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Read anything you can get your hands on

Liverpool Central Libraries – The Atrium on Light Night 2017

Reading books, magazines, articles and blog posts across a truly diverse range of topics is a huge help to stimulate novel ideas. This is, I think, the heart of a creative approach.

To be stimulated to generate new ideas, we need to draw from a wide range of influences. To achieve this, we should always read in fields or disciplines that are not familiar to us. I often read books that stretch my thinking, with a limited understanding of the topic.

Does it matter that I don’t understand? I don’t think so. I remember, for example, reading “Small is Beautiful” by E F Schumacher and only having the slightest grasp of the economic theories he was describing. I pushed on through and finished the book because it opened up the world of new ecology thinking and a whole way of thinking that I knew very little about when I read it in the 1990s. It set me off in many new directions, reading Fritjof Capra, for example – who I wouldn’t otherwise have come across.

Stretching our understanding, being open to ideas and letting them in so that we can absorb them to grasp them at a later date – like mental gymnastics. It doesn’t just happen when we read. A few years ago I asked an old school friend of mine, now a university lecturer in Mathematics, to explain String Theory to me. His description was beautifully clear and concise. I think I understood the concepts there and then – for about an hour or so, then it faded. But the clarity at the time was stunning.

There is a thought with Buddhist teachings, that as we receive the transmission from a great teacher, even if we don’t understand what we are hearing at a conscious and logical level, there will still be a shift at a deeper lever. This is a great way of describing this phenomenon. It’s always worth keeping our minds open to ideas, no matter how far removed from our current thinking they are. An open mind is a rigorous mind!

Advice to my three sons – read anything you can get your hands on. Oh, but do bear in mind that we have limited time in our lives, so don’t waste it reading things that don’t stretch us and show us something new. See reading as a sense of constant wonder. And enjoy.


Whilst you are here: have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.


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What are you good at?

FullSizeRenderIt’s an exercise I attempted a while back. Probably six months ago. I sat with a blank piece of paper and set out to write a list of 100 things that I am good at. It was hard, really difficult. Modesty kept kicking in. A voice inside me kept saying, well yes you’re quite good at that but not as good as (insert any name). And then I wrestled with the whole concept of good – well, what does good mean? How do I decide whether I am good at something or just average?
In the end, after the list had reached 10 things I decided it was time to cut loose and come back to it. I scheduled to return to this list every week at the same time and add to it until it reached 100 things. No excuses – each time I wrote on the list I had to add 10 things.
It was gruelling! Difficult to find new things each time I sat down. But over time as I worked away at the list adding things that I knew something about, hobbies, ways in which I approached the world, types of food and drink that I had made an effort to find out about. Well, the list just grew.
Each time I sat down again with that list, I would begin by reading through what was there. It was encouraging to revisit it and notice that I had put down what I had.
The list wasn’t for anyone else. It was just for me – to look at what I think I am good at (not better than or the best, just good at) and use that list to focus myself into things that I want to spend time on.
Why don’t you try it too?
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A Productivity Spring Clean

This is a longer piece where I share the chance to #WorkOutLoud about my attempts to improve my productivity and apply the learning from extensive study of productivity books, websites and blogs.

Last week was a turning point for me. Having been overwhelmed for several months with the sheer volume of things that I was taking on, I was feeling like I was drowning a lot of the time. Then, last week I managed to pull things back into some control (or maybe an illusion of control!)

Several themes emerged in my productivity spring clean. Here are some notes I put together in Evernote to reflect on the experience.

1. Email as a servant rather than a master

I have been saying it forever – email ensnares me and drains my time.  I follow all of those bad habits – let the inbox become a to do list of things where I haven’t decided on the next action. David Allen‘s (Getting Things Done) fundamental principal of getting the inbox to zero is a basic discipline. When I am in control of my inbox I can be more in control of how I spend time.

I use Remember the Milk to manage my tasks. It’s a fantastic programme that works across all of my devices. I have been using it for a few years, and just moved it to the next level by making much more use of the email function in it. It is possible to forward an email as a task, so that it appears straight away in Remember the Milk. You can also email lists to become tasks. It’s a very efficient way of handling email and turning it into tasks. I also use Evernote to store longer pieces, or emails with attachments. They can then be scheduled and again appear in Remember the Milk.
This all sounds more complicated than it is. In practise it means I can get my email sorted quickly and then concentrate on what I should be doing, and I can spend more time working in my task management system on things, rather than on my system making it work.
2. Task Management to Motivate

It is the things I have completed and not the list that is growing that I should be focusing on. It’s about what we get done, rather than what is still to do. It is too easy to get overwhelmed with a task list that runs into several hundred items. Instead, we should realised that this means that we have captured everything and don’t need to worry about tasks until they appear in front of us.

I still don’t have the discipline right for this.
My tasks are always scheduled to a particular day. This helps me to let go of things until I know that I need to think about them. However, because I am over-ambitious about how much I will get done and how soon: I tend to over-schedule.
I will sit down at the beginning of a day with far too many things to do. I estimate how long things will take, so I can see immediately that I have too much scheduled for the day. This will require me to be much more self-disciplined about what I schedule each day.
3. Daily goals
At the beginning of each day I also need to find a Golden Three that I want to get done. Three Golden Goals for the day. Then try doing those early . Once they are completed, go down the list – focus   on Top Priority items first and really make sure that stuff isn’t getting deferred. Even if a task looks big – it’s a question of starting. So, today I have “Blue manuscript – figure out design of it.. first step?” It is just that – a first step. So I need to commit to writing (paper or Evernote) as I think through what needs doing, turn it into a simple next step, then execute that first step. If I do that with most of the “priority“ items each day I would really move forwards. This could be just a few minutes on that task to get clear what I need to do. That avoid tasks becoming too big and onerous and causing procrastination.
4. Weekly Perspective
At the end of each week I carry out a weekly review. I am getting good at capturing the tasks from the previous week as part of the Review process. But I could also do with a short narrative for the weekly review as well. Once I have captured all the tasks, I need to take a look at the tasks for the coming week – are they balanced out or should I defer some things? Then, I should look at my current projects list and see if there are any other tasks that I need to create. Then, write for 5 minutes in the journal about the coming week, what it could be like, what aspirations I have for it, how to get there. Review the previous week’s writing as part of this process.
5. Celebrate success

This year I have been looking at ways to get a BYY focus that works. BYY? Best Year Yet. I am breaking it down into Best Month Yet, Best Week Yet, and Best Day Yet. Starting at that granular level of a day, I look to improve in tiny ways each day. As Robin Sharma says, constant improvement, even in very small ways adds up. If we make three small improvements each day, that is nearly 100 improvements a month, over a 1000 improvements in a year.

Making these improvements only works if we celebrate success regularly.

How do I celebrate success? For example, sometimes I shift a heap of work or I achieve one of my projects – I need to be clear about how I celebrate these things. Give myself a reward, have a half day, go for a walk, go to the gym. There are loads of things I can do. These actions need to be clear so that at a basic level I am feeling appreciated.
6. Reading and Learning Focus
We are what we read. Like food for the brain, what we read shapes our thoughts. It’s really important to read regularly. This year I have set myself a target to read 50 books. I am on target. I use the Good Reads website to keep track of my reading.
I try to ensure that the books I read are supporting what I am aiming to improve, also give me ideas for my creative projects, inspire me, and above all motivate me.
7. Healthy Habits
I have written about the Pomodoro technique a while back. It is a timer approach that breaks the day down into 25 minute slices. Using a timer (virtual or real) we time ourselves as we work on a specific task. It is a great way to get down to something and get on with it. Twenty five minutes is enough to get focused without losing the will to live! We have the opportunity to get something started if we are struggling to move anything forwards.
Walking is a great way to unlock ideas too. We process thoughts differently when we are in motion rather than sitting still.
It’s also important to think about where we work. Different environments serve different purposes. Getting up and going somewhere different is always worth considering. Using different types of spaces will serve different levels of focus and concentration. Sometimes I use a coffee shop, sometimes a library, sometimes the bedroom or lounge.  Last week I experienced Ziferblat – they have one in London, Manchester and Liverpool. Set out like a large lounge with free drinks, breakfast cereal and cake, payment is by the minute with all the refreshments free. It’s a great idea – the space itself is very informal and creative. I will certainly use the one in Liverpool, having tried the one in Manchester.
8. The First Hour

I need to be much clearer about the ability of the first half hour to shape the day.

I am still rubbish at getting to the meditation cushion. It should be one of the first things I do. Today, I meditated for 5 minutes and it showed me how scattered and distracted my mind is. Unbelievable – I just couldn’t calm and empty my mind. Beginning with this practise is fundamental, as is spending a few minutes looking at the task list for the day and being clear that I will commit to it. I really shouldn’t  do Facebook or the newspaper until these actions are done.
8. Work as an Energiser

We too often see work as a drudge, something that drains us, that we need to take holidays from and have rest after we have done it.

However, if we are doing work that we love, and manage to get into flow with it, things feel very different. Work can release us from exhaustion, create focus and flow and make us feel energised again.

Then we aren’t simply sitting around trying to recharge, find a source of energy from somewhere. Instead, we realise that energy comes from within when we are motivated, engaged. The passion for what we do becomes a source of energy rather than a drain of energy.
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Capturing the Learning – after action review

When we hold events, workshops, conferences, or just bring people together for a key meeting that will shape our work for the future, it is so easy to just move on to the next piece of work without reflecting on the experience.

How often have you been involved in running an event, and then at the end set off for home with an uneasy feeling as to whether it went as well as you think it did? And by the time you are on your train, or in the car, it is too late to check with anyone else.

This is why After Action Review is so important. It’s an opportunity to pull together everyone’s views about how the event has gone, and to do so in a positive way.

It is based on a practise that was developed by the US Army. Their approach is a bit more detailed than mine, covering the following:

  1. What was supposed to happen?
  2. What did happen?
  3. What are some improvements?
  4. What are some sustainments?
  5. What can be done to improve the training next time?
  6. Closing comments (summary).

(No, I don’t know what “sustainments” means either!) I first came across this approach when I was working for the NHS Modernisation Agency in 2003. Since then, I have been working with a simplified version. If you read this blog regularly you will know that I like lists of three as they are easy to remember and focus the mind.

As soon as an event or a discrete piece of work has finished we gather together in a circle in the room and spend about 40 minutes considering the following three questions:

  1. What worked, what went well?
  2. What could have gone better and why?
  3. What have we learnt?

We capture all of this feedback and make sure that we feed it into future planning. Everyone in the group has the chance to input to this process, and we also make sure that we capture anything that we have been told through the day by delegates. There are plenty of opportunities for this sort of feedback in queues for coffee, for lunch and during the course of the day.

It is a very simple process, but it works really well as a way of capturing the learning. Above all else, it can be a great place to appreciate the hard work that has gone into a piece of work and to have a “virtual group hug” before dispersing at the end of the day.

It doesn’t replace more formal evaluation and there should be a more formal debrief once the dust has settled on a piece of work. But it is a perfect way to capture things in the moment “on the battlefield” so that things are not forgotten.

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Taming the email Tiger

TigerRecently I had an email exchange with a reader who was feeling overwhelmed with the amount of email she was having to deal with. This is a common problem. Instead of being a useful tool, email becomes a monster that has us in its control.

I thought it might be useful to post the thoughts that I shared with her for wider reading:

I hope that your email inbox is subsiding or at least easing a little. There are many approaches to email that are really useful. One that I favour is from David Allen’s “Getting things done” which is a fabulous book on productivity. Well worth reading if you haven’t come across it.

He stresses that we need to be really clear that our inbox is not our work. Work may show up there, but that is not the place where we should be all day. It helps if we can regularly get our inbox to zero and stop using it as a space for holding things we haven’t done yet. If we use our inbox as a place to keep things until we get to them, we will be looking at the same emails over and over again. This wastes mental energy.

He suggests that we are disciplined about the time we spend on our inbox – and that when we are working on it we should be in “processing” mode. This means following the four “D”s:

  • Do – if it will take less than 2 minutes do it, reply or whatever is needed.
  • Delegate – if you are lucky enough to be able to, pass it on to someone
  • Delete – get rid of it forever! Or file it forever!
  • Defer – if it will take more than 2 minutes add it to your task list, and then file it in an action folder

I know it sounds really simple – but, using this technique I can process a huge number of emails in a short time. I also set a timer so that I don’t get carried away. I process like this for no more than 15 minutes at a time.

For the rest of the day, I can then focus on stuff that is in my task list system (I use Remember the Milk, a great app that sits on my laptop, phone and iPad).

One more thing – if you limit the time you spend on email to, say first thing and last thing in the working day, you can train others around you out of assuming that you will email reply immediately. It’s a bad habit that others get into and you can get caught up in. It’s particularly common in large organisations where people are constantly trying to prove something.

None of this is that sophisticated, but it should help to tame the email tiger.

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Core values – 8. Conclusions

Over this series of blog posts, I have set out the 6 core values that underpin the work that I lead in the NHS here in England. As I have explained, these values have been teased out through work carried out by external researchers who looked at the impact of our work on the health system which we cover.

The values became apparent to the researchers as they listened to us describing the work that we do, and more importantly why and how we do that work.

I had a “strategic coffee” in Lancaster yesterday with a new contact (hello Stephen) and we were talking about the importance of values. We realised as the conversation developed that values are key for underpinning the work that we do and driving forward major decisions that we make about the work we will become involved in. We also realised that the structure of organisation is secondary to the set of values that we work from. If we have a robust set of values, the governance that we work with, whether public, private or not for profit becomes much less important. Of course, there are other considerations to take into account when deciding which organisational structure is the best fit. But it is important to realise that structure does not determine values. Values drive the structure and ensure that we are working from a sound ethical base.

Values help us to look at what we should say no to as well as what we should say yes to. They also help us to see who fits well with our work – employees, associates and partners.

Above all else, being clear about the values of the organisation we are working in helps to be clear that we have good alignment with our workplace. If this is not the case, it’s probably time to start looking for another job!

I hope this short series which I began in March has been helpful.  As I mentioned in recent posts, I am going to expand on this and develop it into a larger booklet. This will be available in the next few weeks, after the summer break. Do please get in touch if you would be interested to see this. You can contact me via the contacts page, or email me.

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Core Values – 7. Optimism

This is the seventh post in the series on Core Values in the workplace. In it I talk about the sixth and final value. There will then be an 8th post with some conclusions. If this series has been of interest, you may be interested to know that there will be an expanded version in booklet form due out in a few weeks. Subscribe to the website or email me if you are interested… 

The thing about a cliché is that it becomes a cliche because it has currency. So, that well-trodden expression: “are you a glass half empty or a glass half full person” does have substance to it. The world seems to be divided into these two categories – those that see what is missing in life, and those that celebrate what they actually have.

Taking an optimistic outlook on life is a key element of the values I am setting out, because it creates the tone for the other values. Looking optimistically at any situation, creates a real can-do attitude, an approach that believes there is a positive solution to any situation. It is also the basis from which to work with an “owner” state of mind. Chris Brogan talks extensively about the owner. It’s the opposite of being a victim. When we own our reality, and are prepared to tackle any situation and look for a solution, we are creating the causes for success. Even when things are not going well, it is possible to see an optimistic position – things could be worse, at least we don’t have to sort that out, at least we can make some choices, there’s a lot to learn from this situation. There are always positive ways to look at any situation.

It is also interesting to see how adopting an optimistic value set can be infectious. For a start, when we are optimistic about the possible outcome in a situation, others will adopt that attitude with us – willing us to succeed. Sometimes it is possible to create a more optimistic reality in the future by talking it up and getting others to believe that it will happen. Overcoming barriers and obstacles by having a strong conviction of optimism can actually help the barriers to disappear. A dogged belief in the future is what gets so many successful people to achieve the seemingly impossible. I wrote more about this in a recent post about being unreasonable.

Even whilst all around is crumbling and falling apart, there is a key place for unfaltering optimism. If we look deep within, that optimism is always there.

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Core Values – 6. Humility

This is the sixth post in the series on Core Values in the workplace. In it I talk about the fifth value. The next post in this series will describe the final value. There will then be an 8th post with some conclusions. If this series has been of interest, you may be interested to know that there will be an expanded version in booklet form due out in a few weeks. Subscribe to the website or email me if you are interested… 

When the team I work with was evaluated back in 2011, the value of humility was described as:

a non-hierarchical, respectful,
modest style; a style which supports others to contribute.

This is a key part of the style and culture that underpins our work. We work with partners to deliver projects where the key factor is the success of the project, rather than our profile. We have always been more concerned about the contents of the shop, rather than having a glossy shop window. At times, this has given us problems – but the underlying focus on humility is a key strength of our work. I have talked in earlier posts in this series about the importance of the “honest broker” role that we play. It is very difficult to act in this role if partners have any sense that the work is being done for greater glory or self-aggrandisement.

In the last couple of years, the NHS has had a much greater emphasis on the market and on competition rather than collaboration. This has, at times, made it very difficult to work from a place of humility whilst all around are vying for position.

Ultimately though the best dressed window, the most impressive marketing campaign, is nothing if the contents of delivery are not of the highest quality.

As with so many things, the middle way will help tackle this tension. So, it is important not to be naive about the need to ensure that others understand the role and scope of the team in delivery of its work. This can be done without overplaying the ‘publicity campaign’. Ultimately, it’s a question of getting the work recognised to ensure that it continues without the ego getting in the way.

Working from a place of humility ensures that the objective is to serve others and deliver something of the highest quality that is of great value to those with whom we work.

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Why tiredness is not linked to lack of rest

I came across this from an interview with David Whyte (a poet who has worked extensively in the corporate world). He was being interviewed by Michael Lerner for The New School podcast at Commonweal:

“The cure for exhaustion isn’t rest. It’s wholeheartedness. We feel exhaustion when we are not doing what we are in this life to do.”

That coupled with this quote from Michael Bungay Stanier:

“Two key questions – 1. And what else? 2. What will you say no to?”

What does this mean for you today? Are you doing what you are in this life to do? What are you saying no to?

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Core Values – 5. Inclusivity

… And so we reach the 5th of 8 posts about Core Values in the workplace. So far, we have looked at the values of Altruism, Integrity and Co-Creation. This post looks at Inclusivity.

From the first Impact Report on our work, there was the recognition that ensuring people are involved and included
is a key aspect of our work. This core value complements the previous value of co-creation. To enable co-creation it is important to be inclusive.

Working in the world of health research, this value is not without controversy. It sits at the heart of the conflict between approaches to research that strive at excellence and those that set out to see a thousand flowers bloom. Whilst I appreciate the importance of excellence in achieving high quality, it is vital to ensure that work is inclusive. Instinctively it feels right to include people wherever possible in things that we do. The default when asking whether someone should be in the room, is to say yes. There have to be really good reasons to leave someone out!

As I have said, this can make us at odds with those that set out to achieve centres of high excellence and work with exclusivity.

Still, if we are to build excellence into all that we do, we need to draw on the expertise of others. If we exclude people, we limit the ability to draw on wide areas of expertise.

This is why this core value drives what we do. Again, if we look at the way in which the values complement each other, if we work from an understanding that all of the expertise is not held within the team, and that we need to draw on skills from others – by being inclusive, we increase the chances that we will succeed.

Thus, as we look across the health professionals and look at the ways in which research is conducted in healthcare – there is far too much emphasis on trials led by medics. This is the outcome of exclusivity. As a result we miss out on the wider perspectives that research needs which can be brought to the agenda by the other professions that work in healthcare. By being inclusive and working particularly to include those professions that are very under-represented in research, we can create an environment where the richness of research is much much deeper.

The next post on Core Values will look at Humility – a value that is being challenged in the changing organisational climate in which we are working.