Meta-Skills For Interesting Times


Robert Kennedy Intersting Times 2

“May you live in interesting times.
May you live in an interesting age.
May you live in exciting times.”

This phrase purportedly has it’s origins in China.  Over the past couple of hundred years, its popularity in the western world has tended to peak whenever the world goes into turmoil. I think it’s fair to say that we’re living through interesting times right now.

Some might say the changes and challenges we face in the world today are unprecedented. While that might be true, let’s not get too excited. Back in the day people were saying the same thing. They got through it.

And, if you think about it, the challenges YOU face in your life and times are unprecedented, at least for you. Assuming you’ve only been on the planet this one time, you’re writing your playbook as you go. That takes some doing.

Interesting times test us. They challenge our assumptions and boundaries, and ask us to invent new ways of seeing and living in the world. That goes for whether we are talking about individuals, organisations or whole societies. The work of leadership is to step up to those challenges and create a way through.

There are a few key skills that make the difference to whether we thrive or just merely survive during interesting times. Beyond the technical skills required for specific roles or situations, these are meta-skills that are fast becoming prized in organisations and communities the world over. Savvy companies, particularly in disrupted industries, are looking for, and appointing, leaders who embrace disruption, can connect across diverse demographics and cultures, and are exceptionally curious, open-minded, and courageous.

The World Economic Forum, The Institute for the Future, and futurists such as Bob Johansen have all researched and reported on the types of work skills required for 2020 and beyond. In synthesising their findings, the conclusion is that we need to shift from a world that values Conformity, Competencies and Certainty to one that embraces Curiosity, Connectedness and Courage.

Six C's model v2


These are the skills we need to cultivate in ourselves and the people who will help us to navigate these interesting times.


To act without being assured of success, without needing approval or permission, to experiment, innovate and try new approaches, be agile, and to challenge existing ideas and practices. For more on this, see my post “Do You Need Confidence, or Courage?”


The ability to seek out and connect meaningfully with a diverse range of people, apply social intelligence, serve others, and to collaborate effectively in a wide array of settings. The ability to deliberately cultivate an effective network  is an essential skill in interesting times.


The insatiable drive to ask questions, learn, unlearn, sit with ambiguity and ‘not knowing’, to step back, critique, and make sense of things objectively, to seek and find deeper meaning in the patterns, and see things from new and different perspectives, to have novel and adaptive thinking. Leonardo Da Vinci was a master of curiosity, which helped to make him one of the most creative people the world has ever known.

What would be the value in having more of these three C’s, both in your organisation and for yourself?

While aspiring to having more of these three C’s, we also need to transcend (but not throw out) another set of C’s:


We are wired for certainty. In fact, our brains crave it. Certainty helps us make predictions more confidently, so we can operate in the world without having to use a huge amount of mental resources for each and every activity. In interesting times, the challenge is not to get rid of the need for certainty, but instead to learn to live in paradox: to create certainty while knowing that nothing is certain (besides death and taxes).


For a most of the latter half of the 20th century and well into the current one, the default method of thinking about development has been through the lens of competencies i.e. the behaviours and skills you demonstrate. This approach overlooks the fact that our behaviours are guided by our mindsets – the way in which we think and see the world. If we want to thrive in interesting times, we need to move beyond upgrading competencies to also upgrading our thinking. This is known as vertical development. As Einstein said “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”


Like certainty, conformity has its place. We need standards, norms and laws to keep things running smoothly. In interesting times, it is often these norms, and their underlying assumptions, that are being tested. Rather than uphold conformity for it’s own sake, the more useful approach is to get behind the reason for the rule, and explore its usefulness in the current context.

Making It Happen

To cultivate your own three C’s of Courage, Connection and Curiosity, start with these tips:

Three Actions for Building Your Three C's

What Next?

If you’re interested in cultivating more Courage, Connection and Curiosity in your organisation, please get in touch for an interesting conversation to see what we can do together.

And download my latest thinking on how to future-proof your organisation by developing the three C’s in your next generation of leaders: How To Play With Fire – Equip Your Next Generation of Leaders To Deal With Anything


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Work With The Patterns

IMG_4453_Antman _JamieScott

Late in 2015, I published ‘Three Things I’ve Learned This Year’. The most popular of those three with readers was the idea of ‘Be The Flower, Not The Bee’. In essence, strive less. I’m going to build on that idea here by showing you how to see and work with patterns to be more effective with less effort.

One of my favourite movies is ‘Surf’s Up’. It’s about a penguin wannabe surfer, Cody Maverick, who finds himself in the thick of the action at a world surf contest. He gets himself a mentor in Big Z, a legend of surfing in days gone by. Big Z has some wisdom for Cody:

“You let the wave do the work. You don’t fight the wave. You can’t fight these big waves.” (more…)

Being With Disruption

A man sits down at a piano and prepares to play. When he starts, it’s not what you might expect.

Take a few moments to go on this musical and emotional journey with Eric Lewis. You don’t need to watch the whole thing if you don’t have time – just a few minutes will be enough:


Now that you’re done, notice how you responded to what you heard and saw. My guess is you had some sort of reaction! For me, it went against my natural instincts for what ‘music’ should be about. At the same time, I was fascinated, and I stayed engaged, wondering where he would take the music next. I stayed with the discomfort I was feeling.

This got me thinking: how do you respond when things don’t happen how you expect them to happen? What do you do when things aren’t ‘right’?

I think there’s a spectrum – at one end, there are some people who respond with judgement: “this isn’t right, it’s wrong! It’s not good, it’s bad! It’s not nice, it’s horrible!” Plenty of those thoughts are evident in the 560 or so comments below the video.

Judgement Possibility Spectrum

And at the other end, there are people who notice the disruption, suspend judgement, and wonder about what could possibly happen next. They might even enjoy the disruption!

I’ve observed that while we can all spend time at either end, many people have a bias for the left hand side. It’s understandable – we humans are ‘sense-making creatures’ that need some sense of order, predictability and stability. Personally, I’m more comfortable knowing that tomorrow, cars will still drive on the left hand side of the road, my clients will still be in business, and that my bus will be on time.

But in our crazy, volatile world, stuff is happening all the time that disrupts our sense of order, predictability and stability. Cars swerve into your lane. Your organisation goes through yet another restructure. Your bus is ten minutes late.

To operate successfully in today’s world, we need to get more comfortable with disruption. As I often say to my clients, “get comfortable being uncomfortable”.

During times when your life is disrupted (be it big or small), I suggest you deliberately take a walk down to the right hand end. Here’s where possibilities live. Here live the mindsets and practices to create new meaning out of chaos, and to get unstuck from the negative side effects that ‘judgment’ can bring (e.g. staying stuck, being a victim, wasting effort into ‘righting’ things).

For starters, here’s a simple practice to get down to the right hand end when ‘bad’ things happen:

  1. Stop, and notice your response. What is your internal dialogue saying? What judgements are you making?
  2. Put that thinking to one side, and instead say to yourself ‘how fascinating!’ You’ll notice a lightening of your mood and an unhooking from judgement, and the unproductive emotions that judgement can produce.
  3. Ask yourself ‘so what possibilities could this situation create for me?’, and act from that mindset.

This idea was inspired by the many excellent practices shared in Ben and Rosamund Zander’s book ‘The Art of Possibility’.

Being with disruption is part of life. While it’s not necessarily easy, I suggest going down the right hand end is a more healthy and productive way to deal with the inevitable curve balls that life throws at us.


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Are You At Boiling Point?

I’ve been working with a lot of clients lately who all seem to be in a similar space. Work is just crazy, and won’t let up. It’s not merely ‘busy’ – it’s something more. It’s not just a volume problem, it’s a complexity problem, and navigating a way forward is harder than ever. As someone said “all the easy problems have already been solved. Now we’ve got to solve problems that we’ve never faced before.”

Sound familiar?

This state is what I call the ‘boiling point’.

Think of water. Before the heat’s on, water will quite happily just sit there, maybe moving around a bit, but essentially unchanging. When you put the heat on, you get movement. If you’re a liquid water molecule that enjoys the relative stability of being ‘water’, you’ll get uncomfortable as things heat up. Maybe you hope that everything will to go back to ‘normal’. Except the heat’s not letting up. It’s around 99 degrees now. What to do?

Of course, what happens is that water transitions to steam. It’s still water, but with new qualities.


I see a lot of leaders in systems that are nearing boiling point. And they’re mostly operating with ‘liquid water molecule’ mentalities – ways of making sense of the world that work in relatively stable times, but not so effective when things are approaching boiling point. A new way of thinking is needed.

So how do we create that? Here’s what I find works for people:

The first step is to name the assumptions and beliefs you use to make sense of the world. For example, you might assume “to be a respected leader, I need to have all the answers.” Of course, this assumption can both help and hinder you.

Second, ask yourself how well is that assumption serving you? If you assume you need to have the answers, a downside could be that you constantly have a line of people, and a pile of emails, waiting for you to provide people with the answer. How well is that assumption serving you?

Third, try on some new beliefs and assumptions for size. For example, “If I give other people the opportunity to take responsibility to come up with their own ideas, we’ll get better solutions.” Make it an experiment. Test it out for a couple of weeks. What difference does it make?

You don’t know until you try. It’s this ‘probe – sense – respond’ approach that we need to adopt if we’re to make sense of, and navigate through, the complexity we face.

Buckminster Fuller said “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

So, here’s a useful tool that I use with my clients to help identify their assumptions that might hold them back. It’s called ‘Immunity to Change’, developed by adult development thought leaders Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. Try it out and see what happens.


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Stepping Into Complexity

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some talented managers in both London and Shanghai. They’re all facing a major business change in the form of a system implementation which will significantly alter their core business processes and keep them competitive. Think of it like when banks moved to online banking – it’s a similar magnitude, in the shift in both mindset and process. It’s big, complex and potentially messy.

This won’t all happen overnight, and they’re charged with keeping business-as-usual running smoothly while preparing to take themselves, and their teams, successfully through the change. Sound familiar?

Our work together was about helping them to begin to make sense of the changes ahead, to understand their role in it all, and to build the confidence and capability to navigate it successfully.

In each location, we spent three days together. After initial presentations by senior leaders on the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of the changes, there were many questions from the managers about the detail of how things were going to work. When would X and Y be rolled out? What can and can’t we do? What if Z happens? What will we do then? Understandable questions, to be sure.

For most of these questions, the answer from the senior leaders was “We don’t know. We need you to help us figure it all out.”

“We don’t know.”

Not words you’d expect from a senior leader. Don’t they have it all worked out? Isn’t that why they’re paid the big bucks? What do you mean, they don’t know? Where’s the plan?

Of course, with the organisation moving into brand new territory and addressing a challenge like this, no-one has all the answers, or even half of them. It’s an example of what Dave Snowden calls a ‘complex challenge’, rather than a ‘complicated’ one (with ‘complicated’, there’s a right answer – just find an expert to help you). With complex challenges, the answers emerge through trying things out and learning from what happens.


It was refreshing to hear those words: “We don’t know.” They were authentic, honest, and they gave permission for a new mindset to emerge.

Here’s the beautiful thing. On the morning of the third day, the managers had got it. To quote one of them:

“I came in with a huge list of questions I needed answered. Now I know I don’t need all the answers. I’m OK with working it out as we go along. I’m going to lead my team to try some new things, see what works, and learn from our experiences. I’m on board.”


It’s a common challenge. Most managers are being asked to embrace and lead in ambiguity and complexity these days. What helped these managers ‘get it’? I think there were a few factors at play:

  1. Plenty of information about the nature of the challenge was provided (“It’s big, complex and potentially messy”).

  2. Senior leaders were fully present, and were authentic and honest about not having all the answers (“we don’t know”).

  3. Expectations about managers’ involvement were clear (“we need you to help us work it out”).

  4. Plenty of time was allowed for ‘sense-making’ (three days of semi-structured conversation, not just a half-day download).

  5. We focused on some critical skill-building (e.g. storytelling) to help them begin to play their part (I’ll expand on this in a future blog).

What’s your approach when you’re faced with “big, complex and potentially messy” changes? How do you help your people to ‘get’ the nature of the challenge and to step into the role they need to play?

Try some of these ideas and see what emerges…

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Who Needs Managers?

Ever wondered what the actual role of a manager is?

Last week, I was facilitating a leadership workshop with a group of mid-level managers. During the course of our discussions, one participant commented that they’d recently come across a team in their organisation that seemed to have achieved some sort of performance nirvana: they were busting their KPI’s, were constantly coming up with new and improved ways of doing things, and morale was sky-high. And they didn’t have a manager.

At that point, I asked her to repeat what she’d just said: “they didn’t have a manager”. Which of course begged the question: “so what’s the role of the manager then?”. You could have heard a pin drop.

Eventually one person ventured that maybe the manager’s role is to get out of the way?

I think she’s onto something.

I’d also suggest that it’s slightly more than that: to help the team get set up for success, so they can achieve what they need to achieve time and time again. Then get out of the way and allow the magic to happen.

Like a gardener who plants the seed, waters and weeds, and then lets nature take its course. Or the role of the beer cans and plank in this video of metronomes synchronising. Or this one that demonstrates the idea perfectly.

Are you in the way more than you need to be? What role could you be playing?


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