What You Really Want is Clarity (and how to get it)

Great cultures ,Popular Articles ,Productivity ,Values


There’s one word I keep hearing at companies when they express their desires. It’s like the holy grail people are seeking. What people want most, whether leaders or workers, is this:


And what’s interesting is I see this most in companies that are successful! Successful companies have a plethora of opportunities, choices and options. And so the pain comes from questions such as:

  • What’s the priority?
  • What do we focus on?
  • What happens when our priorities compete?
  • How do we stop the chaos?
  • How do we delegate decision making while ensure the right decisions are made?
  • What data do we need to make decisions?

The funny thing is that focusing on these questions only makes the problem worse, because it actually brings up even more options. 

I was running a culture game around conflict and it was interesting how challenging it was for people to follow a basic language protocol that focused their communication. It was like they were wrapping their brains around how to be more specific and concise when they were used to simply talking and figuring things out as conversation went on.

This was in stark contrast to a podcast I heard with a 24 year old Army Ranger whose clarity in communication was incredible. He could think so clearly and communicate with quick precision, without meandering thought. I immediately thought: This is the kind of person I’d like to hire.

So there are two ways to solve this dilemma of clarity. First, as I’ve always said, the biggest impact you can have on your culture is who you let into the organization.

1. Hire clear thinkers and communicators. 

It’s always tempting to go with the person who has the exact experience we need on their résumé. But that’s a terrible idea. Unless it is ultra specific (think: nuclear chemist), then hiring someone who has already “been there, done that” means they won’t grow a lot and so they won’t give their best.

Whereas if you hire someone who:

a) loves to learn (and learns fast)
b) thinks clearly (more on that in a moment)
c) communicates clearly (succinctly, on point, and looks you in the eye)

Then you’ll have someone you want for life.

2. Establish the 3 P’s.

The reason an Army Ranger can think so clearly is because their lives are built around the 3 P’s:


Whether it’s the core values of Whole Foods, or the credo of the Navy Seals, the strongest organizations run on principles. Principle define who’s in and who is out. They act as guides for decision making and they reduce politics by aligning people to agreed upon concepts rather than to people in power. If you haven’t figured out your principles, check out the core values process in my book The Culture Blueprint.


There’s an anecdote from the Checklist Manifesto that says a beginner pilot uses a checklist to prepare for a flight. Do you know what a veteran pilot with 30 years experience on a 747 uses? The same thing: A checklist. If it’s clear that we must do it and hold to a standard of excellence, then a protocol like a checklist is very useful. And this is not just for processes, but also for conversations. That’s why I have a protocol that I teach for conflict resolution. By staying within the process it allows people to feel safe.  New management systems such as Holacracy are based on this concept.  If companies had a protocol for delegating it would relieve so much pain.


Policies can actually be quite liberating when used effectively. For example, a policy can be that any employee can use up to $500 to remedy a customer service error without asking for approval. That policy can empower people to make decisions while still keeping a safeguard on the process.

If you feel overwhelmed by all the decisions you need to make, consider if there’s a breakdown in clarity and how precise communication, principles, protocols and policies can help.

The Importance of Level 1

Great cultures


I heard a story about Yo-Yo Ma, the world class cellist, thrilled talking with another musician when he realized they both still practice scales to this day.

There’s something about “Level 1” that’s so important and underrated.

I run into it all the time in culture work. A a company wants a big payoff, win, revenue (insert any goal) and they look to the latest tool or technique. But I almost always find the answer is in going back to a core value or principle that guides a team’s success.  That’s level 1.

We are always at Level 1.

The Best Companies Share…

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When we experience abundance, we want to share. Bill Gates, the richest person in the world, started the largest foundation in the world.

But sharing isn’t just about money. For companies, it’s about sharing what we’ve learned, and the most successful and innovative companies know it.

Netflix shares its culture deck and its evolving policies.  Disney Institute offers classes in how it dazzles its customers, as does Ritz Carlton.  And of course Zappos Insights (the Zappos.com company I co-created), offers entire experiences in culture.

But the great thing is, you don’t have to be big and famous to do this. Anyone can create a culture book, like the culture book of 360incentives.com.

And it doesn’t have to be a production either. It can be a blog, a podcast, a tour, a whitepaper. Just share what you learn and what you care about. It will help you grow and scale your culture.

To be a leader, be a great host

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host leadership

I had the honor of podcasting with Mark McKergow, author of Host. This is the most compelling leadership philosophy I’ve heard. It completely aligns withe culture of the network age.  You can listen to the whole podcast here.

Culture must be experienced.

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There’s a certain irony to giving speeches and writing books as a “culture expert” because culture must be experienced to believe it.

Robert James Waller said it best when he was talking about romance…

I looked up the definition of romance in several dictionaries. As I guessed, reading the definitions of romance is about the most unromantic thing you can do…

Romance you see, is something that you take care of – romance needs food and water and care, of a kind all her own. You can destroy romance, or ate least drive her away without knowing that you are doing it.

Romance dances just beyond the firelight, in the corner of your eye. She does not like you to look at her directly, she flees from the cold light of logic and data collection when it is turned toward her. If you persist in trying to study her, however, she first disintegrates, then dissolves into nothing at all.

E.B. White once said a similar thing about humor which, ‘can be dissected, as a frog, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.’ You can’t get at romance, then, by good old Western reductionism.

That’s why for each of my topics (culture hacking, innovation and values-driven culture), I like to create an experience for people. It’s what really lasts, and it’s the most powerful way to shift beliefs without ever preaching.

The Counter Intuitive Way to Reward People

Great cultures

I was teaching a high-end mastermind of entrepreneurs and the subject of bonuses and raises came up.

After much discussion, we all came to one surprising solution…

Keep it random.

Certain things should be entitlements. People are entitled to a salary. People are entitled to benefits. But when I see companies give bonuses every year, or create a profit sharing model, then suddenly people feel very entitled to getting more and more.

The company’s financial success is not guaranteed every year. So why should bonuses be guaranteed? And not everyone is a partner in the company, so why should everyone be receiving profits?

What I have seen work is to vary the percentages, frequency and even format of rewards.

Why does it have to be money? What if it’s in the form of a group trip or vacation? What if you rewarded people with the growth and learning they’ve been wanting for themselves?

The best cultures learn what make people tick. They learn their dreams, and they learn about how each person wants to progress (in many ways beyond money). And they record and share the resulting stories.

As with all culture hacking, this takes experimentation. Let me know what you discover.