Of coffee and pirates

During my short tenure working downtown in Chapel Hill, NC I would frequent a local watering hole for students, knowledge workers and other coffee aficionados.

The place had a relatively new manager, who was an interesting guy. He was kind of short stature, had an unfamiliar accent, was mostly bald with a bit of a crooked smile. I fondly referred to him as looking like a pirate. But what he lacked in perhaps, visual appeal, he made up for in charisma and personality. He had a great vibe that really worked for his customer base and, over time, it became more and more popular.

I eventually befriended him (we even went to my first and only concert) and I was keen to understand the secrets to his customer service success.

The sweet smell of success

We covered all the basics about what he did, but he was much more interested in discussing how he managed his team vs anything he did personally or in particular. As he mentioned this, I made a mental note of the fact that since he arrived, the team seemed to be “better” in various ways but also more consistent. My experience was fast, pleasant and predictable. Easy in, easy out, with none of the little surprises, changes and not-infrequently new faces of the old regime.

Before you think this is anecdotal or opinion based, he had managed to increase traffic by nearly double, while cutting staff turnover by half. Starbucks had been so impressed with the metrics of this store, and this manager in particular, that they offered him the job of manager of their new outlet in Chapel Hill … before it was even built. He took the job and was paid a full time salary to wait, while the new store was constructed!

The secret to his success in improving flow, consistency and efficiency and in doing that creating the well oiled machine that was his staff, was ABC, always be communicating.


Yes, this sounds like a trite generalization and platitude. Of course managers should always be communicating but a couple things. First, many managers actually don’t and when they do, they communicate too infrequently and too inconsistently. When they do communicate, the message is often subtle, nuanced, complicated or otherwise difficult to understand. The net result is roughly equivalent to not communicating at all.

  • What John offered was a radically different, but simple approach
  • He had very few messages, that were based on key concepts of success at the coffee shop

He repeated them to each team member, every day, without fail

For example, he would say “Hey Jeff, did you know that if you are going to be sick, you need to call in 1 hour before hand so we can staff a replacement? Also, if you don’t do this, you will be fired”

Imagine being told the same thing, every day, for the entire time at a job, with a dire warning added for good measure? As annoying as it sounds, it worked. All of the things people would do, that were so detrimental to the workings of a coffee shop, that they would “forget” about, if only told once, were constantly communicated about.

As a result, such incidences of common lapses declined, and when they did occur there was no confusion or consternation about the consequences, as they were clearly articulated in the messaging. No one could say “What, nobody told me that!” because they knew that they had been told every day that they worked on the team.

Applying lessons learned

At the time, in our company, we were communicating quite a bit but our communication suffered from a few deficiencies

  • We were messaging once and expecting it to be transmitted and internalized
  • Our messaging was essentially random, outside of any clearly defined values framework, so essentially all of our messaging was arbitrary and ad hoc
  • We weren’t evangelizing the messaging in meetings, 1:1’s, internal communications and via our own actions aka lead by example

Based on this live case study, I radically changed how we communicated

  • We stopped assuming that our messaging would be remembered, understood let alone internalized and followed unless repeated daily
  • We narrowed our messaging to the 20% of things that made 80% of the impact to our organization
  • We converted this messaging to a values statement, that formed the framework for all of our messaging, from that point on. For example, my goal was to increase personal initiative and leadership among the whole team, so one of the pillars of our values framework was “Everyone leads”
  • I relentlessly repeated the same messaging in meetings, 1:1’s, message board posts, blog posts etc
  • I changed our approach to our team to be more consistent with our values framework. For example, I wanted people to lead so we eliminated bosses.
  • For ad hoc items like how to capitalize content, I created a messaging list aka talking points which included items like “No excessive capitalization” that I relentlessly amplified.
  • I enlisted thought leaders in the company to help improve and, in some cases modify, our values framework and resulting messaging to get buy in, so they could help evangelize it

Sustainable results

I was amazed at how impervious our organization was to communication. Even after switching to this new paradigm the absorption rate of our messaging and values was probably 5%. But the good news was that it was higher than 0% and that over time this percentage began to increase. After some time, I noticed that thought leaders in the company started to evangelize our messaging themselves, amplifying it and significantly improving absorption rates

It took some years for this messaging to really take hold, but the results were amazing. Friction in how we communicated was radically reduced, if not eliminated. Confusion, misunderstanding and consternation was also significantly diminished.

Ultimately, I was able to stop directly communicating because our values had taken hold and knowledge leaders in our company carried the torch in evangelizing our values and propagating our messaging. This was evidenced by how quickly new team members adopted to our values and applied them in their work.

The story continues

ABC continues to this day, as SCRUMBUM is a medium for communicating to future remote leaders and remote team members, whether they work under my direct prevue or not

As for my old company, I was heartened to get an email from one team member “You helped me become who I am today. I’ll demonstrate my gratitude by continue to work by our values”