We plan, we organise ourselves, we budget, we set goals.
But sometimes life just gets in the way.
For much of what I write and teach around self-leadership and personal productivity, I use myself as the laboratory. This approach seems to me to be the way of integrity. As someone once claimed, “We eat our own dog food!” I understand that.
Over the last eleven weeks, my wife and I have been in transition, moving from Oxfordshire to Kent, about two hours’ driving distance from each other. We left our old place on 2nd August, a home we had lived in for more than 28 years, without regret, but with thanks for many happy memories.
However, the purchase of our new home fell through. Such is the way of things quite often in the English housing market.
We did not let this distress us, so we set about finding a new home, and so we did. Within a matter of 24 hours, we found one we liked very much, put an offer in, and it was accepted. However, it will not be until next week that we will finally move in.
That will make 11 weeks altogether. We were not dismayed. We are blessed with wonderful children and generous friends. So we have spent the late summer and early autumn moving from home to home.
One friend called us recently ‘Silver Sofa Surfers.’ I like that. We’ve been learning in this odyssey, learning about ourselves and others. For example, each new home we’ve moved into, we have found we had to adapt to their unique environment and constraints. It’s amazed us how different people’s kitchen storage and waste systems are, for example.
Not having a permanent residential address has created its problems as we engaged with some agencies. It seems that their systems cannot cater for our situation.
All the while I’ve attempted to publish articles on this site where and when I can. Finding places to work undistracted and uninterrupted was a challenge. In Leading Yourself online I explain ways high-performers order their private worlds, so I have sought to live this out, even on the move. I have continued to prioritize using my daily MIT technique. During this period I have calmed myself by reminding myself, “This is only temporary. When we move in October …”
Last week, though, uncertainty in our lives reached new levels. My wife’s hip gave out putting her into the most extreme pain and immobilising her for several days. We canceled a short holiday we were about to take in Mallorca, visiting more remote members of our family. The flight we should have been on was with Monarch Airlines. Forty-five minutes after our scheduled take-off, Monarch Airlines ceased trading! Explaining all this to our travel insurers became very interesting.
So what am I learning in, what is for me, extreme uncertainty?
It’s at times like this that I am brought vividly to face reality that ‘life’ is lived with one’s body, soul, and spirit.
There is a verse in the Psalms that has come to mean a lot to me:
"My flesh and my heart may fail, but the Lord is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
We all need to accept that in extreme situations, even tried and trusted personal workflows will be interrupted and fail us. We need to dig deep. We need to look into our spirit and find what is unchanging.
I’m fascinated, for example, by the concept of the fulcrum, in leading change. We all need to find the unchanging, the fixed, the certain. Everything else can change around us, but one thing needs to remain fixed.
We all need a fulcrum, an unchanging pivot point in a context of change.
Ultimately it comes down to what matters most. What is my one priority in this moment? That is always a valid and clarifying question. For me, I'm very clear on that right now. It is my wife.
'What is my priority in this moment?' is always a powerful and clarifying question.
I’m learning that I must trust God in navigating through these times. I cannot advise people with this methodology or that technique when they are in such circumstances, or worse, in extreme uncertainty. Ultimately it comes down to a matter of faith and meaning.
One of the fundamental problems the western rationalist mind is that it finds it hard to think in non-linear terms. Our thought processes habitually follow the linear, “If I do this, then I will get this, and then I will achieve this” kind of mental narrative. We can find this works, but only in limited contexts.
In the world of engineering, marketing and projects, to name but three fields, we are learning to think more iteratively: to revisit and rework the results. This is more like thinking and moving in circles.
W.E. Deming, the American quality guru who was credited with revolutionising post-war Japanese manufacturing advocated his classic PDCA cycle:
Practising this led to continuous improvement. Manufacturing results improved because of attention to the feedback and improved as a result. In marketing, deliberate A/B testing yields similar results. In projects, we are learning to iterate, improve our estimates and customer satisfaction.
I remember a situation comedy on UK TV a few years ago called "Ever Decreasing Circles." It had a hapless hero who always found himself in a spiral of frustration.
Circular thinking has had a bad rap. I'd like to reframe circular thinking as "ever increasing circles." That is to say, that some circular workflows become more and more powerful.
Shall I go over that again?
For a period of time, a friend of mine prevailed on me to take up golf. To begin with, it seemed like I was doing random gardening on a long walk. I became very conscious of my muscle movements in a swing, which club to choose, and experimenting with little rituals, like the number of times I looked up at the target spot I was aiming for. I also became aware of two things that could undermine my performance as the game progressed: my inner emotional state after a ridiculously bad shot, and my physical stamina - or lack of it.
For me, golf was like random gardening on a long walk.
I realised that the inner game of golf was all about self-awareness. What I became acutely focused on was being aware of my muscle movements, grip and so on. If I made a bad shot, I would attempt to adjust and see if I got a better result. I was constantly correcting myself.
In yesterday’s post, we looked at the Apollo 11 mission and how the accuracy of the launch targeting was a delusion; the reality was that they landed within the lunar landing zone by a process of constant correction - a sort of feedback loop.
Then I moved to talking about a more personal kind of feedback loop, the Daily Heads-Up technique that I use for my personal organisation.
At least every week, I review, hone and improve my key workflows.
Feedback loops can operate at different cycles, such as at:
In each case the feedback loop provides the opportunity for us to correct our course, to learn, and to get better results.
In the next post, I’ll look at how neglecting the course corrections, the feedback loop can hinder our effectiveness and growth, and why it is so easy to neglect this.
When I began writing Leading Yourself, the working title I started with was “The Soul of Personal Mastery.” ‘Personal Mastery’ is a term much-loved in leadership academies, so I explored the idea of mastery. ‘Mastery’ has some negative connotations, so I backed off from it as the central label and moved to the concept of self-leadership.
However, my research returned me to the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, something that was referenced by the APM’s L&D team at one of their training providers’ away days. It appears that we may be investing in the wrong kind of learning solutions for some skill levels, and perhaps under-emphasising other kinds of solutions. Continue reading
Have you ever wondered whether your efforts at self-development are really paying off? Do you sometimes feel like you are just treading water in getting better at your job? How we really get better at something is a critical issue of time, money and effectiveness.[shareable]How we really get better at something is a critical issue of time, money and effectiveness.[/shareable]
For years now I have been a student of how we truly progress in skill… in anything.
In particular, I’ve looked at these skill sets:
I’m very proud of my daughter, Sarah. She has made a name for herself in the very male-dominated world of historic building restoration and ornamental plastering. She uses all her skills as a sculptress and has developed a keen eye for the health of historic buildings. I was walking with her recently through the centre of Newbury, an old market town in Berkshire, UK, that boasts a fairly modern shopping centre. And she began to illustrate for me how ambiguity works in a VUCA world. (‘VUCA’ stands for an environment defined by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.)
Ambiguity is all around us. The trouble is, by definition, we don't recognise it.
So when Sarah suddenly moaned at the sight of this wall (pictured above) it got my attention. What was wrong with it? To my untrained eye, someone had been responsible for preserving this fine building by re-pointing the wall. That was a good thing, right?
Well, no. Sarah pointed out that the traditional material to bind bricks was lime. Concrete, though less perishable, does not absorb water.
I still didn’t get it. Not absorbing water is a good thing, right?
Again I stood to be corrected. A building such as this, Sarah explained, is a living system. When it rains, where will the water go? It will seep into the most porous – and also the most precious – element of the structure, the timbers, stay there and eventually rot away the wood. In about ten years time, these ancient timbers will be rotting and need replacing. And they are irreplaceable.
This illustrated a couple of things for me about ambiguity:
Our worldview conditions how the world occurs to us.
In the world of leading change, we make assumptions about people and their behaviour. For example, someone reacts with surprising hostility towards the changes we are trying to make. We can make the assumption that they are a trouble-maker, they dislike us, or that they are just a stubborn reactionary.
We need to look closer. My experience draws me towards that person, towards that conflict; it triggers exploratory, compassionate questions. And my frame of reference is that very few people are sociopaths, so there is probably another reason why this person appears unreasonable.
I look deeper, and I find that this person is going through a domestic trauma and that the only stability in their life right now seems to be their workplace. And I'm about to take away that last refuge of stability.
Suddenly their reaction begins to make sense.Now I can view them very differently. I can begin to work positively with that person.
Ambiguity in this VUCA world is all around us. The problem is, by definition, we don't see it.
The more we grow in experience and what worldview we bring to our work, the more we challenge our own initial assumptions, the more we are likely to uncover and recognise important ambiguity.
At the weekend I came across this gem of a video posted over six years ago. Marten Mikos, the then-CEO of MySQL who sold the company to SUN Microsystems for $1 billion, gives a candid short interview during the Innovate! conference in Zaragoza, Spain, about his key learnings as an entrepreneur. It’s a nine-minute masterclass:
Yesterday, I dropped by one of pearcemayfield’s courses to see Richard Rose, the CEO, and trainer on this event. The course was on AgilePM©. And I saw the diagram below drawn on a flipchart. I’ve seen this before and I’ve noted the way Richard does it. He tells a story as he draws what is a key diagram for AgilePM.
Sometimes it seems as if the whole world around you has gone mad. And then you begin to doubt that yourself. "Am I still sane?" you ask yourself. Sometimes that is what a dysfunctional culture can do to you. It makes you doubt what you thought you knew for certain.
I was talking with a client is who leading a major transformational change and she was beginning to see signs of it all unravelling. Even the people who were supposed to be taking the lead on certain aspects of the change were flipping between platitudes - “everything is fine” - and defensiveness.
Sometimes culture can seduce us into acting like lemmings.
Here are some common symptoms to watch out for:
Another way of describing culture is a conspiracy of conceit. Culture can seduce us into acting like lemmings; we are about to rush over a cliff to our deaths and we all think we’re doing fine. We take false comfort in each other. An antidote is to listen to someone from outside, who is not in that culture. And that’s hard to do when your first reaction is to say, ”But you don’t know how we work here.”
I told my client, "You're not crazy!"
I told my client, “You’re not crazy!” She needed to hear that, in the teeth of such huge cultural inertia. She is doing well but needs encouragement, support, and guidance, in that order.
Question: How do you support your colleagues when they are not going with the cultural flow? I’d like to hear how you do it.