The missing advice on digital transformation

The other day I ran a transformative technology session as part of the Victorian Innovation Festival. During the session I asked the sixty or so participants who was currently involved of some type of digital transformation and about 50% raised their hands. From my experience this is about average these days, one in two organisations have some type of digital transformation agenda they are trying to pursue…and most of them will fail.

Victorian Innovation Festival

The exact rates of failure are hard to gauge, in fact the whole concept of digital transformation is rather murky (not least because there is no clear definition of what digital transformation is). But various research from ‘reputable’ organisations such as Bain & Co, McKinsey and HBR suggest that the chance of failure is somewhere north of 60%. This means you have a chance of beating your local casino playing blackjack than you do of running a successful digital transformation project.

This is probably why there are so many articles and research reports on how to make your digital transformation succeed (or more often than not, how to stop them failing). Yet having trawled through a large number of these I’m consistently surprised that one key piece of advice is always missing. It’s the piece of advice that when I speak, train or coach clients always seems to create the biggest a-ha moment.

And what is that piece of advice you ask?

Do the right projects in the right order…and this generally means starting with the smallest things first.

I think that this seems somewhat counterintuitive for many organisations (and consultants) when we have limited resources and we want to make impact fast then surely we should do the big projects first. The name making, game changing, future proofing type projects that will create the biggest bang.

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that the complexity of big projects means that they often overrun on time and cost and underperform on outcomes. The second is that people struggle with big, irregular type changes. Most digital transformation efforts have only a little to do with technology and a lot to do with people. And changing people ultimately takes more effort, more care and more time than changing the technology.

From a people perspective, small changes are what prepare people for medium sized changes, which are what prepare people for big changes. As my friend Owen McCall put it “you can’t just get a fat man to run a marathon,” but you might be able to get him to go for a walk around the block.*

*Now I appreciate that some people might think this is politically incorrect but these are Owen’s words not mine…and Owen would put himself squarely in the fat camp.

So the method I teach people when it comes to project prioritisation is called Rabbits and Rhinos.

Rabbits & Rhinos Matrix

Just for a moment, imagine you were a hunter out wandering the African savannah. You spy a rhino off in the distance and think that if you could just capture and kill the rhino your tribe will eat well for the next month. But as you and your hunting party creep closer, you realise the rhino is armour plated, has a massive horn on the front and over a short distance can run faster than Usain Bolt. Now you could continue to pursue the rhino and perhaps things turn out well or perhaps they don’t…and the whole project turns out to be a dog.

Alternatively you could start by pursuing the rabbits. Clearly rabbits are a lot smaller and there is a whole lot less to eat, but unlike rhinos there are hundreds if not thousands of them (by definition, they breed like rabbits) and they are far fewer risks in catching them.

*Note: The high return, low effort projects are called the Dodos because they are so easy and so valuable we should have already done them all and they should already be extinct. 

There is often a tension people face when choosing the rabbits over the rhinos. The tension is based in the feeling that we are so far behind and we need to catch up quickly (this is often a result of delaying the start of a digital transformation journey for too long). But desire alone doesn’t make change happen. Change ultimately happens because people want the change (there is a personal desire rather than just an organisational one) AND they also believe that they can (because the change is small enough to get their head around).

So if your approach to digital transformation doesn’t make change easy for people, well, you’re best off packing your bags and heading to the casino.

If you’d like to find out more about how you can drive incremental, bottom up improvements in your organisation through technology, head over to the Digital Champions Club.

What professional speakers could learn from the Rolling Stones

For the last nine months or so I have been working on a secret project. It would have been called a skunkworks project if I worked at Lockheed Martin, or a moonshot if I worked at Google, but as I work at neither of these places (and have a much smaller budget) I just called it Project Live.

Project Live is an (ongoing) experiment in the future of keynotes and live events. It was born out of a realisation that most professional speakers present cannot compete with the prerecorded virtual versions of themselves. Just like TED.com has a far bigger audience and reach than the actual TED conference, the incredible quality and unparalleled convenience of the online version means that live experiences need to evolve if they want to compete. This is not just a problem for professional speakers, it is also a massive issue for conference organisers. How do they compete against the convenience and quality of free TED talks and endless YouTube clips?

As William Gibson pointed out “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” This suggests that other people are likely to have already dealt with this same issue, and maybe they might have also found some workable solutions. So what other industries could speakers and event organisers potentially learn from? The most natural learning opportunity would be that of live music.

Live music has had to deal with the impact of Napster, peer to peer sharing platforms such as Pirate Bay, iTunes and more recently music streaming services such as Spotify. So how is it that musicians have responded? The answer is to go big on live performances.

Below are two images, the first is from a Rolling Stones gig in 1972, the second is from a gig from 2017. Notice anything different?

1972

 

2017

The big difference is not what is happening on stage, although Mick is somewhat spritely still for his age he can’t quite cut the moves that he did 35 years ago. The big difference is what is going on around it: the lights, the screens, the imagery…the experience.

Great music is no longer enough, if I want great music I can listen to the fully remastered high definition version on demand in the comfort of my own home. To entice people to come to gigs you need to provide an experience, an experience that is so big and so unique that people will be willing to forgo the convenience and fork out the money to share in the moment and say they were there.

And just like great music is no longer enough for musicians, great content is no longer enough for conference speakers (this is not to say that great content is not required, but rather that it’s the price of admission and you still need to do more from there). To be relevant in the world where everything can be streamed you need to be able to create an experience that cannot be replicated online.

Project Live was created from this idea. I ditched PowerPoint and started playing around with live video mixing software (similar to what is used in a Rolling Stones concert), I started replacing still images with HD video and started mixing my keynotes live on stage. Now that I’ve got this part largely down pat I’m now looking at producing soundscape elements and live mixing them along with the visuals to create a truly unique experience every time.

I’m not telling you this because that’s what everyone should be doing but rather that anyone who wants longevity in the industry needs to be doing something. I’m constantly inspired by other speakers such as Dr Jason Fox and Mykel Dixon who are constantly tinkering with visual, musical and other theatrical elements in their events. Although they are two of the hottest speakers in Australia at the moment they are also constantly pushing boundaries in both their content and their delivery.*

*And even outside the events industry I believe all organisations need to be constantly tinkering and experimenting if they want to ensure their future relevance.

Bell & Howell Overhead Projector

When I started Project Live at the end of last year it was based on a gut feeling, but in March I found proof that this was the future. I was speaking at a conference in Canberra and found an old Bell and Howell overhead projector from the 1970s, the same one that many of us might remember from back in high school. This is the same era as the image of the Rolling Stones pictured above. But whereas the Rolling Stones (along with most other live acts) have fully embraced what it means to give a live performance, professional speakers have limited themselves to a digital version of the overhead projector.

The future is here my friends…and it’s LIVE.

Happy trials

After nearly three months we finally returned from our Life Work adventure a week or so back. It’s taken me a little time to write about it because a) I’m still sifting through all the memories to find the hidden gems of meaning; and b) the day after we got back I took off to Perth for four days to help an old friend celebrate his 40th birthday.

Two and a half months up and two days back

One phrase that has been with me over the whole journey is plastered across the title of this blog. I found the phrase left in the comments section of either a Facebook or LinkedIn post I wrote announcing our imminent departure a few months back. It was left there, amongst all the general platitudes and well wishing by a friend of mine Georgia Murch. Now there’s a small chance that this was just a typo and that Georgia really meant to wish us “happy trails” but knowing Georgia I would suggest that it wasn’t.

Campfires

At the time I first read it I wasn’t really sure how to take it. When you announce a big trip like this you kind of hope everyone will be joyous and perhaps just a little bit jealous and although I always appreciate a good pun it felt a little bit deflating as well. Weirdly though, I haven’t been able to get the phrase out of my head for the last three months and looking back on it now I wonder if in fact it’s the best, and simplest, way of summing up the whole experience.

Let me assure you there has been no shortage of happiness…but also no shortage of trials. Here is an excerpt from one of Naomi’s Facebook posts highlighting just a few of the things we’ve had to endure during the trip (she assured me this was the abbreviated list).

  1. No time together without kids
  2. Sleep deprivation
  3. Arguing in the car about our next destination
  4. Kids fighting
  5. Stopping the car in the middle of nowhere, getting out of the car and refusing to get back in the car
  6. Mess, everywhere you look
  7. No wardrobes
  8. Stressful packing up and setting up days
  9. Eating crap food at theme parks/on the road because there is no alternative
  10. Drinking bad coffee because there is no alternative
  11. Being pooed on by birds
  12. Missing our dogs terribly and worrying about them after one ends up with a nasty injury, and they dig up our friend’s tennis court and a nice big hole in our hallway carpet
  13. Finding a pediatric dentist along the way to remove a splint after Miss 7 nearly knocks her front teeth out
  14. Miss 7 then proceeds to chip a front tooth on the bath tap
  15. Miss 7 goes to first aid after she flips out of a raft halfway down a waterslide called the BLACK HOLE!
  16. Miss 7 gets bitten by a horse which is distressed by 300 tourists trying to pat it and her being caught in the middle
  17. Miss 9 burns her hand while toasting marshmallows
  18. Miss 9 wakes up in the night and proceeds to vomit in the campervan
  19. Miss 9 sprains her ankle after doing 100 cartwheels
  20. Being stranded on the Gold Coast while our campervan takes a trip to the mechanic for 4 days
  21. The drone gets attacked by a sea bird and now lies at the bottom of the ocean
  22. Leeches
  23. Simon’s flights being cancelled/delayed
  24. Really bad showers
  25. Did I mention the dirt and sand in our beds.

And yet when I read over this list again none of this comes with an ounce of regret. Not only have we had the privilege of enduring these trials as part of a once in a lifetime adventure, I also have no doubt that experiencing these challenges has made all of us better for it.*

*Along the way I’ve been reading Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder and you could easily look at the above list as a list of disorder, things that are worth mentioning because they are both uncommon and challenging. The academic side of me that I’ve been trying hard to suppress over the last few months of blog posting would then want to talk about how the ability of each of us (both individually and collectively) to absorb and recover from each of theses trials has made us and our relationships stronger…but let’s not go into that.

So why does it take a trip like this to bring us all closer? Why couldn’t we have created such an experience without leaving the comfort of home? There’s no good reason for not doing it, but I can also tell you we didn’t. Perhaps it’s because that ‘in the moment’ conflict sucks. None of the above experiences were enjoyable at the time they occurred, their value is only when looked on in retrospect. Perhaps we just don’t have the energy for it, that after long days slaving away in the salt mines we don’t want to endure further trials…even if they are an opportunity for connection and growth.

Or perhaps we’ve just got really good at avoiding conflict in our day to day lives.

Not only do we live in more controlled environments that have eliminated many of conflicts causes, we have also become incredibly good at avoiding confrontation when challenges inevitably arise. We have smaller families living in bigger houses, we fill our lives with work and other activities, we go on resort holidays and lay on daybeds drinking cocktails out of coconuts…and we have a multitude of devices that require our constant attention. There are now so many other places we can go when the going gets tough that we can sometimes pretend that the challenges of human existence don’t apply to us.

But when you shrink your entire living space to something smaller than your dining room it becomes almost impossible to avoid these types of challenges. And once you can no longer avoid them the best strategy is to embrace them. For us that meant family gatherings around the campfire where each of us shared how we were currently feeling. We asked questions of each other to better understand what was going on and we collectively discussed ways of making things better.*

*In fact, we had one of our little gatherings the day after we got back (this time around a candle on the dining table) and much of the conversation was focused on how we can bring all that was good about our adventure into our day to day lives. The first challenge was how to deal with the incredible amount of unnecessary space in our house. To this end Nomes and I have decided to move out of the upstairs master bedroom and into one of the kid’s bedrooms so we can be closer to them. For their part they’ve agreed to continue to share a room for the foreseeable future (its relative luxury compared to sharing a bed in the camper trailer). In addition, the girls have also voluntarily committed to no screen time during the week in exchange for our weekly family movie (a ritual we started on the trip).

The very last questions I ask my digital champions at the end of a project, after everything’s been implemented and the feedback has been gathered is “Knowing everything you know now, would you do it again?”

And if I was to look back on the last three months and answer that question the answer would be an irrevocable “Yes!” In fact, Nomes and I have already been discussing how we could do a trip like this on an annual basis.

Rounding up the horses at night

So, as much as describing the adventure as a Happy Trial may not sound as appealing as drinking cocktails out of coconuts, I think the accumulation of experiences and where the journey has taken us is infinitely more valuable than any tropical holiday I’ve had in the past. And just because I really do encourage you to consider how you might swing an adventure like this yourself, how you might flip the life and work parts of your life for an extended period and enjoy your own set of Happy Trials, I will leave you with something a little more positive – a list. My list. A reflection on some of the incredible experiences and happy times we have had together over the last few months (and I can also assure that this list is abbreviated as well).

  1. The girls chasing waves in their best dresses and getting completely drenched
  2. Nailing all the rollercoasters at Movie World
  3. Rounding up a herd of horses at 10 o’clock at night in our dressing gowns
  4. Spending a day building a straw bale house
  5. Poppy catching her very first fish
  6. Three generations of Wallers abseiling off a mountain at sunset
  7. Playing story games around campfires
  8. Reading books for no reason except pleasure
  9. Driving my camper van Dennis for extended periods (being behind the wheel is one of my happy places)
  10. Jervis Bay at Sunset with the beach to ourselves
  11. Toasting marshmallows (even after Miss 9 burnt herself)
  12. The girls showing me up in their very first surf lesson
  13. Waterslides
  14. Following the locals recommendation, camping next to an isolated beach and being the only people on it
  15. Stews and other camp specialties
  16. Seeing the girls learn to love reading
  17. Our weekly family movie night
  18. Taking a detour and exploring where my Dad grew up on the Southern Yorke Peninsula in SA
  19. My camper van office
  20. Having the complete support of my team throughout the trip
  21. Seeing the whole team grow and develop in my absence
  22. Having so much time where it was just our family
  23. Having time to stop and reflect on where the world and where my work is heading next
  24. Getting home and starting back at work with renewed excitement and vigour
  25. The anticipation of getting to do it all again

 

Where’s Waller

 

Listen to the locals

On Wednesday we left Byron Bay to head up to the Gold Coast and spend a week at the theme parks. Along the way we had arranged to stop at an old friend’s place outside of Mullambimby. His property, aptly called Altitude 261, required ascending a road that was both rather steep and rather poorly maintained. In fact it was both steeper and less well maintained than I had imagined which eventually resulted in me having to try and reverse Dennis and the camper trailer back down the road, eventually abandoning the trailer in someone’s driveway and busting a seal in Dennis’s transmission.

Lunch at Rod’s place

I probably should have paid a little more attention to the phone call I had with Rod before we turned up. I just mentioned, I wasn’t paying that much attention but I think the conversation went something like this:

Rod: So, what type of vehicle do you have?

Me: I have a camper van towing a camper trailer

Rod: Oh, the last 500 meters or so of the road up to my place is a little rough.

Me: The van is four wheel drive

Rod: That’s good, you will probably want a four wheel drive.Me: What about the trailer

Rod: Hmmmm, I’m not sure about the trailer

Me: That’s OK, I can unhitch the trailer and leave it at the bottom and just come up in the van.

Rod: That a good idea, you can always call me if you get stuck. Lots of people call me when they get stuck.

So at this point I probably should have been a little more concerned than I was. And when I set off from Byron Bay I had every intention of unhitching the trailer and leaving it somewhere. But as we got closer to Rod’s road the lanes became narrower and the number of locations where I could safely unhitch and leave the trailer somewhere diminished quickly. So much so that when I turned into Rod’s road the trailer was still attached.

I think it’s fair to describe the road as ‘deceptive’. It started with a nice bit of tarmac followed by a bit of well graded gravel. With just 1.5km to go to Rod’s place things were still looking pretty good. Then the road started rising sharply, washouts started appearing and it became increasingly clear that the council worker tasked with grading the road had knocked off early.*

*I actually later found out that no one was actually tasked with maintaining the road. Responsibility for its upkeep had recently passed from the state to the local council but there was no money to go with it.

With limited opportunity to turn around I did my best to keep going. But as I dropped back through the gears and the wheels continued to spin, my confidence in Dennis’s ability to tame the mountain started to wane. With still another kilometre or so to go and with Dennis back in 1st gear, I slammed on the brakes just in time to save the engine stalling, which in turn saved us from starting an uncontrolled decent back down the mountain…in reverse.

Now as much as this situation sounds a little precarious, it is about as good as things got for the next hour or so. Given that we could no longer go up, the only option was to go down. I started backing the van and trailer down the hill and managed a tight turn into a narrow driveway. We got the trailer back far enough to execute a three point turn but as I started pointing Dennis slow back down the hill I realised that we were about to tow the trailer off the edge of the driveway into a three foot high drainage ditch.

Trailer positioned precariously

Without enough engine power to reverse the camper trailer further back up into the driveway, we were forced to chock up the trailer and unhitch it from Dennis. We then drove back down to the bottom of the road and called Rod for help…just like he suggested.

Thankfully Rod turned up with a far more capable four wheel drive than our one and after hooking up the camper trailer he successfully towed it out of trouble and up the road for us.

Initially I thought he was just going to tow it all the way up to his place and then perhaps back down the hill for us again after lunch. Then, at a small intersection about another 500 meters or so further up the road, Rod suddenly stopped the car and suggested we unhook the trailer. Initially I looked around expecting to see his house but instead I spied a washed out goat track strewn with gravel, heading up a near vertical slope. It was at this point I suddenly realised we hadn’t even got to the section of road that Rod had initially warned me about in our earlier phone call.

Next time, I’m going to listen to the locals.

Dennis at the doctors

Postscript: After returning from lunch we found a pool of oil underneath Dennis as result of a busted bushing at the rear of the transmission. We managed to nurse Dennis and Daisy to the Gold Coast where we were planning to spend a week at the theme parks. The van is now currently in for repairs and we aren’t sure exactly when we’ll be leaving.

Update

After leaving the farm stay at South West Rocks we spent three nights at an incredible camp site on the Clarence River called Michael’s Clarence Valley Retreat. It looked like the set of a Crocodile Dundee movie and the owner Michael, or Mick, was a Paul Hogan doppelganger. After leaving the Clarence our next stop was Byron Bay where we met up with a couple of friends who came up to escape the Melbourne winter.

Camping along the Clarence River

Out fishing with Mick

My office in Byron Bay

After Byron we stopped off at Mullumbimby, the location of this week’s blog, and then headed up to the Gold Coast for our week long ‘world tour’. We’re currently staying at Paradise Country at the back of the Village Roadshow Studios and on our world tour we’ve so far visited Movie World, Sea World, Wet n Wild World and the Australian Outback Spectacular World. There is little doubt that we’ve hit the ‘peak tourist’ phase of our adventure…I think it’s just about time to hit the road again.

Where’s Waller

 

Slamming into the pot holes on the road less travelled

I’m pretty sure I don’t necessarily believe in karma. If I did, I would have put down last week to a karmic episode, instead I’m now forced to find some other life lesson in what happened.

I had been really looking forward to last week, as much as it meant me leaving Dennis (the camper van) and Daisy (the camper trailer formally referred to as Goldie) for a few days it was going to be the most radical example of our Life Work Adventure. It involved me flying out from our trip to present at three events across three states within three days and then flying across the country to be back with the girls in time for a hot dinner on day four. But I was soon to find that sometimes things don’t quite go as planned.*

*Oh yes, I fully appreciate the irony that my last post was about how great preparation makes planning less necessary…but more on that later.

The expectation was that we would park up the van Tuesday, somewhere around Nelson Bay in NSW, then on Wednesday morning the girls would deliver me to Newcastle Airport (30 minutes away) where I would then catch a flight to Melbourne. Once in Melbourne, I would be picked up by a driver at the airport and driven to a client’s office to run a three hour workshop (on enabling technology adoption) before heading back into the Melbourne CBD for the night. Then on Thursday morning I would rise early and head to the Arts Centre to do a keynote on using technology to deliver more engaging tourism experiences before returning to the airport and continuing to Perth. I would run my final event, an all-day bootcamp for my Digital Champions Club, on Friday before an early Saturday morning flight back to Newcastle (via Melbourne) to catch up with the girls…and catch up on some sleep.

On paper it looked like everything would dovetail in nicely but almost immediately things started to unravel.

Plane cancelled

Firstly, my flight from Newcastle to Melbourne was cancelled with only a couple of hours’ notice (due to a lack of crew) and as there was no other flights leaving Newcastle I then bought a second ticket (on a different airline) to Sydney and a third ticket (on a different airline again) to take me through to Melbourne. Unfortunately, my second flight out of Newcastle departed late (also as a result of crew issues) which meant that I only made it to Sydney in time to watch my connecting flight back out of the gate and take off down the runway. And even though the client was incredibly accommodating (with all the participants volunteering to stay back until 6pm) the multiple delays meant we eventually had to pull the pin and postpone the workshop until a later date.

My plane leaving without me

Thankfully the other events went far more smoothly, though Qantas put on a domestic leg of an international flight to Perth which has different security requirements that resulted in having a $100 bottle of my favourite wine…that I’d bought from the cellar door…in the Hunter Valley…as a gift for the guest speaker who was presenting at the Digital Champions Club the following day, confiscated at the airport.

Bottle of wine confiscated at the airport

If I was a believer in karma or fate I’d probably put it down as some form of retribution for my previous posts on how well prepared I felt for just about any eventuality, or as a good friend of mine in Perth pointed out, perhaps it was the necessary punishment for being so bold as to think I could just go and live and work on the road for three months with my family.

But as I am not a believer in karma I’ve now being forced to come up with a different explanation as to why all these things went wrong. Here’s what I’ve got so far.

  1. If you plan on doing anything, something will generally go wrong
  2. If you plan on doing something irregular or uncommon, then the chances of things going wrong escalates rapidly.
  3. When something does go wrong, you will always wish you built in some additional capacity
  4. If things are important ALWAYS build in some additional capacity
  5. Every time something goes wrong it’s an opportunity to learn
  6. The biggest risk is we don’t learn when we should, and we end up with the same problem at a later date

Oh, and the best thing is this. You don’t necessarily need to wait for the ‘something’ to happen to you. The power of the internet and open sharing means that you can just as quickly and easily learn from other’s mistakes…with far less downside.

So, if you’re ever travelling with your family, working from a van and need to fly out from a regional airport for an important gig, half a day of spare capacity is not enough. Always fly the night before.*

*You might think that this is incredibly niche advice but I guarantee that someday in the future I’m going to get an email to a long defunct email address saying ‘Oh my god Simon, your advice saved my life’.

Update

We left Lake Macquarie on Friday and headed to the Hunter Valley for an impromptu birthday lunch and a spot of wine tasting. We camped for a couple of nights before heading back towards the coast. We stayed a couple of nights at Anna Bay before heading to Nelson Bay…which was the start of the adventures described above.

Birthday lunch in the Hunter Valley

I stayed on in Perth a couple of extra days to catch up with friends and spent a magical day at Rotto on the Sunday before heading back towards the van and the girls on the Monday. After dealing with a couple of days of awkward rain in Nelson Bay (awkward because we haven’t really had to deal with much of that since leaving Melbourne) we packed up and headed north again. We are currently at a farm stay just near South West Rocks and Byron Bay is now clearly in our sights.

The view at Rotto

The answer to poor short-term planning is good long-term preparation

We are now a little over a month into our three-month Life Work Adventure. One of the key motivators behind the trip for both Nomes and myself was to get a break from our tightly scheduled existence (fully acknowledging that neither Nomes nor I have schedules that are either tightly packed or terribly well planned). What this meant was that by the time we left home five weeks ago we had little idea of where we were going or what we wanted to do on the trip.

Our camp at Glenworth Valley with the bed in Dennis set up for Mum and Dad. Are we the only people travelling the coast with a spare room?

This approach, and its potential short comings, were on full display on Mother’s Day when a good three hours after we were meant to check out from the caravan park we were staying in we decided to depart and head off to do some camping in Booderee National Park, which was in the exact opposite direction from which we were meant to be travelling in.

The incredible white sands and amazing sunsets of Booderee National Park

Although a little frustrating at the time I shouldn’t really have been surprised at such lack of planning. In fact, right from the very inception of the trip any attempts I’ve made at planning have gone badly. Perhaps at some point feeling a need to get to ‘somewhere’ I tried instigating a pre-departure planning conversation with the girls. It went something like this

Me: So, girls (this includes Nomes), where do you want to go?

Nomes: I want to go to Byron Bay, and I want to go to Brisbie [Island] to visit the cousins

Girls: Yeah, we want to go to Brisbie!

Me: Anywhere else?

[insert three sets of big, beautiful eyes giving me blank stares]

Me: Does anyone want to go to the theme parks?

Girls: Yeah, we want to go to the theme parks…for a week!

Me: Great! Anywhere else?

[insert three sets of big, beautiful eyes giving me blank stares…again]

So, before we left our collective plan was, quite literally, travel up the east coast, get to Brisbie Island, and pass through Byron Bay and the theme parks on the way…oh and hopefully get back in time to wash the school uniforms before the start of third term.

Less planning means more preparation

So how do you prepare for a trip where you don’t know where you’re going or what you’ll be doing?

Well assuming that you don’t want to deal with the fallout of things going off the rails, the only possible way to prepare is to prepare for everything.

And I wasn’t quite willing to let things go off the rails. One of my criteria for the ‘working’ part of the adventure was that my clients shouldn’t have to pay for it. What I mean by this is that my clients should expect to receive the same level of quality, service and professionalism that they do when I’m working from my regular office.

So, to ensure that we could have all the flexibility we desired whilst also ensuring the client experience didn’t suffer, I set out to get really well prepared for everything.

Red Teaming

To identify the possible risks and challenges of associated with three months working on the road I ran a red teaming exercise* with my staff well before Nomes and I committed to doing the trip. From this we determined a number of things I could do to better prepare.

*Red Teaming is a concept I picked up from an interview between Tim Ferriss and Marc Andreessen, founding partner of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. The concept originally stems from the military but how Marc presents it, red teaming provides the opportunity to challenge or ‘torture test’ an idea even if everyone already agrees with it. The ‘red team’ is an internal group (with the privilege of insider knowledge) tasked with trying to pick an idea apart. A good red teaming exercise might not necessarily discredit the whole idea, it might just identify small weaknesses that need to be addressed. You can read more about this in Tim’s book Tools of Titans.

The two biggest potential challenges we identified was connectivity and availability. To address this, I ended up with two 4G mobile data plans on different networks to limit network availability, bandwidth and other connectivity risks and I also invested in a nine-metre-long squid pole that I could use as a mast to increase the range of my modem…but so far it hasn’t been*.

*This is something I learnt from my dad when we were sailing up in the Whitsundays a year or so back. I had no reception at sea level when we were travelling around some of the islands but when he hoisted my mobile phone up to the top of the mast with the hotspot enabled I was able to run Skype calls with my team from the front deck of the boat.

In addition, I committed to being ‘in range’ and available two full days each week so that Sunny could pre-book meetings and coaching sessions as required. This meant checking into a caravan park with suitable 4G coverage on a Tuesday afternoon and not leaving until Friday morning (this would leave me a minimum of five days per week for the Life part of the adventure which could stay relatively unplanned).

To assist with this my team would identify a selection of suitable locations for me to stay each week. They would use a combination of Google searches (for suitable caravan parks in nice locations), customer reviews, maps of Telstra’s and Optus’s 4G coverage and data from services like OpenSignal (where people voluntarily collect and share information on the strength and speed of their mobile phone signal) to identify three or four options and then plot them on a co-authored Google Map which I could then access from my smart phone.

Other risks we identified and prepared for included inclement weather (for which I’m carrying multiple different microphone options), lack of power (I bought both a car charger for my laptop and an external battery pack that would allow me to run my laptop for up to four hours), last minute keynote/workshop bookings (the team also plotted out regional airports along the route) and personal accidents and emergencies (they also identified and plotted out emergency medical facilities as well).

This might sound like an excessive level of preparation but as I mentioned earlier, it was important for me that the client experience wasn’t risked. And although it may seem excessive it is all relatively doable. From what I’ve experienced to date I would suggest the biggest risk with a trip such as this has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with people.

Preparing others as well as yourself

The biggest limitation when it comes to taking off on the road for three months is the patterns of work and engagement we have created with others. If you were considering something similar the question to ask yourself is

‘How will your customers and staff take it if you’re physically unavailable for three months?’

If you currently feel your physical presence is required to either do the work yourself, or get other people to do the work for you then three months on the road might be a bad idea. The truth is people take a lot longer to change their processes. It’s taken me a good three years to prepare the people around me for my lack of physical presence.

I started preparing members of my team the day they started working with me (for Sunny and Camille that was over three years ago). From day one they have never been accountable to metrics and I’ve never tracked the hours they work (even though I know that many of my peers do). In fact, for the last two years all my staff have had access to unlimited leave because I trust that they wouldn’t abuse it. Instead, we are collectively accountable to our purpose our values and the quality of the work we do.

My team are also all remote, Sunny lives on the other side of Melbourne, Camille in Manila and Marc is a true digital nomad, travelling, living and working across the many islands of the Philippines.

And I started preparing my customers two and half years ago when I moved from Melbourne down to the Mornington Peninsula. I didn’t want to have to commute backwards and forward to the city each day (and most of my clients are interstate anyway) so since then every customer has been directed towards engaging with me over Skype for small group meetings (Sunny positions it as the flexibility of a telephone call but with the engagement of a physical meeting). For members of my Digital Champions program they have only ever known Skype based coaching and if anything, it sets an example to them about what they could be doing with their own clients.

This is not to say you can’t take off for three months without all this preparation. Many people quit their job, take long service leave (or some other form of sabbatical) and take off on journeys such as this. But this option requires that work is put on hold whilst you do some extended living. The limitation of this is that eventually the life bit will end, and you will need to go back to work. If instead you want to find ways of better integrating your work with your life, well then…you better start preparing.

Update

We finally got our first few days of rain just after my last update. We were holed up in Jervis Bay for a few days but managed to escape down to the incredible Booderee National Park for a couple of days of free camping. On Tuesday we headed to Sydney where we met up with my parents and checked into a hotel for the night (I was running a workshop the next morning and the client was paying).

I attempted to valet park the van and trailer at our hotel in Sydney… but ended up having to park it myself

After the workshop on Wednesday afternoon we headed to Umina Beach on the north side of the Hawksbury River with my parents in tow. After doing some coaching sessions on Thursday and squeezing in a game of golf on Friday we got back on the road again and headed to Glenworth Valley for a couple of days camping, horse riding and abseiling.

My office in Lake Macquarie

Monday, we said goodbye to my parents (who headed home to Perth via Sydney) and moved north again to our current location at Lake Macquarie. This week I’ve had a chunk of work to get done in preparation for a couple of workshops and a keynote I’m flying out for next week. A few days in one place has also given the girls a chance to get the van sorted out and restocked before we head off again tomorrow.

Can you inherit a mid-life crisis?

This week I took my kids surfing for the first time. We were staying at Broulee on the NSW south coast and its safe beaches and long easy waves make it an ideal place to learn to surf…or at least that’s what the brochure says. It turns out I had recently come into a brand new 9′ mini mal (more on that later) and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get a lesson on how to use it. Better yet, I could do a group lesson, take the girls and triple the experience.

I organised a one and a half hour private lesson with Broulee Surf School. The instructor Shane was ace and he had as out and riding waves within 20 minutes. The girls, with their youthful flexibility, low centre of gravity and carefree attitude were complete naturals. I on the other hand, with my stiff joints, lanky frame and general lack of balance and coordination had quite a different experience. After an hour and a half of expert tuition I can’t honestly say I ‘surfed’.*

*It turns out that some people are born with a tight Achilles heel which in turn leads to a lack of flexibility in the ankle which in turn means it’s difficult to plant your foot flat and maintain balance when you’re lifting yourself up to a standing position on the board. Apparently when it comes to surfing my Achilles heel is my Achilles heel.

Now the fact that I didn’t manage to surf, with the help of a professional instructor, on some of the easiest waves in Australia might come as a surprise to some. It would most likely be a surprise to all the close friends who recently contributed $800 to surf shop voucher (an incredibly generous 40th birthday present) that subsequently resulted in me owning a 9’ mini mal. To be fair to them, this wasn’t a whimsical midlife crisis type gift, it was in fact a thoughtful gesture to help replace my previous surfboard that I’d bought myself as a midlife crisis type gift a few years earlier. Unfortunately, this first surfboard suffered irreparable damage after being blown off the roof of Dennis (our campervan) whilst driving along the freeway at about 100km/h on the way back from our annual camping trip to Barwon Heads 12 months earlier.

So, this all begs the question, when was it exactly that I started pretending to myself that I was a surfer.

It’s a convoluted story but it all started 30 odd years ago when my Dad took me surfing at Waikiki in Hawaii. I had been around the ocean my whole life but hiring long boards on the beach at Waikiki and riding the long rolling swells was my first memory of surfing.

Dad was a surfer when he was younger. I never saw the surfboards, except in one or two old photos, but what I remember quite distinctly was that he still had his old boardshorts from when he was in his 20’s…and was endlessly proud of the fact that he still fitted in them in his 40’s (having now experienced myself the negative impact that kids have on commitment to exercise and the positive impact they have on the consumption of comfort food and alcohol, I quite agree this is something my dad deserved to be proud of). I’m not sure if it was his own memories of surfing at Pondalowie Bay in his teens that resulted in him taking me surfing that day at Waikiki but regardless of the reason why, that day in Waikiki left a lasting impression. Not only did it result in an enduring and incredible memory, it also led me to mistakenly believe that I was a surfer.

I remember getting my very own surfboard not long after that. I wasn’t so keen that I went out and bought a board myself, instead I got it as a birthday or Christmas present. It was second hand and had a couple of dings in it, but owning your own surfboard is a great way of maintaining the delusion that you’re a surfer. I took the board out a couple of times, but I don’t have a distinct memory of ever standing up on it. In fact, the most use it ever got was for skurfing (a cross between water skiing and surfing) being towed behind a little power boat that was kept at my parents’ holiday house.

I used to justify to others, and myself, that the reason I didn’t take it out surfing was that it was a little too small for me (I was 6’6” and the board was only 6’2”). The real reason was probably that I just sucked at surfing. And if I needed further proof this was always the case I now have it in a board that is a good two and half feet longer than me which I still can’t seem to stand up on.

Now I’m not saying that my Dad sucked at surfing quite like I did. I’m fairly sure he was never afflicted with the same lack of coordination and flexibility as me. I’m only saying that my only memory of him surfing was one day at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii.

So, the other day as I stood out in the water (it was only waist deep) waiting for the right wave to fall off, I suddenly wondered whether I might have somehow inherited a midlife crisis from my Dad. Whether on that fateful day on Waikiki Beach 30 years ago he was just reliving his own youth. That taking me surfing was just his own midlife crisis playing out, and by inviting me to partake in the event, he inadvertently passed on the ’sham surfer’ gene to me.

And so, as I stood there in the waist deep water, looking back towards the shore where my two girls catching wave after wave, having an incredible time and creating their own lasting memories, I wondered whether I may have just inadvertently passed onto the ’sham surfer’ gene to them.

 

Update

This last week we’ve covered a lot of ground, but not all of it by road. After the surf lesson at Broulee we drove to Canberra via Batemans Bay. The next morning, we flew out of Canberra to Adelaide to catch up with my extended family for a surprise 70th birthday event for my dad.

From Adelaide the road trip continued with 25 family and friends boarding a bus and driving from Adelaide to the Southern Yorke Peninsula. We spent a couple of nights in Point Turton where my dad grew up and visited Pondalowie Bay where may grandfather fished during the summer, my dad spent his days surfing…and where my drone got taken out by an Albatross (all captured live and uploaded to YouTube).

Monday we returned to Adelaide and flew back to Canberra. On Tuesday we spent almost the whole day at Canberra’s incredible science museum, Questaconbefore packing up and heading back to the coast on Wednesday. As I write this we are currently camped up at stunning Jervis Bay feeling especially grateful we are currently missing the terrible weather back in Melbourne!

 

Play ‘Where’s Waller’?

What to do when a bird poos on your head during a business meeting

On Friday last week I had an early morning coaching session scheduled with a new member of the Digital Champions Club. Most of my meetings and coaching sessions are conducted over teleconference…which is rather convenient given that I’m currently working from a camper van travelling up the east coast of Australia.

Whenever I have a meeting there are certain things I do to ensure the quality of the experience*. The first thing I do is find a suitable distraction free environment to work from. The second thing is to run a speed test to ensure whatever network I’m using has suitable bandwidth for teleconferencing. The third thing is I setup an external webcam mounted on a tripod rather than the built-in webcam on my laptop (this provides the ability to better position the camera and avoids unnecessary camera movement that occurs when you invariably move your laptop around).

*Part of my commitment before leaving on my trip was that my clients shouldn’t be paying for it. What this means is that my clients need to receive at least as good an experience as they would get if I was working from my office at home. 

Finding a suitable location means putting some distance between the ‘camp’ and my ‘office’ when I’m working to avoid the inevitable distractions and interruptions that come with a young family. Normally this means driving our camper van Dennis a short distance away, preferably with a nice outlook over the beach, popping the roof, setting up my laptop on the desk and working from there.

But on this particular day I decided to take a different approach. It was still too early for most of the caravan park kids to be out on their bike, and the park we were staying in was fairly empty, so I thought I’d just find a quiet place within the park and work from there.

I found this lovely spot, on a picnic table, underneath a beautiful big tree, and I set up my office there. I got out my webcam and positioned this beautiful shot of trees and lawn in the background, connected to my hotspot and connected into the teleconference.

As soon as my video feed came up the other participants immediately commented on the incredible location. I told them a little about where I was working from and casually dropped one of the lines I like to use ‘It’s my job to live the dream and then show others how to do it’. Now perhaps it was karma or perhaps it was just bad planning but about 10 minutes into the call a couple of rosellas took up residence in the tree above me. The first issue was their incessant squawking meant the other participants could hardly hear a word I said, the second issue was that before flying off to find their next victim they shat all over my laptop…and myself.

Now I like to consider myself a professional and I wasn’t going to let a bit of bird poo impact the ‘client experience’. Apart from a quick glance to assess the extent of the damage I barely blinked an eye, I focused back in on the discussion and continued through another 40 minutes of the coaching session with bird poo in my hair, on my shirt and running down my left leg.

In fact, it turns out the only person who was more professional than me was the client. Obviously having seen the bird poo spontaneously appear on the left sleeve of my shirt he managed to wait right until the end of the coaching session to ask whether a bird had pooed on me (In hindsight I also imagine that if I didn’t insist on such a high-quality webcam the bird poo may not have been quite so obvious).

So, what does all this mean? Was it just karma for me being a smug bastard or is there something else for us to learn? I’m a huge fan of finding something to take away from any situation and for me the lesson was this:

Always think about the audio.

At the end of the day it wasn’t the bird poo that has the most impact on the client experience, it was the incessant squawking of the rosellas and after that it was the wind gusts that the microphone kept picking up. As my AV guru and all-around legend Dave Dixon has said to me many times before, people will put up with bad quality video, but they won’t put up with bad quality audio. Bad quality audio makes people’s brains work much harder, eventually they fatigue, and then they give up.

So next time you’re on a teleconference with a client from a caravan park somewhere on the south coast of NSW, or anywhere else for that matter, even your desk or your office boardroom, make sure your think about the aural experience you are providing other participants…and if a bird shits on you, put it down as a stroke of good luck.

 

Update

On Wednesday we left Mallacoota and crossed the border into New South Wales. Our first stop was the beautiful seaside hamlet of Pambula, nestled between the towns of Marimbula to the north and Eden to the south. Thursday was a work day and most of it was spent in my mobile office, parked up at the Pambula Surf Club.

On Friday, after the ‘poo incident’ we went and explored the Killer Whale Museum in Eden (if you ever want to hear an incredible and true story of cooperation between humans and animals I highly recommend you reading up on the story of Old Tom and the Whalers of Two Folds Bay).

On Saturday we left Pambula and headed north for our first free camping experience of the trip at Brou Lake Campground. This incredible campsite was recommended to us one of the Eden locals we met. It is located in Eurobodella National Park and sits right between a beautiful lake and pristine, unpopulated beach.

We reluctantly left Brou Lake on Tuesday (after our water and food started running out) and headed north once again to Broulee, another small seaside hamlet located just south of Batemans Bay.

 

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Where’s Waller

Escaping an octopus’s cold embrace

One of the interesting challenges of life on the road is schooling Miah and Poppy. As we are only away for one term both their teachers have taken a fairly relaxed attitude to what this looks like and, like us, believe that what the experiential learning of the trip will far exceed what they might get from two and a half months of formal education.

An example of this occurred the other night when we started discussing analogies. I don’t remember exactly how the subject came up but we ended up playing a game of analogies around the table after dinner. The game involved one person saying an action, object or situation and then the next person had to find an analogy for it.

When explaining what an analogy was to Miah and Poppy I described it as “a comparison that aids in understanding”. Often we use analogies to aid the understanding of others but it’s interesting that in developing an analogy to help others, it also undoubtedly aids in improving our own understanding as well (This is why it is something that I get my Digital Champion’s to do for every project they undertake. Not only can it help stakeholders understand what complex software makes possible, it also provides clarity to the champions as to exactly why they are doing the project).

The morning after the analogy game I started reflecting on various aspects of our trip so far and thinking of analogies to better describe them. So far, the one particular aspect of our trip that has really stuck with me, and perhaps warrants the further understanding that analogy brings, was how come it is so freakin’ hard to get out of the driveway.

Although the planning for our Life Work Adventure had started six months previous, although we had done all the big things like organise transport and accommodation (our van and camper trailer), work arrangements, schooling and dog sitting, the day of our departure was spent frantically running around packing, cleaning and organising random ’stuff’. Our initial plan was to leave at 10:00am, this got pushed back to 1:00pm and we finally left at 2:30pm…without actually getting everything done.

When describing the challenge of starting the trip to others, I first suggested that the frustration was like trying to extract yourself from mud or quicksand but I have hence determined that it could more accurately be described as ‘escaping an octopus’s cold embrace’.

In our day-to-day lives there are all these things that hold us in place. There are big ones such as pets, children’s schooling, jobs, houses and gardens to maintain and mortgages to repay as well as many smaller ones such as sports teams, extended family, friendship groups, tv shows we want to watch and the familiarity of our daily routine. In essence, each of these is a tentacle that embraces us, making us feel safe and providing a sense of belonging but also serving to trap us and ultimately hindering us from pursuing other opportunities, even the ones we truly value.

One of the most common comments I heard from friends and family before leaving was “I wish I could come with you” or “I wish I could do that”. My response at the time was a somewhat flippant “Well of course you can, anyone can do it” but the reality is that we are often so tightly held by all those tentacles that extracting ourselves feels near on impossible. We may manage to sever one or two of these tentacles but in the time it takes to free ourselves from the rest, the old ones regrow and entrap us once again*.

And much like the octopus’s prey, the risk is that eventually we stop fighting. The dreams we might have had of something more or something different slowly start to fade and we justify to ourselves that a cold embrace is better than no embrace at all…

…and once we have given in, the octopus strikes. It pierces our skin with its beak and injects us with a toxin that liquifies our internal organs before sucking our insides out. As our consciousness slowly slips away we realise that we are just feeding the beast that will ultimately prey on the ones we love.

OK, it’s important to realise that like any model, the mental model of an analogy has it’s limitations. Not every tentacle offers a cold embrace…and (perhaps) your insides won’t be liquified. Some of the things that hold as back, such as friends and family, also provide important support networks and are integral to our sense of self. For me, the analogy helped clarify some of the tentacles that made it so hard to get out of the house and onto the road such as the holding power of material possessions, debt and work.

What was perhaps most interesting of all was that as soon as we were a couple of hours out of Melbourne these challenges had largely been forgotten. As soon as we were too far away to turn back and therefore too far away to do anything about them, the holding power of those things dissipated. The truth is, in three months time we will return home and our house, our possessions and our mortgage will still be there. Bar getting rid of all of them (like my inspirational friend Craig Skipsy) what I hope for is that next time leaving will be significantly easier. I expect that we will worry about these things a whole lot less…and perhaps more importantly, I hope we believe in our ability to escape the octopus’s cold embrace a whole lot more.

*This is not the first time I have experienced this. I remember back in 2010 when I quit my corporate job with Rio Tinto and left Perth to move to Melbourne. When I told coworkers I’d quit the most common response was the question “Who are you going to work for?”. The assumption was that if I’d quit then I must have already lined up a better role with one of Rio Tinto’s competitors. When I told them I didn’t have another job lined up and that in fact I’d quit because of conflict of values, the next thing I heard was “I wish I could do that”. I realised in hindsight that so many of my coworkers and friends were trapped in a vicious cycle of working in jobs they didn’t enjoy for companies they didn’t like and then spending the money they earned on bigger houses, nicer cars or more lavish lifestyles to justify why they did these jobs in the first place. Unfortunately their high cost of living required them to continue to work in jobs they didn’t enjoy for companies they didn’t like…

Update

On Wednesday last week we left Mount Eliza and travelled to Seaspray, situated on 90 Mile Beach, just east of the Gippsland Lakes. Thursday was my first day of work on the road with a meeting in the morning and three coaching sessions in the afternoon. We stayed at Seaspray until Saturday before moving on to Lakes Entrance. On Monday we travelled to Mallacoota close to the Victoria – NSW border.

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Where’s Waller

Hitting the road less travelled

A quick word of warning: I’m taking a break from my usual style of newsletter for a few months to share something a little more personal…in fact I’m not just taking a break from my usual style of writing, I’m taking a break from my usual style of life.

For the next three months I’m going to be living in and working in a camper van as I travel up the east coast of Australia with my family. Along the way I will also be capturing what I learn and sharing it via my newsletter and on YouTube. I hope you join me on this adventure…or even better, start planning your own.

If you’re not interested in sharing in this journey, please feel free to unsubscribe here.

Back in August last year I announced my plan to take off on a three-month Life-Work Adventure (the announcement was posted to my YouTube channel that has but four subscribers so there’s a good chance you missed it). The idea was to spend three months travelling with my family in a camper van up the east coast of Australia but rather than treat it as just a holiday I wanted to see whether I could maintain much of my current workload and continue to support my clients while I did it.

The idea was spawned about a month or so earlier from an offhand conversation with my good friend, confidante and fellow schemer Mykel Dixon. We’d spent the day hanging out around Brighton Pier, talking about the need for professional speakers and other types of advice givers to more fully embody their work. Our shared belief was that in a world where more and more people start positioning themselves as expert consultants or ‘thought leaders’ it was no longer enough to just have a couple of spiffy models and throw away one liners. The validity of your ideas and ability to develop a sustainable following would ultimately depend on your ability to demonstrate your ideas in a congruent way through your own life and work.

On that fateful day I also told Mykel about my unfulfilled dream of taking my family on a road trip uptake east coast of Australian in our camper van, a.k.a. Dennis (Dennis has his own webpage here if you’d like to check it out). Dennis is a 1990 Nissan Homy (yep, that’s what it was called) and I’d originally wanted to do the trip in 2015 to celebrate Dennis’s 25th birthday…unfortunately ‘stuff’ got in the way and it never eventuated.

Given that two of the things I talk about are a) how technology enables a better quality of life and b) how technology allows us to now work from pretty much anywhere, it felt like doing this road trip, not just as a holiday but as an experiment on how we might take a different approach to managing the way our work integrates with our life, would be a great way of me embodying the ideas I talk about with others.

The last six months or so have involved much planning and investment in the background. On the travel side Dennis has been gone through a roadworthy and the registration transferred from WA, we’ve had a tow ball fitted and trailer brakes installed, we’ve bought a second-hand camper trailer and kitted it out, we’ve arranged to take Miah and Poppy out of school for a term and spoken to their teachers about home schooling during the trip.

On the business side I’ve also been working with my team to identify potential challenges and risks that would stop me meeting the expectations of my clients and we’ve put in place plans to help manage this (a strong belief I had about the adventure was that my clients shouldn’t have to pay for it through greater inconvenience or a lower quality experience).

I’m sure there are unaddressed challenges on both the travel and the work side that we’ve missed but after six months I finally feel like we are ready to get started…and the truth is some things just won’t become apparent until after you’ve already started.

So here we are now, exactly one week out from our adventure starting. In seven days’ time we will be driving out of Melbourne in Dennis, towing our new home, a (yet to be named) Goldstream Storm pop top camper trailer. For the next three months it is my intention to do most of the same work as I do now. I will host coaching sessions and meeting over Skype, I’ll capture content and develop ideas for my keynotes, I’ll even fly out from the adventure on the odd occasion to speak at conferences or run events and then fly back in again. Oh, and along the way I also hope to get a good chunk of my next book finished…but more on that another time.

But most importantly I will be doing all this whilst embarking on an incredible adventure and creating amazing memories that Nomes, Miah, Poppy and I will look back on, and talk about, for the rest of our lives.

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