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Efficient + Effective = Elegant

Why a stripped-back approach and a deep understanding of function is the most graceful way to empower people

I’ve been aiming to follow the formula in the title of this post for as long as I can remember but it was first put into words for me by the brilliant Derek Jackson and Fran Burgess who are now, unfortunately for the rest of us, retired from their training work.


Efficient + Effective = Elegant

Fran and Derek sketched it out on their whiteboard, talking about how:

  • Efficiencyworking with speed and economy; would combine with
  • Effectivenessbeing capable of producing the desired result; to produce
  • Elegancesimultaneously excellent and graceful.

This state of elegance was what I’d been after in my work, well, for ever!

I remembered a couple of occasions, back when I had a proper job, when I’d come close to this. Leading a team handling some really complex and high-pressure tasks where we were really getting great results with limited resources and where it’d felt just … easy.

Looking at Fran and Derek’s whiteboard in that classroom, I wasn’t really seeing their notes, but was remembering that experience at work which had felt – and I say this as a 6’2″, 100kg clumsy person – like doing ballet!


My wife is a designer and this combination of Efficiency + Effectiveness = Elegance is something you often come across in the worlds of design and architecture.

At the time of my studies with Derek and Fran, the Millau Viaduct – which is featured at the top of this post – was just being completed by Foster and Partners. This stunning bridge, still the world’s tallest at the time of writing, is part of the French autoroute from Paris to Béziers across the Massif Central, crossing the River Tarn between two high plateaux. In describing the bridge, Foster talks about a fascination with the relationship between function, technology and aesthetics in a graceful structural form. Foster and Partners said that they had a choice between two possible structural approaches: (1) to cross the river; or (2) to span the 2.46 kilometres from one plateau to the other. They wrote that although geologically it was the river that created the landscape, it is very narrow at that point, and so it was the second option, to go plateau to plateau, that provided the most economical and elegant solution.


One of my favourite writers, Ernest Hemingway, describes how his writing process is similar in that he would ruthlessly go back over his work and remove “whatever didn’t need to be there”. He talked about how he would sometimes strip away the unnecessary almost to the point where readers would need to invent some of the details for themselves. Hemingway’s writing, for me anyway, has a kind of aliveness I feel can almost touch, whether it’s in a small but “clean and well-lighted” cafe, or hiking over a Spanish hill with a heavy pack.

I love this kind of stripping back and removing the unnecessary. Or as Foster might put it, reading the landscape well enough to see what combination of technology and aesthetics would provide the right function in the most economical and elegant structure. This approach is what I want for my coaching work. It’s why I’ve had to boil down and boil down what I know until the real essence appears.

This is also why I don’t introduce a complex model of how to do something, when a simple coaching question will get the same result. Instead of a slow, laborious trudge, it’s just being sufficiently curious about how somebody might achieve something to begin unleashing their potential – and not showing-off mine.

It’s also why there are lots of times when I don’t even need to ask that simple coaching question. In the right relationship, with the right degree of trust and respect, I often find that a simple shift of my head or a slightly raised eyebrow is as good as asking the most brilliant question. Sometimes, I even think my eyebrow is better at asking the right question than my brain is!


The best thing about the Millau Viaduct isn’t that it’s a brilliant piece of architecture. It isn’t Foster and Partners that are making the crossing. The best thing about that Viaduct is that it enables you and I to cross from one high plateau to the next. And to enjoy the experience and to feel alive.


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach.


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers




Achieving Change and Progress

Chop the wood and carry the water: use small, daily actions to achieve big things

There’s a great Zen koan which goes:

Before enlightenment, chop the wood and carry the water;

After enlightenment, chop the wood and carry the water.

Like all those koans, this can be interpreted in a few different ways but I like it because of the importance of just doing the small, daily stuff. Even when working towards something as big as Enlightenment, the fire still needs to be kept going, the water still needs drawing. Even afterwards, we still need to cook, eat and drink.

I don’t think we always find it easy to adopt this mind-set. Perhaps it’s because popular culture emphasises the dramatic, heroic interventions, or the long-shot that finally pays off big-time.

Some changes, even good ones, do happen suddenly and with huge impact. But my belief is that even those are usually just the visible tipping points that result from an accumulation of force over time.

In reality, most change, progress and innovation is the result of small, daily actions that build and build. Daily actions that become habits, habits that become traits, traits that lead to paradigm shifts.

I’ve written elsewhere on this website about the importance of linking long-term goals to short-term activity. For example, see here: Planning, productivity and the cumulative S curve and here: Productivity, prioritisation and the rule of threes

The kind of daily, chopping the wood and carrying the water-type actions I’m looking at here are the most granular level of achieving your long-term objectives. We should ask ourselves:

“What’s the small thing I could do in the next five minutes that will at least keep the fires burning?
What small task can I choose every day to help water this year’s crop?”


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What’s your current equivalent of needing to chop the wood and carry the water?


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers




Mindset & Leading with One-on-One Meetings

How to get your mindset right while you’re holding one on one meetings

If you’re leading and managing other people, then you’re almost certainly having one-on-one meetings with your staff and team members. I’ve spent a lot of time doing just that myself, and helping my coaching clients to be as effective as they can when they do the same.

To make all your one-to-one meetings go well, you need to be clear about the outcomes you want, to have a step-by-step process to gain trust, and be prepared to be flexible depending on what comes up.

But perhaps the most important thing my clients talk about, is having their own heads in the right place before they start.

If you want your one on one meetings to work really well, it isn’t enough to know what to do and how to do it, you also need to know what attitudes of mind are likely to get the best results for you.

Here are three of the most important ones:

1. Empowerment as an outcome of your management

You’ve got to want to inspire people to get more done under their own motivation and responsibility.

It’s a bit like having teenagers – they need to learn how to do stuff for themselves.

Until you’re prepared to adopt this as part of your mindset, you’re likely to be spoon-feeding people and picking-up after them long after they could have learned to do it for themselves. I think the trick here is to actually include empowerment as one of the outcomes you’re after. Put it up there alongside the tasks that you want this person to achieve and give it as much, if not more, weight as all the other important stuff you need to ensure gets done.

2. Coaching as a leadership style

This is where you put a big chunk of your leadership energies into the longer-term development of others.

It’s not the only leadership style you’ll need to use, but it is very effective and very rewarding for you. It’s also a good partner to empowerment.

You could think of a coaching leadership style as being NOT about you as leader having the answers, but about guiding people to find their own answers to things.

If I had to encapsulate it in a single phrase for leaders to use, it’d be something like:
“How about trying this…?”

3. The transition from doing to leading

The more your responsibilities increase, the more you need to shift from actually doing stuff yourself, to getting stuff done by acting through others – by leading.

If you’re like most people, you’ll have got to your position at least partly because you’re good at what you do. And so this can sometimes be a tricky transition to make, or even to be aware of its significance. It’s also quite scary because of course it takes you outside of what you know you’re good at doing, into possibly new territory – and people are often much more complex to understand and influence than the tasks themselves.

But this is a really important place to get your head into. Take a deep breath, stop doing stuff yourself, and start making sure that you act through others.


If you personally wanted to get the most out of people in your one-to-one meetings, what other attitudes of mind might also be important to you?

Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

Defining Planning Timescales Using the Rules of Threes

Productivity, Prioritisation and the Rule of Threes

Using the rule of threes to be productive, prioritise effectively and stay focussed

Over the last few years I’ve been finding the Rule of Threes to be really helpful in being productive and setting priorities. And it’s often a tool I’ll reach for if I’m coaching someone who feels they’re struggling to be productive or who would like to achieve more important stuff.

The Rule of Threes itself is really simple – things feels more stable, more rounded and more dynamic when presented in threes. Just as a three-legged stool doesn’t wobble, so the rule of threes is usually a good platform to build on.

Here’s how I use the Rule of Threes to be more productive, to help set priorities and to stay focussed along the way.

First, I use it to help define my planning timescales.

I’ll look at Long-term, Medium-Term and Short-Term priorities for me, my work and my family. For each of my timescales, I’ll set-out what I want to achieve, what I don’t want to do, and how I want the experience to be along the way.

Here are the timescales I use – you should define your own. If you click the main picture at the top of this post, you can download a pictorial version.

1. Long-term

  • Ten years
  • Five years
  • Two years

2. Medium-term

  • This year
  • Six months
  • Two months

3. Short-term

  • This month
  • This week
  • Today

Second, I’ll use the Rule of Threes to help decide the scope of what I’m planning.

For me, that often looks something like the sketch below, and for each of my timescales, it includes:

  1. What do I want to achieve? (which for me is different from what I need to get done)
  2. What do I choose not to do? (this is one of the keys to staying focussed, and demands as much attention as your achievements)
  3. How do I want to BE? (which is about the quality of existence I want to experience)

Scope of Rules of Three in Productivity

Third, I’ll use the Rule of Threes to focus my efforts.

For each of my timescales, I’ll set-out the top three priorities that I want to cover. For example, each day I write out the top three things I want to achieve that day. (Sometimes I’ll even go mad and add three things I’m not going to do that day and three qualities I’d like to experience).

Here’s what the first bit of writing in your daily planner needs to look like – it really is this simple. If you want to stay focussed and achieve more important things, please, please try this:

  1. First important thing I want to achieve today
  2. Second important thing I want to achieve today
  3. Third important thing I want to achieve today

It doesn’t mean I can’t do other things that day. Nor does it mean (as some people suggest) that you have to do those three things first. I often find that there are some priority items that just have to wait until later in the day. For me, the top three priority items are just those things that are most important to me that day and in the context of my longer-term plans.


And that would be a good place to finish, since I’ve given you three ways to use the Rule of Threes in being productive. Instead though, I’m going to break that rule and suggest another area where it’s helpful in terms of productivity, prioritisation and fulfilment, which is:

Fourth: Reflecting, using the rule of threes to embed learning and boost change.

It can be useful, in all of this planning ahead, to take stock of things as you go. To make sure that it doesn’t all feel like the dead-weight of obligation, and to ensure that you’re being flexible. Being productive is about keeping focussed on the straight and narrow. But it’s also about making timely corrective actions; just trimming the sails as you go. Here’s my framework for that:

  1. Review – How did I do? You can do this for each of your timescales (see First Step, above)
  2. Refresh – what would revitalise me?
  3. Revise – what priorities do I need to change?

So, I might have broken the rule of three with that fourth section, but at least they all start with an R – I do try to think of this stuff…

Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers