Give yourself a chance

How many times have you heard, “I’m not very good at” or listened to yourself say the same? Our ability to artfully segment activities in to “the things we can do” and “the things we can’t do” is legendary.

But how do we really know?

To give you an example, let’s say that I’m tasked with cooking a meal for a group of friends. I don’t normally cook, but for circumstances beyond my control I”m left to do so. I have the ingredients, I have the recipe, I have the cooker and the utensils. When everyone turns up on the saturday night to a pile of ill-determined, semi-burnt mush, I look at the evidence and declare, “I can’t cook”.

And from there on, I have the belief that this is an activity that I cannot perform.

I use cooking as a simple example, but what about maths, finance, presentations or public speaking? How often do we hear people declare in the workplace that they can’t do these things? And on what basis do they hold that belief?

What if instead we were to hold the belief that we could do anything? Well, anything biologically possible for a start. But rather than being about ability, instead we choose where we want to put our time, energy and effort? What if we were to accept that people had almost unlimited potential, just limited resource?

“I can cook. I just haven’t put the practice in to become good at it.”
“I can do numbers, I just haven’t had the exposure and I don’t really have the inclination.”
“I can speak in public, but I have to get used to handling the fear that comes with standing on stage.”

Ultimately, what we can and can’t do, comes down broadly to the things we want to invest in and the things we don’t. If we find that we also have an aptitude, that investment feels simple. If it is the opposite, sometimes the investment can feel too much.

The simple truth is that we choose the elements where we want competence or even mastery and we eschew those that we feel are a step too far. That choice is important in helping us come to terms with the essence of self determination and in turn how we manage and interact with those around us.

So next time you hear yourself professing that “you can’t”, instead try asking yourself how hard you’ve tried.

Meeting the productivity gap

I have a confession to make, I’ve become a little obsessed by meetings. I’m fascinated by the way in which we, in organisations, fill significant proportions of our time talking about the things that need to be done.

Which feels kind of weird.

I saw some data last week that showed that the higher up you go in an organisation, the higher proportion of your time is spent in meetings. Now assuming that people have succeeded in work because of a level of competence in doing “something”, to take them away from that to instead talk about “stuff” seems slightly counter intuitive.

And even accepting that the coming together of people within organisations is a valuable part of the working agenda (which I absolutely believe to be true). How often are meetings run by the most skilled most adept facilitator versus how often are they run by the most senior person?

What happens is that we are stuck in a historical model of business, where those on high would call together their underlings to convey, check, question or hold to account. And whilst so many aspects of our business life have changed, this one part still remains firmly planted in the past.

The much talked productivity gap that exists within UK business surely can’t be helped by the amount of unproductive time spent in unnecessary or badly run or defined meetings. Freeing people up to do rather than talk, to create rather than discuss.

When our lives become about meetings, we have to ask ourselves whether we are adding value, or simply taking resources away from the main purpose of our organisation.

Get innovative, goddamit!

It is a common refrain from business leaders – the need to be more “creative”, more “innovative” and to look at opportunities that explore beyond the present. “If we do what we’ve always done, well get what we’ve always got” is the refrain that echoes around multiple boardrooms.

And of course, this is both true and false at the same time. The motivation for making the statement in the first place is that doing what has always been done is no longer providing what has always been got. Otherwise, why change? The very issue is that external factors are creating moments that the business can no longer navigate – hence the need to think again.

What’s tough in these circumstances is that often the organisation is so hard wired, that no matter how many times someone shouts “CREATIVITY” or “INNOVATION”, no matter how positive the intent, there is a seeming inability to deliver against that good intention.

What’s wrong? Do we need to get a new type of person? Bring in some really “BIG thinkers”?

What are the chances that you’ve hired an entire workforce that is unable to think differently? What are the chances that there is not a single innovative bone in the collective body? That you’re institutionally bereft of creativity?

My guess is, that in those very organisations you have artists, musicians, writers, dancers, poets and sculptures. My guess is that at the very moment they leave your organisation for the day, they’re starting to display the very traits that you as an organisation are yearning for.

So what are the chances, that you’re trying to tackle lies within the corporate form rather than in the employee body?

Much of how we’ve structured organisations is to develop conformity, replication and rule following. Some people portray this as a negative, it isn’t. It’s just a thing. So if we want to change the behaviour, we need to also change the rules of the game. If you’ve never asked for a creative idea, why do you think one will come just when you think it should? If you process employees and value conformity and obedience, why will people think and act differently?

Creating the environment for people to express and develop their ideas, means creating the environment, not just artificial moments. If we want to unlock the innate skills and abilities that exist within our businesses, we’ve got to ask ourselves what closed them off in the first place.

We need to talk about failure

There is one thing I excel at, it’s failure. I’ve singularly failed at well over half the things I’ve ever attempted to do. And even those of you that are poor at statistics will be able to work out those aren’t good odds.

Learn to play the guitar? Fail
Learn to speak German? Fail
Learn to code? 404

Significant parts of my working life have also included spectacular fails – its hard sometimes to not bring your whole self to work…..

Let me tell you about someone else that failed, my friend Steve. Last week he tried to swim across the English Channel to France. Now that’s not easy, in the same week someone tragically lost their life whilst trying to complete the same challenge. Steve stopped seven and a half hours in to his attempt. In a Facebook post he said this,

“Yesterday was not my day. I’m really disappointed, as can be expected. I trained hard for this for 18 months, and thought I had it covered. Battles were lost in the lumpy sea with wind against tide as we progressed into the open water (albeit that my pilot Simon described them as good for the channel), vomiting everything in my stomach and more after 2.5 hours, and struggling to take on more fuel quickly enough, but the war was undoubtedly lost in my mind, and that’s what I’m most disappointed about.”

Steve failed. And in my book, that makes him great.

In the world of work, we struggle to fail. We invest so much time, effort and energy in making things happen that we become unable to accept that they’re not a success. We make up reasons for the situation, the environment, the market, the opportunity. When you’ve been through twenty-six board meetings, fourteen rounds of business cases and eventually got the go ahead, it is pretty hard to accept that anything isn’t right.

And when we cannot accept that we’ve failed, we pass up the opportunity to learn. We take nothing away, because we create a narrative that explains events through untrue circumstances.

Read that comment from Steve again. Did he blame the waves? The wind? The flotsam and jetsam of our muddied waters? Or did he analyse and own his own performance.

All of us will fail this week in small and inconsequential ways. We won’t all be swimming the channel, or starting new businesses. We won’t be running marathons or climbing mountains. But nonetheless we can learn from our failures all the same.

I love failure, you should love failure. We should embrace failure as our biggest opportunity to grow, not as the biggest threat to our self-worth. At the end of the day, those who don’t try, can’t fail. And the brave will try, fail, learn, grow and try again. That’s what makes them stand out as exceptional.

So as you go about your business this week, remember we can all be successful at not doing a lot, or we can shoot high and run the risk that we miss.

Maybe it’s me, but I can’t help thinking, things could be a whole lot more interesting if we were all just a little bit more Steve.