Widening the Lens

NOTE: Thank you for the excellent feedback on last week's post about "Whatever Happened to Complicated Conversations?" I think that many of the questions I received will be answered in the following post.  Enjoy. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at https://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/.

"The lesson for anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words." Amanda Ripley, Atlantic Magazine - June 2018

1. Amplify Contradictions

In heated conversations, there are many things that we cannot do. But we can destabilize the narrative. We can remind people that life is not as coherent as we’d like. Otherwise, the spiral to simplicity is all but certain: As the conflict progresses, the narratives get skinnier. I see this in every kind of dispute, across dinner tables and halls of government. Think about the first fight you had with your significant other; there’s a lot of confusion. But as time goes by, the story gets consolidated, and they can tell you in three minutes what a jerk their partner is. And the same is true in international conflicts. But if we destabilize the narratives, people tend to exhale; they keep arguing, but they holster their weapons.

2. Widen the Lens

Decades of research have shown that when the media widens the lens, the public reacts differently. Starting in the 1990s, Stanford political science professor Shanto Iyengar exposed people to two kinds of TV news stories: wider-lens stories (which he called “thematic” and which focused on broader trends or systemic issues, like, the causes of poverty) and narrow-lens stories (which he labeled “episodic” and which focused on one individual or event, for example, one welfare mother or homeless man).

Again and again, people who watched the narrow-lens stories on the welfare mother were more likely to blame individuals for poverty afterward, even if the story of the welfare mother was compassionately rendered. By contrast, people who saw the wider-lens stories were more likely to blame the government and society for the problems of poverty. The wider the lens, the wider the blame, in other words.

In reality, most stories include both wide and narrow-lens moments; a feature on a welfare mother will still invariably include a few lines about the status of job-training programs or government spending. But as Iyengar showed in his book 'Is Anyone Responsible?', TV news segments are dominated by a narrow focus. As a result, TV news unintentionally lets politicians off the hook, Iyengar wrote, because of the framing of most stories. The narrow-lens nudges the public to hold individuals accountable for the ills of society, rather than corporate leaders or government officials. We don’t connect the dots.

Great storytelling always zooms in on individual people or incidents; I don’t know many other ways to bring a complicated problem to life in ways that people will remember. But if the media doesn’t then zoom out again, connecting the welfare mother or, say, the controversial sculpture to a more significant problem, then the news media just feeds into a human bias. If we’re all focused on whatever small threat is right in front of us, it’s easy to miss the big catastrophe unfolding around us.

3. Ask Questions that Get to People’s Motivations

Mediators spend a lot of their energy on this idea of digging underneath the conflict. They have dozens of tricks to get people to stop talking about their usual gripes, which they call “positions” and start talking about the story underneath that story, also known as “interests” or “values.”

Opposing Obamacare is a position; a belief in self-sufficiency is, for many people, the value underlying their position. Whether you agree or not, these deeper motivations matter far more to the debate than the facts of the conflict (and also happen to be more interesting).

People are driven by their gut and heart, not their reasoning, as New York University social psychologist Haidt explains in 'The Righteous Mind,' citing research going back decades. In fact, superficial self-interest has never been a good predictor of political behavior. (Note to the media; it might be time to stop doing stories on how Trump voters in the Rust Belt voted against their economic interests; that’s about as insightful as a story revealing that beach-goers don’t wear sunscreen.)

Instead, Haidt identifies six moral foundations that form the basis of political thought: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. These are the golden tickets to the human condition. Liberals (and liberal members of the media) tend to be very conscious of three of these foundations: care, fairness, and liberty. Conservatives are especially attuned to loyalty, authority, and sanctity, but they care about all six. And conservative politicians reliably play all six notes, Haidt argues.

Conservatives (and conservative media) have a systemic advantage as a result. They can motivate more people more often because they hit more notes. (Notice how Democratic leaders still do not talk very often about Trump’s disloyalty to America, his cabinet members, and his wives, in those terms, despite being bombarded with evidence of such disloyalty. They complain more often about injustice, indecency, and unkindness because those are the notes they most like to play.)

If the media wanted to broaden their audiences, they need to speak to all six moral foundations. If any of us want to understand what’s underneath someone’s political rage, we need to follow stories to these moral roots, just like mediators. People tend to keep describing their stories in the same way. In mediation, you try to flip that over and say, "How did you come to that? Why is this story important to you? How do you feel when you tell it to me?” Those questions may seem touchy-feely, but it’s surprising how rarely people get asked them. You see people kind of blink and go, "I never thought of it that way.”

These kinds of questions reveal deeper motivations, beyond the immediate conflict. Sometimes, the entire conflict disappears when this happens — because people suddenly realize they agree on what matters most. More often, the questions reveal that the dispute is about something other than what everyone thought. “Experienced mediators love telling stories like this,” says Mary Conger, a mediator who co-founded the American Dialogue Project, which matches Americans up for conversations across political divides. “We all thought we were in the room for an entirely different reason. It unlocks this world of possibilities.

Of course, it’s easier to get regular people to dig into their backstories; upending the script of a well-rehearsed executive or politician can be impossible, no matter what questions they are asked. But there are ways to get underneath the surface, even with politicians, with a question like, "I want to know why you feel this way.”

Here are some specific questions that mediators suggest that anyone could ask to get underneath the usual talking points:

  • What is oversimplified about this issue?
  • How has this conflict affected your life?
  • What do you think the other side wants?
  • What’s the question nobody is asking?
  • What do you and your supporters need to learn about the other side to understand them better?

4. Listen More, and Better

Americans’ trust in mass media (newspapers, TV, and radio) “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” is at its lowest level in Gallup polling history, dating back to 1972. The problem is serious among Democrats, and dire among Republicans — only 14% of whom say they trust the media. We can debate the reasons for this, but we’ll eventually just be talking to ourselves. Our stories don’t matter if we are not believed.

One of the most common mistakes is to miss very subtle cues. For example, the observant teacher might ask students how things are going and accept the first answer she gets, which is usually, “Great!” Later, when that same teacher got the students’ grade reports, she’d realize things were not great. Like all humans, the students had been reluctant to lead with their vulnerability. We talk about what we’re comfortable and confident with first, and what you think the person wants to hear. When you really want someone to go further is honestly when you get the essential information.

I think to learn to listen not just to what people say, but to their “gap words,” or the things that they don’t say. If they hesitate, for example, before answering a question about their last math test, or if they dodge a question altogether. Then it is time to dig deeper. Asking important questions multiple times, sometimes weeks apart, and almost always gets different answers. Usually, each response is accurate, and each represents a separate piece of the story. Most of all, itis critical to keep an open mind for as long as possible in every conversation. It’s so easy to go in with the thought that you know exactly what is going on, which shuts down other possibilities.

Another related and widespread strategy for building trust is to double check; to give the person a distillation of what you thought they meant and see what they say. This is called looping for understanding;” try doing it every time you feel you’ve heard someone say one thing that is important to him or her.

Our brains make rapid assumptions that we aren’t even aware we’re making. We are wrong more often than we think. To understand what someone means requires a lot of double-checking. It’s a simple tactic that sounds something like this: “So you were disappointed by the Mayor’s actions because you care deeply about what happens to the kids in this school system. Is that right?”

Granted, I don’t always have the self-control to loop. But when I do pull it off, it always helps, lowering the heat of the conversation and the odds it will go wrong. This sounds squishy, but it is a key to the kingdom. Having someone articulate your most crucial message proves that you’ve been understood, which is all most of us want.

“When people feel heard and seen as they wish to be heard and seen, they relax their guard,” says Melissa Weintraub, the co-founder of Resetting the Table. “It’s both very simple and very hard to accomplish. We have to give them the most powerful and eloquent articulation of their own thinking.” Then and only then will people even begin to consider information that does not fit their usual narratives. In fact, this is one of the only ways to get people to listen when they are emotional or entrenched in a particular worldview. Humans need to be heard before they will listen.

In other words, trust is mutual. It’s easier to get trust if you give it.

5. Expose People to the Other Tribe

The most powerful way to get people to stop demonizing each other, as decades of research into racial prejudice have shown, is to introduce them to one another. The technical term is “contact theory,” but it just means that once people have met and kind of liked each other, they have a harder time caricaturing one another. Genuine human connections permanently complicate our narratives. Communities with more cross-cutting relationships tend to be less violent and more tolerant.

The media can introduce people in at least two ways: vicariously, through good storytelling, or literally, by bringing communities together in live or virtual events. But doing this right is harder than it sounds. And it’s possible to make things worse if certain conditions are not in place.

Vicarious storytelling can unintentionally narrow the lens, as previously discussed, by focusing on individual accountability instead of systemic ills. It is essential to widen the lens and connect a particular representative of the “other” tribe to a broader history and story — or the story can end up just confirming the audience’s biases.

Literal convenings, meanwhile, are happening more often as more media outlets look to subscribers to support their work over the long term, instead of depending on drive-by clicks. But here again, the execution makes all the difference. It’s essential, for example, that everyone invited to a community gathering feels like they are on equal footing. The situation needs to be non-threatening and fair (so you wouldn’t want to host a conversation about race in the whitest neighborhood in town, for example).

There should be moments of levity and shared history or purpose, too. And ideally food. People still bond when they break bread, just as they always have. These details matter a lot, just as much as the substance of the conversation.

The best conversations across differences usually start with personal questions like, “Which of your life experiences have shaped your political views?” When we tell our own story, we tend to speak with more nuance, because real life is not a bumper sticker.

6. Counter Confirmation Bias (Carefully)

One of the most well-studied biases in the human portfolio is confirmation bias, our nasty habit of believing news that confirms our pre-existing narratives and dismissing everything else.

Worse yet, people exposed to information that challenges their views can actually end up more convinced that they are right. (And more educated people are not necessarily less biased in this way. For example, scientific literacy and numeracy are not reliable predictors of believing climate change poses a severe risk to the public, as Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan has found.)

That’s because people don’t decide to accept something based on its statistical validity. That’s just not how our brains have evolved to work. We judge information based on its source and its harmony with our other beliefs. As Daniel Kahneman puts it in Thinking Fast and Slow: “How do you know if a statement is true? If it is strongly linked by logic or association with other beliefs or preferences you hold or comes from a source you trust and like, you will feel a sense of cognitive ease.”

So one way to gently counter confirmation bias is to create a little cognitive ease first: for example, use sources from a wide range of tribes. If you’re doing a story about the scientific evidence for the safety of vaccines, and you know your most liberal readers are highly suspicious of this argument, it would be best to use sources that surprise them, ideally ones from their tribe.

Another tactic is to use graphics instead of text. In a series of experiments, Nyhan and colleagues found that presenting information visually increased the accuracy of people’s beliefs about charged issues, including the number of insurgent attacks in Iraq after the U.S. troop surge and the change in global temperatures over the past 30 years.

Cognitive ease also comes from a feeling of hope. Uncomfortable information that could generate fear (such as a report on the devastation of this year’s flu epidemic) is more palatable to people if it comes with a side of specific actions that people can take in response (such as a list of pharmacies offering free flu shots along with their hours of operation).

In a meta-analysis of more than 100 studies on fear messaging, researchers found that fear without a sense of agency backfires, leading people to respond with denial, avoidance, and disgust. The vast majority of news stories function precisely this way, which should give us pause. Generating denial, restraint, and disgust cannot be a good business model. But when people are reminded that a problem has possible solutions (some of which they agree with and can act on shortly), they are more open to considering the warning.

Finally, some simple advice: it’s important not to repeat a false belief to correct it. If people are told Barack Obama is not Muslim, many will remember that he is Muslim. The negative vanishes merely from their minds because it doesn’t fit with their pre-existing biases. The best way to counter this disturbing tendency is just to state that Obama is Christian, and avoid ringing any false notes altogether.

Breaking the Narrative

Humans share a tendency to simplify and demonize, it’s true, but we also share a desire for understanding. Encouragingly, perhaps, we are starting to see sporadic examples of high-profile journalists trying to break through the tribalism. Jake Tapper held a CNN town hall on gun violence earlier this year, in response to the Parkland, FL, school shooting. Even Glenn Beck has tried in recent years to get his audience to stop demonizing the other side and hear more complexity.

In all these encounters, the media personalities seem to have good intentions. They want to do this differently; they just lack the skills. It’s like watching your grandfather use Twitter; he could learn, but it probably won’t happen naturally.

Talking to people in high conflict is a piece of our clinical training that wasn’t properly handled, and now we are dangerous. The result is not just boring TV; we are adding to the toxicity when we don’t intend to. The reaction to Tapper’s town hall, on TV and social media, was a shrieking match between FOX News supporters, who accused CNN of feeding questions to the students, and CNN supporters, who accused the critics of lying and applauded their righteousness.

Interestingly, it was left to the politician, Senator Marco Rubio, who participated in the town hall despite being wildly outnumbered politically, to explain what was at stake:

“We are a nation of people that no longer speak to each other. We are a nation of people who have stopped being friends with people because [of whom] they voted for in the last election,” he said. “We’re a nation of people that have isolated ourselves politically and to a point where discussions like this have become very difficult.” And indeed, it was a tough night for Rubio. But it could have been so much more than painful. It could have been revealing.

The media need to learn to amplify contradictions and widen the lens on paralyzing debates. We need to ask questions that uncover people’s motivations. All of us could learn to listen better. As researchers have established in hundreds of experiments over the past half-century, the way to counter the kind of tribal prejudice we are seeing is to expose people to the other tribe or new information in ways they can accept. When conflict is cliché, complexity is breaking news.

Next Week: I Don't Know Yet!


Whatever Happened to Complicated Conversations?

When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information.

NOTE: Thank you to all that sent me comments about my last blog about Grace, Civility, and Humility. This week, I think I might have one of the answers to why those values have declined in American culture. Enjoy. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at https://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/.

The Rise of Technology and Bytes
I am an avid user of today's technology; not all of it; but I have a smartphone, tablet, and desktop, in addition to using various social media outlets and many phone apps. I also just finished Walter Isaacson's book, 'The Innovators', which tracks the people that got us to where we are today in the age of computer usage as an everyday occurrence. (BTW - the first computer language was created by a woman mathematician, Ada Lovelace, in 1843!)

After reading this tome, covering a time span stretching from 1843 to 2014, I have come to a conclusion and a theory.  Technology has missed its primary aim of simplifying our lives by accelerating and simplifying mundane tasks and hopefully, leaving us more time for working to live rather than living to work.

What's That You Say?
I will agree that computing technology succeeded in some of its goals, but it has crippled us in so many other ways. Specifically, it has completely evolved to a time of where oversimplification rules our social interactions. As its creators and masters, we have allowed our machines to dictate and shape how we communicate with each other; i.e., in bits and bytes. Our attention spans have degraded over the past 30 years during the explosive growth and capability of personal computing to where we have tried to compress meaningful communication with our fellow travelers on planet Earth into 280 characters with such apps as Twitter, and 160 characters for text messages. Still, others use email and user forums as their cyber weapon, using their keyboard crusader skills to hurl flames and slash at other people such as they never would if they were standing face-to-face with each other. See, in that I am writing on this subject, I am guilty of it, too!

Human Beings Are Far More Complex than Machines and Bytes
Each person has their own set of complexities, with their own hopes and dreams, and their own personalities. That richness of human experience cannot be measured in bits and bytes, nor can a machine or a device truly develop a relationship with another human being. While a cyber device may serve as a starter to bridge the gap of time and location, it takes time and face-to-face interaction to nurture the growth and development of a relationship.

Language is Very Engaging and Far More Effective Than Texting
I believe that we have allowed computing technology, tweeting, and text messaging, etc., to supplant conversation and serious discussion, period. Why?

  1. For one, we avoid conflict and conflicting situations like the plague.
  2. Second, we as humans, like to simplify things, but perhaps we have gone too far and are vastly oversimplifying very complex situations and have used our computing and communicating technology to further that practice.
  3. Third, in 2018, our country (and possibly the world) has become polarized to such a degree that most of us see everyday situations as either black or white, this way or that way, and finally, "You're either with us or against us!" In other words, tribalism.
  4. Last, our elected officials further propagate this type of dialogue by promoting divisiveness to please their constituencies. And, worse, we allow ourselves to be used by demagogues on both sides of the aisle, amplifying their insults, instead of exposing their motivations. As a result, instead of engaging in real conflict, we have allowed it to escalate and snuffed the complexity out of conversations.

How Did This Happen?
The media understands certain things about human psychology: they know how to grab the brain’s attention and stimulate fear, sadness or anger. As humans, we can summon outrage in five words or less. We value the ancient power of storytelling, and we get that good stories do require conflict, characters, and scene. But in the present era of tribalism, it feels like we’ve reached our collective limitations. Conflict is crucial because it is what moves a democracy forward. But, as long as the media is content to let conflict sit like it is, it is abdicating the power it once had to help people find a way through the conflict.

(The following is excerpted from an excellent article: https://thewholestory.solutionsjournalism.org/complicating-the-narratives-b91ea06ddf63

Your Brain In Conflict
Researchers have a name for the kind of divide America is currently experiencing. They call this an “intractable conflict,” as social psychologist Peter T. Coleman describes in his book 'The Five Percent,' and it’s very similar to the kind of nasty feuds that emerge in about one out of every 20 conflicts worldwide. In this dynamic, people’s encounters with the other tribe (political, religious, ethnic, racial or otherwise) become more and more charged. And the brain behaves differently in charged interactions. It’s impossible to feel curious, for example, while also feeling threatened.

In this hypervigilant state, we feel an instinctive need to defend our side and attack the other. That anxiety renders us immune to new information. In other words: no amount of investigative reporting or leaked documents will change our mind, no matter what.

Intractable conflicts feed upon themselves. The more we try to stop the conflict, the worse it gets. These feuds “seem to have a power of their own that is inexplicable and total, driving people and groups to act in ways that go against their best interests and sow the seeds of their ruin,” Coleman writes. “We often think we understand these conflicts and can choose how to react to them, that we have options. We are usually mistaken, however.”

Once we get drawn in, the conflict takes control. Complexity collapses, and the us-versus-them narrative sucks the oxygen from the room. “Over time, people grow increasingly certain of the obvious rightness of their views and increasingly baffled by what seems like unreasonable, malicious, extreme or crazy beliefs and actions of others,” according to training literature from Resetting the Table, an organization that helps people talk across profound differences in the Middle East and the U.S.

The cost of intractable conflict is also predictable. “Everyone loses,” writes Resetting the Table’s co-founder Eyal Rabinovitch. “Such conflicts undermine the dignity and integrity of all involved and stand as obstacles to creative thinking and wise solutions.”

There are ways to disrupt an intractable conflict, as history bears out. Over decades of work, in laboratories and on the margins of battlefields, scholars have identified dozens of ways to break out of the trap, some of which are directly relevant to the media.

In every case, the goal is not to wash away the conflict; it’s to help people wade in and out of the muck (and back in again) with their humanity intact. Americans will continue to disagree, always; but with well-timed nudges, we can help people regain their peripheral vision at the same time. Otherwise, we can be sure of at least one thing: we will all miss things that matter.

Next Week: Amplifying Contradictions


What Ever Happened to Grace, Civility and Humility?

NOTE: This is my latest observation on cultural life in America. It is in severe decline. It is primarily centered around the decline in grace, civility, and humility. Enjoy. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at https://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

Mr. Earl

Lately, I have come to the conclusion that life in America is becoming much like a cat we once owned named Mr. Earl that was always independent but would allow polite interaction with him. As he got older, he started to be absent for more of each day until, finally, he didn't come home at all. We looked everywhere and posted signs/photos on telephone poles, but no cat. Six months later, I was walking in the woods near our house, and there he was, perched on a tree limb, but ran away as soon as I approached him. I kept looking, and one day I found him again; this time I had brought food that he liked and put it on the ground nearby. He approached it, but when I moved forward toward him, he snarled and hissed at me like a wild animal. I backed off and realized he had gone feral, so I left him alone after that.

U.S. Grant & Robert E. Lee

In recent months I have read the complete biographies of Ulysses Simpson Grant and Robert E. Lee. These two men fascinate me as they shared three character traits that are noticeably absent from the current dialogue, be it political, social, or cultural in nature. These traits are grace, civility, and humility, and they exemplified these traits constantly in their behavior toward one another as they threw vast armies against each other in the final year of the American Civil War, and all the way to the end at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.

Now, I realize that the Civil War still remains as the bloodiest conflict in American History, with over 750,000 people from both sides killed in action over a four year period, so how do grace, civility, and humility equate to that shocking death figure. Simple. Even as both commanding generals were firmly committed to winning for their respective sides as the North or the South, the way they conducted themselves during and at the end are notable in that they respected one another for their beliefs, although widely differing, still allowed them to call truces after battles to collect the wounded and the dead.

The ultimate personification of their behavior came on the morning of April 9, 1865, when Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was finally defeated at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse by the Union Army of the Potomac. Lee and Grant met that afternoon at the Courthouse to formalize the surrender. Grant surprised Lee and most everyone else (except Abraham Lincoln) when he accepted Lee's surrender with the provisions that he and his men could walk away with all of their possessions, including their horses, but minus their weapons!

Even after the war was over and Grant was named Commander of all Union Armies, he resisted any efforts to prosecute Lee and any of his commanders and men for treason over the secession of the south from the north in 1861. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson formalized it all by pardoning all involved in the creation of the Civil War, including the President of the Confederate nation, Jefferson Davis.

Fast Forward to 2018

I believe that US Grant and Robert E. Lee would both be rolling over in their graves right now if they could get a quick peek at the world today. I also believe we are at a tipping point in America where we have bid goodbye to grace, civility, and humility, possibly forever. The majority of our political leaders do not exemplify nor do they personify by their daily behavior any of the values we once cherished and held dear to our core.


Aside from the popularity in the decline in critical thinking and the growth of emotion-based thinking; ergo, ideology, as evidenced by all of the media engaged in news reporting (watch this short clip -https://youtu.be/tmaKl0Zm2c4) we seem to have adopted a bias toward discussion and debate as a zero-sum game where, if one side wins, the other side has to lose just as much as the other has to win!

How Do We Fix This?

I like to talk to people from various points of view, in order to keep my own perspective sound; in fact, I keep in mind a phrase from Karl Weick, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology at the University of Michigan, as I head into discussions; "Speak as is if you're right; listen as if you're wrong."

  • How do you speak as if you are right? Your message should be simple, clear and direct with sufficient courage to act on what you know.
  • How do you listen as if you are wrong? Generally, with humility and some reasonable doubt about what you know (after all, there might be more to know…). This quote from Scott Card sums up the human condition nicely; “This is how humans are: we question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.”

So, How Do You Have a Serious Discussion?

An excellent article appeared in The Atlantic just two days ago by Eric Liu, former speech writer for Bill Clinton. He maintains that there are "Five Features of a Better Argument," which I interpret to encompass any serious discussion. He believes that “we don’t need fewer arguments today; we need less stupid ones” through his work for the Better Arguments Project, which strives to host more constructive civic exchanges all around the United States. He has developed a framework for this; among its central tenets, are:

  1. Take Winning Off the Table: Rather than seeking victory, the goal should be truth-seeking, with reinstitution of civility in service of achieving it. Participants are charged with arguing to understand better.
  2. Prioritize Relationships and Listen Passionately: As one audience member put it, the most constructive and rewarding arguments they’ve ever had involved people with whom maintaining a good relationship afterward was a high priority—an impetus for speaking and listening carefully.
  3. Pay Attention to Context: One aspect of this concerns history,” Liu said. “Every fight we have today, about immigration, about taxes, about the minimum wage, is a recapitulation of one of those core American arguments—about liberty versus equality, about central government versus local control, or individual responsibility versus collective responsibility—and the history of civic debates in this country has something to teach us about how we can make our way through this conversations today. A second element is about emotion. If someone comes at you in an angry way, you have to adjust how you’re going to come back at them. And you have a choice about whether you’re going to mirror and double down or if you’re going to be the one to say, I’m gonna be the grown-up here, and I’m going to deescalate—being emotionally intelligent about the patterns that we fall into.”
  4. Embrace Vulnerability: “Every one of us can relate to the feeling, ‘I didn’t start this, I’m not going to extend the olive branch.’ Extend the olive branch,” Liu said.
  5. Be Open: “You cannot possibly change another person’s mind,” Liu said, “if you’re not willing to have your own mind changed. You may be able to rack up debater’s points. But you won’t change their mind if they sense you aren’t willing to have your mind changed. It’s a matter of mindset but also ‘heart-set.’”

How Much has the United States Changed Since 1865? If I could have both U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in front of me now as I outlined Mr. Liu's five excellent points, they would most likely ask me in the vernacular of today's speech with, "What's New About That?" 


The "Best" Incompetent Leader

NOTE: I think about leadership all the time, primarily because there is such an absence of it in today's world. The following article in the March issue of the Harvard Business Review by Scott Gregory describes the epitome of the worst type of leader. Enjoy. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at https://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

A young friend recently remarked that the worst boss he ever had would provide him with feedback that always consisted of “You’re doing a great job.” But they both knew it wasn’t true — the organization was in disarray, turnover was excessive, and customers were not happy. My friend was giving it his all, but he needed more support and better feedback than he received. He wanted a leader who would be around when he needed them, and who would give him substantive advice, not platitudes. As a measure of his frustration, he said, “I would rather have had a boss who yelled at me or made unrealistic demands than this one, who provided empty praise.”

Researchers have studied managerial derailment — or the dark side of leadership — for many years. The key derailment characteristics of bad managers are well documented and fall into three broad behavioral categories: (1) “moving away behaviors,” which create distance from others through hyper-emotionality, diminished communication, and skepticism that erodes trust; (2) “moving against behaviors,” which overpower and manipulate people while aggrandizing the self; and (3) “moving toward behaviors,” which include being ingratiating, overly conforming, and reluctant to take chances or stand up for one’s team. The popular media is full of examples of bad leaders in government, academia, and business with these characteristics. However, my friend was describing something arguably worse than an incompetent boss. His manager was not overtly misbehaving, nor was he a ranting, narcissistic sociopath. Rather, his boss was a leader in title only — his role was leadership, but he provided none. My friend was experiencing absentee leadership, and unfortunately, he is not alone. Absentee leadership rarely comes up in today’s leadership or business literature, but research shows that it is the most common form of incompetent leadership.

Absentee leaders are people in leadership roles who are psychologically absent from them. They were promoted into management, and enjoy the privileges and rewards of a leadership role, but avoid meaningful involvement with their teams. Absentee leadership resembles the concept of rent-seeking in economics — taking value out of an organization without putting value in. As such, they represent a special case of laissez-faire leadership, but one that is distinguished by its destructiveness.

Having a boss who lets you do as you please may sound ideal, especially if you are being bullied and micromanaged by your current boss. However, a 2015 survey of 1,000 working adults showed that eight of the top nine complaints about leaders concerned behaviors that were absent; employees were most concerned about what their bosses didn’t do. Clearly, from the employee’s perspective, absentee leadership is a significant problem, and it is even more troublesome than other, more overt forms of bad leadership.

Research shows that being ignored by one’s boss is more alienating than being treated poorly. The impact of absentee leadership on job satisfaction outlasts the impact of both constructive and overtly destructive forms of leadership. Constructive leadership immediately improves job satisfaction, but the effects dwindle quickly. Destructive leadership immediately degrades job satisfaction, but the effects dissipate after about six months. In contrast, the impact of absentee leadership takes longer to appear, but it degrades subordinates’ job satisfaction for at least two years. It also is related to a number of other negative outcomes for employees, like role ambiguity, health complaints, and increased bullying from team members. Absentee leadership creates employee stress, which can lead to poor employee health outcomes and talent drain, which then impact an organization’s bottom line.

If absentee leadership is so destructive, why don’t we read more about it in the business literature? Consider a story I recently heard about the dean of a well-known law school: Two senior, well-regarded faculty members called the provost to complain about their dean because, they said, he wouldn’t do anything. The provost responded by saying that he had a dean who was a drunk, a dean who was accused of sexual harassment, and a dean who was accused of misusing funds, but the law school dean never caused him any problems. So, the provost said, the faculty members would just have to deal with their dean.

Like the provost in this example, many organizations don’t confront absentee leaders because they have other managers whose behavior is more overtly destructive. Because absentee leaders don’t actively make trouble, their negative impact on organizations can be difficult to detect, and when it is detected, it often is considered a low-priority problem. Thus, absentee leaders are often silent organization killers. Left unchecked, absentee leaders clog an organization’s succession arteries, blocking potentially more effective people from moving into important roles while adding little to productivity. Absentee leaders rarely engage in unforgivable bouts of bad behavior, and are rarely the subject of ethics investigations resulting from employee hotline calls. As a result, their negative effect on organizations accumulates over time, largely unchecked.

If your organization is one of the relatively few with effective selection and promotion methods in place, then it may be able to identify effective and destructive leaders. Even if your organization isn’t great at talent identification, both types of leaders are easy to spot once they are on the job. They also produce predictable organizational outcomes: Constructive leadership creates high engagement and productivity, while destructive leadership kills engagement and productivity. The chances are good, however, that your organization is unaware of its absentee leaders, because they specialize in flying under the radar by not doing anything that attracts attention. Nonetheless, the adhesiveness of their negative impact may be slowly harming the company.

The war for leadership talent is real, and organizations with the best leaders will win. Reviewing your organization’s management positions for absentee leaders and doing something about them can improve your talent management arsenal. It’s likely that your competitors are overlooking this issue or choosing not to do anything about it, like the university provost. Doing nothing about absentee leaders is easy. Just ask any absentee leader.

Do Left-Handed People Think & Feel Differently?

NOTE: I will admit it - I am left-handed and was stigmatized as a child, especially in a parochial elementary school where the nuns were smacking my left hand for trying to write with it!  This December 2016 article from Huff Post explains some of the challenges with being "left behind." Enjoy. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at https://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

Lefties Unite!
Lefties historically have tended to get left behind. Until relatively recently, being left-handed was stigmatized, sometimes as an abnormality or sign of weakness. Left-handed children were forced to learn to write with their right hands, often to their significant disadvantage. 

Of course, we now know that there’s nothing wrong with being left-handed. As University of Toledo psychologist Stephen Christman recently explained in Scientific American, there’s almost no evidence to suggest that lefties are at any sort of physical or psychological disadvantage. For one thing, lefties have comprised roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of the general population for many thousands of years. The fact that the trait has remained stable over many generations suggests that left-handedness is not an evolutionary weakness, as many psychologists of the past believed. 

But handedness does come with specific physiological and neurological differences. Research remains incomplete, but here are some things we know about the unique cognitive and psychological profiles of the left-handed: 

They may be quicker thinkers. 

Lefties may be able to use both sides of their brain more easily and efficiently. 

According to an Australian study published in 2006 in the journal Neuropsychology, left-handed people tend to have faster connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, which leads to quicker information processing. The study authors measured participants’ performance on a task that assessed transfer time between brain hemispheres, and one that required them to use both sides of their brain at the same time. 

The research revealed that left-handed participants were faster at processing information across the two sides of the brain ― a cognitive advantage that could benefit them in things like video games and sports.   

They may be left-favoring in decision-making processes. 

The hand you use may have a surprising effect on the way you judge abstract ideas, like value, intelligence, and honesty.

A 2009 Stanford University study found that left-handed and right-handed people may engage in an implicit favoring of their dominant side. In the study, participants viewed two columns of illustrations and were asked to judge which seemed more happy, honest, intelligent and attractive. Left-handers implicitly chose illustrations in the left column, and righties tended to select images on the right side. 

"For left-handed people, implicitly, they think the good stuff is on the left and bad stuff is on the right, even though consciously, explicitly, everything in language and culture is telling them the exact opposite,” the study’s lead author, psychologist Daniel Casasanto, said in a statement. 

Lefties have the upper hand in some sports. 

While less than 15 percent of the general population is left-handed, 25 percent of Major League baseball players are lefties. Why? It may be because they tend to have faster reaction times, as the 2006 Australian study cited above found.

But there’s another reason. Studies have found that lefties seem to have a real advantage in interactive sports, such as boxing, fencing, tennis, and baseball ― but this advantage doesn’t extend to non-interactive sports, like gymnastics and diving. It’s possible that because of their different physical orientation and movements, lefties can throw off right-handed opponents, who are used to going up against other righties. 

Their brains may organize emotion differently. 

Your dominant hand may determine how emotions are arranged in your brain. A 2012 study published in the journal PLoS ONE found that in left-handers, motivation was associated with higher activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, while the opposite was true of right-handers.  

This may have significant implications in caring for anxiety and mood disorders, which are sometimes treated using brain stimulation to increase neural activity in the left hemisphere.

“Given what we show here, this treatment, which helps right-handers, may be detrimental to left-handers ― the exact opposite of what they need,” one of the study’s authors, psychologist Geoffrey Brookshire, said in a statement. 

Lefties may be more creative thinkers. 

Many experts and studies have suggested a link between left-handedness and creativity. Is it real? Quite possibly. Some research has found that lefties are better at divergent thinking (the ability to think of many solutions to a single problem), a cognitive hallmark of creativity. However, it’s important to note that studies show correlation, not causality, so the findings aren’t entirely conclusive. 

Another possibility, proposed by University College London psychologist Chris McManus in his book Right-Hand, Left-Hand, is that the brains of lefties have a more highly developed right hemisphere, which has been suggested to be more involved in creative thinking. 

There’s one additional potential link between left-handedness and creativity ― one that’s speculative but still intriguing. Growing up in the left-handed minority and seeing themselves as different from their peers, some children may come to develop what’s known as an “outsider’s mindset,” or a tendency to have a self-image that’s more individualized rather than group-oriented. Such a mindset can predispose a person to develop qualities like independence and non-conformity, which psychologists have linked to creative thinking and innovation. 

Passages - Richard Reardon

NOTE: This blog was initially published in 2014 as part of a series I wrote about the most unforgettable people I have known in my life. I learned this morning that Richard passed away in September of this year after a battle with cancer. I knew Richard, and he served as a life-altering thinking partner to not only me but to many others that he worked with as well. I have never met anyone else that is as skilled as a critical thinker as he was. He will be much missed by all those who knew him. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at https://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

I met Richard Reardon in 2011, when my colleague, Chris Hutchinson, suggested that I should chat with him to see where my professional gaps were, even with all of my unusual and extensive work, as well as, my life experiences.

Our first call was utterly bewildering as he started to ask me questions about various subjects related to how I conducted my consulting practice and how I interacted with clients. I got a little defensive and suggested that after 25 years of consulting work, I thought I knew what I was doing. Well, guess what; I really didn't know all that I thought I did or needed to know.

So began an over 2-year weekly journey with Richard to explore how I could always be better at serving clients in a way that would allow for transference of skills vs. me always being the expert that had all of the answers. What's more, how to provide real and measurable value.

The first three months were the hardest learning experience I have ever had, with me hanging up the phone at the end of each call feeling more and more stupid and frustrated than the previous call. I even considered calling it off, but I was also intrigued that this old dog (yours truly) might be able to learn some new tricks!

What I learned from Richard could fill a few volumes, but here are some jewels that I can share with you now:

  1. Know the difference between "why, what," and "how" - too many people in the world of work often skip right over the "why"and the "what" and start figuring out "how" to get something done before they even decide why and what it is that they are doing. In the world of American business, this is almost an epidemic. I see many so-called strategic plans that people have paid a lot of money to a consultant to execute that are actually just operational plans. I would summarize this lesson into five words - achieving clarity about what's important.
  2.  Don't take on other people's limitations as you decide how you are going to negotiate with, interact with, and work with them. Too often, potential clients, as well as current clients will "project" their fears and limitations onto you, when they really don't know what it is that they are thinking about. Helping them to decide what is really critical and what they would like to achieve will serve both parties well, as you continue to build a relationship between you and them. I would summarize this lesson into two words - getting focus.
  3.  Most of all, I learned from Richard that the present world of work is too complex to go it alone and we can all benefit from having someone to be an objective thinking partner, sounding board, and even just a person to vent frustrations with that can respond in a non-judgmental way and defuse possible inappropriate actions. I would summarize this lesson into six words - no one can be an island!

How does some of this translate into my daily work life? Well, for one, before I go into any meeting, whether it be with a current client or someone I am meeting for the first time, I ask myself, out loud, "What do I want to accomplish here?" Then, I do the same at the beginning of the meeting; setting, by agreement with the other party, a time limit and what we would like to accomplish, the ways that the meeting could end and then any possible future connections we could make. 

Here is the best part about Richard; he was so good at what he did that I never even met him - he lived in L.A. and I was in Colorado - we spent a few hundred hours on the phone between 2011 and 2103 and the only way I know what he looks like is through his LinkedIn photo. That's how good he was at what he did.

We'll all miss you, Richard.

Letter to a Young Friend Seeking Advice

NOTE: J.R.R. Tolkien has been paraphrased by many when he wrote the following; "All that glitters is not gold" in his groundbreaking trilogy, 'The Lord of the Rings.' I took that theme and wrote this letter to a young person that asked for my advice about decisions regarding their future. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/.

Time Out!

I have taken two life breaks (so far) in my short sixty-five years on the planet. The first was in fall 1976 when I left college at the end of my junior year and moved to Spain. Backing up a little; I was discharged from the Green Machine in April 1973 started college in the fall of 1973 - probably a little bit too short of a transition time but I did not know that then. I was motivated! I sat in the front of all my classes and asked lots of questions - I figured that I was paying the professors' salaries, so I needed to know all that they knew.

Then, after going to school full-time, summers included, I hit the wall of "why am I doing this?" in the winter of 1974-1975 and barely made it to May of that year. At the same time, I had been hang-gliding for about a year and decided I needed to see what that was all about on a full-time basis. I had a friend named Stuart who was an incredible pilot and was pioneering new advances in design and practices for flying hang gliders. He had constructed a flight park for gliders on a farmer's field and hills in mid-state New Hampshire, and it was literally "taking off."

Unfortunately for Stuart, what he did not know, combined with hubris proved to be fatal for him. On a beautiful summer day in early June, as he took off from a concrete ramp at the flight park, he had just entered a turn, stalled, went inverted, and the glider structurally failed. He then spiraled down to the ground from 500 feet and died from the impact.

Getting High in the Sky!

Before he died, Stuart had mentioned that he had been in Spain at a ski area in the Pyrenees the previous winter flying hang gliders and getting paid for it, but he did not want to go back. He said that he could connect me with the right people for me to go and take his place, with a living situation and a job! I thought about it for one second and said yes. Even better, his Spanish girlfriend (my living situation) was coming to the US to tour around with him after the summer of 1976. His girlfriend, Amaya, was present when Stuart's glider folded up like an inverted umbrella and was first at his side as he died. After the funeral, she left to return home to Spain, and I thought the whole dream in Spain was over.

The farmer that owned the flight park called me shortly after Stuart's accident and asked me if I could take Stuart's place for the summer to manage the park, and I immediately agreed. It was a great summer; I flew a lot, taught a lot, and just plain had a great time. In August, I received a call from a gentleman in Barcelona who was calling to inquire when I was coming to Spain! I was floored but said I could be there in early October. He gave me some details, we conversed a few more times by phone and post, until I jumped on an all-night flight from Boston to Madrid in October of 1975. Good to my caller's word, a young woman named Elena, was waiting for me at the airport and was there to transport me on the 12-hour drive to Arties, Spain. After a very long and slow trip in her Citroen Dos Caballos, we arrived at midnight to my new home; Amaya's personal residence, in a village built by the Romans in the 4th century.

Es Espana

The following year was a fantastic learning experience for language, culture, life, self-imposed poverty, and knowing how different Spaniards were from Americans. After six months, I could function at an 8th grade level in Spanish; enough to freely converse with the locals and business contacts. I also then started to understand that I would most likely never become Spanish - our two cultures were too far apart. Nonetheless, I continued on; after becoming a Spanish resident, I competed and became a member of the six-person Spanish National Hang Gliding Team going to Kossen, Austria in July 1976, for the International Competition. We numbered 4 Spaniards, one Australian, and me. (It was very new sport in Spain, and there were only 4 Spaniards that could qualify to fly at a high level of competence.) We did a great job of representing the national flag, but we got "whupped" by the Americans and the Germans.

After returning to the mountains, I had become increasingly bored with the sameness of the hang gliding life and the singular points of conversation with my comrades. In August of that year, we went to the Canary Islands for a regional competition. A serendipitous fluke in the trade winds produced a steady 20mph wind for an entire day with me flying a record 8 hours at 500 feet off some cliffs on the coastline of Grand Canary Island. When I landed; rather than feeling elated, I was just empty. I realized that I had climbed the far-off mountain I had always sought, and I was finished with hang gliding.

Shortly after that, I packed up and left for Boston. Before I went, I called the Dean of Admissions at my college and inquired if I could be admitted for the fall season, set to begin in just a few weeks. I had GI Bill and access to student loans, so he responded in the affirmative. I came home, ready to finish my final year and it was a great one.

What did I learn from this fantastic year in Spain? A couple of things.........one, I was not Spanish and never would be; I am an American and always will be. The laid-back Spanish lifestyle just didn't work for me, even though I love the people and will forever treasure the time I spent there.

The Wizard of Oz

Two, I finally realized that I was really looking for myself - fulfilling the old phrase - "who am I" and I did not find that answer. I happened to catch the classic 1939 movie, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ while I was in Spain (in Spanish!) and a couple of lines from that excellent adult movie resonated with me. One was when the team had returned from killing the Wicked Witch of the West and were seeking their rewards from the Wizard. Even though he could not produce what they wanted, he did change their thinking about what they thought they desired. The best one was for the scarecrow who wanted a brain. The Wizard responded, "You don't need a brain; you need a diploma." Such wisdom.

Then he finally came to Dorothy, and the plot takes us all the way back to Kansas when she wakes up, and everyone she loves is all around her. At some point, she states, "What I learned was, that if you can't find your heart's desire in your own backyard, then it isn't really your heart's desire." Wow! That hit me hard as I realized that it was true for me, too. I had traveled 3,500 miles to find out what I already knew. Would I trade that year for another? Never.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

This is where you come in, my friend. Go and seek what you want in far off places. Find your smile and enjoy your life. Even if you don't find any answers, the journey alone will be worth it. In closing, "Adventure is never in the guidebook and beauty is not on the map."

"Sex, Power, & Hysteria"

NOTE: MY APOLOGIES!! Due to operator error and a very efficient list server, I re-sent last week's blog by Bruce Boesky under a title I was considering for this week's offering. Here is the correct post for this week.  As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/.

Now That I Have Your Attention
I have been observing a significant and long overdue social change coming about since Harvey Weinstein was outed in October as being a sexual predator and has been at least for two decades. I think that all of the news and subsequent outings of other predators has served to empower all people that have been affected by a predator, male and female, to come forward and state, "Me, too." I say, "Bravo!"

"She's a Witch!"
In 1975 the genius British comedy troupe, Monty Python, released the first of many hilarious and controversial movies,
'Monty Python and The Holy Grail.' There is a scene in the film where a group of medieval villagers is clustered around an officious looking person on a platform leading a mock trial of a woman who has been accused of being a witch. One gent steps forward and screams, "She turned me into a newt!" The crowd grows quiet and sheepishly, the same gent (obviously now not a newt) states, "Well, I got better." The crowd immediately roars out, "She's a witch!" She is then summarily dunked into a pond and drowned as a witch.

Historically, this same type of sordid event happened in Europe as well as in the colonies of New England. The Salem Witch Trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. The trials resulted in the executions of twenty people, fourteen of them women, and all but one by hanging. Five others (including two infant children) died in prison.

Twelve other women had previously been executed in Massachusetts and Connecticut during the 17th century. Despite being generally known as the Salem Witch Trials, the preliminary hearings in 1692 were conducted in several towns: Salem Village (now Danvers), Salem Town, Ipswich, and Andover. The most infamous trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town.

The episode is one of Colonial America's most notorious cases of mass hysteria. It has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process.

My Story
From 1987 to 1990 I was the CEO of a statewide medical society. Walking into my first role as the titled leader of an organization, I was very enthusiastic about all of the challenges facing me; shortage of revenue, a dysfunctional Board, and staff morale problems. What I wasn't prepared for was what my predecessor warned me about as he walked out the door; "Be careful about the Program Director, she's a black widow and poisonous to the entire organization."  Incredulous, I asked him why he didn't address this personnel issue in the seven years he had been there. He responded that he feared a lawsuit and wished me "good luck" on his way out the door. WOW!

Over the next several months his parting remarks became all too true and, according to the terms of the personnel policies, I was forced to put her into a 90-day probationary status. This was after I had issued countless verbal and written warnings about her lack of professionalism and her propensity to foment toxic office politics, as well as not doing her job! At the end of the 90-day period, I terminated her employment, but I had to escort her to the office door since she refused to leave.

Within two weeks, a lawsuit arrived on my desk from her lawyer, claiming that I had wrongfully terminated her, sexually harassed her and that her dismissal was due to racial discrimination. Consulting with our lawyer, he stated that, "in the vernacular, this is called a kitchen sink lawsuit; throw everything at the wall and see what sticks." Upon informing the Board, there was a mixed reaction to this news; half of them wanted to accede to her demands, the other half wanted to fight it. I weighed in and said I wanted to go forth and take this issue to the wall - I was not in the wrong. They agreed, but I could already see that their confidence in me had ebbed a bit.

Over the next 18 months, both sides' lawyers started the discovery process of trading letters, performed depositions,
and prepared for a point when we could make a reasonable judgment of whether we wanted to go to trial or settle. Finally, it was my turn to be deposed by her lawyer, an all-day affair in a room with hot lights and no AC. At the end of the day, her lawyer looked deflated, and when my attorney and I returned to his office, there was an urgent message for a return call to her lawyer. I stayed for that call and listened in a while her attorney offered an enormous reduction from $500,000 in her client's demands for restitution and other items. My attorney looked at me, and I said emphatically, "Hell, no."

The next day completed my deposition, and then it was her turn. My attorney systematically took her claims apart to where it became clear to everyone in the room that she was lying and at the end of the day, her attorney slumped forward on her elbows and asked my attorney if she could call him again. This time she offered to throw out everything but a face-saving amount for $10,000 and a hold harmless document which we would both sign and then get on with our lives. Initially, I said no again, but my attorney reminded me that it could be two more years before we went to trial and didn't I want to be rid of this whole mess? At that, I agreed, and we all walked away.

Here is My Point
I am not trying to straddle the divide between the sexes; I fall squarely on one side of the chasm and, as a result of the preceding two-year hell of my own experience, I virtually sweat when I sniff sex panic. But here is where I pull it all together, from Monty Python to the Salem witch trials and all of the way to today's news. I am concerned about two fundamental things - moral panic and context.

A moral panic is always a reaction to something that has been there all along but has evaded attention—until a particular crime captures the public imagination. Sex panics in the past have begun with actual crimes but led to outsize penalties and, more importantly, to a generalized sense of danger. The object of fear in America’s recent sex panics is the sexual predator, a concept that took hold in the nineteen-nineties. The sexual predator is characterized by his qualities perhaps more than his actions—hence the need for preventive detention and sex-offender registries. The word “predator” is once again, unnervingly, becoming central to the conversation.

What has also been missing for me in the last three months of news has been context. The moral outrage and the
response have been very similar to the cry, "She's a witch!" I would like to see the latest sex panic news not just spit out almost in real-time, but very similar to a legal proceeding, have both sides present the context of the alleged transgressions so that we can make our own judgment versus the defendant being tried in absentia by the mainstream media.

The Bad News
The current balance of power favors men so much that it’s more than likely that the guilty will get away with it than the innocent will suffer. Still, we would do well to be aware of the risks to our perception of sex, and to this culture, as it grows ever more divided.

An Ego Boost or Self Delusion?

Note: I recently met a gentleman named Carl Dierschow, who owns/runs a consulting company called "Small Fish Business Consulting" (carl.dierschow@sfbc.com). We had a great discussion centered around our philosophy, what we do and the services we provide. I guess he enjoyed the conversation so much he asked for my permission to write a blog post of his own about me! Enjoy! Previous installments of my weekly blog are located on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

Carl Dierschow SM article.png

By Any Other Name, It is Still the Same!

Note: I have always wondered why we are obsessed with symptoms, instead of causes. This past week's accumulation of events makes me ponder and write. Enjoy! Previous installments of my weekly blog are located on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

Why Are We Lonely at Work?
“While dozens of technology tools should help us communicate in more personal ways, they do not. Instead, they often isolate people,” author Dave Crenshaw writes. In the workplace, people are in the habit of switchtasking (the reality of multitasking), moving from activity to activity — and we carry that over into communication. But you can unlearn the habit: Try to consciously slow your brain down while speaking with someone and focus on the conversation. “When you do this, jumping in and out of email while having a conversation with a coworker, you are conditioning your mind to view human beings as nothing more than vending machines.” Dave Crenshaw*

Why Are We Lonely in Life?
We're living in what I call an epidemic of loneliness. Recent research has shown that many of the people we feel close to probably don't reciprocate the feeling. Millions of men feel like they have no one they could turn to for emotional support. In 2015, TIME magazine—never one to shy away from big bold pronouncements—ran a story titled, "Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue." And recently, the New York Times even pointedly questioned whether your friends actually like you.

American culture is so far off the scales in this idea of separation and individuation. It's embedded in our DNA at this point. So at the very get-go, when we're little kids, we get fed into the competitive pipeline, and that gets reinforced—the more and more you do on your own, the better person you are. That becomes the value: "I should be able to do these things on my own."

But then we find a partner and the very skills that would actually allow us to have a good, stable relationship and partnership in life tend to be missing. For some people, they're so competitive that it's hard for them to move into that place of not being domineering, and not being the one who's right. For other people, it's literally just missing the skill set. How does one argue, how do we listen, how do we speak your voice—all of those absolutely essential relational skills get lost in this hyper-intense competition to stand alone at the top of the heap.

Relationship is at the core of human health and well-being, not isolation. Not individuation. Everything grows out of relationships, not away from relationships—we have the model that from when you're born, socialization leads to ever-increasing levels of independence. That central premise just gets us off to the wrong start.

WHO Prediction
The World Health Organization stated on March 30, 2017, thatdepression (depression is a common mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and a loss of interest in activities that people typically enjoy, accompanied by an inability to carry out daily activities, for 14 days or longer) is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015. Lack of support for people with mental disorders, coupled with a fear of stigma, prevent many from accessing the treatment they need to live healthy, productive lives. By 2025 they predict that figure to increase to 1 in 5 people worldwide will be living with depression.

Here's the Really Bad News
Fewer than 25 percent of people across the world have access to treatments for depression. The World Health Organization recently studied what it calls the “treatment gaps” in mental health care and found that worldwide, the median rate for untreated depression is approximately 50 percent.

The Results?
People with depression typically have several of the following: a loss of energy; a change in appetite; sleeping more or less; anxiety; reduced concentration; indecisiveness; restlessness; feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or hopelessness; and thoughts of self-harm or suicide. As a result, they also become increasingly isolated from other people and develop a profound inability to form relationships.

Ronald Reagan Started the Ball Rolling
Really? What did he do? Let all of the mentally ill patients loose? Well, yes, that’s precisely what he did.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act to provide federal funding for the construction of community-based preventive care and treatment facilities. By 1977, there were over 650 community health facilities in the US serving over 1.9 million mnetally ill patients a year.

When Reagan was elected President in 1980, he discarded a law proposed by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, that would have continued funding these same federal community mental health centers. This basically eliminated services for people struggling with mental illness. Federal mental health spending decreased by 30%. More than one million patients were released as a result of this legislation. Some were taken in by nursing homes, many became institutionalized in prisons, and the rest became homeless.

He made similar decisions while he was the governor of California, releasing more than half of the state’s mental hospital patients and passing a law that abolished involuntary hospitalization of people struggling with mental illness. This started a national trend of de-institutionalization. In other words, if someone is struggling with mental illness, they can only be helped if they ask for it. But, wait. Isn’t one of the characteristics of severe mental illness not having an accurate sense of reality? Doesn’t that mean a person may not even realize he or she is mentally ill?

Here's My Point
Taking a theme from my strategic planning playbook, we in America have a hard time distinguishing between the critical hierarchy of Why, What, and How. As a rule, we default to the how because that's most comfortable and we are good at it - just go to YouTube, and you can easily find out how to do anything from fixing your lawnmower to making a perfect chocolate cake.

Last weekend, yet another human being took it upon himself to eliminate other humans violently and horrifyingly. Did he have a mental illness? The American Psychiatric Association defines that as, "Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and problems functioning in social, work or family activities." By their definition, the answer is assured yes.

Here is where Why, What, and How come into the picture. Rather than focusing on why he did what he did, or the reasons for what he did, as a nation and our government jump right to the how of what he did and the quick fix - banning certain types of firearms. This is only a bandaid to the more significant questions around what we as human beings have come to in the 21st century - how do we use technology so that it improves real communication between us and not separate us? And, when will we address the severe and socially stigmatizing issue of recognizing mental illness for what it is? Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a medical problem, just like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.

* Dave Crenshaw is the master of building productive leaders. He has appeared in Time magazine, USA Today, FastCompany, and the BBC News. He has written three books and counting, including The Myth of Multitasking which was published in six languages and is a time management bestseller.

What? A Value Proposition for Non-Profits?

Note: Value propositions are essential for any company; why not non-profit corporations? Here are two case histories of recent nonprofit clients that needed some help with that. Enjoy! Previous installments of my weekly blog can be found on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

A Little Background

In 2016 Americans donated $379 billion to nonprofits in the USA. This is a record-setting amount since statistics started being kept in 1954. What is even better about that number is that, after adjusting for inflation, charitable giving by Americans was seven times as big in 2016 as it was 62 years earlier.

Of course, one reason total giving went up is that the U.S. population almost doubled. But if we recalculate inflation-adjusted charitable giving on a per capita basis, we see that has also soared: by 3.5 times! (Source - Philanthropy Roundtable - http://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/almanac/statistics/)

Set the Wayback Machine, Sherman!

In 1978, my first professional job was as the Director of Business Development and the Foundation for a community college just south of Seattle, WA. At that time, there were just over 300,000 501(c)3 corporations (nonprofits) in the US and Americans donated $100 billion during that year. In 2017, there are 1.7 million nonprofits in the US, and as you saw above, Americans donated $379 billion to these entities.

At that time, as it is now, most donations come from individuals who have disposable income - historically most people start giving gifts in their early 40's - and by comparison to today's giving environment, if you asked someone for a gift, you probably got one. I credit this to a number of factors, but here are a couple of biggies; there were far fewer nonprofits, and there was more institutional trust in companies and organizations. (NOTE: Today, just asking doesn't necessarily get you a gift, but it's a good start!)

 All of the above serves as a backdrop for the subject of this article; i.e., the value proposition for a nonprofit; ergo, their mission statement. Because of the nature of the beast - a community college - we had to create a value proposition since alumnae attending a community college in 1978 weren't there for acquiring socialization skills; they were there to learn a trade like welding or carpentry, or a degree in something like accounting or drafting. Minus the nostalgia of a shared experience gained in the traditional halls of higher education we couldn't count on alum's for support nor could we look toward corporations or foundations for funding - community colleges in Washington State were entirely funded by legislative action tied to the taxes that residents paid to the state treasury.

Who Was Left?

The only body of people remaining to look to for support was the residents of the local community; about 30,000 good people who lived there because it was a bedroom community of Seattle just 25 miles away and the Boeing Company,

employing 80,000 workers, was even closer. Once an agricultural town, urban sprawl had made land much too valuable for that endeavor and so houses were being built like crazy on what used to be vast cornfields. What was missing in this transition from an agrarian environment to a city was an identity and pride of place.

The college foundation convened the first of several meetings with city government departments to form a partnership between the two entities to surface common issues and solutions provided in some cases by - you guessed it - the community college! Over the several years I was there, we were very successful in bringing the city together with the college by making the college a valuable community asset as well as an essential partner with the city. (How we did that could be the subject of another post. Here'a hint, though; think about philanthropy as the vehicle for funding the margin of excellence!)

To the Point

In the past several months I was involved with two separate nonprofits desiring to support their expansion plans through philanthropic investment. Here are the scenarios and results as follows:

Client A

Client A wisely undertook a planning study to ask their most valuable customers if they would assist in supporting their expansion plans. The result was telling - all of the major potential investors could not ascertain the substance of their value proposition! In this particular situation, the value proposition was actually present, but the client had not realized how important this was in today's charitable fundraising market, so it had never been communicated by the client to their customers.

In 1978 this client would have most likely succeeded in raising the money they desired because the underlying message they were broadcasting to their customer base was, "Trust us to know what's the best use for your philanthropic investment."  In 2017, that just doesn't fly. Our final recommendation to them was to assemble this information, package it, and communicate a strong and relevant value proposition to their customer base and, only then ask them again for an investment.

Client B

This client, a university, also commissioned us to do a planning study with a similar audience to Client A's, but their value proposition was some 20-30 years out-of-date. Their message to their constituency was, in essence, "Give us money because we need it."  What made this even a harder sell was that they were surrounded by 100+ other universities essentially asking the same customers for the same thing. Looking at the Venn Diagram, what was missing for Client B was a lack of understanding of themselves and clarity of all three of the critical circles in the diagram, and as a result, they could not iterate their value proposition clearly to their customer base. Our recommendation to them was to:

  • Review their mission statement (value proposition) and update it to more clearly differentiate themselves from the other 100+ marketplace offerings, research who their primary customers were, and what their customers needed in comparison to what they were offering;
  • Then, review the plan we discussed with their investors, take the time to thoughtfully craft a more relevant plan in line with their new value proposition; and,
  • Start the process of preparing to go back to their constituencies at a later date. 


Modern-day nonprofits looking to raise millions (or billions) should be looking for wealthy philanthropic investors to partner with them to solve common issues and challenges versus looking for a handout. Collaboration and partnering are two very key words in today's philanthropic arena, as donors are demanding more efficiency and less duplication of effort from the 1.7 million non-profits in America.

The Answer to the Question?

Hopefully, you can now respond to the primary question asked by this post with a resounding YES! Nonprofits need a stronger value proposition more than ever; the competition for the charitable dollar in 2017 is fierce and (most) major donors do not make giving decisions based primarily on emotion as many of them once did. Rather, they look at it much like they would for any investment; what's the R.O.I.; in other words, if I give $100,000, what can the nonprofit do with that money to multiply it to $1,000,000 in programs and services for the populations which they serve?






What Does Great Communication Look Like?

Note:  Working on a new piece that's not quite finished and since it is a holiday weekend, here's some great wisdom from Elon Musk from Inc. Magazine that I really like. Enjoy!

Throughout the years, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has demonstrated the art of masterful communication.

The following is a perfect example: It's a copy of a previously unpublished email Musk sent to Tesla employees a few years ago. Sent with the subject line "Communication Within Tesla," it explains the problem with how information is transmitted in most companies, and how things should be different at Tesla.

Here's the email (which Tesla has verified was sent to all employees):

Subject: Communication Within Tesla

There are two schools of thought about how information should flow within companies. By far the most common way is chain of command, which means that you always flow communication through your manager. The problem with this approach is that, while it serves to enhance the power of the manager, it fails to serve the company.

Instead of a problem getting solved quickly, where a person in one dept talks to a person in another dept and makes the right thing happen, people are forced to talk to their manager who talks to their manager who talks to the manager in the other dept who talks to someone on his team. Then the info has to flow back the other way again. This is incredibly dumb. Any manager who allows this to happen, let alone encourages it, will soon find themselves working at another company. No kidding.

Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company. You can talk to your manager's manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else's permission. Moreover, you should consider yourself obligated to do so until the right thing happens. The point here is not random chitchat, but rather ensuring that we execute ultra-fast and well. We obviously cannot compete with the big car companies in size, so we must do so with intelligence and agility.

One final point is that managers should work hard to ensure that they are not creating silos within the company that create an us vs. them mentality or impede communication in any way. This is unfortunately a natural tendency and needs to be actively fought. How can it possibly help Tesla for depts to erect barriers between themselves or see their success as relative within the company instead of collective? We are all in the same boat. Always view yourself as working for the good of the company and never your dept.


I'm a huge fan of the message this email communicates, namely:

Communication that is forced to go through the "proper channels" is a recipe for

  • Killing great ideas; and
  • Burying the feedback a company needs to thrive.

There's only one problem with Musk's proposed solution - It's extremely difficult to cultivate in the real world.

Why Great Communication Is Hard

All companies say they value transparency and honesty. Most are lying.

Has Musk been able to achieve this type of environment (where communication is free-flowing and departments work together) at Tesla? I have no idea.

However, I worked several years for a nonprofit that did exemplify this way of thinking. It was an extremely mission-driven organization, one in which nearly everyone bought into the philosophy because they saw managers and executives walking the walk. (In fact, it was a personal experience there that inspired my very first column on Inc.com.) After leaving that organization and consulting for dozens of others, I realized just how rare this type of workplace is.

So how do you build a company culture in which employees actually work together, instead of against one another?

Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I see the big picture in my organization? Does my team?
  • Do I encourage dissenting opinions and viewpoints? Do I reward employees for giving me authentic feedback, even if I don't agree with it?
  • Do I demonstrate empathy, by taking employees' problems seriously--and actively helping them find solutions?
  • Do I promote an environment that encourages growth, even if it means (at times) losing a great employee to another team, another department--or even another company?

Of course, leaders have to set the example. That means looking beyond individual achievements and key performance indicators, which takes courage, insight, and emotional intelligence. It means making yourself available to hear as many voices as possible.

Above all, it means being ready to hear what employees really think.

Because the first step to solving a problem is knowing it's there in the first place.


You Talk Too Much!

Note:  I had a major jolt to my psyche in the past two weeks from two different clients. As well as I think I know myself, then events can come along to surprise even me. See if you can identify with the following. Enjoy! Previous installments of my weekly blog can be found on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

Can Your Personality Derail Your Career?
After the feedback I got from two different clients in two different parts of the country, I have become a believer that you can learn something new every day, no matter where you are in your career. For me the news I received about my interaction with these two consulting clients really rocked my world and potentially could influence my future in a very negative way. So, what was it that they told me? Simply put, I talk too much and don't listen enough!

I cannot just blow this type of criticism off, either. I have been doing planning research for two different organizations, which involves interviewing a lot of their customers, and some of these people actually contacted my clients to point out that, while the interviews may have been informative, they had a hard time giving their reactions to the plan that was presented to them by me, because I talked too much.

What's Going On Here?
As someone who has spent many years counseling people and more recently, executive coaching CEO's and leaders, this concept of active listening is fundamental and a prerequisite to the fields of endeavor wherein, as human beings, we try to assist others through hard patches in their lives and/or serve as a guide to help them know more about themselves and achieve higher performance in their interactions with others in the workplace. Now I come around to the question for myself; "where and when did I go off the rails?"

The Answer Lies in My Psyche
Twenty years ago, two psychologists, Robert and Joyce Hogan, created an inventory (the Hogan Development Survey) of the “dark side” traits of human personality —11 qualities that when taken to the extreme, resemble the most common personality disorders. After profiling millions of employees, managers, and leaders, they found that most people display at least three of these dark-side traits, and about 40% score high enough on one or two to put them at risk for disruption in their careers — even if they’re currently successful and effective. The result is pervasive dysfunctional behavior at work.

Research over decades suggests that it’s challenging to change core aspects of your personality after age 30. But you can — through self-awareness, appropriate goal setting, and persistence — tame your dark side in critical situations, by changing your behaviors. First steps first, though; you have to identify the unproductive behaviors.

Understanding the Dark Side - There are Three Clusters
Those in the first are distancing traits—obvious turnoffs that push other people away. Being highly excitable and moody has this effect, for instance. So does having a deeply skeptical, cynical outlook, which makes it hard to build trust. Another example is leisurely passive-aggressiveness—pretending to have a relaxed, polite attitude while actually resisting cooperation or even engaging in backstabbing.

Traits in the second cluster are, in contrast, seductive qualities—geared to pull people in. They’re often found in assertive, charismatic leaders, who gather followers or gain influence with bosses through their ability to “manage up.” But these traits can also have negative consequences because they lead people to overestimate their own worth and fly too close to the sun. Being bold and confident to the point of arrogance is a good example; so is being puckishly mischievous, with an enormous appetite for reckless risk.

The third cluster contains ingratiating traits, which can have a positive connotation about followers but rarely do when describing leaders. Someone who is diligent, for instance, may try to impress her boss with her meticulous attention to detail, but that can also translate into a preoccupation with petty matters or micromanagement of her own direct reports. Someone who is dutiful and eager to please those in authority can quickly become too submissive or acquiescent.

Not all dark-side traits are created equal. In a global meta-analysis of 4,372 employees across 256 jobs in multiple industries, distancing traits had a consistently negative impact on individuals’ work attitudes, leadership, decision making, and interpersonal skills (reflected in poor performance ratings and 360-degree reviews). But the seductive traits sometimes had positive effects. For instance, colorful, attention-seeking leaders often get better marks from bosses than their more reserved counterparts. And bold, ultra-confident CEOs often attain high levels of growth in entrepreneurial ventures. Dark-side traits also differ in their consequences. A mischievous, risk-taking leader who is under pressure to demonstrate financial growth can destroy an entire organization with a single impulsive decision. An excitable leader might simply wreck his/her career with a public temper tantrum.

It’s worth noting that a complete lack of these traits can be detrimental as well. An extremely calm, even-tempered, soft-spoken manager—someone who isn’t remotely excitable—may come across as dull or uninspiring. The key, then, is not to eliminate your personality weaknesses but to manage and optimize them: The right score is rarely the lowest or the highest but moderate.

Managing Your Dark Side
If you are in a situation where it's possible, complete a full psychological assessment to identify your potential derailers. Even better: Ask bosses, peers, subordinates, and clients to give you honest and critical feedback on your tendency to display these traits. Tell them that you want to improve and need their candor. How do they see you when you’re not at your best? Do any of the traits sound a little (or a lot) like you? You might mention a pattern you’ve noticed or that others have commented on. You can improve your self-awareness through formal feedback mechanisms, such as performance appraisals, 360s, check-ins with your manager, and project debriefs. The key to gathering accurate information is to recognize that people will generally avoid offering critiques, especially to leaders, unless the behaviors are truly egregious. So in addition to assuring them that you welcome their honest assessments, you should listen carefully for subtle or offhand remarks.

Where Do I Fit In?
After taking the Hogan Development Survey and looking at the three clusters, I land pretty squarely in the middle cluster - seductive - I am geared to pull people in, and my workplace life has reflected that with many leadership positions and an inherent ability to manage up. The question remains, though, why has this personality cluster trait suddenly exhibited itself so dramatically and dominantly in my behavior?

One answer that comes to me is age; I am at a point in life and work where the opportunities to feel valued and worthwhile don't seem as plentiful as they used to be or better yet, I am not making those opportunities happen! Even though I felt some deep humiliation from the feedback I received, I also believe that a healthy dose of humility is always good to remind us that we are human and keep us from flying too close to the sun.

Note: Special thanks to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, CEO of Hogan Assessments, a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab. His recent article, "Could Your Personality Derail Your Career" (excerpted here) from the Harvard Business Review couldn't have come at a more opportune time for me to help me untangle what is going on amidst the flotsam and jetsam called my mind.

Lead, Follow, or get the Hell out of My Way!

Editor's Note: One of my pet peeves and a quality that I search for but rarely find. Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

Who Said That?
Variously attributed to Thomas Paine, George Patton, and more recently, Ted Turner and Lee Iaccoca, no one, including Saint Google, is sure who actually said it. I think that it is an enduring sentiment and one that is hard to find in America today.


It’s hard to be a real leader. Decisions are never black or white, so most people fudge. They straddle middle grounds to keep everybody happy. They make compromises to try and hold together constituencies. On business decisions, they want to hedge their bets, so they do a little bit of everything but nothing extremely well.

As highlighted by Brad Garlinghouse years ago in the famous “peanut butter manifesto”— it’s like spreading peanut butter evenly over a piece of bread. And of course fudging never produces world-class results, so many companies suffer from mediocrity.

The problem with hard decisions is that you can never make everybody happy. There is always somebody impacted or somebody who thought that “Plan B” was better. Leadership is about listening to multiple opinions but in the end trusting your instincts and deciding. Leadership is about not worrying about how people will think about you for hard calls. It is about being willing to be wrong. Leadership, as I’ve pointed out before, is about being respected more than loved.

As somebody fortunate enough to spend time with senior people from business and non-profit sectors I can tell you that even at the upper echelons people struggle to make hard decisions and the people willing to forge difficult paths are few and far between.

It was not a popular decision at all when Steve Jobs chose to open retail stores. People laughed at Google buying YouTube for $1.65 billion. Evan Spiegel was thought an idiot for not selling Snapchat for $3 billion. Netflix was widely criticized for breaking their business in two.

Leaders have well-formed opinions that go against the grain, the temerity to sell their vision to skeptics, the tenacity to stick to their ideas when they are inevitably criticized, the resiliency to wake every day when they’re being kicked by everybody for their beliefs but also the willingness to look at data and re-chart their course when they got it wrong.

Leaders need to be early, have conviction, be persuasive and get others to follow when rational people should not. And trust me, the world is FILLED with naysayers. Whether they succeed or not does not defeat their leadership and willingness to try.


There truly aren’t many leaders; it’s a thankless and stressful job. And leaders aren’t always right and even when they are they don’t always win. And while leaders set direction, of course, it is teams that deliver results. The leader can only point and recruit world-class people, but the results are owed to the team.

In every team, you need the majority of the people who excel at their job functions. They are great within their respective fields whether they be marketing, sales, programming, PR, whatever. People running these job functions are also leaders — don’t get me wrong — on each team, you still need leaders & followers. You simply can’t have a team of people all pulling in different directions and death by a thousand cuts is having multiple departments all moving in their own direction.

While the overall leader must set the direction of the top, the goal is each department must be to align the objectives of that group with the overall goals of the organization. When done well companies have a system like OKRs (objectives and key results) or V2MOM (vision, values, methods, obstacles, measures).

If an organization and its people won’t align themselves with the direction from the top you will also end up with mediocrity. Only aligned organizations excel.

Get the Hell Out of My Way!

Dissent is fine. Dissent actually makes groups stronger. I love being challenged because it forces me to think harder about what my convictions are. I love when people come with ideas that conflict with my world view because the conflict either ends up giving me more confidence in my convictions or helps me to evolve. Sometimes it even causes me to consider revolution.

But dissenters need ideas of their own. Dissenters need facts and logic. Dissenters need to be willing to roll up their sleeves and help do the work. Dissenters need to be willing to have their own necks on the chopping block and admit that they were wrong in the end.

Dissenters don’t get to be “back benchers.” They don’t get to yell from the peanut gallery but never own results or the consequences of decisions. Dissenters don’t get to second-guess but never lead.

Throughout life, I’ve realized that many people are back benchers. “That will never work” is their motto. They like to criticize, but they don’t have strong ideas of their own. They “know” what’s wrong but they never do anything about it. They never lead. Yet they don’t follow.

When you spot people like that in your company, you have no choice but to part ways with them. If you wake up one day in any organization and you realize that you’re no longer “part of the solution” it’s time to get the hell out of the way. This is especially true when you’re senior and too many people are looking at how you react to change or when your disbelief undermines the confidence of others.

When you get the hell out of the way you either find out that the other leaders were right or you get the chance from the outside to later say they were wrong. But either way, you at least let your organization have cohesion in the plan.

And if you can’t lead, follow or get the hell out of the way — have the decency to move on to another organization.

Next Week: Growth - How Fast is Too Fast?

Who is the Greatest Leader in America?

Editor's Note: Last week, at the end of this blog, I postulated, "Now What?" The answer is simple, back to helping organizations be the best they can be while helping to reach their goals. Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

Patrick Lencioni

I have been asked on a number of occasions, by journalists and curious clients, whom I believe to be the greatest leader in America. And I usually respond with my own question, “Are you asking for the name of a famous leader?” This usually leads to a fair amount of confusion, until I explain that the best leader in the country is probably relatively obscure.

You see, I believe that the best leader out there is probably running a small or medium-sized company in a small or medium-sized town. Or maybe they‘re running an elementary school or a church. Moreover, that leader‘s obscurity is not a function of mediocrity, but rather a disdain for unnecessary attention and adulation. He or she would certainly prefer to have a stable home life, motivated employees, and happy customers—in that order—over public recognition.

A skeptic might well respond, “But if this person really were the greatest leader, wouldn‘t his or her company eventually grow in size and stature, and become known for being great?” And the answer to that fine question would be, “Not necessarily.”

A great company should achieve its potential and grow to the size and scale that suits its founders‘ and owners‘ and employees‘ desires, not to mention the potential of its market. It may very well wildly exceed customer expectations and earn a healthy profit by doing so, but not necessarily grow for the sake of growing.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where bigger is often equated with better and where fame and infamy are all too often considered to be one and the same. And so we mistakenly come to believe that if we haven‘t seen a person‘s picture on the cover of Fortune or in a dot-matrixed image in The Wall Street Journal, then they can‘t possibly be the best.

Consider for a moment those high profile leaders we read about in the newspaper and see on television. Most, but not all, of them share an overwhelming desire and need for attention. You‘ll find them in all kinds of industries, but most prevalently in politics, media, and big business. Look hard enough at them, and there is a decent chance you‘ll discover people who have long aspired to be known as great leaders. These are the same people who also value public recognition over real impact. And based on my experience, you might also find that they‘ll be more highly regarded by strangers and mere acquaintances than by the people who work and live with them most closely.

The truth is, our greatest leaders usually don‘t aspire to positions of great fame or public awareness. They choose instead to lead in places where they can make a tangible, meaningful difference in the lives of the people they are called to serve. The challenges and consequences of their decisions are no less difficult or important than those of higher profile leaders, even if they don‘t quite qualify for a cover story in TIME.

Editor's Note: I just met one of these leaders in the last few weeks; before that time I had never heard of him. He is much like the many unsung leaders that Patrick Lencioni describes above, and Mr. Lencioni was even once on his Board. His name is Dr. Tim Gray - look him up.

Next Week: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way?

Moving On

Editor's Note: At this point, you must think I am either dumb or have appalling luck to have almost the same thing happen to me, twice! Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

I Think Having Leverage is a Great Thing
Last week we left off with me finding out how deeply I could be pulled into the former owner's tax mess if he didn't pay the back taxes to the state; I could lose the business if they seized it for his disregard for the tax system. 

After I had spoken with my attorney, I called the former owner in Texas and laid out what he was facing, including me not making a scheduled payment to him at the end of April. I have heard engines sputter, but I have never listened to a person sputter, and it was almost funny, and he was furious until I told him to, "Shut Up!" Surprisingly, he did, and I followed with, "Listen." I had come up with a strategy with my attorney that got me out of this whole mess and left him with getting the business back and only having to deal with the department of revenue for back taxes.

He refused the proposal outright and said he was going to sue me in a civil action, at which point I laughed and replied, "For what? Because you tried to defraud me for $2 million under false premises?" I went on to say that I would be intrigued to see how this played out in the legal system and I might end up owning the business anyway. Then I dropped two bombs on him after he still refused my proposal. After operating the business for a few months, I realized that he had underreported the income on his federal income tax returns - remember - the revenue came in split into 60% credit card sales and 40% cash; he wasn't reporting the cash on his returns! Also, he had the four "employees" working as independent contractors and so, had paid no payroll taxes nor had any workmen's compensation in place for them. In our state, the Department of Labor is very attuned to this sort of activity and stick strictly to the rules that, if people spend all of their available working time at one job, they see them as employees. 

A Whistleblower - Again?
He said, "You can't prove any of that." My response, "I don't have to; the burden of proof is on you, and if I call either of these two agencies, they will surely investigate, and you could not stand up to either an audit from the IRS and/or a review of your employment practices. So, your choice; I walk away at the end of April, keep any and all net profit since I took over, and I say nothing to anyone about anything."  (Even better, for me, if they do find any wrongdoing, I could be eligible for a whistleblower reward!) I then hung up but left him with the thought that he had 24 hours to respond or I would make the calls.

He called me the next day and agreed to the proposal; his lawyer had convinced him to take the deal and get on with his life while I got on with mine. On April 30, 2017, with mixed emotions, I handed the keys to him and walked away.

Am I bitter? No, and I will still trust people until I find out otherwise. It was both a great life and business lesson, and I have no regrets whatsoever about engaging in this 5-month exercise. I will also stick by my promise to him about keeping quiet; I think he will be found out sooner or later anyway.

Next Week: Now What?

Shame on Me!

Editor's Note: In last week's episode, we left off with our hero(?) wondering where he was going to come up with $18 million to avoid all sorts of legal actions that would forever impact him and the organization he represented. Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

The Immense Power of Collaborative Thinking
There are a great many people wiser than I am and one of the things I have heard over and over again is, "One day at a time, one step at a time."

  • Step 1 - I put the CFO, and her team of accountings temps to work to see how much of the $18 million we could account for to provide documentation to the Feds and the other grantmakers to which we owed the money;
  • Step 2 - Begin conversations with the original Board Members to let them know how they had failed in their fiduciary responsibility to the organizations and its future.

At the end of a six-month marathon of forensic accounting, my hero, the CFO and her team, had accounted for close to $15 million of the grants which we duly forwarded to the grantmakers. The remaining $3 million was accomplished through fundraising from the Board(s) and a $500,000 promissory note, secured by the imminent distribution of a bequest. Then, we turned ourselves into the Inspector General for the Department of Justice to receive whatever punishment they deemed appropriate. As we thought, it was relatively minor, because, after all, we had repaid the money and, the worst part of their ruling was that the original entity was barred from ever being eligible for federal grants again. This judgment sounds worse than it was, as the original entity as a corporation would cease to exist in the next few months anyway.

The best part of this whole ordeal was that it brought the entire team of staff, volunteers, and professionals much closer together as a working team that endured long after we sent the feds their checks and the merger was complete. About the public, no one will ever know the gritty details of this shameful incident, and that is the way it should be in my mind. We transformed lemons into lemonade.........the hardest way possible.

Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me!
Fast forward ten years to 2016 and I am starting to think about the future; mine and those around me. As Frank Sinatra stated in his famous ballad about growing older, "It was a very good year," I am looking at the autumn of my career and seeking a business or an asset that can work for me, rather than working for it.  Then, I found the perfect business (or so I thought)! I had been frequenting a business for several years in my town and wondered what it would be like to own such an enterprise. I even had gotten to know the people that worked there very well and knew about all the strengths and weaknesses of this business. So, when the "For Sale" sign went up, I contacted the broker representing the owner and asked, "How much?" The number he gave me was sky high; about six times annual receivables (the staff told me this dollar figure) and I inquired whether he was in a situation where he would negotiate. The broker hemmed and hawed and finally said something I already knew; the owner had moved several states away and was a motivated seller (the staff was very helpful here, too; they hated him).

I decided to take the initiative and called the seller at home in Houston (the staff gave me his number!). I made an offer that was more reasonable to me - three times annual receivables, and he refused. I reminded him that his deferred CAPEX amounted to almost $750,000 and that any shrewd buyer would figure this out during diligence anyway, so, if he wanted to sell it, he would have to be a little flexible on the price. He left off that he would think about it and get back to me, which he did the next day and said he would sell it for four times annual receivables. I agreed but said that my terms would be some cash and the remainder in the form of a note from me to him for ten years with a balloon payment at the end of that period. We haggled about this, but he finally agreed, and we closed in December 2016.

I Bought a Car Wash!
Matt Damon starred in a very cute movie called, "We Bought a Zoo" in 2011, which told the (true) story of how a journalist bought a failing zoo in England and, with blood, sweat, and tears equity, brought it back to life. Nothing so dramatic in my case; it had been an operating business for 14 years and was still doing very well, grossing $500,000 annually. I looked at it this way; short of the planet running out of water, it was almost a recession-proof business. I even had an accountant review the owner's tax returns and his books before I said, "Yes" - the performance of this business was stellar. In addition to the regular people coming in once a week, I can't tell you how many people that would come in there with 19-forgotten cars and trucks and spend $10 to wash a rusted and faded paint vehicle. With just three part-time employees, and is in a very advantageous location next to a huge mall, anchored by a large Kroger grocery store, what could go wrong?

The Feds - Again!
In March 2017 I received a call from the (state) Department of Revenue looking for the owner. I responded that I was and asked how I could help them? The gentleman on the other end of the call immediately launched into a series of questions about the whereabouts of the sales tax reports for the years 2008 to 2015. I finally stopped him and said that didn't own the business during that time and had only recently acquired it in late 2016. He asked where he could find the former owner and I decided to stall a little bit and said I would have to find that information and call him back. My first call was to a contract law attorney I knew and asked him for his opinion on this matter, and he immediately said, "If he didn't pay the sales taxes due for that period, then your contract with him is null and void, and he has committed fraud." OMG! His next words gave me a chill as frosty as the Arctic; "And, if he doesn't pay the state or can't pay them for the taxes due, they will seize and close the business until they are paid."

Next Week: Moving on

Shame on You!

Editor's Note: Have you ever had one of those deja vu all over again moments? Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

Fool Me Once, Shame on You
In 2005 I was retained by a major university to do a study on the feasibility of merging a once notable, but now failing, private cancer research center with a major cancer center within the university. I worked on this project for six months, interviewing a significant number of people affiliated with either or both entities and poring over internal documents and financials within the private research entity. Everything looked good for the merger, especially since the university was not willing to assume any of the liabilities of the other organization. If approved by the University's Regents, this merger would entail a good year's worth of work to finally complete the merger process; with the sale of assets, transferring grant portfolios, and obtaining faculty appointments for the private organizations' 48 scientists. One of the biggest hurdles would be the public relations challenges with dissolving a 100-year-old organization, but still, honor its legacy in a meaningful way for the future with its nationwide constituency. 

I delivered my report to the Board of Regents at the end of six months, and they approved the merger without any reservations. I was further retained to help create a transition board, made up of representatives from both organizations and put together an initial scope of work for this group, including hiring an interim CEO. At the end of two months, I was approached by the chair of the transition board and asked if I would be interested in a 12-month position as that interim CEO I had recommended in my report. With some reluctance, I tentatively accepted but decided I would try an old negotiating tactic of making the other side say, "no" by throwing in certain conditions that I thought that they would refuse, but they didn't, and I assumed the position at the beginning of 2006. 

The outgoing CEO had been in place for over 30 years and wasn't especially happy about being forced out, but since he was the primary author of its failure, he had little choice but to resign. He made some last ditch efforts to get a severance, but, given a massive budget shortfall in 2005, it was easy for the Board to deflect that request. He did drag his feet somewhat for about two weeks, by giving me excuses about how long it would take to clean out his office, but I had plenty to do in the coming 12 months, and so, I said, "take your time." After all, he couldn't do any harm, since he no longer had any signature authority and he had no loyal staff left, as I had let the majority of them go when I stepped in.

The first month passed by relatively peacefully, with many people to meet both onsite and at the University, new staff to hire, and planning for the future. In early February, I received a phone call from a bureaucrat at the Department of Defense, inquiring about the summary documents for a grant they had made several years before to the private cancer center. I said I would look into it and they sent a follow-up letter, which, at first glance, seemed fairly benign, until I got to the last page of this missive. Here is where the bomb dropped, the first of many, as they stated that without a full accounting for the grant they had issued, that they would expect full reimbursement of said grant - $1.5 million! I handed the matter over to our brand new CFO, with the proviso that she keep me informed. Over the next two months, I received a mounting pile of more phone messages and letters from various government agencies asking for the same as the first call; all in all, the total came to $18 million! This got my attention, and I asked the CFO how she was doing on the accounting end for the first grant call I got. Her response was bleak; it was doable but would take several months as virtually no accounting had been done internally, and she desperately needed help to recreate the internal accounting that went with each grant, now over ten grants. I instructed her to hire accounting temps and make it a priority.

My next step was to inform the Transition Board of possible malfeasance in the worst case, and sheer incompetence in the best case. I outlined my remediation steps, to include legal action against the former CEO and CFO, but I decided to give that CFO the benefit of the doubt, and so, I called her to inquire what she knew about this situation. Her first question to me was whether the former CEO had forwarded her letter asking for her severance pay - one year's salary - promised by the former CEO. I said I had not, but, regardless, that was not a promise I could honor given the current crisis and the previous budget year's failure. She threatened legal action, to which I almost laughed, but I chose to fill her in on the magnitude of the current $18 million demand from grantors instead and asked whether she could shed any light on that? She dissolved into tears and told me the whole tale of woe of the last several years of using restricted grant money to pay for annual operational needs and keeping a second set of books to keep track of the fraud. I requested those accounting docments, but she said she would trade them for her severance. I politley declined. Now, I was shocked twice; once for not discovering this during the financial review, which I had undertaken in 2005, and, second, how to resolve it.

I called the organization's law firm; one of the biggest and most expensive in the city, and met with two of the senior partners to outline the debacle. They listened sympathetically, and then they dropped an atom bomb on me. If I gave into mounting pressure from the Board to inform the Inspector General's Office in Washington about this matter, I would become a whistleblower for the government, and they would have to recuse themselves from representing me as they still represented the organization!

My first call, after this horrifying discovery, was to the Board Chair to inform him that I was resigning immediately and then told him why. He was certainly no less horrified than I was but reminded me that lawyers always looked at the worst possible outcomes and possibly, could we find any other solutions? After meeting for several hours and involving two key University people, we decided that we would recommend that we pay back the money first and then inform the Inspector General's Office. We took that recommendation to the Board, and they accepted it but they declined to pursue any legal action against the former CEO to avoid bad press for the University.

Now, the fun part began - where do we find $18 million?

Next Week: Shame on Me!

Could You Win the Healthcare Lottery?

Editor's Note: My old college friend, Bud Hendershot, wrote the following and sent it to his local newspaper in Florida as a guest editorial. Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

The Definition of Insanity

The Congressional Republicans have voted to repeal The Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) and replace it with a giant tax cut for the rich (a.k.a. The American Health Care Act/Trumpcare/Ryancare). This Republican healthcare plan is a complete joke and would – according to the CBO – result in at least 24 million Americans losing health insurance over ten years. The poorest Americans would be hit the hardest, of course – which is probably one reason this plan is more popular with Republicans than with everyone else. Remarkably though, polls show even a majority of Republicans don’t like this massive tax cut, umm, “healthcare plan.”

Republican Pols think healthcare is not a right – but a product that should primarily benefit only those rich enough to pay for it, or lucky enough to get it on the job. That’s obviously not a message they wish to advertise. But if they were more creative about their solutions, I think they could really excite many voters – especially the ignorant, the cruel, the greedy and the “I’ve got mine, screw you” crowd -you know, their base. So I have a few proposals I think would go over BIGLY with our new all Republican government.

Forget phony healthcare “plans”- it’s time for HEALTHCARE LOTTO! Each state could run a lottery with different scratch off games for different diseases, where winners could win various levels of treatment for maladies such as one free radiation treatment or insulin shot up to a Grand Prize of free health insurance – the same kind Congress gets!

Imagine – millions of desperately ill people who can’t afford health care lining up in local gas stations and grocery stores to purchase scratch-off tickets like “HAVE A HEART (TRANSPLANT!)”, “SCRATCH-OFF YOUR SHINGLES!”, “MATCH 3 FOR CHEMO!” or “E.D. BE GONE!” Such a system would generate many billions of dollars – half of which could be reserved for “prizes” – and the rest of which could be distributed upwards to billionaire GOP donors. HEALTHCARE LOTTO would give a sliver of hope for the desperately ill while making wealthy political donors even richer! A win-win for the GOP!

The only possible objection I foresee is that some of the more “moral” among GOP leaders may object to games like “MATERNITY CARE” if the winners are unwed mothers. Likewise, any prizes involving birth control would probably be excluded. You know – “Sanctity of Life” issues. But these things could be worked out.

Another idea would be a reality TV show along the lines of “The Apprentice.” You remember that show, don’t you? It starred Donald Trump. This show would be called “The Underwriter.” Trump would star in this show as well. With him, the show will get YUGE ratings – and we all know he loves that! Contestants would compete to get their application for health insurance approved through The Underwriter. Winners would beapproved for a health insurance policy for which they would pay reduced premiums. Losers won’t hear “You’re fired!” as they did on “The Apprentice.” What they’ll hear instead is “YOU’RE DEAD, LOSER!” Can you imagine the betting pools that would spring up all over America?

Short of regular live, televised executions, I can’t think of a show that would be more popular than “The Underwriter” in this sick country. You may think these ideas are crazy, but they are no more destructive than the “health care plan” Congress already passed and handed to the Senate. God help us all.

Thank you, Bud Hendershot!

Next Week: Shame on Me!

Why Do We Need To Be Agile?

Editor's Note: I received an email from Irena Papuc from Toptal Corporation this week, asking me to post this article from their blog about expectation management and planning. Even though this article is specifically about software development, it also applies directly to strategic planning. Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

Long ago, we roamed the land to gather food and shelter to survive. They were simple needs, but pretty agile. Some time later, countries and economies grew and prospered on the back of the Industrial Revolution. This was the birth of management and control and the loss of agility. Now we’re in the Information Age or Revolution, where businesses employ knowledge workers. Knowledge workers are you, your partners, your colleagues, and peers that endeavor to create great solutions to the customer, business, social, economic and world problems. Knowledge workers apply analysis, knowledge, reasoning, understanding, expertise, and skills to often loosely defined and changing needs. These businesses and workers need methods and techniques that cannot be met by old Industrial Age processes and procedures. Agile supports interactions.

Virtually no company can confidently set out at the beginning and know all that it needs in order to deliver valuable products without change. Change presents both opportunities and risks to the success of a project. Unmanaged opportunities can mean the difference between a great company and an awesome company. Unmanaged risk spells disaster and ruin. Agile manages change.

Adopting agile allows you to be responsive to changing or new requirements. It empowers development teams to be the experts and make decisions supported by an engaged, trusting, and informed business. It enables you to deliver to customers what they really want. Ultimately, it puts you and your organization in control of delivering high-quality products that deliver on customer need and expectations whilst extracting a return on your investment dollars as early as possible. Agile creates value.

There is a cost to adopting agile. It doesn’t come for free. Transforming to an agile approach for product delivery can be a hard path to follow. However, if you internalize the agile philosophy, tread carefully, engage the right team with the right attitude, break things down, make it achievable and realistic and respond to feedback, you will reap rewards. Agile emphasizes collaboration.

The following lists some benefits you can expect:

  • Speed to market
  • Earlier revenue generation
  • Regular delivery of real value
  • Protection for your investment
  • Data, data, data
  • Better product quality
  • Manageable expectations
  • Greater customer satisfaction
  • Higher performing teams
  • Improved visibility on progress
  • Predictability, transparency, and confidence
  • Manageable risk

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston Churchill may never have actually said this, but I think it’s a pretty good summation of Agile. We know Agile is the best foot forward for most projects. It encourages you to strive for success, but we always iterate and keep building on it. Agile will encourage you to fail, but fail early and move on. Having the courage to continue and to build the right solution based on insight informed by your customer is what brings the reward.

The thing to keep in mind is you can tailor Agile to your needs. Use the method and governance that is right for your business. Wherever you start, be true to the content, context, and spirit of the method you use - keep it vanilla. If you’re just starting out - Learn. If you’ve been doing it for a while - Understand. If you’re becoming awesome - Apply. Finally, if your business and your projects are complex and interdependent - Govern. Over time, you and your teams will figure out what works best for your business.


So now you’re thinking, “Okay, I get it. How do I start? Where do I start?”. Well, with all good things, we start at the beginning. And with Agile, it’s by asking yourself, “What business value do I want to deliver?”. After all, that’s why we undertake new ventures, to generate business value. In order to establish if the venture is worth undertaking to derive the business value, you need to understand whether it is feasible.


Is your venture projected to increase revenue, enter a new market, acquire more customers, improve customer perception, or make life easier for a given problem you’ve identified? With this in mind, you can state your “Vision”.

  • Your vision may come from different sources - your own bold startup to fix a common problem, business management strategy, your CEO’s pet project, a specific product team, or even your customer’s needs.
  • Try to take a step back from your own shoes and “see” what the future looks like with your new product or service in the hands of your customers.
  • Engage your stakeholders - the CEO, product guy, and customers. Workshop it, don’t attempt this in isolation. Challenge assumptions and validate arguments.
  • Write it down, keep it short. Focus on the business value.
  • Refine it until you all agree the vision resonates with everybody and meets a common interpretation that states where you’re heading.
  • Your vision, if valid, rarely changes. How you get there most certainly will.

People don’t buy what you do, or how you do it. They buy the “why” you do it. This is what creates the emotional connection between your business and your customers. The vision will help illustrate this.

Is it Feasible?

Feasibility comes in at least a couple of shades. Typically, you’ll want to understand if your vision of a brighter future for your business and customers is both technically feasible and that it’s feasible for your business to make it happen.

  • If your vision is to make travel to anywhere across the world in under an hour, you may have a problem with the technical feasibility. Since science, physics, and technology haven’t quite caught up with that dream yet, your technical solution may not be viable in anything other than theory. In addition, if your solution was new, this would go well beyond the idea of a Minimal Viable Product (MVP).
  • To test the technical feasibility of your product, consider either exploring it further in a Discovery prototype project or by running a spike in the early stages of the project. You’ll know which method to use by thinking about the scale or complexity of the solution you have in mind.

    “Some of the best knowledge my teams have gained in understanding technical feasibility have come from performing a spike. And often, it’s the simplest solution that wins out!”

  • The second shade of feasibility to consider is whether you, your team or business has the skills and motivation to make it work. Using an example, if you’re great at baking cakes at home for your kids birthday, that’s sweet. But if you want to turn this into a business selling the finest cakes to the world, you need to understand if you can make it scale, handle the business as well as the production, manage distribution and fulfillment, and take care of customer service.
  • This type of vision might be achievable in the long run. But for now, possibly not. So scale it back, think small, take a small chunk that looks realistic and concentrate on delivering the best but smaller aspiration you can. If that manages to engage and delight your customers, get them coming back for more and telling their friends, then scale it up from there using your customer feedback as your guide and compass.
  • Also, you need to know if your project is feasible in terms of budget and timeframe. Can your business afford to deliver this product? Is the timeframe achievable? Time and money are two of the three constraints in an Agile project that are fixed. We aim to deliver within a given fixed time and within a given fixed budget.
  • The quality of a product refers to the end product that your customers use and the engineering practices your team uses to deliver great, robust, and reliable software. Quality is also something we don’t short change on. Quality criteria, on the other hand, can change. If you’re not setting out to build a Ferrari, the product may not have a high-quality perception. If you’re not building space rockets, then the tolerances attained in production terms may be much higher. Set the appropriate tone and expectation early on.

So now you’ve confirmed your dream is more than chocolate fancy, set about testing your assumptions, and proving to people that this endeavor is worth investing in.


Now depending on your circumstances, justification will come in different forms. But essentially, you want to prove that this venture will satisfy customer success criteria, has a chance of success, will deliver value, and is affordable.

  • State your assumptions based on your customer need, then validate them. The Lean Startup gives great guidance on identifying and proving that your product is needed by your customers and will create value.
  • Write, test, and validate your business plan. Now, this looks nothing like the ones your bank or Business and Finance major told you to produce. Don’t use them, they will be out of date before the ink is dry. Instead, check out the Business Model Canvas. This is essentially a short form business plan that keeps your focus on your value proposition, your customers, revenue, and costs. Use it to validate if you have a business that will work.

    “I ignored this advice once and spent a long time writing a lengthy traditional 50 page business plan. It got me nowhere. All the assumptions I had made were unfounded, and all the projections I made couldn’t be validated. It was a painful and expensive experience that taught me to never do it again.”

  • If you’re in a mature business with portfolios of projects being delivered in a complex environment, then financial modeling may be necessary. If you must, do this only after you’ve proven the above.
  • Once you’ve built your MVP, there may be a case for creating a more traditional business plan. For example, if you have to go for funding or selection within your company’s portfolio of competing projects and resources. But this will be a business plan based on and informed by the tools used above. It will be lighter too.
  • In any case, use these tools as living, breathing artifacts. Use them as your guide and bellwether. They are never static. Refer to them and revise them as your project or business evolves.

Once you have your justification and all your stakeholders are onboard, you’ll be on fire.

The Feasibility phase is typically performed once in the life of your project. You may find you revisit the vision and feasibility of the project, especially if your data, customers, market or business indicate so. At the very least, they will be your guiding lights throughout.


Awesome. The decision has been made, the project has the green light and you’re ready to build. Well, nearly. I know you’re thinking, “C’mon already, really? If we don’t do this now we never will. Let’s get this show on the road!”. But consider this - Agile is nothing if not about delivering value early and often whilst delighting your customers along the way. Taking some time to figure out the best way to deliver your project is the best-laid foundation for success.

The Team

In sport, by thinking about your favorite team game you’ll be able to recognize key roles that enable the team to perform as they do. Traditionally you’ll find a manager, a captain, and the rest of the squad. Outside of that, you’ll find coaches, physios, nutritionists, and an assortment of supporting staff. But if we look at the game of rugby, there’s a team within a team. The players that make up the scrum. This pack is made up of designated players whose job it is to win the ball back and continue play. When a scrum is in play, the players from each side then work, with no leader, as a single unit as collaboratively, communicatively, and efficiently as possible to get the ball back in possession. It is the game of rugby that inspired Jeff Sutherland to name his software development methodology, Scrum.

  • Scrum is not the only software development method in the Agile playbook. But it is the one that best describes the Agile concept and behaviors of working as a team, motivating individuals, creating trusting relationships, self-organization, servant-leadership, communication, transparency, and collaboration.
  • Your team will be formed largely by the circumstances you find yourself in. You may have developers available to you, some, none, or all of them may be familiar with Agile to varying degrees. You may want to hire a new team or partner with a 3rd party.
  • Other roles will be required too, but we’ll discuss those later.
  • It has been said that if you form your development team, then you’ve chosen your technology. As depending on where you bring your team together from, they’ll come with certain skill sets. So, think carefully how you form your development team and whether you need to perform a technical evaluation before you get to this point in your journey.
  • This brings us to cross-functional teams. Teams work best when they work together when individuals pitch in to get the job done regardless of their “title”. Try to build a team that is self-sufficient and individuals that take on more than one role.
  • Build an environment, culture, and relationship center. A place where the team can deliver, unencumbered by constraints or restrictions. Give the team the tools, people, resources, and space to be effective and performant.
  • Keep team sizes to no more than 7 or 8. If you have a need for many more developers, break the teams down. Each team might then be responsible for a given functional area. If you have multiple teams in multiple locations, consider holding a Scrum of Scrums. And where these are numerous in complex environments, use Agile project management.
  • Ensure that the team, business, stakeholders, and even customers have access to each other. Ensure they communicate and collaborate, and remove anything that gets in the way of progress. Daily communication is the best cure for project ailments. When people speak, they get stuff done.

Project Brief

In Feasibility, you figured out the “why” of your project and either built your confidence to forge ahead with your startup or got backing to proceed. The project brief is the living document that brings together the “why” with the “what” and “when” and “who”. It’s living, because as you progress from hence forward your knowledge, understanding, and path may change. To leave this document once written and never to return to it, just consign your thoughts to a point in time. In an Agile world, your point in time reference may change weekly or even daily early on, so it’s important to keep this fresh.

  • A great tool for encapsulating and maintaining your project brief is something that Jonathan Rasmusson calls the “Inception Deck” in his book “The Agile Samurai”. Here you’ll find great advice on ensuring that everybody that is interested in, affected by, or involved with your project is on the same page.
  • The greatest enemy to delivering projects is in having an unclear, inconsistent, or just plain different understanding of what the project is and what “requirements” are to be satisfied. If even one important stakeholder has a different understanding or view of what you’re doing, the consequences can be substantial.
  • A good project brief communicates:

    1. A common and agreed expectation between stakeholders and team members.
    2. An understanding of the project, with the same understanding across all parties.
    3. The goal, vision, objective, scope, and project context.
  • You’ll have a lot of good information for the brief gathered from Feasibility. The project brief will help you define and find the answers to searching questions. It will bring together stakeholders, your raison d’etre, high-level scope, risks, target solution, budget, timeline, expectations, and your priorities.

“A colleague stopped me in a corridor once and asked me where he could get the project brief for the project. I quipped ‘We don’t need a brief, we’re Agile’. He looked confused, as if he was questioning my sanity or authority. He was right to do so.”

Before you proceed, ensure you’ve got everybody on the same page, workshop it, ask the difficult questions, and nail it somewhere where people can stop, read it, comment on it, and help revise it.

Culture and Ways of Working

You know the way your business works and its culture, the way it likes to get stuff done. Agile, by its very nature, may challenge some of these ways of working that your business has cultivated over the years. Don’t expect Agile to be implemented and for everybody to lovingly adopt it from the outset. Some people may find it confusing and view it only with dread and fear. Some people may openly refuse to engage in it. These are challenges and perceptions you must overcome. But in your early days, don’t go around waving the Agile stick beating anyone that won’t listen to it. That won’t build trust, adoption, or engagement.

“I was a fan of waving big proverbial sticks once, and it earned me a lot of negative press. I turned it around, but not before suffering considerable pain first.”

As you set out on your path of adoption, tread carefully, respectfully, and with empathy. If you’re in a creaking old traditional business, perhaps it won’t be the best approach to get the whole business aligned. Start small and incrementally earn respect and recognition. Start with your team only. Once you start delivering quicker software with better quality than ever before, people will start to notice and will want to come play your game. When they do, offer them the ball, take them out for a coffee, and ease them into your new world. Help them.

With your team, now that they know what the project is about and your plans for Agile adoption agreed, let the team decide how they wish to behave and operate as a team.

  • Guide your team to identify the Agile concepts, techniques, behaviors, and frameworks that you feel fits your collective needs.
  • Take requests from your team members as to what requirements they have to help them perform as best they can. Some of these requests you’ll be able to resolve immediately. Others, you may need to get budget or outside help. Do what you can to make it happen.
  • These are your first steps to becoming a true servant-leader.
  • Consider organizing some appropriate training in the concepts and techniques your team are choosing to adopt. This is the best way to ensure all of your team, even stakeholders, are on the same page and get the same message. Work with a supplier organization that can tailor their offering to your needs.
  • Be prudent. Nobody will be an Agile ninja after a few days in a workshop learning how to become Agile. Your path will be long. The word “become” is quite defining. Only when you truly embrace Agile will you see its value. It should excite you. If it excites you, then go excite others too.
  • Now that your team has agreed with the concepts and techniques, had their wishes fulfilled and in Agile training, turn your team’s attention to themselves and what they expect from you, the business, and each other.
  • Define some Ways of Working (WoW) within and by the team helps build trust, relationship, and expectations. The WoW is no War and Peace. It should be short and to the point, between 7 and 10 bullet pointed sentences. These sentences state clearly how people behave, communicate, collaborate, support, deliver, and perform together. It should also state what the team to expect from the business.

Agile is as much a mindset as it is guiding principles and concepts. It helps you develop in the way you behave, think, negotiate, interact, communicate, perform, and improve. It relies on motivated individuals supporting each other to reach a common aim, together as one. There is an African proverb:

  "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

Enjoy the journey.