The Potential Principle: How to close the gap between where you are now and where you’d like to be

For me, coaching is all about making the most of our potential. That’s why Mark Sanborn’s book ‘The Potential Principle’ immediately grabbed my attention.

It’s not a book about perfectionism, it’s a book about improvement. To help us improve, Sanborn presents us with the Potential Matrix – I’ve recreated it for you here:

Mark Sanborn’s potential matrix

As we look at the matrix, we probably identify one quadrant which we prefer: perhaps you’re naturally an activist, in which case, ‘performing’ is probably your favoured way of operating. If you only ever concentrate on performing, you may not be taking the time to reflect and see how you could operate even more efficiently. If you spend all your time reflecting and planning but never take action to learn new skills and try them out, nothing will change. To see more improvement and to release more potential, we need to step outside of that comfortable quadrant and explore the other areas too.

You will see that improvement happens not only outwardly as we learn new skills and perform but also inwardly as we think and reflect. It’s about active experiences which we initiate and passive experiences to which we respond.

In terms of realising our potential, where do we start?

The question I ask my coaching clients is this: if you were to further develop and consistently use one or two of your current skills, which would make the biggest difference to your professional and personal performance?

We then start off in the thinking quadrant, coming up with ideas and turning them into action plans. If appropriate, the client moves into the learning quadrant in order to acquire new skills and experiences before trying them out in the performing quadrant. We come together again to reflect on progress so far and then it’s back to thinking in order to identify next steps.

For those of my coaching clients who are managers, the potential matrix gives them a chance not only make the most of their own potential but acts as a framework for professional development conversations with their team. One client has even used it to help his son choose his options for the subjects he wants to study to GCSE level.

It’s been said that a goal without a plan is just a wish. Potential without action will remain untapped.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: if you were to further develop and consistently use one or two of your current skills, which would make the biggest difference to your professional and personal performance? Can you use the Potential Matrix to help you do that?


ps I’m taking a screen break: back on the blog on Friday 6 April.

Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your career or your life,
why not email me to see how we can work together?


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Is it time to step out from behind the camera and lose yourself in the moment?

In a coaching session recently with Emma Samways, the director of InEvents, we were discussing her ‘why’: she said –

‘In a world where we don’t take one picture to capture a memory but a million, it becomes easy to forget how you feel. [Creating amazing] events and experiences can shape the way my clients and their clients feel.’

I think she’s right – in the days before digital cameras, let alone cameras on our phones, we might take a couple of reels of 36 exposure film away on our holidays. We’d ration our photos, make sure each was carefully composed, knowing that we wouldn’t know how that photo had turned out until we’d returned home, dropped the films off for development and collected them a few days later. If we were unlucky, a few would come back blurred, or one of our party would have their eyes closed, or perhaps we’d had a finger over the lens. Now we can rattle off a burst of shots in seconds, review them, take them again, filter them and edit them before uploading them. If we don’t have a selfie in front of a famous artwork, were we ever actually there?

Take a look at these two photos:

Beyoncé and Jay-Z take a private tour of the Louvre

Ben Hines shared this photo on Facebook
on 1 March. His caption read:
Donna Hines and I made a pilgrimage today and we were delighted to wait in line behind this fellow art lover and hopeful patriot.

One photo shows people with their backs to the very thing they’ve come to see: the other shows someone transfixed by a painting. The little girl is called Parker and in an article, her mum said I was trying to get her to turn around so I could take a picture, but she wouldn’t cooperate. She just wanted to stare at it. She was fascinated.”

I’m not criticising museum selfies – I’m just wondering about how much more we might experience if we stopped and stared for a few moments rather than setting up a great shot for our social media feed. I use my phone a lot for work and for leisure and it’s an incredibly useful tool. I am conscious though that in some ways I have outsourced my memory to my phone.

Am I making memories or just making reminders?

Having noticed this, I try to make an effort to put my phone away sometimes, to soak up the moment and to concentrate on how I feel. Emma’s website features the hashtag making memories right under the company name and her why is to create an experience which will stay in the participants’ minds long after their photos have been deleted.

It’s a challenge sometimes to be right there in the moment but it’s a challenge that I am happy to take on. Are you? Is it time to disconnect in order to reconnect?

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: will you take time this week to lose yourself in the moment and make memories?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your career or your life,
why not email me to see how we can work together?



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Minute by minute, step by step – how continuous small improvements can lead to big change

Back in the 1950s, an American scholar called Dr Edward Deming was invited to Japan to assist in the rebuilding of industry. Key to his teaching was one question which he said needed to be asked each day:

What extremely small step can I take today improve the process or product?

The Japanese took this concept to heart and revolutionised their industry. They also gave this concept a name: kaizen which brings together the word for ‘change’ (kai) and the word for ‘good’ (zen).

On the left, ‘kai’ meaning ‘change’; on the right, ‘zen’ meaning good.

This philosophy of change being a good thing leads to an approach where you are actively seeking something small about your product or process each day which you can improve. Note that it’s not based on a massive change one day and then your work is done!

Can we apply kaizen to our own everyday lives?

Early in the New Year, I was talking with a client – let’s call her Claire – about her desire to make her morning routine easier. She has quite a commute to work and a lot to get through before she leaves the house each morning.

‘What could you do to improve your morning?’ I asked.

‘Ideally, I need an extra hour. I’ve been trying that for the last week – setting my alarm an hour earlier,’ she answered.

‘How’s that working for you?’

‘So far, I’ve slept through it twice, spent one morning hitting ‘snooze’ every seven minutes, managed it twice and felt like a zombie for the rest of the day,’ Claire laughed. ‘Seriously through, I really need to sort this out.’

I told her about kaizen and asked her what small change she could make each day to help her achieve her goal. ‘I could get up 15 minutes earlier each day,’ she suggested.

‘You could,’ I agreed, ‘so that means that if you start on a Monday, by Thursday you’ll be getting up an hour earlier. How does that feel?’

‘Still too hard! I can feel the zombie state creeping in on me even as I think about that!’ she cringed.

‘Okay, let’s go smaller. Let’s go crazily small,’ I challenged.

‘Well, the smallest I can do is get up one minute earlier each day,’ Claire offered, ‘but what’s the point of that?’

‘The point is that if you start next Monday, by the middle of the following week, you’ll be up 10 minutes earlier, presumably without having to hit snooze or feeling like a zombie for the rest of the day. Ten days later, you’ll be up 20 minutes earlier. What would that be like?’

‘Actually, it would be great. Crazy as this kaizen stuff sounds, I’m going to give it a go. I’m going to keep it going at weekends too so I don’t lose the impetus and I wouldn’t mind having a bit more time for me then as well.’

And on Monday 8 January, Claire’s alarm went off 1 minute earlier. She’s had a couple of occasions where it hasn’t worked out as planned but rather than give it all up, she’s carried on the following day. She tells me that by today, Friday 2 March, she’ll be getting up 50 minutes earlier than she was at the beginning of the year.

kaizen continuous improvement marginal gains

In his book ‘One small step can change your life‘, Dr Robert Maurer writes

‘Attempts to reach goals through radical or revolutionary means often fail because they heighten fear. But the small steps of kaizen disarm the brain’s fear response, stimulating rational thought and creative play.’

In other words, a big change can sometimes be so big that it invokes our fight or flight response and therefore we resist the change and seek comfort. Breaking a change down into tiny parts can help bypass that response and therefore we can make progress.

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: what extremely small step towards improvement can you take today? 


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your career or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?

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How should we behave? John Perry Barlow had some suggestions

Watching the nightly news can be a depressing experience. We are presented with story after story which are, at their hearts, all about how badly people behave towards one another.

For this reason, an obituary of John Perry Barlow caught my eye a couple of weeks ago. He was a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, a rancher, a writer and an internet activist, even writing A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996.

However, the most interesting piece of his work which I read was a list he had written on the eve of his thirtieth birthday: a set of principles by which he wanted to live his life. On his sixtieth birthday, he reflected on this list in an email to friends, saying,

‘Now, thirty years later, I can claim some mixed success. Where I’ve failed, I’m still working on it. I give these to you so that you can provide me with encouragement in becoming the person I want to be. And maybe, though they are very personally targeted, they may even be of some little guidance to you.


1.  Be patient. No matter what.

2.  Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, never blame. Say nothing behind another’s back you’d be unwilling to say, in exactly the same tone and language, to his face.

3.  Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.

4.  Expand your sense of the possible.

5.  Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.

6.  Expect no more of anyone than you yourself can deliver.

7.  Tolerate ambiguity.

8.  Laugh at yourself frequently.

9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than whom is right.

10.  Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.

11.  Give up blood sports.

12.  Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Do not endanger it frivolously. And never endanger the life of another.

13.  Never lie to anyone for any reason.

14.  Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.

15.  Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.

16.  Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.

17.  Praise at least as often as you disparage.

18.  Never let your errors pass without admission.

19.  Become less suspicious of joy.

20.  Understand humility.

21.  Forgive.

22.  Foster dignity.

23.  Live memorably.

24.  Love yourself.

25.  Endure.’

It’s an interesting and challenging list and I am trying to read and re-read it so that I can savour and consider each principle.

However, the greatest impact on me was from the short paragraph he wrote after the list: it reads –

‘I don’t expect the perfect attainment of these principles. However, I post them as a standard for my conduct as an adult. Should any of my friends or colleagues catch me violating any one of them, bust me.’

Molière wrote ‘It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable’

What a way to live your life! To give your friends and colleagues a list of how you intend to behave and to ask them to let you know when your behaviour falls short: that pretty much sums up authenticity for me. I wonder if any of them ever did pick him up on his actions or words. I wonder how it would be if we were to draw up our own list of principles – for ourselves, for our families, for our teams. If you search Google Images for ‘family manifesto’ or ‘team manifesto’, you will find hundreds of images. Are these simply attractive artwork to hang on the wall or are people measuring themselves up against them and holding each other accountable?

Today’s pebble for your thoughts is this: what are your principles of behaviour, as an individual, as a team, or as a family? To whom are you accountable? 


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your career or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?





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Not burnt out but browned out?

We’ve all experienced a power blackout when everything shuts down and we need to get out the camp stove to make a cuppa. Have you ever noticed a ‘brownout’? That’s when the lights flicker and maybe some of your electrical appliances drop out for just a few seconds.

‘Brownout’ is now being used in an emotional sense too. You probably know of someone who has left a high-powered job because of feeling ‘burnt out’. The stage prior to that burnout is known as brownout:

‘Brownout is different from burnout because workers afflicted by it are not in obvious crisis,” says Michael E Kibler, CEO of Corporate Balance Concepts. “They seem to be performing fine: Putting in massive hours in meetings and calls across time zones, grinding out work while leading or contributing to global teams, and saying all the right things in meetings (though not in side-bar conversations.)’

If that’s the case, why does it matter?

 ‘However, these executives are often operating in a silent state of continual overwhelm, and the predictable consequence is disengagement.’

What are the indicators of brownout?

Kibler’s study indicated that 40% of executives reported experiencing brownout and I must say that I have seen brownout in a similar proportion of my coaching clients, many of whom are regarded as key performers within their organisations. They speak of experiencing some or all of the following:

Lack of interest

‘I’m just going through the motions,’ said one. ‘The work’s being done and it’s being done well. I just don’t care about it as much.’

Lack of challenge

‘It’s like I’m coasting along and they’re just happy to let that happen. I have a wealth of skills, experience and knowledge and I want something to get my teeth into. I know I can add value to the business but I’m seem to be viewed as a safe pair of hands and they’d better not move me to something new.’

Lack of ability to engage with life outside of work

‘I’m constantly distracted by emails and texts from or about work. I feel so thinly stretched that I don’t have time for my wife or my kids or to do the stuff which reinvigorates me. I’m often bored in my downtime but lack the energy to do anything about it.’

Lack of personal engagement

‘Aside from meetings, I don’t really talk with colleagues. My manager doesn’t seem to show any interest in me as an individual.’

Lack of autonomy

‘I’ve been performing at a high level consistently for several years. I neither need nor want to micro-managed. I shouldn’t need to justify buying a client a cup of coffee at the station – stuff like that really gets under my skin.’

Lack of development

‘They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but I want to learn new tricks! I want to embrace new technology and create new opportunities in the business. They don’t seem to have heard of lifelong learning here.’

burnout brownout work

Brownout’s not just an issue for employees

Brownout can apply to solo business owners or even to those whose focus is at home. For this reason, it’s important that all of us learn to notice these ‘symptoms’ and take action to address them.

For managers, brownout can be difficult to spot in others – however, ensuring that you take time to build effective relationships with your team is key. Not only will this mean you will be more likely to notice subtle changes in behaviour, but it can lead you to open conversations about how they feel and where their motivations and aspirations lie. For more information on this, read about Michael Kibler’s concept of ‘active partnering’.

Whether you’re an employee of a large organisation or self-employed, working with a coach can help you to identify what’s missing in your work and plan how to fill those gaps. For some of my clients, those gaps have been filled by looking for a new job, sometimes in a completely different field. For others, those gaps have been plugged after an honest conversation with their managers with whom they have been able to plot a new course. Other clients have chosen to stay with their current organisation but seek a new role, offering them a new challenge and direction.  Finally, some clients have taken on projects outside the office which have provided them with a fresh sense of purpose which they’ve been able to carry over into their work too.

I have had coaching conversations with those whose main role is being at home with the family and helped them to see how they can stop the slide from brownout to burnout and find fulfilment and reinvigoration within their daily life.

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: do you see any signs of brownout in yourself or in colleagues or friends? What step can you take this week to address this?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like someone to help you avoid brownout in your career or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?





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Finding the silver lining – how to overcome obstacles

Recently, I was talking with a client – let’s call him Kevin – about an unexpected obstacle he’s encountered.

‘What I want to get out of this situation,’ he explained, ‘is to see it not as a roadblock but as a bridge.’

We can’t control what happens to us: we can control how we respond

This reminded me of a story I’d read about the inventor Thomas Edison. In December 1914, ten of the buildings at his works were destroyed by fire. On arrival at the plant, Edison called to his son ‘Where’s your mother? Get her over here, and her friends too. They’ll never see a fire like this again.’ Whilst directing the firefighters, Edison was also making notes – plans for rebuilding of the works which began the morning after the fire.

Edison and the Stoics

Thomas Edison’s approach echoes one advocated by the Stoics built upon three pillars: perception, action and will.


Have you ever noticed that it’s much easier to give advice and see a solution when you are not personally involved in the situation? When faced with adversity, we can help ourselves by choosing to view it objectively.

The fire at Edison’s plant was out of his control and everything that could be done to fight it was being done. He chose to stand back and ‘watch the show’.

In the same way, Kevin and I talked about how he could change his perception of the obstacle he faced. I asked him to describe it as if he were a reporter, sticking to the facts of the situation. Then I asked him to come up with several different responses to the obstacle: they ranged from ‘it’s a disaster’ to ‘it’s an opportunity to go a different way’. Perception asks us to consider what story we are telling ourselves about any given situation.


Here, we are talking about deliberate, disciplined action where we break down the solution to the issue into small steps. Mustering all our creativity, energy, pragmatism and resilience, we work our way through those steps with determination until we have overcome the obstacle.

Not only did Edison begin rebuilding straight away and have part of his plant up and running again within three weeks, he also solved another problem. During the fire, he noticed that the firefighters were hampered by a lack of visibility through the smoke so within the week, he devised an extremely powerful portable searchlight for them.

Kevin and I talked through his action plan, breaking down into what needed to happen over the next few days, the following month and into the longer term. We worked out how he would stay on track, whose help he needed, what impact this plan had on others.


In his book, ‘The obstacle is the way’, Ryan Holliday writes:

”If action is what we do when we still have some agency over our situation, the will is what we depend on when agency has all but disappeared.”

‘Will’ is one of those difficult-to-define abstract qualities – perhaps we could refer to it as our strength of character. We are able to accept those elements of our lives over which we have no control and to carry on regardless. Sometimes this involves us taking the long view: when we look back over our lives, how much significance will this obstacle have? Sometimes it is about accepting the situation as it is, deciding on a plan of action and following it through.

Edison could have seen the fire as a disaster and as the end of all his hard work. As we know, he didn’t: he rebuilt. The following year, his company made $10 million in revenue.

Kevin’s plan to work around his obstacle is a long process and no doubt other issues will occur along his route. However, Kevin is resilient and determined and I along with others will be supporting him along the way.

Photo by nate rayfield on Unsplash

Like Edison and the Stoics, Kevin has considered and is using his perception, action and will to deal with this obstacle.

Today’s pebble for your consideration: is there an obstacle which you need to overcome? Can this approach help you?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like someone to help you overcome obstacles in your career or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?


















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Five ways to top up your wellbeing

Ah, hello February! From client conversations and online interactions over the last few weeks, January has been a bit tough. Whether it’s ‘too much month and not enough money’, the rigours of ‘Dry January’ or ‘Veganuary’, or simply the fact it’s dark and rainy, the month seemed to last a lot longer than its 31 allotted days.

So it’s a new month and I’m encouraging my clients – and my friends – to top up their wellbeing. Back in 2008, the New Economics Foundation proposed that there were five evidence-based actions we could all take to boost our wellbeing.

One: connect

No man is an island‘ wrote John Donne but we’re all aware of the problem of loneliness in society. Forming connections – that is, building relationships – is key to our wellbeing, whether that’s in the workplace, with our neighbours or making time to see family and friends. For those of us who work alone, that can sometimes be a challenge and it’s an area I make a conscious effort to address.

Two: be active

Incorporating some kind of physical activity into our day demonstrably boosts mental health. I find that the short days and long dark nights of Winter can bring me down so in January, I committed to getting outside for a walk for half an hour every single day, whatever the weather. I succeeded on 29 out of 31 days in January (if you’re wondering whether that means, I’ll give up on my goal as I failed last month, you need to read last my previous post – should you quit if it isn’t perfect?) and it definitely improved my mental energy each day.

Three: take notice

This one is never a struggle for me – I was born curious and reflective! If those aren’t your natural qualities, try them out. When you’re on a bus or a train, instead of reading a book or scrolling through Instagram, look out of the window and see what’s out there. Look around at your fellow passengers and wonder about them: where might they work? Are those two together or do they just happen to be sitting next to each other? Rather than grabbing a bite to eat whilst you work, take twenty minutes or so to step away and concentrate on nothing but eating your lunch: really savour it. As you go about your day noticing what’s going on externally and internally, allow yourself time to ask yourself what you can learn from your ‘noticings’.

Four: keep learning

When was the last time you acquired a new skill? Maybe it’s something as simple as cooking a new dish each weekend. Perhaps you’d like to re-ignite a childhood passion – tap-dancing, model-making, magic tricks. If you’re headed abroad for work or leisure, download a free app to help you pick up a few key phrases (you can even learn High Valyrian if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones). Learning something new fosters a feeling of progress, can build confidence, may help you meet others, and it’s fun.

Five: give

In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens writes ‘No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it for any one else.’

Whether we give time or resources, giving to others in some way is fulfilling, rewarding and makes a difference. That’s got to be good for our wellbeing!

Maybe January wasn’t a tough month for you: however, I’m sure that there have been times when you have felt the need to top up your personal wellbeing. I hope that these five actions can contribute to your reserves.

Today’s pebble for your ponderings: could you do with topping up your wellbeing? Which of these five actions will you try out this week? 


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

Do you want to make progress with your career or your life? Why not email me to see how we can work together?

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