The Secrets of Innovative Teams: Retreat


The Secrets of Innovative Teams: Retreat

“I dwell in possibility.” -Emily Dickinson 

Are you and your team working to be innovative, relevant, and exceptional? Have you tried “innovation initiatives” and task force work, but found that making measurable change is like steering an ocean liner in iceberg filled waters? 

If so, I have a secret for you: without the proper culture in place, almost every change or innovation initiative is likely doomed to failure. 

But you can drive meaningful change and move your organization forward if you focus on the culture first. With a culture oriented towards change, new initiatives actually take root and create new results.

When working with our clients at ESINC, I often work to help build a culture of change by focusing on 4 key disciplines:

Research – Innovative teams are curious teams. They are far more interested in what others know than what they already know themselves. New knowledge is the foundation for new results.

Retreat – Innovative teams build in time to take a step back so they can take a bigger step forward. They take the time to explore new ideas and perspectives. They find ways to pull out of the hectic day-to-day world of execution so that they can recalibrate and aim for bigger leaps.

Realize – Change oriented teams focus on possibility. Change-resistant cultures focus on flaws and dismiss possibilities. When new opportunities emerge, change-oriented teams are naturally inclined towards action, collaboration, and prototyping.

Reveal – Change-oriented cultures actually do something with their new ideas. They embrace risk, they don’t avoid it. This sort of work requires a culture that supports vulnerability and deals with mistakes in productive ways.

(Side note: If you’re interested in an assessment measuring how innovative your culture is, check out our 4 R’s Team Assessment.) 

Stepping Back to Step Forward

My favorite practice for this time of year is Retreat. The Fall is a great time to take a step back, evaluate what we’ve learned over the year and imagine what possibilities we might prioritize in the year ahead.

Retreat demands that we take a step back from the go-go pace of everyday life. When we are too close, when we don’t stop and force ourselves into a different perspective, it is almost impossible to find new opportunities. 

Unfortunately, leaders often feel too busy to Retreat. It takes courage to take a break from the to-do list, but it’s essential to maximizing performance. It’s like the old saying goes, “If nothing changes, nothing changes.

Some of the most innovative and effective leaders we know of built the practice of Retreat into their personal routines. Steve Job was famous for taking long walks. Thomas Edison was known to spend hours fishing with no bait. The reason for Edison was simple: “When you fish without bait, people don’t bother you and neither do the fish. It provides me with my best time to think.” 

Here are some common ways to make Retreat a more active part of your personal workflow and your team culture:

  •  Get out from behind the desk. Take breaks. Go for a walk down the halls or down the block. (Don’t stare at your phone while you do this—it defeats the purpose.) Make this a team norm by doing more walking meetings.

  •  Get some sleep! Often, leaders consider a good night’s sleep a luxury they can’t afford. The truth is, if they’re going to find that breakthrough path forward—sleep is something they can not afford to sacrifice. If your team looks exhausted, be wary of lauding it as a battle scar to be admired. Instead, encourage your team to renew and refuel.

  •  Get your team out of the office. A new setting sets the stage for new thinking. If you’ve been having the same conversation over and over in the same conference room, change the surrounding and the conversation will follow.

  •  Use an outside facilitator for your next meeting. Running a meeting is just another to-do. It’s hard to steer the ship and gaze from the crow’s nest at the same time.

  •  Schedule a real-deal, multi-day retreat. I’ve never heard a client complain that their year would have been more successful if “they hadn’t wasted time on that retreat”. When we invest properly in Retreat, it amplifies our results.

So, here’s the most important question: What can you do today to use the power of Retreat to shift your own team’s trajectory?



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Andy Zimney is a writer, speaker, and facilitator. You can learn more about Andy and how he can help you and your team at
The Secrets of Innovative Teams: Research


The Secrets of Innovative Teams: Research

New results require new questions.

The current issue (September/October 2018) of Harvard Business Review is called Why Curiosity Matters and I highly recommend it to anyone creating a change-oriented culture. 

The three main articles: The Business Case for Curiosity, From Curious to Competent and the Dimensions of Curiosity show how curiosity is vital to an organization’s business results and offers dozens of specific practices that are effective at developing curiosity in yourself and your teams. 

At ESInc, we partner with leaders to create effective work cultures. That almost always involve driving significant and meaningful change, but many team cultures are naturally resistant to a shift from the familiar—even when the familiar is ineffective. 

When helping to design a more change-oriented culture, we are focused on 4 key disciplines:

  ◦  Research – Innovative teams are curious teams. They are far more interested in what others know than what they already know themselves. New knowledge is the foundation for new results.

  ◦  Retreat – Innovative teams build in time to take a step back so they can take a bigger step forward. They take the time to explore new ideas and perspectives. They find ways to pull out of the hectic day-to-day world of execution so that they can recalibrate and aim for bigger leaps.

  ◦  Realize – Change oriented teams focus on possibility. Change-resistant cultures focus on flaws and dismiss possibilities. When new opportunities emerge, change-oriented teams are naturally inclined toward action, collaboration, and prototyping.

  ◦  Reveal – Change-oriented cultures actually do something with their new ideas. They embrace risk, they don’t avoid it. This sort of work requires a culture that supports vulnerability and deals with mistakes in productive ways.

HBR’s look into Curiosity taps right into the first of 4 Disciplines we believe are the hallmarks of a change-oriented culture.

(Side note: If you’re interested in an assessment measuring how innovative your culture is, check out our 4 R’s Team Assessment.) 

At Employee Strategies, we call this discipline of intentional curiosity that the Harvard Business Review explores Research. It’s one of the four disciplines – including Retreat, Realize and Reveal -- that I’m discussing in blogs this fall. 

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

—Rita Mae Brown

So often, leaders tell me how frustrated they are that their teams keep having the same conversations over and over. Despite their efforts and various attempts at solutions, they keep reverting to the status quo. They’ll tell me that they just haven’t found the right solution yet, when the truth is that they have yet to find the right question.

Research in our model is about taking the time to ask questions and find root causes rather than jumping to conclusions. It’s about adopting a learning mindset. It’s about holding off on forming an opinion and collecting as broad and deep a pool of information and perspective as possible.

In a past professional life, I was named Chief Operating Officer of a mid-size nonprofit after more than a decade running the programming side of the organization. Suddenly, I was responsible for managing a multi-million dollar budget, producing and delivering financial analysis to our board and grantors, managing a benefits program, managing vendors and all the other operational functions. While I had many years of experience contributing to budget planning, I had no formal experience with major accounting and finance practices. I immediately went into learning mode.

I met with my predecessor, our accountant, other COO’s and Executive Directors I knew. I found opportunities for training and education. I shifted my reading diet. 

It was overwhelming and intimidating at first, but as the months passed, all those bits of information made more and more sense. By the end of the year, I was receiving accolades from both the board and our CEO for bringing an unprecedented level of insight and analysis to the role. My depth of institutional knowledge from my previous positions was an incredibly valuable advantage, but would never have been enough to lead to success. I had to pair what I already knew with what I had yet to learn.

Barriers to Curiosity

But despite the obvious benefits of curiosity and Research, many work cultures don’t actively support it. Team members are not encouraged to ask questions and learn—instead, they are expected to know and act. The trap here is inevitable.

Recent research by Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School shows that “while managers may say they value inquisitiveness, too often they stifle it. In a survey of some 3,000 employees across a wide range of firms and industries, Gino found that just one-quarter reported feeling curious on the job regularly, and 70% said they faced barriers to asking more questions at work.”

Typically there are two barriers that get in the way of a Research Culture:

First, in many organizations, people receive the implicit message that asking “Why?” “What if …?” or “How might we …?” is an unwanted challenge to authority. They are subtly or directly encouraged to focus on their work without looking closely at the entire process or overall company goals. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to create a culture that allows for curiosity and in exchange, you will solve customer experience, entangled “micromanagement” and process improvement issues much more effectively by hearing the questions and solutions from everyone. 

Second, when we’re overwhelmed with our day to day responsibilities, we stop taking in new information. We feel like we don’t have the time get curious. Especially for people who are well established in their careers, it’s possible that we may be over-relying on our past experience and what we think we already know. We live in a time where the rate of change is growing exponentially. The same things that have helped us succeed and thrive so far just might not be the things we need to continue to do so. Everyone needs to take time to research ways to work better.

The Bridge to New Learning

Here are practices that I encourage any leader wanting to build a more curious and Research-oriented culture:

  •  Model a Research approach when working with your team to solve problems. Defer sharing your opinion and ask more questions.

  •  Regularly solicit perspective from customers, partners, employees, and peers.

  •  Encourage team members to invest in learning experiences. Designate a budget for learning conferences, trainings, classes, books.

  •  Read. Listen to audiobooks and podcasts. Some companies I work with have even started book clubs that meet for lunch and discuss how to apply their learnings to their work.

  •  Check in on your competition. Instead of regarding them as foes, think of them as teachers. What can you learn from what they are doing?

Great breakthroughs don’t start with brilliant answers, they start with the right question. So what are you most curious about now?


Andy Zimney is a Senior Culture Advisor and Team Performance Coach at Employee Strategies, Inc., a boutique firm that partners with leaders to develop highly effective cultures that drive outstanding results. Contact ESInc to learn more about how they can assess your current culture and help design customized and effective culture development plan for your team.

Interested in having Andy speak at your next event? Find out more at



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Andy Zimney is a writer, speaker, and facilitator. You can learn more about Andy and how he can help you and your team at
Not Sure What Your Team's Culture Is? Try This Quick Culture Test


Not Sure What Your Team's Culture Is? Try This Quick Culture Test

If you were to create a cartoon version of your culture—exaggerated the way people show up in meetings, the way they communicate, how they articulate or don’t articulate priorities and values—would it make you better or worse? Would the result be an Avenger’s comic book or a Dilbert comic strip?

If you’re not excited about the exaggerated version of yourself, maybe it’s time to invest in some changes.

I often compare the drivers of company culture to those underwater jets in a lazy river ride at a waterpark. Most of the time, we’re unaware of their presence. We don’t think about our culture regularly. We simply show up and let the established current take us along.

Every once in awhile it’s useful to take a step back and ask ourselves, “Is this river ride taking us where we want to go?” Are we traveling somewhere that gives us a meaningful result or are we just floating around in circles—always coming back to the same issues, the same conversations, the same frustrations?

Exaggerating the current norms is like cranking up the pressure on those water jets. We can see a little more clearly where they are pushing us and—if we’re not satisfied with the apparent destination—re-orient them.

Try this: Write an exaggerated description of how your team currently conducts itself around the following elements, the good, the bad, and the ugly:

  •  Setting goals and strategies

  •  Making decisions

  •  Holding each other accountable

  •  Managing change

  •  Addressing uncomfortable conversations

  •  Building trust

  •  Collaborating

Do you like the cartoon version of your team? 

What does it tell you about the real-life version? 

At ESINC, we like to refer to ourselves as a “culture investment firm.” Every day, we help teams get a little clearer on the current value of their “culture portfolio" and the returns they are likely to see in the future. We help them see where the water jets are pointing them and how to adjust them when necessary. Because just like your financial portfolio, an intentionally designed culture portfolio gets you a better return.



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Andy Zimney is a writer, speaker, and facilitator. You can learn more about Andy and how he can help you and your team at
2 Rules to Get Your Project Back on Track


2 Rules to Get Your Project Back on Track

We love to complain about meetings, but the truth is that meetings are the lifeblood to much of our work. Using meetings productively and efficiently can be instrumental to keeping critical projects on track—and even more essential to a project that’s fallen off the skids back online. 

What can make meetings challenging is that they don’t run on systems or software or mechanics—they run on people. Every business ultimately depends on the interaction of real-live human beings—humans with complex brains, diverse abilities, and sophisticated (and sometimes messy) emotional lives. Those complicated human beings are simultaneously your greatest asset and most challenging liability when it comes to building a great organization—and nowhere is the dynamic more on display than in your meetings. As a management consultant, I can tell you that I can get a decent sense of how effective any organization or team is simply by sitting in on one of their meetings.

So given how vital effective meetings are, it’s notable how little time we actually dedicate to developing the people skills and systems to make the most of them. That’s why some of the most rewarding work I do often comes down to helping teams make their meetings as productive as possible.

ed catmull.jpg

Ed Catmull is the co-founder and president of Pixar—the incredibly successful production company responsible for groundbreaking films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Up.

Like any company, Pixar has had its share of challenges. There were years of work advancing their story-telling and animation skills and technology before they achieved their first box office success in 1995 with Toy Story. They also had to learn to navigate the same management pitfalls that any rapidly growing organization needs to traverse.

In his book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Catmull recounts many of the management lessons and breakthroughs he learned as they grew Pixar from a small division within a graphic imaging company for medical devices into the Hollywood powerhouse they are today.

One of the challenges was, predictably, how to have effective meetings. 

The Braintrust

We’ve all experienced less than productive meetings. The maladies are numerous: unclear objectives, poor time management, the inadequate capture of outcomes, dropped communication after the meeting, etc. I’ve written about many of those themes in the past and will again in the future. But in this post, we’ll focus on a particular meeting objective: How do we use meetings effectively get a project that is not on the mark back on track?

What Catmull and his team developed at Pixar was a special sort of meeting for this purpose—something they came to call the braintrust .

At Pixar, a braintrust is called situationally—whenever a movie doesn’t seem to be working quite right in one way or another. Catmull’s book is filled with lots of great anecdotes about the behind-the-scenes issues that tripped up the makers of many of your favorite movies: a scene may not be having the emotional effect that it needed, a character might seem bland, an action-sequence might be leaving audiences confused and overwhelmed, or a bit of animation might not be coming across as realistic.

Whatever the problem, the folks at Pixar would frequently call a braintrust to get it back on track.

The Attendees

The attendees of the braintrust varied depending on the situation—the primary criteria was as simple as this: Who has got a good head on them and might be able to make some contribution to solving this problem? Almost always, the director and producer were in the room, but not because of their rank—in fact, rank should be eliminated in the braintrust (more on why this is the case a little later). What matters most is that all the attendees are invested in making things better and have perspective that might be useful.

The Rules

Through a series of trial and error—closely examining what worked best in their most effective meetings—the folks at Pixar ultimately came to realize that the braintrust has two essential elements:

  1.  The braintrust has an expectation of absolute candor.

  2.  The braintrust has no power.

Absolute candor


First, let’s talk about candor. Candor has a very specific meaning. It’s subtly different from honesty. The word “honesty” comes with loads of moral implications and the defensive baggage that can accompany it. “Can I be honest with you?” will almost instantly get anyone’s hackles up. It can be akin to warning someone to suit up with their emotional armor—whatever follows is likely to hurt. 

Candor, on the other hand, implies directness and clarity. It means that whatever I’m about to say I believe to be true and can be of some use to you. Setting an expectation of candor from the very beginning frees up participants to bring their best stuff. 

As a meeting facilitator, letting participants know explicitly that your expectation is that they not withhold or candy-coat, you’re much more likely to get valuable perspectives on the table.

Of course, actually achieving candor requires more than just stating the expectation. Teams must constantly reinforce the expectation by restating it on a regular basis and affirming the courage of expressing a candid opinion, especially when it is an unpopular one. Candor is not automatically achieved, but it is paramount to achieving a highly successful .

The Braintrust Has No Power

The second essential element of the braintrust is also a subtle shift in expectations and just as critical as the first one: The braintrust has no power. 


That means that no decisions will be made during the braintrust. While removing decision-making power might seem counterintuitive to a productive meeting, it’s actually essential and here’s why: without a prohibition against making decisions during the braintrust, the director or other key participants can’t help but spend precious meeting time defending what’s already been done. It’s virtually impossible to listen and defend at the same time.

By relieving the of any power and deferring and delegating decisions to the key responsible parties at a later time, all participants are able to listen more effectively. Relieved of the concern that the process is going to get overtaken by consensus or the loudest voice, there is no need for the director to defend or to argue. With this protection of his or her authority and autonomy in place, the braintrust paradoxically allows them to be much more vulnerable. They still retain their role as the primary decision-maker, but now they will make their decisions with a deeper understanding of more diverse perspectives.

Simultaneously, this deferment of judgment also promotes more candor from the whole group. The focus of the meetings centers on and direct communication of insights. Nothing reinforces a willingness to be candid the experience of others receiving your viewpoint with open minds and ears instead of the usual rebuttals and push-back.

Wait, Really? No decisions?!

Don’t get me wrong, many meetings could benefit from more closure and more decision-making. In certain situations, however, it’s often far more productive to delay the decision and focus on creating the most constructive debate possible by sharing as many diverse opinions as possible.

The problem with many meetings is that objectives aren’t clear at outset. Most agenda items should fall into one of 3 camps:

  1. Sharing information to raise the awareness of the team.
  2. Discussing a situation for the purpose of achieving a decision and resolution as a team.
  3. Gathering input and perspective from the team so that one of its members can make a better-informed decision on their own.

Unfortunately, most teams don’t clearly articulate which of those 3 buckets each item on their agenda is falling into. The resulting situation is ripe for confusion and wasted energy. 

Jane may start the conversation wanting only to raise the awareness of the group. Jose responds assuming that Jane brought the information forward so that they could make a group decision. Jerry eats up 10 minutes of the 30-minute meeting sharing his thoughts thinking that he’s being helpful, while Jane is starting to panic as more and more chefs pile into her kitchen. All Jane wanted to do was provide a quick 60-second update. 30 minutes later the team is still discussing—unclear about what their real objective as in the first place.

The braintrust works because it makes it clear from the very beginning that it is an agenda of the third kind: This is Jane’s call. She is going to make it later, not during this meeting. We’re all here to equip her with as much insight as we can so that she can make the best decision possible.

A Note About Rank

By removing the braintrust of power, we temporarily disrupt the counter-productive hang-ups that can come with rank. We tend to equate rank with titles when titles actually communicate two separate pieces of information: rank and role. 

Roles describe what I do and what I’m responsible for. Rank describes how my importance compares to your importance. When it comes to chain-of-command decision-making, rank can be a very useful piece of information. For example, in most companies, it is important for a director to understand that a CEO has the prerogative to overrule a director’s decisions. Of course, any CEO should be intentional about how and when they exercise this rank, but still, the authority is always there and it’s valuable for all parties involved to understand it.

But when it comes to promoting constructive and candid conversation in a braintrust, rank can become a liability. Participants of lower official rank may be hesitant to share candid opinions, especially unpopular ones if they are afraid they might diverge from higher ranking participants.

On the other side of that coin, high ranking participants can sometimes withhold valuable perspective for fear that lower ranking members will be overly deferential and adopt the high-ranking opinion—even if it was not the best one on the table.

For these reasons, all participants must work to shake off the hang-ups that might come with their titles. High-ranking members should remember to call on and encourage participation from everyone in the room—actively inviting opinions contrary to their own. Lower-ranking titles should be mindful of the expectation for candor and be willing to take the risks it requires.

Ultimately, It’s About Building Effective Teams


No matter what work you’re in, we all benefit from the wisdom within our teams—and effective meetings are key opportunity to leverage that wisdom.

There is not one among us who has the best answer—everyone on the team likely has a part of the best answer. Using the practices of the braintrust can be transformational when it comes to using the diversity within your team most effectively.

Of course, your ability to leverage the braintrust will be a reflection of your team’s strengths: trust, respect, leadership, accountability, communication, camaraderie, etc.

These are skills that can be both utilized and developed in the braintrust and in every other interaction as a team. The most effective teams identify systems and initiatives that actively hone and develop these strengths because the outcomes of your projects depend on the effectiveness of your teams.



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Andy Zimney is a writer, speaker, and facilitator. You can learn more about Andy and how he can help you and your team at
Get your team UNSTUCK at the PEN breakfast


Get your team UNSTUCK at the PEN breakfast

We've all had that experience where the plans and goals we set seem to be obsolete within minutes of walking out of the conference room.

We all know that today's fast-paced and ever-changing world requires that we adopt strategies and practices that are more dynamic than ever. Without the proper mindsets and skill sets, teams often get stuck in a world of confusion, false starts, and frustration.

If your team would benefit from developing a more innovative and productive approach to creating valuable outcomes, I want to invite you to the PEN Breakfast on Sep 7 where I'll be presenting on the Improviser's Strategy for Creating Value.

It's been a very busy Summer with our great team over at Employee Strategies, Inc. over the last several months facilitating leadership retreats, leading strategic planning sessions, and keynoting with some amazing clients. I don't get to present this work in a public setting very often--so I hope you or someone from your team can join us!

For more information visit PEN's website. Or to register, contact Brian Lassiter at




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Andy Zimney is a writer, speaker, and facilitator. You can learn more about Andy and how he can help you and your team at
Recognizing a great opportunity...


Recognizing a great opportunity...

As you know, I often talk with leaders and teams about creative leadership and the innovative process. Creating meaningful change requires determination, courage, and an ability to recognize a great opportunity when it presents itself.

That’s why I’m excited to write to you today about an exciting opportunity that recently presented itself to me.

A few weeks ago, I accepted an invitation to join forces with the team over at Employee Strategies, Inc. (ESI) and have accepted a position as a full-time consultant with their firm.

J Forrest founded ESI over a decade ago with a vision to help transform workplaces into environments where people can be their best selves and do their best work. I’ve know J for years and am excited that we’ll get to work even more closely together.

ESI’s point of view is very much aligned with the vision of Leading Off the Cuff. It’s a belief that organizations are organisms, not mechanisms. They are driven by human beings trying to create meaningful impact for other human beings.

The team at ESI provides leadership development experiences, retreats, culture assessments and strategic planning to businesses and organizations from a variety of sectors and I couldn’t be happier to join a team of such like-minded consultants, coaches, and facilitators.

In the meantime, the mission of Leading Off the Cuff is not going away. There are a handful of projects I’ve been working on under the LOC banner that I’ll be finishing up over the next few months (many of those with people on this mailing list). I hope to continue to post on the Leading Off the Cuff blog about creativity, productivity, and doing work that matters. You’ll continue to see me at many of the same events as an attendee, presenter, or volunteer.

As always, if there is anything I can do to help support you and your team in doing their very best work—whether it’s developing more impactful leaders; training teams to work more creatively, productively, and collaboratively; or strengthening the culture of your organization, please drop me a line.

I’d be happy to explore how I (and now, the rest of the ESI team) might be able to support you.

This email account will stay active or you can reach me at my new address,

Or call me at 651-253-7515.

Or drop by the ESI office on the 3rd floor of the Calhoun Beach Club building for a great cup of coffee, a beautiful view of the lake, and some meaningful conversation.




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Andy Zimney is a writer, speaker, and facilitator. You can learn more about Andy and how he can help you and your team at
6 Approaches When a Lack of Clarity Has Got You Stuck


6 Approaches When a Lack of Clarity Has Got You Stuck

We all get stuck. 

We set new goals and plans—but months later, we haven’t really moved the needle.

Intuitively, we know we’re capable of doing more, but in real life it can feel like we’re frozen in time—repeating the same conversations and getting the same results. We’re stuck.


The Ellsberg Paradox

A common cause of that stagnation can be demonstrated by what’s come to be known as the Ellsberg Paradox.

Named for the economic theorist, Daniel Ellsberg, this phenomenon can be described by a simple demonstration:

Imagine that I hold out two bags and explain that each bag is filled with 100 marbles—some of them are red and some of them are black. 

In Bag #1, I tell you, there are exactly 50 red marbles and 50 black marbles. 

Bag #2 also has 100 marbles and they are also all either red or black—but I’m not going to tell you what the ratio is. There might be an identical mix of 50 red and 50 black like the first bag, there might be 99 red and 1 black, there might be 1 red and 99 black, or anywhere other combination--you just don't know.

Now here’s the game: You get to pick one marble from one of the bags. If it’s red, I’ll give you $100. If it’s black, you give me $100.

Which bag would you like to choose from?

If you’re like the vast majority of people, you picked Bag #1 with the 50-50 split. 



Bag #1 has no statistical advantage. In fact, without going into the math, it actually doesn’t matter which bag you choose. Bag #2 could just as likely have more red balls as it is likely that it has hardly any red balls—so it all rounds out to the same 50/50 chance no matter which bag you choose.

So if both bags are statistically the same, why do most of us pick Bag #1?

The answer is simple: We tend to prefer what we know over what we don’t know.

Call it an aversion to ambiguity, a preference for the “devil we know”, or just a general lack of creativity—the end result is the same: our bias towards avoiding the things that aren’t clear to us is likely to get us stuck doing what we've done in the past--same choices, same results.

The "Bag #2" in Our Plans

When I sit down with clients and look through their to-do lists, dashboards, or strategic plans—there’s almost always at least one initiative that hasn't been touched, just sitting there for months with zero progress made. 

They might claim that the problem is a lack of time or resources (it’s always easy to blame time and resources) but the real culprit is often more insidious: a lack of clarity. It's a virtual "Bag #2"--not totally clear, and so, generally avoided.

Whether the initiative is worded too vaguely, was abandoned by a champion who understood it clearly but has since left the team, or is just plain new and unfamiliar--the end result is the same. 

We keep going back to the bags we already know. Sure, we can still pull some winning marbles out of those bags, but we're unlikely to discover any new opportunities To really improve our results, we need to find ways to get more clear on the other possibilities in front of us.

How to get unstuck...

If you suspect that you and your team are missing out on some opportunity because of the Ellsberg phenomenon, here are some tips for getting clear, getting unstuck, and getting back on track:

Make it clearer by asking “Why?”

It’s remarkable how often teams respond to me with silence when I ask why a goal is on their list in the first place. 

Sometimes, that lack of response is an indicator that the goal really shouldn’t be a priority, but more often it’s an indicator that there was some deeper meaning behind the goal that has become disconnected somewhere along the way. 

Reconnecting the goal with that original purpose or--better yet--rearticulating a newer clearer goal that more accurately captures the original purpose will often trigger much more productive work.

Make it clearer by clarifying the next step. 

Large projects can be hard to get our arms around. Oftentimes, we avoid things that are just too big. For example, “planning an annual fundraising event” is hard! “Scheduling the next event committee meeting” is easy. If you don’t clearly know what the very next thing to do is and who owns it—it’s not going to get done. Period.

Identify what’s next. Do that thing. Repeat.

Make it clearer by defining the finish line. 

Imagine you’re a runner and you get an invitation to register for a race—but no one can tell you how long the race is. It could be a 5k, a 10-miler, or a marathon—who knows? Would you sign up for that race? Never!

Too often, we sign up for other races in our work without understanding where the finish line is. 

Organizations will set fuzzy internal goals like “Improve Staff Engagement” without a specific way to measure those efforts. It’s almost impossible to make progress.  Sending out a staff survey that gives you a baseline and then setting an improvement goal (e.g., increase staff engagement by 10%) is much more actionable.

When we don’t know what success looks like, we don’t bother. Let your team know where the finish line is and they'll start running.

Make it clearer by putting a time limit on it. 

This is a twist on the last recommendation. Sometimes, defining a finish line isn’t realistic. I can measure when a race is over or when I’ve made 10 sales calls, or sent all the donor thank-you cards--but how do I know when writing this blog post or the design for the fundraising event website is done? Authors will tell you that a book is never really done. Eventually, you just run out of time. When tasks are more qualitative, it's harder to set a clear metric for being finished.

When setting a finish line isn’t realistic, set a time limit instead. 

We’re all familiar with setting deadlines (“deliver the Annual Report six months from today”), but the same principal can be used on the short-term scale. 

I use timers all the time. When I’m not feeling particularly inspired to write I will often just set a timer--sometimes for a little as 15 minutes. Immediately my focus shifts from the impossible task of writing something brilliant to focussing on the very do-able task of writing about anything for 15 minutes. More often than not, I discover something worth writing about after I’ve started typing.

The same tactic can be used by teams in meetings. Set a timer and discuss the most pressing issues related to that project in the relatively short amount of time allotted. Be clear that you will hold firm and end the conversation when the buzzer sounds. The artificial urgency is often all that’s needed to drum up more productive conversation and get back on track.

Make it clearer by killing it. 

Sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, we realize that we’re not making progress on a project because somewhere along the line we realized it wasn’t nearly as important or impactful as we had originally thought. But if no one calls it out, the project lives on like a zombie causing unnecessary stress and anxiety for ourselves and the team.

Kill it! Stop wasting time and energy reporting out on the continued lack of progress when you know deep down there’s not going to be any meaningful progress.

Explicitly killing projects that everyone knows were dead long ago creates instant relief and builds trust that the remaining projects are truly priorities and should be treated as such.

Finally, just accept that it's not clear, and do something anyway. 

Very often, truly innovative work includes a fair amount of ambiguity. By its nature, your next breakthrough success may require more energy, focus, and a higher tolerance for wading through the unknown.

If doing innovative work is a real priority, make an explicit agreement with yourself and your team that you are going to dedicate a specific portion of your time and resources to digging in on projects and tasks that are less clear and less comfortable. You can use the approaches outlined above along the way to help continue your forward progress.


Clarify why.

Clarify what’s next.

Clarify the finish line.

Clarify the time limit.

Clarify by killing it.

Clarify that it’s not supposed to be clear right now.


Getting stuck is unavoidable, but there are specific tactics we can employ to work out of the rut. Hopefully, some of these approaches can help you break through in your work so that you’re not always drawing from the same bag and getting the same results.

What other approaches do you use individually or in your teams to create more clarity or navigate through the unknown? I’d love to hear about them!




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Andy Zimney is a writer, speaker, and facilitator. You can learn more about Andy and how he can help you and your team at
Do you know what your HABEs are?


Do you know what your HABEs are?

Doing more impactful work is rarely as simple as setting newer, bigger, better goals. It's much more often about shifting old habits, attitudes, beliefs, and expectations (HABEs). Often, those HABEs can be virtually invisible to us. 

  • You have a habit of keeping conversations short in our meetings, so you never get to the important but complex problems. Or perhaps you have a habit of long, detailed conversations that leave little room for making key decisions.
  • You have an attitude of optimism or pessimism that blinds you to the realities of a situation and keeps you from reacting realistically.
  • You have a belief that your boss is uninterested in your concerns so you don’t speak up when the truth might be that your boss is just unpracticed at asking for input.
  • You have an expectation that things will be fine because they’ve generally been fine in the past, and you neglect to address that new risk or opportunity that you haven’t seen before and miss out on taking meaningful action.

It’s like the old story of the two young fish swimming through the water when an older fish passes by and asks them, “Good morning—how’s the water today?”  The two young fish swim on for a bit until one finally ask the other, “What’s water?”

The HABEs are our water. Until we get clear about the HABEs that we are all swimming in, we’ll never be able to do our most impactful work.

I help individuals and teams see the water. 

If you're on a team or are a team leader, I'd like to tell you about the Team LeaderView™. It's a really powerful tool that helps teams and team leaders get clearer about the water they swim in by measuring your work across 14 key performance indicators. The Team LeaderView™ gives a clearer understanding of how the HABEs your team possesses are impacting Productivity skills including goal-setting, decision-making, and accountability and Positivity skills including communication, alignment, and camaraderie. 

What counterproductive habits does your team possess that have become invisible to you? What are positive habits you should amplify even more?

If you're interested in getting clearer about the HABEs that are both driving and holding back the performance of your team, contact me about performing a no-cost Team LeaderView™ assessment. It's a small commitment of time that may start a powerful conversation about how you and your team can do your very best work.



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Andy Zimney is a writer, speaker, and facilitator. You can learn more about Andy and how he can help you and your team at
What a Chess-Playing Computer Can Teach Us About Egos & Success


What a Chess-Playing Computer Can Teach Us About Egos & Success

One way to “teach” a computer to play chess is to simply program it to know all the legal moves and give it a goal (in this case, to take the king). If you have even mildly decent chess skills,  you’ll most likely be able to beat that computer if you play a game with it.

Another way to teach a computer to play is to program it to play itself over and over and instruct it to track the likelihood that each move leads to a win or a loss. A few days and many games later you’ll have a computer that even a chess master would have a hard time beating. 

In the first scenario, the computer follows instructions. In the second, the computer learns.

Our greatest successes often aren’t products of our ability to follow instructions. Our greatest contributions much more often come from what we’ve learned.

And while we humans are incredible learning machines, a computer has two distinct advantages over us:

First, it has a flawless and instantly searchable memory. Our brains can’t do that. Fortunately, we don’t need to—that’s what we have the computer for.

The second disadvantage is one that the computer can’t help us with: we’ve got egos. Unlike most of us, the computer is not concerned about short-term win/loss records. Instead, the computer “cares” about learning.

Just like us, the computer only learns by looking backward. It can’t know if each new move will lead to a win until the end of the game. But at the end of every game, it’s more prepared for the next one. As far as the machine is concerned, a loss is equally valuable to a win. The end result is the same: new learning. The computer doesn’t need wins—it needs more games.

Unlike computers, we’ve got a bias towards winning, and of course—in the long run—we should all want to win. But in the short-run, we’d be much better off looking for more games. 

Too often, both in the short-run and the long, we don’t take the time to look back and mine our experiences for learning. We’re too distracted by the pain of the loss or the self-congratulation of the win.

Even worse, too often we don’t play the game at all—avoiding a loss seems safer than risking a win.

If you’re playing the game using only the rules you know and playing with a mindset of loss-aversion, you’ll still get some wins mixed in with your losses. But you’ll never become a master.



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Andy Zimney is a writer, speaker, and facilitator. You can learn more about Andy and how he can help you and your team at
Cut down your to-do list by adding one word...


Cut down your to-do list by adding one word...

A while back I stumbled on one of the most powerful productivity hacks ever: using the word “draft” in my to-do lists.

If you’re like me, you’ve got a to-do list a mile long. Some of those things are critically important and command attention by their sheer gravitational force. Others are someday-maybe kinds of items that you hope to get around to, but aren’t mission-critical.

And then there are those items that really are important, but you keep kicking them down the road. Things that you should make progress on today, but get little in the way of actual traction. 

Things like, 

  • Send that tricky email to Julie
  • Build a budget for the new program proposal
  • Write the job description for a new virtual assistant
  • Call Jose to discuss the project I’d like to pitch him
  • Write next week’s blog post

We know they are important, but we avoid them because they’re messy, we’re unsure of what success looks like, and some of them are just plain uncomfortable. The problem is, our avoidance doesn’t help at all. The answers don’t present themselves on their own and often the discomfort only builds. All the while, we’re burning precious creative energy on anxiety every time we scan over that item in our list.

That’s when I insert the word “draft” in my list:

  • DRAFT an email to Julie—but don’t send it
  • DRAFT a budget for the new program proposal
  • DRAFT a job description for a new virtual assistant
  • DRAFT an agenda for the call with Jose to discuss the project I’d like to pitch him
  • DRAFT next week’s blog post

Suddenly, I get productive. Releasing myself of the pressure of nailing it on the first go and free in the knowledge that this DRAFT is for my eyes only, I can finally start making some progress.

And here’s the real benefit: Once I’m drafting, I end up discovering all sorts of insights that help me overcome the anxiety that was holding me back in the first place: 

  • WHILE DRAFTING an email to Julie—I get much clearer on what the essential kernel of the message is that I want her to understand
  • WHILE DRAFTING a budget for the new program I discover where the weak points are in our plan and what to put on the next team agenda so that we can address it
  • WHILE DRAFTING a job description for a new virtual assistant I discover the problem I’m really trying to solve and can interview with even more acuity
  • WHILE DRAFTING an agenda for the call with Jose to discuss the project I’d like to pitch him I rediscover what’s most exciting about the project in the first place and can take that energy into the call
  • WHILE DRAFTING next week’s blog post I discover what really moves me about the power of drafting!

There’s a line in the improv world that goes like this: “You’re either moving forward or you’re not.” Certainly, great work is what we all strive for, but the only way to get there is to keep moving forward. Often that means sifting through more than a few crappy drafts on the way. 

Because after a few deep breaths, moving forward is almost always more productive than standing still.


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© Andy Zimney and Leading Off the Cuff, 2016.



If you enjoyed this post, please like it, share it, or leave a comment!

Andy Zimney is a writer, speaker, and facilitator. You can learn more about Andy and how he can help you and your team at