Boundaries that create distance

Some boundaries help you stay sane – the ones between your house and your neighbours. The earphones to screen out noise/help you enjoy your favourite tunes. The limits you set to get a work-life balance.

Some boundaries protect you – the shoe soles between you and sharp things on the ground. The fence around the bull paddock. The ozone layer around Plant Earth.

Then there are boundaries that create distance. The summarised themes from research surveys. The extra layers we put into an organisation’s hierarchy. The times when we sit on the fence and don’t take sides.

Sitting on the fence can delay things. It can help defuse tensions in the short term. It can acknowledge the good points on both sides (assuming there are only two sides and two clear choices). But in the same way it literally raises the height on the barrier, it also doesn’t enable forward progress. What it can do is create emotional distance by building resentment and frustration. It also doesn’t build respect.  Unless the fence sitter is very good at justifying why they decided to fence sit. 

If you’re going to loose respect by making the wrong decision (at work, or in your personal life), at least some people will give you credit for acting (trial and error) and making a decision without perfect information. 

Fences are uncomfortable to sit on and eventually the fence crumbles under the weight. Is it worth it? Be sure to weigh your options carefully.


Risk management and life

Should we start every activity with a quick risk assessment? For the things where we are consciously or unconsciously-competent already, we likely do it almost automatically and so fast, we hardly notice the risk assessment step at all. 

Ironically, the more serious we get in a relationship with a romantic partner, the more our heart dominates, but the more our head should dominate, since the stakes keep rising.

Then we buy new technology that does some risk assessments for us. Two problems to watch out for are (1) that in our increasing reliance on technology we don’t understand, means we skip out of the practice of doing risk assessment ourselves and (2) if we didn’t ourselves design the technology, it’s harder to discover its inherent limitations, including in doing risk assessment for our needs.

The more novel the new situation (including how new technologies will interact together), the less we can apply familiar ‘old school’ risk assessments to it. Our imagination and our instincts then start to play a dominant role. 

As our life-experience builds, it can go either way – some people become more creative and visionary (think of successful chefs, surgeons, film makers or architects). Others loose their skills to envision unique and novel results. They retreat within the boundaries of the familiar and get labelled ‘conservative’. 

Part of good risk management is realising that we have to move forward and design successful futures using both vision and self-drive. 

There has to be a plan for multiple future scenarios – a ‘plan for all seasons’. Being single. Being in a relationship. Being healthy and not disabled. Suffering a setback – physical, emotional or financial. Losing our partner at any point. 

We need to keep building up relationships generally – putting deposits in the goodwill bank, regardless of whether others are doing it themselves. And not let the change forced upon us to paralyse our actions. Or our confidence to cope. 

Experts tell us that practice makes perfect. However, we can’t practice to create a ‘perfect’ life.  We can practice to minimise the imperfections, randomness and mistakes in our life. And enjoy the ‘rustic’ settings, heart-felt relationships and uncluttered simplicity in the meantime. 


Handling repeat setbacks versus handling one large set back

Studies show we behave differently in a repeat game compared to a single interaction game. Our ethics might be different. Our level of politeness may be different. Or our tactics and goals might be different.  It’s the same with setbacks. Setbacks typically come in two types, so when they happen, we should first recognise which type of setback we’re encountering. And take heart from knowing we’ve already faced off other setbacks in the same category. And lived to tell the tale. 

What are some examples of each type? 

Type 1 (many small setbacks)

  • Getting a series of small training injuries, as we try and get fitter.
  • Having a series of minor embarrassments, as we become more aware and wiser.
  • Suffering a series of micro aggressions that relate to bullying or discrimination.
  • Suffering minor physical discomfort, as we adjust to the changing seasons. Or getting older.
  • Suffering a series of economic hardships, as we encounter changing political priorities, changes to the global economy and changes in social values.
  • Handling sporadic credit failures/overdraft fees, small financial penalties or job rejections.
  • Having to make a series of small improvisations and accommodations to cope with the unfamiliar e.g. parenthood.

Type 2 (one large set back)

  • Encountering one major injury or illness.
  • Suffering one big betrayal from a trusted friend.
  • Suffering a major discrimination experience.

How we view setbacks is complicated. With a series of small setbacks, they can prompt us to gradually change our character. Or prompt us to keep our core intact, as they batter our surface. With one large setback, we can use it to radically change our plans and behaviours. Or choose to keep our core intact, while we rebuild our surface layer.

The first steps to personal resilience are arguably about safety and reflection. We should try and see the positive side of any set back (when someone gives you a lemon make lemonade) and take the time to learn from it. We should expect that there will be type 1 and type 2 setbacks occurring throughout our lives. And occurring unevenly too. Sometimes several at once.

One important thing is realising that to boost your personal resilience, it helps to increase your personal flexibility to handle both types (one large setback v many small setbacks). 

Increasing your personal flexibility may mean managing your pride better, making contingency plans, making some true confessions to yourself, maintaining self-belief and understanding the sources of flexibility that you can exploit.


Being too proud?

‘Pride comes before a fall’, so the saying goes. Perhaps it should be re-stated ‘complacency comes before a fall’? Pride is also listed as one of the seven deadly sins.

For some, pride is a tree trunk sitting above their identity (their national, gender, or ethnic roots?) and the scaffolding for their self-expression. The trouble is, if the ‘tree trunk’ is too rigid and the ‘winds’ too strong, the link between roots and self-expression get severed, or at least damaged severely. That can’t be good.

Everyone needs a certain amount of pride to function and stay resilient. But none of us should be too proud to ask for help, admit mistakes, or be unable to surrender a bit of pride, to get something bigger in return (think of parenthood or siblinghood). 

Lastly, to boost your personal resiliency, think of pride more like a currency you hold, so others don’t see it like a cross you bear.


Commitment versus Cutting Your Losses

When is the best time to handle loss?


Investors put a stop-loss in place. Policy makers put ceiling and floor limits on future activity. Engineers design pressure values. People choose an engagement period and sign pre-nuptial agreements, before they get married. Insurance companies design cover contracts & premiums, after first assessing probability of claim & likely claim amount. Public health agencies vaccinate populations to prevent epidemics.


Insurance assessors & claims handlers limit their firm’s liability to reimburse for loss. Firefighters prioritise saving lives over fire control. People urgently call in favours owed, to minimise further damage. A&E medics act to stabilise patient injuries in the short term. Before more comprehensive surgery takes place at a later date. Battered wives seek refuge, to escape a dangerous conflict.


Politicians spin losses into non losses, to minimise political damage. Estate lawyers, funeral directors & therapists help grieving relatives deal with loss. Gardeners prune and dead-head plants after blooming. People sever their relationships, when they discover unhealth character attributes. Builders & decorators repair actual house damage, after a hurricane or flood.

In other words, a ‘horses for courses’ approach to loss applies.

When do you put a value on losses?

When you recognise type of loss. And when you can value such loss, with a reasonable degree of certainty.

For ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ situtions e.g. vaccination programmes, it tends to be beforehand. For ‘saving the World one person at a time’ type situations, it tends to be during, or after actual loss is encountered. ‘Tends to be’ doesn’t mean exclusively. But ‘tends to be’ is perhaps a guide on the ideal approach.

Customised approaches can work well, for ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ situations. And clearly work well for ‘saving the World one person at a time’ situations, where every encounter may be different.

Does the loss-handling approach depend on what view you take on how long the (expected or actual) losses will endure for? Should you stick to the plan or get out early?

Ripples in a pond may radiate with enough force to erode the edges of the pond. The backwash of water draining back into the pond can cause further erosion. As can cross-ripple effects. If you are an insurance company, selling loss of profits insurance to a client and a pandemic, stock market crash or banking credit crunch suddenly cripples that client’s industry, the ripples will fly in all directions, for an unknown period. Possibly followed by extra shocks causing fresh primary ripples. The solution for the client is not to mitigate such risk using insurance cover alone. Instead, become resilient to multiple kinds of external shock. And multiple kinds of shock hitting at once. That is a recipe for sustainability. And ‘last man standing’ growth too.


Organisational Resilience

Organisational Resiliency – 7 questions

If the future is highly uncertain, how important is resiliency and what can you do to improve it? Being resilient arguably matters the most when the future is uncertain (in the UK, think of Covid & Brexit combined) – in biology, species survive change thanks in part to their genetic diversity.

As a small business or a budding entrepreneur, having resiliency (strength, bounce back, endurance) allows you to counteract trouble, or exploit opportunities – whether it’s turning ‘lemons into lemonade‘, or developing great ‘lemonade‘ for your thirsty customer base.

Meanwhile having action plans gets you out of immediate trouble and helps you capitalise on opportunities, whenever they present themselves.

Preparing an annual budget in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment is problematic, since its shelf life becomes incredibly short. Planning in VUCA environments , whether you’re a SME start-up or a large corporate becomes less about one annual budget. And more about scenarios, if/then protocols and rolling forecasts.

Having good business plans can convince investors, or commercial lenders to make your business more resilient to fluctuating cash flows too. Therefore, think of resiliency and plans as mutually-reinforcing things.

To be resilient as an organisation, where do you start? Starting with personal resilience is a great foundation. Developing self belief and developing a degree of self reliance, is as important as reaching for help when it’s available and accepting help when it’s offered. Sometimes when the shocks hit, all you can do is tactical adjustment and brace for impact. Try to take business complaints professionally not personally. Mostly, failure is a learning opportunity, not a death sentence! Personal ego and organisational resiliency are distant cousins who hate each other. Easily your most powerful & valuable business resiliency tool is your own brain – remind yourself and believe that you have the imagination to imagine-up a solution to a novel problem. And if you want a reality check on how people use their imagination, watch young children at play -creativity & resourcefulness at its best!

How is organisational resilience (OR) linked to business flexibility (BFL)? OR is part of something bigger – BFL. Business Flexibility includes: adaptability, resilience, agility and managing options. And Time Flexibility (buying time, playing for time or reinventing time) is also a great asset for business resiliency.

What can viruses teach us about organisational resilience? Viruses combine a simple, specialised structure with constant and dramatic innovation (jumping host species and mutating). The message for your business – keep it simple, but keep it innovative.

What growth is better for organisational resiliency – ladders or ramps?

Growth is a powerful force for resiliency. If you want steady business growth (ramp ascent), small efficiency improvement is trumped by step-change innovation (ladder ascent). Perhaps the ideal growth pathway is a succession of efficiency ramps then innovation ladders then efficiency ramps etc. And the agility to jump sideways from one ramp to another, or one ladder to another, when the opportunity arises.

How is organisational resilience related to organisational risk? Resilience is your ability to cope with various business risks arising. Step one is to evaluate the risks as openly & honestly as you can. Step Two is to think about how to become more resilient to those risks (better risk mitigations and more mitigations per risk).

What books can you recommend on this subject if I want to learn more?

Resilience – Emotional Intelligence. HBR Press 2017

Harvard Business Review on Managing Through a Downturn. 2009



Options versus Actions

The World is obsessed with actions. Stakeholders want them. Accountants value them. Politicians couldn’t survive without them.

In Physics, potential energy matters as much as kinetic energy. Employers hire potential, recognising that strength comes not just from proven action, but from having versatility under uncertain conditions. Astute buyers bypass one deal, knowing others will follow. Smart managers intuitively know the value of having options, whether accountants value them on the Balance Sheet or not.  Being light on your feet helps. But being able to exercise a portfolio of options AND pivot quickly is better.

Cultures progress because they’ve created options to evolve. A culture is visible in its actions – speeches about values, its spoken language, performing arts and time-honoured customs. But a culture’s strength comes from its resilience, adaptability, agility and how its representatives managing the options they make and hold. The Jewish people suffering in Nazi concentration camps endured, died and suffered. But the culture prevailed. The Jewish culture (including representation from deathcamp survivors) was easily strong and resourceful enough to outlast Nazi oppression.

For an SME business, developing a distinctive service or product is great. But flexibility promotes sustainability. Large, external shocks, whether global depressions, subprime credit crunches or virus pandemics will test fledgling businesses to the max. But those holding options will survive and prosper.

Therefore, both at a personal level and at a business start-up capacity, learn what you can about business flexibility (an umbrella term for resilience, adaptability, agility and options management). If only to improve your risk management practices.


Acting your age, not your shoe size?

We probably all know a few younger people who act old before their time. Not responsibly and maturely. But staid, conservative and self-limiting.  But how do older people stay young?

Some of the ways are to not think of retiring (ever), have friends in age-group-decades younger than yours, engage in sports & travel to new places and keep a good sense of humour.

Look after your boy (stay fit & supple) when you’re young, so your body will stay fit & health later in your life. And when you’re older, deliberately choose activities to keep you relatively fit & supple – gardening, dance, swimming, hiking, cycling and home DIY are some examples. Have reunions with old friends re-creating some activities you did in the past.

Appearance-wise, find a middle ground between being ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ and thinking you are celebrating retro, but looking like you walked out of a Victorian period movie! Also on the subject of balance, all your best memories of fun times shouldn’t be from twenty years ago, but instead, they should be from every decade of your life.

Don’t keep harking back to ‘the good old days’, which after all had both their good and bad points, just like today’s World. And try harder to remember what you’ve said to various people, so you don’t get a reputation for repeating yourself, something older people are prone to doing.

Mental dexterity is a big part of staying youthful too. As you become a twenty something, thirty something, middle-aged, or late middle-aged, keep learning new things. to shake up your neural pathways – my dad started learning new languages well into his seventies.

Take the road less travelled to sharpen up your adaptability and improvisation skills. Challenge yourself to entertain young children at family gatherings, since they’ll be bored to death hanging around the other adults, who are making zero effort to make it fun for them.


If you take photos, even on your smartphone, keep searching for new angles and compositions to make the pictures more interesting.

Having a mid-life crisis may be fashionable. But see it as just a passing phase in your longer journey to become a better person.

Stay up to date on technology & world politics. And always have at least one thing in your life that you’re rubbish at, but you’ve challenged yourself to improve on, bit by bit – it stops you feeling too comfortable and complacent.

Good luck!


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?


Expanding the base by expanding the sides of the triangle

How can you grow your personal flexibility?  Imagine a triangle, with personal flexibility (PF) as the base and the sides being personal innovation (PI) and personal efficiency (PE).  The area of the triangle represents personal impact (on people, on things and on the World generally). Now think a little more deeply about each of the sides.

Personal innovation is about consciously breaking out of your comfort zone. Taking a new approach that has a step-change impact. Reinventing yourself and your destiny. Training can improve technique. But creative problem-solving under (tight) constraints requires improvisation. Putting together what at first seems some some unlikely combinations. Adapting nature’s approaches to human problems. I once visited a river valley in Peru with an old stone quarry on one side and a stone temple on the other side and a large, deep river inbetween. How did the people move the big stone blocks across the river? They simply stacked them up on the river bank and then went upstream and dug a channel to divert the course of the river, so the blocks were already on the far side! Genius.

Personal efficiency is about time management and the race to get a good result. It increases as you put personal learning to good use faster. And when you can engineer your reputation to preceed you (doors open before you reach them). Practice in advance (role-play your interview responses to a safe audience before the actual interview). Anticipate and use intuitive leaps where you can.

Work on PI and PE together and you will have demonstrated personal flexibility in action (expanded the base of the triangle).

Food for thought?