My quest for understanding


I’ve been on a quest over the last few years. A quest to understand why the work that I started at a company that I cofounded didn’t quite, well, stick. As many of my readers know, I’m a big fan of the W. Edwards Deming theory of management, and for a time we were giving it a go. Even in the short time we were focused on it, we saw some amazing results: sales people working together for the good of the company, management focusing on systems rather than finger pointing, and people busting down our doors to work for us. And while much of that still exists there in one form or another, the company is moving back to more traditional ways. Why didn’t it stick?

Deming is all about cooperation. A system must have an aim, and if everyone is cooperating toward achieving an aim where everyone wins, staff all pulling in the same direction, nobody could possibly compete with that. It seems utopian to imagine everyone at a company working toward an aim larger than themselves (and larger than just making a profit). But I’ve personally seen the beginnings of such a system, and it’s exciting to behold.

Selfishness destroys this. Departments can be selfish, and so can individuals. And for a time I was convinced that selfishness was the thing. Indeed in the US and around the world, the way we raise our kids using carrots and sticks to gain compliance does make them more selfish. So I relentlessly studied both parenting and education to see what I could do to encourage a generation of less selfish people. And I learned a great deal that helped me become a better parent, and a better human. And along the way I discovered some ideas that made visible for me a much deeper schism in our culture. One that we don’t like to talk about. I’ll get to that in a bit, but first of all I want to motivate why you’d even care.

Relationships trump individual contribution

One thing Deming always harped on was how wasteful it is to try to measure individual performance. He pointed out that a company is a complicated system of parts that all depend on one another in complicated ways, and that the performance of any individual in that system is given by an equation, Performance = I + SI. Note there are two factors: individual contribution and the contribution of the individual’s interaction with the system (SI). This is a single equation with two unknowns – it cannot solved. Deming had the courage to ask us to simply stop trying to do that.

Let’s examine one of the most critical parts of this system interaction factor – how people in a company interact with each other. Imagine a staff of only two people, Alice and Bob. If Alice and Bob get along well, treat each other kindly, and act as shock absorbers for one another when one of them is having a bad day, their interaction (let’s call it AB) will be positive – it will contribute to the performance of the system. But if Alice and Bob clash regularly, dismiss each others ideas, and act as amplifiers for each others’ bad days, AB is negative – it degrades the performance of the system. I’m sure you’ve experienced this. There’s no shortage of dysfunctional companies out there!

Now consider this. The number of relationships grows as N squared (look at the picture of the small telephone network above to get an idea of how many relationships exist in even the smallest company). Relationships dwarf individuals. No wonder Deming wasn’t interested in measuring individual performance – he was much more interested in the interactions between individuals. Watch Yves Morieux’s TED talk about cooperation in an Olympic relay race. It’s only a 16 minute video – I’ll wait for you 🙂

Why are we so bad at sustaining relationships as a culture?

Over the course of a couple of years, as I learned more and more about what it takes to create healthy, cooperative, corporate cultures, it finally dawned on me why so many of the practices required to do this feel so odd. So out of place. So foreign. Ready?

Most of the skills necessary for sustaining great relationships are considered feminine.

Compassion, empathy, and yes, vulnerability. The so-called “soft” skills. And Western cultures (as well as many Eastern cultures) devalue the feminine (certainly in practice, if not entirely in principle). Growing up, young boys quickly learn that to be a man, the most important thing is not to be a woman. It’s a sad state of affairs that we quite literally halve ourselves as humans, very early in life. Men are raised to be competitors, not cooperators. Women also lose something important – their ability to be assertive, their voice, and that amplifies the problem. Women have a lot to teach us, but their words aren’t given much value. This explained a lot.

It explained my own personal unease when first introduced to Deming’s ideas. Soon after having this epiphany, I read The Chalice and the Blade, by Rianne Eisler, which introduced the idea of dominator hierarchies. And this helped me better understand the culture of competition in which I was raised. It gave me much hope to see Eisler share evidence that’s being unearthed of early partnership societies. These were more cooperative and equalitarian societies. But our kids don’t learn about cooperative societies in school; rather they learn about early dominator civilizations, readying them to take their place in our dominator culture. If you’ve not read Eisler’s book, I challenge you to pick it up. It’s important work.

Most of us as youngsters were not taught how to have sustainable relationships. Our parents weren’t the best role models because they themselves didn’t have good role models, and the legacy continues. At the same time, our culture bombards us with lousy examples.

Relationships are critical to a company’s success, but the raw material that most of us start with leaves much to be desired.

The answers are out there

Deming was fond of saying, “There is no substitute for knowledge,” and I’ve been fortunate to find an author who, at least for me, teased apart relational life in a way that I could easily understand, with knowledge that I was able to use in my own life. His name is Terrence Real, and he’s been acting as a “front line medic” for relationships for over 30 years, teaching theory about relationships as well as practical skills for sustaining healthy ones. Terry’s focus is on marital relationships, but the concepts and skills that he teaches are applicable anywhere, including in companies. The vast majority of us need some help learning how to cultivate healthy relationships, not just at home, but also at work. And I’m going to be sharing much of what I’ve learned from Terry in a way that you can apply in any relationship, from home to work, here on this blog.

If you want to get a taste of Terry’s work, and his take on this schism in our culture, check out his audio book, How Can I Get Through to You? In under five hours, it explores our dominator culture from the battlefield of marriage, which I believe is the ultimate test of relationship skills.


Recommended aim, with examples

Of all of Deming‘s work, I think the bit with the most potential impact is also the bit that Deming kept close to his vest because it doesn’t advocate company growth as an aim, and his clients would not have understood.

Over the last couple of years it’s become clear to me that this paragraph from his book is a critical key to a truly sustainable economy and health for the people working in it (physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual).

From page 51 of The New Economics,

Recommended aim.

The aim proposed here for any organization is for everybody to gain—stockholders, employees, suppliers, customers, community, the environment—over the long term. For example, with respect to employees, the aim might be to provide for them good management, opportunities for training and education for further growth, plus other contributors to joy in work and quality of life.

Note that Deming does advocate personal growth, which I think of as development.

Deming named his book The New Economics for a reason. He must have imagined a world where the aim was to provide meaningful, long term work for people, giving them the opportunity to take pride in their work.

Think about what this new economy might look like. It’s purpose driven, not money/growth driven, so as long as we can afford to pay people well enough so they aren’t worried about money, we can provide a high quality service at a much lower price. Capital sources that follow this model wouldn’t expect crazy growth, simply a modest return on their investment, similar to a credit union. Jimmy Stewart makes the case for them in the classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Daniel Quinn, in the Ishmael trilogy, hinted that it’s entirely possible to create subcultures with an aim like Deming’s recommendation. Quinn calls them tribes, and they are essentially groups of people who form purpose-based organizations. These people have chosen to step off the corporate treadmill and focus on doing meaningful, fulfilling work instead of chasing the big paycheck.

I recently discovered a film that documents a handful of purpose-based organizations as they figure out the details, interspersed with wisdom from experts. Anyone who has studied Deming will appreciate the themes, from the musical quartet that the camera constantly returns to (Deming used an orchestra to explain cooperation), scientific experimentation as a means of learning, focus on processes, and freedom of ideas. It’s exciting to see people experimenting in this space.

The film is called A New Economy, and you can stream it on Netflix as of this writing.

I wish Dr. Deming were alive to see it. I think it would have made him smile.


In my country, every day we hear on the news how growth is critical to our economy. It makes sense when you think of it in the small: when I invest in the stock market, I’m hoping to grow my money, and that requires growth in the companies in which I invest.expon.png

And every time I hear a newscaster talking about the benefits of economic growth, I wonder, how exactly is this sustainable?

Once all restaurants become Taco Bell, how does that company continue to grow? We aren’t going to start eating two lunches a day. There must be more customers, which requires population growth. Of course all those new customers also want to live the dream, so they invest in the stock market just like me. More investors demanding more growth leads to yet more investors demanding even more growth. This is exponential, but even if it were not, we live on a finite planet, and this can’t go on forever.

I have witnessed this personally both in a boardroom and on an executive team. Enterprise value (more specifically, the growth of it) has traditionally been viewed as the key to success.

I’m left thinking about my kids and their great grandkids, and what kind of world we’ll be leaving to them. Because this growth-based economy is quickly eating up the planet.

The aim of the economy in my country is growth. But there are other aims that would be healthier. One example is what Deming proposed.

Searching for Bobby Fischer


I remember watching this movie back in the ’90s when it first came out. And I just watched it again today. Funny, I didn’t recall that Bruce Pandolfini was a character in the film, but he taught me how to play chess via his books: I studied the game for many years. And now I see that I relate in an important way to this movie.

Like many boys, I grew up in an abusive household. Separated from my biological father before I was five years old, I found myself with a stepfather who abused me both physically and psychologically. Once he got over his hatred of me, he did his best to masculinize me, and I think that, at his best, his lessons were designed to help me survive as a man in our culture.

Searching for Bobby Fischer faces the masculinization of men head on. You see a very sweet and sensitive kid (Josh) being raised by a father who knew no better than to do this for his kid (although at some point you have to wonder if all the trophies were for Josh or for his father). And of course we see the mother pushing back against all this and being dismissed by the father. I’ve been guilty of that too. My stepfather is inside me, like it or not.

Josh was wise for his age and taught his father and his chess teacher some things about being human – we don’t have to give up our sweetness and sensitivity, our compassion and kindness, to become men. Indeed we lose half of ourselves when we cut that part out of us; this is what’s led to an epidemic of hidden depression in men in our culture. Sadly this is something men don’t want to talk about. And so we continue the legacy and pass it down to our boys, generation after generation.

Ironically, I remember at some point making a conscious decision to halt my study of chess because I imagined what a life of chess would be like – very lonely. And I was tired of being lonely. I wanted to have a life filled with friendships. But I wasn’t very good at them back then. Just ask my kids and my ex wife.

I was that sweet and sensitive kid when I was little. And for a time in my life I thought I had lost that, but looking back over the last decade of my life, I realized that in reality, I’d just buried it deep inside of me in order to survive. I’m delighted beyond belief to see it flourishing again. Life is good.


What you practice, you become

I’ve been thinking a lot about aims and methods, and I think it’s important to note that how you go about achieving your aim matters. The method matters, more than just in the sense of being effective or efficient. There’s an old saying, “All’s fair in love and war.” You may have also heard that, “The end justifies the means.”

Walter White, from the blockbuster mini-series, Breaking Bad, is a perfect example. Walt, in his quest to provide for his family after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, uses his knowledge of chemistry to dabble in making methamphetamine, and with each episode, we watch him slowly turn into something abhorrent. I’d be curious if Walt would have chosen this method if he’d been able to foresee the misery and disaster that he left in the wake of his journey.

The means matter, because what you practice, you become.

Quick coherence technique

A friend recently mentioned she had a panic attack on an airplane and was looking for something to help. I’ve personally experienced anxiety attacks and I was taught a technique that works well – it was developed by the HeartMath Institute and allows you to get your heart rate under control very, very quickly, which is the first step toward controlling your emotional state. It’s an easy three steps:

  1. Move your attention to the center of your chest. It really helps to put your hand over your heart. This helps remove you from the swirling thoughts in your head and starts to center you. Keep your focus centered there, and if it drifts, gently and kindly bring it back.
  2. Breathe rhythmically. This is key to the technique and I recommend practicing this from time to time when you’re relaxed and able to concentrate so that you’ll be able to do this on command. For example, try five seconds of inhalation, followed by about a second of a pause, then a five second exhale. For me this felt pretty slow, so in order to get enough air to be comfortable I found myself breathing more deeply than normal, which is likely also helpful.
  3. Experience a positive emotion. It helps to prepare ahead of time – have an image ready in your mind that you can jump to that will remind you of a happy time. Even better, try to feel appreciation for something or someone in your life. You might not think it’s possible to change your emotional state just like that, but, surprisingly enough, it is. Steps 1 and 2 ease the way into it by getting your heart rate into a more coherent state.

Practice helps! Practice doing this when you’re not under stress so that when you experience an anxiety or panic attack, you’ll know exactly what to do.

Then consider doing this on a regular basis. Coherence is a helpful book by Dr. Alan Watkins for building emotional regulation and resilience. Watkins teaches the same technique, but he calls it BREATHE (which is an acronym for Breathe Rhythmically, Evenly, and Through The Heart Everyday), and it’s especially important for those of us who sit behind a screen all day to avoid screen apnea.

Magic words

“I don’t know how to do this. Will you help me?”

These are words as magical as Open Sesame, I believe. Humbling yourself in front of another and asking for help. Let me tell you a story to illustrate.

I arrived on an autumn day at JFK for a Pluralsight board meeting at Insight’s headquarters in Manhattan. I’ve never flown into JFK before – on my earlier trips to NYC I’d fly into one of the outlying airports and cab it into the city. Generally I prefer riding the subway and being with the locals instead of hiding away in the cabs. So I took the opportunity to do just this. Only it wasn’t at all clear to me how to even get started once I was in the terminal at JFK.

So when the idea presented itself, I looked up and the first person I saw, I walked over to. He didn’t appear that approachable, but I was testing a theory and I was determined not to cherry pick who I asked for help. So I walked up to him and said, “Excuse me, sir. I’d like to ride the train to Manhattan but I’ve never done this before and I’m not sure how to get started.” Then the unexpected happened. His face brightened and he immediately sprang into action. It was almost as if he grabbed me by the elbow and personally escorted me to the proper train stop, along the way telling me everything I needed to know in order to get to the subway station. It turns out he was taking a different train, and as he boarded it, he shouted to me, “Not this one! The next one, to Jamaica station!”

His instructions were spot on, and I made it to the subway station without any trouble. But when I arrived there, I was faced with another hurdle – the ticket kiosks. It was quite busy and each kiosk had a queue of five or six people. Once again, I felt fear stirring in my gut. I wasn’t sure what train or stop I needed, but even worse, I had no idea how to use the kiosk. I watched over someone’s shoulder and quickly learned that the kiosk was designed for regular users, not newbs like me. I almost turned around and hailed a cab. But I stuck to my guns and got in line behind a well-dressed businessman. Once he had purchased his ticket and turned around to leave, I stopped him. “I’m trying to get to Manhattan, but I’ve never done this before. Will you help me?”

This time I didn’t get such a helpful response. I watched as his face turned from rushed, to annoyed, to incredulous, “I don’t have time to help you. I am a busy man, can’t you see that?” Shaking his head in disbelief, he walked away. As I watched him leave, I started to doubt the theory I was testing about people who help. But about ten seconds after that interaction, once the annoyed businessman had walked out of earshot, the denizens of the underground descended upon me from both sides. I couldn’t believe it. “What a jerk!” I heard from one side. “He should have helped you,” from the other. People were literally competing with one another to help me out. They must have remembered what it was like when they were in my shoes. Suffice it to say that I got the help I needed without having to ask a second time.

So many times we need help but are afraid to ask for it. How many paths have we chosen not to walk down because of fear? I have seen it confirmed time and time again that if you humble yourself and ask for help, people will come to your aid. And it’s a gift you are giving them, because people like to feel helpful, and it brings joy to someone’s life to care for another in need.

I don’t ask for help unless I’m really stuck, but I’m much more bold about doing it now than ever before. And I’m convinced that it’s a critical component for maturity.

The impetus to try this experiment in New York came after I was introduced to Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey. When you start taking responsibility for your life, following your dreams, putting yourself out there, and acknowledging your weaknesses, magic starts to happen. For one thing, helpers appear to assist you.

George Lucas wrote the screenplay for Star Wars based on Campbell’s work. Think about how many times Luke needed help along his path, and the unlikely places he found it. An old man, a little green dude with more hair sticking out of his pointy ears than on his head, a self-centered rogue with an unlikely looking starship, even a princess!

This is just one small part of what you’ll discover when you study Campbell’s work. Ask yourself, where am I on the journey? If you’re interested in learning more, a great place to start is the movie, Finding Joe. Joe’s work has given me the courage and determination to seek a fulfilling life for myself doing something that makes a real difference in the world.