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From the Blog

Why? Why? Why?

When something goes wrong in business (or in our personal life, for that matter) we tend to spend little time on analysing the reasons, but jump straight in to find the quick fix. With small things, this is often just fine - it’s a waste of time and energy to agonise over that little dribble of spilt milk.

But with bigger issues, if we haven't worked out why the problem occurred in the first place, this ‘action-oriented, just try anything’ approach is really an experiment that has an almost random chance of success.

So, if you do have a tricky situation where the cause is not readily apparent, try this technique:

  1. Write a short description of the problem at the top of a piece of paper (A3 if possible), e.g. 'Marketing efforts not working for product X'.
  2. Underneath draw a horizontal line with a series of vertical branches off the bottom. Asking 'Why?', complete these with, say, 5 categories of reasons, e.g. 'Price too high', 'Targeting the wrong market', 'Too much competition', 'Sales force badly trained' and 'Ad campaign'.
  3. Then add a number of branches under each of these and again ask 'Why'?. So for example, under 'Why sales force badly trained' you might write 'Not enough time spent on training', 'Trainer didn't understand product' 'Not enough resources for hiring and training sales staff'.
  4. You can go on as long as useful with this. So if you wanted a third tier, you could take 'Not enough resources for hiring and training sales staff' and write under that 'CEO does not believe marketing is useful here'.
  5. Once you have your chart in enough detail, have any other people involved prepare their own charts, then compare notes. Each team member will have their own unique perspectives and insights, and the person with the clearest eye is not always the one at the top!
  6. So, in our example, the most useful next step may be to find a creative way of persuading the CEO of the importance of sales spending - rather than abandoning the project or tinkering with the product design.

The point of all this is to drill down deeper than you might do otherwise, rather than just coming up with more and more reasons at the same superficial level. The 'Why?' is an invitation to look beneath the obvious - you may find some surprising answers (and a simpler, less drastic solution than you might think...).

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Stuck in a Rut? Collage Your Way Out!

I had a client a while ago who was struggling to get clear on a new direction for her life. We had done a number of exercises, discussed options and played with possibilities, but she was still stuck. I suggested to her that she try to do a collage, finding and arranging images and words together on a page.

Two weeks later she returned, with a photo of her finished collage. She had divided it into four quadrants - three were each on a part of her present life, with the fourth headlined by the words 'North Star' and 'Leap of Faith'.

For her, this meant a realisation that she couldn't make change by talking about it, but only by taking actions, maybe small at first, maybe some experiments or trial experiences, but actions nonetheless. The collage process had helped her bypass the logical (and in her case, cautious) part of her brain in order to tap into her imagination and create a compelling image of two possible futures - one if she kept on doing what she was doing, and the other if she took her leap of faith and headed in the direction of her north star.

Collage is a particularly powerful technique for creating a clear picture of your vision and starting to make it real. It taps into the power of both the left (verbal, linear, logical and rational ) and right (holistic, visual, big picture, spatial) sides of the brain. By collecting images that you are drawn to, and arranging them on paper you get a picture of your goals or dreams, a storyboard or blueprint of whatever it is that you want to create in the world.

What if you think you're not the collage type, that this form of creative expression is not your thing? 

I have found that some of the best results come from people who are not naturals at this, probably because they have no choice but to take a fresh approach to it all - my favourite example was a builder who did one of my group programs. When I introduced collage as our next group exercise, he looked at me as if I had suggested he leap up and dance Swan Lake...but he (reluctantly) agreed to give it a go. By the end of the night, he cornered me to quietly ask if he could take some of the magazines and the glue home to keep working on his creation - and the end result changed his life.

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Can You Overuse Your Strengths?

It’s very fashionable these days to focus on strengths and ignore weaknesses, and in the main this is a good thing. But it doesn’t mean that you just need to find your top one or two strengths and focus on them to the exclusion of all else. If you do that, you risk falling off the edge on one of two ways - by overuse of those strengths, or by ignoring relevant weaknesses.

Overusing Strengths
Do you overuse your favourite strength or skill? For example, do you marinate yourself in your deep and narrow field of expertise? Or do you always rush to help people, whatever the circumstances? Because our strengths are, by definition, the things we love, and they come from doing activities that make us lose track of time, there is a real temptation to go further and further into the strength and to rely on it in an increasing range of situations.

For me, my love of learning is a great asset in my business - but I need to be ever-mindful of my tendency to keep learning and learning, without taking that learning back into the world. (And of course, it all takes time that could better be spent on other tasks!)

Academic researchers are divided on whether this approach is always a bad thing. But all agree that relying on only one strength is not useful - if you expand your favourites list to about five strengths, you are are on much more solid ground as you develop deeper skills in these areas.

Over-relying on one or two strengths can lead to:

  • Burnout
  • Becoming lopsided or one-dimensional, which often leads to...
  • ...Irritating or boring other people
  • Lack of adaptability to changing circumstances, or not enough flexibility to move between different work tasks
  • Selling yourself short - who knows what you could do if you unpacked some of your other strengths as well?

Ignoring Relevant Weaknesses
It’s true that you will get much further in your career by polishing your strengths than by trying to compensate for your weaknesses. But there is an exception, and that’s in the area of those weaknesses that are central to your work and which are holding you back.

It may be that you are a gifted verbal negotiator, but struggle to convey your thoughts on paper in your final reports. Or that you are great at logical analysis, but not so good with presenting your results in a meeting. For me, it’s all abut the numbers and the detail (not my thing...). If a weakness is all that stands between you and your next big promotion, you need to adopt one of these strategies:

  • Do a short course, read a book or get some hands-on help to lift your skills
  • Find a strength through which you can create a work-around that will adequately bridge the gap. Following the above examples, perhaps our gifted verbal negotiator could dictate their reports and then type them up? 
  • Enter into an alliance with someone in your team, who has the strength you lack, and who would benefit from your way of looking at the world. Perhaps our logical analyst could connect with an extroverted presenter?

Remember, it’s only necessary to work with those weaknesses that are holding you back - and only to the extent needed to allow your strengths to shine!
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The Why Of Leadership

I am setting a world record for length of time to complete a Masters (of Education) but am slowly limping towards the finish line. One of the most interesting rocks I turned over was looking at the qualities of a transformative leader. I’m particularly interested in leaders of ‘social enterprises’, which are businesses with a social agenda. They may still aim to make a profit, but it’s not their core reason for existence. 

In writing a research case study on a social enterprise leader, I remembered a TED talk I had watched some time ago, from a guy called Simon Sinek, on how great leaders inspire action. He believes that people don't buy what you do or even how you do it, but they buy why you do it.  He says: 'the goal is not to do business with people who want what you have - the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.' It's about gut feelings, not facts and figures.

He reckons that a big mistake many businesses make is to focus on ‘What’ they offer, and after that, the ‘How’ they do it, leaving the ‘Why’ as a distant third. Sinek says that inspired leaders reverse this, with the primary focus on ‘Why’, then ‘How’ - and last of all, the ‘What’.

I’m not sure about this in all areas of the business world, but it is certainly intriguing and I am thinking it may have particular relevance in areas of social innovation and in businesses with a change agenda. Clearly we follow leaders in this area primarily because we believe what they believe.

If you’re interested, watch the whole TED talk.  It’s quite well known now, and has been downloaded over 28 million times (wow!) - that is because it is seriously good stuff.

What is your why?
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The Third Space - A Key To Happiness, Creativity And Productivity?

I’m a bit of a fan of the Happiness Conference (described by a colleague of mine as ‘that happy clappy thing’, but pretty excellent nonetheless…). Lots of great speakers, fascinating data, and enough mind food to last me quite some time. 

One of my favourite speakers a few years ago was Dr Adam Fraser, who spoke about what he calls the third space – the time when we transition between one role or task to the next role or task.

He reckons that how we handle these transitions could be the key to happiness, creativity and productivity. I followed up by reading his book, and have experimented with some success on my own third spaces.

His work is based on research he did (with Deakin University) where he took 250 small business owners and measured their mood and behaviour in the home. Only 29 percent said that they came home in a good mood, with a positive mindset and constructive behaviour.

He then asked them to perform three simple behaviours in the third space between work and home:

This is where they reflected on and analysed the day, with the focus on what they had achieved and what had gone well for them.

They took time to relax and unwind. Being calm and present allowed them to recover from the stressful day.

This is where they became clear about their intention for the home space and articulated how they wanted to ‘show up’ when they walked through the door.

After a month of the participants applying this principle, there was a 41 percent improvement in behaviour in the home. They said that the improved interactions with friends and family led to a greater feeling of overall balance. It’s not rocket science, but it is a serious study, with seriously interesting results.

I think this has great implications in all sorts of areas – between work and home, between admin tasks and creative ones, between one client session or meeting and the next. There’s no doubt that clearing your mind before doing something creative brings better results, and resetting between meetings allows you to be truly present to the people who are in front of you.

You can do this third space stuff as a longer process (where you write about your day, meditate and then reset your mind) or a shorter one (think of what your last session achieved, breathe consciously for a minute, then reset and move on).

I think it’s worth an experiment or two, what about you?
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30-Day Challenges

Nearly five years ago, I ran an experiment for a month. I made one little change to my life every day - with a commitment to continue every change at least until the end of the month. And each change had to be organic, to arise from that day, not be pre-planned or taken from a list of 'shoulds'. Changes included gratitude practice, walking and culling my ‘to do’ list.

It was pretty successful, with a number of the changes still in force today.

But I realised that it was a big ask, one change every day, and by the end it was very challenging keeping 28 new balls in the air...

So a couple of years ago I decided to pick a number of larger changes - meditation (that one only partly stuck around from last time...), sleep habits, eating and so on.

It worked a treat. Having a whole month to embed a habit (especially a big change) was brilliant. You get to stick at something long enough to start rewiring your brain, and the sense of achievement carries you into the next challenge.

This idea applies just as well to work changes. One a month, and a year later your career (or business) will be all shiny and new...

And then I read an article in the paper, about an American guy who has been doing this 30-day challenge thing for three years. He has adopted a vegan diet, learned to play the ukulele, gets eight hours' sleep a night, does something nice for his wife every day - he has even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro as one of his a 30-day makeovers.

Now, I have no interest in the ukelele or going vegan, I don’t have a wife - and I climbed all the way to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro myself twenty years ago. (I’d love to get a guaranteed eight hours a night, though...). But of course these challenges need to be tailored to your goals, to be the things you’d love to change about your life - or the things you’d like to add to it, like mountain climbing or meditation. 

I’m using a mix of these ideas to focus on returning to being a writer, and embedding the health and wellbeing habits I wrote about last week.

What about you?
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Are You Stronger Than Your Excuses?

I am on a bit of a health and fitness campaign - currently five to six walking sessions a week, stretching, back into meditation, AFDs (alcohol-free days), drumming group and a few other things. It reminds me of when I used to do gym classes, and every time I’d walk past a big poster that has a picture of a woman (you know the type, someone who has clearly never had to go on a get fit campaign herself) and the words ‘You are stronger than your excuses.’

It’s become a bit of a mantra for me for my new habits, and is very motivating on cold mornings.

But I also find it helpful in my work. In two ways. One is in becoming aware of how many excuses I make for not writing my book on working after 50 - and as it now has a publisher and a deadline, it’s pretty important that I stay focused on it every day, even when I don’t really feel like it. I repeat to myself ‘You are stronger than your excuses’ when I notice I am procrastinating or prevaricating, as a way of getting off the drama or the story I tell myself, and just doing the work anyway, no matter how I feel about it.

The second way it’s helpful is in noticing the places where I play small, where I avoid taking risks or trying something that may or may not work. The mantra is a great way to develop my courage muscle, to work on being stronger than my excuses about my life dreams and goals.

At this rate, soon I will be so strong that I will be in danger of rusting (and I guess, as gorgeous as the woman in the poster, too...).

What about you? What do you make excuses about? Maybe it’s about sticking with an unsatisfying job, or not having time to start a creative project, or not getting up early to meditate. Why not practice with the mantra and see if it helps you, too?
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5 Tips for Taking Risks at Work

I am in the process of changing my business model, in order to make ongoing time for writing and also academic work.

What this means is that I need to take some risks, both financial and strategic. I need to rethink my financial needs (and how I can satisfy them), I need to change where I work, how I work and when I work. And more.

During the day, this all makes perfect sense. It’s based on sound planning with a good dash of excitement and possibility. I am focused and keen to make it happen.

At 3am, it all feels less sound, and much less exciting. Whilst I have a great appetite for adventure, spontaneity  and risk in some areas of my life, I have discovered that parts of me are not at all happy about my taking risks in my business. 

Can you relate to this? Do you know you should try some experiments in your business or your career, take a few calculated risks, speak up or create something new? And do you worry about how this will work out? Do you hesitate to commit to change? Where are you playing small?

So, what to do? I have come up with 5 tips that help me.

Risk tolerance
If your tolerance for risk is high, you may need to force yourself to plan before you commit to some big change. If it’s low, you will need to take lots of small risks, rather than one big leap into the unknown. It’s fine to do this stuff in baby steps (in my case, it’s the only way...)

Plan, plan, plan
Just because you need to be brave and try something new doesn’t mean you should do it blindfolded. You most definitely should research possibilities, think it through and have an action plan that sets out the steps to take (as far as you can work these out). You should also have a contingency plan to deal with fallout if your idea doesn’t work.

Get support
I am developing my strategy through a most excellent co-coaching arrangement with a  colleague.  I am also seeking out assistance in areas where I lack skills. Where could you access support? It might be as simple as finding a sounding board to talk through your ideas.

Trust your gut
We all have a natural intuition, but often we lose touch with it, and don’t listen when it’s trying to tell us ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Start paying attention to these instincts and you may find it very helpful.

Have Courage
Success in work (and life) requires a heap of qualities such as resilience, persistence, the ability to learn - and courage. It actually doesn’t matter how scared you are, provided you don’t let it paralyse you. Find strategies that help you keep your courage up and keep you moving towards your goals.

What risks do you need to take?

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Success and Satisfaction

I often talk about the importance of creating an ‘internal’ definition of success, one that doesn’t rely solely on the stars aligning for you in the external world. This is particularly important in changing times, allowing you to maintain equanimity an leverage new opportunities.

Along the same lines, from time to time it’s good to ask yourself questions like: What does success mean to you? What are the elements of a happy (or satisfying, or meaningful, or complete) life for you?

As you move through your life and work span, it is a good idea to keep these questions in mind. That way, your career strategies will be not just consistent with your overall life aims, but will take you closer towards them. If you’re up for it, you can even add in the biggest question of all:

What is the purpose of your life?

Think about the elements of your satisfying life - work, family, community, friends, travel, finances, health, purpose, whatever it is for you. There’s no right or wrong here, but it’s worth spending a bit of time thinking about the elements that you need to have in place, even if some of them haven’t happened yet.

It may help to imagine that you are at your own 80th birthday party. Someone close to you is making a speech - what will they talk about? (I tend to shy away from coaching cliché exercises, but this one does rather concentrate the mind...)

You can also think of this in connection with your values. There are no ‘correct’ or ‘better’ values for your happy life, that’s entirely up to you. For example, which of these would make you the most excited:

  • making $1 million in your business
  • receiving an Order of Australia award
  • becoming famous or a celebrity
  • gaining the respect of your peers or community
  • or?

One good way to work with these questions is by doing a mind map of the elements of your happy, successful life. If you haven’t mind mapped before, check it out by Googling - you guessed it - ‘mind map’. If you want to mind map your life, try this:

  • Put an image in the centre for the main idea - add a few words that will give your map a  focus (‘My Happy Life’, ‘My Meaningful Life’, ‘My Successful Life’ or whatever).
  • Use a colour to draw a branch line out from the centre...add a word or two that relates to an aspect of your life (‘Family’ or ‘Financial Security’ or…).
  • Keep it to one idea per branch, and make sure each branch is connected to the central image.
  • Add sub branches to cover further detail about each element 
  • Draw pictures or symbols to prompt your memory and bring your map alive

You can hang your map up somewhere that you’ll see it every day, or write about it, or just ask yourself the question from time to time, ‘What would it take for me to have a successful life?’.

As you work towards your career plan, you can check your ideas against your map, to make sure that your plans will help you to flourish in every part of your life.

What does your satisfying life look like?
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Have You Met The Procrastinator?

I am pretty excited to have been given a contract by Harper Collins for my upcoming book on working past 50. Of course, that means I now have a high deadline to deliver the completed manuscript, so I am busy making space to actually finish writing the thing…

First thing on Monday morning, I fired up my computer, opened Scrivener (the best book-writing software I know) and pulled out my notes and mind maps. My work was mapped out for the week - I had a few new interviews to add and edit, a chapter to rework and some research to nail. Easy.

After staring at the screen for five minutes or more, I went and did a load of washing. I came back and looked at the screen again, then made a pot of soup. More screen staring, then I went for a walk for an hour.

Lunchtime. So I ate the soup, then checked my emails. At about 3pm, I started work. Once I had started writing, it was fine, and the rest of my time went well.

Clearly I had survived an attack from my old friend, The Procrastinator. I am quite familiar with this pest, and generally manage to deal with it much more quickly than I did this time. In my experience, the more creative or scary the project, the deeper the hold of The Procrastinator. Whatever form it takes, in the end it comes down to fear - of failure, of finding out you have no talent, of people laughing at you, of not being able to live up to your own expectations. Or maybe fear of finding out your idea wasn't as clever as you had thought, or that you have fallen out of love with it. The list is pretty long, and I'm sure you could add to it, too.

So, what can you do about this?

  • Find some simple and mechanical tasks – housework, cleaning out a cupboard, organising your office or studio, cleaning out the shed, gardening. These work on multiple levels – they get you moving, let you start and finish something (with the sense of achievement that comes from that), they take your mind off things…
  • Get moving – dance, walk, swim, jiggle, shake, breathe. Believe it or not, these feelings exist in the body and they can be removed by moving the body and letting the feelings find a way out.
  • Stop for a moment, relax, and explore what you are feeling. Is it overwhelm, pressure, frustration, indecisiveness, anxiety, panic,? Whatever it is, accept the feeling and make friends with it. You can journal, walk with it, breathe through it, meditate… there are many ways through this, but naming the feeling and accepting it are crucial. 
  • Finally, my favourite, which is to bribe yourself: 10 minutes (or whatever feels possible) on the dreaded project and then the reward..

If you need more than a quick fix, then try some baby steps. I first encountered these when trekking in the Himalayas, where I was told that the way over a (seemingly endless) mountain crossing was ‘baby steps, baby steps’ – it worked then, and whatever the project, it’s a very powerful way to get from here to a (seemingly unreachable) there.

You just do a very little bit of your project (open a book, find that phone number, sharpen the pencil) then leave it for an hour or a day, then do the next step and so on… it’s simple, but it really does work. Try doing 5 minutes at the same time each morning, and 5 minutes at the same time each night – it sounds like nothing, but can add up to real progress over a relatively short time.

What are your procrastination-busters?

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News & Events

Dangerous Minds

Check out Dangerous Minds, an article I wrote for BOSS on corporate culture and creativity. Do some cultures encourage creative thought and innovation? Do other cultures kill it stone dead?

Taking Charge of Your Work. 
Joanna is speaking at the Network Central breakfast in Sydney on 20 September on Taking Charge of Your Work. Do you have a strategic plan for your working life (or even for 2012)? Whether you run your own business, or work for someone else, you need to take charge of your career development. If you'd like to find out more, why not come along? Use this link for the discount rate: