What makes you do different?

While reading Stuart and Viv's great new blogs to get some inspiration for this month's topic, I noticed the tag line at the bottom of our blog page- about our programs "building your collaborative muscle"

Then I thought ...aahh...I'm actually in the middle of something just like that- my continuing recovery from my surgery for my ruptured quad tendon, particularly re-building the quad muscles that had atrophied from lack of use.

So why is this a time to try something different?

I've realised that I just have to, because:

  • I can't do what I normally used to do
  • there's a high risk to my future (mobility) if I push what I normally do
  • when I try to fix something it doesn't seem to work the same as before
  • I'm willing, but others aren't (in this case my leg!)
  • I revert back to business as usual pretty quickly

So what am I now doing that I may have avoided before, not even considered, or been embarrassed to try?

  • slowing down hugely (easier when your body forces that on you)
  • asking for help (eg requesting a wheelchair at the airport)
  • following a really rigorous 12 month rehabilitation plan (that actually changes weekly depending on progress)
  • but also accepting that I might just have to let things emerge, as I can't predict or plan everything (eg improving knee flexibility past 90 degrees)
  • constantly experimenting with new ways to get things done (climbing stairs, crossing slopes, working permanently from home)
  • Letting go of some things (being OK to not control everything- because the damn leg just won't respond)
  • sharing the load at home and work (could be just an excuse to avoid cleaning the shower!)

And I'm actually seeing that trying something different isn't just really useful when I am faced with a complex and uncertain situation that challenges almost everything I do, but it's actually the only way to get the type of progress I need to reach my vision- skiing black runs again within 12 months- Covid permitting!

So I'm wondering what's your try-different story? Hopefully not as debilitating as mine!


Is it time to do something different?

This is a very appropriate title for my blog this month as I, personally, am about to do something very different that is simultaneously exciting, scary, sad and makes me feel vulnerable. Yes, I’m going to step back from 59 years of (almost) regular work and 32 years since I founded Twyfords in 1988. I’m going to step into the unknown world of “retirement’.

I’m doing it because it seems like a sensible way of approaching the rest of my life. I don’t know what it will look like, I don’t know what it will feel like. I have already received advice that ‘transition to retirement is not always as easy as many people expect’ and that I ‘should have a retirement plan’.

What I have learned over this last decade of exploring collaboration is that, when facing an uncertain future, full of ambiguity, which is likely to include complex decisions about many things,  and likely to be dependent on the input of many other people, careful planning isn’t necessarily going to help.

So, my plan is not a detailed plan but more of a heuristic to live by as I let the future emerge. My notes to myself are:  keep my body active through regular local and long distance walking; keep my mind active by learning new things and reading more widely; and finally continue to attempt things that challenge me.

While musing about this future, after 32 years I’m unable to switch off the habit of considering Twyfords future, in parallel to my own.

I am excited for the possibilities for the company, and sad that I won’t be such an active participant as in the past.  We’ve been working hard during the uncertainties of the Covid-19 environment, the anxieties of the Black Lives Matter movement all embedded in the planet’s vulnerability to climate change. It’s pretty obvious to us just how important collaboration is going to be at every scale.

Twyfords theme this month is ‘Is it time to do something different?’

By this we mean, isn’t it time to think and act differently and improve our people’s capability to work really effectively with others on tricky, messy issues where complexity and uncertainty abound?

We asked our networks and their networks to respond to a quick 60 second survey. We are delighted at the number of responses we’ve had. We are finding evidence that the challenges facing project managers who want to lead their teams into more productive ways of working are the challenges our work is focused on solving i.e.

  • They are looking for ways to ‘nudge’ their people to work differently and more constructively together.
  • They seek confidence in leading a diverse team as it tackles difficult projects.
  • They want to ‘add’ collaboration to their project management skillset for the future and
  • They want to be able to ‘manage up’ and influence their managers and executives to support this new way of working.

I am confident that my colleagues at Twyfords, starting immediately, have solutions for project managers within organisations that struggle with:

  • impermeable silos,
  • a risk averse culture,
  • a technical focus ... and most specifically
  • a lack of support for ‘doing different’.

I wish them, as well as old and new clients, an exciting, but sometimes a little scary, way of ‘doing different’ where both authenticity and vulnerability will lead them into new ways and new success.

I’m also confident those ways of thinking and working will help me as I step into my new world as well!


Four ways to build collaborative habits in the workplace (despite weak flesh)

"Reverting to the usual way of doing things is a deceptively easy default option and often appears to be lower risk than trying something different."

So said someone in their response to our recent survey. It reminded me of another quote which has been around a little longer:  "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation. The Spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak".

In terms of collaboration - and to be honest, most other contexts - I can definitely relate to the idea that while the intention to do something different is there, it can be difficult to stick with the change. Just today, for example, I realised I have participated in a series of one-off conversations around a group, rather than finding a way to get the group together. The outcome has been some confusion, when shared clarity would have been so easy. Yet I got lazy and reverted to business as usual. Definitely some weak flesh here folks.

It is a good reminder of why many clients find it very difficult to achieve a change that sticks, despite knowing that more collaborative behaviours are useful. Behaving differently requires us to, well, behave differently, and as I can attest, that isn't easy. As always, this brings me to the role of mindset, or how we think. It is very clear that, while being more effective as collaborators is about doing things differently, what it is REALLY about is thinking differently. In order to 'do' collaboration we must 'be' collaborative.

So what does it take to think differently in order to avoid sliding back to business as usual ways of working? We are still finding the answer to this question, but here are some things that seem to help.

  1. Learning by doing is powerful. Trying different behaviours, perhaps not always getting them right, but going again.
  2. The magic training intervention is a myth. Time is required to build new patterns of thought. It can't happen overnight so don't expect it to.
  3. Reflection on 'my' mindset is essential. Ask yourself, how am I thinking about this situation, this person or team, and what are the implications of that? If I was thinking like a collaborator, what would I do differently?
  4. Do your learning together with your collaborators. Make it public and make it part of the process. Learn to collaborate by collaborating to learn.

I wonder what your experience has been. If you are like me, then sliding out of the collaborative mindset is an ever-present threat. It is for this reason we have been working on a Collaborative Project Guide (watch this space) to support teams to collaborate more effectively by working differently, despite the gravitational pull of business as usual. While our spirit is willing, we hope the Guide will help our flesh be strong.


Fear of failure - does it shut us down or drive us?

Perhaps fear of failure starts at school where the words ‘failure’ and ‘fail’ are scary. They are represented by teachers and parents as something definitely undesirable. I was a bright kid in a small primary school in the UK, so I didn’t come into contact with those words until, at age 11, I went to grammar school, where I was among lots of other bright kids in a much larger school with regular tests and exams.

Used to being near the top of a small class, I found myself struggling. Tests and examinations became opportunities to fail. “What did you get?” was a common question as results were handed out. Failures made me feel inadequate and less worthy. I didn’t always meet my own expectations let alone the expectations of teachers, friends and family.

These failures at school, while uncomfortable, didn’t frighten me or shut me down. I think I just redefined my future. I decided on exploration as my next step rather than university and a specific career. I might have experienced failure academically, but I wasn’t going to fail at work or at life.  I’d be successful if I applied myself, stayed open to new experiences, met new people, travelled to new places, set and met my own goals and lived the life I chose. My inevitable failures would be temporary and be learning experiences.

These beliefs drove me. With every move, every new opportunity, every compliment, I gained confidence. I even tried academia again ... and succeeded.

But situations where the possibility of failure disables me and makes me vulnerable are still there. One of those is giving ‘expert’ presentations. Standing on a platform, being an expert on something, giving advice from a podium gives me serious imposter anxiety. I don’t like pontificating. I don’t like talking ‘at’ people. I feel vulnerable in a way I never do when in conversation with others where I love to listen and engage. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

No-one enjoys failure. No-one enjoys failing. However, working in the complex space, in uncertainty, just trying something is a useful strategy ... and whether our experiment or trial succeeds or fails, we will learn. Failure is just a detour not a dead end.


Failing my way to expert status

It's official. I'm now an expert! How do I know? I've just been appointed to an "expert panel" so it must be true. Over the next six months or so I will be working with some eminent scientists on some challenging water quality issues in coastal lakes.

It's great to be an expert, or at least I feel it should be, but I'm learning that it comes with its own challenges. What I have quickly recognised is that while part of me is pleased with the label, another part of me is going "oh no, what if I'm not expert enough? What if I get it wrong? What if I make a mistake?" In other words, now I'm an expert, the fear of failure is all the greater.

I've been pondering over the weekend and have decided on three little strategies to help me confront failure and cope with the inner doubter. Of course, they may not be very helpful, I wonder if they're wrong....? Oh no what if they don't work!!

...Ahem. Anyway, here is my plan:

  1. I'm going to keep in mind that on the complex issues we'll be dealing with as an expert panel, there is never a single right answer. Yet I know that stakeholders, and perhaps my fellow panellists, will at times be looking to me for 'the answer', and the urge to meet their expectations will be incredibly strong. But I will try to resist and instead invite them into our shared uncertainty, rather than fall into the expert trap.
  2. I'm going to listen to my own language. Specifically I want to hear myself say "I don't know" as often as I provide an 'expert' answer. This can be hard to do, but I take comfort in my belief that expertise surely resides in knowing the limits to our knowledge?
  3. I will seek to acknowledge the expertise of my fellow panellists, while avoiding putting them in the same expert trap. After all, I'm as comforted as the next person by the 'right' answers of specialists, so when I'm feeling uncertain I'll be just as prone to seek refuge in their expertise, and they will be just as likely to feel pressure to be seen to have an answer for me.

So these three strategies are my way of managing my own fear of failure. If you have experienced something similar, perhaps you could share the ways in which you have been expert in a complex world in which 'failure' is unavoidable.


A different sort of 'iso' project

This week we welcome our first ever guest blogger in Alice Henchion who is our fabulous marketing champion at Twyfords. Alice reflects on her struggle with achieving 'success' in a Covid world. We hope you enjoy this blog as much as we did.

Inspired by Instagram, I recently started a 750 piece puzzle hoping that it would develop into a wholesome family project. Not discouraged when my older kids and husband didn’t want to take part, I got cracking on the first grown-up puzzle I’ve attempted in over 25 years. The thing is, I live in a small house with 3 kids and a husband, and there’s very little space for a permanent puzzle to live. In between snatches of time sorting and placing pieces, I stored the puzzle on a board high up on some shelves, resting on storage boxes. Of course, I neglected to tell my husband all this and when he decided to move storage boxes, the partially made puzzle all came crashing down... along with the opportunity for a cosy family instagram shot, proving that we are thriving in Covid-19 isolation. 

The fact is we are not thriving in isolation… we are limping by.

I’d love to have mastered the baking of sourdough, built a chicken coop, planted a veggie patch or even just cleaned out my kitchen pantry during this ‘down’ time. But I haven’t. Because at my place there is no down time. I’m working, the kids are at home, and my husband is homeschooling. Life has never been more hectic. Our house has never been so messy. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of joy there too and I am so grateful for my beautiful family, but I can’t help feeling like I’m failing at isolation because I’m not getting ‘stuff’ done.

It took my mum to remind me, amidst a panicked phone call about an isolation birthday for my daughter, that I am allowed to take things off my plate. She pointed out that I don’t have to do everything, that delegating is an option and that the world won’t stop turning if I don’t do certain tasks today.

Since that chat I have tried to be more aware of escalating emotions and feeling overwhelmed.

I’ve tried to sit comfortably in our chaos and not worry about being uber productive. I have wrestled with guilt that our kids are having more screen time than I would like. 

I have tried painfully hard to not interfere with the way my husband is home-schooling our three kids. He’s doing it his way, which is perfectly fine… it’s just not how I would do it.

And that’s okay.

So I guess my isolation project has been learning to be okay with not doing isolation projects.

It’s been about coaching myself through feelings of failure, relinquishing control and adjusting my own expectations. I don’t think this project has an end point like building a chicken coop does, but I’m pretty happy to be doing it anyway.


(Not) Walking into Uncertainty

I'm not sure, but my experience is that having a sequence of uncertainties might actually makes things a bit more manageable. Seems a paradox, but perhaps provides some clues for living in these uncertain times.

So, to explain.

I arrived back from an overseas skiing trip with a serious leg injury in early March, just as the pandemic got serious here with the restrictions then lockdown.

Initially I was facing lots of unknowns regarding my treatment- did I have coronavirus? (test negative!), could I get to see the specialist and get surgery asap, could I recover in time for planned overseas trips, could I work?.

And then I get the surgery done and faced a whole new set of unknowns- how to manage with a full leg brace on 24/7 - could I sleep, work, etc?, how to get around?, how to even sit at home?, how to get rehabilitation?, and what does the rehab look like?, what should my leg look and feel like at the milestones in the rehab program?

And at the same time, Covid19 restrictions kick in and so a new set of unknowns emerge - how to get the stitches out with hospital cancelled?, face to face physio not available so how to recover?, how to exercise when staying at home with no walking?, how will it impact a fairly strict and lengthy rehabilitation program?, etc

But interestingly, I have survived OK when facing seemingly overwhelming uncertainty (both short and long term), and I was just reflecting on some of the things that might have helped:

  • Structure- providing myself a series of routines that gave me some short term certainty- a shower and dressing routine each morning, a short walk and coffee at the beach each day with my wife, timed 4 hourly exercise routine during the day, scheduled bi-weekly physiotherapy appointments, news hour each evening.
  • Not worrying about things I can’t control - letting go of the plans for travelling or skiing for 12 months, not stressing about needing someone else put my left sock and shoe on, relaxing about being driven everywhere, working as much as I can manage at home- even if it’s only 2 hours a day.
  • Keeping connected- using Zoom and WhatsApp to stay connected with clients, colleagues, friends and family
  • I’ve always been an optimist, so I guess that has also helped- I tend to look at things with a positive view, and that has been evident in how I have viewed my surgery and recovery and prospects- she’ll be right!
  • Also helpful is being flexible and trying some new things around my leg and recovery- like flexing my knee at home for physiotherapy rather than just relying on the expert- small safe to fail experiments!

So while I don’t recommend tearing a quad muscle tendon, it has given me new insights in how to thrive in uncertainty!


Is uncertainty good or bad? 4 different views + mine

To me, uncertainty is a state of not knowing. it’s when we can’t make sense of what is happening; it’s when we don’t know what will happen next; and worst of all it’s when we don’t know what WE SHOULD DO next.

Is this positive or negative? When uncertainty, unpredictability and not knowing feels uncomfortable, is it useful to invent or pretend certainty?

For many professionals to admit to being uncertain or not knowing is ‘career limiting’.  Careers are built on knowledge, on having answers, on solving problems. Leaders advance within organisations by knowing what to do, when to do it and why their solution will work.

Michael Lewis, author and financial journalist, says: ‘In the world we live in, political leaders don’t acknowledge uncertainty because it means admitting the possibility of error. The entire profession has arranged itself as if to confirm the wisdom of its decisions.’

However, not everyone sees uncertainty as negative. Austin Kleon, in his book ‘10 ways to be creative in good times and bad’, says: ‘To be 100% certain of who you are and what you do ... is not only completely overrated, it is also a roadblock to discovery.’

In my work over the past decade, I have become very aware of the dangers of knowing, of being the expert, and how it can be a roadblock to curiosity. The opposite of being certain doesn’t mean floundering in uncertainty. In my world the opposite of being certain, of being the expert, of having the answer, is being open, curious and willing to embrace the challenges of paradox rather than having a definite answer that closes off possibilities.

Lee Iacocca, the man who ran the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s and Chrysler in the 1980s, was pretty clear. He advised his executives that when they were faced with a sticky or tricky problem and weren’t sure of what to do next that they should: ‘Do anything ... something ...so long as you don’t just don't sit there. If you screw it up, start over. Try something else. If you wait until you've satisfied all the uncertainties, it may be too late.’

One of my favourite 21st century authors Yuval Noah Harari believes that to survive and flourish in today’s uncertain world, we need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. He says we will have to repeatedly let go of some of what we know best and feel at home with the unknown.

So, let’s learn to sit in the current uncertainty, even when it feels uncomfortable. Let’s take some of this advice and try stuff. Let’s be mentally flexible, emotionally balanced, open, curious and willing to embrace the challenges we face.

A friend recently commented how refreshing she found it when, in this current uncertainty, our leaders are able to admit to not knowing. They acknowledge that what we are facing is new and ‘unprecedented’, and there is no way of predicting with any certainty what is going to happen.  They are trying things, based on what they do know, while they monitor outcomes and learn from situations around the world. I think this is real progress.


Is it time to get off your horse?

A mouse! A mouse! My Kingdom for a mouse! Said no King ever. But maybe this is what leaders should be saying at this time of rapid change, disruption and great uncertainty.

How so? Picture a great maze that is all but impossible to solve. Two people stand ready to find the way through – a small girl with her shoebox full of mice and a great leader astride his horse. They start. The leader rides in with a plan to explore sector by sector. The girl releases her mice.

Eventually a mouse emerges from the exit, while from within can be heard the rider, still executing the search plan. While the horseman is still applying his idea, a mouse has found a way through.

According to a lovely framework by Chris Bolton, the horse represents the way most of us go about problem solving or creating change in uncertain situations. We have an idea we think could work. We get agreement to trial it. We do lots of work we hope will increase its chance of success. We plan it out and we run it. By the time it looks like it might not work we are so vested in it, with so much emotional and financial resourcing sunk into it, that we proceed  anyway.

Bolton says it is a solution dressed up as a trial. In other words, the horse is a Trojan horse – something sold as a test but built and run as ‘the answer’. The approach might have worked in Troy when all the Greeks had to do was get through a gate, but it doesn’t work well in more complex times.

So to the mice. Each one represents a small idea that is easy to put together, easy to test, easy to walk away from if it doesn’t work. Each test is an experiment designed to help you better understand the situation and learn more about the best way to proceed. Each mouse is set free in the maze and many will only find the dead ends, but even that is useful as it helps narrow down the options.

When facing uncertainty and complexity, Bolton advises us to use mice, not the horse. Test small, agile ideas that might include something obvious, something from left field, something naïve, something that seems unlikely to work, something that seems counter to your understanding of the situation. Together these diverse mice – each one a small opportunity to test an idea and learn from its success or failure – will point the way forward.

In these uncertain times, are you creating a solution dressed up as a test, or setting the mice free to run in unexpected and useful directions?


The best laid plans of mice and Treasurers

Where did our national surplus go? Just months ago in Australia we were being assured that the nation was “back in black”. What’s more, there was a clear plan to prove that this was the case – otherwise known as the 19/20 Budget.

So what happened? As I write, governments around the world are scrambling to respond to the burgeoning COVID19 ‘crisis’. In Australia this comes on the back of a horror season of drought and bushfire and flood. Together these shocks have put the budget in the shredder as state and federal governments are forced to loosen the purse strings.

So why am I writing about this? I’ve been reflecting on our collective obsession with ‘the plan’. More specifically, our tendency to expect someone else – typically government – to have the plan and, by extension, the solution to our problems. Governments get caught in the trap too and can’t resist behaving as though their plan is the answer

But if the plan is the answer, where has our surplus gone?

Obviously the series of unpredictable events has made the budget redundant. But that is my point. Running a nation is complex and getting more so every day as global connections deepen. It is always going to be complex, meaning that all plans – all budgets - are at constant risk of disruption.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t create national budgets and do our best to stick to them. I am suggesting that our at times irrational belief in THE PLAN has consequences:

  1. Those who create and own the plan are motivated to defend it at all costs and find it difficult to change course.
  2. Those who didn’t create it find it easy to criticise the plan and its authors.
  3. They also absolve themselves of any responsibility for delivering the plan: “it’s the government’s budget. What are they going to do about it”.
  4. We all get despondent and disappointed when the plan doesn’t work as we thought it would. Let the blame game begin.

To avoid the worst of these consequences when facing complex situations, I suggest we get better at identifying aspirational targets that we can all get behind. Rather than focussing our energies on the plan – which is always at risk – let’s get behind an aspiration that motivates and inspires us together. Even if our plans change along the way the ‘light on the hill’ gives us our sense of shared destination.

What sort of aspiration for our economy could we all get behind? And what part in achieving that could I then be motivated to play?

Similarly, are you facing complexity? What is the shared target you and your team are working towards?