Convergent Innovation

Last week I posted the first episode of my podcast in a very long time. It's a big moment for me because, when I began the show I didn't really know what I wanted to do with it. Now I do and with my new co-hosts I even have a format of sorts.

I realised that a moment like this called for some new podcast artwork and for some time I've been searching for a way to visualise what Hard Not Complicated means. For a while I had this rather fun loop-de-loop graphic but it just didn't work. Then, last week, I found out about enso.

Actually, I should say less that I found out about enso, I already knew about them to a degree. It's just that it became clear to me how neatly this symbol, ancient and culturally powerful, aligned with what Hard Not Complicated is all about.

An enso is a symbol associated with Zen Buddhism which is drawn in a single stroke with ink and a brush. It connects with the ideas of impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness, especially in the broken form where the ends do not meet.

When I began Sabre Tooth Panda, it wasn't a coaching company. I developed my approach and philosophy and then I realised that what I was doing was coaching! Similarly, I didn't intend to design a company that is so deeply connected with eastern philosophies. But, the more I develop Hard Not Complicated and the more I think about how Sabre Tooth Panda is different, the more I notice these ideas seeping through.

Just as an enso can never be perfect, the Hard Not Complicated approach is based on the idea that building a strong relationship with creativity is an ongoing process, not something you begin and end with a three day workshop or by completing a set of coursework.

Similarly I try to stay clear of the idea that there is one correct way to have that strong relationship with creativity. While many approaches to boosting creativity in the workplace seem to want to teach standards and processes, the Hard Not Complicated method focuses on enabling teams and individuals to develop their own, organic relationship, seeking out the tools and techniques that support their own preferences after the fact, rather than teaching tools and techniques and requiring the person to adapt to the tool.

I could list endlessly the ways in which my approach to helping people get creative seems to conform to all manner of ideas steeped in ancient and modern learning, but that's not my point here. What I am more interested in is what I'm calling Convergent Innovation.

You may have heard of convergent evolution. This is the process by which two animals with no recent evolutionary connection end up with very similar appearances. The most commonly noticed one is the shark and the dolphin.

There are huge differences between sharks and dolphins but considering that one is a mammal and one is a fish it's interesting to note how similar they are in some of their more visible features. This is despite the fact that they share no common ancestor for billions of years.

The explanation is simple: when you have the same problems to solve you are likely to end up with similar solutions. Which brings me back to Convergent Innovation.

The creative process is as much a journey of discovery as it is of invention, despite the popular out-of-nowhere myth of creativity. When I realised that my challenge was less to do with creativity itself but more to do with how people learn, our habits and how they form, our emotional responses to various things such as failure or difference, our attitudes towards ourselves and the outside world, it became clear to me that I my creative journey could be greatly enhanced by following in the footsteps of others who have faced this same challenge.

The Not Invented Here Syndrome is one of those horrible and entirely avoidable problems in creativity. But the concept of Convergent Innovation should put our minds at ease. After all, if the most creative force in nature, evolution, can share ideas, then why can't we?


You Don’t fix Hard Not Complicated Problems – they fix you

You know, when David Allen, the creator of Getting Things Done (GTD for short) says that it takes about a year to “get this stuff”, in reference to GTD, it’s easy to imagine that by this he means that GTD is complicated. It’s not. In fact, it’s very simple. That, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t hard.

I’m coming to the belief that the biggest things we have to deal with in life – family, friends, love, loss, death, peace of mind, purpose, the whole general mishmash of existence – largely fall into the Hard Not Complicated bucket. Which is great for me from a philosophical perspective (life appears to be very “on brand” right now) and also interesting from a how we learn perspective.

The question at hand, the thing that I’ve just sort of got my head around, is the difference between actions at projects and, more specifically, how to manage them.

I’ve had an “action” in my list for a while now, waiting to be acted on. This “action” was “Arrange dinner with Laura”. I’ve placed the word “action” in inverted commas because I’ve now realised this isn’t, in fact, an action.

In GTD they say that an action is the next, visible step and it has to be something you can do in one go. Arranging a dinner doesn’t fit this definition because, despite being a small and relatively simple outcome, it still breaks down into smaller actions. Furthermore, it isn’t entirely clear what all those actions will be from the outset.

It could go like this:

  1. Send email to Laura suggesting dinner
  2. Read email response with suggested dates
  3. Ask wife about availability
  4. Respond to Laura with preferences
  5. Read email response and confirm with wife
  6. Confirmation email to Laura
  7. Add to calendar
  8. Buy bottle of wine to take

On the other hand it could go like this:

  1. Send email to Laura suggesting dinner
  2. Call to follow up email after three days as no response
  3. Find out that Laura has had to go out of town on business
  4. Defer action until Laura comes back in two weeks

And there are, potentially, endless other ways that this could go. Even here, something that looks like an action is in fact a project with multiple steps and since one cannot do a project and can only do an action it’s unsurprising that so many lists that are, on first glance, full of actions, end up being hard to engage with.

Separating out the thinking and the doing is one of those Hard Not Complicated things that take discipline and time, not talent or brains. And when this is the case it seems that the only reliable path to success is through a period of immersion and multiple passes at the same question.

Hard Not Complicated things are problems that require a change takes place in you rather than a change taking place in the thing you’re trying to solve. You don’t so much solve a Hard Not Complicated problem – you adapt to it.

Self Limiting Assumptions

They say that you need to ask why five times to get to the nub of any given issue. This is the famous “Five Whys” approach to route cause analysis. It’s good. You should do it.

I’m starting to believe that, when it comes to creative problem solving, the whys, whats, wheres, and any other interrogative pronouns you like, can be almost infinite.

Presently I’m working on a little bit of branding work. As always I like to collaborate as much as I can with my clients so I find myself asking lots of questions. Today I was wondering about wellbeing – a central element of the brand – and I realised something. I wasn’t sure what wellbeing meant to my client. I had assumed that I knew. But, of course, wellbeing means something to me but that doesn’t mean it means the same thing to my client. My assumption had closed off an important avenue for thinking about the problem at hand.

Assumptions are pretty much always the enemy. And so it has proven when it comes to my own work; specifically business development.

It’s a little embarrassing for a creativity coach to admit this but I’ve been rather uncreative when it comes to my market. I’ve been assuming all sorts of things about who will and who will not be interested in what I have to offer. This is despite the fact that much of the work I am doing has come from unexpected sources.

Because of these self limiting assumptions I have missed out on business development opportunities, closed off conversations too early and generally been too picky about who I spend the time to talk to.

Don’t be as silly as me. If you have something of value to offer, don’t assume you know who will want or need it. Don’t be afraid to ask the question or explore a possibility that you had previously considered out of bounds. Sure, we have to rule out some things when we need to focus our time and energy but when you’re starting out, as I am, one thing you tend to have plenty of is time and energy. What you need are clients.


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

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

  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.

The Magic of Asking for Help

I just did something embarrassing. I’ve been fiddling about for a day or so trying to figure out how to set up an app which for some reason didn’t seem to offer me any way to tell it I had a paid up subscription. It just kept telling me that my trial had expired. Very frustrating.

So, finally, I relented and sent off an email asking for help. Then, literally 30 seconds later, I figured out what I needed to do. My problem was solved before the email had collected even a pixel of digital dust. If ink could be wet in cyberspace, then mine still was.

I felt silly. And then I felt curious. Why was it that I had struggled for so long and then the moment I had given up the answer came to me. Was this the universe playing silly buggers with me or was this something more?

Casting my mind back I can think of other examples of these moments in my life. Calling out to my wife to ask how to do something and then finding that the solution revealed itself almost at once. Calling a helpline to find that I’d solved my dilemma while still on hold.

And then it hit me. Problem solving requires a wide focus. When we feel under pressure we tend to get narrow in our focus – seeing only the items we expect to see, those right under our noses, going around and around in circles, blind to the alternatives around us.

Consider the behaviour of people when they’re panicking – head down, oblivious to anything around them. Similar behaviour can be seen in people trying to achieve some large, extrinsic reward; a sort of attentional blindness driven by stress and pressure.

This, I think, is part of my answer. By asking for help I reduced the pressure on myself. I let my brain off the hook. But there was another side to; this was the first time I had stated my problem clearly. By writing down what I was struggling with I provided new clues to my brain.

By asking for help in this way I both increased my capacity to think clearly and provided myself with new information with which to work.

Maybe asking for help is the simplest form of self help there is.

Learning to stop helping

Coaches are often very smart and insightful people. This is to be expected because coaching isn’t easy. If you're a coach like me then you practice design thinking and creative problem solving as part of your daily work. But coaches, when they’re coaching, aren't supposed to solve problems for people. No matter how smart they are. They're supposed to help that person process they're own thoughts and come to a solution for themselves.

Then comes the dilemma; what if you know the right answer?

We’ve all been there, watching someone struggle with a difficult dilemma and having this overwhelming urge to point out a very clever solution that has occurred to us while we’ve been listening. Some of us, in moments of weakness, have even gone so far as to subtly manipulate the thinking of our coachee to help them arrive at the answer that we’re so sure is the right one.

But here's the rub; you don't know the right answer. Or at the very least you can't assume that you do. It may well be that you have a good idea but are you sure it’s the best idea? And by best I mean not only objectively optimal but the right fit for your coachee.

That’s the crux of it – your answer may be perfect for you but coaching assumes that the best solution for the person with the problem will come from that person. It’s the foundation of the coaching approach – boost awareness, facilitate thinking, ask questions and then help the coachee stay the course.

Further more, when you give advice, consider what you're assuming. You're assuming that you're smarter than your coachee, that you understand his or her life better than they do. This assumption is unsafe. It's also arrogant.

When you find yourself tempted to give advice, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What if I'm wrong?
  2. Even if I'm right, should this solution come from me?
  3. What might I be destroying if I speak now?

You could perhaps sum all these up with one position question?

  • What would I do if I assumed my coachee is as good a thinker as I am?

In fact, this question goes far beyond coaching. What if you assumed that everyone you spoke to was as capable of thinking as you are? What if you believed that the homeless person on the street could be as insightful as the founder of the latest billion dollar tech breakthrough?

A short while ago I wrote about the feeling of relief that I felt when switched from believing that people needed me to save their problems for them to believing that the world is full of good and powerful people, filled with potential.

Apply that same thinking to your life. Would you feel a sense of relief if you knew the people around you were capable of solving their own problems and only needed you to believe in them? How would you manage your team differently if you knew they were smart and ready to use those smarts? How might you treat your children differently?

Coaching isn’t about teaching, but being a coach teaches us many things. The first lesson, of course, is humility.

The Secret of Success is Showing Up

Today’s post is one of my personal favourites types of post – it’s a post where I get to demonstrate what I mean in how I write it. Specifically, you can look down below and see over three hundred words which I wrote and then abandoned for one very good reason: awareness.

You see, I’ve come to believe that the opposite of productivity is distractedness. To understand what I mean by that I should clarify what both of those things mean to me.

Productivity is, as far as I am concerned, simply doing the right thing at the right time in the right way.

Distractedness is defined in my world as conflict between what you are doing and what you are not doing.

It’s easy to see how being distracted, in conflict, immediately negates being productive. How can you do the right thing at the right time in the right way while conflicted about what you’re doing?

But we can take this even further when we define what it means to be undistracted.

Woody Allen once said that the secret to success is showing up. Being there, in other words, is what matters. In the initial context he meant that physically but we have all seen and, indeed, been people who are physically there but mentally and emotionally on another planet.

Being undistracted, for me, means being present. Many would call this mindful or aware. And through awareness you can achieve the optimal state of productivity. Only awareness can enable you to do the right thing, at the right time in the right way.

As a coach I know that awareness and self correction are the best path to improvement. I see it all the time. Enhance awareness, decrease distractedness, and we begin to see an immediate but gradual change, slowly and surely towards doing the right thing at the right time and in the right way.

What has all this got to to do with the abortive blog below?

When I began to write this piece today I went off in a particular direction. I was moving quickly and feeling good. But then I slowed. Then I stopped. Before I knew it I was fiddling with my phone and looking at Twitter. I had become distracted.

Distraction is, as above, simply conflict. My clarity and certainty about what I was doing had ebbed away and my mind had become distracted. Twitter is, in this sense, not what distracted me. It’s just what I did when in a state of distraction. I could just as easily have rearranged my book shelf, paired up my socks or doodled on my notepad.

I become unhappy – I could see that I wasn’t being productive. And then awareness kicked in. I was distracted because I was doing the wrong thing! I needed to let go of my work and start again because my direction was wrong.

I then sat down and wrote out this new post in the space of ten minutes. I could certainly have tried to push through, applied will power to the problem and held my own feet to the fire of my poor choices earlier today. But not this man of mindfulness. Oh no.

You rarely get to see how the sausage is made. This is good for your love of sausages but if you’re thinking of becoming a butcher it’s a major impediment. I hope this by showing you the below abandoned post and by letting you in on my process, showing you the relationship between awareness and productivity, you’ll understand that the Hard Not Complicated philosophy goes far beyond what we normally call creativity.


Productivity is a big idea in business. It’s the holy grail, I’ve been told, of all business decisions making. If we could somehow define and clarify what it means to be productive, make it simple, then we could rule the world!

While I have no immediate plans for world domination, I’d like to share my personal Hard Not Complicated perspective on productivity.

We can define being productive in the following terms:

Doing the right thing in the right way at the right time.

A good way to think about this is to do a little thought experiment. Imagine that you run a factory making shoes. At one end you feed in raw materials like leather and rubber, and at the other you spit out shoes. You have various components and parts always in motion, different people doing different things.

Now imagine that in this factory you have a new, magical device that makes everyone telepathic!

All your workers are constantly aware of what everyone else is doing and even aware of how the machines are performing. You have a perfect flow of information around the factory.

Given this state of affairs, what would you need to do to ensure optimal productivity?

As far as I can see, all you would need would be a single binary piece of information:

  • Customer Satisfaction up
  • Customer Satisfaction down

With this simple binary input a system with a perfect flow of information would be able to self correct automatically, changes propagating through the group seamlessly and as each active agent responds to the needs and wants of each other active agent, driven directly by the needs of the consumer.

Over time such a system would reach an optimal state with independent, intelligent actors working with perfect, real time information. They would do the right thing – according to the needs of the consumer, in the right way – as arrived at through continual optimisation, at the right time – based on real time input.

NOTE: I’m not here saying that this system would be perfect. I don’t believe that any system can ever be perfect. Perfect is impossible. But I believe it would achieve the best possible state – hence optimal.

We can derive from this thought experiment, crude though it is, that optimal productivity is the result of optimal awareness.