Working to Code – An Example of Defining the Basics

My partner and sweetie introduced me to the concept of knolling (a method of organizing objects). She is a university professor who teaches a creative design-heavy capstone marketing class. Turns out that knolling is only Bullet #7 in Tom Sachs “The Code”, the rules for being a successful employee at his design studio. It struck me how fundamental these rules were, The Basics if you will, and how important he must believe they are to the success of his company for him to codify them in this way.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every company or organization were this clear on their values and expected behaviours? That they understood what drives their success? Many organizations do, but most don’t. At least not in a living and authentic way.

What are you personal, team, or company bullets/basics/code? What disciplines, processes, and tools drive your success?

p.s. Tom also has a “How to Sweep” video. I would argue that if you or your company cannot thoughtfully and elegantly describe its work in a similar way, you might now know what you’re doing.


In Support of Clear, Simple Language

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

I’m not always a good communicator. Things that I think are straight-forward get bungled in the strangest ways sometimes. Part of my world-view comes from growing up in a German-speaking house-hold in Canada. I like to joke that I learned English off the TV. Me sharing this will probably upset my mother (yes my mother reads my blog, hi Mom!), but isn’t too far from the truth. I often had to translate, explain cultural context, or figure out even in my own head what was going on for my parents. You can imagine as a child I didn’t always get this right. It’s a common experience for first generation immigrant children.

      Plus I’m also a bit left-brained, procedural, and rule-following. Again, I joke that with a German father and Swiss mother I had to have my room cleaned up on time. But this isn’t how everyone sees the world, so this also make for “translation” errors. You can imagine the knee-slapping adventures that ensue in a household where my partner and sweetie teaches creative design, my step-son is a professional musician, and his girlfriend is an animator. But they love the project manager me and even find me useful on occasion.

Painting a Picture

“People think people create stories. It’s the other way around.” — Terry Pratchett

 The very best communicators tap our emotions this way. Think of the Churchill’s “we will fight on the beaches“, JFK’s “send a man safely to the moon“, or Martin Luther King’s “I have seen the promised land.” No matter what you think of them as historical figures, it is objectively demonstrable that their ability to tap into clear, simple, evocative language tapped into people’s motivations and affected how people behaved.

The Science

Why does the brain like pictures so much? We express our feelings or make decisions with words all the time, don’t we? Maybe not.

Depending on how you measure it, 30 percent of the brain is used or involved in visual processing (with 8 percent for touch and 4 percent for sound). The brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 9/10ths of the information the brain receives is visual.

In his seminal TED talk Simon Sinek talks about the golden circle (“How Great Leaders Inspire Action”) and how this golden circle corresponds to different parts of the brain. The newest parts of our evolved homo sapiens brain, the outer layer called the neocortex, is responsible for all our rational, analytical thought, and language.

Great leaders seek to motivate. They appeal to the emotional, the visual. This corresponds our limbic brains. Our limbic brains, in the centre and the oldest parts of our brains evolutionarily speaking, are responsible for all our feelings, emotions, and decision making. Our limbic brains have no capacity for language.

The part of us that makes decisions doesn’t use words.

In Practice

The U.S. Army defines leadership as “…the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation….” You’ll probably notice that two if not all three of these factors are influences applied to peoples emotions, feelings, or even values and beliefs. Getting people to make the right decisions, act in a positive way, and commit to a particular outcome or goal (for whatever definition or “right”or “positive” you care to define) means making an appeal to their motivations.

The Army leadership manual goes on to talk about such airy-fairy leadership responsibilities such as developing future leaders, fostering trust, open communications, and earning respect.

So, providing clear, simple language means more than just using small words. It means understanding others’ motivations and applying influence. It means painting a picture of what the future looks like and why they should care. It means providing direction and purpose that appeals to people’s need to be part of something greater than themselves.

Clear communication means doing the work to be clear.

How about you?

What’s the worst miscommunication you ever had? How do you make sure you’re saying the same thing the listener is hearing? How well do you pay attention to other’s motivations?

How to Learn to Listen

A client asked me yesterday morning what I would recommend to get everyone in their company to be customer focused, and to drive their success in their construction business. My simple (but not easy) answer was: emphasize listening. Listening skills. Hearing the customer.

Which is why this guest blog is so timely: learning comedy improvisation skills comes with a healthy dose of listening (and following) the lead of your comedic partners. A skill that translates directly into being a better leader, following, boss, team member, supplier, and service provider.

Also many other things, as Karl details below.

So the next time you’re looking for a team building exercise, active listening training, failure proofing, or creativity boost that’s also fun and dynamic, give him a call. He runs a kick-ass workshop.

Take it away Karl!

Yet another reason to learn Improv

Schooling doesn’t teach you to improvise. It doesn’t make you comfortable with failure. Neither does your job, unless you work for a remarkably avant garde company. Your friends typically don’t encourage failure either.

In fact what determines whether we label ourselves as creative individuals depends on very specific criteria. You might be labeled creative if you play music or produce any kind of art. The problem is that many of us have latent creativity which may go unexplored because of the stigma about creativity. It’s scary, unpredictable, messy. It makes us vulnerable to judgement. It requires failing often, with grace, even joy.

This is one good reason to give basic improv training a try. The first thing they teach you in class is to fail. Often. With grace and good humour and eventually – joy. Because there are a lot of ideas made form in the universe and most of them are going to suck. But even the ones that do suck will have sparks of goodness in them that you should try to use in a future idea. This is a concept that many people struggle to accept. Bad ideas have value? Yes, and accepting that you will have them helps you let them go in a way that keeps the creative stream flowing. There’s just no getting around it, creative thought is a process where failure is par for the course. What makes the process more challenging is that sometimes what seems like a bad idea, is really a good idea, and the masses just haven’t realized yet. So there’s that.

Again, improv training can help with that challenge, because another skill taught to improvisers is to accept new ideas and just run with them, build upon them. It takes practise to do that consistently, but once a group can learn to stop blocking new ideas regardless of their apparent ridiculousness, they begin to recognize the gems hidden in every idea presented by others. Even more importantly, they are much more forthcoming with ideas of their own, knowing that they won’t be judged or dismissed.

Avoid the word ‘impossible’. This word is quite possibly one of the most overused words in our vocabulary. I’ve observed so many cases where the word ‘impossible’ should have been replaced with the word ‘hard’. But what a difference it makes in the attitude surrounding an idea. When something is impossible, that gives everyone permission to discard the idea immediately. When something is hard, or difficult, that becomes a challenge, to find a way to make it less so. The idea is still viable.

Another reason that improv training can cultivate creativity in a group is the desire to make your peers look good. Creativity is halted in its tracks when the overall working culture is combative and overly competitive on an individual basis. But improvisers learn to collaborate, to make their peers look good when they falter. A creative group that adopts this approach doesn’t look for flaws in other people’s’ ideas, they look for ways to make what might sound like a mediocre idea better with a little tweak of their own added in. This also creates an environment where people are much more likely to offer ideas in the first place, because they know that any idea is very likely to be nurtured by the collective. This allows even a spark of brilliance to shine with total support.

The bottom line is that to survive in today’s business world, you have to be able to create amazing solutions to existing problems. An organization that promotes creativity by learning core improvisational skills would certainly have the edge.

Learn to accept failure

Probably the most memorable phrase about failure is, “Failure is not an option.” Worst. Phrase. Ever.

We learn as adults to fear failure partly because of how adult work life evolves into a competitive struggle against our peers and partly because we traditionally cheer success and frown upon anything else. A purely competitive corporate environment instills a fear that any failure will be interpreted as weakness or incompetence. This attitude could even prevent us from asking for help, which only exacerbates the issue. It’s unfortunate, because not only is failure a required part of learning, obsessing about failure in a negative way suppresses the desire to contribute ideas and keep striving for that sometimes elusive success at all. The status quo becomes the norm.

Failure is in fact a common occurrence. We fail all the time, have so since birth. That’s how we learn. But as we progress through childhood, during school, we also learn that if we fail a test, we don’t measure up. This kind of thinking can also be ingrained in us by our parents, our coaches, anyone in a leadership role with influence on us.

If we’re lucky, failure, while acknowledged, doesn’t become an obsession with those in charge of mentoring us as we grow. Instead, they show us what the failure teaches us in order that we find a better way. This is the single most important lesson an improvisor learns, and it’s a lesson they never stop being reminded of. Fail with joy! Fail and move on. There is no guarantee of success, only attempts at greatness. Each attempt leverages the past lessons learned.

This is a valuable strategy to adopt in adult life and work, especially as a leader or parent. For example, in a meeting, someone might put forward an idea that doesn’t pan out. The competitive nature of some work cultures might use that situation as an opportunity to focus only on the failure itself. This creates an environment where the contributor no longer wants to serve up any more ideas for fear of reprisal, shame, harassment, etc.

Forward-thinking companies do it differently. They not only encourage talking about what was learned from failure, they even make it into a competition, encouraging all workers to contribute their biggest failures and what those failures offered as lessons learned. This helps cultivate trust, empathy, and promotes collaboration. This tactic also works better during personnel assessments. Workers who understand failures as stepping stones to success do a much better job with self-assessment and the interview is spent building strategies to leverage those lessons.

Good leaders will share those lessons with the team, not to make the worker look bad, but to thank the worker for the free lesson. In fact, good leaders will set the stage for admitting failure by doing it themselves, to show that anyone can make mistakes and the the key is to learn from them. History shows that time and again, successes are often preceded by endless failures. We need to remind ourselves of this and give ourselves permission to fail. It’s inevitable. It’s necessary.

Adult Play

If you’ve been keeping up with the latest in team building options and creativity enhancement activities for workers, you’ve probably heard about the place you go as a team, where they lock you in a room and you have to collectively solve puzzles to escape. Or maybe a guru comes in with special Lego pieces and gets everyone to build physical models to represent abstract concepts. Or perhaps an improvisor leads the group in a variety of improv exercises. No matter what the team building activity is, they all have one thing in common. Play.

Play is defined as “engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” I truly believe that while the first part of that definition may be accurate, the practical purpose part of the definition may be very misleading, knowing what we know today. When you talk to adults about play, they will describe it in a manner reflecting their current attitude toward the idea of play. Those who think of play as something only a child could benefit from, would never entertain the idea that adults can exercise their creative muscles through unabashed play. Then there are those who may see value in play, but are cautious of play that isn’t structured or is lacking clearly defined and unyielding rules.

Today, professionals in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and entrepreneurial companies on the bleeding edges of their fields, have all concluded after decades of research, that play is a vital component of adult activity. Play promotes community, cooperation, creativity, empathy, imagination, fairness, motor skills, the physical manifestation of abstract concepts, emotional growth, reduction in stress and competition, and so much more.

In my instructing career, I have almost discovered by sheer accident, that my students experience more joy and fulfillment when I incorporate some kind of play. In fact, in my career, I’ve grown less interested in teaching technical subjects and lean more toward facilitating sessions in soft skills like effective listening, conflict and play. Not because there is no reward in watching a student finally figure out how to perform a task on a computer or tool. But because the reward of seeing a student rediscovering play as a way of learning new ways of looking at things has…. practical purpose. One observes in workers who play, an intense focus on being in the moment. Any creation, progress or understanding that results from play holds more value and joy than those derived from other means. Even better, the outcome of playful creativity burns itself into memory in a manner that not only ensures long term retention, but people engaged in play tend to want to repeat the experience.

Play is like yoga for the mind. If an organization allows their workers to take some time to stretch and work their muscles during the day, they should also let them stretch those latent muscles of the mind as well – with play. In time, those people will naturally use play to get past any blocks in the advancement of ideas. In a perfect world, corporations would employ a gamer in residence, or improviser in residence to teach, mentor and guide groups in play, playful creativity and brainstorming.

The Real Question You Should Be Asking When Networking

I have the privilege of working with some amazing people, and being able to help Tiffany with her business model and turning her business of helping other people through writing into something that will support her and her family this past month has been a delight.

She’s off to Australia next month to attend a workshop that is a requirement for her Master’s degree, that will open other doors for her (fingers crossed). I suggested to her that this was also an amazing opportunity to build her professional network.

I could tell that the “networking” word maybe wasn’t the right one to use, so instead, I told her “think of it as making friends.” Be interested in what they’re doing, let them get to know you, and figure out how to help them.

And that’s the key – how can you help them? It might be as simple as going to their events, inviting them to help you on your gigs, making introductions, proof-reading their writing. You know, actually showing up for someone besides just liking them on Facebook.

You might give some thought to answering the question “What help do you need?” if someone happens to ask. But that shouldn’t be the point of networking. The intention is to help others.

So go out there and make friends, and be on the look-out always about what you can show up for them.

The Benefit of Speaking Up

If you’re not convinced to speak up because of the harm staying quiet creates, then consider the value of your voice: it is an act of love:

Overcoming Speakers’ Anxiety

10 great tips for overcoming the natural anxiety that comes from speaking in front of others.

Three Advantages of Being “Phone Prone”

Get a text? Call them. Get an email? Call them back? Carrier pigeon ready to go out? Call them instead.

There are three advantages to talking versus using technology:

a. You make contact with people and build relationships
b. You hear the context in the tone of their voice
c. You solve problems much more quickly

So the next time you get an e-mail, respond with “Call Me” instead of replying

Mistakes to Avoid: 3. Face the Difficult Conversations

Where I work we often say:

“The conversations that are killing you business are the ones you’re not having.”

I was working with a client once, facilitating a discussion about what to do with a long-term, loyal, but unproductive employee. After discussing  all the internal and external workarounds put in place to support this employee, I asked “When was the last time you talked to them about this?”

Silly me. I should have asked that question first. The leadership team looked at each other a bit sheepishly and admitted that not once had they given them a clear set expectations, feedback, or an evaluation of any kind, formal or informal, in all the convulsions they had gone through to avoid firing this person.

My next question was: “What do you think would happen if you did?”

The best leaders I know have a knack of telling people things they might not want to hear in a way that preserves the relationship in a positive way, and sometimes even makes it stronger. Often the only people who will tell you when you have spinach in your teeth are your friends…

The good news is that’s there’s lots of help out there to learn this skill (it is a skill, and it can be learned.) If you need a place to start, try Crucial Conversations – Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High. Then think about the conversation you’ve put off the longest, and go plan it.


*Imagine my delight when Trent asked me join a podcast on leadership. The question Trent was asking was “what mistakes should leaders avoid?” I jotted down five headlines inspired by my new-found fame. This is the third.

Technology, Millennials, and Empathy

Things you need to know if you manage “the Millennials” (second half of the 30′ video). Also some good strategy about long-term thinking (first half).

The Four F’s of Feedback

[this is  a summer re-post series re-post]

Fast, Friendly, Frequent, Focused

Giving feedback sucks. For whatever reason many managers aren’t good at it. I won’t list all the reasons I’ve heard , but I’m sure you can think back to some of your own, perhaps from bitter experience.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

It doesn’t have to be torturous, drown-out, or dramatic. My clients who give fast, friendly, frequent, and focused feedback to their staff  have found it doesn’t take very long to see huge changes in performance, both individually and at the team level.


10 seconds is all you need to give feedback. Longer that that you’re not getting to the point. Think about what you want to say, then say it. End of story. Don’t make a big deal about it. Giving feedback should be as natural as breathing for a leader. Treat it that way.


Giving somebody feedback is an act of love. You’re trying to help them get better. Helping people do better is part of your job. It’s not the end of the world. If the person you’re giving feedback to treats it that way, it’s their choice, and that’s a different conversation.

Keep it friendly, keep it relaxed, keep it informal. Remember also that while positive feedback isn’t as powerful a kick in the pants as constructive feedback, it’s more likely to result in the behaviour you want. You just have to give it more often. Catch them doing something right.


My wife was driving back from giving a presentation in small-town Saskatchewan once. It was late, it had been a long day, and she was tired. She fell asleep in one town and woke up in another 50 kilometers later when the smell of farmers burning their fields got her attention. Good thing the highways in Saskatchewan are so straight.

Usually when we’re driving we are continuously making small corrections using the steering wheel, instead of waiting just before we hit the ditch to yank on the wheel to get us back on course. Feedback is the same thing.

Start by giving feedback once a day. You’ll quickly see what difference it makes, and you’ll want to do it more often.


By focused I mean specific and actionable. Tell them what you want them to do, what behaviour you want them to change (or keep doing), or what physical, tangible action they need to take in order to improve for next time. Feedback is useless if the target of your feedback doesn’t know what to do with it.


Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not to do anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with