Listen well

I can’t explain it
but when I listen well
my body becomes a waterfall.

Turning from the world
to what’s alive inside there
is no passive examiner
making inspection
but a roaring natural force
of attention that falls through me
and meets no obstacle
engages with no challenge
washes nothing clean
clears nothing away
uncovers no possibility
transforms no adversity,
but by its presence
fills the house with light.

It never takes what it finds
as fuel for thought
or consideration
but pours through
everything and feeds it.

As the life in the sun
can be seen in the
grasses, trees and
bodies that are born
of its power, the light
of attention does not
watch what is alive,
but is the life and its
source and an invitation
for all that is
to come alive.

Entering the stream

Give up your path
and lay down
on the ground
and offer up
all you might
lay claim to.

Hold no secrets
and let yourself
be seen by
all who come
and be grateful
that you can.

Open your heart
in welcome
to those you meet
and ask for what you need.

And if you get it
use it
to give yourself
more fully
to the world.

Refuge (I)

We sit together
and
you ask for nothing.

I close my eyes
and
it feels like I’m lying
on a bed of moss
in soft, warm woodlands
and
the rain is pouring
through me.

I offer no resistance
and
let it take everything
and
wash every piece of me
away.

I open my eyes
and
ask you for nothing
and
the rain washes you
away.

I, you

I want you to know, that
when I say you, I mean me,
I say, as I write to myself.

Also, when I say I, I mean you -
for if this were not a story
for you to try on,
why would I tell it to you?

So every I is a you.
And every you is an I.

And - here - in this empty space between us, 
we fall into each other.

Twenty-one minutes

Under white sun
I turned my mind inward.
Early morning field,
a lane between two hedges.

Twenty-one minutes.
My mind called to peace
by a mantra of compassion
ringing in my heart.

I opened my eyes
to a forgotten scene
of grass and path and wind
calling me back to the world

when - as if called to mark
a successful journey -
two horses walked out
from morning sunlight.

Untethered from field to path
their hot breath on my hand
the most peaceful greeting
before they set on their way.

One trailed a rope
caught on a briar bush
back and forth until
the rope broke free.

Then - with nothing left to keep them
both turned from that open path
past me, in silence,
to the morning field that held them.

Patience builds a fire

I cover myself in a cloak.

Crouching down, head bowed,
my world becomes a cave.
I turn inside and light a fire
in the darkness -

a seed of a flame
sheltered from the world’s winds
as I close every door
and feed it.

The offer of this inner fire -
the heat of passion
and the light of clarity.
But both are spent easily.

Throw open the doors
and the fire burns bright
and the fire burns out.
Leaving only ashes.

But protect the spark and
nurture the first flames,
build it well and feed it well
through rush and crack
to slow burn embers that
hold their own against
the ice of winter’s night.

Patience builds a fire.
Patience and devotion
and quiet attention.
To be seduced by the first flash
of a fire’s power is to lose it.
Don’t sit back. Don’t try to use it.
But remember the power
of a warm hearth that
does not succumb
to a cold, dark world
but endures and, what’s more,
radiates warmth to all.

The Clearing Process

The lightest, simplest way I know to bring your work to the world

For the last six months, I’ve been running courses in how to be clear. They’ve been fun and wonderful and inspiring to lead and I’ve really, really loved them.

And, I’ve been learning as I go.

One of the things I learned doing stand-up comedy was ‘the crowd is a genius’. (The idea is that if you’re dealing with one heckler — you can win, because you have a microphone and a stage and you only have to be funnier than them. But if you find you’re up against the audience as a whole — they’ll win. Because — collectively — they know more than you, they have more jokes than you, they’re faster than you…) And it’s true for teaching as well as comedy. I learn so much about what I’m trying to teach, because, collectively, the crowd I’m going to teach it to sees it more clearly than I do. They ask all the difficult questions and they pinpoint the little holes in the logic. And they emphasise the bits that work and help to reinforce them.

So, over the last six months, my process has become more refined. Sharper. More explicit. More…ordered.

In the past, I’ve talked about being clear consisting of three parts: ideas, identity and initiative. And I’ve taught three ways of working with those: the Very Clear Ideas process, Identity Yoga and Initiative Mapping. And those parts are still there — still important. But the underlying work is becoming more obvious.

This work is about tuning into what is yours to do. About knowing what you want (and need, and wish for, and dream of…). About being able to concentrate on bringing that into the world — or being able to let go of it and not bring it into the world if you so choose. And, then, it’s about being sure that you can stay true to it in each step you take as you bring it into the world.

It’s a process of clearing. A process of getting what you’re doing to be very, very clear. Think of the difference between a sheaf of poorly-drafted, long-winded bureaucratic documents that have fallen on the floor and been stuffed into a bag in no particular order. Then think of an acutely crafted poem that in every chosen word vibrates with simple clarity. That’s the difference between a project that is clear and one that is not clear. In his book There Are No Secrets, Peter Brook says: “…a great text, a great piece of music, a great opera score are true knots of energy”. The same is true of any great piece of work — if we get it very, very clear, then it becomes very concentrated and it becomes very powerful. It can be the difference between a good poem and a bad one. Or the difference between a good performance and a bad one. And we thinkabout poetry and performance in those terms. But we can think of our work that way too. How clear it is. How well-defined. How refined. How well-executed. How true. Being clear is a quality we look for in good writing. And it’s a quality we can look for in our own work as well — whatever that work is.

And, I have these three tools that help us to be clearer: the clear ideas, the identity yoga, the initiative mapping. And I’ve been teaching these and offering these. But, more and more, I want to work with people on the full process of clearing. Of getting clear on:

- What is my work?
- How do I do it?
- How can I find ways to do it better?
- What can I do when I get stuck?
- What do I do when I’m being drawn in many directions?
- How can I get the help that I need?

Because, ultimately, getting clear on what we want to do with our time is a way to know ourselves. And getting to know ourselves is how we take our place in the world. The end of getting clear is seeing and living your life’s purpose in every moment. And the way I am learning to do that is by working with other people who want to get clear. Because the crowd is a genius. And it’s through actually applying this work that I get sharper with it.

It’s looking for your life’s work in the work that you do and don’t do.
It’s looking at the commitments that you have and haven’t made.
It’s looking at how and where you invest your energy.

And it’s about becoming more concentrated.

If you’d like to work on getting clearer about what you do, let me know.

The Clearing Process

The way I work now isn’t to come up with something new each time. The way I work is to bring exactly the same process time and time again. And, if ever one bit doesn’t work exactly, then to refine that bit and incorporate any improvements — and then get back to repeating the same process again and again. Refining and perfecting this one process.

And I teach that one process to others, because — for this one task of being clear — it has been refined and perfected and refined and perfected. So someone else can pick it up and get the benefit from it — without personally having to go through the countless rounds of trial and error that produced it. Then — when they have learned it — I hope that they will stay in touch with the work, because I will keep on refining and perfecting it before and after the version that I teach them.

And, as more and more people learn the work, they can help me refine and perfect it still further — by bringing their difficult questions and their demanding requests and their wisdom and experience. Because the crowd is a genius.

So, today, what I thought I’d do is just spell out the steps that I follow in the work that I do. And to do that in the form of an invitation. To say plainly — this is what I do and this is how I do it and this is why — and to say: if you think this process would be helpful for you, let me know. So…

These are the stages and this is how it works:

The clearing process begins with making a list of all the various things that you might want to get clear on. All the unfinished projects. Unmet desires. Rough ideas. Niggling doubts. Enduring distractions. Untamed passions.

The next step is choosing what to get clear on and then defining it well. (This is where the Very Clear Ideas process comes in.) Defining it well means being able to say: This is my idea. I know what is in and what is out. I can describe it in words so you can understand exactly where I’m coming from.

Once you know what you want to get clear on, and once it’s well-defined, then the next step is working out how to do it. And that’s the difference between a lofty, idealistic ambition and… a shopping list. Getting clear on what you know and don’t know. Getting clear on what you’ll do yourself and what you’ll get help with. Getting to know how the things that need to be done contribute to each other — what depends on what. Making sure that the things you think you need to do in order to make the thing happen are actually the things you need to do.

And, when you are clear on how to do it, then comes identifying a next step. And not just general things you need to do, but actually the next thing you can do that doesn’t depend on anything else getting done first. The next specific step: standing up, writing a letter, sending an email, leaving the house, calling a friend, picking up a hammer… whatever it is. And checking that the next step is true to the idea you got clear on. That it adds up as part of your map of all the things you need to do.

When you are clear on what the next step is, then comes actually taking the next step. Or, if you get to that point and it doesn’t feel easy or possible to take the next step, then looking for anything that is in the way. (This is where identity yoga comes in.) When we want to start something new (as Thomas Heide says in his work on ‘experiencing change’) “we find ourselves having to push against the whole universe”. When we want to start something new, it often means letting go of something. Because for a very long time we’ve notbeen doing whatever it is we’re thinking of starting — and we probably had all kinds of good reasons for not doing it. And, if we want to start it, we have to let go of some of those good reasons. And that might mean looking at how we see the world and how we see ourselves — and maybe calling some of that into question. It might mean being a bit flexible (or else — nothing changes).

When taking a next step is taken care of, then keeping track of commitments made is a craft that falls somewhere between honouring your work and being an accountant. (And this is where initiative mapping comes in.) If we want to stay concentrated, to stay clear, on what we are doing, then it pays to know what we are committed to. And it pays to keep out commitments up to date — so we are doing things because we need to, not just because at some point we said we would. So we remember to stop investing in something when it has served its purpose. It’s like managing the tabs on your browser. Sure — keep them all open if you need all of them. But, if you want to really concentrate, close down anything you don’t need to have open.

And when you are working on what is yours to do and it is well-defined and you are taking the necessary steps (and being mindful of what you’re committed to), all that remains is asking for help. If you’re working alone and you need no assistance from anyone — then you get to skip this step. But, for everyone else, there is a skill in asking for help. How to ask and who to ask. And, when you’ve asked, making very clear deals to ensure that the people who want to help are actually helping.

Last thing. When the work is done — remembering to stop. And, when the work is done, looking back on what was done (and how and why) and celebrating.

Don't start an organisation

When you need to get something done and you can’t do it yourself, then you need help.
When you need a lot of help, you need a lot of people.
And when you have a lot of people, then someone is likely to tell you that you need an organisation.

“Be careful, very careful about organisations…Organisations kill work.” — Vanda Scaravelli

When you start out making something, it’s because you have a need. You need somewhere to live, so you start building a house. If you need help, then you get help. And the people who agree to help might help until the house is built. Then, when the house is built, it’s over.

But when there are a lot of people involved, someone may say it’s time to start an organisation.

You’ll need a name for it. And a legal structure. And maybe a branding agency to help you work out what the identity of the organisation is. Then you’ll need people to take responsibility for different parts of the organisation. And you’ll have to divide your time between building the organisation and building the house.

At a certain point, someone might say you need to work out what the purpose of the organisation is. And you might have to ask everyone involved what they think it is. And people will start talking about ‘working for the organisation’.

But when you start talking about the organisation as a thing, you’ve created a phantom.
When you start talking about the organisation as having a purpose of its own, you’ve created a phantom.
When you start talking about the organisation having an identity of its own, you’ve created a phantom.
When you start talking about ‘working for this or that organisation’, you’re talking about working for a phantom.

Because in the first place there was just a person with a need. A real, live need. A need that could be met. A person who needed help and asked for help. Where the help was directed at meeting that need. Directly. And progress was measured by whether the need was met yet. And when the need was met, it was over.

But when you start talking about organisations as things — with purpose and identity and the rest — then the original need can find itself competing with a phantom. People start doing things ‘for the sake of the organisation’. People start investing in the idea that it’s a good thing that the organisation survives. If you’re helping the person who needs a house built, then it’s clear who you’re helping. And it’s clear what the need is and where it came from. If you’re helping ‘the organisation’, though, then it’s not clear who you are helping. And it’s not clear what the need is and it’s not clear where it came from. Because ‘helping the organisation’ is a meaningless phrase.

It’s easy to be tempted into starting an organisation. ‘But surely you need to start an organisation if things are complicated. Surely you need to start an organisation if lots of people are involved. Surely it’s OK to start an organisation, so long as it’s serving the original need — of building a house or whatever it might have been.’

When there are a lot of people involved, when things are complicated, then you may need collaboration. You may need coordination. You may need communication. You may even need to organise things. You may needorganisation. But an organisation?

Take a group of people and tell them there’s an organisation in the room and watch everything get more difficult. What is the point of this organisation? Who gets to decide what is done when? How do I fit into this organisation? The conversation takes on a certain quality: the quality of a crowd of people arguing about something that doesn’t exist as if it does exist. Where there are no right answers. It’s an exercise in fiction. And it’s a way of not doing the work.

Because the organisation doesn’t exist, it is a blank slate. A mirror in which everyone sees what they want to see. An empty page onto which anyone can write their story. It can appear to take on a life of its own, animated by the unconscious desires of those observing it. We end up seeing ourselves in it.

If we look at work through the lens of organisations, we are looking at work through the lens of identity. What is this organisation? Who are we as an organisation? When you talk about organisations, how often do you refer to the need it’s trying to meet? And how often do you just refer to it by name? Nestle. Phillip Morris. Coca Cola. General Motors. The focus ends up on the character, not the work. Colonel Sanders. Ronald McDonald. A whole drama of personalities. We treat organisations as if they are fixed. We talk about them as if they are constant. The names and the corporate faces give the impression of an enduring state. Something to identify with in perpetuity. But this is a sideshow.

The identity obscures the initiative. If a man is building a house and needs help building a house, then the initiative is front and centre. The need is front and centre. And it’s possible to talk about the need directly. Do you want to help meet this need? Are you helping meet this need? Has the need been met yet?

Adding anything to this obscures the need. What shall we call ourselves? What should the logo be? What’s my job title? What kind of organisation is this? What are the prospects for promotion? As soon as we start talking about anorganisation, rather than just organisation, we split our focus in two. Between the work to be done to meet the need of the person who needs help, on the one hand, and the organisation-as-phantom on the other. When we start talking about an organisation, we enter a fictional universe — one step removed from the reality of one person helping another.

When there is not an organisation, there are only people. People who ask for help and people who help.

When there is not an organisation, it forces us to put our focus on what is actually happening. We have to look at personal relationships. We have to look at personal commitments. We have to look at personal responsibility.

When there is not an organisation, we have to look at what people have appetite for. We have to look at how strong the bonds are between people. We have to see what holds people together and what doesn’t.

When there is not an organisation — no corporate song, no compelling brand, no iconic face — then, for want of something else to distract us, we end up focused on the work to be done.

If you want the work to be done, then communicate the vision. Have a vision. Get clear on what the vision is. Articulate the vision. Find people who believe in the vision. Who have the passion required to take the action to realise that vision. Let them bring their passion. Let them take action. Let the vision be realised.

But don’t start an organisation.

You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil. “That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend. “Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to let him organize it.” — Truth is a pathless land, Krishnamurti

Hold me like a wave

When I’m crashing
then I need you
to hold me

like a wave
holds a rider 

lifting me
on the thundering rise
to show me the horizon

that I might vanish
in the gift
of great distance

and then
when I surrender
to this open, wide awareness
give way and let me go
and show me
I don’t need
to be carried

I need to be thrown
to be shown
I can stand up
and fall down

on my own. 

The path

The path from here to there
is the path from there to here.
It just depends which way you look at it.
When you are ready - 
turn round and look the other way.

I am ready. 
I turn around. 
I look the other way. 

Butterfly heart

Too light
To carry
Anything

I am the sky
And my heart
Is a white wing

Floating
Holding
Nothing

How to catch fire

The only way to catch it
is to hold it. 
The only way to hold it
is to become it. 
The only way to become it
is to love it. 
The only way to love it
is to say - I am it. 

I am a fire. 
I am the fire. 
I am fire. 

I am a fire. 
I am the fire. 
I am fire. 

I am Prometheus
and I am burning. 

I am a phoenix
and I am dying to be alive. 

I am on fire. 
I am the fire. 
I am the fire. 

One for you

A thought this morning
Out walking -
I thought
I ought
To love my body
As it was moving -
To allow and enjoy
The infinite intelligence
Of this living system
And its movement -
And in that moment
I said to myself
That I loved my body -
And then laughed
At the physical recognition
That the ‘I’ that I clung to dearly
Was clearly
Illusory.
My feet are here
My hands are here
But ‘I’ am nowhere to be found.
‘I’ love my body -
Such misplaced pomposity
Of an ‘I’ deigning to adopt
A position of affection
Towards a miraculous
Muscular constellation,
As if standing in authority
Above it and surmising
With some superior judgment
That this living moving thing
Is worthy of love.
And I laughed at this
Comedy of errors
Of this human propensity
To fall in love with a word
And hold it high
This ‘I’
And look through it
At the world
And see in every thing
Its own reflection
Without ever
For a moment
Stopping to detect
The lie that this ‘I’
Is invariable and real -
This shattered mirror.
This teardrop.
This empty line.
The promise is too tempting
To be broken by the offer
Of seeing clearly.
Better to hold to a wish
And make-believe
That it is true.
My ‘I’ comes with a promise
To stop time and sustain
A passing moment
By the power of possession -
Reaching into the river
And declaring it held
As empty fist clasps rushing water.
Oh, ‘I’.
My love is blind.
Better to invest my life
In every losing bet
Than face this empty space
Without the comforting return
Of your baseless vow.
‘I’ll define the undefinable,
Grasp the ungraspable,
Mask the unmaskable.’
The seduction of a crutch -
This ‘I’ stands up straight
In my place.
Imagine this.
A word to fall in love with.
An endlessly accommodating elision.
I will be anything you want me to be.
Put a pin in the world
And call it fixed.
Imagine this.
Design a word from scratch and say
This word can bring anything here
Make anything now
And take what’s ephemeral
And make it last.
Too busy looking at what the word
Is pointing at we forget to look
At how it works.
This magic word.
This simple spell
That posits certainty
In a universe of flux.
Say ‘I’ and feel it.
So charged with emotion
And power and weight -
And just a word.
Say ‘I am great’
And feel it
So convincing in the feeling -
This instantaneous invention.
‘I am lonely.’
‘I am broken.’
‘I am yet to be persuaded.’
An infinite array of adaptations.
‘I am happy.’
‘I am weary.’
‘I am delirious with envy.’
The possibilities are endless.
O little word
O simple trick
I think you’re me
But you’re really
Barely there
Not even quite a tick
A scratch, a mark, a stick -
Eloquent and defiant
This placeholder
Can be relied on only
To capture my attention
In a moment’s misdirection
This magician’s wand
This number one
This little lie
That turns my eye
Away from life
Into a fiction.

Storm

I think of a storm
Of raging ocean waves.
The kind that surfers dream of.
And us, out at sea, 
throwing ourselves into the swell.
Seeing the life in the water
but ill-equipped to ride it.
Crashing again and again,
churning in sand and foam — 
exhausted arms and legs
reach out for the shore.
Then land.
Surrendered to wet sand and stone,
look back and see the racing waves.
Reminder of what passed.
In humbling acceptance of limitations.

Salt-watered cheek and lip
the only reminder
of a strained adventure.
Of reaching for experience.
Of tracing the boundary
of the edge of possibility.

In this silence

I will bury my feet in clay.

Firmly planted
In the riverbed
I’ll count the stones
As they are washed
past my ankles
by the current

And I will lay down
On the damp earth
In a furrow in a field
And watch the stars,
Counting the feet
Of every tiny creature
That might walk
Across my skin

I will close my eyes
And listen for the morning
As every bird says its name.

And in this silence,
In this waiting,
My gift to you.

On those days

On those days
where everything is lost
where no bird comes to the window
where I am not sitting on a volcano
where the wind is not with me,

On those mornings
where I am sitting in a hole
in the ground unable even
to contemplate contemplating my navel,

On those nights
where the dark and empty of the world
can hardly summon the necessary
to whisper an echoed song of loss
to a dark and empty soul,

Then
I can do well to remember
that a falling tide
flows all the way out
to the horizon
twice in every day
and twice in every day
a rising tide flows
all the way back to the shore.

Glad i skogen

I could long for no greater master
Than the forest teacher
Who with wind and silence says
‘Be still’

No greater doctor than
The forest healer who
Holding life and death within her says
‘You belong. And are not lost’

No greater friend than
The forest priest who
In chorus with a thousand million leaves says
‘We are but visitors here. Let go.’

Initiative Mapping: An Introduction.

One of the most important things when working together is to be clear on who is helping who with what and why.

It’s one of those things that we basically all know is true, but is so easy to forget in practice: in order for two people to work together, one of them has to invite the other. And, if you want to work together well, it’s absolutely essential that you know who invited who.

If you invite someone for dinner, you are the host and they are the guest. 
If you ask for help, then your role is ‘person being helped’ and the other person’s role is ‘helper’. And each of these roles has different rules. So it really matters that each person understands their respective role — and what that means for how you relate to each other. Otherwise feet get stepped on. And you might think you’re helping, when you’re not really helping. And you might end up taking responsibility for things that aren’t your responsibility.

When you’re working together creatively — bringing something entirely new into the world — then it matters even more. Because when you have an idea of something entirely new you want to bring into the world and you ask someone to help, then they really have absolutely no idea what the thing is meant to look like. Because it’s your idea. In your head. And so it’s up to you to tell them — so they can help you bring it into the world.

And — this isn’t always the case — but quite often it takes two people to successfully get something all the way out into the world. Because bringing something new into the world requires two skills: the first is being able to listen inside for what the new thing is and the second is being able to take the steps to make it real. And doing those two things at the same time can be really hard. Some people are better at tuning in. Some people are better at stepping up. Some people can tune in and step up at the same time — but it’s a real art. So, quite often we find a helper and we build a bridge between us, taking one half each. You be the feeler, and I’ll be the doer. You be the visionary, I’ll be the pragmatist. You be the author and I’ll be your agent.

And, intuitively, we all know how to step in and out of those roles.

We know that if you’re the host of a party, you‘re responsible for the space, you say who can and can’t attend, you decide what kind of party it is. You get the benefit of control and the weight of responsibility. If you’re a guest, you don’t get to decide those things. You get to decide whether to show up or not and you get to decide whether it’s the kind of party you like. You don’t get to control the party — but you also get to enjoy not being responsible for the thing.

And we know that a good helper is full of ideas and helpful suggestions, but not attached to which one is right. And that a good receiver-of-help is one who can happily listen to all the ideas — good and bad — and then choose the one that is actually right for them. Fundamentally, we all naturally know all these things.

But, strangely, this elementary aspect of how humans work together well is often overlooked at work. We get caught up in job titles and seniority and expectations and ego and whatever — and forget to check who is helping who with what. Who is host and who is guest. My friend Peter Koenig has been trying to reintroduce these concepts to the workplace by teaching founders of organisations the unique nature of their role as visionary-person-asking-for-help, and then teaching them how best to work with the people who are helping them bring that vision into the world.

For my part, I’m trying to make working together effortless by showing how easy it is to map what’s actually going on when people collaborate.You can normally draw it out on a page. It normally doesn’t take longer than an hour or two. And, if there is any kind of friction between people working together, if there’s any kind of fuzziness in who should be doing what and when, then it normally resolves all of that pretty much instantly.

I call the process initiative mapping and it goes something like this…

How to map initiatives

I’m going to start by talking about just two people working together. Firstly, to keep things simple and, secondly, because collaboration is always only ever two people working together on a shared need. It might look like you have groups of people just working together in big, mushy pile of something, but if you look again, you’ll see that the big, mushy pile is actually an intricate web of connections made of pairs of collaborators. Just in the same way that the internet might look like a big, mushy pile of stuff, but if you break it down, it’s just made up of links joining one thing to another thing. In short: if you understand how two people work together, then you understand how everyone works together.

When you want to get clear on how two people are working together, there are six things you need to get clear on:

  • Who asked for help?

  • What are they trying to do?

  • What help do they need?

  • Has someone agreed to help?

  • What have they agreed to help with?

  • Why have they agreed to help?

That’s basically it.

And it feels so straightforward and self-evident that it feels almost silly to spell it out. But I have worked in offices. I have been stuck in never-ending circular meetings. And I don’t think I’ve ever worked anywhere where always asking these questions was part of the normal routine. (The closest I’ve come is working as a magazine editor, where there’s a pretty good discipline around making sure that editors have briefed writers clearly.)

So, to spell it out, let’s say I have a garden and I want my garden to be beautiful. But I don’t know how to make my garden beautiful. So I ask you to teach me.

Who asked for help? I did.
What are you trying to do? Make my garden beautiful.
What help do you need? I need someone to teach me how to make my garden beautiful.
Has someone agreed to help? Yes.
What have they agreed to help with? They’ve agreed to teach me how to make my garden beautiful.
Why have they agreed to help? Because they love making beautiful gardens and think they might get better at it by teaching someone else how to make their garden beautiful.

And you might draw it like this:

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Drawing out the humanity

Here’s the thing.

Have you noticed how literature is full of people who are broken and irrational and desperate and joyful and impassioned and changeable and lovable and irritable and human?

And have you noticed how organisational charts are full of people who are… robots? Where you can just say ‘this person = this job’ — and that’s it? Where they can be plugged in and plugged out (“Oh, we replaced our head of operations.” — like you’re replacing a head gasket or a burned out solenoid or something.) Where everyone is a little bit cardboard and empty and purely rational and devoid of any kind of inner life?

Only one of these pictures of humanity is true. And it’s not the one in the organisational charts. It’s the one that’s full of humanity.

And if you want to talk about how people work together and you try to use the inhumane cardboard charts to do it, it doesn’t work. It’s like living in a fantasy: imposing the wrong set of imaginary expectations on something that is real and alive and sitting right in front of you. Like a car mechanic changing careers and becoming a vet — but thinking he can still use his Ford Escort Owner’s Manual to ‘mend’ a horse. It’s not going to help and the horse is going to die. We have to use maps that are appropriate to what we are working with. So, when dealing with humans, they have to be maps that show humanity.

And this is how initiative mapping works. Not designing an organisation. Not giving people titles. Not drawing what should happen. Not drawing how people should be.

When you map initiatives, you draw what is happening, you draw whathas happened. You treat people as people — with desires and dreams and needs and demands. And when those people manage to understand each other’s needs and one commits to helping the other, then you draw that. And when they don’t manage to understand each other’s needs and they don’t commit to helping each other, then you draw that.

And you soon find out that when two people understand each other’s needs and one commits to helping the other, then working together is effortless.

And you soon find out that when that doesn’t happen, everything starts falling apart.

Making initiative visible

As it stands, organisational charts don’t capture who took the initiative to start what. They don’t capture who invited who. They don’t capture why anyone is doing anything.

But they need to.

Because the person who starts something is ultimately responsible for it. The person who starts something ultimately holds the vision for what that thing is. The person who starts something is the only one who will really know when it’s finished. The appetite of the person who starts something is ultimately what dictates how much energy is available for making it happen.

So if you don’t include initiative-taking on organisational charts, then you all too easily end up with ‘ghost initiatives’, where something was started by someone, but then they left, and the thing carries on in a kind of weird, disconnected limbo. Or someone started something for a particular need, the particular need was met, the thing was no longer needed, but people carry on with the thing out of habit.

And you end up with ‘cuckoo initiatives’, where something is started under the guise of ‘helping’, but isn’t actually connected to the need of the person apparently being helped.

The promise of initiative mapping is that you can actually keep an accurate account of who is ultimately responsible for what and who is really answerable to who. And it does that by working with specific people’s real needs. And it does that by checking whether those things are still live or need. Not by looking at a chart — but checking in with each individual’s relationship to the work they are doing. And it does it by looking for specific personal commitments made from one person to another. Never ‘this department told that committee’. Always ‘this person told that person’.

Mapping initiatives: how it looks when things are working.

When things are working, initiative maps look like very clear, simple family trees. Or river systems.

There is always only ever one person at the top: the person who started the initiative. And you only map one initiative at a time. And you plot everyone (and everyone’s contribution) in relation to that one initiative.

So the simplest diagram (as above) just shows one person with a need getting help from another person, who is also served by that need being met:

 

And when the person who started the initiative needs help from more than one person, it looks a little more complicated, but it’s still just as clear:

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And, more often than not, the person who is helping also needs help to do what they need to do in order to help. (“I can help make your garden more beautiful. But I will need someone to trim the hedge.”) And the person who is helping the person helping sometimes needs help. (“I can trim the hedge for you, but I will need someone to hold the ladder.”) And so the diagram gets a little more complicated again, but it’s just as clear:

 

The important thing is that the principles underlying the whole thing are always the same and always apply. In order for two people to work together, one has to invite the other. Otherwise, they’re just two people working near each other — which isn’t the same thing at all.

Mapping initiatives: how it looks when it doesn’t work

Of course, when things are working, it’s easy to draw out a nice, neat river system, where every person is plugged in and contributing to the task at hand. It’s when things aren’t working that it gets interesting. And more useful.

Try it with any project you’re working on at the moment:

Do you know which person you’re helping? 
Or which people are helping you? 
Are you clear what need the work is serving? 
And how each helper is contributing? 
Are all the commitments clear? 
Is it clear who is responsible for each part?

When things aren’t working you’ll notice that the map starts to get a bit cloudy. Because if you don’t know who you are helping and what help they need, then how can you know what work to do? To make matters worse, it’s not enough to help someone because they say they need help. It actually has to be true too. They have to actually need help and want help — and need and want help now — and they have to need and want your help now. Otherwise, it’ll still get cloudy. Because it’ll be like trying to help someone eat when they don’t want to eat. Like pushing an elephant upstairs when really it’s set its mind on coming downstairs. In order to help we can’t just go by the book. We can’t just take things at face value. We need to develop our capacity for empathy and discernment and intuition.

Let’s get back to my beautiful garden:

I need help making my garden beautiful. I ask you for your help and you say you’d love to help, because you love making beautiful gardens. I have a moment of inspiration and realise I need a nice shed to sit and spend long mornings writing. And I ask you to find me a nice writing shed. So, you find me a very nice summerhouse / upmarket garden shed to go in the garden. And I say that’s great. And you say that, really, I need a kitchen in the shed. For preparing barbecue food. And I say, well, OK. That could be interesting. You ask if it’s OK if you go and look for quotes to get a kitchen put in the shed and I say OK. You come back with oak-topped worktops and double sinks and granite breakfast bars and all kinds of beautiful things. And I say that probably all I need is somewhere to make tea and coffee. But you point out that if I’m going to be spending £1000 on a summerhouse kitchen, then I might as well spend £2000 and do it properly. Because it’s always better to spend a bit more money up front, than have to redo it all again later. And I say that makes sense and you go and order the kitchen.

Now, it might sound like a perfectly reasonable conversation — two people collaborating in a creative way to get something done. But if you try to draw it, it becomes obvious exactly where things are clear and where things get cloudy.

It starts off well…

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Each step is clearly made. Responsibility is clearly held and clearly taken. And it’s unambiguous who instigated what and why. And it’s obvious how each part contributes to the initial vision of a beautiful garden.

But then as you get further down…

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The road to confusion part one: forgetting that you’re helping.

And the thing that has gone wrong, is that the helper has forgotten that they’re meant to be helping. And the helper has forgotten that helping means understanding the needs of the person you are helping. And so a disconnected idea — a cuckoo initiative — has snuck its way in. The idea that a kitchen is “just good to have”. The idea that “you might as well spend £2000”. These ideas are just ideas — disconnected from the reality of the present situation. They’re not even really ideas. They’re more like superstitions. Unquestioned beliefs. And they derail everything.

About twenty years ago my mum needed two light switches put in by her front door. There was a normal light switch (for the light inside) and a timer switch (for the light outside). When the electrician came around she asked for the timer switch to be higher up on the wall and the light switch to be lower down on the wall. And when the electrician installed the two lights, he went ahead and decided that he would rather put the light switch on top and the timer switch below “because it’s better that way round”. And I can’t remember why he thought it was better and I can’t remember why my mum needed the switches that way round. But I do know that it annoys her every day… (I think it must have been that she wanted the one she needed to use every day to be in the spot that was easier to reach.)

The point is that when you’re helping someone the question that matters is “Am I helping?” You need to check whether or not you understand the need of the person you are helping and whether or not the work you are doing is helping to meet that need. When you start talking in terms of ‘better and worse’ — as if those are things that are eternal and unchangeable — then you get lost. (Because ‘better and worse’ are always only ever subjective and depend on where you’re standing and on what you want. In this context, talking about ‘better or worse’ in this way is like asking ‘Where is left? Where is right?” To which the answer can only ever be: “Well, it depends on where you’re standing and who you’re asking and what way they’re facing.” You can never just say “It’s over there.”)

These kinds of little ideas are *so* tempting to follow. And they can easily derail the most mindful of creative souls. But they also have one feature that gives them away. And if you can train yourself to spot this one feature, then you need never be derailed again:

Beware statements that claim always to be true.

“You can’t start a new project unless you know what you’re doing.”
“You can’t ask people for money.”
“You need to make sure everything you do is of the highest quality.”
“It’s unacceptable to be made to look a fool.”

They sound like reasonable assertions, but they’re all things that are only sometimes true. There is no eternal measure against which we can judge things. Our task is always to look at each situation afresh and see what is appropriate to that particular situation. When you lose sight of that, you lose sight of where you are, what you’re doing and who you’re helping — and you’re lost.

The road to confusion part two: using the word ‘we’

Now, a lot of people feel wary about being in charge. And a lot of people feel wary about being told what to do. And, that’s understandable if you’ve grown up in an educational culture that has no concept of consent. Where someone else is in charge and you just have to do what you’re told and show up on time and stand and sit and complete tasks regardless of how you feel about it. And it’s understandable if you’ve been exposed to workplaces that just extend that culture from the classroom to the office. But the problem is never that one person is in charge and another person is being told what to do: the problem is when consent is not respected. (And while our attitude to consent has mercifully evolved when it comes to marriage law and personal relationships, it’s still strangely lagging behind in a lot of workplaces.)

But, because people feel wary about acknowledging who is in charge and who is being told what to do, they often end up talking about ‘we’.

“Well, we decided to put a kitchen in the summerhouse.”

“Well, we thought it was better to spend a bit more upfront, but it didn’t really work out.”

And the trouble with ‘we’ is that it is far too forgiving when it comes to defining who actually did what and who is actually responsible for what. And if you let ‘we’ get into the picture, then it ends up almost impossible to draw any kind of map at all.

And the thing about saying ‘we’ is it often ends up disconnected from the real world, with people saying things like:

“Well, I think we said that we would just go ahead and do it.”

As if the two people involved just were simultaneously moved to speak word-for-word in unison and decided at exactly the same moment on what they would do. And, sure, it may seem like it’s just a figure of speech. And, sure, maybe you can just put it down to the convenience of being a bit casual in talking about exactly what happened when. But — more often than not — the “we” and the “I think we said” are a cover-up. And the truth is there was no ‘we’: one person was in charge and one person was being told what to do. And when someone says “I think we said” what they really mean is “I know that no one actually said this, but if someone had, then I’d have been totally justified in doing what I did, so I wish someone had said it.”

And it’s at exactly this point, where people start talking about ‘we’ decided to do this and ‘I think we agreed to do that’ that everything gets cloudy. Because when things actually work as they should — when the different roles of helped and helper are acknowledged, when commitments are explicit and consenting — then there is no cloudiness. And, when I sit down with someone to map an initiative, those moments, where explicit and consenting commitments are made are memorable and distinctive and ultimately unambiguous.

Mapping initiatives: you don’t have to map everything

Of course, if you tried to map every single bit of work being done at, say, Coca-Cola and show everything that everyone is doing in order to help them sell more Coke (or whatever their ultimate mission actually is), it’s going to be a vast thing. And that’s ok.

But the thing about initiative mapping is that you don’t have to always map everything all the time. In fact, if there’s no need to map anything, then you shouldn’t map anything.

Before you even put pen to paper, you should check:

What am I trying to map out and why?

Because that will tell you how much map you need.

Don’t try to map what everyone is doing everywhere, each for their own reasons. Initiative mapping means looking at something in the world and wanting to learn about what it is by looking at where it came from. Looking at a building site and asking: I wonder who is building this and what they are trying to build? Because if you want to help them build, you need to know what they want to build. And if you think you have a better way to build it, you need to know what the thing is for — what it’s meant to do. And the only person who can actually tell you that is the person whose need is being met by the thing being built.

Mapping initiatives: it’s not about the map.

Also, in the end, the map is not the territory. And the point is not to draw a nice map.

It’s about working out what you’re actually doing. Getting clear on what’s actually going on.

It’s about seeing what’s working and not working. It’s about being able to see why things are working or not working — and fixing it. It’s about getting back to a state of communal creative flow.

And it’s about practising a particular way of engaging with the world. Where we develop our capacity to understand our needs and other people’s. Our capacity for compassion.

And, ultimately, this last part — developing our capacity to understand our needs and other people’s — is the only game in town. So, if drawing maps helps us do it, then we should draw maps. And if it doesn’t, then we shouldn’t.

But we do need to understand each other if we want to work together well.

I write regularly about how to be clear. If you’d like to know how to be clearer about what you’re doing, who you are or how everything gets done, I can teach you. You can read more herejoin the next Clear Course or just get in touchand we’ll sort something out.

www.howtobeclear.com

Credits: My work on initiative mapping builds on the seminal work of Peter Koenig, who taught me a way to understand how organisations work by looking at who started them. His way of looking at organisations — Source — has helped me navigate the relationships between people’s ideas and the way they work with other people. You can find Peter here.

How to have very clear ideas: an introduction.

Over the last ten years, I developed a process that can turn a not-very-clear idea into a very clear idea in about two hours. I’ve used it more times than I can count, helping hundreds of entrepreneurs and artists and whoever get clear on what they’re doing. It’s different every time, but this is roughly how it goes.

This is how it begins.

Someone says, ‘There’s something I’m not very clear about that I’d like to be very clear about.

And you say, “OK. What are we talking about?”

And they say, “I want to be clear about my career. Or my new project. Or my life. Or the book I’m writing.”

And you spend a little time working out what it really is that they want to get clear about.

And then you help them get clear.

To start with, you ask for their full, undistracted attention and focus.

Not on the present situation. Not on the problem. Not on the past.

But on the idea.

The thing they have in their mind that they want to do or need to do or wish they could do, but that isn’t yet clear enough.

You leave the everyday world behind.

You move into the space of ideas. Where everything is possible.

It may be necessary to say to them, “This is your dream. Everything is possible here. You don’t have to dream about things being difficult. You don’t have to dream about consequences. And you don’t have to dream about how you’ll get there. We can look at all of those things later. But now, we start with the dream.”

Because the starting point has to be finding out what the thing is.

This thing they’re not very clear about, what is it?

Unless you know what it is, how are you meant to talk about how to get there?

So the first task is the dream.

What do you need?

What do you want?

What do you demand?

What do you love?

What do you wish for?

What do you dream of?

What do you live for?

You can ask them these seven questions.

Not about now.

Not about what they need, want, demand, love, wish for, dream of now.

Not who they are now.

But there, in the dream.

And they can talk and talk and talk.

It’s like warming up.

They get to hear about the dream.

They get to feel the words coming out of their mouth.

They get to think it through while someone witnesses the process.

And maybe you write it all down.

Or just the good bits.

And then you read back the best bits to them.

And they tell you what they remembered from the bits you read out.

And pretty soon you have a handful of words, maybe a few broken sentences.

The beginnings of a clearer idea.

Take the pieces. Put them together.

Between you, see if you can turn it into one long, clumsy, barely grammatical sentence.

It doesn’t have to be beautiful.

It’s not for putting on a billboard or a promotional mug. Or for talking about in public.

It just has to be vaguely accurate.

A rough approximation of what you’re talking about.

Then take this one long, clumsy, barely grammatical sentence and start again.

Ask them to leave the everyday world behind.

Move into the space of ideas. Where everything is possible.

Ask for their full, undistracted attention and focus.

And read out the sentence and say:

Is this what you need?

Is this what you want?

Is this what you demand?

Is this what you love?

Is this what you wish for?

Is this what you dream of?

Is this what you live for?

If they say yes to every question, then you’re done.

The thing is clear.

If they say no to some of the questions, take them one at a time.

Still there. In the space of ideas. Where everything is possible.

Still talking about the thing you agreed you’d talk about.

If the answer’s no, find out what yes is.

Is this what you need?

No.

OK. What do you need?

And when they’ve answered, see if you need to tweak that one long, clumsy, barely grammatical sentence.

When it’s tweaked, ask them again — Is this what you need?

And when they can say yes, then you can move on.

Repeat until the answer to every question is yes. Then you’re done.

It normally takes me about two hours to get someone from “I have no idea what I’m doing with my life.” to “I have no further questions.”

If you’d like to book a Very Clear Ideas session, drop me a line.

If you’d like to try the process yourself, follow these instructions and see how you get on.