Time for Action


I’ve been noticing a lot of  articles, blog posts and tweets recently about taking action.  Possibly there are more such posts doing the rounds at the moment.  I think it is more likely that I am simply noticing them more.  Just like when you choose a new car in an unusual colour and you start seeing them everywhere, I am seeing calls to action.

A coaching client this week left me very frustrated at his lack of action.  He knows what he wants and he knows he has to act and still he does nothing.  Session after session. Then I found myself feeling the same emotions with a friend and with my family.  Whenever I find myself feeling such a strong reaction on separate occasions I ask myself whether I am simply seeing a reflection of myself.  What we react most to in others is often what we consciously or unconsciously see as our own shortcomings.

It isn’t anything major but there are a number of things I have found reasons to delay.  I have great reasons to delay of course – other things to do, waiting for other things to be in place, needing more clarity, needing inspiration, seeing what happens with this other stuff.

I am three quarters of the way through one piece of work and really just have the tidying up to do.  I just have two documents to produce, I know what the end result has to look like and I don’t see it as being difficult.  I can even see the way to start.  What I am struggling with is the bits in the middle.  I want to know the detail of the entire piece before I start.  That seems to be quite common, not just for me but for everyone.  Before we start out we want not just a plan but a detailed plan of each and every step.

That makes sense, doesn’t it?

Last night I picked my daughter up after her dance class.  As usual it was late evening and this session was held in a small village out of town.  The route home was along quiet, unlit, twisting country roads.  With a cloudy sky it was very dark and the car headlights threw out a small cone of light into which we sped.

I knew where I was going but outside that small cone of light all was darkness.  At no time could I see more than a few hundred metres ahead and yet as expected we arrived home with no drama.  I didn’t insist on the entire route being clearly lit and made visible from my start point before driving off.

That would be stupid, right?

Not having a plan is planning to fail and not taking action is daydreaming.

It feels like this is the time for action.

Standing in the shadows,
Where the in-crowd meet
We’re all dressed up for the evening
We hate the punk elite (who are the punk elite?)
So take me to your leader
Because its time you realised…

That this is the time
This is the time for action (time for action)
This is the time to be seen (time to be seen)
This is the time for action
Time to be seen

Dave Cairns (Secret Affair)

P.S.  I’m not perfect – I wrote this instead of the piece I was really meant to write…


Who the F#ck are Arctic Monkeys?


Last week I watched the Brit awards on television.  For those of you not in the UK this is the UK’s version of the Grammy’s.  Over the years it has morphed from a shambolic industry only affair into a big glitzy evening with a large public audience held at the O2 in London.   Sadly it just isn’t cool.

James Corden as compere gamely plugged away at his script.  Unfortunately it felt like he was reading the autocue and was embarrassed at the awful jokes he was inflicting on us.  A succession of bored looking celebs trooped up to the stage to give and receive awards and read out bland acceptance speeches.  A series of artists performed and some, like the Arctic Monkeys, were very good, but even then the audience reaction seemed muted especially amongst the industry guests.  Presumably they were all struggling with the dilemma that they wanted to make it clear that they were way too cool to enjoy this stuff but not that cool they hadn’t come.

I can remember when music was the single most important thing in the world. Discovering new bands was so exciting.  My favourite bands spoke directly to me, to my very soul, in ways that my parents could never understand.  Music wasn’t just fun, it was important. Where was this passion now? Surely the kids don’t accept this?

Then the Arctic Monkeys won the final award of the night for best album (A.M. and it is a pretty good album too) and despite having had a good go at drinking the bar dry, frontman Alex Turner gave a proper rock star acceptance speech.

I am pretty sure that at that point many viewers were thinking ‘what a pretentious load of drunken rubbish’ but for real fans it was the talking point of the show.  At last here was a rock star speaking to his fans.  Speaking to, and for, a generation in a way that made them feel special and unique.  He wasn’t trying to conform and be nice and safe.

The first time I saw the Arctic Monkeys live they lacked stage presence.  Great music but lacking the swagger of a true rock act.  There is part of the ‘Rock Star’ job description that demands eccentric behaviour, arrogance, pomposity and living a life of excess.  Rather like a promising young employee Alex was more than competent and diligently ticked all the boxes yet lacked a little self belief.  Now he has grown into his role and looks confident.  Alex is no longer just writing great lyrics, he is a proper front man, fully carrying out all aspects of his job description. When I saw them on the last tour they were the real deal.

At the Brit’s Alex was simply doing his job in a way that few of the preceding acts had done.  And it was clear that the problem with the Brit’s was that they fall into an uneasy middle ground: too corporate and nice for Rock and Roll yet too ‘naughty’ to be truly professional.  In short they fail to be authentic in any meaningful way and look like a cynical money making machine.

A few months ago the Arctic Monkeys cancelled a gig at the last minute. When it emerged that the band had been at an awards do the night before and had been seen out very late, conclusions were drawn.

If you want your rock stars to stick it to authority and conform to the job description then you have to expect the consequences.  Bands know that they get paid to perform and cancelling gigs is just not acceptable.  It’s a fine line between the expected mayhem and professionalism and sometimes young bands, like young employees, will slip.

Not Alex though, he knows what parts of his job description are non-negotiable.  It turn’s out he was hospitalised with laryngitis.

I for one am looking forward to more of the authentic Rock Star – roll on Reading Festival. Let’s hope Alex develops enough to be considered for promotion.

We all want someone to shout for 
Yeah, everyone wants somebody to adore 
But your heroes aren’t what they seem 
When you’ve been where we’ve been 
Alex Turner

Who the Fuck are Arctic Monkeys?

One hand in my pocket

On the one hand it has been a depressing week:

Firstly I have been waiting to hear from a potential client regarding a pitch for a large project.  The pitching process took months of effort. I’ve been on tenterhooks and can’t settle, checking my email constantly.  I can’t understand why they are delaying the result and am starting to be convinced we haven’t got it.

Secondly I heard that a number of friends have lost their jobs. This made me very angry at the people that did this and I spent a whole afternoon in a bad mood.

The incessant wind and rain and ever rising flood levels (I live by the River Thames) has been a real worry. I am increasingly frustrated by the politicians who seem to offer nothing but platitudes.

Finally I have an injury and after 6 weeks of rest I am still only able to run 3 – 4 miles a day very cautiously.

On the other hand it’s been a good week:

Firstly I have been waiting to hear from a potential client regarding a pitch for a large project.  We did great to get through to the final round and learned loads in the process.  I had weaned myself off constantly checking email and being on tenterhooks has lead me back into bad habits, it’s noticeable how it distracts you and prevents you from fully attending to the here and now which I hadn’t really appreciated before.

Secondly I heard that a number of friends have lost their jobs, I was quite angry for a while.  Of course once I calmly looked at it I realised that raging is pointless.  Having compassion and finding ways to help would be more useful.  So I contacted them and offered to help.  By reaching out they know I care.

The incessant wind and rain and ever rising flood levels (I live by the River Thames) is a concern.  Yet there is nothing I can do about the weather.  Accepting the issue and getting on with what needs to be done in the short term is more productive.  And maybe if we keep the pressure on this will help the climate change naysayers see the truth.

I have an injury and after 6 weeks of rest I am now able to run 3 – 4 miles a day albeit cautiously.  If I do some cross training and keep healing I’ll still make a spring race or two.  And today a gentle 4 miler in a rare burst of sunny, calm weather felt just great.

I know which week I chose to have.  What will you choose?

I’m broke but I’m happy
I’m poor but I’m kind
I’m short but I’m healthy, yeah
I’m high but I’m grounded
I’m sane but I’m overwhelmed
I’m lost but I’m hopeful baby
What it all comes down to
Is that everything’s gonna be fine fine fine
’cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is giving a high five

Alanis Morrisette


kangaroo-joey background

Families never forget.  Well ok they forget to buy milk, they forget to put the washing on and empty the dishwasher.  They don’t forget your mistakes, especially if they are considered hilarious.  I was recently (cruelly) reminded of  an incident that has brought joy to my nearest and dearest for many years.

We were walking through a wooded valley in Dorset towards the coast in a brief respite from what was proving to be a wet and windy first family camping trip.  The walking was easy, mostly downhill and I was happy and relaxed. As we approached a small town there were houses whose rear gardens backed onto the woods.  I noticed in one of the gardens a large reddy brown animal with large upright ears.  Surely it was too big to be a dog?  Then I had it, the fabulously complex pattern recognition system of my mind supplied the answer to the puzzle and with delight I blurted out  ” Look. A joey!”.

I do need to point out here that I do know there are no kangaroo’s roaming wild in Dorset, there may be the odd wallaby but in most woodlands you find deer.  Lot’s of them, and they can be tame.  We occasionally get them in our garden.  So I know what deer look like and where they might be lurking.

So why on earth did I mistake the two?  And more importantly when will my wife tire of shouting “joey!” every time we see a deer?

If you Google ‘gut instinct’ you find a huge number of articles encouraging us to trust our instincts, articles teaching us how to tune in to our instincts and a few suggesting that our instincts might be less than perfect.

The truth is that we are bombarded with sensory data and we can only focus on tiny fraction of the information available to us.  To make sense of this we filter out much of the data by focussing on what we deem to be important, then using our past experiences we make generalised models of reality.  This enables us to function at a very high level – we don’t have to worry about all of the ‘irrelevant’ material and we can focus on the important stuff.

Of course this means that no two people will experience the same event in the same way and this has consequences for the way we relate to others.  It also explains why a rational, reasonably educated Englishman blurts out “Joey!” at the sight of a deer.

For some reason my pattern recognition system came up with ‘Kangaroo’ and stopped.  It found a pattern and provided the information.  My error was to simply accept this without testing.  The problem is that this happens all the time and it is very easy to run on automatic.

Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking fast and slow” is one of the best explanations of how our gut instinct may get it wrong with lot’s of examples.  Daniel outlines two distinct systems, the fast instinctual thinking and the slower cognitive effortful thinking and suggests that we are designed to use the ‘easier’ fast thinking as much as possible and we dislike the effort that slow thinking requires.

This poses a real issue – if we challenge all of our instincts we’d never achieve anything.  Imagine driving a car and examining carefully every single piece of data – you’d never get it off the driveway.  Yet if we simply trust our gut we are likely to make a few foolish mistakes.  Usually this will cause little harm, the danger comes when we stop thinking slow about the important things.

Too many of us simply take what is given at face value without any cognitive challenge.  In a world where ‘news’ often breaks on twitter before the traditional media channels, where the untrained individual has the same voice as the expert and where we are manipulated by marketeers this feels very dangerous.

I often ask my coaching clients who are ‘stuck’ what their ‘gut instinct’ tells them.  And then we jointly explore the issue, asking the awkward questions and looking at other options.  It’s a great place to start the thought process and it frequently proves to be a poor place to end it.

To conclude: trust your gut when choosing which movie to see and ask a few insightful questions when choosing a new job.  And my gut tells me that my wife will never, ever tire of shouting “Joey!” .  For which I am grateful, it reminds me to be more challenging of myself.

Skippy the Bush Kangaroo
Skippy, Skippy
Skippy, our friend ever true

PS.  Skippy was really a wallaby, but you do need to challenge what you are being told to work that out.

Tip that waitress


It’s been reported  that, yesterday in Illinois, a ‘good samaritan’ having heard three waitresses discussing their daily struggles gave them a $5,000 tip each.  A quick search on the web throws up a number of similar stories of big tips, not for great service but seemingly out of a sense of compassion.

It reminds me of a vignette that years ago I used to illustrate the power of cash incentives.  I asked the audience to think of a typical Saturday night out with friends at a restaurant.  At the end of the meal the waitress presents the bill and may or not be rewarded with a tip.  Then I asked them to imagine that on being seated they put a generous tip in the centre of the table and tell the waitress that this could be his based on how good the service is.  Would the service be better?

Of course most people believe that with such a cash award on the table the service would improve.  And I hoped I’d then get hired to design them a generous incentive scheme.

Unfortunately all the evidence is that incentives don’t work except for the simplest of tasks.  Dan Pink’s Ted Talk is a great starting point in researching this topic.  The plain fact is that except for the simplest of tasks cash incentives are at best neutral and for more complex, creative tasks they hinder productivity.

So in theory a big tip might help if all is going to plan but if something happens that requires a creative solution, the precise time when you need great service, the tip will worsen the experience.

What seems to really motivate us is meaning.  It explains why after writing this I am going to sit and play guitar (badly).  Neither pays but both give me satisfaction and a sense of achievement.  Another Dan, Dan Ariely has a great Ted talk on this subject too.

The great news is that it seems to be very easy to give meaning to work, it mostly comes down to making a few changes and improving management and leadership.

A lot of this is counter intuitive and runs against long held dogma, there will always be those who simply deny the scientific evidence. 

Frequently I get into a debate around this that boils down to ‘if we take away the incentives everyone will be underpaid and so leave and if we simply add the old variable pay into fixed pay then we’ll be potentially increasing costs.’.  Both are serious concerns.    I don’t necessarily advocate taking away all of the ‘incentives’.   We do live in a market economy and undoubtedly, unless the overall package is competitive, businesses will struggle to hire.

Linking pay to the overall well being of the business improves employee engagement, which in turn has a strong correlation with future performance. In my view this is because if we feel involved then we find meaning.  Small acts of recognition such as a thank you or a small gift have an enormous impact on the engagement of workers again because they create ‘meaning’.

I do believe that we should be honest about what the variable pay is for and what it can achieve. Then rework the total package to ensure that there is fair pay, differentiated by long term performance, recognition of a job well done and links to the overall businesses mission.

Therefore modest tips and other forms of recognition from management will improve the overall experience for all diners.

So to conclude I don’t think that bankers are incentivised by their bonuses, the regulators are right when they argue that they distort performance.  I do however think we should recognise the waitress for a job well done.  Tip that waitress.

Bringing your beverage and your late night bite
She remains cheerful, when you’re nasty and tight
Makes change for a 50 in dim candle light
Ignoring the groping hoping you might
Come across with a tip and sympathize with her plight
Tip that waitress

She’s getting her masters, supporting her mom
Amidst the confusion she remains cool and calm
She knows exits in case of a fire or bomb
She knows all the words to the 23rd Psalm
She handles her tray with pnash and aplomb
Her brother’s a Quaker, her dad was in Nam
Tip that waitress

Loudon Wainwright III


I spend more time than is good for me in coffee shops.  Anyone who is a coach or consultant probably does the same thing.  I often meet clients in hotel lobbies, coffee shops etc and work in the same places between meetings.  Most of the time, beyond perfunctory conversations with staff there is little conversation outside the formally agreed meetings.  Everyone is busy with their phones and tablets and laptops.  They are all busily networking away.  I am sure it isn’t just me but it can feel a bit lonely at times.
This week after a meeting we stood up and a guy at the next table started a conversation.  Small talk.  What business are you in?  Where are you from?  We exchanged a few words.  Then we swapped business cards.  It felt good, it felt real.  There was a connection – that’s proper networking.
The world does not have to be a big unfriendly place, if we start treating strangers as friends we haven’t yet met it will be a start.
So here’s the deal: during the month of February every time I am in a coffee shop, a hotel lobby etc I will say a few words to at least one person.  Join me.  Let me know what happens.
It’s not important for you to know my name
Nor I to know yours
If we communicate for two minutes only
It will be enough
For knowing that someone in this world
Feels as desperate as me
And what you give is what you get
It doesn’t matter if we never meet again
What we have said will always remain
If we get through for two minutes only
It will be a start!
The Jam