Quick Tips for Adding Playfulness to your Playbook

On Monday we discussed playfulness and how being around young people can help bring out your playful side. I argued that simply getting more playful can and does release creativity that would otherwise be locked away, unused; even unsuspected.

If you’re following the Hard Not Complicated method then you’ll already have at least the start of your Playbook (if you’re not then pop me an email and I’ll help you get started on it with a free 30 minute consultation). Your Playbook might be a real book or something virtual, it could be in a file full of clippings and a task list or managed in a high tech productivity management app, what matters is that it contains everything you need to start bringing about change through simple games, drills, meditations, simulations and any other habit shifting actions you can imagine.

I call it a Playbook, in part, because I want to remind people that your persona transformation should be fun. But you could just as well infer that fun should be something you should seek to have more of. Here are some quick tips for how to add a bit more play to your Playbook.

  1. Do Things Wrong

Play, in the purest form, let’s go of the idea of correctness and enjoys exploring without judgement. But life has, in most cases, squished the joy of this sort of thing out of us by the time we’re in our adult years.

Consider adding something to your Playbook that pushes you out of your comfort zone in a completely safe way – like playing a game you’ve never played before, trying to cook a meal you don’t know the first thing about, or taking up a new hobby – and then just relax and do it wrong! See what happens when you throw away the recipe and the instructions and just play.

  1. Join an Improv troupe

Improv is playfulness incarnate and a great way to bring out some serious silliness in yourself. Contrary to what many believe, improv isn’t random. It has rules. But when you follow rules in a group, responding with openness and an attitude of support to those around you, what emerges is play.

If you don’t fancy joining an improv group, why not just add some improv games to your Playbook? For these you’ll need partners to play with but it’s well worth it and you can certainly liven up a family dinner or night in with friends with a few rounds of Backwards Interview or Letter Number Name.

[Check out the Improv Encyclopaedia for these and other ideas http://improvencyclopedia.org/games/

  1. Just play more games

It’s entirely acceptable for your Playbook to include simply playing games. Board games, computer games, sports – anything that makes you feel more alive, connected in the moment and brings out elements of your personality and thinking style that are otherwise untapped by your daily life can be a way to get more playfulness into you and more creativity out.

I’m particularly fond of games like Charades, Pictionary and Linkee as they each require thinking around obstacles and creative leaps – how to turn words into actions or images and how to find non-obvious connections between answers.

We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing

  • George Bernard Shaw

When you watch a toddler playing with her food or child doodling images on a piece of paper, focused in a way that almost no adult can seem to achieve, you’re seeing learning and growth at a fundamental level. And the joy of it is that we enjoy this stuff. Play is how we most naturally learn and playfulness is how we most naturally solve problems.

So play. It’s what you were born to do and it’s how you discover what you live for.


Maybe being a mum really would make you a better prime minister

Those following the turbulent political goings on in the UK over the last few weeks may be forgiven for not catching every little controversy, conspiracy or cockup. There have been rather a lot. One particular faceplant got the chattering classes chattering extra chattily and that was one the then candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Andrea Leadsom, made a rather silly comment.

In an interview with The Times Leadsom suggested that, being a mother, she would make a better PM than her rival, Theresa May, who is childless. She felt that motherhood gave her a greater and more direct stake in the future of the nation.

This assertion was, to put it mildly, frowned upon by pretty much everyone. Feminists, mothers, unmarried and childless men and women, Tories, liberals, socialists. It didn't go down well.

But I'm starting to believe she may have had a point. Not the point she thought she had (which was utterly stupid) but a different one. I'm thinking that maybe, being a parent, could make you a better leader not for any silly reasons like "a stake in the future" but simply by dint of making you more creative.

Just over a week ago my wife and I hosted three of our niblings; Rya, 15, and Max and Amy, 12. We took them to an event called Hyper Japan, a celebration of Japanese and Asian culture. I'm rather proud that Rya has grown into such a little geek and helped bring her younger siblings along for the ride. I feel it's my influence at work. I showed her her first anime, you see. But I digress.

During the visit I learned a lot about Japan, the broad differences between J-Pop and K-Pop and how, despite my best efforts, I have definitely grown up (or at least some version of it). But I also noticed how being around young people and new helped reawaken my playfulness. This manifested in something entirely trivial which I will illustrate below.

This is a small wooden kitten that lives in our conservatory.

This pose is supposed to look playful and cute but I've always hated it because, to me, this looks like the kitten has just been shot in the chest and is currently bleeding out while calling for help.

I had never realised that it was possible for this kitten to look any way other than this. But for some reason, on Sunday morning, the day after Hyper Japan and having had my head filled with playful, strange and interestingly youthful behaviour for more than a full 24 hours, I had a breakthrough.

I did this.

I realised that I could make the kitten breakdance.

I told you this was trivial but stay with me here.

I often talk about the easy relationship children seem to have with creativity. In children this is manifest in playfulness most often. Playfulness lightens things, loosens them, broadens them. And it rubs off. Just spending a weekend with my nieces and nephew helped me to feel playful. Just a moment of playfulness helped me to see something differently. Something trivial but then that's what I was focused on. I've no doubt that, had I been trying to solve a big, crunchy problem at the time, I would have found this playful feeling helpful there too.

Which brings me back to my initial thought – perhaps parents really do have an advantage when it comes to leadership?

We know that leadership is a creative activity. Remember our working definition of creativity: problem solving under conditions of uncertainty. Well, you can't get much clearer an example of that than leading people. People are, above all else, complex and unpredictable, that's some uncertain conditions for you.

Since playfulness is a key component of creativity, and if spending time with children makes you more playful at heart, it would follow that being a parent might indeed make you a better leader and, potentially a better prime minister.

Of course, if there's even a smidgen of truth in this whole thing then that sets up an interesting imperative; not only do we need to do more to get more parents into the workplace, we also need to do more to get more leaders to spend more time with children – their own or otherwise.

That means valuing and celebrating family time and lots and lots of mentoring and educational outreach work in schools, including with younger children. It's not just good for the kids to get exposure to accomplished professionals. In fact, the adults might be getting the better end of the deal.

Hard Not Complicated Tips – sale away sale away sale away

In this week’s Hard Not Complicated blog I wrote about sales from the perspective of creativity and especially two main points. I argued that if you’re not a stereotypical salesperson you’ll need to do two things:

  1. Reframe what it means to sell
  2. Reinvent sales in a way that makes sense for you

Today I want to offer a couple of quick tips on how to do that.


It’s easy to think of sales as an attempt to get something.

I want:

  • Customers
  • Contracts
  • Commissions

I like to flip this around. I begin my sales work by asking myself how I can help people. For me, a sales call is about answering one question:

  • How can I make you happy?

I have a set of products and services that can be put to use in a range of ways. If one of these ways solves a problem for the person I’m speaking to then I can make that person happy by doing that.

When you think about times when you’ve successfully persuaded someone to adopt your product or service, give you a job, assign you a task, have you noticed how they are happy when they do it? How they feel that a problem for them has been solved?

Happiness, in the sense of increased pleasure and reduced pain, is what it’s all about. If I can make someone happy by selling them what I have to sell, that makes me happy too.

If you have a team who are reluctant to be salespeople, try out the below approaches.

Make the Meaning Real: maybe your team have forgotten that what they do is meaningful, that it matters to people. Consider running a weekly meeting devoted to talking about customers who you have helped that week. Share feedback and have that team talk about how it makes them feel to have helped people live, work or play more easily, with less pain and more pleasure.

Take No for an Answer: many people feel like sales is a pushy business and they don’t want to be pushy people. When I worked as an on-street fundraiser (the guys with the clipboards and tabards who everyone hates) I was told that it was vital that people felt that it was OK to say no. By making this clear to people at the outset I was able to feel good about talking to them, knowing that there would be no hard feelings or awkwardness if they said no.

Not Selling, Searching: you might find it useful to reframe the idea of sales in your context with the knowledge that what you’re really doing is less selling and more searching for people who need your help. A sales call then becomes less a battle, a struggle to convince the potential customer that you are the solution, and more a collaborative process; your job as a salesperson is to answer the question “can I help you?” and be sure, at the end, if the answer is yes or no.


Reinvention is just a fancy word for starting over from first principals. It asks you to assume nothing about what you’re about to do, let go of all of your preconceptions and ask simply: what is it we want to accomplish?

If you’re struggling with sales then it may be that you’re trying to sell the way you think you’re supposed to sell, rather than selling the way that makes sense for you.

The challenge with reinvention, of course, is to get yourself free from what you already know. These approaches might help.

Don’t Put the Answer in the Question: in an interview given to Blue Peter, of all places, world renowned product designer Jonny Ive talked about how, at Apple, they try to avoid using words that would presuppose or bias the output of a design process. The example he gave was that if they were designing a lunchbox they wouldn’t call it “The Lunchbox Project” because the word “box” immediately pushes the mind towards a specific shape, assumes things like lids and hinges and handles. In sales you could do the same thing – instead of asking “how do we sell?” try asking “how do we find customers?” or “how do we build relationships?”.

Flip it: getting away from what you know can be hard, so why not take what you know and simply flip it 180? My favourite example of this is something called the disloyalty card. This was an idea from a bunch of independent coffee shops who being unable to take advantage of a loyalty card, as they only had a single store each, decided to band together and give people awards for trying out all the different independent coffee shops in the city. They took an idea, flipped it around, and found a new way to do things. This sort of work requires a degree of conceptual flexibility which can be hard to do, but be playful, have fun with it, and you might surprise yourself.

Ask Your Customers: in the end helping your customers benefits you and them. So why not get them involved in helping you to figure out the best way to work with them? And I don’t mean a survey, I mean actually involving them in the creative process. Find ways to interact with your customers that work beautifully for them as well as for you. You might find there is a whole new way of selling the would never have occurred to either of the groups separately.


The solutions you come up with, the way that sales works for you, will be unique to you. The Hard Not Complicated system is built on the belief that the solutions to your problems will always come from you. So above all else, you have to believe.

Learn to believe in yourself, your product, your methods and your ability to rewrite what you thought was possible, and you can find ways to do anything.

If you’d like to find out more about how I help clients the hard, not complicated way, drop me an email at aran@sabretoothpanda.com.

Selling Yourself on Sales

I’d like you to imagine that you’re walking down a road and, from inside a house, you hear sounds of distress. Someone is hurt and they’re calling out in pain. What would you do?

We’ll revisit this idea later. For now, place it at the back of your mind and let it settle in.

On Saturday I had the immense privilege of addressing a group of entrepreneurs and business people from the Latin American community in London at the ExpoOportunidades 2016 where I delivered the Hard Not Complicated Field Guide to Being Different – an exploration and celebration of what it means to be you. I’d like to thank the organisers for involving me as I had a genuinely great time.

At the end of the workshop I was approached by a group of participants from the same company with a question about sales. They told me that their employers had recently asked the senior consultants in their business to take on more of a sales centric role, feeling that the salesforce they had previously used wasn’t serving the best needs of the clients.

From the brief conversation we had it seemed that the consultants were finding this change difficult and were unhappy about this new requirement. While I can’t and wouldn’t share specific details about this case and what my proposed solution might be, I would like to share some generalised thoughts about sales and how to both sell yourself on selling and find out how you sell instead of trying to sell how you feel you are supposed to.

Selling yourself on selling

I used to be a salesperson. I was a good salesperson. In some cases I was the best salesperson in my team or branch. Today I am the head of sales for Sabre Tooth Panda by virtue of being the only person who works here! But I am not and never was a typical salesperson. Or, at least, I wasn’t a stereotypical one.

When you think about salespeople, if you don’t happen to be one yourself, you probably imagine brash, extroverted types who think in simple zero sum ways. They only care about their bonus cheque and probably don’t really understand the products they’re selling. They’re pushy, annoying, try to guilt/con/pressure others into paying money for things they don’t need and you avoid them like the plague.

No wonder you don’t want to be one! To act in this way would bring about feelings of shame and guilt, go against your values and undermine your self image. It would be a denial of who you are.

Like all stereotypes this one begins with a little bit of truth. Their are salespeople like that. Maybe even the majority of them. But that doesn’t mean that this is the only way to be a salesperson.

When I worked in sales I had some roles which pretty much required me to be this person. I did not like these roles. And, it is worth noting, when I was in these roles I was a very mediocre salesperson. Being good with words and confident with people I could force myself to adopt these behaviours for a little while but relatively soon the pain of having to be someone I didn’t like would undermine my performance.

Then there were other roles where I got to sell the way I like to sell and what typified these roles was that I genuinely loved what I was selling.

For instance, when I was a waiter at a steakhouse, a role that is absolutely a sales job, I genuinely believed that we had a great product and that it was my job to make sure that the customers got the best meal that they could have. I wasn’t there to pressure them into buying something that they didn’t want. My job was to guide them to the food and drinks that would make their experience wonderful.

There was another time when I worked in a mobile phone shop. As a geeky guy who loves his gadgets I enthused my way to a sale, my excitement at helping people choose and use a really cool phone was what made people buy from me and I felt great about it because I believed I was helping the customer.

These days I sell what I love because if I don’t love it I don’t do it. And again, I don’t see myself as going out there looking to get something; to get a sale, to get money, to get more for me. I see myself as going out there to find people who I can help; people who have a problem that I can help them to solve.

Yes, this does require me to be a little more forward than might come naturally but I don’t feel guilty, I don’t feel shame or any sense of personal tension because I am not working against my values.

I believe in what I have to offer. I believe that I can help people. I believe that I am doing good, meaningful work. And if that requires me to be a little bit forward, maybe even a little bit pushy, then so be it.

Recall the question I asked at the start of this piece? The person inside a house, calling out in distress; would you feel guilty about knocking the door down to get to them? Of course not. But you’d hardly do that most of the time! If you believe that someone genuinely needs your help and that you genuinely can help them, then you can and will act in ways that may not come naturally to you.

If you believe that what you’re selling can help someone in a meaningful way, you should be willing to knock down that door, metaphorically speaking.

How do you like to knock down doors?

But there’s another layer to this challenge. Even if you’ve accepted that there’s nothing shameful or wrong in trying to help people by providing them with a product or service you believe they’ll love, perhaps you find that there’s a challenge when it comes to methods.

If sales is not something you feel personally connected to as a profession you probably have some relatively narrow ideas how exactly how one goes about selling things. You’ve been told how it’s done and that’s that.

You have to call people over and over again. You have to “always be closing”. You have to be pushy. You have to be that guy. But do you? And, could you even if you did?

This is where the second part of the challenge comes in. If you’ve now accepted that it’s OK to sell what you have to sell, that selling isn’t the same as conning people but is, in fact, a way of helping them, you then have to begin to look for authentic ways to do that, ways that work for you.

I was a super geek salesman. I sold things I loved by geeking out about them with others. But that was me. That’s not necessarily you. Nobody, certainly not I, can tell you how you sell because we don’t know you. Perhaps it would help, though, to begin by identifying the problems you have to solve. I can make a broad guess to you need to:

  1. Find people to help
  2. Connect with those people
  3. Understand them and help them understand you
  4. Build trust and belief
  5. Reach agreement about exactly how you will help them
  6. Agree how they will compensate you

How would you do these things? How could you do these things?

To put this in my context – this here, these very words, are part of my sales process. I’m connecting with you. I’m helping you to understand me and, by a passive process of filtering, if you respond to these ideas, I am gaining an understanding of you and your needs. When I run my No Wrong Answers Quizzes that is part of my sales process. When I blog and run workshops, provide guidance and advice to people in person or online, these are all ways in which I work on items 1-4.

If I do those things right I find that steps 5 and 6 are very natural, very easy. They are a conversation between people who are, by now, on the same team. We have a shared goal and all that remains is to figure out how best to work together.

This is how I do things because this works for me. You, if you’ve taken ownership of the idea of being a person who sells, must figure out what works for you, what is authentically your way to do sales.

You don’t have to be anyone other than who you are. You don’t have to become a salesperson. You have to figure out how you already are one.

If you want to talk about this some more, get in touch with me at aran@sabretoothpanda.com. I promise, I won’t try the hard sell on you. 😉

Hard Not Complicated Tips

A new thing I'm trying out is to have a weekly theme for my communications and split my Monday, Wednesday and Friday communications to address that theme in different ways.

On Monday I talked about how I'm using visualisation to set and stick to long term goals. Pop back and read it if you haven't yet.

Today I want to offer some quick tips on how to do this better.

One: Make it emotional

Visualisations work by stimulating us emotionally. If we want data to back up logical decision making we don't need a visualisation, we need a spreadsheet and a bunch of charts. A strong visualisation needs to be an emotional kick in the arse.

Pro-emotional tip – emotions exist in the body, not just the brain. Maybe that's why we call them "feelings"? If a visualisation doesn't make you feel something physically then it's not emotional enough. Use embodied emotions meditation techniques to tune your ability to feel emotions in your body and ensure your visualisations are powerful enough to stimulate them.

Two: Keep it simple

A picture paints a thousand words so you don't need anything complicated. A great visualisation needs to be at your fingertips, mentally speaking, and ready to go in a moment. If it takes you hours to survey your scene then you won't use it often enough to be helpful.

If your goal doesn't lend itself to simple visualisation in a literal way, consider metaphor and the use of personas. Imagine yourself as a King or Queen, see yourself standing on the moon. The picture can have meanings that are figurative which allows you to pack even more meaning and emotional punch into something you can bring to mind in moments.

Three: If it isn't working, change it

Sometimes a visualisation seems wonderful at first but if you find it stops working over time it may be that your goals have moved on or your emotional triggers have changed. Maybe the visualisation was more powerful for its novelty than anything else.

Don't be afraid, in these circumstances, to change what you use. Try, first, tweaking one or two elements. See if this makes the visualisation more or less powerful. If you change too many things at once it will be harder to know what is and isn't helping.

On Friday I'll be sending out my weekly newsletter which will link back to this and Monday's blog as well as offering extra tidbits, news about what Sabre Tooth Panda is up to and more. If you'd like to find out more about being creative the Hard Not Complicated way, go to http://www.sabretoothpanda.com/contactus to sign up for our newsletter and get a free thirty minute consultation.

Life’s Snapshot

I’m working on a rather longer piece at the moment, inspired by my favourite villains, both of tv and film, and from literature old and new. I’m writing about the lessons in success we can learn from them and why the hero might not be the best role model if you want to live a proactive life. But as I write this I wanted to share an insight that I’ve already put to use. I call it The Littlefinger Rule.

This bit may contain spoilers. Little ones.

Last week millions of people watched the finale of Game of Thrones Season Six. And while most probably spent the following days wondering about the implications of Jon Snow’s true parentage or anticipating the epic battles that are surely on their way now that The Queen of Dragons is crossing the Iron Sea, I spent them rethinking my life.

That’s because of this one short speech delivered by Lord Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish in conversation with Sansa Stark.

Every time I’m faced with a decision I close my eyes and see the same picture. Whenever I consider an action I asked myself – will this action help to make this picture a reality, pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. A picture of me on the Iron Throne, and you by side.

My immediate thought was that this is some strong long term planning technique; of each thing ask if it really contributes to your long term goal. But then, on further reflection, I realised the true genius of one of GoT’s most mysterious villains – the simplicity of the image.

When you ask people about what they want in life, and this is certainly the case for me, they will usually give you a list of things. A nice house, a happy family, a good job, a new car, fancy holidays, close friends, etc. Unlike Littlefinger most people aren’t as single minded in their aims. But, of course, this nuance comes with a cost.

While Littlefinger can summon, in seconds, a rich, emotionally powerful image that unambiguously sums up his principal motivation, I realised that I could not. For me it took a good couple of minutes to think through my life goals and even longer to work them into strong images to which I had a powerful emotional response. What I realised was this:

  • If you can’t see it in a snapshot, it’s too complicated for your monkey brain.

This leads us to a tricky problem: how do you sum up in a single snapshot a complicated set of goals. While sitting on the Iron Throne and ruling the Seven Kingdoms comes with an obvious image right from the start, I realised that for me and my goals, what I needed were metaphors.

So over the weekend I sat down with my wife and we talked about what I want out of my life. We talked about my goals and aims, the things that worry me or upset me and the things I wish to overcome. In the end we managed to narrow it all down to four areas:

  1. Health – my physical, emotional and mental wellbeing
  2. Adventure – living a full and exciting life with learning and new experiences
  3. Love – being a good friend and loved one to those around me
  4. Work – providing for myself and my family with meaningful employment

For each of these areas I wrote down a short, 100 words or so, description based on what this state would look and feel like. But even these were too complicated to translate to simple snapshots that could be called upon in a moment. Too detailed to be emotionally punchy.

As a final step I decided to create personas – metaphorical states that could represent the wider meaning of each life goal. I’d like to share those with you now.

  1. Aran the Beach Bod – I’ve never been entirely comfortable with my body. When I imagine myself as the picture of health and fitness the image of me, on a beach, untroubled by being in public semi naked(!) is about as powerful an emotional driver I can come up with. In this image I see sports equipment and maybe even a surfboard. This is an Aran who is healthy and confident.
  2. Aran the Warrior Monk – Bold, outward facing action mixed with a deep inner life. In this snapshot I imagine myself dressed in some Asian inspired robes, carrying a staff. Again I’m outside, with others but not tethered to anything or anyone. In this image I see freedom and adventure, learning and self expression. This is an Aran who lives a full life.
  3. Aran the Zen Dad – I’m not a father yet but I know that, when I am, this will be the biggest personal challenge of my life. So when I think about being a good friend and loved one it’s in the role of a dad that this idea is most profound. In this snapshot, a simple image compared to the first two, I’m a little older, a little calmer, I see a man who is ready and able to be there for those around him. I’m in my home which is a welcoming and loving place and there’s my child who represents something joyful, not pressure and not fear. This is an Aran who can be there for others because he’s centred in himself.
  4. Aran the Guru Coach – this one is simple. When I think about my work, when I imagine any scene in which I am delivering services to anyone, what I see in this snapshot is a coach and since I find Eastern spiritualism so rich in interesting images, I use the word Guru to bring to mind a calm wisdom. In this scene I am in a room with a group of people, sitting in a circle. There are ideas flashing here and there, suprising and exciting thoughts and insights, and I quietly help the thinking, gently nudge, reflect and challenge. When I see this snapshot I feel good. I feel right. And I know this is the Aran I need to be in my work.

Littlefinger only has one image in his mind when he thinks about his future. But he’s a villain in a TV show which makes his life a little simpler. Now I have four images to work with so my rather less eloquent speech would go something like this:

Every time I’m faced with a decision I close my eyes and see the same four pictures. Whenever I consider an action I asked myself – will this action help to make these pictures a reality, pull them out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. Pictures of me as a Beach Bod, a Warrior Monk, a Zen Dad and a Guru Coach.

OK, it’s not quite must see TV, but it works for me.

What about you?

  • Can you sum up your major goals in simple, powerful, emotionally meaningful snapshots?
  • Can you connect with these snapshots strongly enough that they can deeply move you now, changing what you choose to do?
  • How rich is your image of the future, metaphor, persona or literal?

I’d love to hear from you and happy to answer any questions you have about motivation, creativity, coaching and change.