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Chicken and Egg

Climb that wall

Business is a complex system. If you don’t believe me, notice how many times the words “chicken and egg” come up in board room conversations.

Shall we hire some new people? Yes, when the sales are there. But hold on, we can’t make the sales until we have the people. Let’s wait until we have the sales – then let’s hire the people. But hold on…

If you’re not familiar with systems theory, it suggests that we like to imagine things happening largely in linear and cause/effect kinds of ways. But that a better model is that many things we encounter in life, including business, are the result of circular feedback loops and conditions as well as causes. This makes things more unpredictable, and sometimes, leads to that ‘chicken and egg’ state.

So how might we break out of these loops? How do we resolve the impasse of hiring versus selling?

Firstly, be conscious of them.

Study how systems operate. Learn from experience the subtlety of emergent properties – how unexpected results emerge as the result of changes we sometimes unwittingly make to systems. Picture them, draw them, get a feel for them. Some systems theory seems mathematical but I always think of it as more as an art than a science.

And secondly, throw your hat over the wall. There’s a story I remember from long ago about George Washington. Apparently when he was a youth he and his friends (for some reason I imagine them in the top hats and tails) used to wander around the gardens near his home, looking to steal apples, cut down trees and generally make mischief.

Sometimes they’d come up to a wall. A really high, unclimbable, dangerous-looking wall.

That’s kind of ‘chicken and egg’ isn’t it? In front of it you’re stuck. You can’t resolve the impasse – you can’t go forward.

So what happened? Well, one of them would take off his hat and throw it over the wall. That did it.

You see then they were committed – they had to retrieve the hat, so that meant they had to climb the wall. They had to go forward. And they did.

By the way I have read several introductions to systems theory but by far the best in my opinion is the late Donella Meadows book: “Thinking in Systems“.

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Own goals?

I have always been rather suspicious of goals. So I was delighted (!) to find a recent post by Jeff Trexler pointing to this Harvard Business School paper and a Boston Globe article on “Why setting goals can backfire“.

The late, great coaches’ coach Thomas Leonard remarked in 1989 that “goals are overrated and unnecessary”. Perhaps some evidence that he was right is  finally starting to emerge.

As the HBS paper succinctly puts it, it’s not that goal setting doesn’t work. It’s that it’s “a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”

So take care. Be careful what you aim for.


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The elements of passion

A colleague, Mick Landmann, introduced me to the great Ken Robinson, a very funny speaker and holder of strong views on education. Last night, I watched him talk about his latest book, the Element, which is about the importance of having a passion for what you do in life.

If we follow our passions, Robinson argues, we are so much more motivated to do our work, are so much better at it, and we can achieve, much, much more.

He also made very clear the link between the problems we face in running up against resource constraints (land, water, oil etc) and the importance of following that passion. His suggestion is that for us, as a society, to find a way out of these problems it’s essential that all of us do what we are most passionate about.

The logic, I guess, is that these problems are so difficult that they require all of our individual and collective power to overcome them. Only by fully tapping into our passions can we access that power.

For me, this is where business comes in. I have been asking myself again recently, thanks to Simon Conroy, what business is. For me, business, when all is said and done, is a sandpit, a place to experiment, that allows people to be their best. To tap into that passion.

Sure, business can generate money. It provides employment. But much more importantly it clearly identifies problems and opportunities. Such problems, opportunities and the resulting solutions are meat and potatoes to someone with passion.

With passion people will work the long days, take the risks, and overcome the fears (facing conflict, for example) needed to solve the most difficult of problems, tackle the most inspiring of opportunities, and come up with the most creative solutions.

And through that work, become whatever they can become.

“Win-win” is a rather over-used term. But if at the same time as developing ourselves, we solve some of our hardest and most challenging problems, I can’t help thinking that is a real win-win.


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Navigating through difficult times

In difficult times, as in good times, I think it’s important to focus on the basics. Perhaps more so.

What are the essentials for a sustainable business? I can feel a list coming on.

Firstly, be agreed on what you are trying to achieve. Knowing this can get you through the toughest times.

Secondly, believe in profit. I know this is a little controversial. Some will say it is obvious. Others will not like the idea of profit as essential.

Profit is such a emotional topic, although mostly we don’t admit that. For many it has a bad name. And on the other extreme, even those who seek it above all else might be feeling a little guilty about it now.

But for a business to be sustained, whether it has a social or a purely economic goal, profit is needed. Profit builds reserves. When reinvested it creates strength – primarily through skills and knowledge. Excess profit can be harmful. But reasonable profit, reinvested, is essential.

Beliefs about profit are often so deeply held they’re hard to shift. But unless everyone in your company shares a positive view of reasonable profit, then you really do have difficulties if you want your business to survive and meet its mission.

Thirdly, everyone involved has to have a can do/will do attitude. It’s easier to believe that if things get hard we can give up. But to succeed we have to believe there is a way to get through – even in the hardest times. And we have to believe that we, and we alone, control our progress.

This is somewhat related to understanding that fear is normal. Fear of meeting people. Fear of doing new things. Fear of failure. And most of all fear of change. Know that fear is normal, and you are part way to overcoming it. If you know it and admit it, then you can ask for help, as just one example.

Being open to learning more generally – not being afraid to look a fool, and being unafraid to duck difficult things – is part of the same skill.

I believe even the strongest among us are afraid of change. We all fear the new and unfamiliar. Some like to change the world; but few are brave enough to change themselves.

But in an ever-changing world, what could be a more essential attribute for a sustainable company or an individual?

Fourthly, do the right thing. This doesn’t mean moralising. It’s more of a felt sense. For me, it mainly means overcoming fear so you can move towards a bigger goal. It’s about knowing what that bigger goal is. And sometimes taking the time to check the goal, so that it doesn’t get too big for its boots.

It also means a sense of proportion in other ways. For most of us in the developed world, it means remembering how lucky we are even when things look bad. Most of our lives contain many good things. Remembering to be grateful for them helps keep everything in balance.

Fifthly, do what you say you will, most of the time. Avoid promising to others; but if you make promises to yourself, then keep them. It’s all too easy in times of uncertainty to let a fog settle over us. And that fog provides the perfect shield to hide away, to let things slip, to quietly drop promises – even the most important ones.

Holding on to and reinvigorating your vision is one way to dispel that fog. Another is simply not to let yourself or others off the hook.

One way we let ourselves off the hook is by failing to “bottom-out” things. To me, this means starting a conversation, but when it gets a little hard, giving up. It means failing to push through the mental pain barrier to get at the roots of a problem.

The antidote might be stopping and declaring a time-out, and admitting one is lost. With no idea which way to go.

Being right, knowledgeable and on the ball is so important to most of us that sometimes we’d rather let confusion reign than admit we are lost.

But if you are wandering around in a mist, you are unlikely to get out of it by just wandering around. You need to get a grip. Work out what you know and what you don’t. Assess your resources. Form a plan. And then move steadily forward.

Another way of saying this? Tell the truth. Not just any old truth. But THE truth. The truth that is true for you right now.

However hard that may be.


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Keeping going

What do you do to keep going when the going gets tough?

I guess we all have times when we feel like giving up. Maybe it’s the heat of the summer. Or the cold of the winter. Maybe it’s because things seem to be going badly. Or maybe they are going so well that all impetus is lost.

When I get like that, inspirational talks don’t help. In a different mood listening to an inspirational speaker might lift me up. For me, at that time, the obvious refrain “it’s different for them” becomes very attractive.

One thing I know helps is the support of friends. A talk with like-minded people can, at least for the duration of the session, get me fired up again. Of course, the last thing I want to do in this mood is get out there and meet friends.

At times like this having made a commitment to myself is probably the best source of forward motion. If I have previously promised myself that despite hitting the doldrums I will continue to move forward, then when I hit this state, that’s what I’ll do.

It works for me. What do you do?


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How to take advantage of an opportunity

I’ve just finished reading Felix Dennis’ very funny book “How to get rich”. It’s also very real and packed with useful insights.

I think the book is really about how to succeed at doing things (in his case it was getting rich). I think it’s very applicable to the question of how to ensure your business takes advantage of the sustainability opportunity.

I’ll put his suggestions into my own words (and add a couple of things I have gathered myself):

  1. Commit. Work out what you want to do. Choose something that is true for you. Make a no-let-out contract with yourself to do it. Make it despite any objections that come up.
  2. Recognise that everything that happens to you is down to you. Even including your upbringing and genes. If you can do this, then what happened in the past can be turned from a pain to something really useful – learning about what you did that worked and what you did that didn’t.
  3. Be totally fearless. Now that is difficult for a total coward like me. But I know it to be a great strategy. Amongst other things, it means stopping caring about what others think – and being true to yourself instead. It means handling what’s in front of you – and not thinking too much about what might or might not happen.
  4. Start (don’t wait or hesitate). That’s a tough one for me. I often procrastinate.
  5. Persevere. But if one approach doesn’t work, “do something different” (more on this later).

What a great plan. Anybody know if it works?