Complaints are the tip of an iceberg

I was running a workshop in a factory. They had a very effective set of processes, and overtly obvious team commitment, to health and safety. Many more workplaces do so these days, driven by genuine concern (backed up by significant potential regulatory consequences).

They also, like many workplaces, SAID they had a team commitment to quality. Many workplaces SAY this but it’s not overtly obvious in evidence. This factory however did more than SAY, they DID. If health and safety processes are the gold(ish) standard against which things that actually matter are measured, what they did was apply that same H&S template to their quality practices.

Everyone says H&S is “everyone’s responsibility” even if there is someone with a job title with H&S in it. Everyone should report a ‘near miss’ H&S event or risk. These folks have all that for quality issues. Pretty impressive. Why re-invent the wheel?

Many outfits seem to me to be where H&S was maybe 20 years ago – talking a good game. Take complaints. [Please 😉 ]. They’re an iceberg tip. Leaping onto them is fine, and you should, but what about the ‘near misses’ where the customer chooses option 1 below instead of doing your job for you and complaining?

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Creativity On Demand

One comedy-writing technique is comparing 2 or more seemingly dissimilar things, looking for ways where they are the same or opposite, where there are large vs small, or past vs present comparisons etc. It’s kind of clunky and mechanical. The cooler comedians would describe such processes as ‘hack’. Nevertheless, if you have a gig for the dairy awards and you’re a bit thin on milk jokes, it will at least get the ball rolling while you wait for the inspiration pixies to sprinkle inspiration dust on your forehead while you sleep.

I read a book waaay back called Serious Creativity. (Later, the name of my holding company seriouscomedy would be partly inspired by it). At its core, the book extracts from the world of artistic creatives ways in which businessfolk can generate new product ideas, new partnership opportunities, or solutions to problems that aren’t just tweaks to business-as-usual. Give it a read, it’s worth a look.

How do YOU get something on your blank pages when YOUR job requires your team to be creative? Do you schedule a brainstorming meeting in the Kawhai Room for 10am on a Wednesday and hope that everyone is creative there and then and is open to express that in front of others? Or, do you actually have a toolbox of creativity-generating or provoking techniques?

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Meeting-Room Naming Conventions

Today, I attended a meeting at a flash new business hub on an expansive campus near a motorway interchange. There are a couple of large cornerstone tenants: a telco, an insurer, and lots of little businesses servicing the working populations of the tenants whose own staff then expand the working population. So, there are gyms and eateries and bars. And, there are communal spaces in the latest fashion and function.

I’ve been to many meeting rooms in organisations and locations far and wide. Many are numbered. Room 1. Or maybe 301 if they have rooms on multiple floors. Some seize the opportunity to emblazon some Te Reo on the doors. That’s cool. Some are trees. Some are trees in Te Reo. Some are whatever you can see out the window. (I’m looking at you Rangitoto).

Today, they were named after music festivals. Cool. Although, in an afront to my age, I only recognised half the names. Although, to be fair, my personality is such that even if I was 25 today, I still might only recognise half the names. (Or, maybe, I was so out of my mind on drugs, it affected my memory and I cannot recall such specifics of my many trips to so many music festivals). (Spoiler alert: It’s the age thing…)

The best / worst example of meeting-room naming conventions was the company I won’t name (irony intended) who decided, in the spirit of altruism and inclusiveness, to name their meeting rooms after employees of the month. Huzzah. And it was so well received… for the first three months. By which time, people got confused and angry because the meeting room names kept changing as the employees of the month kept changing. I silently delighted in one exchange between one chap and a receptionist:

“I can’t find the meeting room I’m due at.”

“Which room is it”?

“The Harrison room”.

“And your name is”?


“3rd floor, you’re late. And, it’s now the Dunstan room”.

I probably lean more socialist than you may imagine I do but this is where even I draw the line.

Be ‘Autonomy-Supportive’

I don’t agree with leaders who think that people should just do their bloody jobs that they’re paid to do and stop whinging but I don’t want you to think for a moment that I’m suggesting leaders should step back from being firm and decisive and let anyone do anything anytime they feel like it. ‘Autonomy supportive’ is not a euphemism for gutless permissiveness. Everyone still needs to achieve results, do their job and work together. Leaders need to be there removing obstacles and providing resources, direction and feedback. But how can you best do that and still provide people as much as practicable with their natural need for autonomy? And, again, is it worth it?

Yes it is worth it. Deci’s study of Xerox employees showed that employees with an “autonomy supportive” manager were more trusting of the company, less concerned about pay and had higher job satisfaction and morale.

Workers who are anxious, for whatever reason, are more focused and on-task but are highly risk-averse. That might be a good thing depending on their role. However, they rely more on habit and routine and are less creative. That might be a bad thing depending on their role. Non-anxious workers are more explorative, see the bigger picture not just the narrow focus on the particular task at the time, take acceptable risks and are more creative.

You may not use the term autonomy supportive about yourself but maybe you are already. How can you tell? One clue that a manager may be autonomy supportive is when you ask them about an employee and they reply from the employee’s point of view. How do you answer when asked about your people?

What do autonomy supportive leaders do? They avoid controlling language. They align themselves with the person being limited’s point of view not necessarily aligning themselves with that person but from their perspective. They recognise any proactivity coming from the other person to encourage more of it. Instead of instantly criticising or critiquing poor performance, they ask what the performer’s thoughts are about the incident.

 How To Effectively Provide Support – “Scaffolding”

Psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky compared a supportive workplace environment to the scaffolding he would see used on building sites. It gets put up to provide access and support as building occurs. Only what is needed gets provided and when it is no longer needed, it is removed.

Leigh Branham’s antidote for employers to his seven hidden reasons employees leave revolves around meeting the expectations of applicants, communicating differently to different people, taking better care of new hires, giving supervisors the freedom and training to manage people their own way and embracing the belief that good employees can leave for the right reasons with new skills and good will and that’s a good thing.

Branham promotes an ‘Employer of choice scorecard’ measuring and publicising:

·     voluntary staff turnover

·     referral rates

·     ratio of internal hires

·     new hire retention

·     engagement

·     absenteeism

It’s a fine line between allowing the privilege of autonomy and abdicating responsibility. Thirty years ago, I worked my way through university at a building supply warehouse. This was in the mid 1980s and workplace safety hadn’t been invented yet as far as I could tell. Starting out sweeping up, I ended up doing all the selling and delivering that the permanent guys did. Apart from my lack of body fat and cigarettes, I blended right in. For the most part, I thought I had the skills sorted too. What I didn’t have, technically, was the paperwork such as a legal driving licence for some of the equipment used around the store like overhead cranes, heavy trucks and forklifts. As I said, it was the mid 1980s so society had to put up with Wham, Miami Vice and me driving trucks without a licence.

One day in my third year I must have earned quite a few trust points with the managers as an important training session was being run for the fulltime staff and I was left in sole charge of the store during a slow part of the day. This was a multi-laned drive-through hardware warehouse with wallboards and all the big stuff, not just a shop with the bits and pieces. Out the back all the lanes ended up in the yard where we kept the steel and so forth. Deliveries would arrive in the yard and we’d unload the trucks then double-handle the goods into the store. Inefficient I know but that’s the way things were done around there.

It was quiet during the training session until a truck arrived with a delivery of particle board flooring. These were big packs. Each sheet was 3.6 metres by 1.8 metres and weighed 100 kilograms  by itself. There were 10 sheets in a pack. I had unloaded these before using our in-house forklift. The drivers are always in a hurry and time is money so we’d take them off two packs at a time. Once you lifted them up fractionally off the truck, you needed to tilt the forks back just a bit so you could reverse away from the truck and lower them from the two to three metres they were off the ground. I’d done it before and while there was little margin for error, I didn’t hesitate in expressing my autonomy and deciding to unload the truck.

Unbeknownst to me, with Christmas approaching, the factory had embarked on a Christmas sales promotion, adding two extra bonus sheets to each pack at no extra cost. That’s a real bargain – a 400 kilogram bargain. I went through my tested procedure for unloading and it went fine. The forklift was quite powerful, albeit a little short in the fork department. Things went fine with the lifting. It was the little tilt back that sent things awry.

The extra 400 kilograms made a difference. Instead of remaining on the forks as it had always done before, the tilt back caused a wobble and the laws of physics being what they were in the mid 1980s, the 2.4 tonne, 1.8 metre wide load of flooring tilted the other way – over the front end of my 1.2 metre forks! The entire load kept on in that direction, disappearing over the far edge of the truck I was unloading. It fell edge down onto the ashphalt on the other side of the truck. There was another truck parked on the other side and, miraculously, because it was falling edge-ways it missed both trucks almost entirely. It barely clipped a wing mirror on the way down. (I noticed this because time had slowed down for me.)

Particle board is good for cheap flooring for cheap houses. It ain’t pretty to look at but its solid enough. It’s called particle board because it’s basically just sawdust and chips of leftover wood super-glued together. Laid flat it can take a lot of weight and force. It has to; it’s a floor. What it’s not designed to do is drop sideways from three metres above the ground with twenty three other sheets onto solid ground. The moment it struck, it disintegrated. Those scenes in movies where the building collapses and the hero crawls out covered in debris with that wide-eyed panda look – that was me. I had been wearing safety goggles because, you know, I cared about safety.

In my untrustworthy memory I am sure the dust erupted into a spectacular mushroom cloud and the whole thing was surprisingly quiet. The training course inside proceeded uninterrupted. At this point, I exercised my autonomy to make sure the driver was still alive and suggested to him that I wouldn’t be signing the delivery receipt anytime soon. He laughed and I’m pretty sure he put in a good word for me with the bosses. I kept my job which funded my first degree, and that ultimately led to me being qualified and experienced enough to write this book.

And I learned a very valuable lesson about the power and limits of worker autonomy.

This was an excerpt from my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’. Learn more at

Become A ‘Hub’​: How knowing who knows is more important than knowing

I was running a public workshop on sales skills. I wouldn’t say there was a real mix of folks. With one exception, the participants were pretty experienced salespeople. Some were up for a refresher. Some had hit a wall or ceiling, or had hit a rough patch or they’d had a particularly frustrating or negative sales experience. Some were taking on new people themselves and wanted help codifying what they inherently knew so they could teach others.

The one exception was a young man. I don’t know how young exactly. If I had a bar, I’d card him without hesitation. He worked for a marine equipment outlet. They serviced boats and sold boat bits. This chap had been an avid sailor as a child and via a family connection had scored an after-school job sweeping up, tootling around on small deliveries, etc. He said he’d enjoyed those days; an income, immersion in the behind-the-scenes of a world he loved, and motivation to aspire to work his way up the ladder. An employee discount! He impressed the employers enough that, upon leaving school, he became a full-time employee.

At the point I met him, he’d been on the shop floor as a retail assistant for six months. This wasn’t your typical entry-level retail role. If you’re selling shoes, sure you might have to learn about the specifics of certain shoe brands but you know what shoes are and how they work. With these yacht parts, it was technical with a breadth and depth of complexity. After six months, my trainee was awash in frustration at not already being an expert in everything. Even most people’s default reasonable response to technical customer enquiries of, “I don’t know but I’ll find out and get right back to you” was wearing thin. It wasn’t like he’d say it a couple of times a day. He said it seemed like every single customer. And, that continual reinforcement of his own perceived inexpertise was a vicious downward morale spiral. In his time on-site outside the shop, he was expected to sell – by observing what the customers were up to and how their products and services might add value.

For myself, my starting position is to ask questions of my own clients or prospects when I’m in that situation. I don’t sell boat parts; I sell myself. All my clients are different and I have little chance of ever knowing everything about all of them so why bother. I accept that I don’t and can’t and turn it into an advantage. I ask questions. I show interest. I don’t pretend to know more than them. As a sales technique and as a self-care technique. It works well for me.

So, I asked my trainee some questions: what have you learned in your six months; does everyone know everything; how much new stuff is there to learn even for those who have been there a while? It turned out he’d learned quite a bit. His employers were fine with his rate of progress. The frustration was his alone. He also learned that, apart from him, the average employee in that firm was been there near 30 years. I set him a challenge: how can you turn what you perceive as a failing and turn it into a strength, a competitive advantage? How can you ‘flip it’? How can continuously having to take customers to other staff members be a good thing, for you, the store, and the customer?

And, he did it. He flipped it.

What he did know, better than anybody else, was who did know. All his hand-holding of customers to other staff had taught him who the specialists on different topics were. He knew that more than anyone else, even the boss, especially around new and changing technologies. He developed a bit of banter that sounded confident, “Great question. I’m not THE expert on that but I know who is. They’ll be free in a minute. I’ll take you to them and introduce you and your question…” He would then listen in and learn with them, both about the product and the customer.

It worked. He would go on to become the ‘glue guy’ that other, more experienced, staff would turn to when they faced questions outside their specialised expertise. He became a hub and is now extending that outside his shop’s staff to wider industry people. Give him a year or two and he’s going to be quite the influencer and salesperson. Networks. Connections. These are terms both in sales and technology. And both rely on hubs. Be a hub.

As a sales-person, we should probably put a decent amount of effort into learning about the products and services we sell. But, increasingly the pace of change is such that we cannot hope to know it all and keep up to date. But, we can proactively create and maintain our connections, not as a weakness but as a strength.

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Let’s Write Right: 5 Tips for Professional Business-Writing

Not everyone needs to be an English professor but one sure way to diminish your professionalism in the eyes of your staff, customers or prospects reading what you’ve written is poor business-writing basics. Communication is the single most critical element in engaging people. In an age of text-speak and consulting jargon, one sure way to stand out positively from the crowd and noise is clear, simple, and persuasive written communication skills.

I’ve had several books published, as well as being a regular columnist in industry media. I watch with amazement at professional proofers doing their job. Neither you nor I need to have that level of skill and precision, but we can all improve our results and lessen our regrets by following a few simple principles. I’m not calling them ‘rules’. The thing with English is that every time you have a rule, you soon find many exceptions. I before E anyone?

I met one trainee who ran a clothing boutique. They’d sent out a mailbox drop in their neighbourhood promoting their latest fashion arrivals. Their intention was to communicate that many of the shoes matched up nicely with many of the trousers on offer. They referred to this matching as, “These shoes are complimentary with these pants”. Unfortunately, what they meant was, “These shoes are complementary with these pants”. You see, one of those words means ‘matching’ but the other one means ‘free’.

  • Write from the reader’s point of view

Are you including information useful and relevant to the reader or just brain dumping to get it out of your head or make you look like an expert? They don’t have time to read everything and there is a lot of competition for their attention. How often are you using the words “you” and “your” compared to “me”, “my” and “I”?

  • Ambiguity is the enemy

I saw a billboard advertising ice cream that was, “97% fat-free and gluten-free”. Can a gluten-intolerant person eat that ice cream? It’s ambiguous. I saw a magazine cover, “Rachel Ray loves cooking her family and her dog”. How do her family and dog feel about this?

  • If in doubt, leave it out

If you’re not sure, how can you be sure they’re sure? If you can’t explain to me where and why you might use the word ‘whom’, then don’t use that word.

  • Less is more

Do I need to expand this? I hope not.

  • Purposefulness

What is the purpose of your document? Is it to sell, influence, or inform? Should that one email be three emails instead? Check all your ideas that you might include back against the over-riding purpose of the document. If it isn’t working for your purpose, it’s working against it. Leave it out or append it.

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How Can You Help Your People Make Better Decisions?

You don’t need to carbo-load to make better decisions. Try distraction to leverage the power of your much wiser unconscious self.

A study by Ap Dijksterhuis and Teun Meurs out of the University of Amsterdam cleverly reveals how thinking too much and poring for ages over the logical list of pro’s and cons you’ve made about that big decision you have to make can actually cause a much lower quality outcome. (Which is bad if you’re choosing a new toaster but terrible if it’s a new car, employee or husband / wife.) This particular study focuses on creativity and originality but Dijksterhuis has another study more specifically about making decisions – examining the ‘deliberation without attention’ hypothesis.

I’m not suggesting that lack of attention is a good thing. Otherwise we may as well put teenagers in charge of all the important decisions. Most can usually (always) be relied upon to provide the ‘without attention’ component! No, it has to be a bit more structured than that.

Both studies look at what might be called intentional self distraction. They contrasted three approaches to decision-making: make an instant choice, long list of pro’s and cons, briefly distracting the conscious mind. The latter was the most effective and , down the road a bit, evoked the least regret.

If you just skim read Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’, you might assume that instant decisions are often best. But on closer examination, I reckon Gladwell agrees with Dijksterhuis. Both reject the supposedly time-tested tradition of logically weighing up over a period of intense concentration a list of pro’s and cons. It takes ages and delivers a poorer result.

My shorthand version of a useful process is:
1. Introduce the problem and range of solution options if they exist yet
2. Carry out a pre-set 3 minute distraction activity*.
3. Return to the problem and / or the options. Make your choice.
4. Live with it.

* By distraction activity, they’re not talking about painting the beach house or enlisting in the foreign legion (although if that whole husband / wife thing didn’t work out, it’s always an option.) No, it’s something simple. Their test involved having subjects follow a dot on a screen for three minutes. Thus they had to focus and actively concentrate on something unrelated to the problem for only a short period but nonetheless long enough to get the loud conscious mind to shut the hell up for while. I’ve started testing one that doesn’t need any capital investment in screens which seems like a hassle in the real world outside university studies. Try counting to 100 three numbers at a time, reversing the order of every second set of three numbers. Even the instructions are quite distracting! It’s simple really though but it does clear the mind of anything else, especially that pesky problem. 1,2,3,6,5,4,7,8,9,12,11,10 etc. (Don’t write them down. You’re supposed to to do it in your head. That’s the point – distracting focus.)

Despite the best efforts of everyone I know to recommend i-Phone game apps to me, I have only one – Word Warp. Six random letters appear and I need to make as many words out of those six letters as I can in six minutes, scoring points, but I lose out entirely and revert to zero if I fail to make at least one six letter word in that two minutes. There is, of course, a ticking clock in the background that cranks it up in the last ten seconds. I’ll play the game on flights when the person next to me I’ve been chatting to decides to fake sleep. Sometimes I’ll get interrupted during a two minute spell to reject the offer of airline food. I’m always astonished at my much improved performance upon my return to the game. Our much smarter unconscious selves get into gear once they’re allowed to, thanks to the distraction.

We can’t have a flight attendant distracting us all the time, at just the right moment to allow our minds to process decisions, utilising deliberation without attention. (Except JetStar, I think they’ll do that.) We need to manage our decision processes at work and those of our people to, not just allow, but insist upon, a managed period of controlled distraction. You’re paying the wages of their unconscious minds; they may as well get put to work too.

In case you’re wondering (and we should spend a lot of our time wondering, don’t you think…) what the pasta image has to do with anything, here’s what. The creativity study tested the subjects by getting them to think up names to for new types of pasta. If it ended in the letter ‘i’, suggestions were deemed to be uncreative. I have a similar rule when it comes to attending operas – I’ll only attend an opera whose composer has a surname ending in a vowel, and sometimes Tchaikovsky .


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Seek & You Will Find (Don’t just be open to feedback, seek it, expect it, demand it)

Happy New Year! A great time to think about getting better results this year than last. (Shouldn’t be too hard – thanks 2020).

I’m running a new programme now called ‘Accountability Builder‘. There’s a lot of good stuff in it around how our results are driven by beliefs and some practical things anyone can do to reshape beliefs and thus achieve new and improved results. It’s focused on ownership and positivity. One element that’s creating a few strained expressions on people’s faces as they get their heads around the concept is…

… asking for feedback.

My participants have no problem with feedback per se. They understand and agree how it benefits everyone to know what’s expected of them and how they’re doing in moving towards those expectations. It’s like the scoreboard in sports, or laughter when telling a joke (or the absence of laughter). It’s useful information upon which to adjust or maintain our course.

My participants are already at a leadership level and many are senior and experienced. They have zero problem delivering feedback TO OTHERS.

There is a smaller but still reasonably sized subset of folks who are totally open to feedback FROM others. It might feel uncomfortable but you don’t rise to their level in organisations without doing more of the good stuff and less of the bad. Feedback from others is gold really and, if others felt inclined to provide it, they’re ready to listen.

A tiny fraction of people have a routine and habitual practice of regularly seeking feedback from others. They INITIATE and ASK. Sure, they frame it a bit the first few times so it’s not too weird. Because for many people, both parties, someone actually asking for performance feedback at work, is weird. But, with practice, it feels less weird over time, and with improved performance thanks to that feedback, the incentive to continue kicks in soon enough.

It’s just those first two or three times.

If you can model this yourself and bring your team along for the ride, you will accelerate your development and your performance improvement.


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The Bits In-Between

For my first degree, I majored in History. (This was the late 80s. There was less history then). It was all wars, revolutions, and crises. Probably for the same reasons as HBO mini-series re-enact those bits of history. TV loves drama. So does study.

But most of history isn’t crises. It’s the bits in-between. Fifty years ago wasn’t entirely Woodstock, moon landings, & Vietnam. Maybe your grandparents were there, but mostly probably not. They were trying to make rent, live a life, & get ahead, in spite of whatever they faced.

Fifty years from now, showrunners and historians will focus on the obvious blerghh events of this year. Fair enough. Someone should, probably sooner. Those willfully ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it and drag others down with them.

I raise this as it’s a new year and the tendency is to look back in review before looking forward to plan. Yeah nah. I’m going to look back at the bits in-between. Family. Friends. Re-inventing work. Cooperation. Resilience.

What are your 2020 ‘bits in-between’?


Side-Hustle Blues

hate the work you love

The screencap of a tweet above is a short story from someone in a creative industry about someone else in a creative industry who made their passion into a job. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Yet it is a cautionary tale. That guitarist ended up hating the thing they loved.

OK, it’s not quite a Stephen King screenplay, nor an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ but it is LinkedIn-scary.

Builders who love building, cooks who love cooking, and so forth, all face that risk. Many small businesses start out as a ‘side-hustle’ with a dream of leaving the ‘day-job’. Few anticipate the nightmare of ending up in another day-job of their own making, but now without the activity they once loved and found creative comfort in.

That doesn’t have to happen but how can you stop it from happening?

I train, speak & coach. Enjoy it. Always have. Still do. As much by good luck as by good management, from the get-go of my side-hustling days, I had a notion. (Let’s retro-fit this notion with a label 20 years later; let’s call it my ‘strategy’). I knew there would be elements of a business I wouldn’t enjoy so I WOULDN’T DO THEM.

Crazy, right? Now, the strategy has worked but there is a 2nd important, often overlooked element…


Find that someone before you sign anything.


These posts will resume Jan 18 2021 as I’m taking a break this kiwi summer. Stay tuned.

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