Coping with Change using Character and Personal Flexibility

How best can we cope with change? The change in our personal lives might be a new-born baby, or a virus pandemic. It could be a betrayal by a friend, a natural disaster, or perhaps a new romantic relationship from a chance encounter.

In professional organisations, information systems can lead to frameworks & work politics (editorial bias). Which in turn can lead to forecasts & actions. While in our personal life, our character, with its qualities of inherent inner strength & flexibility, can lead to inner confidence – the confidence we feel about our understanding of a situation and our ability to handle a situation. Which in turn, generates an outer confidence (the style we present), leading to judgements and actions.

New change experiences in our lives, whether good or bad, help grow and shape our character. When it comes to inner confidence, we don’t always get it in synch with our underlying character. Sometimes our resulting judgement and actions are off because we felt overconfident about handling a situation – riding our first bike. Or taking our first steps upright. Sometimes we fret about a future event. And then surprise ourselves. By handling it well when the time comes.

Incidentally, does it matter that character and inner confidence are sometimes out of synch? Maybe. Afterall, it takes emotional energy to cope with that difference, when we reflect on the results afterwards and perhaps beat ourselves up mentally. But it can lead to beneficial results for our character too. Incidentally, character has other qualities such as integrity level and generosity level too, which won’t be further explored in this blog.

Now imagine two triangles joined together by a common base (a diamond shape, with its ‘sparkle’ being character and its ‘ring-finger presence’ representing impact). In one triangle, the two outer sides are personal efficiency (PE) and personal innovation (PI). The shared base of the triangle is personal flexibility (PFL). With the area of that triangle representing personal impact (on people, things and the World generally).  In the second triangle, the two external sides are focus and development. With the area of the triangle representing human character.  But first, what are focus and development?

Focus is about concentration on route with more efficiency. For example, coaches and athletes aspire for faster times, greater power or stamina, always looking for a more efficient training regime to achieve it. To cope with change, some kinds of leadership rely on focus – leading the way and mentoring others by showing the efficient way to do something. For example, parenthood, or leading a group of novices out of a storm to shelter, as quickly as possible.

Development is about finding new & better ways. Developing smarter plans. Uncovering superior technique and tactics. Perhaps enlisting expert help from stakeholders & allies to achieve it. To cope with change, some kinds of leadership rely on development. Inventing a solution in the moment to a problem never encountered before. Improvising using unfamiliar materials or unconventional techniques.

Returning to the diamond shape, hopefully for most of us, a life goal is for our character and personal impact to grow stronger – bigger impact, richer and more resilience i.e. for the size of the diamond to grow over time, as we experience more, handle more and reflect more.

Personal flexibility (PF) acts like an accelerator (or brake) on the pace that our personal impact and character develop. And PF is also the mechanism by which personal impact and character mutually reinforce each other – the more our character develops, the greater personal impact we can have. But equally, the more personal impact we have, the more our character can develop too.

I’m currently reading a really interesting book called ‘Anti-fragile’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (pub Penguin books 2012). Taleb says ‘when you are fragile, you depend on things following the exact planned course, with as little deviation as possible-for deviations are more harmful than helpful. This is why the fragile needs to be very predictable in its approach and conversely, predictive systems cause fragility. When you want deviations and you don’t care about the possible dispersion of outcomes that the future can bring, since most will be helpful, you are antifragile.

A final thought. For the diamond shape I’ve described to sparkle and be strong, the ‘fragile side’ (personal efficiency and focus) need personal flexibility to bring across some ‘antifragility’ from the personal innovation and development side of the diamond. This can only happen if someone strengthens their personal flexibility in the first place.

Food for thought?

Simon

Imposter Syndrome

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Wikipedia defines ‘imposter syndrome’ as ‘a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

For those who work in areas where there is a relatively smooth, easy journey to celebrity status – models, TV presenters, interviewers, lead singers (who don’t do the song writing) and natural disaster survivors, it’s not hard to see why they might have such feelings.

Apparently many people of both genders have feelings of imposter syndrome from time to time. But because it makes people feel more anxious and vulnerable, it’s not something we’re likely to share freely. The trick is to see imposter syndrome as a choice we make. Not a mantle given to us.

Just as some people amplify their achievements to gain advantage, others take an opposite approach (under promise and over deliver). Merit takes time to form. And reputations are built on a string of milestones (but lost after a single adverse event).

Every day, people encounter novel situations, testing their leadership skills, imagination and adaptability. Therefore, if we can’t shake the monkey sitting on one shoulder whispering ‘you’re an imposter at this’, it’s up to us to encourage another monkey to sit on our other shoulder. One that says, ‘so what if you’re new to this. Flexibility rules. Do your best and see where that takes you!’      

Simon

Surfing the ups and downs

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Surfers know about staying on their board to ride out the lows and enjoy the highs. Breaking right or left when the opportunity arises. Surfing away from danger if they spot a shark in the water.

How can companies or staff use flexibility to stay sustainable through boom & bust cycles? For companies, buying up distressed assets and companies in an economic downturn isn’t the only game in town. With companies desperately shedding cost by laying off staff, the downturn is a golden opportunity to pick up experienced talent in plentiful supply. Likewise for staff, stay open to new opportunities from those companies wanting the good people.

In the downturn, if they can’t justify hiring operations staff, firms can hire more developers instead, to deliver for the next bull run. Or better still (in a flexibility sense), acquire staff who develop in the downturn and do operations/marketing in the boom. For staff, think about widening your skills from operations into development and marketing too.

In a downturn, business ethics are tested by fear, not greed. Whether boom, bust or in between, staff can work hard to join up their personal morals with the business ethics of the business, to keep the customer love alive and thriving.

Finally for staff, if you’re not involved in development innovation (team leaders and middle managers), try to catch the eye of senior management, by helping them develop real options for the company’s future. For the company, having both innovations and real options is the equivalent of riding the surfboard through the ups and downs both.

Simon

 

Brace for impact

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Yesterday with my wife, I did what turned to be an 8 mile walk along a river canal near Milton Keynes in the UK. We usually take a few pics on our smartphones along the way – photogenic narrow boats, rolling green landscapes and any wildlife we see. And the occasional selfie too. As you do.

Anyway, at one point along the walk, we passed over a short, concrete aqueduct, with a concrete spillway channel coming off it at right angles, to take excess water down to a lower channel, some 70m away from the main canal path.

I sometimes see a photo opportunity in my head ahead of time and thought I could pose, standing in the middle of the spillway, while my wife took a pic from above. At first glance, the spillway looked fairly dry and not a drop of water was trickling down it. I climbed partway down the waste ground (about the first 20m in distance from the main canal) next to the spillway and stepped down onto it, with my wife watching from the top. The spillway seemed walkable at first and not too steep to walk across. My hands left the side wall of the spillway and I gingerly started walking across it, to the mid point.

I noticed in the bottom section of the spillway, about 50m from where I was, that it flattened out. There were a series of concrete pillars on the flat section, regularly spaced. Each pillar was about one metre high – presumably to stop tree branches or other debris from going any further along the drainage channel.

Suddenly, both feet started gently sliding downwards. I used to roller blade and ski. So I knew about upper body balance, when you start moving in a diagonal direction. It was one of those moments when several things start flashing through your mind in quick succession. My first thought. This isn’t going to plan! The surface isn’t as dry as I thought. I can’t retrace my footsteps. Or quickly put a hand on the side wall of the spillway. I seem to be picking up speed. I can’t seem to use the edge of my walking boots to create any friction.

By now, most of me is touching the slimy surface and I’m moving my hands outwards for balance. I look below and see the row of concrete barriers that I’m heading for. As I approach, my speed is accelerating. I’m out of other options, so I brace for impact.

I think about trying to hit the barriers with both feet fairly close together, my knees slightly bent. I hope I’m going to hit one barrier square on and not slip half through the gap between them. My body is like a child’s body going down a slide in the playground. I’m not panicking.  But I do have time to wonder how hard I’m going to hit. I decide to use my legs as a giant shock absorber and hope for the best.

The soles of my feet hit and I keep travelling. I’m still wondering whether my legs will stop me in time. Then just before my torso slams into the concrete, I stop. I have a second to register that nothing is broken and that I’ve made a clean landing.

It could have gone much worse. If I’d have panicked, or not acted quickly, I probably would be in hospital right now, with parts of my body in a plaster cast. If I’d been less lucky and there had been some metal or wood debris clogging up the concrete pillars, my landing would have been a lot more painful. Ditto if the spillway was longer or steeper. Or had potholes in it.

On the positive side, my wife is still speaking to me and I haven’t lost all credibility for making judgements. I also surprised myself in acting quickly in the heat of the moment. It’s been a long while since I’ve been in an unplanned adventurous situation, with skin in the game i.e. being out of control with a likely painful and hazardous ending coming for me personally.

What did I learn? That sometimes in life, the unexpected overrides your plan. That when it does, you become resourceful real fast, or suffer the consequences. That you can’t always change the unexpected. But you can ride it out and try to control the outcome. And also, that the work you put in earlier (lots of walking previously to strengthen my legs), sometimes pays off big time in a momentary crisis situation. And most of all, have faith in yourself and don’t panic. Brace for impact instead and hope for the best!

Simon

Destiny and Flexibility

What goes around comes around.

When things go wrong, sometimes you get a second chance to fix your mistake. Your determination and your time to reflect, may mean delivering a significantly better version the second time round. Compared to achieving a modest result if you did it error-free from the beginning.

What about when things go well? There should be both an observable improvement and some recognition, right? But getting recognition is a two-step, flexibility shuffle. Step one is doing stuff to make the World a better place. You have to be flexible to think like that and to achieve it. Even then, people won’t necessarily notice your efforts straight away. Let alone give you direct credit. You might donate some money to a worthy cause. Give credit where it’s due. Or show a stranger a random act of kindness.

Incidentally, doing stuff to help teaches you something. To look outward. To be observant and appreciate what you see, including noticing the semi-hidden efforts of other unsung heroes. Doing helpful stuff teaches you that you’re not pre-destined to follow the rut of one, self-serving, materialistic pathway. It makes you a better parent or career. You can forge a more interesting & ultimately a more satisfying path. Doing stuff to help also teaches you to give more efficiently. And more graciously.

The World’s orbit runs further. And suddenly, you get someone else’s help. Or their high praise. That help benefits you in all kinds of ways you hadn’t thought of. It might come in the form of visible mentoring. Or as less visible patronage. The benefit endures, enlightens, reassures and entertains you.

The second shuffle is you pivoting to bigger, better things. Running on the legs of self confidence and observer applause.

The length of your orbit is determined by your flexibility to grow. The recognition, your destiny.

Simon

Twin strands in your job

Just as twin strands make a rope stronger, is it smart career management to seek out twin-role jobs? One form of these is doing a combination of department & project roles, to build different kinds of skills and experiences.

Another form is to line-manage several functions. How can this be achieved if you have qualifications and work experience in one function only? Volunteer for short term tasks that give you that broader function exposure. Offer to take an oversight role of another support function in addition to your core one. In your next organisation, apply for a wider role.

As some organisations rationalise their senior management team, they’ll then want managers with wider functional experience. As people get promoted, more functions will inevitably come under their remit. Either way, the twin-strand form of business flexibility comes into its own.

Simon

Personal Flexibility and Cycling

Over Easter, I was lucky to go on a 140 mile, 3 day cycling trip with some friends, around the south of England. And I learned some interesting things about personal flexibility that I’d like to share.

The first example was on the train, travelling down to the start point of the ride. I got chatting with one of the other cyclists, a fellow parent. I asked what his school age son wanted to do after finishing secondary school (high school). The dad’s approach was to encourage his son (who like many kids, didn’t know what he wanted to do after graduation) to take subjects that would simply help him keep his options open. This has two aspects, taking a wide range of subjects. And taking some universally useful subjects like English and maths (literacy & numeracy heavy). In short, more doorways beat fewer. And some doorways serve as portals to bigger worlds.

Once we all assembled to start the ride, it was obvious that the amount of cycle luggage varied from one cyclist carrying everything for every eventuality (resource versatility), through to another travelling light to conserve energy (event versatility). Both are forms of personal flexibility, just emphasising different types.

Another example once the cycling trip had started in ernest was the relative positioning in the riding group i.e. each rider staying fluid and flexible to help the others as needed. And to chat to different members of the group.

Some of the cycle route involved smooth road-riding in designated cycle lanes, or along disused railway embankments. Other sections however involved descent down bumpy, gravel-heavy tracks. It dawned on me that those of us who coped best had previously done broader preparation (road riding and off road riding) i.e. choosing to move forward by moving further out of your comfort zone to widen your coping skills for situations you might encounter.

One night on the trip, we camped and all 4 of us chose a different shelter approach. One chose a large tunnel tent. I chose a simple basha (tent fly), hung between two trees. Another slept in a tiny minimalist tent for one. And the fourth, unhappy with his tent, slept in the open, next to the campfire instead. Most importantly, it wasn’t a resource competition and we weren’t critical of each others shelter arrangements, Each person simply observed alternative shelters, while making their own as comfortable and effective as possible. At the campsite, we also had to improvise with the materials at hand.

On the trip, when the subject of road user behaviour and planet-friendly transportation came up. It struck me that to have an informed discussion, you really have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, before you critique things from your own perspective.

Thanks for the flexibility insights and the adventure guys!

Simon

The Power of One

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Think-tank charities typically advocate for reform, to influence decision making at government level.

Some nations (the US, France and the UK) appreciate the role independent think-tank charities have to play, both domestically and to help them evolve their foreign policies. Others including Japan, China and Germany seem to encourage such charities efforts where they’re already aligned to current government policies.

What value do think-tank charities add and what can we take from their approach to help us in our own lives?

Some problems don’t get solved by simply scaling up the current effort. Look at the US involvement in the Vietnam war as a case in point. Simply putting more police on the streets of London, or widening the London congestion zone, won’t solve knife crime or decrease air pollution respectively. What think-tanks can do is apply fresh thinking and find the best leverage points to effect positive change.

Can we all be our own think-tank charities to effect the changes we want to see? It does require self belief (confidence). It also requires flexibility thinking. Being our own, personal, think-tank charities (the power of one) will challenge us to use fresh thinking alongside existing (tired and sub-optimal) solutions. A bit like keeping your existing tool box. But adding more tools that can help with other DIY jobs. Half the job is the reflection & fresh approaches. The other half is the advocacy action taken.

Food for thought?
Simon

What flexibility can do

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Flax, nikau palms and cabbage tree fronds to the Maori people of New Zealand are what bamboo is to the peoples of South East Asia i.e. a wonder material.

The Maori used flax fronds to weave fishing lines, rope, make mats, clothing items, lash decorative housing panels together and even as a fibrous fish hook to catch eels with. Meanwhile In Europe, it was stripped into fibres and woven into linen to make fine clothes.

The flax plant is lean and tough, yet thrives in windy conditions because it has no rigid stem. Even cabbage trees, with a flax clump at the ends of long bendy trunks, break up the wind and with leaves of minimal thickness that present little side resistance.

Translated into our personal and professional lives, if the winds represent change and buffet us without warning, what can the humble flax plant teach us about being more flexible?

Working as a group of leaves disrupts the force of the wind. The leaves deflect some wind, shedding some along the length of the leaves – the direction in which the leaf is strongest. As families, or as work teams, we can do the same with some forces of change. The ‘lengths’ of our skills allow us to shed some of the ‘wind’. Or use it to our advantage, blasting away troublesome pests.

We can take design inspiration from the flax plant too – a strong base and lean leaves to give integrity. Shiny in all weathers. Projecting in all directions and able to shelter smaller creatures. A toughness and benefit that even survives the death of a leaf.

Finally, the flax leaves have so many uses because of their strength combined with their flexibility. If we choose to develop both things together, personal and professional versatility should result.

Simon

Exchange, acquire and shed

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Boredom can occur when we cannot or won’t seek out change. Or when we grow impatient waiting for something (passive boredom). Regarding the first type of boredom, a certain amount of repetition is reassuring. Too much just frustrates and exhausts us (active boredom).

In the workplace, boredom likely explains quite a bit of tense workplace interaction, job hopping and sub-optimal activity – the saying ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’ springs to mind.

Outside the workplace, because of boredom, people become activists (not the only reason they become activists). Others gamble, take drugs and alcohol for escapism, persecute others, change their image, watch reality TV, have affairs, or indulge in sports that provide an adrenaline rush.

Regardless of what makes us bored, our boredom has a threshold (limit) and we have an appetite (a capacity & desire) to avoid boredom. We also have varying levels of control over our ability to avoid boredom.

If boredom is commonplace, why do we let it remain the unspoken elephant in the room? Do we think talking about boredom makes us seem self-indulgent or powerless? In the workplace, do managers never talk about their teams being bored, because it will indicate they hired the wrong people? And can’t find enough productive things for them to do?

Presumably for each of us, our boredom threshold varies by activity, by what kind of day we had before the repetition. By our level of familiarity with the repetition. By the level of compensation for the boredom endured. And whether we suffer the repetition alone, or in good company.

To make boredom more pleasant, we can try to control the repetition or the wait, using personal flexibility.

Returning to the title of this blog, exchange involves exchanging one king of repetition for another. At an aerobics class, instead of doing exercise in silence (and by ourselves), we dance to the music as a group. As WordPress bloggers, we produce a series of (hopefully) interesting blogs. Yet it’s just as important to appreciate the series produced by others too- we learn something by producing our own. Yet grow more as individuals by paying attention to what others have to say too.

Acquire includes obtaining options in advance, that give you the freedom to change the form or timing of the repetition. Options include controlling the speed of the repetitions. Or creating options that intersperse the repetitions with more exciting interludes.

Shed means develop flexibility to avoid the wait, convert it into productive time, avoid the repetitions. Or leverage them into something bigger. Ironically, our minds make us bored.  Yet our minds are the key to our personal flexibility too.

If you find these blogs interesting, feel free to recommend them to others.

Simon