Learning to See

Bluebells in Little Eaton 13:50, 19 April 2020

When I was young, I spent a time fascinated by photography.

Preoccupied with Technology….

It was in the days of dark rooms, messy chemicals and expensive film you could not afford to waste. My budget was twenty four photographs a week, and every shot I wasted an expensive and painful mistake.

I became really quite technical proficient, and could juggle aperture, shutter speed and ISO really well. I had good teachers. Technically, I wasted very few shots.

I retained an interest, but other interests intruded, cameras became better, and digital efficiency bade farewell to the expensive film problem.

It became easy to automate settings, and with no pressure on costs, plus the magic of post production and photoshop, the technical challenges became less interesting.

Fast forward several decades, and the interest is returning and I discovered something important.

….I Had Never Really Learned To See

It started with a really simple challenge. Some bluebells on my daily walk. Everything time I went past, they had changed a little. They looked different at different times in the day. They became obscured by the trees coming into leaf.

I’m grateful for digital technology. Back in the day, the photographs I have taken would have represented several months budget.

I still haven’t got the shot I want, and will now have to wait till next year. The difference is, I now know what to look for. I know the land, and the effect of the times of day.

I could fake it I guess, in post production; but to what end? The craft, the joy of it is in seeing the original. I think it’s a relationship.

It’s not just Photography.

As I walked up and down to the woods it struck me that maybe we have forgotten how to see important aspects of our businesses.

It’s easy to automate all the things that add human light and texture to a relationship.

When we automate a human interaction, we make it transactional. I know what you’ve bought, when you bought it, and how efficiently you were served, but I have no idea how you felt about it, why you bought it, or how it’s changed you.

Perhaps it becomes like Stock Photographs. One shot, a good average representation, used by lots of people in lots of different contexts. Efficient. Soulless.

Experiences become data points. We can analyse lots of different ways of looking at historical data in new ways, and become better at forecasting broadly what might happen in future in a particular set of cicumstances.

Versus a unique and memorable shot of a moment in time. An insight into who someone is, as much as what they did. A building block in an effective relationship.

The danger is that we categorise and generalise and in the process can lose the ability to see what is really happening. Algorithmic Groupthink.

We need to learn to see

Just about everything we expected this year to be, last year, has been upended.

Whatever our plans were, they were wrong.

The same is not true of what we hoped for our business or ourselves.

The circumstances have changed, giving us new opportunities if we choose to see them as well as removing the ones we had expected.

The longer we spend grieving about the changes we did not expect, the less time we have to notice the changing light and shadow of what is happening now and capturing the moment.

Insight to Action?

Insights

These are interesting times. It seems to me that we are moving out of something of a “phoney war” represented by a combination of fear and novelty to something altogether more substantial.

As the reality of furloughs bite, redundancies become real, and the sheer boredom as we go into a fifth week of seemingly unending lockdown, many people are seeing their world differently.

Whether it’s the time to reflect, the forced change of habit, or the requirement to innovate their lives, insights worm their way into consciousness.

Maybe the commute that was part of the routine is seen for what it is – around 20% of or workday spent like a sardine practicing, and 12.5% of our waking hours.

Maybe the fact that working from home is much more feasible than we imagined.

Maybe the realisation that along with the banter in the office, there is also the politics and the unending meetings.

Perhaps the idea that there is a better way – as yet indeterminate, but a possibility making its presence felt.

Two futures?

These few weeks are important. We are in a liminal space – a time of “betwixt and between” between our previous routines, and a new set once this particular crisis passes its peak.

The easy route, to a future given to us by others is to go with the flow and accept what comes.

The alternative route, to give your insights room to grow. To nurture them and watch them grow like the nature outside your door right now. To explore possibility. To entertain the idea of a second future, driven by you.

To start becoming what you are capable of.

Riskier? – almost certainly.

Transformational? – very possibly.

Exploring

These few weeks are precious. They will come again, but almost certainly without warning and not when you’re ready.

There will be more events like Coronavirus. Maybe another pandemic, maybe an impact of climate change, perhaps the impact of technology. we can be generally certain that these events will happen, but not specifically when – which is why we ignore them.

Not a good idea.

I don’t this is a blip. It’s a rehearsal.

Action

Instead, we can learn from what is happening to us and prepare:

  • Make a list of what’s been bad about this crisis, and what you’ve valued in it.
  • Write down what you’ve learned about the importance of what you do. Is your job the coffee, or the capuccino froth?
  • Consider how you have been treated by your employer during this time. Some have been exceptional; more have not.
  • Write a letter to yourself from your future self five years from now, explaining why you made the decisions you are about to make, what happened next, and the surprises that took you to where you are.
  • Explore possibility with those you trust.
  • Give yourself options.

We cannot predict the future, because it hasn’t happened yet

Margaret Heffernan

We all have a choice of two futures. Use this time to compare them.

Baggage

We’ve all seen the part of the film where the aircraft is losing height heading towards a mountain range. Everything surplus to requirements is thrown overboard in the hope that enough altitude can be gained to clear the range.

Welcome to the average Board Room right now.

Unless you’re the pilot, the navigator, an engine, or fuel you’re baggage.

It is, as they say, not personal. It’s for the greater good. That may not be a lot of consolation. (I say this with some feeling, As a healthy 69 year old, If I get the virus, I may have very limited options. It’s a weird feeling ceding control)

But we can decide – if we can’t make ourselves critical to survival, make a parachute.

  1. Be clear about what you want. You are unique, and in the right place, with the right people, will make a difference that lasts. 
  2. Use this time to learn something new and relevant to your ambition. Company training is for the company’s benefit, not yours. 
  3. Make your own map, rather than rely on the on you’ve been given. If you do end up leaving by the cargo hold door, have an idea of where you want to land.
  4. Understand your options. We lose sight of the landscape when we don’t have time to look out of the window. Become familiar with the territory you’re passing through.
  5. Build your network around point 1. Find those people you want to travel with, and who can help you with points 2-4.

You might end up on a journey you hadn’t planned. That doesn’t stop it becoming an adventure.

Who’s got your rope?

Most of us find ourselves in something of a hole right now. The depth may vary, but whatever that may be, we want to get out.

At times like this, we need somebody to throw us a rope, but because there’s a temptation to accept any rope that comes our way, we need to take a moment to consider who is throwing the rope and why. Unless we’re in imminent danger, it is time well spent.

1. A sponsor. Someone who believes in you and what you’re doing, who wants to help, and is willing to take a personal risk to do so. They may expect some sort of return, but that is not their prime motive.

2. A peer group. Those who see the world in a similar way, with similar values and want to help each other. Shared ideas, maybe shared risk in pursuit of something deemed important.

3. The rent seekers. Those who see an opportunity to profit from the situation. Those who will throw you a rope, and charge you by the inch (and often will increase the charge the further up you get.

Finding the first is part serendipity, partly the investment you have made along the way in building real relationships.

The second is something you can create if you’re willing to invest time and effort. It’s mutuality in action. A source of help and inspiration, and a chance to give as well as receive.

The third is often the easiest to access if you have assets, as it’s those that comfort them.

I listened to a lender speaking on Radio 4 this morning. I’m in the business of staying calm, but he tested me to the limit. Full of how the Government should help and effectively guarantee him both safety and margin in the current situation. Not somebody I would ever want on the support end of my rope.

I do believe that the current situation will lead to new opportunities to leave behind the money above all else, “me first” paradigms that characterised where we were when this crisis kicked off.

We have seen, and are seeing ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The people who would throw you a rope and be happy when they get you out of the hole.

We are also seeing the others.

We can come out if this crisis in better shape than we went in, providing we choose carefully whose rope we grab onto.

Honesty is not a Policy

What is happening right now is shining a huge spotlight on dishonest statements.

“Our people are our most important asset”

“We are totally dedicated to customer satisfaction”

“Beside you all the way”

Corporates who owe primary loyalty to shareholders can never make these sort of statements with any honesty. They owe their existence and prime loyalty to shareholders, and unless every employee, including the Board, have these statements engraved on their hearts, it won’t happen. It takes very few transgressions, by very few employees, to create enough exposure to make a lie of the statement.

Founder run organisations are often different. The soul of the founder runs through it, for good or bad, and there have been inspiring examples I have seen, from founders giving the business to employees as they retire, to those sticking by employees till the ship goes down. The lifeboat was not an option.

As individuals, we have nowhere to hide. We cannot have honesty as a policy.

We either are, or we’re not.

We may slip. Most of us do, more often than we like. But we know, and feel what we’ve slipped from. It’s visible to others, and they will forgive the slips when they know we’re trying.

The fragmentation that is being caused by Covid-19 will reposition many of us, by choice or accident.

If that happens, it doesn’t change who we are, and that is what matters. In the end, organisations of any sort are just assemblies of people around a set of assets.

We have a choice to regroup, to bring our real selves to the surface and brush off the compromises we may have had to make to survive in the organisations that are disappearing.

It will give us a challenge, but also an opportunity to choose again.

To be honest, to choose ourselves, and pay more attention to who we associate with and lend our talents to.

Paddle!

As we get into week two of lockdown, it reminds me of those times I’ve had to move, when I didn’t really want to . 

Moving house to a new area for a job, because the current one had gone stale. 

Being made redundant. 

Or not getting the move I’d been expecting – the promotion, selection for the first XI. 

There are familiar sensations, the things we know of grief and change.

Denial, anger – at loss of status, of increased uncertainty, a feeling we are not as much in control as we were a moment ago. The strain on relationships, and perhaps above all, the sheer unfairness of it. We convince ourselves we can make it better – to  somehow go back to normal. When that doesn’t work we get really down. 

And then, the things we hadn’t seen – some of which we knew were there, but discounted, and some of them surprises – things we never even knew of – turn up. We get traction. We move on and wonder why we didn’t do it earlier.

I think we are all going to have to move. Maybe location, maybe job, maybe expectation, maybe all three but the same emotions will likely apply, and the difference between a good move and an indifferent one will be mindset.

Mindset

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”               

Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

“Normal” is a much used word at the moment, particularly by businesses who want to go back there, where they feel in control, and by the politicians who want to convince us they can take us there.

I suggest the reality is that normal is an illusion. It means we take a set of circumstances, and effectively convince ourselves they are a constant whilst the real world moves on. 

Sometimes slowly, sometimes very suddenly – like now. When that happens, all the things that have been changing, that we have been wilfully blind to, all turn up and throw a party.

“How did you go bankrupt?” Gradually, then Suddenly

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Always Rises

We can adjust and adapt to cope as best we can with our new circumstances, or we can choose to use this period to rethink. 

It’s about mindset. We can see this as a problem which we are victim to, or we can choose to do what humans do best – harness our imagination and determination, learn and innovate. Move.

Nassim Taleb introduced us to the idea of “antifragile” – the idea of treating unexpected shocks as less something to be resilient to, but to be altogether more assertive. 

Using the energy of the shock to grow.

To do that, we need not to wait for permission, for somebody to sort it out for us. We need to choose ourselves, and act.

To do what we need to do right now

Right now, there are countless opportunities, not just for business but for ourselves. 

The 750,000 volunteers have chosen themselves. 

Our local farm shop have turned their business model around in 48 hours, to generate greater protection for their customers and staff, and help their business survive. They have chosen themselves.

Gin Distilleries switching to making hand sanitiser are choosing themselves.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of people and businesses making important small moves. Choosing themselves,

(Unfortunately, it’s many of the large Corporates who are using their cash reserves to wait for normal, thinking that they are protecting their shareholders interests. Managers with only upside looking after the interests of transient shareholders with no agency in the business. In effect, hiding. Not, I think, a good place to be. Particularly for the soul.)

Then, imagine what comes next.

What do we do when we can’t plan?

The reality is, none of us have a clue what this will look like in 2021.

Even in “normal” times, the very best forecasters rapidly become unreliable after 400 days, with most of us reaching unreliability after around 150 days. And these times are not normal.

So what do we do?

We Prepare.

Here’s my own checklist:

  1. Focus. Choose yourself, care for others. Be clear in your mind where you’re headed. Fit your own oxygen mask first, then help the people next to you. Be prepared to lead if needed. Pay attention to who you surround yourself with. Jim Rohn suggests you will become the average of them. Experience and research suggests he’s right.
  2. Stay Aware. Stay exquisitely tuned to your surroundings. Notice the changes, particularly the tiny ones that start gathering together. They are signals. Do not assume.
  3. Get Grounded.. Be calm. Find that centre of you that understands the bigger picture, the things that make your life worthwhile to yourself and others, and keep that in mind. It will determine the small steps you take.
  4. Stay agile. Whatever you expect to happen, something else will. Be ready for that. In start up terms, be prepared to pivot. Don’t get bogged down. Recognise “sunk costs”. In many ways 2021 will be a start up.
  5. Own it. Whatever you do, whether you have your own business, or you’re in a brand new squeaky clean role at the bottom of the ladder, own it. You have “skin in the game”. Be grateful for help, but neither expect nor wait for it. Do what you need to. Help others do what they need to do, but don’t steal other people’s problems. It’s wrong.

Enjoy the ride

If you set off for a paddle on the lake, and find yourself in white water, it’s not good. 

If you realise the white water is unlikely to kill you if you stay calm, go with the flow and paddle when needed, it’s exciting.

Relax. Go with the flow.

Paddle.

What matters most?

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Oh Shit!

As we go through this challenging, slightly surreal period, it’s a good time to reflect on what matters most to us, and what we place that at the mercy of.

This period of restriction is forcing us to operate in ways we would not do voluntarily, from home working to working under stress in a biologically hostile environment, to not being able to work at all for a while.

It’s hard, both psychologically and for many financially. Its a massive change in our day to day habits, so we have choices.

We can resent it

We can blame other people for it.

We can blame other people for not sorting it faster.

Or we can take responsibility and learn from it.

Pareto

The 80/20 rule is a good reference point in most of the things we do. I’ve known this a long time, and despite that am still poor at applying it to my work. It’s just too easy to follow routines.

Now however, with our routines blown out of the water, we have a chance to reflect. Talking to many of my clients, and considering my own work, I’m struck (and a little personally embarrassed) by how much the current situation is exposing how much waste goes into the “normal” day to day, and how much we could be doing that we don’t.

Waste

  • Pointless meetings
  • Putting up with politics and unproductive behaviours.
  • Denial of issues that need to addressed. Elephants dancing round the room whilst we ignore them.
  • Avoidance – Coffee anyone?
  • Staying with the unproductive familiar rather than the potentially productive (but personally riskier) new.
  • Making journeys (including commuting) that could be done more effectively (and in a more environmentally beneficial way) from home or somewhere else locally.
  • The list goes on, and on.

Potential

  • Considering our reason for being here – what matters to us?
  • Thinking – properly, vs. blind doing.
  • Listening – much easier over skype or zoom than face to face.
  • Questioning – is this the best way?
  • Getting outside
  • Reading
  • Just wondering for a while.

I end up confident that 80% of what we do as routine adds little, and more likely subtracts from creating value for those who pay us – whether employers, or directly as clients.

We’re in danger I believe of living our lives the same way, with our real potential for achievement of what really matters to us dissolved in unproductive routines in order to satisfy other people.

Choices

I’m now doing on line what I would normally do face to face, and for the most part better (once I’ve adapted). It doesn’t replace face to face, but I’m convinced there’s a ratio – maybe 3:1 (remote vs face to face) that can work really well.

We don’t have to work the way we have been – most of it is habit.

There’s a form of diminishing marginal returns at work. Doing work we don’t enjoy, for people we don’t rate or organisations whose purpose we don’t respect, in order to earn money we don’t have time to enjoy.

We can do better than that.

The period of disruption we are in will last at least as long as it takes us to change a habit, so it’s a good time to be our own “lab rat” – to actively notice what we are doing, why we are doing it, what happens as a result, and what the alternatives might be.

Shockabuku

A swift, spiritual kick to the head that changes your reality forever

Grosse Pointe Blank, dir. George Cusack

I’ve observed that we rarely make the changes that matter, that really improve our lives voluntarily. There are too many reasons to moderate, to risk mitigate, to pontificate. The real moves come via a Shockabuku, something we can’t control and have to deal with, that brings out the best in us.

Covid-19 is a shockabuku.

We have an opportunity to rebalance what matters most with what matters least.

It would be a shame to waste it.

Reboot

Sometimes, we’re so busy “doing” that we put “being” on hold. We allocate time to holidays, at some point in the future, to reconnect with ourselves and those who matter to us. Things that get in the way are submerged or ignored.

Until something like this. When we don’t really have a choice.

In the midst of all the hassle, and the concerns, and the worry we are being given an opportunity to reconnect and reboot. And we have a choice – either to ignore it, or to embrace it. 

As I write this, spring is making its presence felt. Snowdrops are done, Daffodils are at full pelt, green shoots everywhere. 

Tomorrow, it’s the Spring equinox, traditionally a time of renewal. 

As you find yourself with more time to occupy than normal – even if it’s only the time you don’t have to commute, here are five things to reflect on in this liminal space between stopping and restarting:

  1. Oneness. A review of our relationship with ourselves, and those around us who we live with and work with. The more settled that is, the more of our originality, our uniqueness, becomes available to ourselves and others. It something we can all feel and sense when we take time and just sit. Mindfulness and meditation is not a luxury. Right now, it’s an essential.
  2. Awareness. Of our surroundings, our markets, the nature of our job. Purpose. Meaning. What keeps us aligned with what matters to us. Use the time we unexpectedly have  to detect the seismic signals that precede personal earthquakes, and address them. 
  3. Resilience.  Things will not go back to normal. How we choose to engage with different is often a matter of the baggage we carry. Old ideas, old grudges, unnecessary purchases, useless habits. What’s emerging will present unexpected opportunity. Be ready to move to meet them.
  4. Boundaries. Many of us blur the boundaries between role and work,  work and home, home and self, self and others. These are important. Render unto work what belongs to work, to borrow from Julius Caesar. A sense of autonomy is vital to oneness and resilience, and keeping a sense of boundary is important to that. Good fences make good neighbours.
  5. Focus. Our lives and work are a series of finite games (determined by rules, sides, winners and losers, time frames) played within an infinite game (our pursuit of meaning and cause that is endless). The key to progress is having clear short term goals that sit within your own bigger picture.

These five categories are not a made up list of feel good. They are at the heart of our individual and collective culture. It is a list compiled by, in my view, one the greatest, but least know strategists of the last century, who compiled them by looking at the records of every great strategist in history, from Sun Tzu to the present day. Worth taking note of.

In the midst of what we are going through, there is a huge opportunity for us to take stock and maybe reboot.

They don’t come round often, and it may be a while to the next one.