It’s been a frantic few weeks. Scratch that. It’s been a hazy few months – almost a year actually. Being this close to the finish line is kind of a weird time for this reflection, but I think it’s an important time. Before I cross the finish line of writing and launching Solve Problems That Matter, which in a lot of ways, is the starting line of a new phase. One that I’ve been taking a rolling start at for a while now… what’s that mean?
Note: This is a writing session as part of my regular self-coaching and reflective practice. I’m sharing in the spirit of working out loud and the open approach I take to many of my experiments… You can view this as a worked example of some of the practices I cover in my book.
Where I’ve Been
This phase started late 2019 in most ways. Dynamic4 was going really well but had been all-consuming for a long time. We were at a point of good financial sustainability with a solid core team and great collaborators. A small team, but we delivered well beyond our size.
My work and play time was focused on Dynamic4. Like most small businesses, that means covering the breadth and depth of everything we do. That’s everything it takes to keep things running… strategic planning, product development, business development, financial planning and admin, leading the team. You also need to deliver value that people will pay for. The three key areas were coaching & advice, digital design & build, and social investment & ecosystem building. We’ve now transitioned out of doing digital design & build, but the rest is still very much current state.
Coaching & Advice
Over the years, coaching and advice is increasingly where my energy is focused. I spend a lot of my time designing and delivering experiential project-based learning programs and masterclasses. These take different shapes, but consistently focus on the intersection of leadership, design thinking, social innovation, and wellbeing. It was generally only me from the Dynamic4 team doing this work but often in collaboration with strategic partners. This ultimately became our hedgehog.
Some examples include:
- Our Jetpack program (public and custom versions) for early-stage social enterprise ideas
- Being a virtual CTO/CPO and tech adviser with non-tech social enterprise founders
- A range of programs with a global financial services client where senior leaders work on a project with a social impact client
- Being a social entrepreneur-in-residence at CSI/UNSW teaching and coaching masters students
- Mentoring UTS BCII students
- Collaborating with a lot of other accelerators…
- and now, Solve Problems That Matter
Digital Design & Build
We specialised in designing and building digital product MVPs to help clients deliver and scale their impact. This is where the team came in.
By late 2019, I’d moved away from doing much hands-on detailed UX/UI design and was mostly focused on the strategic design of projects and providing design direction. I still did the tech solution architecture and also played the proxy product manager for our clients, including directing all of the devops. Which meant being on call 24×7. Always. Even on holidays.
Social Investment & Ecosystem Building
Since 2013, we’ve been committed to investing at least 10% of our revenue in early-stage social enterprise ideas and helping build communities and ecosystems. Most of this was invested through Dynamic4 Good small grants to subsidise our services – and some was invested through Dynamic4 Ventures to take an equity position.
By late 2019, this meant I spent my time on a mix of things in this category of our work:
- Co-founder & co-organiser of SydDT, now a community of 8,000+ with around 100 people coming to our monthly meetup exploring topics on applying design thinking for positive impact. We just had our 64th meetup
- Founding board member, treasurer & volunteer of SECNA, the member-led peak body for social enterprise in NSW & ACT
- Co-founder & CTO of Better Goals, a social enterprise helping people with intellectual disability build more independence and achieve their goals
- Co-founder & CTO of Climate Solutions Group, exploring ways to democratise investment in climate solutions
- Running events to connect and grow the local B Corp community
On any given day, I would normally be doing some work on all or most of these things. You can probably see why I’m pretty well known for wearing many hats simultaneously. By this time, I’d clearly aligned all of the roles I play to our purpose and theory of change – with 100% of my work clearly mapped to delivering on it. Dynamic4 and I were the hub of all of this.
I came to think of it not as different hats, but one head wearing one hat… and depending on the context or angle you viewed me, you’d see one or two aspects. Very few people, including my team, ever knew the full scope.
When someone asks me what I’ve been up to, I often freeze because I’ve got no idea which of the stories to briefly share.
I loved what I was doing, and I could clearly see that most of it mattered – though I still continually asked myself if I was spending my time on what contributed to the most impact. And how would I know. Which is when I’d remind myself of the Starfish Story. Most of the time, it didn’t really feel like work… and it all blended into most of my social life anyway.
We were back to a healthy financial place after some lean years and tricky financial positions. These were primarily caused by unsustainably investing over 50% of our annual revenue in our social investment programs and taking on too much of other people’s risk. I needed to find a more sustainable pace.
It was already part of my regular reflection, but I decided that while things were really good after a couple of years of being head down and swimming to survive, I had a moment of freedom to re-evaluate options. I again asked myself a couple of my favourite coaching questions:
- How do I want to be spending my time?
- What would it look like if it was easy?
The answers pointed clearly to the fact that the coaching and advice part of my work was giving me more energy, with the most impact, financial sustainability, and freedom – and at the lowest risk. The simplified version would mean making some tough calls and stopping a few things. A transition would need to begin.
The transition started pre-pandemic, and the strategic aspect of it effectively completed 30 September 2021.
2020 was the year of transitioning away from work consuming every waking moment – and many of my sleeping moments. To… what? Even with the pandemic, maybe especially because of… that was probably the most challenging part of 2020 for me. Detoxing from work being my whole life – how I pay the bills, my social life, my hobby. I’m getting better at it, but I’m not there yet. My default state is to drift into thought about work… especially strategic planning.
The realisation that we were about to start our 20th year compelled me to mark this milestone. Every other year blurred by without me really mentioning it. A small number of organisations manage to last this long, so it’s an arbitrary but significant temporal landmark. I decided to mark it with the 20 Years of Dynamic4 blog series as a way to reflect on some key things I’d learnt. It ended up an eight-part series and a verbose 16k words.
Our 20th birthday, on 1 October 2021, marked the official start of Dynamic4 v8.0 and the completion of the transition.
Solve Problems That Matter
December 2020, I decided to write the book version of our Jetpack program – something that had been on the blueprint for years. I looked at it strategically as a new product and how it fits with our purpose, theory of change, and what we already do.
My ambition with the book is to help more social enterprise founders, NFP leaders, and changemakers globally solve problems that matter by taking a human-centred design approach to innovation.
The book provides a very low price point to do a self-directed version of our Jetpack program. For people who need and can afford more help, I can support people on their journey with coaching, public and custom versions of our Jetpack program, and I’ll be testing demand for a video version of the program soon.
I knew from the start that it’s extremely unlikely the book would ever break even… but it’s also ended up a much bigger project than I first expected. Same as any startup. My understanding of the required scope changed dramatically by about February. It’s been one of the sharpest learning curves I’ve experienced – not on the writing itself but all the non-writing aspects of publishing and promoting a book.
My initial plan, when I thought it was going to be a ~15k word ebook, was to spend a few weeks working exclusively on the book and have it released by April. From my early research, a key message I heard was most of my target readers buy this kind of book in a print format – and many buy both print and digital… but a print version was a clear expectation. Then I found out I was looking more in the 60k+ word range. My first detailed outline in March was already 10k words.
I was also doing a lot of research to map my way through the publishing process. I was hyper-aware that there were plenty of things I didn’t know. I didn’t want to be unknowingly making one-way door decisions that trapped me, so I looked for a book coach – someone who’d been down the path a few times before and could advise me. I found Jaqui Lane, we had a good initial chat, and we started working together.
I‘ve rebaselined the plan a few times. I now couldn’t just turn everything else off for a sustained period, which was my original plan when I thought it was a much smaller project. I now had to find a way of getting it done while doing everything else. Over the past few months, this has included completing a smooth transition to Dynamic4 v8.0, delivering three leadership programs across Australia and Asia with a total of 85 senior corporate leaders, 18 internal coaches and L&D, and nine social enterprise clients… plus working with my coaching and virtual CTO/CPO clients, a lot of work on SECNA, the usual SydDT organisation… and much more.
Then there was a 107-day lockdown with the kids learning from home – in a three-bedroom apartment. Far less than ideal for deep work. I do my best to work with my energy levels, sometimes I just need to put on my game face, transform my energy and make stuff happen… but most of the time I try to listen to the ebbs and flow and work with it.
Where I’m At
As I started, it’s been a frantic few weeks. I’m stoked with how much I’ve learnt in a short period. I think the teaser gives a good sense of what the finished product will be like, the soft launch event at SydDT as part of Spark Festival went well last week, people are buying the book on pre-order from our website – including people I don’t know, which is a special kind of thrill that I wasn’t expecting, and the Kindle version is live on Amazon for pre-order from today.
There’s a lot to celebrate there. It was a weird feeling seeing my book on Amazon today. In practical terms, it was the smallest achievement, but I guess it’s a public manifestation of my work over the past few months – well actually, decades.
Aside from my normal sprint rhythm, it triggered me to pause, take a breath and do a deep reflection session. I need to quickly reorient to confirm I’m still heading in the right direction and for the right reasons.
Where am I at? Poised to cross the finish/start line. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of not letting what I haven’t had time to get done stop me from doing the things I can do. There are things I’d love to be better or more polished – especially on the book promotion side, but I’ll loop back and refine those things soon.
Overall, I’m feeling really good about where things are at with the book. I was feeling a bit fluttery when I put the teaser out last week though. There’s a level of fear putting this kind of work out there. I’m mentally approaching it as an experiment. I think it’s a safe to fail experiment. I’ve been open that I think of this as MVP v1.0. There are things I’ll be embarrassed about, and I’ll learn from it and I’ve built in natural ways to refine it based on feedback. That’s my rational side trying to build a buffer for my emotions though. Of course, the subject and object are pretty entangled on this one. It’s a different fear than putting art or expression out into the world. It’s also different to all of the startups and other products I’ve launched over many years. This is all me.
I’ve been going at an unsustainable pace for a while though to hit immovable dates like our 20th birthday, the soft launch, and other programs/workshops. All of that’s been in the context of a prolonged lockdown which also takes a toll. I know that once the full public release of the book is done, it’s not actually the end. In many ways, it’s the beginning. I can’t afford to fall over the finish line in a heap. I need to transition back to my sustainable rhythm.
The next few weeks will be intense, but I want to make sure I’m doing it in a sustainable way and taking the time to enjoy it. There’s always plenty more to be done.
Over the next couple of weeks, my priority is to:
- Get a good number of pre-orders bought
- Finalise the writing, including getting through the rounds of editing and proofreading
- Finalise the book layout so I can get the ebook and high-quality PDF format to people
- Receive the proof of the print version and get the first print batch on its way!
The priority that will immediately follow is to set up easy ways for people to know about and access the additional ways I can help them. This includes the free downloadable resources.
My biggest challenge is balancing finalising the book with the promotional effort of making sure people know about it – which is not my core strength and not something that I enjoy. I’ve come to accept that it is as much a part of the process as writing. It doesn’t matter how good the book is if people don’t know about it.
I need to keep practising my happiness habits and make sure I keep perspective of what I’m doing and why, without getting lost in the detail.
The key thing I need to optimise over the next couple of weeks is my focused writing and how to process edits. Optimise for deep work with no interruptions. The kids being back to classroom learning from Monday will help, but it will also be a time of adapting to a new household routine with school runs back on the calendar, so I need to be realistic.
The key thing to minimise over the next couple of weeks is distractions and interruptions. This is a challenging time to do that because it would be way more fun to catch up with everyone after a very long period of limited human connection. I’ve already got a lot of fun catch ups with friends in the calendar over the next couple of weeks, so I’ll just have to make sure they’re not excessively fun.
Continue batching email replies and use blocks of times for meetings to reduce task-switching costs. Defer everything other than pre-committed and time-sensitive meetings.
I won’t really be able to let serendipity in for the next two weeks. I’ll change gears from 8 November.
There’s a lot here, and it’s been a long reflection session. It’s been worth it though. I’ve refreshed my clarity on the journey I put in motion a couple of years ago. The starting point, the purpose and reason for the change, the strategy, where I’m at now and how I’m feeling about it… and the clear actions I need to take.
I feel lucky to have the option to explore this journey.