Leaning to Action

Nuttin’ Like the First Cuppa Tay


Towards the latter years of her life, my great-grandmother lived with my grandmother in Cork City, Ireland. I remember as a young boy that she had a saying: “Dere’s nuttin’ like da first cuppa’ tay!” (Translation: “There’s nothing like the first cup of tea.”) And so, using her Irish logic, she chose a huge mug with which to enjoy that first tea in the morning… and so made it last longer.

I was reminded of my great-grandmother’s habit when I came across a study into what urges us to keep going. Apparently, researchers noticed that it is largely negative factors. In a paper in The Review of General Psychology, these researchers argue that bad inputs have a more powerful impact on us that good ones.

From this study, behavioural psychologist, Nir Eyal, in his book Indistractable, summarises four psychological factors that make our satisfaction temporary. These might answer the question: Why is there nothing like the first cup of tea in the morning?

These are:

  1. Boredom. We repeat something often enough and it becomes more tedious with each repetition. It spurs us to experiment. (Hat tip to Taylor Swift and her song, “Shake it Up”!)
  2. Negativity Bias, where our natural alertness to the down-sides help us seek safer, surer, easier alternatives. Fear can change what we do, but only temporarily
  3. Rumination, where we dwell on past negative events and outcomes. We can replay them in our minds over and over again. So, we seek a better outcome this time, and
  4. Hedonic Adaptation, the experience we all have that a pleasurable experience first time is less so as it is repeated. Like that first cup of tea, it wanes in pleasure with later cups. So, we return to the wisdom of Taylor Swift.

However, “Enough of the dark side,” I say.

I believe there are positive equivalents to these four that can maintain, even increase, our satisfaction and maybe even help motivate us to improve as well.

  • Instead of boredom, we can excite a sense of curiosity. For example, before reading any new book now, I write down three questions I want the author to answer. This helps me focus as I read, and it respects the way the human brain works, which seeks to close open loops (questions). Rather than starting a book with vague hopes, like “Impress me,” or “Entertain me,” I read hunting for clues. I give my mind permission to be curious.
  • Instead of giving in to a default negativity bias, I cultivate gratitude. In my daily journal, I hunt for three things for which I am grateful and explain to myself why I am thankful for them. As well as raising my level of emotional contentment—as it invariably does—this helps me in the present moment to contribute to tomorrow’s gratitude statements, such as while I am writing this article, for example. This too helps spur me on.
  • Instead of negative rumination, I practice what Cal Newport describes in Deep Work as savouring: allowing myself to remember and dwell upon a happy event or sensation. Such meditation spurs me to take actions such as put aside some cash for my family celebrations and holidays. I do this, because savouring helps me realise the bliss of those experiences with my loved ones.
  • And rather than giving in to hedonic adaptation, I take joy in the familiar, in the present moment. I encourage myself to laugh with family and friends. Joy rises in me when I am walking outdoors. And we all need to laugh more. Children get it. We adults have forgotten to laugh.
Ben White on Unsplash

So, maybe our defaults are negative, but we can exercise agency, by choosing consciously positive practices. These may need us to be a little more intentional, but these routines can help us sustain, or even increase, our levels of satisfaction , our physical and mental health, and motivate us to live fuller, richer lives.

So, if you identify with a lifestyle of boredom, negativity and fear, dwelling on past hurts and failures, and finding the familiar now somewhat less than exciting, you don’t have to buy a huge mug; just be more Taylor Swift!

The Seven Keys to Exceptional Work


This fourth edition of my ebook shares more on the Seven Keys to that I have discovered that lead to exceptional work and outcomes.

Leaning to Action Positive Outliers Resilient Hope

Starting Something Bigger than Us

Walter & His Dreams

Young Walter was born into this world as part of the elite. He was drilled in his family lineage and was taught how to steward the family fortune. He would go into another career, though, but his world view and life skills would travel with him.

Walter found favour with the king, and after paying the king a small fortune, he became Lord Chancellor. He was Chancellor for nine years before making another career change. He became a bishop.

Not unusual in those times, bishops were often political appointments from the aristocracy. He was appointed Bishop of Worcester for a couple of years, before taking the second-most-senior ecclesiastical title at that time, Archbishop of York. Walter had an even larger dream, though, larger than his own career. In 1220, work began. He began to build, in the Gothic style of the day, a cathedral. It would be such an edifice that he wouldn’t see it completed.

Sure enough, thirty years later, Walter died…

… and four centuries later York Minster was completed!

Forgive me, if you are a historian and indulge me in my historical fiction of Walter de Gray’s early years. But let me ask you this question …

What kind of person would embark on this kind of enterprise?

And what kind of people would continue with the dream until it was realised, so many generations later?

I’m fascinated by the minds behinds historic monuments, edifices that sometimes take generations to complete.

There is even an example happening right now. The beautiful Sagrada Familia in Barcelona will not be complete until 2026 or later, and its original architect, Gaudi, died in 1926 when it was only a quarter completed!

Why would Gaudi and his contemporaries commit to such a project?

By C messier – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

And there are other examples. The Great Wall of China, the pyramids, Petra, and most of the ancient wonders of the world.

The poor, the middle class & the wealthy

I have been studying the work of Dr Ruby K Payne, a remarkable Texan educationalist, who began to unravel the mystery of why poor kids do so badly in school systems designed from in a Middle-Class mindset. In her, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, she sets out the differences in three mindsets:

  • Poverty Mindset
  • Middle Class Mindset
  • The Wealthy Mindset

The attitude to money and financial horizons of each mindset is a particularly interesting one to me. This is part of a table Ruby Payne shares in her book, abridged by me:

PoorMiddle ClassWealthy
Spending & PaydaySaving & End of LifeInvesting and Generational Legacy

The Poor

The Poverty Mindset sees money as something to be spent for almost immediate gratification or pain-relief, so the horizon tends to be when the next payday comes. The horizon of focus is now.

Moreover, living in a community of need, having money sometimes means it must be given to those in the community who have greater immediate needs. The needs of friends and family, who are vital relationships among the poor, regularly work against putting money away for later.

The Middle Class

The Middle-Class Mindset in a different way is much more selfish, although it has the appearance of prudence. Money is saved, is put by for retirement into a pension pot or a 401K. The focus is on providing for ourselves until we die. Many of the decisions made from this mindset are also made from an awareness of scarcity.

The Wealthy

The Wealthy Mindset, or as I prefer to call it, the Noble Mind, invests for others. (Note: I have avoided the term Wealth Mindset because of its unhelpful associations with being or becoming financially rich. Whereas, the Noble Mind alludes to an ancient way of thinking from inheritance and the responsibility to leave a legacy.)

The Noble Mind thinks generationally, both from an inheritance from past generations and for future generations. It has a sense of noblesse oblige from its inheritance and sees itself having a purpose greater than itself.

So, it is a Noble Mind that decides to build a cathedral. It is a Noble Mind that continues to build even after the original entrepreneur or architect is no longer with us. Walter de Gray had a Noble Mind. Gaudi may have had a Noble Mind. Those who continued after them had, to some degree, a Noble Mind.

How do these mindsets play out in the present pandemic?

The pandemic and countermeasures such as lockdown, as well as the emotional reactions we all have to this threat, tempt us to become emotional survivalists: people who think only of ourselves and the horizon of when this will be all over.

Fear tends to drive us towards a Poverty Mindset.

This is situational, short-term, selfish thinking. It is either a poverty or a middle-class mindset. Fear tends to drive us towards a Poverty Mindset. Many of the us-and-them narratives feed a Middle Class world view, and these stories we plug into keep us in scarcity thinking.

The Opportunity

And yet.. in the neighbourhood where I live, I have seen the rise of a kind of care and generosity that I hadn’t experienced before. Neighbours have offered to go shopping for us, plus a multitude of other kindnesses.

I find it exciting that, for some of us, this time is an opportunity to do this; to remember where we have come from, to recognise what we have, and rethink our futures, our horizons and our dreams for this world.

Climate Change

When it comes to the big issues of global sustainability, for example, we do not need initiatives driven by scarcity thinking:
“Time is running out!” “It may already be too late!”
Rather we need a realistic hope, a Stockdale hope. We need to train our young people to innovate with a Noble Mind, drawing upon what we leave them, rather than focusing on what we lack or have consumed.


In Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game, he argues that organisations rallying to a Just Cause, to a purpose that is greater than any of us, are likely to prevail far longer than competitive, me too responses so common in business and politics.

When it comes to building businesses, we need leaders who are aware of their need to create missions bigger than themselves, their products, or their services; longer, even, than their lifetimes that make a real difference for future generations.


When it comes to crafting government policy, we need leaders who will lift our eyes to a better future, not driven by the mass media optics of the moment or the short-termism of considering the next electoral cycle. And as we think with a Noble Mind, we might recognise and find such leaders and perhaps vote for them.

What is your just cause? What’s your dream? Is it bigger than you and your lifetime? If it is, bless you.

Leaning to Action Positive Outliers Self-Awareness

What’s So Sacred About 90 Days?

One to the recent contributors in the conversations on how to live well who has caught my attention is Dr Benjamin Hardy. I’ve got two of his books: Personality Isn’t Permanent and Who Not How. He impresses me with his fresh thinking about how we live to our potential in these crazy days.

In a recent post, he lists among his thirty maxims:

Focus on 90-day sprints rather than New Year’s Resolutions.

I agree that New Year Resolutions are a poor idea, with disappointing data, despite the practice being firmly ingrained in our popular culture.

Also, at first sight …. 90-day sprints…that sounds like a good period. It is a three-month cycle, which, if you live in latitudes where there are four seasons, it is broadly equivalent to one of those seasons. It is conveniently easy to review in quarterly chunks.

But why 90-days?

Why is this period, intrinsically of value? The calendar month is, in itself, a fairly arbitrary division of clock-time, as David Kadavy describes it in Mind Management NOT Time Management.

I am suspicious of simply taking months or aggregations of months as received wisdom for the best frequency to set goals and to review. However, periodic reviews longer than a week are important. Without them, we can drift for vast periods of our lives.

Meaningful Sprints

The concept of sprint comes from Agile project practices such as Scrum. In that context, where a small team works rapidly on changes, conventions in software engineering emerged quickly of periods of a month or less, often as short as 5 days. Each sprint would end with reviewing the results with the customer on a test system. Each sprint is collected into a group of consecutive sprints of say 6, where there would be an aim to release a new live version at the end of that group.

What is sensible as a sprint for our internal projects? That is hard to say and is a matter of context. Some of us do not have much discretionary time, so the key is to keep ourselves accountable for periodic self-review against our dreams and goals.

However, 90 days is not sacred, and for some of us, does not give us enough challenge to act now.

Practising Until It Becomes a Habit

I was raised a Roman Catholic. Each Lent I gave up something. For example, as a teenager, I once I decided to give up milk in my coffee. This is an insignificant thing in and of itself, you might think, but it taught me something about forming habits. Coming out of Lent, I no longer cared for milk in my coffee and have taken it black ever since. This, along with several other examples, taught me that forty days could be used a period to permanently shift things, big or small, in my habits, my thinking, my ways of operating.

Recent research has shown that various periods of claim habit change, whether it be 12 days, 21 days, 1 month––each do not stand up to scrutiny. Doing something for these periods does not always produce a permanent change in people. I suppose there are a number of factors, not least the nature of the practice itself.

Forty days occurs frequently in ancient literature as a period of great significance: the prophet Elijah needed forty days to prepare him to shift a fairly negative persecution complex; Jesus began his public adult ministry by immediately taking forty days in the wilderness. There were forty days between the resurrection of Christ and his Ascension into heaven. In the Western church, Lent, the preparation for Easter, lasts for forty days.

And so, I been practising 40/42 day reviews. In many respects, this period is better for me than 90 days.

All I can testify personally, as a rule-of-thumb, for most disciplines I want to adopt, 40-day consistent practice helps them stick so that they become a habit for me.

Scheduling and a 40-day Review

Now, Managing a 40-day review cycle is a little more tricky. Forty days doesn’t fit the standard calendar we all live and work by, and so requires a little more work to organise.

Forty days plus two days of review and adjustment are six weeks, which is a lot easier to schedule ahead, and it helps synchronise this with our weekly cycles.

I use an online app called Roam Research to help me do this; but with a little effort, most calendar apps can alert us to how much time there is toward the end of our current forty-day sprint.

I find that forty days has a powerful effect on the review cycle I talked about in my earlier post on Backwards Thinking.

There are two major areas that we would want to review:

  1. Our habits, existing ones that are not working for us and what we have established as new ones.
  2. Our personal projects and their outcomes.

So now, as part of my Personal Operating System, I build in six-weekly reviews. So, Ben, I would respectfully recommend 6-weekly reviews, with the emphasis on review.

Leaning to Action Positive Outliers Self-Awareness

A Portal of Possibilities

Photo by Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash

In my post last week, I went down memory lane and confessed to one of my worst recruitment blunders. This week, I’m still stuck in the past or, as I’d like to think, I’m still learning from my early career experiences. This week, I want to share how captivated I became with what was then a piece of newish technology.

The Portal Opens

Sometimes a new technology opens up new creative, sometimes disruptive possibilities of expression. For example, in the 14th Century, Gutenberg’s invention of moveable metal type began to free people to publish at scales and distribute work previously impeded by the establishment: first, the Bible in the native language of the people, and then a spiritual call-to-arms in the form of Luther’s Ninety-Nine Theses. Such literature was read up and down the land in taverns, outside of the controlled environments of church buildings. By 14th century standards, you could say these works went viral.

I had this experience first with access to my first WIMP computer, an Apple II. WIMP is an acronym for Windows, Icons, Mouse and Pointer. The WIMP user interface is so ubiquitous now, that we have stopped using this acronym. But at that time, most computers had nothing else but a keyboard and you typed all instructions.  Using technology originally pioneered at the Xerox Palo Alto Laboratories, it was Apple that first made this user interface popular. Previously, I had only used this on a $25,000 workstation.

The most popular software application, the ‘killer app’ on the Apple II is a surprise for many milennials: it was called VisiCalc (for “visible calculator”)., which was the first spreadsheet application for personal computers.

By Wikipedia User: Gortu –, Public Domain,

We now use spreadsheets for modelling all kinds of possibilities. For some of us, it is our go-to tool. 

“What PC would you like?”

Then I was recruited by another organisation to set up and grow an IT development team, at a time when my IT Director was about to review with me the market for networked workstations, that is, desktops that were approaching the capabilities of what we know as desktops today. This was 1986, so these technologies were still emergent. So, my director asked me what PC I wanted to rent in the meantime. This may sound quaint and ancient to millennials today, but I asked for an Apple Macintosh 128K.

Launched two years earlier, it was a state of the art PC. For us, it was a thing of wonder and beauty. 

The Orignal Apple MacIntosh launched in 1984

My Macintosh came with two additional programs. First, MacProject allowed me to enter project information and immediately I could see the impact of my data as a Gantt chart. Up until that time, I would print off the chart to see the results of any changes to estimates or time delays. Seeing the results on the screen, this immediately made my life as a project portfolio manager so much easier.

A Screenshot of a MacProject Pert Diagram

But my favourite piece of software emerged as MacDraw, a simple drawing tool. I was able to create visual concepts for my project sponsors that made sense to them. It would be another ten years before I was able to achieve the same thing with a desktop using Microsoft Windows.

It would be another ten years before I could reproduce on a Windows machine what I could do on my Apple MacIntosh.
A Screenshot from MacDraw

So often, it is easier to communicate concepts visually, particularly where there is an emergent capability from a number of projects. These diagrams gave my fellow senior managers such confidence in my projects that I even discovered one senior user kept his pinned diagram on his wall to explain to others.

Art is visionary and vision is often best communicated visually. The clue is in the name: vision.

We draw, not so much to copy images but to show the world as we see it or as it might become.

All of this new technology was wonderful stuff. Those were heady days when the technology couldn’t help but draw attention to itself.

However, there was one major problem. In my pursuit of productivity in one area, I lost it in another. Although I was learning to focus, I was also realising that I had to review the landscape of my life regularly. After all, I was like a farmer. There were other matters on my farm to attend.

But more of that in my next post.

A free course that takes you through the workflows of how I use bullet journaling for my Daily Heads Up, Gratitude List, Weekly and Monthly reviews.

Leaning to Action Positive Outliers

The Rise of the Portfolio Creator

In my previous article, Living Like a Farmer, I explored the idea that many of us do not have a single job, but many.

The Portfolio Worker

In the 1980s, the Irish management consultant, Charles Handy, began to explore idea of portfolio workers. In works like The Empty Raincoat, he saw an emergent reality where more and more of us would have a series of jobs, sometimes simultaneously.

I was speaking with a friend earlier this week who works with a charity close to my heart. He is now retired from working in a major business. He had worked there all his life. The company had changed as units were sold off or when it merged with other major firms. But, through it all, he had essentially worked for the same organisation.

And he agreed that his career history is highly unusual today.

It is increasingly rare that someone works their whole life for one organisation. Portfolio working is now the new normal.

At one time, white-collar workers might expect to be with one employer all of their lives. “Work hard, and the company will take care of you,” was the advice of my elders when I left school.

Not now. Now, having one enduring employer throughout one’s working life seems like a strange historical blip.

And it is not as though keep the same role or profession as we flit from company to company. More and more, for most of us, work will not be a single career.

Our work morphs. It jumps. It multiplies.

Creating Your Own Job

In my own journey, there was another dynamic on top of all this. Nothing prepared me for a career where every job I was recruited to do after college was to a role new to my employer as well! Very early on, not only did I have to adapt to moving to a new organisation, but I had to create each role for myself. It was down to me to work out what the job entailed. I had to work out how to do that job in such a way that I had to explore what success really meant for my employer or my client.

There was one exception to this: in my second job after leaving college, I was recruited into a vacancy left by another. However, in that case, the job of IT analyst, soon morphed into something else as technology opened up new opportunities.

And it seems to get even more complex. Not only is retaining the role appearing like a vanishing option for those starting a career but so is continuous full-time employment. Some of us are only now catching onto this reality, this new normal. 

This creates a huge challenge. the employment I imagined was where I would be trained to do one job, do it well, and be promoted; and in due course, I could retire with a healthy pension. In fact, I found this same naïveté amongst all my employers. Each and every organisation was set up with a standard induction plan and training courses. But these fell far short of what I actually needed.

There was nothing else for it; I had to learn on the job, without much in the way of formal training and development. I was a portfolio worker, but nobody told me how to do it. Now, I had to work out my own salvation: what it meant to survive and then thrive as a portfolio worker. This meant I had to become something deeper still: a Portfolio Creator.

The Portfolio Creator

Creating your own portfolio and creating within it

Looking back now, this challenge of learning what my own job meant, shaping it, and developing my own skills, has been a wonderful preparation. It forced me out of routine working to confront some basics of mission, values, different workflows and significant relationships. It taught me to look deeper than content or technology, to the universal principles of professional service. I realised that many of us are more than workers. We are creators.

Maybe social historians of the future will look back at our era and call this the Rise of the Portfolio Creators.

I worked on myself. I became my own training department and I put together a powerful approach to self-leadership. I began to share these with clients. I have put much of it into a book called Leading Yourself: Succeeding from the Inside Out. Coaching others has helped me get further clarity on this.

How about you?

Do you recognise yourself as a Portfolio Creator?

Are you still confused with all this talk of “time management” (as if you could control time)?

Or what about “work-life balance?”When did your work become excluded from your life?

I will share more on this in another article.

Meanwhile, you can order the Leading Yourself paperback here at a discounted price.

Leaning to Action Positive Outliers Self-Awareness

Living Like a Farmer

Every now and then someone makes a remark or an observation about me that resonates. In fact, sometimes, there is such weight on the remark that it amplifies over time, down through the years.

Such was the case about thirty years ago. My aunt and uncle were visiting us in Oxford on an extended trip around the UK from Canada. My late aunt asked about my work, and what I actually did. At that time I was in transition, really trying to make sense of my working life, just about to leave full-time paid employment to go freelance as a business consultant.

“It sounds like you are a farmer,” she said.

It sounds like you are a farmer

My aunt went on to explain. She had grown up on the family farm in Lincolnshire. It was a mixed farm of livestock and arable farming. Each evening, my grandfather would decide what he, his family and his farmworkers would do the next day.

Depending on the season and the situation, decisions were sometimes easy. For example, if one of the cows looked like calving, it was obvious that the next few hours would revolve around the vet and his assessment. Likewise with harvest time, what he had to do was time-driven and weather-dependant.

Other times, though, the freedom he had meant that important priorities were less obvious. A fence needed mending. Should they see to it tomorrow, or leave it until later? If there were goats in the field, it was clearly urgent: goats escape or eat their way through any boundary if they can.

And it wasn’t just maintenance. Farm economies went through some radical changes in the mid-twentieth century with the coming and aftermath of the Second World War, where it became strategically vital that the nation was as near self-sufficient in food as possible. I wasn’t aware of it, but rationing was still in force in the UK when I was born.

So, my grandfather needed to scan the horizon to see how the longer-term prospects changed. It might mean a shift to another form of income. And income needed to be budgeted across the year. Farm work was more labour-intensive in that generation, with at least a handful of farmworkers employed and housed on every farm.

Daily Decisions

And here’s part of why this resonated with me: many of us are now shifting to a form of working where we need multiple revenue streams, and daily we are called to make choices about what we work on next.

At one level, my work seems far from farming. I’m a business coach and writer. Yet, my aunt was right: there are more similarities my work to being a farmer, as I lead myself through the myriad of daily choices in my work, than perhaps first meets the eye.

How about you?

We sow our own kind of seeds, we harvest, we buy stock, we take our produce to market, we learn the rhythms of our market seasons, but also we tune in to the times, when all may seem well now, but there are opportunities to be gained from moving into work areas unknown to our ancestors, and risks to staying with the current operations.

Maybe, in this sense, most of us are now more like farmers., what has come to be called portfolio workers.

What is a portfolio worker? Well, I will explore this further in a later article. For now, though, I need to work on something else on my farm…

Photo by Bec Ritchie on Unsplash

A free course that takes you through the workflows of how I use bullet journaling for my Daily Heads Up, Gratitude List, Weekly and Monthly reviews.

Leaning to Action Leaning to People Positive Outliers Self-Awareness

Will you change your story?

I was with my teenage grandson walking along the Thames Southbank and we came upon the Globe Theatre, a wonderful re-creation of the original Elizabethan theatre that premiered many of the plays of Shakespeare, and we decided to take a guided tour.

Towards the end of our tour, the guide explained how in Shakespeare’s day there was a huge appetite — an industry in fact –- for plays, with something like 120 plays being performed in the Globe each year. I remarked that this was like the current phenomenon of major TV and network channels producing more series, in what seems like a veritable arms race between Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV, the BBC, HBO etc. And our guide agreed.

We love stories. There is something ingrained in every human that pays attention to a good story. For example, Jesus taught the public solely in stories, much to the frustration of the religious establishment of his day. 

Something in a recent podcast by Jeff Goins resonated with me deeply. It was his episode entitled Instead of Setting Goals, Tell a New Story. In brief, here are a few points Jeff makes:

  • At this time of year, maybe the best way to review things is not goal-setting – although there is nothing wrong with that.
  • Nor is it about setting new year resolutions[Note: I suspect if you have set them on January 1st, it is unlikely you are still keeping them all as you read this. Be honest! You’re not, are you?]
  • Instead, he explains that we are all living our story. 
  • Although it might feel uncomfortable, the turn of the year is a good time to look back on the year just gone, and consider what didn’t work, and what we might learn from that.
  • These lessons from last year’s experience might indicate that I need to change the story I am telling myself or living within.

As I explain in my work on stakeholder engagement – helping change leaders turn disinterest, apathy and sometimes downright hostility into favour, ownership and success – that storytelling is a key tool to getting and maintaining people’s attention.

There is an appetite for a good story deeply encoded in all of us.

Somehow, as we are growing up, we believe the lie from our peers – usually when we are trying to be adult – that we have grown out of stories. “Stories are for children, not for grownups.” 

What nonsense! 

So, what story am I telling myself?

Sometimes a major personal trauma helps us realise that we cannot or should not live the story we have been telling ourselves. A divorce leaves an at-home mum realising her life no longer revolves around the man who cheated on her. The widow realises that her sudden bereavement changes everything, so she gives herself permission to live another story. A loyal manager is told by his company that it has now decided to “let him go;” after his anger and his grief have abated somewhat, he realises that he now has a kind of freedom. He allows himself to live another story.

We do not need to wait for life to change our circumstances. We can change our story. Now.

Maybe we do each live out our own story.  We are the hero of our own story, as Jeff Goins pointed out. But perhaps that story isn’t the best version of us that we could live. Maybe we do need a better story. Maybe the Hero needs a bolder or different quest.

What do you think? Leave your comments. Tell me your story.

Photo by David Anderson on Unsplash

Leaning to Action Self-Awareness Writing

The Creative Heartbeat

The creative heart has a rhythm of expanding and contracting. 

When it expands, it creates possibilities, generating ideas, divergent in its thinking, exploring, and pursuing some even further. When it contracts, it is evaluating, assessing, honing, editing, eliminating, critiquing. 

Divergence and convergence.

In any given moment, we do one or the other. 

The mistake that creatives, innovators, designers and project managers make is that they confuse the two at the same moment. This is the equivalent in creativity to a cardiac arrest.

There is a heartbeat to creativity. Creating and critiquing at the time is equivalent to a cardiac arrest.

For example, consider this piece that you are reading right now. I drafted it, and then I came back and edited it. I used to draft and edit at the same time. I did this because I felt unable to risk producing something truly awful. So I allowed my Inner Critic to be criticising me all the time. Over time, I learned to either draft or edit, but never at the same time. I learned to tell the Inner Critic to go away for now and I will risk producing poor work. I now realise that I needed to develop this self-awareness during the authoring process.

I have seen this pattern of divergences and convergence as well in product development as part of projects and programmes. The more successful projects have had this rhythm or tempo of development and then testing or assurance, never both at the same time. It’s a heartbeat. At the personal or team level this beat of divergence and then convergence can last a few hours or a couple of weeks.

At the overall programme level, it can last several months, where different part of the capability and built then tested, where each operational unit goes through their own testing, then commissioning. At that moment, it can look confusing, but it has an order to it.

It’s up to leaders to make sense of this for everybody. A good leader explains what’s going on and why we can’t do both things at once.

Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

Leaning to Action Leaning to People Positive Outliers

Margin is a Change Issue

A few years ago, I was called in to consult for a large IT transformation programme in healthcare. It concerned a large teaching hospital over a number of sites across a major city. The change would be so radical to current working practices that the systems provider had even built a simulated ward where the people who worked in that hospital could experience the new system and appreciate how radically different work would be after this change.

In itself, this was a powerful visionary tool. Healthcare workers could try this simulation to experience for themselves how much better life would be for themselves and, as a consequence, for the patients they treated. It was using the principles of agile development, where you give the customer an early taste of what they could have so that they can make informed choices about the details of the new product. It acknowledged that people need to experience before they can engage proactively in what they want.

The programme was now entering a critical phase. There was barely a year before the hospital would be switched over to the new system.

You have a problem…

However, there was a problem. As I interviewed them, none of the leaders of this change in the hospital had ever visited this simulation.

As I dug deeper, I discovered that all of the leaders were chronically time-poor. Even without the change, for most of them, their other workloads were rising. Other than attending the monthly meeting on the programme, they had zero capacity to engage with the change, let alone make it a priority in their work. Few seemed to have any solutions to delegating out some of their work to create margin.

And as I probed, I discovered it got even worse. The people below these senior managers and clinical leads, the people who would be expected to learn and operate the new system – the clinicians, paramedics and administrators – had no hope of finding the time to make this change as well as running a busy hospital network.

I felt there was a kind of collective denial. It was as if everything was expected from the supplier and that at the switch over, everything should run smoothly without any involvement from them. Some of the more political members of the leadership team I suspected were expecting the change to fail, so they did not want to be associated with it too closely.

It was a car crash waiting to happen. The programme manager was frustrated with his inability to get through to his customers. It risked all the investment they had made in the programme to that point (three years in).

Lack of time margins add up

This is where time, energy and space margins for each of us as individuals cumulatively impact the margin an organisation has or doesn’t have for its own change and development.

We can plan the most elegant change, using the most progressive approaches, such as this ward simulation, but if the stakeholder receiving it does not have the margins needed for transitioning to the new, then at best it will falter, at worst fail.

So, the prerequisites for change in the organisation receiving the change are almost more important than how the change itself is planned and presented.

Photo by Francisco Venancio on Unsplash

Leaning to Action Positive Outliers Self-Awareness

For the Love of Work

Photo by Michel Stockman on Unsplash

When a friend invited my wife and me for lunch recently, I had the opportunity to talk more deeply with another guest, a friend of mine called Mike who, among other things, invents electronic gadgets.

However, Mike is different. He describes himself as retired, but his love of working on technical challenges in his workshop was palpable and infectious. He is a quiet man, and he shared with me what he is working on.

My mind quickly returned to the potential rewards of his inventions, but Mike was content simply to invent. He didn’t want, he explained, the irritation and stress of attempting to patent and defend his patents. He just loved to work in his workshop. His reward was being allowed to work. His motivation was not financial.

For the last few posts, I have been focusing on dreams, desired outcomes, and on the motivation that comes from imagining those outcomes as reality. In so much of business writing, success is assumed to be financial. But what if there is another reward to work, not focused on financial rewards and threats?

The influential psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes Mike’s state of being as Flow. The indicative criterion for flow is pursuing work for its own sake, not for the reward it brings. There is a transcendent fulfilment in work when we experience flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi.

Now, pause for a moment.

How do you find yourself reacting as you read this?

  • Is all this totally foreign to you? Have you never experienced work that was a pleasure in and of itself to do?
  • Or do you read this with all kinds of ‘yebbuts’ rising in you? “Yebbut, this is unrealistic!” “Yebbut, in the real world…” 
  • Do you feel work is only legitimate if has a clear consequential reward at the end or avoids some key risk, or else it is just frivolous indulgence?
  • Or does your heart resonate with Mike’s working lifestyle?

According to Susan Cain, in her best-seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, your response may have as much to do with whether or not you are an introvert, as it has to with your background and current circumstances. She writes:

If you’re an introvert, find your flow by using your gifts. You have the power of persistence, the tenacity to solve complex problems, and the clear-sightedness to avoid pitfalls that trip others up.

Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Photo by Matthew Fournier on Unsplash

Craig Lambert, the world-class rower, describes this in his autobiography this way:

Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.  Rowers have a word for this frictionless state: swing. . . . Recall the pure joy of riding on a backyard swing: an easy cycle of motion, the momentum coming from the swing itself.  The swing carries us; we do not force it.  We pump our legs to drive our arc higher, but gravity does most of the work.  We are not so much swinging as being swung. The boat swings you.  The shell wants to move fast: speed sings in its lines and nature.  Our job is simply to work with the shell, to stop holding it back with our thrashing struggles to go faster.  Trying too hard sabotages boat speed.  Trying becomes striving and striving undoes itself.  Social climbers strive to be aristocrats but their efforts prove them no such thing.  Aristocrats do not strive; they have already arrived. Swing is a state of arrival.

Mind Over Water: Lessons on a Life from the Art of Rowing

Maybe the key, then, is not so much to abandon any attempt to imagine the desired outcome but rather to work as if you have already arrived.

The Seven Keys to Exceptional Work
The Seven Keys eBook

The Seven Keys eBook

Revealing the Seven Key Areas that High Performers Pay Attention