John Lennon’s agile & disruptive thinking for startups

I studied The Beatles as part of my A-level music curriculum at school. I remember hearing the lyrics to Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and thinking wow! and Mr Baker eulogising about John Lennon, and from that day, Lennon was one someone I followed.

I was never into The Beatles music apart from those songs written and sung by Lennon. He was dynamic, controversial, radical, and confrontational plus a whole lot more. There is so much more that he shared with the world apart from his music. Therein lies a depth of his wisdom

John would have been 75 years old this coming Friday, 9 October. For me, he was the most iconic Beatle. His social conscience, attitude and acerbic, verbal wit in his lyrics, and cutting, humane and distinct voice made him one of the most talented musicians we’ve ever seen. He epitomises disruptive creativity.

Lennon’s brutally confessional solo work and his political activism were a huge influence on subsequent generations of singers, songwriters and social reformers. He made people think, he made me think. In the years since his murder on December 8, 1980, his image has become a staple of T-shirts and posters, used as a symbol of individuality. He had interesting things to say, and was more interested in pushing boundaries than just making music.

I don’t think John would have been content playing his guitar at weddings and parties in Liverpool. With The Beatles, he branched out to London and Hamburg, then worldwide while still in his early 20s. Later he travelled to India and integrated the country’s musical influences into many songs. He was amongst the earliest adopters of a global perspective, embracing new ideas and culture.

Lennon’s risk-taking and creativity are clearly evident, but there was always a balance between experimentation and implementation. He didn’t just throw caution to the wind. Lennon prototyped and tested many versions of his songs, he re-recorded constantly, always looking for some new and unique angle. For each familiar hit, there were about twenty alternate takes in different styles and genres. He practiced each version over and over until something clicked. If after a while, he couldn’t come up with something that met his standards, he dumped it.

Approaching his birthday, I thought that I would share how John Lennon’s words and attitude have inspired me, the man that encouraged us all to ‘Imagine’, and how his words and thinking are relevant for startup entrepreneurs.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans it is said that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Blink and a year will pass you by. Startup life is never a direct route. It weaves. It twists. It turns. But if you have a goal, a dream or a plan in place, it acts as a compass that keeps you on track, no matter what detours need to be taken along the way.

Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted Lennon was a thinker, he had a thirst for knowledge, hungry for new experiences to stimulate his creativity. Socialising you own startup idea with other entrepreneurs will help shape, inform and improve your thinking, never miss the opportunity for gaining and sharing insight

It doesn’t matter how long my hair is or what colour my skin is or whether I’m a woman or a man Startup success is not restricted to culture, gender or heritage. Successful entrepreneurs rise up from every conceivable starting point, so we never use your own state of being as an excuse for never achieving great things. One person with a dream, and a willingness to do whatever it takes can make it happen.

A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality Dreams are no fun if you keep them to yourself, dreams are meant to be shared. Startups with co-founders, with like-minded entrepreneurs collaborating, have proven to be a better basis for launching successful businesses, rather than a solo founder venturing alone, so share your dream.

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination Reality, plus a sprinkle of imagination, turns that which seems impossible into something that is possible. If you can imagine it, and you can believe it, you can achieve it and imagine by asking yourself the question, ‘What if?’ Then go do.

I get by with a little help from my friends Not one of us can do it alone. Without the support of a team, a startup founder won’t get off the ground. A vibrant, relentless and talented team is vital in a startup, it lift us up when we are down, believes in each other when no one else does. The best startup teams are there in fair weather, and there when storms rage. Startup team members know when to speak and when to keep silent.

You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are. You are what you are! Stop listening to what others say you are. You are what you are. Ignore the naysayers, your startup is your road of self-discovery. Listen to your inner voice and stand up tall knowing who you are. I just believe in me Lennon once said, and he meant it. Have ambition that reaches way beyond your current horizon.

There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known; nothing you can see that isn’t shown; nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to beNothing happens by accident, and what appears to be the greatest mistake will in retrospect be the pivot to your startup. Find something you love and do it better than anyone else. Lennon was inspired by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. He took the music from these pioneers and put his own touch and Liverpudlian spin on it. The outcome? It was an entirely new take on a genre, which no one was expecting.

There’s nothing that you can do that can’t be done Keep working, it makes you happy. Whether you’re a musician or a software developer or own a local bakery or retail store, you have to keep working no matter what.

If there’s such a thing as genius — I am one Create the unexpected. I always enjoy The Beatles White Album. The diversity in this album is incredible. From the beautiful melodies of Julia and Blackbird to the pounding beats of Helter Skelter and Revolution, it is truly unexpected. The Beatles were the first artists to record in stereo. They were the first band to experiment in the studio. They were the first band to list lyrics on their album.

Your audience or customers are craving the unexpected – give it to them. They want to be wowed. Why not come up with some novel, out of the box ideas like Lennon did, and give them a little clue about the depth of your uniqueness.

What we’ve got to do is keep hope alive, because without it we’ll sink. I don’t believe in yesterday, by the way Risk magnificent failures by aiming for the sky. Lennon fits this description well, he didn’t conform to standard education, which greatly contributed to his unorthodox style. In fact, like many great musicians, he held his instrument the wrong way. He experimented with made-up chords, new concepts – and had some celebrated failures in the process.

Lennon thought big. Even in the early days when starting out he used to say To the toppermost of the poppermost! and he believed it. Lennon aimed high and got there, in no small part because he believed he would get there. He stated in an interview that they treated each deliverable (i.e. song) as the hit, which is why their B-sides are better songs than most people’s A-sides.

In today’s startup environment, we have to be different to be seen. Lennon was a restless, curious individual, never satisfied with the status quo. He continuously sought self-growth, learning new philosophies and anything else he could do to break new ground. This helped him grow as an artist and human being, and further distanced himself from others as being unique. Do the same for you, and your startup business.

John Lennon’s legacy and impact is eternal. Great ones like John Lennon never really die. So much of them lasts forever.

When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment. I told them they didn’t understand life.

John Lennon (9 October 1940 to 8 December 1980)

 

The F-word: how Big Me will bounce back

Failure. We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful.

I had enough of the F-word last week, it wasn’t a good week. Burnley got relegated from the Premiership, the outcome of the General Election left me utterly depressed and I failed my grade five saxophone exam by two marks after I fluffed the sight reading piece. Suffice to say I played Joy Division and Radiohead tracks back to back on Sunday to lighten my mood.

So, I need to confront the F-word taboo this week and build some agile thinking into my routine. Failure is inevitable sometimes and often out of our control, but we can choose to understand it, to learn from it, and to recover from it. No one likes to fail, and while we all know the importance of learning from mistakes, individuals, teams and organisations can struggle to bounce back. How can we see the experience as an opportunity for growth instead of the kiss of death or shattering our dreams?

In his 1950 film Rashomon, the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa depicts the story of a rape and murder four times, from the perspectives of four characters. The message is clear- different people can see the same events in dramatically different ways – and this phenomenon is particularly evident when it comes to failure.

An outcome that an employee regards as satisfactory may be seen by her manager as entirely unacceptable. When a project is an unequivocal flop, colleagues disagree over the reasons why. These reactions, and their effect on workplace relationships, often become more problematic than the original event. As a result, how people respond to failure is of great importance. It’s often harder to lead a team past a failure than it is to help one person. Some people may be very resilient and others might feel more bruised.

Not all failures are created equal, so an understanding of failure’s causes and contexts will help to avoid the blame game and institute an effective strategy for learning from failure. Although an infinite number of things can go wrong in organisations, mistakes fall into three broad categories: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent:

Preventable failures in predictable operations Most failures in this category can indeed be considered ‘bad’, they usually involve deviations from a defined process or routine operation. With proper training and support, employees can follow those processes consistently. When they don’t, deviance, inattention, or lack of ability is usually the reason.

Unavoidable failures in complex systems A large number of failures are due to the inherent uncertainty of work in that a particular combination of issues may have never occurred before. Triaging patients in a hospital emergency room, responding to enemy actions on the battlefield, or running a fast-growing tech start-up all occur in unpredictable situations where system failure is a perpetual risk.

Intelligent failures at the frontier Failures in this category can be considered ‘good’ because they provide valuable new knowledge that can help an organisation leap ahead and ensure its future growth – which is why they are sometimes called ‘intelligent’ failures. They occur when experimentation is necessary, so discovering new drugs, designing an innovative product, and testing customer reactions in a brand-new market are tasks that require intelligent failures – in essence it’s about discovery and ‘trial and error’.

At the frontier, the right kind of experimentation produces good failures quickly and you can avoid the unintelligent failure of conducting experiments at a larger scale than necessary. Tolerating unavoidable process failures in complex systems and intelligent failures at the frontiers of knowledge won’t promote mediocrity. Indeed, tolerance of these failures is essential for any organisation that wishes to extract the knowledge such failures provide.

But putting the type of failure to one side, as a leader of an organisation, how do you face up to your team at the point of failure? How do you dust yourself and your team down, and go again? Here are some thoughts.

First, take control of your own emotions Research shows that a leader’s feelings are far more contagious than a team member’s so do whatever you need to move on from the disappointment yourself so that you’re ready to help your team deal with their crisis recovery. You need to be genuinely in control of your feelings or your team will see through you. Mental toughness is a key leadership quality at a time of failure

Give them space At the same time, you shouldn’t become a ‘beacon of positivity’ before the team is ready. It’s okay to let everyone wallow in negative feelings for a little while before saying ‘Let’s move on’. When you acknowledge the disappointment – with comments like ‘This is tough for us all’ – you’re not just stroking people’s emotions you’re facilitating a critical appraisal of the situation.

Be clear about what went wrong Don’t cover up what happened or resort to simple dismissive comments that abdicate responsibility. Avoid phrases like ‘let’s look on the bright side’, instead, be clear – ‘We didn’t get the result we wanted because they were more talented than us’. When you focus on the facts, you can call it like it is without being demotivating.

Don’t point fingers It’s more important to focus on what’s to blame, rather than who is to blame. If the fault really does lie with one person or a few people, then talk to those individuals in private and focus on their actions, not character, something like: ‘Here’s the mistake you made. It doesn’t mean you’re not in the team, but we need to understand why so it doesn’t happen again and we can move on’. You can also address the group but be sure to do it in a way that doesn’t single anyone out.

Shift the mood At some point it’s also important to move on from analysing the failure to talking about what comes next. The mutual commiserating and examination of what went wrong is useful only up to a point, then pushing the team to look forward and be more strategic, open-minded thinking and discussing how you will avoid similar mistakes in the future. Ensure the tone is positive and energised.

The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible, yet organisations that do it well are extraordinarily rare. This is not due to a lack of commitment to learning, but the lack of a learning culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with, and responsible for, facing up to and learning from failures.

Paradoxically, people feel psychologically safer when leaders are clear about what acts are blameworthy – and there must be consequences – but if someone is punished or fired, tell those directly and indirectly affected what happened and why it warranted blame.

Optimism is key, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, That which does not kill us makes us stronger, after all, isn’t it the lack of fear of failure, a willingness to stumble during a quest, that gives the motivation to spur us onto success against all odds in the first place? Don’t let failure remove your spark, but having said that, embracing failure to encourage entrepreneurship is misguided.

Failure should not be celebrated, yet there is a macho cult of failure at times surrounding entrepreneurship. Accepting that failure is a natural part of doing business, and developing the right perspective on its value, will help fix the fear of failure. But having said that, having done the post-mortem on the analysis of failure, how do you then bounce back from failure and turn it into a success? Here are some thoughts about ‘bounce-back-ability’:

Define success on your own terms Failure is a subjective term, so why pin your sense of self-worth to something that hasn’t happened as you wanted it to? Success is how high you bounce back having hit the bottom. You should not be okay with average. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them.

Find the value in failure I could give you all types of statistics for entrepreneurs that eventually succeeded after abundant failures, and it’s not only about monetary success, but about personal success, bouncing back and continuing to move forward on the path that makes you happy.

Act on what you’ve learned Anything can be useful if we learn from it and then do something with that knowledge. We know that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Alas there is no magical formula for telling us what to keep doing and what to do differently. We have to gauge for ourselves what’s working and where we could improve and then we have to keep going, knowing full well there are no guarantees.

Focus on the process, not the results Just because you didn’t reach a specific outcome, that doesn’t mean you can’t still do what you’d like to do. It’s not over just because you didn’t hit one specific outcome. If you keep going, you will inevitably identify new possibilities – adopting a process-oriented approach means it is easier to be mindful and focus on the action steps.

Stay Positive Keep your self-belief and keep your eyes open, you will inevitably see opportunities when the mist clears. It’s the difference between walking with your head held high reaching for the sky and walking with your gaze on your feet and seeing only puddles.

Find opportunities in adversity I forget where I recently read this story, but a young boy was looking to get a job. Everywhere he went, he heard they weren’t hiring, so he decided to set a new goal: for each company he visited, he would either get a job or sell them a “Not hiring” sign which he would make.

Failure is an opportunity to try again through revised eyes, but it should never stop you trying because you’re afraid to do so – reflect, learn, go again. Failure is a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change course, or you’re not ready yet. Failure is not thinking you’ve failed, rather that you need to go better next time.

We all want to feel free to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. What we need is also the same – to realise success isn’t about getting where you want to be, rather it’s about accepting and appreciating where you are at each point.

Whilst we want to be positive and optimistic, there are times when life doesn’t go according to plan and we get disappointed – last week showed me that. The challenge is to ensure that the impacts of our disappointments are minimal and to bounce back as quickly as possible whilst still acknowledging the let-down and not living in denial.

I read an interesting blog by James Clear (http://jamesclear.com/), which inspired me. It talks about the two identities we all have – Big Me and Little Me. Big Me is the version of you that comes out when you’re at your best, the identity you display when you live up to your potential, and achieve your goals. Big Me is who you are when you’re fully engaged in life rather than partially engaged. Big Me is you on top of your game.

On the other hand, Little Me is the version of yourself that shows up when you’re inconsistent, when you lack focus, and when you fall short of your potential. Little Me is that side of you that makes excuses and hesitates when faced with uncertainty or discomfort, and sulks in the pool of failure.

Here’s the thing about Big Me and Little Me – they are not different people, they are two versions of the same person and these two versions of yourself compete to show up on any given day. So what makes the difference?

We all have good days every now and then, days when we feel motivated, productive, powerful, and healthy. But having a good day every day is really hard. What makes the difference between the days when you show up as the Big Me version of yourself versus the Little Me version of yourself? It’s all about choosing your attitude, do you kick-start or sit-back?

For me, keep pushing yourself forward and maintain your enthusiasm for life is the answer – to quote Winston Churchill, Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. For me, maximum effort is the minimum requirement, I simply keep going, being relentless, being limitless, but not simply doing the same thing as last time. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress. I’ve written it on a post-it-note and pinned it to my study wall. Just like Burnley and the Labour Party, I’ll bounce back, with agile thinking, clumsy fingers and the need for more practice won’t stop Big Me passing that saxophone exam again.

Cake Solutions: the magic of the Moleskine and the ‘art of possible’

It was a great day at Cake Solutions (www.cakesolutions.net) last week, when a box arrived and everyone received a Moleskine notebook. I’ve always kept a notebook or journal, for work and private scribblings, but not owned a Moleskine for years, so I was delighted to receive a new one and resurrect my relationship with a trusted companion!

It all started many years ago, with a pocket-sized black object, the product of a great tradition. The Moleskine notebook is the heir and successor to the legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries, among them Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Henri Matisse.

A simple black rectangle with rounded corners, an elastic page-holder, and an internal expandable pocket, the Moleskine was produced for over a century by a small French bookbinder that supplied the stationery shops of Paris, where the artistic and literary avant-gardes of the world browsed and bought them. A trusted and handy travel companion, the notebook held invaluable sketches, notes, stories, and ideas that would one day become famous paintings or the pages of beloved books.

In the 1980s, these notebooks became increasingly scarce, and then vanished entirely, the manufacturer, a small family-owned company in the French city of Tours, went out of business. Le vrai moleskine n’est plus, were the lapidary words from the mouth of the owner of the stationery shop in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, where artists usually purchased them.

In 1997, Modo & Modo, a small Milanese publisher, brought the legendary notebook back to life, and resurrected the name with a literary pedigree to revive an extraordinary tradition. Today, Moleskine notebooks have resumed their travels, providing an indispensable counterpart to the new portable technology. Capturing reality in writing from movement, glimpsing and recording details, inscribing the unique nature of experience on paper, that stores ideas and feelings, releasing its energy over time, is far more intimate than digital recording.

I’m a huge advocate of the Moleskine as a tool for ubiquitous capture of thoughts, jotting down ideas whenever and wherever they occur to me. I kept my Moleskine for brainstorming ideas, trying to emulate the original great thinkers who used the notebook. I also used it as a conversation log, to take notes about all my conversations – or even ones that I overhear – that give me new ideas or insights, stimulating my thinking. It becomes a ‘mind atlas’, a book of mind-maps.

Many of us have a notebook obsession. I know I do. A blank notebook is full of promise. It’s an opportunity to reflect, to create, and to express yourself. I’ve kept all my old notebooks since I started work, so I have a record of my journey, my thinking, my conversations and my inspirations.

My notebooks and Moleskins are of no consequence to anyone other than myself, unlike the collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, probably the most valuable notebooks ever created, which are beautiful works of art in themselves. Leonardo’s notebooks are a fascinating insight into his mind, they encompass all the interests and experiments of this self-taught polymath, from mathematics to flying machines to art.

Da Vinci’s notebooks span most of his life as an artist, engineer and philosopher, he wrote in them daily, finishing with around 13,000 pages of work. However, because Renaissance humanities did not care to mix art and science, most of Da Vinci’s findings were left unrecognised until his death.

Most of Da Vinci’s work as a scientist also went unnoticed by scholars because of his lack of formal education in Latin and mathematics. Even more interesting is that Da Vinci wrote mostly in code, or backwards lettering to throw off those who read his work, as protection from thieves and those who could use this work for wrong doing, although many of his ideas and inventions went without notice during his life.

Given the time and place of his existence, the contents of his notebooks are quite a marvel. Many of his inventions were ideas thought up far before their time, such as helicopters, gliders and parachutes, all realised hundreds of years before they were actually created. Anatomical studies are also very plentiful in Da Vinci’s notebooks.

The diagrams and illustrations in Da Vinci’s notebooks are not only extremely accurate for their time, they are also far ahead of their time. Da Vinci truly embodied the term Renaissance. Not only did he make lasting contributions to the world of art, but also to the world of engineering. Although the world had not awoken to Da Vinci’s new methods of science, he translated his findings into his paintings, bringing his findings into the light, and subsequently furthering the greatest revolution in time.

Modern inventions such as tanks, water pumps and other machines can be traced back to Da Vinci’s notebooks. His dissection methods and diagrams were so well done and accurate that they are still used by students today. The cultural influences Da Vinci and his secret notebooks had on the world lasted for generations and will most likely continue to inspire generations to come. His notebooks reflected his artistic innovations and natural philosophy based on his careful observation and precise scientific analysis.

The richness and vividness of Da Vinci’s vocabulary are the result of intense self-study and represent a significant contribution to the evolution of scientific thinking, thousands of closely written pages abundantly illustrated with sketches, they represent the most voluminous literary legacy any one has ever left behind. Through his notebooks we can get an insight into Leonardo’s thoughts, and his approach to work and life.

His notebooks are a tumultuous, sprawling feast of words and images, covering the astonishing range of his mind as he moves from problems of mechanics to art. These really are working notes, not a manuscript being readied for publication, and Leonardo has no hesitation in adding a personal reminder or practical memo right in the middle of a sheet of mathematical studies.

Anyone can study the mind of Leonardo through his notebooks. The digitised British Library collection is just one more step in a process that started in the C19th when JP Richter transcribed and translated a broad selection of Da Vinci’s notebooks.

I’ve found that writing, especially self-exploratory writing done on a regular basis into a personal journal, has contributed to my emotional well-being and created a strong sense of self-knowledge and self-trust. I find that writing is therapeutic, it helps to release tension, and it can even be used as a form of experimentation. Writing gives insight, it gives perspective, it’s a problem-solving technique, and it can serve as an outlet for bottled up emotions or for creative expression. Journaling is a great way to introduce self-exploratory writing into your life.

There are two writing techniques or journaling methods which I’ve adopted to make my writing more satisfying, efficient, and effective. These two methods are:

  • Proprioceptive Writing
  • Morning Pages

Proprioceptive Writing is a writing practice created by Linda Metcalf. Her book, Writing the Mind Alive: The Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice, provides for a writing practice that consists of listening to your thoughts and slowing down the thought process to the time it takes to write down what you’re thinking. It involves inner listening and an honest exploration of your thoughts. In addition, it connects your mind with your emotions, and it strengthens your sense of self.

Although you’re asked to listen to yourself and to reflect on what you’re thinking, you’re not to judge or critique what you’re writing down. Think of yourself as an archaeologist on a dig, curiously scrutinising and examining each thought, without judgment. At the end you can read what you wrote out loud to yourself so that you can hear your thoughts again in your own voice. This practice helps to explore your mind, reconnect with your inner self and with your emotions, and find your authentic voice. I use it with mind-mapping to layout some madcap thinking, and it works a treat.

Mental clutter or debris stands in the way of our creative potential. ‘Morning Pages’ is a tool to help you clear out this debris. As the name suggests, ‘Morning Pages are to be done in the morning; the waking mind is more open to free-form writing and can more easily jump from one subject to another without the constraints set by reason.

When writing your ‘Morning Pages’ there is no time limit, instead, you write until you’ve filled three pages in long hand. This takes me from twenty minutes some mornings, to forty-five minutes, and it often depends how patient the dog is as to when I get the time to complete – before or after that first walk of the day. I simply write down anything that comes to mind for three pages and then stop. I think of them as a holding spot for my thoughts, feelings, and ideas. In addition, it’s a place for inspirations to emerge. Some days I can do good stuff, some days less so, but it’s a technique that is firmly established as a 6am routine. I’m finding Twitter offers some value to me at this time of day, as a way of finding and sharing my thoughts in a complimentary digital format.

Studies conducted by psychologists have traced many benefits to the practice of writing things down on a regular basis, and I’ve tried to copy Leonardo da Vinci’s habit of always taking a notebook with me. The simple act of writing down ideas allows me to dwell on them and to improve them over time. I often start with ‘note to self:’ recording interesting conversations I overhear, capturing ideas for blog posts, jotting down one-liners I come up with – or just to capture random thoughts and insights.

I’m also a squirrel for capturing writing and thinking of others in newspapers or magazines, weekly and monthly publications. I tear the pages out, I love the physicality of having their thinking with me on scraps of paper stuffed into my journal and taken along for reading wherever I may be. I’m a digital magpie too with more bookmarks than I know what to do with.

I don’t fear the blank page. I find the experience of keeping a journal much more creative on paper than on a computer. I’ve tried to do it on various digital devices but it has no authenticity and seems to lack purpose. When I write, I’m physically immersed in my own thinking and slow down, whereas on screen, I use my senses in a less engaged way – and I skim more, and I’ve got concrete fingers which don’t help with efficiency and flow of the keyboard. Something different happens to my brain when I put pen to paper, the pace of writing or drawing diagrams slows you down and gives you more time for thoughts to come in, creating richer pictures.

The whole point is getting stuff on the blank page, and with Cake Solutions’ core values being ‘the art of possible’, the Moleskine is the best tool for us to create some disruptive thinking. I use a lot of ‘let’s see where this could go’ style of thinking in my own work, and consequently I just drop stuff onto the page and see what happens. I think we’ll all benefit at Cake from the magic of the Moleskine.

So with my new Moleskin, I’m off up and running, moving from an ordinary bound journal to a special journal once again, with heritage and meaning, standing on the shoulders of giants. Often, we don’t try things, because we think we know what’s going to happen: we make assumptions about outcomes. When you keep a Moleskine, you realise that the really interesting thing is not knowing what will happen, and discovering an unexpected result, and you live and breathe ‘the art of possible’.

So, great thinking times lie ahead for everyone at Cake with our new Moleskines. Learning never exhausts the mind, and simplicity of thinking in a journal is the ultimate sophistication, all our knowledge has its origin in perceptions, so let the journaling begin!

Lessons from le Tour: strategy is a team effort

The 2014 Tour de France returned to the UK for the fourth time in its history this weekend, with Yorkshire hosting the Grand Depart. There are two further stages in Britain, before moving over to France, finishing in Paris July 27 after 3,664km pedalling. With very few time trials, it looks like being a race for the climbers, and Chris Froome will be favourite once again.

Le Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España make up cycling’s prestigious, three-week-long Grand Tours. Traditionally held in July, while Le Tour route changes each year, it consists of 20 day-long stages over a 23-day period.The race alternates between clockwise and anticlockwise circuits of France.The number of teams usually varies between 20 and 22, with nine riders in each.

All of the stages are timed to the finish; after finishing the riders’ times are compounded with their previous stage times.The rider with the lowest aggregate time is the leader of the race and gets to don the coveted yellow jersey. While the yellow jersey and overall winner garners the most attention, there are other contests held within Le Tour for sprinters, for the climbers – ‘King of the Mountains’ – and for the fastest teams.

Riders in most stages start together. The first kilometres, the départ fictif, are a rolling start without racing, the real start, the départ réel is announced by Le Tour director waving a white flag. Riders are permitted to touch, but not push or nudge, each other.

The first to cross the stage finish line wins the stage. All riders in a group finish in the same time as the lead rider. This avoids dangerous mass sprints. It is not unusual for the entire field to finish in a group, a peloton, taking time to cross the line but being credited with the same time.

After 23 days’ competition, Stage 20 will be the usual ceremonial route through the outskirts of Paris, ending on the Champs Élysées after seven increasingly charged laps around the city centre. Whoever ends up wearing yellow on the top step of the podium come the 27 July will certainly have earned it after a relentless route.

Le Tour stems from the ‘Dreyfus Affair’, a cause celebre that divided France at the end of the C19th over the innocence of Dreyfus, a soldier convicted, though later exonerated, of selling military secrets to the Germans. Opinions were heated and there were demonstrations by both sides.  At an incident at Auteuil, Pierre Giffard, editor of Le Velo, the largest daily sports newspaper in France, thought Dreyfus innocent and reported the arrest in a way that displeased Edouard Michelin, who in response, opened a rival daily sports paper, L’Auto.

L’Auto was not a success. Stagnating sales led to a crisis meeting where the chief cycling journalist, Geo Lefèvre suggested a six-day race around France as a means to sell more newspapers. Henri Desgrange, editor of L’Auto, designed and announced the race on 19 January 1903.

The first Le Tour was a five-stage race from 31 May to 5 July 1903, starting in Paris and stopping in Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux and Nantes before returning to Paris. Le Tour started outside the Café Reveil-Matin at the junction of the Melun and Corbeil roads in the village of Montgeron. It was waved away by the starter, Georges Abran, at 3.16pm, 1 July 1903. Maurice Garin was the first winner.

Garin was awarded a yellow armband, yellow was chosen as L’Auto printed its newspapers on yellow paper. The yellow jersey was added to the race in the 1919, the first rider to wear it was Eugene Christophe. Eddy Merckx has worn the yellow jersey for 96 stages, more than any other rider in history, whilst four riders have won the race five times in their career – Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain (a record five consecutive wins).

I am a massive Le Tour fan, I watch it every year captivated by the relentless effort, the speed, the breakaways, the mountains, the rivalry. But I have been struck by something else – the way the cyclists work together.

For the majority, Le Tour is not about winning. The great myth is that the riders are all engaged in the main narrative, the battle for yellow, but Le Tour is unique for the way it blurs the distinction between individual and team competition. Some may see Bradley Wiggins’s triumph in 2012, the first by a Briton, as one of the supreme solo performances in the country’s sporting history, but it was only possible because of the dedication of his director, mechanics and, above all, teammates.

Only a select few of the 190-odd riders who start Le Tour harbour realistic ambitions of riding through Paris on the final stage, wearing the winner’s yellow jersey. Among the rest are specialist climbers chasing the ‘King of the Mountains’ title and sprinters, who come alive only at certain points in a stage. Then there are the domestiques (‘servants’), who do whatever is required to support their team leader.

The name of this last group was coined pejoratively by Henri Desgrange, the race founder. Desgrange believed that the perfect Tour was one that was so punishing that only a single rider would finish. The idea of a cyclist sacrificing himself to help another was abhorrent, yet in pursuing his vision, Desgrange made Le Tour so difficult that he ended up creating a culture of co-operation.

Today, the domestiques has evolved to perhaps the best example of collaborative team philosophy. Everyone who cycles Le Tour comes together to get their best people ahead. The top rider in each team has a whole group of riders around him who make the pace, ride in front of him to help him up the mountain, protect him from crashes – the works. There’s no way Wiggins or Froome could win without his team.

But unlike other team sports, Le Tour is won by an individual rider. The team put their talents at the service of one man who can achieve greatness. They are rewarded by the bigger goal of being part of the winning team that made it happen.

Le Tour is about teamwork and playing to your individual strengths, something quite unique. An individual, no matter how strong, cannot make it over a 3,000km long race alone. Technical, logistical, tactical and moral assistance from a well-organised and resourced team is key for success just as small details and a few seconds, here or there, can decide the race winner.

Collaboration of the people involved on the road and behind the scenes makes the difference. In Le Tour, like in business, talent and strength can win a stage, but clear strategy and dependable teamwork are what wins a high placing in the overall standings.

It might sound obvious, but consider how interlinked you are in your business. Who do you depend on to give you their best performance day in, day out? Whose success depends on you? Do you know the strengths, and weaknesses, of your team-mates? Do you have collaborative competence?

So what can we take from Le Tour by way of how to effect collaboration in our businesses?

Equipment matters but team matters more It is easy to get seduced into the kit and the gadgets. Carbon fibre bikes with lightweight components and apps that can tell you every detail of your ride. But the kit will never differentiate your performance for long, the way a team works is far harder to copy and is what sets winners apart from runners up.

Getting the people issues right in business often goes into the ‘too hard’ box and is ignored, while investment is poured into equipment or other areas that are easier to understand. If you want your team to flourish, you will need to invest in it.

Energy management is more important than time management In the race it is the relative time to other riders that matters, not the absolute time. The rider who wins over three weeks is the one who manages their energy best. They avoid wasting energy by riding in the wind or attacking when they don’t have to.

Time pressure is often an illusion. We all know that when we are working on something we are passionate about time is rarely a problem; it is when we are working on things that are hard that we run out of time. The ideal team will have specialists who are passionate about all areas that need to be covered, so that everyone can stay as energised as possible.

Train as a team A cyclist wanting to win Le Tour will have started their specific training the previous November, with a tailored programme over the spring, riding thousands of kilometres before they get to the start line. Riders will work with coaches, strategists, psychologists, doctors, nutritionists, physiologists and masseurs to ensure that they are in peak mental and physical condition for the race.

If we want the best from ourselves and our team, we need to take responsibility for our training, but also to ensure we’re connected in our development. There is so much that a leader needs to know – not just about their specialist subject, but also about psychology, marketing, communication, technology, etc., collaborative learning sparks performance.

Integrate collaboration into the flow of work Collaboration is an intrinsic element to the way a Tour team works, inbuilt to their psyche and way of being. It’s not seen as something to work on, rather collaboration fits naturally into the flow of work. Collaboration is a core organisation value.

It’s important to remember that collaboration is perpetual, a never-ending evolution. This means that it’s important for your organisation to be able to adapt and evolve as things change. Keep a pulse on what’s going on in the industry and inside of your organisation. This will allow you to innovate and anticipate.

Sometimes leaders follow – learn to get out of the way Cycling is brutally meritocratic. The team may nominate a ‘leader’ for Le Tour, but if that leader loses time, leadership moves to where it is most relevant. Cycling is both a team sport and an individual sport. Team members sacrifice their individual ambition for that of the team and the team leader. However, if the leader does not have the strength to win, or if they are so far ahead that they don’t need to, they gain more credibility with their team mates for next time by helping one of them to win. Leadership is emergent.

For a leader to remain the leader in business, they have to perform. In hierarchies, ‘leadership’ is appointed; in teams, it is emergent and dynamic. Every member is expected to take responsibility and contribute what they can: sometimes that means leading, sometimes that means following.

Measure what matters: the last 1% makes all the difference In the Tour, you might lead any of the stages by a crushing margin right up to the last kilometre of the last stage, but it is worth nothing if you don’t finish. Not everyone is cycling for their own yellow jersey, and whilst I am not advocating complete harmony and collaboration nor a complete subjugation of ourselves or our organisations, if combined effort wins the race, not everyone can be the front man.

There are a lot of things that an organisation can measure but that doesn’t mean that all of these things should be measured. Focus on the metrics that matter. Some organisations focus on ‘busy’ metrics such as web site visitors, others focus on metrics such as engagement, defined as how connected a potential customer lead is.

Protect your star cyclists In cycling, the star rider is usually a specialist who can climb or sprint better than the others. The team will ride to protect that rider and save their energy for the key moments of the race, when they can make the difference. The team will pace them back to the front if they stop for a pee or a mechanical problem and spend hours riding in front of them to protect them from the wind.

Most organisations also have a star, the best designer, sales person, or technologist. To make the most of that skill, the rest of the team needs to rally round and ensure they can focus time and energy on doing what they do best – although the team also needs to treat the stars carefully to avoid them becoming prima donnas.

For Le Tour, more collaboration means more progress, and ultimately more success. In business, the more people you collaborate with, the faster you go. The more people who share the work at the front, offering others their slipstream, the faster and further you will go. It is common for a group of riders to get ahead at the beginning of a stage. If this group is big enough and gets far enough ahead, they might be able to stay in front. But when the peloton, the chasing pack, gets organised they will probably go faster, and catch up.

In business, collaboration enables increased responsiveness, economies of scale and working smarter, increasing capacity and focusing expertise so that more can be achieved in less time and for less cost. Waste can be reduced by better decision-making and a broader understanding of the bigger picture of activity. Investments can be made once so that the wheel is not reinvented over and over again.

Business is not a solo act, unity is strength, gang up on a challenge, you don’t need to win personally, the best idea needs to win, every collaboration helps you grow. When there is collaboration, amazing things can be achieved, greater than the collective strength of each individual. Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much, and realise that behind every great person, is a bunch of other great people. As Isaac Newton said, I have seen it further by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Kasparov’s agile thinking: business lessons from the game of chess

It’s 1874, and you’ve just invented the telephone. After hi-fives with your friend Watson, you head down to Western Union, then the greatest communications company in the world, and showcase your work. Despite your excellent pitch (a century before PowerPoint), they turn you down on the spot, call the telephone a useless toy, and show you the door. Would you have given up? What if the next ten companies turn you down?

Fortunately, Alexander Graham Bell didn’t listen to the folks at Western Union. He started his own business and changed the world, ultimately paving the way for the mobile device in our pocket today.

Everyone who has taken a shower has had an idea. It’s the person who gets out, dries off and does something about it – like Bell – that makes a difference. That’s Innovation – new thinking, big, fresh ideas. Big doesn’t imply anything about an idea’s scope or scale, but about its potential impact on your customers. Do you have a Big Idea?

Innovation is also the process of taking new ideas to customers – agile thinking. It is the conversion of new knowledge into new products and services, moving from imagination to impact, from innovation to invoice.

In any business, you need the right mind-set and culture to make it happen. I believe that there are five types of mind-set from my experience in business, which is yours?

  • Those that did not know that anything had happened – Senile
  • Those who wonder what happened – Futile
  • Those who watch things happen – Docile
  • Those who think they make things happen – Fragile
  • Those who make things happen – Agile

Agile thinkers make things happen, building innovation as a core competence within the culture of the organisation to seize their opportunities. For innovation to flourish in an organisation, both freedom and discipline must be present – freedom to imagine what is possible and discipline to turn ideas into action. Now if freedom and discipline are to be a duality rather than a dichotomy, how do you get the balance right?

Garry Kasparov, Grandmaster and World Chess Champion shares how he combined disruptive and disciplined approaches to bring him success in chess – a result of calculation, foresight and intuition. His book How life imitates chess is a must read for chess players and business thinkers alike.

It’s about having the vision to see 15 moves ahead, but you don’t need to appreciate chess to enjoy this book. Kasparov highlights long-term strategy, short-term gains, being creative in the ‘middle game’ in terms of chess, and how important decision-making is at any stage of the game. We do need to think ahead in business, if not for 10 moves, but then at least truly think through options and the consequences – that’s not calculating, it’s common sense.

Chess is really about psychology and intuition because the mathematics get complex very quickly. For me, the main take away of chess to business is the ability to recognise patterns, which can be exploited through practice and repetition. Kasparov illustrates that the unlimited number of subtle and intricate potential moves that lie within the 64 squares of a chessboard are totally applicable to business, how the game can help you step back and evaluate yourself to identify you strengths and weaknesses and thus better your game.

Kasparov is probably the greatest chess player of all time. His 120 games in a three-year struggle against Anatoly Karpov was one of the most intense head-to-head rivalries in sport history. Nobody has played chess so aggressively at such a high level for so long. The book contains some inspiring thoughts. Here are some quotes:

  • You must know what questions to ask and ask them frequently.
  • What am I trying to achieve and how does this move help me achieve it?
  • The virtue of innovation only rarely compensates for the vice of inadequacy.
  • We must also avoid being distracted from our strategic path by the competition.
  • Top achievers believe in themselves and their plans, and they work constantly to ensure those plans are worthy of their belief. 
  • Questions are what matters. Questions, and discovering the right ones, are the key to staying on course. 
  • Steady effort pays off, even if not always in an immediate, tangible way.

I am a passionate chessman, I love the game. Occasionally I have been a sacrificial pawn, but never a knight or a bishop – hells teeth, the mere thought of wearing a cassock makes me queasy. I would have liked to live in a castle or be king, but my ancestors made the wrong moves ages ago.

Although a social player, I once played in the university championships. This was during a flu epidemic when the brightest and best players in the team were sick, and I was the only one left who knew the moves to make up the team. My opponent was a dazzlingly pretty girl from Bath who captured my pieces in no time. Bad move. She buzzed off with our team captain, who knew how to mate, which I patently didn’t.

But enough frivolity, which Kasparov wouldn’t approve. What are the business lessons we can take from Kasparov’s thinking of a world-class chess player?

Know your weaknesses and strengths Self-awareness is essential to being able to combine your knowledge, experience and talent to reach your peak performance.  The key to developing successful strategies is to know what you do well. You must also be aware of your limitations.

The first phase in a chess game: the opening The purpose of the opening isn’t just to get through it, it’s to set the stage for the type of middle game you want. This can also mean manoeuvring for the type of game your opponent doesn’t want.  The openings are the only phase in which there is the possibility of unique application, you can find something that no one else has found. Be first, and be brave is the lesson for business.

The second phase: the middle game What sort of middle game is our opening going to lead to? Is it one we are prepared for? We must also play the middle game with an eye on the endgame. In business, it’s important to have a strategy, tactics and a game plan.

Decision-making: understand the rationale behind every move We all make our decisions based on a combination of analysis and experience. We have to be able to take a wider view so that we can evaluate the deeper consequences of our tactical decisions.

The best move The best move might be so obvious that it’s not necessary to spend time working out the details, especially if time is of the essence. However, often when we assume something is obvious and react hastily we make a mistake. More often we should break routine by doing more analysis, not less. These are the moments when your instincts tell you that there is something lurking below the surface, but take a moment to validate.

Dream a little, don’t settle automatically for routine solutions The paradox of chess is that there is a routine set down my mathematics to make a strong move based on its objective merits. But recall Kasparov was a combination of freedom and discipline, sober evaluation and calculation mixed with outlandish ideas. In business, you won’t find new ways of solving problems unless you look for new ways and have the nerve to try them when you find them, but ensure flair doesn’t mean or you spend your life making beautiful blunders.

The future is a result of the decisions you make in the present The strategist starts with a vision of the future and works backwards to the present. A Grandmaster makes the best moves because they are based on what he wants the board to look like ten or twenty moves ahead. This doesn’t require the calculation of countless twenty-move variations, but an evaluation where his fortunes lie in the position and establishes objectives. He works out the step-by-step moves to accomplish those aims.

Have a game plan Too often we set a goal and head straight for it without considering all the steps that will be required to achieve it. If you work without long-term goals your decisions will become purely reactive and you’ll be playing your opponent’s game, not your own. As you jump from one new thing to the next you will be pulled off course, caught up in what’s right in front of you, instead of what you need to achieve. Have a vision of success, clarity and focus in your strategy.

Intuition & analysis Even the most honed intuition can’t entirely do without analysis. Intuition is where it all comes together – our experience, knowledge and judgement – or even hunches. But it doesn’t matter how far ahead you see if you don’t understand what you are looking at before you, so combine the two. No matter how much practice you have and how much you trust your gut instincts, analysis is essential.

Attack An attack doesn’t have to be all or nothing, or lightning quick. Sustained pressure can be very effective, and creating long-term weaknesses in our opponent’s position can lead to a win in the long run. One of the qualities of a great attacker is to get the maximum out of a position without overstepping and trying to achieve more than what is possible.

In business, going on the front-foot requires perfect timing as well as nerve. The window of opportunity is often very small, as with most dynamic situations. No neon sign appears to say that there is a big opportunity right around the corner, so balance opportunity with rationale – back to the combination of freedom and discipline in your game plan.

Initiative Once you have the initiative you must exploit it. Kasparov reminds us that the player with the advantage is obliged to attack or his advantage will surely be lost. In business, a lead in initiative can be converted into a sustainable position. Being a step ahead means we can keep our competition off balance, shifting and moving in order to provoke weaknesses.

In chess, the defender has to race around to cover the threats, but against constant pressure the job soon becomes impossible. Moving to cover one breach creates another until something cracks and the attack breaks through. In chess we have the ‘principle of two weaknesses’. It’s rare to be able to win a game with only a single point of attack. Instead of becoming fixated on one spot, we must exploit our pressure to provoke more weak spots.  So a large part of using the initiative is mobility, flexibility and diversion. In business, it’s a combination of product, service and price that creates a winning position.

When you are winning game after game Winning creates the illusion that everything is fine, success is seldom analysed as closely as failure and we are always quick to attribute our victories to superiority, rather than circumstance. When things are going well it is even more important to question. Over-confidence leads to mistakes, a feeling that anything is good enough.  Our egos want to believe that we won brilliantly against tough competition, not that we were lucky and ‘right time, right place’. 

Kasparov shows that if we’re going to get the most out of our talent we have to be prepared to have a game plan, practice, think on the spot, analyse ourselves critically and improve our weakest points. The easiest thing is to rely on talent and focus only on what we do well. It’s true that you want to play to your strengths, but if there is too much of an imbalance growth is limited. In business, the fastest way to improve overall is to work on your total game, and all the constituent parts.

It’s important not to listen to the stereotypes we have of ourselves. Our own opinions of our abilities are often wildly inaccurate, driven by one or two incidents or comparisons. Chess is a mental game, but requires vision, tenacity, thoughtfulness, and multiple tactics. From this we can take the thought that in business we can look for ways to experiment and to push the boundaries of our capacity in different areas, it really is a combination of disruptive and disciplined approaches, and agile thinking.