Why mindfulness will make you a better leader

If you haven’t heard the buzz in Business around mindfulness, then you’re either well behind the times (in which case you have an opportunity) or you’re living in a place that’s not caught up with the mainstream (in which case you have an opportunity).

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What is mindfulness?

  • The process of actively noticing new things (Ellen Langer)

  • Constantly looking for the new (Alison Beard)

  • Non-judgemental, present-moment awareness (Christina Congleton, Britta K Hölzel, Sara W. Lazar)

  • Being present and aware, moment by moment, regardless of circumstances (Maria Gonzalez)

  • Mindfulness isn’t doing a meditation and then you’re done you can tick it off the list for the day. Mindfulness is the way of being in the meditation all day (Juliane Pfeifer)

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I like to think of mindfulness as the journey to internal literacy - learning to listen to, understand and choose to follow our own internal dialogue, whether it be physical, emotional sensations and of course knowing ourselves more fully also requires an appreciation for the environment around us.

I’m not one for stats, so I’m not going to tell you mindfulness reduces anxiety by 36% or improves mood in 32% of study participants. There are many studies out there that can speak to their unique study groups, and it can be pretty hard to slap a definitive number on things, BUT… There are common threads, common patterns that we see repeated again and again in practitioners who work mindfully:

  • Reduced anxiety and mental stress

  • Improved cognitive flexibility

  • Increased relationship satisfaction

  • Sleeping better

  • Reduced implicit (age and race) bias

Mindfulness helps us to see that instead of binary or win/lose decisions, what we have is many options in a given situation and each path leads to a different outcome - so make a decision, learn along the path and then make another. With mindful work, mistakes become friends not enemies. It’s conscious experimentation.

Take Ellen Langer’s work with symphony musicians

We did a study with symphony musicians, who, it turns out, are bored to death.  They’re playing the same pieces over and over again, and yet it’s a high-status job that they can’t easily walk away from.  Some were told to replicate a previous performance they’d liked - that is, to play pretty mindlessly.  Others were told to make their individual performance new in subtle ways - to play mindfully. Remember: This wasn’t jazz, so the changes were very subtle indeed.  But when we played recordings of the symphonies for people who knew nothing about the study, they overwhelmingly preferred the mindfully played pieces. So here we had a group performance where everybody was doing their own thing, and it was better.

This isn’t hippie talk and it isn’t irrelevant or somehow separate from the way you approach your business - as you’ll see by the coverage the topic is getting in publications like HBR. There’s real ties to where the world is headed with distributed decision making at scale, leading through values not policy and motivation through autonomy mastery and purpose. We need to do the work on ourselves so that we can do the work on our organisations.

“There’s this view that if you let everyone do their own thing, chaos will reign. When people are doing their own thing in a rebellious way, yes, it might. But if everyone is working in the same context and is fully present, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get a superior coordinated performance.”

Here’s a few super simple ways you can get started building new habits:

  1. Notice your breath first: When you wake up, before you get up and going with the day, take 2 minutes to simply notice the quality of your breath. Observe the inhale, exhale, where it’s smooth, fast or slow. Do you spend more time on the inhale? Where in your body can you feel the sensation of your breath? Deep exhales and breathing into the back body help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, diminish the activity of the amygdala, calm the body into recovery mode and helps you start from peace. (More on the anatomy of mindfulness later)

  2. Micro-meditations during your day: You can repeat the exercise during the day - try a micro meditation before meetings or any time you feel frustrated. Take a moment to pause, count a couple breaths and really notice where in your body you’re breathing, focus on gently prolonging the exhale over say 20 breaths

  3. No devices for the first hour: Spend a day with no technology in the first hour from when you wake. Follow it up with movement and then get your day started without the clutter of the Facebook feed or overnight emails from the international office.

  4. Imagine your thoughts are transparent: If everyone could see what we were thinking, we’d be less likely to judge out loud and more likely to seek understanding of another person’s perspective. Imagining transparency can help us to remain conscious and connected throughout the work day.

There’s some great apps out there that can help too - Headspace and Smiling Mind are awesome, and there’s a wealth of podcasts so take the time to find a style that works for you!

Enjoy the moment’s silence, pause and GO.

- D.

5 patterns that are holding your organisation back

In the many years I’ve spent either consulting or in-house driving organisational transformation, I’ve noticed that again and again we see some recurring themes, ‘holding patterns’ if you will - that stop you from becoming the responsive organisation you’re dreaming of.

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Holding Pattern #1: Organisations are designed on functional specialisation which governs the approach to improvement

Our managerial lineage has taught us to build organisations from a selection of building blocks, each fulfilling a specific function in the organisation: Operations, Retail, Finance, IT. To respond to what our customers need, we must coordinate across multiple teams, each of whom contribute their piece to the puzzle.

For example, buying a plane ticket from Auckland to Wellington requires the cooperation across Marketing, Digital, Airport kiosks, and Aircraft Operations departments. Whilst we may have some visibility of this customer journey, our change and improvement programs are likely focused on the improvement of the individual parts (sell more tickets, improve the website, streamline checkin, make sure bags arrive on time).

Instead, we need to look end-to-end from a customer’s perspective and optimise across the entire flow - without assuming that the work being done today is the work that needs to be done. Imagine a real estate broker with a department focused solely on getting low income earners into homes - in this business unit we have finance, legal, marketing, web design and sales specialists all working together towards this common outcome.

Holding Pattern #2: Leadership definition of role and responsibility are inadequate

Leadership focus(es) and how roles are operationalised are often built on this same functional specialisation, managing budgets and people; rather than end-to-end delivery of value to customers, and the fulfilment of our purpose in their eyes.

Optimisation of the parts and a mechanical view of the system can only get us so far. As we start to see the organisation as a living ecosystem that responds to the value our customers desire, we must necessarily change our leadership approach:

  • Leaders don’t give answers, they ask great questions

  • Our role is not to manage the performance of individuals, but to act on those hurdles they identify in their work, to remove every obstacle for our collective success in the eyes of the customer

  • We must have the humility to truly listen to our customers, and the courage to follow their calling, not our own

  • Seek first to understand - achievement will necessarily follow

Holding Pattern #3: Change is not ‘in-built’ within normal operations – our assumption is that operations tomorrow will be largely the same as today

Almost without exception, large change and improvement programs are designed, agreed and then rolled out through decisions made by senior people in boardrooms, away from the front line. The inherent assumption in this approach is that operations are static until we implement a project to change (and that the people on the front line will be informed how their job is changing, trained in the new way, and then expected to carry it ongoing).

We must work towards embracing variation, both in the requests we receive and the way we respond. Learn which requests and what work are predictable. What type of requests to do we get frequently? Respond to those accurately, fully and without waste. This starts to create space (ie people aren’t always busy) so that we can simplify, and focus our time and energy on those things that fall outside the predictable pattern or expectations of our customers.

Doing the work and improving the work is the work - move change and improvement from back of house programs into the capability of the frontline to sense and respond to changes in predictable customer demand. Ask how we might enable autonomy, mastery and purpose in our teams in all that we do.

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Holding Pattern #4: Using measures that don’t matter to customers

Current performance measures are often focused on benefits to the organisation, not value as defined by customers. As a result, we lose sight of what is really important - what gets measured gets done and if it’s not customer value then what is it?

KPIs, performance incentives and targets drive unexpected behaviour in our organisations. We must work towards coherence, commonality of outcomes and team-based rather than individual-specific measures.

We need to move from a philosophy of measurement to judge achievement (did you hit the number, if not why not?) to a paradigm where we measure to gain insight on where to go next for improvement.

5. The organisation sees change as a negative

When change is decided not by the people who are affected, this drives a lack of ownership, a perception that life will get more difficult - not to mention the incredible fear that if my work is no longer needed then my job will be under threat.

We must remove the link between ambiguity and job certainty. It must be ok to be less busy as a result of change, it must be ok to create space. And with this space we can continue to improve the work, or do more of the value work - both lend incredible benefit to the organisation but we don’t quantify the benefit through reducing the number of staff - if we’re clever we have measures that can show us the improvement in other ways.

The bottom line…

These patterns are clearly intertwined, a complex web of overlapping themes. It’s why you won’t find point-solutions being offered up. Instead the path forward is to articulate the common values and then attempt to move forward in a coherent manner. If we slip off track that’s ok too. All great leaders make mistakes - but it’s what they do next that really counts.

- Danelle

The Homework List for Leaders

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I was once asked by a client “where do you come up with this stuff?” - I’d sent her a short video by Sir Ken Robinson after a rambling conversation we’d had regarding team dynamics.

“If I could bottle that and you just send me something you found interesting each week…” she continued. “Little inspirations to keep me on track!”. Well, Michelle, this one’s for you :)

I started jotting down the mindfood I use daily with clients across industries to help generate new perspectives.

Here’s a collection of videos, books, articles, snippets that I’ve put together over the years to help explain some of the concepts we talk about regularly in the consulting practice.

I call it “the homework list for leaders” and you can download it here.

Enjoy <3

- Danelle

Fortnightly Finances for Agile Organisations - Part 2, Tracking Benefits

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In our last article we showed how it's possible to track project costs on a fortnightly basis by asking two simple questions and eliminating a whole lotta overhead across the board.

This article lays out how we tracked project benefits in the same project, to produce a graph of cost and benefit delivered, from day zero, on a multi-million dollar program.

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Our client was looking to move from a traditional project environment to a more responsive, agile way of working.  They'd made a big bet on a project and promised that the new agile methodology would deliver benefit during the project execution, rather than at the end of the 3 year program.  So we devised a way to measure our costs in line with fortnightly software drops (iterations) and each time we dropped a package, we were able to tie it to a financial benefit for the company - here's how we did it.

1. Identify the measures - aim to solve the problems your stakeholders see first

The quickest way to demonstrate value to your customers is to speak their language - in this case we worked closely with stakeholders responsible for delivering the outcomes of the technology project to understand what was most important to them.  Turns out they had a monthly business forum with 5 key measures that their leaders paid attention to, and they'd largely done the leg work in quantifying benefit - because their KPIs depended on it.  It was critical that we demonstrated improvement in these terms, making their life easier, before we'd have any kind of trust to go looking for additional insight, or showing them what we thought was more important.  If you're taking away their gantt charts, then what are you giving back in return?  We gave them utter transparency on the dollars.

2. Write your dictionary - ensure everyone is on the same page

Over a 2 month period as we kicked off, one of our team members was solely responsible for getting the plan on paper.  He worked tirelessly with our stakeholders to document each of their 5 key metrics in project terms - What it meant, a definition and a calculation of the monetary benefit associated with a change in each measure.  Here's an example of what that looked like:

Cost per call - The average cost of a call across the entire organisation.  The lower the better, achievable through fewer calls, less time spent on a call, lower cost of labour.
Cost per call = the monthly cost of the call centre operations business unit, divided by total calls received for that month
e.g. Cost per call = $ 130,000 to run the business / 5,000 calls in July = $26 per call

3. Support teams to translate their work into quantifiable benefits

With each deployment we made on the project, the team took time to review their results and then use the benefits dictionary to quantify their impact and add it to the graph.  With 8-10 teams working simultaneously, this meant a constant flow of benefits every 2 weeks that then accumulated over time, so the graph steadily built.

Over the life of the project, our work changed both what and how the business measured - the cost of a call dropped for example - and so a new rhythm emerged: At monthly forums the business stakeholders would update their "cost per call" and we'd then feed that back to the team.  This meant as our work had impact, we had a feedback loop to then shift our prioritisation of future work.

This simple shift meant that the team could respond to a changing business environment, rather than basing decisions of priority on the cost of a call that had been set at the start of the project (which could have been 3 year old data!).

4 Make it matter

With the support infrastructure in place, it's now our role as leaders to continue to show that this is important.  Large visual displays and regular conversations reinforce for teams that it's worth the extra effort to quantify the benefits of their work.  Here's a number of ways we can do this:

  • Print your cost / benefits graph and post it prominently on the wall, for everyone to see - Ours measured one metre by one metre square on the wall the first time we put it up.  The secondary benefit of having it on a wall is that it's always accessible, anytime anyone wants to ask, with the information as we know it *right now*.
  • Build the same picture into your distributed reporting, so everyone sings from the same song sheet.
  • Planning and prioritising work should be a place for us to ask "how does this work impact our measures of success?".
  • Utilise the language of servant leadership: "how will we know? what data do we have to show improvement?" and with measures agreed, you're in a position to issue instructions with fewer constraints - because we're crystal clear on what good looks like.


So in summary,

  • Solve the problem your stakeholders see - because if you don't, they won't buy-in and you'll be pushing uphill on multiple fronts.  Pick your battles, transparency of cost and benefit is a bigger win for the principles than getting perfect measures first time.
  • Ensure everyone's on the same page - Clarity of the measure, its definition, how it's calculated means a solid base for decisions and coherence through the whole team about how we will know we've been successful.
  • Reinforce the importance of demonstrating benefit with large, prominent visual displays and regular conversations that show your team not only that these measures are important, but also that their understanding of how their work impacts the measure is important.

In return, you'll build trust through hyper-transparency, shorten feedback loops between the work you do and impact on your business and customers, and you'll greatly simplify priority calls and communication between business and technology stakeholders because everyone understands what good looks like.

Fortnightly Finances for Agile organisations

So you're implementing "agile", and you've got the team working well but interfacing with the wider organisation and some of those shared functions is still a bit tricky.

You know how every month we get near the end and seem to spend far too much time reconciling and tallying up, "working the numbers" (fudging), taking away from what we should be doing to instead focus on making the numbers fit for Finance and our external stakeholders?

Well what if there was a way to know exactly where you stood, with greater accuracy every two weeks, in line with your iterations?

What if you could demonstrate your value cumulatively over time, show return on investment as you worked, and break free from monthly cycles whilst still meeting all of the Corporate Finance requirements including external reporting and alleviating *their* headaches at the same time?

And what if this could take 20-30% off your administration costs because the new way was also more efficient?

Here's how we did it for a $1B p/a business....



What you'll need:

  • Teams working in a synchronised rhythm of fortnightly iterations - each team starts and ends their work period or "sprint" on the same day

  • A conversation with each team at the end of their 2-week sprint - I liked to do mine in person where possible to encourage leaders to stay "in the work"

  • Some historical cost data

  • Paper and a pen

Now there's nothing to say you can't do this with longer iterations, work periods that run out of sync, digital reporting or "zero touch" tools - but I'm telling you how to make your life easier and giving you the "ideal" to aim towards that's in line with the values and principles of servant leadership and visual management.  I'm here to de-clutter, not over-complicate.


How it works:

I'm going to describe the process for one team, and all we do for bigger businesses is repeat and then stack up the results.  It goes something like this:

First, understand the work

At the end of each iteration, get the team together and ask two questions:

1. Where did you spend your time these past 2 weeks ?

2. Roughly how much time was taken up working on "noise" ?

We want to know the % split across the top 2-3 "features", not the detail of every task completed.   And we want to know the drag on our productivity from the noise -  those tasks not related to the project, or distractions away from what we agreed we'd work on at the beginning of the iteration.

The output might look something like this:


Next, price the team

Here's where you'll need some historical cost data.  You'll want say the last 6-9 months of expenses for the whole team and work out the average run rate per month.  Be sure to include managers, project managers, admin staff in the "team"

Here's what it might look like:

  • As a leader, I have 3 delivery teams each with 6-8 people in a team.  I also have 3 project managers, a group test manager and a project assistant in my total team.
  • Our monthly charge for everyone in the team (including me) total $60k per month average spend
  • Therefore our price per team is $20k per month or $10k per fortnightly iteration (sprint)


End of conversation.

I'm not interested that one team has 6 people and the other has 8, that Mary is more expensive as an individual than Joe, and I'm not interested that as a manager or support staff we're not working directly on the projects.  I don't need to know down to the cent because we've got bigger fish to fry.

  • I want to price the team including the support work, because without it, the team wouldn't function.  It also provides me more incentive to reduce non-delivery overheads in my business.
  • If team size varies significantly then I'm still feeding work to project-specific teams, rather than breaking work down into smaller chunks and letting teams move to the work (regardless of a bigger parent-project) and this method of costing will probably just complicate things further.
  • Non-labour costs are directly attributed to the relevant work - eg storage to support a software delivery, or travel for certain team members.  I could also use the same method above for shared support costs, eg video conferencing for the whole team divided equally across 3 delivery teams. 


Finally, pull the costs together

So I know how the team spent their time every two weeks, and I know how much they cost, it's simple math to produce a cost per work item or "feature" - let's look back at the Blue Team.


@ 10k per sprint, in this sprint we spent:

  • $2,000 each on Features 1 and 2;
  • $3,000 on Feature 3; and
  • $3,000 on other things that came up or distracted us
  • Add-on any feature-specific costs like travel or storage for IT systems

As we build data over time, we get a cumulative cost per feature:


Visibility and accuracy improves because:

  • We talk more regularly about how we spend our time, as a whole team, which creates safety for individuals and shared accountability
  • We acknowledge that distractions come up, and leaders take action to help minimise noise because they see the impact it has on the team's ability to complete high priority work
  • Individuals no longer book time sheets to old reporting codes; no longer book to a project because it has money whilst the one they worked on doesn't; we have visibility of the noise instead of hiding it by inflating costs to funded projects (which makes us appear slow and expensive)
  • When we display this information visually, in a prominent position in our workplace then anyone can come to see the latest at any time
    • The visual tool becomes a single point of truth for all outgoing reports and correspondence
    • Because it's visible, any oddities get captured early and worked through

A few key reasons Finance now love us:

  • End of month becomes a breeze because there's only ever 2 weeks to reconcile *at most*

  • You never have to chase us for time sheets because we settle costs every two weeks in line with iterations - Our run rate becomes predictable, there's very few surprises

  • We can capitalise assets as we go, as each chunk of value ("feature") is delivered - and if you've got the sizing of your work right, that means there's no excuse to carry Work In Progress (WIP) open for more than 3-6 months.  So there's no big push at the end of the year to try and "close out WIP" in time for issuing the financial statements to investors.


Next month: Demonstrate return on investment by overlaying benefits

Guest Article: Humility in Leadership (David McKenzie)

The following article is printed with permission from David McKenzie - who'll be joining us for the Southern Soak 2017 in Queenstown next week.  I first met David when we were both working alongside one another in a large corporate in Australia, and we've kept in touch ever since.  Our regular phone chats, we often lament, should be turned into a podcast called "Dave and Danelle talk s*** " as we've had some great rants and arguments over the years.   David is a very dear friend of tribe and someone who shares such similar values.  We'd be happy to put you in touch ;)


Humility in Leadership

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, Rob, who had been promoted to a leadership position at his company. He mentioned how surprised he was with how things had changed, now that he wasn't just a member of the team. I knew Rob had worked hard to develop his leadership skills to be ready when he got his chance, so I was interested in where the transition was challenging him.

"Everyone asks me to help them answer all the questions. They get my opinion on everything. I'm worried that I'll make a mistake or that they'll think I don't know what I'm talking about"

Rob’s response was pretty common, and it reminded me of a great story I had heard recently.

A speaker walked on stage, ready to give his presentation. The slide deck was ready to go, and he headed towards the lectern, holding a cup of coffee in a polystyrene cup.

“You know I have presented here before. At this exact conference. 

Last year I flew here in business class. When I arrived at the airport, someone was there to meet me. To carry my bags and take me to the hotel in a private car. When I arrived, they had already checked me in so I went straight up to my room.

In the morning, I came downstairs where the same person was there to meet me, and again, transfer me in a private car to this very function centre to do my presentation. They took me back stage and when I asked for a coffee, I was given one in a ceramic mug.

This year I flew here in economy class. When I got to the airport, I collected my bags and took a taxi to the hotel where I checked myself in. This morning, I took a taxi here and walked in via the front entrance and made my own way backstage. When I asked if there was any coffee, a guy pointed at a table where I made myself a coffee, in this polystyrene cup.

Last year I was the Senior Under Secretary of State. This year, I'm just me.

What I've learnt, is that everything that people did for me last year wasn't for me, it was for the position I held."

I explained to Rob that the issue was not about the questions or the answers. The real issue was about empowerment and why people felt they needed to ask him the questions in the first place.

Given that his team already knew him and his areas of expertise, there are two feasible reasons (and no they were not out to get him!).

  1. Team members genuinely don’t know the answers to the questions and are seeking help.
  2. Team members feel obliged or required to ensure that now he is the "boss" his opinion and input is included.

Given the previous point around Rob’s subject matter expertise, it seems unlikely that the first point is the issue. But if we assume that it is, the fix really is pretty easy. Invest in training and education to develop skills. But more than this, invest in peer to peer learning and develop a culture of collaboration in the team where each member can lean on one other for assistance to solve the problem or answer the question.

The best teams self-manage and resolve issues without the need for input from leadership.

The second potential explanation is more complex. It is learned behaviour and harder to shift. The team culture is one where team members feel obliged to make sure the "boss" is included, or process requires the boss’ approval. Now in some cases this is important, such as firing a nuclear missile on a submarine (as David Marquet describes in his wonderful presentations). In the work place though, when experts in their fields are asking management to approve solutions or help answer questions, it causes blockages and isn’t conducive to fostering a high performing and efficient team.

The solution to the second issue is empowerment and support for the capabilities of the team.

As leaders, we need to continually empower our teams to make as many decisions as possible. Ultimately our teams have more information, collective experience and knowledge then we ever will. Unfortunately in most of today's organisations, this isn’t the norm. Managers are taught to take charge and make decisions. Staff are taught that if they don't follow process and get the right approvals then they are at risk of losing their jobs.

Fear isn’t the way to create an environment where people are happy at work. Trust and empowerment are. Happy team members are better at their jobs. They help us be better leaders and create a more productive workplace.

So, what advice did I end up giving Rob?

  • Always remember that the questions are not about you, they are about the position you hold. Remember this helps us to stay humble, as it should always be about the team and not about you as an individual.
  • Create an environment that empowers your team to make decisions themselves. More often they know what they need to find the answers. Your job as a leader is to ensure that they have all the information, experience and knowledge they need to make these decisions.
  • Most importantly, as a leader you have to be brave. Some leaders may want to rule from the top down and your leadership style may be criticised. Take the flack and keep going. In the end, your team will respect you, trust you and work their asses off for you!

This is the difference between Leadership and Management.

Why I teach an immersive experience

In 2016 I took a month off to do my yoga teacher training in Bali, Indonesia.  I've found that yoga is a great way for me to keep fit - it works your whole body, builds strength, provides time for meditative thoughts and you can do it in a hotel room when you're stuck inter-state and don't want to go for a jog around a foreign city after dark.

So teacher training was a way for me to learn more about how to practice and the intent was that I could then design my own classes and continue to deepen my personal practice.  I've taught in the past and thought it could be a bit of fun on the side to add to our local community and run some free classes too.


Around two weeks in, our teacher says to us that for this morning's practice, we need to bring something we can blindfold ourselves with.  It's a bit of a laugh, we all rock up with tea towels or scarves and think it'll be 10 minutes with our eyes closed - no big deal, I often practice with my eyes closed.  Right?

2 hours later.

We finish, and our teacher asks if anyone wishes to share their thoughts, or a reflection on practice that morning before we break for breakfast.

"I hate you" one person speaks up.  "I know what you were trying to do but I was not ready for it, it just wasn't what I wanted to do this morning, I'm *SO* angry with you right now.  It hurt. Physically.  It was really painful.  I know we weren't doing much but my body screamed at me the whole way through, all I could feel was the burden that all of you put on yourselves, how hard you push yourselves, how nothing's ever good enough, you're all so driven and pushing so hard and you need to be much kinder to yourselves.  It feels horrible and it was all I could feel the weight of everyone's collective self-pressure all practice."

I remember thinking "they've just popped, man they've got some stuff going on this morning!"  I mean, aside from thinking everyone else had taken their blindfold off and maybe I missed it and looked like a dork, the yoga wasn't that bad this particular morning.  No biggie.


We broke for our morning meal and I thought I'd take a seat at the silent table, just to settle a little after practice.  Besides I was a bit tired this morning.  We'd designated one table as "silent" and were encouraged to take at least one meal at the table in silence during our stay.  This felt like the place for me to just chill a bit, take it easy before we get into mid-morning class.

Another hour and a half passed at the table.  I spoke to no one.  No one sat with me and as mid-morning class approached I remember feeling the fear at not wanting to leave, not wanting to have to interact with others.  "Wow this is weird."

And then, I look over to the pool to see two other guests who I'd met the day before, playing in the water.

The first is a little girl who we'd met that week.  She would be around 3 or 4 and she was staying with her grandfather on holiday.  She used to come racing out to play with us after morning practice - she loved hanging out with the yogis and laughing and splashing and sunning ourselves before next class.  An absolute delight.

The second person was a woman who I'd met who was on holiday with her husband.  A couple of Aussies, let's call them Dave and Sarah.  Dave had called out to me that morning on my way to morning practice and said "hey! we wanted to apologise.  Yesterday when you waved, we felt awful - if Sarah doesn't wave back it's not cause she's being rude, she can't see you, Sarah's blind".  "Oh!" I called back "no worries at all, next time I'll yell at you to say hi!" we all laughed.

So as I'm watching the pool I see this little girl sitting on the edge of the deep end and having trouble with her goggles.  Sarah is her play-date this morning and as I watch, she reaches up to adjust the little girl's goggles.  It is a moment of pure and utter tenderness, to watch a blind woman help another to see.

And the tears pour out of me.

I fold entirely in on myself as the feeling goes right to my core and I realise in that instant that something profound is happening.

Our teacher had said nothing out of the ordinary that morning.  In fact all she had said was "step your right foot to your right thumb" - a series of physical cues that helped us into various familiar postures.  And yet, what she had done, without any of us being prepared for it, without any of us really knowing what was going on, was to open up a space for something deeper in us to come through.

Ask any of the 40 people I was with that morning and I've no doubt they'll all have their own incredible memories and experience of what happened.  For each, almost certainly unique, yet underpinned by commonality.

In that moment I came to understand that here is a way to speak to people on an entirely different level.  Our office world is constructed of conversation, of rational thought.  Coaching, consulting, working, is all about talking it through with someone, an interaction of the mind.  It's mentally taxing work.  And here, here was a way to bypass that whole system of communication and speak to a person through their body.  An incredible toolset that we've entirely neglected - office environmental design and architecture are but a drop in the ocean of how we might influence people beyond the conversation.

It's why I teach an immersive experience.

For example.  I can gift you the *physical* feeling in your body of dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity, by asking you to stand on one foot.  Try it now.  Stand up, and lift your left foot up.  Don't think about it, just do it.

Did you wobble?  Did you feel yourself grab (mentally or physically)? Did you have to drop the foot and rebalance?

Try it again.

This time I want you to feel the weight in your right foot.  Anchor down through big toe mound, inner heel, outer toe mound and outer heel.  Draw your big toe mound towards your inner heel, wiggle your toes and put a slight bend in the knee as you do, soften the hips.  And now as you feel weight in that right foot, ground down through it and begin to lift the heel of your left. Soften your joints and bend your left knee to bring the thigh parallel with the ground.

What changed?

As we learn to deal with the wobbles in our own body, we learn that to grab can often throw us off balance entirely, whereas to tune into those wobbles, to take our time, we can stand a little longer on one foot and feel more stable.  Same applies the week after you leave one of our retreats and the boss throws you a curve ball about that project you had planned out.  Instead of grabbing in an attempt to rid yourself of the feeling of uncertainty, instead of making a premature decision; can we create just enough space to pause, just enough space to take half a breath and then move, with purpose.  The outcome may indeed be the same - we lift our left foot - but that brief moment to feel the wobbles (maybe have a giggle) and learn to work with it could make all the difference.


- D.


You might also be interested in:

The Attacker's Advantage - a book on navigating uncertainty by Ram Charan

The Heart Aroused - a book on poetry, corporate life and soul-searching by David Whyte

Amazing yoga by Meghan Currie

Seven capabilities for new era leaders

Today's world asks more of us as leaders than ever before.  Success, it seems, is more dependent on our ability to adapt, to respond to changes in our environment; than an historical precedent of commanding the environment melded to our own ambition.   New challenges, new opportunities, the paradigm shift in our world necessitates our shift in leadership:  What it means to lead |what we're accountable for | how it feels.

This journey is a personal one.

I was born in New Zealand, the kid that was into all the colour crayons and had to be kept busy right through school.  At university I chose a degree that included the arts and sciences, shifting gears on graduation to enter the construction industry initially and then stepping sideways into technology, where I spend most of my time these days.  There was always something new around the corner, another shiny object to chase and if I look at the crew I have around me today we all have that in common: a thirst for learning.  I'm fairly certain this is a lot of what attracted me to change roles - change through projects in large organisations; change in people through working shoulder to shoulder in their organisations as we redesign our thinking about the way we work and the work we do. Disruption. Recreating.

Working in this field across multiple industries, sectors, in organisations of varied scale, has helped me to see patterns.

First: People are happier, more fulfilled, give more than you'd ever think possible, when personal and organisational purpose are aligned; when they are respected and encouraged as masters of their craft; and have autonomy to make decisions and solve problems rather than simply fulfil orders.

Secondly: There is a paradigm shift required by leaders to enable this to happen.  And there's an equal shift required by our team members to not reinforce the old behaviour when we hit a bump in the road and revert back to what's familiar, what feels safe.  Change is scary and the old programming runs deep - when was the last time you got points on an exam for asking a question rather than giving an answer?  

You cannot do this work, for yourself, in your own organisation or for others, without getting personal.  Without the inner work on ourselves to support a fundamental shift in our foundations, then this becomes simply another change program, more propaganda, disruption without lasting change and something we can wait-out just like the last time one of these programs came along.

It's taken me close to 20 years to work out my true calling in life - I thought it was vet school, then I thought it was architecture, then project management, then an executive job in technology - and it's taken some pretty frank conversations with myself and others to deal with the internal narrative, to get out of the way of myself and our teams.  I now have the incredible privilege of working with clients and being trusted to ask the question "what do you want to be when you grow up?".

So what are the seven capabilities I think we need for highly effective leaders in the new era?

  • An improved threshold for handling uncertainty and ambiguity
  • Deep personal resilience
  • An ability to engage in positive conflict
  • The capacity for cognitive dissonance
  • Courage
  • Active reflection
  • Community building


Uncertainty and Ambiguity

It seems the one constant in today's organisation is change.  Whether it's market circumstances, new product launches or the constant churn of organisational restructures in large corporates; we're becoming conditioned to movement.  But constant change without anchor can drive stress in our people and create unnecessary overhead and noise in getting the work done.    It's further exacerbated by the fact that historically, uncertainty has correlated with a lack of job security - if we're not busy, or demand changes quickly, it can manifest fear on a pretty fundamental level.

Questions to consider:

  • Is our own desire for certainty causing us to make a decision prematurely?
  • Does this decision commit us to a long-term path without adequate room to adapt as we learn more?
  • What are we testing today, that can illuminate for us whether or not we are stepping closer towards the outcome we seek?
  • How are we developing our learning agility as an individual, as a team, as an organisation?
  • What in our environment is predictable vs fluid - Amazon's CEO famously said 'our customers will never wish their orders took longer to ship'


"The self confidence of the warrior is not the self confidence of the average man.  The average man seeks certainty in the eyes of the onlooker and calls that self confidence.  The warrior seeks impeccability in his own eyes and calls that humbleness.  The average man is hooked to his fellow men, while the warrior is hooked only to infinity."

- Carlos Casteneda

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • Lack of visibility of complex problems, opportunities, organisational contexts
  • Indecision beyond the last *responsible* moment


Personal resilience

Those of us who have worked in an organisational change capacity know the incredible strength of character and patience required to help shift an organisation's position.  At times it can feel like trying to steer the Titanic, even once we've convinced everyone there really is an iceberg dead ahead.  Conversely, the pressure in a startup enterprise can be extreme when we feel like it's all hinging on us.  We tell ourselves we're pioneers, leaders, and we're driven, so stand strong and deliver, we operate on raw tenacity to pull us through.  But there's two sides to resilience - whilst we often choose to focus on the immense strength required, we spend less time thinking about those things that renew our reserves when we are low, ensuring that if and when we do need to dig deep, we've still got something left in the tank.

"...for growing stronger or to move in a direction that we want to move in our life, as much as we need the effort to propel us there, we need the ease so we can receive it coming."

- Meghan Currie

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • "Pushing through" and "staying strong"
  • An inability to show and share vulnerability with self and others


Positive conflict

I remember a colleague speaking to me years ago about a problem he was seemingly having at work.  In his particular field of endeavour, there were two senior leaders with pretty starkly different approaches to common client problems of organisational redesign.  Within their own consulting organisation, this colleague was hearing rumours of people "taking sides" - there seemed to be a perception that you were with one or the other particular method and someone had even suggested the two were "at war".   So my colleague calls lunch with his peer and the two of them sit down.

"We're friends right?".  "Yes".  "Are we at war?".  "Huh?"

The conversation was quickly finished as the two friends agreed that whilst their views on how to approach a problem might differ, their enthusiastic discussions were about forming new ideas, pushing the limits of each others understanding, seeking some higher truth as they put the puzzle together in their own heads.  We reflected on how one of *the most functional* business relationships I'd ever seen (between these two good friends) had somehow been interpreted as dysfunction - and it struck us that we often equate a lack of conflict with a functional relationship - and any kind of disagreement is immediately equated with dysfunction.

Diversity of thought is critical if we're to build robust and adaptive organisations - perhaps consider in your own organisation which conflicts are doing you a disservice, simply creating noise, or where conflict could have a positive influence on the outcomes you're trying to achieve.


What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • Forums for the team to vent when the decision has already been made
  • Diversity on paper, rather than true diversity of thought, perspective, operating style
  • Decision making by consensus in an effort to share and reconcile everyone's views in a single outcome


Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance - the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.  Why is it important for leaders to hold the space for two seemingly opposing viewpoints at once?  In today's society we have more and more pressure for the "AND" not the "OR".  The successful stewardship of our organisations often depends on our ability to see a path where others have not: "innovation" they call it.

Horses teach me a lot about people.  When working with these animals we have to communicate through the body and our language is pressure.  We can't show the animal a picture of the end point and then help them work towards it, you must build bottom-up for the learning to occur.  As partners we learn to develop this skill of deliberate application or removal of pressure to communicate movements between horse and rider.  We learn quickly that less is more, and the journey in finishing an animal is really about finding the least amount of pressure that can be applied to encourage a particular movement.  We can choose in some circumstances to escalate the pressure, continually building the size of the ask - but it's a bit like yelling at someone who doesn't speak your language.  The more subtle method is to wait.  At the same pressure.  Until we elicit the response we were after and then immediately release.  I think it's linked to uncertainty - how comfortable are we to wait at the same pressure with a problem we see until the right answer becomes apparent?

"...I was struck by his courage and the reluctance to reassure easily at the expense of deeper truths.

- David Whyte

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • Continually reinventing, rather than an evolutionary purpose
  • Getting stuck in transition, a "foot in both camps" so that we continually encounter the noise of being pulled in multiple directions
  • Indecision beyond the last *responsible* moment



There's a lot of talk about failure in organisations these days.  Our acceptance of it, our need to embrace failure as a means to learn and improve - but it's become clear to me (particularly in very large organisations) that there are acceptable and unacceptable forms of failure.  It will never cease to amaze me that we can continue on with a multi-million dollar program of work almost entirely predicated on the "sunk cost" fallacy - it took us that long to get the thing up and running, we should keep going!  Acceptable failure: keep a project running long after it's used-by date, keep spending money and hit the budget.  Unacceptable form of failure: killing a project that we've burned a lot of time and energy on and everyone knows will take far too long to finish and probably won't get us the impact we're looking for in any case.

Fear isn't a terrible looking thing lurking in the shadows, but something lovely and seductive.  That corner office, that enormous salary, that sense of comfort that comes from feeling secure in our foundation; and we're good at it, so we never need to learn the lesson of fluidity; we seek instead to continue to build on what we have; and wonder why we wake up one day yearning for more.  To look inward, to truly listen, and to have the courage to follow.  True power scares us.  I was petrified when I started my business, taking a step away from everything I knew I was good at - corporate. and a big salary to match.

One of the major causes of fear is that we do not want to face ourselves as we are. So, as well as the fears themselves, we have to examine the network of escapes we have developed to rid ourselves of them.

- J. Krishnamurti

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • Big commitments, "bold decisions" usually in the form of large projects of work that cost a lot of money to implement a "big idea"
  • Courage in the face of acceptable forms of failure, without challenging the paradigm
  • Building solutions without a clear understanding of the current system, without surety that the new work will redesign-out waste and failure in the current system, or enable more time on valuable work (to customers)


Active reflection

Krishnamurti in his book On Fear writes of a beautiful concept, 'non-accumulative seeing'  "not recognition - but seeing the fact"[1]  Like businesses accumulate processes, we often accumulate our own stories, collect our own debris, our civilisation's conditioning; without a method for actively "putting down the luggage" after our journeys.  How many of us at one point or another received feedback to "modify your style based on the style of the person in front of you" or "find a way to navigate the organisation" when one of our ideas fell flat in a pitch meeting.  One of my most treasured mentors gifted me the concept of shifting a frame.  We all have our frame, our collection of experiences and knowledge and personal traits that mean we see a world in a certain way.  "... the trick..." she said "is to work out how to first see where the boundaries of your own frame sit, and then deliberately move that frame so that you may see something different.".  Active reflection is our calling to continue to observe our own frame and then work out how to shift it, to unlock a greater potential.

"...as we practice going inward, we come to realise that much of it is not depression in the least; it is a cry for something else, often the physical body's simple need for rest, for contemplation, and for a kind of forgotten courage, one difficult to hear, demanding not a raise, but another life."

- David Whyte

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • Valuing rational analysis to the exclusion of deeper "knowing" - sometimes the answers don't come to us in the clearly articulated format of words in the mind as we'd expect
  • Using quantitative and qualitative data interchangeably 


Community building

True leaders know how to set the vision and create a movement.  Community is queen in a self-organising structure.  As we seek to remove the hierarchy and bottlenecks for decision-making that is conventional management overhead; we must actively invest in something new.  Common purpose, support for each other, autonomy in decision making are all necessary ingredients and require an active investment from leaders to avoid sliding towards token slogans, false empathy and consensus-based decision making.

What the anti-pattern looks like:

  • Swinging from command and control to consensus-based decision making
  • Special interest groups and forums that dissolve if we as drivers aren't in attendance
  • Delegation under the guise of empowerment, when in actual fact all that's happened is a shift in responsibility without adequate support from a leader to remove blockers


In my experience, there's two sides to the change equation.  Change in the organisation, and change in ourselves.  Actively cultivating these  seven capabilities in ourselves and others supports the personal transformations we must continue to undertake as we move towards a different model of leadership for ourselves, our teams, and our organisation.



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