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.


How to Lose a Country

I’m an advocate for preparation. Preparing for the day, the next meeting, a job interview (candidate or interviewer), etc. I’m not always as good as taking the time to prepare for things as I like, but I’ve never lost a country because of it:

The Poster Child for the Importance of Q&A Preparation

Checkpoint Charlie the day the wall fell, because a spokesman mis-spoke

So, if you’re running from meeting to meeting without any time to do your “real work”, let alone being ready for the meeting and knowing what you want to get out of it before you get there; if you spend your days responding to emails and crises and go home at night wondering where your day went; if you habitually work long hours, evenings and weekends, trying to catch up; perhaps you need to slow down and think about how to get back control of your day.

Before you give away the store (or the company, or your country).

(Re) Starting Your Career #5 – Do What You Said You Would

Over and over again trust, credibility, and integrity come up as characteristics of effective leaders. Many words have been written about trust. It’s one of those words like integrity that has hundreds of meanings to different people. But the reality is quite simple.

In order to be an effective leader, the people you’re leading must trust you. In order to be trusted, you must do what you said you were going to do. I’ll say it again, because it’s that important:

Credibility results from doing what you said you would. Like most basic truths, this is both simpler and more complicated than it sounds.

Credibility means doing what you said you would. It really is as simple as keeping your word. Here is the complicated part:

Credibility means keeping your word even if it costs you. Doing more than you expected to do or losing out on something else if that what it takes.  It means keeping track of your commitments so you don’t “forget”. Unintentionally breaking your word is still breaking your word.

It means being disciplined enough to know what you can say yes to, and most importantly when you should say no. Keeping your word even to people you don’ t like. Saying no even when it means disappointing somebody you do like.

It means being very very selective about what you do say yes to. It means doing your best in all those circumstances. Even when what you want to do the most is just get “it” done and off your plate so you can move on to something else.

It means being transparent about where you are progress-wise. Reporting on progress is part of the commitment. It means being blunt and honest even when it hurts or is uncomfortable. It also means admitting when you can’t keep your word, and being transparent about what you can and will do going forward.

Credibility is your most valuable asset as a leader. Don’t believe me? Go read “The Leadership Challenge”. Or “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Then come back and tell me why trust isn’t at the top of the list. If people don’t trust you, nothing else will get done. Everything will be a struggle, Conflict, not the healthy kind, will abound.

Now, go examine your commitments. Choose only the most important ones.  Choose carefully. Do those first. Honestly manage the others. Then thrive.

Bernie works with small, medium (and sometimes) large companies, start-ups, and volunteer organizations to help them set a vision that is executable, to be effective, and to surround themselves with people who will help them succeed. I believe the workplace is a place to thrive, not just survive. Call me if you want help transforming your business. 

(Re) Starting Your Career #4 – Learn the Math

The client is a speciality B2B manufacturing and wholesaler where demand is unpredictable and being out of stock is unacceptable. They’d lost one of their biggest clients two years ago, and it kind of freaked them out.

They’d been forced to compete on price, giving discounts and putting up with late and delayed payments. They’d put up with all sorts of abuse and made lots of effort on behalf of their “best customer”. And their “best customer” cut them lose when somebody else with a better price came along.

A year later they were making more money. More. Without the client they worked so hard to keep. They had lower gross revenues, but they had higher gross margins and profit. They were actually taking home more money for less work. They did get out an get more sales from other clients, but only because they had more time to spend to go out and get sales from other clients. All their time wasn’t being spent on just one client.

In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to say they should have cut that customer loose instead of being bled dry and then cut loose. Lesson learned for them – they now they look at more than just the revenue for every client, and they certainly look at the gross margin and return on investment for all of their stock and individual customers to figure out where they’re actually making their money. Which allows them to make intelligent decisions about where their opportunities really are instead of just guessing.

None of the maths is rocket science. It does take a little critical thinking.  It just requires a little weekend reading, some thinking about your business model, and some scepticism and testing about about how that business model really works.

Two books I’d recommend to get you started (links to my Amazon store, just so you know):

The Drunkard’s Walk

p.s. The client they lost two years ago? The old client coming back to their higher margin items because the low-cost competitor’s inventory and delivery times suck. And they’re getting paid in a timely manner. So I guess the other lesson from this example is the advantage of keeping healthy, respectful boundaries about the value of the product or service you’re providing.

p.p.s. If you’re not a business owner, then think about what value you provide to the business or organization you belong to, then focus on doing that really really well.

Bernie works with small, medium (and sometimes) large companies, start-ups, and volunteer organizations to help them set a vision that is executable, effective, and to surround themselves with people who will help them succeed. I believe the workplace is a place to thrive, not just survive. Call me if you want help transforming your business. 

Interruptions – Guest Blog

My friend Karl proof-reads for me, and after a recent proof-reading mentioned he’d written an article on interruptions for his company newsletter. I’d like to share it with you.

White Noise – Work Interruptions



Everybody Sees the World the Same Way I Do – It’s a Trap!

Fifth in a series about communication and change management

Frustrated They're Not Learning? It May Not Be Them
Frustrated They’re Not Learning? It May Not Be Them

I love words. As a child when I discovered books, that became  my world. It’s where I escaped to. I write daily. I journal. I have plans to write a book. I love the smell of books. I have a library that I measure in hundreds of linear feet. Some books go back to the late 18th century.

It’s a lovely place. Coffee on, music in my ears, typewriter keyboard under my hands. Or a new book on my e-reader. When I learn or process I usually do it through words. Words are beautiful. Words are powerful. Words are magical.

Yet I’m closing myself off from most of the world. Not everybody has a sensual association with the written word like I do. Saying that out loud it seems that might be a good thing. My point is, not everybody processes the world through words. There are five senses, not just eyes scanning shapes laid out linearly.

Words are a visual media, yes, but there are also photographs, drawings, and pictures. Movies, models, and sculptures. There are many visual media, and many different ways to understand the world. The best writing (and speaking), in fact,  invokes the visual in concrete and tangible ways.

Fix #5 Appeal to All Five Senses

Learn to tell compelling stories. Tell them in different ways. Consider all the senses. Persuasive, moving arguments invoke all five senses and more. They invoke memory and emotion. We act because of how they make us feel.

I saw one of the worst examples of killing all enthusiasm for a great idea at an after-dinner presentation last week, in which a simple story from the audience rescued the evening.

The presentation was on workforce management. The slides that accompanied the presentation looked like a random collection of numbers and letters thrown at the page. The presenter read from the slides. It was horrible.

I felt sorry for the poor guy. He was trying to jazz things up by having a little drawing of a flow-chart or something in the bottom corner once in a while. Ironic really. Yet it was a simple metaphor from the audience that brought his concept  to life:

There are two kinds of shoppers at the hardware store on a Saturday morning. The first kind has a list, knows what she needs to complete the entire project, and gets in and out just the once. She spend the rest of the day executing the project, finishes early, and has a beer on the patio at the end of the day.

The second kind makes a trip to the hardware store every time they figure out they’re missing another piece or tool. This was me last summer when my outside faucet sprung a leak inside the house – six trips to the hardware store before I had the drywall back on the ceiling!

There. One simple visual metaphor and the jargon-filled, esoteric project management concept is distilled and made clear. Now the details (and project managers love details) have a skeleton to hang from. Oversimplified? Perhaps. Understandable? Yes.

I’m Going to Provide an Overwhelming Rational Argument, and then Fail

Third in a series about communication and change management

An Aurora Police Department detective takes a witness statement following a shooting outside the 16 movie theatre in Aurora. Aurora Police responded to the Century 16 movie theatre where police confirm at least 14 people are dead and 50 others injured. AP Photo/Karl Gehring Shooting at Batman screening

“Fact, just the facts ma’am.”

Great if you’re investigating a murder. Insufficient if you’re inspiring action or driving change. It is a mistake to believe that any solely rational, logical, or well-constructed argument will persuade people to set aside their own perceived best interest in favour of doing what’s right or doing what’s correct.

Many people will listen to a rational arguement, analysis, or well-constructed thesis and wonder what you’re up to. What do you really want? What are you trying to hide? Even executives – especially executives – know that any one set of numbers and facts can be tortured to confess whatever is needed to support both sides of the same arguement  Most of us make decisions based on gut, and rationalize that decision with facts and analysis afterwards.

I’m not saying you don’t need to be skeptical, or that you don’t need to do that analysis. As Stephen Lynch once said, “You can run your business with discipline, or you can run it with regret.” But rational  arguement is not going to overcome behavioural inertia in others.

You are going to need more than just the facts.

Fix #3 Appeal to Their Hearts Too

Martin Luther King didn’t say “I have a plan.”

He said “I have a dream.”

Stories, vision, passion, vulnerability. These are what persuade. Concrete, tangible, visual goals are what drive action.

Yes, your plan has to be based in reality. Businesses have to make money to live. But the purpose of a business cannot and should not be just to make money. Your body needs to make red blood cells in order to live, but that’s not your life’s purpose. A doctor gets paid well, but doctors don’t exist to make money.

Businesses need a higher purpose too. Maybe you’re not going to solve world hunger, but you should have a vision beyond just X percentage growth, or Y dollars revenue. Have the guts to stand for something. Something that inspires people to leap out of bed in the morning and eagerly embrace their work.

Amazon’s goal is to provide “Every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.” Henry Ford wanted to “Democratize the automobile.” Google wants to “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Not every purpose is going to appeal to every person, but you want it to appeal to the people that are working for you.

Hopefully your change is tied to the higher purpose of the company. An emotional, human connection that impels the actions, and energy needed to overcome inertia and drive change deeply and quickly in your team or company.

Or you could write another policy change. Your choice.

Being Understood When the Dragons are Dancing

or How I Learned to Love to Communicate

My wife and I were at a Chinese New Year’s dinner at the beginning of February. It was a wonderful dinner with dragon dancers, drummers, musicians, photo ops with politicians, and a fantastic menu.

At one point, over the noise of the crowd and music, I tried to ask her if she wanted another drink. I pulled out the drink tickets and pointed towards her empty rum and coke. I mimed “yes” and “no” by nodding shaking my head.

She nodded yes, but there was something about her facial expression that made me pause. So I bent closer to hear what she was saying. “Yes, but later please.”

“So no then.”, I stated in my best patronizing, task-oriented voice.

This was a very simple, almost intimate, communication with a woman I’ve known for over thirty years, and we mis-communicated. Then I thought about the managers and executives whom I work with every week. Executives who are trying to make significant  long-term changes to their businesses and organizations with less forethought and planning. Changes like introducing corporate performance measures and evaluations, talent reviews, strategic priorities.

Then they wonder why making those initiatives are such a struggle or just plain fail. Which costs them and the company time, money, emotional aggravation, and goodwill among their customers, employees, and shareholders. 

The lesson for me, I think, has been that I need to do a better job of helping my clients plan and execute their communications. Some of them get it and don’t need my help. Some of them need more than a little help.

In the coming days and weeks I’ll be enumerating some of the most common mistakes I see. I’ve come up with eight so far, and I’m sure you’ll let me know of others. In the meantime, I invite you to think about how you communicate. I bet you aren’t as clear and concise as you think you might be…

Future-Oriented Feedback

Look forward, not backwards
Look forward, not backwards

The point of giving feedback is to encourage the behaviour you want to see repeated, or something you’d like change in the future. Try not to dwell on the past.

Especially when giving corrective feedback. Unless you’re just trying to make somebody feel bad.  Otherwise ask them what can be learned, and what they’d do differently next time. Staying future focused gives them a much better chance of doing things differently next time, rather than thinking about and then repeating their past mistakes. 

And if you have to give corrective feedback, let them come up with the solution / correction / change. It’s much more powerful if they own it, even if it isn’t exactly what you’d do in the same situation. Even if you think their solution is less effective than yours. Their poor solution enthusiastically implemented is better than your better solution dictated

How to Stop Chasing Cats

A Shiba Inu not chasing a catI have a great life. One of the best parts of it is the brilliant people I get to talk to, interact with, and discuss the great ideas of life with. For example, Sunday I was chatting with a Feminism Studies major formerly a professional dog trainer about my new Shiba Inu and its propensity to chase the cat.

So her very self-regulated response was “Shiba getting along with any other animal is not something I would have suggested. They have a high protective and hunting drive.” We then went on to talk about training approaches, positive versus negative reinforcement, and which was more effective in the long run.

Her recommendation, although it takes a bit more patience and effort, was positive reinforcement. At first we might have to wait for Bjorn (that’s the dog) to just even look away from the dog before using a clicker, offering praise, and then giving him a treat. Or maybe just blink.

The key was for Bjorn to quickly identify the behaviour (avoiding the cat) we wanted. Pretty soon he’d start associating the praise with a treat, and begin offering other behaviors hoping to get a treat. Then we would just have to watch to select the behaviours we wanted to reinforce and keep reinforcing them.

The problem with using a spray bottle (or shock collar, which we inherited from the previous owner) is that it often accidentally reinforces “superstitious” behaviour. That is Bjorn might associate the spray bottle with a person, or a coincidental noise like a cough. Not the desired behaviour. In other words, we have to praise him towards a desired behaviour. Not punish him to not do something.

Just writing that last sentence makes my head hurt. Imagine the dog trying to figure out what we wanted him not to do.

I’m not saying that people are like dogs, or skateboarding monkeys, that are endlessly manipulable. People still need mastery, autonomy, and purpose to thrive and engage. But (big but) if we want to adopt a feedback strategy, all my reading and research strongly suggests positive reinforcement is the way to go. And that the less time between the feedback and what we’re giving feedback for the better.

Question for the Comments:

How many times a day do you give feedback?

Other Reading

Manager Tools Feedback Model
Your Brain At Work
The Four F`s of Feedback

Bernie works as a leadership and strategic business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well. He believes that not doing anything about bad leadership, once you know about it, is abuse. And poor business practice. He believes organizations are founded on their values. He believes that the workplace is a place for both people and businesses to thrive. Not just survive. Check out his other articles at