Mike’s theory of arcs and angles

One goal, which path would you take?

Imagine you had a goal – perhaps to lose weight or to learn a skill, or even to build some capacity/capability as a person, team, company or country.

Lets call that goal ‘B’ and your starting point – now – is ‘A’.

The sharp angle path

Now imagine you did very little towards getting to ‘B’ until one day when ‘B’ stops being a nice-to-have and , instead, becomes a must-have. I call that day or the event triggering that realisation ‘a sharp turn event’.

So now you’re scrambling, stressing and enduring a massive disruption to everything so you can start heading towards ‘B’ and you needed to be there yesterday.

An example of a sharp turn event is cancer, a heart attack i.e it happens and to reduce the chances of it happening again or as severely – you start to eat better, exercise, cut out smoking and excessive drinking.

Other examples might be being mocked for being overweight or a global pandemic.

The arc path

Now imagine you are in exactly the same starting point and the goal remains unchanged. But instead of doing very little about getting to ‘B’, every day you did something tangible towards the goal and you kept the goal alive by checking if those things you did got you closer and adjusted as you went.

Sharp turn events are not entirely eradicated on this path, but their negative effects can be significantly reduced. You are already some way to the goal, you are on the path.

An example might losing your livelihood whilst pursuing a goal of saving for a home and choosing to live frugally whilst you were saving – being lean. Of course, it seems calamitous that you have lost your job – but given how you are living as you pursued the goal, you are in a better position to weather the disruption vs someone who lived extravagantly (even if they had the same goal as you!).

Arcs are softer but build habit and resilience.

Some thoughts on arcs and sharp angles…

  • Arcs require diligence and deliberate action to the goal – not huge steps, but small ones, consistently taken.
  • Sharp angle paths are easy – you don’t have to do anything but wish and occasionally lie to yourself and others that you are doing something.
  • The longer you leave a goal without working towards it, the sharper and more disruptive the turn. Sometimes, you can leave it too late you pass a point beyond which that exact goal is unattainable and you have to pick another that is within you then-current abilities. E.g. I want to buy a home in 2 years time. I need to save €50,000 for a deposit. The sooner I start the more likely I will be able to do it. If I leave it until, say, a month before I wanted to buy the home – I would have to find €50k in 1 month – an almost impossible task for most people not robbing banks. So maybe you now have to set a goal to buy a house in 5 years vs 2 or not buy at all.
  • Arcs require regular reflection and calibration that what you are doing is still valid towards the goal. You might even question if the goal is still valid.
  • Critically reviewing your goals can shine a light on what potential sharp turn events might happen. e.g. if my goal was to save €50k in 2 years, an obvious sharp turn event is that I could lose my job. That might lead me down the path of developing side gigs that build resilience to my finances.

In closing, I am no expert in this and I’m not selling any ‘improve your life’ crap. I am simply introspecting into events and paths in my life and things I see around me.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us that many – if not all – countries have been fixated on either the wrong goals or have not acted in an arc way towards the right goals and we find ourselves in a sharp turn event where the world is mostly unprepared for massive unemployment coupled with a lack of digital tech for everything from government to education.

What are your thoughts on this theory? Please disagree with it and lets explore it further.

Do you feel appreciated, punk?!

Computer says ‘appreciate Mike’

Corporates are a funny bunch. There is a process for everything. Even appreciation.

A couple of friends of mine in different companies recently celebrated significant milestones of service. An HR system notified someone to initiate an order for some official commemorative items and also sent an email to their respective managers to ‘put it on their radar’.

The first – for 5 years of being with the same organisation – earned himself a piece of glassware. The kind that is heavy and feels and looks significant. It also looks like the kind of thing that is still sitting on a shelf of the charity shops with no obvious use to anyone.

My other friend celebrated 15 years at a different company. There was a Friday afternoon presentation by his manager( who incidentally was 11 years old when my friend started at the company!). For such a long tenure, he received – with thanks – a voucher for £100 and a clock.

Being a confirmed nomad and allergic to the long term effects of corporations – I would never tenure anywhere long enough to warrant anything beyond chewing gum – pre-owned chewing gum at that – so I was curious about their experience of being recipients of corporate appreciation by policy.

It’s about the choice

My glassware friend was somewhat at a loss about what to do with this chunk of glass. To make things worse, he Googled the manufacturer of the piece and discovered – much to his disgust – that it cost about $50.

Now my friend lives somewhere $50 goes a fairly long way and to discover he had no choice about the way in which it was spent –  when it could have made a real difference to him as cash – left him pretty turned off.

I made the same mistake many people make when we talk about material things – we got through a list of other material things we think could have been a better ‘gift’. Would he have preferred a $50 bottle of whisky, a contribution to a dinner with his partner or a book or who knows what.

As I pursued a relentless list of other things he might have valued more – he put it simply

Mike, being offered a choice is all that I wanted. To have been asked what I wanted or offered the cash

This is when I realised the deep importance of checking in with the person you think you are appreciating – especially when you are demonstrating it with a gift.
Offering them a choice can avoid so much negative stuff. I wonder how my friend’s non chalance about his glassware would be perceived by those responsible for the process of him getting it in the first place. My hunch tells me it would be received as ingratitude.

What thrills me might not thrill you

My other friend  – with his unsolicited time piece – agreed wholeheartedly about the issue of choice.

He wouldn’t have chosen cash, but he really would have appreciated a call from the CEO. He said he feels he has contributed so much of his life to this organisation and the people he feels he is supporting have never reached out to say a personal “Thank You”. It has been company All Hands, video broadcasts and other ‘efficient’ channels. He pointed out that:

Even the the Queen of England demonstrates personal gratitude and celebration with centenarians and  people who have been of valuable service.

As we spoke more,  it turned out that  a simple 2 minute phone call demonstrating genuine interest by the CEO of the company would have entirely made his day! It got me wondering what the job of the CEO was. If it wasn’t about connecting with the people whose toil makes the business valuable, then what is it?

Appreciation is double loop learning

One of the new foundations of effective and efficient process work is double loop learning. This is where we formulate a goal,  for example

We want to demonstrate our appreciation for long tenures of service

Then we devise a program to reach that goal – for example:

We will give people who have worked for 5 years a piece of crafted glassware and a funky timepiece to people who have served 15 years

Double loop learning in this case suggests that once you have done the program,  gather learning about whether the goal should change – not simply the way you are doing it. I heard no evidence that either of these employers had either the interest nor the channels to gather the learning, let alone the intention to apply anything to their original goal.

If either of these employers even remotely thought about Double Loop Learning, they would simply ask how the recipients of these gifts felt about what was offered, how it was offered and what might have helped them feel better appreciated. I am absolutely sure that even a tiny act of genuine inquiry would have yielded that the goal must change along the lines of:

We want to help people who have served our organisation for years to feel appreciated for their long tenure

Can you tell the difference?  I hope you can. If not – ask me.

What are your experiences of corporate appreciation?

Did it lift you up and make you feel deeply appreciated or did it leave you feeling meh?
I’d like to hear about either and everything in between. Tweet me, comment or otherwise make your opinions known.

Happy days.


What Happens Next: Introducing The Improvement Partnership

Following my successful and very insightful 6-week free remote coaching experiment, I am delighted to introduce a new service that is primarily designed for passionate companies who are committed to getting incrementally better – whatever better means for them – and who have tired of the buzzword bingo that is costly and generally ineffectively applied.

Please show some love for my service: The Improvement Partnership.

The Improvement Partnership is about creating partnerships amongst willing participants within companies and teams and with me, with the single purpose of helping them build incrementally better versions of themselves.

In this partnership model, people participate because they care, have been invited open-heartedly and are respected vs they are made to do it by their managers or pressured by their peers and reviewed by how well they do (or don’t).

What Problems Does The Improvement Partnership Address?

  1. Many businesses are clambering to do agile, Scrum etc. Unfortunately their mission becomes doing the thing versus solving their fundamental problems. This is further compounded by overhyped training offering misleading certifications. They spend the money, but remain unhelped.
  2. Coercion and violence in organisations that seek to improve themselves. Traditional management structures promote mandated processes and imposed help.
  3. High cost of hiring consultants to do the work that is both most appropriately and most sustainably done by employees – who are usually the ones who are feeling the pain.
  4. The broad brush implementations of frameworks that are peddled, regardless of what the actual problems are.
  5. The lack of accessible, experienced, empathic and independent help to support improvement work in many companies.
  6. Current alternatives are hugely disruptive and create even more pressure in an already pressurised system of tight deadlines and tension.

How it Works

Organisation as a Product

My newly designed framing metaphor is to imagine the Organisation as a Product.

We now know a huge amount about building software and products well and I want to apply that learning back to human systems. The metaphor is a good one and has limits  – as all metaphors do.

So I ask you:

If your company/team was a product, who would be its customers and users, what value does it generate for them? What are its current known ‘bugs’ and what are its capabilities/features.

What would its next and better version be like? What bugs would be fixed, what new/different value would it offer and what capabilities would it provide?

My Approach

I work with a 4 step approach to partnership – you can read more about it on the site, but briefly it is:

Make the Invitation – Version the Organisation, NOW and NEXT – Build towards NEXT – Review, Reflect and Adapt.

There is no magic to this, there is only passionate people working in partnership and overcoming anything , together. Maybe that is the magic.

Remote Partnering

Making the Invitation and Versioning the Organisation will be done face to face with clients and is achieved in the TIPStart workshop – a 2 day deep exploration onsite workshop that is held with everyone interested in participating.

It is here that the fundamentals of human collaboration will be established, where we set the shared purpose, explore shared values and create the strong relationships that will help down the line.

The TIPStart is the starting point for every client partnership and it where we emerge what work we need to build and assemble volunteer working groups to own the work.

Then we all go home and start collaborating remotely as partners, establishing optimal cadences to collaborate in working groups; and reviewing collectively as we work.

Fundamentally we work from the problems that people are experiencing and the capabilities they want to build. The solutions will emerge.

I help by bringing my passion , 20+ years of distilled learning, knowledge, experience and networks to help my partners find solutions that work for them. I help by facilitating, mentoring, coaching, pairing on research or code, training and anything else that offers value to my clients’ reaching the NEXT version. It may be agile or a something based on a combination of many different practices and techniques. It will almost never be the stock Scrum, Kanban or SAFe. (I say almost because of the theoretical possibility that it is never ‘never’!!).

Warning: What I Offer Is Not For Everyone

My aim in partnership is to help maximise Joy and Effectiveness for all participants and my client partners. My style supports that and is based on a fundamental belief in the equality of all humans regardless of rank or experience any other factor. Some individuals might not share that view. That is OK – I just won’t work with them.

There are many – I worked with 4 in my experiment – who will and I’m betting there are many more.

I Need Your Help

It would be hugely valuable to me if you would be willing to help me test my message on the site.

  • How does the site flow?
  • What do you understand the value to be?
  • How do you feel when you explore the site?
  • If you work in any of the roles in the ‘Who I Help’ section? How well does it resonate with you?
  • What do you think I need to focus more/less/none on?

Please send feedback via email: me[at]mhsutton.me

Finally, I would love if you would consider sharing The Improvement Partnership.
I really am as good as they say and you could be helping someone you care about out by tweeting about it, sharing via email or blogging about it.

Why I might not want to work with you

I pride myself on being able to find common ground with most people. To find the shared value and work with them to achieve it.

The joy of working with people who truly value you and are open to ideas is unsurpassed. Exploring the challenges whilst still respecting each other, disagreeing whilst still collaborating deeply – these are all hallmarks of passionate working relationships. This is what I now unreservedly seek.

I’ve spent years gaining and honing skills and techniques to build rapport, to understand people and their needs and to build bridges between my world view and theirs. It has been enormously insightful and satisfying.

But all that experience has also taught me a ton of stuff and helped me come to the conclusion that there are certain behaviours that I do not want to work with it. Ever again.

8 Behaviours I Don’t Want to Work With

 It isn’t about people as much as it is about behaviours that people, in certain situations, exhibit. Here are the top showstoppers for me:

  1. Having and operating an agenda that is about controlling others.
  2. Withholding material information from me about what and, more importantly, why  we are doing what we are doing.
  3. Demonstrating a lack of openness to ideas.
  4. Reluctance, even when supported, to express how you feel and what you need.
  5. Being dismissive of attempts to create more openness between you, me and others.
  6. Applying the ‘power’ you have in an organisation in a coercive and authoritarian way.
  7. Treating people like resources and using that word easily and happily.
  8. Undervaluing human connectedness and ‘soft’ skills like empathy, trust and respect

Life is too short

There are a few simple reasons I have reached this place, but the most important for me – I think – is that life is too short.

Life is too short to waste it with people who take joyfully but give reluctantly.  It is too short to struggle on an on  against mindsets that are in constant conflict on the most fundamental of values.

Life is too short to spend even a moment on work that is entirely unfulfilling – where you are neither contributing nor benefiting.  It is too short to spend it playing the political games that burn time with little real value.

Yet life is too short not to work with behaviours that joyfully embrace diversity of approach, thought and experience. It is not long enough to really explore the unexplored awesomeness of passionate people. Life is too short not to seek value in joy or to separate ‘life’ from ‘work’. And that is what I want to work with now – for the rest of my life. 

What behaviours would prevent you from working deeply and unreservedly with someone else? I’d love to hear from you via comments or @mhsutton on Twitter.

5 Recent Things I am Learning from My Remote #Coaching Experiment

I have spent the last couple of weeks on the road – travelling to spend two days each with two of the five organisations that are participating in my remote coaching experiment. The time I have spent face to face with these wonderful people has been really humbling and continue to help me validate the reasons that I launched the experiment in the first place. I am learning some really important lessons that will help me shape a possible service and I’d like to share them with you.

#1. It doesn’t really matter where you start the conversation

I once was asked “should we focus on problems or improvement?”. This experiment is teaching me that – if you are interested in a sustainable effective improvement – you cannot seriously explore improvements without really understanding what you are making better i.e. the less effective starting point or problem.

I have experimented with being Problem Focused with some participants in some cases and Solution Focused with others – to get some anecdotal evidence of what is more effective. So far, I think both are equally effective. But hugely dependent on how the conversation is facilitated and also the openness and empathy in the groups.

Ultimately I am learning that you start where you feel most comfortable and what really matters is the commitment to continue the conversation.

#2. People have day jobs, respect that

Every ‘Improvement Discovery’ session I have facilitated emphasises that everyone  has day jobs that affect their bandwidth to work on the things we want to improve. 

I say this to help set expectations of the level of involvement – at various times – that people may experience from themselves and others. 

Despite knowing this in my core, I sometimes find that I feel deeply frustrated when I cannot see any evidence of progress on the items that people signed up to. I wonder to myself:

Don’t they care enough about this problem to drop everything and fix it?
Don’t they respect me enough to do what they committed to?

Then I catch myself and remember that they have day jobs and whilst this is important for them – because they said it was – they also may be having a tough time trying to balance both commitments. Immediately this triggers an empathic response. How can I help them find the time to make the thing they want better, happen?

#3. Being remote requires emotional control

One of the more difficult things that I am experiencing is that, because I’m remote and not physically around the organisation and people, I am less able to easily access the non-verbal communication that is abundant with co-located group. I struggle to sense what is keeping people busy or what is distracting them.

I react in various emotional ways to this lack of input. First I may feel angry – that they are not ‘keeping up their side of the bargain’.
I may also feel unappreciated because ‘don’t they know I am sitting here waiting for them to pull my help’.

My main learning here is to come back to the context – and this is why it is really important to have context – so that I know that this is not personal. I am also learning that recognising that I have a feedback gap is very important. It invites me to share what I am feeling with the group and invite help to address the feedback gap.

#4. Getting Invited is harder than simply barging in

The core of my approach is that people themselves address the exploration of the improvement they seek. We find what we want to improve, prioritise them and then form working groups around each one to frame, explore and discover what concrete actions can be taken to make the improvement. I can facilitate, guide, collaborate, teach, coach and listen – or not –  to the extent that they need me to – but only if I am invited to do so. I call this ‘pull’. This is different from ‘push’ – which is more about me interrupting people – remember they have day jobs – imposing what I think they need. The coaching approach requires that participants understand this is the offer and are comfortable with pulling my involvement.

For the first bit – understanding the offer – I am learning that I need to be more explicit that I am available to be invited and this is really the main way I get involved and being clear about how they can make the invitation – scheduling a meeting, chatting on IM etc.

For the second bit – people feeling comfortable – I am learning  that people find it hard to pull even when they are clear that is the way to get my help. My understanding of why this is the case is evolving but so far being ‘too busy’ keeps coming up as a primary reason.

#5. A month is not very long to change everything

All the groups I am working with have 30+ members and cover almost the entirety of the functions to get stuff out of the door.

You can imagine that so many people have many things they want to improve. Some of these things are cross functional like ‘understanding of the value of what we are building’, others are specific to functions like ‘we need to increase database unit test automation’.

This experiment is 30 days long and is designed almost exclusively for my learning. During this time I want to learn what works and what sucks about working remotely – both for me and my clients. The only way I can really learn is by doing it. So the doing is  necessary but kind of no the aim. That said, once you ask people what they want to improve you better damn well have a plan to help them get those improvements.

So I am learning to be clearer that their journey of continuous improvement has no end date. It is neither constrained by time nor space, but simply by their commitment to work towards better versions of themselves. I simply jump off that line in 30 days as they continue.

Please share your experiences of working remotely in a coaching role or as someone working with a remote coach – I can use all the learnings I can get!

If you are interested in keeping up to date with what I am learning in this experiment – please consider signing up to my email list – I won’t ever spam, sell, share or otherwise pimp you details. Also consider following me on Twitter.

Featured Image By: squidishCC BY 2.0

Managers as Ecologists

I have recently been gripped by what I consider is a very powerful idea and I would love to share it with you, in the hope that you might ‘Yes and‘ it (make it better/ enhance it) and perhaps explore it in practice at your business.  ‘Business Ecosystem’ is a much abused term. I find that many CEOs and senior management use it as buzz phrase to mean their organisation structure (typified by their organisation chart).
In the most common misuse it depicts no more than the chain of command or the boundaries of blame.

What might happen if corporate managers reframe their roles to understand their organisations more like natural ecosystems and set about being stewards of understanding what needs to thrive in that ecosystem and helping to establish and sustain the conditions to support the organisation’s vision?

This is simply a first pass at this idea. Enough, I hope to get the early adopters amongst you thinking more deeply about this approach. More will follow.

Disclaimer: I cannot be held responsible for the untold learning and outright wonder that this information may unleash in your life.  Proceed at your own caution, but enjoy it. 

A Word About Ecology.

Ecologists are interesting  people.   Geeky (i.e. intelligent and obsessive)  for sure, but interesting. They study nature at various scales. The stuff that lives in it and the stuff that lives on them and so on.  They think about the conditions in which life exists in the space they are studying ( those conditions that most of us wouldn’t give two hoots about like how much nutrient is in the earth, what puts it there etc).

Ecology is painstaking. It all starts with a study of what is present in the space under study and how those components are related. This is complexity in action.
In natural ecosystems, ecologists talk  of food webs and chains, nutrient flows etc.  All of which point to how energy in the system flows (through death, decay and being eaten by some predator).

It all starts with a Picture.

Artist’s rendering of the complexities of the Gulf of Alaska marine ecosystem. Image courtesy of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council GEM (Gulf of Alaska Ecosystem Monitoring and Research) project. Click for a larger version.

This picture is, as you may have guessed, from the Exxon Valdez oil spill case. Take a moment to really look at this picture. It has a lot of detail. Go on, get comfortable with it.
What is it saying to you?

But why all this effort for a picture. Well one word…understanding.  Very deep understanding of the forces at work in the system. Understanding of the subtle and delicate balance that exists between apparently independent components.  With understanding comes wisdom, with wisdom comes better informed and more responsible action.

Let’s test just how much understanding you have gained from this picture alone.

Let’s say I asked you to suggest ways to help salmon thrive, purely from the detail in this picture, what might you say?
Or what might we do to increase the population of rare sea birds?
What if I asked you to imagine another potential spill occurring around the center of the picture, what might be the immediate likely risks and how might we need to respond to minimise it?

The point is, you can make a pretty good set of suggestions and recommendations (and you likely aren’t an expert, geeky ecologist!) just from this picture – let alone the deep underlying data that went into creating it.

Beware Social Engineering

Now before you freak out and accuse me of advocating social engineering, let me say that in the brave new world of business agility – in which we are seeing the biggest challenge to traditional management since the industrial revolution, the role of management needs clarification.  Coaches and ‘thought’ leaders talk of ‘servant leadership’ and ‘change agents’. All that is well and good, but still managers are generally befuddled. The rise of self organising teams to solve complex problems has only amplified the need to get the role right

I am suggesting that management can  be that part of the organisation that is specifically tasked to pay attention to the conditions  under which work is done.
They can understand what they should be measuring and monitoring (like water quality to understand health of fish stock!) and measure them effectively (and efficiently). They can explore the feedback loops that will be most effective.

The beauty of an ecosystem  based management approach lies in where it leads the curious and engaged mind.
It leads the ecologist to follow the threads of interdependence, encouraging them to widen the boundaries of their ecosystem until they form a clearer, richer  picture of the real dynamics that exist in their organisation.  It leads them to ask ‘what should our ecosystem be optimised for and why?’ (goals!).
It leads, if you let it, to a more holistic and human view of a deeply human system that is often deeply dehumanising. It may lead to more joy at work.

Note of Caution:  Using this approach is , of itself,  neither good nor bad. It is informative.  It rests with a healthy organisation to hold itself accountable to act ethically and not use the visibility that an ecosystem based management provides to megalomaniac ends.

The Metaphor Only Goes So Far.

But it goes far enough to be useful.  Be creative about how you consider this methapor, particularly about:

Food Chains.
In natural ecosystems, the primary way energy is released or transferred is by predation (i.e. something eating something else).  Now hang on, I’m not advocating that you start feeding on your colleagues.  What might be the analog of ‘food’ in your organisation? What forms the ‘energy’ of your organisation.  In many that I work with, it is information.

The ecologist is part of this picture.
Usually, the ecologist is studying a system as an observer (unless they are studying systems with human components that include them) . In this approach, the managers are part of the ecosystem they are tasked with studying and understanding. The other living components of a corporate ecosystem are other human beings, with opinions , feelings and the ability (and intelligence) to articulate them. So ecosystem management here is more about doing things with the the ecosystem vs doing things to the ecosystem.

My Challenge To You.

Hopefully I have described the basics of my idea well enough for you to do something with it. I would like you to consider these as next steps.

  • Draw a picture of the components in your ecosystem (start with your team as a space under study) – look at living (e.g people, pets, plants) and non living components (e.g code, servers, food!)
  • Identify what represents the things that are exchanged (the energy that is flowing) – what is the primary thing (e.g money, information, code?)
  • Identify how your components are related and interdependent. If it helps, consider who influences whom and how?
  • Then, think for a minute about something you would like to see improved in your ecosystem (for example, attitude to risk, reduce blame) and see if you can identify how your picture might need to change to help this improvement emerge.  If you can’t, try reworking the components and relationships until you can.

It’s worth it.

Drop me a line @mhsutton on twitter to let me know how you get on or if I can help you think it through.  I’d be delighted to.