Pursuing one thing

I’ve been finding myself lately being drawn to watching and reading about people that have committed their lives to the pursuit of one thing. Or one ideal. Whatever it may be, they’ve committed themselves to an idea that is larger than just their time on Earth and taken steps to practice that commitment. I’m not sure why I’m so drawn to that idea at the moment. I guess I’m just realising (again) that good things takes time, and mastering a skill over years is a pursuit worth living.

So, with this in mind, I’d like to share three films I’ve watched in the last few weeks that have this idea at their core.

1. Jiro Dreams of Sushi

I’ve actually been to the restaurant next door to this place, but never realised what I was close to when I was there last year. This film had me thinking a lot. My favourite thing about it is the dedication shown by Jiro’s two sons to follow in their fathers footsteps and how much effort they put in to keeping the bar as high for their apprentices as he did for them. Also, that they require their apprentices to serve for 10 years before actually doing any cooking! That certainly sets a high bar.

2. Somm

I watched this one tonight and found it really fun. It follows 4 guys who are trying to pass the Master Sommelier’s Diploma, which is the hardest and most prestigious title for Sommelier’s in the world. They’re just as dedicated as Jiro and his sons, but in a different way. There’s a time-bound tension for these four, because they need to pass the test at a given time. That creates an element of competition and ego, but by and large the focus is on how they can continue to progress themselves and learn more about their art.

3. Kiss the Water

This one was a different focus. It follows the life of Megan Boyd, who was a fishing fly maker. The film itself wasn’t as easy to watch as the other two, but the lessons perhaps deeper. I love the romanticism behind fly fishing, even if I’ll probably never do it. Megan Boyd’s flies were famous for how well they caught Salmon, so much so that the Prince of Wales was a customer of hers. Like Jiro, she didn’t try to expand her operation as it became more and more famous – why would she? She instead continued to serve people as best she could by continuing to make these beautiful works of art whilst also teaching a few others how to.


What are the Do Lectures? A Podcast with some recent attendees…

I’ve never been to the Do Lectures, but have been a long time admirer from afar. I’ve lived vicariously through many friends that have had the chance to experience it, starting with Ross a few years ago. More recently, many of the people I love and care about in Australia headed along to the inaugural Do Lectures Australia a couple of months ago. From all reports, Sam and Mel (and everyone else) did an amazing job making that happen.

Photo by @marklobo

Two other friends that went along recently were Abi Goodfellow and Olivia Smith, who are colleagues of mine at Yammer. I wanted to chat to them about their experience of attending the Do Lectures in Wales and Australia in the last few months, and pick their brains about how that’s changed the way they view the world. I also wanted to hear some basics about the Do Lectures, so more people can find out about it. I asked Liv and Abi to explain what the Do Lectures are, why they’re so special and to provide some advice for people in filling out their own application forms. I know I’ll be using that for next years applications! The Podcast is below. Enjoy!

Career Progression

I’m moving to San Francisco

It doesn’t seem like that long ago I was writing this article telling you all that I was moving to Sydney. Now, just a short four years or so since then, I’m writing again to tell you that I’m moving to San Francisco!

I’m moving to take a new role with Yammer, as the Business Manager for Yammer Engineering. About 6-7 months ago, I had one of the best experiences of my career when we had Adam Pisoni, the Co-Founder of Yammer visit us in Australia and New Zealand. It was a whirlwind trip where we met with executives, customers, audiences and ‘Yammer’ people in general and from then on I’d been thinking about how to create experiences like that for our community of change makers and world shakers. Such a role opened up not too long after that and I was successful in my application for it – so here we are! In the role, I’ll get the chance to work directly with Adam and the team on things spanning Yammer product strategy, operations, strategic customer dealings and continuing to help with the Responsive Organisation movement. It’s a terrific opportunity and I’m very thankful to Adam and the team for allowing me the chance to take it.

Yammer (and Twitter) Office

Life looks a lot different than it did four years ago. I’m incredibly lucky to now be married to the amazing Rose Levien and to be sharing this with her. We’ll continue to put arm-over-arm and keep enjoying this adventure called life as much as we can. We’ve got a lot to look forward to in San Francisco, not the least of which is continuing to raise our little girl, Edith! We can’t wait to get over there and begin nesting again and building a home for ourselves. Whilst moving away from my family in Melbourne will be tough, we’re heartened by the fact we’re now a whole 14 hours closer to Rose’s family in London!

Rose and Steve in Love - Getting Hitched Low Resolution -

Thank you to everyone who has made our stay here in Sydney so warm, welcoming and just plain good. We’ve loved every minute we’ve been here and to be honest, until I applied for the job, we were beginning to find ourselves wondering if we’d ever leave. It’s an incredible place, Sydney. It’s the kind of place that really grows on you with time and allows you to be who you are. The physical beauty of the place is hard to compare to anywhere else and the space that provides is pretty special. We’ll certainly miss it, but look forward to coming back here to visit as much as we can. Finally, thank you to the Yammer team around the world. It’s been such a special place to call home these last few years and I’m so proud to keep calling it home. For the local team here in Australia, you all know how special you are. Please know how thankful I’ve been to have shared that time with you. Thank you.

We’ll be flying out to San Francisco, from Melbourne, around the 10th of April.


Express yourself

I’ve been in London for the last week or so and was just now watching a soccer program on tv. One of my favourite things to do when I travel is to watch the local sports channels. I love immersing myself in the current goings on, and am always fascinated to hear people from different sports and backgrounds discuss similar issues.

On this occaision, there was an interview with Mike Phelan, who was previously a player with Manchester United in the late 80’s and early 90’s and who had subsequently been Sir Alex Fergusen’s Assistant Manager for the last five years. In the interview, he kept using a term which I really sat up an noticed. He talked about how, given a certain players skills, you wanted to enable them to express themselves in doing that.

He brought it up when discussing a particular highlight of a player scoring an excellent goal from a free kick from a distance out. The player was able to shoot the ball through a gap in the wall, something not all players would be able to do with such ease and with the pace he generated. He scored, with the ball rocketing past the goalkeeper and into the roof of the net. This photo is of the shot I’m talking about. 


It struck me as almost selfish that the player would take that shot, given the chances of it hitting another player or being blocked were so high. Phelan, though, distilled it very simply. He said something along the lines of (not verbatim)…

“when you have a player, that’s obviously got the ability to do something like that and the tools to make it a success, you need to let him express himself in those situations on game day.”

I like that. 


Do we need more corporate anarchists?

I recently received Euan Semple’s newsletter, which you should subscribe to, and found this post by Philippe Borremans. In it, he discusses the need for more corporate anarchists. I was interested, because I disagreed with the idea of the post. After reading it, I still disagree, but somewhat understand more where Philippe is coming from. Specifically, this paragraph jumped out at me as being the one I resonated with most.

Immanuel Kant describes anarchy as “Law and Freedom without Force” – this idea combined with one school of thought of anarchism – where the focus is on non-hierarchical organizations – was to me a kind of ultimate long term result.


I don’t believe we need more corporate anarchists. In my work, I’m lucky enough to get to meet with many people trying to change the way their organisations work. I get to see them at the coal face and chat to them about what they’re trying to achieve. I get to help them do that. But the biggest problem is not that they don’t have enough corporate anarchists helping them. The biggest problem is that people are scared of the corporate anarchists! I guess building more corporate anarchists (sorry for continuing to use that term) could be one solution, but I think building a more resilient organisation is the better idea. And perhaps that’s the point Philippe was making.

We need organisations that are more flexible, resilient and adaptive. The people I’ve seen get closer to these results have been tremendous at working together with others to reach that point. They’ve changed the way one simple process happened, or allowed their staff to work from home, or provided them with better tools to allow them to be more mobile. It’s not been anarchy, but a slow and deliberate march towards being more adaptable. And at the same time, they built around them an organisation or team that becomes used to a slow and deliberate march towards being more adaptable. If you want to create change, don’t try too hard to become a corporate anarchist. Just get started changing one thing. Then another. Then another.


Systems seek steady states

Simon Terry has written a couple of great posts lately, this and this, which have got me thinking about the way companies are organised and what can be done to improve performance. Specifically, this paragraph got me thinking.

In an era of rapid change and high levels of connectedness, what matters is not an individual’s stock of knowledge. The value of an individual stock of knowledge is falling as new knowledge is being created fast, search costs are reduced and there is an increasing focus on collaborative knowledge work.

Individuals are important in organisation life, obviously. We are the ones that do the work, that have and gather knowledge, and generally keep the wheels of enterprise turning. The skills that people have, however, may not be as important as has always been thought when it comes to improving performance. W. Edwards Deming, the chap that is credited with the Total Quality Management (TQM) philosophy, had a unique way of looking at the power of a system over the people that are within it.

The Appreciation of a system involves understanding how interactions (i.e., feedback) between the elements of a system can result in internal restrictions that force the system to behave as a single organism that automatically seeks a steady state. It is this steady state that determines the output of the system rather than the individual elements. Thus it is the structure of the organization rather than the employees, alone, which holds the key to improving the quality of output.

- Deming (from Wikipedia)

What I love the above statement, is the idea of the steady state. This is, essentially, the performance that an organisation is built to deliver. Things do tend to automatically refer back to a certain pace, or certain hum, at work. I’ve felt this, and I’m willing to bet you have too. People refer back to this, because it’s how work is done in the organisation. It’s the way things happen, and the way things are achieved. It’s the culture of a place.

If you’re looking to improve the performance of something, then this piece and others like it seem to indicate that training or getting better people won’t make much difference. People will perform in the way that the system in which they’ve been placed encourages them to.


Being inspired

I was walking through Town Hall in Sydney just now, and on my way through the turnstiles I noticed there was a rather large crowd that had formed just away from the commotion of the daily commuters. I then heard, over the din and noise, some violins screaming at a blistering pace. I kept walking, as Rose and I have our antenatal classes on tonight and I wanted to get home to ensure we got there on time…but I stopped as I was walking past and then stopped. The playing was just amazing, and so I stopped and listened for a bit.

I’d had a good day, but it was mainly spent in the rather monotonous surrounds of an office building. I’m lucky that I get to choose my work location; and I had chosen the venue today, but it’s funny just how much those environments can sap you of your mood and enthusiasm. Walking back through Town Hall, I was confronted by such enthusiasm and joy, I couldn’t help but be stopped in my tracks.

The artists where still school age, and were dressed in their uniforms like they’d just come from class. The cello player was sitting on his case and the two violin players were standing right next to him to hear his cue and play. The laughed as they played, and moved in amazing sync with each other. They found the rhythm instantly, and looked to each other for the beat and the feeling of the music when they missed it. The were inspired, and what struck me most was that they were inspiring each other in the process of making music. At one point they played Greensleeves, which is fairly standard. But about half way through, without so much as a nod to each other, they shifted gear and changed the tempo to move faster and play slightly behind the beat. They laughed as they did so, and so did I. I wanted to remember that feeling.

Thanks, buskers.


How to do a weekly review

I’ve written before about the challenge of Getting Things Done. I’m often writing about it, because I’m often trying to get better at it! Those of you that have read, or tried to read, David Allen‘s book will know the feeling that comes when your mind begins working too hard to keep track of the things you’ve agreed to do.

This year, I want to get better at being mindful, and an important part of that is feeling like I’ve implemented the GTD system better. I’d say I’m pretty good at getting to Inbox 0, and generally processing things but I’m not great at delegating or renegotiating things that find their way onto my list and keeping them current. After a time, I stop trusting the lists because they cease representing an accurate and current account of what I need to do.

Weekly Review

So, it’s with this in mind that I sat down today to figure out some simple questions I can ask myself every week to better keep my system up to scratch. Essentially, how to do a weekly review.

Here’s what I’ll be trying tomorrow for the first time:

1) Gather

Gather everything from your inboxes (email(s), calendar, yammer, letters). Put them where they belong in your the relevant lists.

2) Be Clear

Am I clear about what’s happening this week? What have I previously agreed to make happen this week? What’s in my calendar? Is everything ready for those events?

3) Clean

Is my system clean? Am I stuck with anything that I’m not sure where to put?

4) Current

Is my next action list current? Is there anything on this list that is old or needs renegotiating?

5) Complete

Is it complete? Is there anything that’s not in the system that should be?

I’ve never nailed the weekly review, so will see if this helps me at all. How do you do your weekly review? Anything I’ve missed?


Agassi, the ego-less story teller

I was reading this article in The Age a few days ago, which discusses the pros and cons of Victoria Azarenka’s controversial time outs in the Australia Open. It quoted Andre Agassi in it, and his words and approach have been resonating with me since.

With regards to the discussion about the time out, he has this to say:

”You’re asking me if the crowd should believe her or not. We’ve all seen our share of disappointments from people we believe or [don’t] believe. I can’t judge somebody I don’t know,” he said.

”We’d only be speculating, and everyone has that right to speculate, but I can’t speak for sure. Take it for face value is how I would do it.”

I thought that was a fantastic comment. We all get so absorbed by the emotion of the event sometimes that we forget to step back and realise that we’re most often not in a position to really comment, or judge, the people involved. I thought it was an inspiring piece of ego-less commentary.

Then, Agassi followed on by sharing a story of how important it was that the timeout remain in the game of tennis, by retelling a time when his opponent could have died.

”I was playing David Prinosil here one time [in 2001] and he took a medical timeout on one of the hottest days that I’d played here at 7-6 after the first set,” he said. ”They [trainers] walked out on the court when it was 3-0 and they checked his heart rate and it was 180 beats a minute and he wasn’t even breathing that hard.

They took him into the locker room and stuck him on bags of ice and got an IV in him and quite possibly saved his life. I’m on the other side of the court, I wasn’t trying to kill him, but I’m thankful that somebody else was monitoring it. So medical timeouts are important.”

In about four paragraphs, and probably nothing more than five minutes worth of interview time, Agassi ceased the witch hunt against Azarenka and then followed up by providing guidance as to why the rule allowing time outs should remain, with a very visual and engaging story.

I thought this was a fantastic demonstration of leadership, without the bias of ego.


When speaking publicly, use the microphone

I was at an event a few months ago, which was being hosted in the office of a large company. It was the kind of event where multiple people would get up, come to the front, and educate the audience about what it was they were doing. It was a good event. It had all the tech required working well, including a great PA system and microphone for the presenter. There were about 100 people in the room.

One presenter got up after a break, and so wasn’t handed the microphone by be the previous person that spoke – as had happened throughout the sessions. The speaker looked at the microphone, before booming across to audience. “I’m not going to use the microphone – you can all hear me.”

I was at the front of the room, and close to the presenter. I stuck my hand up, and simply told them that I’d rather they did, so we could all easily hear. The speaker was a little taken aback, but dutifully picked up the microphone and proceeded to deliver a really good talk.

Ever since I worked at Ai-Media, I’ve learned to acknowledge that accessibility is something a lot of us take for granted. My old boss at Ai, Alex Jones, use to talk about when he was at school and how he would struggle in class when the teacher turned around and wrote on the blackboard. Alex is deaf, and so would lose his ability to lip read when the teacher stopped facing him. Since working with Alex, I’m much more aware of the different ways we can be unaccessible to others without realising – whether on stage or not.

1 in 6 Australians are hard of hearing, and in a large room with multiple people and at an event that can run for a couple of hours, people can’t hear you if you don’t use a microphone.

Sometimes, it’s not possible to use one. I’ve organised my fair share of events, and most of the time securing a microphone is expensive and adds an extra level of complexity. But when offered the choice, I now always use it.