Personal Margin Positive Outliers

When Work Speeds Up

Often, at its best, comedy is incisive, describing aspects about ourselves that we might be too afraid, or busy, to think about. Such is the case with this classic comedy moment, from the I Love Lucy, TV series of the 1950s and ’60s:

Why is this comedy moment from over 60 years ago still so funny? 

For me, it describes a dynamic in my life. I get productive. I develop skill at it. And then life speeds up, making a fool of me.

Unless we are living as victims, most of us who attempt to self-manage our lives respond immediately by getting busier, sometimes by learning to be more productive. If there’s more work to be done, we learn how to speed up.

Productivity is the lure, but it is a dangerous one. 

When we are too busy, productivity is the lure, but it is a dangerous one.

There is a road less travelled.


How about doing the opposite of taking on more, but build in margins into our lives? Rather than becoming more productive by speeding up, how about taking away a few commitments? 

I was taught by a great coach that if I say Yes to something, what are the other things I am saying No to that this Yes will displace?

Saying No to one’s own appetite to embrace multiple roles is crucial for the Portfolio Creator. I used a farming metaphor to illustrate our lives as portfolio creators. The farmer is frequently letting some fields lie fallow, clearing some ground for fresh crops or for allowing for storage. They manage their farm’s capacity that way. This is thinking with margin in mind. All the land does not need to be productive at once. It can’t be.

The same holds true in our lives.

Three Margins

In my book, Leading Yourself: Succeeding from the Inside Out, I cover three areas of my life where I must build in a margin:

  • Time
  • Space
  • Energy

There are others, of course, such as financial margin. It’s not wise to live without savings. We need something for when the unexpected arises,  a rainy day, as we say. 

The best kind of project manager always allows a time margin. So should we. When I was a project management consultant, it was easy for me to see how the optimism bias worked in teams, where people always estimated the best-case scenario. So, when some unexpected problem arose, there was no time available to deal with it. The project slipped.

Also, I’m feeling very virtuous as I was in the gym this morning. Time in the gym is building my energy margin, as does healthy sleeping and eating patterns. I do better work when I have energy margins to draw upon. And it’s not just a trade-off between time spent in the gym for energy; I find I am hugely more productive and alert when I exercise.

As for spatial margins, I work best when there is not a lot of clutter in my way. There is a need for physical space that is clear to work, as is the electronic space. I was assembling an IKEA coat rack last week, and I needed adequate floor space to do this. This kind of spatial need presents itself all the time our work, but we do not always recognise it.

So try this…

Over the next week: 

  • block out time, not to do more, but to provide for the volatile and uncertain and complicated life we all lead. Leave your calendar or diary with space in reserve.
  • Instead of adding in tasks, begin to prune existing ones; take them away.
  • Go deeper, ask yourself: Which projects, roles or areas should I step down from, at least for now?

Then write to me in the comments below and tell me what happened. (You’re welcome.)

Make your margin call. 

Did I hear someone cry, “Speed it up!” 

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Leaning to People Personal Margin Self-Awareness

When I Made a Recruitment Blunder

One of my biggest mistakes in recruiting somebody was early when I recruited a young man, straight out of school, as a COBOL programmer. The warning sign at his interview was his reply when I asked him where he saw his work taking him:

I would like your job. I’d like to sit in an office all day and order other people around.

I smiled inwardly but at the end of the interview decided to give him a chance anyway(!). I hoped that life would quickly knock this sense of entitlement out of him as well as showing him the reality of my role as a manager.

How wrong I was.

With hindsight, I should have heeded that comment as a warning sign. After investing significantly in that young man with intensive training in the early weeks with us, he left soon afterwards for a better offer with his new qualifications, with no sense of obligation to those who had built into him.

I took several lessons from this, but what I want to explore here was his understanding of management.

What is Management?

I think management is an over-used word in the world of work.

We talk about financial management. Fair enough. We need to manage our resources. Asset management? Of course. Venue management? That makes sense as well.

But what about time management?

We live and work in time, so how can we manage it? That’s like asking a fish to do water management. Fish swim, yes. But they don’t control the water.

And how about human resource management and stakeholder management?

When we use the language of management, it is a small step to deluding ourselves that we can control others and as a manager that is what we are supposed to do. In doing so, we reduce human beings to resources, cogs in the machine,  or foot soldiers in the war effort. Choose your dehumanising metaphor. 

With stakeholder management, how would you like to be managed by someone who is in another team or even in another organisation? Which is why I prefer the term stakeholder engagement or, better still, people engagement.

If management is the ordering or control of something, then, without resorting to some form of tyranny over others, the only person I can only truly control the behaviour of is … me.

The only person you can and should control is yourself.

I can coach you. I can counsel you. I might try to persuade you. I might even model to you what I would like you to do. I could even rebuke you, argue with you, or withdraw from you; but I can’t truly manage you – unless I am a prison warden, the manager of an orphanage, or a tyrant. I can invite you to do things, but that is not essentially management. That is leadership, not management.

Deprivation of freedom is a kind of punishment. We call it imprisonment. That is what many managers seek to do.

Many subscribe to the economic transaction that if the employer pays them well enough, then the organisation ‘owns’ them for a big part of their life –– or all of it — until they are released.

Research has shown that children who learn to control themselves at an early age position themselves for success later on in life. However, quite a lot of parenting is for the convenience of the parent and enforces control.

When it comes to others around us, our colleagues, our team, line reports, we do well when we empower them and encourage them. See my post on releasing autonomy, for example. One of the leaders in my local church says,

We are not building a big church, but big people.

And there is plenty of evidence that they are succeeding, without controlling or manipulating people. People are becoming powerful in realising who they already are.

However, leading free people can be a bigger challenge than leading slaves. Being the master of a slave ship is so much easier. So many people revert to control.

The Damage of Managing People

So, when we coerce, control and dictate, we deny others their freedom and creative autonomy. When we override the wishes of others, we may get compliance, but we lose something greater and far more valuable.

We risk losing loyalty and a greater creative cohesion to a common cause. We risk losing the synergy that comes from other free individuals adding their creative fresh perspectives. When portfolio creators come together, usually something amazing and generous happens.

What About Self-Management?

I have come to realise that it is the only form of people management that is both defensible and appropriate – desirable even – is self-management. But more on that in another post.

What are your thoughts on this? Leave a comment below.

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Personal Margin Positive Outliers Resilient Hope Self-Awareness

Thanksgiving as a Lifestyle

Preface: As you read this, you may think this article is posted a week late. Please read on.

Outside of the USA, most countries do not celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday. And here in the UK, there is a particular suspicion over American holidays. (For example, we Brits have mixed feelings at best about the Independence Day holiday.) However, for the last two years, some friends of ours have invited my wife and me, along with other friends and families, to their Thanksgiving meal. This is unusual because our friends are also British.

Why is this? Well, they say,

“Thanksgiving is like having Christmas, but with people you like.” 

So, we have a great time enjoying each other’s company, playing games, overindulging in delicious food. Then there is that moment where we go around the table, young and old, each saying what we are grateful for this year; it’s a special moment.

Now, I’m sure you have received emails from American suppliers, as I have, who have written messages at this time as to why they are thankful for you, their customer.

However, I have come to value thanksgiving as a lifestyle. I give thanks all the time. I realise it is just good mental health.

A key practice for me is my Gratitude List, that I add to every day during my daily work planning. I write it on the opposite page to my Daily Heads-Up. You can find out more about the Gratitude List in my daily routine in

Over time, I have become aware that this daily practice has contributed to some important, benefits. Here are a few of them:

  • It balances my natural tendency to look for the negative. This is called the negativity bias and is an important survival mechanism, where I scan my environment for threats. We all have this bias. This may be natural, but if left unchecked, it can colour our view of life. When we allow ourselves to live in chronic negativity then this can lead to depression, or worse. The emotional mood music of our lives can become dysfunctional, anxious and over-cautious. Rampant negativity can make any otherwise healthy hope feel downright ridiculous.
  • Since keeping a daily gratitude list, I notice more positive experiences, that I might not have given due thought to, even less have taken a moment to celebrate.
  • I dwell on these positive experiences more deliberately now. As I do, I find something shifts in me. My heart becomes more positive and generous. I am more hopeful, less likely to be overwhelmed by any negativity that I may encounter.
  • As I hold myself to this daily practice, it makes me hunt for the positive. Sure, there are some days, I cannot think of three positive experiences from the day before, but then I lift my thoughts to the more long-term factors that I enjoy, such as a marriage to a truly wonderful woman, as well as friends and family that I really do not deserve.
  • I find myself in interesting conversations with God, to whom I give thanks for it all.
  • Bréne Brown describes a phenomenon she discovered in her research interviews that she calls foreboding joy. I recognise this psychodynamic in me when I had felt some moment of joy. And then, almost immediately, the thought comes, ‘but this won’t last; I will have to pay for it.’ As I hold myself accountable for giving thanks daily by writing it down, I can now recognise this and I laugh at this lie. It’s weakening. It still comes back occasionally, but it is losing the battle to occupy space in my thinking.
  • Overall, I realise that my emotional worldview has shifted from the negative to the positive. My lens has changed, from ‘What should I be worried about?’ to ‘What are blessings am I not noticing?’ This could be described as a personal paradigm shift or a change in my confirmation bias.

I wholeheartedly recommend making thanksgiving a lifestyle. It changes everything.

Do you agree? Do you do something similar? Let me know.

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

Leaning to People Personal Margin Positive Outliers

Are We Creating a Matrix Body Farm?

The best fiction is often a compelling allegory or parable of reality.

The best fiction is often a compelling allegory or parable of reality. In the movie The Matrix, we see our hero, Neo, becoming confused by strange aberrations to his normal dull existence, until one day he is confronted by a choice, to take the red pill and find out, or the blue pill and everything becomes usual and familiar again. Morpheus says to him,

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

The Matrix

Neo takes the red pill and the nightmare appears to begin. He sees reality, and it is shocking. He and other human beings being farmed for their energy, whilst unwittingly thinking they are living normal lives.

This is, I believe, a good parable of what we have done with some traditional management approaches. We have been reduced to parts of a machine. We feel we must follow the process to function and so be of value to the system. When we are no longer useful, we can be dispensed with and retired.

In a previous article, I explored the phenomenon in human relationships where positives attract; that is, where genuine positive regard for others is often a surprising means of influence. This is a strange phenomenon, where the physics of human relationships are the opposite of those in the material world.

If positives attract in human relationships, then the negatives ones drain.

Where scarcity is acute in organisations, the culture shifts towards task orientation and away from serving people. People in that organisation, begin to experience undue stress and it damages relationships around them. This erosion of relationships becomes particularly mission-critical in service organisations, where valuable clues are picked up by serving the customer well.

When the culture shifts in service organisations away from serving to meeting targets, relationships suffer.

Here in the UK, I see this in public sector schools, as well as in the state-funded National Health Service. The drive to maximise the use of these scarce resources by central government departments expresses itself in adding more exacting targets and micro-controls on the practitioner.

The public education systems seem to distract the focus of the teacher from helping their students. The teacher has increasing demands to satisfy operational targets. They seek to meet their external targets, write reports, and so on. They no longer have the time and energy margins to craft learning paths tailored for each child.

Highly-trained physicians can only give 10-minute surgery appointments, 20-minutes if you are depressed(!). Fewer and fewer general practitioners can bear the demands of working fulltime. Nurses who began their careers from some sense of wanting to care for the sick and vulnerable, now see themselves in a stressed system that exhausts them and makes them ill. Sick leave and vacancy rates rise as career lengths shorten.

The culture of many target-driven organisations becomes quite toxic.

Yet more policy measures only seem to remove more margin from relationships vital to healing. I see these aspects of fear and blame and they create a quite toxic culture. Like some autoimmune disease where cells start attacking other healthy cells, everybody loses out.

It’s time to find the positive outliers in these cultures, those people, who despite it all, still get exceptional results. We need to study them, find out what they are doing, and help them to support their colleagues in doing likewise. It’s time to question top-down performance mandates and look for exceptional excellent within our organisations before they are driven out as part of the by-product of our change initiatives.

It’s time to do something brave and unplug ourselves from the kind of body farm in the Matrix movie.

It’s time to do something brave and unplug ourselves from the Matrix body farm of target-driven excess.

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Leaning to People Personal Margin Positive Outliers Self-Awareness

The Access Paradox

Open-plan offices seem to be very popular. Part of the rationale for open-plan offices is that they aid teamwork and communications.

It’s surprising, then, how many people who work in them, dislike them.

Recently I was reviewing the work of an audit into a department where all its members work in a single open-plan office. One of the main emergent concerns in the feedback is how little they know about what is going on in the rest of the organisation.

The Atlantic Software Guild conducted some research into the productivity of software writers, and they discovered huge variations between the productivity between different organisations. These variations came to light in their Code Wars experiment, as reported in de Marco and Lister’s book, Peopleware. They concluded that the most critical factors to productivity were not the experience of the programmers, nor the particular software tools they used, but rather their working environment. The worst-performing organisations were those with high-distraction, open-plan environments. And it reduced comparative productivity with other organisations by as much as a factor of 10.

Such is the potential for uncontrolled distractions to each worker in such a workplace that they develop task-oriented behaviours to keep themselves focused on their own work. They develop little rituals to protect themselves from distraction. They compensate for the high-interruption environment. This might be, for example, by putting on headphones. This, in turn, leads to less spoken communication, because the conversation that occurs in that office is likely to be indiscriminate; it could be for anybody when a visitor walks in.

Here’s the kicker: Code Wars was conducted in the 1980s!

We don’t seem to have learned much over the last few decades, do we?

What are your experiences? Leave your comments below.

Personal Margin Self-Awareness

Multiple Priorities? Really?

This article is updated from the version published earlier in 2018.

Very likely, the following scene will be familiar to you.

I was invited to facilitate a strategic workshop. I was told fairly early on, “We have 32 strategic objectives we need to meet.”

“OK,” I replied. “Which one is the most important?”

You can probably guess my client’s reply…

“They all are.”

Now, what’s wrong with this picture?

When 32 strategic objectives are all a priority, something is wrong. Badly wrong.

If you are inclined to say, “Nothing, that’s just the way business has to be in these complicated days,” then I would ask you to think with me for a moment. Too many of our organisations are like the proverbial donkey who is stalled into inaction because of two competing piles of hay.

Surprise Findings in Neuroscience

The more we learn about the human brain, the more we learn how awesome is its capacity, but also how limited it is to consciously focus on things in the foreground of our awareness. Neuroscientists put the number of items we can concurrently focus upon to be as low as four.

So we have a dilemma. There are all these targets our organisations set us to meet, but we can only focus on a few.

One Thing

Recently, as part of the current release of our Leading Yourself Workshop, I released a book review of Gary Keller’s The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. At one point, Keller explained that the word Priority entered into the English language in the 14th Century. It came from the Latin word prior meaning first. What surprised me was that it was only made plural in the 20th Century: priorities. Think about that. To previous generations, to talk about priorities would have been madness.

I suspect the human brain, and a team, and a project, and even an organisation works better with a priority than it does with priorities. Priorities (plural) begin to generate confusion, internal competition for attention and erode focus.

What if we were to budget to one priority in any given moment?

OK, complex organisations do have a number of matters to achieve, but budgeting to one priority begins to make us dig deeper. We begin to see the dependencies between different objectives, where some enable others. For example, here is an Outcome Relationship Model of an Olympics Legacy development.

Outcome Relationship Model Example

We begin to see the real drivers of organisational success. Maybe some of these objectives or targets can be met, or more easily met if we were to focus on the one thing.

Focusing on One Thing

As an individual, if I invest time now in making this blog post a priority at this moment, focusing upon it exclusively to everything else that clamours for my attention, it may help me meet some of my other objectives later.

Focus is inseparable from this kind of singular attention.

Now, this is not to say that my priority may not change during the day; it does. Nor will my priority today be the same as tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year. Priority is the matter I should focus on now.


In my coaching, I recommend clients identify maybe three or four planned tasks they intend to achieve each day. Among those, I ask them to identify their MIT, their Most Important Task. This is the daily priority, that one thing they commit to achieving that day. The real value, though, is not the MIT itself; it’s in the process of deciding that MIT. This is where we gain clarity and leverage over our day.

Now, this is not to say that we can expect no surprises during our day. What I identify in the high-performers, the Positive Outliersis a quality of mental agility to switch in a moment their priority. Something comes up. It requires urgent attention. They fully focus on that task. And when they are done, they return to their MIT. This is very different from multi-tasking two or more priorities at the same time.


The MIT is my technique for identifying my personal priority each day. What is yours? Leave your comment below.

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

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Personal Margin Self-Awareness

Stop Pushing Me!!

At times we all feel somewhat overwhelmed by all the jobs piling up, whether in our email inbox, or in our own to-do lists. Many are overwhelmed all the time. It’s as if our lives are being driven by that pesky list of demands. It feels like they are pushing us, each vying for first place in our attention and our efforts.

Well, it’s time to stop being pushed by our work. Instead, try pulling your work through.​

This week in our Leading Yourself online Workshop, we are going through a module called, From Push to Pull,  where we explore the technique called Personal Kanban. ​Kanban boards originated in lean manufacturing as a powerful way for teams to improve their internal communication and performance. Then Kanban became a common tool used within Agile development teams, so much so that many now think Kanban originated with Agile. 

Many think that Kanban originated with Agile. It did not.

A few years ago, I read Jim Benson and Torianne DeMaria Barry’s Personal Kanban. I was hooked. I ​introduced it into my Organising Yourself Effectively workshop, and people loved it. It became one of the most popular tools that we covered. Stories came back of how clients had adopted it into their working lives. This was yet another example of people discovering the personal power of tools used more commonly in a project management context.

Personal Kanban became one of the most popular tools in my personal organisation workshop

Here is one of the videos in the Workshop, using the online platform Trello to illustrate the personal kanban.​

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Personal Kanban or Trello. A few months ago I posted a piece called, Tools that evolve with our work

To become free, we need to think free, and not like victims.

As the above video shows, though, there is something quite powerful about the idea of choosing to pull work through, and not being pushed by it. To become free, we need to think free, and not like victims. Personal Kanban, simple though it is, can help us with that move to freedom in our daily work.​

Do you use kanban for your personal organisation? If so, leave a comment below. If not, what do you use?

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Personal Margin Self-Awareness

Interruptions at Work

One of the most common complaints I hear from clients is about their office environments, about how noisy or distracting they are. Where they can, I’m finding many people excuse themselves from their office to get serious, thought-intensive work done. In fact, some even argue that the age of the office as we know it is long past its usefulness.

You might have a very well organised personal system. You might be very clear on your goals, priorities and how you apportion your time. But it can all come to nothing on any given day if your colleagues, your team, or your boss interrupt you all the time.

The irony is that people who work in offices are knowledge workers. The knowledge worker’s key tool is not their computer but their brain. And the office environment, many times, is the most hostile environment for clear, concentrated thinking.

The knowledge worker’s key tool is not their phone nor their computer; it’s between their ears.

Sooner or later there is a discussion to be had around office etiquette, about where and when it is reasonable to interrupt someone. How someone should signal to everyone else that they are not to be interrupted.

Someone shared with me yesterday an interesting technique: a traffic light system of red, amber, and green.

  • Green means there is no constraint on interrupting that person.
  • Amber means that this colleague is engaged in something that has time urgency, but they might be interruptible with something that is both important and urgent.
  • Red means that the person doesn’t want any interruption … unless the building is burning down.

This sounds good.

The office environment is often the most hostile for clear, concentrated thinking.

It seems to me that part of the benefit of is this idea is that the whole team becomes more aware in this discussion of different gradations of importance and urgency, as well as the improved consideration they might begin to show to each other. However, it is probably best enforced and sustained by the entire team’s agreement and the team reviews it regularly; without this, you are unlikely to serious behaviour change throughout the group.

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

Alexander Graham Bell

A central problem in this whole issue is that an individual’s focus and concentration is such a subjective and intangible matter. It is very hard to measure. Distraction will express itself indirectly through measures of productivity, but again, the realms of knowledge work, comparing like for like is always going to be a problem.

I like the traffic light system. I like it more because it encourages an overt conversation between all members of the team of this hidden thing called concentration.

Let me ask you: Do you know of any similar group codes of conduct about permission to interrupt? Let me know in the comments below.

Leaning to Action Personal Margin Self-Awareness

Tools that Evolve with You

My son Robin is a remarkable Agile software developer. He runs a company called Degu. Currently, he is developing a pretty cool business model around his film workflow management software. He has invited me in to advise him on strategy.

We need tools that can evolve with our work.

When the business is effectively YOU, you have to be very critical about your priorities and your choices. So I’m pleased to say Robin is reading through my new ebook on Leading Yourself. He is an avid practitioner of Personal Kanban, a technique I explore in the book.

Both he and I use for our personal and team kanbans, so he shared with me his current board. I thought it was worth sharing here because it illustrates how he is owning the process and the categories and continually reworking them to suit his circumstances.

Robin Mayfield's Trello card labels

For example, he has a very interesting set of labels for his cards. Also, his Board has developed on from the standard To Do/Doing/Done to what we see below.

Robin Mayfield Personal Kanban

As well as his “Backlog” column (otherwise known as the “To-Do” column), he has moved to use a “Stuck!” column. This allows him to park otherwise-frustrating work in this column and come back to it later. He is finding that when he does this, often he finds that that piece of work becomes un-stuck and he can move on.

He also has a couple of other columns I haven’t shown: “Mentor” and one for a key client/partner. This illustrates to me that Robin is working on his workflows and not becoming legalistic about them. They are evolving, as indeed his working life is evolving.

Progressive knowledge workers need the flexibility of tools like Trello.

Increasingly I find progressive knowledge workers like Robin need the flexibility of tools like Trello and techniques like Personal Kanban. These tools and techniques help us think about our priorities and work areas dynamically as our work contexts and careers evolve.

What do you use? Are your tools evolving with you or are they locking you into a particular way of working?


What tools are you using? Are they evolving with you or are they locking you into one way of working? Leave your comments below.

Personal Margin Self-Awareness

PinkCast & the 2-minute Rule

I really appreciate Daniel Pink’s work, particularly Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, an awesome book. He delivers a periodic, high-energy, short video to his subscribers called Pinkcast.

This week’s Pinkcast made me smile (as it usually does). It featured another notable author and speaker, David Allen, most well-known for his book Getting Things Done.

David Allen explains the power of the 2-minute rule to Daniel Pink.

On this episode, Daniel interviewed David in Amsterdam about his 2-minute rule. Watch it.

And how long was Daniel’s Pinkcast this week? One minute 51 seconds. 🙂

Do you use the 2-minute rule? If so, let me know how in the comments below.