100 Questionable Assumptions – 2

The Mechanical Enterprise

An enterprise is like a machine we design, build, and operate 

Like a train speeding towards the abyss - ©Bard 2016
Like a train speeding towards the abyss – ©Bard 2016

An enterprise is very much like a machine. It is engineered to perfection. Powerful and unstoppable, if properly constructed if will fulfill the function it was designed for without hesitation or deviation. Like a train it will thunder down the track its masters lay down for it, squashing all that comes in its path.

If this were true, why do Enterprises so often surprise us? Why is there no guaranteed best formula for creating and running an Enterprise? Why can good companies turn bad? Why do winning Enterprises stop being successful?

Is it because the machine of Enterprise is being operated by humans and those humans are fallible, unpredictable, flawed? If that were true, the less human interference we need, the better our Enterprises would become. The perfect Enterprise would not need any human operators at all. The perfect Enterprise would be perfectly engineered to perfectly run without human intervention.

Or could it be that the reality our Enterprises operate in is not a mechanical reality? Could it be that the complexity of the Enterprise’s environment defies a full analysis, complete enough to robustly design the Enterprise for all the variables and variations it has to deal with in its existence? If that is the case, no purely mechanical approach will yield a workable Enterprise. Resilient, intuitive, intelligent, unpredictable people will always be needed to steer the Enterprise through the frothy waves of complex reality. The perfect Enterprise would be approximated but never complete. No design, however detailed and well-thought-out can capture all the possible variations branching out at every future moment. Without humans to give it life, purpose, awareness, and responsiveness it would remain a perfectly lifeless abstraction, incapable of sustaining itself in the real world.

There is plenty of reason to believe reality is too complex, chaotic even, to be fully predictable. Why then are we still trying to refine human action and human agency out of our Enterprises’ design and operation? Why do we keep thinking that less human control and influence equals more effective operations?

Isn’t it time to stop that train before it takes us over the edge of the abyss?

100 Questionable Assumptions – 1

This is going to be a series of assumptions I believe we should not always take for granted. They may be true sometimes, they may sound quite obvious, but are they always right? I am not claiming they are never true or useful, just arguing we should occasionally stop and question them. If we never critically examine what we assume about the world, how will we ever correct the flaws in our thinking?

1: Unlimited Wealth

If wealth is good, limitless wealth is infinitely better

Bard - ©2016
Bard – ©2016

Can you ever have too much of a good thing? If wealth enables people to do great and good things, limitless wealth should enable them to do an unlimited number of even greater and better things. But many great and good things are not happening in the world right now, whilst many deplorable and bad things are.

Why is that?

Is it because the wealthy are not wealthy enough? Are we limiting their ability to do all the great and good things they would do if only we let them grow even wealthier?

Or maybe wealth itself is not enough. Maybe wealth needs the human spirit to turn its potential into good. Maybe strong spirits with limited wealth can do great things, where weak spirits with great wealth do little good at all.

Maybe, when focusing on growing wealth, we are focusing on the wrong side of the equation? What would happen if we focus on developing the human spirit? If we encourage our children to be compassionate, fearless, strong, kind and caring before we teach them to be selfish, afraid, needy, greedy and aggressive? What would happen if we change the rules of the games our society plays by, so that wealth is not automatically equated with success, and money is not automatically equated with power over others?

The Social Fabric

The social fabric is a magic fabric
Woven from our obligations
Our debts unpaid and favours owed
For the balance of the greater good

Woven from our hopes and dreams
Our vision of a better future
Our memories of a glorious past
And the stories shared between us

The social fabric is a fragile fabric
That can be torn and shredded
By selfishness and greed
By secrecy and scheming

Ripped apart, unraveled
By violence and power
By divisiveness and hate
And the politics of fear

The social fabric is a precious fabric
It protects us with its cover
And is all that stands between
Our kindness and indifference

Without this cloth to dress us
We would be naked in this world
And face the icy Universe
Each one of us alone

Bard – 2019

On The Social Nature of Work

Have you ever wondered why so many people in your organisation are constantly stressed-out and on the edge of a burnout or fundamentally disengaged? Have you ever asked yourself if that is normal? 

Is it really the case that work is by its very nature hard, mostly unpleasant and a sacrifice we all have to make in order to make a living? Is work really no more than a sad fact of life we put up with because it pays the bills?

I believe there is more to work than that.

As long as we have existed, humans have come together to achieve things we could not achieve alone. Throughout the ages, we have tackled difficult, dangerous and unpleasant tasks together in groups, tribes and all kinds of organisations. We did not just do that for the reward. In fact, a lot of extraordinary work was done not for extrinsic motivators such as money, titles, status or power, but for intrinsic motivators such as being part of something bigger than ourselves, doing something meaningful, making a contribution, or in the words of President Kennedy: we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

They didn't build it for the money - ©Bard 2015
They didn’t build it for the money – ©Bard 2015

Humans like to work, and love to work together. It’s a deeply ingrained social drive. It’s part of what makes our lives meaningful and worth living.

Yet, that’s not what most workplaces feel like.

Because of our obsession with the economic aspects of work: money, value chains, productivity, etc. and how that makes us organise and manage the work we do, we are actually working against the natural drivers that engage and inspire people to do great work. Instead of helping people achieve their best and wanting more we make it harder.

But we can change this. If we recognise and embrace the natural drive that people have to get together and do great work we can tap into much more energy, creativity and willingness to explore and innovate than we do at the moment.

To do so we need to add a social perspective to our approach. We need to realise that organisations are not just there to produce economic value. Organisations are social structures, full of people with a need to participate, to feel proud, to have a purpose, to grow their potential and to contribute. 

It’s my mission to help bring this social perspective to organisations and show them how they can inspire and support their people to do great work and enjoy doing it.

It’s time to re-humanise work.

Making Your String of Pearls – Step 7

What Is Your Story – Chapter 14

Well-prepared and well-planned we are now ready to start the next leg of our journey. We shouldn’t expect everything to go exactly as planned; life seldom does. What we should do is regularly check our progress using the VIPs we defined for ourselves. This allows us to make adjustments as we go along. Staying on course while responding to the world evolving around us is a balancing act. Like walking a tight-rope, it requires considerable skill. A skill we will only get by actually walking that rope. We will fall off. Often at first, then less and less as we get better. As long we don’t see those falls as failures they are simply part of the learning process. We brush ourselves off, take a few deep breaths, and get back on that rope to try again.

Step 7: Making it Happen

As we walk our path we must stay alert to the obstacles and opportunities we encounter. There is truth in the old cliche that says that every obstacle is an opportunity. At the very least, every setback or challenge is an opportunity to reflect and learn. We often encounter resistance, push-backs and roadblocks at the beginning of a journey. Especially when that journey takes us far from the way we presented ourselves in the past. The more we deviate from what the world expects of us, the more the world will try to push us back. Back to where it’s comfortable – for the world. We should remember this when we encounter resistance and see it as a sign we are moving in the right direction. It shows that we are unmooring ourselves from the anchors that held us in place before.

However, we also need some discernment and judgment. Not all resistance and setbacks are signs of progress. Sometimes we are running into real, unforeseen obstacles. We may encounter difficulties we underestimated or did not see coming at all. Sometimes we may, in fact, have begun to veer off our ideal path. When our conscious mind fails to notice this our subconscious mind may be trying to signal us. It may be trying to tell us to pay attention and get back with the program. The way to find out what is actually happening is to observe with detachment what is really going on. What are the source and nature of the resistance we are running into? What is our own role in creating them? How much of a problem do they pose? What does our intuition say about the situation?

We can use our VIPs to estimate how serious the issues are we are facing. How much and what part of our desired progress is being blocked or slowed down here? Is that an essential part, or something we can postpone or move around? 

I had been negotiating with a potential government client for some time. Then, as frequently happens in Australia, the political landscape shifted. That caused ripples of change to reverberate throughout the circles of government. Departments heads were replaced. Whole departments had to be reshuffled. Decisions were put on hold and initiatives were cancelled while budgets were frozen. It seemed that a promising start to my existence as an independent consultant was being nipped in the bud.

After venting my frustration to some friends (I am only human) I did an exercise of detached observation. How important was this setback in my current journey of becoming a writer and public speaker? The work would have been interesting and the income always welcome. But the contract was not exactly crucial to the realisation of my ambitions. In fact, this delay could be a blessing in disguise.

Working with large government clients can be very demanding and time-consuming. Things tend to get complicated. A lot of time often gets taken up by the formal and organisational aspects of the work, rather than the work itself. What starts as a part-time assignment can easily become a full-time job.

My stated goal was to work just enough to have time to develop my writing and thinking. Maybe taking on a potentially large contract at this time would get in the way of me achieving that goal? Since the writing was my first priority, would it be a mistake to rush straight into contracted work?

After some introspection, meditation and consultation with my partner, things became clear. The delayed negotiations were not precious time lost, but precious time gained. It was giving me time to write and develop a clearer, stronger story to show to the world. That clearer story would give me a better position to resume the negotiations later. It would be easier for me to focus the contract on my core competence and the things I want to be known for. It would give me time to make sure the client was serious about their commitment to the changes they asked me to facilitate.

In the end, the setback caused by the change in government turned out to be a great opportunity for reflection and exploration. It gave me the chance to explore some of my fears, worries and doubts. It made me reconsider where I needed to put my energy and attention to live my story as I intended. And it helped me to refocus and get back with renewed energy to writing this book. Which was, after all, the number 1 priority on my list. 

Obstacles and resistance can be very helpful tools to help us refocus and realign our course. But what happens when we overcome all obstacles? When we successfully push through the resistance we encounter? When our VIPs show we are exactly on course, does that mean we are living our life’s purpose? Does that automatically mean we are getting closer to living our perfect story?

Not necessarily. There is another pitfall we could be walking into when things are going almost too well to be true. That’s the danger of localised optimisation.

Imagine a group of explorers looking for the highest mountain in a certain area. Their mission is to keep going until they can’t go any higher up. If they can see the entire area, this would be easy. They can plot a course to the highest peak and make their way there. With limited visibility – such as fog or darkness – the situation becomes more complicated. When they can only see a few meters ahead of them, their sense of progress is limited to their ability to keep going up. But this can mean they end up climbing the very first hill the come across and then getting stuck. Every step forward is taking them down. With the next peak out of sight, how can they know there are any higher peaks to climb?

It's high, but is it the highest? - ©Bard 2017
It’s high, but is it the highest? – ©Bard 2017

When things are going well on our journey, there is a risk we are getting stuck on a local hill. That is partially a problem of visibility. It’s hard to see into the future and the next hill to climb may not be easy to spot from where we are. But it is also a matter of comfort and uncertainty.

Having reached a peak gives us a sense of achievement. Our VIPs show we have made progress. We are visibly better off than before. We are closer to our goal. That sense of achievement brings a sense of comfort. We feel good about what we have accomplished. It feels good to be on target.

From that point of comfortable achievement, every move would seem a risk. We could be moving backwards, or away from where we want to be going? Why would risk it? Why would we trade this comfort for the uncertainty of another journey?

Even if we can see the contours of an even higher peak in the distance, uncertainty will hold us back. We are OK where we are now. That other peak may be higher but it will be hard work to get there. Before we can get to that next achievement we may have to give up some of what we have achieved already. We may feel uncertain about our ability to get to that next mountain altogether. Why would we risk losing the good things we have achieved for a goal we may never reach?

This combination of comfort and uncertainty can get us stuck. I am not saying there is anything wrong with finding a local optimum and staying there. That is everyone’s personal decision. I would be the last one to deny people the comfort of having reached a nice local peak from which to admire the view. But if we are committed to a journey of discovery and development, we must from time to time challenge ourselves. We must dare to look beyond our current view to see what we are not achieving and not learning by staying where we are.

Obstacles and setbacks can be great opportunities for reflection, exploration and learning. Times of achievement and easy progress can distract us from growth and development. The art of continuing our journey lies in keeping a detached perspective. Hardship and glory are both passing moments we should not get stuck on. We observe them, learn their lessons and then move on. There is always more to explore and more to learn. There is always a new story to discover, just beyond the horizon.

Making Your String of Pearls – Step 6

What Is Your Story – Chapter 13

The difference between wishful thinking and choosing a new direction for our future lies in having a plan of action. This doesn’t mean knowing everything that needs to happen. In a complex world and a constantly emerging and evolving future, we will never truly know everything. The best we can hope for is to have enough clarity about our direction and enough insight into our current situation to know which steps to take first. Every journey starts with a first step, followed by the next, and the next. Those few step are what we need to make happen, and then trust that the subsequent steps will be revealed to us as we progress on our journey.

Step 6: Making a plan of action

There are at least as many planning frameworks and tools as there are books on the topic of planning. Everyone should feel free to use whatever planning approach they feel comfortable with. However, not all planning is equal. Here are a few elements I think are particularly important when planning our personal journey.

Goals & Targets

The first step of planning is making sure we are clear about our goals and targets. That may sound obvious but does require some introspection. Unless we have put them down in concrete terms we often only have a vague outline of our goals, not their substance. Concrete terms are about the visible, tangible and intangible differences we expect to see when we arrive at our destination. The goals we are talking about here are personal development goals. Knowing what we expect to gain by achieving them is important to keep our motivation and inspiration for our journey. 

I have left the corporate world to write books and to develop myself as a public speaker and facilitator around topics I am passionate about. I need to generate enough income to maintain a reasonable standard of living. I want to keep the workload balanced between time spent performing in public and time writing so I can keep developing content. My work is meant to motivate and inspire people to take positive action in their own lives, so I need to reach enough people to feel I have any impact at all. Finally, I realise this is just another leg of my ongoing journey of discovery, so I do want to keep feeling I am still exploring, learning and growing as I go on.

To make this more concrete, I have summarised my goals and targets as follows:

    1. 2 – 4 public engagements per months for 6 months of the year, leaving the other 6 months for other things, including writing; 
    2. Enough income from these engagements to allow me to be highly selective in accepting work that I find relevant, intrinsically rewarding and fun to do;
    3. Continuous improvement of my presentation skills so I get more satisfaction having more impact while expending less energy;
    4. A growing impact so that more people are inspired to take positive action because the content I present;
    5. A deepening understanding of the topics I talk about;
    6. A continuing feeling of personal growth and ongoing progress on my personal journey of self-discovery and self-realisation.

Visible Indicators of Progress

Goals becomes guides when we can articulate them in terms of observable differences, so we can see we are moving in the right direction. They are often not objectively ‘measurable’ – intangible goals and targets seldom are. Still, for as much as possible, we should describe them in ways that help us notice when they occur or fail to occur when we expected them. We must have the differences we expect to achieve so clear in our minds we can regularly scan ourselves and our environment for any signs that those differences are actually occurring.

Since we are planning a journey, not a sudden leap to our destination, we should add a way of sensing ‘progress’ as well. Next to looking for signs that we have reached our goals, we want to define ways to determine we are getting closer to achieving them. We can call such signs “Visible Indicators of Progress” (VIPs). When articulated well, VIPs can be powerful tools to help keep us going on our journey, even when our goals and targets seem difficult to reach and far in the future.

We can use the following questions to add VIPs to our goals and targets:

    1. When the goal has been achieved, how can we observe the difference? What actually changes when we achieve this goal?
    2. When we approach the goal, how can we observe we are getting closer? What changes when I am on the right path, moving in the right direction?
    3. When the goal is receding, how can we observe we are drifting off course? What changes when we are moving in the wrong direction? 

Using the 3 questions outlined above, these are some of the VIPs I came up with for my goals:

    1. Public engagement
      – achieved: enough bookings for the coming year
      – approaching: a growing pipeline of prospects, invitations and requests
      – receding: no reaction on my attempts to generate interest
    2. Income
      – achieved: all our living expenses are covered, plus savings, emergencies and holidays
      – approaching: a growing pipeline of prospects, proposals and concrete sources of income
      – receding: nothing in the pipeline and no income for more than 6 months
    3. Improving my presentation skills
      – achieved: I get more energy out of presenting than I put in every time
      – approaching: I feel energised more often than I feel depleted
      – receding: I almost always feel more depleted than energised

At the moment I can honestly say goal 1 is slowly approaching, goal 2 is receding and for goal 3 I need to do more presentations to be certain, but so far, so good.

Choosing Our Actions

With our goals and VIPs defined, we now have a guiding framework to help us choose our future actions. We will have to gain and practice some new skills, increase doing certain activities and diminish or stop completely doing certain others. This is where our choices become the foundation for the future we have chosen to create.

When choosing our actions, NOT doing things may be one of the most difficult things to focus on. We live in a busy world. There are always more things to do than we can hope to complete. Much of this busy-ness stems from other people’s expectations of us. Our jobs, family, social circles all make demands for our time and attention. On top of that there is a constant overload of media (social or otherwise) clamouring for our limited attention.

This is where we need enough discipline to shun needless distractions and rigorously reduce the number of things we are trying to do and think about in any given time-frame. We need to understand the difference between urgent and important. We need to discern between what is requested and what is required. We need to choose between what is expected and what is expedient. Then we need the discipline to stick with those choices. 

The one activity I had to become much more disciplined in is writing. Publishing books is my chosen way to strengthen my reputation as an authority on the topics I want to be known for. Writing books is hard and time-consuming. There is also the issue of inspiration and the ‘mood’ one needs to be in to write. My past tendency used to be too procrastinate. I collected endless amounts of ‘supporting evidence’ – most of which I then did not use. I kept reading other people’s books for ‘inspiration’. And often I would stare at an empty screen for hours hoping that one golden idea would come to me.

To combat this kind of procrastination I set a daily goal for myself: I would write a minimum of two pages of text each day. I also made sure I blocked out several hours each day solely for the purpose of writing. And then I would sit down, turn of all distractions and simply write. What made this work was my conscious decision to just keep writing. Instead of trying to write perfect sentences and beautifully crafted arguments I often just typed out whatever thoughts occurred to me. Often I would imagine talking to someone and explaining something to them. Whatever I would say in such a conversation I would write down.

Making the time to sit and write - ©Bard 2018
Making the time to sit and write – ©Bard 2018

In the beginning, this was much harder than it sounds. I had to really focus to shut down my inner critics – those nagging internal voices that keep telling you nothing you write is good enough – and just plough on. The aim was to get my thoughts down on paper. Crafting them into coherent text and artful language would come later. Even when I felt I was not making any sense, I would just type on.

What this disciplined and stubborn way of writing taught me was that the art of writing really is the art of deleting. Much of what I initially wrote never made into any book or blog I would consider publishable. The truth is, however, that to be able to delete things, you have to have written them first. I discovered it is much easier to hone down a rambling and badly-written bloated piece of text to something passable than it is to get every sentence right the first time around.

It has also taught me that the process of writing is itself a process of exploration and discovery. It is another way of capturing and structuring my thoughts. It changes the way I think about things. It brings depth and coherence to ideas. It helps me connect separate ideas together. It exposes gaps in my thinking. Many of what I now think are my best ideas only formed because I ran into them while trying to make sense of something I had written days or weeks before. 

Setting Our Priorities

Choosing what to do and what not to do only really works when we have our priorities right. The world has an unlimited appetite for our efforts and attention, whereas we only have a limited amount of each to give. We need to give as much attention as we can to those activities that further our story. If we don’t, our journey will be cannibalised and diffused.

In practice, strict prioritisation means the following:

    • Never have more than 3 priorities. Period. If we have more than 3 priorities, they are not priorities but just a list.
    • Next to what we want to do (our priorities), we will have things we need to do (our socio-economic obligations). We need to schedule those in so they don’t obliterate our priorities. When we perform our obligations we need to aim for the acceptable minimum energy and quality. We don’t want to over-perform here and waste precious energy and brain-power. The rule of thumb here has to be: it only has to be good enough to get away with. Anything more is costing more than it should.
    • Keep some time free for the unexpected. Some urgent can come that cannot be ignored. An opportunity too good to pass over can suddenly present itself. If nothing claims that free time, use it to relax and have some social time with a loved one or some friends. Or really do nothing at all. Just switch off that all too busy brain and stare out of the window or go for an aimless but pleasant stroll outside. Next to doing what is important to us, doing nothing (in all its many forms) is one of the most important things we can do. 

This is what my current daily priorities look like:

    1. Write
    2. Network
    3. Read and think

On my list of obligations I have:

    1. Time with my wife
    2. House and garden maintenance
    3. Finances
    4. Family and friends

On my list of ‘to avoid as much as possible’ I have:

    1. Social media, except as part of my networking activities
    2. Long conversations with people about nothing
    3. Taking on contracts for work I’m not inspired by

And finally, for my downtime, I have a few relaxation-, recharging and resetting activities:

    1. Meditate
    2. Walk outside
    3. Make music
    4. Read fiction
    5. Watch a documentary
    6. Take a 20-minute power nap

I may not always manage to stick to this allocation of my time and attention, but overall it’s working really well for me. The very existence of this book – written in parallel with one other book and several blog posts – is proof to me that these are the right priorities, obligations, no-go zones and down-time items for me at this point. 

Taking the time to plan, setting goals, VIPs and priorities, and then creating structures to help us stick to the plan as much as possible is not always the most inspiring way to use our energy. But it pays off in the long run. And the long run is, after all, what we are in for on this personal journey.

The River will be a real book soon

I have just been told a publisher is interested in picking up The River for publication. Needless to say, I am very excited about that.

Once I know all the details and dates I will let you all know, but for now the publisher did ask me to remove The River from my blog, which is why you will no longer find it here.

I am thrilled, and a little bit nervous. But mostly happy.

Bard, March 2019