What Stupid Machines and Stupid Processes Reveal

Recently I found myself yelling into the phone. (For those who do not know me, I should explain that this is an extraordinarily rare thing for me. As a rule, I never yell.)

Why was I yelling? I was trying to track down my healthcare flexible spending account card and my call was answered by an automated answering system at United Healthcare:

Automated Answering System (“Machine”): “Hello. How may I help you?”

Me: “I need help with my FSA card.”

Machine: “I think you are calling about financial accounts. Is this correct?”

Me: “No.”

Machine: “OK. Please tell me what you need help with.”

Me: “I need help with my flexible spending account card.”

Machine: “I think you are calling about financial accounts. Is this correct?”

Me: “NOOOOOO!!!!”

Machine: “Please hold for a representative.”


Representative: “Please give me your name and date of birth.”

Representative: ” Please give me your social security number.”

Me: “I gave all of this information to your machine. Didn’t it pass the details through to you?”

Representative: “Yes, but it pulled up the wrong records.”


For the record, I am not a Luddite. (And I’m not a yeller.) So I found myself wondering what the real issue is here.  While I yelled at the machine in a moment of frustration, the reality is that it can do only what it is programmed to do. Amazingly, my request for help with my flexible spending account card was not on its preprogrammed menu. Why would a large health insurance company like United Healthcare omit that? I assume that employees of the health insurance company made the mistake. But who pays the price? Not the machine, which is impervious to my frustration. It’s the frustrated customer.

But that’s not all. Once I finally reached a human at United Healthcare’s outsourced card services provider, I was told that they had sent out a card earlier but it had not been activated. Then I asked them why they didn’t contact me to make sure I had received my card. That question was met with complete silence. And, when I asked to speak to a manager, they put me on infinite hold.

This is not the best way of winning customer loyalty.

So what’s going on here? One might be justified in identifying the following issues:

  • No manifest care or consideration for the customer.
  • Incomplete mapping and implementation of the business process required to meet customer needs.
  • Inadequate feedback loops to provide notice when the system does not operate as planned.

All of these issues are squarely in the knowledge management wheelhouse. We understand who the customer is and make sure the customer is heard and served. We know how to map business processes thoroughly. And, because we practice a discipline built on reflection and continuous improvement, we know how to build and act on feedback loops.

None of this is rocket science. Yet this insurer did not pass the test. Do they need to hire more KM professionals in order to properly meet customer needs?

Of course, there is a more cynical interpretation of this entire scenario: The health insurance company knows exactly who its customer is and it is not me. It is my employer.

Unfortunately, I don’t see an obvious KM fix for this scenario. Do you?

[Photo Credit: Icons8 team on Unsplash]


What is YOUR Future at Work?

How to Predict the Future of Work
(Photo by Wyron A)

What is the future of work? More importantly, what is YOUR future at work?

These are questions my Columbia University colleagues and I have been discussing with increasing frequency as we design our research projects, as well as courses for our students. Because the more we understand emerging trends, the better we can equip our students for a brighter future at work.

But how to identify and interpret emerging trends?

Many years ago, a colleague at my law firm told me that he was leaving his seemingly secure place on partner track to work for a small venture capital fund. He said that the fund’s founder had “noticed” that as baby boomers were getting older they were also getting more invested in fighting their aging. So that founder decided to engage in their fight by investing in the new wellness industry. Over the next few years, he invested in companies that made supplements and other healthcare items and then he shifted into organic wellness products. The founder was well ahead of the curve, thanks to his ability to understand the logical outcome of current trends.

Emerging AI and Automation trends

If you look past the hype about AI, you will see that many businesses are changing the way they work as they explore the potential of this technology. In the process, we are also seeing some shifts in employment patterns emerging. With AI and automation comes dislocation. Unfortunately, according to a recent report on Automation and Artificial Intelligence by the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, the negative impacts of automation and AI are going to hit some groups harder than others:

  • Routine physical and cognitive tasks are most likely to be automated. This has tough implications for people in office administration, production, food preparation, and transportation roles.
  • Smaller, more rural areas will be harder hit by automation than the largest cities. (The higher the level of worker education, the less likely those workers are to lose ground to automation.)
  • Men, youth, and under-represented groups will be most negatively affected by automation.
Education is your insurance for your future at work

The authors of the report propose several policy approaches to mitigate the negative impact of automation. In addition, they recommend some crucial actions for organizations and individuals that come straight out of the playbooks of knowledge management and organizational learning. In their view, the most important thing we can do is promote a learning mindset by taking the following actions:

  • Invest in reskilling incumbent workers
  • Expand accelerated learning and certifications
  • Make skill development more financially accessible
  • Align and expand traditional education
  • Foster uniquely human qualities

Clearly, the keys to employment success and security are to keep ahead of automation through education and to double down on the things that humans do better than machines.

Join us to learn more about the future of work

My Columbia University colleague, Dr. Ed Hoffman, will be speaking about the Future of Work on Thursday, May 2, at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC. After his presentation, Ed, our colleague Jordon Sims, and I will lead an interactive discussion with the audience on the issue. For more information on Thursday’s session, see this post by Ed Hoffman: The Future of Work: Intangibles, Machines, and Cultures of Excellence.

If you are in Washington, DC on Thursday and would like to join us, go to https://dc.alumni.columbia.edu/hoffman for more information on how to attend.

We look forward to seeing you there.


Upgrading Your Digital Workplace

Some organizations seem more tactical than strategic when it comes to their technology. What does this mean? They focus more on individual software or technology platforms than on creating a well-integrated, high-functioning digital workplace. What’s the difference? Well, is your main project a particular Microsoft upgrade or are you operating with a holistic view of how all your technology operates together to give your knowledge workers a seamless workplace they can use no matter where they are, what device they use or when they choose to work?

Paul Miller of the Digital Workplace Group has been studying how we work online for a very long time. As he and his colleagues shifted their focus from intranets to the entire digital workplace, they learned some interesting things about what makes a truly productive digital workplace:

  • first and foremost, the digital workplace must be human-centered rather than technology-centered
  • a well-designed digital workplace makes it easier for everyone to focus on (and measure) outcomes rather than mere presence
  • online collaboration becomes the de facto (and seamless) way of working
  • it includes all necessary business processes and workflows, each of which is properly designed and connected (where necessary) in intelligent ways
  • it is built on consistent information architecture and metadata across the board
  • it integrates all necessary applications via a single gateway interface
  • it begins and ends with an excellent user experience

In The Digital Renaissance of Work, Paul Miller makes the following observation about the way many of us are forced to work:

Based on the fragmentation my colleagues and I in the Digital Workplace Group (DWG) observe in organizations each day, if your digital workplace were a bricks-and-mortar building, the chances are it would be condemned right away on health and safety grounds.  Once you’ve got online, you follow a link, only to find you are being prompted for your password for the umpteenth time. What was it again? Now it’s time to leave the ofice to go to a client…OK, I can review the meeting notes in the taxi … but hang on, I can’t access them on my iPad…

Does this sound familiar. If so, you may need to spend time thinking about how to upgrade your digital workplace. To learn more, see Paul Miller’s webinar on hbr.org: How to Create a Digital Workplace. Alternatively, see these downloadable resources provided by DWG. If, on the other hand, you think your digital workplace is in good shape, consider benchmarking it against DWG’s Digital Workplace Map. No matter what you choose, do something. Your colleagues are desperate for a truly productive digital workplace that serves and delights.

[Photo Credit: Geralt]


A Different Way to Practice Law

Session Description:  Lyman Thai will give us an inside look at the business model, KM, and legal tech approach of Atrium, a full-service corporate law firm that uses modern technology to give startups a legal experience that is fast, transparent, and price predictable.

[These are my notes from a private gathering of senior knowledge management professionals from large law firms. The participants come from law firms around the world.]

  • Atrium’s Mission. To accelerate our clients’ growth through world-class legal advice and frictionless transactions.
  • Atrium’s Structure. They have a lawyer-owned, lawyer-run law firm that complies with ethical requirements regarding law firm ownership and management. They have a separate limited liability company, LTS, that houses their technology and product development operations.
    • LTS is a Delaware corporation and has venture capital funding.
    • Their practicing lawyers are encouraged to invest in the tech company so they are all aligned.
  • How they are different from other firms.
    • Two-entity structure
      • The law firm and LTS are independent but aligned.
      • Economic arrangements: Partners enjoy the economic upside of the law firm’s operations. All employees enjoy the economic upside of the operations and success of  LTS.
      • Parity of Personnel: the lawyers are not subordinated to the technologists; the technologists are not subordinated to the lawyers.
      • Lawyers tend to practice the way they were taught. This often includes inefficiencies. When lawyers have to explain their processes to their software developer colleagues, this tends to expose inefficiencies that now must be fixed.
    • Fixed-price model.
      • this is forcing model that helps expose inefficiencies. Once fixed, this gives the law firm a competitive advantage
      • it creates a friendlier working environment for clients
    • Tech to streamline legal services
    • Role specialization
    • Starting with startups
      • Startups tend to provide rapid and frank feedback, which helps Atrium improve.
      • Atrium has adopted shorter sales cycles for legal matters and legal tech.
  • Atrium’s Values. These guide who they hire and what they do.
    • Win with Integrity
    • Elevate the game = this focuses on mentoring and feedback. No one is too high or too low offer and receive feedback so they can improve their performance.
    • Rethink the cake  = question assumptions, reason from first principles not just from precedent.
    • Own your own role, own the whole
    • A-team or fail = regardless where you sit, you are part of a single team (One Atrium) so everyone values and supports “their togetherness.”
    • Delight every client
  • Rethinking the Cake Leads to Process Improvements.
    • The cake story:
      • little girl is baking a cake with her mother and notices that the mother cuts off the edges of the baked cake in a particular way.
      • little girl asks why and the mother responds: I don’t know. It’s how grandma always did it.
      • little girl then asks grandma why. Grandma responds: when your mother was a little girl I had the wrong-shaped cake pan so I had to cut the baked cake into the right shape.
      • moral of the story: question assumptions, keep asking why.
    • Specialized business units
    • Standardization galore
    • Project Management — they use Asana to manage products
  • Net Promoter Score (NPS)
    • law firms typically have an NPS of 25
    • tech firms typically have an NPS of 35
    • super-tech firms typically have an NPS of 60
    • Atrium’s current NPS is 61 and they are working to improve this
  • Their Approach to Products
    • Legal Apps (Workflow) — their engineers develop apps built around common legal workflows
    • Core (Collaboration) — they have created an SaaS platform for internal and external users
    • Data Platform (Documents) — Data services layer for processing documents, extracting metadata, and make the resulting insights available to their lawyers.
  • Build/Buy Decision
    • they are happy to buy tools that solve 80% of the problem
    • they build tools when these tools would give them a competitive advantage — actually, an unfair advantage!
  • Client Facing
    • They want to be as client facing as possible. So they solicit a lot of client feedback and suggestions.
    • Last quarter, several clients asked for a way to simplify and expedite their internal hiring processes. So they created a client-facing legal app that satisfies this client request.
    • They are creating a “single source of truth” for legal documents — a way of storing documents for clients and allowing clients to search within documents

How Your Client Views Your Firm

Session Description:  Jamal Stockton, Fidelity’s Head of Legal Innovation, will show us their law firm ranking system.

[These are my notes from a private gathering of senior knowledge management professionals from large law firms. The participants come from law firms around the world.]

  • Fidelity’s KM Program includes YOU. Fidelity Investment’s inside legal department devotes some KM resources to tracking and ranking the law firms they use.
    • Fidelity Investments KM group determined its scope and programs through a series of design thinking workshops with all their internal clients.
    • They include in their scope an online tool that helps Fidelity’s law department find “quality trusted firms at the right price.”
    • The engineers/software developers used this empathy-based approach to build trust with their internal lawyers and to make sure their lawyers felt ownership of the tool.
  • PADU. They use a “PADU” system for evaluating their outside counsel:
    • P = preferred
    • A = acceptable
    • D = discouraged
    • U = unacceptable
    • If an inside lawyer wants to choose a low-rated firm, that choice requires approval from more senior ranks.
  • How they Evaluate Outside Counsel Data.
    • They use an Amazon-style five star rating system that is completed at the completion of each matter
      • Responsiveness
      • Timeliness
      • Quality of advice
      • Price
      • Diversity of team
    • At this point, populating the data base of evaluations is voluntary. Next, they will start sending requests for data when a matter passes a significant milestone.
  • Searching Outside Counsel Ratings. Their in-house attorneys are required to choose their counsel by searching the evaluation system first. They can search by legal subject matter, by jurisdiction, by a firm’s matter experience, by price, etc. There are about 150 firms in their system. (They used to have 350 firms in the past but have whittled this down to 150 firms, of which a smaller number are preferred.)
  • IT Support. They have developers in India and a team in Salt Lake City that does custom development using an Agile process.

When Busy is Bad

Have you noticed that when you ask someone how they are, they often respond with one word: “Busy.” Apparently, busy is their state of being: not healthy or sick, happy or sad,  excited or anxious. Yet the word busy is fundamentally neutral and doesn’t tell the whole story about one’s current state. After all, one can busy and happy about it (especially when compared to the alternative of under-employment) or one can be frustrated by it. And yet we persist in describing ourselves as busy.

Clearly, the word “busy” is meant to convey a wealth of meaning. But what meaning? In some circles, it means that one is fully engaged. For a lawyer, it can mean full utilization. Perhaps it even suggests a high level of productivity. But that would be misleading. As we have been learning in the legal industry, a high level of input (our effort is no more than an input), does not necessarily ensure a high level of output or, more importantly, a good outcome. And it certainly does not ensure a high level of value from the perspective of the client.

But there is an even more troubling side to our propensity to describe ourselves as busy.  As Ryder Carroll, the creator of the Bullet Journalling method, noted in his TEDx talk at Yale:


“Being busy doesn’t mean that you are being productive.

A lot of the time, being busy just means that you are in a state of being functionally overwhelmed.”

Carroll says that this extraordinary level of busyness stems from the extraordinary amount of choice we have. After all, every choice requires us to make a decision. And every decision requires focus. But here’s the rub: Focus requires our energy and our time — our two most valuable resources. According to Carroll, every unnecessary choice is a distraction. As we eliminate those unnecessary choices, we reduce distractions, thereby increasing our available time and focus. So unless we are disciplined about reducing the number of unnecessary choices in our life, we end up depleting our most valuable resources without a corresponding benefit.

Ryder Carroll’s TEDx talk hit me with extra force as I wrap up an amazing year in which I started a new job with fabulous possibilities. As I have learned, all those possibilities have led to a To-Do list that just won’t stop. I’ve tried working until I get closer to the end of the list, but that is a recipe for exhaustion rather than a sustainable approach. (After all, it’s a never-ending list.) So my resolution for 2019 is to be even more deliberate in assessing What goes onto my To-Do list, understanding that every task on that list represents a choice that requires a decision, my focus, and my nonrenewable time.

How will you deal with your own never-ending To-Do list in 2019? How will you avoid the state of being functionally overwhelmed?

My wish for all of us is that we have a truly productive and satisfying 2019.

Happy New Year!





Harnessing Generational Challenges for Effective Project Management #PMOSym

PMO Symposium, 11-14 November 2018, Washington D.C. USA

Session Description: Wow! Five generations in the workforce: iGen or Generation Z, Millenniels (aka Generation Y), Gen X, Baby Boomers, and Traditionalists (those born before 1945). Project managers will need to communicate, understand, and motivate their core/extended teams capitalizing the workforce. This is a skillset that can be developed via learning and adoptive practice. Join Brigid Buchheit Carney as she uses Senn Delaney’s behavioral styles and Knoster’s Managing Complex Change. Senn Delaney, like DISC, will teach participants about behavioral styles and how to flex to others. The Knoster model will teach participants how to develop a communication framework for success.

At the conclusion of this session, participants will be able to:
1) Solve tough behavioral challenges by better understanding team dynamics.
2) Shift beyond traditional leadership by using a framework for communications.
3) Predict communication breakdowns and resolve them.

Speaker:  Brigid Buchheit Carney is the head of operations at Argus Group in Hamilton, Bermuda.

[These are my notes from the PMO Symposium 2018 . I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, so they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Why focus on generational challenges and behavioral styles?  Your projects will involve people from five different generations. Each of these team members also has their unique behavioral style. You need to craft your approach and messages for each generation and each style.
  • The Generations.
    • Traditionalists — born before 1945
    • Baby Boomers
    • Gen X
    • Millennials (Gen Y)
    • iGen (Gen Z)
  • Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change. Designed to develop organizational awareness and understand why projects fail. If you are missing any of the following elements, you will run the risk of failure.
    • Vision –Do you understand what you need to do AND why you need to do it? If you don’t understand why you are doing something, you end up in confusion, falling short of your goals.
    • Consensus — with five generational styles, you need five different ways to build consensus. Without consensus, you have sabotage and blame.
    • Skills — an absence of skills leads to anxiety
    • Incentives — an absence of appropriate incentives leads to resistance
    • Resources — an absence of adequate resources (including time for development, planning, reflection) leads to frustration
    • Action Plan — an absence leads to false starts and the sense of being on a treadmill
    • Culture = the way we do things
    • For more information on the Knoster Model, see
  • Senn Delaney Behavioral Styles.
    • Conductor
      • They are Type A and do not like to be told what to do
      • They strong-willed, self-motivated, results-focused
      • When crafting messages for them, focus on
        • results
        • decisions
        • efficiency
    • Promoter
      • They are enthusiastic, energetic, persuasive, adventurous, creative
      • They like shiny objects and hte next big thing. It is very difficult to get them to focus. However, they are really helpful when you need to deliver a difficult message.
      • They are happy to help others.
      • You have to help them keep their focus.
      • When crafting messages for them, focus on
        • big pictre thinking
    • Analyzer
      • Give them data, don’t ask them to go with their gut.
      • They will do things to the best of their ability. They know they are better at things then others.
      • Crafting messages
        • researchers
        • 2+2=4
        • Facts and figures
    • Supporter
      • They are relationship-oriented, team players, consensus builders
      • They will always ask for help.
      • When crafting messages for them, focus on
        • decision by committee
        • last to speak
        • subject mattter experts
        • speak face-to-face, but start with social conversation before jumping into the heart of the matter.
  • Exercises that appeal to each style.
    • Controlling
      • Mini-PM RAID log boss (RAID = Risks, Assumptions, Issues, Dependencies)
      • Don’t to a “ra ra” activity
    • Analyzing
      • Yes…and… exercise
      • Time-boxing — this avoids analysis paralysis
      • Five Whys
    • Supporting
      • Affinity brainstorming
      • Polling
      • Telephone — ask this supporter to be your communication maven
    • Promoting

Value Delivery in a Age of Disruption

PMO Symposium, 11-14 November 2018, Washington D.C. USA

Session Description: Disruption is the norm for organizations. Disruptive innovation is now seen as required to stay competitive in a world of emerging technologies, globalization and changing demographics. This is changing the way we work, blurring industry boundaries and forcing even established organizations to rethink their business strategies to find effective ways to deliver value. What are the implications for organizations when disruption will change the way projects are delivered and leaders are required to lead more agile organizations? What are the challenges and opportunities? How do organizations effectively use their project talents to evolve existing practices, provide value while positioning themselves for long term success? This session brings together experienced executives to share their perspectives and insights on managing projects and change when disruption is a constant in their value delivery.


  • Joanie F. Newhart, Associate Administrator for Acquisition Workforce Programs at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), Office of Management and Budget and Executive Office of the President
  • Laura K. Furgione, Chief, Office of Strategic Planning, Innovation and Collaboration, U.S. Census Bureau
  • Beth Partleton served on the PMI Board of Directors from 2008 to 2013, serving as Chair in 2011. For six years she was a member of the PMI Educational Foundation Board of Directors, serving as Chair in 2006. Currently she is a member of the Certification Governance Council, serving as Vice Chair.
  • Linda Ott, Division Chief, Professional Development, Office of Project Management, Department of Energy (DOE)

[These are my notes from the PMO Symposium 2018 . I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, so they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • What skills will the workforce of the future need?
    • staying abreast of technology and understanding how we can leverage it.
    • understanding how to use data productively AND protect data privacy
  • How to improve the management of major acquisitions (contracting).
    • make sure that the members of the team with critical expertise get involved in the planning and execution early
    • they have started a new certification program that teaches government contracting officers how to manage digital acquisition contracting successfully. It is experiential, small-group training.
  • How does the Census Bureau deliver value?
    • Their demographic and economic data can help
      • federal and local emergency responders prepare for a climate event
      • government and private sector groups manage development after a climate disaster
  • Successes at the Department of Energy.
    • They run really large projects — sometimes worth several billions of dollars
    • They capture enormous amounts of data from their projects.
      • Their job is to understand and explain through these data the value the public receives from these projects
      • This helps the public understand how their tax dollars are being used
    • They focus on how to explain value to the public — not just explaining it to other scientists.
  • How can project leaders and their teams lead technology-driven projects.
    • DIUx: the defense department and the department of housing services are talking to and working with Silicon Valley to find technologists who can become valuable partners with government. The appeal for these new technology partners is that they can have an impact at an enormous scale when they work through government.
    • They are looking at new ways to streamline the acquistion (government contracting) process.
    • The department of homeland security has a procurement innovation lab. They innovate new ways of working and then share the success stories widely — within government and with industry partners.
  • What are the Data Capabilities and Skills at the Census Bureau.
    • One of the objectives in their strategic plan is to use innovative tools to increase their efficiency and use of their tools, as well as the efficient reuse of their data.
    • Linking as much of their data as possible to derive new insights
    • Ensuring that their regular environmental scans shape their strategic plan (which is a living document)
    • What skills are they recruiting for?
      • They are taking a closer look at the skills required for exploiting the data for multiple uses
      • They are also examining what technological skills their team needs
  • What they look for in their workforce.
    • They are looking for curious minds
      • The ability to focus on your own mission, while staying wide open to what is happening around you
    • Natural problem-solvers
    • The ability to connect their work to the needs of their users / consituents
    • The ability to communicate their work to the public
  • The Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act.
    • PMIAA is a game changer because it tries to reach federal agencies where they are with respect to program management.
      • some agencies have fewer resources so they may not be as advanced with respect to project management
    • How to understand your projects, next put them in programs, then put those programs in portfolios and ensure that they connect clearly with strategy.
    • This helps develop a deep bench of experienced and capable project managers
    • The Federal PM Community of Practice is very active and engaged. They are helping spread PMIAA across the government
    • It helps focus on evaluation, quality assessment, and continuous attention to lessons learned.
  • PMO  Leadership.
    • Communication: 90% of your effort should focus on communicating with your stakeholders AND your team.
      • You need to listen, listen, listen
      • You need to understand the strengths and challenges of your team members
    • What’s our Value? Learn how to tie your efforts back to the values and strategy of your organization. What’s your elevator speech? What’s the value in what you do?
      • Do you have a crisp way of explaining how you are a value to (and not a burden on) your organization?
    • Collaborate Early and Often: don’t wait until an emergency or problem arises. That’s too late.
    • Customer Focus: talk to your customers early and often. Don’t assume you know what they want. You likely don’t.

Building Team Agility and Releasing Creativity Through the Thoughtful Leadership of Language #PMOSym

PMO Symposium, 11-14 November 2018, Washington D.C. USA

Session Description:

It is easy to agree with the theory that soft skills are the key to effective teams. In practice, soft skills are the hard skills for many people. When team members collectively understand and embrace the techniques and tools, the interpersonal relationships and team productivity often improve dramatically. This interactive workshop will provide you with an introduction to a project-proven communications model—complete with skills and techniques—that has been successfully deployed across a broad spectrum of projects, including civil construction, information technology, and leading-edge, first-of-a-kind technologies.

At the conclusion of this workshop, participants will be able to:
1) Develop a detailed awareness and understanding of the dynamics of total communication that drive relationships and outcomes.
2) Improve your ability to understand more clearly what others are saying verbally and discern the meanings of nonverbal communication cues.
3) Acquire the beginnings of the knowledge and tools needed to facilitate and grow strong communication-based relationships within your project teams.

For more information: See greenlanguage.com and John Tompkins book on Amazon


  • John Post is a senior advisor and member of technical staff at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). He is a member of the 2010 PMI Project of the Year team, and an advisor/reviewer for several large and complex projects within the U.S. Department of Energy portfolio.
  • John Tompkins (President, Team EdServe) is an executive coach and therapist in private practice in Pleasanton, CA, and has over 30 years of experience with project teams in complex environments with high consequence of error, much of it in a national security environment. He is the author of Not Crazy Yet? Then…Start Talking To Yourself Differently.

[These are my notes from the PMO Symposium 2018 . I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, so they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Our Brains and Language.
    • The cerebral cortex and the amygdala operate differently in the brain.
      • the cerebral cortex manages our higher order thinking, our executive function
      • the amygdala is geared to protect our survival by triggering our fight or flight mechanism when it believes it is necessary. It handles threat assessment and response.
      • The cerebral cortex focuses on
        • observation
        • feelings
        • thoughts
        • wants
      • The amygdala focuses on the roles of
        • persecutor
        • victim
        • rescuer
    • We use language to toggle between the cerebral cortex and the amygdala.
      • The more we can use our cerebral cortex, the better our teamwork.
      • Tompkins describes language that triggers the cortex as “Green language” and language that triggers the amygdala as “Red language.”
      • Tompkins estimates that 80% of language in the US is Red language rather than Green language.
        • it is encoded, confronting, triggering, and anxiety-provoking. (Just consider how the cable news stations treat the news they report and the people they interview.)
  • Green Language versus Red Language.
    • Green language enables “Owning.”
      • Owning = taking responsibility for what is mine.
      • Green language is clear and unambiguous
    • Red language enables “Disowning.”
      • Disowning = attributing to someone else responsibility for what is actually mine (i.e., ducking responsibility)
      • Red language is encoded, labeling, shorthand, slang/jargon
      • Red language creates a sense of inadequacy, wrongdoing, depression
    • Green language
      • Observation = what we can see, what a camera or tape record could record.
        • Green language focuses on what IS happening
        • Not-Inferences: not-inferences are statements about what is NOT happening, coupled with an inference as to why. The better choice is to make objective statements rather than inferring state of mind based on observable facts.
          • Observe: “Your socks are on the floor.” Because it is a neutral observation and there is no judgment attached, it leaves the sock-dropper free to admit a mistake and pick up the socks without rancor.
            • the judgment-laden, Red language version of this is: “You’re a slob!”
      • Feelings = emotions and sensations
        • Describes the feelings that exist rather than feelings that do not exist.
        • Example: “I feel relieved” rather than “I am not angry.”
      • Thoughts
        • Describes your think about what is rather than about what may or may not happen.
        • Eaxmple: “I think he is home” rather than “I don’t think he will come.”
      • Wants = needs and wants flow into our consciousness in the form of emotions and sensations. Our job is to make choices about how we are thinking and how we should make choices that meet our legitimate needs. This means understanding what we really want/need and then addressing that. So, for example, if you are feeling the emotion of loneliness, the appropriate response would be to seek companionship rather than to seek food.
        • Express what you want rather than what you don’t want.
        • Example, “I want you to stay here” rather than “I don’t want you to leave.”
    • Red Language
      • Not-Observation:
        • Focuses on what is NOT happening — it implies SHOULD and failure. “NOT” fires up the threat assessment and triggers the amygdala.
        • Red language attaches itself to our pain memories and thereby has increased impact
        • Focuses on Inferences: takes an observation and makes/communicates a judgment based on that observation.
          • Observe: socks on the floor. Infer: “You are a slob. You don’t follow directions.”
      • Not-Feelings:
        • Describes what you are NOT feeling. “No-one offered me a seat but I’m NOT angry about that.” This language seems encoded, it makes the listener think that maybe the speaker really is angry after all. This, in turn, triggers a response by the amygdala, which senses trouble.
      • Not-Thoughts
        • Thought expressed in a negative form.
      • Not-Wants
        • Wants expressed in a negative form.
        • Red language version: “I don’t want you to leave.” [includes not-want in the sentence.]
        • Green language version: “I want you to stay.”
  • How to Rewrite from Red Language to Green Language.
    • Example 1:
      • Red: “Ed works too hard and needs to take more time off.”
        • Analysis: “too hard”  and “needs to take more time off” = inferences
      • Rewrite to Green: “Ed worked 20 hours per day each week last month.”
        • Analysis: this is observable and capable of being recorded. It does not contain any judgment, just facts.
    • Example 2:
      • Red: “You cause others unnecessary work by not signing out.”
        • Analysis: “unnecessary work” = a judgment-laden inference
      • Rewrite to Green: “When you remain signed in, others try to reach you here without success.”
    • Example 3:
      • Red: “I’d like you to tell me what you mean.”
        • Analysis: this could be heard as a confronting command.
      • Green: “Please tell me more.”
        • Analysis: this is a more open-ended request for information.
    • Example 4:
      • Red: “I feel like the deal isn’t going to make it, but I don’t know why.”
        • Analysis:
          • “I feel like” is a dead giveaway that someone is using Red language.
          • They may be worried about the deal, but they are not providing any specifics to back up their concern.
          • According to John Tompkins, “‘But’ is a verbal eraser that wipes out everything that came before it.”
          • The whole statement appears to be a collection of unsubstantiated worry.
      • Green: “X, Y, and Z are problems for the deal.”
    • Example 5:
      • Red: “I feel shut out.”
        • Analysis: “shut out” is a judgment-laden inference that suggests that others are acting badly.
      • Green: “I feel lonely.”
        • Analysis: this is an accurate description of feeling — without any inference regarding the actions of others.
  • Ten Ways of Using Language that Encourage Failure.
    • Say what didn’t happen or what isn’t happening now.
    • Say what should be, use judging labels or mixed tenses.
    • Say what shouldn’t be or use not-labeling that passes judgment.
    • Say what you didn’t feel or what you’re not feeling now.
    • Say what you didn’t think or what you’re not thinking now.
    • Call a thought a feeling.
    • Call a not-thought a feeling.
    • Say what you didn’t want or what you don’t want now.
    • Say in encoded judgments what you did want or do want now.
    • Say in encoded judgments what you didn’t want or don’t want now.
  • To improve communication, focus on decoding and paraphasing.
    • this helps you understand someone more clearly
    • it helps you convey the desire to understand
    • it helps someone clarify their feelings and/or wants
    • it encourages the development of “owning” (green language) dialogues
    • it helps you maintain self control
    • it redirects a discussion that could be an attack or attempt to manipulate
  • These principles apply to organizations as well.
    • Responsibitiy & Values-Clarifying Language:
      • I observe (facts)
      • I feel (emotions)
      • I think (analysis)
      • I want (actions)
    • Scripted Values-Confusing Language:
      • “Have to”
      • “Should”
      • “Must”
      • “Can’t”
      • “Didn’t”
      • “Won’t”
  • This is challenging stuff that takes a lot of practice to master.
    • Use this post and John Tompkin’s book and website (links above) to raise your awareness about the differences between Red and Green language.
    • Next, notice how they appear in your conversations and in the communications around you.
    • Then, practice replacing your Red language with Green language.
    • Finally, share this with others.

Dick Costolo Keynote – From Twitter to the New Economy #PMOSym

PMO Symposium, 11-14 November 2018, Washington D.C. USA

Session Description: When Twitter began, the founders did not set out to create a new economy, yet the way we do business has changed forever. When consumers are 80% more likely to purchase from a business they follow, there is a real business case for open communication between a brand and its consumers. Open access to information, or creating the feeling of open access to the brand, builds loyalty, identifies new product ideas and provides another channel for consumer influence. Equal access to information renders entire business models fragile as consumers become their own sourcers with all of the information. Costolo lays out the implications of an open access economy on innovation process and the future of work.

Speaker:  Dick Costolo was most recently the Chief Executive Officer of Twitter from October 2010 to June 2015, where he took the company from $0 to $1.5 billion in annual revenue.

[These are my notes from the PMO Symposium 2018 . I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, so they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • The keys to Success are Speed of Execution and Leadership
  • Speed of Execution.  There were four things they did at Twitter to build their speed to execution muscle:
    • Adopt a Bias to Yes
      • As an organization grows, increasingly the answer to every question is no.
      • The bias to yes means
        • there have to be many paths to yes within the company
        • any function is not allowed to tell another function “you’re not allowed to do that”
        • avoid the most nefarious version of “no” = “you have to go ask these other 12 people.” So people spend their time asking for permission rather than taking critical action.
    • Focus on Speed of Learning: Every month at Costolo’s operating committee meeting, they asked one question: “What is it taking us too long to learn and how can we learn that faster?”
      • this question causes people within the company innovate cross-functional solutions to the problem that they had not generated previously.
      • This question surfaces commonly held beliefs in the company that are not true.
    • Ed Catmull: Protect the future not the past
      • Protecting the past: The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal. It moves the focus to avoiding mistakes rather than getting things done.
      • Protecting the future:
        • enable people to move quickly to get things done
        • resist creating too many rules. Instead, replace the critical rules with principles and guidelines. Then release your team to work within their own good judgment.
        • leaders must be a role model — make sure you are the first to be transparent about failures.
      • For more information on Catmull, read his book Creativity Inc.
  • Leadership. Much of this guidance is based on what Costolo learned from Bill Campbell, executive coach to Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos, and Dick Costolo.
    • Campbell believes that  anyone can be CEO. It’s a matter of mindset, training, and experience.
    • For more information on Campbell’s advice, see these video interviews.
    • Be yourself. Don’t assume a different persona when you are acting as a leader.
    • Communication is key
      • Communicate context rather than authority.
        • Communicating authority = “Do it because Dick says so.”
        • Communicating context = explaining the reasons for your decision so your team understands the “why” not just the “what.”
      • The way to build trust with your team is to be forthright about the context of your decision.
    • Delegation
      • Push decisions down the stack
      • Write down and put on your desk: “What’s the highest leverage thing I could be doing right now.”
      • When in doubt, force yourself to delegate. Set a weekly goal of the percentage of meetings you will stop attending and delegate instead.
      • One sure sign that you are not delegating enough:
        • At the end of meeting, most of the action items are yours.
      • “Your job as a leader is not to make decision. It’s to ensure that decisions get made.”
        • Your job as a leader is to break logjams when your team cannot reach consensus
      • Ownership is both authority and accountability. If you give people responsibility without accountability, then they don’t care. If you give them ownership, they actually get work done.
    • Eliminate Politics
      • Don’t be the sole decisionmaker. If you make all the decisions, then you become the target of and conduit for organizational politics.
      • Encourage open debate within your team. But once the debate is done and the decision made, follow Jeff’s Bezos’ advice: “Disagree and commit.”
      • When people cannot agree, send them away to develop a joint solution. Don’t play Solomon and try to work out a compromise yourself.
    • The best questions to ask your teams to get really eye-opening information:
      • What’s not working in this organization and why?
      • What is working and why?
  • Final Thoughts.
    • Bezos: Don’t punish the person who disagrees with you.
    • Bezos: When you opt for compromise rather than the truth, then you don’t get the right answer.
    • Bezos: Don’t let the communication architecture follow the organizational architecture.
      • Don’t trap people in the organizational structure, forced to depend solely on their manager for information.
      • Let people talk to whomever they need to talk to get the information they need to do their job