Ripples vs Bow Waves

You cannot not impact.

This is one of those sayings that you can’t refute, right? I first heard it when I did my Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) training years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Whenever you show up, you have an impact. Whether you consciously intend to or not. Even your silence, or your absence, has an impact. The mere fact that you exist causes ripples. Those ripples land somewhere. And they have some sort of impact.

Remember that.

Drew Dudley gave a short and brilliant TED talk on this idea when he spoke about Everyday Leadership. His idea was that our words and actions can have a profound and lasting impact, and often we don’t even realise it. We can forget what we did or said until someone tells us about the powerful effect we had on them.

So, it’s good to be mindful of what we’re saying and doing.

Here’s the thing. Why be content with ripples? Why not create bow waves? If we only have a certain number of years on the planet, we might as well put them to good use, right?

I was recently working with a group of leaders in Christchurch, helping them to think through how they could make lasting change happen in their communities and organisations. When sharing how they were dealing with their challenges, many of them were using the metaphor of ‘learning to ride the wave’. The wave of complexity, they said, is bigger than them, so the best way to be effective was to try to understand the system they were a part of, and ride with it, rather than try to fight it.


I think this form of thinking is a useful way of acknowledging that you need to see and work within a system. However, to me, it speaks of limited personal agency. It’s ripple thinking.

What if you were to upgrade your thinking from creating ripples to creating bow waves? Bow waves travel further and have more impact on their surroundings. They’re still a product of the system they’re in, and of the agent that creates them. They’re just bigger.

What would that look like to you?

It’s all about the engine, and how you use it.

How big is your thinking? Are you creating ripples, or bow waves? What do you want to create?


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Photo: Digby Scott


Highlights for 2016

As we near the end of 2016, I’ve summarised a few gems that you might find useful to dip in and out of:

My Top Five Most Popular Blog Posts of 2016

  1. A Map to Change: How to make a behaviour change by getting ‘under the hood’.
  2. Shine A Light: Show people their potential and help them thrive.
  3. How To Tip The System: Make change at scale by finding the leverage points.
  4. Networking For When It’s All Too Hard: Take the pressure off, and focus on creating a network that works for you.
  5. Meta Skills For Interesting Times: The three skills to cultivate to thrive in ‘interesting times’.

My Top 5 Books

  1. Deep Work by Cal Newport. If you want to produce any form of high-quality, creative work, you need to learn how to get fully immersed without distraction. This book shows you how.
  2. Mastering Leadership by Bob Anderson and Bill Adams. One of the more thoughtful, evidence-based books how to shift and deepen mindsets in ways that allow more powerful, authentic leadership to emerge.
  3. How To Make Gravy by Paul Kelly. A collection of insightful memoirs and rich observations of human behaviour and relationships by one of Australia’s greatest songwriters. One to dip in and out of.
  4. Zero To One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters. Learn to ask the questions that lead you to find value in unexpected places. A good one for Change Makers.
  5. Smart Work by Dermot Crowley. A brilliant, practical book that’s shaped my whole approach to getting stuff done with less friction.

My Top Five Jargon Words or Phrases that are awaiting a better replacement

  1. Capability
  2. Core Competency
  3. Leader
  4. Human Resources
  5. Move Forward

My Top Five Favourite Quotes or Mantras

  1. Meet ‘em where they’re at. Come down off your stage. If you ‘meet people where they’re at’ and understand their mindset, questions, concerns, you can connect with them and take them somewhere.
  2. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Slow down and focus on your movements. This will help you master any skill, and will help you be better at it when you need to move fast. Focus, take your time, and keep moving forward.
  3. Be the flower, not the bee. Don’t hustle. Be known for something that us unique, valuable and authentic enough for people seek you out.
  4. It ain’t the knowing, it’s the growing. A quote from the Tishamingo song ‘Travel On’.
  5. Say ‘No’ unless it’s ‘Hell Yeah’. For those over-busy people, learning to live this is the key. Easy to say, harder to do. I’m still working on it. It’s my favourite Derek Sivers quote.

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Go well.


Like this post? You’re only getting half the story. Sign up to my ‘Fresh Thinking’ newsletter, delivered monthly to your inbox.

Are you a Change Maker?  To find out more click here.  For intake dates click here.