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Five Steps to Help You Reach Your Potential

This is an edited version of a post I first wrote for HSBC Bank, primarily for their small business customers. I was asked to write about a few things that I’m doing to help make work productive and enjoyable. I hope you will find something useful here too.

1 Be open to possibilities

In business as in life, there is no right or wrong, there is right and wrong. Absolutes are rarely the answer, and we are never in as much danger of being wrong as when we are sure we are right. At that point, just remember that all your other options go out of the window. Be mindful of the possibilities, and open to the reality of not knowing what comes next. You can plan for the future, but you cannot predict it. I am just like you. I am sometimes right, sometimes wrong. I rarely know which is which and I reserve the right to change my mind.

2 Take care of your body and mind

Never underestimate the power of a short walk to clear your mind or gather your thoughts.
Never underestimate the importance of a decent lunch break, with decent food.
Never underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep.

Health and wellbeing are essential – if you are not in good shape, neither is your business. And for me, part of wellbeing is about remembering to be you, not someone else. Apple, Google, Ikea and Accenture are current successful businesses, which have become successful by being themselves. I don’t think the point of going into business is to be like them. What works for them may not work for you. Be yourself.

3 Take risks and experiment

A small business should be agile. The ability to adapt and experiment should be one of your key strengths. After all, you don’t have layers and layers of well-meaning, yet restrictive bureaucracy, do you? No you don’t, so take advantage of that. A key competitive advantage should be your ability to respond quickly. In my role as a consultant to much bigger businesses, I make responsiveness a principle of my work. Let me give you an example.

I ran two business development events for a client, and after the events, I prepared the post-event summary: words, pictures and charts, all drafted and turned around in double-quick time. The speed of response was intended to help extend the post-event half life – and to prevent that inexorable enthusiasm decay that comes after the high of being together and co-creating new work ideas together. As a result of the quick turnaround, people were able to suggest tweaks and improvements while the ideas were still fresh in their minds, and a small group of people formed who were willing to take these ideas to the next level. The result? Stuff got done.

When we extended the project to a third location, I was asked to cut costs. I offered the client the option to dispense with the immediate post-event summary for a small reduction in fees. They accepted, and it subsequently took the client more than a month to process the post event summary, by which time day-to-day work, and the pull of the familiar had got the best of most people. The enthusiasm and action we made use of at the first two events failed to materialise on the third occasion, at least to the same extent. Could we be certain the delay was responsible for this? Not entirely of course, but we were in agreement that it didn’t help.

Did the client really ‘save’ anything from this exercise? I’m not convinced they did, and subsequently we agreed that I would revert to preparing that initial speedy response. I learned three useful things from this experience:

  • Don’t cut your price, reshape your service
  • Sometimes you have to let something go to get it back
  • Always be willing to experiment – we didn’t resist the client request and we all learned form trying a different approach.

4 Aim for “Flow” rather than work life balance

Working in a big business often means sticking to traditions like nine to five and wearing a tie, regardless of whether or not these traditions actually help you do better work. In your smaller business, these traditions don’t have to be compulsory. Be where you need to be, when you need to. Wear what you need to wear, when you need to.

A lot of people talk about the importance of work-life balance, and I’m not a fan. Balance is a tough thing to achieve – try standing on one leg for a while. Stay standing on one leg and start reciting multiplication tables. Now keep those things going and shut your eyes. If you are still with me, the chances are most of you will have fallen over by now. Balance is tough. Instead, think of your life as having flow.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

So when I’m talking with you, I’m attentive, listening and contributing. I’m not playing with my crackberry (do they still have those?) or staring out of the window pondering my next appointment. If I’m writing something, then my email application is closed. So are my social media channels. I’m focused on writing this, now, for you. And if and when I do start to run out of steam, I take a break.

5 Think about your direction of travel

Having a plan matters. Often I see people invest huge amounts of time and effort into planning, and I’m not convinced they get a good return on their investment. I think there are three reasons for this:

  • Things change quickly
  • We are not very good at predicting the future
  • We get wedded to things we invest heavily in and so are reluctant to change, even when we’re not convinced the plan is working anymore.

What I find works better is this:

  • Have a direction of travel. For example, I help people increase business performance by improving their ability to collaborate. Is what I am doing moving me and my customers along that journey? If it is, I’m not too worried about timescales, if it isn’t, then why am I doing it?
  • Be adaptive. I like using the Business Model Canvas as a planning tool. It is simple to use and quick, and you can use it as a framework to evaluate your whole business, or a particular product or idea.
  • Introduce unpredictability. I find it helps to be open to possibilities and to expect the unexpected. In support of this, I use a set of cards which contain a random set of thoughts and ideas. When I get stuck, I just draw from the cards, and change tack depending on what the card says. It might encourage me to reach out for help via a phone call, or sketch out that problem I’m having, in order to see it differently, or go for a walk to clear my head. The point is that I get snapped out of my rut and often return to the opportunity refreshed and with renewed vigour.

What have I missed? If there’s something you’d like to share about how you’re making work better, feel free to drop a note in the comments section, thanks.

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