Carry on thinking


I thought I’d said all I could say on my last blog post about my extended sense-making on:

  • how work’s changing,
  • what it means for skills
  • how to practice those skills through experience and conversation.

But no. I’ve decided to use this post to pull together the threads of other bits that I’ve been summarising – hope you find it useful.  p.s. It’s turned into more of an article than a blog post – it’s quite long.

Nine High-Performance Principles

I see nine high performance principles emerging from scanning research, management literature, and from conversations and experience – the lessons learned that I wrote about in Ten things I’ve learned so far are incorporated within the principles.

So what? How could you use the principles?

1) Use them as the basis for dialogue and formulating questions for shared inquiry on your own work context. How are they relevant to you? What sort of shape are your capabilities and support systems in? What needs to change?

2) Do something about it. Scope a project to do something new, different or for the first time – and use the experience to learn and develop new skills.

Dig down into the research, case studies, stories, videos or whatever content underpins each principle. Use the insights to start your thinking, to inspire and to inform what you intend to do. Use content like this to spark off your own creative ideas, or use it to gather support for what you are trying to do – see Content as Fire Starter for an example.

Apply it in a just-in-time way, when you need it. Interrogate what you’re reading or watching: just because something worked for someone else doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. Who’s telling you what, why – and what are they not telling you?

Approaching the project

Yes I know that ‘mission-critical’ projects typically mean that you have to dive in and just get started, often with no prior experience and fly by the seat of your pants. And the challenge to the sort of exploratory projects that I’m suggesting is lack of time and the fact that everyone’s exhausted.

But how else are we going to get off the tread mill of doing the same things, increasingly to no effect as the world changes? We need to make time to play and experiment. This gives us new insights and raises our energy levels. Bit of a win all round, for people and ultimately for the business and its customers.

And again, yes – there are jobs where continuous attention to what you’re doing makes the idea of playful experimentation laughable. For people who are able to find the time or who have the energy to do it in their own time, I’ve put together a diagnostic framework to help scope an experimental project and use the experience to practice new skills.

High Performance Framework

You could use the diagram to do a first-cut, ‘big picture’ look at your business context as the first stage in putting together a project / learning plan. What risks do you and your colleagues see? What competitive, technological, regulatory, financial or labour market trends are impacting on the business – and how might they affect project outcomes?

The next iteration is getting down to specifics, going around the diagram again and the outcome being the skeleton of an action / learning plan.

Who’s going to be involved – and what do you know about who they’re connected to? Do you have enough people with the right skills? Where are the barriers, who and what are the enablers, where are the intersections and boundaries, how will they be integrated? And a million other possible questions.

What follows is a mapping of the nine high-performance principles onto the overlapping and interacting elements of the diagram.


Purpose is deliberately in the centre because everything else should flow from it – it’s all about customer focus. Unsurprisingly then, the principle most associated with purpose is Organise for Customer Focus.  This is about understanding customers, what they need, and how to organise work to meet their expectations. This means organising work around innovation as everyone’s business, knowledge-sharing, integrating, autonomy and adaptability.


All of the nine principles are about people, really – but four in particular apply and they are:

Master motives

This principle is about what leaders need to know to satisfy intrinsic motivation needs – their own and the people they are trying to influence – especially deep “yearning for learning” and to be socially connected. That means understanding how performance environments and cultures can enable or stifle intrinsic motivation.

Equally important, and probably more so, are skills in discerning what might be at the root of what motivates us in our behaviour towards each other – for example positive and negative exercise of power, what determines whether we collaborate or engage in negative conflict, the influence of cultural expectations, or how and why we form alliances. And so on.

Lead from the side

This principle is about leading through example, being inclusive, and listening rather than through command and control. Dialogue, persuasion and influence are now the order of the day.

Ride the rapids

The title of this principle is inspired by hearing Jim Balsillie, ex –CEO of RIM, comparing business to white water rafting. Rocks suddenly appear in front of you, even when everyone is pulling together and managing to keep the boat upright and heading in the right direction. And he should know.

How can you make anything happen when things are so fluid and unpredictable? And when there are so many obstacles in the way? And when so many people in the business are risk-averse and determined to preserve the status quo?

Complexify yourself – and others

This principle is related to Ride the Rapids. What this means is that as work becomes more socially, technically and culturally complex as a result of rapid change on many fronts, you and your colleagues’ skills need to be up to the job of dealing with complexity and uncertainty as a normal state of affairs. What new skills are you going to have to acquire?


Processes are the outcomes of inter-linked behaviours and what people do together. Performance systems – information, rewards, rules, procedures etc – influence how processes emerge. The next two principles address issues that appear widespread in many organisations.

Challenge the status quo

Risk-aversion is rife and the pull of the status quo is strong. This principle is about thinking and acting differently – asking questions, thinking critically, daring to disagree, learning the art of enquiry and using metaphors.

Uncover value

To my mind, the biggest waste in many organisations is overlooked knowledge and capabilities. This principle is about nurturing a culture of knowledge-sharing, in the process revealing and encouraging hidden talent.


The physical workplace plays an increasingly critical role in how knowledge is discovered, co-created and shared.

Orchestrate serendipity

This principle is related to Uncover value. It’s about creating conditions for informal learning opportunities through chance encounters and conversation. Physical workplaces are increasingly important as places to bump into each other, meet, talk and learn together. We can do this online but we still crave face-to-face contact.

Plus we need to have focused conversations to surface, shape and share abstract thoughts. Workplaces are where we refine our partially formed ideas, revealing them to others, and sparking off each other’s thoughts and energy. We can display our work-in-progress for others to see.


The final principle, Use your ignorance, is about trying to adopt a mindful, experimental approach to work and learning. We can’t know everything – especially when change is so rapid. So we need to act and learn together, learn from each other and be prepared to admit that we don’t have a clue. And that we nevertheless need to get on with it.


Then do something. Anything. As Euan Semple says, don’t have a clear idea of where you are headed, keep moving, stay in touch, and head for the high ground. And carry on thinking.

What else can I say? That really is it.

p.p.s. I saw the Cookie Monster on a wall in Brick Lane in London. His somewhat manic expression perfectly matches how much my brain hurts after all that thinking. Plus he just makes me laugh.

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