Fear is a habit.

Over the weekend, I attended an excellent workshop by Jamie Smart on influence. Not the normal yadayada, but something altogether something less formulaic, and much more useful.

Jamie’s central tenet is based on concepts of Clarity, and central to this is the notion that our feelings are a product of our thoughts unfolding in the moment. That we create our own world on an “inside out” basis. In other words, what we feel is determined what we think, and what we think and feel governs our relationship with, and our perpective of the reality of the world we inhabit. That is influence on steroids.

As I listened to the six o’clock news this morning, I reflected on this. The news was, well, equivalent to an oily black mass seeping out onto the floor. From prospects of doom for the economy, to unfathomable brutality in the Middle East, it seemed designed to put me into a black mood before I brushed my teeth.

Except of course, all the news items were, in reality, neutral. It was my reaction to them that wasn’t. And that is a choice. I can either accept my limbic system getting fear and prediction to do a tango round my head, or I can understand what is happening, and engage reality. There are many ways we can react to the news, which is certainly real, but allowing ourselves to be hijacked by it is not an advisable one.

I cannot yet find a positive side to the news from the Middle East, other than that this type of activity is inherently self destructive.

But as to the Economy, and our individual propects? – Uncertainty is now our standard fare. Things will certainly change, and only some of that is in any way predictable in advance (other of course, than in our heads) For most of us, that is an opportunity to be grasped.

Generating fear may suit those who benefit from a status quo, and it seems some aspect of fear or control is rolled out as standard fare by those in economic or political power or as a way of encouraging dependent compliance.

Every change presents opportunity for those prepared to entertain possibility. Fearing change is a pretty pointless exercise.

If everybody is being encouraged to be afraid of the same things:

  • How might these affect you – really?
  • What’s the “base rate” – the likelihood – really?
  • What might you do differently that leverages your unique skills, perspectives and abilities to increase your impact and reputation?

The power of small numbers.

There is a real challenge for those of us who are in a services business (and the reality of course, is that we are all in a services business to a greater or lesser degree). It is this; we can now make more contacts, reach more people, and be more visible than at any time in history, but it is extraordinarily difficult to build relationships with more than around 150. The number is pretty solid, and the 5 min video here shows an extract from Robin Dunbar talking about it.

I think that creates both opportunity and challenge. Try this exercise for a day. For every email, text, or other communication you get or send, give it an AQ, an Authenticity quotient from 1-10.

1 signifies little or no sense of connection, whilst 10 is total understanding and empathy – a real and deep sense of connection.

At the end of the day, consider how much of your time has been wasted on contacts with little depth, who you will not remember, and who will not remember you.

Your biggest asset is your connections with other people, not in number, but in quality. These are the people who you bring out the best in, and who in turn bring out the best in you. Authentic connectivity, and no matter how many Facebook friends you have, if Robin Dunbar is right (and he’s a very smart guy) you have a ration of 150.

In an age of hyperconnectivity, we can dilute our authenticity to the point where we are indistinguishable from every body else in an attempt to reach ever more people. We are reduced to making decisions on the basis of shallow marketing messages. As individuals, we become invisible.

What if we considered our closest, most authentic relationships and focused on them. Those people who really know you and what you stand for, what you believe in and who really trust you. Now you have a tribe, a following. They might convey who you are to their 150. The compound effect of that is a high degree of credibility to 22,500 people who might connect with you, your values and your purpose – not a marketing message of dubious provenance. How many contacts do you need again?

How might you spend your time tomorrow?

Beyond Certainty

Certainty is often quoted as the lifeblood of markets. The dictionary defines certain as “free from doubt or reservation; confident; sure”.

In todays conditions however, most of what we deal with has a very short time horizon. Certainty is difficult, if not just illusory.

When I went to University and started my career (not just pre internet, in the age of emerging fax) the time horizon was longer, or so we thought. A good degree and a good employer offered a relatively risk free route via good salary to a good pension. In my own case, it was an RAF scholarship, which was all of these, only more so. I had in effect a fixed 38 year contract. Attractive in concept, I lasted nine years. Curiosity and compliance do not make comfortable companions.

I have spent the rest of my business career in conditions of serial uncertainty – in corporates starting new ventures or recovering failed ones, then in private businesses in UK and Europe doing much the same, for the last ten years doing the same with my own businesses. Along the way, it has encompassed great success and painful failure, but on average has been very good. Which says everything about the descriptive power of averages.

What made it work for me were the things I was certain in. My spouse (who has been there from the beginning), my family, friends, and a determination only to work for things, and with people, I believed worthwhile. (for sake of clarity, not all of it. There was an interesting period of a couple years where I compromised this – making me determined never to do it again)

What I recognize in retrospect was the power of what Jonathan Fields calls in his book “Uncertainty”; “certainty anchors”. If we accept that most of what goes on around us is inherently uncertain, we need to create areas where we are certain. They can, if we are lucky, be the big things but can equally be something as simple as going for a walk at the same time each day, meditation for a few minutes each morning, following a football team (I do the first two, but not the last. I live in Derby and the pressure is too much). For a business, it might be monthly non agenda-driven get togethers or an adopted charity. These “certainty anchors’ give us a place to stand, and deal with most uncertainty for what it is – “noise” rather than signal.

Market conditions of uncertainty are a great platform for growth. Big, established companies are much more vulnerable to uncertainty, and have a lot of mouths to feed from staff to shareholders, making them less resilient than smaller nimbler companies. The “Status quo” has a far shorter life, and technology is ensuring the resources gap between large and small businesses is reducing quickly.

The most powerful unit of change today is small, dedicated teams (research suggests less than twenty) who share a common purpose, a sense of humour and who can create their own “certainty platforms” to deal with the conditions they face. They can exist anywhere, from start ups to corporates. They are “talent magnets”, flexible, and have, as we shall see in future posts, all the critical ingredients for achieving success in uncertain conditions.

Structuring and leading to exploit uncertainty is a huge opportunity. We can all do it; if we choose.