Navigate to understanding your needs.

Navigate to understanding your needs.

Starting over...

I read an article in The Times the other day that struck a nerve. It was Justice Malala’s last column of 2016, and carried a picture of a dog lying flat-out on a wooden deck, looking exhausted. The theme of the column was that 2016 had been a tough year, and that he (and we) were all tired of it and all it had brought us. He went on to outline in some detail the things, people, and events that had made him really, really tired.

I empathised, because I’m tired too. And the people I work with, our service providers, and our clients, are all tired and looking forward to a break, and to a fresh beginning. And that’s the critical part of it all: a fresh beginning.

What is it about the New Year that awakens hope; that allows us to believe we can wipe out all the disappointments of the previous year, and begin again? After all, it’s just tomorrow, one tick of the clock from yesterday and the year before.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, caught in the tension of a moment in time, despairs at a life where yesterday and its decisions condemn him, and tomorrow offers no hope.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death…

For most of us, though, tomorrow and its promises can’t come quickly enough. We want it all to be better in the morning. We end days of chasing our dreams, tired, and we head for bed, leaving our troubles to the new day and the next deposit of 86 400 seconds that comes with every new dawn. We battle through workweeks that stretch us, and subscribe to TGIF and the relief that the weekend brings. We are conditioned to see month-ends as staging posts in our mad dash – our pony-express-like journey – towards whatever we are chasing. We pause for a moment, take on board provisions, and then it all starts again.

And so to the lure of the New Year… We write 2017 instead of 2016, and it makes all the difference. We wind forward the calendar to January, and a new, unmarked year stretches ahead. We lose the continuity of our time in the belief that this transition offers us redemption and a new beginning.

I once asked a group of delegates on a leadership programme the difference between a Goal and a New Year’s resolution. “You’re drunk when you make the resolution”, came a lightning fast response. That may or may not be true, but of course I was hoping for more; perhaps some commitment to action…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, by far the two most common New Year’s resolutions every year are: ‘to lose weight’, and ‘to stop smoking’. The fact that they remain the most common suggests that they are more often well-intentioned wishes than serious goals.

May I encourage us, as the light of 2016 flickers its last, to look purposefully towards the bright dawn that we will call 2017. I have been as guilty as most – in my tiredness – of vaguely wishing the New Year to be different. But without tough decisions, committed resources, and criteria to measure progress, there is little chance of making it so. In this New Year, then, let us:

Live with purpose

Be specific about what you want to accomplish. Allocate resources, and set timelines. Act out plans so that they help, in some small way, achieve what you believe to be your purpose in this place, and in this time you have been given.

Radiate possibility

Build into someone’s life or circumstances. Ben Zander speaks of radiating possibility as different from “thinking positively”. Positive thinking is convincing yourself that something is good when it isn’t. Radiating possibility is a decision to create something out of circumstances that seem to have no hope and no possibility in them. Choose to radiate possibility, to press light into dark places.

Be realistic

When JRR Tolkien was struggling with writer’s block, and beginning to fear that he would never finish his great work, The Lord of the Rings, he wrote a short story for the Dublin Review called “Leaf by Niggle”, which helped him and continues to help others gain perspective on their efforts.

Niggle, in Tolkien’s story, is an artist who sees in his mind’s eye a landscape with the centrepiece a great and beautiful tree. He is never in his lifetime – because of various distractions and clumsy attempts to help others – able to paint more than one perfect leaf.

Tolkien suggests that we all imagine ourselves accomplishing important things, and being often frustrated and seemingly incapable of producing our best. His story encourages us to accept that while our work will be only partly successful on our best days in bringing about our envisaged future, the effort is worthwhile and makes a difference in ways we may never fully appreciate.

Surround yourself with the right people

At the end of 2015 I read some advice about growing a business. Interestingly, it began with people. It suggested that before starting new adventures – because they will be exhausting – we should carefully evaluate the people around us and choose to spend more time with those who energize us. It remains good council.

Make the moments count

Finally, live with the certainty that we cannot control life. Despite our best efforts, “stuff” happens that throws our best laid plans awry. We do not achieve the work-life balance we hope for. Our precious moments last fleetingly at best. It’s at times like these that Nigel Marsh’s advice holds true: “the small things matter”. When you have an unexpected moment of beauty and grace, take it, hold it, savour it, allow it to touch you deeply and make all the difference.

I wish you peace, and joy, and love as we brace ourselves to jump the great divide between what has been and what will come. I wish you a 2017 that will be everything you dare to dream about. And I hope that you play a conscious and significant role in making it so.

You had to be there

Michael Dell said “When you’ve got only single-digit market share — and you’re competing with the big boys — you either differentiate or die.” I guess we’ve all heard something along those lines no matter what business we’re in and irrespective of our market share. Differentiate or die. Distinguish yourselves. Discover competitive advantage.

Easy to say, but not as easy to do. After all, there are few if any unique products and as few unique services. If there’s a need it seems, someone will meet the need. And if the market is big enough, others will come in with different (and better) ways of delivering.

So is differentiation, then, just another noble but impossible dream, like the search for perpetual motion? There’s something wonderful about the thought of a machine that we could set in motion that would never run down, that would keep on working without an energy source. We know now, of course, that friction is the problem and that even if we could eliminate friction, the sheer motion itself would heat the air, which would dissipate energy.

Are we similarly doomed when it comes to competitive advantage? Or might it be possible to create a product or service that others couldn’t copy… ‘perpetual motion’ in business, as it were?

But in an age of growing commoditization – when almost any product and service is easily copied – it seems increasingly that price is the only differentiator. Ever noticed how car styles – for example – change over the years? And yet, for all the changes, the models in any given period are difficult to tell apart. Or perhaps you see customer service as the differentiator, but find that your service offering, whatever it is, it is picked up and replicated almost before the market has had time to notice the difference in your offering? So in desperation we discount, and run the real risk of winning the one race we don’t want to win: the “race to the bottom”.

How, then, to build competitive advantage that lasts; that gives us more mileage than next month?

Peter M. Senge reminds us, “Business and human endeavours are systems…we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system. And wonder why our deepest problems never get solved.”

Let’s work with that idea for a moment. Let’s imagine that the ‘deepest problem’ is sustained competitive advantage. Could it be, perhaps, that when we innovate, we do so in ‘parts’. That we work with ‘snapshots of isolated parts of the system’, rather than the whole.

Imagine that you are invited around to a friend’s house. After dinner, they eagerly haul out their holiday snapshots and you endure endless pictures of pretty countryside and quaint villages. And that’s not the hardest part. The hardest part is listening to them recall things with a nudge and a giggle and a “do you remember…?” or a “you should’ve seen…” You see, you really had to be there. As it is now, you can’t smell the smells, and hear the sounds; and feel the breeze; and savour the food; and listen to the people on the market square…

More importantly, what your hosts are offering you can be easily replicated. Thanks to Google, you can find pictures that are better than the ones they have. You can find information that is more accurate, even more interesting… but you can’t replicate their vacation. It’s the totality of experiences that counts.

Let me extend this analogy a little. I fell in love with the idea of visiting Italy in general and Tuscany in particular after watching the movie ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’. There was enough collected experience in that film (the taste and smell of the food was about all they could not replicate) for the idea of visiting Cortona to take root… and I know there are many people who felt the same way. But – and this is the point I want to make – not everyone who watched the film was affected in the same way. And, undeniably, more people visit Rome (or London, or New York) than visit Cortona in Tuscany. The packaged experience stirred a particular group and they flocked to Tuscany. The rest were left unmoved.

Let’s reflect briefly on what the analogies have said and then what that might be saying about sustainable competitive advantage.

From the ‘holiday experience’ analogy:

As we add beauty, and colour, and light, and music, and food, and characters, and romance, we increasingly build an integrated totality of experiences that meet complex needs in some people at some point on their life journey. Harvard business professor Clayton Christianson would describe this as “understanding the job to be done”. If we are able to understand what it is that people are trying to accomplish in their lives when they purchase a product or service, we would understand more easily how to improve that product or service. It is, in Christianson’s terms, the “job to be done” rather than the customer that is the appropriate unit of analysis.

The trick, from a business perspective, of course, is to identify that deep and complex need (the job to be done). And then to decide if there are enough of those people to constitute a ‘market’. And then to integrate a totality of experiences in just the right way to meet that need at every level and in every way. Or – in Peter Senge’s terms – systemically. And that means all of the business – every person, and every system – aligned to deliver perfectly to the group of people with the same ‘job to be done’.

If we could do that, we would have sustainable competitive advantage.

It’s all about perspective

As all “Trekkers” will know, James T. Kirk is the captain of the starship USS Enterprise leading his crew as they explore "where no man has gone before". In a statement full of wisdom appropriate to his Star Trek character, Chris Pine said: “The only thing you sometimes have control over is perspective. You don’t have control over your situation. But you have a choice about how you view it”.

That seemed particularly appropriate to me on a recent journey I was making. It wasn’t a journey ‘where no man has gone before’. In fact it was an all too familiar one: a routine morning flight to a business appointment in another city. In every respect a journey like thousands of others I have made as a frequent flyer over many years.

Except for one thing. On this trip, someone died. Someone left home that morning on a routine commute and didn’t make it. A family somewhere was left devastated and without an opportunity to say a final goodbye.

And because it all happened at 37 000 feet, it affected some 180 people in different ways. The captain made the decision to return to the city of departure while a nurse, her husband, two passengers and one of the cabin crew tirelessly administered CPR for over an hour in an attempt to revive or maintain the possibility of life.

We landed, waited while paramedics tried everything they knew without success, and were eventually disembarked and returned to the terminal building. And it was once there that perspective was gained and lost. I had watched the whole on-board drama unfold at close range, with growing sadness. I was standing in the terminal now with fellow passengers who had all lived through the same experience. I knew how I was feeling, and I wondered how this had touched their lives.

I saw again those who had tried to film the whole thing on their cell phones, and wondered at their view of things. I spoke at length to the young nurse, the only person on board with medical training. She and her husband were foreigners on honeymoon, and were likely to miss their connecting flight to an idyllic island to continue their special time together. No complaints. They had toiled to save a life, and failed, and knew that their inconvenience was minor when set against death, and loss. Perspective.

I called my client to explain. No problem, he said. Call me when you land and we’ll make a plan. Perspective. And then I became aware of a drama being played out at the terminal counter that was in every way like a scene from a low budget movie, badly acted, and completely over the top. Three excitable Europeans were marching around, flinging their hands in the air, shouting at officials, and complaining loudly and repeatedly that they were going to Europe, and they might miss their connecting flight. Did the airline not understand? And why was nobody doing anything? They wanted to speak to the manager. This was all so unprofessional. And that stupid little airhostess bursting into tears: so unprofessional! She should have been setting the example. On, and on, and on…

A smartly dressed woman sidled up to me and said with a resigned voice: ‘What a waste of a day. I was supposed to be in the City for a meeting, and that’s not going to happen’. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘to put things in perspective, someone started out today for the City and isn’t going anywhere again, ever’. ‘Yes’, she said quickly, ‘but not everyone is as understanding as we are. Some people are so selfish’. And then she moved on: perhaps she had seen someone else she had to speak to.

I became aware of someone standing quietly next to me. ‘Phew. Some people are upset,’ he said glancing towards to the B-movie drama a few yards away. ‘You were one of the guys helping with CPR weren’t you?’ I said, recognising him. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘poor guy’. Perspective. I noticed the honeymoon couple, quietly and politely trying to rearrange their flights, when they could get a word in over the tragi-comic drama. Perspective.

Later that week, (it was one of those weeks), I sat in traffic for three hours making a routine twenty-minute journey as we all coped with the deluge that saw hundreds of cars stranded, whole suburbs devastated, cars bobbing like corks in rivers where none had been before, and six people lose their lives. Fascinating to hear the outrage on the radio the following morning. The weather service should be sued, some said, for not warning us of this disaster.

And Benjamin Zander’s Rule #6 came to mind. Zander tells the story of a Prime Minister entertaining a Prime Minister from another country. While they are sitting in discussion, someone bursts in in a state of uncontrolled anguish, flinging their arms about, and shouting. The resident Prime Minister says, ‘Please, please. Remember Rule #6’. The person instantly apologises, calms down, and leaves the room. This happens three times (as it always does in stories, says Zander), and finally the visiting Prime Minister can no longer contain his curiosity.

“My dear fellow,” he says to his host, “I’ve seen the marvellous effect of it; are you willing to share with me this Rule #6?”

“It’s quite simple,” says the man, “Rule #6 is: ‘Don’t take yourself so D@#&!” seriously”.

“Oh,” says his colleague, “and if I may ask, what are the other rules?”

“There aren’t any,” he replies.

So I thought of flights and floods, of damage and devastation, of apoplexies and apologies, of life and death, and times when I have had a serious sense of humour failure, or been tempted to rail against the wind or whatever. And I remember Rule #6 – don’t take yourself so d@#&! seriously. It’s a marvellous way to regain perspective.

Reaping the whirlwind...

Let me place on record at the outset that I’m no Luddite.

You may or may not know that the “Luddites” were 19th century British weavers concerned about the impact of automated looms on their livelihood. When business and government ignored their fears, desperate weavers broke into factories and smashed textile machines. They called themselves “Luddites” after Ned Ludd, a young apprentice who wrecked a textile machine in the late-18th century.

Why the history lesson? Well, “Luddite” is today the blanket term describing people who dislike new technology. And I’m not a Luddite. In fact, technology fascinates me. I love painlessly syncing data across multiple devices; I love chatting to my daughter ‘face-to-face’ across oceans and time zones; I love the idea of wearable technology; I am endlessly fascinated by what we seem able to accomplish. Fascinated but a little frightened too.

In watching our unfolding use of technology – in particular social media – it seems to me that the ancient proverb: "They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind" has particular relevance.

In an essay in 1984 – at the dawn of the personal computer era – Thomas Pynchon wondered if it was “O.K. to be a Luddite”; whether it was okay to be deeply concerned about unchecked technological development. ( reports that there is a modern Luddite movement that invents “machines”— in the form of computer viruses, cyberworms and other malware—to disrupt the technologies that trouble them. Recent targets include the London Stock Exchange and a nuclear power plant in Iran).

I’m not sure that’s a useful approach. The original Luddites failed to halt the progress they feared, and the same is likely to be true today… Smashing technologies is not the answer. Instead we should look to human greed, selfish interest, lack of planning and the myopic vision that has led to the abuse of science and technology.

“It has become appallingly obvious,” said Einstein, “that our technology has exceeded our humanity”. Does that suggest that we, the planet’s most ‘advanced’ creatures have given away what is unique to us, what distinguishes us from other life forms, in order to bow to the gods we have created? Skinner suggests that this is not even a conscious and intentional process: “The real problem” he says, “is not whether machines think, but whether men do”.

We have sown the wind of our curiosity and ingenuity… All of those who would lead must now engage in the type of thinking that Skinner calls for, and so avoid the whirlwind. And perhaps – who knows – in the process we may rediscover our humanity. So what should we do?

Highly effective leaders know that good relationships are the product of authentic engagement, a progressive sharing of the essence of oneself with another or others. It takes time; it demands vulnerability; and it involves peeling away the masks we use to project and protect ourselves. 

We should be careful of the seductive temptation social media offers to create false images and fantasy lives. We should think carefully about conducting relationships publicly in ways that make them common rather than special; so that instead of developing intimacy, we find ourselves creating and polishing idealised images of the persons we want others to think we are.

News – and its reporting – was once the preserve of the professional. Today, when 33% of young adults get news from social networks and more Americans get their news via the Internet than from newspapers or radio, this is no longer true. As thinking people, we must recognise that social media promotes wildly speculative information sharing. Its attraction is that it is instant – real ‘news’. The downside is that ‘new’ trumps ‘true’ as a decision-making guideline. And if it is sufficiently outrageous, and if enough people repeat it often enough, it gathers its own momentum; it ‘trends’, true or not.

More than that, because ‘new’ is all-important, critical thinking becomes less so. Political commentator J. Brooks Spector, explaining Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the American presidential race, acknowledges – on reflection – the significant role played by the media as it simply recorded and repeated the outrageous and personal without the hard work of traditional journalism: questioning, investigating, calling people out for their ‘sketchy truths’, inaccuracies and lack of substance. The election at the end of the day was about personalities and image – the playground of social media – rather than policies and serious issues that should concern people in the most powerful nation on earth.

It was Al Gore’s dream many years ago (see his book, An Inconvenient Truth), that the then emerging social media would allow ordinary people into the public space, that ordinary people would be enabled to participate in a public debate formerly controlled by the rich and powerful, and that a richer and more participative discourse would result. And that has happened, in some cases. There are voices raised that might have otherwise gone unheard, and which make thoughtful contributions and say what needs to be said.

But I wonder how Al Gore feels about much of the rest. Look at what is ‘trending’ on any given day; listen to the level and flavour of the discussion, and you may well find yourself distressed by the triviality, the playground slanging, the vicious personal attacks, and the desire to attract attention through the outrageous. We must ask ourselves: Do we contribute to possibility or to the downward spiral? Do we deserve to be heard?

Somebody said: “life was more simple when Apple and Blackberry were just fruits". That sounds true, but actually it is as it has always been. We have powerful tools thrust into our hands, and their use lies in the same place – in our hands.

We must ask, each of us: In every ‘tweet’ or ‘re-tweet’; in every ‘post’, ‘like’ or ‘share’, are we sowing productive seeds, or sowing the wind? The proof lies in the harvest we are reaping.

Somewhere along the line...

The morning traffic is a great place to reflect on the ‘ripple effects’ of our choices.

I was driving to the airport one morning this past week on a busy motorway, when the lines of a Billy Joel song popped into my head. : “…I know it’s gonna get me somewhere along the line”.

I was becoming increasingly anxious at miles and minutes of first-gear, stop-start ‘motion’, wondering if there was yet another accident ahead: or another rush-hour roadblock: or protest action of some kind…

And I wasn’t the only anxious person with somewhere to be that morning. As I sat in my 5kph queue, a line of fifteen mini bus taxis (I counted them) rumbled along on my outside with one wheel in the yellow line section and the other on the grass verge. As I looked more closely, I saw that they were following a well-worn pathway… this unofficial ‘third lane’ long established.

When we finally started moving again I saw that there had been no accident. No incident. The whole frustrating crawl the consequence of people bypassing the queue and feeding in at the front.

And so the reflection on consequences and the ‘ripple effect’…

This isn’t a rant against taxis. Rather, it’s a bit of introspection on short cuts and consequences. It happens that queue jumpers are one of my pet ‘hates’, whether in traffic or airports or supermarkets. And that’s because whatever the reason, there are always consequences: “…you know it’s gonna get you (or me), somewhere along the line”.

Which deepened the introspection. Am I ever responsible, I wondered, for short cuts that impact others negatively? And if I am, do I have the right to complain? Surely I am either compliant, or I am complicit.

In none of these cases am I deliberately setting out to harm another: my client; or a team member; or – least of all – my child. But in each case there is a resistance to “sitting in the traffic”. I choose the short cut that bypasses the hard – or just less ‘fun’ – work involved in producing good products, creating high-performing teams, or raising secure and contented children.

Somewhere along the line
Well I know it’s just a matter of time
When the fun falls through and the rent comes due
Somewhere along the line

The challenge in every choice of this nature is that there is seldom an immediate downside. It takes time for the short cut to take effect; for the consequence to become apparent.

Think about it: Like me, you might be observing national and international events with concern. Before pointing fingers at symptomatic behaviour, though, we might examine the causes more deeply. In how many cases is what we are seeing simply “the rent (becoming) due”, to paraphrase Billy Joel?

What to do?

We have a choice of thinking about whether (and how) to ‘pay the rent’, or to explore possibilities. We can get into what Ben Zander calls “downward-spiral thinking”; conversations that see only negative consequences. In a world of relentless measurement and comparison, the only outcome of downward-spiral thinking is anxiety. Or we might embrace Zander’s challenge to ‘radiate possibility’. Possibility, in Zander’s words, is a world of shared commitments, shared involvements, open-heartedness, contribution, love, and health – both personal and organisational.

We get to choose, every day, which world we will live in. And before you think it, this is not about “positive thinking”. Positive thinking is convincing yourself that something is good when it isn’t. Radiating possibility is something quite different. Zander says that his father – who lost everything as a holocaust survivor – had an amazing ability to ‘radiate possibility’. He had a saying: there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

Radiating possibility is a decision to create something out of circumstances that seem to have no hope and no possibility in them. It’s a new lens through which to view the world.

So, how do I radiate possibility?

I am faced with a choice to accept the situation as impossible: the child is badly behaved; the team is dysfunctional; the country is on the road to ruin. Or – to take but one of these – I might decide to embrace the diversity of my team; to choose to see people as more than replaceable parts; to ‘sit in the traffic’ of coaching and supporting, and redesigning jobs and systems to make the achievement of excellence possible for ordinary people.

In your country, in your workplace, in your family, what decisions do you need to make that will create something where there seems to be no hope or no possibility? And what might the consequences, the ripple effect, of those decisions be?

The ’new’ ethics

American cowboy, vaudeville performer, humourist, newspaper columnist, social commentator, and actor Will Rogers once said: “Live in such a way that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip”. I think that’s a good working definition of ‘living ethically’ – always doing the right thing, even when no-one is watching.

Ethics in business has always been one of those uncomfortable topics. We are comfortable with it in abstraction: we understand the importance of ethical practice for sustainability; we preach compliance and will take action against those who are caught in non-compliance…


We also demand that our people do what it takes to get the deal done. Often the mixed message we send to employees is ‘if that’s what it takes to make target, then fine… just don’t get caught’.

These ‘old ethical dilemmas’ are easy to understand even if difficult to solve. We know, for example, that we should not lie to employees, customers, vendors, and the public. But over-promising and under-delivering is as common as sunrise and sunset. In spite of that, we know what needs to be done if we want to behave ethically. We are on familiar ground: ethical decision-making requires that people
The problem, I think, is that the comfortable old definitions, formulas and guidelines are hardly helpful in this rapidly morphing world. We’re faced with situations today for which there is no legal or regulatory guidance, and where the ethical issues have not even been considered.

In an article for the MIT Technology Review in April 2014, (“Laws and Ethics Can’t Keep Pace with Technology”), Vivek Wadhwa argues that we have gaps emerging because laws have not kept pace with technology. “Our laws and ethical practices have evolved over centuries,” he says. “Today, technology is on an exponential curve and is touching practically everyone—everywhere.”

The truth is that the human mind can’t keep pace with the advances that computers make possible. We are confronted, as no generation before us, with the reality that “we haven’t come to grips with what is ethical, let alone with what the laws should be, in relation to technologies such as social media”.

What we need to wrestle with is whether the unprecedented explosion in technology is driven by purpose (we have carefully considered the consequences of what we are doing, and have a plan to benefit all of humanity), or curiosity (we are developing because we can)?

All indications are that technological advancement is amoral. We develop technology because we can; consequences must take care of themselves.

A worked example:

As a parent who has children and siblings living in distant lands, I am ‘blessed’ by Facebook and Facetime or Skype that gives me easy access to distant loved ones. But I am conscious that:

Without doubt, technological development is a double-edged sword: it can kill, or enhance and protect. How we use it is our own decision and choice, we are told. That’s a scary thought! Because technology has, and will, change the moral fabric of humanity.

How so?

Theodore Kaczynski writes, "Technology is a more powerful social force than the aspiration for freedom. While technological progress as a whole continually narrows our sphere of freedom, each new technical advance considered by itself appears to be desirable."

How will we manage the ethics around our use of technology? We can’t rely on laws to guide us. They lag far behind and we haven’t even decided what is ethical and what is not. If we can’t rely on the “compliance” component of ethical decision-making, we are left with the last two steps: ‘ripple effect’ and ‘gut feel’. 

Perhaps there is wisdom for us in the words of GK Chesterton (writing in 1908): “It’s not that we don’t have enough scoundrels to curse; it’s that we don’t have enough good (people) to curse them”. The ‘good’ amongst us must:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said: “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts”. We are, each of us, accountable. I wish you well as you wrestle with new ethical dilemmas in your places of work.

Living with purpose

Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, records a conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat.

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
’That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
`I don’t much care where---’ said Alice.
`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
`---so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.
`Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.’

For all our advancement in many areas and directions, it is worth asking – as so many do today – where are we going? What’s it all about?

Albert Einstein might have been writing for our times when he said: “The perfection of means and the confusion of ends seems to be our problem”. It seems that we may have become very, very good at doing things without a clear idea as to WHY we are doing them.

Perhaps that sounds ridiculous?

To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat, we will get somewhere if we keep doing what we are doing long enough… The question is: will we like where we get to when we get there? And can we afford to leave that destination – the ‘end’ – to be the chance outcome of our ‘perfected means’.

Jennifer Aaker (Stanford School of Business) presents compelling research in the Power of Purpose to suggest that having purpose in life leads to more meaning in life, improved health, and more satisfaction from work. She defines “purpose” as intention: having a stable far-reaching goal. When we are pursuing that, she says, we feel our lives are more meaningful. Also, the people who count their lives most meaningful are those who give the most to others. They have a strong sense of where they come from and where they are going: a purpose. The feeling of meaning increases when we feel connected to others and to something bigger than ourselves.

How are we doing on that score? As history unfolds, are we increasingly purposeful people who live lives of deep meaning?

The evidence is not good. It’s a sad fact that the most economically prosperous nations in the world also have the highest rates of depression, suicide, and substance abuse. It may well be that, in our enthusiastic pursuit of the possible, we have lost sight of the purpose. In that pursuit, we may have dismantled many of the principles, beliefs and values that served as a ‘true north’ for us in the past. They were our compass, and now, while there is always movement, direction seems less obvious. Unless we live with purpose – live with the ‘end’ in mind – the ‘means’ we perfect will determine the ‘ends’ for us. Our systems will ‘run’ us.

We are more ‘able’ than at any time in our human development. It seems there is little we cannot do if we set our minds to it. Except, apparently, live in peace with others and ourselves. “The world is too much with us;” said William Wordsworth; “late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”. In our driven state, we may well have lost the power to be fully human.

“The perfection of means and the confusion of ends…”  So much of what we do, the means we perfect and execute, is amoral. We do what we do because we can without proper thought about ends.

In what way is this relevant to the world of work, and those who manage it?

We can continue to perfect means – to become increasingly efficient – but at what cost to the human spirit? Perhaps William Blake was prophetic in his words “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”.

Isn’t it time to think about ends, to ask where we (each of us) are going? To clarify for ourselves what is truly important to us; what we value when we are the best versions of ourselves? Isn’t it perhaps time to live courageously, so that we create better alignment between personal values and organisational values? That we stop pretending that the world is divided into silos with no effect, one on the other? After all, the logical conclusion to doing more and more with fewer and fewer is that I will be without work, and the meaning it attaches to my life; the dignity it affords me as a human being.

A few thoughts:

The best version of yourself has something unique to offer your team, your organisation, your country… even humanity itself. Have the courage to be that person…

Trust at work

I came across a sign above a pay-point the other day that read: “In God we trust, all others pay cash…” Doesn’t that just cut to the heart of our dilemma in business today? We need trust to make it work, but trustworthiness is hard to come by…

We create brands, make promises, and expect people to trust those promises and exchange their hard-earned money for our product or service. We hope that they will enter a special trust relationship with us that we call “customer”. But how trusting is that relationship? The truth is, some are, and many are not. A recent survey suggested that 17% of Americans trusted business leaders to do the right thing. It would be interesting to know how many businesses trust their customers to do the same. Or do businesses expect to be robbed (think “shrinkage”), squeezed for the best deal, or abandoned for a better one? Trusting relationship or wary transaction?

We don’t and can’t live entirely without trust, of course. We trust in things and people all the time to deliver things we need: water, light, sanitation, transport, food… all of this transactional; we pay, we get.

Some of our relationships, though, are more complex and while we still “pay” and “get”, we don’t see it that way. Think of loving relationships with significant others where something happens that elevates the relationship above mere transaction; where the returns exceed any reasonable investment expectation (the joy I experience seems somehow undeserved; beyond anything I could have anticipated).

That only happens when both parties are prepared to put the needs and happiness of the other ahead of their own. And how often does that happen in business?

It seems that it does, from time to time. I came across an interesting re-definition of selling the other day: Sales, the writer said, is about helping people. It is not about convincing anyone to buy something from you that is not in their best interests. That’s encouraging. And perhaps many of us have stories – rare enough to stand out in our experience – of when that was true of a customer service experience.

But that’s not my central focus today. I am more interested in the internal relationships that are essential to deliver that truly memorable customer experience.

It’s relatively easy for one passionate person, delivering a personal service, to do it remarkably well, even sacrificially. The difficulty comes when we want to grow our capacity to deliver. We employ people to make our brand promises a reality, and must trust them to deliver products and services that meet the expectation we have created. Many times, of course, we don’t (trust) and they don’t (deliver).

Vladimir Ilych Lenin – Russian communist revolutionary, politician and political theorist – said once: "Trust is good, control is better". Is there any irony in the fact that the flag bearer of a totalitarian communist state seems to have written a basic principle of modern capitalist management practice?

Charles Handy, in his 2015 book, The Second Curve, warns of the modern management tension between trust and control. Trust is cheaper, he says, but sadly we believe that control is safer.

The problem is the ‘fall-out’ from this philosophy.

You may know the ancient story of the Sword of Damocles. Damocles was a courtier in the court of King Dionysius. He exclaimed once how fortunate Dionysius was and how wonderful it would be to be so wealthy and powerful. Dionysius offered to exchange places so that Damocles could experience this power and wealth for himself. Eagerly, Damocles agreed. But when he was sitting on the throne, rejoicing in his good fortune, he glanced up to see a giant sword above his head, held by a single hair from a horse’s tail. Damocles quickly asked to be relieved of his position; he no longer wanted to be so ‘fortunate’.

Now it may be true that driven managers live with a Sword of Damocles over their heads. I want to suggest, though, that making this the experience of everyone in their teams is a counter-productive management practice.

Because there is a “fall-out”…

To live compassionately…

We may understand the importance of this in our close and personal relationships. What application might there be for workplace relationships? Can we create more compassionate – and healthy – places to spend the bulk of our waking hours?

The road not taken...

The fact that you’re reading this right now means that you have made a decision about how you will spend the next ten or so minutes of your life. It would be interesting to know how you came to that decision. Not to read this article at all, I mean, but to read it at this moment and not at some other time.

Perhaps this is time you have scheduled for personal thinking and reflection as part of a purposeful growth strategy. If that’s the case, then what you are doing is aligned to your personal values and growth goals. You might, on the other hand, have been bored or frustrated by what you were doing, and you’re using this as a distraction or even work avoidance behaviour.

The point is, you either are, or are not, prioritising successfully.

Greg McKeown has written a book (worth reading) on the subject of choosing the ‘important’ called Essentialism - The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. In the preface he says: “The Way of the Essentialist involves doing less, but better, so you can make the highest possible contribution”. He draws a little diagram that illustrates this idea simply but profoundly:

We can, he suggests, either expend energy in multiple directions and accomplish relatively little; or we can focus significant effort in fewer directions and accomplish much, in that direction. All we must do is decide what is essential, do that one thing, and leave all the rest behind.

As an ‘Essentialist’ struggling to emerge from his ‘non-essentialism’ – as someone struggling with the many good things clamouring for attention in my life – I find myself asking: How on earth do I decide on that ONE thing to do at THIS time?

I have found this insight from Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, to be helpful: “Prioritization sounds like such a simple thing,” he says, “but true prioritization starts with a very difficult question to answer… If you could only do one thing, what would it be? And you can’t rationalize the answer, and you can’t attach the one thing to some other things. It’s just the one thing.

So how do we choose one thing, and how do we avoid rationalising as we select that one thing? Because as Robert Heinlein suggests, “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal”.

You see, when we’re struggling to make choices about how to spend our time, we are seldom struggling with choices about right and wrong… it’s more about good, better and best.

Example: I have the opportunity to study, and have been told it will help me to achieve my career goals. I begin enthusiastically but quickly discover that the time commitment and effort involved is more than I anticipated. Strangely, it seems that once I start the programme, my job demands more and more of my time and energy. Meanwhile, study time has pushed my family and friends to the very edges of my life. I am stretched and begin to think ‘I must be mad to do this to myself’. And then there’s the reward, or lack of it. When I put in extra hours at work, I score; the extra commission allows me to buy little things to keep the family happy, and I get a “well done!” from my boss. The study? Not so much… an “achieved” symbol here, and a “please provide more evidence” here, with months of the same stretching ahead.

Do I really need the study right now, I ask? I mean, things are going well. I’m making target. The boss is happy. And the kids… they really need me. And the wife is not looking happy… she deserves more. And I’m young, right? There’s plenty of time for this stuff when the kids are a little older, and things are less demanding. I know what. I’ll ask if I can join the programme next year, or in a while. It’s not urgent that I do this stuff, after all… And the mate I met for an all too infrequent drink agrees: ‘You’re crazy buddy,’ he says. ‘Take time to smell the roses’.

Does that sound at all familiar? If it does, you will see the truth of Vincent Ruggerio observation: “Rationalizing is the very opposite of reasoning; whereas reasoning works from evidence to conclusion, rationalizing works from conclusion to evidence. That is, rationalizing starts with what we want to be so and then selectively compiles "evidence" to prove that it is so”.

Now, I’m not passing judgement on the scenario above; after all, they are all ‘good’ things. What I am suggesting is that the choosing starts with a desired conclusion in mind. It’s a little like my youngest son’s ‘fail safe’ decision making coin. It has “yes” on one side and “no” on the other. Faced with a decision, you flip the coin and it gives you the answer. And if you find you don’t like the answer it gives you, then you know it was the other option anyway…

When you are faced with decisions about how to use your time, perhaps run this little checklist through in your mind:
  1. Does this align with my personal values, and vision for my life?
  2. Of the competing calls on my time right now, is any of the other calls both important and urgent? Do they demand my immediate response in terms of my values, vision and current employment?


The focus you gain by knowing who you are, what you believe, and where you are going, will help in finding that ‘one thing’. Choosing on those terms will both energise you and free you from the anxiety caused by the frantic pursuit of everything.

Yes but, you say, how do I make it happen? Bill Hybels suggests that a runaway calendar will keep you from the focus we all seek because “it holds you hostage to tangible things” – meetings, appointments and projects – without giving proper priority to the intangibles: who you are becoming” and the key relationships in your life. If you don’t consciously intervene – start using your diary differently – this pattern will ensure that the things that are most important to you in terms of your personal values and vision for your life will always come second to the urgent priorities of others.

What are those things that will determine who you want to become? What do you need to enter into your calendar first? If they are in first, and everything else is slotted in around those things, then you have taken the first steps to becoming the kind of person you want to be.

Two kinds of pain...

A friend of mine is fond of saying: “There are two kinds of pain: there is the pain of discipline, and there is the pain of regret.”

He goes on to say that both are burdens, but the one (discipline) is easier to bear because it is carried over time and in smaller loads. The other burden (failure) is carried all at once and at the end, and so can crush you.

Now, I’m not going to get into a discussion of pain and its possible manifestations… what I would like to do is dwell for a moment on the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. It’s safe to say that, if you have lived and loved and worked for any length of time, you will have come across both.

Think of anything you value and want to achieve: competing in a race, for example. You must sweat, push yourself to exhaustion, recover, and then do it over and over again if you are to be able to complete the race. Because one thing is for sure: if you haven’t chosen the pain of discipline in your preparation for the race, you will suffer the pain of regret before running for too long at all. And whether the desired outcome is physical (the perfect ‘beach body’); career-focused (a promotion); developmental (a further qualification), the same principle applies: short-term sacrifice for longer-term gain.

If we think about it at all, we all recognise this as a truth. We see the logic. We understand. So why do we so often refuse the small burdens of self-imposed discipline, and end up with the heavy burden of failure and regret?

I have a confession to make at this point.

About 15 years ago now, I wanted to do some further study for personal rather than career reasons. I looked at the course and how I might go about achieving it. It was a university degree course, would have to have been self-financed, and completed part time. On that basis, I figured it would have taken me 10 years to complete: completely daunting; not ‘useful’ in career terms; such a long pay-off period… surely, I reasoned with myself, by the time I had completed it, it wouldn’t be worth the effort. And I was incredibly busy at the time.

You know what happened, of course. Nothing.

But here’s the thing. 15 years later, I wish that I had completed the course.

So why didn’t I do it?

Well, I was doing all the other things that demanded my attention. Arianna Huffington speaks about “the stress, burn-out and compulsion to ‘do everything,’ that infects us all”. Daniel Pink suggests that we all feel “that relentless pressure to sample all the good things in life. To do all the ’right’ things…”

So, whether we are just chasing our tails to survive, or running as fast as we can so that we don’t miss a thing, the truth is that we are missing things… it’s inevitable. The trick is to make sure that we don’t miss the things that turn out in retrospect to be really important things, so that we are forced to shoulder the burden of failure or deep regret.

On reflection, I didn’t choose to take on the study programme because, in Steven Covey’s terms, while it was important, it was not urgent. Covey’s matrix is well known but worth repeating for illustrative purposes.

My study programme was important in terms of my values, and my long-term vision for my life. It was crowded out by the urgent – some things I genuinely had to deal with (Quadrant 1), and some that were just ‘urgent’, there and “in my face” (Quadrant 3). And, yes, I’ll admit to some time-wasters (Quadrant 4).

So what kind of pain are you setting yourself up for right now? Discipline or regret?

You see, activities directed at our personal development always fall into the important but not urgent quadrant. The problem is that, in a society addicted to short-term gratification, we can find any number of reasons to put the ‘important but not urgent’ on hold. For example, we know in our heads that a management development programme will benefit our careers, but it’s intangible. It may take three or four years before we may possibly celebrate the desired outcome (career advancement). But the urgent – the deal we close today – offers the immediate gratification of financial reward. That is tangible.

That’s our challenge: to run our lives in response to the urgent, or make decisions with a longer-term view. To do that means knowing ourselves well enough to understand what is truly important (and will still be important in years to come) and what is merely urgent (and ultimately trivial). It means being in tune with, aligned to, personal values. It means appreciating what will help make us the best possible version of ourselves. It’s easier then (but not easy) to pare away the ‘urgent but not important’; easier to bear the burden of discipline; easier to avoid the burden of failure and regret.

Just a thought as you face those tough decisions about what to hold onto and what to let go…

Life’s a marathon, not a sprint

Last weekend I was privileged to participate in a “great race” – the Washie 100 miler. And before you ask, no, I wasn’t running. I was driving a support vehicle with a small team seconding an athlete running the race. 

The race began on Friday evening at 17h00 and for our athlete – who came 16th out of 100 participants – it finished just after 13h00 on Saturday. Read that sentence again, slowly… yes, 20 hours and a few minutes to be awake, and running on a pretty brutal course (see the profile below):

I spent a lot of time that weekend thinking (when you drive 160km at an average speed of 7 - 10kph, you have a lot of time to think). My thoughts – the printable ones at least – included:
It’s wonderful how simple things – like a hot shower, a decent meal, and bit of shut-eye – restore sanity and perspective. Which gave me a chance to reflect on the achievement and the experience as a whole. And I thought about things like motivation and passion; about strength – both physical and mental; and about action learning.

The first thought is that the motivation and the passion come from within. In races like the Washie 100 miler, there are no prizes – just a small wooden trophy that every finisher receives. There is no external incentive, no fame or glory, very little publicity or even recognition. The true prize is completing the race and achieving the targets you have set for yourself.

Learning is no different. As teachers, facilitators or managers, we may push, cajole and even threaten learners of all ages to learn. But unless the motivation is from within, we are all – teacher, facilitator, manager and learner – going through the motions and the outcome is not transformative.

Thomas Jefferson said once: “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” I know the young athlete well enough to understand something of his motivation: that it is about stretching himself; finding out what he is made of; pushing to the limit; achieving his full potential; living the adventure of life; squeezing every drop of significance out of it. It is a learning journey into the unknown. The journey transforms him, and that is learning.

The second thought is that the race isn’t just about being physically fit enough to run 160km. It’s also about being mentally strong enough to have completed a full marathon and know that there are another three of those to go. Or to reach the last checkpoint – after 120km of mind-numbing and muscle-sapping work – and know that you have another 5 hours of running left to do. I was exhausted just sitting in the support vehicle and watching; I was blown away by the sheer grit and determination as he came to terms with “another 40km”. Sometimes it came to breaking the race down into counting forty steps; or reaching that tree…

Do we settle too easily into comfort zones and never extend ourselves, or take risks…? It’s too difficult, we may say, or time-consuming, or a waste of time, or too daunting to try this or go for that: we might fail… Les Brown, motivational speaker, author, radio DJ, former television host, and former politician, says: “The only limits to the possibilities in your life tomorrow are the ‘buts’ you use today.” Learning is not only about ability; it is also about durability.

The third thought is that the young athlete’s running ‘career’ has been and is an on-going learning experience. Running was the weakest discipline of his triathlon (swim, bike, run) and has become a focus area of continuous improvement. It has been a process of learning about optimal training programmes; rest and sleeping patterns; general diet and in-race nutrition; and race management – setting and sticking to plans, anticipating and dealing with physical, mental and emotional ‘flat-spots’, and adapting to the unexpected in race conditions. It is literally about finding what works and what doesn’t. In that sense he is an on-going action-learning project. He is always on the journey to being a better version of himself; always striving for goals he has set for himself rather than those set by others.

What keeps him going? Perhaps there’s a clue in the words of poet E.E. Cummings: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” In every sense that involves real, transformative learning. I wish for you the courage, the internal motivation, the mental strength, and the passion to become all that you can be.

Survival skills for the 21st Century

I have the greatest respect for good teachers.

There are few greater gifts to a growing mind than a good teacher: someone who sees the potential wrapped in the awkward packaging and does everything they can to help that potential emerge and flourish. It’s a vocation – a calling – in the true sense of the word.

I think, though, that great teachers in the public school system today are often on a hiding to nothing. It’s not just that their classrooms are often overcrowded; or that they labour without adequate resources; or that their administrative load is prohibitive; or any of the other challenges that get in the way of nurturing growth and development. It’s the expectations that confront them.

I know of a young language teacher, filled with enthusiasm and a desire to change the world. He believed that he shouldn’t teach what he couldn’t make relevant; that texts should be explored for what they contributed to understanding self, others, interactions and life itself. Above all else, he believed, texts – novels, plays and poetry – shouldn’t be taught as blocks of content, with single certain meanings or interpretations. He believed that it was more useful to teach people how to think critically and make meaning for themselves – backed up by evidence to support their position – than it was for them to learn by heart what he thought about the text, or what ‘the examiner’ might require.

You know where this is going, don’t you?

Inevitably the young teacher found himself in a ‘developmental discussion’ with his headmaster. The discussion, regrettably, was not so much around a philosophy of learning as it was around exam preparation. And even that was more around achieving a desired ‘ranking’ in the province than it was about learning. The conversation ended along these lines:

Young teacher: “So, just to be clear: I should prepare model answers and spoon-feed learners in preparation for their final exams?”
Headmaster: “If that’s what it takes, yes!”

End of discussion…

Let’s explore that a little. What happened?

Rote learning triumphed over critical thinking. How was it allowed to happen? Quite simple, really: expectations (or lack thereof). The Education Department expected improved pass rates and the achievement of national targets. Parents expected access to tertiary education and the ‘golden careers’ (how many parents don’t want their children to be doctors, lawyers or engineers?) And the learners… would it be overly harsh to say they were incidental to the discussion?

Perhaps you have read that and said to yourself: I don’t see your point. They’re getting good grades; they have access…

I see things a little differently.

We are told often enough that we must live by the consequences of our decisions. The truth is that we don’t always examine those consequences before making our decisions, and in areas like education, the consequences are seldom immediately visible. The consequence of rote learning is that people learn to store – temporarily – and reproduce on command, certain blocks of content. And that is a skill with a terribly limited application.

The truth is that we don’t really need to memorise all that much anymore. I learned any number of telephone numbers growing up; I can scarcely remember my own today – I have outsourced that work to my smart phone. Through Google I can access more facts in twelve minutes than teachers tried to cram into my head in 12 years of schooling. (I have, for some strange reason, always remembered that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, but there have not been all that many occasions in which that fact has proved useful).

I’m sure you know the often-quoted statistics around learning and its relation to the world of work: that half of what we learn in preparing ourselves for the world of work will be out-dated and irrelevant within 2 to 3 years. Or that 60% of the jobs our children will be doing 20 years from now do not yet exist.

We are living in times of unprecedented change. My first workstation comprised a desk, pen and foolscap pad (without a computer anywhere in sight); a landline (rotary dial mechanism) as my sole means of voice communication with those outside my office. We used the postal service, and fax machines were cutting edge communication devices. I “write” this “blog” on a MacBook and will shortly “post it” online; words I would not have understood 30 years ago.

Eric Hoffer said, “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

We do a grave disservice, then, to learners of all ages if we are satisfied with content transfer. And that’s because content has a shelf-life. I remember buying a set of encyclopaedias long ago for money I could ill afford. They stood on my shelves for years, primarily because I had spent too much on them to throw them away. By the time I did, it was with the certain knowledge that so much of what they contained was redundant.

No, it’s not ‘content’ that learners need. It’s how to access content, and then how to evaluate it critically, to decide on its usefulness, to apply it in ways that transform individuals, teams and organisations, and even the world itself. Instead we defer to ‘experts’ and – horror of horrors – the great god Google (“I read it on the internet, it must be right”)… we lack the capacity for critical evaluation and application.

Let’s teach people to think, not memorise.

Learning what we live

My mother told me once that, when I was a little boy, she instructed me not to touch the wood-burning stove because it was hot and would burn me. It seems, though, that the concepts of “don’t touch”, and “hot”, and “burn” remained abstract and disconnected until I brought them together in a searing moment of learning and truth – I touched the red-hot stove.

That was my first conscious encounter with a principle Einstein expressed as: “The only source of knowledge is experience.”

It seems that I learned all the required lessons that day: I gained first-hand experience of “burn”. I never did repeat the experiment with the hot stove. And I was able to generalise this particular experience: I didn’t have to touch other hot things to know what the result would be.

More importantly perhaps, I learned to trust a source of information and direction that had my best interests at heart. I can’t remember the actual words, but I would be unsurprised to find that “don’t you remember I told you the stove was hot and would burn you” was mixed in with the salve and comfort. And I had a lot of time to reflect on those words, reinforced by frequent sharp reminders from outraged nerves (isn’t it astonishing how often we unthinkingly strike our fingers against things in the course of everyday activity).

The trusted source became part of my experience too, and this saved me from other potentially dangerous lessons. I didn’t have to learn about the shocking impact of electricity by putting my fingers into plug sockets; or cross roads without looking to know that cars might knock me down. You get the idea.

It seems that, unwittingly, I validated David Kolb’s model of experiential learning.

So is that what Einstein means? And if it is, why do we so often fail to learn from our experiences?

After all, life presents us with a host of potential learning situations every day. We are late for appointments; we get stuck in traffic; we miss deadlines; we communicate poorly with colleagues; we arrive home late for dinner; we miss soccer matches or ballet performances; we write clumsy reports; we deliver dull presentations; we have moments of misunderstanding with important people in our lives… and many of us do it over and over again.

Typically we brush these off as aberrations, but in each there is a ‘learning moment’, an opportunity to reflect, to decide, to change. It is what makes progress possible. It is the way that we avoid repeating our failures, and instead give ourselves the chance to move forward, to make new mistakes, to learn and change and grow again.

The key word, I think, is ‘reflect’. Put simply, we don’t; or not very often anyway.

Two CEOs of an organisation in the USA (true story) were discussing a rather expensive mistake by a junior executive, which had caused a $1,5 million loss. “I guess you fired him on the spot,” said the one. “Why would I do that?” asked the other, “I’ve just spent $1,5 million training him.

I want to suggest, though, that unless there was serious reflection, the ‘training money’ is a permanent loss rather than an investment.

Perhaps it has to do with our general busyness. There is no space, no time, no quiet for the work of reflection. And work it is. We are connected relentlessly to others by multiple devices and social media. Even our watches – thanks to Apple and Fitbit – are no longer just for telling the time. If a recent Bloomberg report is to be believed, we routinely work more than 40 hours per week; our responsibilities both at home and work are increasing; and flexitime often means being permanently ‘on call’. In a world of instant gratification and demand-driven responses, where and how do we find time to reflect?

Are we, like the hamster, doomed to run until we drop or the wheel breaks?

The good news is that even the hamster gets off the wheel every now and again. We simply must create time to reflect.


Recognising the importance – believing in the absolute necessity of reflection – is a starting point. Because it remains true that what we regard as of primary importance, we find time to do. Without reflection, we are doomed to repeat the first stage of the learning cycle: we will ‘do’ something again, and again, and again.

That way madness lies...

Of sponges and stones

With typically dry English humour, the author Terry Pratchett once said, “The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”

That’s our dilemma right there, isn’t it? To be open to new ideas with all that implies for the hard work of engagement and change; or to avoid the inconvenience of having our paradigms challenged, and so shut ourselves off from growth and possibility.

I’ve been privileged as a facilitator to play a part in the learning process but I’ve come to see that, while I might be sparked to life by learning, this is not necessarily true for everyone. Which leads naturally enough to a reflection on the nature of learners and learning.

Many hours spent in classroom and workplace-learning contexts suggests to me that learners fall into points along a continuum when it comes to openness to learning, and a willingness to engage with new ideas. Perhaps you will recognise people – or even yourself – at or somewhere between these two extremes:

Extreme 1 – let’s call them ‘sponges’ – engage willingly and ask questions, explore, try to see possible applications, and how reality as they have known it might be reshaped to accommodate the new ideas and insights they are gaining. Because they are open, they adjust behaviour, practice, or systems and structures to accommodate their new insights. But openness doesn’t mean that everything has a place. The hard work of thinking things through – or critical engagement – determines what makes sense, and what does not; what stays and what goes.

You will recognise these people because their stories speak of “Aha!” moments. Their eye shine with possibility; they know that they have not learned it all; they change themselves and, by increments, their world. As a facilitator, you stand back and watch, with goose bumps and a silly grin of delight, as learning happens.

Extreme 2 – let’s call them ‘stones’ – also engage willingly. They are more likely to tell than ask, though. They take the ideas they encounter and reshape them to fit the reality in which they live. Because they are closed – unwilling to have their worldviews challenged – they listen selectively, interpret creatively and strip new ideas of transformative power.

And you know this because their stories echo with the distance between ways and means. They dress old practice up in new clothes. These are the stones: they use some of the new language perhaps, but nothing really changes. You see, they know. Their knowledge is certain and finite. This is the way things are and will be. As a facilitator, you find yourself responding with a sense of hopelessness: “Yes, but…” a bit like looking at your idea reflected in one of those distorted fairground mirrors – all bent out of shape.

The legendary American basketball coach, John Wooden, said: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Simple, but profound.

You see, stones know it all. They have what they need to understand and operate in the world. They may even smile a little condescendingly at those who challenge them, because they live out there in the real world, while you live in a fairy-tale… Sponges, on the other hand, understand that learning is an open-ended process that continues throughout life. What they have learned is a foundation for what is to come: what they learn after that really counts…

How is it possible to be so divergent in our thinking about learning?

Stop at this point and ask yourself this question:

“Have I ever been in a situation in which it seemed more important to me to show others that I ‘knew’, than to be open to exploring what they had to offer”?

If there is even the suspicion of a “yes”, then you need to check your point on the continuum; your openness to learning.

Is this really such a big deal?

The German philosopher Hegel told us “We learn from history that we do not learn from history”. At what point on our journey, and for what reason, do we decide that we have learned all that we need to learn? Could it be that we decide there is more merit (or profit at least) in adopting a particular viewpoint or way of doing things; that this way brings comfort if not truth? And could that be the reason we are doomed to repeat our mistakes? Einstein once said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” And yet we seem willing to try, over and over again.

So pardon me my small sigh when I encounter those who know it all, and forgive me if ever I come across like that.

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

I like to think of myself as a Facilitator.

When I introduce myself in this way, people will often say: “Oh, you mean like a Teacher, or a Trainer?” No, I am tempted to answer; like a Facilitator.

Am I being precious? Wouldn’t Shakespeare insist that, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”? I am reminded, though, that words don’t have intrinsic definitions. Definitions are simply descriptions of the way people use words.

I am a Facilitator, because I like the way it describes me more than I like what Teacher or Trainer says about me right now.


When people talk about a Teacher, they frequently mean a school teacher, a person who provides education for students in preschool, primary school, secondary school, and so on. And while I might be interested in helping people acquire appropriate knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and habits, I have very little to do with formal education structures.

Trainer, as it is frequently used, seems even less appropriate. A Trainer is defined variously as: a person or thing that trains, especially one who coaches athletes, racehorses, or show animals; or a member of a naval gun crew who trains cannons horizontally. None of those describes particularly well what I do on a day-to-day basis.

In what way is Facilitator any different or better?

Well, to facilitate literally means to “make easy or easier”. One who facilitates – a Facilitator – is someone who makes progress easier. And they do this by leading a discussion, asking questions, mediating between opposing viewpoints, or by ensuring that all participants’ views are heard. I am happy to own all of that.

But while I am happy to facilitate, I recognise that not everyone is happy to go through the process. I remember ‘Jan’ well. I was working with a group of young managers, grappling with a relatively complex idea. I was operating, as I do, on the assumption that they were not “little vessels… ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim” (Dickens, Hard Times). We had been throwing ideas around – some of us more willingly than others – when one of those ‘moments’ happened which make the whole thing so worthwhile for all involved. Someone said, “Oh, so that’s why…” And the lights came on in a series of “Aha!” flashes. But Jan sat with his arms folded, a disgruntled expression on his face. “If that’s what you wanted us to know,” he said, “then why didn’t you just tell us?”

I could have said: because real learning only takes place when you battle your way to understanding. I could have said that if he battled for the answer he would remember the outcome because it would be his. Instead, I had my own “Aha!” moment, and it was this: Not everyone enjoys the hard work that real learning almost always involves. I love what Peter Senge has to say about this: “Taking in information is only distantly related to real learning. It would be nonsensical to say, “I just read a great book about bicycle riding—I’ve now learned that.”

Oddly, as in Jan’s case, some learners are more than happy to ‘outsource’ this function, to have an expert ‘tell’ them what they need to know without question or process. That is both disappointing and frightening, and goes some way towards explaining some of the challenges we encounter as countries, businesses, and communities, and in our homes.

How does it happen that the joy of learning hardens in some to indifference and even to arrogant resistance? I am old enough to have watched with sadness how the creative spark that is within every child is so often snuffed out in formal learning processes.

In his book “Aha!”, Jordan Ayan writes: “My wife and I went to a pre-school parent-teacher conference and were informed that our budding refrigerator artist, Christopher, would be receiving a grade of ‘Unsatisfactory’ in art. We were shocked. How could any child— let alone our child—receive a poor grade in art at such a young age? His teacher informed us that he had refused to ‘colour within the lines which is a state requirement for demonstrating grade-level motor skills’”.

If we ‘learn within the lines’, it is possible to reach a limit. We come to understand that this is “the way things are done around here”. At some point, for some people, necessary learning is deemed to have happened. They know what they need to know.

So I facilitate. I do it because facilitation, as I understand it, builds learning skills that deliver independent learners; learners capable of lifelong learning. And learning how to learn is more important than any number of ‘gallons of facts’ you may learn.

Take responsibility for your own learning; don’t outsource it to someone else. The person you are becoming is too wonderful to leave in someone else’s hands.

Learning is change is learning

You’ve probably never heard of Felice Leonardo "Leo" Buscaglia, PhD. Or how and why he came to be known as ‘Dr Love’, and that’s understandable. You may recognise one of his better-known sayings, though: “Change is the end result of all true learning.” His story is worth exploring.

Leo Buscaglia was born in Los Angeles on March 31, 1924 into a family of Italian immigrants. After Navy service in World War II, he earned three degrees at the University of Southern California (USC), before eventually joining the faculty.

He was teaching at USC in the late 1960s when one of his students committed suicide. She had been one of the sets of "kind eyeballs" he always looked for in the large auditorium, because she was responsive. She was a reassurance that at least one student was hearing what he said. The news that she killed herself had a great impact on him, and he got to ask himself an important question: "What are we doing stuffing facts into people and forgetting that they are human beings?"

His response to the tragedy was to start a non-credit class he called Love 1A that from the outset was always full. The class became the basis for his first book, titled simply LOVE. He wrote 14 books in all, every one of them national Best Sellers.

Nice story, but so what?

The part I find most interesting is the profound insight behind the life changing experience. He had been teaching, and lost sight of the learners. He had, in some sense, lost his “why”, his motivating purpose. In looking for an answer, he did something different; became someone new; made a difference in the lives of those left behind.

He learned. And he changed.

I remember talking to someone once about the importance of ‘life-long learning’ in this day and age, and the person said “Oh, that sounds like a life sentence’. Anyone identify with that? Do you sometimes wish you could just get your ‘dose’ of learning and then get on with life? Do you perhaps grit your teeth and ‘learn’ (study) because you have to get a piece of paper that may (or may not) advance your career / help you to earn more money / impress someone somewhere / result in a better job. Oh, I ‘get’ that these endpoints are important in the ‘real’ world, but it seems a pity to go through the process without purposefully benefitting ourselves – without growing to be the best version of ourselves that we can be – and in the process benefitting others by being that best self.

I am fascinated at the way that so many seem to approach workplace learning – particularly in potentially transformative areas like leadership and management development. Fascinated because of the apparently negligible impact of the investment for all concerned.

Perhaps it’s because of the way we do it.

These ‘learning interventions’ usually start with a NOBLE VISION from a LEADER, often expressed in Richard III-like terms: “Leaders! Leaders! My kingdom for real leaders!” But the current business leaders are too busy for this stuff, and it rapidly becomes an HR PROJECT. And unless HR is a strategic partner, we all know how that goes. Once it is an HR project, it morphs into a ‘deliverable to be met’, and human beings disappear. Line managers may or may not be consulted, but seldom see the resulting programme as addressing their ‘felt needs’ at operational level. All they can see is that their best people are out of the workplace at critical times.

The project is implemented, nevertheless. People turn up in classrooms. Facts are ‘stuffed into them’. Managers welcome them back to the workplace with words like ‘hope you had a good rest break; now do some real work’. Learners – whether they ‘believe’ or not – are squeezed – and oddly we see this as a ‘good thing’ (it ‘sorts the men from the boys’). Later we question it all because ‘it didn’t do anything for the business’.

But every now and then there is a significant moment. A learner really learns. An individual or team is transformed. A business grows. There is a shift – not cosmic – but noticeable, nevertheless. Learning has taken place and the world – in some small way – will never be the same again.

“Change is the end result of all true learning,” Leo Buscaglia told us. We have a heart for transforming individuals and organisations through learning, so we get to ask important questions about learning: How much have you been changed by your ‘learning experiences’ over the past week, month, year? Are you better as a leader? As a manager? As a spouse, father mother, son, daughter? As a human being? Or are you too busy ‘stuffing facts into your head’ to learn?