Category Archives: coaching

Are You a Slave to Process?

I have heard this many times — “I know that X doesn’t work that well, but there is no other way to do this.”


This is the type of statement made by folks who are “slaves to process”. They are completely wedded to one way of looking at what they need to get done. As a result, they will not learn from what they do. And if there is a better way to get things done, they will never see it.

The problem is worse than it appears. It is worse because the longer you are married to a single way of doing things, the harder it gets to change. That is the message Jeff Bezos is giving to his shareholders. I couldn’t agree more. That is the message that United should hbe listening to after its fiasco in customer relations.

Thinking about Behavioral Triggers

One of the problems we all face in life — and it is a whopper — is how to stick to a strategic direction. The classic example is knowing how important it is to maintain a healthy weight. But to do that, we need to stick to a healthy routine that balances activity and calorie intake. Most people fail to do this.

We tend to think of it as a weakness. We lack will! In fact, we lack the knowledge that we need to modify our behavior. And we can get that knowledge. It is available. It is just something that we are not taught in school.

We are taught, for example, that discipline is important. That makes it sound like discipline is a good in itself. Wrong. Discipline is just the word that we use when we want to say that our behavior is under control.  We are “disciplined”. In other words, discipline describes a result, not the process.

To see how commonly we fall into this cognitive problem, consider the word gravity. You know what it is, right? Wrong. No human on this planet knows what gravity is. We just know its effect – when we let go of a ball, it descends to the ground. Why it does that, we have no idea.

So what process can lead to behavioral change? BJ Fogg offers us a glimpse. It all has to do with our sensitivity to triggers. All of our behavior is triggered by something. And we can master how to trigger behavior, as long as we do not exceed our capacity in a given moment.

Think about it!

Strategy and Diagnosis


The word “diagnosis,” he reminded me, comes from the Greek for “knowing apart.” Machine-learning algorithms will only become better at such knowing apart—at partitioning, at distinguishing moles from melanomas. But knowing, in all its dimensions, transcends those task-focussed algorithms. In the realm of medicine, perhaps the ultimate rewards come from knowing together.

The key point is that to think strategically, one must step back from the fray – to think apart. At the same time, it helps tremendously, if while you are in that position, you get great input.

Whether that is from a machine, or another human or a book or whatever, be on the lookout for sources. You never know when you will need them.

Group Dynamics and Change

The strategic mindset starts within the self. That is because you have to take over certain values in order to become a strategic leader. Sadly, we do not learn these values at a deep level in school. Some do, but most do not. Those that do not are left to their own devices to manage the challenges of life.

And those challenges present a second strategic dimension – the social dimension. To be successful in life, you need to “add value”. In the old days, this meant physical work. It took lots and lots of physical work to get anything done. As technology advanced,  the need for physical input has decreased and the need for mental input has increased.

So we get the modern notion of work as the ability to add value via strategic decision making. Those who can “move the ball forward” succeed.  And moving the ball forward means producing change within groups.

How do you do that?  There is a huge amount of writing on the subject. Most of it is about how to build companies and institutions around missions. Greg Satell points out that this might be better understood using a model of producing social change – by looking at the history of successful social movements.  He lists a few key ideas

  • embracing a concrete objective rather than a broad abstract goal
  • work the spectrum of allies – start by mobilizing strong allies, then move to passive allies, neutrals, passive opponents and finally strong opponents.
  • find and leverage institutional power
  • attract rather than coerce
  • survive the immediate victory

It is a nice tactical tool box.

Who You Are and Who You Want to Be

For many of us, who we are — or at least who we think we are — is not necessarily who we want to be.

The reason? Time relentlessly moves forward, which all too often, does not allow us to perfect what we do. For that reason, we all move through time as imperfect “identity vessels”. We know that, given the right opportunities, we could have done better in some ways, perhaps even important ways. We can imagine what that would have looked like, but we can no longer achieve it. We would like to be the person who did achieve it, but we are not.

The problem may be more acute when decisions we have made restrict our freedom to act in the present. We may be on a career path that we find unrewarding. Or we may have damaged our health in ways that cannot be repaired. One can imagine many, many such restrictions. We are stuck, at least for the time being, with a less than perfect identity.

This is not a problem for some. They just move on, focusing on the future that is achievable. We call these folks “resilient”. We might also call them “stoics” – persons who believe in accepting the hardships of life as normal.

It is a problem for others, especially if they feel guilty about not being perfect. That problem gets worse if they believe that their imperfections will continue to cause failure. That produces frustration. The more intense the fears and frustrations, the more resilience and stoicism is needed.

There is another issue. The more deeply we feel guilt and frustration, the less we are able to enjoy the process of moving into the future. From a strategic perspective, this is nicht gut! Strategy requires creativity. Creativity requires imagination. Imagination requires an ability to see beyond the present. Guilt and frustration glue our eyeballs to something else.

For this reason, two religious concepts are useful. The zen idea of minimizing identity, and the Catholic idea of forgiveness. Each enables the individual to get beyond negative emotions that accompany imperfect  present identity.  Whether you adhere to either religion or not, they offer useful concepts from a strategic point of view.

By way of contrast, before we can imagine a better future self, we need a certain amount of confidence. Where does that come from? It comes from our belief in our present capacities. That is an engine for conviction – beliefs that generate decision and action. In other words, before we can move confidently into the future, we need to have a strong sense of identity, based on belief in our capabilities.

This is a bit odd – we need both to minimize the negative effects of our past imperfections and maximize belief in our present capabilities. How do we achieve both at the same time?

You see athletes doing this as they go through “slumps”. You might think of a batter in baseball who suddenly and inexplicably cannot get on base. Or in basketball, an outside shooter who starts missing open shots. Or whole teams who inexplicably start losing games that they believe should have been won. The players have to keep on playing – and it is called “playing through a slump”. The game goes on.

Some players attempt to get through this by adjusting their attitude. They might repeat to themselves”I can do this!” Of course, we know that trying to conform the self to what we want of the self to be is not so easy.  It is much harder when we are talking about a self in action.

We also know that humans have limited will power. We rather quickly use it up when we exert will. Anger is more durable. As an emotion it is “sticky” – it hangs around, and is transferable. So some players allow themselves to become angry or “aggressive” in order to get beyond their fear of failure and frustration over slumps. Michael Jordan confessed that he did this throughout his career, and it seems to have worked for him.

Another way is to nurture a belief that the game is bigger — or more important for some reason—  than the individual playing it. That individual can bear the struggles of being imperfect and still enjoy playing if he or she believes that being involved in the game is more important than being perfect in the game.

Which is better? Most would agree that elevating the importance of the game works better than solely relying on individual will. Does it work better than nurturing anger? Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. But we might note here that nurturing anger requires development of anger management capacity. That can be a distraction as much as fear and frustration. I am not confident, for example, that Michael Jordan could channel his anger to become a great artist.

So we might focus for now on the challenges of investing in the game. For the game to be “bigger”, the game must have a positive quality to it. That is obvious in sports. It is less obvious in life. In life, we are often punished for mistakes. And we learn to punish ourselves. Fear of punishment can drain the pleasure of playing the game of life. And once punished, the person punished needs a tool to regain his or her sense of  the game – distance himself or herself from the event in favor of playing further.

This “distancing from the event” is often called rebellion. Youth is in an eternal state of rebellion, or so it seems. Are they merely casting off the limitations that they feel from their negative feelings about failure? Perhaps. This may be similar to the athletes relying on anger as a motivating tool. There are limits on what it can achieve.

Some argue that to help young people become more creative, education should be gamified. It should offer a positive environment for leveling up, or as we call it, learning. It would be interesting to see if this type of education could be institutionalized, and if so, what the results would look like. It might open up possibilities for folks to see life in a gaming context., or as we call it now, “life long learning”.

My key point here is to describe a certain dynamic – the dynamic that optimizes our capacity to move into the future with confidence. To play the game of life as well as we can.

What is Bigger than You?

In this blog, I am writing a lot about strategic models. You might ask, “why is this important? What is the big deal?”

The answer is not that we all need to become brilliant strategists. We don’t all need to morph into mini- Napoleons or Caesars or Alexanders. We do need a tool, however, that pulls us out of our mental laziness.

Laziness? Right. Over the last several centuries, society has changed remarkably. But one thing has not changed. We are still trapped in the notion that our beliefs about reality are correct. Or if we cannot muster the belief that they are correct, they are at least as good as anyone’s will ever be. That make us “modern” as opposed to “antiquated”.

We cannot and cannot know the future, and for that reason alone, there is no basis for this belief. We, as we are now, are just a generation among thousands who act out our lives on the stage of recorded history. We are one part of the story rather than the end of the story. The significance of our lives will be described by those who think that they are more sophisticated than we are.

That is why to believe that our individual egos and cravings are universal or in any way ultimate is lazy.  That belief will be mocked by those who “know better”. Just as we know better than kneeling before kings and queens was silly.

What if we could pull ourselves out of this laziness? Surprisingly, western man had a tool that did this. It started working around the 11th century. It was Christianity. And Christianity invented a thing called Europe. It instilled a certain energy into the process of living better. Things did not always go well. But they went forward.

As Nietzsche pointed out, we proclaimed in the 19th century that “God is dead”, and in doing so, we threw away that tool. There may have been good reasons to do so. At the same time, we need another and better tool to keep us moving forward mentally.

As Sir Kenneth Clark pointed out, heroic materialism is not enough.  it does not strengthen the soul. We need something stronger. Something that captures our imaginations and pulls us out of ourselves. The way that materialism cannot.

Embracing the unknown, in the way that strategic thinking does, is a starting point. And that is why I am obsessed with strategic modeling.

A key question: What is Your Starting Point?

If you think about a game like basketball or tennis, you get an intuitive sense of the importance of the starting point. Start off strong and the rest of the game is more manageable.

In life, parents stress this too. We tell our kids to get a strong foundation in education to start off well.

That advice is good. But it also misses the point. our chronological life is not the same as our intellectual and emotional life. Chronologically, we start off as kids. Intellectually and emotionally, we start off all the time.

In fact, you might argue with some conviction that life is not a single game at all. It is a series of smaller and shorter games. And each of those smaller and shorter games has a starting point.

This is what Musaashi was talking about when he said that in each second we have an opportunity to be the person we want to be. Each second is a starting point.

And so it brings up the question, what is a “good” starting point from an intellectual and emotional point of view. Even better, what would an “optimal” starting point look like? I will be writing about that in the next days.

Stay tuned!

Two Gaming Ladders

A while back I started thinking about how I could better use gaming concepts to frame life’s strategic challenges.

One gaming concept has stuck with me in this intellectual adventure – the idea of “maxing out”. Gaming is valuable because it pushes us up to a higher level of performance. We “max out” our potential. In other words, gaming is not just a more engaging way to get things done, it is a more effective way to organize our learning.

But what are we maxing out? At the most basic level, there are two parallel tracks that we can and should work on. The first track is individual. As Csikszentmihalyi pointed out, our quest for meaning starts with the self. The second track is social. None of us can solve any of life’s challenges alone.

The two tracks have overlapping characteristics. At the same time, they are not identical. As in mastering a team sport, the individual skill sets mesh with the social or team skill sets.

On the individual level, I have thought through this model. As a ladder, we move  through the following itterative questions

  • what gives me meaning? This is a question of building value and it is the crux of the creative challenge. Can I create?
  • What can I do with what I create? This raises questions of how to use what I create. Use is application. This at the crux of the strategic challenge. Can I add value?
  • Can I communicate what I am doing? This requires me to move from concept and activity to language. It forces me to a higher level of abstraction and connection through that abstraction. Can I  persuade others that I am adding value?
  • Can I manage relationships? The issues is whether the relationships add value to what I do and raise what I do to a higher level. Can I build on the value that I create?
  • Can I scale what I build? Scaling creates culture. Culture is at the core of our identity.

On the social level we I have thought through this modelAgain, we move though iterative questions

  • Do we see the same things? We do not until we reach agreement on priorities
  • Do we connect around the challenges presented? Networks add value only if the connections are meaningful
  • Do we test for the best solutions?  We cannot know the best possible solutions to life’s challenges. Testing is the strategic learning tool
  • Do we share what we are learning? This enables dynamic story telling.
  • Do we celebrate our successes together? The celebration unites us.

It could be that the above is too complex.That the questions I have posed do not easily enough convert into action. But at this stage of my thinking, I cannot see how to reduce them further. Perhaps experience will show me.