Book Review-Real Time Strategic Change

In the game of buzzword bingo, this book has it all. Real Time Strategic Change has all the words that people want. They want the change to happen now (or in real time), and they want it to be strategic. Wouldn’t it be nice if all change could be that way? However, there’s a big commitment that’s required to make this work – and it’s one that most organizations aren’t willing to make.

The Event

Real Time Strategic Change is based around the idea of an event where you gather a substantial portion of the organization and you engage them in the change design process. It can be the entire organization, an entire plant, or an entire division, but the whole point is that it’s a substantial percentage of the people impacted by the change. Even when it’s not practical to bring literally everyone in, the recommendation is to bring in many people.

The sessions are planned, but more than that, they’re designed as facilitated sessions, where the conversations are supported and guided but not scripted. The result is, after the event, everyone feels like they’re on the same page, the leadership has listened, and everyone is in it together. I have no doubts that the results of the approach are impressive. When you make that sort of an investment, people are quite clear that you’re serious, and they’re clear that something different is happening. That means the organization is going to see some degree of positive results from the change.


Most people who write about change are clear that executive leadership is key. They must be bought in. They must support the change with both their words and their deeds. Equally important is the ability for the leadership to listen to the needs of the people. Jim Collins in Good to Great highlights this ability to listen and to stay the course as the Stockdale Paradox.

While changes are easier when there is leadership support, it’s not the only way to get change done. It’s just the easiest way. Of course, that means the likelihood of success goes up. When your organization makes a commitment to a real time strategic change, even the commitment is big, the risk is high, and the results are more likely to be positive. While the event itself may be effective, the signal that the investment in the event makes may be a more powerful message to the organization that “this time, we’re serious.”

Everett Rogers explained in Diffusion of Innovations that once you get past the innovators, everyone else needs proof – and progressively more of it. The event provides a great deal of proof, very rapidly.

Not Invented Here

One of the key things that is addressed by the event is the tendency towards not invented here (NIH). This is the natural tendency of people to resist things that they weren’t consulted on, or at least informed of, ahead of time. It has been talked about in business books for decades. By engaging everyone in the process of designing the new strategies and change, they necessarily feel like they’re a part of it, and this side-steps the NIH problem.


Solving NIH fits neatly into the communications problem that is often cited as the second most important aspect of a change endeavor. Solving NIH solves both the understanding of where things are going and the conversation about what the impact will be to the employee. The conversations and concerns about the person’s role in the new organization are most frequently addressed, because they feel like they’ve already been a part of the change, so they’ll continue to be a part of it. That’s good news, since the conversations about whether they will be a part of the new structure often require a substantial amount of trust.

Above or Below the Line

In my work on adoption and change over the past few decades, one subtle difference has stood out as being powerful for whether the change would be successful or not. If the required change was inside the person’s normal scope of work, the change would normally take hold. If, on the other hand, the change was something that required additional effort for the person, it rarely worked.

Said differently, if the changes were above the line of requirements – thus not required – they’d be ignored or deferred. If they couldn’t get their job done without it, well, obviously it worked. In information management projects, getting users to enter metadata is always challenging. However, when entering the metadata is a natural part of the work that someone does, it just happens. If on the other hand, you’re asking them to go back later and do something different, special, or additional, it rarely happens.

The required change needs to be seen as a part of the person’s “real work.” If it’s not seen this way, if it’s perceived to be something they do only when they have time, then it’s not likely to get done. Getting folks to accept changed behaviors as a part of their real work is more than changing a job description or telling them, it’s about how they perceive the work.

Change is Personal

All change is personal. All change happens at an organizational level through individual changes at a personal level, and sometimes those changes are hard. Consider the truths from Change or Die, which exposes us to the fact that few people change their eating habits even after a heart attack. Or perhaps you’d prefer to consider The Power of Habit or addiction via Chasing the Scream. Change is hard, because individually changing is hard.

Most executives have come to their level in the organization through a string of successes. Their skills, intuition, and capabilities have led them thus far. The idea of changing them to get better is hard. However, as Marshal Goldsmith says, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. It isn’t always easy to convince folks of this simple truth. They may need to change (and become uncomfortable) to reach the next level.

Putting Things Together in Different Ways

If you consider innovation and transformation back from the Renaissance (see The Medici Effect) to the current age, you’ll find that the key to change was in the ability to connect different ideas. (See Creative Confidence, The Innovator’s DNA, Extraordinary Minds, Beyond Genius, and Group Genius for more on current innovation.) One of the benefits of having a large number of people working on things is that you get extra time for lots of potential combinations and approaches. You can sometimes leverage The Wisdom of Crowds to get to a better answer than would be possible with the leadership alone.

All Effective Strategy Degenerates into Work

One of the largest challenges I see in organizations with their grand strategies is the conversion of those strategies into a series of tactics and, ultimately, actions and behaviors. A strategy that’s beautifully printed and placed in a binder is useless. It’s true that the devil is in the details, and the conversion of the strategy into tactics and tactics into behaviors is hard, grueling work. However, it’s also true that the strategy is useless without it.

The event engages people into practical answers that degenerate more easily into the work that needs to be done, and there are fewer of those “and then the magic happens” spots in the plans. Real people doing real work are really engaged with converting the idea into a reality.

Constant Corrections

No matter how great the strategy work is and regardless of the skill at which it is degenerated into tactics, because the future is unknowable, there will be a need to make constant course corrections and adjustments. What we know about real time strategic change is that it doesn’t end when the event ends. Change needs to become a part of the ethos of the organization. Maybe it’s time to start by reading Real Time Strategic Change.

Book Review-The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook: Essential Guidance to the Change Management Body of Knowledge

Ideally, there’s a body of knowledge that defines a profession. It’s what you should know if you’re a member of the profession. The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook: Essential Guidance to the Change Management Body of Knowledge seeks to be that for change management. While it goes far towards this end, it has the problems that all bodies of knowledge have – too much breadth but not enough depth. It’s a great way to learn about the things that the authors believe you should know but not enough to learn it. It also suffers from the biases of including some things that may not be necessary and missing other critical tools that effective change managers need.

A Tale of Two Organizations

A good starting point for understanding the body of knowledge is understanding that there are two organizations seeking to become “the” change management association that everyone belongs to. There’s The Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP) and Change Management Institute (CMI). ACMP is organized out of the US, and CMI is out of the UK. They’re similar in their mission and quite different in their approaches. ACMP has “The Standard,” which identifies the standards that change professionals should understand. It’s not quite as prescriptive as it sounds, but it’s definitely a process-driven model with steps and artifacts.

CMI, on the other hand, is focused on the body of knowledge, which is more of a collection of things than a process or approach. They initially published the body of knowledge as a separate volume before allowing it to get collected up into The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook.

Both organizations offer certification as one would expect, and both offer training, though CMI has chosen to only endorse training from one provider. I personally believe this is a very bad move, because it constricts the industry by limiting the trainers who can become certified to teach about change management. However, both organizations are fundamentally focused on increasing the awareness of the discipline which is a good thing.

A Body of Knowledge

The idea of a body of knowledge was popularized by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and their PMBoK. If you’re Project Management Professional (PMP), then you’re walking around with the PMBoK as a sort of Bible. PMPs are certified by the PMI as project manager. After a few decades, the certification is recognized and has value if you’re looking for work as a project manager.

However, even PMPs will criticize the PMBoK, because it isn’t always practical. Because it has everything in it, it’s too heavy for all but the most massive super projects. Historically, it’s been focused on waterfall-type projects, with one start and one end. It’s also been focused on projects that are more algorithmic and less heuristic. That meant that it didn’t work well for software development projects.

The PMBoK faced real pressure in software development, first with CMMI thinking and more recently with agile (iterative) approaches. It took many years before the PMBoK acknowledged the validity of these approaches.

Thus, there are two problems with a body of knowledge – first that it’s too exhaustive. It’s more than anyone would ever use. Second that it’s non-inclusive: the good practices are excluded for a long time after they’re useful.

In the case of The Change Manager’s Handbook, there’s a lot of the former and only a little bit of the latter.

In Full Bloom

Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues set out to explain a hierarchy of learning objectives. The idea was to come up with a way of explaining and categorizing the differences in approaches to teaching and learning. Though they never really finished, their start was the completion of the cognitive domain of learning. As a result, we have an ordered hierarchy of learning objectives, from the very low-level awareness and recall to the very high-level synthesis and creation of new knowledge in the domain.

Most of the time, educators and learners shoot for somewhere in the middle. They want to be able to apply what they’ve learned and analyze a situation based on their knowledge. However, works on a body of knowledge almost always fall short of this spot. They’ll create awareness, recognition, and sometimes recall, but rarely do they help people apply the learning.

That is the case with The Change Manager’s Handbook. It’s like a listing of the things that you need to learn without the depth or the examples that lead to the ability for someone to apply the information. If you’re looking for an overview of what skills you need as a change manager, it’s great. If you’re looking for a guide for doing further research, it’s good. If you’re looking for something to teach you what you need to know and how to use it so that you can be an effective change manager, well, it’s not so good.

Change Management Successes

It’s been widely quoted that 70% of change management initiatives fail to deliver. (See Leading Change for John Kotter’s take.) With the exception of professional baseball, those statistics are awful. Who wants to think that two out of three change initiatives they work on are going to fail? No one, obviously. That’s what the profession of change management and the development of the body of knowledge is designed to solve.

Some, like William Bridges in Managing Transitions, even suggest that change is the wrong way to think about the initiative. Change doesn’t, he believes, properly recognize the human component and the losses that we encounter, personally. While most people still use the word change rather than transition, the point he makes about change being about people isn’t lost on those who are interested in success.

The size of the initiative had a great deal of impact on the probability of success. The larger the project, the less likely it is to be successful and the greater effort and skill that will be required to make it successful. This is the same as the PMI’s guidance regarding projects. Everyone is clear that the problem of success gets exponentially harder based on the scope and scale of the effort. As a result, one of the big considerations for change management success is how you frame your project and how you break it down, so that you can accomplish a series of smaller changes and build on those wins.


To accomplish change, you need to motivate others to join you in the journey of change, and that requires motivation. However, the research on motivation has had a checkered past. Back in 1968, Fredrick Herzberg wrote an article, “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees?” for the Harvard Business Review. It turns out it’s the most requested article reprint of all time. How can it be that an article with such a snarky title can be so popular? The answer is in the insight Herzberg shared that the things we think of as motivators aren’t all as motivating as we think.

Some things that we think of as motivators Herzberg have an element of what he called “hygiene.” That is, once you had enough of them, the addition of more had little impact. The other aspect was motivation. Each of the things we think of that motivate people are built from these two components. Effective change is knowing which is which. When dealing with a hygiene-based motivator, when do you know how to stop and try different approaches.

It turns out that the go-to motivator of compensation turns out to be mostly a hygiene-based motivator, and salary after a certain point isn’t that powerful a motivator. This aligns with both the work of Kahneman and how we have decreasing utility for increasingly large benefits. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow.) It also aligns with the work of Edward Deci on intrinsic motivation, but Deci goes further to explain how increasing salary can make the behaviors worse.

Intrinsic Motivation

Studying what makes people want to do something is interesting and challenging. Deci ultimately discovered that our intrinsic motivation is driven by our desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These factors drive us towards wanting to do something. However, there’s a challenge: if we apply an extrinsic motivator – like compensation – to something that we’re intrinsically motivated to do, we may find that the intrinsic motivation is stunted. When children were paid to play with a toy that they previously enjoyed playing with – without compensation – they suddenly wanted to play with the toy less when they weren’t compensated.

This has huge implications and obvious evidence all around us, we just have failed to see it. Take, for instance, children. They love to study, and you reward that studying with some sort of monetary compensation for grades. Maybe $1 for an A and $0.50 for a B. The problem is that you’ve now made the motivation dependent on the extrinsic reward. What happens when the reward is taken away? The behavior stops. More challenging is the fact that the long-term pull of the intrinsic motivator may be more powerful than the extrinsic one. Consider Simon Sinek’s recommendation to Start with Why and the power of getting everyone aligned to the same mission.

But what about flow? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi researched this state of balance between challenge and skill that seemed to be intrinsically rewarding and discovered a set of factors that lead to it – as well as some of the far-reaching effects. Flow is internally rewarding. We don’t do it because others ask us to or that we’re being compensated for it; we enter the state of flow because it’s rewarding. It’s substantially more productive than normal work (5x), and it induces a sense of timelessness. The focus on the task eliminates some of the normal background noise that flows through our head. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.)

Ultimately, our goal as change managers shouldn’t be to find the magic external motivators that will allow us to manipulate others into doing what we want them to do, but rather to look towards the goal of how we can align their internal motivators in ways that support them wanting the same things the organization wants. (See both Why We Do What We Do (Deci) and Drive (Daniel Pink) for more on intrinsic motivation.)

Our Views on People

There are two basic views of people. We can either assume that people are lazy and stupid – or we can assume that people are intelligent and hardworking. These correspond to the Theory X and Theory Y of management that we’ve heard about. Historically, most management was designed around the idea that people were lazy and stupid. However, more recently, it has been recognized that this isn’t necessarily the best approach.

Consider, for a moment, the communism vs. capitalism debate that occurred in the 20th century. The Marxist ideas drove the creation of societies based around the idea that everyone was entitled to basic rights and the government was responsible for providing these to everyone. The result was a top-down, centralized hierarchy that depended upon the masses as hands to move and create things, but only those things that the hierarchy told them to make. The problem was that this approach, noble as it was, failed miserably. People were deprived of their drive and creativity, and as a result, there were many economies that were ruined and people who suffered with a lack of essentials because the society couldn’t produce what was needed for everyone. (See One Minute to Midnight for some exposure to this problem.)

The transformation that is happening in business has been gradual but pervasive. Carl Rogers believes that you should have an unconditional positive regard for all people, and that’s hard to do if you fundamentally see them as lazy and stupid. (See A Way of Being.) The list of books I’ve reviewed that have a focus on seeing people differently isn’t short: An Everyone Culture, Reinventing Organizations, Red Goldfish, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, Seeing Systems, Multipliers, Creativity, Inc., Servant Leadership, and more.

Views on Organizations

While our views on people have changed, at some level, we’re also reconfiguring our views on organizations. We’re starting to look at them less like machines with interchangeable parts and instead we’re looking at them like they’re organisms, brains, cultures, and other structures that describe pieces that come together as a whole – but don’t fit neatly into the kinds of gears and mechanisms you would expect to find in a machine.

However, some of the views of the organization can be troubling. When they’re viewed as psychic prisons or instruments of domination, the resulting expectations don’t lead to good places. There’s a lot that can be said of prisons and Phillip Zimbardo – of the Stanford Prison Experiment fame – describes his perspective in The Lucifer Effect. From a more positive perspective, Amy Edmonson explains in The Fearless Organization how to avoid the kinds of organizations that feel like psychic prisons.

Two Voices

Sometimes the person that sends the message impacts the message that is received more than the words or actions used. When it comes to change, there are two key messages and two key people who need to send the message.

The first message is the strategy and the organization’s vision. This message is best delivered by the executives. It’s believable when delivered by the organization’s executives – it isn’t necessarily believable from a person’s direct manager.

Conversely, what people need to know about their role being okay and how it will change comes from their managers. Anything that the executives say in this regard is perceived to be a platitude that will change just as soon as it’s convenient. Employees need the relational context that they have with their manager to accept the message of safety that may be provided to them. Despite the best intentions, a manager speaking about the overall strategy for the organization isn’t believable, because the employees have seen their best intentions get run over before.


In the 1990s, the US military started speaking in terms of VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. We live in that VUCA world. The rate of change isn’t slowing down, by all measures it’s getting faster. It’s not just the changes that you want – it’s the changes that are happening around you.

A set of responses to the VUCA world that we live in were proposed by Bob Johansen and are referred to as VUCA’ (or VUCA Prime, as in inverse derivative): Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. These are excellent characteristics of your change initiative. Developing a clear vision and communicating clearly based on your collective understanding of the world and the changes is a great start. The agility to adapt as you learn more and as the situation evolves improves your chances for success.

Heroic Leadership

One of the most powerful things that I learned from Heroic Leadership was to separate the important from the unimportant. The Jesuits were clear about their faith and the things that were required of them to remain in their faith. They were equally aware of the customs and rituals that they had grown comfortable with. Knowing how to separate these two proved invaluable as they navigated new worlds.

There are some things inside a change initiative that are going to be non-negotiable. However, most things are open to discussion and exploration. Few things in any change are truly beyond our ability to evaluate.

It Starts with Strategy

The truth is that all change is the response to the environment we find ourselves in. Either we believe that we’re able to take advantage of an opportunity, or we feel the need to mitigate a threat. This response to the environment – or, more likely, the set of responses to the environment – is collectively our strategy for navigating the real world that the organization and we live in.

If you’re going to initiate any kind of a change, you’ll need to understand both the factors that are driving the opportunity or threat and what strategies – or tactics – you believe you need to use to capitalize on the opportunities and mitigate the threats. In short, your change starts with clearly understanding your strategy and the environmental factors that have led you to the proposed approaches.

It’s All About Behaviors

All change is individual change. Organizations change through the actions – behaviors – of its members. There is no changing the organization without changing the behaviors of the members. Thus, all change is individual change. All change is about how you change the behaviors of individuals in ways that creates the kind of change you want to see from the organization. If you’re not converting the big-picture strategies into the individual tasks and behaviors, it’s not very likely that it will be successful.


I worked very hard, and when I turned 25, I bought myself a Mitsubishi 3000GTVR4. It was a low, wide, heavy, and, in many ways, amazing car. The engine was 320 horsepower, and it was all wheel drive. It was a monster of a car with a problem. The transmission had a habit of breaking. The torque the engine produced would throw you back in your seat, and in the process, it would weaken and eventually break the drive shaft. The result for me meant more than a few transmission repairs. The engine was fine, the tires were fine, it was just getting the power between the two that was the problem.

This is the key issue that most organizations face. They have a strategy, but they don’t know how to convert it into something that will cause people to change. Some of that can be based on having too few people involved with the development of the strategy and, as a result, a limited amount of buy-in. It can also be caused by unrealistic expectations about how the organization functions.

Whatever the cause, if you can’t convert the strategy to the behaviors, you won’t see change.

The Wisdom of Crowds

One approach to address this transmission problem is to involve a large number of people in the planning process. While this does create challenges about giving everyone space to feel heard and the need to coalesce the responses into a set of key approaches, it has the benefit of substantially increasing buy-in. When done across the organization, you can develop a greater buy-in within the organization. However, you get something more. You get the wisdom of crowds.

If I asked you to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar or the weight of a bull, it’s likely that your guess won’t be exactly right. You’ll overestimate or underestimate. That’s not news. The news is that, as you add more and more people with their individual biases together and you average them, you begin to get to answers that converge on the right answer. Somehow the process of averaging takes the errors and biases out of the process, and the result is better. That’s what happens when we involve more people in our change process. We begin to work past the biases and errors. We move towards a wisdom about the situation that can’t be developed by a single person. (See The Wisdom of Crowds for more.)

Stakeholder Categories

George Egan recommends putting stakeholders into the following groups:

  • Partners are those who support your agenda.
  • Allies are those who will support you given encouragement.
  • Fellow Travellers are passive supporters who may be committed to the agenda but not to you personally.
  • Fence sitters are those whose allegiances are not clear.
  • Loose cannons are dangerous, because they can vote against agendas in which they have no direct interest.
  • Opponents are players who oppose your agenda but not you personally.
  • Adversaries are players who oppose both you and your agenda.
  • Bedfellows are those who support the agenda but may not know or trust you.
  • Voiceless are stakeholders who will be affected by the agenda but have little power to promote or oppose and who lack advocates.

I prefer a slightly different categorization process based on power, urgency, and legitimacy, but this approach encourages you to more deeply consider and understand your stakeholders and whether they collectively bring you what you need to accomplish your objectives with the change.

Control and Manipulation

In Compelled to Control, J. Keith Miller explains that we all want to control, but none of us want to be controlled. This is a fundamental understanding of our human condition. We want to perceive a great deal of control of our situation and a low degree of others controlling us. As we seek to involve more people, develop their buy-in, and engage them, we must be conscious both of their need to feel a degree of control but also in the degree to which they perceive that they’re being manipulated.

We are all manipulated. An easy example is the fact that almost all of us wear seatbelts. No one thinks that wrinkled clothing and confinement is good, but we’ve been conditioned to accept these things so that our chances of injury or death during an accident are reduced. We’re being manipulated into the behaviors that the government wants with laws and advertising campaigns. It’s not that the reasons aren’t the right reasons or that we shouldn’t wear our seatbelts – we absolutely should. However, we need to recognize this for what it is. It’s a manipulation of our basic behavior while driving and riding in a car, and it’s a manipulation that we’ve accepted.

Put the Song on Repeat

The process of manipulation was subtle. It was the same message played over and over again punctuated by changes. This process of manipulation can be done for both good and evil. Albert Bandura in Moral Disengagement explains how Nazi Germany made the unthinkable not just something to be considered but something to be done. It wasn’t just one message that the Jews weren’t humans, it was the same message over and over again.

In our corporate change worlds, we like to believe that we can tell people once and that’s enough. They read their email, we think. They’ll see the posters. The truth is, however, that our communications are far less effective than we’d like to believe. The Organized Mind explains how our brains are trying to cope with the amount of information that we’re getting, and for the most part, we’re doing it by filtering. If we can’t get through the filter, then there’s no chance of anyone changing their perception (or even awareness).

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

It’s an old cliché, but it’s true. A picture, or more precisely a diagram, is worth a thousand words. The ability to convey visually what the new organization will look like and what the behaviors are that will be required is extremely valuable. It’s more than an updated organizational chart. It’s about what life will really be like. It’s a way of engaging emotions into topics that are sometimes dry, abstract, and analytical.

The simple addition of visuals to your change messaging can make them feel more personal and friendly. Careful selection of a metaphor can provide some continuity to the discontinuity of change.

Making Use of Micro Signals

During change, people will need more affirmation and confirmation that their behaviors match the new trajectory of the organization. For that reason, small acknowledgements of the progress that is being made to transform the organization is critical to reinforcing the new behaviors and helping to establish them as new habits.

Accentuating “bright spots,” those places where people are exhibiting the best of the new behaviors, help others understand that they want to replicate these behaviors. In the book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath make the point that following the bright spots can help people make a change much easier than simply guiding them away from the things they should not do.

The Importance of Learning

The importance of learning as a far leading indicator was made by Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence, but its use as a tool for change is sometimes overlooked. We forget that new behaviors mean new learning, and the more that we can instill learning into the culture of the organization, the more agile the organization will be. Learning is a powerful force when lined up with the compounding nature of sustained effort.

Einstein said that compounding interest was the 8th Wonder of the World, but it’s not just financial interest that compounds; learning and our ability to learn compounds as well. The more we’re willing to focus on our performance and seek to improve it, the more our performance will improve. Anders Ericson and Robert Pool explain in Peak that it’s purposeful practice that makes the difference to our long-term success. The more willing and persistent we are at practicing towards specific goals, the more likely we’ll be at the peak of our industry. (For the persistence aspect, see Angela Duckworth’s Grit.)

The Hawthorne Works are famous for the Hawthorne effect. That is, measuring people – not the actual change being measured – is responsible for improvement. However, this obscures the truth that people are focused on their performance because they know they are being watched. This pushes them into purposeful practice and an attempt to improve their performance. That focus does increase their performance even when the conditions deteriorate (like the lighting being turned down).

When you sustain the perception of monitoring and a desire for improvement over a long period of time, the improvements become staggering. In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler explains that even a 4% increase over a long period of time makes it appear that what the person is doing should be impossible.

Our View of the Problem is the Problem

When we’re evaluating why our change initiatives haven’t been successful, it’s important to accept the realization that our view of the problem – the change itself or the problem the change is designed to address – is the problem. The better we understand a problem and the more we know, the more equipped we are to potentially solve the problem. That’s the reason why it might be a good idea to read The Change Manager’s Handbook.

Book Review-Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach

Some things are just obvious. They are just the way that things have always been – except that they’re not. To me, the idea that you’d manage to your stakeholders seems like it should be the thing that has always been done, but I realized that it hasn’t always been that way. So it was time to take a look back at when the idea of managing to stakeholders was new and different. That meant reading Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach.

Serving More Than One Master

We’ve been told that we can’t serve more than one master, but in reality, we all must do it every day. We’ve got different stakeholders in our lives. We’ve got people who want to see us succeed – parents, mentors, teachers, and coaches for instance. We’ve got people whom we want to help be successful themselves, like our children. It used to be that organizations didn’t see themselves as having more than one master. Executive management worked for themselves. Employees, stockholders, customers, vendors, and others really didn’t matter.

However, that changed. Stockholders, instead of selling stock when they didn’t like the management, bought more of it – enough to develop a controlling interest. The result was the ability for stockholders to fire management – and that meant management had to start paying attention to the stockholder demands – and, in some cases, whims.

At the same time, consumers became able to choose alternatives, meaning that they, too, needed to be a group of people that management and the organization had to cater to. Don’t forget the quote attributed to Henry Ford: “They can have a Model T in any color they like as long as it’s black.” Whether he said it or not, it’s clear that he didn’t care what the customer wanted, he was working on efficiency.

More recently, employees could choose to work elsewhere, and that means employees, too, have to be considered. The abundance of groups eventually converted the term “stockholder” as someone literally holding stock in the organization to “stakeholder” – which more figuratively means that they had a stake in the organization.

Serving Stakeholders

Organizations survive and thrive to the extent that they serve their stakeholders. If they serve their stakeholders well, they’re rewarded with growth. If they fail to serve their stakeholders well, they’re faced with extinction. While true, this hides the deeper truth that not all stakeholders are created equal. Some stakeholders – for example, customers – may be more important than other stakeholders, like vendors. In business, you’re faced with inevitable tradeoffs, and sometimes the needs of one stakeholder must be prioritized over another.

The key to strategic management is in identifying what an acceptable minimal level of stakeholder service is. That is, what can you make investments in, and what stakeholders can you hold your existing commitments to serving their needs – or even lower them? How do you find the balance when there are so many stakeholders? It may be that this is what separates the excellent companies from the “also ran.”

Customer Service

If you want to be a premium brand, you don’t have to have a great product. It helps, to be sure, but it’s not required. What’s required is exemplary customer service. Years ago, when I was working for Woods Wire, we developed a brand called Yellow Jacket. If you ever had a problem with one of those extension cords, you could send it back and we would send you a replacement. It didn’t matter if you ran over it with a lawn mower or used it to tow a truck, we’d send you a replacement. The economics of it worked, because the margins on the product were much higher than standard commodity margins, and a very small number of people actually got replacements.

Craftsman tools were legendary with the public because they had a lifetime replacement guarantee for hand tools. (This has become the standard for most premium hand tools.) The truth is that few people ever returned a hand tool for a replacement, but those who did became raving fans of the brand. The investment in a small percentage of people in one stakeholder group paid off enormous dividends for the brand.

This is played out in hundreds of premium brands that differentiate themselves on customer service, even though, at first glance, they’re differentiating on product. The reason that we don’t see through the smoke screen is because they are addressing any product issue with a wealth of customer service.

Negotiation and Escalation

Strategic Management advocates the idea that we should negotiate rather than escalate. In general, this is a sound principle. Decisions can be made through command (dictatorship), consultation (benevolent dictatorship), vote (democracy), or consensus (agreement). What happens when you can’t reach a decision? One answer is “petition the king.” This strategy turns over the decision to a higher authority. It makes the problem the higher authority’s problem. On the surface, this sounds like a great plan.

The plan falls apart when you realize that the higher authority may not side in your favor, or they might create solutions that are – intentionally or not – worse than what the parties might have come up with on their own. Consider King Solomon and the two prostitutes who were fighting over one of the prostitute’s children (who both claimed was theirs). The solution was to cut the living child in half and give each a half (1 Kings 3:16-28). The story has a happy ending in that the mother who could not bear to see her child killed offered to give up the child, and the King ultimately sorted things – but the initial solution would have served neither party.

Having been in life and business for many years, I recognize this isn’t a binary situation. There are absolutely times when escalation is the right answer – but the number of times is very, very small.

Understanding Irrationality

When one is tempted to exclaim that a stakeholder group is responding irrationally, I’m reminded that we don’t live in a world of absolute rationality. We live in a world of bounded rationality. We do what’s rational to us based on our beliefs and perspectives. We live in a world where our decisions may lead us individually to greater good but collectively to ruin. If we were to exploit natural resources to the point of exhaustion or extinction, we serve no one. However, these extinction/exhaustion events don’t happen through a single individual actor. They happen as many people apply behaviors that are rational to them and their well-being.

If you ever think that a stakeholder group is being irrational, it just means that you don’t understand them.

Short and Long Term

Perhaps the hardest thing to do in business is managing the balance between short-term and long-term investments. If you don’t survive, your long-term investments are wasted. However, if you don’t make long-term investments, you’ll always be stuck in a world of constant struggle. Others will become more efficient than you through their long-term investments, and the result will be that you’ll enter a spiral of short-term decisions that are you never able to avoid as you spend all of your resources just surviving day to day. Maybe the first long-term investment you should make is a small one – in reading Strategic Management.

Buy The Six Keys to Confident Change Management Book

When we released the Confident Change Management course earlier this year, we got a lot of feedback that it was a great comprehensive offering, but people wanted something that was more bite-sized.  Something they could read and understand quickly to help them be better at change management.  The result was we built a short book to quickly put the six keys to confident change management into everyone’s hands.

The book is short – 60 pages – and it’s designed to give you the six keys to be successful at change management and digital transformation as quickly as possible.

Here’s my personal plea.  Please help us become #1.  For Outlook, click here to download the calendar appointment, then open and accept the appointment.  For Google calendar, click here. Both give you a short appointment to buy the book at 12:00PM EDT on Wednesday, September 23rd.  The direct link to Amazon to order the book is in the appointment.  If you can order the book during our launch event, send us your receipt, and we’ll send you a special gift. (If you’re on mobile and the calendar link isn’t working, you can get the book by clicking here or revisit this page on your PC.)

If you can’t wait to see some of the content until the book’s release date, check out the free introduction to change management course that we offer – and then come back and help us by buying the book during the launch promotion.

Book Review-The Change Masters

My journey through change management work led me to The Change Masters in an indirect way. When I mentioned that I was writing a course on change management, and I listed off several of the authors’ works I was using in the course, my colleague mentioned that, years ago, they had learned change management from The Change Masters – but it was a book I hadn’t heard of and hadn’t heard people refer to. Like it frequently happens when books arrive in my consciousness this way, there are many useful nuggets.

Published in 1983, there is already a concern about the ability for organizations to be innovative. We may have managed to conquer the assembly line and mass production, but it seems that most people have lost their ability to innovate, to try something new. This is the heart of the change that The Change Masters is focused on – how do you help people be more willing to look at things in a new way?

Efficiency and Effectiveness

Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things. It is a subtle but profound distinction. We had gotten so good at optimizing processes that we had forgotten to ask whether we were optimizing the right things. We were asking whether we were using the right tool to chop down the tree without realizing we were in the wrong forest. In an age of mergers and acquisitions, we had become slave to the quarterly earnings report and had lost our way to long term performance.

It’s certainly true that we need goals to pull us forward, and small, incremental goals can be useful. The problem is that this must come in conjunction with, not instead of, a long-term strategic perspective. With CEOs and management teams trading positions like kids playing musical chairs, there’s no reason to be concerned about the long-term performance of the organization. What matters is the next quarterly earnings report and the bonus that’s attached to the right outcomes – whether they created them or not.


Being innovative is hard. It requires a diversity of skills, a willingness to see a new future, and a heaping of trust. If you’re expecting that your next mistake will cause you to be the first one to laid off, you’re not going to be willing to make mistakes – and being willing to make mistakes is what makes innovation possible. I’ve done a lot of research on innovation (see Innovation by Design, The Art of Innovation, Unleashing Innovation, and The Innovator’s DNA for a start). I’ve come to realize that there are interrelated factors of safety, courage, trust, and diversity of thought that are woven into the fabric of organizations that are innovative.

The Edge of Us

An interesting topic explored by Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order is what happens when the locus of trust is placed in different places – in the individual, in the family, or in the country. The Evolution of Cooperation touches on this as it explores mathematical models and computer simulations for the best strategies of organisms. The funny thing is that the larger we define the boundaries of “us” – and the fewer people we’re willing to put into the category of “them” – the greater our chances of success – and even survival. Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind makes the point that we didn’t become the dominant biomass on the planet because of our fur protecting us from the elements, our keen eyesight, or even our talons and claws. We became the dominant biomass on the planet because of our ability to work together. The trick is how large do we draw the circle of us and how many people fit in it? Robin Dunbar pegs the number at around 150 people, with some people having more and some having less. (See High Orbit for more.) The larger we draw the edge of us, the greater the opportunity for diversity (see The Difference for more on why we need diversity) and the greater our opportunities for creativity. (See Creative Confidence for more.)

If we want to reach forward into innovation, we need to learn how to draw the boundaries of us beyond our department, our division, and maybe even beyond our own organization.

Change and the Loss of Control

Hidden somewhere deep underneath the obvious reasons why we avoid change, there lies another more honest reason. Of course, when there are changes, there are fears that the change may mean something worse than our current situation; but there’s a deeper fear that we may not be in control as much as we think we are. Someone externally changing things on us is a painful reminder that we’re not in control as much as we might like to believe we are. In Compelled to Control, J. Keith Miller points out that everyone wants to control – but no one wants to be controlled.

The change masters, those who are the best at helping organizations and individuals change, can convince someone that the change was their idea, like Tom Sawyer convincing the other boys to whitewash the fence for him. Mark Twain, and Tom Sawyer by extension, was ahead of his time. It would take decades for people to explore intrinsic motivation and how to get others to do things for you. (See Influence, Pre-Suasion, The Hidden Persuaders, and Influencer.)

15 Minutes Ahead and To the Victor Go the Spoils

Woody Allen was worried about an advanced civilization that was 15 minutes ahead of us. They’d always be first in line at the movies. They’d get the best parking spots, and they’d never be late for a meeting. He was concerned that it didn’t take a big lead to make a big difference. Even a small lead would do.

This is particularly true if the world operates under the model of “To the victor goes the spoils.” That is, the person who wins the first round gets more of the benefits than the loser. The winner therefore has an even bigger advantage the next time. Over time a small advantage can become a big advantage. It’s how Steven Kotler explains the extraordinary feats that some people are capable of in The Rise of Superman.

Immobilizing Managers

Nothing immobilizes a manager – or anyone in mankind for that matter – faster than uncertainty and insecurity. When trust is vacant, and the outcomes are uncertain, people – not just managers – hunker down and brace themselves for whatever is coming – whether it make sense to do so or not. When faced with uncertainty, the most likely response is nothing. The response is that we should “hold tight,” “stand pat,” or “seek wise council.” In short, do anything that looks like something but is a statement about intentionally doing nothing.

Change masters work hard to increase trust and instill in others a sense of safety. The sense of safety must go beyond the challenges the organization is facing. You can’t keep moving forward without hope and the sense that it will be okay. You can’t keep trust and safety in a storm of ambiguity and uncertainty.

With the Flick of the Tongue

Within a few years of starting in business, I was working for the CEO of a manufacturing company doing special projects. He had pulled me away from my IT position and asked me to “just do stuff.” It was a variety of things, from pairing me up with a sales guy to relieve some excess inventory to helping change the efficiency of the direct import operations.

One of the things he said was that he had to be very careful about how quickly he changed direction. He described himself as the big gear at the center of a very large machine. If he turned too quickly, it would send all the little gears spinning. He was very wise and knew that a simple comment he might make, a simple flick of the tongue, could send people scrambling. Sometimes that could be in the right direction, but at the wrong speed and more critically, it might send people off in the wrong direction.

No Surprises

The real change masters know that people don’t like surprises – other than a few people who like surprise birthday parties. That’s why effective project and change managers are good at making sure that people arrive at a meeting, and there are no surprises. If they’re in the hot seat over something they did or didn’t do, they know it’s going to happen before they get there.

It helps people feel safe knowing that they won’t be ambushed in a meeting, and that safety plays out in a greater willingness to take risks.

Specific Requests Get Specific Action

One of the characteristics of great leaders – in change or any other discipline – is their ability to reach clarity. They’re able to cut through the fog of the conversation and find the root of the problem, the key missing ingredient, and identify the key next action. Change masters are therefore good at making the specific request that they need, not some vaguely-worded plea for help.

Though this can be perceived as some as overly direct, pushy, or even rude, clarity in the request creates action. General pleas for help are generally ignored. Specific requests may be denied, but they’re more frequently accepted.

Tolerance for Uncertainty, Not Just Any Old Risk

Success in change isn’t the same as a high tolerance for risk. Adventurous people may be willing to take risks, both personally and professionally, that no one else will take. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be in the right position to help enable change. Bridges in Managing Transitions explains that change means navigating a neutral zone of uncertainty – and that isn’t easy.

When looking to build the capacity for change, the key is not the development of risk tolerance in general but is instead about the development of an acceptance for ambiguity – the kind of ambiguity that is the natural result of change.

Touching Them Personally

Many organizations believe that involving employees in every decision or every important decision is a way to help them feel more connected and more loyal to the organization. However, this can just as easily motivate them to leave. Most employees see the kinds of wicked problems that leadership faces as “above my paygrade.” What they are, however, interested in are two things. First, their perspective on the big issues should be heard. Second, in the kinds of day-to-day annoyances that they face, they want to be able to share their input, expertise, and solutions.

Strangely, we’re less concerned about the big picture issues than we are the tiny annoyances. We’re more concerned with the daily mosquito bites than the potential bear in the woods. If you want folks to rally around their cause, sometimes it’s necessary to make the cause tiny and impactful to them personally.

Local Experiments

Carl Rogers used to say that people are experts in themselves. (See Motivational Interviewing and A Way of Being.) If we want to be effective, one way of doing that is to tap into that expertise and allow individuals to share their expertise on their life and their world through the development of small-scale experiments that appear to work for them.

While not every experiment will work, that is not the point. The point is that the people with the most expertise in the situation are trying to make it better.

Plans as Symbols

Eisenhower said that no plan survives engagement with the enemy. If that’s the case, then why plan at all? The answer is that the planning process has value – even if the plan doesn’t. In organizations, the plans send a strong signal to the organization about what’s important, the way the organization is approaching the challenges, and what they expect or hope to do.

While the plan itself may be useless, the planning process has inherent value.

Understanding the Pig Roast

Relayed in The Change Masters is a story of how a young boy set fire to a house in which a pig is trapped. After the fire is extinguished, the villagers discover the now roasted pig and eat it. They love the delicacy. They then proceed to trap a pig in a house and set it on fire every time they want to eat roast pig.

In many organizations, we do this. Because we don’t know what about our actions created the result we want, we keep doing all of the actions with sometimes outrageous costs. The lack of understanding of what things caused the result means that we can’t get to the root of what we need to do. Therefore, we sometimes burn down houses for the sake of roast pig – instead of putting the pig on a fire.

While no one book can convert you from a change neophyte to a change master, The Change Masters isn’t a bad start.

Technology Advice Podcast: How Understanding Change Makes You a Better Marketer

I recently went on the Technology Advice podcast and talked with Mike Pastore about change management and marketing. In it, I talk about how understanding change helps you understand your clients. Change can lead to stress and fear, and while much of marketing is based on stress and fear, it’s important to realize why fear-based marketing won’t always work. I also discuss how managers can help their employees feel supported enough to adopt a change – as long as there is sufficient trust to avoid too much friction stopping the change.

You can hear about these topics and more by listening to the full podcast here:

Book Review-READY, Set, Change!: Simplify and Accelerate Organizational Change

What surprises me the most about the world of change management is how there can continue to be new things that I learn about it. Sometimes, the things I learn are closer to me than I could have ever realized. That’s the case with April Callis-Birchmeier’s book, READY, Set, Change!: Simplify and Accelerate Organizational Change. The proximity I’m referring to here is both geographical and relational. April’s in Michigan – the next state over from my home in Indiana. Relationally, the person she used to help publish her book is someone who I see several times a year at networking events. It’s truly a small world.


There are no shortage of models when it comes to change. April introduces another model – the READY model:

  • R: Relevant and relatable messaging about the change
  • E: Engage Leaders as sponsors and actively promote the change
  • A: Advance
    communication to ensure messaging is received and advocating for stakeholders
  • D: Develop, support, and train on process and technology
  • Y: Reinforce WHY and reduce resistance to adoption

This model definitely aligns with other models. Prosci’s ADKAR model (see Successful Technology Change and ADKAR and Change Management), Kotter’s 8-Step model (see Leading Change and The Heart of Change), Stages of Change (see Motivational Interviewing), and Bridges’ Transitions model (see
Managing Transitions
). It also aligns with Simon Sinek’s work in Start with Why.

More broadly, it connects with The Psychology of Hope by emphasizing the need for support and training. (See Job Aids and Performance Support for ideas on support and Efficiency in Learning, The Adult Learner, and The Art of Explanation for more on training.) In not so short, it’s sound advice for people who are looking to make change effective in their organization. So, while it’s another model to consider, it is well founded.

Setting for Success

In Collaborative Intelligence, Richard Hackman asserts that as much as 60 percent of the probability of a team’s success is based on what happens before they come together. Here, April encourages the proper preparation in the change process to lead to better chances for success. There are, of course, no guarantees, but the more work that can be done ahead of time to prepare the organization for the change that’s coming, the more likely it is they’ll be able to accept it and the initiative will be successful.

Readiness is an Emotional Choice

There is no magic formula for helping people be ready for the change. Readiness is, in fact, a personal choice. It’s a choice about how capable you feel of coping with the transition (to use Bridges’ words). This, too, is supported by evidence. Richard Lazarus, in Emotion and Adaptation, explains that our emotions are formed based on a stressor (stimulus) and our assessment of that stimulus. Individually, we can become more ready for change through developing our courage (see Find Your Courage) and our waypower – that is, our understanding of how we’ll make the change (see The Psychology of Hope).

Technology, Training, and Barriers

Demand explains that small barriers make a big difference. While it may not seem like much, sometimes the inability to find where to start can stop people from starting at all. Instead of displaying tenacity, persistence, and grit, people give up all too easily. (See Grit and Willpower for more.) Speaking as a technologist, some problems are hard to solve – and as a change specialist, some are harder to solve if you make them people problems.

There’s a tendency – particularly at the last minute – to make gaps in the technical solution a training problem. That may, or may not, be the right answer. The truth is that all gaps should be assessed from the perspective of their capacity or propensity to derail the change initiatives success. Sometimes, it’s better to delay a little, get the technology tighter, and ultimately be ahead from an adoption perspective.

An Ounce of Prevention

An ounce of prevention is often worth a pound of cure. In change management, the preparation you do can reduce the amount of time that your success will take. Reading READY, Set, Change! may be a good start to that preparation.

Book Review-How to Be a Change Superhero: The Business Toolkit to Help You to ‘Do’ Change Better

There’s the moment right after you realize that you’ve been assigned to your first change project when panic sets in and you begin to wonder How to be a Change Superhero. Whether the thought crosses your mind early in the process or late doesn’t matter. What matters is that moment of panic when you realize that you don’t have the tools you need to accomplish the change you’re being asked to move forward in the organization. How to be a Change Superhero: The Business Toolkit to Help You to ‘Do’ Change Better is all about helping you cross the chasm between your current self and the hero that exists inside of you.

Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces and developed what he believed to be a universal story arc that has become known as Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The journey always starts with a limited awareness of the current situation and proceeds through a period of self-denial and self-doubt before the hero emerges. Everyone wants the hero to emerge.

The Change Equation

Richard Beckhard and Reuben Harris developed a change equation that is C=A*B*D>X, where C is the degree of change, A is the level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, B is the desirability of the proposed change, D is the practicality of the change and X is the cost of change. Said more simply, change only happens when the pain of changing is less than the pain of staying the same. In principle, I agree with the formula, though I’m careful about the multiplicative aspect of the terms. I’m not completely convinced that they’re mutually exclusive or that the effect is as dramatic as the multiplication might suggest.

Everett Rogers expressed it differently. In Diffusion of Innovations, he explained that there are five factors that influenced the rate of adoption of an innovation (the rate of change): observability, trialability, simplicity (lack of complexity), relative advantage, and compatibility. In Rogers’ model, the lack of any of these discourages change.

Against Our Will

One of the most powerful realizations in change is that you’ll likely not succeed if your approach is to get people to do things against their will. Commanding people to do something just doesn’t work as well as we would like it to. People don’t appreciate the idea that they have no choice, that it’s not their desire to do it but they must. This builds resentment, and resentment results in friction everywhere. Not only will the specific thing that’s being commanded face resistance, but so, too, will most things that you ask the person to do – even things they do want to do. The resentment around one area of their work world will bleed into other areas as well.

You Can’t Fake Sincerity

If you want to care for the people that you’re asking to make change, you’ll have to be sincere. It’s not possible – in a sustained way – to pretend to be sincere about your concern for others but not really be concerned. Somewhere, somehow, it will eventually leak out, and the resulting backlash will generally make people not trust you any longer. So, while in the short-term, faking sincerity might be possible, it’s a bad idea, and in the long term, it’s not possible at all.

Becoming a Superhero

If you want to become a change superhero in your organization, maybe read How to Be a Change Superhero.

By the way, Lucinda Carney has a toolkit related to the book available if you’d prefer to start with that.

Book Review-One Minute to Midnight

It was the closest that the world had ever come to a global nuclear war, and it started in America’s back yard. Metaphorically speaking, it was just one minute from the end of the atomic day. The clock advanced to just one minute before midnight, a whisper from the end of the world. Then slowly, magically, it receded to a spot where both sides stepped back from the abyss and found a way towards peace. It was a peace that would start the world on a track of lower risk of mutually-assured destruction.

The time spent one minute from midnight started from October 16th, 1962, when the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was notified that we had aerial reconnaissance confirmation of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun, and it had the effect of advancing the atomic clock to One Minute to Midnight.

The Story

In brief, the Soviets had worked with Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, in a partnership that put medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) on Cuban soil aimed at the United States. Castro has suffered intrusions into the Cuban state through US-sponsored incursions, most notably The Bay of Pigs. The relationship with the Soviet Union was a way of protecting himself from the US and at the same time allowed Nikita Khrushchev a way to give the US back some of what it was giving to Moscow. The US had deployed MRBMs to Turkey – roughly the same distance to Moscow as it was from Cuba to Washington, D.C.

The situation was ultimately resolved through a blockade and subsequent diplomacy, but not before having nearly two weeks of very tense moments. The missiles were removed from Cuba and the US agreed to remove the missiles from Turkey.

That’s the history lesson and the context of the book. However, in addition to the twists and turns the story takes, there’s a second story that’s told of how our world has changed and how it has stayed the same.


Perhaps the most striking observation was the change in communications from then to now. Commands relayed from Washington could take 6-8 hours to make it to the commanders of the Navy stationed in the Gulf of Mexico. Official communication to the Soviet Union could take 12 hours or more. Even before the red phone was installed to provide direct communication between the US and the Soviet Union, we had improved communications dramatically.

Today, we take for granted that we can reach out and contact anyone on the planet in a matter of minutes if not seconds. We have video calls with friends and colleagues half a world away. We expect that our messages will arrive nearly instantaneously and that everyone has access to the internet in one way or another. However, at the time, the internet wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t even a wish.

One of the major challenges for the Soviet submarine commanders was the requirement that they surface to communicate with Moscow each day. While the timing made perfect sense in conflicts centered around Moscow – midnight – it made them very vulnerable during the daylight in the Atlantic waters.

Time and Distance

Never had the Soviet Union deployed ships and troops in such quantities so far away. Simple challenges like communications seemed onerous until they needed precise time signals that were too weak to receive from Moscow. Instead, they had to accept their time signals from US sources – unbeknownst to the US army.


It took nearly 30 hours for the US to notice that the Soviet ships that were on their way to Cuba to turn around and start heading home – after the initial awareness that the US knew of the missiles and Khrushchev started pulling back. Still, there was a spy providing the US with lots of useful information including the technical manual for the missiles being deployed to Cuba. We also had a sophisticated (for the time) set of listening posts that made it possible to detect the location Soviet submarines without their knowledge.

Spy planes, including the U-2, were used to gather aerial reconnaissance. (See The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird for more about spy planes.) Where now we have satellites orbiting to safely photograph locations of interest, back then, we had to put people at risk to gather the photographic intelligence we needed to make decisions.

What we knew was mostly wrong – particularly as it pertains to the number of nuclear warheads that were in Cuba and the troop deployment. Moreover, we had dramatically overestimated the Soviet nuclear capacity. Where we underestimated the deployment strength, we vastly overestimated the total strength.


The crisis wasn’t really about the ability to hit the US from Cuba. The truth was, as Kennedy was aware, that you were dead whether the nuclear warhead was delivered through an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or a MRBM. Kennedy never liked the Jupiter missiles deployed to Turkey and he tried to remove them – but he was always blocked. His “ace in the hole” was the Minuteman ICBMs that were scattered throughout Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Where the Jupiter missiles were mounted above ground and took 15-30 minutes to fuel, the Minuteman missiles were in underground silos and were ready to launch “within minutes.” Their farm configuration – which spread the missile silos over large areas of sparsely populated space – made them difficult for the Soviets to wipe out in an initial attack scenario.

The missiles in Cuba were a pawn of the much larger nuclear one-upmanship that the two superpowers had been playing. It was the case of American imperialism against communist solidarity. The missiles weren’t the point – the fact that the US was being threatened was.

Cuba’s Castro

Ninety percent of Cuba was owned in some way by the United States companies or individuals before the revolution. Cuba’s liberation meant that the government ceased the assets of foreign owners for state control – and even despite this grab of economic power, the country nearly collapsed. Castro’s revolution was a success – barely – but his economy was a wreck. He was intent at doing whatever it took to ensure that the economy survived, so that the country would survive under his leadership.

He was, however, a revolutionary at heart, and as such, he was willing to go to much greater extremes than either the US or his Soviet counterparts. Where the US soldier wouldn’t tolerate poor conditions and as much as one-third of the soldiers becoming ill, this was tolerable for the Soviet troops. The Soviets had done testing on their own people with regard to the impacts of nuclear radiation. Many died as a result of their radiation exposure. Castro knew the impacts of nuclear radiation and was willing to poison his country for decades to stop an invading US force.

The Soviets brought more with them than the MRBMs. They brought tactical nuclear weapons that would wipe out an invading force – but not without rather permanent and lasting damage to the ability for Cuba to be habitable. This didn’t seem to bother either the Soviet suppliers or the Cuban Dictator, who seemed locked in his revolutionary ways and the belief that winning was all that mattered.

The Consequences of Nuclear War

Kennedy and Khrushchev were both painfully aware that there was no such thing as a limited nuclear war. They knew that once the first weapon was fired (even inadvertently), there would likely be little turning back. Where Castro seemed intent on using whatever means necessary, both leaders saw their roles in history differently. They felt like that if they stepped too far forward, there would be nothing to step back to.

What does it mean to be the victor when the world is destroyed, they wondered. Victory is hollow when it is only to survive longer before inevitable death.


The threat to democracy was communism. There was a belief that it just could be a better system of government, and the US’ democratic approach was bound to be buried by communist efficiency. Where Khrushchev made promises to crush the US economically, we now know that this was just bluster. That didn’t stop the inquiries at the time or the fear that our way of living might be changed by forces outside our control.

It’s interesting to me as I compare it to Microsoft’s response to Linux in the 1990s. Linux was a real threat to Microsoft’s Windows desktop market – only to be revealed to be a non-issue. Microsoft did lose some market share to Linux in the server market, but this was hardly as pervasive or as redefining as it was anticipated to be.

When you’re standing too close to the problem, you fail to put it into a proper perspective.


JFK is a hero. However, his image is much larger than the real-life person. His handling of the crisis, his push to the Moon, and his famous speeches anchored a place for him in the American psyche. Having been assassinated, he didn’t have to accept the messiness of the fall from grace. However, when you look deeper, you see parts of the man that don’t reflect the hero image.

His medical issues were a secret to me until One Minute to Midnight. I never realized all the care that he was receiving behind the scenes to remain functional. I recognize these host of problems as the result of stress and incongruency in his world – something that the doctors at the time didn’t appear to be aware of. However, the man that spoke for everyone in America was as fallible as any other man.

There are the stories that you hear about JFK and his infidelity. Marylin Monroe’s relationship with him – including the alleged sexual relationship – are well known. His string of sexual encounters was also well established. However, the relationship with his former neighbor and former wife of a senior CIA official was an aspect I had not previously been aware of.

I can only believe that these were different times for different people, when it was expected that men, particularly powerful men, would have affairs. I don’t understand it or how it would be acceptable to the wives, but it’s far from the last time that a politician – or sitting president – would have an indiscretion that the wife knew about and either condoned or concealed. (Think Bill Clinton.)

I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the same place that we were with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet Union’s attempts to keep pace with the US economy and defense spending broke it. Communism, it seems, wasn’t as great as it was made out to be. What I do remember from my history class is that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it – and not just the high school history class. If for no other reason than avoiding the possibility of nuclear war, perhaps it’s time to give some thought to One Minute to Midnight.

Building a Course: Rendering All Stale Videos

When you’re building a large-scale course with hours of videos comprised of literally hundreds of videos, you’re invariably going to run into a problem that will require you to rerender the videos. In our case, we needed to replace the background. We got feedback that our plain white background, which we often use in our videos because it’s non-distracting, resulted in too much white on the screen. The result was the need to rerender all the videos with a new background.

Since the move to the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema 6K camera, we found our render times climbing to about 5:1. That meant a one-minute video would be a five-minute wait to complete. It also meant that repacking all the videos by hand would take weeks. The way we solved it was to create an extension for Vegas to render all the project files in a directory tree, but that wasn’t the way we started.

Scripting and Off-the-Shelf

When it comes to needing tools to build courses, my first goal is always to buy something. I’d much rather buy something and put a bit a script around it than have to build something from scratch. There’s a simple reason for this: time. It’s cheaper to spend $100 than it is to spend 10 hours building a tool. While there are a number of tools that plug into VEGAS to allow for batch rendering – and even an out-of-the-box script – none of them approached what I was trying to do. They either allowed output to multiple formats or they wanted you to build a single project with multiple regions in it, each of which would get rendered to a separate file. That might make sense for some situations, but it’s not practical with hundreds of files and 12 hours of content.

I resolved to start by trying to revise the Batch Render script that is included with the product. I got the framework built out and tried to use it only to realize the primary limitation with the approach. It’s difficult to debug. The script is a C# script, and Vegas supports extensions, too, with a single interface. So, I broke out Visual Studio and converted the script to an extension.

The Code

Basically, I needed to take media files, copy them to the reference directories for each of the projects, and then render the files. However, since I expected I’d never get all the work done in a single sitting, I needed to be a bit more intelligent about when I rendered. That all started with copying the media files.

The Media

I ultimately decided that the tool would pick up media files from a master directory and copy them into the media directories for each of the projects (actually the working directories), since, in some cases, a single folder might host several project files. The copying would only happen if the files in the master directory were newer than the files that exist in the media directory already.

We use this strategy because the automatic file location in Vegas is good if the files are placed under the project directory but not good if they’re in random directories – including directories above the project. By placing copies in the media folder, we knew that Vegas would locate the files even if we needed to render from another machine on the network.

In the end, I’d figure out when the last file in the media directory was modified and use that in deciding what projects to render.

Deciding Which Projects to Render

A project needed rendered if the project file had been updated since the last rendering or if the media the project uses was updated. We keep all the rendered files in a specific subdirectory from the project file – Render – so locating the rendered file wasn’t that difficult. Then it’s a bit of checking to know whether the project needed to be rendered or not – except for two problems.

The first issue was that some of the project files that we had in the directories were leftovers. We kept them for reference, but the output didn’t make it into the core of the project. For those, we had a simple solution. Suffix the file name with -DNR (for “do not render”). We’d have the tool skip any files with the -DNR suffix. However, that still created one more problem: nested files.

While Vegas supports nested project files natively – that is, you can use one project file as a source for another – they’re not the most performant. As a result, if we need to split a long video (as we often do), we render the output of the master file, then use Vegas to slice into that file. The rendering time for those files is 1:5 (one minute of render for five minutes of video). So what happens is we end up needing to do some files first, so the rest of the files can use the output out of the render directory as their source. We reused the suffix idea and suffixed these files with -1st. We’d process all of those first, then all the other files. This ensured that we created the files the other renderings needed.

The User Interface

The user interface was super simple: just a set of text boxes for configuration and then a dialog with a Data Grid View in it. The Data Grid View includes the directory and project name as well as the length, media files copied, start, end, elapsed rendering times, and a status. Length and rendering times are only recorded if the file is rendered.

Vegas has two quirks related to opening new files. First, there’s no method you can call to close the existing file. There’s a workaround to create a new blank file and turn off prompting to save the existing file. The second quirk is that your dialog gets hidden during the opening of a new file. To solve this, you can just reshow the dialog after the file is loaded.

In the end, there’s an option to save the output file to a CSV file to save the results of the operation – and to provide some baseline timings.

Wait for Idle

One of the other quirks with Vegas was that you have to call WaitForIdle() before you can read values from the project that you just loaded. You need to do this so you can get the length – so you know how to set up the rendering. If you don’t, you’ll get a length of zero – and that doesn’t work so well.


The last step is starting the rendering process. That’s about setting a few things – like the length – and then kicking off the process. Of course, you need to tell it where to render to – which is easy enough, given the standardized folder structure. You also need to set the rendering settings.

Luckily, Vegas allows you to save the rendering settings that you want in the user interface. You save these settings with a name so the code can just go retrieve that template. It’s looping through the various renderers looking for the specific template you want – but it’s not particularly challenging code.

The Results

The result is a “fire and forget” approach. If you need to update a batch of files, you just kick it off. If you need to change the background – or a logo/bug – you replace the file in the media master directory, and the tool will copy the files and render the files.

It turns an interactive process of 60 or 80 hours of rendering into something that you can set up before a long weekend and come back to when it’s done. There are still, of course, the issues of getting all the files staged in the video delivery platforms, but while that process is tedious, it doesn’t burn through weeks of time.

While I don’t like having to build automation to make our content projects function effectively, there are times like this one when it works out well. If you want a copy of the tool, contact us, and we’ll get you a copy, so you don’t have to build one yourself.