Should you ask a fish to climb a tree?

There is an orchid in my bathroom. So what? It’s not a hugely unusual thing to have in a bathroom, it’s a bright, beautiful and gracious plant and I’m sure that many of its relations live in bathrooms all around the country.

My ‘so what?’ is that we’ve had that beautiful orchid more than 18 months now and I don’t do anything very special with it (a bit of watering now and again is about all that happens) but it is still looking beautiful (as orchids tend to do) and it is even sporting not one, but two new stems with flowers and even more buds. Given that in the past I’ve been pretty adept at killing them, I think that this is pretty impressive.

So, what’s the secret? As I have seen off a multitude of orchids in the past, I don’t think that I can claim it’s something that I’m doing differently, it’s not magic, or new-found skill that’s responsible for its flourishing. The only thing that I can claim is that I’ve accidentally found just the right conditions for an orchid to not only survive, but flourish and thrive.

Albert Einstein said this…

“Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”

And I think that we are on the same lines with our thinking. Find the right conditions for someone (or something) to succeed and you will help them to unlock their ‘genius potential.’

In the recently published CIPD HR Outlook for Winter 2012- 2013 it asserts that businesses need flexible and agile people to achieve higher or similar with a smaller number of employees. The pressure is on to do more with less and the study suggests that employees need to work out of their comfort zone more of the time. But is this like asking that fish to climb the tree again?

Businesses want to achieve long-term sustainability, and leadership development and employee engagement are recognised as being pivotal in driving the business agenda.

How can we really help people to flourish, find their natural genius and be the best that they can be?

Is it by stretching them far out of their comfort zone, into a situation where they have little or no experience and feel ill-equipped and slightly out of control?

Or is it by helping them to recognise the conditions in which they flourish and helping them to recreate these conditions more and more often in their working environment?

Image Credit: microsoft


From Fashion Disaster to Timeless Classic

The January sales have been on and I’ve been prowling around for a bargain or two! Sales shopping can be a dangerous pastime. It’s easy to find yourself getting swept along on the ‘bargain’ tide and lured into buying a load of stuff that is highly trendy right now, but completely out of fashion by Spring!

I do my best to avoid the trends and go for a more classic approach that will hopefully stand the test of time, and it got me thinking about the trends that might be around in the world of learning and development during 2013, and the ones that will become classics.

Doing More With Less

I think that it’s pretty safe to say that the days of unlimited spending on learning and development are well and truly over, and probably have been from some time. In a recent poll I saw, a significant majority of the people who responded said that they would be spending less, not more, on training and development during 2013. So the squeeze continues, which means that doing more with less is certainly going to be a trend that continues into 2013 and beyond.

Perhaps the question that we should ask ourselves is how can we work this trend and potential fashion disaster and turn it into a timeless classic?

The ‘Small is Beautiful’ Approach

We could focus spending on a discreet population within the organisation. This is a way of offering a depth of development that will have a significant impact on a small and carefully chosen group of people.

Of course, the selection mechanism has to be right for this to deliver maximum return on investment. Ideally, ‘the chosen ones’ will be those who have the potential to ‘make things happen’ as a result of their development. And not just for themselves but by positively influencing the performance of their peers, direct reports and the wider business. And that word ‘potential’ can cover a multitude of factors…..

We’ve seen this approach in action during 2012. We designed and delivered a programme of development that focused its attention of a small population of key personnel facing a particular operational or professional challenge.

Through their shared experience, this small cohort developed a level of trust and respect that reached far beyond the original scope of the development programme.
Adoption of the development messages was lightning-fast and motivation was high, as was the determination to take the messages and share them beyond the original group to others who would benefit from new ways of thinking and behaving.

It’s safe to say that although the audience was small, their collective reach into the organisation was far greater than the confines of the training room, and their willingness to share what they were learning gave a real boost to the return on investment from the programme.

On the downside, whilst the development messages are hitting home with the carefully selected cohort of learners, and their thinking and ways of behaving at work are starting to evolve for the better, success also relies on the line managers to support and encourage learners and attempts to embed changes can be easily scuppered without their buy in.

Also on the downside, with only a small proportion of the organisation being given access to development opportunities this can leave others feeling deprived and envious.

5 ways to maximise your Return On Investment with this approach……

1. Involve Line Managers in the programme design and keep them up to speed as the programme progresses so they can regularly check in on progress, ask relevant questions and give insightful feedback to their learners.

2. Encourage learners to share what they are learning with their own teams and colleagues so knowledge and information flows throughout the organisation in an informal way.

3. Make sure that Theory can be easily turned into Practice. Support your investment with tactics that will speed up the rate of implementation. Access to coaching and peer learning groups are two great ways of doing this.

4. Monitor progress closely and make adjustments as the programme is delivered to tweak anything that isn’t working. The beauty of a small audience is that the programme can be tailored to suit them so that get the most from it. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.

5. Be vocal and upfront about the commitment that the business is making to the development of individuals in the organisation. Set expectations so that there is clarity about how they can hold up their end of the bargain and inspire them to get as much value as they can from the development on offer.

Sticky Thinking Top Secrets for Doing More With Less

Number 1
If you want to get more from your training budget, look for a solution that treats more than the current symptoms.

Ask your supplier how they can design a programme for you that teaches learners skills that address not only the issue you want to fix right now, but gives them skills that can be applied in a range of different situations, today and in the future.

Number 2
We learned this from an inspirational manager we worked with a few years ago. She asked us what percentage of our potential we thought we were fulfilling every day at work.

Anything below 100% suggested room for improvement; not only in the way we were working but in the way we were being managed. It was a thought provoking question and one that you could ask any one of your team this afternoon!

Number 3
The Big Question…

“How will you do more with less during 2013?”
“How will you be super-creative to get more from the resources you have?”

We’ve shared some of our ideas, and we’d love to hear your thoughts too. Get in touch at and let us know your plan……perhaps we can help you make it happen.

Image credit:

Best. Appraisal. Ever.

This is such a good description of what so easily can happen, and thankfully it includes some ideas about how to do it differently!

Thinking About Learning

Odd title for a post eh? And not one you’d think would be that awfully exciting either. I’m certainly not promising to make it exciting, but hopefully interesting. It’s one of the biggest bugbears of all involved in HR/L&D. And let’s put aside the debate for now of the future of appraisals and if there are better ways to conduct them. As it is, we’re stuck with them in the main. The biggest issue we’ve always had is how to make them less unnecessarily time intensive.

The best end of year review I ever had lasted 45 mins.

I’ll come back to that a bit later.

So far I’ve been lucky to work in organisations where there aren’t really that many barriers to making appraisals a useful part of a person’s development. I’ve experienced everything from annual reviews to quarterly reviews, and known there to be 4 hour reviews and…

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Every day’s a school day

This week we were privileged to sponsor the Natural Training Showcase Seminar in London. Described as “a tasty selection of Natural Training’s Award Winning sales, presentation skills and negotiation training brought to you by our passionate trainers” – it was exactly that and so much more……

Bursting with great information and insights, every session was thought-provoking and revealing and we now find ourselves with an abundance of wisdom which is wasted unless we do something meaningful with it!

Here’s the Clear Thinking 6 Step Plan for making the most of any seminar or training event, or even the masses of learning opportunities we are all faced with every day.

It’s based on the very natural approach that has evolved within the Clear Thinking Team, so it’s real and it works for us. It might work for you too……

Step 1: Schedule time to think….before you go

If you are planning to attend something that is likely to stimulate your thinking, then be ready to capitalise on it once it’s over.

Schedule some time for proactive refection into your diary. Probably not on the same day as, if you are anything like me, your mind will be well and truly spangled after a good seminar, but the day after when the thoughts and ideas have landed and you’ve had time to sleep on it.

Step 2: Pin down the outstanding stuff

A great question for starting us off on the journey of reflection was provided by Matt Drought, founder of Natural Training who was also apparently a ‘sprooker’ in a former life (and even though it sounds like a made up word it’s apparently a genuine job in the land down under!)

Matt encouraged us to ‘get out of our groove’ and ask ……what just happened then? Simple! And it’s a basis for reflecting not only on what just happened, but also on how you were thinking and feeling while it was happening too.

Consider what immediately stands out and how it can be applied to what you do. Make a list of every point that springs to mind, no matter how bizarre. You can use logic to evaluate and prioritise later, but for now just go with your gut, as the main thing here is to capture all the possibilities before they wriggle free from your mind and escape forever.

Step 3: Dive into the detail

If you’re like Kate and I, you will take lots of notes and jot down ideas as they come to you during a seminar. Now is the time to review your scribblings in more detail and try to make sense of what you wrote down in the throes of the event, which is not always easy!

You don’t want to miss the great book recommendations that need adding to your Amazon Wish List or the thought leaders who warrant a little more investigation; in this case Daniel Kahneman and Simon Sinek were two of my favourites.

Step 4: Write about it…or even doodle a bit

Pull out anything that seems useful and find a way to write about it. If you like to blog, then perhaps use your blog to develop your thinking and share it with others so your insights can help them too.

Maybe you prefer to keep things a little closer to your chest so a learning journal could be perfect for you; write about what actually happened and what it means to you and your situation. Maybe you have a place where you keep all you best ideas, if so, add what you just discovered to your existing reservoir of brilliant stuff.

If you don’t consider yourself to be a wordsmith, have you tried a spot of doodling? Draw your thinking to visually record what was useful to you. We love what RSAnimations do with the work of people like Daniel Pink.

Step 5: Take your partner by the ……brain

Two heads can be better than one, or so they say. Think out loud with a thinking partner to review your learning in words and gestures, and to share the light bulb moments and the revelations. We kept the other travellers in our train carriage entertained on the journey back ‘up North’ with this one.

If you choose your thinking partner wisely, they will ask you questions that will deepen your understanding and insight…..they may help you shift your thoughts and words to the next critical step!

Step 6: Turn thinking into action

 Without knowledge action is useless and knowledge without action is futile.

The final step is to evaluate what we’ve learned and link it to our priorities. By giving the stuff we’ve learned a fairly substantial kick about, we can check out its relevance to our current work.

If is important then we can build it into an objective and shape it into an action and actually do something with it. If it’s not important right now, but it has a place in the future, we can store that thought somewhere so it can be revisited when the time is right.

So, if there is one small thing you do after reading this, try making ‘every day a school day’ and keep asking “what just happened then?”  

Thanks to the team at Natural Training for creating a superb learning opportunity through their Showcase, we’re already eagerly anticipating the next one.

I love you. You’re perfect. Now change.

I love you A5 Flyer Nov 27_page_1_sml

Growing organisation seeks perfect employee to join the team for long-term relationship. Must be able to work in harmony with others, bring unique talents and experience and be keen to achieve massive success.

The hiring process begins. Your eyes meet across the interview room. There’s a spark between you. This candidate is good! When they speak you hear a choir of angels. They rise to the challenge of every test with poise and grace. And they have the experience to back up their claims of skill and success. Everyone agrees.

The decision is made. I love you. You’re perfect. You’re hired!

Then our story takes a more sinister turn. Very quickly your thoughts turn away from what you loved about them and what made them perfect. Now you’re seeing them through a very different lens. They slip easily into your performance management processes and you start to focus your attention on their weaknesses and how to fix them.

The love affair is over. Now change.

Lost are the opportunities to leverage the potential of the individual and bring it to fruition because now the emphasis has shifted and your attention is divided at best, and completely focused on the negatives at worst. You may be asking them to be something that they cannot be and do something that they will never do with any great flair.

Here are some assumptions:

  • People have a preference for certain types of work activity
  • And for working in certain ways
  • During their careers they seek out opportunities to do the things they prefer
  • As they practice these things they become more proficient

We can either create the conditions that allow them to use their preferences to great effect within the role they are engaged to perform OR we can disregard their preferences and tackle where they fall short.

If we do the latter then I believe we are setting ourselves, and our people up for failure as we attempt to bring everyone – up to or down to – the same level of mediocrity. And so, potential never comes to fruition!

The alternative is that we keep our attention firmly on what we loved about the person when we first met them and build them up to be awesome powerhouses of preference and performance!

This blog was inspired by the musical comedy of the same name and the fact that my business partner Kate Hargreaves is currently rehearsing for her part in a local theatre production of this very musical!

Bev Holden is half of The Clear Thinking Partnership. She’s been successfully leading teams at work and in the voluntary sector for more than 20 years.

With her business partner Kate Hargreaves, she designs and facilitates learning events and programmes for clients who are passionate about people and who want their people to think more clearly, act decisively, engage with their teams and realise their full potential. You can connect with Bev on Twitter and Linked In.


Today’s thought was provoked by good friend and fellow entrepreneur Martin Johnson from

We’ve been successfully collaborating for a year and a bit now and it’s all good. We had reason to ask about the commercial proposition for something we’re working on and our conversation moved to the topic of Effectuation. (You can see a short video that explains the principles by clicking on the link).

We’ve not paid it much attention before and it struck me that there maybe others out there who have yet to discover it’s principles.We started by looking at it from a small business perspective.

Having seen life from the big business corporate perspective and more recently as an entrepreneur, at Clear Thinking we like to look at how entrepreneurial thinking can be applied to the corporate world. And guess what, the Effectuation people have read our minds. Here’s the link to the Corporate Effectuation video.

So, here are some questions to get your mind racing……

1. Which of the principles of Effectuation are being used in your business?

2. Who naturally brings effectual thinking into the way they work in your business  What can you learn from them about the way they think?

3. What if you switched to effectual thinking? What could the possibilities be?

We’ll be asking the people we work with about their experience of effectuation in practice and we’d love to hear your stories too.

What kind of leader am I?

Kate  Hargreaves, Director at Clear Thinking, shares her thoughts and practical advice about uncovering your Leadership Qualities.

Recently I was talking to a friend who was sharing her thoughts about a job interview that she had endured/enjoyed/experienced (delete as appropriate!).

One particular question that she had found difficult to answer had been about her Leadership Qualities (as it’s something that she never really thinks about) and she was quizzing me on how best to answer this question in the future.

Given that Leadership is something that we have the opportunity to reflect on and talk about during the course of our work at Clear Thinking, it was quite easy for me to rattle off a few things that I thought might be relevant. But if it’s not something you think about often then what follows will help you just as it did my friend when we discussed her situation and explored her Leadership Qualities.

Leadership qualities – what are they?

If your aim is to uncover your personal Leadership Qualities, then the first place to start is to understand what could sit under that descriptive heading. A quick Google search will uncover a myriad of words / qualities / traits that are commonly associated with Leadership including:

Visionary I Forward-Looking I Clear Communicator I Action Orientated I Shows Integrity I Dedicated I Humble I Open I Magnanimous I Creative I Fair I Assertive I Honest I Broad-Minded I Courageous I Straight Forward I  and plenty more……

Which words resonate with you? If you were to think of your own personal examples that built a story around these Leadership words, to describe you and how you lead, what themes and trends would emerge?

How does Leadership present itself in your Business or Organisation?

The words above are pretty relevant to most Leadership situations, but it’s also worth reflecting on the positive examples of Leadership that you see in your own organisation. How do they differ to the norm? What are the special Leadership traits that support the unique culture in your business or organisation? What does this enable your organisation to do well? What does your organisation seek to achieve and how does this influence the Leadership style? What can you learn from this?

What about you? How else can you start to recognise and rate your Leadership Qualities?

Sometimes the toughest challenge when talking about Leadership is the ability to recognise where your strengths lie. Luckily there are some simple activities that might help:

  1. Review the common Leadership terms above and use them as a starting point to inspire your thinking. What examples and personal success stories do you have that link to these words.
  2. Once you have started to identify your own personal Leadership stories, pick out the recurring themes.
  3. Consider other people’s opinions as they will have fresh insight and perspective on your Leadership skills. Ask your team for examples of what they see you do well, and ask them about what you could do differently. A simple structure to use is STOP I START I CONTINUE, jot your thoughts under each heading.
  4. Seek out the opportunity to complete a psychometric instrument like the Team Management Profile™  that will help you to understand your natural leadership preferences
  5. Complete a Leadership based 360 Feedback to elicit well-rounded feedback from across your peer group, team and line manager.
  6. Look out for examples of different styles of Leadership in the media and reflect on what resonates with you

Leadership is a personal thing

Ultimately, everyone evolves their own personal brand of Leadership based on a whole range of things including experience, learning, observation and trial & error. It is something that can be tweaked and adjusted as little or as often as you choose.

These are some questions that might help you identify your personal brand of Leadership:

  • What do you ultimately want to achieve?
  • What works for you?
  • What do you want to be remembered for?
  • What do you want people to say about you?

It is possible that the legacy of your Leadership will remain with those that it touches long after you have moved on, so spending time reflecting on what it is and what it could be is perhaps time well spent.