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Primal Leadership

Book Review-Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence

There are numerous books about leadership. A plethora of visionaries over the years have sought to improve leadership in organizations. So what makes Primal Leadership unique is that it talks about the emotional component of leadership. Speaking about emotions in business seems to have picked up a taboo. Those who do speak about emotions in business are in HR and they’re often seen as out of touch with the real issues of the organization (as the book points out.)

Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee lead you through some of their and others research about how emotional intelligence impacts the performance of individuals, leaders, teams, and organizations. While I’ve read some of Goleman’s other works (Emotional Intelligence, for instance) I’ve not seen all of the works assembled in a way that helps the reader understand how vitally important emotional intelligence can be to success of leaders.

Successful Attitude

Zig Ziglar said “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” This is a great summary statement for the thesis that IQ doesn’t matter nearly as much as emotional intelligence. The song “Accentuate the Positive” Has powerful lyrics. Consider this snippet “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with mister in between.” This is a song has guidance that is useful in our real world.

The first half of emotional intelligence is self-awareness and self-management. This is the ability to monitor and manage your feelings and mood. Ultimately managing feelings and moods means that you can manage your attitudes about the things that come up in your day-to-day life. It’s attitude management, the ability to focus how you feel about things that can be immensely powerful. In Thinking in Systems we learned about how a paradigm shift is one of the most powerful ways to impact a system. Attitude shifts are paradigm shifts. It’s changing the way that you see the world around you. When I read Stumbling on Happiness, I mentioned that it was during an unusually long rescheduling at the airport – and it was fine. Compare that with the irate people you see as you’re walking to your next flight. It’s simply a different world.

The second half of emotional intelligence is social awareness – knowing how to see emotions in others – and relationship management. The finesse of emotional intelligence comes in when deciding how much of someone else’s mood or attitude to take in. While it’s natural for us to synchronize our emotional state with others – particularly when sharing an experience like watching a movie, we need to be able to define the boundaries between where our responsibility begins and where it ends.

Learning about how to set boundaries can be difficult work for those of us who didn’t have great examples of appropriate boundary setting as a child. (See Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries) Learning to communicate your desires and to not take ownership of someone else’s feelings is tough stuff. At the heart of this is a simple understanding. When you communicate to someone else your needs and desires, you’re not taking anything from them. You’re allowing them the opportunity to give you what you need. The subtle change here is in attitude. It’s the attitude of taking verses the attitude of giving. That makes a world of difference. Taking depletes our emotional bank where giving makes a deposit.

The idea that we’re synchronizing our attitudes with those around us isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, leaders can use the fact that humans try to synchronize – or attune – their feelings to one another as a powerful motivator.

Attunement Instead of Alignment

Emotional synchronization may be at a micro level emotional attunement. However, at a broader – less episodic – perspective attuning emotions and moods can be a powerful tool for leaders. John Gottman talked extensively about attunement in The Science of Trust. The context there is for couples to have better relationships but as Primal Leadership points out, attunement may be a better paradigm for business as well. Attunement isn’t about lining up objectives. Rather, attunement is about bringing things in harmony with one another. Attunement in business means getting everyone bought into the same vision. There’s more to buying into a vision than just aligning objectives.

One of the challenges in the process of developing and executing a strategy is that often times the process assumes that people are replaceable cogs in the larger wheel of the organization. Fred Brooks famously spoke of the inability to replace developers in a project in his classic essay The Mythical Man-Month. People are not directly replaceable. Each person brings their own unique strengths, weaknesses, and dynamics to the organization and the strategy has to account for that. Attunement is that process of bringing all the individual strategies – for the lives of each of the employees in the organization – in harmony with the organization strategy.

I’ve spoken before about the model of the Rider, the Elephant, and the path from The Happiness Hypothesis and from Switch and the need to engage people emotionally. That’s what attunement is – an emotional engagement between two people. It’s a harmony between people – whether in a relationship or on a team. The fastest way to that attunement is laughter.

The Shortest Path between Two People Is Laughter

When I took my path into learning more about comedy (including the class which I detailed in my post “I am Comedian“, and the books Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy, and The New Comedy Writing Step by Step) I didn’t realize the power of laughter. One of the books that I started to read but haven’t finished, Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind, talks about Duchenne laughter – the kind of laughter when we genuinely find something funny and social laughter – how we respond when other people are laughing. This is based on research about how the muscles in the face are engaged differently based on whether the person spontaneously smiled – or smiled because other people were smiling. We’re social creatures by nature but it seems one of the shortcuts to our social nature is how we laugh together.

You probably already know about mirror neurons – but they act much more slowly than the behavior observed with non-Duchenne laughter. Laughter is contagious – and fiercely so. Primal Leadership talks about how powerful laughter is. Including the fact that outstanding leaders tend to use humorous comments three times as often as the average leader and the fact that most laughter doesn’t come with a punch line. One of the great learnings of comedy for me is that sometimes it’s not the punch line that gets the big laugh – sometimes it’s the tag – the thing added to the joke to extend the laughter.

Learning to cultivate laughter is a difficult art. A few nights ago I sat in a comedy club listening to a show that was barely more than an open mic and watched a dozen comics try to hone their craft of working with an audience and to get them to laugh – when that’s what they wanted to do. Imagine the challenge of a leader trying to develop this skill in a town hall meeting where the employees aren’t expecting to be entertained. It’s a difficult – but powerful – skill for those leaders who can use it. Like at a comedy club there will be many “bombs” where you and the audience don’t connect. However, it’s those failures that make you better.

Great Failures

One of the hallmarks of great coaching and mentoring is accepting short term failure for the longer term purpose of helping an employee to grow. There’s a point of view that failure shouldn’t be allowed – but in truth we learn much better when we have the opportunity to fail. Primal Leadership makes the point that there’s a delicate tension between folks feeling safe to fail – and not feeling enough pressure to succeed. It turns out that humans are uniquely able to experience stress even when there’s not an immediate threat to our survival. We can become stressed based entirely on our own perception of longer term issues. With this stress we’re flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. The effect of these two chemicals aren’t conducive to learning.

The body’s response to these chemicals, the “fight or flight” response that we’re all familiar with, is a biological adaptation to allow us to focus all of our energies on escaping the life threatening situation. However, this system was never designed – from an evolutionary standpoint – to be left on for long periods of time. It reroutes the way that learning is done from our normal executive function to a way that can trigger the amygdala the next time there is a threat so the amygdala can more accurately trigger based on it. The result is that we’re not really learning from the situation in a meaningful way.

I recently had the opportunity to revisit the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco where my friend works. Another friend described this museum as a love letter from a daughter to her father – which perfectly describes it. As you walk through the first few galleries of the museum you realize both the failures of Walt’s early life as well as his perseverance. Bankruptcies, accusations, and swindlers are all a part of the story. If you were to look at his life prior to moving to Hollywood it wouldn’t be at all remarkable. What’s remarkable is what he did after each setback. He pulled himself up and used that as a learning point on how to move forward. In fact, that may be one of his great legacies as the later galleries point out. He would work on smaller projects to learn the skills that were necessary to do larger projects.

Abraham Lincoln is another great leader who suffered failure after failure. He struggled with his first business. He lost a bid to become an Illinois state representative. He failed at another business. He had a nervous breakdown, three failed attempts at becoming a member of congress, and a failed bid for vice president by 1859. This is a man who had tried and failed and tried some more and failed some more. However, as the 16th president he had to lead the country through one of its darkest hours and is remembered universally as one of the best presidents that the United States has ever had.

The difference between those who don’t succeed and those who ultimately succeed wildly isn’t the number of failures – or even the percentage of failures. The difference it seems is the number of times at bat. It’s the number of times that they got up, dusted themselves off, and tried again. The strength to get back up comes from a great deal of inward focus – work on who they are as humans whether that work was intentional or not.

Inward Focus

One of the oddest things about leadership – and working with other people in general – is that to be better at having relationships with other people you have to have a better relationship with yourself. That means finding your true self. Finding out what is important to you. It means finding what makes you happy. (Or at least what you think what you think will make you happy. See The Happiness Hypothesis and Stumbling on Happiness for that.) Loyola and the Jesuits found that self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism were key values that led them to be the longest corporation in existence. (See Heroic Leadership.) The trio of books from the Abinger Institute include the leadership book – Leadership and Self Deception. In this book we look at the “boxes” that we can put ourselves in where our reality is distorted – and where we seek to bring others into their own “box” and their own distortion.

What Primal Leadership knows is that much of the problems that are caused in leadership are actually poor self-management. (See Emotional Intelligence for details on the four components of emotional intelligence – one of which is self-management.) By learning to better manage ourselves, we learn how to leverage the knowledge we already have about how to manage well. What’s even better is that people who have done a great deal of inward work often find that they’re able to create a space around themselves where things work better. There’s a halo effect where their presence and influence through the clarity of who they are and their confidence drives other’s behaviors as well.

Halo Effect

Have you ever been in a place where people just behaved differently with a certain person in the room, in the meeting, or in the area? I’m not talking about the way that people behave differently when their boss or the CEO is in the room. I’m talking about a person that somehow quells arguments, calms people, and just seems to get them to get things done? It’s an eerie thing to see it happen. “Joe” walks into the room and all of the sudden the fighting stops. It’s not that anyone fears “Joe.” It’s just that they know that it’s not an acceptable thing with “Joe” there.

What “Joe” has is sometimes hard to quantify. Sometimes it’s that he’s set boundaries about what is and isn’t acceptable in his presence (See Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries) Maybe he’s developed a sense of calm that simply radiates from him the way that people describe their meetings with the Dalai Lama (See Emotional Awareness). No matter what it is there’s an effect around “Joe.” There are people like this in your organization now. These people – who may or may not be in leadership positions – infect the people around them with a better sense and practice of leadership. This infection happens relatively outside of the leadership approaches that they use. It’s an outcome of their inward work.

Leadership Approaches (Skills or Styles)

Though Primal Leadership identifies six leadership styles, I see six approaches or sets of skills. The reason for the language change is one of the core messages of the book – that managers get better by learning more styles and learning when to use them. If you have a style you have a set way of doing things. You’ll tend to continue your style for long periods of time. However, the research suggests that having a full tool box of these approaches and learning when and how to switch between them makes leaders more effective. It’s much easier to switch from using one skill to another than it is to switch from one style to another. However, skills doesn’t quite match up to these because each of the styles in the book is really a set of skills – thus an approach toward a leadership event. So while I’m picking at the language the key messaging – the approaches – are quite solid.

These approaches are rooted in Daniel Goleman’s research and article for Harvard Business Review titled “Leadership That Gets Results” – however some of the names of the approaches have been changed between the writing of the article and the writing of Primal Leadership. Where possible I’ve tried to tie the two names together.

Visionary (Coercive)

Initially called coercive, the visionary style gets people to move towards shared dreams. The initial term – coercive – may have seemed negative but the visionary leader is a powerful leadership style. It helps rally everyone around a common objective. The visionary leadership style asks those who follow to give up – or attune – their goals to the goal of the leader. Like the pied piper the visionary style asks people to follow.

Goleman’s data indicates that this is the most effective leadership style perhaps because it can be used to shape even the most dull and mundane tasks into something else. If your vision is “delivering Christmas” how much more powerful a thought is that from a job sorting packages at a FedEx package sorting facility?


We’ve all seen numerous sports coaches that are great examples of coaching – and numerous who are not. Or have we? Coaching isn’t about demanding performance or even rallying speeches. Coaching – particularly in the context of leadership – is about connecting a person’s goals and aspirations to the organization’s goals. The first step is understanding the person’s goals. However, from there the coach must draw lines between how the person’s individual goals line up with and support the organizational goals. Finally, the coach must identify ways to work towards both goals at the same time.

Affiliative (Connecting)

Taken to the extreme, the Affiliative style is peacemaking. That is never allowing conflict for fear that it might drive divisiveness into the group. However, used appropriately, an affiliative style works by connecting people to one another. Where coaching was about the one-on-one relationship between the coach and the coachee, affiliative leadership is about helping the team bond together better. (See more about the impact of this in Collaborative Intelligence.)

Democratic (Listening)

The democratic approach is about letting everyone have their say and get their buy in through the thought that they were heard and that their ideas were valued. This style can be very positive in that it can get everyone feeling like they had their say. However, this style requires more skill than it might at first appear because it’s important to not just let people have their say but also for them to feel heard. This is discussed in Dialogue Mapping and the Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices where the dialogue mapping process is discussed as a way to demonstrate that at topic was heard.

Conceptually the democratic approach is about the wisdom of crowds. However, often democratic approaches deteriorate into the tyranny of a mob. The skills of a leader are tested most when trying to manage all of the factors that can take the train off the tracks.


Some people like a challenge. Sometimes leaders can put a stretch goal in front of a team for them to accomplish. These goals are useful for helping folks break out of a performance level they’ve been stuck at. However, the important part of this is that they’re not a sustainable pace. It’s not sustainable to always be working on stretch goals. Employees need time to recover and recharge. We’ve seen this with agile software development methodologies where high performance relies upon consistent delivery – not unsustainable paces.

Leaders who use pacesetting need to do so carefully to prevent overuse and fatigue. The challenge is to keep enough challenge for people to do their best but not so much they become burnt out and conversely that there’s enough pressure on them that they stay motivated.

Commanding (Authoritative)

There’s also a leadership approach that’s commanding. This can be appropriate in limited circumstances where there’s an urgent need or a great deal of disruption which has frozen people but long term is corrosive and leads employees to feel like they are not valued. Even organizations where commanding approaches are essential – like the military – balance the commanding approach with other more positive approaches.

Tools in a Toolbox

Primal Leadership makes the point that the more of these approaches that you can use well, the better you will be as a leader. The more of these skills that a leader is competent and comfortable with the greater the possibility that the leader will be able to select the right approach when necessary – and the greater the possibility that they’ll use it in the right amount. The answer isn’t that there’s one right – or wrong – way to approach things. Rather it’s about knowing which tool to select for different situations. Learning is a critical part of leadership not just because the market is changing around you but because there’s an opportunity to become a better person.

You can change

As was discussed in Mindset, there are two ways that people can see themselves and others. They can see them as either: fixed and unchanging or as an organism capable of change and growth. In order to accept that you can learn new leadership approaches – and to get better at the approaches that you use today – you have to accept that the way that you lead isn’t a fixed set but rather, it’s something that you can learn.

Adult Learning

When you’re trying to lead you’re trying to teach people how to get across the next goal line. We’ve talked about the factors that influence adult learning in the review of The Adult Learner and some of the techniques that can be used to teach in Efficiency in Learning. What’s interesting is that in Primal Learning there are discussions that the best way to change people isn’t to focus on the performance of the person – but rather on the learning that they needed to be successful. It was also clear that the employee needed to have a strong personal desire for learning – beyond work – for the best results. When employees are lifelong learners they’re able to better integrate learning and overall be better performers.

Tipping Point

One of the areas of research for Richard Boyatzis has been the impact of increasing the number of leadership approaches that are being used and how the ability to leverage four or more of the styles can make you much more powerful. Similarly, learning how to better use individual styles can make you more effective with them. There’s a tipping point with the individual styles where you’ll be more successful and also with the number of styles that you can use which can propel you to the next level of leadership

The Power of Norms

There’s power in the habits and the normal. I’ve discussed the rider-elephant-path model several times (see Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis). Primal Leadership speaks about how creating norms of conduct that are positive can influence everything. Everyone wants to be positive to others. If you don’t believe in the power of norms, consider that even during the LA Riots in 1992 people were looting stores after parking their cars inside the lines in the parking lot. They’re willing to openly loot from the store but parking outside the lines was so foreign that they didn’t even think to do it.

Leading With Style

Everyone has some approach to how they lead – even if their position isn’t that of a leader. Some of the best leaders may be introspective and focused on improving themselves and their awareness of themselves to be able to be more comfortable with stretching themselves out to learn new styles (See How Children Succeed for more.) Learning how to adapt your styles between the various approaches makes you a more versatile leader and thereby can make you more effective at leading. Pickup Primal Leadership to learn how you can be more effective.

Collaborative Intelligence

Book Review-Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems

Like many people, I enjoy action movies where there are terrorists trying to wreck our world and the lone hero – or hero team – that are standing in the breach between the terrorists and our way of life. However, I’ve never really given much thought to what it would be like to be in an intelligence community. I can quickly spot the flaws in a plot line but I’ve never given much thought to what would have to happen to prevent terrorists. However, I found the view of intelligence communities, provided through Collaborative Intelligence very intriguing. I didn’t pick the book up to learn about the intelligence community – I picked the book up to learn about team dynamics – but it was interesting.

Many places where you start to study about team effectiveness you’ll find references to Richard Hackman’s work including articles and papers. Collaborative Intelligence is his latest (and sadly his last work.) It lays out six conditions to increase the potential for team effectiveness and three criteria for measuring the performance of teams. The work lives outside the bounds of the traditional cause and effect popular management books of the day. Hackman doesn’t seek to tell you one way to be successful. In that way it’s like The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices. Instead, Collaborative Intelligence is about the things that can make it more likely for teamwork to work – and things that work against it.

Three Criteria

Hackman ultimately was interested in making teams more effective but more effective by what measurement? It’s possible to be focused on only the results but as I discussed in my reviews of The Fifth Discipline and The Four Disciplines of Execution, this isn’t really enough. You have to look earlier into the process – and later in the process. Hackman uses three criteria for team performance:

Criteria Indicator Type
Productive Output Lagging
Social Processes Leading
Learning / Growth Far-Leading

Hackman also discusses three team processes that I believe fall into the category of sustainability which I’ll cover first, before covering Hackman’s three criteria.


In agile development there’s a concept of a sustainable pace. In a market dominated by hero development where a lone programmer stocks up on Mountain Dew and Doritos and spends a few days without sleep, coding something magnificent, there’s a palpable awareness of how things must be sustainable. You can’t continue to drive developers above a sustainable pace any more than you can make a horse run continuously. For instance, the Pony Express swapped out horses after relatively short distances because an individual horse couldn’t sustain the high speed that they were asking of them.

Hackman measured three key team processes to observe the sustainability of the team:

  • Amount of Effort
  • Team Choices
  • Level of Knowledge and Skill

Hackman was measuring the same sustainability metric by looking at the amount of effort that the team was putting in order to get their output. It’s certainly possible – and productive – to burst activity towards the goal but those bursts have to be paid for at some point.

Team choices are about the social dynamics and making sure that the team is collaborating to produce strategies for getting the work done instead of allowing one or a few members to dominate the approaches. If approaches are thoroughly thought out by the team and negotiated to agreement (not just acceptance – see The Science of Trust and How to be an Adult in Relationships for more) then the team is likely to be able to continue to operate for some time effectively. If one person or a small group are dominating the approach decisions then eventually they’ll run out of good ideas or the rest of the team will revolt – or both.

Finally, you can only get lucky for so long. If you’re working in uncharted waters where there the team has no knowledge or skill you can “get lucky” with some early successes, however, eventually the team will make a mistake because they’ve never done something. Knowing how much knowledge and skill is being applied to the problem at hand helps you to understand the risk of a small failure.

Together these measurements allow you to see how long the team can sustain its productive output.

Productive Output

At some level every team gets measured on its results so it is no surprise that you would measure the output of the team. However, as mentioned in The Four Disciplines of Execution, output is necessarily lagging. (Also see Thinking in Systems for delay.) To be able to intervene and make changes you need leading indicators, like the social processes in use.

Social Processes

Anyone who was a part of a large family has seen sibling rivalry and has seen the sarcastic “picking” at one another that sometimes happens in a family. Some of us have seen a mostly different experience where siblings go out of their way to support one another. Whether it’s complimenting an accomplishment, encouraging around a disappointing setback, or simply listening to the world of the sibling without comment, there’s a more supportive social construct that can also develop.

Hackman measured how the social processes of the team were working. They were looking for how the team was building each other up, not tearing each other down. When a team works to support individual member’s weaknesses — we all have them — rather than attack them, the team is more effective. The more that a team can develop an open, honest, and supporting environment the more likely it is that the team will be successful in creating it’s deliverable – and helping each of the individual members to grow.

Hackman knew that overtime the ability of the team to support and accept each other’s weaknesses would improve productive output – and perhaps even spur individual and team learning.

Learning and Growth

Measured in the long term the current project doesn’t matter. The current team effectiveness will be a faded memory. However, what will really resound is the velocity with which the organization moves. The velocity of the organization is driven by the ability for its teams to get things done and that means that teams need to get more effective over time – over the long time horizon. That is done by ensuring that the team dynamics foster the growth of individuals both in their ability to work in a team as well as their individual skills.

One of the great things about Ford’s assembly line was that he could leverage unskilled workers because the requisite skill to work on the line was low. One of the worst things about the assembly line was that the assembly line didn’t encourage, support, or to some extent even allow, workers to grow their skill level. While we still use assembly lines in the production of some things, the way that they’re executed are much different. They take advantage of lean manufacturing thinking and cellular manufacturing to create an opportunity for the individual workers to become more skilled – and there by create the opportunity for success.

Knowing that we want to improve outcomes, improve our interactions, and improve our people, we need to explore the conditions that lead to these outcomes.

Six Conditions

What makes some teams very effective and some completely ineffective – or perhaps even capable of moving an organization backwards? There’s no one answer to that question. Certainly individual performance and competency impact the capabilities of the team, however, some “dream team” collection of players work spectacularly and some fail miserably. Certainly there’s more to a team than the sum of its parts. That’s the core of the six conditions which are:

  • Real Team
  • Compelling Purpose
  • Right People
  • Clear Norms
  • Supportive Context
  • Competent Coaching

Let’s look at each condition in more detail.

Real Team

Sometimes organizations create groups of people and give them a name like “Team Quality.” However, giving a group of people a name doesn’t make them a team. Instead teams are “a bounded set of people who work together over some period of time to accomplish a common task”. Hackman describes several kinds of collaboration. The types of collaboration he discusses are:

  • Community of Interest – A loose collection of individuals that share a common interest. They have no common task, timeline, nor membership.
  • Community of Practice – A loose collection of individuals that are leveraging the collaboration to accomplish their own organizational goals. They too, don’t share a common task, timeline, nor is there typically a clear membership.
  • Emergent Collaboration – Sometimes individuals are assigned similar responsibilities inside of different teams or organizations. These teams share information among the group for the betterment of all. IT security groups that share the latest information about current threats, schemes, and tools are an example of emergent collaboration.
  • Coacting Group – Commonly a collection of individuals performing similar – but not interrelated tasks – are called teams but are instead coacting groups. They are not working together to accomplish a common task. They’re working individually to accomplish the same task.
  • Distributed Team – A distributed team isn’tt located together and therefore must rely upon technology and travel to stay coordinated but they do generally have a clear membership and do share a common goal. Distributed teams have coordination challenges. Many of these challenges are described, in agile development and knowledge management literature.
  • Project Team / Task Force – The project team meets the definitions of a real team but tends to have a relatively short life. The team is formed the mission is accomplished and the team is disbanded.
  • Semi-Permanent Work Team – Similar to a project team but more typically aligned departmentally a semi-permanent work team focus on operational work – or a stream of projects – and works together towards those goals with not specific end to the work.

The last three types of collaboration are considered – by Hackman – to be real teams.

Compelling Purpose

Strangely many teams don’t know their real purpose. They get wrapped up in the operational details of the work to be done and never get focused on why they’re there. Collaborative Intelligence speaks of exercises where a red team (terrorists) are attempting to attack while a blue team (good guys) are attempting to thwart the red team. A great deal of time is spent talking about why the red team has a set of serious advantages from a teamwork perspective. Not the least of which is that the purpose for the red team is quickly formed from a simple offensive goal, whereas the blue team frequently struggles to convert a generic “defend” goal into a set of meaningful actions.

Red teams are given the purpose of disrupting and often start by the members throwing out their skills that might be helpful to the group while blue teams often throw out their positions in their organizations. Red teams move on to forming a specific approach to accomplish their goal while blue teams flounder trying to find their purpose.

While the two teams have a clearly stated goal the red team has the ability to convert their generic purpose into a specific set of actions. Often this goal – where the approach to accomplishing the goal is specified by them – represents some sort of a stretch where they’ll need to bring in skills and knowledge from others to accomplish it. This maps neatly into Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Finding Flow. They’re able to moderate their difficulty level to a point where they’re most effective.

The real “red teams” are also able to frame their objectives in terms of a broader mission. In other words, their work is seen as consequential to their greater purpose.

The blue team may be able to “protect” but this isn’t typically specific enough to achieve the goal of a specific set of actions for thwarting the red team. While their work is consequential to protecting their way of life, the difficulty in getting clear about the exact approach can be very disruptive to performance.

Right People

Jim Collins in Good to Great starts off with getting the right people assembled. His metaphor is that you have to get the right people on the bus first. Hackman agrees that having the right people in the right positions is critical to team success. Specifically he was concerned whether or not team members had the right skills – or aptitudes. In his research he found that ensuring that a team had all of the required skills – they knew what to do – or the right aptitudes – they could learn what to do — was an important first step. The next step was to design the team so that the skills of the individual team members can be leveraged. Teams with the right skills and the right design were nearly 40 times as powerful as teams without the required skills and design.

While Hackman suggests that direct skills are best for team design he also indicates through his research that aptitude for the subject area or even in some cases general intelligence is effective at creating well designed teams. This is particularly true when the team is coupled with good coaching around the areas where they don’t have core skills. (See condition number six).

Hackman is equally clear that having the right number and mix of people is essential. It’s important to support the team with resources (see condition five) but not to over provide them with resources so that they will blindly accept a sub-optimal strategy. This applies to people resources as well as material resources. Keeping the team slightly under resourced leads to more productive teams.

Finally, Hackman admits that the data is that one bad apple can spoil the bunch. An entire team can become derailed with a single bad person. So it’s often better to get rid of one person who is disruptive to teamwork – even if that person has key skills that are perceived as necessary because it’s possible that the rest of the team can’t be effective with a single bad person in place.

Clear Norms

Defining normal is a power force. One of the barriers to adoption of a new technology or approach is not having norms. Establishing the rules of behavior for teams can be important and powerful as well as helping the team organize into what is – and isn’t acceptable. In fact, Hackman found that establishing clear norms was more strongly associated with team effectiveness than any other factor. There are two key factors in how powerful the norms will be.

The first factor in the power of the norm is the vigor with which the group will defend the norm. Some things are defined as normal behavior but for which there aren’t clear, consistent consequences for not following. For instance, there may be a norm that you wash your own coffee cups in the break room but since there’s a receptionist who will wash them if you don’t there’s little vigor of enforcement.

The second factor is the level of agreement on what the norm should be. Crystalized norms, those with which there is nearly complete agreement, are different than norms of conduct that most people agree to – but not everyone. The lack of crystalized norms reduces enforcement but also reduces the ability to develop a set of universal expectations about what is and isn’t acceptable.

Don’t let the simplicity of establishing norms fool you. They are sometimes difficult to create. One way to speed the process is to borrow norms from other groups or situations and either get buy-in or simply decree that it’s the normal. As long as no one is willing to stand against the proposed normal, it can quickly be adopted by the group.

Supportive Context

A friend once said – to his boss – that his mission on the helpdesk was like being parachuted in behind enemy lines with only a spoon. Needless to say he didn’t feel like he was being well supported. It’s not surprising that he and his team struggled to be effective because they found themselves spending most of their time working around the things they did not have. Hackman’s work identified that the supportive context of the organization made a big difference in the ability for the team to be effective. Specifically there are four key aspects of supportive context:

  • Access to the information a team needs to accomplish its work.
  • The availability of educational and technical resources to supplement members’ own knowledge and skill.
  • Ample material resources for use in carrying out the team’s work.
  • External recognition and reinforcement of excellent team performance.

The presence of these four things represent a supportive context under which the team is more likely to succeed. As mentioned earlier, having what a team needs isn’t about over supplying the team, however, it is about giving them what’s minimally necessary to be successful. One of the specific things that teams need are competent coaching.

Competent Coaching

Most of the research on coaching has been evaluated at an individual level. Did the coaching work for a specific person on the team. Most of the individual coaching is done in the vacuum of an off-site workshop where folks are given a synthetic scenario to solve – or are being taught that their team members will catch them when they fall. While these exercises get good marks in post-event feedback studies, it’s not been conclusively proven that these sorts of interventions are successful at driving a chance in outcomes.

The first part of competent coaching is simply finding the right coach with the right experiences to be able to help. Coaching is difficult to measure effectiveness before starting and because each situation is different it’s difficult to see if a coach will be effective for your situation. (See wicked problems in Dialogue Mapping and The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices.) Strangely Hackman discovered that better coaching was less interactions. Experienced coaches waited longer to provide feedback to give themselves more time to see the problem and to consider a response. They seemed to inherently know that there’s a limit to how much coaching an individual can take in a given time.

This runs counter to the idea that the sooner you make a correction through coaching the less rework and redirection must be done. This is, of course, true, however, the other factors in the system are more important than the redirection. (See Thinking in Systems) In fact, Hackman found that different kinds of interventions were better at different times. So not only was it good to reflect on the situation before providing coaching but sometimes the type of coaching changed based on where the team was in its lifecycle.

When starting a project, teams are most responsive to motivational interventions. They want to be “fired up” about the shared challenge that they’re getting. However, engaging the team in discussions about the alternative ways of going about the work – picking a process to follow – are ineffective. It isn’t until the midpoint of the team’s life where they’re willing and able to evaluate their processes and refine them. It’s then that the consultative approach of optimization and reflection is effective.

The final part of the lifecycle is the near end or post end when things like after action reviews (See The New Edge in Knowledge Management and Lost Knowledge for the importance of after action reviews.) Most teams struggle to do after action reviews because they see little direct value. However, Hackman measured teams effectiveness based on how the teams became more effective both individually and as a team as a part of the process and so the ability to capture what the team learned is important to informing the next teams.

Beyond the timing and quality of the coaching, there are even dimensions of how the training is conducted that are important to whether the training will be effective. The first is whether the coaching is focused on individuals or teams.

Individual coaching may be effective at improving individual skills and in some cases individual coaching on how to participate in a team may be appropriate (see Right People above). However, coaching targeted at the team can be much more effective.

Another dimension of the effectiveness of coaching is whether the coaching is focused on the process of teamwork – or on the task at hand. The assumption is that working on the harmony of the team – the process of teamwork – is what causes teams to be effective. However, it may be that effective teams become harmonious – that we’re reading the causal relationship in reverse. It appears that the goal of a team shouldn’t be harmony – because there are numerous successful teams that aren’t harmonious – but instead the focus should be on respect. If you respect and trust one another the team is more likely to be able to avoid traps like “groupthink.” (See my post on Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on trust.)

The research indicates that coaching on the actual work that the team is doing is more effective than process coaching. It seems that helping the teams solve their problems and better understanding the challenges of their space is more effective at helping them than coaching them how to operate more effectively. Hackman’s research showed that no amount of team structuring, or process coaching was effective at improving performance of a team when there weren’t the people who had the requisite skills or the ability to get them. In fact, process coaching when the team didn’t have fundamental skills just reduced their performance.

60-30-10 – Setup, Startup, and Operation

Hackman asserts that sixty percent of a team’s effectiveness is in the setup, another thirty percent is in the startup of the group, and only the remaining ten percent can be accounted for by tweaking various operational parameters after the team is up and running.

The setup, in Hackman’s view, is the team’s purpose, composition, and design. That is what the team is tasked to do, the team members selected, and the roles that the members are expected to perform.

Certainly there are others that would agree that setting the right goal is important. We saw Loyola implore the Jesuits to focus on the right outcome not the trivial details in Heroic Leadership. Covey was clear about beginning with the end in mind in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

The composition – getting the right people – is something Jim Collins emphasized in Good to Great. It’s also the focus of books like Who: The A Method for Hiring. There’s a great deal of research on how impactful getting the right hires for an organization can be.

Judging simply by the sheer number of management books available all aimed at getting the right skills into the right roles there’s little doubt that there’s a belief that the design of the team – what they’re expected to do – is important as well.

The next step in Hackman’s model is the startup or launching of the team. One component of launching is the communication of the purpose of the team. Something that no doubt Patrick Lencioni would approve of, given the focus on clarity in The Advantage. Similarly John Kotter’s model for change focuses on the need to build a coalition and communicating the change as discussed in Leading Change and The Heart of Change.

Similarly how a team is introduced to one another is important. By introducing skills – rather than introducing positions or groups – the team can focused on how they work together not what stereotypes they have of the group from which the member came.

Finally, Hackman discusses how facilitating – coaching – can be effective. However, he cautions, as mentioned above, that the right kind of coaching should happen that the appropriate time in the team’s lifecycle.

Cost and Utility of Information

One rather accidental observation that Hackman raises repeatedly is the bias for intelligence groups to treat information that is difficult to obtain as more valuable than information that is readily available from public sources. This reminds me of an admonishment from a CEO when I was doing product management work years ago to not do “cost+” pricing. That is that the price that we can obtain from the market for a product doesn’t have anything to do with the actual cost of manufacturing. We should focus on the utility of the product and what the market is willing to bare – instead of what it costs us. Douglas Hubbard in How to Measure Anything also shares that just because something is harder to get doesn’t make it better – in fact, it often makes it less good.

The point, however, isn’t that we shouldn’t judge the value of information based on its cost – the point is that we as humans often have trouble separating the effort that we spent to get something and the value it delivers. Luckily I have a reasonably good reminder. I have desks that I literally built out of door jamb, file cabinets and pieces of tempered glass. The desks weren’t expensive – but they’re incredibly effective at keeping my stuff off the floor. It’s my visual reminder that just because something is more expensive doesn’t make it better.

Collaboration in the End

Good collaboration – good teams – in the end are about the organization of appropriate individual team member skills to accomplish the goal and for the development of everyone involved. Good collaboration has each member supporting other member’s weaknesses without complaining or condemnation. Team members build each other up rather than tearing them down. If you want to figure out how to create these kinds of teams, read Collaborative Intelligence.

Thinking in Systems

Book Review-Thinking in Systems: A Primer

When I reread The Fifth Discipline and wrote a book review for it, I found a few references to Donella Meadows and upon further research I found the book Thinking in Systems. The book is odd in that it was published posthumously. The book draft was written in 1993 but was never published. She unexpectedly died in 2001 and in 2008 the book was finally brought to print. I’m glad that it did. As much as Singe’s work made systems thinking popular, Meadows work was much richer and deeper than was possible with The Fifth Discipline.

It’s possible to believe at first glance that learning from The Fifth Discipline might be enough, but systems thinking was only one of the disciplines – it didn’t get the depth that it deserves as a way of thinking that can change your effectiveness.

Essence of a System

Years ago while speaking about databases terms we talked about atomic transactions. That is that a transaction should either completely succeed or fail. One of the problems with early file-based ISAM databases was a record being updated in one file and not in another. The modern SQL based databases solve this problem by wrapping changes to a set of tables into a single transaction – as single atomic operation – that will either succeed or fail. It will never end up partially updating tables. You can’t extract just part of the complex system update, you have to take it all – or none of it.

Systems are the same way. They have an all or nothing component of them. You can’t take one part of a system and manipulate it without having an impact on something else. We saw this in Diffusion of Innovations and The Fifth Discipline as the law of unintended consequences. You have to take the whole of the system you can’t take the pieces. However, in order to approach an understanding of the system – in order to create a mental model of the system (See Sources of Power and The Fifth Discipline) – You’ll have to try to decompose the system into understandable components. Those components are the elements of the system, the way that they’re connected, and the purpose of the system. In systems thinking, the system is more than a sum of the parts.

This is part of why wicked problems (See Dialogue Mapping and The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices) are wicked. You can’t work on just one part of the problem, you have to work on the entire system at once – and all of the relationships between all of the parts.

Elements, Connections, and Purpose

Taking apart a system should be easy. Nearly everything that we have ever run across can be dissected into smaller and smaller units. A person can be broken down into organs, cells, molecules, atoms, protons, quarks, etc. We’ve become adept at identifying the component parts of a system. It’s not surprising that being able to see the individual elements of the system is the easiest part of the process of understanding a system. In most cases elements are tangible. Even when they’re not tangible – they’re things like pride and identity – they’re still relatively easy for our concrete focused minds to understand. (See Pervasive Information Architecture for our need to learn through concrete things.)

It’s often harder to see the interconnections between the elements in a system. If you’re looking at an airplane you can see the engines and the trust and you can observe the plane in flight, but it’s not obvious how the shape of the wings (camber) relates to the amount of lift generated. The thrust that the engines are producing is being converted into lift by the wings, but in a non-obvious way. The only hope for seeing connections between different parts of the system is to observe the system in action.

More difficult to see is the purpose of the system. In the case of an airplane the fact that it’s used for transportation is non-obvious at first glance – when you look at the collection of components. Of course we all know that airplanes are designed for transportation – but that’s because we’ve seen them in action.

Consider the raging debates about what Stonehenge was created for. There numerous theories about what the rocks were used for. We know that they’re rocks (elements) and we can see the connections (orientation) but because we’ve not been able to see their original use we still don’t know for certain what their purpose was. The best (if not only) way to deduce the purpose of a system is to see it in operation.

Of these, components of a system the elements component is the one where they are easiest to see. However, elements have the least impact. The connections and the purpose are much more important. The purpose is also the most difficult to observe. In fact, Paul Ekman, who developed a mechanism for determining a person’s emotional state through micro expressions says that you can accurately observe the emotion but you cannot know why they felt the feeling. (See Social Engineering, Trust Me, and Emotional Awareness for more about Ekman’s work)

Some systems have espoused purposes which don’t match their actual purposes. Consider, for instance, a buy-here-pay-here car lot. The espoused purpose is to sell cars. However, the actual purpose is to provide high-risk loans to people. These high-risk loans come with higher interest rates designed to be profitable for the car dealer. However, many of these car lots’ marketing schemes are targeted at providing freedom to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to buy a car. It’s possible that there’s one espoused purpose – and an entirely different actual purpose.

Seeing purpose in the behavior of a system is somewhat like trying to see the wind blow. You can’t directly see which way the wind is blowing, however, as a pilot knowing the wind direction and speed can be important. That’s why pilots are taught to get winds reports – but also to look at smoke from smokestacks and the ways that trees are bending in the wind to be able to get an approximation of the way that the wind is blowing through indirect means.

One of the challenges that happens when trying to infer the behavior of a system is that you believe that What You See is all there is (WYSIATI). (See Thinking, Fast and Slow) However, in the systems world what you see is like what you see of an iceberg. (About 1/7th of the total size of an iceberg is above the water.) There is so much that isn’t directly visible without careful observations. For instance, you can see a duck on the surface of the water but you can’t see how much – or little – the duck is paddling underneath the water. In this way, even observing a river doesn’t make transparent all of the factors influencing it.

Stocks and Flows

Systems consist of stocks and flows. Stocks are batteries or reserve. They are the storehouse of the system. Flows are the inputs and outputs to that stock. For instance, the Dead Sea has a flow of the Jordan River as an input. It also has rain as an input. It has an output of evaporation. There is no other outlet of the Dead Sea. The stock is the size of the Dead Sea itself –the water contained in it.

As humans we’re more aware of stocks than we are flows. That’s one of the reasons why we’re more concerned about our bank account balances than the amount we pay for cable each month. Cable is an outward flow. Our bank balance is our stock of money. One of the reasons why people who make a lot of money spend a lot of money is because of our focus on the stocks. If we have a stock of money than our outward flows must be acceptable.


A child’s ability to delay gratification is a better measure of future success than any IQ test. The simple test of whether a child could wait a few minutes for two marshmallows instead of one could indicate better than sophisticated instruments designed to measure a child’s intelligence, their success later in life. (See How Children Succeed, Introducing Psychology of Success, and The Information Diet for Walter Mischel’s famous test.) It seems our ability to see – and accept – delays is an important part of our success in this world. That is likely because our world is alive with systems all interacting with one another and all of them with inherent delays.

Every system has delays in it. The instant there is a change the system doesn’t instantly change. You take an action and then there’s a delay before the response. The classic example of this is the temperature of a shower as I mentioned in my review of The Fifth Discipline. However, delays exist in all of our everyday systems. Consider your paycheck. When you work you don’t instantly get a paycheck. In most cases it takes two or three weeks before you get your paycheck for the time you’ve worked.

The more steps in a system that something must go through, the longer the delay. I had the pleasure recently of meeting a rodeo champion. He’s a trainer of students trying to become better at Rodeo but also of horses. One of the things that he explained was that the horses were trained to follow the bulls. The reason for this is simple. If the horse follows the bull automatically then the rider can focus on the rope and not have to worry about guiding the horse. This eliminates the inherent delay between the rider recognizing the path of the bull and signaling the horse to go in that direction. (It also speaks to not having information overload as The Information Diet.) Pervasive Information Architecture spoke of how giving actors real wine instead of colored water allowed them to focus on their performance and not have to deal with the distraction of pretending colored water was wine.

However, more than allowing the rider to focus on the rope, a delay – the delay between recognizing the motion of the bull and correcting the horse’s motion – has been removed. The reduced delay minimizes the oscillations and optimizes the system to improve performance.

Optimization and Resilience

Any competent financial analyst will tell you to spread out your investments into a variety of industries and types of investment. This is the process of adding resilience to your portfolio. You can make one big bet on a particular market, industry, or even company. However, the risks are big with this approach.

However, this is what we often do in optimization. We make one big bet on how a technology will work. We eliminate the parts of the system that we don’t think are necessary because it’s just taking energy to keep operational and isn’t returning value. However, when problems arise those critical components which were cut can’t kick in to keep the system from collapsing. What is most frequently cut when optimizing is anything that’s not directly related to output but sometimes the secondary loops and support structure is necessary to support the system once things start to go wrong.

During the United States housing bubble financial instruments that were intended to be stable based on the way they were constructed were slowly rearranged and in the process the security offered by them were no longer resilient against market downturns. As a result security organizations like Bear Stearns failed during the end of the housing bubble. An optimization towards returns had removed the resiliency from the system.

The resilience in the system of financial markets is in the form of fail safes against individuals taking actions that can be individually beneficial but harmful to the overall market – like offering home loans to people who couldn’t afford them. It looks great to the people getting a loan on the house but it led to the balancing loops in the system being insufficient to catch the fall. Part of that is based on the bounded rationality of the individual players in the system.

Bounded Rationality

Economists – despite popular belief – don’t study money. They study people’s behavior around money. It may seem like a subtle distinction but it’s not. Why are people willing to pay $2 for a bottle of water at the airport? Because the TSA made you throw out the bottle you had when you went to the gate – and because you’re thirsty and that’s the only option. Or is it? There’s a water fountain that’s a few hundred feet away.

The logical, economic choice is to use the water fountain to get water. However, people pay for the convenience of having a bottle of water. Some folks actually pay for the extra purification but mostly its convenience. From an economic point of view this doesn’t make sense. Why would you hand over your hard earned money for something you could get for free? But we do it all the time.

Bounded rationality is about the rational decisions that we make based on the information at hand. We believe that what we see is all there is. Bounded rationality allows for some seemingly nonsensical results. Consider the tragedy of commons. We know that adding another cow to our herd improves our profitability. The cows graze off of common land. Surely one more cow won’t be a problem – until all of the other farmers make the same individually rational decision. If this happens then the commons will be overgrazed and there won’t be enough food for everyone’s cows.

The solution to minimizing the impact of bounded reality is to create greater awareness of the overall system and how it works. Understanding more about how a system works leads you to the opportunity to leverage the system to make changes that are in everyone’s best interests.

12 Leverage Points

Thinking in Systems ends with 12 leverage points in reverse order of impact as follows:

  • Numbers—Constants and parameters such as subsidies, taxes, standards. These are the most commonly attempted ways to manipulate systems and consequently there is generally very little change here. One exception is on a discontinuity where a small numeric change causes the system to operate differently.
  • Buffers—The sizes of stabilizing stocks relative to their flows. Reducing buffers increases efficiency (optimization) by reducing resilience. Vendor managed inventory reduced the amount of inventory at distribution but this leads to more outages.
  • Stock-and-Flow Structures—Physical systems and their nodes of intersection. Basically this is rebuilding the system which can be very effective but rebuilding a system is also difficult to accomplish so thus it’s not very high up on the list of leverage points.
  • Delays—The lengths of time relative to the rates of system changes. If you shrink the delay you reduce the oscillations and improve responsiveness to changing conditions.
  • Balancing Feedback Loops—The strength of the feedbacks relative to the impacts they are trying to correct can help keep stocks in safe bounds.
  • Reinforcing Feedback Loops—The strength of the gain of driving loops which cause the system to want to go out of control – either positively or negatively.
  • Information Flows—The structure of who does and does not have access to information can reduce malfunctions of human and non-human systems.
  • Rules—Incentives, punishments, constraints have a great deal of power over systems. Subtly changing a rule can dramatically change how a system operates.
  • Self-Organization—The power to add, change, or evolve system structure is a powerful way of introducing resilience into the system.
  • Goals—The purpose or function of the system – and the framing of the goal – are powerful motivators to systems.
  • Paradigms—The mind-set out of which the system—its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters—arises. This is even more deep than goals and is the source of systems.
  • Transcending Paradigms – By transcending paradigms you can see individual systems for their limitations and put different systems together to get richer results

Back to the Beginning

It’s incredibly unfortunate that Donella Meadows passed away before completing Thinking in Systems – but very fortunate that her work was eventually published. The more that we understand about systems the more we can understand about the organizations we work in, the communities that we live in, and the world as a whole.


Book Review-Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results

I’ve spent a great deal of my professional career working on helping users collaborate in one form or another. I setup Local Area Networks (LANs) when they were still called that and not networks. I connected folks via email before the Internet was a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. I have spent the last 14 years helping organizations collaborate with Microsoft SharePoint. So when some colleagues said that I had to read Collaboration, I didn’t hesitate to pick up the book. What I didn’t realize when they recommended it was that the author, Morten Hansen, had a specific definition of collaboration in mind, and it didn’t necessarily match my point of view.

To Conspire with the Enemy

If you’ve heard me talk about collaboration – or creating engagement – you know that I love to poke fun at the word collaboration because it means so many different things to so many different people. As a result it’s a word that I’ve come to associate as the starting point for a conversation instead of the end. In most contexts, I define collaboration as working with others towards a common goal. It’s a simple definition and it covers a lot of ground.

When I’ve got an audience that’s being contrary, the dictionary definition I throw out to jar my audience is “to conspire with the enemy.” This definition isn’t the kind of definition that you would normally expect someone talking about collaboration to have and therefore can sometimes be the spark to start a discussion.

Regardless of how you define collaboration, Morten Hansen has a specific large organization definition for collaboration. His definition is focused on different parts of a large organization working together. As such, it’s really not applicable to most of the organizations on the planet. It works great for the Fortune 1000, but as the organizations get smaller and more focused, the guidance from Collaboration gets less directly useful. Despite this, the book does echo some of the concepts discussed elsewhere which are broadly applicable – and important for organizations of all sizes. I found that most of the concepts in the book were rooted in strong research and can be easily adapted to organizations of any size.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Perhaps the most heretical discussion in the book is that there can be too much collaboration. Conventional wisdom is that collaboration is good and more collaboration is better. That is, that you should be able to have more and more collaboration with greater and greater positive impact on the bottom line but Hansen effectively argues that there are times when collaboration for collaboration’s sake isn’t adding value to the bottom line. His argument is that it’s possible to have collaboration that makes everyone feel good but isn’t helping to move the organization forward.

It is possible that the cost of collaboration exceeds the business benefit of the collaboration. The recommendation is to take the return on the collaboration and subtract out both the direct costs of the collaboration as well as the opportunity costs for the time spent on the collaboration process. If the number is positive then collaboration is warranted – if it’s negative then the collaboration isn’t worth it.

Of course, this puts the decision to a mathematical precision that may or may not be warranted – and as mentioned in How to Measure Anything, sometimes our ability to estimate isn’t the best.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices quoted How to Measure Anything to talk about biases. Thinking, Fast and Slow also spoke about biases – including an anchoring bias that causes us to make differential adjustments to an estimate – even if the baseline estimate is fundamentally flawed. Collaboration points out that many mergers speak about the synergies that the organizations will be able to capitalize on together – many of which never materialize. There are many reasons for this including bad estimates but also an underestimation of the work it is to merge two cultures.

Cultures are funny things. They’re made up of the people, processes, and interactions but they also resist being changed by people or changing processes. This makes it difficult for employees at the various organizations to work together. Sometimes organizations have been competitors and the situation is worse because there’s a distrust that has built up between the organizations.

Means and Ends

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the idea of collaboration and how fun it is to be able to share with our peers that we forget to make sure that it’s delivering business value. As I mentioned in my review of Who Am I?, Aristotle divided human motives into means and ends. Since then we’ve continued to struggle with forgetting why we’re doing something. We get so wrapped up into doing it – like collaboration – that we forget why we’re doing it.

In most businesses, collaboration is a means to the end goal of accomplishing the corporate mission. If we get lost in the idea of collaboration and forget that there’s a mission to be completed we’ve slipped into the means and ends confusion.

T-Shaped Management

In today’s world there’s a conflict between what managers are being asked to do to drive their own individual team performance and what they’re being asked to do to support others – as they’re trying to maximize their business unit’s contribution to the bottom line. Managers are being asked to deliver performance from their units and simultaneously being asked to support their peers through collaboration. This sets up an interesting conflict since you only have so much time and you can only spend it working on improving your own performance or on helping others.

Collaboration makes a point that the best managers are those managers who can find a way to do both – to accomplish their own performance goals while helping others. Perhaps the need for both selfish individual team productivity and cross-team collaboration makes the question that was asked in Destructive Emotions about whether we’re Rational egoists (we’re compassionate because it’s self-serving), selfish and compassionate, or compassionate and selfish – somewhat moot. Drive told us that some of our intrinsic motivators are overwhelmed and corrupted by explicit external motivators like compensation.

In Collaboration we learn that 70% of the time we’ll collaborate with one another – unless we change the name of the game to Wall Street – in which case we’ll defect (work in a non-collaborative manor) 70% of the time. Kurt Lewin’s famous quote that “behavior is a function of both person and environment” includes the words that we use and the expectations as the environment.

Words Matter

Jerry Seinfeld is famous for his hit sitcom Seinfeld show – a self-described show about nothing. The assumption is often made that Jerry Seinfeld has always been a funny man. Perhaps that’s true, but as we learned about many great leaders in Outliers and Extraordinary Minds, most great leaders had to practice. In Jerry Seinfeld’s case, he honed his skills for comedy by working on brevity. He learned from the old saw “I would have written a shorter letter if I only had more time.” Learning to be brief – but not too brief is an art form that isn’t practiced that often any longer.

If you’ve been a part of marketing campaign development you know how much time can be invested trying to determine the right message – and even the right words. Discussions rage and testing ensues to ensure that the most impact can be extracted from a marketing exercise.

More close to home, most of us have been in a relationship where we’ve said the wrong thing and have inadvertently caused damage to a relationship. Wives have said things that hurt their husbands and vice-versa. (If this is a real problem, reading The Science of Trust might be useful.)

Leaders’ words are important. They can fan the fires of collaboration or deeply hurt the collaboration path that the organization is on. A leader’s words should both build the logical argument for collaboration but more importantly develop an emotional connection to the goal. In The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch there was the Elephant-Rider-Path model which encouraged us to ensure that we were making both the logical argument and the emotional one. If leaders choose their words they can effectively motivate employees to collaborate when appropriate.

Disciplined Collaboration

Hansen believes that the key to effectiveness with collaboration is disciplined collaboration which he defines in one phrase “the leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required.”

This practice – he believes prevents both over and underinvestment in collaboration. Disciplined collaboration takes strong leaders.

Strong Leaders

In Good to Great Jim Collins talks about the Stockdale Paradox “You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” It’s this same type of strength that is needed to encourage the right kind of collaboration – at the right time – in an organization.

However, even with strong leaders who are practicing disciplined collaboration there are problems. Collaborative environments sometimes make it hard to maintain individual accountability.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Camouflage is used by animals and warriors to hide in plain sight. Because there is nothing specific about their marks and appearance they’re able to blend in with the background. Some collaboration is like that when people are part of a large group and when performance isn’t measured specific to the person they tend to develop a characteristic called social loafing.

That is they assume that someone else will do the work and they can sit back and relax. This is a hidden danger for organizations as they seek to improve collaboration – maintaining individual accountability in the context of supporting collaboration with others.

Make It Easy

If you want to make collaboration work, you’ll need to ensure that the process is well understood as explained in Don’t Make Me Think. Demand spoke about the idea of a hassle map and how you need to reduce the number of hassles to create a product that people want. Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web mentioned that when Amazon introduced tagging on its site no one knew how to use it and so no one did. When driving collaboration you’ll want to eliminate the ambiguity and help everyone know what to expect. Collaboration quotes a study that says that intention has little to do with execution – when students were shown how to get to the health center to get a tetanus shot they got the shot 28% of the time as compared to just 3% of the time if they were just shown the reasons to get the shot.

When you’re trying to get to collaboration you want to make it easy rather than motivating them that it’s something important to do. If your organization prevents information sharing or limits how business units can work with one another you may find that it’s difficult – if not impossible – to get collaboration to take off. But this isn’t the only barrier.


There are four key types of barriers that you may encounter when trying to implement collaboration. Each barrier has several factors that lead to it.

1: Not Invented Here

I posted a complete post on the Wisdom of Not Invented Here, however in the context of Collaboration, they believe that there are four factors that lead to it. They are:

  • Insular Culture – The more tightly nit a group becomes the less open they are to input from the outside.
  • Status Gap – People tend to accept input more readily from those of similar status to themselves rather than those who have a much higher or lower status.
  • Self-Reliance – The more self-reliant folks are the less likely they are to acknowledge that good ideas can come from others.
  • Fear – No one likes revealing their shortcomings. By accepting something from someplace else you’re admitting one of your limitations.

2: Hoarding

Some kids will openly share their toys – and others won’t. That may be because of the “licking and grooming” they received as children. (See How Children Succeed for more.) However, that does you little good when you’re trying to drive collaboration in your organization. Here are four non-childhood factors that lead to hoarding behaviors:

  • Competition – When people or groups inside the organization are invited to compete with one another there’s a natural tendency to hoard. So keep competition outside the walls of the organization and collaboration inside.
  • Narrow incentives – The more narrowly you incent people for their own performance, the lower the motivation for sharing activities. Make sure that the incentives are balanced between internal performance and sharing and collaborating.
  • Being Too Busy – Organizations have lost thousands of workers so it seems like everyone is trying to do more with less. Collaboration takes time – and you don’t have time you won’t be able to collaborate.
  • Fear of Losing Power – A common question is “If knowledge is power what happens to my power when I share it?” Despite the fact that generally you become more powerful – from a knowledge perspective – when sharing it feels uncomfortable and generates a fear.

3: Search

In the world of today we’re used to Google and the ability to find what we’re interested in – however, that’s only in our public lives. We still realize that inside an organization finding information is tricky and difficult. In most organizations there is no enterprise search and in many cases what you’re looking for isn’t written down. What you really need is locked up inside someone’s head somewhere. Here are four factors that lead to the search barrier:

  • Company size – The larger the company the harder it is to create an enterprise search solution that delivers contents and people to you when you need it.
  • Physical Distance – The larger the difference between people the lower the chances that you’ll discover the information you need by chance. Marcia Bates believes that we find 80% of what we know accidentally – so proximity matters. (See Pervasive Information Architecture, The New Edge in Knowledge, and Thinking, Fast and Slow.)
  • Information Overload – We’ve created so many sources of information and we’ve made it so much easier for anyone to communicate, that we’ve created an overload of information. (See The Information Diet and The Paradox of Choice for more)
  • Poverty of Networks – We believe that it’s a small world – and in some ways it is. However, we fail to realize that what we see is not all there is. Just because we can’t find it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

4: Transfer

I’ve written a few times about tacit knowledge and the problems of knowledge management including in: Lost Knowledge; The New Edge in Knowledge; The Wisdom of Crowds; Thinking, Fast and Slow; Pervasive Information Architecture; and Apprentice, Journeyman, Master. The transfer barrier – the fact that transferring information is hard is a fundamental barrier to collaboration and life. Here are three key factors:

  • Tacit Knowledge – Tacit knowledge is either “unarticulated knowledge waiting transfer” or “cannot be transferred: we know more than we can tell” depending upon who you want to believe. In either case, conveying it to someone else is hard and most frequently requires person-to-person communication which can be difficult.
  • No Common frame – Because there’s little similarity between two people it’s hard to establish the common framework necessary for communication. Literally the mental models that two people have are so different they can’t communicate (See The Fifth Discipline, Sources of Power, Efficiency in Learning, and The Art of Explanation.)
  • Weak Ties – It’s difficult to share your knowledge with someone that you don’t have a strong relationship with. You want to have a deep connection to trust that the person you’re sharing with won’t use the knowledge against you.

Criteria for Effective Collaboration Goals

As Lewis Carol said “If you don’t know where you’re going then any road will get you there.” Having an effective goal – or goals – is critical if you know you want to foster collaboration in your environment. Here are four criteria for setting goals that lead to collaboration.

1: Must Create a Common Fate

There’s the parable of the farmer’s birthday where all of the animals get together and agree to make him breakfast. The chicken will give up some eggs and there will be ham and toast. When the animals turn to the pig and ask him what he thinks of the plan he says “I think that you are all interested in this plan but I’m invested.” Investment is what you want from all of the parties and that you’ll only get if everyone is subject to the same consequences – good or bad. You won’t get everyone motivated to make collaboration successful if some folks aren’t a part of the rewards or consequences of the success or failure.

2: Must Be Simple and Concrete

Platitudes, those dull, flat, trite remarks uttered if profound, have no place in setting effective goals. Everyone should be able to understand the goal without any further explanation. It’s not about being “preeminent in the exploration of space” – it’s about “landing a man on the moon and bringing him safely back to Earth within the decade.” There’s no explanation needed because we know what needs to be done. Goals that leave no room for ambiguity and are simple are fuel for the collaboration engine.

3: Must Stir Passion

Most goals are positively boring. They talk to the rider (See the Elephant-Rider-Path model in The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) We need to talk to the elephant and get people emotionally involved. That means appealing to a higher purpose or at least connecting with the kind of person that someone wants to be. We want people to be engaged.

4: Must Put Competition on the Outside

As mentioned above, when employees are competing with each other it makes it hard to collaborate. It leads to hording behaviors where they won’t help others for fear that it will give their coworkers an advantage over them in their competition.

Sins of Collaboration Hopefuls

Sometimes there are mistakes that can be made that will make collaboration harder than it needs to be or should be. Here are three sins that can kill collaboration.

1: Small Teamwork Kills Collaboration

The more that you get a small group to work together as a team and collaborate internally the less likely they are to collaborate across groups. Diffusion of Innovations speaks about how the cosmopolitan-ness of an individual determines how fast they’ll adopt an innovation. Said differently, the more that someone interacts with other groups the more likely they are to accept external ideas.

2: Everybody Do Teamwork Now (Except Those of Us at the Top)

Collaboration is – sometimes – treated like a great idea as long as you’re not the first one to have to try it. Leadership can kill collaboration by saying one thing and doing another – or the opposite. If you’re a leader and you’re invested in creating collaboration, you’ll need to deliver the goods by doing some collaboration yourself.

3: Teamwork Becomes the Point of It All

As mentioned above you can’t take your eye off the ball and forget that collaboration is a means to an end – it’s not an end in and of itself. When collaboration becomes the goal instead of the tool to get to the goal, you’ve got a problem.

Rules for Effective Networks

Collaboration relies on the network of people that you build. It’s the people that you can reach in and ask a question of. It’s the people that you trust and that trust you enough to share information. Here are six rules for building your networks.

1: Build Outward, Not Inward

Diversity in your network is important as we’ve discussed above. The more that you can associate with people in different networks the more effective your network can be because you can reach out to people with dissimilar skills and knowledge. The more heterogeneous your network the more likely it is that you’ll find an answer when you need it.

2: Build Diversity, Not Size

Each connection in a networks requires some level of effort to create and to maintain – though admittedly some require remarkably low levels of energy to maintain such as a childhood friend. The goal in building an effective network is to build diversity in the group – not to increase the size of the network for the sake of the network size. Consider the Dunbar number – the awareness that the number of social connections that an animal can maintain is directly related to the size of the animal’s brain and that humans can maintain roughly 150 social connections. (See The Information Diet and The Happiness Hypothesis.)

Most professionals today are working well above this number with hundreds or thousands of Facebook fans, Twitter followers, and Linked In connections. Being aware that we’re working beyond the number of connections that humans can reasonably support should keep us focused on building connections that can get us to different resources – rather than having six or more connections to the same information.

3: Build Weak Ties, Not Strong Ones

The Dunbar number actually refers to close social connections. That is the number that is fixed. Our connections through social media and our casual acquaintances don’t directly count. The Dunbar number is derived from the amount of capacity the brain has for retaining and recalling facts about other people. So it’s quite literally impossible for someone to maintain close social connections with a large number of people – so build the connections you can but realize that they won’t be the closest.

4: Use Bridges, Not Familiar Faces

Despite the fact that we have automated operators that can answer and route calls through an organization, most organizations haven’t fired their live operators. The reason is clear, live operators are better at connecting people when they don’t know exactly where they need to go. They’re great at translating the caller’s language into the language of the organization. A similar thing happens with bridges. They are able to translate the question which due to lack of knowledge, is ill formed and push it along the way to someone else who can get the person closer to what they need.

Bridges have large numbers of connections which are typically very diverse. This large number of connections doesn’t often provide the answer directly but rather moves things forward. For instance, I have a handyman who is a friend. If I need to find a plumber, someone to do flooring, or a roofer I call my friend. He’s a bridge into a whole class of workers for home repair and improvement.

5: Swarm the Target; Do Not Go It Alone

Building credibility and trust with someone – so that they’ll collaborate with you – can be challenging particularly for those folks who don’t trust easily like those folks who are in power. When you’re seeking to expand your network to influential people, leverage a variety of connections to help them realize that you should be trustworthy. (See my post Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on trust.)

6: Switch to Strong Ties; Do Not Rely on Weak Ones

Weak ties are enough to get you to someone to be able to start the collaboration process – however, if you’re in a sustained collaboration you’ll need to make some direct investments to strengthen your connection to someone for a time. The more distance between you and the other person geographically or experientially, the more effort you’ll need to put into building a strong connection.

Collaboration Redefined

Collaboration may have defined the word collaboration differently than it’s defined in many contexts but that definition didn’t stop the content of the book from being relevant to those who define collaboration more traditionally. Whether you’re trying to get a team to work together or collaboration across groups in an organization, there’s a lot to learn from others – and from Collaboration.

Article: SharePoint of the Future – Tales from the SharePoint Conference

Whether you’re in Venice or Las Vegas – or both – 10,000+ people is a lot. The number is staggering, particularly when you walk into the keynote hall and can’t see anything but a sea of chairs from wall to wall and wall to wall. The keynote stage seemed like it was in a different zip code than the back of the room. That might have been a good thing for one of the ad-hoc communities that sprung up around the conference who were trying to get their steps in to report their progress via FitBit.

The SharePoint community seems like one large community but at 10,000 people it’s more like a collection of communities than a single group. With folks running, walking, doing fitness, and doing drinks, there weren’t many places in the Venetian that you couldn’t find a few people connected to SharePoint – and talking about the new things that Microsoft announced at the conference. [Website removed]

The 4 Disciplines of Execution

Book Review-The Four Disciplines of Execution

Running your own company is sometimes challenging – in truth most entrepreneurs would say that it’s almost always challenging. In some ways I feel like the challenges of a small business are very different than the challenges of large organizations. Sometimes when I’m reading management books it’s hard to translate the “big company” view into one that’s more appropriate for a small organization. That struggle surfaced in my reading of The Four Disciplines of Execution – but in a slightly different way than one might expect.

Strategy or Execution

Most large organizations have some sort of a strategy planning cadence. They go for off-site meetings and come up with the plan for the organization over the next few years. Sometimes the focus is on the next year with only limited focus beyond that point. The idea is that the grand direction for the organization will be set by the best minds in the organization over the course of a few days.

Some of those strategy planning retreats – as they’re often called – are very effective. They identify the clear rallying cry that the organization should follow to reach its mission. However, more often than not, the meetings end and there are still unanswered questions, unfinished conversations, and at least a little bit of fog over the goal. However, there’s a need to wrap up the strategy setting process, and so a bow is put on the package – much like lipstick on a pig – and the strategy is proclaimed done.

But is the process of creating the strategy the hard part – or is that the easy part? Is it harder to put the strategy together or to execute it? In most cases it’s much harder to execute a strategy than it is to set it. There are several reasons for this. Not the least of which is that there are different kinds of strategies. There are the ‘stroke of the pen’ strategies that are implemented by a signature on a contract. These are easy strategies. The other type of strategy requires behavioral change. The behavioral change strategies require people to understand what is expected of them and why they’re making the change, and difficulty communicating the what and why becomes difficult to surmount.

Clear Communication

4DX quotes a Bain and Company report that says “About 65 percent of initiatives required significant behavioral change on the part of front-line employees—something that managers often fail to consider or plan for in advance.” They go on to quote other research that says that only 51 percent of employees could say they were passionate about the team’s goal. That’s pretty damning evidence that employees don’t understand what the strategy means for them.

Inside of these two statistics are at least two problems that I’ve seen in countless organizations. First, most strategies are locked up behind closed doors and never spoken of. Second, most strategies aren’t translated into tactics.

Behind Closed Doors

In my work as a consultant I get the opportunity to work with a wide variety of organizations and I’m always meeting new organizations. It never ceases to amaze me how some of the simplest and most direct questions are met with such surprise. I routinely ask clients what their strategic goals are and how their project with me (typically SharePoint) aligns to one of their strategic goals.

The surprising part is that most of the clients that I’m working with cannot even tell me what the organization’s strategic goals are. I can’t imagine how anyone can operate in an environment where they don’t know what the end goal is. Imagine getting in your car and driving without knowing where you wanted to end up. You could just as easily be moving away from your goal as moving toward it.

Sometimes I’m told that they can’t tell me what the strategic goals are because that’s confidential or proprietary information. (Notwithstanding the fact that I have a non-disclosure clause in my standard contracts.) It seems that the strategy is so super-secret that it has to be guarded even from the people who are supposed to be executing it. It may seem crazy when stated like that, but many organizations aren’t in the habit of shouting their strategies from the rooftops for all the employees to hear.

Translation Needed

In some organizations the problem isn’t that the strategy is unknown. The strategy is known – but how the strategy will be executed is missing. The “What” is clear, but the “How” isn’t. If your organization has a strategy of delivering the best quality widgets to the health care industry that tells the person who is the receptionist in the front office almost nothing about how she can contribute to the strategic goal.

What’s needed is a way to translate the big strategy into a set of actions that can be taken by every employee in the organization. That means translating the corporate strategy into strategies for each of the divisions and then tactics for each of the divisions to achieve those strategies. Those tactics get translated into goals and ultimately the goals get translated into actions and the actions get translated into tasks for individual employees.

In most organizations that I’ve worked with the process breaks down somewhere. There’s not a clear link between what the individual contributors do and the strategy, because they don’t feel like their role can impact the corporate strategy, and the tactics, goals, and activities, between their tasks and the strategy aren’t aligned. Or somewhere along the way, there’s not a transition from the broad-brush visionary language into specific language about what has to be accomplished and when.


By the time that we’re talking about goals we should be talking about what specifically needs to be done and when. 4DX uses a simple “from X to Y by When” formula in the way that it talks about goals. This is a great simplification of SMART goals which I first wrote about in 2005 in an article for TechRepublic, “Use SMART goals to launch management by objectives plan.” SMART is an acronym for:

  • Specific – The goal must be more than just superlatives like “good”, “better”, or “best” – the goal should have a specific value associated with it.
  • Measurable – The goal should be measurable given the tools you have. Saying that you want to improve customer satisfaction scores by 10% is specific but unless you have an instrument to measure satisfaction – like a survey – it wouldn’t be measurable.
  • Achievable – Setting a goal that can’t be achieved is pointless. If you’re currently penetrating 10% of the market with your service, how likely is it that you can penetrate 90% in the next six months?
  • Realistic – Being realistic means that you don’t assume everything will go right. If you need to close all four big deals to achieve the goal but your sales closure rate is about 50% it’s not a realistic goal.
  • Time-based – Everything has to be done sometime. Time-based means that there’s a specific time for the goal to be met. In the context of strategic planning, it’s often the interval that the planning is done on – like a year.

While I like the SMART acronym better than “from X to Y by when” that works too – coupled with the guidance that the goals must be set so that employees feel like it’s possible to “win the game.” Setting unrealistic or unachievable goals won’t make employees feel like the game is winnable.

Once you have the specific goals, it’s time to hold employees accountable for delivering on those goals – and unfortunately this is another area where organizations struggle.

The Power of Accountability

In the surveys that 4DX referenced, 81% of employees said that they weren’t held accountable for regular progress on the organization’s goals. 87% had no clear idea what they should be doing to achieve the goal. That’s as frightening as the problems with communication. Even if your organization was great at communicating what needs to be done, there’s no one minding the till. No one is being held accountable for driving the strategy forward. This isn’t surprising given how conflict avoidant – or dare I say passive-aggressive – most organizations have become. In the name of being friendly, we’ve stopped holding people accountable.

Holding people accountable is uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable for the person who’s being held accountable because inevitably they’re going to miss a commitment and have to admit that they failed. It’s uncomfortable for the manager because it leaves that negative emotion of the employee in the air and can create some level of guilt or embarrassment that feels awkward in a professional meeting. However, failing to hold people accountable leads to a continuous decline in performance.

When I’ve spoken of personal mastery (The Fifth Discipline), I’ve mentioned that personal mastery is doing something you don’t want to do because it’s the right thing to do – in spite of the momentary pain associated with doing it. The pain of holding someone accountable may be met with one of these excuses:

  • It will fix itself – We all have a limited amount of energy that we can spend on things. Our time, attention, and emotional presence is expensive and sometimes you believe – or probably more accurately hope – that problems, like a lack of follow through on a commitment, will just fix itself. It’s rarely the case that this is correct, but we keep hoping that it will be one day.
  • It doesn’t matter anyway – Sometimes we believe that even if we try to hold someone accountable it won’t change anything. It won’t change their behavior and it won’t change the outcome.
  • I don’t want the fight – Sometimes the fight is something that we don’t have the emotional energy for, other times we don’t feel like we’ve got the relationship necessary to support a healthy resolution. In either case, we just don’t want the fight that we perceive will be necessary to hold someone accountable.
  • I wasn’t clear enough – Some leaders question whether the commitment that was made was clear enough. Either because the person who was being asked to make the commitment didn’t understand – or because the leader didn’t understand what the team member was saying. So next time the leader will attempt to be clearer.
  • They know how I feel – In another attempt to hope the problem away, we don’t hold others accountable because we believe that they know how we feel and that they understand the problem of not meeting their commitments.

Clearly, there are other possible issues and excuses but the fact of the matter is that in many cases we don’t hold people accountable to the most important commitments because it’s hard. Sometimes, however, the problem is more difficult. That is, the problem is based on the fact that the commitment wasn’t something that they could control – or even influence.

Pushing or Pulling (Lead and Lag Indicators)

When we make a commitment we’re often asked to make a commitment for a result. We’re asked to improve sales by a certain amount, or reduce costs by some other amount. These requests are partially in our control – but also they’re a measure of the results. Measuring results is great – and ultimately what we have to do. However, results measurement happens after all of the work to drive the results are done. You can measure whether someone has met a sales quota, but not until the end of the period. As a result, it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s why results measurement is a lag measurement. The changes always lag from the behaviors that lead to the results. Most of the results we seek are lag measurements and that’s OK – until you try to influence the results.

For instance, if you have a goal of losing weight you can step on the scale and see whether you have achieved your goal. Even if you measure your weight daily you’re still measuring the result of the day’s activity. Measuring your weight is a lag measurement. However, if you were to measure the number of calories you took in – through eating and drinking – and those you expended through exercise, you’d have a set of leading indicators. These indicators would allow you to predict whether you were going to lose weight or gain it. That’s the power of a lead indicator. It’s something that you can control that predicts the outcome that you want.

While lag indicators are generally pretty easy to figure out, leading indicators are generally harder to pick – and harder to track. However, in any program, when you’re trying to execute a change, you need lead indicators to help you know how you’re doing. However, sometimes finding leading indicators for the leading indicators you pick can be both necessary and problematic.

If We Knew What We Should Be Doing

For more than five years I’ve been selling the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users. The guidance there on how to do the most common tasks in SharePoint has been highly regarded by many people over the years. I’ve collected many great quotes about the Guide. And I’ve spent a great deal of time and money over the last five years trying to improve sales. I’ve been primarily focused on generating a larger number of leads – the number of people who are inquiring about the product. However, in the end analysis, all my work on the Shepherd’s Guide marketing in the last five years as not appreciably changed the number of leads that I get in a year. Let me say that differently – none of the actions that I’ve taken have mattered.

This may seem like a fatalist view – that I’m not having an appreciable impact – however, that’s not the intent. The intent is to say that I don’t know how to change the number of leads that I get for the Shepherd’s Guide. It doesn’t appear to matter how often I speak at conferences or users groups. Nor does it appear that it matters whether I support users groups across the US. Not that I’m planning on changing these behaviors, but the point is that they don’t appear to be making a difference in the number of inbound leads that I’m seeing.

The idea of a good lead measure is that it predicts desired outcomes – like sales – and that it can be influenced. Certainly I can accept that the number of leads I get will lead to sales – there’s a reason they’re called leads in the first place. However, based on the evidence I have, it’s hard to believe that I can influence the number of leads that I get.

Four Disciplines

The principles – disciplines – in The Four Disciplines of Execution are relatively straight forward and, in fact, they’re not that different from the article I wrote titled Create a Path to Reach Your Strategy nine years ago. However, as I’ve found over the years, sometimes you have to repeat the same message to have it heard. In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande said, “Discipline is hard—harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even selflessness.” This is the essence of the 4DX method – instilling the discipline to get things done. However, we should go through the disciplines in order – to put first things first, as Stephen Covey (in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) would say.

Discipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important

If you could do just one thing, what would it be? That’s at the heart of finding your wildly important goal. If you could only do one thing to improve your organization, what would it be? The truth is that we believe, culturally, that we can multitask. However, the evidence is strikingly in contrast to this notion. 4DX quotes professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University who says “Habitual multitaskers may be sacrificing performance on the primary task. They are suckers for irrelevancy.” A more damning quote comes from Jordan Grafman of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in the USA. “Improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively… the more you multitask… the less deliberative you become; the less you’re able to think and reason out a problem.”

If you’re looking for a bright side, Clifford Nass admits, “The neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming, and multitasking are expanding and strengthening,” but he cautions, “while those used for reading and thinking deeply, with sustained concentration, are weakening or eroding.” So even if we, as a human race, could become better at multitasking, it would have severe consequences in our ability to focus. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would be concerned since he demonstrates in his research and documents in Finding Flow, that the most productive time people have is when they’re in “flow” and that requires uninterrupted focus on a task. So what happens when we’re constantly interrupted – and we have no chance to get into flow? (This fundamental idea isn’t new. You can also find coverage in Peopleware.)

The more that we can focus our energies on a single task – including finding a single (or a few) wildly important goals, the more aligned we are with how people think. With too many things going on, the interruptions become inevitable. So the first discipline is the discipline of focus.

4DX encourages you to focus on one Wildly Important Goal (WIG) and try to make just that happen.

Discipline 2: Act on Lead Measures

Knowing what you want to accomplish and knowing how you’re going to accomplish it are two vastly different things. You may know that your goal is to increase the number of leads for a product, but influencing that number may be difficult – if not impossible – to do. That’s where the power of finding the right lead measure comes in. Leads coming in are, in and of themselves, a lead measure for sales (assuming a stable conversion rate). A lead measure for generating inbound leads may be the number of quick reference cards I give out. However, it can equally be that the number of cards that I hand out has nothing to do with the number of leads I get.

Picking the right lead measure is arguably the hardest part of the 4DX system. Making progress on the right lead measures means that you’ll make progress on your wildly important goal. But how do you ensure that you’ll make progress on the lead measure? It starts with visibility.

Discipline 3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

4DX speaks frequently that people play differently when they’re keeping score. There’s a different level of intensity to the play. They’re more serious and less jovial. Malcom Gladwell describes the impact of practice in Outliers, but is careful to point out that it’s an intentional practice. It’s possible to have intentional practice without keeping score – as might have happened with the Beatles (their take-home pay each night didn’t materially change based on their performance) or Bill Gates (who was solving non-monetary problems with computers in high school before he started Microsoft.) However, for most people – who aren’t outliers – keeping score makes a serious difference.

In order to keep score, you need a scoreboard – and not the kind of statistical spreadsheet that a baseball statistician keeps. You need the kind of simplistic view of the measure that is glanceable. Peter Morville, in Ambient Findability, speaks about how to create environments where the results are more likely. That is, everyone should know at a glance what the key measures are. Scorecards have become the rage in some business circles. In my world, I’ve realized that there are only two issues with business intelligence initiatives including the development of balanced scorecards. First, the data is missing or bad. Every organization struggles with bad data at some level. Second, businesses have no idea what to put on the scorecard. (See the problem above about choosing a lead measure.)

4DX discusses the need to automate scorecards and to distribute them so that they’re visible. In some cases, that means capturing data that you’re not used to capturing – such as the percentage of normal at which a machine is operating – and sometimes is means automating the display of the scorecards. In one of my manufacturing clients, they’ve installed large TVs with low powered PCs that constantly display a web page that changes with a set of statistics about how the machine is doing, how the operator is doing, how the shift is doing, and how the plant is doing. The rotation of these statistics means that there’s some motion to attract the eye and the relatively low number of indicators means that the screens are glanceable. This is a perfect execution of creating and automating a scorecard.

If you’re trying to build your score card, start with your lead measure and then make that measure instantly understandable – perhaps using some of the techniques from Infographics. However, just making a measure visible won’t be enough. You’ll also have to hold team members accountable as well.

Discipline 4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

Agile techniques, most notably Scrum, have a daily standup meeting. (See Agile Software Development) Why a standup meeting? The answer is simple. People don’t tend to be long-winded when they have to stand up for the full meeting, so it keeps it short. What does a standup meeting do? It reports on progress, it makes a commitment for tomorrow, and it identifies issues. This is strikingly similar to the 4DX WIG meeting. Though WIG meetings are typically held once a week and daily standup meetings are – well, daily – they are structurally similar. In 4DX language, the words are Account (report on progress), Review the scoreboard (make a new commitment), and Plan (remove obstacles.)

The beauty of the model is that this meeting is focused not on doing the work but planning the work. No issues (of any significance) are resolved here. Any issues are deferred to outside of the meeting. This is intentional, as it helps to keep the focus on the accountability of the meeting – and keeps it short. Having worked on numerous software development teams that use agile development, the impact of an accountability meeting can be stunning. The peer pressure to do what you commit to reduces problems and the frequent reviews mean that, when there are problems, they’re discovered early on. The teamwork of the group – the understanding that we’re all going to succeed or fail together makes the collaboration and support of those struggling very quick and generally sufficient. People won’t languish for days on a problem that someone else on the team knows how to solve.

It Didn’t Work

Sometimes even with the right execution plan you won’t see results. Sometimes the results won’t come because of external factors – like a market change – sometimes those factors are internal – like you aren’t really executing as well as you think – and sometimes you just bet on the wrong horse. We talked about lead indicators needing to be predictive and able to be influenced. If I pick the number of quick reference guides I give out as my lead measure – because I can influence it – but that doesn’t generate more leads, then it’s a bad measure, and a goal (of selling more licenses) that won’t be met. It’s not a matter of strategy or execution – it’s a matter of both strategy and execution. If you get either of them wrong – and all of us will at times – you won’t see the results that you want.

Getting To It

The Four Disciplines of Execution may not lay out some fancy 25 step process for execution or some complicated techniques for getting the results you want. It’s just four understandable steps – on purpose. The authors knew that you have to make things make sense and they have to be simple if they’re going to get executed. So pick up The Four Disciplines of Execution and get started on executing your strategy.

The Wisdom of Not Invented Here

Management books from as long as I can remember have been talking about a phenomenon called “Not Invented Here” which is used to describe the resistance that people have to accept ideas that other people have come up with. Certainly this is an issue when trying to implement a new solution and get buy-in from a new group of people, however, it may just be that this resistance is less about general opposition and more about an unconscious awareness that has developed about how ideas are implemented – and that unconscious awareness might need to be made conscious in order to move forward.

Best for Whom?

The implication of trying to use an idea from someplace else is that it’s a best practice – that when applied to our circumstances that it will yield the similarly impressive results as when it was done elsewhere. However, every set of circumstances are different. Apply a low calorie high-vitamin diet to someone who’s already underweight and you’re asking for trouble. Inviting people to comment on an idea for which there are already too many opinions will only serve to confuse the situation further.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that although the practice isn’t best for one person, it is best for the majority of folks. In the general case, a low calorie high-vitamin diet is a good thing. Similarly, getting comments from multiple people is generally good.

Assessing who the practice is best for is an essential part of deciding whether it’s wise to accept an idea that wasn’t invented here – or whether it’s better to resist it because it won’t work in this environment or with these people. Said differently, the trick is determining whether it applies to your situation – and whether you’re controlling the essential attributes.

Essential and Accidental

When someone does a formal study, a great deal of care is taken to ensure that only one variable is changing at a time. The one controlled variable is supposed to be isolated so that it’s possible to identify the impact of changing that one variable. However, getting to a single variable is very difficult when humans are involved, as is evidenced by the Hawthorne Effect. That is a study where they attempted to see if productivity was increased by improving lighting at the Hawthorne Works plant. Good news, when they increased lighting the productivity went up. Bad news, it also went up when they reduced the lighting. The uncontrolled variable was how workers would respond to being monitored.

When any new best practice comes out, it comes with the package of ideas and behaviors that are supposed to drive the results. However, sometimes behaviors and thinking that had no impact on results are copied – and all too often the important behavior and thinking aren’t included with the best practice package because they weren’t deemed to be essential.

Researchers often attempt to replicate other researchers’ work as a way of validating it. They do this to ensure that the initial results were correct – but also to ensure that the experiment wasn’t tainted by other factors which weren’t a part of the study. However, best practices rarely get the kind of scientific rigor as an experiment. Often someone says that something worked for them and it suddenly becomes a best practice – even when the practice isn’t correlated with the results at all.

If the practice is tested, the next step is to determine whether the entire package of behaviors and thinking are required for the result or if there are a few essential components of the practice that are responsible for the results – or most of the results. The challenge is that sometimes it’s hard to identify the essential attributes of a best practice. A single practitioner may be able to implement the practice with great results – but no one else can get the same results. In cases where the essential attributes of the change can’t be identified, it may be because the practitioner has tacit knowledge that cannot be captured in the best practice.

Tacit Knowledge

Experience has value and not all experiences can be neatly coded into boxes, a report, or even in a presentation. Gary Klein noted in Sources of Power that fire captains knew more about fires than they were aware of. Solutions didn’t just come to them. Problems triggered pattern recognition which caused them to build mental models and ultimately propose solutions that matched their recognition-driven awareness of the problem – what Gary Klein would call a Recognition Primed Decision.

Lost Knowledge and The New Edge in Knowledge Management discuss at length how difficult it can be to codify tacit knowledge. There are so many ways to capture and code knowledge – but ultimately much of the contextual richness of the knowledge is lost and simply cannot be captured.

Sometimes the illusion is that the practice contains all of the knowledge necessary to be successful when in truth, there is tacit knowledge that has formed in the practitioner which can’t be easily captured and conveyed. If you can’t capture and convey the tacit knowledge that the practitioner has developed, there’s little hope that the best practice contains enough useful information to be effective. In fact, even if there is a way to capture the tacit knowledge, the problem may be Wicked enough that it doesn’t matter.

Undiscovered Systems

Everett Rogers exposed the issue of how difficult it is to predict the impact of an innovation in his book Diffusion of Innovations. The problem is that there are many systems that aren’t visible to the casual observer. Well-meaning missionaries introduced the steel axe head to aborigine tribes with the disastrous results of seriously disrupting their societal norms. We built dams to control flooding and to produce energy only to realize that we had disrupted fish reproduction – particularly salmon.

What appears to be a simple change – like giving better hand tools to aborigine tribes can result in an enormous change. Without the knowledge of the fact that the elders owned all the stone axe heads and loaned them out to the younger men of the tribe, you would never expect such dramatic negative effects with providing steel axe heads. Even with this knowledge, you’re unlikely to recognize the breadth of the problems that would be created – including an increase in prostitution.

Preventing flooding is a good thing. Humans lose their life and certainly their wealth through floods so flood control must surely be a good thing. Certainly when all of the factors are considered it can be a good adjustment. However, not realizing that some fish need to swim upstream to reproduce, the reduction of river volumes that results from building damns can create problems for the fish populations – and ultimately for the fishermen who rely on them for their living.

The problem with undiscovered systems – which lead to best practices not being best practices – is that they have an element of wickedness to them. Wicked in the way that Horst Rittel meant it when he used it to describe the problems of urban planning.

Wicked Problems

There’s an old saying attributed to Heraclitus that a man never steps into the same river twice – he’s not the same man and it’s not the same river. Sometimes even if you’ve captured the tacit knowledge, have identified the essential attributes, and have a similar situation as the practice was originally proven in, you still can’t get the same results – but that’s because the environment that you’re in is different. This is the heart of a wicked problem. Every time you attempt remediation, the problem changes, and as a result, there are a different set of actions needed to correct.

In my review of Dialogue Mapping, I discussed briefly what a Wicked problem is. I pickup the thread again in my review of The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices. One criteria for a Wicked problem is that there is no stopping rule. That is to say there is only “more good” and “less good” – there’s never Complete or Done. However, as Horst Rittel defined it, it’s broader than that. There’s also no definitive formulation of a Wicked problem – you can’t precisely define it. Wicked problems also don’t have an enumerable set of solutions. Sometimes they’re even the solution to another problem – so in this way, Wicked problems are an interlocking set of constraints – a system of systems that all interact. Systems thinking – and how you can cause unintended consequences was a key part of The Fifth Discipline.

Often best practices are entwined with people. From the manager to the worker and to every affected customer and vendor. People and the complex systems which operate inside the best practices frequently mean that the problems that best practices are designed to solve are Wicked – and therefore resistant to having a best practice at all. That’s due in part to the fact that people have egos.

Indulging Ego

Everyone has an ego – and often ego gets a bad reputation. John Dixon says in Humilitas that “One of the failings of contemporary Western Culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance.” In other words, we confuse people who are self-confident and convicted in what they believe as arrogant. The Advantage, Good to Great, Who, and other books all caution about the out of control ego. Books like Heroic Leadership, Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self Discovery, and How to Be an Adult in Relationships speak about the need to control and channel ego in a more productive way.

Books like Daring Greatly, Mindset, and The Happiness Hypothesis speak about self-confidence and self-image instead of using the negative word ego, but they’re speaking of the same thing. They’re speaking about our belief systems, and for most of us, we believe that we’re better than average. That we’re able to come up with our own solutions to our own problems – so we don’t need it if we didn’t come up with it. Our fragile ego doesn’t like to have it pointed out to us that we’re not really the ones that are the best at something.

Humilitas spends a great deal of time with studies, including those by Thomas Gilovich, where various groups of people believe collectively that they are better than they can possibly be. For instance, 70% of high school seniors who believed their leadership capabilities were above average. We’ve all got an ego and we, in general, tend to see ourselves slightly better than we actually are.

So, when we are confronted with an idea or best practice that we didn’t come up with, we want to believe we can come up with something better. Perhaps we have been bitten by a previous best practice that didn’t work out. A practice that wasn’t tested or a practice that didn’t address the wickedness of our situation. However, more likely, we’re just indulging our ego by rejecting that someone else could have a better solution than we did. For most folks the mental model we have that we’re smarter than other people isn’t right.

Mental Models

Above, I mentioned Gary Klein’s research with fire commanders, which was documented in Sources of Power, from the context of tacit knowledge – but that’s just half the picture. The other half of the picture is that people make decisions based on what they recognize in the situation. It turns out that fire commanders – and folks in many other walks of life – learn slowly and silently about how situations unfold and build mental models on that learning. The models allow the fire commanders to simulate what the fire will do – hypothesize about its origin – and test different ways of solving them.

These mental models are powerful. Their utility was discussed in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Efficiency in Learning, Dialogue Mapping, and The Fifth Discipline. One of the points made in The Fifth Discipline is that often our espoused beliefs and our actual mental models are different. As it pertains to our ego – we will often say that we can learn from everyone. Intellectually, it makes sense that we can learn something from other people and that we should. However, how many of us – including myself – have stopped listening to someone because we disagreed with their views, heard them say something that we knew wasn’t quite right, or we just didn’t like.

The reason for covering the impact of our ego on “Not Invented Here” is so that we can make it conscious.

Unconscious Made Conscious

Mental models are powerful in their control of us – up to the point that they’re made explicit. The more conscious that you make your mental models the more you can shape and change them into alignment with the way that you want to be. In the case of “Not Invented Here,” a healthy skepticism to make sure that the idea is really the best thing for your situation. It’s important to verify that the results are repeatable across scenarios – and across practitioners. We must be sure that it’s the right answer and not just blindly accept something from somewhere else.

However it’s equally important to ensure that the reason for resistance to an idea isn’t related to our egos expecting that only we can come up with good ideas. Good luck sorting out which thing is stopping you – and your colleagues – from accepting ideas that were “Not Invented Here.”


Book Review-Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down

John Kotter’s work on organizational change has been substantial and in reading Leading Change and The Heart of Change I became a fan of his work. Compared to those other works, the book Buy-In is a radical departure in approach. The first half of the book is a story (like Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team). The second half of the book are 24 objections that can be raised against your idea – and what to do about it.

Meet the Cast of Characters

In the story portion of the book, Kotter introduces us to a cast of characters that we’ve all seen in our travels (my translation provided parenthetically):

  • Pompus Meani (Pompous Meanie – Just plain mean)
  • Avoidus Riski (Avoids Risk – Doesn’t want to do anything risky)
  • Allis Welli (All is Well – We don’t need change, everything is good)
  • Divertus Attenti (Diverts attention – Pay attention to something else)
  • Heidi Agenda (Hidden Agenda – Wants something but won’t share what)
  • Spaci Cadetus (Space Cadet – Just doesn’t get it)
  • Lookus Smarti (Look Smart – Wants to appear smarter than everyone else in the room)
  • Bendi Windi (Bends with the wind – Will move to whatever position seems to be gaining the most strength)

The cast of characters makes it easy to identify what’s going on in the story where in real life it’s often hard to predict what role a person will chose to play for a given situation. Learning to read the situation and know the people so you can predict what’s going to happen is a part of being effective at keeping your ideas from being shot down.

Lessons Learned from Comedy and Presenting

As I was reading the story component of the book I was making notes about how the responses matched what I have learned from either comedy or presenting. As I’ve mentioned in my blog post “I am comedian“, I took a set of courses on standup and improvisation comedy to learn to become a better presenter. The upshot is that some of what I’ve learned about crowd work from that – and from just being a presenter – stood out as I was reading the story. Here are some of the ideas that were indirectly exposed through the story.

Getting the Audience on Your Side

Dealing with objections in a public setting isn’t that much different from being heckled on stage as a comedian or from having someone try to disrupt your presentation. In both cases, the audience has a choice to make. They’re going to need to either side with the disrupter – or they need to side with you. The good news in this is that there’s a power imbalance that works in your favor. As long as you’re respectful, the audience will usually side with the comedian or presenter. That’s what they want to do, because it assures them of their sense of power that the person in the front of the room should be the one that’s right.

The quickest and most sure-fire way to solidify the audience on your side is to defend them. If you’re a comedian, you can say that they’re disrupting the experience for the rest of the audience. In a presentation, you can simply say that you want to respect the other people’s time and that you’re happy to deal with the objections later.

Get the Audience Agreeing

Sometimes the decision on whether the audience will side with you or the disrupter is too close to call, so it’s time to pull out an old sales trick. That is to get the audience saying yes – either in their heads or audibly. When an audience is saying yes, they’re agreeing with you. After they’re agreeing with you for a while, their detailed processing (what Thinking, Fast and Slow would call System 2) stops evaluating things and settles back into the default processing – which is that you’re the expert because you’re in the front of the room.

However, sometimes even this isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to substantively change the frame of the discussion.

Appeal to Values

Each of us has things that we value. (Who Am I? discusses 16 values that we all have in varying degrees.) Sometimes it’s necessary to remind people what their values are. If you’re arguing for a new process or tool that will make more work for the nurses, it would be understandable that the nurses would resist the additional burden. However, when you reframe the problem to what is best for the patient and appeal to the nurses’ value that helping the patient get well is the most important thing, you can sometimes melt away resistance.

While we’re all concerned about our own lives and our own selfish interests – we also like to believe that we’re selfless, compassionate people as well. Appealing to the higher values or purpose can often help folks step outside of themselves.

Put them in Your Shoes

While they’re stepping outside of themselves, they might as well step into your shoes for a moment. Sometimes arguments may not intentionally become personal attacks but they can feel that way. In some cases it’s our own personal thinking that is to blame, and a normal person wouldn’t perceive the argument as an attack – but not always. If the argument could be reasonably perceived as an attack, it’s sometimes effective to reflect the argument back. “How would you feel if I said that about you?” When combined with the idea of values, you can even suggest that an honorable person supports or has reviewed the proposal and surely they’re not imputing that honorable person’s character.

Find the Principle Behind the Practice

Sometimes the actual topic of discussion isn’t the real principle in play. Often there’s an argument that by changing, we’ll be betraying the core values that the organization believes in. However, if the core value that is stated is providing books for community use, the value may be too narrowly defined. At one level, it’s true that libraries were designed to provide access to books to the public. However, at another level, the purpose of the library is to allow those who want to enrich their lives through reading to be able to do so. The shift is that the definition no longer includes books.

This shift broadened the value and more closely reaches the core principle. The principle is that knowledge is power and we want to allow everyone who is interested to reach their potential through knowledge. The delivery of books is just one way that this is done. With this larger framing of the core principle, it makes sense to offer computer access inside of the context of a library. After all, there’s more reading available on the Internet than a traditional library.

However, sometimes when broadening the conversation, reframing, and reaching down to find the principle, people can get the wrong perception.

Owning the Misperception

Communications is fraught with problems. We don’t understand what words mean – or even when we do our definitions don’t match the definitions of others. Misperceptions are a natural and expected part of communications. One good way to disarm someone is to own the misperception. Apologize for the misperception and clarify what you did – and didn’t – mean. This frequently disarms the person who is being disruptive and helps them to realize that there was no intent to malign them or the group that they’re interested in protecting.

It is Not Personal

No matter how much the idea has been shot at. No matter how much the argument seems to be wearing on. You have to remember that a disagreement about a topic isn’t a personal attack on you – or the people raising the issues. It’s simply a disagreement. The more that you can remind folks that it’s not about personalities, it’s about the topic – or the values underlying the topic – the better off things will go.

Five Guidelines for Responding

Kotter offers up five guidelines for responding when your idea is being challenged.

  • Don’t be afraid of distracters. Handled correctly, they can actually help you!   
  • Always respond in ways that are simple, straightforward, and honest.   
  • Show respect for everyone.   
  • Watch the audience (not just the people shooting at you).   
  • Anticipate and prepare for attacks in advance.

24 Objections

With the background of knowing how to respond, here are the 24 archetypes for objections that you’ll get to an idea.

  1. “We’ve been successful, so why change?!”
  2. “Money (or some other problem a proposal does not address) is the only real issue.”
  3. “You exaggerate the problem.”
  4. “You’re implying that we’ve been failing!”
  5. “What’s the hidden agenda here?”
  6. “What about this, and that, and this, and that . . . ?”
  7. “Your proposal goes too far/doesn’t go far enough.”
  8. “You have a chicken-and-egg problem.”
  9. “Sounds like [something most people dislike] to me!”
  10. “You’re abandoning our core values.”
  11. “It’s too simplistic to work.”
  12. “No one else does this!”
  13. “You can’t have it both ways!”
  14. “Aha! You can’t deny this!” (“This” being a worrisome thing that the proposers know nothing about and the attackers keep secret until just the right moment.)
  15. “To generate this many questions and concerns, the idea has to be flawed.”
  16. “We tried it before—didn’t work.”
  17. “It’s too difficult to understand.”
  18. “Good idea, but this is not the right time.”
  19. “It’s just too much work to do this.”
  20. “It won’t work here; we’re different!”
  21. “It puts us on a slippery slope.”
  22. “We can’t afford this.”
  23. “You’ll never convince enough people.”
  24. “We’re simply not equipped to do this.”

Rather than reproduce the responses to each of these objections, I’ll point you to the web site for the book at which has the summaries.

Wrapping the Argument Up

Buy-In is a different approach than Kotter’s other books – however, it’s an effective one. It’s great focus on one of the topics that few of us get a chance to focus on. Learning how to respectfully deal with disagreements and folks who are trying to prevent your idea from moving forward is helpful to all of us, whether you’re a student, an academic, a manager, or a consultant.

The Heretic's Guide to Best Practices

Book Review-The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices

As I mentioned in my review of Dialogue Mapping, my friend Paul Culmsee and I met many years ago and continue to speak despite the 12 hour time difference between us. Last year Paul and Kailash Awati (whom I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting) coauthored The Heretics Guide to Best Practices. I’ve had it on my list of books to read since before it was published. (I received a few drafts from Paul along the way.)

In our conversations, I have learned that Paul’s a brilliant and irreverent consultant. He – like I – will knock over the chairs in the room if that’s what’s required to move things forward. He’s had more experience with best practice models – ITIL, PRINCE2, etc. – than I have but through our conversations I know he’s mapped the edges of where they’re valuable. So I knew the book about where frameworks, methodologies and standards are good – and bad – would be a good one.

Why be a Heretic?

First, we have to agree that it is heresy to say that doing best practices is not a best practice. The operating assumption in most environments is that a best practice is the thing to do. When we duplicate the conditions where the practice was used successfully, we can get the desired results. However, in my experience with healthcare and IT, what’s written in the best practices is rarely enough, and sometimes misses the point entirely.

Scientific studies are tested at different places by different teams to see if they can replicate the results of a study. This is a part of the process and it ensures that the process is reproducible and that the characteristics of the environment described by the discovery team are sufficient to replicate the result. However, best practices rarely get the kind of rigor that a scientific study gets. Often times once something seems successful at one or two organizations it’s assumed to be a best practice. This is particularly true of management consultants and leaders who want to instill practices they’ve used successfully in the past but is also true of larger methodologies.

One of the discussions in the book is about the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Kailash is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP). The book stops short of saying that the PMBOK doesn’t ensure project success – and neither does having a PMP. However, there is an absolute awareness shared that sometimes the stated goals of project management to deliver projects on time, in budget, with an acceptable level of risk isn’t all that’s at stake.

With IT project success rates hovering below 50% based on a wide variety of sources, it’s clear that the creation of the PMI, the PMBOK, and the PMP certification hasn’t eliminated the problems with delivering IT projects successfully. Of course the argument will be that the PMP certified practitioners aren’t running those projects. With just shy of 600,000 professionals who have a PMP, I personally find it hard to believe that they’re not involved with at least some of the projects that are failing.

However, the real issue may be in how we define success. Some of the failures in IT projects were about how the end solution didn’t match – or appear to match – the problem. As a result the project was technically successful in that it was implemented but practically a failure because it didn’t solve the problem the project was created to solve.

The Sydney Opera House, one of the worlds’ most noticeable landmarks, was ten years late, over budget by more than fourteen times, and reportedly the primary architect has never been inside it. By the PMI definition of project management, it’s a failure. However, opera attendees and the world at large seem to disagree.

The Heretic’s Guide is about looking beyond the success or failure of an individual best practice to see whether the practice is really “best” but also to understand the criteria beyond the traditional thinking.

Network of Commitments

Years ago – well before I met Paul – I was introduced to the work of Fernando Flores, specifically Understanding Computers and Cognition. One of the points made there was that an organization is a network of commitments. The ability for an organization to keep its commitments to itself and others is essential to its survival.

I’ve seen numerous echoes of the problem with commitments showing up over time. I mentioned what I call commitment cancer in my post called “Running Users Groups.” Having individuals be accountable to one another through their network of commitments is essential to collaboration. It’s a part of trust as I described in several places including in my post “Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy.” Trust is earned through a decision to make your interactions Win/Win instead of Win/Lose.

Win/Lose or Win/Win

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey introduced the idea of a shift in attitude from “I win, you lose” to “I win, and we all win.” This has surfaced a few times including in The Science of Trust where it discusses the Nash Equilibrium (Win/Win) vs. von Neumann-Morgenstern (Win/Lose) from a game theory perspective. In Heroic Leadership there are glimpses of the idea of an ecosystem where all of the organisms are interdependent. (There are several other ties to the concepts in Heroic Leadership that we’ll explore shortly.)

One point of view is that you should shrewdly negotiate deals to your maximum advantage. This is the von Neumann-Morgenstern (Win/Lose) point of view. The other point of view is that you need to ensure that your partner(s) in the deal are able to have some win, so you negotiate the best place for all of you – the Nash Equilibrium (Win/Win).

Win/Win leads to better overall outcomes – even if not to one individual organization (or person)’s sole benefit. It’s the heart of collaboration. A collaborative environment which is more productive than one where each individual team member, organization, or person looks out only for their own best interests. However, many organizations attempt to layer a Win/Win facade on top of a structure that is fundamentally Win/Lose. Competitive environments are not necessarily bad. They can, in fact, be highly motivating – however, the do make it hard to collaborate.

The key with creating effective competitive environments is to make sure that the competition is externally focused. In the context of an organization, the competition should be against competitors in the market. You shouldn’t be pitting one person against another or one group against another. In the context of collaboration outside of the organization, you shouldn’t be competing with the folks that you’re trying to collaborate with.


One of the keys to collaborating with one another – with alliancing – is that the fates of the various parties are intertwined. That is “All for one and one for all.” Or as Aesop first said it, “United we stand, divided we fall.” The nature of having our success intertwined is important because it gives us the shared sense of success. It’s not just that win/win is an option – it’s required. This fundamental shift in thinking, that we have to succeed as a team, creates a different atmosphere and a different kind of working together. While in some sense organisms in an ecosystem still compete – there’s a sense of cooperation. That is, there are places where we are forced to compete, but fundamentally, we’re looking to cooperate to make everyone healthier.

Some might say that this is an impossible ideal or idealistic. However, I’ve spent years working with others to cultivate this point of view in Indianapolis, as the consulting companies all come together to support the community, and yet we sometimes find ourselves bidding on the same work. It absolutely does work, but it takes a personal strength – and alignment to the goal that everyone should end up better off – just like the kind of organizational-personal alignment that needs to happen in organizations.

Organizational-Personal Alignment

Many years ago I was working special projects for the CEO of a manufacturing company. During that time I remember him telling me that he was like a big gear at the center of the organization. If he turned even a little all the little gears in the periphery of the organization would end up spinning very, very fast. The Heretic’s Guide uses the metaphor of individual marble maze boards on a much larger framework of a tilting frame which is the organization. The idea is that when the organization makes a shift all of the individual boards are effected and they have to adjust as well.

This reminded me of two things. First, some organizational work from years ago about organizational contribution. Second, about how lining up personal and organizational goals could be valuable.

Organizational Contribution

In the organizational contribution model I’m considering, how folks contribute to an organization aligns along two dimensions. First, there’s the dimension of their interest. We all have interests that drive us and some of our work aligns with those interests. The second dimension is the dimension of ability. I may be very interested in electronic circuit design but that doesn’t mean that I’ll be good at it.

Looking at the four quadrants, if I’m low on interest and ability I’m going to be disinterested and dysfunctional – a model of an employee that should be terminated. If my interest is there but my ability isn’t, I’ll be interested but dysfunctional. The good news is that folks here tend to improve their ability. Because you’re interested, you’ll learn and generate better abilities. (See Outliers) That leads us to the category of an interested achiever. Inevitably though, your interests will shift and lead you into the quadrant of the disinterested achiever. In this quadrant you’re still effective at delivering solutions but because it’s not aligned with your interests you’ll get burned out and will disengage from the organization.

I was thinking about how this cycle plays out if the organization’s interests are shifting as well as the personal interests. The organizational interests changing will tend to pull down the ability as employees are shifted out of their comfort zones. It can be that these changes will transition people into an area of disinterest and dysfunction – making a change necessary. Realizing that with change comes growth so the organizations changes means that individuals will need to grow as well.

Personal Goals Alignment

In another life, I had a friend who wanted to be the best public speaker possible. He wanted to get the top speaker scores at every conference. Some would say that he was obsessed with getting the top scores. He painstakingly rehearsed, he added comedy and “crowd work.” A short time later he was clearly the best speaker in the market. The good news was that he was the co-owner of an organization that needed an evangelist, someone who would be good at engaging people to buy their product. His personal goal to become the best speaker was completely aligned with the organizational goals to become better known in the market place.

After he reached the top of his game his interests shifted – creating a misalignment with the organization. In effect, he had moved from an interested achiever to a disinterested achiever – and while that works for a while it isn’t sustainable.

When an organization and an individual’s goals are aligned it’s amazing how much can be accomplished. Sometimes the alignment can be simply in principles and not necessarily in skills.

Principle-Driven Leadership

Behind much of the Heretic’s Guide is a visibility to the principles that are behind the processes and programs. The same sentiment is expressed in Heroic Leadership where it describes what made the Jesuits successful over the long term wasn’t a set of prescriptive methods of doing business. It was a set of principles that led to the right point of view. The four principles from Heroic Leadership are:

While these are more personal and lofty concepts than those shared in the Heretic’s Guide – they represent the same fundamental view of problems that are espoused in the Heretic’s Guide. It’s the difference between the ways an apprentice sees the problem compared to a master. I wrote about the learning curve we experience from apprentice through journeyman to master. I revisit the concept again in my review of The Art of Explanation. The methodologies are great when the principles line up, but they don’t work so well when the problem exposes its wickedness.

What It Means to Be Wicked

Given my recent review of Dialogue Mapping, I won’t spend a great deal of time reviewing the meaning of wicked problems or why so many of the problems we encounter have wickedness in them. The Heretic’s Guide covers both wicked problems and the dialogue mapping technique using IBIS that Conklin discusses in Dialogue Mapping. Having known Paul for so long and having discussed it with him so many times, I find it hard to say which discussion of dialogue mapping is a better place to start – so I’ll just recommend that if you’re serious about dialogue mapping and wicked problems that you read both – they have obviously similar points of view, but there’s a different type of richness in each explanation.

Where Heretic’s Guide goes beyond Dialogue Mapping is in discussing other Problem Structuring Methods (PSMs).

Structuring the Problem

It seems like everyone is looking for a way to structure problems so that they’re easier for everyone to understand. Shared understanding of a problem is one of the key issues with wicked problems, so it’s natural that it’s an area where folks are struggling to find an answer. One of the quotes from Heretic’s Guide is “The good thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.” That is certainly the case when it comes to problem structuring methods. Paul and Kailash reviewed numerous problems structuring methods:

  • Soft Systems Methodology
  • Breakthrough Thinking
  • Polarity Management
  • Dialogue Mapping
  • Back of a Napkin
  • Quest
  • Journey Making
  • Strategic Choice Approach
  • Robustness Analysis
  • Drama Theory

Of these, there are details on the strengths and weaknesses of each approach for Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), Breakthrough Thinking, Polarity Management, and obviously Dialogue Mapping.

Because there are some good insights for how to think about wicked problems and facilitating understanding, I’ll summarize the Heretic’s Guide’s coverage of SSM, Breakthrough Thinking, and Polarity Management.

Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)

Soft Systems Methodology is the oldest PSM but has been criticized for its relative lack of specificity. It’s described as a loose framework. However, there are some specific views for conceptual modeling including CATWOE:

C Customers. Who is on the receiving end of this transformation? How will they react to what you are proposing? Who are the winners and losers?
A Actors. Who will be carrying out this activity?
T Transformation. What are the inputs? What are the outputs? What is the process for transforming inputs into outputs?
W World View. What view of the world makes this definition meaningful? What is the bigger picture into which the situation fits?
O Owner. Who is the real owner of the process or situation?
E Environmental constraints. What are the broader constraints that act on the situation and this definition?

Breakthrough Thinking

Certainly there’s a great name in the PSM Breakthrough Thinking. It’s got marketing zing. It’s described as a way to avoid “analysis-first” and “technology traps”. Breakthrough Thinking doesn’t believe that more data necessarily means more insight. Additionally, Breakthrough Thinking doesn’t believe that people resist change – the methodology believes that people resist change they don’t understand or that they believe is threatening to their wellbeing.

Breakthrough Thinking also believes in institutionalizing continual feedback because that is essential to understanding problems – which is consistent with the way that wicked problems are defined.

Polarity Management

Polarity Management believes that wicked problems should be considered as poles to manage rather than problems to be solved. I tend to think of this as continuum and things are on that continuum. The idea in polarity management is that problems tend to oscillate between the poles.

Here are the key steps for problem solving in polarity management:

  • Identify the polarity—determine the description or theme of each pole
  • Describe the whole polarity—fill in the aspects of each quadrant
  • Diagnose the polarity:
    • Which quadrant is the problem located in now?
    • Who is crusading and who is tradition-bearing?
  • Predict the polarity
    • What will happen if the crusaders “win” and the concerns of the tradition-bearers are neglected?
    • What will happen if the tradition-bearers “win” and the concerns of the crusaders are neglected?
  • Prescribe guidelines for action
    • Provide mutual assurances that the downsides of each pole are acknowledged
    • Agree on communication systems and practices to ensure that the pole is well-managed going forward

Battling the Flavor of the Week

If you’re tired of battling the “flavor of the week” management philosophy or framework. If you’re ready to look past the checklist and standardized process to figure out how to make your organization or situation better, read The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices to see how you can survive.

Who: The A Method for Hiring

Book Review-Who: The “A” Method for Hiring

In my work on knowledge management it’s become all too clear that labor costs are the costs that dominate most organizations’ budgets. Unless you’re in a particularly material cost intensive industry – such as manufacturing – most of your cost in an organization is labor cost. That drives the need to improve efficiency through knowledge management and training techniques – however, there’s a part of the equation which starts much earlier than how you retain the knowledge that you have – it starts with hiring the right people in the first place. That’s what Who: The A Method for Hiring is all about. It’s about selecting the right people to be a part of the team. The heart of this is a method created by Geoff Smart‘s father, Brad Smart and is described in more detail in the book Topgrading: The Proven Hiring and Promoting Method that Turbocharges Company Performance.

The “A” method for hiring is all about hiring “A” players. That is those employees that are going to help drive your business. It is in the context of a grading system, like a typical school. The “A” players are best followed by “B” players, etc. The assertion is that if you hire only “A” players then you’ll drive the organization forward – Who teaches you how to find and employ “A” players and separate them from the “B” and “C” players that most organizations will admit that they have on their team in at least some places.

I picked up the book because it was referenced in The Checklist Manifesto In connection with how people made their decisions. I knew Who was about hiring – and I have some hiring to do. In reading it, I learned more about how I’d been doing hiring wrong – and where I had seen it done right.

The Technical Interview

When I was working for Crowe Horwath (it was Crowe Chizek at the time), I was part of the team that was hiring new consultants. We had the hiring process down to a well-oiled machine. I would, along with a few others, review resumes, do phone screen interviews, and participate in a face-to-face interview set. Human resources would send a relatively steady flow of resumes and they would be sorted into a not interested and phone screen “piles.” The phone screen candidates would get a time scheduled for a 30 minute conversation. They were generally pretty quick and ultimately we screened out about 95% of the people we spoke to simply based on a lack of technical skills. I can remember going through some interviews wishing that I could make the half hour go by faster. But our screening rate was pretty good.

If they passed the technical screen they would be brought in and we’d ask them a set of standard questions. We’d coach them to be specific if they were speaking in generalities. Ultimately after a few of us would interview the candidate we’d huddle back together and put folks into a yes, no, and maybe pile. The maybe pile was really only a temporary holding spot, we moved them either to yes or no very quickly.

The process was very structured and very good. However, it felt pretty time consuming. It also felt like it was built on the need for highly technical positions. I didn’t think about using the process – or a similar one – when I started hiring for myself. Over the last several years I’ve hired and fired more than a few people. Sometimes my bleeding heart wanted to help someone in trouble. Other times, I didn’t understand what I was asking from folks. All the time I felt like I’m lousy at hiring people – but it was something I had to do in order to grow the business. What I learned from Who is that the same discipline we applied to technical candidates should be applied to every candidate from the CEO of a Fortune 100, multi-national corporation to the receptionist being hired to welcome guests in the corporate office. I also learned that there are ten different types of interviewers.

Ten Different Interviewing Styles

Who calls out ten different styles of interviewing that the authors have seen in their practice. They are:

  • The Art Critic – Gut instincts and the belief that he or she can read people guide the Art Critic to deciding whether they think that a candidate is good.
  • The Sponge – Believing in the wisdom of crowds – on really small sample sizes – the Sponge tries to get everyone to interview the candidate instead of them doing the job themselves.
  • The Prosecutor – Acting like a first year drama student the interviewer attempts the kind of interrogation seen on TV cop shows.
  • The Suitor – So preoccupied with whether the candidate will like them or not, they spend all their time speaking about how wonderful the company is that they forget to ask the candidate about themselves.
  • The Trickster – Using logic tests and quirky questions the trickster believes that anyone who can make it through their gauntlet of questions relatively unscathed must be OK.
  • The Animal Lover – Steadfastly refusing to let go of favorite questions, these interviewers like to ask questions that they themselves believe are illustrative of the candidate.
  • The Chatterbox – This interviewer loves to hear himself (or herself) talk so much they forget to ask the candidate the right questions and dig for the right responses.
  • The Psychological/Personality Tester – With the weapon of testing by his side, the Psychological/Personality tester seeks to be able to hire based on their DISC profile, Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, or some other test. The problem is that these tests weren’t designed for this and this still tells you relatively little about the person’s capabilities.
  • The Aptitude Tester – This interviewer seeks to determine a person’s aptitude for a specific position. The trick is in measuring the right aptitudes for the right roles.
  • The Fortune-Teller – Like the preverbal ground hog on ground hog’s day, the fortune teller likes to ask the candidate about how they see the future with them in it.

None of the interviewing styles are perceived to be particularly effective. Instead a structured approach with layers of interviews is recommended.

The Plan

The process laid out for successful hiring has four key steps. They are:

  • Scorecard – The record of what you want in a candidate.
  • Source – How you’re going to get a steady stream of candidates into the system.
  • Select – The heart of the system is the set of interviews that the candidate must go through and the process the interviewers should follow.
  • Sell – Once the candidate has been located, selling the candidate on the company so that they’ll take the offer that is provided to them. After all, you’ve got a substantial investment in interviewing the candidate, you want to make sure that they accept what you’re offering.

Let’s look at each one of the steps in turn.

The Scorecard

While most folks are familiar with creating a job description, few people have created a scorecard for a job that they’ve not hired someone for yet. If scorecards are used (and according to Who, that’s not frequently), they’re usually developed after someone has been hired. As a result, the idea of creating a scorecard can be a radical departure from how things have been done in the past. The scorecard is, however, not complicated. It contains just three major sections:

  • The Mission – The summary statement of the job’s core purpose.
  • The Outcomes – The specific, measurable, outcomes that the role must achieve.
  • The Competencies – What a successful person in this position must be able to do.

One of the interesting biases that the scorecard is supposed to address is the tendency to hire someone with a wider range of – necessarily shallower – skills. By focusing on the specific competencies required for the position you can eliminate the desire to find someone who can do everything – but not do it extremely well. I’ll say that this is an area where I see the focus of Who clearly. Who was written for larger organizations. There’s even an admission in the book about having not hired a nanny with the process (with poor results.) While most of what is written is solid on both ends of the scale – sometimes it’s hard to realize that small businesses require a greater degree of flexibility in employees. So the idea that you should hire for specialties is somewhat counter intuitive.

I’d refine the statement for smaller businesses to say that you have to get sufficient depth in the specialty that you’re hiring for – while having a broader set of skills to make it easier to adapt to changing market and organizational needs.

Who also speaks of a set of critical competencies for “A” players: (The descriptions are direct quotes)

  • Efficiency. Able to produce significant output with minimal wasted effort.
  • Honesty/integrity. Does not cut corners ethically. Earns trust and maintains confidences. Does what is right, not just what is politically expedient. Speaks plainly and truthfully.
  • Organization and planning. Plans, organizes, schedules, and budgets in an efficient, productive manner. Focuses on key priorities.
  • Aggressiveness. Moves quickly and takes a forceful stand without being overly abrasive.
  • Follow-through on commitments. Lives up to verbal and written agreements, regardless of personal cost.
  • Intelligence. Learns quickly. Demonstrates ability to quickly and proficiently understand and absorb new information.
  • Analytical skills. Able to structure and process qualitative or quantitative data and draw insightful conclusions from it. Exhibits a probing mind and achieves penetrating insights.
  • Attention to detail. Does not let important details slip through the cracks or derail a project.
  • Persistence. Demonstrates tenacity and willingness to go the distance to get something done.
  • Proactivity. Acts without being told what to do. Brings new ideas to the company.

There are several different CEOs quoted, each with a slightly differing views on what makes a top performer. For instance, Bill Johnson – The CEO of Heinz, had five characteristics:

  • Chemistry – Does the person fit with the rest of the team?
  • Commitment – Are you committed to making it work for them and are they committed to making it work with you?
  • Coachable – Are they able to be coached into more effective behaviors?
  • Ego Control – Do they have their ego under control?
  • Intelligence – Do they have the requisite intelligence? (This might be stated as aptitude as well.)

This reminded me of Bill Hybel’s thinking in Courageous Leadership. (Which I’ve still not fully read.) Bill believed that a candidate needed to have:

  • Competency – The ability to get the job done.
  • Character – A strong sense of who they are and who they want to become.
  • Chemistry – A strong fit with the team.

No matter how you define the scorecard for the position and how you frame the right answer for your organization, the next step is building a sourcing system that works.


It used to be that you would place an ad in the newspaper for a position and a few days later you would watch for the avalanche of resumes from job seekers. My friends in HR used to hate this process because they knew that they would have hundreds of resumes to sift through. They might get two hundred applicants, of which, maybe twenty were even worth forwarding to the hiring manager. Of that, the hiring manager might interview two or three. Today the process isn’t all that different. We post jobs on automated job boards which then force people to provide their information into a database for us and we use tools to keyword search to sift and sort through resumes. If they don’t have the requisite degree they’re out. If they have the requested certifications they’re in the pile to be reviewed by the hiring manager.

In the end, the process of advertising to the general public to find someone is an approach of last resort. With so much overhead in the filtering process and such a low success rate, it’s no wonder that HR managers want to use this option last. Who says that 77 percent of industry leaders cited referrals as their top recruiting technique. They’re not interested in delivering an avalanche of resumes – they’re interested in delivering candidates that match the organization and the organization’s needs.

Referrals can come from professional networks, from employees and their networks, or even from friends of the firm – those who like the organization. Of course, you can also hire recruiters to do some of the screening for you or researchers which can identify potential candidates – without interviewing or substantially filtering them.

The final way to source represents a fundamental shift in the way of thinking. That is that large organizations are always looking for good people. One way of thinking about it is a semi-active approach where there’s continuous recruiting of top talent whether there’s an open position or not. This creates a great network of people who can be tapped when an opening happens.

The Selection Process

Imagine for a moment that you go out on a blind date. Your friends have looked at you and another one of their friends and believe that you are a good match so they “set you up.” (The fact that it’s a setup should be a clue.) You meet the person for an hour and they seem OK so you set a wedding date and send out the invitations. As ludicrous as this sounds we do essentially this when we hire someone after a one-hour interview. Perhaps the stakes aren’t as high, however, we don’t know any more about a candidate after a one-hour interview than we know about someone after the first date. Steve Karr, the Chief Learning Officer at Goldman Sachs, said the common interview processes are “almost a random predictor” of job performance. Of course they are, how could you possibly know in an hour if someone is a good fit or not? That’s why the “A” method is different. In the Select Phase, it layers four steps together to try to ensure a better understanding of the candidate.

The four interviews are:

  • Screening
  • Top grading
  • Focused
  • References

The first three are with the candidate, the fourth is a set of interviews with the references provided by the candidate.


The purpose of the screening interview is to quickly get to the point of determining whether the candidate is worth going through the rest of the process with. Interviewing in this process is a fairly intensive process, with the Top grading and Focused interviews taking a full day’s worth of time for the employer.For that reason, it’s important to filter folks before they get to the next step.

It’s recommended that screening be done via telephone – but it could also be done at a job fair or some other situation where the cultural norms and expectations set that the screening will last 30 minutes or less. The recommendation is that you ask four questions in the screening interview:

  • What are you career goals? – Ideally the candidate will discuss goals that are aligned with the organizational direction – or opportunities that the organization can provide. Good candidates know where they’re going and what they want.
  • What are you really good at professionally? – This is generally easy as people love talking about their strengths. Talented people know what they’re good at.
  • What are you not good at or not interested in doing professionally? – This is more difficult as people don’t like discussing their weaknesses or have been coached to couch their strengths as weaknesses. You have to pull these out of folks to understand their strengths and weaknesses to have a complete picture.
  • Who were your last five bosses, and how will they each rate your performance on a 1-10 scale when we talk to them? – The key here is to ask how others would rate them and encourage them to be honest since you will be calling their bosses to ask.

My experience with a technical screening interview – which was similar in purpose to the screen interview in the Who method – was that less than 10% of the candidates would pass through this step.

Presuming that you believe the candidate is a reasonable match to the organization, you can schedule time to do the Top grading and Focused interviews. These are often scheduled together and can take most of the day. The Top grading interview on its own can take three hours. The Focused interviews will take a few hours – depending upon how many areas you need to get focused on.

Top grading

The Top grading interview is a review of the candidate’s career from the oldest relevant job up to the most current position. The process walks through a set of questions for each job that the candidate had:

  • What were you hired to do?
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • What were some key low points during that job?
  • Who were the people you worked with? Specifically:
    • Boss
      • What was your boss’ name and how do you spell it?
      • What was it like working with him/her?
      • What will he/she tell me were your biggest strengths and areas of improvement?
    • Team
      • How would you rate the team you inherited on an A, B, C scale?
      • What changes did you make?
      • Did you hire anybody?
      • Did you fire anybody?
      • How would you rate the team when you left it on an A, B, C scale?
  • Why did you leave that job?

The recommendation is that you do the Top grading interview with a colleague if you can, so that one of you can take notes while the other asks questions. It’s easy for an interviewer to get overwhelmed by trying to take notes and keep the conversation moving. The more support the interviewer has the better the results will be.

As was stated above and should be obvious by now, the process can take a long time. Who says that CEO candidates can take five hours and even entry level positions can take 90 minutes. It’s time to settle in and get comfortable before you start the process. The next step is shorter increments but can be just as lengthy. So Who offers a few tactics for keeping the interview flowing:

  • Interrupting – You have to interrupt the candidate – tactfully – so that they have time to talk about the relevant things. If they don’t get to share the things relevant to the job it’s their loss.
  • The Three Ps – Focus the candidate on three Ps:
    • How did your performance compare to the previous year’s performance?
    • How did your performance compare to the plan?
    • How did your performance compare to that of your peers?
  • Push vs. Pull – Look for whether the person was pulled to the next job (the characteristic of an “A” player) or pushed (the characteristic of a “B” or “C” player).
  • Painting a picture – Keep asking questions until you have a mental picture of what they’re saying.
  • Stopping at the Stop Signs – Look for changes in body posture that may indicate discomfort. Where there are inconsistencies between body and spoken language, be curious.

These techniques help you clearly understand a person’s history and job circumstances – and the techniques keep them moving through the interview –but you still don’t know how the candidate’s competencies line up with the competencies of the job. That’s the role of the Focused interview.


The scorecard for a position lists a set of core competencies that every candidate should have for the job. The Focused interviews – yes there can be one for each competency – are designed to provide a clear picture of how the candidate does – or doesn’t have – a competency. The specifics of how to determine whether or not a candidate has a competency will vary, however, it’s recommended that the interview include three components:

  • Explanation by the interviewer about the scope of the interview
  • The question, “What are your biggest accomplishments in this area during your career?”
  • The question, “What are your insights into your biggest mistakes and lessons learned in this area?”

When I was interviewing developers, I’d ask a series of questions about how they would solve logic problems – related to the kinds of software development they were going to do. We assumed that we would be filling in some skills because that’s the nature of learning, not everyone learns the same things. We wanted to know, however, if the person was comfortable with most of the concepts and if they were good at decomposing problems.

The limited structure of the Focused interviews is designed to ensure that every competency gets its own time for evaluation so that none of the core competencies for the position are overlooked.

By this point, you should have a good sense for how the candidate did in their various environments over their career as well as the competencies (skills). The next step is to calibrate the candidate’s responses with what other people say about them.


For the most part, I assume that references are a formality. Having been on people’s reference list very frequently, I realize that for every ten times that someone asks for permission to list me as a reference, I get called maybe once or twice. Clearly, most organizations ask for references, but very few actually follow up on them. However, the Who approach has you not only asking for references, but even asking candidates for specific references and for actions on those references.

The recommendation is for three past bosses, two peers or customers, and two subordinates – a total of seven references. Typically I’ve seen candidates provide three – upon request. Those references typically all cluster into one type. They’re frequently all peers. In addition to the variety and number of references, the method also asks that candidates prepare the references that they’ll be receiving a call. While it is common practice for people to ask permission to list you as a reference, it’s not always done. By the candidate talking to the reference they often make the reference more open to discussing the candidate. For instance, in the US most employers are limited as to what they can say about an employee – even though, as the book notes, there are sometimes messages encoded in the limited set of responses. By the candidate requesting that the reference talk to you, the doors are opened up for the reference to say more.

The outline for the reference interview is:

  • In what context did you work with the person?
  • What were the person’s biggest strengths?
  • What were the person’s biggest areas for improvement back then?
  • How would you rate his/her overall performance in that job on a 1-10 scale?
    • What about his/her performance causes you to give that rating?
  • The person mentioned that he/she struggled with _____ in that job. Can you tell me more about that? (Fill in with one of the weaknesses they mentioned during their Top grading interview.)

Obviously, the goal is to understand how others’ perceptions of the person match with that the person said in the interviews. The structure of some of the questions are chosen carefully to elicit the right response. For instance, when asking for areas of improvement “back then” you’re encouraging the person to be honest about how they were without feeling bad about saying something negative about them today. (Even if the assumption is that people really don’t change that much.)

Presuming that you like the reference checks, it’s time to sell the candidate on the organization.

Selling the Candidate

It’s impossible to get to this point in the process without offering some information about the organization to the candidate. However, that information may – or may not—be a complete picture of the organization. The goal of the final phase isn’t just to get them an “offer letter” or even an “offer package.” The goal is to make sure that they’re as sold on you and your organization as you are on them.

There are five things that candidates look for in an organization. They are:

  • Fit – Do they fit into the company’s vision, needs, culture and direction?
  • Family – Is the family onboard with the change? Will they find that the new organization is an extended family?
  • Freedom – Will the candidate get the freedom they want? (See Drive and Who Am I? for how people are motivated)
  • Fortune – Is the company financially stable and how will they be compensated for their efforts?
  • Fun – We spend half or more of our waking lives working, it should be something that the candidate will enjoy.

The goal of the entire – intensive – process is to separate “A” player candidates from the rest of the pack. It would be an absolute shame if you got to this point and realized that you weren’t able to get the candidate because they weren’t sold on the organization.

Using the System

The results of using the system seem clear. There are fewer employees hired that aren’t a good fit and then leave the organization. Those that do stay seem to perform better than a normative group. However, we’ll often shortcut or bypass steps because we believe that our particular method of doing the process is better. As The E-Myth demonstrates, there are some things where systemization is important. The consistency and rigor in hiring people is key to organizational success. Who shows you how to do that. Try it and reap the rewards.

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