The twelve days of Christmas for a tech startup entrepreneur

It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur. If you can get into a position where you sit at the intersection of a sizeable market, build a high-performing team and create a great product, this is your time. This is the age of the startup, the leverage afforded to startup founders today is immeasurably greater than that previous generations due to the internet.

Startups can be global from the outset, addressable markets have multiplied through the reach of direct-to-consumer distribution channels  of app stores and cloud platforms, superceding physical borders and boundaries of time.

Those startups with global ambitions combine scalable, pre-built components from public cloud vendors, API services and the open source community, and deploy them on open platforms. Platform openness means fewer barriers between a startup and its customers and fewer technical dependencies, and thus scaling can be reached earlier – Uber and Airbnb show this.

A rising new generation of global tech firms are now officially the most valuable companies in the world: Apple, Alphabet/Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook. We’re living a staggering rotation of economic value, out with the incumbent companies in financial services, industrial, and consumer products, replaced by companies centered around software, data and technology-enabled services.

Whilst these firms were all Silicon Valley startups, don’t blink, because coming over the horizon from the East are a set of equally formidable tech giants in Tencent, Alibaba, and China Mobile, each of which reached the global top twenty ranks this year. These companies are fast adopting and inventing new bases of value that support lucrative scale, from networks, data, and the interconnection of communities, consumers and businesses.

None of the new tech giants endured gruelling hundred-year-company-building efforts. The median age of the new guard is closer to 15–20 years, versus 75–100 years for the incumbents who ruled the decades before. Joining these ranks just doesn’t require the sort of multi-generational company building we’ve seen before – the internet has created their markets.

The internet creates new opportunities for value creation. With a focus on disciplined and sustainable growth from clear business model leverage, this means thinking early and often about how to architect product and distribution together as a single, efficient offering. ‘Product’ is no longer just the bits of software, it’s also how the software is sold, supported and made successful with future revenue goals and product roadmaps in mind. Currently, the focus is around data-centricity, artificial intelligence, machine learning and intelligent workflow.

Against the backdrop of the march and ubiquity of tech sector growth and its reach into our everyday lives, we have the stark contrast of the humanity and traditions of Christmas. It’s almost a throwback experience to where time has stood still. For me, it’s about mince pies and mulled wine, time spent with family and friends, when people matter more than devices, and social connection means real face-to-face conversation replacing the screen for social media exchanges.

Indeed, throughout December, I’ve heard The Twelve Days of Christmas everywhere from radio commercials and shopping centres, but especially in carol services where it’s live music performance, not digital downloads. Everywhere you go, you can hear about Three French Hens, Seven Swans-a-Swimming and Eleven Pipers Piping. But what does any of this mean? What does a song about doves, hens and geese have to do with Christmas, and relevance to today’s tech driven economy?

The carol has its origins in C18th England, as a memory-and-forfeit game sung by children, whereby children had to remember all of the previous verses and add a new verse at the end. Those unable to remember a verse paid a forfeit, in the form of a kiss or a piece of candy to the others. Today, these verses are what we associate with the days from December 25 to the Epiphany on January 6, as the day when the manifestation of Christ’s glory was realised.

However, my thoughts are that you can enjoy the traditions of Christmas as a tech entrepreneur by using the twelve days of Christmas in a relaxed but constructive way, taking advantage of the holiday to take reflection in a quiet, calm moment to yourself, have a time out for some clear thinking when out for an early morning walk and thoughtful review of your business journey over the previous twelve months without the fear of those unanswered emails lurking in your inbox.

So here are my actions for the ‘Twelve Business Days of Christmas’

Day One: Reframe First and foremost, simply bemoaning your luck for mot achieving what you set out to achieve at the start of the year by complaining about your competition or lack of customers won’t help. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost, you need to reboot and look forward. What are you aiming for? What does success looks like in 12 months time? What are you going to do differently this time that will create a different set of outcomes? There’s no point in feeling sorry for yourself, get a grip, reframe your own future.

Day Two: Restart Forget about how you’ve done business in the past, it was good enough then but it won’t give you the results you want in the future. The new order of tech companies show how the balance shifts dramatically is short time frames. In order to become the best business you can be, start with a clean sheet of paper. Who is my ideal customer? What is their persona? Why should customers buy from you and not others?  Don’t get stuck in a rut, press the restart button and don’t be afraid, take a new bold, fresh approach. The same actions as last year will get you the same results – if you’re lucky.

Day Three: Rebalance The end result of your entrepreneurial risk taking should be freedom and fulfilment, not continuous hard work and a feeling of déjà vu. Dedicate time to rebalance your monthly, weekly, daily activities. If it’s all the business of today, who is steering towards the business of tomorrow? Specify what you should be doing, working ‘on’ the business, and not simply ‘in’, and rebalance your priorities. What is your North Star for the next twelve months?

Day Four: Revisit How can you succeed against a myriad of low-cost competitors? Offering the same thing as every competitor provides no advantage, and short-term pricing campaigns offer no sustainable long-term plan, so revisit your business strategy and business model to ensure they are viable and will build a winning business. Identify what markets and products will work in the next 12 months, and develop your value proposition accordingly.

Day Five: Revitalise Is the new year the time to revitalise your product offering in terms of features, benefits and customer experience? Could you layer on new capabilities to enhance stable underlying core processes to improve customer engagement? Analytics are another common area of focus – introducing cognitive techniques to better meet descriptive reporting needs and introduce predictive and prescriptive capabilities could take you forward. Talk to your customers and prospects, have a conversation, don’t sell – what are their unmet needs?

Day Six: Refinance The best businesses are also the best financed. Now is the time to take a hard look at your financial strategy, planning, management and systems, and your cash requirements. Prepare a 12-month cashflow, and use this information for strategy, investment and pricing decisions based around serving customer needs. This will give you a clear focus. Money from customers is the applause, but without adequate working capital, you won’t be able to get in front of them.

Day Seven: Restructure Most businesses use the same organisation chart for years without changing it, but over time, the old structure becomes outdated as customer demands change. Perhaps it’s time to restructure and take a look at job roles, skills needed, and responsibilities. Start with a blank piece of paper, what does the structure need to be to deliver the success desired? What are the key roles you don’t currently have? Where re the skills and people gaps for the next 12 months.

Day Eight: Refocus What do you offer or do differently to attract customers? How do you gather new fans of your product? Have you changed your target market or delivery systems to expand your customer base? Is it time to refocus your customer strategy and look for new customers in new markets? We often develop a myopic, inward facing view on our business, spending too much time focused on product not customer, and ignore our marketing and messaging. What does your brand stand for?

Day Nine: Replace: Introduce new solutions for parts of the internal core that have been unchanged for many years. This may mean adopting new processes – have you considered the benefits of a cloud infrastructure? You should ideally use these pivots to revisit the business’s needs to service its customers better, building new capabilities that reflect how work should get done, not simply replicating how work used to get done on the old systems. Today it’s about the customer experience, engagement and providing convenience – do your systems make you easy to do business with, or are your customer facing systems clunky?

Day Ten: Revamp What business routines do you call over and over? Have you called any new plays lately? Your management style must be agile, what new ideas and innovations have you introduced to refresh the business and keep heads up. Think inside out, think like a customer.

Day Eleven: Replatform Upgrade platforms through technical upgrades, updates to software, and migration to modern operating environments (virtualised environments, cloud platforms). Unfortunately, these efforts are rarely ‘lift and shift’ and require thinking, analysis and tailored handling of each specific workload, but now is the time start with the thinking time available.

Day Twelve: Relive Are you living your dream with your business? Why not? Never forget your dream. Write down what you want your business to do for you personally in the next three to five years. Next decide what you must do to turn your vision into reality. Make it personal, so your business enables you to work to live, not live to work. Do you work for your business, or does your business work for you?

I’ve based My ‘Twelve Business Days of Christmas’ on reflective thinking, seeking to learn from experience, making judgements on what has happened, and develop a questioning attitude and new perspectives. We need to identify areas for change and improvement, respond effectively to new challenges, and apply what we have learned to ensure results improve.

The reflective learning cycle is iterative, it doesn’t stop after one rotation, you apply what you learn, then continue to reflect and develop further. Reflecting, evaluating and analysing your own experience of what you did and how you did it over the past twelve months develops your insight.

There is often no right answer, and some things may remain difficult to interpret. How did your actions affect the situation and how did the situation affect you? How do your observations today fit with the benefit of hindsight? Developing your reflective insights means stepping back and taking an honest critique of your own actions, behaviours and attitudes to consider what might be the results of doing things differently.

So enjoy ‘The Twelve Business Days of Christmas’ – but don’t over think the past twelve months, you can’t change the past but you can shape the future. Words make you think, music makes you feel, a song make you feel a thought. It is after all, a great Christmas carol.

The past, the present, the future: take a lesson from Ebenezer Scrooge this Christmas

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was first published on 19 December 1843. It tells the story of a bitter old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, and his transformation resulting from a supernatural visit by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come.

The story’s message of forgiveness, generosity, hope and redemption resonates to this day, it possesses life and business lessons that are every bit as relevant as they were in Victorian England. It is also responsible for giving us many of our holiday customs, including the name ‘Scrooge’ for a miser, the exclamation ‘Bah, humbug!’ and the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ itself.

The core of the story is how Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable, self-focused businessman is transformed into a generous and joyful human being, thanks to the intervention of the spirit of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s business partner who died seven Christmases ago, a tormented ghost to reveal the fate that awaits a terrified but recalcitrant Scrooge.

He informs Scrooge on Christmas Eve that those who do not walk among their fellow humans and treat them with care are condemned to forever walk the earth as spirits who can only observe the things they would now mend, the people they would like to help.

He also drags a chain with heavy moneyboxes and padlocks on it as he walks in spirit form and tells Scrooge that he forged the very fetters he must wear for all eternity while he was alive and indifferent to the needs of those around him.

Scrooge learns that the chain he has forged is a fearsome thing that dwarfs the one Marley must drag behind him. The ghost offers to help Scrooge and tells him that three spirits will visit him to help in his possible salvation.

What follows are visits by three spirits of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet to come. Each spirit guides Scrooge through his own experiences and illuminates the experiences of the people whose lives Scrooge has touched. The spirits succeed, and Scrooge is transformed by their visitations.

Business might be the furthest thing from your mind at this time of year, but as we all gather around the Christmas tree and dinner table it is worth reflecting on the values that A Christmas Carol highlights, and the insights it offers to enrich our business thinking:

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows us the value of perspective. While in the company of the Ghost of Christmas past, Scrooge visits Mr. Fezziwig’s warehouse, where he was an apprentice, just in time for their annual Christmas party. What ensues is an evening of joy, laughter, feasting, music and dancing that awakens a long denied aspect of Scrooge’s personality.

As the evening wanes, and Scrooge and his fellow apprentice are pouring out their hearts in praise of Mr. Fezziwig, the spirit provokes Scrooge to reflect briefly and regretfully on the mistreatment suffered by his employee, Bob Cratchit as a result of his own behaviour.

The contrast to Fezziwig’s leadership, in his sincerity and consistency is plain to see. Fezziwig’s leadership is born of high regard for the people he employs, the Christmas party serves as a celebration of relationship that are already rich and rewarding.

Perspective gives us a sense of what really matters. You must be able to recall, in the heat of the moment, what is most important. If perspective is lost then it is easy to get lost in the transactions of the moment, in doing what is easy rather than what is right, or with a longer term view for your business. Perspective enables us to view our business at a more strategic level, and in doing so, offers greater awareness and options.

The Ghost of Christmas Present provides the second insight to Scrooge and that is the importance of knowing current reality, seeing where you stand in the moment of today. The ghost helps him observe the lives and intentions of others, he gets to see how his employees interact with their family and discovers that the youngest is a little boy, Tiny Tim who is crippled and sickly of body but great in spirit.

The wealthy business-owner could not hold a candle to the brilliant light of Tiny Tim’s heroic spirit and loving heart. The child’s example touched the old miser’s heart. Scrooge was inspired to admit his mistakes and open his heart by Tim’s spirit, in spite of living in a crippled and declining body.

Scrooge sees what he is missing in the moment and how his way of thinking and behaving impact not only his life but also the lives of others. As a business leader, you must know where you stand if you are to form any realistic plans and make positive changes.

Although we can’t accurately predict every factor that will affect business even one year into the future, we need to starting to think now about the possible long-term influences that will change our business, and where the gaps are. In order to prepare your business model today for the future, it’s time to start thinking further into the future now – but you do need a firm grip on reality today in order to move forward.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come The third insight is the need to be brave and seek a transformation for the future. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to a forlorn, unkempt grave site, Scrooge sees his own name written there on the gravestone. He begs the spirit to give him another chance. Part of what Scrooge learns is that his deeds have directed his future. His greed caused him to give up the love of his life. He recognises he needs to change.

After the visits by the three spirits, Scrooge sees what his greed has cost him. He sees people who have so much less than he does and yet that they are far happier than he. As a result of this insight, he is motivated to contribute to charity and to speak kindly to everyone he meets.

He even promotes Bob Cratchit to the position of partner. Scrooge had a faithful employee in Bob Cratchit, but he treated him with disrespect. Scrooge rarely gave the man a day off and even begrudged him burning enough coal to keep warm while he worked.

After the three visits however, Scrooge realises it is not too late to radically change his life. When Cratchit arrives at work a bit late on the day after Christmas, apologising by saying he fears he was ‘making rather merry’ the day before, Scrooge tries to reprimand him. However, the former old miser can hardly contain his newfound joy. Not only does he forgive the infrequent tardiness, but he offers Crachit a pay rise.

The business insights and lessons from A Christmas Carol are clear: first, step back and gain perspective in order to know what is most important; second, take an honest look at your current reality in order to know where you stand. Finally, understand that you have to look forward at all times, and identify where you want to be, and make adjustments – no matter how uncomfortable – to ensure the changes you need to make are enacted.

If we look at this a little closer and at the same time stand back, what are the personal lessons we can all take from A Christmas Carol as we head into the Christmas break? We all know that holidays are good for us, giving time to reflect and evaluate the past year, where we currently stand, and what we can see ahead. However, many of us do not take time off to reflect, we are constantly ‘on’, solving problems, in front of us putting out fires, thinking of ways to grow faster, bigger, better, but in truth, running too fast.

A holiday provides a great opportunity for personal growth in an accelerated way. Yes you rest, you catch up on sleep, you read a book or two, you may be even be lucky enough to fill up on vitamin D and get some sun. But above all, you constantly reflect, absorb and learn. So, what are the key lessons?

The greatest reflection of yourself is how you use your time Whatever you say about what really matters to you, the true test is where you place your time. Whatever you say your priorities, that statement will only be true if your calendar reflects it. The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once, but don’t wait, the time will never be right.

To know what you think, write it down I don’t see many people writing stuff down these days. For me, I am constantly scribbling ideas, comments, thoughts, notes, conversations into a notebook, to let it see light, it’s the best way for me to clarify what I actually think about something. ‘Writing is the painting of the voice’ said Voltaire, for me, I realise that writing is the best way to talk without being interrupted.

Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity You can’t artificially generate curiosity, so you have to follow where yours actually leads. Curiosity ends up being the driving force behind learning and the thirst for knowledge. ‘Millions saw the apple fall but Newton asked why’ said Bernard Baruch. Curiosity did not kill the cat, conventionality did. What are you curious about in your business?

Get outside Sometimes you need to step outside, get some air and remind yourself of who you are and who you want to be. Being on holiday gives you freedom from the usual routine, to breathe the air without interference and to just do stuff. What you think of yourself is much more important than what other people think of you. Be yourself, everyone else is taken, so give yourself some space.

Pay close attention to what you do when you’re alone When no-one else is around, or looking, or talking, when the house is empty, when the afternoon is yours alone, what you choose to do says a lot about you. Pay close attention to where your mind wanders in the shower. Your natural wanderings are your compass to what’s truly interesting to you. Equally, it’s bad enough wasting time without killing time.

Self-control is a finite resource I’m good company for me, I like the idea of solitude, being alone and being content with myself, but I fear loneliness, the pain of being alone, and I’ve never been lonely, an exposed position. However, you can only ask so much of yourself each day, you’ll snap or warp or splinter if you ask too much. You have a limited capacity to direct yourself a certain way. I now realise there are boundaries to being independent.

Put yourself in places that make you nervous Nerves are really the only way to know that you’re being stretched. If there hasn’t been a moment of nerves in your life for a month, it might be worthwhile asking if you’re pushing hard enough. Step outside your comfort zone into the learning zone. If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got. Great people did not achieve great things by staying in their comfort zone.

Listen to your own pulse Money can’t buy you happiness, but consciousness can. I read Laura Vanderkam’s book, ‘168 hours: you have more time than you think’ recently. She talks about thinking of your week in terms of 168 hours, instead of seven 24-hour chunks. When you look at your week from that perspective, you have more time than you think. This book is a reality check that tells you I do have time for what is important to me.

Ebenezer Scrooge shared the tendency we all have to become myopic when we focus too long on the same thing and we forget to look beyond our horizons. The lesson from A Christmas Carol is be aware, alert and alive – live for the moments of serendipity and synchronicity. Sleep. Hydrate. Learn. Move. The basics are key. You strive to be conscious in all areas of life, relationships, raising children, your work, but we all need more awareness and clarity.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year, Scrooge vows near end of the story. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!

Having re-read the book, and written this blog, I already feel more relaxed and more deeply connected to myself and refocused, that’s not been the case for a while. So now ready with new things identified to learn and habits to unlearn, I’ve already begun to create and continue a healthier, more authentic life rhythm that’s best for me. And the thing is, in doing that, what I give to those close to me and what I develop for myself will be so much better.

No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused, wrote Dickens in A Christmas Carol. The simple, yet eloquent story continues to teach us much about ourselves, and what it really means to be a successful person.

A train journey with Einstein: quiet carriage, window seat, facing forward.

It’s not the best way to see the land, travelling at speed on a train, walking has always been the appropriate pace for contemplation, but it can still be a pleasure. I would love to go to the Himalayas and cross over into Nepal to do the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.

I like train journeys. I like their rhythm of the rail and the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of – for the moment, I know where I am going. I always travel in the quiet carriage, window seat, facing forward. There’s something special about the cadence of the movement, and keeping your eye on the horizon.

When I was a child, every train ride was an adventure, especially the trip to Scarborough. Not so much for where I was going, as for what I saw along the way. As the journey progressed, the scenery shifted from the hills grazed by sheep, to the patterns of man-made dry stone walls, then passing through through damp fields of dreamy cattle, over the hill and there was the sea.

I was fascinated with everything on the journey – the geology and landscape, people standing on platforms and people running for their trains, the ticket inspector and his stern demeanour, the throng urgently pushing to get on the train before the folks alighting could step onto the platform. I just soaked it in and the journey dovetailed with the rugged terrain, the wind and the water table – it’s a Northern thing. Who doesn’t feel a frisson at the thought of what you see out of a train window?

Today, trains are much faster than they were in my childhood, and the North Wales, North Yorkshire or Northumbrian landscapes I traverse on have lost much of their diversity. You can see too many business and retail parks from trains these days.

Yet, I am always surprised when a fellow passenger slumps into the seat next to me, plugs herself into a headset and starts rambling on about her day, presumably to some selfless good listener who likes the sound of her voice as much as she does herself. Look up, I want to say. Turn that thing off. There’s a world passing outside.

From planes you see clouds, from boats you see seabirds, from cars everything streaks past too fast to notice. But several authors have used the transitory moment of reflection on a train, when time seems to freeze as the landscape rushes by.

The most famous example is perhaps Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington Two trains moving in the same direction briefly overlap – and Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder on the parallel train. No one believes her, no body turns up, so her friend Miss Marple has to investigate for her. Having read the book, to this day I’m always a bit nervous looking across in those seconds when two trains move together.

A while back, I read an interesting book that compared business life to a train ride or a series of train rides. Business life is like a train ride, it read. We get on. We ride. We get off. We get back on and ride some more. There are delays, some good journeys, some bad. At certain stops there are surprises. Some of these will translate into moments of joy, some will result in bad news. The direction of travel. Eventually we get to our destination.

However, many of my trains seem to get delayed and arrive late, perhaps reflecting the gap between what we want and what we can have in business. The paradox – and the most important point – is that it is through the privation of not getting what we want when we arrive at the next station, that we learn about our business.

I suppose in our unlived lives we are always more satisfied, less frustrated versions of ourselves. Our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration. If we can’t let ourselves get frustrated then we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us a definition of success.

Notwithstanding this wistful vestige of an existential neverland of train travel lodged in my psyche, where I create and hold on to various possible versions of my business self and possible outcomes – pockets of possibility that exist no matter how remote the probability of realising them might be, I do enjoy the tranquillity and time spent alone on my train journeys.

So that’s how I came to get the train to Edinburgh the other morning from Manchester. I needed time and space to think and get stuff out of my head, yet a place to look at the horizon and keep me fresh. A day return with the train as my working space was just the job – sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a train. As Hemingway said, it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

Long, solo train journeys are the perfect place to think and reflect. This habit of personal, private reflection is something that I’ve developed in the past few years. It is a purposeful activity. It involves thinking about an experience and stuff you’ve got going on, and trying to make sense of it in order to learn something from it. I use this to develop new perspectives. This drives learning and change, it is a way of working through issues and thinking of solutions, a way of improving the way you work.

Besides modelling my own hairstyle on Einstein’s, as part of my approach to reflection, I’ve always tried to adopt his maxim we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Einstein had a thinking strategy of his own and was able to visualise the main stages on the way to solving a problem. He regarded his major achievements as mere stepping-stones for the next advance.

What Einstein did, he did using tools available to all of us. He had no magic wand or secret subscription to Google. He used thinking tools and methods available to everyone, the same books and research journals available to all scientists of his day. His principal tools were a notepad, a pen and pencil. He thought and wrote and calculated, and out poured his extraordinary achievements.

What made Einstein tick? Intuition, unconventional thinking for sure, but one of the main things was Einstein’s imagination, and his ability to visualise the issues before him –  ‘thought problems,’ where he would paint a picture of the problem he was trying to sort out. His thought processes were very much about coming up with questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability to ask questions was just as revolutionary as his answers.

And that’s what I do on my ‘thinking train journeys’, I say to myself, How would Einstein approach this situation? to breakdown and get to the root of an issue I’m stuck with. Here’s my Einstein disruptive thinking tool kit for train journeys, in his own words:

Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. The blokes over at Apple and Google had all the smart computing skills and knowledge they needed to have successful careers in IT. What makes Jobs and Ives, Page and Brin household names is the fact they imagined – what if?...there was a better way to do things, and then they created it.

Look to the horizon and beyond the day-to-day I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details. Einstein didn’t waste time detracted on mundane details, he wanted to wrestle with the big things that made a difference.

Never top questioning The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Einstein was relentlessly curious, he was fixated on following through until he was satisfied with the outcome. He was restless to a point of perfection.

Same problems, new ways of thinking We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Einstein’s thinking here this resembles the Blue Ocean Strategy model, and Job’s Think Different motto.

Intuition The only real valuable thing is intuition Einstein had to trust his intuition to move forward on anything. Trusting one’s gut instinct, once you’ve tested the hypothesis, your gut instinct rarely lets you down.

Willingness to try new things – and fail Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. The continued evolution of Amazon’s Kindle – which has the reading capacity of 16 tonnes of paper – from its introduction in 2007, to the DX in 2009, Kindle Touch, Kindle Fire and now Kindle Paperwhite reflects this focus of continued reinvention. Einstein kept pushing the boundaries in a similar manner.

Maintaining balance If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x, y is play and z is keeping your mouth shut. Notice Einstein didn’t put absolute amounts on each of his variables – he lived his life by constructing ‘what if’?’ formulas to look at relationships and variables. He knew getting the ingredients and then working out their relationship would lead to success.

Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein believed that to gain knowledge about the form of a problem, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. He was in good company: Da Vinci formed a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water: this enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

Prepare yourself for chance I never think of the future, it comes soon enough Einstein had particular strengths, an acute intuition that guided him to the fertile ideas and revealing experiments to undertake, he had a characteristic tolerance and even delight in contradiction.

Einstein tells me to think about what I’ve never thought about, but also to reflect that the most consequential ideas are often right under our noses. How many times have you metaphorically banged your head against a wall for a long time with a particular problem?

One of two things is true at this point, either we keep banging our head and the wall will crumble soon, or we should do something different and hope things get better. Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, perhaps it’s good to reflect upon that.

So on my ‘thinking train journeys’, which I do about once a month, Einstein is my travelling companion. By the way, he’s a massive tea drinker. When we talk about taking the time to reflect, it’s about thinking differently, and not just sitting there and daydreaming, it’s about picturing the alternate realities – working out possibilities of new realities where what you are doing today is completely different tomorrow, in order to go and find the revolution before it finds you.

The world isn’t waiting for you to get inspired, you have to inspire it, and at the same time don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking – there are far better things ahead than any we leave behind, we just have to find them. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves. So get yourself on a train, in the quiet carriage, window seat, facing forward, and see where it takes you and your thinking.

Dan Carter: what it takes to be a world champion

Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

And so the best team won. The All Blacks are Rugby Union World Champions. One side of the Tasmanian Sea this morning will be bleary-eyed folks going to work, on the other, there will probably be a grumpy silence. Let’s go to the beach.

When it comes to sport, New Zealand is not particularly good at many things. In the last four summer and winter Olympics, New Zealand, with a population of just 4.5 million, won just 32 medals. Australia won 199, Great Britain 178. When Rob Waddell won New Zealand’s only gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Australians remarked that the only sport New Zealand was any good at was a sport that involved sitting down going backwards.

But they are awesome at rugby, and for the third time, the All Blacks are the Rugby Union World Champions, with their 34-17 victory over Australia. This was a clash between the two best teams in the tournament, and despite the fierce rivalry, the final was played in tremendous spirit amid great mutual respect.

New Zealand held off a fierce Australian comeback to win a thrilling game and become the first team to retain their title. Wonderful tries from Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ma’a Nonu gave the All Blacks a 21-3 lead early in the second half before David Pocock and Tevita Kuridrani struck back. But when Beauden Barrett sprinted away on to Ben Smith’s clearing kick in the final minutes history was secured.

It was a great game, marked by the insistent quality of New Zealand’s attack and a rousing Australian comeback during the second half that ought to merit some kind of asterisk in the history books. Australia’s obduracy did them great credit, they kept their pride but the overall task, as so often against these peerless opponents, was beyond them.

Dan Carter was outstanding from the outset, under a ferocious Wallaby assault, landing 19 points from his immaculate kicking, as they were tested to the limit. His first curling over a testing penalty from out wide for 3-0 set the scene for a man-of-the-match performance.

Australia targeted Carter, Scott Sio lucky to escape a yellow card for smashing him back with a late hit to his ribs, and Sekope Kepu giving away a penalty for a high tackle to his jaw, that Carter popped over to retake the lead.

Ma’a Nonu’s fine try looked to have put the All Blacks out of sight, but the Wallabies came back, but after missing the 2011 World Cup final through injury, this was the perfect ending for world rugby’s most perfect 10. Carter could not dream of a better finale to his 12-year, 112-cap All Black career.

Carter, who is of Māori descent, has played since the age of five in the fly-half role, starting with Southbridge Rugby Club in the South Island of New Zealand. His great uncle was Canterbury and New Zealand half back Bill Dalley, a member of the 1924–25 Invincibles. On 16 November 2013, Carter became the fifth All Black to gain 100 caps.

He has a World Cup winner’s medal from 2011, but it was a consolation, his injury in the pool stages turned him into water-boy in the knock-out stages. This time he would not be denied. His peerless place kicking helped establish a 21-3 lead, which seemed to have secured the world title once again. When the Wallabies turned that around in eleven second-half minutes with Ben Smith off for a yellow card, Carter took over.

Forty metres out, a drop goal struck with a precision from his left foot, as if he were back in the field at his parents’ house in Southbridge, taking aim at the homemade posts his father stuck up to save any more windows in the house from being smashed.

Then, five minutes later, a penalty from further out still. That he converted Beauden Barrett’s breakaway try at the death with his less favoured right foot was remarkable less for the skill of it and more for the fact that it may have been the first self-indulgent act of his twelve years in an All Blacks jersey.

Carter is surely the finest fly-half the world has seen, and not just for his scoring prowess, he also made more tackles than any other player from either side in the final too.

With 15 minutes to go there were just four points in it, but his nerveless long-distance drop-goal and penalty snatched back control. This was his game, in a team of champions. Close up shots as he prepared to take his kicks, under pressure like we can’t imagine, showed a calmness in his face and a determination in his brown eyes, an inner belief and resolution. You just knew that he was going to knock those kicks over.

There was the control when all around was chaos: the right options with hands and voice in his own half. Carter was a calm presence, the rock around which their waves of runners broke, some splitting inside, others out to his right. He sent pop passes one way and fast, long, flat ones the other. After his drop-goal, he didn’t celebrate, he simply shouted to Nonu and Smith: next job, next job.

Success is often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is an option. Believe you can and you’re halfway there, as the saying goes. The worst enemy to Carter on the field would have been his own self-doubt, but I recall an interview once where he said, I do not believe in taking the right decision on my kicking, I take a decision and make the kick right. There’s something about his temperament that is just perfect for test rugby.

More than that, his last game was a thing of artistry and guile. His all-round game was superb, his game management top notch. He made sure the All Blacks played in all the right places and, even when things were getting tense when the Wallabies were on fire in the middle of the second half, it was Carter who showed nerves of steel. But it was in those final ten minutes when he was Dan Carter as everyone will want to remember him.

He took his time with the penalty, went through his routine like always and then struck the ball perfectly. It was always going over. It had the legs, just. It had the distance and it was then, with the All Blacks ten points ahead and with seven minutes left, that a nation could believe they were going to win.

We applaud champions, knowing that we would never have been able to do what they’ve achieved. There is something deeply captivating about exceptional individual performance in sport. The fascination for extraordinary as we think of the champions who stand proud on the podium, with their medals and their nation’s anthem ringing in their ears, is about human dignity as well as human achievement. For me it’s about saluting the person.

Dan Carter is a world champion for sure. How can we summon up the true character of the champion ourselves, and take this into our business? Here are some of those characteristics. How many of these statements also describe you and your business life?

Success comes to those with passion to strive Striving is more than simply being competitive, it is an attitude that illustrates that the individual is as much competing with himself as with the challenge, or others in the same race. What sets Carter apart from the rest is his relentless passion and uncompromising pursuit of extraordinary endeavour. Carter masters his mental game, which became his competitive edge, he persists in spite of fatigue, tenacious in discovering his own style of beating the elements.

Authentic and inquisitive Champions are aware of their strengths and limitations, there are no pretentions. Such authenticity bolsters the courage in taking on lofty goals, but also in dealing with their true selves. They always seek the new frontier, pushing the boundaries, refusing to accept the status-quo. They begin every day hoping to learn something new, always searching for new insights, for original thinking, for something that makes them better.

Application, hard-work and discipline That is more than just the hours you put in, it is the discipline to set aside other things and concentrate hard on your own development. It is about focus and single mindedness. It is not just about deciding to work an extra hour, it’s about deep thinking, about getting down to the core of what you are trying to achieve. It is about knowing in your heart, when something is not good enough and can and should be better. Notice that this is self-discipline. Past a certain point, you and only you can provide that intensity of will.

Courage. No champion is without courage. It may be of mind or body. When things are in the balance, when you cannot be sure, when others are uncertain or hesitate, when the very point is that the outcome is in doubt that is when a champions’ mental toughness lets them step forward. The courage lies not in acting without fear, but in acting despite fear.

Optimism Carter expresses an ability to reframe adversity – missing the 2007 and 2011 finals – as an opportunity for achievement. Champions consider adversity as indicative of the merit of the pursuit and thus welcome it. They reveal that beyond physical skill and training, there exists a champion mind set. They all have distinct cognitive and emotional make-up that allows them to relentlessly push themselves on their quest.

Train like a champion No matter how talented an athlete, they train to improve their skills and push peak levels of performance. Continuing to dream is part of this, they never stop striving for that next big result. Planning to compete at the highest level, and putting in a shift, high-performance athletes plan out their training schedules in advance to make sure they reach specific performance goals.

Don’t settle for ‘Good enough’, use pressure to improve your focus Most business folk lack the same level of mental discipline that Carter has in abundance. One of the risks for businesses is being tolerant of sub-optimal performance. In business, average performance is often tolerated. The choice is yours – average work, yields average results. Chose your attitude and get the right mind set.

Most businesses aren’t physically demanding by nature, usually it’s about our mental and emotional state of mind. Success comes from finding a way to tap into your inner strength, your core values, your passion and your attitude. It’s what you’ll need to put one foot in front of another, and to keep going. Remember, every champion was once a contender that refused to give up.

Carter’s success is down to his perseverance – it’s the hard work he does after he gets tired of doing the hard work he already did. I’m sure the words of Dick Fosbury will resonate with him: When my body got tired, my mind said this where winners are made; when my mind got tired, my heart said this is where champions are made.

Life has a unique perspective. Along the way, various landing pages, trials and tribulations will offer themselves up. It’s self-belief that determines your direction and ultimately success. On the rugby pitch and in life, it’s not how often you’re knocked down but how many times you get up that makes the difference.

The victory was the more sweeter for New Zealand given that a number of their squad were playing in their final All Blacks match, Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith will all move to France, thus ending their international careers, McCaw will probably retire, while prop Tony Woodcock and hooker Keven Mealamu will retire completely from the game.

There should be sadness. Instead, there could be only celebration – of a champion team full of champion individuals like Dan Carter. This is how it ends, then, for the finest fly-half in the game. Man of the match in the World Cup final, an All Black’s victory, and a contribution of 19 points.

Good habits of mindful startup entrepreneurs

Raise your hand if you can start working immediately whenever you want, never get tempted and never get distracted by social media or email or reading the newspaper? No? Me neither. But I’ve learned something that helps a lot. It’s all about our willpower and habits, the part of our mind where we decide on actions to take.

The philosopher Plato first described our internal willpower struggle around 400BC with the allegory of the chariot. In the driver seat, you have the rational mind with a certain amount of willpower, and the chariot is pulled by two horses representing our spirited energy. The charioteer can guide the horses for a while, but if he fights them for too long, or is too weak, the horses will eventually take control of the chariot and go against our demand, and thus lose our focus.

So it is with our minds. Staying productive and managing our impulses is all about strengthening our chariot driver and making sure we can steer our energy in the right direction. To do that, we must build up our willpower and focus on our good habits.

This is especially important for startups, where time is of the essence and building that PoC to test with customers is the most important priority. However, as noted, we all get distracted. What about just adding one more feature here, pitching to another potential investor this week, talking to a marketing agency? All are like the horses if you’re not careful, they’ll end up pulling you in the wrong direction, distractions from your primary focus.

At its core, willpower is your ability to get things done and shape good habits. It determines how easy it is for you start working and resist eating that third cookie and playing a You Tube video.

Think of willpower as a muscle: it’s something that you can flex and relax as you need to, strengthen with training, and lose if you don’t use it enough. This was shown in the radishes and cookies experiment, where scientists brought in participants who had skipped a meal and asked them to do one of three things:

  1. Eat radishes, but avoid eating cookies
  2. Eat cookies, but avoid eating radishes
  3. Just do nothing (i.e. participants weren’t shown either food)

Afterwards, subjects were asked to solve an impossible geometric puzzle. Participants who had eaten the radishes while resisting the cookies gave up much more quickly than those who got to eat cookies or weren’t shown food. Why? Because they used up their willpower resisting the cookies, and couldn’t use it on the puzzle.

If you’re reading this and thinking ‘I’d cave and grab the cookies. I’m just weak-willed,’ don’t worry: science has also shown that willpower is something you can train. So how can you develop a will of steel that that helps you work your way through the toughest tasks? Simple: pay attention to your mental and physical health.

No, I’m not going to go into tree-hugging mode and talk about good diet, exercise, get more sleep, drink a gallon of water a day to become more hydrated, then move onto mediation, yoga or pilates. I’m going to focus on habits, and practicing good habits to build that mental muscle.

There has been much documentation about the habits of successful people, thanks in large part to Stephen Covey’s highly successful book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. While this has been a key piece of reading for the business community since the late 1980s, the traits are different for a startup leader.

Habits form our professional lives. They provide a framework on which we build the success we desire. I often study founders’ routines and how I can emulate them myself. Here are the some interesting habits I have gleaned from entrepreneurs I’ve worked with that can help give you starting points for your own successful daily routine in your startup.

Habit 1: Don’t take no for an answer, always look forward Being an innovator is all about disruptive thinking, to go beyond an existing market, seeing an unfilled gap in the market – or create a new market itself. You need to be a pioneer, keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to create your own market space. This means taking chances, but if anything is a critical part of a good habit set of a startup founder, it’s a willingness to do just that.

Habit 2: Put customers first A startup is an experiment, and progress requires an unwavering commitment to the customer, rather than your product. You need to develop an obsessive habit and mind-set of living in your customer’s world. Understanding customers provides you with a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Spend time on what touches a customer, and don’t do anything to your product that doesn’t generate value for them, and revenue for yourself.

Habit 3: Minimise low impact decision-making You have to be action led. From daily operations to strategic direction choices, waffling with indecision just will not work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to your sense of confidence, so if you find yourself not knowing which choice to make, remind yourself that you have more insight into what you’re doing than anyone else, and trust your instincts.

Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy or ‘hot’ the moment, is a recipe for mediocrity or ‘me2’ at best. Successful startup founders by definition habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition and a much greater chance for success. Make some bets, make your business about one simple problem, test it, and solve it.

Habit 5: Take one further step than everyone else – always look for the upside Problems are a regular part of startup life, it can often seem like everything is jam side down. To achieve success, look at both sides of the coin – every problem has an opportunity. Keep going when others stop, being opportunity focused makes you more positive about seeing potential in every situation. The habit of a positive mind-set is key.

Habit 6: Be visible – get out of the building The startup founders I’ve worked with consistently name the one habit they felt contributed the most to their success. Each said the habit and ability to ‘think customer’, be visible and get out of the building is key. Having conversations with potential customers is a key habit to building value in your product and building relationships. You don’t need to sell, you just need to be in conversations.

Habit 7: Start at the end Average success is often based on setting average goals. Decide what you really want: to be the best, the fastest, the most innovative, whatever. Aim for the ultimate. Decide where you want to end up. That is your goal. Then you can work backwards and lay out every step along the way. Never start small where goals are concerned. The habit of thinking big, looking to the horizon and working backwards is key to growth.

Habit 8: Be organised and shift gears, out your meetings on a diet Sometimes having a head full of big ideas can lead to thinking being a bit scattered. The difference between an ideas person who remains ineffective in implementation, and someone who achieves success, falls on having an ability and habits to be organised enough to follow through and execute them. Prefer action to thinking, spend time planning but a lot more time doing, but know why and where you’re heading. Jettison protracted meetings and flabby agendas, make stuff happen.

Habit 9: Make small bets and make them quickly There is no guarantee anyone will buy your great idea. Your resources are limited and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get out in the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Respond to feedback, change course and act. The habit of being flexible allows us to respond to changes without being paralyzed with fear and uncertainty

Habit 10: …and they don’t stop there, play tomorrow’s agenda today Achieving a goal, no matter how huge, isn’t the finish line for most startup founders, rather it just creates a launch pad for achieving another goal. Startup founders are restless, and don’t try to win just one race, they expect to win a number of subsequent races.

Habit 11: Be true to yourself Steve Jobs succeeded by following his own ‘inner voice, heart and intuition’. He said, Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition.

Habit 12: Reflect on critical open questions through different lenses Most disruptive thinking is borne by a long cultivation of an open question, followed by the nurturing of a slow hunch. If you get a mental block, work at the problem each day from different angles, under different lenses – looking at extremes, considering what essential assumptions are and how to test them. Eventually I find some real traction with an idea that seems novel and has a good chance of working.

Habit 13: Plan tomorrow’s agenda today Before the close of business, go over what’s coming up the next day. Review and forecast what tomorrow is going to look like and how you’re going to get through that. It gives you an opportunity to prioritise, and also allows us to go to bed at night with a clear head. Your mind does a lot of work for you while you’re sleeping. You get there the next day and are much more efficient and productive

Similar to this habit, I have my own evening retrospective on the day just ended. Every night before bed, I think about this question: If I live every day the same way I did today, what kind of future would that create? It forces me to constantly evaluate whether or not my actions are lining up with my priorities. The future is shaped one day at a time, and it’s never as far away as we think.

We are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves. The startup founder who wants to reach the top appreciates the might of the force of habit and understands that practices are what create habits. He is quick to break those habits that can break him, and hasten to adopt those practices that will become the habits that help him achieve the success he desires, as outlined above.

My own thoughts are that if I can get victory over myself, the odds are high I can help fix ideas into stuff that works. If I can’t fix myself, the odds are equally high I will never be able to add value and do good things. As Flaubert said, Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

So many hats, so little time; the habits and rhythms of successful startup founders.

Simple – ship weekly (or ship weakly), test, talk to users. The rest makes you mediocre, like wasting time on Twitter. As Elon said, work like hell.

You’ve probably heard someone say this before, or maybe this statement has even come from you too. Why is it that almost everyone claims to have the next big startup idea but only a small number of people have the courage and audacity to start something new and make it happen?

It’s another thing all together to go out and start something. To make a start exposes us. It is fundamentally this fear that stops us from being bold that stops us from taking action. We fear what others will think and say. We are afraid that our own self image will be tainted in the event of failure.

Its much safer to say things than it is to go out and try things. It’s also much easier to give ourselves the satisfaction of believing that if we went out and took action that we would succeed than it actually is to just give it a try. We don’t know and nether does anyone else. The only true indicator of startup success is reality. The unpredictability of the startup experiment frightens us and keeps us locked in a prism of self-made excuses.

Those who are able to ignore their own fears are the ones that start things. They are bold and give themselves permission to start and thus the opportunity to succeed. Everybody else, just self-sabotages their own success. Fear in the form of resistance is created by our need for certainty, safety and comfort.

How do you make the shift from talking about a startup to acting on your ideas? The struggle is not in the idea it is in the process of overcoming the fear to start, then beating your own resistance to complete it and finally dealing with the fear of failure in order to get it out there.

With so many internal battles it’s no wonder that we find it easier to talk about them than to start take action towards achieve those visions. Breaking this cycle of fear is something we must learn if we wish to produce results.

Start it. Ship it. Repeat. Seth Godin talks in detail about the mindset of people to start things and ship things. His book, Poke the Box, discusses the innovation mindset from a new point of view:

The challenge, it turns out, isn’t in perfecting your ability to know when to start and when to stand by. The challenge is getting into the habit of starting.

You’ll need to learn to identify these key fears…

  • Fear of success: the fear that we are not worthy of success. You must believe in yourself in order to take action.
  • Rationalisation: beware of the excuses you make in your mind of why things happen a certain way.
  • Self medication: beware of when you feel the desire to heal yourself or taking a break. This can often come from a place of fear rather than truth.
  • Victimhood: do not identify with your failures.
  • Self-doubt: beware of self-sabotage, when you unconsciously act in particular ways to reduce your ability to succeed.

In Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art, he discusses the resistance we all face when launching something new, specifically though he lists a number of ways to make the shift from self-doubting mindset to work to having a more determined mindset:

  • Show up everyday, show up no matter what
  • Stay on the job all day
  • Commit over the long haul
  • The stakes are high and real: this means that we must have sense of urgency with our work.
  • We are focused on results
  • We do not over identify with our work: we must be willing to change our work based on feedback of relevant sources
  • We master the technique of our work
  • We have a sense of humour about our work
  • We receive praise or blame in the real world: we expose ourselves to external feedback.

As Elon Musk says, When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour.

As I learn more about startups and the community, the more intrigued I have become with startup founders. I have supported a number of founders from tech startups, and I am constantly inspired by how they execute at speed within such uncertain circumstances. I’ve observed a pattern amongst many of these folk, regardless of their product, service or industry, these founders all had the following characteristics in common:

Vision and Purpose What are you trying to achieve? There will be highs and lows throughout the entrepreneurial journey of building a business. Remembering why you started in the first place and being able to see the end goal gives you the conviction to move forward through the toughest obstacles.

Persevere with an ability to get stuff done The founders I’ve worked with all carry a positive attitude and possess a winning mentality. They have fallen, but always return with a sense of resilience. They see the positive in the negative. They understand that to grow, they must raise the bar, as there is always the next stage, a higher challenge to meet.

They are guided by unwavering passion for what they do Passion (their why?) brings the sunshine on a rainy day. They started their business out of passion over profit, motivated by their interest in good impact. You want to make sure what you’re doing is what you love, because you will ultimately feel less of a slave to your business if you’re following your heart and not the money.

They run experiments like crazy The market opportunity is constantly changing and with that, there will always be new gaps, trends and demands. Good founders are like scientists and adventurers, they are always testing and experimenting. They recognise in order to stay relevant, market validation is a constant process.

Simplicity Whenever I look at a successful startup, it’s easy to admire how the moving parts, features and services, work in harmony, and do so with simplicity as the unifying theme. So when designed the V1 of anything there are four things we should remember:

1. It should be a solution to a singular problem, not a related multitude.
2. It should be easy to build & test against that problem.
3. It should be easy to explain.
4. It should be easy to adopt and use.

So, if these are the core features, attributes and outcomes arising from the study of successful startups, what are the individual habits of startup founders to make it happen? Here are my twelve thoughts:

Habit 1: Always look forward Being an innovator is all about being a disruptive thinking, to go beyond an existing market, seeing an unfilled gap in the market – or create a new market itself. You need to be a pioneer, keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to create your own market space. This means taking chances, but if anything is a critical part of a good habit set of a startup founder it’s a willingness to do just that.

Habit 2: Be customer centric A startup is an experiment, and progress requires an unwavering commitment to the customer, rather than your product. You need to develop an obsessive habit and mind-set of living in your customer’s world. Understanding customers provides you with a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Spend time on what touches a customer, and don’t do anything to yoru product that doesn’t generate revenue. Focus on making valuable things. Everything else is noise.

Habit 3: Make decisions You have to be action led. From daily operations to strategic direction choices, waffling with indecision just will not work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to your sense of confidence, so if you find yourself not knowing which choice to make, remind yourself that you have more insight into what you’re doing than anyone else, and trust your instincts. Don’t create obstacles. When others create obstacles, move on and keep building.

Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy or ‘hot’ the moment, is a recipe for mediocrity or ‘me2’ at best. Remarkably successful startup founders by definition habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition and a much greater chance for success. Make your business about one simple problem, and solve it.

Habit 5: Always look for the upside Problems are a regular part of startup life, it can often seem like everything is jam side down. To achieve success, look at both sides of the coin – every problem has an opportunity. Being opportunity focused makes you more positive about seeing potential in every situation. The habit of a positive mind-set is key. It’s easy to be critical. Especially in private. Don’t be.

Habit 6: Get out of the building The startup founders we’ve worked with consistently name the one habit they felt contributed the most to their success. Each said the habit and ability to ‘think customer’ and get out of the building is key. Having conversations with potential customers is a key habit to building value in your product and building relationships. You don’t need to sell, you just need to be in conversations.

Habit 7: Start at the end Average success is often based on setting average goals. Decide what you really want: to be the best, the fastest, the most innovative, whatever. Aim for the ultimate. Decide where you want to end up. That is your goal. Then you can work backwards and lay out every step along the way. Never start small where goals are concerned. The habit of thinking big, looking to the horizon and working backwards is vital to growth.

Habit 8: Be organised Sometimes having a head full of big ideas can lead to thinking being a bit scattered. The difference between an ideas person who remains ineffective in implementation, and someone who achieves success, falls on having an ability and habits to be organised enough to follow through with them. Prefer action to thinking, spend time planning and a lot more time doing, but know why and where you’re heading.

Habit 9: Make small bets and make them quickly There is no guarantee anyone will buy your great idea. Your resources are limited and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get out in the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Respond to feedback, change course and act. The habit of being flexible allows us to respond to changes without being paralyzed with fear and uncertainty

Habit 10: …and they don’t stop there Achieving a goal, no matter how huge, isn’t the finish line for most startup founders, rather it just creates a launch pad for achieving another goal. Startup founders are restless, and don’t try to win just one race, they expect to win a number of subsequent races.

Habit 11: Don’t be afraid or embarrassed by failure James Dyson, creator of the famous Dyson vacuum, is no stranger to failure. In fact, he embraces it. He made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum before he got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution he says. Dyson’s point is that if you want to discover something new, you’re bound to fail a few times and that’s okay. The habit of being resilient and not taking no for an answer stood him in good stead

Habit 12: Be true to yourself Steve Jobs succeeded by following his own ‘inner voice, heart and intuition’. He said, Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. If you must, put your name to it and articulate your analysis objectively. Say it to their face.

How many of these habits do you recognise in yourself? What else do you do that adds to the list? Let me know!

 

Set your inner voice to ‘authentic’

I was at an RSPCA Summer Open Day on Saturday, the lure of a glass of home made lemonade and ginger cake for £1 on the chalked sign was too much to walk past, so I popped in out of the cold.

One of my previous dogs was a shaggy, doe-eyed bearded collie cross, an RSPCA rescue dog. A more loving, loyal and hairy Wookie look-a-like hound you could not wish for. She had paws and a heart the size of a lion. I’ve been a sucker for supporting any dog sanctuary, stray or care charity ever since.

The great pleasure of a dog is that you can make a fool of yourself with her and not only will she not scold you, but she will make a fool of herself with you too. My last dog, Tess, a golden retriever who passed on aged 14 last November, liked nothing more than a good play fight and cuddle, and next to my wife, she was the best kisser ever. She was also great at cleaning your ears with her big wet tongue. Thoroughly. But let’s move on.

Dogs are miracles with paws, when they laugh they laugh with their tails, they share our lives in a way that most other animals can’t. Each evening Tess waited for me by the front door, face smiling, mouth open and tail wagging, ready to dote and bark for around twenty minutes to announce to the entire neighbourhood that I was home from work and we were off for a walk.

Dogs’ lives are too short, their only fault really if you ignore the chewing of the occasional CD or loss of cakes from the carrier bag on the kitchen floor as you fetch the shopping in from Tesco. We all long for affection altogether ignorant of our faults, and we get such unconditional love from dogs that we take it for granted.

I think we are drawn to dogs because they are the uninhibited creatures we might be if we weren’t certain we knew better.  They fight for honour and territory, make themselves heard without inhibition when they need to, and self-clean body parts with no moral restraint. You would think that for all their marvelous instincts that they appear to know nothing about numbers, but if you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then giving out only two of them.

The most affectionate creature in the world is a wet dog, happy to share the entire experience, but in order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train her to be semi human.  The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming a dog. But enough about the dog, my reason for writing this blog was partly about the authentic behaviour of dogs, but really this blog came about because of a number on experiences this week where the unauthentic behaviour of humans really made its mark on me.

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit and lack of authenticity everywhere. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his or her share, but we tend to take the situation for granted and totally ignore it. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognise bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it.

So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves, and we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. But set against the honesty and sincerity you get from your dog, the polarity of dog behaviours when compared to some humans led me onto thinking more about the meaning of authenticity.

Being authentic means that the gap between who you are and who you portray to be as close as zero as possible. In other words, being authentic means brining the ‘real you’ wherever you go, in every situation and conversation. You can look at it from a moral angle, but I’m particularly interested in the simplicity for being authentic.

Let’s start with what happens when you are not authentic. You will start with creating an image of yourself that is different from who you really are. It takes an effort to do that. Now, you will have to act out that image and make everyone believe that what you act out is who you really are. It takes even more effort to fulfill that.

Once you act this out, you need to remember this image for a long time, because you need to behave consistently with your image with all the people that have seen you portraying that image. That seems like a burden that you have chosen to carry to me. Politicians across the entire spectrum have consistently fallen into this trap.

I always believe in the best in human nature, and trust most people to be generally honest. Indeed society is built on trust. However the last week saw the culmination of a three-year legal case I was involved in as the primary witness for the prosecution on a  business fraud case, and this has been illuminating.

I fully appreciated I was one of the key elements in bringing an offender to justice, supporting the victim of economic crime and provide them some closure if no recompense for losses suffered However, my overriding thought is the lack of authenticity in the justice system, both the people and the process.

It is adversarial. The focus is on winning rather than discovering the truth. Criminal justice should be inquisitorial – the prime focus should be on discovering what happened and then on punishing or rehabilitating appropriately, surely? Listening and watching the interaction of both sides of the legal and moral divide tell me the system has given up on rehabilitation and simply focused on creating the most enormous and costly bureaucracy possibly.

Lawyers are motivated by wealth, yet recall In the Ancient Roman Republic, it was illegal for lawyers to accept money or gifts from clients as it was felt to be a corrupting influence. This has dire consequences and certainly corrupts the entire system as far as I can see, there is no authenticity in any aspect of the dna pervading. Victims are ignored, if not often forgotten.

This lack of authenticity in the process quickly set the tone for my daily interactions with most of the staff in the judicial system. After a week of missing authentic communication with the people I usually spend the week with, this a new theme that is becoming the cornerstone of everything I do. It all started with noticing how I greeted and responded to the court staff.

It usually went something like this: Hello, how are you today. Good, you? Good. Alright, see you later. Not only did I not really care about how the person was doing, I also played along with his fake enthusiasm, but it wasn’t just me! When other staff asked me How are you doing? they kept walking without waiting for an answer. How are you doing? has become the new Hi. Most people don’t really want to know, nor do they really mean it.

The idea is that we are interacting daily on a superficial level, but very few of us want to snap out of it and have a genuine conversation. Naturally, talking about authenticity made me hyper-aware of my own patterns and non-genuine conversations, and I tried to stay true and present at all times, even if it made for awkward situations. Trust in humanity will only continue if we cultivate authenticity and sincerity in face-to-face conversation.

With the domination of the digital marketplace, everyone is banging on about customer experience, customer engagement and customer loyalty, but the latest I reckon is customer romance. I say this as I was lashing on the Aloe Vera gel to my thorn-filled hands after a Sunday in the garden, the Holland & Barrett gel for bio active skin treatment was just the job, but the subtle we’re good for you struck me as an example of authentic branding.

Maybe an unfashionable brand, maybe I was just recoiling from being grumpy all week, but a visit to their web site gave me ideas around customer romance as a strategy, the authenticity of their style of communication is contagious, and there’s no better way to connect with a customer than to be sincere, transparent and honest.

We need authenticity now more than ever, and I must admit I’ve been an advocate of President Obama since day one, admiring his openness and evenhandedness, underpinned by his purpose and beliefs. This week his handling of a heckler at a LBGT event in the White House, and his presence and leadership at the Charleston memorial service for victim Clementa Pinckney, where he lead the singing of ‘Amazing Grace’, showed once again the authenticity of his leadership and character. It makes a difference.

One way out of this hall of mirrors is to insist ever more loudly that oneself is really, truly authentic, and innumerable products now advertise themselves as ‘real’, following the lead of Coke’s slogan ‘the Real Thing’. Even my Marks & Spencer’s underwear is branded ‘authentic’, posing the question of what an inauthentic pair of boxer shorts would look like.

However, too persuasive a performance of authenticity will be taken as a sign of falseness. In my authenticity-obsessed mindset I want something to be real, but I’m on a hair trigger to cry foul if it seems too real to be true.

It also reifies a simplistic notion of what is fake to begin with. A blanket privileging of the concrete and the in-person, an indie disdain for post-production or Photoshopping I just don’t get. The fetish for authenticity, here as in the realms of food and vintage clothing, shows itself to be inherently nostalgic, always looking back to an imagined, prelapsarian nirvana. Maybe it was just an easier way of life in Hardy’s rural idyll.

And then we have ‘reality TV’. To define a person’s authenticity as the perfect conjunction of outward seeming and inward being is not a new idea. But what matters most now is that such personal authenticity be performed plausibly, yet paradoxically, contestants routinely accuse their rivals of being less than genuine. If we all looked at each other through the same lens, what would we see – but let’s not go back to the Criminal Justice system.

Yet it is precisely in high-end product brand marketing that we can perceive the key aspect of the modern authenticity mania and yet the diametric falsehood that sits just below the surface. Such commodities are positioned as ‘aspirational’, because that is now how society has silently agreed to redefine aspiration – a yearning desire to control more wealth and to own more expensive objects.

It’s the same for the ‘Selfie’ and the taking of photos with your smartphone. Why do people take so many mundane photos and share them via social media? I think they’re trying to show their authenticity but it’s stimulated by the redefinition of authenticity.

So what is the implicit bargain when we buy an ‘authentic” Hermès bag? Or a Hublot watch, a clockwork marvel costing tens of thousands of pounds, which prides itself, like all luxury analogue watches, precisely on the amusing superfluity of its engineering? We are being sold the assurance that nimble-fingered workers in a French leather-working atelier or a Swiss horlogerie laboratory have sunk hundreds or thousands of man-hours into its making. It’s a classic timepiece.

It tells the time, unlike Stephen Hawking, our interest in time doesn’t need to extend to the nanosecond measurement.

The authenticity of such an aspirational brand’s product boils down to the promise that artisans have laboured personally on your behalf. A similar fantasy underlies the ferocious insistence that a coffee shop be ‘artisanal’ or at least ‘independent’. The self-appointed guardians of authenticity, it seems, want desperately to believe that they are at the top of the labour pyramid. In cultural markets that are all too disappointingly accessible to the masses, the authenticity fetish disguises and renders socially acceptable a raw hunger for hierarchy and power. And don’t get me on the ‘authenticity’ of Glastonbury. People go just to say they’ve been there and come home smelling for three days of the authentic perfume of mud.

Authentic’ is derived from the Greek authentikós, which means ‘original’, but just being an original doesn’t mean you, or a brand will be perceived as authentic. You could be an original phoney. At its heart, authenticity is about practicing what you preach, being totally clear about who you are and what you do best. When a brand’s rhetoric gets out of sync with customers’ actual experiences, the brand’s integrity and future persuasiveness suffers. It’s the same for people too.

It was a long, tiring, frustrating week. Weekend was good, I love the RSPCA, it’s purpose, vision, values and people, the event made me sad for my lost dogs, and simply highlighted what I truly value in my life, and that includes dogs over people. Institutions of State, or Holland & Barrett? I’ve become obsessed with authenticity and differences between echt and ersatz. Why bother doing anything if it’s not for real?

Authenticity starts in the heart. We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be. Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen. Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet – thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing – consistently.

 

 

A team is many voices, but one heart

Wednesday last week marked 100 days until the start of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and the launch of the Rugby World Cup Trophy Tour to visit 300 events before arriving at the opening ceremony on 18 September. The full Trophy Tour schedule is here. The 100-day milestone also marks the start of the Festival of Rugby 2015 programme, which will run until to 31 October and match 48 of the tournament, the final.

I can’t wait. I’ve got tickets purchased for selected games, and planning the international food and drink festival to run alongside the schedule of televised games, together with a realignment of sofas and chairs in the front room to optimise viewing for a throng of visitors, and then the events planned at my local rugby club alongside this.

It brings back great memories of England’s victory in 2003, especially that that closing passage of play from the final – the lineout take from Lewis Moody, the break from Matt Dawson, Jonny Wilkinson standing in the pocket and Ian Robertson’s iconic commentary – He drops for World Cup glory. It’s over. He’s done it. Wilkinson’s last-gasp effort was all that separated England and Australia after 100 minutes of rugby and a dramatic extra-time finale.

On 22 November, 2003, captain Martin Johnson became the first player to lead a northern hemisphere side to the world title. I don’t think I’ve ever shouted at the television as much as I did that day, or been as emotional, almost shaking. Australia battled hard and were never out of the game but ultimately fell just short. Here’s what I remember of the game.

The Wallabies started strongly when Tuqiri out-jumped Jason Robinson to a huge Stephen Larkham bomb with just six minutes on the clock, but three Wilkinson penalties soon silenced the home support. In the pouring rain, both sides kept the ball in hand and the England pack began to dominate.

With just 10 minutes of the first half left, Ben Kay knocked on with the try-line beckoning. Minutes later, England silenced the doubters when Jason Robinson magically scuttled over wide on the left after a powerful midfield burst from Lawrence Dallaglio. Jason jumps up and punches the ball into the air. Queue mayhem in our house.

The men in white started the second half as they had finished the first. Johnson led from the front with a towering performance and Dallaglio and flanker Richard Hill out thought and out scrapped the Aussies down the middle of the pitch.  But just as England looked likely to pull away, two careless penalties allowed Elton Flatley to bring his side back within touching distance.

Lancastrian Will Greenwood knocked on inside the Aussie 22 and Wilkinson missed a drop goal as the match entered a tense closing quarter.  Runs from the powerful Stirling Mortlock and ebullient George Smith pushed England back, and as referee Andre Watson prepared to blow for full time, Elton Flatley slotted his third kick of the half to push the match into extra time.

People seem to forget the composure and mental-toughness Flatley had at that moment, ultimately lost in the euphoria of England’s victory, but it was an awesome kick under extreme pressure. Four times Flatley put the ball between the posts, a fine personal game from the inside-centre ultimately on the losing side.

Now the players looked understandably exhausted and when Wilkinson and Flatley again swapped penalties in extra-time, the match looked to be heading into sudden death. Then, just 38 second of extra-time remaining, and everything going to plan. Two breaks up field, then a long pass, Dawson to Wilkinson, who shapes up confidently, and with his non-dominant kicking right foot calmly bangs over the match winner. The World Cup winner. England, World Champions.

For the record:

  • 6 mins: Tuqiri try puts Australia ahead
  • 38 mins: Robinson scores a try after three Wilkinson penalties – England 14-5 ahead
  • 80 mins: Australia haul themselves back level with Flatley’s last-gasp penalty, 14-14
  • 82 mins: Wilkinson’s penalty gives England an extra-time advantage
  • 97 mins: Flatley strikes again to equalise at 17-17
  • 100 mins: Wilkinson’s drop goal wins England the World Cup, 20-17

England: J Lewsey, J Robinson, W Greenwood, M Tindall, B Cohen; J Wilkinson, M Dawson; T Woodman, S Thompson, P Vickery; M Johnson; (captain), B Kay; Richard Hill, N Back, L Dallaglio. Replacements: D West, J Leonard, M Corry, L Moody, K Bracken, M Catt, I Balshaw.

Rugby is a physical game – former England hooker Brian Moore once said If you can’t take a punch, you should play table tennis – but it’s not all about bashing and brawn, there’s plenty of guile and thought. At the margin, with 38 seconds to go, this win was about composure and planning.

In sport and business, self-control is essential, the capacity to make the right decisions when under pressure is a vital leadership trait. Composure is a telling factor in performance whether it contributes to the scoreboard or the bottom-line. Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm, but in the frenzy of the storm, holding your nerve, keeping focus and stopping the blood rushing to the head enables you to put your training into practice, and that’s just what England did.

England had a phrase in the 2003 World Cup – T-CUP – Thinking-Correctly-Under-Pressure – for those pivotal crisis moments, taking it from the training ground into the heat of the game. When interviewed after the game, Wilkinson was asked if he’d been nervous, one swing of the boot and England were World Champions? Not really he replied, the last 38 seconds had been six years in the making.

Under Clive Woodward, England had a clear focus on preparation. They had a vision, and worked backwards from that, what did they need to do to be World Champions? Leaving nothing to chance, they prepared for the moment – in the last few minutes of the final, close to the opposition posts, scores level, what’s the move that gives us the opportunity to win?

Watch the video of the move – Johnson, Dawson, Catt and Greenwood all took the planning and learning from the training ground, and with discipline and composure, got the ball to Jonny. The move had been rehearsed many, many times over the last six years, and they made it count when it mattered most.

Composure is the product of an ambitious mentality envisioning and outcome to which we aspire. It requires persistence, vision, discipline, self-belief and patience. Being persistent requires constant thinking and developing the process to create the plan to accomplish our goals as the situation changes. A plan doesn’t require detail, rather it guides our actions to ensure we are always progressing towards accomplishing our goals.

Our mettle is tested as pressure-filled situations create doubt. Having doubt is a natural reaction, which we all experience. But being composed and having a direction and destination we believe in is what helps us to endure and overcome anxiety in the moment. Without having a direction, your head is filled with what I call a box of frogs leaping around, all sorts of stuff going off all over the place, and you’ve no chance of making the right decision. If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there. It wasn’t raining when Noah started building the ark.

From this vision, Woodward instilled a disciplined thinking into the players, detailing the individual and team development principles he thought essential for a successful team:

Teamship At Woodward’s first training session they did nothing but establish the teamship rules for being part of the squad. There were no rugby balls. Woodward took the time to establish what the team stood for, how it was going to work and what it wanted to be remembered for, before tackling the what, the why and the how of accomplishing the task.

Critical non-essentials Woodward identified a host of smaller items that on their own appeared not to be crucial to the team’s success, but in aggregate they added up. These included being in your seat ten minutes before a team meeting was scheduled to start, changing into new kit for the second-half (no matter the score, we start again), and specialist coaching where needed – this included getting RAF Tornado fighter pilot eye coaches for helping Jonny Wilkinson with focus and accuracy on kicking placement.

Talent & Teachability It’s the base you start from, but talent alone is not enough, it’s too unpredictable to create a winning team. Individuals have to become students, their willingness to learn and accumulate knowledge around their role will give them the awareness of what they need to do to continually. Talent without training is like an octopus on roller skates – there’s plenty of movement but you never know if this is going to be forwards, backwards or sideways.

Pressure Individuals have to have a warrior spirit, said Woodward, meaning they are able to perform well at the critical moment – hence the acronym T-CUP. It’s the job of the leader to constantly put their team under pressure. People aren’t born to perform under pressure, they need to get used to it because only the winners perform their best under pressure.

Practice Woodward created an environment where the team constantly went through hypothetical situations under time pressure to reach a decision. It’s about role-play, after role-play, working through every eventuality so that the team has already gone through the thought processes needed to overcome them. This reduces the chances of coming up against something unexpected in the real world, allowing the team to use the little time they may have to think through the problem. Don’t win against the odds.

Winning culture – the commitment to win. It’s all about attitude. Woodward broke this down into three parts:

  • Obsession with the task: individuals focus on attention to detail and have an uncompromising level of excellence;
  • Responsibility: a readiness to take on their job and ensure they are seen through;
  • Enjoyment: team members have to ask themselves whether their colleagues enjoy working with them, and why.

Beyond number 1 For Woodward, this focused on what he did once the England team was ranked number one in the world, how did he behave, what culture did he instil in the team and how did they continue to improve ‘beyond number 1’?  So when your team achieves its goals, what do you do next?  How do you stay one step ahead of the chasing pack, motivated to bring you down a peg?  How do you maintain a state of mind that avoids complacency?

Woodward’s insightful thinking was built on the platform of back-to-front planning – he started with his vision of winning the World Cup at the Telstra Stadium Sydney, 22 November 2003. He asked the question: What is that World Cup winning team going to look like? and worked it backwards. He didn’t start with the squad he inherited and work forward, building slowly, gradually, pulling the pieces to culminate to a magnificent climax.

Quite the opposite, planning backwards, he knew what his team needed to look like in 2003 when he was appointed in 1997.  Stuart Lancaster has adopted this approach for England’s 2015 World Cup campaign, he’s identified his XV will have more than 500 caps as his platform. Let’s take this thinking into a business context:

Where do we want to be? Where are we now? How will we get there? This is the building block approach towards identifying the winning requirements of your business. If you concentrate on winning in the here and now, your mindset would take you to building a team for today, so it’s about having the courage to focus on both at the same time – the business team of today, and the business team of tomorrow, meaning you’re working in the business, as well as on the business.

Backwards planning means thinking ahead. Thinking backwards changes the focus from whether something might happen to how it might happen. Putting yourself into the future creates a different perspective. Thinking backwards helps to discover and evaluate different scenarios for how the future might unfold. This stops you looking backwards, which I think is a good thing.

Create a team culture of winning. Everyone has to be comfortable with the expectation of winning. Woodward ensured there was no hiding place – don’t look to the person on your left or right, do it yourself; don’t just turn up, make a contribution. He made a winning ethic the team ethic. He identified those he wanted on his team – energisers, full of drive, fire, intensity, passion, spirit, and those he didn’t – energy sappers, who bleed, deplete, drain, erode, undermine the team.

A team is many voices, but a single heart. On that day in Sydney, England had the biggest heart in the world, underpinned by vision, discipline, clarity and focus. If you build these qualities into your business team, you can create a winning mentality and success for your business.

Now, with 95 days to go to the World Cup, I’ll be keeping an eye on the preparation of England and the All Blacks, my second team. I’m looking forward to the tournament where, as former England forward Gareth Chilcott once said, rugby is a game where you can have a quiet beer followed by several noisy ones.

 

Winning mind-sets of Xavi & Bradley Wiggins

The weekend saw two remarkable sportsmen achieve significant success, on top of a career defined by continued success – Xavi Hernandez and Bradley Wiggins. What is it in their makeup that enables them to be relentless in the pursuit of challenge, to get up and go again when they’ve enjoyed success, never resting on their laurels, and be determined and hungry to win every time they turnout?

On Saturday, Xavi Hernandez lifted The Champions League trophy on his last Barcelona appearance, as the club completed a historic treble in Berlin. It was his last appearance for the club, and the result confirmed a staggering twenty-fifth trophy of Xavi’s career – 777 appearances for Barca since his debut in 1998.

The 35-year-old was handed the captain’s armband as he came on as a 78th minute substitute for Iniesta during Barca’s 3-1 victory over Juventus. His cameo performance was typically astute, appropriately economic and expansive in possession and intelligently positioned when he wasn’t. This was the fourth time Xavi has lifted the European Cup and victory offered a fitting tribute as he ended his career.

Born in the neighbouring city of Terrassa, Xavi joined Barca’s famous La Masia academy as an 11-year-old and made his debut for the first-team in August 1998.  Following an injury to Pep Guardiola in 1999, Xavi inherited the principle playmaking responsibilities and soon became the lifeblood of the Barca midfield.

On Sunday, Bradley Wiggins broke the one-hour distance record, considered one of the most prestigious and iconic records in cycling. Wiggins completed a distance of 54.5km (33.89 miles), smashing the record set in May by fellow Briton Alex Dowsett of 52.9km (32.9 miles). However, he did fall short of the 55.25km target he had set himself.

When he lowered himself onto his 3D-printed titanium handlebars, Wiggins simply focused on the black line ahead of him and the next 60 minutes. Sound simple! Wiggins, current World Champion and holding all the time-trial crowns – Olympic, World, British and now the Hour – knows his place amongst the pantheon of cycling legends is guaranteed.

Success proved again that versatility has been the bedrock of Wiggins’ greatness. With his metronomic pedalling style and cadence, no other rider has been capable both of taking multiple Olympic gold medals on track and road as well as conquering the Tour de France.

James Moore’s first unofficial hour record, set on a penny farthing in 1873, was 22.3km, which is incredible considering he spent 20 minutes of his attempt getting on the bike (I made that up!). The distance Wiggins covered in an hour is roughly the equivalent of cycling from Liverpool to Manchester. Except he didn’t get stuck in the M62 roadworks, or stop for a cup of tea at the services.

When Jens Voigt sparked the new set of records last year, he could barely stand at the end. Yesterday, Wiggins got off his bike and lifted it above his head, then got back on his bike to do a lap of honour. What an athlete. Whilst Xavi has retired, Wiggins’ swansong will be the 2016 Rio Olympics.

I have been intrigued with what drives and motivates human behaviour for many years, wanting to understand the concept of a ‘winning mind-set’. We have seen the likes of Roger Bannister, Jonny Wilkinson, Richie McCaw, Steve Redgrave and now Xavi and Wiggins, and many more amaze us with their passion and drive to succeed.

I have learnt that a winning mind-set is essentially having an attitude of mind, maintaining self-belief, and being relentless in sticking with a focus to achieve. With the right mind-set you will live, work and compete at your full potential. Virtually everything you do in your life is ruled by choices that you make. You can choose to focus on the negative or the positive, you can obsess about things beyond your control or you can focus on the things that you can influence. Focus on the right things, and you become a winner.

What does being a winner mean? What are winners made of? Is there any common denominator among winners? Yehuda Shinar, sports psychologist to Clive Woodward’s England rugby World Cup winners in 2003, has undertaken an 18-year research study into the mind-sets of winners, and identified how they attained their substantial level of achievement.

Shinar concluded that there are three key criteria for creating a winning mind-set:

Be self-aware Top performing individuals have a high level of self-awareness. Knowing your strengths, weaknesses, motivations and your approach to taking risks is key to your success. They keep themselves in balance, check-in and check-out, and always know where they’re at.

Stay in the zone Individuals that perform at the highest level have the ability to manage their thoughts, feeling, emotions and behaviours, essentially they are able to ‘manage the mist’ when they are under pressure. Maintaining an emotional balance manages your physiology.

Have a strategy Winners are goal oriented, they have a sense of purpose and direction – they know how to get there. They have a holistic strategy using a whole brain approach with a vision for the future desired outcome, a plan and an appropriate set of behaviours for achieving their goals.

Having the right mind-set and belief for achieving goals is the difference between winning and losing. Having a winning mind-set is not about being ruthless, stubborn or suppressing emotions. It requires openness to change, embracing failure rather than avoiding it. I am a strong believer that if you can dream it, you can achieve it. If you think it, you can become it. You can realise your potential.

Your thoughts become a reality and therefore you must be careful what you think about. Negative thoughts can become a reality too! There is a difference between accepting failure and being a failure. Failing at something is acceptable, accepting your failure is not.

Shinar has two further aspects to his definition of ‘winners’:

  • They repeatedly maximise their potential even when under pressure and in competitive scenarios.
  • They demonstrate constant improvement in their respective field.

His research shows there is no correlation between the extent of the achievement and the level of talent in the given area, or the IQ level of the winners, not even at the highest levels. Shinar thus defines the winning mind-set model as ‘winning intelligence’, a skill that can be learned, practiced, developed and improved, comprising the five elements outlined above, creating a model and a ‘capacity for winning’.

But what is the concept of ‘mind-set’. Mind-set is a simple idea discovered by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in decades of research on achievement and success.

In a fixed mind-set, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are fixed traits and don’t develop them. They also believe that talent alone creates success. They’re wrong says Dweck.

In a growth mind-set, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Mind-sets are beliefs about yourself and your basic qualities. Think about your intelligence, your talents, your personality. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that? Or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life?

Since the dawn of time, people have thought differently, acted differently, and fared differently from each other. Why is this? Experts lined up on both sides. Some claimed that there was a strong physical basis for these differences, making them unavoidable and unalterable. Through the ages these alleged physical differences have included bumps on the skull (phrenology), the size and shape of the skull (craniology), and today, genes.

Others pointed to the strong differences in people’s backgrounds, experiences, training, or ways of learning. It may surprise you to know that a big champion of this view was Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test. Binet, a Frenchman working in Paris in the early C20th, designed this test to identify children who were not profiting from the Paris public schools, so that new educational programs could be designed to get them back on track.

It wasn’t originally an intelligence test. Without denying individual differences in children’s intellects, he believed that education and practice could bring about fundamental changes in intelligence.

Who’s right? Today most experts agree that it’s not either/or. It’s not nature or nurture, genes or environment. From conception on, there’s a constant give and take between the two. In fact, as Gilbert Gottlieb, an eminent neuroscientist put it, not only do genes and environment cooperate as we develop, but genes require input from the environment to work properly.

Of course, each person has a unique genetic endowment. People may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, but it is clear that experience, training and personal effort take them the rest of the way. I believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable), that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training. Did you know that Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children?

You can see how the mind-set and belief that cherished qualities can be developed creates a passion for learning and slef-improvement. Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mind-set. This is the mind-set that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

So we have a ‘winning intelligence’ model to work into a ‘growth mind-set’ as an approach to understand winners such as Xavi and Wiggins. I recall watching Wiggins as he crossed the Tour finish line and before punching the air with joy and pride, Wiggins punched a button on his bike computer to log the ride data. He had a performance mind-set for sure.

Wiggins is also relentless, adopting Dave Brailsford’s concept of ‘marginal gains’, pursuing the tiniest gains in everything – the bikes, fitness, training regimes, clothing, nutrition, strategy. Similarly Xavi is renowned for his dedication to training, instilling learning into new habits, often being the last in the gym, out on the running track and on the practice pitch.

So whilst much of the research, philosophy and approach to determining how ‘winning’ is achieved comes from studying world class athletes, you can distil this thinking into application for a business context, to take your individual performance up a gear, by simply asking yourself three questions

  • Have you defined what the next level of success looks like?
  • Have you identified what the incremental, marginal gains will be in order for you to get to the next level?
  • How often do you examine what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.

Winners embrace hard work, they love the discipline of it. Losers on the other hand, see it as punishment and not worth the effort. Losers live in the past, they have not yet learned how to win. Winners learn from the past and enjoy working in the present towards the future. That, simply, is the difference.

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.