Dominic Ashley-Timms

CEO at Notion

Dominic is the CEO of Notion. After a top-tier consulting career running multi-million dollar change programmes, he now applies his passion for human-centred design to learning and behaviour change.

Dominic helps clients improve commercial performance and create sustainable changes in culture. Having trained leaders in 37 different countries with businesses of all sizes, including FTSE and Fortune 500, across all sectors, he has deep insights into the levers of change that make the most difference and impact.  Dominic regularly delivers programmes that generate many hundreds in Return on Investment.

Dominic is the co-author of Notion’s book – The Answer is a Question: The Missing Superpower that Changes Everything and Will Transform Your Impact as a Manager and Leader. Published in October 2022, the book is an Amazon best-seller.

Where did the idea for Notion come from?

The inception of the company came about as a result of a notion I’d formed during my career in change management consulting. One of the things I noticed was that in often fraught change situations, people tend to experience quite high levels of fear. They’re thinking ‘How is this change going to affect me? Will I still be employed? Who will I be reporting to? Will I be able to pay the mortgage?’ Not knowing what’s happening generates uncertainty about how the change will impact you.

What I found though, was that when I started asking the people being affected by the change more questions, fear began to subside because they really started to think about what was happening around them and gain some understanding of how they might be a part of the change.
The reason questions seemed to work so well was that it almost forced people to engage in the change, which in turn was beginning to give them a greater measure of certainty whether that be a positive or negative impact. The consequence of wrestling with the questions was generating certainty.
And so that was the inception of the idea for starting a company that looked at what we can do to make change better through engaging people in dialogue and asking better questions.

The name came from the fact that notion is the idea of having a different idea about doing things. So, change up until then was done by email resulting in frequent human casualties and departments being dissolved. So, the idea was that notion was a way of doing things in a different way, a better way.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

That’s such a great question. My typical day is a mix between creative input, interviews, writing articles, spending time with my team members (the senior management team in particular), to make sure that the various projects that we’ve got underway are being progressed. And then I also have time with clients, either new prospective clients that I’m reaching out to or current clients.

To remain productive is a constant challenge. I work very closely with my calendar. My calendar drives everything. Historically I would work from to do lists, but actually I find calendars are more likely to drive activity because there’s time set aside for the task at hand. My team knows if they need me to do something, it must have a slot in my diary, otherwise, it’s going to be a challenge.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I really love bringing ideas to life. I’m very much an E and a J personality type. So, my ideas start as an inception of an idea, then I tend to share those half-baked ideas with my team members, and together we bat those ideas around until they take on more shape.

Then it’s a case of determining the minimum viable product. This is something we’re very focused on at Notion. You’ve got this great idea, but what can we do now to get something up and running? With the least amount of effort, how can we generate an outcome from that idea so that we can see it has potential? What’s the shortest route to implement something now? Because unless there is a first step, to implement them, the idea will never grow in the future. So, if it’s good, then we think about what we can do to put that into motion now.

What’s one trend that excites you?

One trend that excites me is the gradual realization that people are starting to have that they need to invest in their personal learning.
The world is moving so quickly and learning is available all around us. And people are starting to recognize that their career prospects are going to improve in correlation with the greater value that they can generate. I feel very strongly that value can only come from people learning additional skills and from developing new insights, growing their resourcefulness and their capabilities – two things that they can bring to their employer and command a higher wage for.
I think there’s a slow but real shift from a culture perhaps where people used to sit back with the expectation that all the training they’re ever going to receive is going to come from their employers. But actually, it’s what we as individuals choose to do to advance ourselves which is most likely to make the difference to our careers.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

When the alarm clock goes off, I get up. It doesn’t matter if I’ve had four- or six-hours sleep, when the alarm clock goes off, I get up and it’s a habit that is ingrained. It’s my eternal frustration that my children don’t share this habit! They will snooze 11 or 12 times before they get up, that’s if they even hear the alarm. But I’ve absolutely trained myself. It doesn’t matter how little sleep I’ve had when the alarm goes off, I get up and I’m active and dynamic and seizing my day.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would push my younger self to meet more people and to network more widely. As I’ve become older, I derive real joy talking to different people and learning from their experience and insights. As I’ve progressed through my career, I’ve learned how to use an enquiry-led approach more purposefully – asking questions that generate genuine new thinking between the person I am speaking with and myself. And that’s something I really enjoy.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

I truly believe in the potential of people in this country. We are an enormously complex country made up of many parts, ethnicities, nationalities, cultures, methods and practices and it makes this wonderful cocktail of what it means to live and work in Britain.
I just think as a nation, we have so much opportunity. But the continuous erosion from a negatively inclined press generates a real sense of malaise. We’re all sort of beating ourselves up the whole time. And actually, we need to wake up to the fact that, for a small island nation, we’ve done some pretty remarkable stuff. And I think we’ve got amazing, amazing potential.
Let’s be optimistic about the future.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I reprioritize constantly. I have a mental model which is a circular train track. The train track is full with a circular train and as soon as something is complete, I have one train carriage gap to put something else on the train track.
Now, I can swap the cars out in terms of priority, but the train track is my finite amount of time. And so I continue to reprioritize, which is pretty brutal sometimes when people need things from me, but there’s only so much that I can do. So I am constantly reprioritizing over and over and over again.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I learned very early on to ‘choose one thing, make it yours, do it well’’. And, if you continue to do it well, eventually you’ll rise to the top of the pile and that, as an organizational strategy, is exactly what we’ve done.
We’ve not been dragged into other areas where we’d have to develop new competencies. We’ve not been dragged into doing things that might have watered down our central effort. We’ve remained resolutely focused on the one thing that we’ve developed expertise in, and I would say that we are one of the, if not, the global experts in what we do.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Early in the development of our business, we relied on other people closing business for us. We were allowing other people to talk about what we do and try to close contracts and with that we were only winning one in four or five opportunities.
We realized that actually we’re the experts. We were relying on other people who perhaps didn’t have the same depth of conviction as we did. So, whilst we had people go out and introduce us, actually, when it came to the commercial discussions, it came back to us and we started closing the business and signing the contracts.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

One business idea is to expand the role that cleaners can perform.
I have always thought that with very little effort, cleaners can become more of a local service provider. They could have arrangements with window cleaners, oven cleaners, guttering cleaners, odd job people and more to come to your home or office. In doing this, your cleaner could add much more value in managing their client’s domestic management with very little cost to themselves and they could charge a premium for that.
The business question to ask yourself is – what more can I attach to my offer which will cost me very little to do but reduces pain for my customers? I would advise anyone in business to think about what more can you add to make your service more valuable, with little cost to yourself, but that creates huge convenience for your customer.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

The best $100 I ever spent was on a really great whisky which was Port Charlotte – it is astonishing – because actually having a relaxing nightcap at the end of the day is important for all of us to find that moment of stillness before we sleep.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I use something called Task aid. It’s a browser-based listing tool. But what it allows me to do is make a note of the openings that I have in my mind. So, it’s not a to-do list necessarily because that’s my calendar. But what it does do, is it reminds me of things I’m expecting from other people, or the things that I know I’m looking out for. And because it’s in my browser window every time I open my computer, it’s there.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I would read Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne because it helps you question how I am differentiating myself and my business? What pulls me away from the pack? What can I trade on? What can I really focus on as a point of difference that might be of interest and value to my clients and my customers?
The nature of the thinking that Blue Ocean Strategy forces you to do is invaluable. If you’re swimming in a red ocean, where there’s blood in the water from competitors biting chunks out of each other , then to compete is very hard and oftentimes that will be a price competition. If you’re in a blue ocean, it’s all yours and you’re not looking out for sharks in the water.

What is your favorite quote?

‘We are all creatures of habit’ from Edgar Rice Burroughs who wrote Tarzan. What’s interesting about the quote is that we need to recognize that whilst yes, we are creatures of habit and we conform to routines, when it spills over into comfort, then there’s a risk that we’ll stop growing, pushing, evolving. If there isn’t a part of us which is uncomfortable in what we’re doing then we’re not pushing ourselves to the edges.
At the moment, I am doing stuff I’ve never done before. And that’s exciting because I don’t know how to do it and admitting that means I’ve got to speak with more people and learn. I’m proud of the fact I’m doing stuff I’ve never done before. I’m embracing the challenge.

Key Learnings:

  • Use your calendar ruthlessly
  • Constantly reprioritize
  • Be thinking about your strategy all the time and the relevance of your strategy
  • Identify the minimum viable product and get on with it
  • Recognize that decisions are the steppingstones of progress and that questioning decisions inhibits action. Once the decision has been made, act on it. If later you discover that decision wasn’t a good one then you can correct it but making decisions and acting on them means progress. If you prevaricate for too long, the moment is lost.