2023: The Theme of the Year

In 2022, I set out with an intention of exploring Flow. That intent did not last. There were parts of the year where from exhaustion or desperation I went along with the flow, but for much of the year the graceful transitions or the purposeful rewards of flow were beyond me. Too much of 2022 was hanging on with grim determination.

What we remember of love is starlight

W.S. Merwin, To the Parting Year

As I pondered a theme for 2023, my first thought was Choose. However, my inspirations crumbled, not a good sign for a year long theme, and as a theme, choose felt too insistent and consumerist. For a while, I considered ‘Get Real’, a reminder to base myself securely in reality, avoid propaganda and to turn away from the unnecessary and overly demanding. A year in which I could let those with unreal expectations have a dose of 1980s teen repartee.

However, something more creative and generative appealed to me as a theme. If you’ve followed this blog, poetry has been a theme since 2020. Poetry will weave itself into the year no matter what. My job is to find more cause to experience and share it. As Poetry is here it is not the theme but might lead on to it.

I love a novel take. There no value in repeating what everyone else is doing or saying. What I value more is the twist, the surprising insight, the people who don’t follow the flow but turn away to find something magical that was hidden there all along underneath. That turn takes an ability to see something different and special and the choice to bring it about.

That turn is also a key part of a knot. Take a cable turn it upon itself and find something new. Knot bring together the all the many threads we have been carrying. Knots that tie us together and connect us in a community.

At a time when tired patterns are repeating themselves, it is time to make ‘hope and history rhyme’. We need to break out and go another cleverer and better way before the end. In a world obsessing with the power of large language model driven pattern recognition, it is time to embrace the novel twist.

But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy

But hang on here while we make the turn

into the final six where all will be resolved,

where longing and heartache will find an end,

Billy Collins, Sonnet

So borrowing from a sonnet, we flip in the end to another message, my theme of 2023 is Volta.

Volta: Italian word for “turn.” In a sonnet, the volta is the turn of thought or argument

Poetry Foundation

The volta marks a shift from the main narrative or idea of the poem and awakens readers to a different meaning or to a reveal in the conclusion of the poem.

Poets.org, Volta

And now—unwittingly, you’ve made me dream

Of violets, and my soul’s forgotten gleam.

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, Sonnet

May you have a happy, prosperous and productive 2023. If it’s anything like the last three years we can expect a twist in the end.

The Power of ‘No, Thank you’

my god all the days we have lived thru


not this

one, not this,

not now,

not yet, this week

doesn’t count, was lost, this month

was shit, what a year, it sucked,

Olena Katlytiak Davis, Not this

As 2023 approaches alarmingly quickly we are thrown into what can only be described as the resolution and list season. I will duck the temptation to share with you a list. I have however in recent years been exploring boundaries and it has brought to the fore for me the simple power of saying no.

No is the ultimate boundary enforcer. No indicates definitively that you are drawing a line. Boundaries are no boundaries unless they are enforced. Consistently saying no is the best way to know that your boundaries are working.

No allows room for counteroffers and changes, but it states a definite intent to decline as the starting point of the negotiation. Why not start any negotiation with your strongest hand?

Don’t worry about what you might lose, what others might think or the status involved in what you are declining. You are saying no for good reason, for a boundary you wilfully chose. That’s something worth fighting for. What you won’t do is as important, if not more so, as what you will.

I added ‘Thank you’ not just for politeness’ sake. I added thank you because the most insidious threats to your boundaries are those you actually want – the flattering, carefully crafted, tempting assaults upon your will. These threats demand politeness and gratitude to reflect how well crafted they are. Then they must be turned down like any other. The more exuberant your thanks the better it works to acknowledge and move on from manipulation.

We are accustomed to think of No as abrupt and potentially impolite. However the whole point of boundaries is to avoid being obliging for its own sake. No is clear and an unequivocal statement of your needs. Not acknowledging your boundaries and your needs is the height of rudeness (unless otherwise excused by some extreme life threatening emergency). The thank you is also a softener for our sensitive souls.

We have boundaries and we say no because time is limited. Choices have consequences. Every unnecessary choice harms our ability to do what matters more. Boundaries help contain the demanding, the ungrateful and the rude. Spend your time on what and with whom you prefer. That’s the only way to get the most from 2023.

So in 2023, when you get that queasy feeling, say ‘No, Thank you’ without further thought. Then dedicate your time and energy to what really matters.

I thought I had lost myself,

but I see it’s you that’s gone missing.

Elaine Equi, No other

The Real Work

Wendall Berry

Confusion is a signal of value. Complexity, not simplicity, is where we need to focus our work. The predictable is mundane and probably should be automated. Surprise yourself with discomfort. The real work is beyond the routine.

In the modern workplace, anything capable of predictable routine is a target for automation. As automation becomes more sophisticated at pattern recognition it can even take on basic tasks of content creation, look at ChatGPT. Harold Jarche has been for some time calling out this changing work landscape with his continuum.

Harold Jarche’s framework for changing work

Edges are more beautiful than anything-
Edges Where the quiet deep shallows into loveliness, Where the clouds feather to wavering silver,
And color kisses its brighter self.

Henry Bellarman, Edges

As we grapple with this world of work, human adaptability to change is where our best work will be found. We need to lean into that discomfort as Fiona Tribe indicates. We need to seek it out. It is a signal of the value we can bring to make new change, to solve hard problems or to unravel uncertainty.

The focus on work being a domain of increasing complexity and challenge also means we need to take care. Relentless pressure to solve, to change and to create can become overwhelming. Whether caring for ourselves or our colleagues, we need supportive workplaces and leaders who support people to perform in challenging environments. As work becomes less about fungible widget employees, we need leaders to be more than command and control robots.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life   

And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith, Not Waving but Drowning

Our real work starts in the grey and at the edges. When the road, the guidance and the rules run out we are ready to start. As Wendell Berry highlights ‘the impeded stream is the one that sings’. The greatest rewards in work are not doing the easy repeatable things but overcoming blockages and making one’s own mark on an important challenge.

We may long for the comfort and routine that one defined predictable work. However, those times have changed for good. Our best most challenging work is beyond the routine. Embrace the wonder, the confusion and the creation that comes from transformative change.

Thanks to Dr Maya Popa for sharing the Wendell Berry poem that prompted this meditation and supplied the image of the poem above.

Fintech Chatter Podcast

NAB Outside-In Conference Podcast on Fintech Chatter

A great conversation with Stevie-Ann Dovico, Dexter Cousins and I to discuss what makes great product teams in fintechs and larger financial services organisations. I share some of the experience of bringing LanternPay into HICAPS and how we are delivering to customer opportunities and leveraging the best of both worlds.

Little Gestures

The hundreds of little things
Which beat against the heart,
Were meant so. Like the tapping of spring rain, They batter us down gently
With their music

Nancy Flowers, Little Things

We love to celebrate the grand gestures, but success in life is made up of thousand of little gestures executed over years.

Last week someone shared that I had inspired their career choice over a decade ago. When they saw me talk with passion about the work I was doing, they wanted to give it a try and they have done so ever since. Importantly that wasn’t a speech or a sales pitch, some grand gesture. The conversation was an everyday work meeting. Small gestures have big ripples.

As we go about our careers, we obsess about the big gestures – promotions, speeches, awards, deals won. However, our reputations and are social capital are built on the little gestures – everyday conversations, acts of help, how we behave when things are tough, how we treat people in the little moments. These small gestures have an outsize impact because they matter less. Everyone knows people can put on a show for the big moments but what you do i. little moments says far more about who you are.

Little change repeated daily as a practice is far more likely to generate sustainable change and at greater scale than any big shift. Celebrate the little gestures of others to give them encouragement. Put your own into practice.

those delicious possibilities
sweeten each small
gesture of goodbye. Each anonymous, misplaced smile.

Elizabeth Libbey, The Gesture

This Strange Intimacy

With hearts good and happy, making
Life’s old hurt leave off its aching-

Hearts that crave no other’s pleasure,
But the days by duties measure;

Antonio Nicos Blanco, Intimate Prayer

Pervasive social media can generate a strange intimacy. Without any effort, as simply as opening an app, we can be thrust into participants in the daily adventures of others. We know and follow the daily duties of strangers. We share their meals, the adventures and their emotions for better and for worse.

This intimacy makes us more vulnerable to the intrusions of trolls, the obsessive and the vexatious. The sharing we experience as a deepening of connections can be weaponised against us. Intimacy can be turned to make barbs cut deeper. This intimacy can also be used to spread mis-information and suck the unwary into frauds, manipulation, and conspiracy theories.

The profound intimacy of lyric poetry makes it perilous because it gets so far under the skin, into the skin.

Edward Hirsch, The Immense Intimacy, The Intimate Immensity

Social media’s intimacy is getting deep under our skin. Linkedin hacks our perceptions of careers and success. Instagram hacks perceptions of lifestyles, fashions, food, imagery and body image. Tiktok plays with music, dance and trends. Twitter and Facebook manipulate stories, images, information, relationships and politics.

We can use social media to find our unique tribe. To find people who speak so to our heart that we clasp near strangers to our chests as long lost companions. We can find people with whom we share an unbelievable intimacy because of unity of mindset, interests, networks, and passions. We can deepen ourselves into the intimacy of our own unique bubble.

Whether this intimacy is good or bad is not determined by the platform. The choices and outcomes depend on us. We can use social media to find collaborators who will help us change the world, people to work with or to find partners for the adventures of life.

Intimacy unhinged, unpaddocked me. I didn’t want it.

Diane Seuss,

Social media can be a tool of engagement and communication. It can also be a vicious hack of our attention for advertising revenue, a manipulation of endorphins for addiction, and a simulation of friendship with artificial connection. The owners of these platforms will continue to invest to make them more engaging, addictive and intimate (Metaverse anyone?). They are far less concerned with their impact on social fabric.

The challenge we face is to be discriminating users mitigating both the ego returns and the need with the perspective that life goes on best off these platforms. Use social media to find your community and then engage them on and off your platforms of choice.

Communication is NOT Collaboration

We are deep enough into the wide scale adoption of hybrid-working, chat tools and video conferencing to draw some conclusions. One thing is now becoming abundantly clear: 24×7 access to high-bandwidth and high velocity communication is not going to deliver collaboration.

Two and a half years on from the beginnings of the Covid pandemic, our workplaces are multi-dimensional hybrids – days, hours, locations, working styles and more. The tools of digital work that had long existed are now in widespread adoption with most organisations combining the traditional email and telephony with chat, video and other tools of digital work. Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Slack have been household names and there is a long list of competitors in use, but little revolutionary.

Before the pandemic, it was important to remind organisations looking at a digital workplace project that there was a difference between communication tools and effective collaboration between employees. The last two years have confirmed this experience. The rush to supply tools to meet, to stay connected and to do work does not guarantee collaboration.

There are many reasons why complaints about colleagues and collaboration in organisations are on the rise. We have lost some social muscles in the last years and the fragmentation, smaller bubbles and algorithmic information mean connection is harder. There are also real stress, trauma and mental health issues flowing from our recent experiences.

Three issues are most problematic in my experience:

  • Clarity: Are your teams really aligned to the same goals? Do they express those goals in measures and rich stories that everyone understands? You can’t collaborate without shared or aligned goals at least in part. Minor misalignments where people think they understand fast moving communication are far too common
  • Context: Do your teams share the same context of information in their work? In the volume of communication, it is easy to lose the context of information. For example, I was invited to join a regular meeting, there was a clear logic to each meeting but I couldn’t ever quite predict it. It took far too long for me to realise an agenda and documents were shared in a Team in Microsoft Team that nobody ever mentioned. Lacking context can mean you cannot understand other’s work or communications. Context was always going to be an issue at this time.
  • Cohesion: Relationships and moods post pandemic are brittle. Bringing people together, holding people together and striking compromises is harder than it seemed before. We have lost social muscles.
  • Complexity: Agile, iterative, parallel, hybrid, distributed, global, connected, faster, more data-driven, digital, automated – all the adjectives we use to describe our world of work make it more complex, not less. These elements can make even the simplest collaboration into a complex systemic change exercise.

Communication is the vehicle. Collaboration is the work. Don’t confuse the two. The first is possible if you have the right media. The second depends on culture, people and practices. The reason organisations consistently need change and adoption to support their collaboration goals is not because the communication tech is hard. The hard but most rewarding part is always the people in the teams.

No Heroes

Change initiatives of any scale are hard work. We make them harder when we decide to be heroes.

Repeat after me:

  • The System is working perfectly as intended
  • The System is designed to beat any individual, however heroic.
  • You don’t always need to change the System. You might just need wiggle room.
  • Change in the System takes a team, stakeholders and influencers. You cannot succeed alone.

Be clear on what your goals are in seeking change. Don’t assume the system is broken or that others share your goals. Build a coalition of supporters and teammates. Seek only the change you need for your goal. Be kind to yourself.

You need a change. Nobody needs heroes. Nobody wants to become a martyr to their change.


The true artist is not proud. He unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal; and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius appears as a distant guiding sun.

Beethoven, letter to a young pianist, 17 July 1812

No matter how hard we work the distance to our potential remains. Mastery is not the pursuit of an end but merely a race after an ever vanishing star.

There is an old joke of a man who stops a stranger in New York and asks ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall?’ The stranger’s reply is ‘Practice. Practice. Practice.’ However, it is often the case that even with carefully considered practice we never reach our destination.

Practice reveals new levels of performance, artistry and mastery that are yet to be attained. Ancient cultures, religions and professional guilds often work on opening up new levels of knowledge to practitioners as expertise developed. Reaching too far ahead could become daunting or dangerous by not having built the right experiences or foundations. The learning experience was mediated through a gradual opening of knowledge and practice.

In our modern impatience, we may have jettisoned the idea that all knowledge and experience must come in time through practice. Aren’t we just one Youtube video away from perfection? Yet, knowledge and experience is not all transferred digitally and instantly. Mastery demands practice and experiential learning. New levels of practice still open new vistas of potential.

We may not all have the genius of Beethoven. We can share and recognise his frustrations. We can all pursue that ever-distant guiding sun.

Negative Self-talk

Talking yourself out of success is easy. We have thousands of thoughts of our shortcomings ready for the purpose. Talking yourself into action on the key steps to your goals is much harder.

Shifting from self-talk to friend-talk

As we go about our days, we think about our work and judge our actions. At times this can be part of a constructive and reinforcing learning dialogue. Too often though we are lost in negative self-talk. In an increasingly digital world we can get lost in our own heads.

We project how hard things are or will be. We turn out behaviours, changeable on a whim, and make them immutable characteristics that mean we cannot succeed – cautious consideration becomes a lack of ambition, a reticence to promote oneself becomes shyness, a lack of energy becomes laziness and so on.

Our self-talk shapes our efforts and our resilience in pursuing success. I have talked myself out of great opportunities because self-talk shattered my confidence. Knowing how to pick the moments that you are undermining yourself and change the dialogue is key. Friends and colleagues play a key role in helping us test our self-talk against reality and in resetting our efforts.

Nobody needs a permanent critic that they can’t shake. Self-criticism can be a healthy part of learning. Make sure it is measured and that you are providing yourself with constructive and realistic feedback.