When dependencies aren’t

What would you say if I asked you if you could drive a car without wheels? What about without a stereo or air-conditioning?

Have you ever caught yourself thinking something along these lines:
  • I’d love to contact that person but I don’t have a website
  • I could publish that book but I don’t have an established following
  • I could try to make some sales but I don’t have a product

Driving a car without wheels isn’t plausible. Driving a car long-distance without a stereo or some kind of climate control might be unpleasant but it’s definitely possible and opens up the potential for other rewards.

The trick is telling the difference.

A Hierarchy of Doing, Chapter 1: The Hierarchy of Purpose

Hi folks,

I’ve got to admit, I’m excited. This has been a LONG time coming. This post is a draft of the first chapter of a book I’ve been working on for many months (where working mostly equals thinking strongly about doing).

If you can sit through and read this (it’s not as long as you might think) I would love to have some feedback.

I don’t have illustrations yet and you’ll have to use your imagination with the case studies that need to be written. When it comes to the latter I will be looking for people with relevant stories who would like to contribute some of their wisdom to this book. If you’ve got a story to share please let me know.

Thanks for your time,

Why purpose? Why ‘why’? Why should we care about why we are doing things?
Hidden Truths
Let me start with a thought experiment. If you visit a member of your organisation and ask why they are working on a particular task, what do you think they might say? ‘Because I was told to’? ‘Because I’ve always done this’? ‘Because month end is coming up’?
How many times do you think you need to ask before someone says ‘to achieve X because of the team’s/department’s/organisation’s current goals/vision’.
That’s a mouthful, likely no-one will ever say that. But how many will think about how their tasks relate to the greater goals around them, yet alone choose to vocalise it.
It’s much easier to focus on what needs doing or how it should be done. The problem is that we achieve what we set out to achieve. So if we choose to focus on how something gets done, that is what will be optimised, potentially at the expense of the actual objective.
On the other hand, how often have you heard someone say something like ‘I want this moved from here to here’ when what they really want is improved production or maybe just a better view. By skipping the why and jumping straight to the what it’s possible to deliver exactly what was asked for and miss an opportunity to solve the real problem.
The Big Missing Picture
If people don’t know why they are undertaking their tasks it can result in a tug of war. Each person is pulling in their own direction, looking to fulfil their own objectives plus what they see as the greater organisation’s directives, to whatever degree they are motivated to uncover and follow them. This can lead to the analogy of a tug of war, or a rowing boat spinning in circles.
Making the objectives clear won’t guarantee that people will pull in the same direction (we are all individuals after all) but, vitally, it opens up the opportunity to go in a common direction.
Getting Aligned
Even better than ‘simply’ making sure that everyone understands the organisation’s goals is to hire people whose personal values and objectives are compatible. The more personal interests mesh with those of the organisation the lower the friction. It’s too late to start this with the current staff but it can help retain the right people.
The Bottom Line
In these days of Return on Investment and focus on the bottom line, getting aligned can be a hard-sell. Some might not see the benefit of super aligned teams. But how about sales?
‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’ – Simon Sinek.
Share the reasons for your organisation’s existence. What does it stand for? What does it hope to achieve? Get your message out there and you can find customers.
Why is Purpose First?
Out of the triumvirate of purpose, practices and projects why is purpose the first chapter?
A Compass
I believe that Purpose should be the rudder, the North Star and the Oracle. In case of doubt of approach or selection of tasks or projects, the organisation’s vision and goals should provide direction. It should guide all other decisions be it in the domain of marketing, recruitment, product development, investment or human resources.
It’s not so much that by considering Purpose first every other decision will automatically fall into place; it’s not that easy. It’s more to say that this will minimise later decisions falling out of place.
The Head of the Family
This is almost the same statement as the one above but I think it’s worth repeating. The hierarchy of doing will be introduced later but suffice to say for now that Purpose belongs at the top. As in any good hierarchy, all other things (Practices and Projects) below the top derive and depend on it and feed information back up to the top.
[[An illustration would be awesome here]]
The Hierarchy of Purpose
What do I mean by ‘Purpose’ anyway?
I see Purpose, with a capital P as a hierarchy. At the very top of the hierarchy sits the vision. This represents what the organisation stands for, why it exists. This might be a noble goal like saving the world or curing cancer. The goal might be selfish: the organisation might only exist to make money (in this day and age that seems sadly likely). Most likely it will be something in between.
To an extent it doesn’t matter what the vision is (legal and moral issues notwithstanding) as long as it is honest. It can be tempting to fake a vision but ultimately that will only lead to issues. Better off not having a vision at all than being false about it.
The vision could be a simple statement or a composite. I would suggest though that if people can’t easily hold the whole vision in memory or repeat it without relying on rote then it should be simplified. It behoves the organisation to facilitate the deep understanding and integration of the vision into its members minds (and hearts if you can manage it).
While open to change the vision will be largely static. The vision doesn’t have to be achievable. In some ways I think it’s better if it isn’t. On the other hand, it has to be something that can be worked towards. It should be possible to show progress towards the vision, and that’s where goals fit in.
Where the vision holds the top of the hierarchy of purpose, goals fill up the middle. Unlike the vision, goals should be achievable. They might also be temporary, replaced as they are achieved, or due to the influence of external conditions, or following direction changes. Sometimes there will be a blurry line between the vision and the goals. That’s fine, as long as a definite decision is made: there is no right answer, only what fits.

Just as the vision is broken up into goals, goals may themselves be divided into sub-goals.
Objectives can be found at the lowest points of the hierarchy. There is a very fine continuum between goals and objectives. Objectives are simply concrete and temporary goals.
[[Time for another illustration]]
Footer for illustration –
Each objective forms part of one or more goals and each goal applies to one or more constituents of a higher-ranked goal or the vision itself. Looking at it from the other direction, the vision is broken down into multiple goals and each goal is then potentially broken down into multiple goals and objectives.
Drawing the Lines
If you prefer definite lines and definitions here’s one possible way to look at the hierarchy, through the lens of SMART (if you’re not familiar with that term a quick internet search for ‘SMART objectives’ should do the trick). The vision is Specific (and potentially Measurable). Goals should be Specific, Measurable and Achievable. Objectives should be SMART.
Practising Purpose
A guide to using and applying purpose.
This one is so important that it is an acronym for the five traits taken together. Flowery language has its place in the world but it’s vitally important that everyone can not only understand the purpose of the organisation but can intuit how to apply it in practice in their daily work. The vision should be short and snappy. Goals and objectives should be written in as plain language as possible (obviously at some point, especially with objectives, things will get technical but the suggestion remains).
It doesn’t matter how much thought has been put into the purpose. If people can’t understand it, it won’t work.
In today’s technological environment it’s unlikely that the whole hierarchy of purpose will be stored in one place. The vision might be on the internet and/or intranet. Goals might be held in a project roadmap document and objectives in some form of project management software. That is a pain but not insurmountable. The important thing is that it must be possible to traverse the hierarchy. There must be a way to go from the vision down to its constituents and also to follow objectives and goals up to their ancestors.
To get the full power of purpose, everyone in the organisation must get behind it. There’s no point going through the exercise to determine the full vision and goals and objectives if the management or executives don’t get behind it. It will just be a waste of time and likely demoralising for the staff. The CEO, managing director, or whatever figure is in charge, should get behind the vision and the goals. They should be visibly and vocally supportive, otherwise the whole process of determining and sharing the purpose is not worth pursuing (although see the section later on sub-organisations).
Everyone in the organisation should have the power and the right to question a task or project if it seems to go against the Purpose, or even if it does not visibly benefit the Purpose.
This one should be obvious by now but every member of the organisation needs at least some degree of access to the hierarchy of purpose. It could be just the vision they see and goals and objectives relevant to their work. In some cases, for security reasons, parts of the hierarchy might be concealed from some people. And similarly, in a large organisation, the whole hierarchy might be overwhelming. In addition, as discussed earlier, there are potentially some benefits from making some of the hierarchy available to the general public.
It should also be easy for the relevant people to update and change the hierarchy. Trivially easy. The harder it is to keep the hierarchy up-to-date the more likely it is that it will get out of date.
Reflected on
It is unlikely that the hierarchy of purpose will remain fixed. Time must be put aside for measuring or at least intuiting the effectiveness of the values, goals and objectives. Anything old, irrelevant or sub-standard should be updated or culled. New items arising from experience, progress or external factors should be added.
In a suitably large organisation it might make sense to have separate hierarchies for different sub-organisations. That’s fine. There should be at least some common vision at the top, then each sub-organisation can have its own hierarchy beneath that, possibly starting with its own vision.
[[illustration here]]
Starting with Sub-Organisations
It might the case that you belong to an organisation that doesn’t choose to follow any of the practices described in this text. Or it could be that you are more able to bring about a localised change. In any case, it’s legitimate – potentially even sensible – to start by treating your sub-organisation as an organisation in its own right and determining and following a hierarchy of purpose for the sub-organisation itself.
The Purpose of the Hierarchy of Doing
Sleeping in the bed I made.
[[best shown with another illustration]]
Case Studies
[[Some case studies will go here.]]


How much freedom do you have?
There are two extremes of freedom. At one extreme, you are required to spend almost all of your time and attention simply surviving. There’s no room for anything else. At the other end, you are independently rich with staff to see to your every need. Since you’re reading this I’m going to assume that, like most people, you lie somewhere in the middle.
How much freedom do you really have?
Sometimes we might feel constrained by the particulars of our lives. Work, debt, obligations, families, all might conspire to make us feel trapped. But do you have the power to change those situations? Can you work with your family to overcome issues? Can you leave your job? Can you sell your house? Can you alter your mind-set? The answer to these questions is often yes, it just doesn’t feel like it.
How much freedom do you want?
Sometimes we feel burdened by the sheer range of possibilities open to us. Having more freedom isn’t always good; constraints have been shown to increase creativity. Perhaps deliberately – even arbitrarily – reducing your choices can make the way forward easier. Other times we might truly be suffocated by the boundaries of our lives. Perhaps it will take a difficult and challenging break to get us to where we want to be.
Path to Awesome

Understand your personal freedom, appreciate the freedoms that you do enjoy, recognise the choices that you’ve made and can make to change your situation. Then, once you feel free enough, help others to feel the same.

Your greatest assets

As a person or as a business, what are your greatest assets?
Take a moment if you will. Think about your answer.
Did your answers include money in the bank, a great product, a house, a car, impressive sales?
Do you feel compelled to protect and develop these assets?
Another question: what could you lose that would shake you to your foundations? What, if taken away, could bring you to your knees?
Your family, health, values, team?

My final question: if the two lists are different, how much time and energy do you currently invest in the former vs the latter?

Respect Exceptions

I believe we disrespect exceptional circumstances in two significant ways.
Failing to respect the cumulative effect of related exceptions
A few years ago I was watching what I ate and I thought I was watching very carefully. However, I wasn’t getting the results I was hoping for. It took me longer than it should have to realise the source of the problem. I allowed myself – what I thought at the time was – a limited set of exceptions, during which I would allow myself to eat as I liked. Friday nights, when visiting family or friends, or the occasional pub lunch with work colleagues. When I finally caught up I realised that my exceptions were occurring cumulatively 4-5 times a week. I had more exceptional days than non-exceptional days! This example is pretty trivial but since becoming aware of this phenomena I’ve spotted it elsewhere, in less obvious circumstances.
Abusing exceptions to shuck the rules
I don’t know about you but I’ve spotted a worrying trend. Often there are rules or at least guidelines or heuristics that we follow to govern our behaviour: be it abstaining from alcohol or chocolate, or raising a change request, or sticking to a speed limit or whatever. It’s become quite easy to say in certain contexts ‘sure, I/we would usually do that but…’. Often this is done to avoid following the rules due to personal aspects (too tired, not motivated, too distracted) or properties of the rules themselves (too vague, too challenging), rather than to actually benefit the situation.
Path to Awesome
Be alert – track and monitor exceptions
Be honest – regularly review rules/guidelines for suitability – if they’re broken change them, if they’re not broken stick to them!

What do you think? Have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments below.

Remember to Steer

Imagine for a moment that ideas have mass. This means they would be governed by the laws of motion.

It takes effort to put something into motion. Once it’s moving it will tend to keep going at the same speed in the same direction until another force is applied to it.

Ideas can gain momentum, seemingly take on a life of their own. Just remember, if it’s your idea and you’re not steering it, it may not end up where you expect or want it.

Midway through a project, what to do next?

“And it’s whispered that soon, if we all call the tune, then the piper will lead us to reason.” – Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

It’s nice to have a muse, or a piper, to show us the way forward but that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, it’s up to us to decide the best path, specifically what do next. When there are a number of options which should we choose?

I was working on my own pet project the other day and had this exact problem. Of the 50 or so things I’d identified, which should I do next?

I came up with this simple method and it helped me decide what to do next.

1. Break down the project/product/service into chunks
What these chunks will look like will depend on what you’re doing. Are you building a steam-train or writing a presentation?

2. Prioritise the chunks
Do you need a steam engine first or a chassis? Images for your presentation or the words?

3. Evaluate where you are now
For each chunk where are you on the No FRILs scale (below)?

4. Decide where you want to be, overall
Where are you aiming for on the No FRILs scale? Are you looking to simply provide a reliable service or do you want to blow the socks off your customers? (p.s. be honest here, it’ll save you pain in the long term)

5. Evaluate overall status
Which chunk is farthest from your desired level? If there’s just one there, that’s what you work on. In case of a tie-breaker, go back to your priorities from part 2. Compare all the chunks at this lowest level. Whichever is highest-priority is what you work on next.

I hope this helps you as much as it helped me. Let me know if you find this useful in the comments below. And drop me a line if you can help me get another ‘L’ into the end of the scale!


No FRILs Scale

Nowhere – does nothing
Functional – solves a problem (your train runs sometimes)
Reliable – no bugs (it runs all the time but there’s only one door for all passengers)
Ideal – no frustrations (now the train has a suitable number of doors)
Lovable – does everything expected and more besides (free chocolates for all passengers)

Head in the clouds, bum away from desk

“Making honey takes a lot of bees doing a lot of small jobs. But let me tell you about a small job. If you do it well, it makes a big difference.” – Barry B. Benson, Bee Movie

It’s been two months since my last blog post here. In that time I’ve learned a lot, and done very little. My standards became too high, the dream too big. Aiming high is a perfectly legitimate approach but it’s not for me. This blog is about gentle steps to improvement and now I realise that includes having reasonable goals in the first place. (Or maybe no goals at all, but that’s a question for another day).

I allowed myself to become enchanted by grand plans. Suddenly, I wasn’t writing blog posts because I was planning the blog launch, then I wasn’t planning the blog launch because I was trying to find the perfect domain name.

I was getting nowhere. And it was because I was following the wrong dream.

I started this blog to share my thoughts and maybe help some people along the way. When I began thinking about making this a successful blog, that’s when things started to go wrong. True, if this blog were to reach more people I could potentially help more. But that’s not why I was trying to be successful. I was chasing success itself.

I had succeeded in factoring out the part of the blog that I enjoyed.

It feels good to admit that. (It’s taken me a while.) Now to start thinking in practical, realistic steps again. Like Barry B., I’m going to set my sights on doing a small thing, and aiming to do it well.

Here’s what I have learned from looking back at my own actions from the last couple of months. Hopefully, it can save you from similar pain.

  • Learning is great but has to be balanced with doing, consuming balanced by producing
  • Have attainable goals. If the goal isn’t attainable break it down into sub-goals (and repeat) or drop it
  • Focus on the day-to-day, humble, gentle steps – don’t be distracted by the glam and the glitter of ‘big success’

Leave the heroics to the actual heroes

“No need to thank me, it’s what I do.” – Captain Adorable, Gigglebiz

There are jobs out there that require genuine heroics on a daily basis. Most of us don’t have them.

Working weekends, burning the midnight oil, churning out stuff to appease a deadline: these things are not heroics.

Firefighting has been taken on as a term to mean flailing around, holding excitable meetings or conference calls, and scrawling hieroglyphics on whiteboards. A little of this is okay, maybe even useful. As a way of living or working day to day it is disruptive and potentially addictive.

Firefighting and heroics have their place. If they are what you want to do, then that’s fine, you’ll probably get better at them. Just don’t expect to produce anything useful at the same time.

Separate blame from reparation

“It’s time to be a knight and do it right” – every episode of Mike the Knight

Today’s tip comes from children’s television. In the TV series Mike the Knight, in practically every episode, Mike will do something stupid, usually having been warned off his current course of action repeatedly by friends and family. Towards the end of the episode he’ll realise his mistake, utter the phrase above, and see about sorting out whatever mess he has caused.

Honestly, it’s a bit annoying but I guess I’m not target audience or something. There are a couple of lessons to be learned from it though. Firstly, Mike is never paralysed by self-blame or guilt; he just gets on with sorting out the situation. Secondly, his ‘colleagues’ always back him up, helping without blaming.

It’s a lot easier to get to the heart of a problem if you’re not looking to find someone to blame at the same time.