Reflect Category

Being Human in The Age of Extremes: Pausing to see the other side

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What makes us human?

  1. The ability to tell stories that make sense of our lives?
  2. The (potential to have a) conscience?
  3. The way we organise to do ‘projects’ from farming to hobbies to start-ups?
  4. But also ‘othering’ – that is the way we pretty naturally like to put all we see and meet into groups and make those good or bad, helpful or harmful, right or wrong, hero or villain. ‘The other’ is frequently given less positive characteristics, though sometimes (for example in the case of celebrities, especially national treasures), they have a sort of saintly halo.


This final characteristic or seeing putting something in a neat box and labelling it positive or negative extends to the black and white thinking we see in the anxious debates of our age, including:
• Refugees and migration
• Junior doctors strikes
• Nationalism in Europe and the US
• Trident
• The Union
• The various issues and groups who Donald Trump targets
• Trophy hunting
• Sugar tax
In all of these a circle tends to be put around those with a different view and then there is a judgement that makes them and their ideas wrong.  We see it from our Facebook pages to Front pages.

The news media and social media coverage of all these stories polarises views. Advocates of a particular viewpoint tend to sound as if the argument is very clearcut; they know the answer – and it is in their direction.

So if being human means we have a tendency to seek tribal certainties, what makes us civil is, I believe, stepping back from quick scapegoating…seeing the other side, disagreeing well, looking at what is fact from the story and considering the alternative stories.

However, I agree that in a way I risk ‘circling’ those who are certain and making them wrong! Yet, this desire to see the other side is more of a habit I practice than a belief; a discipline more than a personal value. I find it as easy to label and judge as anyone else, but reckon that learning to challenge those tendencies (as I look for information to challenge my assumptions and confirmation bias) is pretty important in my life and work.

And the more I think about the stuff that occupies the pages, screens and chat in my life the more nuanced the ideas seem. I realise ‘IDK’: I don’t know.

As I explore the gospel of doubt in the age of anxiety I discover I need to continually practice ‘holding my beliefs lightly’. Yet, I regularly need to form a view and make a judgement. I need to vote. I need to advise a client; to call time in a meeting. I need to act.

So what makes us human? Pausing. The potential of a momentary pause to consider; what else might be.


Further reading:
Meaning of Life is a project
National treasures
• Projection, scapegoating, splitting
WITOS and perspective managment assessment
• From other peoples skin (shoes, eyes)
Holding our beliefs lightly
• The Gospel of Doubt and questioning the ‘bricks’ on which our beliefs are based
The Age of Anxiety


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Are you FREe?

Checklists, Front foot, Improvement, Organisations, Reflect, Teams, Think, Values No Comments

Earlier this week I attended a concert at Kings College Chapel. As I sat there in the dark stillness a storm raged outside that rattled the ancient doors as a nearby college clock chimed the hour. I recalled how exactly 27 years before I had first been in that place.

I remembered I had been a little shocked to find myself in higher education – as a working class lad who struggled a fair bit at school. Yet in my mid 20s I had applied to study at tertiary level. When interviewed, some of the alternative angles I shared from my experience as a front line NHS worker, plus the insights from my union activism seemed to appeal to those who selected students.

Over the years I have found sitting in that building to be a powerful place for reflection during times of significant personal change.

So, I was thinking – but on this occasion about my work. My studies all those years ago were the start of my deeper interest in how organisations perform (or don’t). Over the last few months I have been crystallising what I now know about institutions – from larger networks to smaller teams, from commercial enterprises to noble purpose initiatives – based on my experience of working across sectors and continents. What makes an organisation worthy of commitment? What are the features that make them likely to succeed? And fail?

After a quarter of a century, I think there are just three things that are crucial. I summarise these with the word FREe (actually FRE, as you will see below).

Firstly, FOCUS. Is the purpose of the organisation shared? Is the strategy clear – is it understood? Has the governing group set out its intentions (and limitations) for the wider staff to work toward and within? Do individuals know how their particular role contributes – and do they realise where their personal motivations fit, and where they do not?

RESPONSIBILITY: are staff expected to use their initiative to sort out issues? Do they have freedom to act? Do governing boards avoid overstepping the mark and resist micro-managing the executive – and do line-leaders avoid constraining their staff with overly detailed instructions or the expectation of involvement in all decisions? How clearly are all staff held to account for how they have used their autonomy?

Crucially, EXAMPLE highlights the role of senior leaders in setting the cultural tone for an enterprise plus the part played of line managers in re-iterating this – and the importance of peers in reinforcing the ‘right’ behaviours. Most of us are not saints or sinners, rather we absorb the ways others work. This extends from basic ‘pro-social’ interactions to do with decency and civility through to the modelling of focus and responsibility and other important attributes like curiosity. ‘Example’ also concerns how the implied attitudes at the core of a business’s purpose are demonstrated by staff in their dealings with each other as much as with customers: be that caring in the case of health services, learning for an education provider or speed for a high street fashion brand, for example.

I am discovering how this simple framework is powerful in a range of settings.

It helps individuals: it is useful in ways from coaching leaders through to prompting those being interviewed for new jobs to ask useful (and interesting) questions.

With teams it is a checklist to test that the platform for achieving positive results is in place.

For organisations it highlights three important factors to work to get right in all places – to ensure well-served customers, content staff and a fulfilled mission.

Are you ready for FREe business?

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What DEE-cisions?

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Imagine the scene. A producer pitching the idea for a film: in Africa, people are living insecure and impoverished lives; thousands of people decide to start an exodus to Europe; they walk and walk and walk, and they talk to the media covering their movement – “we are poor because you are rich”; those in the North are fearful of the mass migration from the South.

The surprise about this film? Well, firstly it is has already been made. By the BBC. A long time ago. In the 1980s a pitch something like the one imagined above actually happened. ‘The March’ was made with leading figures in front and behind the lens. It was broadcast over 25 years ago.

Even so, the surprise is not that it was so prophetic – the story remains prescient.

Rather, it is striking that the film is almost totally forgotten. It has never been repeated. You can’t buy it online – even through the BBC bookshop. It has just about disappeared, other than a couple of YouTube clips, for example.


This film was an insight – into insecure lives and the challenge of economic development.  Today, in our work (and lives) we are offered insights all the time. Sometimes our colleagues or bosses or contacts expect us to act.

We have four options in any situation:

First, we can IGNORE the information and time to decide.

Or, we might DO something. Possibly instinctively.

These are the two main responses. Both can be due to cognitive biases. The complexity or anxiery might just be too much for our busy life – so we ignore it. Or we are a bit discombobulated and just want to do something – so we rush to action.  Either way, we may (over) rely on our intuition.

Or possibly we want to take our time. Our third option is EXPERIMENTATION. We might want to give something a go. We might wish to try something out.

The fourth and final possible choice is EXPLORATION – wanting to find out more, or reflect.

When viewers saw ‘The March’, my hunch is most ignored the implications. Maybe it seemed too fanciful. Or worrying. Some probably signed up to the campaigns for third world debt relief that were popular at the time. Others maybe chose to give supporting a particular charity a go. Some others might have decided to read more about the issues and think about how best to respond.

In our organisations we can manage our DEE-cisions by:

1) being totally clear of the criteria for ignoring a topic or possible choice. Maybe it is the responsibility of another group. However, ignoring should be used sparingly.  Often issues that are important are not on the radar. Methods like ‘scenario planning’ help shift some issues from being tuned out to ones that have further effort put into them – i.e. making the shift from ignoring to exploration or maybe even experimentation.

2) Deciding and acting is important for progress. Even here, ‘do and review’ is both poetry and philosophy. When will you take time to see if your ‘no-brainer’ decision had indeed worked?

3) Setting up some trials is at the heart of experimentation. What ‘improvement cycles’ or ‘prototypes’ can you try? The 90 day cycle is really valuable – what will you take stock of in a Quarter? Or 30 days? Or even after a week? This tweet remains a very popular tool for managing this spirit of trial (and error) and taking stock.  Experimentation builds momentum.

4) I do believe in the ‘art of procrastination’ in decision making – and this is where exploration can really come in.  The ‘art’ thing is the difference between ‘ignoring’ and ‘exploring’ – the difference between unecessary or unproductive delays and choosing deep, insightful thought. Keeping an eye on a topic or deciding to come back to an issue before making a decision can very helpful – or it can be avoidance. A symptom of a troubled group is continually revisiting and changing prior judgments – very sloppy governance indeed. But if it is well managed (sparingly, with strict deadlines and some effort) then exploration is helpful time to ponder and consider – and helps limber up our thinking for a future experiment or action.

So why not try triaging your next set of decisions in the group you work with. What can you ignore? But most importantly, what would DEE have you decide? What should you DO? What could you EXPERIMENT with? What might you EXPLORE a bit more?

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The Art of Business: The importance of perspective

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You probably agree with these two beliefs:
1) We all see an issue, an event, our lives, our work in ways that are a bit different to the person sitting next to us, on the phone or at the other end of cyberspace.
2) In our lives and work we will do better if we see and understand more of what is going on in any situation: our decisions will be more informed, a way forward will have more chance of success, a plan will have more support and things will feel fairer all round.

[If you don’t agree – please let me know, I would like to understand more of your point of view!]

I propose that understanding more of what others see is highly useful, however you view knowledge and whatever your stance on the Enlightenment Project :
a) If you are seeking to discover and promote truth – with a positivistic approach (maybe if you work in basic research or are someone who likes to develop a rational strategy in your organisation)
b) If you are keen to understand more of each other’s contingent realities – in a postmodern way (for example in staff engagement and listening to potential customers in a focus group or existing product users as a designer)
c) If you are trying to learn more about your assumptions and prejudices – in a ‘post-positivist’ sort of way (which can be very useful in a organisation where you are trying to avoid group think in deciding on a more emergent strategy or a team where you are trying to navigate your way through conflict)

Given how we are as humans (with mind-sets that are both firmly fixed and fluid too) and the importance of trying to understand different viewpoints as we work to improve things, maybe you will agree that in addition to the two truisms at the start of this blog there is a third crucial one for any leader (defined as someone who is trying to influence the behaviour and action of others, from a sports team captain to a member of a band; from a charity volunteer to the CEO of a major corporation).

So what is this third belief, that makes a trilogy of truisms? The proposal: the core skill a leader needs is ‘perspective management’. This ranges from:
i. A deep curiosity in what others see – whether those ‘others’ are senior colleagues, complaining customers, union stewards with a grievance or people who are met in the course of a journey. This leads to seeking out opportunities to see things differently – from starting a Board meeting with a ‘patient journey’, to walking the floor, to sitting quietly in a café or store watching potential customers examine your product.
ii. An ability to ‘hold their own beliefs lightly’. Jim Collins in ‘Good to Great’ described how level 5 leaders have a rare combination of humility and will. Leading through perspective is more about the humility of that formule– the harder part of a determined (and possibly arrogant) leader to master.
iii. A desire to reflect and refine, to review to improve in the light of experience and others opinions. They are a ‘cycle manager’.

Perspectives (and how they are explored, entertained and used) is at the heart of excellence, for a leader, team and organisation.

‘Perspective management’ is difficult to apply, it is not a precise science. Leading with and through an exchange and exploration of perspectives is more like an art, with some disciplines and a desire to help others (and oneself) seen anew:
– Like an artist, the leader is thinking all the time about how (and how far) to challenge themselves and others to see things differently
– Like an artist, the leader is open to different methods and media to help themselves and others see.
– The leader has to decide, often intuitively, how much time to invest in exploring and considering, before (and during, and after) ‘execution’

Are you a perspective manager? I hope you might see you are, or at least see the need to try and be one.


The 2×2 Holy Grail

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There is one 2×2 matrix I am drawn to (and draw on) more than any other.

One that I have heard applied to government ministers, heart surgeons and sports players.

It is described in a number of ways, but it is really the same each time:
• Technical ability vrs living corporate values
• Aptitude vrs Attitude – see this tweet on it
• Skill vrs will
• Competence vrs likeability – see this  and the middle of this

When Secretary of State for health Alan Johnson was described by a few senior officials as a rare minister in the upper right box.

I have heard managers (and sports coaches) say they hire for aptitude and fire for attitude.

I have seen star performers sacked for refusing to budge out of the top left box.

It links to level 4 and 5 leadership in my values framework:

Where are you? Where are your colleagues? Do you feedback on these things to each other? See the third type of feedback here.

The Holy Grail? Certainly the hardest.


On the purpose of rules

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Rules can help us achieve at least two things…

Here are some suggested new rules for urban (cage) cricket – designed to broaden the appeal of the game.

And here are some rules for great fiction advocated by the ‘Dickens of Detroit’, who died earlier this week.

In your workplace, what rules would you like to
1) Break – to bring down stuffy barriers and increase inclusion of those who don’t normally get involved in things?
2) Suggest – to improve quality of various work outputs?

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Makes you think

Reflect No Comments

Is this teaching, community building, marketing, engagement, trust building?

This video on empathy from the States is powerful stuff.

A bit on the back story here.

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Wiki wiki who?

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My big surprise of 2012? And one that is continuing into 2013…

not a viral media sensation involving a K-Pop star – or anything high brow to do with economy or the defining moments for massive institutions like the BBC, Police or NHS…

Rather, this article on the most popular pages on Wikipedia reminded me of how fruitless my search to meet someone, anyone, who contributes to the online encyclopedia was during 2012 (as per this blog). In my travels and events I met some who know people who do write and edit – but no one directly.

So…maybe I should start and be that person : )


How to live life? A-F

Personal productivity, Reflect No Comments

Anticipation > anxiety?

Broadening >belief?

Curious > certain?

Determined > demanding?

Example > exhort?

Fascination > frustration?

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Why roofs?

LearningStyles, Reflect No Comments

A few reasons for the recent interest in roofs in these blogs…

1) As we go into 2013, are you running your life at the right speed for you personally?

2) What design and ideas can you get for deciding how much speed or friction you can face, such as this . We have a pack of materials we can share if you want too – let us know.

3) How can you make things smoother, simpler where necessary – applying the ideas of lean as well as personal productivity.

4) What are you keen to protect and preserve in your life? What outside elements are you trying to keep out?

5) In your conversation, does the chat move at the right speed – or too fast or tediously slow? How are you helping or getting in the way of the right speed – with curious questions, clever interjections or bored indifference?

6) Other? Please let us know any other connections you have made to this metaphor.


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