Category Archives: Organizations

Staying Sane: Lead, Don’t Manage

(5e of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Trying to stay sane as a manager? This is the final step in doing that. Warning: there is some profanity in this article.

The Shit

I’ve worked with some pretty smart people(1), and when thinking about this article one of them consistently came to mind.

This person, whom I’ll call Todd(2), was an extremely smart engineer. Not only that, Todd had a lot of personal integrity, had strong opinions he could persuasively argue about, could persevere through a lot, and could be, when times demanded it, quite charming. Todd had all the right talents for getting shit done, and so should have risen up high in the organization.

But he didn’t – instead the organization shat all over him!

He had risen to a mid-management level, but he wasn’t able to rise higher. And, he wanted to. He made clear to me many times how he desired to be seen as a leader by his peers, be given a title that reflected his leadership, and be afforded the respect that his clear talents warranted.

Yet constantly, the organization blocked him; his management would not give him the title and leadership position he knew he deserved. What’s worse, his prestige seemed to be waning. When hard problems came up, senior management turned more often to one of Todd’s co-workers, a guy named Bill(3). Bill’s opinion was solicited by others when making strategic decision, whereas Todd found he had to force himself into strategic conversations. Bill was approached for fun new projects first, whereas Todd had to explicitly ask to be involved. (Now, Todd had been at the company for a long time and so, given his seniority, was able to force his involvement, but he knew he was doing the forcing.)

Eventually Todd had enough of this shit and decided to leave that company to try his talents elsewhere.

Why Lead?

Which brings me to the topics I have for this final essay: why you should aspire to lead; and how to become a leader.

Todd wanted to be a leader, and it was easy to understand why. If an organization sees you as a leader, your ability to get shit done increases exponentially.


If you’re just managing people, you’re trying to convince them to do things they probably don’t want to do. But, if you’re leading people, they do what you need them to do because they want to do it.

The difference is night and day. When you’re leading, people go above and beyond what you ask them to do because they want to impress you and they don’t want to disappoint you. You spend less time having to track how others spend time, and you start getting almost double out of your team.

I’ve managed teams where I was just seen as a manager, and it was hard work and not fun. I felt I had to constantly watch over people’s shoulders to make sure things were on track. I had an upset stomach almost the entire time.

But I’ve also managed teams where people saw me as a leader, and wow, did we get a lot more shit done together then. And it was more fun to boot – I looked forward to coming to work, and felt a lot healthier as a result.

If you’re the type of person who likes to get shit done, who wouldn’t want to be a leader?

So given that, how do you become a leader?

How to Lead

That’s easy; it’s the simplest rule of all the Rules of Naked Management:

Stop aspiring to be a leader! Instead, start getting shit done.

Todd constantly talked about what a great leader he’d make. He made his case to lots of people by letting them know all the great stuff he would get done. And had he actually done the stuff he was talking about, the entire engineering organization would have followed him to the moon. But people didn’t follow him because frankly people don’t like to follow people just because they’re told to by titles, or positions, or reputations(4). Instead they aligned around Bill because Bill didn’t worry about being perceived as a leader; Bill worried about getting shit done, constantly got new shit done, and kept challenging himself to get even more shit done. And as a result people followed him.

Think about all the leaders you’ve followed in your career, and you’ll probably notice the common theme: none of them worry most about being seen as a leader; they worry about getting lots of different shit done. (Oh yes, sometimes they have to be seen as a leader to get some goals accomplished, but it’s the goals that are obviously motivating them, not the leadership position.)

And then ask yourself why you considered that person a leader?

  • Was it because they asked you to follow them and you agreed because you were asked? Nope
  • Was it because they demanded you respect them? Absolutely not.
  • Was it because he or she was a nice guy? Probably not.
  • Was it because other people saw them as a leader? Probably not.
  • Was it because you felt this person could get the right shit done consistently? Absolutely.

So, right now if you think you want to be seen as a leader, SHUT THE FUCK UP!

Instead, focus on getting shit done! And be warned, once you start getting shit done, you’ll find that people will start asking for you to help, will start asking you to weigh on important issues, and will start following you.

Constantly get more and different shit done, and one day without even realizing it, someone will point out you’re a leader.

Getting Shit Done

And Getting the Right Shit Done is what this series of articles has been about. And, almost four months after I started what I thought was going to be a 4-week set of articles, this series is now done. Hopefully some of the techniques work for you.

I’d write more, but I’ve got a bunch of shit I need to be doing for Vlideshow right now, so I’m going back to that. By the way, if you happen to be a Flex & ActionScript or Flash & Actionscript genius and want to work at a cool company, drop me a line at aclarke at

By the way, next week I start a new series of articles. I don’t know what they’re about yet, so feel free to send me suggestions 🙂

– Art

(1) I like to be the person on any team who brings down the “smartness” average.

(2) Not his real name.

(3) Also not his real name.

(4) In a funny twist, all the members of the senior management team told me separately that they would love to give Todd the title he wanted, but first they wanted to see him do the job without the title for six months.

Staying Sane: Kill Some Puppies

(5d of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Trying to stay sane as a manager? This is the third step in doing that.

Back on the Farm

I grew up on a farm in Ireland where at one time or another we raised cows, chickens, rabbits, turkeys, peacocks, goats and pigs. Every one of those was a cash crop, and while it cost us money to feed them, my father knew that ultimately we’d sell them at market for a profit so it was worth the short term cost.

But we also had dogs, and while arguably the dogs could assist in hunting, the truth is we kept them purely for companionship.

When I was about 8 my father got a puppy(1) for each of his four children. But no one in our backwoods part of Ireland could afford to pay a vet to neuter dogs. As a result, by the time I was eleven, we had 22 dogs on the farm(2). You couldn’t move in the farmyard without stepping on one of them.

To someone not familiar with living on a farm, this might even seem cute. But on a farm that every year struggled to make a profit (and therefore feed our family), these dogs presented a real problem: every day they drank an entire barrel of milk, and given our farm only produced 30 barrels a day, they were consuming over 3% of our dairy output. In good years, my father would only eke a small profit from his farm, so literally these dogs were threatening to eat us out of house and home.

Something had to be done. The question was what? We couldn’t give away the dogs; there were already too many dogs on farms in Ireland. In reality there were only three options:

Feed all the puppies

Certainly the best short term option for the dogs, but bad in the long term for them. If the farm went out of business, then all the dogs would starve and die. Not good.

Starve all the puppies

This would potentially keep the farm profitable and therefore in a position to starve the dogs for a long time, but would ultimately lead to sickly dogs spreading disease everywhere. Not good.

Kill some puppies

A horrible thought, but for the surviving dogs, it meant sufficient food, and for the farm it meant survival as well.

Ultimately there was no choice, and so my father, against the cries of all his sons, made the only rational choice.

He killed some puppies(3).

Managing a Puppy Farm

So, what does this have to do with staying sane as a manager? Last week I talked about how to do less more, but pointed out it would require you to not do some things that are on your list of responsibilities.

But in a management context, it’s hard to say no.

A former VP at Tellme explained it like this to me: every day you come to work and you have 10 different things you have to do but can only get 8 done. It’s like you have 10 puppies, all looking up at you with their big eyes, and begging to be fed. And the reality is you only have enough food for 8. What do you do?

In order to stay sane you need to do the same responsible thing my father did; you need to kill some puppies. Why is that?

Well, let’s look at the same three options again:

Feed all the puppies

You could increase the amount of time you work so that you can spend time with all your tasks. This will work in the short term, but you’ll exhaust yourself very quickly and this can lead to burnout, which ends up hurting all the things you work on. Not a good option.

Starve all the puppies

You could spend a little time on each task, but not as much as necessary to do a good job. But, you’ll find pretty quickly that that will results in things getting half done or worse, and you’ll feel pressured to spend more time fixing problems that came about because you didn’t do it right the first time. Not a good option.

Kill some puppies

This means you decide not to do some things, and you tell people in advance. In the short term they are disappointed, but they adapt quickly, and soon you find you can spend more time on the things that matter. In other words, short-term pain but long-term effectiveness.

The only rational choice is to either feed a puppy, or kill the puppy, but never starve the puppy. In other words, either fully work on a task or problem, or don’t work on it. But don’t ever try to half-do it. Again, this idea isn’t unique to me (IBM’s management team used the expression “feed a monkey or shoot a monkey, but never starve a monkey”).

Assuming I’ve convinced you that you need to NOT DO some tasks, then the question becomes how do you not do something when you have lots of puppy owners yelling at you to feed their puppies. Here’s the ways that have worked for me.

Know Your Puppy Owners

The first trick here is to know your puppy owners. Make sure you’ve build strong relationships with any decision makers who are going to depend on you, outside the context of just your job responsibilities. If you’re given a big project that they depend on, take them to lunch first and get to know them as individuals before you have to tell them no. Find out about their families, and their lives. Share information about yourself. Get to know them as a person, and help them understand that you are a human being too – not just a resource in another team.

You can’t always tell when you get a project that you’ll need to reprioritize it later, so always invest in getting to know the people upfront. Ultimately if you need to reschedule or renegotiate a deliverable, it’s much easier if you actually like your counterpart and he or she likes you.

As a side note, don’t try to build a relationship in anticipation of saying no. In other words, if you already know you’re going to tell that person no, but don’t have a relationship yet, it’s too late to try building one. Instead, you need to recruit other supporters who have relationships with that decision-maker, and you have to fall back on the other options here.

Find Three Ways to Kill a Puppy

Sometimes you can tell people no directly, but in business that’s often not an option. So instead, fall back on this rule. Never say “no” directly; instead present your decision maker with at least three solutions they can choose from to move forward. This rule was explained to me as follows:

One is an ultimatum; two is a dilemma; three are options!

When you have to renege on a commitment, don’t just tell the person who you have to disappoint “no”. That raises their defenses and gets into a pissing match. Instead before you say no, think from their perspective (which is why you should know your puppy owner first) and try to figure out at least three different options you could offer them. Sure, they won’t be as good as had you gotten what they wanted done, but if you’re disappointing a higher-up decision maker, but you present them with three options to move forward, your discussion will center around your options (so you’re controlling the fall out) and the higher-up will usually appreciate the effort you made to think of solutions(5).

Good executives know that the unexpected happens and that some things don’t get done the way they were planned, but reward their managers to think through solutions to get around the unexpected.

Never Kill a Puppy by Surprise

Peter Drucker said:

Never give your manager a bad surprise. And there is no such thing as a good surprise.

This dictum is a great thing to remember when dealing with your own manager, but it especially applies to saying no. Never inform someone that a deliverable or project was missed after the fact. If you do, you will lose their trust very quickly (you didn’t even give them an ultimatum). This means keep good track of who you owe what to (I use the task list I talked about last week) and every day, figure out who you’re going to disappoint.

People don’t like to get bad news, but they really appreciate it when given the news with enough time that they can react to it.

Kill Puppies in Public

This last rule is extremely important. Assuming you’ve informed all affected decision makers, given them their options, and guided them to agree to a solution, you must make sure to publically let folks know the puppy is dead.

Why is this? During renegotiations to “kill a puppy” your stakeholders will usually agree to an option; that’s because they are in crisis mode. Hard decisions get made when folks are in crisis mode.

But once they feel the crisis has passed, there is a very human tendency to fall back on the way things were. That might include their assuming “oh, Art couldn’t do it this one time, but he’ll get it done the next time.” As a result you may find your puppy coming back to life over and over again.

To minimize the chance of this happening, document the decision and communicate widely that the puppy is dead. If a project just got killed, e-mail out the decision in a short e-mail to all the project teams and stakeholders. If you’ve just agreed to divest some responsibilities and some other team agreed to take them, announce it at the largest meeting you can find, and take questions with your other stakeholders there. Once you’ve publically declared something dead, and your stakeholders have not objected in public (and how can they since they just agreed to the same thing in private) it becomes much more difficult for them to back out of their agreement.

Of all the rules for killing puppies, this one is most often ignored, and yet it’s probably most important. Like the rest of the principles of transparency that apply to Naked Management, transparency in killing puppies makes you even more effective.


But here’s the truth. If you do the things I suggest to stay sanelove thyself; do less more; and kill some puppies – your life will become more livable and you will become a better manager. But you won’t become a great manager. That’s because there is one last thing you need to do, and that’s “lead, don’t manage.” Which is the last (finally) rant in this series of rants, and I’ll talk about it next week.

– Art

(1) This story is actually mostly true, with one slight detail switch. In reality, we had 22 cats, not dogs. But I’m changed the story to puppies, because when I learned this analogy for the management principle from a former VP at Tellme (now working here) her expression was “killing puppies.” By the way, I’m confident she didn’t mean this definition of “killing puppies.”

(2) It appears that Irish dogs (well, cats) are Catholic.

(3) As I mentioned above, the actual events happened with cats, not dogs. And technically my dad didn’t kill them; instead he gave them all away to a factory that produced pig food. Now, before you get too appalled let me explain. He thought he’d have to kill a couple of them because no one usually would adopt 18+ cats, but when discussing it over beers with a friend who owned the pig factory his friend suggested a solution: The pig farm had a big problem with rats eating all their pig food and my dad’s friend realized that feeding the cats milk, if they took care of the rats, would cost him less than the lost food. In this case, a good solution was found at the last moment, but the fact is my dad had to get rid of the cats. As a manager, you also need to get rid of the puppies or kittens you can’t feed. (4)

(4) OK, funny (and still true) story here. Two years later the pig factory owner convinced another farmer to give him about 5 extra dogs he had. Why? Well, it turns out our cats had figured out that there was an easier way to get fed than catch rats all day; the cats just started eating the pig food. Instead of killing the cats, the farmer decided to get dogs to chase them away. I don’t know what happened after that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the dogs started eating the food and the factory-owner got a horse to chase the dogs away. In a way, the pig farmer was just like the old lady who swallowed a fly.

(5) By the way, be open to fourth and fifth options that become apparent as you discuss things with the decision maker. By already bringing 3 to the table, the decision maker will often use their powers to come up with options that are even better for both of you.

Staying Sane: Do Less More

(5c of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Trying to stay sane as a manager? This is the second step in doing that.

Why Do I Write This Blog?

It’s Friday at 6:30pm now, and as I write this I’m asking myself why. It takes time for me to this, time that would be spent on Vlideshow, time that could be spent at the gym, or time that could be spent having fun. It’d be so much easier to just punt this, and “do it next week”.

Heck, would it really matter if I didn’t write this at all? I mean it’s important to me in the long term as part of my philosophy of running naked(1), but it’s not really urgent. I think I’ll skip it this week.

The Trap

The reality is I have more things to do each day than I can possibly do in the time allotted, and several of those are urgent things. Today for example I had a meeting I agreed to take with another entrepreneur, I had a meeting scheduled with a recruit, I had some Flash coding (yes… I’m writing code these days) for my upcoming Vlideshow user test, a call with a business mentor, a meeting for a board I’m on, and a bunch of other things. And I had to write this blog entry. I was totally overcommitted today, and I knew it as soon as I got up.

I’ve mentioned it’s a trap; and it applies to the Entrepreneur as much as it does the manager. As you progress as a manager and get more successful, you’ll be asked to do more and harder things, but because they are harder things you’ll actually be able to effectively do less and less. The traditional answer is to delegate (less of an option for me these days), and while that’s necessary, it’s not sufficient. You’ll find that even after you’ve delegated all the things you can away, you still have more to do than is possible. You need to do more than just that.

The Answer

The answer is simple: don’t try to do everything. Do less. And the trick to that consists of two parts:

  1. Learn the difference between important and urgent tasks and concentrate on the important.
  2. Recognize you’re not going to get everything done, and choose the right things to not do.

Let’s talk about the first one of those parts.

Urgently Important

Urgent tasks demand attention. Urgent tasks are the person from finance yelling for your quarterly sales projections; Urgent tasks are your boss demanding you to fix a programming bug that is crashing your company’s website; Urgent tasks are the instant-message window that just popped up from a friend asking where you want to go for dinner tonight. Urgent tasks are the e-mail from a development manager asking you to read a 12-page product presentation they have and give them feedback in 2-hours before their meeting with the CEO. They are the things that if you don’t respond in the moment, someone gets upset.

Important tasks are the things that if you don’t do will eventually result in you failing in your goal.

But, it’s worth noting that not all tasks are urgent, and not all tasks are important. Some tasks are urgent but not important (e.g. responding about dinner). Others are important but not urgent (e.g. for me, writing this blog entry). Broadly you can categorize any tasks you have based on how important and how urgent they are and figure out which of the following categorizes it belongs in:

The trick do “Doing Less More” is simple. Each day:

  • Do all the tasks in box 1 that must be done;
  • Do at least one task in box 2;
  • Try to avoid tasks in box 3, but recognize you’ll have to do some of them;
  • Don’t do any tasks in box 4 until they “graduate” to box 3.

Doing Less More

As usual with me, this isn’t something that I invented. Lots of folks have recognized the difference between “important” and “urgent” (sometimes called “tactical” and “strategic”). For example, see Getting Things Done. But here’s how I do it.

  • I maintain a list of “strategic” things I need to do (with corresponding due days), and a list of “tactical bullshit” I need to do (with corresponding due days).
  • Every night, I create my to-do list for the next day. I used to do it on paper (in a black book I would carry) but these days I just do it in Microsoft Word. I always leave the top entry on my to-do list empty to start.
  • I fill in the remaining entries with first any urgent and strategic things that must be done (box 1 above).
  • I then start listing any items from box 3 that must be done tomorrow.
  • And then, I look at box 2. I take one item from box 2, and I fill in the blank top entry on my to-do list. That becomes my top priority for the next day.
  • In the unlikely event that my to-do list has less than 5-7 entries, then I add other things from box 2 to the bottom of the list.
  • If my entry has more than 7 entries, I look at every entry below 7 and find some way to punt it (e.g. delegate, or just don’t do it). Seriously – I kill those puppies. I don’t do it. It sometimes means I piss people off, but that’s the nature of killing puppies.
  • Then, the next day at work, I start working off my list and I DON’T STOP WORK UNTIL THE TOP TASK ON THE LIST IS DONE.

There are two odd things about how I do this (different that things like GTD recommend):

  1. I prioritize one non-urgent but important task (box-2) above all the other urgent-and-important tasks (box-1). Why? In the short term (when I started doing this) it meant I had to work hard to get through all my box-1 tasks and get the box-2 tasks done, but after a while the investment I made in “farming” box 2 started paying off, and my box-1 tasks decreased (because I wasn’t procrastinating as much).
  2. I choose 5-7 tasks because as a manager I found most tasks took me about 10 to 30 minutes, so doing 5-7 filled up about 50% of my day, leaving time for other interrupts. If a task takes longer than 30 minutes, then I schedule fewer things for that day. You need to recognize as a manager that at best 50% of your time will be under your control.

It sounds like a lot, but with practice you can get very fast at it. At this stage, it takes me 60 seconds to do this exercise every night. Most folks I know who have similar systems also spend no more than 1-2 minutes each day maintaining it. And during the day, as things get out of plan, I just start jettisoning things lower on the list. For example today, I punted on my flash code so I can write this blog (which since it’s not on my software critical path right now, is the right decision to make).

What Happens When You Do Less

A strange thing happens when you do less. I’ve found that once I started doing this, I pissed off some people in the short-term, but usually (sorry) they were people who cared about non-important tasks, and there was little long term damage to me. But I also found I developed a reputation for getting “important things” done, and people started giving me more important things to do.

Why is that? Well, come review time it becomes obvious: people care that you got the important things done, not that you reacted quickly to some urgent tasks 4 months ago.

What Happens When You Don’t Do Something

Still, just deciding to “not do something” may seem hard. And it is. But fortunately, there are ways to make that easier too, and that’s what killing puppies is all about. Which I’ll continue next week.

– Art

(1) In the short term it absolutely wouldn’t matter. I know that. But in the long term, if punting became the pattern, I’d lose sight of my goal of Running Naked. I pledged to write long pieces about once every week exploring different topics that are important to me, and if I can keep a track record of doing it, I believe the discipline will help me think through a lot of my approaches to life, and ultimately help make me a better person.


Staying Sane: Love Thyself

(5b of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Trying to stay sane as a manager? This is the first step in doing that.

My Wife Is Flawed

I love my wife deeply; those of you who know me closely know how true that is. We started dating almost fourteen years ago, got married six and a half years ago, and I am more in love with her today than I have ever been.

But allow me to bitch for a moment: my wife isn’t perfect! Were she a diamond in a jeweler’s hand, he’d spot all sorts of inconsistencies, imperfections, and flaws(1).

I know: woe is me!

Aw Shucks…

Yet, I love those inconsistencies, and I love those imperfections. I accept and would not want to change any of those flaws, even though I’ll admit I don’t understand some of them. To me that’s the nature of love: truly accept what you cannot change.

My wife may not be perfect, but I still wouldn’t change a thing: she’s perfect for me.

Filling The Gaps

OK, hopefully you’ve finished throwing up now. Although I do mean what I wrote above, this article is still about Naked Management so let’s get back to the topic.

Let’s talk about personal growth and how most of us approach it.

Early in my career I took a look at myself, set a vision, and asked what I needed to achieve to get there. I then identified gaps to fill, imperfections in myself, and started filling them in.

  • I felt I needed sales experience? Check, I joined a sales team.
  • I felt I didn’t know how to effectively influence executives? Check, I designed a modification of my boss’s organization in my head and then influenced a reorganization.

This was the path I followed for several years until 2004: find the next flaw, the next weakness, and fix it.

Falling Into The Gap

At first I got huge returns on my investments, but gradually “filling the gaps” became harder. For example, in 2002 I got it into my head that I needed to learn more about design and pick up some skills in that area (I picked voice design because that was what was done at my employer). I started (as a sales-engineer) suggesting designs for automated phone system interactions.

Today I’ll happily admit any of my attempts (which took hours of work on my part) were easily bettered by 5-minutes of effort on the part of one of Tellme’s talented designers. Worse, my meddling efforts pissed off several designers, so not only did I fail to pick up this skill, but I did myself measurable political damage.

Talentless Hack

In retrospect the reason I never got good at design is because inherently it’s not a skill; it’s a talent. Some things are inherent talents; you either have it or you don’t. You can improve upon the talent by learning new skills(2) and someday you can become great! But if you don’t have a talent for something, you can work hard, learn all the skills you can, and at best (with a lot of work) you’ll be merely good. Only with an innate talent will you achieve greatness.

And when it comes to interface design, I have anti-talent.

Now the difference between talents and skills is well recognized, and the advice given by many people on it is quite good. I’ll summarize. To become great in your career:

  1. Invest heavily in skills that hone your core-talents; under-invest in skills that attempt to hone talents you don’t have.
  2. Avoid positions and circumstances that require talents you don’t possess; instead try to change the circumstances to rely on talents you possess.

Official management doctrine does not suggest you ignore areas you don’t have talent in; only that you invest up to the point where it is no longer a show-stopper for your career, but no further. Better yet is to avoid (or delegate away) the responsibilities that require a given talent.

But there is one thing extra you must do that I didn’t realize until 2004, and it relates back to the fact that I love my wife.


I believe I have a talent (which is not say I’m great at it, only that I have an innate passion and ability for it) that separates me from most people: I love and thrive in times of change and chaos. My adrenaline fires up when things are going wrong and I work hard to bring about change to fix a problem. But this talent(3) comes with two flaws, one of which I always realized, and one of which took me until 2004 to realize.

The first anti-talent, the one I’ve known for years, is that when things are not in chaos or the chaos is something I’ve seen and know how to solve, I get very unhappy. Once a problem is fixed, I get bored. Once the chaos is in order, I’d rather gag myself with a spoon all day than go to work. I’ve learned to work around this by hiring people who love and excel managing during good times, and then getting out of their way.

But I only realized the second flaw in 2004. I (like most people) have a large ego. OK, I have a super large ego. Sue me. And I believe given a little time and some resources, I can solve any new problem. I still believe that today.

But the flaw was I believed I could change anything about myself: I inherently believed every flaw I have was fixable. Every imperfection was smoothable. And as I continued on my path of career growth, and my ability to change some things about myself started to wane, I grew more and more frustrated and threw myself more and more into trying to fix the unfixable. It ate me up alive.

While my burn-out occurred on a spectacularly fucked-up and mismanaged project, the reality is I was headed in that direction anyway by following the personal growth path of fix all flaws.

In short, I did not love myself.

Sanity and Love

And that’s the first trick to staying sane: Accept and love yourself.

I started out this essay by pointing out that I love my wife. That means I love both her good attributes and her imperfections. And I accept those imperfections and don’t try to change them (well, except for her penchant to remind me I’m too wordy in my writing; she’s got to stop that!).

In 2004 I realized I needed to do the same for myself. I needed to accept that although there were things I didn’t like about myself, some of them were unchangeable and I had to accept them. I will never be a great designer. I will always get bored with day-to-day operational tasks.

And my fatal flaw? The one that ultimately felled me in 2004? I will always be compulsively obsessed and addicted to something. In 2004, it was my job. I had no sense of balance and was putting my job before everything else in my life: my wife, my family, and my health.

For me it took of a crisis to jar me to life, but I’ve come to accept this flaw in myself, and now I try to use it as a talent. I’ve been trying to apply my compulsiveness to building a balance of body, mind, spirit and soul, as opposed to just succeeding at a job. And since doing that, I’ve also learned how to be more effective at my jobs, and much more content at my place in the Universe.

For each of us the flaws are different, but the key step in keeping your sanity is the same:

  1. Know your talents
  2. Know your flaws
  3. And while you should always try to improve, accept that you are who you are.

If you can do that, the other steps in keeping your sanity are just details. Really.

– Art

(1) Now, I’m not the world’s smartest man but I’m also not the world’s stupidest man, so I’m not about to detail those flaws here. Suffice it to say she has flaws.

(2) As usual, I’m not the first person to realize the distinction between skills and talents. Here’s another framework recommended to me by my friends Naomi and Rich for understanding the difference, and a tool that helps some people discover their talents versus their skills.

(3) I believe all talents come at a cost, and everyone who is insanely talented in one key area is also fatally flawed in another. And nothing they can do will ever remove the fatal flaw; they just need to manage around it. It’s almost like we were given $100 to spend on talents when we were created, and some of us choose not to spend it evenly on all talents. I imagine Jimi Hendrix choosing to spend $99 of it on musical talent, leaving self-control underinvested in. But on the flip side, if we didn’t do that, how much more boring and ugly would this world be?

Growing Individuals: Crack the Whip

(4e of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

A Coach or a Friend?

I started taking swimming lessons a few weeks ago. I’d started training for my first triathlon and I didn’t know how to swim.

My coach, Gus, is also a friend and I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with him and his family. We’ve been to soccer games together (“Football” for the more worldly readers). I’ve babysat his kids. I’ve ridden hundreds of miles with him at my side. He’s a very good friend.

This morning I had a typical coaching experience with Gus. I had just finished a 50-yard dash in the pool, my breathing was heavy, and my legs were burning. I wanted nothing more than to rest and catch my breath. I looked up at my friend Gus and said “give me a second”.

But my friend wasn’t there. Instead my coach was, and he just said, “No. Do it again.” And I was off. Dear God, sometimes I hate my coach.

Now here’s the interesting thing: I am a much stronger swimmer today than I was four weeks ago.

Of Carrots… and Sticks

The last two parts of this essay talked about what you need to do to get an employee growing their career:

That’s good, and in reality most of the work that must be done is borne by the employee. So far, as a manager, you haven’t had to sweat, and as I’ve always said, laziness is good.

But all that was carrot. For many people carrots aren’t enough – it’s always easy to “start tomorrow” or “wait until next week”. Sometimes you need a stick to get folks moving.


Earlier I cautioned managers to get over themselves and realize there isn’t that much they can do to force someone to grow their career.

Now I’ll modify that slightly: assuming you’ve done the stuff mentioned above, there is one thing you can do: you can be the source of honest feedback on whether progress is being made, and you can reward and punish if progress is made or not made.

To do that, you need to remember you’re not a friend, you’re a coach. And sometimes Coaches need to ‘crack the whip’, or ‘be harsh’ or ‘be demanding’ in order to get the most of their charges(1).

That’s what Gus was doing this morning, and that’s what you need to do too.

The Whip

Now I’m not recommending you keep a whip by your desk (although I’ve known someone who did that). Instead, be serious about managing your employee to complete their small steps, rewarding them when they do, and punishing them when they don’t. Small steps are measurable and are black-and-white: Your employee either scheduled the mentoring lunch or they didn’t. They either signed up for the PMI course or they didn’t. Don’t worry about the larger goal – the employee will track that. Instead, just remember what small thing they said they would do, and hold them to it.

As usual, everyone has a different style with this, but here’s what I like to do. I track the one small step each employee told me they would complete, and when they would complete it by. And then every time I meet them, I ask them for status. EVERY DAMN TIME (Several folks who’ve worked for me will tell you how annoying I am about that(2)).

I make it their #1 goal on their goal list for the quarter. When they miss the step, I tell them I’m disappointed but make them set and tell me another one. And if they consistently miss their small step goals, then I start trying to move them into some other position (or “manage them out”). I reward in reviews those who made their steps; I don’t reward those who missed them – even if the rest of their work was stellar.

In reality, I’ve had a few employees miss their first and second steps, but never more than that. My experience is that your employees get really serious about following through on their career growth goals (or they leave) when you start tracking their small steps closely.


Sometimes you’ll have an employee tell you they think their next small step is to “have my manager talk to Bob in Operations about a transfer to his department.” Yikes! This goes against my principle of laziness: your employee is trying to get you to do something, and if you don’t do it they can claim that you caused them to miss a goal, and if you do it, you could lose them! They’re trying to get you to crack the whip on yourself.

OK, don’t panic!

First, do you think that’s the right next step for them to take? If it isn’t, you’re their manager, and can tell them to pick another step. If this person isn’t a star on your team, you have a duty not to pass him or her on to Bob (and they should NOT be surprised to find this out). You should make your employee aware of where the gaps are and encourage him or her to start fixing them.

But what if you person is a star… well, that’s fine too, because if you’ve been tracking closely, you’re now about to fire your stars…

(which I’ll discuss next week, unless I’m too stuffed from Holiday feasting).

– Art

(1) I do believe coaching is about 50% teaching, 40% motivating and only 10% cracking the whip, but all the earlier stuff I’ve talked about covers the first 90%.

(2) No comment on other things I’m annoying about.

Growing Individuals: Remember Michael Jordan

(4d of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)


In the mid-Nineties, the Chicago Bulls’ star player, Michael Jordan, decided to retire even though he had plenty of playable years left in him. Even more surprising, he decided he’d go play professional baseball.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Jordan didn’t achieve the same level of success between the bases as he did between the baselines. Within two years, he admitted that baseball was not for him.

But when he attempted to return to basketball, no one would have him. Team after team passed on him. They wouldn’t even consider him for a coaching position. Eventually Michael ended up having to take a low paying job in retail to support his family.

At best, Michael Jordan is but a sad footnote in the history of basketball, and a sad but common parable of the human race: a man following a dream, only to have his life destroyed in the end.

Bare with me… I’ll get back to that (obviously false) story in a bit.

Why Assume It’s True?

A few weeks ago (I’m behind…) I wrote about the importance of encouraging your employees to dream. Without a dream to move towards, they won’t push themselves. Once they have a dream, it’s usually fairly easy for them to envision a few small steps they can take that will move them closer (for example: go ask a potential mentor to lunch).

And yet, often there is a hesitation to take even the small step; a worry that if they fail in achieving their dream, their professional lives will be over. Often this hesitation is strongest in your stars as they think they have the most to lose. And as a result, too often, your employee never takes the first step.

That’s where the concept of “Looking at the Negative” comes in.

The Power of Negative Thinking

Let’s revisit the process again for getting something done:

  1. Daydream: Form a vision of what you want do.
  2. Be Lazy: Come up with one small step that moves you closer.
  3. Look at the Negative: Look at the opportunity cost of that step, and if it’s too large, go back to step 2.


We’ve covered the dreaming and being lazy in the last article, but “Looking at the Negative” is the key to dealing with hesitation. As a manager, your job is to force your hesitating employee to look at the negative. Yes, I mean force: Make them uncomfortable; Make them list all the things that could go wrong and the consequences; Make them squirm as they try to justify why such trivial things are stopping them.

Do this, and all sorts of obstacles will vanish under the scrutiny of examination. For example, your employee may worry if they ask a mentor to lunch that they’ll be rejected, but when they think about it out loud they’ll see the only real worry is schedule availability, not personal rejection. They may worry that they’ll be laughed at if they do an architecture talk in front of the entire Engineering division, but will quickly realize that the worst result is someone offering free help in presentation skills afterwards (really…).

In addition, if an employee verbalizes the negative before he takes his step, and decides to take the step anyway (for example, realizing that some assholes will laugh at you if you give a sucky presentation, but trying anyway), it makes it much easier to get through the bad when it happens.

In general you’ll be amazed how successful a technique it is to get your employees to verbalize their fears out loud.

But occasionally one “negative” or “opportunity” cost may not be easily dismissible: Your employee, particularly your stars, may worry that they’ll lose their job and destroy their careers if they fail in their next career endeavor.

That’s where Michael Jordan comes in.

The Consequences of Failure

Here’s the truth about career development: if you are a star today, but fail in something different tomorrow, you will always be welcomed back in your old role (although not always at the same company).

If you were an excellent engineer, and then fail in marketing, someone will always take you back as an engineer.

If you were an amazing designer, and then fail as an account manager, someone will always take you back as a designer.

And, as if you believed the bullshit I wrote at the top of this article, if you were a great basketball player, and then fail in Major League Baseball, basketball will welcome you back as you decimate all opponents again and win another three championships.

I’m not suggesting that people plan for failure – quite the opposite, you should expect and envision success.

But realize that if you don’t succeed, it’s not that big a deal. That’s what Michael Jordan teaches us. Even if (in the unlikely event) your employee fails in a new position, they can always fall back.

Oh, there will be some short term embarrassment (Jordan definitely got shit in the media), they may need to find a new company because their old job is filled, but once they go back to being a star again in their old role, naysayers shut up really really quickly.

As a manager, when you see someone hesitate because of fear of failure, coach them to think through what the real consequences are, and most will see the light: in career development, risks are rarely as dangerous as they appear.

Cracking the Whip

Now, if you’ve done the steps I’ve been writing about, and with a bit of luck, you’ve now gotten your employee to actually take one small step towards a brighter career future.

How do you (again remembering how little you matter in this process) get them to take the second step?

Simple… be a manager and crack the whip… which I’ll talk about next.

– Art

Growing Individuals: Be the Sandman

(4c of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Two weeks ago I talked about the first rule of growing people on your team: get over yourself! Assuming you’ve done that, the next step is to Be the Sandman…

Cathedrals of the Mind

So your employee holds the key to growing their own career. If so, why the hell do we need managers involved?

Well, let’s revisit the process involved in getting something done:

  1. Daydream: Form a vision of what you want do.
  2. Be Lazy: Come up with one small step that moves you closer.
  3. Look at the Negative: Look at the opportunity cost of that step, and if it’s too large, go back to step 2.


In career growth therefore, the first thing you need to do is form a vision, a dream if you would, of where you eventually want to get to. It can be grandiose (“I will be the CEO of a fortune 500 company”). It can be noble (“I will create and run a charity that serves the needs of the homeless in Seattle”). It can be very specific (“I will be the Director of Strategic Projects within 2 years”). It can even by very vague (“I want to build something that is larger than just myself”), but it’ll need to get more specific over time. The most important thing though is to have that dream and to believe you’re going to achieve it. Every great achievement of mankind started as a dream, and so everyone who wants to be great needs a dream:

“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Flight to Arras, 1942

If your employee doesn’t have a dream of where they want to get to, then all the training, all the mentoring, and all the experience in the world is for naught; it’s just passing time.

Enter the Sandman

Now, why are managers needed? Because left to their own devices most people will never follow the process above. Sure, they know they need to follow it. But they also know they need to rebalance their portfolios, get that annual physical, and have their teeth cleaned.

Most people are incredibly frightened by the concept of looking internally, finding a dream, and then communicating it to the world. So they procrastinate.

But as a manager you have one power that applies here; you can force someone to do something, and fire them if they fail to do it (harsh I know, but ultimately that’s the only hard-power managers have). And in growing careers, that’s what you need to do.

Your job is to force your employees to think hard and articulate where they want to take their careers; in other words, you must be the Sandman and force them to dream.

Becoming Morpheus

The concrete step here is simple: make sure every one of your employees has clearly articulated to you their dream for where they want their career to be in five to ten years. Write it down if that helps you, but the key is that the employee (not you) articulated it, and he or she can recall it at a moment without referring to some bullshit document (so don’t just follow the HR plan).

This will be easy with some employees – they will have firm dreams already ensconced in their minds that you just need to extract from them. For others though, you’re going to have to force them to do a lot of work. The good news is pretty much everyone has a dream; you just have to get it out of them.

People have lots of different ways of doing it, but here are some of the techniques that have worked for me.

  1. Listen, don’t direct. This goes back to “get over yourself”, but when you have conversations with your employees about where they want to grow their careers, make sure you spend most of the time listening. Don’t be afraid of silences – make them break the silence.
  2. Ask open-ended questions. Don’t ask “do you want to be a CEO?” But also don’t ask “what job do you want to have in ten years?”: I have no idea what my job will be ten years from now; how can I expect my employees to know? Instead ask “what are the qualities you want to have in your job ten years from now” (I do know the qualities I want in my job 10 years from now)? Or “what types of things do you want to do in your job ten years from now? (I know the answer to that too; I’ll bet you know your answers as well).”
  3. Encourage made-up titles. I’ve found this one to be very useful. Once I’ve asked a bunch of open ended questions about the qualities they want in a job, I ask the employee to make up a title for that job. Sometimes they pick “CEO” or “CTO”, but more often than not they pick something way more personal to them. I once had someone pick “Director of Special Projects”, and another person pick “Judge.” I’ve found that when someone picks a name for their set of job qualities, it makes it more real for them and more memorable!
  4. Ask them what are the differences between themselves today, and the person who holds the title they made up. This is useful to find the gaps and also to give some ideas of the types of steps they should take to get to their goal. For the person who told me “Judge”, he rightly pointed out he didn’t have a law degree (any guesses what his next step was)? For the person who told me “Director of Special Projects” he told me he hadn’t really worked on a special project to date, so the goal became getting him assigned to a more important project with trickier technology.
  5. Be persistent. Every time you meet with an employee who is uncertain of their dream, ask them how it is coming. When they have made no progress, be harsh. Give them deliverables if that works with them. But never give up on this – without a dream, they will not take their career anywhere!

Stop Dreaming

Once you have a dream that is articulated, with some gaps identified between the employee today and the employee of the future, it’s time to move onto the next two steps: being lazy, and looking at the negative.

Being lazy is usually quite easy once you have a dream: you ask the employee to come up with some ideas of steps they could take within your organization that moves them closer to their dream. This is a time where you can seed them with ideas, but try to make them come up with ideas first – you’ll be surprised by the results.

But “looking at the negative”, well that deserves its own topic which I’ll cover soon.

– Art

Growing Individuals: Get Over Yourself

(4b of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Last week I talked about my general framework for why you need to make sure team members grow in their roles. This week I’ll go through some of the techniques I use.


Before I talk about people on your team, let’s talk about you. Who has been the most important person in your career to-date? Who has had the most influence on what you’ve done and what jobs you’ve taken? Whose advice have you followed the most? Who’s been your best ally and who have you asked for the most input on career directions?

Without a doubt I’ve been the most influential person on my career (and not always in a good way). Sure I’ve had mentors who’ve suggested paths, but often I’ve ignored their advice – but I’ve never ignored myself.

Who’s the second most influential person? For me, that’s my wife. She’s listened to my cheers, my complaints, my dreams and my plans. She’s pushed me to take certain directions and (assuming I’ve agreed) I’ve favored her advice over anyone else’s.

Who’s the third most important? For me, it’s been my friends and peers. I’ve compared myself to where they’ve taken their careers. I’ve kvetched with them about my plans, my frustrations, and my dreams. I’ve done it at work, but also over dinner, out hiking, heck, anywhere my friends gather. We often talk about work and their stories about their careers definitely influences where I want to take mine.

In fact, you have to get pretty far down the list before one my mentors shows up. That’s not to say mentors aren’t important – they are critical and I’ve had some absolutely stellar mentors. But in reality I pay way more attention to me, my spouse, and my friends.

And I’m typical of most employees.

Get Over Yourself

First time managers often think they should take a very active role in growing their employees (or at least I did), and can find themselves devoting lots of time to it. It leads to things like career maps, ladder-levels, “mandatory training”, soul-searching on weekends about how you can improve individuals on your team, giving constant “constructive” feedback about ways to “grow”, and often leads to frustration on the part of both the manager on the employee. The manager thinks the employee is ignoring good advice. The employee thinks the manager is pushing some bullshit agenda on them that isn’t where they want to go. Eventually both manager and employee abdicate any responsibility for career growth, and instead talk (in bitter sarcastic terms) about following bullshit processes – and that’s the best outcome.

The manager is at fault here – the employee is following the advice of more important people, and the manager mistakenly thinks his advice should come first.

Given that, the first rule of growing individuals is: get over yourself. At best as a manager you are the 4th or 5th most important person advising your employee on their career (assuming most of your employees have at least 3-4 friends). Your advice, especially your unsolicited advice, is likely to be in competition with more important people and therefore not followed.

So stop giving it!

Instead focus your management powers on managing your employee’s relationship with their most important advisor – themselves. Make sure they are asking themselves where they want to go, make sure they are following the advice they lay out on their own, and only step in to help with the how when asked.

Once you do this, the amount of time you spend on “growing individuals” drops drastically, but the quality of the interaction increases drastically. You become the person an employee reports their career-growth progress to, not the person actually taking the steps to grow their career. The employee takes more ownership because it’s their own steps. You can put metrics around how they take their steps and hold them accountable. And you’ve delegated responsibility for growing the employee to the most qualified person imaginable – your employee.

The next few articles will talk about the 4 remaining steps I do to grow someone’s career, but the most important of them is the first: get over yourself. You’re not as important as you think you are, so spend the amount of time commensurate with your importance.

I’ll continue the rest the week after next

– Art

The Rules for Growing Individuals

(4a of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Last week I talked about how to use your entire Naked Team to hire new people. This week I talk about how to why you also need to grow the members of your team.


I recently finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma(1), a book about how the food we eat is produced. There is a section in the book that details a “healthy” farm called Polyface based in Virginia. Polyface uses the natural tendencies of nature to create a farm that produces some of the best eggs, beef, chicken and produce of any farm in the country. This form of farming, in particular its reliance on harnessing the innate tendencies and cycles of crops and animals, is very similar to managing a Naked Team. Managing Naked Teams is all about recognizing what natural energies motivate most people, and using transparency to channel that natural energy towards your team’s goal.

But it’s an imperfect analogy: While growing and running naked teams your team will quickly gain momentum, your people will get more and more confident and your stars will start realizing they can do even more. Like a successful crop on a farm left unattended, your team will start expanding outside its area (or at least want to). Your star employees will want to take on new challenges. The same thing happens on a farm but the good farmer harvests his crops right before things start getting overcrowded and thereby keeps a stable healthy system running.

Unlike a farm, it’s generally frowned upon if you harvest or cull your team to keep it at a stable level.


Here’s the problem: The consequences of not harvesting your team are just as serious as not harvesting on a farm. On an un-harvested farm, crops overcrowd themselves and start dying. Some aggressive crops spread into other areas (like weeds). And disease spreads rapidly in the confined and overcrowded herds. On a team that is running naked but needs to expand outside its area to keep everyone growing, either some team members quit out of frustration at not being able to keep moving in their careers (the best case situation), or they resign themselves to immobility, get bitter, and poison the team (the worst case).

How do you solve that problem? You do two things, one obvious and the other not so obvious.

On the obvious front, you weed your teams, removing the poisonous attitudes and the folks who don’t believe in the strategy you’re following. Get rid of them and quickly! That’s all I’ll say on that.

But on the non obvious front, you must ignore the natural instinct of most managers and instead, you actively harvest the best from your team.

This is the last step to running naked teams. First you focus on the team itself; then you use the team to help add more people to the team; and finally you aggressively grow and remove the stars on your team to keep your “crops” rotated and your harvests high.

The Joy of Farming

Harvesting your team, or actively removing your best team members and replacing them with new team members, is one of the most powerful tools in your bag of manager tricks. If you do it, you get the following benefits:

  1. You get to control the timing and attitude of when your stars leave. That’s right; your stars are going to leave anyway because they want to keep growing, but if you focus on moving them, you get much more control over when that happens.
  2. You force your team to be more resilient and less dependent upon 1-2 key people. Once the star leaves, you have to train other (up and comers) to do the job. If you’re regularly recycling your top team members it’s easy to convince your stars to maintain transition materials as a condition of your help. And it keeps your focus on training and recruitment which means you think more about the “how” you do things than “what” you do, which increases resilience.
  3. You increase morale on your team. When your team sees (through your actions) that you’re actively pushing and promoting the stars, they feel more loyalty to you because they’ve seen your results, and they feel better about the team because they know they’ll move on. They may not be stars yet, but you’ve given them the best possible reason to try: you’ll promote them off the team if they achieve it.
  4. You raise the execution level of your entire team. This one is less obvious, but I’ve found that when a high-performing star leaves, especially one who has been on the team for a long term, there is a period of pain (usually 3 months) as people start to fill the hole, but then the team starts executing better than when the star was there. Why? Because folks who you never let try something new when the star was on your team, now try new things. They have the knowledge of seeing what the star did, but they try new evolutions on that theme because they are new people. And after 3-months they’ve either returned to exactly what the star did (because the pain is too high if they don’t), or their mutation on the star’s way of doing things is actually better. Ergo your team gets better, not worse.

Most management tool books tell you to get rid of poisonous team members (which I echo) but to do everything in your power to keep your stars. I disagree. Do everything you can to promote your stars into new roles. It’s true that it does come at a cost; usually for me 3 months of pain as the team adjusts to life without a promoted star. But I’ve been on excellent teams that didn’t harvest their stars, and the consequence was always a team that ended up bitter, ineffective, and full of hubris about how good they were (anyone else have the same experience?). Three months of pain is nothing compared to years of snarky bitter old-timers.

Don’t’ get me wrong; I’m not advocating that you get rid of all your stars tomorrow. Instead I’m advocating that you plan and actively push out your stars on a schedule that your organization can maintain, but never let a year go by without losing one star!

The Rules of Farming

So assuming I’ve convinced you that focusing on growing the individuals on your team, in particular the stars, is worth your while, How do you do it and still get your day job done? The good news is that most first time managers actually spend far more time on employee growth than they should(2).

I have found a way that for me has been very effective, but also very efficient on my time. It consists of the following rules:

  1. Get Over Yourself
  2. Be the Sandman
  3. Remember Michael Jordan
  4. Crack the Whip
  5. Fire Your Stars

I’ll explain next week

– Art

(1) It was highly recommended by several people I respect, and it’s a good read. I really hadn’t appreciated the importance of corn to my diet before. My biggest issue with the book is its descriptions of life on Polyface farm, a healthy farm in Virginia. I know from firsthand experience what it takes to keep a farm like Polyface going; due to the nature of farming in rural Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s, most farms ran de-facto healthy with crop rotation, multiple types of livestock, and self-sustaining fertilizing (i.e. manure) – artificial fertilizers didn’t become prevalent until the mid 80’s. I grew up on such a farm. Pollan’s view of Polyface doesn’t suggest it’s easy work, but the style of the writing certainly romanticizes the work, skimps on details of exactly how taxing the labor is, and suggests those who choose not to enter the field are morally and spiritually inferior to those who do engage in the work. It’s certainly within his rights to advance his thesis this way, but it makes me question the other parts of his thesis as well; what details that might make his thesis less strong did he omit? Are there positives to the corn-based-us-ecology that he left out? Who knows? It’s a popular book, not a doctoral thesis, so you get what you pay for. Despite all that, I will continue the chain of recommendations and recommend that people read this book if they would like a good non-fiction read for the winter. Definitely food for thought.

(2) This is partially because of good intentioned HR policies like developing career maps. First time managers often want to do such a good job with their first employees that they actually create full career maps. There are few better examples of complete wastes of time in the history of management. The actual HR policy is well intentioned (it’s that managers need to spend some time on growing their employees), and HR departments recognize that most managers don’t do it on their own, but the one-size-fits-all approach leads to just bullshit paperwork. But the main reason first time managers spend too much time on this is because they break the first rule of growing individuals: they have not gotten over themselves.

Growing Naked Teams (II)

(3b of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Yesterday I talked about why you should use your team to grow your team. Today I talk about how I do it.

7 More Rules

Let’s pretend I convinced you that approaching hiring as a team sport is the way to go. How do you get your team to hire for you? Here are the 7 steps I like to follow:

  1. Know What You Want: Realistically define, with your team, what you need the new hire to be.
  2. Draw a Map: Define how you’ll approach recruiting, interviewing, rejecting and hiring.
  3. Install a Pacemaker: Get a hiring heartbeat going by meeting regularly with your interviewing team.
  4. Make Everyone Play: Make everyone on your team be an “eligible, responsible, and rewarded hirer.” No exceptions.
  5. Spoil Your Rejects: Be religious about making sure rejects hear back promptly.
  6. Tease Your Candidates: During negotiations, map out an initial career plan with your candidate.
  7. Run Past The Finish: Focus on the 90-days after a new hire start, not just their start date.

Let’s break them down.

Know What You Want

“Realistically define, with your team, what you need the new hire to be.”

This one is so obvious that most managers either blow past it or skip it. They’ve already got a job description, so they use that for the definition, or they create one from scratch without feedback from outside recruiters or their team. They send the job description to a recruiter and say “I want a Senior Engineer like this.” And then they get annoyed at the recruiter when either too few candidates appear or candidates come back that don’t meet their expectations. I’ve heard a lot of managers who make this mistake tell me their recruiter is not good, and that they need a better recruiter. Well guess what:

The recruiter didn’t fuck-up; the manager did!

The mistake made here can take many forms: the job description may have so many REQUIRED attributes that only Mother Theresa would qualify for the job; or the old written job description isn’t what you’re actually looking for, and you haven’t communicated adequately to your recruiters what it is you need; or the skills you’re looking for are no longer valued by the world, and you should be pushing your team to develop new skills.

Of all the hiring steps, this step is the most important. You should never skip this, even if you’ve hiring 100 call-center agents and looking to hire the 101st. You don’t need to spend long on it, but always do the following:

  1. If you haven’t written down a job description, write it down. If you have, read it again and ask yourself if it’s still what you’re looking for. If not, change it.
  2. Compare the written description to the stars on your team – what matches and what doesn’t? If your stars don’t have the “required talents” on your job description, chances are the talents aren’t required.
  3. If you haven’t shared the description with your team (who, as you’ll see later, will all be recruiters) and your recruiters, do it now. Listen to their feedback. Be particularly sensitive to comments like “wow! I don’t know anyone who has all these qualities.” Ultimately you own the definition, so take feedback and reject it if necessary, but always communicate your final decisions back to your team.
  4. At the end of each week, after reviewing the candidates you’ve screened that week, go back to your job description and ask is it still right. Let the market help you find the right definition. And if you change it, share the new definition and your thinking with your recruiters and interview teams.
  5. Group your ideal-candidate’s attributes into “must have experience”, “nice to have experience”, “must have talents” and “nice to have talents” and force yourself to make your “must have” lists as short as possible initially – that’ll give you more candidates to screen and more opportunity to determine what you really need.
  6. If you have a recruiter, ask to share screening duties with him or her, especially when you’re defining a new position. When you reject someone at screening, share the reasons why with your recruiter. Most manager ask their recruiters to do the initial screening calls for them, but this is a mistake when you either haven’t worked with that recruiter before or are recruiting for a brand new position. You don’t yet know what you need (even though you think you do) and doing screenings will help you narrow it down and get better leads from your recruiter.

If you do this, you’ll get a good definition of what you want in your head and on paper, and you’ll have a team around you who understands what you need. That’s the key to Team Hiring – everyone needs to have the same picture in their mind of the ideal candidate.

So, DEFINE WHO YOU’RE HIRING in order to avoid recruiting Mother Theresa or making other stupid communication mistakes.

Draw a Map

“Define how you’ll approach recruiting, interviewing, rejecting and hiring.”

Make sure you know how you’re going to interview. Even if you’re only going to hire one person, write down the steps you need to take between first screening and final hire and then spend time reviewing them with your team. Why?

  1. Writing down the process will help you identify who needs to interview (a tricky proposition in some organizations) and avoid last minute surprises.
  2. Writing down the process will help your interviewers know what they should be checking for during an interview, which leads to better coverage of candidates’ skills, and better interview experiences for your candidate.
  3. Writing down the process will let you give candidates some guidance about how you make this decision, which (if you follow your process) actually sells them on joining the company, joining your team, and being managed by you.
  4. Especially if you’re hiring a lot of people, writing down the process helps you identify key metrics to track to manage it (like pipeline size and referral rates).

Sure sure you say, that’s all good, but a “recruiting process” is too heavyweight if I’m only hiring one person. Really? It doesn’t have to be: here’s a 3-round process I’ve used before.

  1. Do one pipeline review per week (15 minutes) with recruiters.
  2. These people must interview every candidate: Bob, Alice and Ted; These people should be offered a 3rd round interview opportunity: Paul, George, John and Ringo.
  3. The hiring manager or recruiter phone screens and makes an interview/no-interview decision.
  4. First round has 3-4 interviews of 45 minutes each. Each interviewer covers a defined area that is assigned by the manager the day before.
    1. Each interviewer sends a e-mail ONLY TO THE HIRING MANAGER(1) immediately after the interview. The e-mail contains:
      1. “Hire or no hire” recommendation
      2. “Pros this candidate had for area covered”
      3. “Cons this candidate had”
    2. After the first round, the interview team meets for 15 minutes with hiring manager to make go/no-go decision. If “go” the team identifies 2-3 areas of focus for next round.
  5. Second round has 3-4 interviews of 45 minutes each. Each interview covers an identified focus area assigned by the hiring manager.
    1. Each interviewer sends an e-mail to ALL INTERVIEWERS after the interview. The e-mail contains:
      1. “Hire or no hire” recommendation
      2. “Pros this candidate had for area covered”
      3. “Cons this candidate had”
    2. After the second round, the interview team meets for 15 minutes with hiring manager to make go/no-go decision. If “go” the hiring manager sets up the last round.
  6. The third round is as needed by hiring manager, but usually includes hiring manager’s manager to help sell.

It’s really easy to train people on. You can delegate scheduling to someone else, but don’t delegate the screening. That process solidifies hiring, with some overhead.

If that’s too heavy weight for you, just do step 2 – write down everyone who must interview in order to make a decision.

Once you have a process in place, you look more professional to candidates, you get far better coverage of candidates, and you make fewer hiring mistakes. And you avoid a horrible thing I’ve seen at prior companies: I saw a candidate interviewed by 20 different people in order to make a “no-hire” decision! That’s 20 people * 60 minutes (interview + follow-up) at let’s say $100/hr of internal cost: that company spent $2,000 rejecting that candidate, whereas if they followed a process they could have made a higher quality reject or hire decision for less than $75 and for no more than $750.

(By the way, if after 6 to 8 interviews, you hear yourself thinking, “hmm… maybe I should have them talk to one more person…” you have a “no hire” on your hands. If you’re not gung-ho convinced your candidate is the right girl by interview 8, other people are only going to convince you to not-hire, never to actually hire. Save the time, and reject now)

So, after you’ve defined who you’re hiring, DRAW A MAP defining how you’ll hire them(2).

Install a Pacemaker

Once you’ve defined who you’re looking for, and how you’ll look for them, set in place some way to get momentum going. While you may feel tempted to just send out a “recruiting report” or manage by finding people in the hallway, I recommend against it. Hiring is one of those very important but non-urgent things to the folks on your team, so you need to be more in their face about it.

When I have to hire people, I install a pacemaker in three ways:

  1. I set up 15-minute meetings at the end of each day someone interviews. All interviewers are required to attend and have sent written feedback ahead of time. We discuss the candidate and make a quick go/no go decision.
  2. Once a week, I sit down with my outside recruiters (if I have them) and I invite anyone on the team to attend. I walk through an overview of all candidates we’re tracking, get recruiters feedback on skills they are seeing, and re-look at my role to make sure it’s still the right one.
  3. Once a week in my team meeting I give my team a brief overview of hiring progress, and ask for any leads.

That’s it, but it makes sure that hiring stays on the radar of your recruiters, your team, and most importantly, YOU!

Make Everybody Play

“Make everyone on your team be an “eligible, responsible, and rewarded hirer.” No exceptions.”

“Eligible?” “Responsible?” “Rewarded?” What the hell does that mean?

Well “eligible” means that everyone on the team can be scheduled to interview a candidate. Yes, even that guy on the team who is a loner… EVERYONE! Why is that? Well first off if everyone can interview, it makes it more likely they’ll ultimately buy into and help support a new hire when they start. Secondly, it ensures your candidates have the best view of what they’re actually getting into, and you’d rather identify any personality mismatches before hiring (when it’s cheap) than after (when it’s hugely and annoyingly expensive). And third it forces you to come face-to-face with problem areas in your own team – if you’re not comfortable having a current employee interview your prospective new team members, are you actually comfortable having that person on the team? Probably not, and you owe it to yourself to either manage that employee to be a good team member, or manage them out!

Sometimes I’ve had team members tell me they don’t want to interview because they don’t feel comfortable in that environment. Try to not accept this (sometimes you’ll have to though). Figure out why they’re uncomfortable, help them tackle it, train them on how to interview, do whatever it takes, but get them in the process. I’ve often found my best interviewers are those folks who initially told me they didn’t feel comfortable – it was because they had a tendency to ask more probing questions.

“Responsible” means every interviewer must treat the interviewee with respect by being on time, prepared with their questions, sending prompt feedback, and attending decision meetings. This sends a strong message to candidates (see “spoil your rejects”) that you’re a quality organization – it’s the first impression they’ll get.

“Rewarded” means everyone on your team is rewarded for referring leads. Sometimes your company will do this for you (with bonuses or options for every new hire) but if they don’t do that, institute your own reward program. Offer people 3 long weekends for every time they refer someone you hire and keep onboard for six months (worried about how you’ll cover that promised time off; just have the new employee cover them and it’ll actually help your new guy learn new skills).

If you define what you’re looking for, define how you’ll hire, get a pacemaker installed, and make everybody play, you’ll find your team is now recruiting as hard, if not harder than you. Excellent! Now to get even better at it.

Spoil Your Rejects

“Be religious about making sure rejects hear back promptly.”

I view this one like Willie Bratton’s Broken Windows theory. One of the famous changes he made to the NYPD when starting to tackle crime was to have officers focus on small but visible crimes such as graffiti, subway-turnstile-jumping and breaking windows. This sent a message to criminals that if small stuff isn’t allowed, don’t even begin to think about larger crimes.

So assuming you’ve done the prior 4 steps, your team should now be recruiting for you. Now, spend some time making sure you’re handling your rejects promptly and respectfully.

  1. It demonstrates to your team that you value their referrals – you’re personally getting back to each of them.
  2. It demonstrates to the people you reject that you’re a quality organization. And they in turn will tell that to other people which helps your company’s brand in the hiring marketplace and may also get you leads. Think I’m full of shit? I’ve actually hired at least 2 people who contacted me because “you interviewed my friend and passed on her, but she called me and said I might be a good fit.”
  3. By focusing on this loose end, your team will expect you’re even more focused on the candidates who are in-process, and hence will put even more priority on it.

It took me a while to realize this, but I’m now sold on it. I’ve gotten so many good referrals from my internal employees because of this policy, and I’ve gotten a lot of referrals from the people I’ve rejected as well. Here’s how I do it:

  1. I tell each candidate in each interview when they should hear back by. And then I stick to it.
  2. Every lead not referred by an internal employee hears back in e-mail or via phone on their status. If they were screened I get back to them by phone, but if we just rejected the resume without a screen it’s by e-mail. I check that this is happening in my recruiting / pipeline review meeting (if the recruiters are doing the rejecting).
  3. Any candidate referred by an internal employee hears back by phone. From me. And I actually tell them why we’re passing. I usually tell them 2-3 things the team really liked, and then follow up with “but ultimately we decided to pass because…” and I lay out explicitly why. Some candidates will argue we’re wrong, but most respond with something like “wow… thank you. I’ve never had someone tell me why they passed before”. I then ask them if they would be willing to recommend someone for the position and if so, do they have any names.

If you’ve successfully Spoiled Your Rejects, the people you reject for a position walk away thinking, “damn it…. I wish I had have gotten hired there” rather than “assholes…” and your recruiting pipeline will fill up faster.

Tease Your Candidates

“During negotiations, map out an initial career plan with your candidate.”

By now you probably have at least one to two candidates who you think might be good candidates, so time to tease them a little. I don’t mean call them names; I mean give them a little taste of what it’s like to work for you. I do this by mapping out in each interview a preliminary plan for where they want to grow their careers.

I’ll talk about how I do that next week (I follow the same steps with new hires and existing hires), and you probably have your own way of doing it, but most career plans have a 2-3 year goal with some envisioned steps or skills that should be acquired to get there. Find out where your candidate wants to take their career; envision some steps with them; and commit it to writing.

Now, once you’ve done that, look carefully at the plan. If your organization is not a good place for them to achieve their plan, REJECT THEM RIGHT NOW! Don’t kid yourself that “you’ll find a way;” pass quickly. On Naked Teams you want ambitious people, but you need them to have a chance of achieving their goals. If not, you’ll have a de-motivated employee that you’ll waste lots of time trying to keep happy and who may poison your team morale. You’re doing your team, and the candidate, a disservice by hiring them.

But if their career plan is realistically possible in your organization, let them know that you cannot guarantee anything about career progression, but you will work with them to try to achieve the goals. This exercise achieves 3 very important things:

  1. It demonstrates to your candidate that he’s got better than 50/50 chances of getting opportunities to grow in his job. As a result, you’ll often be able to hire people for less money than competing companies.
  2. It helps you identify early any problem candidates with unrealistic expectations (I once had a project manager candidate tell me during this phase that he planned to move to sales within 6 months of joining my team – not a good sign).
  3. It gives you a leg-up on their first day on how to direct their training.

Run Past The Finish

“Focus on the 90-days after a new hire start, not just their start date.”

Recruiting and hiring is a lot of work, and once someone accepts an offer, I have a tendency to see it as an opportunity to “take a breather.” But the reality is you won’t know if you’ve made a good hire for at least 90 days, so you need to make sure you keep your focus on the new hire at least that long.

Here are some things I try to do to keep the focus on the first 90-days:

Before I hire someone, I (or someone I delegate to) come up with a new hire training plan. At a minimum it consists of:

  1. A list of good books and reading materials.
  2. Links to any sales materials about the product or service I work on.
  3. Names, titles, job descriptions, and good topics of conversation of other people in my company that the new hire should meet with in the first 90 days.

I also assign a “buddy” on my current team who they are to use as their “how do I do XYZ” person. I give the buddy a budget to take the new hire out to lunch every 2 weeks. It’s preferable to have a peer do this to get your new guy incorporated into the team, but if you don’t have someone who can spare the time, you have to do it. If your new hire already has to work with someone on your team (perhaps because they are on the same project), then still assign a buddy but choose someone in a different area. Part of the reason to pick a buddy is to expand their network quickly in the first 90 days.

You can get a lot more formal than this, and if you’re going to increase your team size by more than 25% in a six month period, you should put more focus on training, but I always try for a barebones starting point.

Once someone has been hired, I try to meet with them once every 2 weeks at least (I’d prefer once a week, but historically I’ve been really bad at making that). I also take them to meet some of the people on their training list, especially the people I think might turn down a meeting with a new hire without my smiling face right there J.

But mostly I watch, try to offer help, and presume that any stumbles in the first 90-days are my fault not the new hire’s fault, and address accordingly.

And after 90-days, I ask was the hire a good hire or not. I’ve never found myself on the fence when I do this; it’s usually pretty damn obvious whether you have a stud or a dud on your hands. If it’s a dud, get him or her out as quickly as you can (PURE(3) employees are a fact of life). If it’s a stud, and you’ve been managing a naked team, you’ll find they’re swimming on their own, doing an awesome job, and generally making everyone around them look good.

Growing Individuals

I’ve had a lot of success running Naked Teams, and then using that team to do team-hiring. While it’s hard work up front, the day-to-day management is a joy. But Running Naked Teams and Growing Naked Teams are not sufficient to keep your team running smoothly. In addition you must also grow the people on the team. That’s because by being transparent you’re already forcing people to grow, and as they see success, they will want to grow more. Like a plant that is left to grow in a small pot, without opportunities to change, your team members will either break their pot one day (i.e. quit) when you don’t expect it, or slowly wither in your organization for lack of opportunities to spread their leaves.

So you must spend some time growing individuals. But I’ll argue you should spend less time that most people tell you. Why? That’s in the Rules for Growing Individuals…

(which I’ll continue next week…)

– Art

I’m attempting (maybe) to run the NYC Marathon on November 4th for Team Continuum. Click here to donate.

(1) I usually have feedback from the first round only sent to the hiring manager to avoid people early in the day overly influencing people later in the round, and I schedule candidates so they have 15 minute breaks between interviews. If I get two e-mails that say “Don’t Hire This Idiot” then I interrupt the schedule and walk the candidate out early. For the second round I usually have all feedback shared in real time so the interviews get harder.

(2) One important note: just because you’ve got a process, don’t be afraid to bend it when necessary for the right candidate – just be wary when you do. Sometimes a competitive offer will force you to move outside the “right way”, and in that case, realize you’re taking a risk, but for the right candidate you should take that risk.

(3) PURE: Previously Undetected Recruiting Error

Growing Naked Teams (I)

(3a of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Last week I talked about how to create and run a “naked team” by using transparency and ingrained human nature to accomplish goals. This week I’ll talk about how to grow a naked team.


Tom Brady has never won the Superbowl. Michael Jordan has never won the NBA Finals. And Lance Armstrong has never won the Tour de France.

It’s true. Look it up(1).

OK, OK, I’m probably using a little hyperbole, but bear with me. I’ll bet most readers will begrudgingly give me that Tom Brady has not individually won the Superbowl, his teams did (but you’ll insist that Brady had a lot to do with it). You’ll probably also give me that Michael Jordan didn’t individually win, but his teams did (and again you’ll insist that Jordan had a lot to do with it).

But Armstrong? For God’s sake, cycling is an individual sport and Armstrong has finished first in the standings seven times in a row. He has won numerous individual time trials on top of that to boot. How can I claim he has never won the Tour de France?

The answer? Well Lance Armstrong has never individually won the Tour de France, and in fact only achieved Tour de France success once he stopped trying to win individually. Similarly a good manager will never try to individually hire someone onto a Naked Team – it’s just too inefficient.

Read on for more.

The Nature of Bicycling

Lance Armstrong is an amazing athlete. Nobody else has won the Tour De France seven times, never mind in a row (the closest is five times in a row), and never mind after coming back from testicular cancer. Clearly he did something right. But the thing is he didn’t win on his own.

Most American’s don’t know this, but professional cycling is not an individual sport(2); it’s a team sport. During the grueling 100+ miles rides over 20+ days, several different teams are racing. Armstrong was on the US Postal and then the Discovery Channel teams for a reason – the other members on the team rode in front of him during the first 80% of the ride, to block the wind, reduce resistance, keep rivals pinned in, and keep Armstrong as fresh as possible for the close races near the end. Riding behind someone on a bike can reduce the amount of energy you need to spend by over 15%, and over Tour de France distances this really adds up. Yes, Lance Armstrong is a great cyclist but he only won because other team members, such as George Hincapie, would ride in front of Armstrong to give him a chance.

It’s the same thing with hiring people. Technically it is your job as a manager to hire someone, and your organization will congratulate you when a new hire is made in your team. But hiring, like Cycling, is best approached as a team sport, and if you do that, you’re far more likely to end up with great hires, great teams, and great results.

Team Hiring

There are several reasons why team-based hiring works, some objective and some subjective. To illustrate the objective, let’s compare two managers named Bob and Alice (no relation to previously discussed Bobs and Alices). Both managers have existing teams of 5 people and need to add a sixth member. And let’s assume that each hour invested in hiring yields at least 1 lead with a 10% chance of converting the lead to an employee (this is not always accurate, but in general more time == more leads).

Bob works hard on hiring. Somehow he manages to devote 10 hours a week to hiring (in reality, it’s unlikely any manager will actually invest that much time consistently). He focuses hard on recruiting, hard on interviewing, and hard on selling. He manages to transform his 10 hours a week into a pipeline of 10 leads with 1 promising candidate – a relatively good ratio of candidates to leads in my experience. Yay Bob!

Alice also works hard on hiring, but in a different way. She only devotes 5 hours a week to hiring, but as part of that 5 hours spends 2 hours of that making sure the rest of her team is involved heavily in the recruiting and interviewing. Each of her team members spends 2 hours a week focused on hiring (5% of their time). Alice looks inefficient but counting her entire team she has spent a total of 15 hours on hiring (including 2 hours of overhead). And she has distributed recruiting among her 5 team members. As a result, Alice is able to transform her 15 hours a week into a pipeline of 23 leads (4 leads per employee, + 3 for Alice’s productive time). This leads to 2.3 promising candidates – which is an amazing return on Alice’s 5 hours. Alice wins!

But that’s the objective advantage and it is outweighed by the subjective advantages. If you approach hiring as a team sport you do the following:

  1. Everyone on your team acts as a recruiter to grow your pipeline, the most important thing to get up and running early when hiring.
  2. Everyone on your team will help sell a new candidate since they were involved in defining what’s needed and recruiting.
  3. New employees will be excited because they see a team, rather than a manager, that is excited.
  4. Everyone on your team feels invested in the new hire, and so will work harder to help them succeed when they start.

Those advantages pay off during recruiting, pay off during interviewing and hiring, and really shine as you incorporate your new employee.

Hiring is like cycling, except the advantages to team hiring are way greater than the 15% efficiency that team-cycling brings the team captain. And the best way to implement Team Hiring is to already run a Naked Team and use those philosophies to Grow the Naked Team.

How To Do It

OK, enough philosophical bullshit on why Growing Naked Teams works – how do you actually do it? Well… I’ll post that tomorrow but I’ll give you a hint now. Here are the 7 steps I follow:

  1. Know What You Want
  2. Draw a Map
  3. Install a Pacemaker
  4. Make Everyone Play
  5. Spoil Your Rejects
  6. Tease Your Candidates
  7. Run Past The Finish

(to be continued tomorrow…)

– Art

I’m attempting (maybe) to run the NYC Marathon on November 4th for Team Continuum. Click here to donate.

(1) Actually, don’t look it up. It’s not true. But you already knew that.

(2) Since several readers of this blog are cyclists, you guys already know this. But most American’s do not bike regularly, and have never watched or been in a professional bike race.

(3) It always amazes me that cycling continues as a team sport given that the media and public lionize only the winner – it’s a testament to how much the efficiency gains really matter. But watch what the “winning” rider talks about when they are doing post-win interviews; almost universally they talk about the team effort because they realize they wouldn’t be where they are without the team. As a manager, don’t forget this either.

Running Naked Teams (II)

(2b of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Yesterday I posted about why to run Naked Teams. Today I go into how. My apologies in advance for the wordiness, and please if you have other ways that have helped you manage transparent teams in the past, post them in the comments.

7 Rules

Let’s pretend for a moment I actually convinced you yesterday that Running Naked Teams is a good thing; how do you actually get a team to start running naked? Well, the 7 steps I like to follow are:

  1. Be Edgy: Define not only what you do, but also what you don’t do.
  2. Install a Pacemaker: Get a heartbeat going by sharing your goal with the team, and then meeting internally at regular intervals to track the goal.
  3. Get a Base Hit: Accomplish a very easy but visible improvement within your first 100 days.
  4. Ride Like Paul Revere: Proclaim loudly what you do, and expose how you’re doing regularly.
  5. Air Your Dirty Laundry: Set up a mechanism where your peers are invited to comment on and review your performance in public.
  6. Share the Pain: Don’t protect your team from “executive bullshit”; instead guide them to help understand what’s actually happening.
  7. Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Reward your high performers.

Be Edgy

The first step is figuring out the right stuff to do. But there’s a subtlety here – also figure out what stuff your team shouldn’t be doing. By that, I don’t mean things you obviously shouldn’t be doing (like committing crimes, watching youtube at work all day, or being involved in the production of this movie); I mean find the things a reasonable person might expect that you do, but you don’t, and let people know what those are.

The idea here is to define as sharply as you can the edge between what your team or organization does, and other teams do. This is important initially, and becomes even more important when you Air Your Dirty Laundry.

It’s important initially because it helps you define boundaries with your peers, and to find out what they are worried you might actually do. By figuring out their concerns, and then declaring publically that you won’t do what they’re worried about, you put them at ease about territory concerns. Or, you find out that they expect you to not do something that you absolutely need to do, voila, you’ve uncovered a major disconnect which is always easier to fix in the first weeks than many months down the road.

A good way to find the right edge is to ask your boss, your boss’s peers, and your peers these questions: “what things are important to you that my team not try to do?” or “are there things you’ve seen similar teams do at other companies that you think would not be a good fit for me to do here?”

I once started up a project management team and in response to this question had two peers tell me they were concerned my team would actually do UI design work. No problem – we just declared we don’t do design, and all of a sudden I’d gotten the benefit of the doubt from two other managers.

I once started up a product-management team where I asked this question of my engineering peer and his response was that I shouldn’t have responsibility or influence for his budget. That was great because it put an issue I would not agree to on the table on day one, not six months later when the next budget would be set, and I was able to resolve the disconnect within a day.

By looking for the edges you can quickly find problems that are easier to solve in the first few weeks, but you also help more clearly define what your team’s job actually is. Always look for the edges.

Install a Pacemaker

It’ll probably take about 1-2 weeks to figure out the right stuff to do, and to figure out the edges. During that time your new employees will still view you with apprehension but also some hope. But they won’t think of themselves as a team; they’ll think of themselves as individuals. Now it’s time to start changing them from a group of employees into a living breathing team. All living breathing creatures need a heartbeat, but since you’re starting anew here, you’re going to need to jump start one with an artificial beat. If you are consistent with your artificial beat, eventually the team will develop a rhythm of its own, but you need to force it initially.

Here’s how I do it:

  • If there already is a standing team meeting, ask your employees what they like or don’t like about it (remember the rule of Evolution not Revolution), but then take over the meeting and make it your own (otherwise you’ll be compared to your predecessor constantly). If there isn’t a standing meeting, then set one up. Same day each week. Same time. The idea here is to establish a sense of normalcy for the team. During your first 100 days this meeting NEEDS to occur no matter what else is going on; later as your team develops its own rhythm it seems less important but (while you can afford to miss one or two) still keep having the meeting.
  • Have a portion of the meeting always be the same – make each team member quickly report any problem areas to the team. The idea is not to solve the problems, just to let people know. Leave solving problems for later in the agenda. During this portion of the meeting, refer back to the notes from the last week’s meeting, and ensure that any open issues are closed. This does two things: it conditions your team members that you manage across time, not just in the moment; and it conditions people that they have to communicate their problem areas (initially in a ‘safe’ environment – see “Air Your Dirty Laundry”).
  • Send out an agenda to your team before the meeting and send notes afterwards. Again the idea here is to establish a habit with the team. If you always refer to actions in last week’s notes, then people will start magically closing out actions before your staff meeting because they know you’ll ask.
  • Let people know that attendance is mandatory, and that if someone can’t make it they must let you know why first. Include yourself in this –if you can’t make it, designate someone to run the meeting in your absence. And if someone misses without informing you, make it clear to them that behavior is unacceptable. Be equally harsh about tardiness (I have tried, with some success, making whoever gets to the meeting last have to buy food for the next meeting, and if everyone gets to the meeting within 5 minutes of the start time, I buy the food). This may seem draconian but during the first 100 days you need their attention, you need them to interact with each other as a team, and if you don’t force this to happen then day-to-day pressures of the job will cause people to miss this meeting.
  • During the status reporting time treat yourself and your problems as part of the team. Report honestly on the things you failed to do. Be harshest on your misses (but ignore your successes).
  • And once you’ve gone through that (spend no more than 25% of your meeting on status), then have the team discuss and solve the biggest team issues. You should have lined these up in the agenda, but don’t be averse to going off agenda as long as it’s important.
  • At the end of the meeting, ask folks what they want on the agenda next week, and remind folks that the agenda is open until you send it the next week.

A lot of these rules seem like basic meeting management and that’s true; the meeting will eventually develop its own form, but initially you have to start a heartbeat and you might as well start with something that works. But the other thing this meeting does is it starts getting your team to be naked with themselves – in a safe environment with their peers. Your job is to make sure people speak up, but always make them feel safe when they do. Don’t berate under-performance; instead concentrate on getting the team to suggest ways to help each other. Run at least four of these meetings before you attempt to Air Your Dirty Laundry (below).

Get a Base Hit

Now that you’ve defined the goals, and started a heartbeat going, it’s time to make your first move. For this step:

  • Come up with an easy step your team can take quickly (I usually set a goal of 4 weeks internally and a deadline of 6 weeks externally) to make a visible change that improves things. DO NOT TRY TO SOLVE THE BIGGEST PROBLEM!!!!
  • It’s best if you can get your team to come up with this change on their own (using this as the agenda item for your first heartbeat meeting is a good idea).
  • Once you’ve decided on the step, focus 100% on just getting it done. As much as possible ignore the bigger problems your org faces until it’s done (you can tackle them second).

Once you’ve succeeded with your first step, your team will feel more confident, your supporters elsewhere in the organization will feel more confident and will support you more, and your detractors will feel a little more scared and retreat more. But if you fail in your first step, your team loses a little faith, your supporters retreat and your detractors advance. So the key thing is the change must be visible to your team, supporters and detractors, and have a very high probability of being implemented.

In the past I’ve done this by getting my teams to: launch a new company-wide status report (very easy), to publishing a new product spec (much easier than actually building it), to re-estimating all projects in the company and then cutting over 50% of projects during a 4 week exercise (this wasn’t that easy, but it sure was visible).

This is one of the more important steps in running naked teams, and I’ve previously written an entire article on it. Feel free to read it if you’re interested.

Ride Like Paul Revere

You’ve figured out what the right thing to do is, you’ve gotten your heartbeat started, and you know the base hit you’re aiming for: It’s time to ride like Paul Revere. Get on your horse and start warning people about what you’re about to do, yell it in every part of the organization, and keep yelling it.

Here are the steps I follow:

  • Tell your boss and your peers in private what you’re doing to do. Your peers don’t want to hear about it first in public – they want to feel “in the know” so let them be.
  • In the most public way you can, tell the rest of the company what you’re goals are, what you don’t do, and what your first step is going to be. Company-wide meetings are good, but a series of small meetings with individual teams works even better (more time for Q&A).
  • Tell everyone how they can track your progress, and then make sure you update your progress at least weekly. Be honest in your assessments of progress initially – “political spin” during the first few weeks is less important than transparency.
  • For each base hit you’re shooting for, name the member of your team who is responsible for delivering it.

By doing this you’ve committed your team to delivering its first success, which lights a fire under them (and you). As I mentioned above, no one likes to be seen by their peers as doing a bad job, and you’ve just publically told the company what their job is and how to track their progress. The truth is that almost no one will actually check your status reports, but the knowledge that they could will spur you and your team on.

(By the way, this is really the first time you’ve actually started running naked in front of a less-than-friendly audience, and the first time will feel weird. That passes.)

Air Your Dirty Laundry

You’ve told the company what you’re going to do, and you’re reporting your progress, but this is essentially a one-way communication. If you don’t provide a way for feedback to get back to you, then people will start commenting on your performance behind your back. So anticipate that, and provide a forum where you invite your peers (and include as many of your detractors as possible) to review and assess your team’s performance. The goal of the forum is not to yell at your team for underperforming – it’s to give suggestions for how to improve and to solve problems and roadblocks holding back your team. Make sure you run it that way.

This forum is not just your team – it includes outsiders – and you need to demonstrate to the outsiders that it has teeth. If the review forum decides a change is necessary, you need to make a good-faith effort to follow through on it. (But bear in mind, you chair this forum, so you have the biggest input in any decisions.)

Having this meeting brings a lot of benefits:

  1. It forces your team to be even better prepared for a (less friendly) audience than your team meetings. They will elevate their game in order to appear good in front of their peers.
  2. It will show people outside your team that you are serious about transparency, and they will trust your team more.
  3. It will give you a huge stick to hit any of your peers over the head if they give negative feedback behind your back about your team’s performance – you get to ask why they didn’t deliver it in the review forum? (I’ve only ever had to do this once for every meeting like this I run – after that, the message spreads quickly through the organization.)
  4. If you remember from Be Edgy, you have explicitly declared the things you “don’t do”. In this meeting if something is failing because of an area you “don’t do”, then this is a great opportunity to hold your peer who is responsible for it accountable. This is the second benefit of being explicit about the don’ts.

Once you start running these meetings, you’re truly running naked. You and your team face an external audience who knows what you’re supposed to be doing, and they will call you to the mat if you’re not. I’ve always been amazed by how quickly a team starts executing once this is in place.

You can and should develop your own formats, but here’s how I run these forums (they’re similar in a way to my heart beat meetings):

  1. Make sure it’s the same time and on a predictable frequency (e.g. bi-weekly).
  2. Get each of your peers to commit that they will either attend or send a designate who can make decisions in their absence.
  3. Meeting agenda goes out before hand, notes go out afterwards, and are published for every impacted organization to see. Any decisions should be highlighted at the top of the notes.
  4. Make sure your meeting agenda has at least one portion of it that is always fixed – this will condition your attendees to expect consistency, and they will start to deliver accordingly (I use the status portion for this).
  5. If this is just a review forum, set a standard format across all reviewed projects, and keep reviews to 15 minutes. If you have a team reviewing 8 projects (a two hour meeting) you want them to spend as little time as possible understanding “formats” and as much time as possible critiquing the work.
  6. If it’s also a decision-making forum, still do status (so that people can give you feedback) but keep any status updates to 25% or less of the meeting. The means you just review the projects that have exceptions – not all projects.
  7. Make sure your direct employees understand the following rule: bad news can and should be discussed in this meeting, but at no point is it acceptable for one of your peers to be surprised by the bad news. In other words, no ambushes or attacks – your guys must make sure if another team will look bad during a presentation, that the other team is aware before the meeting that it’s coming. This practice keeps the meeting from devolving into he-said-she-said situations and helps you keep everyone focused on solving problems, not blaming people.
  8. If you know there is “under the surface” pressure or disagreement going on between your team and another team, bring it out in the open at this meeting. This will condition people that problems get discussed and resolved here, which will make them more likely to keep attending.
  9. Never let an action be decided on without identifying an owner, and then write that owner down and publish his or her name in the notes. Keep reviewing in the next few meetings how progress is going. And don’t be shy about signing up people not in your organization, and shaming them when they don’t deliver (this practice was referred to as “being Clarked” at one job, but it was extremely effective to get people to do things).
  10. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS BRING FOOD. Even if you have very senior people who understand the importance of this meeting they will still be much happier to attend if you bribe them. Trust me on this one, you’ll get filleted any time you forget this.

Share the Pain

Many people I’ve talked to have told me one of the most important things a manager does is “protect his people.” From what? Your boss? The elements? The tooth fairy? Usually the response I get is “from politics”, or “from the crazy nature of our executives”, or from something else like that. And I think this is a good idea, assuming your team consists of nine-year-olds. But they don’t! So please, stop this “protection” bullshit, and stop treating your employees like they’re kids.

Here are a couple of facts:

  • Every organization has politics.
  • All executives appear to make “crazy” decisions when viewed from a different reference frame.
  • If your team members are going to grow in their careers, they’re going to have to learn to deal with this.
  • And (as I’ll show in two weeks) you want all of your employees to grow in their careers.

By “protecting your people” from politics, you’re actually doing them a disservice and missing an opportunity. The disservice is you’re stymieing their career growth (and they will resent you for this). The opportunity is by having them see the “craziness”, they will actually develop empathy for you and how you make decisions.

So instead of “protecting your people” from the craziness think instead of “guiding your people” through the craziness. Let them see the pain you deal with, heck share it with them, and they’ll rise up and follow you anywhere.

Here’s how to do that:

  • Encourage and constantly arrange for your team members to present to your management team. They will see the world above them (and get a sense of what you have to deal with) and you will appear more confident to your bosses.
  • Make sure you spend lots of time helping your team members prepare for these events so they are successful, but let it be their show in the meetings (an exception is if they are bombing, divert the blame and anger to you as quickly as you can).
  • Be open with your employees (where you can) about decisions above, and view your job as guiding them through the decisions rather than hiding information.
  • Be particularly vigilant about rumors. Address any you can. Be open when you can’t comment (I just say “I can’t comment). Take an action to find out more about rumors you don’t know about. But never LIE about a rumor – that’ll come back to bite you. Rumors are vicious if not addressed head on, and for that reason I often include 5 minutes for people to bring up ‘new rumors’ in my staff meetings.
  • If you’re going to a forum or meeting where you know you are going to get your ass handed to you for underperformance on your team, have at least one of your team members there to watch. Then make sure you accept responsibility without blaming individuals on your team. That way they can see the pain you’re going through, can see that you don’t pass blame on, and can tell other members of your team what “actually happened” as opposed to what the rumor mill says.

I’ve used the last point to great success. I once had the CEO of our company hand me my ass during a business review of my new unit (after only a few months in the job) but in front of all senior managers in my (matrixed) unit. The response from everyone afterwards was consistently, “wow, I had no idea we were screwing up that badly” and they all worked way harder the next quarter.

In a nut shell, share the pain you get from above (or be transparent in what happens above), and your team will rally more around you, not less.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

This one seems obvious yet so few people do it. All of the other steps address the human tendencies I talked about except for “most people love being rewarded relative to their peers.” This last step deals with that: figure out who your high performers are, and make sure they are rewarded more. Simple.

And by “rewarded more” I mean cash! I don’t mean praise (although that’s important). I don’t mean fancy titles (although that’s important too). I mean cold hard moolah. The fact is cash is the lifeblood of a company, and if you’re willing to divert more to certain employees, they know they really are valued.

Here’s how I do that:

  1. I stack rank all my employees. Even if the company I’m part of doesn’t require this, I still do it. If I don’t have criteria from above, I still figure out criteria with my management team, and then impose it. And there are no ties.
  2. I then make sure my top 25% of people get at least 50% of the available cash each year.
  3. If someone in my bottom 25% of people doesn’t end up getting a raise, and I lose them, so be it. Usually my star performers are at least 3x to 4x better performers than my bottom performers.
  4. If someone does something truly extraordinary during the year, I find some way to reward them with a tangible reward soon thereafter (it can’t always be cash, but I’ve sent people to spas, gotten them cooking services for two weeks while they had their first kid, and given people an extra day off where I covered for them without them reporting vacation).
  5. At least once every 6 months I review comps for similar positions in other companies ( is good). If one of my high-performers is more than 10% below the median I start bugging HR and finance about a raise for them outside of the review cycle. This isn’t always successful initially (your HR department will always claim they have “better data”) but most HR departments appreciate that I’ve done research. Then if your star mentions to you later that she is thinking of going elsewhere for better comp, your HR and finance departments will very quickly perk up to help given you gave ample warning.

Nothing builds loyalty quite like rewarding people (for great behavior) with cash.

Growing Naked Teams

Do those 7 steps consistently, and give it 3-6 months. What you’ve done is set a clear goal for the team (like deliver water to a city) and then set up a management structure (like an aqueduct) that relies on ingrained human tendencies (like gravity to water) to make your teams automatically achieve their goals. In my experience I find that around month 3 my teams start magically doing the right things and around month 6 consistently exceed my expectations. It’s really worked quite well for me. What’s even better is after you initial investment to get the naked-framework running, it requires relatively little maintenance to keep it going (just make sure your heartbeat and review forums keep running and tackle the top exceptions those two meetings uncover): when running at full speed it takes me about 4 hours a week, 2 hours of pre-meeting and post-meeting work, and 2 hours of meetings.

But what happens if you need to add to, or hire onto, a team? Well, there are some key principles to Growing Naked Teams that apply transparency here as well.

(which I’ll continue next week…)

– Art

Running Naked Teams (I)

(2a of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Last week I said the most important thing a manager does is “figure out the right stuff to do, and then get it done through a group of people”. This series of articles talks about the 2nd part of that: getting it done.

The Weight of Water

Water is really heavy. As a kid I would often have to bring water to our cows, and the bucket handles would painfully bite into my hands. Poor me.

But that was only two buckets a day – imagine if I had to do it hundreds of time a day. The ancient Assyrians faced this problem as they started to enlarge their cities. Cities often require more water near them than the natural ecosystem supplies, and if you don’t transport water in, you limit the growth of your cities, limit the growth of your economies, and as a result limit your ability to expand as a people.

To solve this problem the Assyrians didn’t resort to armies of water-carriers (their armies were decidedly for a different purpose). Instead they asked was there a better way? There was, and the Assyrians’ solution to water management can teach us a lot about managing teams of people. Read on for how.


Sometime around 7,000BC(1) the Assyrians started building aqueducts (which the Romans famously expanded upon as the photo above shows). Aqueducts are based on a simple principle: water obeys the law of gravity and tries to take the path of least resistance down.

Aqueducts just provide a constantly declining channel for water to flow from high to low ground. So, with the expense of some up-front capital to build the aqueduct, and some minor maintenance work to ensure there are no leaks, the Assyrians were able to deliver water to some of their cities with minimal ongoing costs and no armies of water carriers.

Cool, but…

Getting It Done

…what the hell does this have to do with management?

Well, let’s say you’ve figured out the right stuff to do, but now you’ve got to get a new team of people to actually start doing it. Where to start?

You could take the micromanagement approach, where you tell your team what the goal is, and then individually double-check each person’s work. This will work in the short-term for small teams (<5 people), but never works for large teams and never works in the long-term (ask yourself how long you’d work for someone who micromanaged you). And it’s an incredibly inefficient use of your time. If you think of moving water, you’ve elected to carry every bucket downhill. (The good news is you’ll build some really impressive calluses on your hands.)

Fortunately there is a better way, and aqueducts show how. Aqueducts work because they create an environment where water’s natural tendency (obey gravity) is harnessed to accomplish a larger goal (irrigate fields).

Similarly, as a manager you can get your goals accomplished by creating an environment where your team members’ natural tendencies are harnessed. And there are five human tendencies you can bank on:

  1. Most people want to do a good job.
  2. Most people love being recognized for doing a good job in front of their peers.
  3. Most people love being rewarded relative to their peers.
  4. Most people hate doing a bad job in front of their peers.
  5. Most people will give you the benefit of the doubt if they know you will let them see anything they ask to see.

These are the tendencies that Naked Teams exploit.

Running Naked Teams

What is a Naked Team? If your team is a Naked Team then:

  • It knows what its job is;
  • Every other team in your organization knows what its job is;
  • You transparently publish and hold yourself accountable to your goals; and
  • You manically reward the people on your team who best accomplish the goal.

By running Naked Teams two things happen: Being so exposed and naked, your team will (because of human tendencies) push itself to be in the best possible shape; and by being so exposed and naked, other teams (because of human tendencies) in the organization will (at first) give you the benefit of the doubt, giving you an amazing first-mover advantage to get your team moving(2).

How to Do It

OK, enough philosophical bullshit on why running Naked Teams works – how do you actually do it? Well… I’ll post that tomorrow but I’ll give you a hint now. Here are the 7 steps I follow:

  1. Be Edgy
  2. Install a Pacemaker
  3. Get a Base Hit
  4. Ride Like Paul Revere
  5. Air Your Dirty Laundry
  6. Share the Pain
  7. Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

(to be continued tomorrow…)

– Art

(1) There is some dispute about the actual date. Some people put it around 7,000 BC. Others argument this is impossible given the world is only 6,000 years old, and they threaten those with the prior view with ridicule, excommunication or sometimes burning at the stake.

(2) If you run a naked team, but don’t actually accomplish your goals (either because you’re working at the wrong goals, or because they were beyond your team’s ability), other teams will stop giving you the benefit of the doubt, and instead will ridicule you. Yet another reason why it’s good to run a Naked Team – it really gives you an incentive to succeed quickly.

I Was Wrong


Last week, in a post about the most important thing a manager does, I made a silly comment in a foot note about managing a potential SARS outbreak:

“My guess was quarantine the hospital. Wrong. If you want to know why, e-mail me and I’ll tell you because I’m too lazy to write it in a footnote that no one reads.”

Many e-mails later, I see now that I was wrong, and I apologize. It appears people do sometimes read the footnotes(1). I’m sure the apology is more important than the actual explanation, so I’ll end it at that(2).

– Art

I’m running the NYC Marathon on November 4th for Team Continuum. Click here to donate

(1) I had thought no one read the footnotes because I was not reprimanded by the Pope or the Anti-Defamation-League for my footnotes in this article. Is it possible the Pope doesn’t read my blog?

(2) OK just kidding. Here goes:

To refresh your memory, the scenario was as follows:

You are a local government mayor in Indonesia. You have read about SARS in the local paper but there are no cases in Indonesia. Suddenly you get a phone call from a local hospital where the head of the hospital informs you they have a patient who seems to have SARS-like symptoms. What’s the first thing you do?

So, why should the mayor not quarantine the hospital?


First the lame (but correct) answer: He shouldn’t quarantine the hospital because he is not an epidemiological expert, and therefore doesn’t know if this is the best first step to take in fighting an epidemic. The best first thing the mayor should do is (a) ask the head of the hospital how he can best help and (b) ask to be kept in the loop.

But that’s lame, as it allows me to sidestep the question (not that the Supreme Court is against that form of argument to sidestep an argument).

To make it more interesting, suppose you are the local chief of the WHO, you are in fact an epidemiological expert, and you’ve been given the authority by local governments to take whatever actions you want to protect the population (highly unlikely, but go with me here…). In that case, why wouldn’t you immediately quarantine the hospital?


First the general answer. When faced with a crisis we often think action is most valued, but more often than not action without thinking results in making the situation worse. Crisis managers are taught, when first dropped into a situation, to take as much time to think through the problem and listen to those around them as prudent before taking a step.

This is why first-aid classes teach you to first look around a collapsed body and think about why he or she collapsed before approaching them; what if they tripped on a live wire and you get fried while trying to save them? (Note: don’t spend minutes doing this, but do spend at least 5 seconds.)

This is why firefighters will first assess a burning building for likely causes of a fire before commencing fighting it; what if they just poured water onto an oil fire? (Note: they don’t spend days doing this, but they do spend a minute or two).

So, if you’re our WHO expert the first words out of your mouth should never be, “quarantine the hospital”. A better answer is, “tell me what’s going on here, and how can I help?”


Ok, even that answer is lame because it gives general (but good) reasons. Now, here’s the specific reason why you probably don’t want to quarantine the hospital.

In this specific case where an entire nation (Indonesia) has not had a case yet, quarantining the hospital is unlikely to make the situation better, and may make the situation worse.

Why Quarantining Probably Won’t Make Things Better

Well, given that the local head of the hospital called you with the diagnoses, you could assume (but should check) that the patient (let’s call him Patient Zero) is already in isolation. Most medium sized and large hospitals worldwide have good procedures for handling contagious diseases, and therefore your chances of the hospital being a major site of future contagious infections is very low. And to be brutally frank, you should care a lot more about future infections than about current infections!

What if the patient is not in isolation? While rare, in this case it may be prudent to ask the doctors to put him in isolation and/or quarantine the hospital, but you’ve got to weigh the benefits of doing this against the costs of doing it — And the big cost is it distracts you from the most important job at hand when you only have one case: find out as much about Patient Zero as you can.

Did he just land on an airplane? If so that’s bad (because he was on a small metal tube with lots of other people) but also good (because those people are trackable). If so, start tracking down the people on the plane. They are likely to cause future infections!

Is he a farmer who normally only interacts with his animals? If so that’s good (it means he most likely has contracted something SARS-like but not SARS) but also bad (it could still be SARS in which case how the hell did he get it, or it could be something worse). Make sure you’ve got a team headed out to his farm to quarantine it (not the hospital!) and that you’re working up Patient Zero as efficiently as possible. This will help you determine if and where future infections come from.

Why Quarantining May Make Things Worse

Well, quarantining a hospital is both an epidemiological move and a political move. In the context of SARS, where people are scared about the unknown, and a fast move like that could either reassure people that authorities are on top of things, or scare them unnecessarily resulting in (at the very least) economic damage or (worse case) massive panic. If you’re dealing with a medium sized hospital with isolation procedures for a disease that you know how it transmits (in this case water vapor), your chances of SARS spreading are highest amongst people not already in the hospital.

Therefore you should not quarantine the hospital, but you should find all people who’ve been in contact with Patient Zero and bring them to the hospital.

What’s The Right Thing To Do?

So the right thing to do in this situation is (a) stop and think, (b) ask questions and listen, (c) think again and then (d) act. More specifically, if the team is not doing everything they can to track down the path of infection and path of interaction of Patient Zero, you should concentrate on that before you quarantine the hospital.

The Most Important Thing a Manager Does

(1 of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Lies about Management

Last week I asked:

What’s the most important thing a manager does? Sure, a manager has to “get stuff done through a group of people”, that’s a given, but what’s really the most important thing? Is it training your team? It is hiring A+ people? Is it keeping executives informed? Is it growing your employees’ careers? It is protecting your team from the “craziness above”? Is it removing roadblocks for your team? Is it keeping morale high? ….

Depending upon the month of the management-advice fad calendar, each of the above items is the “most important thing” a manager needs to do. You can find books extolling all of them as paramount. And it goes through phases as magazines like Harvard Business Review gush over the need for better communication, or the need for morale-management.

But want to know something… it’s all lies.

The most important thing a manager does is almost never hiring A+ people; it’s almost never keeping executives informed; it’s almost never “protecting the team”.

The most important thing a manager does is the thing I glossed over: figure out the right stuff to do, and then get it done through a group of people.

Keep reading, and I’ll tell you how to do that.

A Tale of Two Managers

Is “figuring out the right stuff to do” the most important thing? It’s easy to prove by comparing two managers.

The first manager, let’s call him Bob, hires A+ people, is amazing at keeping executives informed, and works hard on growing his employees’ careers. His team really feels that Bob has their back, and that he’ll do anything to help them grow. But Bob never really thinks about what his team’s job is supposed to be, and as a result, while they do stuff, they don’t get the right things done.

The second manager, let’s call her Alice, doesn’t particularly shoot for A+ people, doesn’t do a great job informing her management, has poor people skills, micromanages everything, and her people hate working for her. But Alice drives a tough shop, knows what her team is supposed to do, and viciously makes sure it gets done.(1)

What happens in this scenario? Bob is either let go (the good, but rare solution) or left to languish in middle-management (the bad, but usual result). Alice meanwhile is promoted until she is no longer effective at getting the right stuff done, and then is either demoted (the good, but rare situation) or left to languish in senior-management.

Put another way: Executives talk about the need to hire A+ people and keep morale high but reward getting the right stuff done even if done with D people who hate their jobs.

So if you don’t take the time to figure out the right thing to do, or then you don’t make sure you get that thing done, you’re not going to get rewarded.

Why Don’t We Do It?

Therefore the most important thing a manager does is figure out the right stuff to do because if you don’t do that, how can you know you’re doing the right thing (I’ll talk later about how to get the right stuff done). Reading this you probably think “well duh, of course.” Really? If that’s the case, why don’t people do it?

I’ve worked for managers who, while great people, could never tell me what our team did and did not do. They couldn’t tell me why we were a team at all, instead of just part of some other team. I’ve worked for Bobs and I’ve worked for Alices. Sound familiar?

If you’re a manager reading this right now, can you articulate in 10 seconds what your team does? Can you articulate in 10 seconds what your team does not do (I mean the things a reasonable person might assume you do, but you don’t)? If not, the good news is you’re like most middle managers. The bad news is you’re part Alice, part Bob, or part both.

In my first job as a manager, I couldn’t answer what my team was supposed to do. Eventually I did find the time to ask what “the right stuff to do” was, and I came to a startling conclusion: Having a team structured like mine actually got in the way of the company getting the right stuff done. The result: I proposed a different organization to my manager where my team was split up and reorganized to better get the right stuff done(2). And this was far better for me, my old team, my new team, and the company.

So why doesn’t every manager first figure out the right stuff to do? Well, it’s because we’re excited to start, we think we know what we’re changing, and we’re often wrong.

WHO, SARS, and Management

During the SARS epidemic in 2004 my wife attended a lecture given by someone at the World Health Organization (WHO). This particular lecture was about disaster and crisis management. Afterwards J (knowing I like to think about crisis management) asked me for my thoughts on the following scenario:

You are a local government mayor in Indonesia. You have read about SARS in the local paper but there are no cases in Indonesia. Suddenly you get a phone call from a local hospital where the head of the hospital informs you they have a patient who seems to have SARS-like symptoms. What’s the first thing you do?

There are lots of options. You could quarantine the hospital. You could quarantine the town. You could inform the local military to be on guard. You could immediately get on Television and Radio and warn people. You could…

And every one of those things is the wrong first thing to do(3). The right thing, according to the WHO, is to do the following:

  1. Sit back, breathe deeply, and think. Figure out how much time you have until you must act.
  2. Then, take time to listen to as many people as you can reasonably listen to within available time (which is always longer than it first appears).
  3. Then, sit back, breathe deeply, and think again.
  4. Then act!

Why is that? Because if you don’t think, your first step will likely make the situation worse, not better. But if you pause to think, you’ve done something rare in a crisis and started the path to recovery.

Your First Steps as a New Manager

I’m not saying that managing the SARS crisis is the same level of complexity as become a manager for the first time, but the first steps you take should be the same. In order to figure out the right stuff to do, you should do 4 things:

1) Think: Write down what you think your job is. Write down what you think your job isn’t. Write down what you think the first things you need to do are. Then stop and…

2) Listen: Talk to your new team, your boss, your bosses’ peers, your peers, etc. about what they think your job is. What do they think your job isn’t? It’ll be different than what you thought, and different than what you interviewed for (it always is). Don’t argue about it with them, just get their input and tell them you’ll get back to them soon with your plan.

3) Think: Now, go back to your list in step 1, think about all the feedback, and revise what you think your job is and the first things you’ll do. Don’t necessarily follow every instruction that people gave you — independently come to your own conclusions about what you should do – but do let their feedback influence your plans. Every time I do it I’m amazed. I always find the first things I thought I needed to do, are never the first things I actually need to do.

4) Act: And then act. The steps you just wrote down should tell you how to get the right stuff done. And sometimes, yes, it involves hiring A+ people, increasing morale, improving executive communication, but sometimes it doesn’t. Only do those things if it helps get the right stuff done. By first thinking about the right stuff to do, you make sure you focus on the ends, and not the means, and you’re free to choose whether this job actually requires.

The Truth about the Lies

If you’re a manager dealing with knowledge workers with inherently undefined jobs, in reality the things I dismissed above such as growing employees’ careers and hiring A+ people are means that often help you achieve your ends. But let me stress that by far the most important thing as a new manager you need to is, “figure out what you need to do”. Then, pick or don’t pick your means as necessary.

So, that said, the rest of this series will concentrate on a set of means that I find are very flexible for getting the right stuff done. They are the rules of Naked Management and are useful when:

  1. You have teams of highly skilled knowledge workers who
  2. You need to be effective over multiple projects not just a single project, and
  3. You expect will need to be resilient to constant change and chaos from the market and from other management shifts

If you’re a manager of a team like that then may I recommend Running Naked Teams!

(which I’ll continue next week…)

– Art

I’m running the NYC Marathon on November 4th for Team Continuum. Click here to donate.

(1) Some people will claim my examples of Bob and Alice are facetious because in reality it’s incredibly unlikely that Alice will be successful by shitting on her people. Wrong. It depends entirely on what “the right stuff to do is”. For example, if Alice and Bob’s job is “night shift manager at a fast food restaurant”, where high-turnover rates are the norm, and many aspects of the job are independently measured (and so don’t rely as much on the manager self reporting), then Alice will be quite successful at that job. And Bob will waste lots of energy trying to grow the careers of people who likely are going to quit in 40 day anyway. It depends on what “the right stuff to do” is.

(2) My team did get the stuff assigned to us done, mostly through good people, and a lot of micro managing. But the fact was we were getting stuff done in a completely different way than other client-facing groups in the company, and this was causing a lot of pain in every other part of the organization that had to do things in a centralized way. And this “pain” was showing up as tension on the floor, longer ship times, buggier launches, and projects going over budget.

(3) My guess was quarantine the hospital. Wrong. If you want to know why, e-mail me and I’ll tell you because I’m too lazy to write it in a footnote that no one reads. J
click here.

The Rules of Naked Management

Pop Quiz

What’s the most important thing a manager does?

Sure, a manager has to “get stuff done through a group of people”, that’s a given, but what’s really the most important thing? Is it training your team? It is hiring A+ people? Is it keeping executives informed? Is it growing your employees’ careers? It is protecting your team from the “craziness above”? Is it removing roadblocks for your team? Is it keeping morale high? ….

The First Time Manager

The first time I became a manager I asked a lot of folks that question, and read a lot of books and articles. And I got all sorts of answers back. Every one of the items above was “the most important thing” I needed to do according to some sources.

I tried to follow a lot of the advice the first time out, without really understanding WHY I should follow it, and I’ll bluntly say I wasn’t successful at it.

Sure, the individuals who reported to me got all the stuff done my managers wanted done, but my victims employees had to put up with a lot of mistakes as I learned what being a manager was actually about. Certainly at no point did we have a team working to achieve the same goals. In reality I was just an individual contributor checking in on other individual contributors, playing at being a manager, and usually just getting in the way (see pigeon management). Two of my employees ended up quitting, and another (high performer) transferred to another group to avoid me.

In retrospect I realized it was because I didn’t have my own answer to what’s the most important thing a manager needs to do. So for my second big outing as a direct manager, I tried a different approach: I figured out what’s the most important thing I needed to do as a manager, and then I did that. I didn’t worry about any of the other crap unless it directly helped the most important thing.

And I got more successful.

So, what is that “most important thing”?

The Rules of Naked Management

Well, that’s what the next series of articles is about. Some folks have asked me to write a little more about the concept of naked teams, and how to be a first time manager, so here goes. In this series, I will talk about:

  1. The Most Important Thing A Manager Does;
  2. The Rules for Running Naked Teams;
  3. The Rules for Growing Naked Teams;
  4. The Rules for Growing Individuals;
  5. and The Rules for Keeping Your Sanity

My apologies to anyone who has been through this before, as this series of posts is based on some training programs I developed for first time managers. But if you’re a first time manager, think you want to manage people, or have been managed by someone and you wish would be a “naked manager”, then hopefully this series will be useful.

As usual, there’ll be at least one update per week.

The Rules for Rules

This series will be laid out in a series of rules, with reasons why the rules are the way they are. You’ll see there are quite a few rules to follow. To help guide you in how to follow the rules here’s the two most important rules.

If you take NOTHING else from this series of articles, just remember these two rules and you’ll be well served:

#1) Rules should be followed

I’m not claiming I came up with these rules myself. They are based on my experience (yes) which I’ve now reapplied successfully many times. But they are also based on studying at a lot of effective managers at companies I’ve worked at, and at effective people in other companies. They’ve been tested on thousands of employees. And in general they just work. If you see a rule, and you’re doing the opposite, you owe it to yourself to ask, “why am I not following this rule?” Usually you’ll find you become a better manager by following the rule.

Still think you shouldn’t be following the rules? Swallow your pride. Put your ego aside. Shut up and realize you’re no different than anyone else. Seriously! That “special circumstances” bullshit doesn’t fly here. You’re not really different. Follow the goddamn rules!

Still think you shouldn’t be following the rules, and you have “good reasons” why you shouldn’t? Well, enter rule #2:

#2) Rules must be broken

Management is an art, not a science. If we could break it down into a series of rules that are followed 100% of the time, then some smart person would write a computer program to be a manager and I for one would welcome our new management overlords.

But management is an art, and as with all art, requires judgment to be effective. If you’ve tried to follow rule #1 above, really put your ego aside, and still think you should not follow one of the rules, then break the rule. Truly great managers, like truly great artists, don’t follow the rules. However, like truly great artists, they KNOW the rules (e.g. Picasso learned classical painting first), KNOW when they break the rules, and KNOW how they break the rules.

Trust Yourself

Put another way, rules are no substitute for judgment, and over time you’ll find your own way through this mess. So please read and learn these rules, but ultimately you’re going to have to learn to trust your own judgment and discard the crap (mine included) that folks tell you about management if it doesn’t work for you.

I’m just sorry I had to experiment on Jim, Nolan, Craig, David, Aileen and Scott to figure that one out (sorry guys).

– Art

Help me raise money for people suffering from cancer

Starting a Company with Boxes and M&Ms

This article talks about the importance of projecting confidence while innovating, but that your confidence needs to be firmly based on principles, and regularly subjected to transparent review. It also has a short teaser about my new company and a commitment about that company.

The Law of the Box

Think back to high school. You’re wandering through the hallways skipping your class and a teacher sees you – It’s an instant recipe for detention.

Now, imagine the same scenario, except this time you’re confidently carrying a box on your shoulder when the teacher sees you. Suddenly the teacher assumes you’re doing something for another teacher, and lets you pass.

By looking and acting like you know what you’re doing, you can directly influence the behavior of others, even when there is no way you could actually know what you’re doing – This is the Law of the Box.

I first discovered the Law of the Box while carrying a box of text books for my English teacher in 9th grade: Three different teachers let me pass without even blinking.

Once I recognized the phenomenon I kept a collapsed cardboard box in my locker. I would skip class, run to my locker, reassemble the box, and walk off campus to get bagels, confident that I would not be stopped by any teacher for any reason. (I was a nerd in high school, but I was a sneaky nerd.)

Evil and the Law of the Box

The Law of the Box is a very powerful tool in the hands of fourteen year old kid. In the hands of an adult, the ability to project confidence in the face of the unknown can be even more powerful, and like Faith can be used for both good and evil.

It’s the evil examples we remember most. By looking like you know what you’re doing, by following the Law of the Box, you can do horrible things (even if you think your principles are sound). For example:

  • You can convince employees to invest and lose their retirement savings in your company;
  • You can convince 38 people to commit suicide simultaneously; or
  • You can convince a country to invade another country to rid a dictator of weapons of mass destruction.

As I start my own company(1), I’ve given a lot of thought to the Law of the Box. To some the Law may seem Machiavellian, or manipulative, and just plain wrong. And it can be.

But the truth is all successful people follow the Law of the Box at times. And in order to accomplish anything truly innovative with a team of people, you absolutely must follow the Law.

It cannot be avoided.

So if following the Law is necessary to do something innovative, and I will be forced to use it as I get my company off the ground, how do I ensure I use the Law of the Box for good?

I believe the way to do it is state clear principles that we’ll operate by (with Mr. Bush did do), but be transparent in my decision making (which Mr. Bush did not do). In other words, I must Run Naked.

Read on for why.

A Confidence Game

I made the claim that “all successful people follow the Law at times”. Does that mean that all successful people claim confidence in an area they really can’t be confident in? Yes, it does. Does that make them conmen? Not at all!

Take the world of medicine again… Doctors are constantly treating people with unknown illnesses. (In fact during the diagnosis stage, all patients have “unknown” illnesses by definition.) But good doctors are trained to always present themselves with confidence even if they don’t know the actual problem, and while they try not to lie, they do present their thoughts in a way that attempts to maintain the confidence of the patient.

For example, my mother tells me that she has “primary idiopathic hypertension” and that her doctors are on top of it and treating it well. “Primary idiopathic hypertension” is the official name of her illness, and I believe her doctors are, in fact, treating it extremely well.

But my mother has no idea that “primary idiopathic” just means “the most common form of blood pressure, but we have no idea what’s causing it”. Her doctors present the term to her in way that disguises the uncertainty, my mother feels more confident, she takes her medicine, and hence feels better. (If you like “idiopathic”, also check out “iatrogenic,” another term often thrown around by doctors.)

Physicians are not doing it to be malicious – they are doing it because they know that if a patient loses confidence their chances of a successful recovery decline. In other words, it is in the best interest of the patient for the doctor to act with confidence.

I’m not harshing on doctors – I have immense respect for anyone who goes into that field. My point is in order to effectively do their jobs in an inherently uncertain environment, they must always look like they know what they are doing, or patients will lose confidence and get sicker.

Doctors follow the Law of the Box. So does any person who needs to change, inspire, comfort, lead or manage other people in an environment of uncertainty.

Innovation, Faith & Confidence

This is why innovators and entrepreneurs must follow the Law of the Box all the time. By definition, if you’re accomplishing something new and innovative, you’re doing something that has never been done before. It’s therefore completely impossible for you to actually know completely what you’re doing.

Like with doctors, lack of confidence is contagious; if you don’t project confidence, your team will not weather the squalls of uncertainty that you’ll encounter on your voyage.

Could Columbus have manned a fleet of 3 ships to find a “passage to India” if he had not projected confidence in his ability to navigate (which he clearly overestimated)? Unlikely.

Could the US government have maintained the support of the nation to put a man on the moon of they had not projected complete confidence in their ability to safely do it? Unlikely, and yet if you look inside the Apollo program you see countless examples of uncertainty, and even cases of death on the way to the goal.

To innovate, you must (1) have Faith in your mission and (2) you must project a confidence in excess of the facts on the grounds (the Known) in order to keep your ship sailing. You must follow the Law of the Box.

Hippocrates liked M&Ms

So, the Law of the Box is pervasive, must be followed by all entrepreneurs, and can be used for both good and evil. How does one ensure it is used for good?

Again, let’s return to the medical world. Doctors, a group of the world’s best confidence-men and women, manage to use the Law of the Box for good. They do so by clearly stating the principles they operate by, and by having a method to ensure transparency.

The principle is Hippocrates’ oath: Do no (unnecessary) harm. Most every non-doctor has heard of this. And ask any physician and you’ll find they take the oath quite seriously.

But most lay people (non-doctors) have not heard of the medical culture and concept of M&Ms, and it is just as important as Hippocrates’ oath. M&Ms for doctors are not tasty chocolate candies – they are “Morbidity and Mortality” conferences. All major hospitals hold them regularly.

In an M&M conference, physicians present their own cases where their patient had a poor outcome and review their mistakes openly in front of their peers. They face critique. They get advice from other doctors on how do better in the future. They force themselves to get honest assessments for how well they live by the Hippocrates oath.

And in this way, they have a check and balance on their projections of confidence. Unlike Mr. Bush as he went to war in Iraq, Doctor’s regularly check themselves and hold themselves accountable to their principles.

In other words, doctors run naked.

How Naked is “Naked”?

But just as important as what happens in an M&M conference is what doesn’t happen in an M&M conference. M&Ms do not criminalize mistakes – doctors are human and recognize that mistakes will happen. They view the mistakes as a way to learn.

And doctors don’t open the M&Ms to the general public.

Wait, isn’t that a violation of Running Naked? Shouldn’t you Run Naked completely openly?


The point of Running Naked is to make sure you allow some independent people to review how you adhere to your principles, but Running Naked does not require everyone to see everything.

In fact, you can often expose yourself, your organization and the world to unhealthy harm by being too naked.

It’s a balancing act of independence of your reviewers versus their familiarity with the problem space, and while I do believe you should lean heavily towards independence over familiarity, sometimes you must choose familiarity.

Consider this case of life and death. A non medical person may find it appalling that a doctor could deliver a fatal dose of a drug to a five year old child by misreading a syringe, and will often look to punish the doctor (for proof of this, just look at the medical ‘malpractice’ industry). But this is likely not going to help the emotional wellbeing of the patient’s family, the doctor in question, or the world at large, and certainty will not bring the child back to life. (It will often however help the legal malpractice attorney’s, and the patient’s family, financial wellbeing.)

An independent, but not public, M&M conference will look at the surrounding circumstances where the patient was in the emergency room, chaos was everywhere, and a split second decision needed to be made. The doctor being reviewed is a lot more likely to share unflattering details about his or her performance. The committee may see the doctor got distracted half way through filling the syringe when the patient’s heart beat stopping. They will see that the doctor tried to live by the Hippocrates motto, but made a mistake that any human could make, and will concentrate the remediation on fixing the system (as a result, some dangerous medicines now come in pre-packaged syringes that guarantee the correct dose).

In reality, they make the system stronger by not being 100% naked.

Want other examples of organizations that project confidence in a world of intense uncertainty, but still ensure they use the Law of the Box for good without being 100% naked? Take a look at how the FAA consistently projects confidence in the safety of the air travel industry, and how they use post-accident review processes to hold themselves and their industry accountable to their principles (note: these are mostly public, but not completely).

Starting a Company

So what does this have to do with my new company? I’m not posting exactly what the company is doing here because that’s not yet in the best interest of my (future) customers, team and investors. (I will tell you the company’s working-name is Vlideshow).

Instead, let me talk about confidence. To get this company off the ground, I’m going to have to deal with a lot of uncertainty. I am 100% confident there is an opportunity here, and a customer base with a need that we can serve better than everyone else. I am 100% confident that Vlideshow will meet that need with aplomb. But my confidence has many unknowns and assumptions underlying it. How can I be sure that my confidence guides me in a direction that will actually be good for my customers, team and investors?

To solve this problem, I plan to do two things. First, I will publish (openly) a set of Operating Principles that Vlideshow will live by. And secondly, I will set up a group of independent reviewers where I present the mistakes I make while trying to adhere to those principles for review and learning. This will not be a public review committee – as some of the things we learn would help our competition in ways that is not good for our investors or team – but the committee will have real teeth and I will follow its advice.

Now’s I recognize it’s lame of me to claim this post is about starting my company and not tell you what the Vlideshow product is, so if you’re curious as to what I’m up to, feel free to give me a buzz and I’ll happily chat with you about it.

I’m especially interested in hearing from you if you’re an engineer:

  • experienced in streaming media and/or web-applications;
  • always have an eye for scaling architecture but absolutely believe in “ship first, ask questions later”;
  • have a burning yen to change the world with the most fun product you’ve ever worked on; and
  • you’re up for some excitement (and some risk) in co-founding a company (I’d prefer if you’re based in the Bay Area or New York City).

If you’re that person, I want you to help decide the Operating Principles with me.

415-378-4554 is my cell, or e-mail me at “aclarke(at)” (replace the (at) with @).


– Art

Help me raise money for people suffering from cancer

(1) For those who don’t know, I left Stolen Bases about a month ago to pursue my own company. It was a hard decision, and while I continue to believe in the Stolen Bases mission and assist the Stolen Bases folks (and they advise me on my new company), I was at a good transition point and I’m so excited about the opportunity my new company is pursuing I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So here I am.

The Story so Far…

Did you know, you can sign-up for an e-mail version of every post by clicking here
(and you can remove yourself at any time).

This is my 3-month anniversary of starting this blog. How time has flown. Thank you to everyone for their support (both financial and emotional) as I’ve been attempting this. And major thanks to my wife who, on top of everything else she does, somehow finds time to support me in this by listening, editing, and being supportive of the time this takes.

For any new readers I’ve picked up I thought I’d update my cheat sheet for the blog.

This is Running Naked, a blog where I’m chronicling in public my attempts to “achieve contentment through the pursuit of perfection“. (Don’t worry; I have no misconceptions of ever achieving perfection, but I believe that attempting to become a better human each day is itself the worthy goal).

Here’s a summary of the major posts so far:


What it’s about

The Cortez School of Management

Why I’m “Running Naked”, how I got here, and what I’m trying to achieve.

How I Lost 25 Pounds by Being a Manager

A series of posts where I discuss 5 rules I’ve used for managing change professionally, and how I applied them to lose weight and get back in shape.

The Pragmatic Path to Agnosticism

A series of posts where I “run naked” on how I approach Spirituality and the nature of an Awesome Universe.

Pain, Suffering and Financial Loss

A plea for your help to raise money for people suffering from cancer, and for your support as I train for a 200 mile bike ride (September 2007) and the New York marathon (November 2007).

Why Doctors Use Soap

An introduction to a way of solving problems and tracking progress in both professional and personal contexts.

Nude Numbers

Week by week reports where I “run naked” with transparent data on how well I’m living up to my training commitments. The data is presented in SOAP note format.

Daydreaming, Laziness and Looking at the Negative

How I tackle goals in my life. Seriously J

There are other posts smattered throughout the blog, but those are the major ones. We’ll see where the next three months takes this.

Per a request from a few weeks ago, the next series of articles are going to be about managing and running naked teams. Stay tuned for “Nudity and the Modern Manager”.

If you have other requests, please e-mail me at “aclarke (at)”. Thanks again,

– Art

Help me raise over $10,000 to help people suffering from cancer

The Shiny Ball of Atheism

(2 of 5 in the Pragmatic Path to Agnosticism)

Imagine a Faith that has delivered miracles you’ve actually seen in your lifetime, other miracles that can be conclusively documented in prior lives, and that promises, based on an unparalleled track record, continued miracles in the future.

Imagine you have just been admitted into the leading seminary of that Faith, where you, surrounded by true believers and acolytes, are promised a position in the clergy and a chance (however small) to brush arms with the saints of the Faith, and someday perhaps be a saint yourself.

Imagine all that is asked of you to be part of this world is hard work, and strict adherence to doctrine. Officially, you can even worship another God if you’d like. What’s not to like?

Do all this, and you’ve conceived of Caltech. I was admitted in 1992, joined a fraternity-like dorm, and found a new way of viewing life that would shape my outlook on the world.

It was here, after having rejected Catholicism in high-school, through using several of the new shiny tools and toys I was given during my education that I came to be a devout atheist.

The Scientific Method

Science is founded on many principles, but few are more important than the Scientific Method. It’s a series of steps that are drilled into every budding scientist, and that you (should) follow throughout your career. You start by having a question you want to answer, such as “what does matter consist of” and then you go from there:

One of the key points in the method is how it determines truth or falsity. The method does not have to completely prove something – only show a hypothesis is consistent based on known data, is probably true, and can make some (falsifiable) prediction about the future.
If you can meet these three definitions, then your hypothesis achieves the coveted title of “accepted scientific theory.”

A Tangent on Probability

Many readers may be familiar with probability, but let’s go through a brief refresher. In science we talk of events occurring with a certain probability, and all we mean is, all things being equal, how LIKELY is the event to occur. Events can be very likely (i.e. more times than average, the event will occur) or very unlikely (i.e. more times than average, the event will not occur). Imagine placing an event along the following scale:

Now, this being science, folks like to apply numbers, and then usually assign probability a number between 0% and 100%. What does that mean? Well:    

0% is “it will NEVER happen” and 100% is “it will ALWAYS happen”. And 50% means “it might or might not happen”, or “50-50”, or “even odds.” Let’s consider the classic case of “flipping a coin”:

On average, you’ll get heads once out of every two coin flips. So, the probability of getting a heads (assuming an average coin) is 50%. What about the odds of getting EITHER a heads or a tails?

If you’re asked to bet $1 to potentially win $2 on this question, it’s probably a good idea to take the bet. You’ll win ALMOST all the time. But you might think the probability of getting EITHER heads or tails would be 100% or “Dead Certain”, but it’s not. Why is that? Well…

…it’s possible that the coin will land EXACTLY on its side. The probability of this occurring is very very small, but it’s not zero. So you can’t say the odds of getting EITHER heads or tails is 100%, just that it’s very close (say, 99.9999%).

That is an important part of the scientific method. It tells us what is PROBABLY true, but it is usually impossible to prove anything to 100% (one exception). Still, being PROBABLY true is usually enough, and is very valuable: you can use it to make extremely accurate predictions about the future! For example, I confidently predict the sun will rise tomorrow, but technically the probability of that occurring is not 100%.

And I’d guess most people can agree on the likelihood of the following events being true and make some accurate predictions about the future based on them (for example, will you find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow tomorrow?):

Technically as an Irish citizen I’m require to believe it is possible leprechauns exist, but I know it’s extremely improbable. It’s also possible that Lucky Charms Cereal does not actually exist (e.g. we all live in a Matrix like world), and I really hope it doesn’t, but it is extremely probable that it does exist.

March of the Scientists

Seems boring (it often is) but this method, in various forms, has been followed since the ancient Greeks, and the results have been outstanding. Think of the miracles that science has brought us, and almost all can be attributed to consistent repeated application of the scientific method: the theory of gravity, plastics, flight, nuclear power, and computers to just name a few. Consistent application of forming hypothesis, doing tests, examining data and repeating: in this way, we have uncovered the world.

And coincident with the rise of this method, a culture has arisen among scientists, and Caltech is no exception among them. It is a culture of intense optimism in the belief the science can continue its rapid progress and illuminate more of the universe. And it is a culture of intense skepticism, questioning those who believe in things that science has proven to be false but also (usually) relentlessly questioning the things that science has already proven to be true (a good example is how Einstein questioned Newtonian gravity and as a result brought a deeper understanding of that theory). (Note: in its purported focus on self-questioning, science is differentiated from almost all other faiths, and certainly all mono-theistic faiths I know of).

What does this have to do with God? I had struggled with the concept of God, and my struggles intensified as I learned more about the world. Even before I went to college, I had formed a belief that the world was divided into things we knew (could prove) and things that were unknown (we hadn’t yet proved or disproved), and I was trying to rapidly expand the former. God and the concept of spirituality firmly lived in the world of the Unknown for me.

Caltech showed me was a way to rapidly expand what we knew, gave me a set of tools that could be used to achieve that goal, and imbued me in a faith that we will continue to make progress.

I viewed the world at the start of mankind as being mostly “The Unknown” with a small set of knowledge (e.g. how to make fire)…

…and that over time through the application of the scientific method we’ve rapidly expanded on the amount we know.

The more we looked for spirituality in the world of the known, the more we failed to find it, and we were rapidly running out of “unknown” areas where spirituality could hide. Evidence of the existence of God was scarce. In fact, the data and experiments done by mankind over the last 2,000 years, and especially since Darwin, have pointed towards the improbability of the existence of the God I grew up with (and certainly in the concept the world was built in 7 days 6,000 years ago).

I came to believe during my time in college that we were rapidly expanding on our knowledge and removing places for God and Spirituality to hide, and that we were likely to prove that concepts of God, spirituality, Plato’s unmoved mover, and others were nothing but the biochemical rantings and ravings of a fit species trying to survive:

Support Group for Atheists

And I wasn’t alone in this belief – in college a belief in the non-existence of God was the most popular view point among my compatriots (agnostics were tolerated, but theists were ostracized). I believe among hard-science intellectual communities today, it remains the dominant belief due to three arguments:

  1. There has been a relentless increase in the things we’ve proven about the universe.
  2. During thousands of experiments, we have found no evidence that proves the existence of God.
  3. The culture of science, correctly, puts huge value on skepticism.

Therefore, it is PROBABLE that God and spirituality are purely concepts, invented by man, and any instantiations of either concept can be wholly explained via (eventually) knowable physical phenomenon. And anyone who says anything different, well, that’s “crazy talk.”

And it’s fun. It leads to wonderfully amusing things like the God FAQ, cute summaries of traditional theist arguments for the existence of God, and countless fun spoofs of people of Faith including one of my favorite, What Would Jesus Drive?

I’m a sarcastic person, and the opportunity to use these tools and logic to eviscerate the concepts I’d had forced upon me as a young man was too good to give up. And I became an ardent hard-core atheist, mocking any who tried to advance an alternate view of existence.

(…by the way, hard-core atheists are not quite as amusing, as Unitarian Jihadists…)

What’s Your Problem?

So now I had a philosophy to replace my concepts of order in the universe. What was the problem? My friend Sarah put it to me much better than I ever could write, so I quote:

“There has been a philosophical gap there, maybe since Spinoza. I think atheists and agnostics need a spiritual outlook as much as anyone else, but they have more difficulty finding it. (By “spiritual” here, I am referring to a sense of wonder, awe, or inspiration, and obviously not a belief in supernatural agents.) I find people like Bertrand Russell inspirational in the sense that they lived good lives despite a lack of belief, but atheist philosophers have a tendency to recommend calm stoicism in the face of the universe, rather than inspiration or awe. Stoicism is nice and all, but it doesn’t get you through the day.”

I gradually realized that pure atheism without any sense of spirituality “didn’t get me through the day.”

And just as importantly, I realized that my logic in arriving at hard atheism, the 100% confident belief in the non existence of a spiritual element to the Universe, was (and is) horribly flawed.

Why? Strangely (and likely to the dismay of Creationists) Darwin and a German gentleman named Heisenberg point the way.

(which I’ll continue next week…)

– Art

Help me raise over $10,000 to help people suffering from cancer

Evolution, Not Revolution (3 of 5 Rules of Change)

(3 of 5 Rules)

As a reminder, my goal is to get to 10-12% body fat by November 2007 (starting from around 20-23% in August of 2006). This series of articles talks about the approach I’m taking by turning some business management techniques onto myself. In prior posts about changing body fat, I talked about how I “learned what I was changing” and how I had early some success by remembering “less is more“. Those two techniques help you successfully make an individual change. The next 2 articles will talk about how to choose specific changes. The last will talk about how to make a habit of it.

Che and the Art of Revolution Management

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A new executive gets hired into an existing company with a mandate to drastically change how the company does business. She’s awesome. She’s just had amazing success at where she grew revenue from nothing to a gazillion dollars. And, she has big dreams for how the company will change the world.

She’s smart: She knows it’s important to know what she changes, and that less is more. So she’s clearly defined goals for the team and is focused on only one first step! But it’s a big step: she’s going to introduce a brand new product built in a brand new way! She can’t wait to start and her team can’t wait to start…

Fast forward six months, and our intrepid new executive is at odds with all other folks on the executive team, her team is demoralized, no one knows how to get even the simplest stuff done, and all our heroine wants to do is skulk out the door before 4pm and hope no one notices.

What happened? Well, most likely our failed executive tried to implement her revolutionary ends with revolutionary means, and the thing she was trying to change rebelled (a counter-revolution). Like Che Guevara in Cuba in the 1960’s, she tried a change that frightened those who needed to change, and the establishment bucked her. And it’s a very common story…

You Say You Want A Revolution?

This is a blog about change, and it would be foolish of me to dismiss revolutionary means as a way to achieve revolutionary ends – so I won’t. Some truly spectacular things have been achieved with revolutionary means:

  • The American Revolution put in place the world’s most successful representative democracy;
  • Einstein’s sharp break with classical physics allowed us to enter the nuclear age;
  • And Alexander Fleming’s discovery of the antibiotic effects of penicillin changed medicine overnight.

Revolutionary means are exciting; they stir men’s soul; they inspire poetry; they are the means humans remember most in history; Revolutionary tactics are just plain sexy!

But there is a hard truth about revolutions that is rarely publicized:

Revolutionary ends through revolutionary means almost always fail.

Want examples? Well, how about: all the violent revolutions that ended up on the bin heap of history (I’m Irish and our story is littered with them); all the superior technologies that failed to get traction in the marketplace; all the products that have been labeled revolutionary initially that never caught on (Segway anyone?). And I’m not even going to bring up communism.

Why? As mentioned before, everything resists change. And the bigger the change, the bigger the resistance. Revolutionary goals involve change so large it was previously unimaginable. If you try to bring about these goals by making one or two really large changes (revolutionary means), every conscious and unconscious form of resistance will crop up, because (although we won’t admit it) we like the status quo.

For example, if you try to change how a group of people work or interact in some large new way, some people will openly and actively resist your revolutionary change – and these are the easy folks. Worse, others will give lip-service to believing in your change, but continue doing things the old way intentionally. Worst of all, some people will actually believe in your change, but continue doing things the old way anyway because they’re scared. Without near infinite energy and drive to keep pushing against the passive resisters, the revolutionary means will falter. And the revolutionary ends will fail.

It’s not that resisters are bad or evil people; they’re just human. While people can accept and even thrive with small changes, we all get insecure and frightened when the rug is pulled out from under us. Intellectually we may think the change is a good idea, but emotionally we feel threatened.

I want to achieve revolutionary ends, but I don’t have limitless energy or drive and I prefer my attempts at change to have higher odds of success. Fortunately there is another way to succeed…

Vive Le Evolution!

You may not know this, but Malcom McLean has had a big impact on your life. McLean initiated one of the most revolutionary changes of the 20th century – a change that enabled a scale of globalization that was hereto unimaginable. This change has allowed us to get access to goods from far away countries and prices that would shock and astound our grandparents. And what did McLean do? He built a ship that took trailers directly from trucks and stored them directly in its cargo area without requiring the trailer to be opened and repacked.

This one change has directly led to the cost of shipping via the ocean to drop from over $5/ton in the 1950’s to less than $0.20/ton today.

McLean dreamt big and always meant to revolutionize the shipping industry. He first had his big idea of loading ships directly from trucks in 1937, but at the time this idea would have required rail car infrastructure to change, truck beds to standardize, and mechanization to take hold in docks (a place where the Longshoremen ruled) – or put another way, achieving his revolutionary ends would have required truly revolutionary means. He didn’t even attempt it. But over the next 20 years, thanks in large part to World War II, the rail industry developed box cars that loaded directly from trucks. Forms of truck-standardization begin to appear (large boxes). And dock owners were open to mechanization technology to recover margins that had been falling since the war ended. In 1956, the year McLean’s first container ship sailed, his revolutionary change required only one evolutionary idea: load the trailers directly, and therefore don’t require the truck containers to be opened.

McLean is a good example of revolutionary ends achieved through evolutionary means. But it’s not the only one. Property law evolved slowly over centuries in Anglo-Saxon law, but has revolutionized how humans live. The Internet revolution has been achieved through thousands of small evolutions including networking protocols (TCP/IP), cabling innovations (Ethernet), and programs that parse simple text protocols (web browsers).

In fact, look closer at the examples I gave of “revolutionary ends achieved through revolution means” and you’ll see something interesting. While we’re taught the sexy story that they happened overnight, in fact they did not – they evolved:

  • The creation of the US representative democracy experiment started well before the start of the Revolutionary War (you can see it stirring in writings well before 1776), and continues to evolve to this day;
  • Einstein’s big breakthrough of special relativity built heavily on papers published just before Einstein’s (as Newton before him, Einstein saw far because he stood on the shoulders of giants);
  • And Fleming’s “overnight success” with penicillin actually took over 20 years and an entire team of talented scientists making small evolutionary changes.

In all the cases cited above, the drivers of the change had revolutionary ends in mind… they just used a series of smaller evolutionary steps to get there.

Put another way, Evolution, not Revolution.

Fight the Revolution; Accept the Evolution

We’re odd creatures. We’re inspired by revolutionary ends and ideals (the stuff of dreams) but actively resist and fight revolutionary means.

So what’s the key so succeeding at bring about big change? Well, first, it’s always good to have a revolutionary end in mind — the dream is powerful, absolutely required and must be shared by everyone involved in the change.

But in the early stages of change, when you’re trying to get a team to see the goal can be achieved, try to start by evolving from existing systems, people or processes.

People (even good people) will fight a revolutionary step that forces them to move too far out of their comfort zone, but most people (even bad people) will acquiesce to an evolutionary step that moves closer to a revolutionary goal. And after several successful evolutionary steps, while your team may think the next step is yet another evolutionary step, to the outside world you’re a team of revolutionary guerillas successfully installing a new regime (think of this as Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity for Guerillas).

In a more real world example, it’s easy for someone to resist a totally new system, but hard for someone to resist a 20% improvement in an existing system. And once that’s successful, how hard is it to improve another 20% on top of that, especially when your team has seen they could do it once? Before you know it, by making steps that are no more than a 20% change, you’ve made revolutionary change (think of compound interest: 20% growth over 10 years will turn $100 into $620).

Lastly, I’ll admit there are some times where evolution is not the way to go, and you’ve got to make big change (I can’t recommend evolving the Bush cabinet, but that’s OK, because I know George Bush doesn’t believe in evolution either). But these circumstances are rarer than you think they are – we often think it’s the only option because we’re attracted to the concept of revolution. Beware that siren call — you take a big risk by not starting with evolution.

Person, Evolve Thyself!

So back to the goal here, getting to 10-12% body fat by November 2007. It turns out when changing something personal the same principle of Evolution, not Revolution applies.

If you have a revolutionary goal (let’s say run a marathon when you haven’t run more than 1 mile in 10 years), and you use revolutionary means (no training, but take lots of painkillers), you’ll likely fail.

But consistently making small steps that evolve from what you did the week before, you can achieve some spectacular results. For another good example, go read GNP3.0 and watch the revolutionary change that starts in early 2006 by taking small steps.

On my weight loss goals I decided to try to evolve. There are lots of revolutionary means out there; Atkins all-protein-all-the-time diet, Gastric Bypass, or my personal favorite, the Alli Fat pill (which apparently sells quite swell despite the following disclaimer: The treatment effects may include gas with oily spotting, loose stools, and more frequent stools that may be hard to control). All of them are effective in the short term, but people tend to gain the weight back pretty quickly. But for me, they would be huge changes in how I eat or live.

Last week I talked about how I made one small change – I measured what I ate. But with weight loss, your body adapts quickly, so you need to keep changing.

The next step I made was a small evolution on that: I set a target for how much I should eat, and then started eating 6 times a day (I’ll talk next week about why I picked that).

Eating 6 times a day was a very small change — I didn’t change what I ate, just when I ate it. All I had to do was eat half of what I normally ate at a meal (so I could still eat with others), and then eat the remaining bit 3 hours later.

The results: 1% of body fat lost (17.5% to 16.5%) between 4/24 and 5/15, which was right in line with my goals for rate of change. And I never struggled to make the change because it was so small.

Of course, sometimes it’s not obvious where to evolve to for that next 20% improvement. In that case, I’ll recommend — Rule #4: Round Wheels Work.

(which I’ll continue next week …)

– Art

Help me raise over $5,000 $10,000 to help people suffering from cancer