Tag Archives: Leadership

Taking Responsibility

A friend recently pointed me in the direction of a short TED talk by Barry Schwartz (8 minutes), titled “The way we think about work is broken.” Schwartz observes that we’re not used to challenging things which have become socially acceptable, and over time, the blandification which sets in as a result of this reluctance, makes more and more work soulless and demeaning.

Schwartz’s short talk strikes a painful and necessary chord for me. I spend a lot of time taking deep breaths before asking those awkward questions. In so doing, I offer a challenge to the so-called ‘socially acceptable’ stuff. I seek to do this with kindness, yet observing and inquiring about those “elephants in the room,” frequently brings forth dissonance.

I’m both privileged and cursed by my late Mum who brought me up this way, to take responsibility for what I see around me, and to ask why. The initial responses I get from people in these inquiries often include shock, disbelief, sometimes even anger. I understand and appreciate the nature of the responses I get because very often, the awkward question I’m asking, however simple it may seem, challenges my own beliefs too.

To disagree with the norm puts people at risk. At risk of social exclusion, maybe even the risk of losing your job. A good friend recently introduced me to a group of people with these words: ‘Doug is someone who has an ability to ask challenging questions, openly and honestly and in a way that acknowledges his own shortcomings too. It’s powerful, and it’s why some people can’t wait to work with him again and why others never want to see him again’.

People say they want honesty and openness, until they look me in the eye and see my own and their own inadequacies reflecting back at them. At that point, it becomes easier to blame someone or something – in preference to owning (at least a share of) the responsibility for change.

I’m working with a group of people who are gathering some data about their performance, from people the group provides a service to. Prior to starting the exercise, the group reports feeling undervalued. The initial signs from the data relating to responsiveness, quality of work and other things, is strongly positive. There seems to be a mismatch? People self-select into small groups during some brief time we have together and agree a plan to self-organise, meet and discuss the data, then reconvene and share observations, findings, and suggested actions for improvement.

We gathered again several weeks later for the review, and it quickly became clear no one had met to talk. No one at all. Reminders had been sent, offers of assistance had been made, and nothing seemed to have happened. I was keen to understand why, and no one had any answers, at least none they were willing to state to the group. Maybe I should have gently persisted, gone deeper, but I didn’t. Maybe the sense of feeling undervalued which the group expressed is part of their own way of not taking responsibility? We ended up having the discussion together when the original intention was to have a review of things already discussed, and progress from there.

These things happen sometimes, and in this case, there was frustration expressed by people, both in the room and afterward, at the lack of progress. By way of an example, someone fed back, anonymously, that the whole thing was a “pointless waste of time because no one contacted me to arrange the discussion.” It apparently hadn’t occurred to this person they could have chosen to be the catalyst.

Subsequently, I reviewed the situation and asked myself what I could have done differently. What pieces of the process could I have taken better care of, could I have taken clearer ownership for? I spotted a few things, and I also wondered, did I expect too much that this group might self-organise and make something happen? After all, they were used to working in a typical hierarchical way, which often involves waiting to be told what to do. I’m not sure, and what I did observe, was that all the feedback from the group was about apportioning blame, rather than taking responsibility.

Enthusiasm, encouragement, support – these are all helpful, lovely, necessary ingredients which go towards co-creating a good working experience. And they’re not enough. At times, we need to take a deep breath and ask the awkward, challenging questions, and acknowledge our own shortcomings and those of others too. Not with the intention of shaming anyone, but in pursuit of a better outcome next time. We also need to take responsibility too. The clearer we can be about this the better. Clearly defined ownership of specific actions beats vague high level sweeping statements from which we can all abdicate from. Without finding the courage to do that, my concern is that all the rest, all that other good stuff, is surely just a waste of time?


Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

Interesting Questions

There are a few questions which frequently circle my mind. The patterns, speed and shape of their orbit changes according to what I am working on, but they’re nearly always there, somewhere. Questions like, How much is enough? Why am I not kinder? Is she really going out with him? Where do I find clarity? Where do good ideas come from?

Come and Play

Together with some friends, I am exploring that good ideas question through an emerging project called The Art of Innovation. ‘What’s that then?’ I hear you ask. Very briefly, it is a project designed to explore the space where the arts meet business, in pursuit of changing lives for the better. If you are in London on June 8th – we’re running a workshop and a free to attend Art of Innovation session at a lovely venue overlooking the River Thames. You can find out more about that, and book a place here. OK, enough of that, where was I?


Something I have become much more aware of in recent years, is the idea that doing something different, sparks and prompts other thoughts, ideas, and actions. Take three things I enjoy doing, walking, my art, and my work. Previously, in that elusive search for clarity – I’ve tended to see these things as separate entities. Keep them separate, keep things clear… In December 2015, I began to integrate walking into my work more intentionally, in that I would make time for a regular stroll most days. The trigger was a Fitbit which I got for Christmas, and once I got over my tendency to be gamed by technology, I settled from a hectic ‘oh my god I must walk round the kitchen another 20 times before I go to bed to hit 10,000 steps’ mania into a more fluid, useful rhythm.

In time I began to realise that the walk influenced and affected my work, and vice versa. They blend, not always, but often. Sometimes the blend produces useful ideas immediately relevant to a work problem I am wrestling with, sometimes the ideas are daft/stupid/lousy/beautiful/adventurous, and any combination of all of the above. Sometimes there are no ideas. I dropped my guard, allowed the walk and the work to speak with each other, and as a result, got better at both (trust me, you should see the way I now put one foot in front of the other, it’s awesome).


In April 2016 I began my free art adventure. I walked to the train station and on the way, I placed a piece of art I’d made, outside the local town hall. Attached to the note was an invitation to whoever found the art, to take it home if they wanted to. The project continues, at least once a week I make and leave art in my local community. The adventure is unfolding in so many ways that to write about it here, would a) wear my fingers to stumps and b) risk boring you to death. I will write more about the project, and for now, it’s useful for the purposes of this blog post, to know it exists.

In truth – the adventure started some time before that. What sparked it? Maybe it was the hand painted postcards I made for friends while on holiday, it may have been the first Leap Day I ran in 2012? Who knows – I guess an important thing to note is that good ideas sometimes start from a specific point, other times, they are a combination of almost invisible threads, gradually winding together into a rope which can be more clearly seen.

The free art project began with the intention of helping me learn to let go, to see more beauty in impermanence, and as a way of building some discipline into my previously sporadic artistic adventures. As I continued to work on the project, I let it infuse my consulting work, and vice versa. I’ve used art in my consulting work for years now, so this is not a new thing, but it is now much more intentional. Lowering barriers, seeing what I do as something more fluid, more dynamic, less separated. A recent example of this blending in practice can be seen here, as I used art to relieve some stress, and to help me prepare for a conference presentation. The project has recently won a community award and attracted a small amount of grant funding. It has become a simple and effective way of changing lives for the better.

The more that what I do becomes a series of overlapping, meandering, ebbing and flowing plates, the more interesting things emerge. As I conclude this post, I’m preparing for conference talks, workshops, artist open studios, and an exciting 3 day artistic experiment involving 200 senior managers keen to explore how to apply creativity and innovation in their work. At the heart of this work is a simple yet powerful raison d’etre. The primary reason myself and my associates do this stuff, is to change lives for the better. More to follow, soon.


Sorry, I almost forgot. Where Do Good Ideas Come From? They come from you. And they come from this fantastic book by Scott Berkun.



Talking About Loneliness

Last week I facilitated some learning and conversation at the 2016 LPI Fellows Symposium under the heading of ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Learning Leader’. I promised to write up something about the experience, this is that reflection and review.

The first things we spoke about and shared together, were our desired mood and tone for the session, and our expectations. These things were scribbled onto Post It notes and made available for people to read in the room, and I offered to write them up afterwards (Pro tip: If you want a Post It to stick well, peel it off side to side, not top to bottom. Thank you Tom). The mood conversation works well as a word cloud.

LPI Mood and Tone Conversation

The expectations are much more nuanced and having tried to word cloud them – all I got was confusion. The full list of what people shared is available here, in essence I see it as boldness, sharing, connecting, challenge, reflection, and something about the yin of discomfort meshed with the yang of ease.

The overarching themes for the session were loneliness, and how to make work better. Prior to the session I published a few notes and suggested topics of conversation. Here is a reminder of the conversation topics on offer:

Loneliness – recognising it, working with it, overcoming it
Trust – giving, earning, breaking, rebuilding. If we go down this route, I am mindful that though important, trust is not enough. So what else do we need in order to cocreate a ‘Proceed Until Apprehended’ mindset?
Responsibility – owning, taking and sharing
Creativity – we need it, yet behaviourally we’re often way off – how do we get better?
Networks – communities of practice, and more
Technology – by itself is not the answer – and a poor tech experience can severely limit opportunity

In addition, the group asked to add Resilience and How to Deal With a Bad Hair Day into the mix.

With all the basics covered, the conversation began – with groups at tables choosing to let the conversation flow in the directions they wanted. The invitation was to talk for a period of time, reconvene and see where we should go next. The initial period of conversation seemed to focus on challenges, and after a short break – we agreed to let the conversation flow, and then to share any thoughts, ideas, questions. I’m conscious that when sharing brief snippets and outputs of a much richer picture, gaps often appear:

The impulse is pure
Sometimes our circuits get shorted
By external interference
Signals get crossed
And the balance distorted
By internal incoherence – N.Peart

Notwithstanding these gaps and possible shortcomings, here is a summary of what people shared.

Loneliness: Have confidence. Do business leaders really know what L&D delivers? Does L&D? Does the way we describe ourselves create an impression we didn’t intend to create?

Trust: Shifting from trust neutral – choosing to give first. Using purpose and connection to underpin trust. Brand : Why, not what?

Responsibility: This grid was offered as a way of helping to analyse stakeholders.

Stakeholder Analysis Grid

Networks: Are useful and they are not a community, self policing. How would you introduce yourself?

Resilience: Have a passion for your goal, or walk. Support, for your plan. Where do you get support – family? Ask for help. What is your verb?

Any Other Business

My intention was for this session to have a very light structure, and to be something cocreated. I wrote some notes to help introduce the session and I shared these notes on my blog, on the day of the event. Next time I will share stuff like this with a bit more notice.

There was some uncertainty at the beginning of the session. I wondered if I offered too many options for people to consider, and something similar was subsequently fed back to me. I can see how, in a short space of time, too many choices can create uncertainty. The following day I worked with another large group and I incorporated this feedback in to the new session. Still giving choices, fewer this time, plus an ‘anything you like’ option in case the choices on offer weren’t useful for everyone. This subsequent session seemed to flow more readily. Putting learning into practice.

Someone fed back to me that in my position as facilitator, I should never show uncertainty. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I don’t agree. I am/we are uncertain at times, and I believe that uncertainty is an inherent part of my/our improvisational style. There’s a balance, as there is with most things, and I’m OK with people knowing that we are working on something about which I may be uncertain. The work is unfolding, and therefore not yet fully visible.

People really appreciate time with each other, several people expressed a wish for the conversation to continue for longer. I expect this is partly due to that fact that they were in control of the conversation, rather than being directed. I hear this sort of thing frequently, which prompts thoughts that more widely, we need to work harder on making the most of these experiences, perhaps through greater levels of cocreation?

Thank you to The LPI for the opportunity. Lots of people were kind to me after the session finished. They appreciated me for my use of humour, and willingness to try something different and go with the flow. Thank you for all the lovely feedback, I’m pleased our time together went well.

Further reading:

Loneliness. Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

6 Ways To Improve Learning – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires;