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Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

Useful motivation or unhelpful bullshit – how do you know?

Readers will recognise this as the unofficial motto of the US Marine Corps (and also the humorous Bear Grylls meme of a few years ago).

It was in my mind for no real reason as I woke today, feeling more than usually get-up-and-go-ish.

I often treat this kind of Improvise, Adapt, Overcome stuff with a bit of caution. In particular, how do you know when:

  • It’s a genuine sense of resourcefulness, that you really mean it and are ready to deal with whatever life and works throws your way; or
  • You’re just bullshitting yourself and don’t really feel ready to overcome anything – but desperately think you should be?

Some people would say that it’s an important distinction to make.

Because if you’re not feeling especially resourceful, but are unconsciously telling yourself that you should be able to deal with whatever comes your way, then you’re actually just setting yourself up to fail.

The more I do this coaching work, the less sure I am about the usefulness of this kind of distinction.

I’ve seen lots of people move mountains by telling themselves they should be able to Improvise, Adapt and Overcome, even when it really ups the stakes of failure for them. Equally, I’ve seen people frozen into inaction by trying to live up to some impossible standard.

Perhaps the following is the best way to test the usefulness of these kind of mottos and slogans. My definition of empowerment is this:

Empowerment is the power to make decisions and take actions that affect our circumstances Click To Tweet

So does this kind of thing help you to make decisions and take actions that affect your circumstance?

If yes, go for it, maybe even get the tattoo!
If not, drop it, this one’s not for us; instead, work on what you want to have happen until you’re really clear about that.

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

Tell me about your own favourite motto and whether or not this kind of thing helps you to be empowered? Click To Tweet

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The Motivation Equation and Self-Belief (part 1 of a series)

How to define the outcome and establish your evidence in order to get more Self-Belief and better Motivation at work

I’ve written before about The Motivation Equation and how leaders can use it to motivate themselves and others to get great results and feel good about their work.

In that original article, I said that motivation is like a chain. Our overall willingness to get stuff done and our overall feelings about our ability to achieve things are only as strong as the weakest link in that chain. In other words, in order to spur ourselves and others into action and to feel good about the ambition behind it, we first need to make sure that each of the components of the Motivation Equation as strong as possible.

Here’s the overall equation: The Motivation Equation: Motivation = Self-Belief x Task-Relevance x Outcome Value Click To Tweet

We can think of each of the links as a kind of question or judgement that people make about themselves and their situation. For example, in the Task-Relevance link, people might ask themselves: “If I do this task well, will it lead to the outcome that’s required?

This series of articles will take that much further and deeper, in a bite-size way, by looking at each of the links in turn, starting with Self-Belief.


Healthy Self-Belief – Steps 1 and 2

If you want to motivate yourself or someone else to have more self-belief – either as a way to increase motivation, or just because the right amount of self-belief is usually a good thing – you’ll find the first of my seven essential steps to healthy self-belief set out below.

In terms of our overall Motivation Equation, the question that people ask themselves or the judgement that they’ll be making about themselves or their situation for the Self-Belief link in the chain, is this:

Self-Belief is about asking ourselves, 'Can I do this task well?' Click To Tweet

One thing that’s really worth emphasising at the outset is that self-belief is highly-contextual. That is, it depends on what we’re doing, where we’re trying to do it and what our situation is at the time. This is one of the reasons why self-belief can vary so much over time. It’s also why my first essential step is about getting really clear about that context:

1. Define the Outcome

What exactly is it that you’re trying to do?

You might be surprised at the number of people I coach who’re not feeling good about their self-belief precisely because they haven’t been clear enough about what, specifically, it is that they’re trying to achieve.

I think that this is partly a kind of defence mechanism – if we’ve been vague about what we’re trying to get done, then we can be similarly vague about whether or not we actually succeed. But that kind of hedging your bets, not being clear about the outcome you want, or avoiding getting too specific makes it much more likely that your motivation will be similarly ill-defined.

So don’t be vague, get clear about the outcome you want to achieve. What exactly is it that you’re trying to do?

For most people, it can also really help to then consider step 2:

2. Establish your Evidence

How will you know when you’ve done it well?

Again, this is such a simple step, but one that can often get overlooked. It’s also one of the reasons why I encourage people to celebrate and mark the occasion when they’ve achieved something significant. By looking back at it in this way, people get used to evaluating things in a much more rounded way, including the emotions involved in that accomplishment as well as the hard data.

I think also, that one of the reasons why we might avoid doing that kind of post-achievement reflection is because things rarely go as well as our secret desires had hoped for. There’s usually some wrinkle, or some aspect that wasn’t as perfect as we might have hoped.

So don’t wait until afterwards to set-up those measures. Have them be transparent right from the outset. Ask yourself these questions:

  • How will I know when I’ve done this task as well as I’d like to?
  • What will I see, hear and feel that will tell me I’ve achieved it as I’d like to?

And remember to reflect on and celebrate those things afterwards too!


In summary:

The first two steps towards healthy self-belief are: 1. Define the Outcome and 2. Establish your Evidence. Click To Tweet

In the next article, I’ll continue with the Self-Belief link in the motivational chain and will look at:

  • Enabling Beliefs – what we believe enables us to do something well
  • Reason Beliefs – what we believe is the reason for being able to do something well.

I hope that’s been helpful in some way and that this bite-size approach works for you. Please look out for the forthcoming articles in this series. As they’re published, I’ll hyperlink them here.

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. Tell me about your own experience of motivation and self-belief, either as a leader working with other people, or for you personally?


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Don’t tell me what I can’t do!

I’m too busy doing it.

My favourite response whenever someone starts imposing their own limits on me.

Click the image above and then right click it and select ‘Save as…’ to download your copy.

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


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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?


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Go for it

Click the image above and then right-click it to download a copy.


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Motivation for Leaders

Why my favourite go-to motivational quote still has three fatal flaws; and what leaders should do about them

This quote from Theodore Roosevelt has long been a favourite of mine for helping to motivate myself and others:

Do what you can,

Where you are,

With what you have.

– You can click and then alt-click the image above to download a copy for yourself –

Anytime I’m stuck or feeling powerless, or can’t see the route through the forest for looking at all the trees, this quote gets me unstuck and into purposeful action.

But it still has three hidden weaknesses.

Leaders who want to use this kind of thing to help other people feel motivated need to be aware of these flaws and to take extra steps to combat them.

It’s really worth doing this, especially if you’re the kind of leader who:

  1. Naturally likes to be around empowered people and to help others to raise their game; or
  2. Occasionally finds yourself wondering why other people don’t take the initiative more, or don’t work as hard as you do.

Each of the flaws I’m talking about are right there in that first line:

“Do what you can

And this is why…

1) People aren’t always aware of just what they can do, both in terms of what they have ‘permission’ to do, and in terms of their own capabilities.

2) People don’t always believe that what they can do will actually lead to the outcome that’s needed. To take a really basic example, even though someone ‘can’ make 20 sales calls today, do they truly believe that those calls will lead to the extra business they’ve been asked to generate? If not, they won’t be motivated.

3) People don’t always know in advance if the outcome that their actions might lead to is actually an outcome that they really want. It’s not so much about them not wanting to achieve a specific outcome, but more that they just don’t really, consciously know if they do want it! I believe that this hidden flaw derails more attempts to motivate people than almost anything else.


So as well as using that brilliant quote from Teddy R, leaders who want to motivate people should also be doing these four things as well:

1a) Always give the permissions up front. This is basic delegation skills. If you’re asking or expecting someone to do something, what permissions do they have or need? What resources can they access? What approaches, methods or ways of doing it can they use or not use?

1b) Help people to assess and grow their own capabilities. Which means you really do need to encourage and show people how to learn and adapt.

2. Break the unconscious rule that people make for themselves about taking action and needing to get the correct result. Help them to be more like a scientist. Any action will lead to ‘a’ result. Get people to be curious about selecting from a range of possible actions. Have them observe the results like a scientist doing an experiment. What worked, what didn’t get the expected result, what would you try next time?

3. This is perhaps the most significant one for leaders to be doing. Encourage people to live in the future a little. This outcome that you want them to help achieve – what will that be like? What will it mean for them when it’s been achieved? How will it change or affect their day-to-day experience?

This important part of motivating people is the equivalent of getting them to try on some new clothes in the mirror before they know whether or not they want them.


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach What do you think of that Roosevelt quote? Does it help you motivate yourself and others? What also works for you?


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More on Outcome Focus

Is this the most powerful question you can ever ask?

One of the best things a leader or a coach can do for somebody is to ask them:

“What do you want to have happen?”

This simple outcome-focussed question can do so much:

  • It can raise someone’s head up and out of whatever problems they’re stuck in
  • It can focus effort and attention in a really personal and energising way
  • It can create unique moments of clarity and even stimulate big changes in direction.

You can use this when you want to address conditions in someone’s personal or professional life; when they’re working on a project and need to plan and progress it; and you can use it when you want to motivate and build on success, or even when things aren’t going well.


Sometimes you need to ask the same question, maybe in a slightly different way, several times in a row.

People can avoid answering it, they can be stuck in the problem, they can even be wedded to a possible solution (rather than being clear about what they actually want).

Keep asking until you get a clear outcome statement of some desired future state that doesn’t reference the problem itself or a solution. Then you know you’ve got to the heart of what they want.


And how about you?

Thinking about what you’re working on now, or about where you find yourself, what do you want to have happen?

And who around you needs you to ask them this kind of question? Who needs that clarity and powerful attention from you just now?


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach to let me know what you want to have happen or how you’re getting on at asking other people the same.


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The Supportive Boss

Leaders: 7 things your struggling employee needs to hear you say

What if you’ve got someone who works for you who is struggling? They’re maybe a little overwhelmed or out of their depth. Perhaps they’ve lost their mojo. Or they’re reacting badly and you know something is up, but not quite what it is. What is that person secretly waiting to hear from you, their leader?

Here’s seven options to start with:

“I’ve got your back. What support do you need from me?”

“I know you can come through this.”

“Your concerns are genuine and I hear them.
Can we look together at how to deal with them?”

“The reason we fall over is so we can learn to get back up.
What do you want to learn from this?”

“Here’s the bigger picture of why this is important now …”

“Stop struggling.
Take a break.
Come back to it later from this [different] angle.”

“I’ve struggled with lots of things in the past myself.
I reckon we all must do at times.
Who have you asked for help?”


I hope those help a little? Please add a comment below if they’re still open, or contact me here, or tweet me @NickRobCoach especially if you’d like to add something that a struggling employee needs to hear from their leader.


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Face the sun

Click the image above and then right-click it to download a copy.

Creds to my friends at Inspired Lives for spotting this one – they never fail to help me choose to face the light x

Planning, Productivity and the Cumulative S-Curve

Time to focus on that small, regular progress which builds into really significant long-term achievement

I’m writing this in early September, just back from family holidays. It’s time to commit to and to get down on paper the priorities and achievements I want to focus on for the remainder of this calendar year. If you run your year quarterly:

  • Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep, Oct-Dec, Jan-Mar

then the start of the month before the next quarter starts is a great time to get this kind of planning done. (Which is why I’m doing planning for the Oct-Dec quarter at the beginning of September).

And, of course, any other periodic structure that works for you is just as good.


You might already know that people generally tend to under-estimate what they can achieve in the long-term, and over-estimate what they can achieve in the short-term.


One of the consequences of this tendency is that it’s really important to plan what you want to achieve in a cyclical way. To look at both long-term and short-term, and to link those together. Longer-term planning needs some ambition and vision. Shorter-term needs more realism. I’ve written before about how you might use the Rule of Threes to help with this.

Another way to think of it, is as a series of linked S-Curves.

Any project managers reading this will be familiar with the concept of the ‘S-Curve’: a graph showing how costs, labour hours, profitability or outputs in a project typically flow over time. Slower at the beginning, accelerating in the middle and slowing down again towards the end. There may even be downward slopes at the beginning and again at the end, as the rate of the input/output measure tends to drop at those points.

When it comes to how much you might achieve over time, your own S-Curve graph might look something like this:

If you can take the time each quarter to refresh this work and to intentionally plan the priorities and achievements that you want to focus on then, over time, you’ve got more chance of your overall achievements building into a kind of much bigger cumulative S-Curve. This is how small, regular progress builds into quite significant longer-term progress. I think it’s the accumulation of achievement in this way that’s behind our tendency to under-estimate just how much we can achieve in the longer-term.

If you were to make a graph of it, most project-managers (and technologists, who love this kind of stuff) will be familiar with the cumulative S-Curve graph, which looks something like this:

I often feel in this kind of planning process that the joy, spirit and motivation can all too easily get sucked out of the whole thing. Even if you’re somebody who does get excited about the planning part, it’s just as easy to lose heart when the weight of everything that needs doing becomes clear. Again, this is why it’s so important to approach this in a cyclical way. In the longer-term, a great deal can be achieved. In the shorter-term, we have to be realistic about what’s possible and find ways of motivating ourselves about it. I’ll leave you with some thoughts about stuff that does seem to help with that motivation part.

Whenever you do it, as you’re refreshing and planning the priorities and achievements you want to focus on, does it help you to also include things like these:

  • How do you want things to ‘feel’?
  • What’s exciting, attractive or rewarding about your priorities?
  • What needs to happen in order to stop the sky from falling in?
  • What does it look like? I mean, if we could jump in a time machine and travel forwards to when you’d achieved it, to the end of that S-Curve, what would we see, hear or feel in relation to each of your priority achievements?
  • How will you know when the end-point of an S-Curve has been reached?

Let me know how you get on please. What are your priorities? What timescales work for your regular planning and focussing?


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