A new year, a fresh start. My last posted blog was at the end of July. Five months ago. At that point I said I was starting to write the third edition of one of my books, The Economist Guide to Organisation Design. I have started. Last week I sent the first two draft chapters to the editor for comments.
This hasn’t been without a struggle, writing is not easy. And writing well is even less easy. I am constantly making fresh starts on each paragraph. Alongside the chapter I am writing I have a document called ‘cut bits’ which are all the bits I am cutting out that I’ve just written. I keep them in case I find that, after all, they contain a gem of insight.
To my joy and gratitude, I am not alone in this endeavour. What I’ve learned about writing in the course of my practice of it, is that co-authoring is not for me. I’ve tried it a couple of times and that’s enough. But having collaboration, discussion, reflection, feedback and general support from a group of interested people is what I felt I needed to keep going this time around. And this would have to come with some structured process. It’s too easy for me to write a schedule for myself and then let it drift away as I let other things distract my attention. (Read Super Structured, by David Stiernholm for some good tips on sticking to your intentions).
On 9 August 2020, having just got the contract for the book, and knowing my ‘development area’ I contacted five people all of whom had previously said they’d be happy to contribute/give feedback/review the writing/generally be involved in whatever way they could and invited them to a Zoom meeting to discuss what this might mean in practice.
What happened then is turning into the most energising and supportive experience for me. We are meeting alternate weeks. I’ve been sending them a second edition chapter with my comments on it, they make comments and then in a 30-minute Zoom meeting we discuss the chapter and the various comments for me to start reworking for the third edition.
For example, in Chapter 1 of the second edition I talk about ‘vision and mission’ – that passed me by but one of the group highlighted it, commenting:
‘I think ‘purpose’ is stronger currency than vision/mission now in the operating context. I wonder if vision and mission now feel too future focused to be able to plan and predict and that we are now planning and designing in smaller chunks/iterations and in making smaller bets on the future we are able to course correct and adapt more easily?
There is a good article from HBR with a quote from Greg Ellis, former CEO of REA Group who said his company’s purpose was “to make the property process simple, efficient, and stress free for people buying and selling a property.” This takes outward focus to a whole new level, not just emphasizing the importance of serving customers or understanding their needs but also putting managers and employees in customers’ shoes. It says, “This is what we’re doing for someone else.” And it’s motivational, because it connects with the heart as well as the head. Indeed, Ellis called it the company’s “philosophical heartbeat.” (Hat tip: Fiona McLean)
This led to a fruitful group discussion on purpose versus vision and mission that has informed the new Chapter 1. By 30 December we had completed the review of Chapter 9 of the second edition – the final chapter in the book, and I asked them if they wanted to stop the fortnightly meetings. What’s so wonderful is that they said no – they were enjoying the process, learning things and honing their own ideas and wanted to carry on – this time with the actual new third edition chapters.
Back in August 2020 I wondered how it would all work out. Now we seemed to have formed what feels to me somewhat like an action learning set, which we are all benefiting from.
When I heard their interest in carrying on, on the one hand I thought ‘that is so fantastic’ and on the other I thought ‘oh no, I’ll have to get down to seriously scheduling writing, and having something to share each fortnight. But now it’s not just me! Because in the course of the discussions I thought, others would enjoy hearing the different perspectives that inform our discussions.
This led me to thinking about making a fresh start with my weekly blog and I asked the group members, ‘if each of you would be interested in doing a guest blog for my website, reflecting your thoughts on one of the topics we’ve discussed. … They could be under an intro blog explaining how we are working on the book and why we are interested in the involvement.’
And this is what this is, the intro blog. Each week till the final draft of the book gets submitted (28 May if all goes well and to plan), there will be a blog on each of the nine chapters of the book, four by me and five others, one by each of the group: Jim Shillady, Rani Salman, Milan Guenther, Fiona McLean and Giles Slinger. The idea is not to mirror the chapter content but to offer thoughts on the chapter’s topic from the perspectives of the writer. They’ll introduce themselves and their interest in the topic they’re writing about.
We’ve agreed a schedule and it may get followed to the letter, but as we are talking a lot about adaptability, uncertainty, readiness, unpredictability and so on we may be in the position of showing we can walk the talk if circumstances require. And in our agreed alternate week discussions we’ll be discussing the upcoming blog and one of the chapters. My schedule demands two chapters a month!
You may be wondering why I’ve used the phrase ‘fresh start’ several times in this blog. It’s because I was struck by Leo Babauta’s lovely piece on The Magic of a Fresh Start. It had caught my attention back in October when he wrote it, and I looked it out again a week or so ago. It opens:
‘One of the biggest obstacles to sticking with a habit change, a new system, a goal or long-term project … is that we get disrupted.
Something interrupts our progress — we skip a workout day or two — and then some programming in our brains turns that into a message of how we’re not good enough, we can’t do it, we should just give up.’
He offers suggestions on taking a different slant on this and ends saying
‘The beautiful thing is that a Fresh Start is available to us not only when we get disrupted or stumble … but in every moment. Every day. … Every new meeting with someone, every new conversation’.
It’s a good thought for me to hold onto. Each time I falter in writing, or don’t meet the schedule, I can offer myself a fresh start on it and know that I have the support of the group. If one of them falters the others of us can offer the fresh start idea. I like it because it offers a positive alternative to the idea of failure.
And 2021 does, at a more global level, seem to be offering the possibilities and hope of a Fresh Start.
All the best to you and a Happy New Year.