From that insight, I flowed into Wang Wei‘s Blue Green Stream (trans. Florence Ayscough and Amy Lowell)

Every time I have started for the Yellow Flower River,
I have gone down the Blue-Green Stream,
Following the hills, making ten thousand turnings,
We go along rapidly, but advance scarcely one hundred li.
We are in the midst of a noise of water,
Of the confused and mingled sounds of water broken by stones,
And in the deep darkness of pine trees.
Rocked, rocked,
Moving on and on,
We float past water-chestnuts
Into a still clearness reflecting reeds and rushes.
My heart is clean and white as silk; it has already achieved Peace;
It is smooth as the placid river.
I love to stay here, curled up on the rocks,
Dropping my fish-line forever.

I even imagined a lazy trip by ferry across the Bosphorus crossing between East and West with apple tea and pastries. I’ve never been to Istanbul other than in the pages of Orhan Pahmuk’s novels.

Our lives are stories constructed from fact and fiction after the fact to justify what we did last and what do next. We pick the story to suit our needs and we change it. In the rushing flow of each moment one after another we make the decisions we make and we live accordingly. The meaning arrives if we go on living perhaps inspired by Mr Micawber’s optimism that ‘something will turn up’ (even when it often doesn’t).

The experience of the weekend perhaps is best summed up by another quote from the New Yorker article:

Like facets in a jewel, such moments seem to put our lives into prismatic relief. They make us feel the precariousness and the specificity of the way things are.

Joshua Rothman

But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

-Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise


Or more elegantly


The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who can see two kinds of people and those who can’t.

Old joke

The backbone of many activities across our society and our organisations are the joiners. The people who volunteer to do the work.

In any not for profit, sporting club, school or volunteer organisation, a few people do a lot of the work. Who does the work is driven by intrinsic motivations, their willingness to give and the interest in others. Not surprisingly, it is often the same people who contribute across all these domains. There is so much social and civil activity powered by the joiners. Everyone else benefits from their work.

The narrow base of joiners makes these essential organisations more fragile. A narrow base of joiners can mean that they are spread to thin and services can be fitted in unevenly around other commitments. Those who don’t join in often have the comfortable view that ‘things could be done better’ of those who don’t offer to help.

Organisations of all types need to know, value and celebrate their joiners. The loss of one can have wide reaching implications. The gain of one can power new levels of effectiveness. Like Mr Micawber in Dicken’s David Copperfield, a lot can turn on whether you can sustain enough support from joiners:

‘Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 19 [pounds] 19 [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 20 pounds ought and six, result misery. ‘

Don’t Earn the Commute

Memes embed quickly. Not all memes are useful. ‘Earn the commute’ is the wrong way to frame the return to the office.

We’re on a road to nowhere…

‘Earning the commute’ has become a common way to describe the work employers need to do to get people to work in offices again. However, like many simple catchphrases it obscures more than it reveals:

  • Yes, commute time is one of the inconveniences of office working. However, it is rarely the key one in a decision to go to the office.
  • The focus on time reflects our ongoing obsession with time as the measure of work productivity. We have inherited a time focus from the days of Taylorism management science and for many employers time remains the focus for a want of any other measure of worker value. For knowledge workers, time is rarely the key issue. We’d be far better to focus on outputs and throw away the time clock.
  • The time of a commute is usually wasted in an average work day because of that time obsession. Meetings that go for an integer multiple of an hour regardless of need are far more destructive of value. Employers know on a videoconference they can tune out and do other work more productively.
  • A bigger inconvenience is that a fixed working hours in fixed location rarely suits the lives of employees who have family obligations and other commitments that could be more easily managed in a hybrid work model. That has nothing to do with the commute and everything to do with flexibility.
  • Autonomy increased as people worked from home in 2020. With less physics connection and urgent issues to solve, people discovered the value of making decisions around their own work. Hidden behind earning the commute is employees grappling with loss of this autonomy.
  • The value of a face to face interaction in a workplace has to be the reason for asking employees to come together. Whether that is simple social connection, collaboration, problem solving, building capability or more, there are reasons for people to meet in person. Earning the commute implies this value occurs across a whole work day. It does not, which is why many organisations are choosing 2-3 days as their preferred model.

Don’t seek to earn the commute. Throw away the clock as a management tool. Focus instead on the outcomes you need and how best to bring employees to achieve them. Productivity increased for many in 2020 because they worked in new and better ways. Your barrier to returning to old model of work is not the commute it is that productivity, autonomy and lifestyle flexibility.


Ripples disrupt the calm

In unsettling times, are you calming the waters or making waves? That simple choice shapes how effective you can be in achieving sustainable change.


And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes.  For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only the lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.   This lukewarm temper arises partly from the fear of adversaries who have the laws on their side and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who will never admit the merit of anything new, until they have seen it proved by the event

Nicolo Machiavelli

Lots of forces tell us to settle for what we have, how things are and what comes easiest. These forces are mostly social, often cultural and can be legal or political. The order of things is enforced and reinforced in many complex ways. We even settle because we engage in anticipatory obedience.

All this pressure to settle, to make do, to compromise and to oblige reinforces the status quo. It benefits those who are benefited most by the systems, culture and processes in place today. The system is working perfectly and to the extent you disagree you are the problem. The unfortunate and unfair outcomes are part of the design of the system as it is today.

So many changes that people seek to bring about with caution and calm are merely temporary blips of change. The system responds and settles the change. Everything is brought back into the familiar and comfortable order. Sustainable change takes disruption, tensions and things to break before a new equilibrium is restored in a changed system.

Being Unsettled is Being

Do you preserve your place in an unfair universe or choose the existential dread of no sure place at all?

Throughout history all kinds of unfair institutions, corrupt practices, evils and other wrongs have been sustained by our willingness to settle for our place in the calm, but unfair, order of things. Peace, food on the table, a regular paycheck, the ability to keep living relatively undisturbed are all part of the incentive system that seek to discourage those who want to unsettle that order.

Yet at the same time fighting for change, an act of rebellion against the system, is a positive step towards new values. Camus noted this well

The affirmation implicit in every act of rebellion is extended to something that transcends the individual in so far as it withdraws him from his supposed solitude and provides him with a reason to act.

Albert Camus, The Rebel

Rilke also noted that our process of discomfort works upon us, changing us in the process of bringing about change

Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all, you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

There also lies a wider question of whether there is any sustained comfort in a place in an unjust system. What we push away to avoid looking at injustice and its conflicts does not go away. It remains before us and continues its work. Martin Luther King Jr wrote in his famous letter from Birmingham jail:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…

We face many complex dichotomies as we seek to make change. The current social order is often in tension with what values we know we need to bring forth. Law and order faces off against the forces of change. The key question we must face as we go about the challenge of being in a complex world is do we focus on the change or the order? Perhaps the answer is in recognising that King’s mutuality makes them one and the same. We are agents of change because we exist in the networks of social and other relations that demand we live our values.

We are because we change for the better.

In our heads

Barely above water

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock
To break up everything and throw it away
Because then there will be nothing to keep them
And they need not stay.

Stevie Smith, Thoughts about the Person from Porlock

Across a range of different environments, I hear the same story: returning to in person social activity is hard and people are experiencing all kinds of challenges from lack of social graces to anxiety to lack of motivation to feelings of alienation. We have become used to being in our own heads.

The pandemic lockdown experience whether from legal restrictions or personal caution was one in which our interaction with the world became mediated by technology. Yes, there were video calls but also much of our communication experience was text – chats, group messaging, social media and email.

In both mediums, video meetings and text, there is time to read, think, choices to be distracted or participate and the options of distance to leverage. With new options to ghost the world, overall interaction seems to have declined. We have spent a lot more time in our own heads than in a normal year. All that thinking time accumulates.

Hell is other people

Jean-Paul Sartre

Whether you are an egotistical existential philosopher or not, we have all experienced the disruption other’s present to our comfortable thought patterns. It can be an unique form of hell to deal with other’s views, negotiate options or navigate their egos. Withdrawing to the quiet of home seems an attractive option. Losing one’s temper at the perceived stupidity of other’s thoughts that don’t reflect your own is ever so tempting too.

In person interaction is demanding of our time, our thoughts, our emotions, our creativity and our attention. It is far less easy to tune out, ghost or autopilot face-to-face. Importantly , we need to get out of our own heads to succeed in this environment. We need to be social not just do it.

Diverse teams perform better. They also argue more and have lower trust. The challenge and the conflict of social interaction is part of human performance and essential to human creativity. Design programs develop skills of critique to help designers reach beyond the limits of their own vision. The contest of ideas in academia, corporates or politics isn’t a battle of supremacy, it is a process of understanding evolution and creation. No matter how uncomfortable, that social interaction powers our human development. If we resort to our own heads or comfortable social bubbles, all our lives will be more fragile and the lesser for it.

We need time out of our own heads. The art is rediscovering the potential humanity of those moments. Inconvenience fades. Society must not.

I went my way and would not care
If they should come and go;
A thousand birds seemed up in air,
My thoughts were singing so.

Marjorie Pickthall, Thoughts


What do you notice?

There’s a big wide world out there. It is time to notice it and those living around us. The more we deal with the separation of hybrid work and hybrid lives the more important it is to notice others and react to what we are noticing.


Whether because of writing, consulting, my work in innovation or customer experience, I have learned the power of time paying attention to my environment and what is going on around me. When was the last time you looked up? Over the years, I realised that noticing is a habit. We need to step out of our self-absoption and pay attention to others, to our environment and to all the little things that might otherwise slip below our focused attention. Without the consistency of explicit attention, we will fail to notice.

Some times the clues that we need to notice are tiny – a person’s silence, an odd choice of words, the things that they are not saying or not doing. Because many of life’s issues, problems and challenges cause us to stop, withdraw or be silent, it can be harder for us to notice that people are depressed, fatigued or languishing. We can’t all retreat to the isolation of Walden pond even if it is tempting in our busy digital lives. In a world of exponential change curves, many changes start small until they are suddenly not. The sooner you notice, the sooner you can act.

Many times our busy rush means we don’t pick up on the clues or cries for help that others are offering. If we don’t notice, we can inadvertently brush away the first tentative reach out for help or for support. We can make it appear that others aren’t caring simply by not paying enough attention as we go about our lives.

A question I often ask myself “what story does this thing I notice tell me?’ Looking for a narrative, a pattern or a rationale behind the little things can help you to go beyond observation and develop ways that you might engage to learn more. Those narratives can help you pick up on incipient trends and inspire your own creative thinking about what is possible or what might be to come.


We are ever more dependent on our ability to notice when the bandwidth of our relationships is so reduced by hybrid working relationships. Checking-in, checking-up and reaching out become very important activities to support those who matter to us to continue with all their work and life activities. Related is the practice of thanking those who have helped and supported us. We need to notice those who are helping us to get by so that we can remember to encourage that activity and also to know who we need to call on in times of challenge.

Noticing is not enough. We may not perceive the situation correctly. We may not understand at all. We need to engage to better our understanding of what we see and also act to make change or help those who need it. Nobody who is struggling needs to be told that everyone notices that they are struggling and how tough that struggle may be. Much of the discussion around issues such as Black Lives Matter, Indigenous inequality, racism, gender equality or sexual harassment is a frustrating repeated pattern of the wider community saying ‘I noticed this (usually at last). It is bad’ and the directly affected individuals saying ‘I’m glad you noticed. I know it too well. What are you going to do?’

Challenging times increase our need to notice others, notice situations and notice changes. With a better habit of attention we can work to make life better for others through engagement and action.

So what do you notice and what will you do about it?

Portfolio of Purpose

A Portfolio of Purpose

All the talk about purpose can be confusing. In particular we can be vexed by the difference between personal purpose and organisational purpose. The high bar that purpose sets for work can also create the feeling that every single moment of our work life should contribute to personal purpose. As the outcomes of our efforts that benefit others, purpose is not required from one task or one job, the outcome flows from a whole life – all the ways we work, hobbies, volunteering, family and more. We need to manage our personal portfolio of purpose.

Discovering Purpose

Discussion of organisational purpose can make it feel like purpose can be imposed. It can also create the impression that anything not directly to that purpose is less valuable, even where it might matter greatly to you.

Purpose is the outcomes of our effort that benefit others. Organisational purpose is the shared outcomes of individual efforts. The organisation itself has no purpose that isn’t shared by the people who make it up. Both personal purpose and organisational purpose are discovered not imposed. If your organisational purpose was developed by consultants or around a board table, it likely misses some of the subtleties of the culture in practice of your organisation. At worst, that statement of purpose is irrelevant to how the organisation acts.

Engaging with others, it is helpful to have a sense of the positive outcomes that you want to contribute for others. If you aren’t clear going in, you can always discover purpose in the work and in the collaboration. The best way to discover individual or collective purpose is not by what people say but the choices that they have made to benefit others through work. The Purpose is in the Work.

A Portfolio of Purpose

Most of us struggle to make everything we do or every organisation we join, directly relevant to our personal purpose. Life just doesn’t work that way. There is always development work, preparation, administration and overhead in all parts of life. Both individuals and organisations need to do things for money, to learn and to grow. Often your personal purpose is met later along the path and not right now.

Two approaches can reduce the sense of disappointment we feel when we must tackle tasks away from our personal sense of purpose:

  • Recognise purpose comes from all of life: Work is not the be-all and end-all of purpose. For many work may actually be a means to an end to pursue social or artistic purposes that don’t fit well into traditional work roles. The richer and more diverse your life the more likely you are to find ways to express your contributions to others. That also means knowing when to stop the gradual encroaching of work into every aspect of our life and identity. You aren’t your job and don’t let it define you. If your job doesn’t quite fit your sense of self, then embrace the difference. Difference is OK and you only need change role when the difference becomes direct incompatability.
  • Manage a diverse portfolio of activity: Recognise that the perfect job is rare, will likely become the end of a long search and may even be fleeting. Putting all your effort in the job basket can ignore the myriad other ways that you can make a contribution. Look across all the domains of your life and build a portfolio of contributions to others – that portfolio of purpose will provide the greatest chance for you to experience the personal rewards and to discover more about how you can contribute. Like any portfolio, diversity of effort also helps mitigate against disappointment in any one part of your life. There will always be some part of your efforts that are rewarding.

I have been exploring the portfolio life for some time, combing work, running businesses, consulting, advisory relationships, board roles, volunteering and helping friends. Every one of those activities gives me new insight into my personal purpose and new chances to express my contributions to others. The breadth of activities reduces the need for any one activity to meet my highest expectations. I learn and grow as I work across the breadth of this portfolio of roles.

So what’s in your portfolio of purpose?

Yammer for Continuous Improvement – Adapting to Change

Yammer groups and communities are a powerful way to manage continuous improvement initiatives in your organisation. Quality and continuous improvement work requires distributed advocates, customer insights, problem solving and adaptive change. Yammer delivers the capability to bring your employees together in one platform for these important and valuable conversations.

Connect Your Continuous Improvement Champions

A powerful place to start is to bring together your continuous improvement experts and champions in a community of practice to share information, insights, expertise and learning. Given the many kinds and models of continuous improvement, even this discipline can become siloed around techniques, philosophies and even jargon. Everyone working on making the organisation better can connect and understand each other’s work, whether they call what they do Lean, Agile, Product, Kaizen, Quality, Continuous Improvement, Productivity or some other term of art. Having this community of practice work out loud together connects your continuous improvement employees and initiatives and makes them discoverable by the wider business. Both members of the community and the wider organisation can learn the approaches in use, how problems get solved and how change happens to benefit the whole organisation.

Share Customer Insights: Value, Pain points, Issues, Broken Processes and Escalations

Continuous improvement work needs to be guided by customer insights and feedback from employees. It can often be hard and costly to gather this on a project by project basis. Yammer groups dedicated to key customers, lines of business or process can be a place to gather continuous feedback from customers leveraging the interactions of employees across the breadth of the organisation. Frontline staff are a key source of insights but often don’t know where to find the process owners or those who can help address issues. Give them a group to share those issues. Operations employees are another key source of lessons on processes and products needing improvement. Help them to connect with the right people to address their issues.

Solve Problems Together

Your quality and continuous improvement advocates can leverage Yammer to work directly with employees involved in the work to solve the problems identified. They can also leverage Yammer for ideation with the input of the wider organisation and to draw in expertise as required from a range of people across the organisation, both known and unknown. Yammer is a powerful coordinator of an organisations talents and capabilities to fulfil strategic goals and to facilitate adaptation.

Create Sustainable Improvement & Change

Embedding quality and continuous improvement initiatives in the organisation requires ongoing change management. That change begins with people understanding the initiatives early, being engaged in their development and having ongoing ownership and advocacy of the initiative beyond its life as project. Finding advocates for your change initiative through Yammer, engaging them and them empowering them to continue the change is a key benefit to your continuous improvement initiative

The goal of all continuous improvement work in your organisation is to create greater value for employees, for customers and for the organisation. Yammer groups and communities are a great way to connect the whole organisation around that important strategic work.

Future-dated Obligations

Nowhere to be

The last year has left us a lot of time to spend with our own thoughts. At the same time we have been surrounded by a relentless algorithmic march of should. Let go of these future-dated social obligations and find some freedom to live now.

The Algorithmic March of Should

Because we carry our mobile devices, we use social media and consume other media, we are constantly told what we should do. Some of this social pressure is advertising. Some social pressure comes from content marketing dressing up advice and suggestions as obligations. Much of the rest is the ongoing argument about contested social norms, expectations and all our other future dated social obligations. Government public service announcements have proliferated. Safety warnings surround us. We live in a relentless should culture. Nobody is ever really cancelled, just told overwhelmingly what they should do, be and believe.

The challenge with should is that it is directive, absolute and can get in the way of decision making today. We become so concerned with what we should do, who we should be, where we should get to and what we should achieve that doing anything at all now can start to feel impossible. It only gets worse when the advice as to what we should is so often confusing, conflicting, unsupported by research or unsuited to our unique time and place.

We experience this most when much of what we are told we should comes from outside of our community, our experience, our wishes and our capabilities. If we are able to engage, understand and negoatiate these social obligations we have a chance to adapt to its exhortations, to understand better and to take it onboard. The canny obligers will tell us that engagement or understanding is also not allowed. We should just obey. Without that engagement, any social obligation is just another voice shouting should.

There is nothing wrong with the many intrinsic social obligations that each of us can choose to live today. Societies function because of our civil society of norms and laws that community members absorb into their lives. It is not a question of unfettered independence, civil society too depends on our willingness to act for others, often with nothing but pain in return. Legal obligations are not in argument here, just a wide range of pressures from social norms to useful advice to other’s often unreasonable expectations.

Future-Dated Obligations

There is a lot that needs to be debated about externally imposed social obligations that stretch into our future. To separate the charlatans and the manipulators from the well-meaning, we need the ability to engage in debate, review and decisions around these obligations. Shutting down engagement won’t convince anyone, improve anything or achieve enduring change. All that happens is the conflict or crisis is kicked further along. Anyone who suggests the topic is undebatable needs to be queried.

Before you take on a raft of future-dated obligations from others, make sure you understand your own needs, wants and desires. Be prepared to engage, to test its applicability and ultimately reject where ill-suited. Be present in your own life and choose what comes in based on your understanding and own expectations. Be gentle and forgiving where you fall short of your own standards and generous when you or others fall short of those social obligations that the others impose.

All those people shouting should want something from you, usually it is only your attention or your wallet. Before you do today and decide what your tomorrow holds, give them your engagement.

Be kind

They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.

—Carl W. Buehner

Shine a little light

it may be that
kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world

Michael Blumenthal, Be Kind

Over the weekend, some feedback came back to me through networks of how I was perceived in a former workplace. That feedback was simple – ‘Simon was so nice’. While nice may not be the richest adjective, I came to understood that my kindness to others was appreciated. While I doubt that view was universally held, it was comforting to hear that my efforts in relationships were appreciated. Kindness, generosity, an interest in others and a willingness to help are rare enough in large organisations to be remarkable.

When you put yourself into the shoes of others and seek to understand their situation, it can be hard to engage with people in any other way. There are evil people and they are best avoided. However, so many poorly performing people are confused as to their goals or distorted by the systems in which they operate. In my experience kindness leads to reciprocity and trust and they are on the list of the few things that can help someone to better behaviours. Leaving a little kindness behind as you go about your day makes even unpleasant situations more bearable.

You catch more flies with honey than vinegar

Traditional Proverb

Collaboration is one of the few superpowers that we mere mortals can invoke. How else can we borrow the assistance of others – their knowledge, their efforts, their capabilities and more? Kindness oils the wheels of collaboration opening up to us access to a force magnifier of productivity as our networks lean in to return the favour. Don’t view kindness as a reciprocal transaction. I have received way more generosity than I have ever given. Even more extraordinarily, I have received it from strangers who know people in my network or simply saw my kindness to others.

we know the moment kindheartedness
walks in. Each praise be
echoes us back as the years uncount
themselves, eating salt. 

Yusuf Komunyakaa, Kindness

It takes no more effort to be kind and often it takes less when you remove all the scheming, shouting and unintended reactions to unkindness. Kindness need not be confused with being soft. The world yields to those who are purposeful, but kind in their relationships. Everything we do, we do in relationships with others. A little kindness goes a long way on those well networked paths.

PS By the way our productive network relationships don’t end at our social media relationships. They only begin there. As much as it can be tempting to be smarter or sharper or one-up in that medium, don’t. Keyboard warrior, troll, that guy on Linkedin and reply guy aren’t terms of endearment and aren’t titles that lead to greater or more productive things