Poverty of Ambition and Flexibility

‘We need to steer clear of this poverty of ambition, where people want to drive fancy cars and wear nice clothes and live in nice apartments but don’t want to work hard to accomplish these things. Everyone should try to realize their full potential.’ Barack Obama

This particular blog centres on personal flexibility (PFL) in business start-ups.

In my view, Obama was right, but greed and instant gratification aren’t the only forms of poverty of ambition. Some parents should want more for their children’s future too. And amongst small business start-ups, the goal might simply be:

  • grow the business to a point where you can sell it at a good profit. Or,
  • grow the business to a point where you can hire a manager to manage it. And then draw off a significant annual dividend, regardless of the profits or loses made in a given year.

The first approach hands the real potential of the business to the buyer. And leaves the seller retiring from business altogether.  Or ready to start over with another business venture. Which if at a different point in the economic cycle, or with different risks, may not succeed half as well as the first venture.

The second approach creates a lifestyle business. But without the ongoing investment to grow the business into something amazing.

For the owner of a small business start-up, it takes personal flexibility as well as courage (dare to dream), to overcome the poverty of ambition (PoA). To think bigger and become the best business model in the sector.

One step to overcome the PoA is to appoint business experts (business services accountants, management consultants, tax advisors, bankers and contract lawyers) who can ensure operating compliance with efficiency.  But also appoint the ones who can nudge the business towards best practice in that sector, regardless of how best practice is changing. An implication is that the business professionals and the business owner need to know and agree what best practice looks like. On this, best practice isn’t just about operating efficiency or customer relationship management. But business strategy too.

This blogger can briefly share one story contrasting operating compliance with efficiency. It concerned a London-based organisation, setting up a new office in continental Europe, where English isn’t an official language (on government forms). Contacting legal and accounting professionals in the local jurisdiction was an obvious and early step. What was surprising was the lack of an efficient process to help set up the offshore office in short order. The goal of the business advisors, both legal & accounting, was simply to provide compliance, not efficiency (their own poverty of ambition).

A second example was a recent conversation with a seasoned business services accountant working in a large chartered accounting firm in the UK. He remarked on the general poverty of ambition (not his exact words) amongst his client base of small business start-ups, across a range of sectors. My response was as outlined in this blog. His follow-on reaction was interest – it chimed with what his partners were telling him about developing higher value-added services for the clients. And he said his intention was now to clarify best practice in each client sector.

Mental agility (process, style and skill at jumping paths) as well as other forms of personal flexibility (creating new paths) are needed to overcome the poverty of business ambition. Obtaining real options early in the journey of business growth, should provide business flexibility to manage uncertainty. And achieve more sustainable earnings growth too.

A final thought on personal flexibility in business. If the goal is to build an enduring, value-for-money brand, one that will outlast the lifetime of the business founder, then improving personal flexibility (greater imagination, appetite for success and openness to changing the business model to adapt to new conditions) and business flexibility (acquiring options, building extra capacity, investing in flexiscribes) is needed to cope with the change & uncertainty issues that will challenge business sustainability.

If you find these blogs useful, please spread the word for others to read them and comment too.

Simon

Thinking Flexibly

You hear a lot these days about the need for businesses to pivot quickly and be agile. Use agile techniques to develop software, or run projects. Be lean. Be observant. Watch for opportunity. Be bold and creative. The same applies in sports, to win the game.

There is a lot of online coverage relating to physical flexibility. Aerobics classes, yoga, pilates, tai chi, martial arts. The Olympics. World Cup football and rugby. Golf and tennis events. Fitness trials. Marathons, Iron man and other endurance events. But what about the mental side?

Creating personal and business flexibility both involve thinking flexibly and practising mental agility (MA). But what’s the difference?

Thinking flexibly is heavy on design – creating more avenues and pathways. Can we tunnel or fly instead? Rather than continue the journey, can we influence the other party to come to us instead? Can we send someone in our place? In a progress review, how do we solve or redefine the problem we’ve encountered? 

Mental agility is about process and style – having regular progress reviews. Jumping pathways well and picking when to jump (timing). Calculating, applying, comparing, prioritising. How do I verify the information? What needs more testing? Can I inspire the team to reach for their best? Will some humour lighten the mood? Should I change my communication style for the audience.

One timely illustration of the difference is the Brexit debate in the UK at present. If more ‘thinking flexibly’ had occurred at prior to the voter referendum back in 2016, the process and style aspects (mental agility needed to avoid a ‘hard Brexit’ outcome), wouldn’t be so terrible now.

Thinking flexibly includes:

  • radiating outwards from one concept to multiple applications.
  • oscillating between possibility and feasibility.
  • blending logic and emotion (head and heart).
  • selecting amongst personal life experiences (the ‘school of hard knocks’), advice we received and taught concepts.

Thinking flexibly also includes self-challenge (making new paths). Because often, fresh thinking is needed to solve tired problems.

  • thinking of a first solution, then continuing to think of other solutions, before selecting the best one.
  • thinking laterally (de Bono style).
  • seeking out analogies that might help.
  • reasoning in new situations, where reliable data isn’t yet available.
  • deliberately looking beyond the herd (established patterns), to search for the interesting outliers and anomalies.

For someone facing a situation of conflicting views, or multiple versions of the truth, other than staying in denial, what options are there:

  • Gather more facts. Parents do this when two of their children have opposite stories. A real-life business problem faced by this blogger involved a new computer system creating phantom financial entries. Initially it wasn’t clear whether this was a staff-training problem. Or a software system bug. Or both. What to do? Talk to the (software) experts. Survey a range of people (users or witnesses) who have encountered the problem before. Do some testing (simulations, role-play or trials) to gather more information. Independently verify the data.  Perhaps coax the experts to develop new theories, if their existing explanations don’t ring true.
  • Develop new theories or new approaches yourself. These may put apparent conflict into a cohesive setting. An example of this was used in science to explain the behaviour of light.  To elaborate, scientists created two concurrent models – a particle model and a wave model of light that together explained what they observed. Another science example is how atomic theory explains two apparently opposing behaviours – physical material expansion when heat is applied (e.g. water into steam say).  But how the physical volume that ice occupies, contracts when heated from zero to four degrees Celsius at sea level atmospheric pressure.
  • Become comfortable and skilled at juggling multiple, concurrent things. For example, apply your existing skills (as an board member, volunteer, mentor or parent say), while learning new things in real time, as a novice. Achieve relationship compromises (if there are clashes in values, varying levels of enthusiasm, or different priorities arising between the team members). But set limits and practice ‘tough love’ as well. Take a rational approach.  But also trust your instincts. Choose to remain the student, even when you think you have become the master. On the later, keep asking ‘why’ questions, including about any anomalies & exceptions discovered. Keep asking yourself ‘is it still relevant’, since theory and practice seldom stand still. Arguably, the only way to be a true master is by permanently remaining a student – committing to constant improvement.  Even while practicing as a relative master. Some areas where this is particularly true are parenthood, leadership & management.  Each is a lifelong challenge to master!

Are there any interesting examples of physical flexibility partnered up with mental agility? Jazz improvisation amongst a group of accomplished musicians is probably one good example of this. Where the music is going is unpredictable and changing at a rapid rate. Instrument flexibility and concentration is needed to create a harmonious but creative result. Fighter pilots staying in flying formation at speed are another example.

Are there any interesting examples of thinking flexibly, partnered up with physical agility? Emergency services workers encountered a mass-casualty situation with a series of challenging environmental constraints are an example.

How does thinking flexibly related to personal flexibility (PFL) more generally?

Part of mastering PFL includes thinking flexibly (building options). Other aspects include managing existing risks. And building spare capacity ‘for a rainy day’.

Perhaps the definition of a FL student is the person who knows about flexibility.  But doesn’t practice it. The FL convert is someone who links established options to situations and then decides & acts. In contrast, the FL master is someone who manufactures options (ideas and real options) for situations, generating more as required. FL masters who are financial budget holders are one example. They are encouraged to form one view and outcome.  Yet use FL as a tool to secure the best outcome, regardless of the budget that was set and approved.

Some people seek out variety, perhaps to fulfil a basic human need. Food lovers, party goers and veteran travellers all seek exciting new places and sensory experiences. They probably wonder if there is a better experience just around the corner.  Slightly out of view.  Meanwhile, fashionistas, artists and performers chase more sublime forms of human expression & recognition. Each group seems willing to embrace personal flexibility as a means to an end. However, although being open to opportunity is a great example of PFL (Jim Carey’s character in the movie ‘Yes Man’), using personal FL well is the thing that builds confidence.

What are some other personal flexibility approaches?

  • Remain flexible by changing the angle of view. Some famous drawings exhibit 2 images, simply by re-looking at the image outlines differently. The Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher was a case in point.
  • Reframe the problem, emphasising options and choices. For example, looking for another job while simultaneously doing your best in the current role.
  • Reward ingenuity and audacity – ‘yes we can!’
  • Grab opportunities as they arise. For example, a new employee could strive to set a new high standard of work. With the aim of changing internal roles to become an internal trainer. Likewise, someone arriving at a social gathering and realising there is no suitable food for young children, or no soft drinks for the designated driver, could use one of the relatively new food delivery services such as Uber Eats, to order a fast delivery directly to that event venue.
  • Accept that the experience gathered on a journey, may be as important as the destination reached. Frank Sinatra apparently once said ‘I’d rather show you my scars, than my medals.’
  • Don’t remind yourself to think outside the box. Tell yourself there is no box!
  • Zoom in and stand back from a problem, for perspective and to see wider patterns. For example, a motion-sensor, high-speed strobe camera, a drone-mounted video-camera and a wall-mounted CCTV-camera can each record the same events. But in very different ways.

If you find these blogs useful, please spread the word for others to read them and comment too.

Simon

Personal Flexibility (PFL) Calling

‘A flexible mind has a better chance to think differently and take a unique path in the life journey.’ Pearl Zhu

Have you seen the Jim Carey movie ‘Yes Man’ (2008, Warner Bros)? I thought it was a great idea to base a movie on, back when it came out. Essentially, the movie’s message is that by embracing the power of yes (being more flexible) in our personal lives, we can be happier, both in our personal and professional lives.

Perhaps the best gateways we encounter in life are those that shimmer & sparkle with possibility – career choices, lifestyle choices, parenthood, new friendships, important event invitations, romantic encounters, volunteer roles as leadership opportunities. The chance to work in another country. The chance to embark on a business start up.

Perhaps also, the best people to trust in life are the ‘type P’s for which it is a risk to trust them – type P’s being a small risk with big possibilities. Not ‘type R’s’ – a big risk with small possibilities. The trick is first finding them. And then distinguishing between the two types.

A question for you: in our lives, should we try and have high hopes, but low expectations? What’s your view?

And how does having high hopes but low expectations relate to personal flexibility? Perhaps the best chance for personal happiness & success, is to be flexible on hope. Be thorough in your preparation. Be skilful in your follow through too. But remain rigid & low in your expectations? The military have an acronym for it – snarfu!

Some everyday examples of personal flexibility:

  • When some people step outside their front door, they carry clothing for different weather conditions.
  • Some people sacrifice and save money ‘for a rainy day’. And may use a savings account (or piggy bank) with flexible access, for the same reason.
  • Parents tell their children to study hard & gain qualifications. Ones that will be valued by more than one employer.
  • People reserve their judgement when they meet strangers.
  • Some people commit to things one step at a time, to ‘keep their options open’.
  • Some people store up political favours or wealth, as a form of future insurance.
  • Some people prize physical flexibility, perhaps indulging in dance, yoga, gymnastics or martial arts.
  • People move cities or countries, hoping to take advantage of job opportunities in other locations.
  • People adjust their mode of living as their needs change. For example, as a child or teenager, living with their parents. Living in student-share accommodation while studying At university. Living in a shared flat while starting their career. Living in nuclear-family accommodation to raise a family. Downsizing their accommodation needs when the children leave home. Moving into a care home when needing supervised care.
  • People date strangers. They simultaneously try to present their best side, meet in a public place and ‘try on different potential partners for size.’
  • Adventurous people seek out other places to experience other cultures and value systems.
  • Some wealthy old people delay making a bequest. When tactfully asked by fundraisers why they delay, they reply ‘I might change my mind’.
  • Close-knit communities create food stockpiles, seed stores and water wells, to cope with supply shortages or uncertain future weather conditions.
  • Some communities create time capsules, music, dance, drama, museums, written diaries, film and photographs. They see this as a way to preserve their cultural identity in an uncertain world.
  • We populate the planet with ever more people to preserve and enhance human society. Just in case.

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In short, flexibility isn’t a novel concept. We’ve been practising it and paying lip service to it for years! What is new, or at least overdue, is creating a framework for both personal & business flexibility. And some new language about flexibility the subject. Long overdue in my view.

Enough for now. If you find these blogs useful, please spread the word for others to read them and comment too.

Simon