Category: Knowledge Bank

  • Impulse, instinct, intuition…

    Image of coloured pins stuck into a white pin board.

    How do we make decisions?

    Impulse, instinct and intuition, I became curious about how these three words seemed to fundamentally describe important, but different, processes that were going on when we are making decisions. So I spent some time observing and defining what I saw as the difference between these three concepts.

    Here’s what I have come up with so far.

    As humans we have impulses; they are that fleeting suggestion, that idea, that possibility that comes into focus at any given moment. It could be at a critical moment of choice, but equally it could be when we are just sitting around staring out the window. Our system suggests an option to us and we can decide whether we want to take it or not. So…

    An impulse is a suggestion from our subconscious that we can choose to follow, or not.

    Where do these suggestions come from? Why do we get a particular impulse at a particular moment? I think there are two systems that these impulses draw from, our instinct and our intuition.

    Different fields of research have different ways of defining the word instinct. I have attempted to find a way to define it the word in a way that reflects the day-to-day experience and use of the word that I have observed.

    Our instinct is a behavioral urge that is hard wired into our system.

    The instinct to breathe, to feed ourselves, to find shelter, to respond to danger; all of these things we will do because we have built a knowledge over thousands of years about what we need to do to survive. Some instincts we have no choice about, in essence the choices around the impulse are bypassed because our systems take over and respond (these are generally referred to as reflexes and others exclude these from the category of instinct, for our purposes I include them). For example if something comes toward our face we will blink to protect our eyes (touch a babies nose and watch this happen), and this is a very good thing.

    Some other instincts we can have a little more control over. There is more time between the situation, our impulse to respond and the response happening. When I get hungry (my instinct for nourishment) I can get very grumpy and have a very strong impulse to eat (just about anything). However I don’t generally put something in my mouth just because it’s there, I can talk myself through what’s happening (right, I’m not really angry, I’m just hungry. I’m ten minutes from food and very unlikely to starve in that time frame…). So in this case I have an impulse to eat (based on my instinct for food) but I also have some choice about how I respond to that impulse.

    However there is another group of suggestions (or impulses) that we respond to every day. These impulses are based on our intuition.

    Our intuition is a behavioral urge that is informed by our life experiences.

    Intuition is the subconscious system of decision making that feeds the impulses we have that are not instinct based (eg: biologically hard wired for our survival). These are life skills we need day to day (like using public transport) or a specialist skill we have accumulated as a result of focused and deliberate effort (like playing the piano or facilitating a group).

    I believe impulses based on our intuition are an important part of our decision making process as a human. In this situation the impulse is a suggestion from our sub-conscious based on the situation we find ourselves in, the goal we have set for ourselves and our accumulated experience (knowledge) in similar situations.

    Intuition based impulses are the result of a complex relationship between the circumstances we are in and the history of experiences we have had. It is a process that allows an interaction between what is conscious to us and what is sub-conscious to us. I believe it is our sub-conscious sending us a suggestion based on the things we have learnt in the past about a given situation that we are in.

    So if…

    An impulse is a suggestion from our subconscious that we can choose to follow, or not.
    Our instinct is a behavioral urge that is hard wired into our system.
    Our intuition is a behavioral urge that is informed by our life experiences.

    …then how do we make decisions?

    My theory is that we have impulses that are stimulated from either our instinct or from our intuition. When it comes to impulses we either have no choice because our system just follows the impulse (like the instinct to blink when our nose is touched) or we have a choice (to wait till we find some food rather than eat whatever is around us or to respond to a particular impulse we have when facilitating a group or to ignore it and try something else). And that what is important is that we cultivate our ability to listen to the impulses we have and then practice following them or making a choice to over ride them based on a new piece of knowledge we have.

    All of this is a way of saying that as humans we have more choices than we often think we do and that we will benefit from cultivating the ability to observe the impulses we have and make choices about what we do in response to those impulses.

    Artist, advisor, coach.
    I find the real problem, make the difficult easy
    and tell a great story.

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  • The secret to strategic planning…

    Through my role at Midnightsky I have had the chance to see a lot of conversation about strategy. It happens formally; like when an organisation is creating their Vision, Mission, Values and (of course) their Strategic Plan. It also happens informally; like when people are deciding which direction to go in the face of a crisis or big opportunity that has emerged.

    In situations that are more informal there is often a lot of talking, and that talking can go around in circles. If you’re lucky someone starts asking the questions that are the catalyst for a strategic conversation:

    “Why would that help us achieve <insert bigger goal>?”

    “How could we turn this situation into an advantage for our <insert bigger goal>?”

    “Why are we doing all of this anyway? What are we in pursuit of?”

    These kinds of questions make sure that tactical decisions, quick wins that keep the ship afloat, are also strategic in nature. The ship is afloat and still heading in the agreed direction.

    In formal strategic planning situations (which we have been involved in quite a few!) there are three key things that lead to developing a successful strategic plan. That is a strategic plan that people understand and commit to achieve.

    Over the years that we have been delivering these kinds of plans, these three themes repeat again and again. Organisations that succeed engage the right people at the right time, understand that their strategy is their organisational story, and they create plans that are measureable.

    1. Engagement

    When the strategic planning process begins the team that has been put in charge are invariably overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task they face. At this moment it can be tempting to reduce the scale of the problem by reducing the number of people who have input to the project, particularly in the consultation. The two groups who often get shafted at this moment are frontline staff and the board.

    The conversation goes something like this;

    “Yes we are going to engage our <staff/board/stakeholder>. We will develop a draft and distribute it for comment 2 weeks before signoff…”

    And the fun begins. This looks like a solid plan, and the rationale is often something around ‘focusing’ the input we get from these groups.

    What goes wrong with this approach (almost always in my experience) is that someone, at the eleventh hour, starts asking ‘big questions’, you know, strategic questions.

    There isn’t enough time to think about and respond to these questions, because these questions belong at the start of the process, not the end. And if they emerge, for the first time, at the end, and they aren’t dealt with, then you lose people.

    Their thinking hasn’t had the chance to influence the outcome, and they disengage. Others see this happening and they disengage, and then you end up with one of those strategic plans, the ones that sit on a shelf gathering the proverbial dust…

    All of that is easily avoided. How? Invite everyone to have their say at the beginning of the strategic planning process.

    Engage everyone early.

    It is that easy.

    When I tell people this, they agree in principle, but are often concerned that there will be a chaos. People will say ideas that appear random, they will make unrealistic suggestions, they will be off track. And I say, yes they will. But others will say insightful things, they will observe trends you hadn’t realised existed and they will show you the true heart and soul of your organisation.

    Here’s the key, all of it is the raw material that the leadership team get to shape into a cohesive strategic plan. There is no requirement that everything that has been said is documented into the strategic plan.

    These conversations are the brainstorm, the first draft, the rough notes. Everyone knows that (if you tell them), and they will feel excited to see the strategic plan that emerges from this discursive foundation. Yes, even if their idea isn’t expressed verbatim in the final document.

    Because every conversation is there is some way, everyone had a chance to shape the direction of the organisation, and ultimately this creates a much smoother pathway to approval from all of those people.

    2. Story

    Your story is your organisation’s strategy.

    When the inextricable link between narrative and strategy is understood, then several things happen that amplify the potential of an organisation.

    The strategic direction is written in language that people can talk about in the elevator, or at a BBQ. When people are able to share the organisation’s strategic intent in this way they are promoting your story in a way that embeds it in every conversation and is a part of their daily decision making. Ultimately this is a successful strategy; one that people instinctively use to measure success.

    A story has a purpose, it has a reason, something that drives the audience along and keeps them listening till the end. This sense of purpose, a greater good, and a reason why, is also what makes a strategy compelling. It’s what turns a business goal to be the world’s biggest manufacturer of solar panels into a story/strategy that has a life of its own, and powers our lives with the sun.

    3. Measureable

    Ultimately the biggest challenge of a strategic planning process is to create a plan that is easy to measure.

    This is often the final hurdle for the leadership team. The vision is clear and our mission is rock solid. Now we have to name our strategic goals and how we are going to measure them.

    The enemy at this point becomes detail. How much can we reasonably include? At what point do we overwhelm ourselves with so many KPIs to track that we can no longer keep track? When do we risk missing something important because we have distilled everything to such a high level that it no longer means anything to us?

    There are some rules of thumb that we use to help organisations at this moment. It has to fit on one page (not in 5 point font!), you can have a maximum of 4 strategic goals, each of which can have a maximum of 3 objectives and the less outcomes (or KPIs) you can have, the better.

    Ultimately these parameters serve as a way to push an organisation to have the tricky conversations about what should stay and what should go. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter if one of these rules is broken. Pursuing them in principle provides a healthy framework for the discussion that will ultimately lead to a strategic plan that is easy for the leadership team to turn up each quarter and measure their success against.

    That is the truest indicator of a successful strategic plan; that it is the catalyst for continuous discussion and the cornerstone of decision-making, both formally and informally.

    So it’s that easy.

    Engage everyone early, understand that your story is your organisation’s strategy, and create a plan that is easy to measure.

    Artist, advisor, coach.
    I find the real problem, make the difficult easy
    and tell a great story.

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  • You do the maths…

    Recently I watched this great TED talk Dance v’s Powerpoint by John Bohannon in it he talks about the thousands of wasted hours that go into creating and delivering ineffective power point presentations.

    And it got me to thinking, how many minutes would a big organisation waste on poorly conceived, designed and delivered presentations?

    Let’s imagine an organisation has 5,000 staff who each give 4 presentations a year each. Thats 20,000 presentations.

    Now let’s say there are 5 people in the room (including themselves) for each presentation and the presentations last half an hour, thats 50,000 hours of staff time each year, spent on delivering presentations. That is equivalent to hiring 25 full time positions to deliver presentations all day, every day. That’s 3 million minutes of presentations each year.

    It would be difficult to find someone who hasn’t sat through a bad presentation, in fact we could say it is more likely than not for that to happen. But let’s be generous. Let’s assume that 1 in 4 presentations don’t hit the mark. That would mean 750,000 minutes wasted. But if you consider that each sub par presentation would have taken time to prepare (let’s say 5 hours, including time spent complaining to colleagues) then we have to add an additional 375,000 minutes of wasted time.

    Altogether that’s  1.125 million minutes wasted.

    But that’s not what’s heart breaking about all this.

    It’s the wasted potential.

    It’s the insights, the new ideas, the unusual perspectives and alternative approaches that are lost to us all. Just because someone didn’t know how to plan, build and deliver a decent presentation.

    Creating a memorable, insightful, compelling and entertaining presentation isn’t easy to do, but it is worth it.

    Artist, advisor, coach.
    I find the real problem, make the difficult easy
    and tell a great story.




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  • Nothing else touching the ground…

    So I’m in South Africa teaching a dance workshop in a township outside Durban. It was hot and sweaty. We were tired, overwhelmed. South Africa had been through some big transformations – but things were still bleak in a lot of ways. Poverty, racial tension, tricky stuff.

    It was the end of the workshop when one of the teenage boys came up to me and said:

    “Sir, can we put some music on and dance for you?”

    “No worries, sure.”

    What happened next transformed me.

    They let rip. They danced with passion and conviction a mash up of contemporary styles – hip hop and break dancing. But if that was all that happened well I would have been impressed..but not transformed.

    It was towards the end of the impromptu performance that one of the guys performed a miracle. I didn’t catch how it started all I remember is looking over and watching him slide across the floor (which was lino on top of concrete) on his forehead. Yes thats right his arms were by his side, nothing else was touching the ground he just slid across the space on his forehead. Maybe 3 meters or so across the room.


    His forehead.

    Arms by his side.

    Nothing else touching the ground.


    So what changed in me? I think I was forced to re-examine what it is to teach someone something.

    I wondered why I hadn’t walked into that room put on some music and said “Who wants to dance?”. I realised that my approach to teaching was a very traditional one, one where the teacher was the holder of knowledge, the authority who could tell the student, who was a blank canvas awaiting instruction, what they were going to learn and when.

    And I saw how limiting this was. Who had told this boy he could slide across the floor on his forehead? Certainly not a dancer from Australia teaching a dance class on a hot afternoon. I would never have dared to imagine this was possible. My beliefs would have severely limited this young mans ability to discover what dance can be.

    And all of that led me to change the way I approach teaching people anything, including how to communicate in an engaging way.

    Now I start with the question ‘What do you want to learn?’ and then I build my teaching from a belief that a person has the capacity to learn what they want to learn. My job is to inspire the curiosity, the passion, the imagination, the self-awareness, the audacity to slide across the floor on their forehead or whatever version of that miraculous feat they desire to learn.

    Artist, advisor, coach.
    I find the real problem, make the difficult easy
    and tell a great story.

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  • Stories from a man who has lost his iphone…

    Recently I sent my iphone on a ride to the country, without me.

    I got out of a friends car and as she drove off I had this terrible realisation that my phone was hurtling away from me for a weekend away in rural Victoria. Lovely. For the first 20 minutes I kept reaching for my phone to call my friend and tell her my phone was in her car. This continued all the way to the first pay phone I found where I called and left her a message (hoping she wouldn’t pick up as she drove).

    Once the panic let up, the phone was located (yes it was in the car, yes she can post it back to me…) I settled in to life with out a smart phone. And there are some pretty remarkable things that I have learnt in the few days since.

    I am constantly checking my phone.
    I realised as I walked (and sometimes ran) through my life just how regularly I would have my phone in my hand. This, however, was not the surprising bit. What caught me off guard was the amount of times I caught myself in a discussion with myself about whether this moment was a moment I should get my phone out. I realised for every time that I actually pulled my phone out and checked the weather, took a photo, checked twitter, flipboard, twitter, instagram, wrote an email, checked my text messages, googled or, occasionally, made a phone call there was another moment where I had considered doing one of these things and decided not to. You might think this is good, that I am showing restraint. But what I saw, once the decision making process had become redundant because I realised THERE WAS NO PHONE TO REACH FOR, was that I was constantly occupied with an ongoing question about whether this moment was worthy of connecting with something or someone.

    And it was only once I settled in, when I got used to this not being an option, that I realised how calm my internal world could be. What a relief.

    I felt afraid.
    I was also struck with a dread when leaving the house. “What if…?” was my constant companion. I realised how much my phone acted as a psychological safety net. And then something happened.


    Pretty much most of the time, nothing. No special circumstances that couldn’t wait until I got home or to a public phone. In all the years I have had a mobile phone I can vaguely recall one or two moments of emergency where I was pleased to have my phone. But mostly, nothing unusual happens.

    I don’t know anything
    I don’t know anyone’s phone number, or the address of where I am going, or who I met with last week, or what is about to happen for the rest of the day or where I am having lunch, or what I am meant to do next with that ‘thing’ I just finished, or who’s birthday it is today or tomorrow, or what shows are on, or what movies I like the sound of, or even who is singing the song that I am listening to all the time at the moment.

    I just don’t know this stuff. I have let go any sense of trying to manage my own life and handed it over to the virtual assistant that I carry around in my pocket. It is a massive convenience, I mean really, really convenient. But something has been lost in the process. An ownership for the things that I have committed to has been lost. It’s almost like someone else is in charge and it gives me permission to not ‘make it’  to some of the promises I make to myself and the world. It’s so easy to send a message saying ‘I’m running late/can’t make it/send my love’ that I have lost a bit of credibility in the world. I don’t like that feeling.

    I don’t know the time.
    Of all the things I don’t know the one that was the most difficult to reconcile was not knowing the time. I no longer wear a watch and so if my phone is not by my side I have no idea what time it is. Now that is fine if you are on holiday. But if you are trying to meet a pre arranged point of connection with some other human not knowing the time is more than a little disconcerting.

    I don’t spend more time with my family and friends because I have technology in my pocket.
    A smart phone has not freed up time for me to spend with people who are special to me. It has automated a lot of tasks for me. It has made a lot of information available to me where ever I am. It has made contacting people much, much easier. But it has not, in any way, created miraculous pockets of time where I find myself able to drop in on a friend and spend hours chatting over a cup of tea. There are several reasons for this.

    Technology has given me virtual ways of connecting that I seem to use to watch how others are connecting – rather than create my own connections. It has also made it possible to use every waking moment to get ‘stuff’ done, I can solve problems practically anywhere – and so I do. But more important than both of these things is the fact that cultivating a habit of spending time with people who are important to me is something I have to choose to do. It won’t just happen because my banking is now automated online. Now I don’t have to go to the bank and cue up I do have more time – but all of our expectations have changed. I expect banking to take 3 minutes, not 30, and so does everyone around me. So our jobs and lives fill with other obligations. So unless I consciously choose to not use the 27mins to do the next thing on my list, unless I choose to spend 27 mins with a friend, then its not going to happen. I have to make this a choice, put it on top of my priorities and then say no to something else to ensure that it happens. And technology can only enable those decisions – it can’t make them for me, or make me make them. 

    My phone came back
    It arrived in the post 4 days after it went on its road trip. Which was just long enough for me to have a detox and see more clearly what I do with the time I have ‘in between’ times. I have started to make more conscious choices around what I am doing when I am sitting on the tram. Sometimes I even choose just to sit there. Seriously. Initially it feels like I am doing nothing. I feel a little at a loss. And then I settle in. I have discovered that there is so much to experience in the world around me that it has become a real pleasure just to sit and take it all in. People watching can be an endless entertainment.

    Thanks – Luke

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