Let’s try Deep Work, hailed as a superpower of the 21st Century

deep-workI have discovered something new I like called absorb state, described by Gregory Ciotti as one of 7 ways to boost your creativity. Absorb state refers to a period of consuming information only, not creating or delivering any output. The concept is also referred to as ‘batching’. It replaces what Linda Stone calls ‘continuous partial attention’, where you give in to the temptations of multitasking on other aspects of your work.

‘Having a clear rule that forbids any distraction during focused work was freeing’ reported Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for focussed success in a distracted world. He experimented with hard focus for a day where you have to focus at least 30 minutes on every single task you do. All work is chunked into blocks of at least 30 minutes. So if you check emails, you have to spend at least 30 minutes on emails and other small diversions.


Batching is hard, concluded Newport from his experiment. It turns out you really need to plan ahead to ensure you have all the material and information needed for some focused blocks of work. You cannot leave one task to spin off an email requesting information, or to set up a meeting. Because you need to stay focused on your task for 30 minutes at least. But if you did ‘defocus’, you’d then need to spend the remainder of the 30 minutes doing more of what you’d jumped ship to do.

But on the flipside, he experienced more time in a flow state that he can remember experiencing in recent times. And the quality of his work improved. Added to that was increased efficiency around small task completion.

‘Deep work provides the sense of true fulfilment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy.’

Given these insights, and the appeal of spending quality time in absorb state, I think I’ll give it a try.

Think differently – do differently #FutureWork

think-differently-do-differentlyI have taken to including a short Think Differently session in my workshops with clients. It consists of riddles and brainteasers designed to engage, amuse and challenge. There are small prizes for those who can solve the riddles and teasers, and more prizes for those who are creative with their answers. Some come away bristling with satisfaction, others are annoyed. They are all entertained and stretched. And that’s the point of the session – to leave for a moment our groomed intention to find and offer a right answer, and instead to follow our own curiosity and find a different answer, our own answer. I want to inject an appetite for that, because it’s going to become more essential that we can think, and do, differently.

Think differently, see things differently, get to a place where you can actually do things differently, and you’re more likely to end up in the Blue Ocean.

“Creating blue oceans builds brands. So powerful is blue ocean strategy, in fact, that a blue ocean strategic move can create brand equity that lasts for decades.” – W. Chan Kim, Professor of Strategy and Management at INSEAD and Co-director of the INSEAD Blue Ocean Strategy Institute.

Here is a summary of Blue Ocean Strategy if you are not familiar with the thinking, Blue Ocean Strategy: Creating your own market, and an early Harvard Business Review write-up about it: Blue Ocean Strategy.

But here is the challenge. We’re not set up to think differently, and it is risky to do so. People who think and do differently can get hurt in organisations. In one large FS organisation it was simply understood that no items got a ‘red’ on the traffic light reporting system for a large project. That meant failing. And then everyone else could see you/your team/your unit were failing. The reporting didn’t reflect real progress, and surface real risks that could be mitigated for, it was about ensuring that you were not seen to be failing. How would sticking your neck out in this environment work, when time and budgets are the prize winners?

Take a look at the Millennial Disruption Index, a US study, but insights worth heeding globally: banks – your future customers would rather visit the dentist than listen to what you have to say. 73% would be more excited about a new offering in financial services from Google, Amazon, Apple, PayPal or Square than from their own nationwide bank. Nearly half the respondents in this study are counting on tech start-ups to overhaul the way banks work. They believe innovation will come from outside the industry. Given some of my own banking experiences, from the inside and as customer, I have to agree.

Establishing satellite innovation labs, or hubs, or hobnobbing with fintech start-ups seems like a very small piece of the puzzle you need to think differently about. I’d be inclined to shine the lens a little more on the motherships, the large institutions lumbering on with unwritten but carefully obeyed rules about status reports. I’d have a very frank conversation about “the way things get done around here”. That statement is another way of describing the real organisation values. On the end of that statement you could put “To Succeed”, or even “To Survive”.

The right-answer approach, and right-first-time, has been the bedrock of the ideally operationally efficient and nimble organisations we have been ruling over for years. This one-right-answer, time-and-budgets approach, often seeded in what worked in the past, seems to be a chain tightening around the necks of corporates who continue to mildly heed the imperative of establishing environments at work where it is safe to look for and experiment with different answers that might work. Or might not.

Our organisations are set up for traditional high potentials who are typically good at strategy and implementation, and understanding of incremental innovation or what we call polishing. We lay out ladders for these traditional leaders to climb, if they prove they have the right answers and the top-down, sealed-up script to implement them.

But how the world is changing – it is networked, participatory, choice-laden and unpredictable. Here today, disrupted tomorrow. How refreshing. Think Uber, AirBnB and all the other over-used examples. We need a wider range of roles, and appetites, to refresh our future.

Peter Druckers’ words seemed so outlandish at first, but feel perhaps less so now:

“Every organisation must prepare for the abandonment of everything it does”.  

Playing in a nimble and efficient space may be risker, it seems, than actually sticking your neck out. Because over time you will be out-disrupted. But what courage it takes to think and do differently in the environments we create and reinforce at work.

Grow and support appetites for thinking and doing differently. Get your head around new roles, like Game Changers, Play Makers and Polishers. If not for your organisation, then at least for your longer-term self.


Seek inspiration beyond the oversimplfied

As guru Brian Solis recommends, I like to seek inspiration beyond the oversimplified.

At our fingertips online is a generous sharing of insights and opinions, thought-provoking, present, creative, curious and clever. Whatever you are looking for you can find. It’s up to you to pick, pocket and personalise your sources.

I’m sharing a few of my secret sources here. They inspire me, shuffle my thinking and give me ideas to connect to each other.



https://www.brainpickings.org/ described as ‘An inventory of the meaningful life’ and ‘cross-disciplinary interestingness, spanning art, science, design, history, philosophy, and more.’

https://aeon.co/ ‘Ideas and culture.’ Aeon is a digital magazine of ideas and culture, publishing an original essay every weekday.

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/ ‘What studies say about human behaviour and productivity.

And then there is http://www.getpocket.com. Pocket is actually bookmarking tool. But it also curates content and delivers it to me in a newsletter. It looks for articles based on the articles I have previously bookmarked or saved to Pocket. What they feed me is spot on. Quite ingenious really. Almost every headline fascinates me.

Rather than bemoan our world that is so information-laden, I celebrate the rich access to all this clever insight and opinion. As said above – it’s up to you to pick, pocket and personalise your sources.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Tell me about the last time you failed

On the whole, expect to fail. Do it quickly. Learn. Move on. Perhaps even to something different. That’s the new formula. And it makes sense to have new formulas in light of the fact that the business models we used yesterday no longer seem to produce the results we need for tomorrow. The rules of the game have changed. And it happened while we were sleeping. It’s called the World After Midnight (WAM).

“Most of us spend our lives acting rationally in response to a world we recognise and understand but which no longer exists.” Eddie Obeng on the WAM


Smart FailureThis new formula for success goes by the name of rapid fire, rapid fail. Obeng calls it Smart Failure. Failing fast and often is the best approach and the key to success in many areas of business, says a Mu Sigma Report (a decision and analytics firm). Take it from the software industry, and as an approach echoed by engineers working in the pharmaceuticals, material sciences and automotive industries. To develop a successful product, try out many ideas through successive experimentations. Technology can enable that. Then learn from each small failure, so that your end product is better. Failure isn’t bad for business, it leads to something else happening.

‘When you view building a business as a series of experiments, you start to see failure as an inevitable step in the process.” Andrew Filev, CEO and founder of Wrike, a software firm in Mountain View, California.

But can we widen this approach to other working contexts? Are we ready to fail? And are customers and brands ready for that too?

In business we have spent a lot of time trying to reach ‘perfect first time.’ For years we have aimed to refine and control, to measure and predict, to reduce margin for error, streamline. We have thoroughly believed and put full effort into making our work, outputs and our futures more knowable, comfortable and sure.

Yet rapid change and technological evolution (which we all drive) is painting a future quite different from this. We can’t predict with too much accuracy. Now our task is to accept that and to learn to work with iterations of a future. We have to be committed to the experiment without being sure of success at the end, or what exactly the success might be. We need to be able to try something new that nobody has done, and get it wrong. We haven’t let go to that quite yet. We ask people to be creative and innovative, but in our organisations we still have a relatively poor tolerance for getting it wrong. We see it and often feel it as incompetence.

When we do start to let go, it will show in the people we look for – we’ll want people who know how to fail and can learn from it. In interviews, we’ll ask: “Tell me about the last time you failed?” or “How often do you fail?” At regular meetings we might ask “What are you learning from your failures?” or “How many failures have you had so far?” We might even ask future employers: “How does your organisation fail?”

Sound far-fetched? Maybe it’s the language we’re using. It seems somewhat black and white for the complexity of our world.

Some worldview adjustments on failure will emerge over time. Failing may just become smart.

Strong, or human

‘There are people in this world who cannot tell you what they think and what they believe. They simply don’t know. They are programmed to be the person they think someone in authority — a hiring authority, for instance — wants them to be.’

Liz Ryan

Who am I?

What are your strengths? Do you list them on your LinkedIn or Google+ profile? Most of us do. And this showcase often sounds a lot like, well, the businessperson next door. We have an idea of what makes us desirable and wanted at work, so that’s what we look for in ourselves and that’s what we profile.

But these days you may be more attractive for what stands you out, what makes you different. And yet when I ask the question: ‘What stands you out?’ I almost always get a great response for a game of personal strengths buzzword bingo. Liz Ryan is right – a lot of people will tell you they are who someone wants them to be.

When I am assisting others to profile themselves, and I realize I am on a straight path to winning a bingo championship, I take the time to ask these questions:

  • What was in the working day where you woke up and were excited to get started?
  • What was in the day when you come home feeling great?
  • What were you doing when you forgot the time and lost time?
  • How do people describe you? What words do people use, think of all the examples you can, informal and formal.
  • How do you make life better through what you do?
  • Tell me what you do, pretend I work as far away from your industry as possible, and wouldn’t understand any jargon at all. Think about your first language being my third.

As they talk I just record their spoken thoughts, keywords mainly. I try to note their actual words and not my version of what they are saying, or my summary of it.

When you both look at the notes afterwards, you start to get a sense of a person and not just a list of strengths. A few preferences emerge, a few values spill out and suddenly you see there is a human, there on the page, waiting for a sentence or two in which to show up, uniquely. When you pull this into a bio with a bit of narrative, it unmistakably belongs to just one person, one human, not a scorecard.

Digital guru Brian Solis says that effective engagement is inspired by the empathy that develops simply from being human. So when you craft or update your bio online, take a little time to ask yourself, in place of ‘How I am strong?’:

How am I human?

It’s a good starting point for engagement.

Why? A blog on innovation

This is a guest blog I wrote for The Performance Hub.  You can find the original post on their website here.

It is said that everyone saw the apple fall from the tree, but only Newton asked why.


What’s the relevance of asking ‘why’?


A mindset of understanding and inventiveness, which starts with asking ‘why?’, might be essential for operating in a business climate that is cost-pressured, fast-paced and critically customer-centric. Curiosity may not be so bad for the cat after all – the desire to do new things in new ways could hold the keys to successful and abundant futures.

If we are defining innovation quite broadly as the implementation of a new or significantly improved product, service, process or interaction that creates value, then creativity is going to play a key role. Creativity can generate the ideas that, through innovation, eventually add value to your products, services and interactions. Those improvements could offer competitive advantage. They could propel you through tough times and help you truly relish better ones. Think Rene Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean, or Seth Godin’s “Purple Cow.”

Some say creativity is not a discipline as such – but it is essential for innovation.  Without creativity, innovation is stumped. We are naturally creative when we grow up, we can learn to be uncreative. Think about the child that constantly asks why until eventually they’re told not to ask so many questions, or told, ‘that’s just how it is.’

So if we learn to be uncreative, can we learn to be creative again? Many will tell you, yes!  With practice. Here is a quick quiz that will assess your creativity and provide you with a few tools to spark ideas. Clay Christensen also talks about the developing the Innovators DNA, a set of 5 simple behaviours that can be practiced. If these sorts of behaviours aren’t being encouraged somewhere in your organisation, perhaps it’s time to start.

  • Associating
  • Questioning
  • Observing
  • Networking
  • Experimenting

It’s not always easy to support ‘why’. Competing demands can push us towards just getting the job done, in the way we know how. But just getting the job done is no longer enough.

‘Daniel H. Pink looked at society’s future and saw that it belonged to the creative minds.’

If we’re not developing and innovating with the ability to see familiar things in a new light, we may not be around in the future witness the change we didn’t drive. Take a look at some of these future videos, and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.

Gather info, reflect on the root of challenges, push your thinking into what the future might look like, generate and evaluate your ideas, and most importantly, allow some experimentation with the ‘whys’.