EP005: Business Innovations Built from Strategic Game Playing with Rich Mulholland

Legacy thinking may be taking over your business. Brainstorming sessions may not be a useful as playing strategic games that build upon constraints. Take a chance and be open to democratic solutions and flexible work environments to jump start a new idea. As long as you have hired like minded people your business will move past the old way of doing things and on to the new. Try looking at your business as if it belonged to somebody else. Use education as a way to gain loyalty with clients and when giving a presentation please be authentic. The audience will know if you are not.

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Key Takeaways

[1:32] Innovation doesn’t happen when you start doing something new

[2:33] AV is important but presentations are more important

[3:48] Solving presentation problems for today’s world

[4:46] Fall in love with problems

[6:05] There are opportunities in the things that frustrate you

[6:44] Constraints produce innovative results

[9:25] Make sure your cash cows are not a crutch for your business

[11:00] Controlling your burn through raising the bar of expectation

[12:44] Ask this of your business “Are we still adding value?”

[13:54] Become the experts by educating your clients

[15:32] People learn through interaction and metaphor

[16:44] Playing games to increase the understanding of business

[18:00] Look at your business as if it belonged to somebody else

[20:16] Annual strategic planning sessions for big deployments

[21:40] The Monday meeting created the fall of the Berlin wall

[24:50] Trying out a business democracy

[26:38] The team created their own manifesto through empowerment

[27:27] Exit interviews created autonomy in our office

[29:21] Caught in the act is a source of motivation

[31:35] Hire like minded people with similar values

[33:30] How much of an a**hole are you is a gauge of how not to behave in business 

[35:19] To be a good presenter you should always be authentic

[38:28] Download Star Realms and challenge Mulhulligan


Podcast Transcript

Speaker key

  • UM     Unidentified Male Speaker
  • TH      Tim Hamilton
  • RM     Rich Mulholland



M     Welcome to Commanding Business, a podcast for entrepreneurs with a passion for discovering and unleashing the hidden potential of their businesses. We talk to experts and authors who share insights and best practices that can help you lead your business to greater success than you ever imagined. Your host is Tim Hamilton, business geek and founder of praxent.com, in Austin, Texas.

TH      I’m super excited to introduce our guest today, Rich Mulholland, from Cape Town, South Africa. Rich kicked off his career as a rock and roll roadie, operating lights for bands like Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. From there, he started several successful businesses, including South Africa’s largest presentation and audience engagement firm, Missing Link. He’s an author and a speaker on innovation, and a passionate board gamer. Rich, thank you so much for joining us today.


RM     Absolutely my pleasure; great to be on the show.

TH      Really happy to have you. And I’d better make a disclaimer to the listeners. Rich is from South Africa, I am too, and I was just joking with him, I’m going to get a bit accent confused. So, as a disclaimer, it’s going to be an accent salad; be warned. So, Rich, we met in Mexico several months ago, at a leadership conference, and you said some incredible insights to the audience there. Among those insights was your thinking on legacy versus innovation, and I’d just love to start the conversation off there. If you can chat with us a bit about, you know, the relationship between legacy and innovation.

RM     All right, cool. So, seven years ago, myself and my business partner, Don, started an innovation lab called, at the time, Thank [? 00:01:37], and became 21Tanks. And what happened is we started off trying to… We thought, we’re going to go help these businesses with a new, innovative idea – something big that could really, really change what they’re doing or how they run their company. But as we started running the labs to get to that point, we realised a funny thing, that the problem was never coming up with a new idea. If there were ten people in the room, there were 20 ideas waiting to go ahead, waiting to kick off. What we very quickly realised is that innovation doesn’t happen when you start doing something new, but innovation actually happens when you stop doing something old. That’s when we came up with this concept of legacide, that legacy thinking is actually the silent killer of innovation. That’s the premise of the book that I wrote, of the same name.


TH      Do you have any specific examples that can help us to relate with the concept?

RM     Sure. So, even in my own business – and I guess more as a personal example, more of a philosophy – as an entrepreneur, when I started the company, I was 23 years old and I was an ex-roadie, as you mentioned, and we were working a lot of corporate work. And I saw a gap in the market, because we would, we would do these big corporate gigs, and these guys would spend a fortune on lighting, sound, [unclear 00:02:47] and staging, but their presentations would be terrible. And I realised it didn’t matter how much I would [unclear 00:02:53] on staging gear; if they weren’t doing a good presentation, they weren’t resonating with the audience. So the problem I saw was that presentations weren’t great, and we started Missing Link under that premise. Now, what happened is, over the years, every… Let me go back. If you think about that time, there were two, kind of, preventing presentation wisdoms. The first was the use of overhead transparencies, so people would write with marker pens and Sharpies on transparent sheets. So they would put it on a projector and then present it there. And then the second exposure to these presentations were these really, really bad, basic PowerPoint presentations.


And that was the problem I was trying to solve in the world. I figured there had to be a better way to tell stories, and then we set out to do that. Now, we built our entire business around solving that problem, and we refined the solution we came up with, for years and years and years and years. The only thing that we realised, years later, when the business started stagnating and wasn’t growing at the same pace, was that I was solving a problem that existed in 1998, that no longer existed in 2010, because, you know, people like Steve Job, everyone’s been exposed to Steve Jobs’ keynote, or everyone has been exposed to 20 TED talks. The level has been raised. The software available is so diverse. There are such powerful tools you can utilise. And even PowerPoint itself has changed. The tool is far more powerful, but the usage may be… It’s still abused a bit. So we were solving a 1997 problem, and trying to innovate our 1997 solution. But what we needed to look at the business and say, well, what new problem would we solve if we started today? Our legacy was the thinking about the old way of working, and all the rules we put in place were around that. That’s a very personal example, I guess

TH      Yes. No, thanks for that. So, in a way, you were, sort of, anchored to the problems of the past, and it kept you blind to the, sort of, solution that lay in the future. You had to, kind of, unmoor yourself, in other words.

RM     Yes. I mean, we fall in love with solutions, when what we need to do is fall in love with problems again.

TH      That reminded me, you brought up, in Guadalajara, a quote that said… What is it? Find the thing that you love and do that thing, and you’ll never work a day in your life. And you said it could be no further from the truth.


RM     Oh, yes. Ghandi.

TH      Yes.

RM     Yes, I know. It’s a crappy quote. He says, do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. I don’t believe that’s true, and I think what it does is it makes people… It actually creates an entire generation of people that think that they’re going to take their hobby and turn it into a job. And when you take your hobby and turn it into job, that’s all you’ve achieved, because you’ve turned that thing you love into the thing you have to do every day, and, very quickly, the fun will dissipate from there. I was listening to a board gaming podcast earlier today, and at the beginning of the podcast, the guys ask all the other guys in this company, this board game company, what games they’ve been playing, and all of them have just said, no, I’ve not been playing any games, I’ve just been playtesting. So the hobby they’d gotten to start in the first place became a job, and now they don’t bother with the hobby anymore, so they’ve actually lost out. But more importantly is, when you do what you love, you’re doing something that you already think works. The idea is that the problem in the markets has been solved by the very, by the very thing that’s caused you to love it. I believe a far better motivation for business is find things that piss you off. Find the things you hate and fix them, because if you hate them and you can’t stand it, that’s an opportunity. There’s a real market that exists in things that frustrate you. And I would say, rather than doing what you love, rather do what you’re passionate about. And often, if you dislike something enough, that is a very good trigger or passion.


TH      And you, and you guys have done a little bit of this, I think even recently, within your own company, where you’ve experimented [? 00:06:31] about introducing constraints into methods, and saying, look, we absolutely can’t solve the problem in this kind of a way. We would remove this option from the table. Now what would we do?

RM     Right. So, one thing about running an innovation lab that has lots of brain storming and things like that, is you realise that freeforming… And, you know, when you think of a brainstorm, you think, guys, there are no bad ideas, just go anywhere you want. But it’s actually a very inefficient method. What I realise is, if you want to really, really force people to think about things in a new way, you have to give them constraint. You have to make it uncomfortable for them. So, in our business, I was getting very, very frustrated. The path of [unclear 00:07:12] to a lot of videos that we would create would be voiceover, and you’d have this, kind of, cheesy voice, you know, at Standard Bank, we believe in such and such and such, and this and that, the next thing. And every video started looking and sounding the same. And I kept on challenging the guys, guys, come on, come up with something new, try something different. And it wasn’t until I eventually said, okay, that’s it, from now on, we aren’t doing any voiceovers anymore… Other than the 10% rule, basically, 90% of the time, we’ll never do voiceovers, so now you have to come up with something new. And they did, because as soon as we took away that tool, they were forced to pick up other tools and try figuring out a new way to solve the same problem, and that’s where the innovation lies.


TH      And in that moment you, sort of, broke them from the past way they had been solving the problem over and over and over again.

RM     Exactly, but you have to break that. If you don’t break that, it makes progress so much more difficult. Constraint is one of the single best tools. We actually use it in one of our… We have a thing called Gamestorming, which is a board game facilitation we run, and the whole thing is around creating unique points of constraint for the, for the different people within the audience, to try and make them look at a problem in a new way.

TH      Can you think of ways that you would, maybe, introduce leaders or managers of companies into how to, sort of, tread into this idea that the way of facilitating, brainstorming more effectively, or facilitating innovation more effectively by introducing constraints?


RM     Sure. I mean, I guess what they have to look at is, what is the point? What is the… I mean, it’s… Again, it comes back to frustration. Which is the thing that frustrates them the most? And the problem is that, often, if you’re… If it’s tied to part of your revenue… So, in our case, we were making these videos that had voice over, and it was so easy to sell that to turn that off was a huge risk, or it felt like a huge risk, because why would we turn that off when our clients are knocking down our door to make those? So the one thing, at the moment, the, kind of, next thing for us to go, is these animated explainer videos. It’s not that they’re not bad; it’s just that they’re completely undifferentiating for us. They’ve become such commodity that, you know, everybody and their uncle can make one. And so we’re not going to stop making them until we actually turn around and say, no more. And that’s what we need to do. And I think you need to look at some of your, some of your cash cows and say, you know what? If we were to stop doing this right now, how would we still pay the bills? And so what happens is you may stop it for a while, come up with this new, unique way of looking at something, but then you could reintroduce it again. But it’s no longer your crutch; it’s now simply a product that you offer as part of your bouquet. But… Or your suit of products or services. But as long as it’s the only thing you’re selling, it’s very, very limiting.

TH      God, this concept, I would imagine, is pretty scary at times. As you say, look at your cash cows and say, let’s re-imagine the business. I’m reminded of Clayton Christenson’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, and the story about Kodak, who, in 1975… I was amazed when I heard this. 1975, they actually invented the digital camera themselves, and it scared them so much, because at the time they had 90% of the world’s film market. And they said, we can’t afford to lose that market, let’s just put this invention in the closet and hope it never resurfaces. And we know how sad that final outcome ultimately is, hey?


RM     Absolutely. So, for fear of making this all about us, but it’s definitely the,I guess, as an EO member, the gestalt our system is built in. But in our instance, we realise that… So, my son is 12 years old, and he’s learning to video edit, at school. This means that, by the time he leaves school, and when he’s 18 years old, every single one of his peers is going to be doing, in their… As a hobby, what we charge a lot of money for. We do not have a long-term business growth strategy using video as a tool. And even animation is very, very close behind. So much of the animation process is now automated, that you can make an [unclear 00:11:12] video, using various web tools. So we realise that, damn, if we’re going to lose this market, we can either wait for that to happen, or we can try and, you know, have a control burn. You know when these guys, kind of, start a fire in order to contain the output?

TH      Oh, sure.


RM     So what we started doing is training our clients how to edit and make their own videos. So what we want to do is, one of our training courses we run is actually trying to teach our clients how to never use us again for the videos they’ve been using in the past. So, short videos at events, things that have been really, really a big cash cow for us. What we’re betting on is, we’re betting on the fact that, A, we’re getting ahead of the market because it will happen eventually, but also that, when they are using… When their level of video they’re doing is, say, A, five out of ten, we’re hoping there’ll still be a market for people who want products of a nine out of ten, and they’ll come to… We’re hoping to basically raise the overall bar of expectation for that particular product. But it is a risk, because we are teaching our clients, for a once off fee of, say, R50,000, or $5,000, to make what we would currently sell them each time for $5,000. So it’s taking a leap, but we do not want to get caught up in Kodak. We don’t want to get caught up in that Kodak situation. We want to make sure, by the time our product and service has become somewhat obsolete, that we’re already in the next stage of evolution of that problem.

TH      And how did you come up with that idea as a strategy?

RM     We were crapping ourselves, nervous, but also just because we get bored, right? So you solve the same problem over and over again, and you start… We’ve constantly tried to question what it is we do. Are we still adding value if certain things start changing? And also, once something does become too in-demand, we realise that it’s going to become more commoditised, and we’re a company that people come to for non-commoditised work. And as such, we want to make sure that we avoid that. So we’re able to see, if the phone starts ringing and everybody starts requesting X, we know that, very soon… It’s like a hit song. You know, if everybody phones a radio DJ and asks for Tubthumping by Chumbawamba, and one in ten calls requesting any song is for that one song, you know it’s going to be an absolutely massive hit for a short period of time, but then it’s going to fade away. And we want to try and use that mindset to avoid that happening with the products and things we sell. Or more importantly, we want to try creating the next hit before the effect of the last one wears off.


TH      Now, are you guys going, sort of, full bore with this strategy? Are you, kind of, all in, or are you testing it and getting a validation?

RM     Absolutely. So, training, we started off with doing straight-up presentation training, which actually is [unclear 00:13:59] for the rest of our business, so that worked very, very well if we could train our clients to think like we think. When it came to rolling the presentation product out with them, it was far easier for them to understand our mindset and methodology, and it made the entire deployment of the product work better. Obviously, training is also of a higher margin element than production. However, so what we did is we simply used those clients, and we started introducing the training them in how to make video and how to do things in that regard. What we’re already finding, to some degree… And bearing in mind, we’ve not stopped, so it’s not like we got rid of our production team. They’re still working. What is happening is they’re not calling us for video A, but they are calling us for video B. And what they now see is they now have people to look at as the experts in that space. So, if we’re the ones who taught them, we’re the voice of authority in that, for them. So, when they do need something a little better or a bit bigger, they’ll give us the call. And we’re seeing that to some degree. We’re not ready to turn off the lights on the production business, but in our strategy session in January, before Mexico, we realised that we want to try changing the ratio from straight-out production work to facilitation and training, and to try and, over time, basically tip the see-saw so that more bidding was happening there and less bidding was happening in production, that we had to make once to sell once.


TH      Tell us a bit more about, like, how do you, as a leader in an organisation, do a strategy session? Did you involve everyone in the organisation? How do you structure the day?

RM     Okay, so it happened in two phases. Phase one was the day after we came back. It actually started the day before I asked all the guys to install a game on their phone, called Star Realms, and everybody had to play five versions of that game before they came to the session the next day. And then, the next day, when we arrived, we played a game called 7 Wonders, and then another game called Zombie Dice. Now, this sounds like a weird way to run a strategy session, however, I realised a couple of principles. The one thing is that people learn using a few tools. One of the tools is interaction, so that when you can really, really take people on a journey, if you’re not just telling them, if they’re, kind of, part of the conversation, I think that’s probably why they understood and people believe it. The second thing is, when you’re asking people to change the way they see their own world, one of the easiest ways to do that is using metaphor. So, instead of trying to say, hey, your business is wrong, you may tell them a case study of another business, show them, ask them what’s wrong with that business, and then have them re-map it back to theirs. And then, once they’ve seen, on one side, oh, that doesn’t make sense with Kodak, then why would it make sense with Missing Link?


So I thought, what if we could combine these two things? What if we could combine interaction and metaphor? So, from the interaction side, the games had them playing a game with a certain mechanic. The mechanic of the Star Realms is about refining the tools you have available to you until you had the single best tool for the phase of the, in this case, the game that you’re at. And there are different tools at the beginning of the game, and different tools at the end of the game. And then, the second game, 7 Wonders, was about exponential growth. How do you build something that you don’t have to rebuild at every phase of your business? That, in phase one, you have nothing. By the end of phase one, you actually have stuff. So, in phase two, you can do something different. And phase three, you can do something different again. And then the final thing, the very simple game, was called Zombie Dice, which was simply around pushing your luck, that sometimes you actually have to take some degree of risks in order to grow further. So we played the games; the guys and I went through it. This was all in the first morning. And by the time they finished, we realised certain things. I was able to ask certain questions about the game. Why did you do this? Why did you do that? Would you consider doing this?


And what we started realising, so, for example, if I took the game Star Realms, there’s a certain part of the game where you have to get rid of the original cards you had in the beginning, because they’re not… They’re very handy at the beginning of the game, but they’re very, very unpowerful later on. Now, in our business, we basically are doing the same thing today that we did in 1997. There is a strategist goes out to a client. There is a designer. There is a whole bunch of learning and process that went into it. But when we started the business, we had no IP, so we had to, kind of, go sell, and we had to consult, and then come back and make something. Whereas, now we are 18 years on, we have so much IP and strength, but we’re still doing the same process. So I asked the guys, you know, what would you do? And they said, I would want to get rid of these original cards. So we then said to them, okay, so let’s say we applied that to our business. What would we do then? And we realised that [unclear 00:18:40] of the very fundamentals of our business that made perfect sense then no longer makes sense for us to go forward.

So, once we’d done that, we then sat, we went through, and we actually mapped out our business as a game. So, if we were to play the business as a game, how would we play it? What are the pieces we would use? And we started actually making probability rolls [or rules/roles?] on how we could change things. Now, this is obviously just one mechanic that we used this year, but the idea is to try and look at your business as if it belonged to somebody else, to stop trying to look at the business as if it was your own. And when you start doing that, and when you start looking at your business as an outsider with… As an objective outsider… Which incidentally is the entire premise that 21Tanks was built on. We used to say to people that any group of people struggling with a problem, it’s never because they’re not smart enough.


It’s usually because they’re too smart. And it’s very hard to read the label from inside the bottle. So that was, that was the process. That was the entire first day. Day two, we then turned it into a more functional, okay, how do we deploy this? How do we make it happen? And then, two weeks after that, we had prepared presentations. We launched it to the rest of the company. We took their opinions into account over the course of two months. We tried to work out what it was. And then we did a second management breakaway two months later. For a week, we did three hours a day. We actually went to a snow resort in Italy. And every afternoon, we would break for three hours, and we tried to apply everything into really functional, actionable steps that can make sense going forward, and now we’re in the deployment phase.

TH      That’s brilliant. And how often do you get the team together for this kind of a strategic planning?

RM     So, the big thing like that will happen every year. But every Monday morning, myself, and my partner, and my managing team, we sit down and we… I mean, for example, this week, we spent four hours together, working through a whole bunch of things and big changes we wanted to make in the business, and constantly, kind of, testing, where are we with regards to the objectives we have? But that, kind of, happens once, and then everybody is autonomous and does their own thing from there on out.


TH      [Overtalking 00:20:41]

RM     [Overtalking 00:02:41] at least once a week.

TH      Okay, once a week, you come together to just, kind of, check on accountabilities and making progress.

RM     For sure.

TH      And you guys do quite a lot of game play in the office. I mean, you have a standing lunch, right? Weekly, where you guys get together and play games together. It’s very much woven into the culture of the company.

RM     Absolutely. But again, it’s woven into the culture of the company for those people who like it. I think, because a lot of us do play games and things like that, that is something that happens, but it’s certainly not to say that everybody has to do it. But I guess, you know, people get curious and they’ll come by, and they’ll try it. I like the mechanics. I think games provide very interesting mechanics that can be applied to different things. And once you understand the mechanic, it’s just another tool in your arsenal that you can utilise for things. So we try to encourage it, but we’re certainly not prescriptive.

TH      One of the presentations you did, I believe in Johannesburg, you were talking about this amazing story about the history of the Berlin wall. I wonder if you could share the story again, with us.


RM     Yes, sure. So I was… I mean, I wish I could remember where I read this, but what had happened is… I always just understood… I remember when the Berlin wall came down. I watched that Pink Floyd video and things like that. And I remember just assuming that there was… You know, like when Nelson Mandela got released from prison, there was… The government met [? 00:21:54], and it was a big thing, and everything happened, and then the announcement [? 00:21:57] was released, and he came out. But it turns out that the Berlin wall coming down on 9th November 1989 wasn’t part of some big story, you know, that had the United Nations all involved. It was actually started in a little town called [unclear 00:22:11] on the 9th October, exactly a month before. And what had happened is, in this little town, these guys had these things called Monday meetings. And every Monday, the residents of [unclear 00:22:21] would sit there, or [unclear 00:22:23] would sit and meet, and they would discuss, you know, we want to make a change. We want to change our life. We do not like that we’re part of this Eastern Bloc, you know, that our life is so constrained, and how do we change it?


But these meetings were, kind of like, just little gathering of friends. It would be… You’d have eight people at your house for a dinner party, and you’d discuss it, and maybe in a little school hall. But they were always relatively, kind of, just safe discussions that were happening. Now, what happened is, over time, these meetings started to grow in strength. And at one point, the people of [unclear 00:22:56] decided that they wanted to try and hold a bit of a public discussion, a bit of a public gathering. And the police were notified, but they didn’t… There were about 5,000 people who were expected, and nobody worried that much, and it was going to be a peaceful walk. And the, kind of, police said, okay, that’s no problem. And what happened, and I can’t remember the exact number, something between 40 or 70,000 – it was, like, a big number of people – ended up coming in the day. And the police and the army in [unclear 00:23:21], they didn’t know what to do, but the people were peaceful, so they, kind of, just stood by and said, well, let’s just adopt a wait and see attitude. The next day, in the next town over, the people in that town, they were, kind of, emboldened by what the people of [unclear 00:23:35] did, so they said, well, let’s us do the same thing again.

So they, kind of, got into the streets, and they marched and asked for their freedom. Again, it was peaceful. And, again, the army and police, this time, seeing, taking their cues from the [unclear 00:23:46] police, they said, well, okay, you know, we’ll let this go as well. And this continued and grew like wildfire around eastern Germany, as people just, kind of, picked up and decided this is not how they wanted it to be. And so they pursued it, and people started mobilising, and walking, and coming to the streets until, eventually, a month later, on the 9th November 1989, the people of Germany walked up to the wall and tore it down with their hands. And nobody had said they could. They never had permission. It wasn’t that the government said it was okay. And again, I mean, if you saw [unclear 00:24:19] and photographs, but the police and the army in Germany just stood by and watched it happen, because the people just decided, mobilised, to try and make that change. Now, what I realise is, the best way to, kind of, change things is to educate and empower people to change it themselves.


TH      In other words, let them tear down the walls.

RM     Yes, exactly.

TH      You shared that amazing quote in the presentation. And I don’t mean to compare the situation, this little story I’m just about to tell, in comparison to the Berlin wall. But in our company, here in Austin, Texas, we’ve got an engineering group of ten or 11 engineers. And we used to have a director of engineering, and the role didn’t work out, and the team came to me, and the management team, and said, look, we don’t think we need to director of engineering. We think we can do this democratically. Let us elect a representative, and that representative will have a turn, and that representative will sit in on the management team meetings, and they’ll make decisions and represent us for the interest of the engineering group. And I’ll tell you, Rich, I was scared as hell about this idea, because I wouldn’t be in control of the who was going to be in the engineering… The management teams, rather. I wasn’t going to be in control of how the management team meeting content was going to be represented. I was, I was nervous, and it was out of a fear of, like, losing control. Does that make sense?


RM     Absolutely. And how did it work out?

TH      It was brilliant. I mean, incredible. The team has become more vibrant, and has taken ownership of how they want to bring the practices of the engineering group more into alignment with our brand promise. They’ve owned customer success more than they have ever owned customer success. I mean, it’s like exactly what you’ve said, right? The best way to uplift a community is to educate and empower them to do it for themselves. And it was a complete accident that it happened this way, but I’m so thankful for the, sort of, the wisdom and initiative that my team took in this way, to say, hey, look, let’s try a democracy.

RM     It’s amazing. And out of interest, and we’re going to turn this on its head now, I’m going to be the interviewer for a while. Were you surprised by the people that they elected? The person who they elected to be the head, was it who you expected, or?

TH      You know, the person they selected first, I would say, yes, it probably was the person that I most, that I most expected. But what was amazing was they started the first meeting to, sort of, organise and figure out a mission and a vision statement for them, as a group. And the way that they did that, you know, collaborating via email, and, in person, getting together for several sessions. They presented this, sort of, this manifesto about what they were about, and that was what really, really bowled me over, is how passionate they were, and how in line that manifesto, that mission, and that vision, was in line with my own. I mean, I found that we found, sort of, a deeper sense of commonality than we’d ever felt, or I had ever felt, before. Does that make sense?


RM     Absolutely. And I think it came down to them being empowered. So we had a, kind of, funny thing, and I guess it was somewhat similar but not quite as, not quite as cool as yours, because I like the idea of the democratically elected leadership. But we had our guys complaining that they were working too hard and there was too much work. And we did some exit interviews with people that left, and I said, you know, what could we have done differently? And they said, we needed more time. You know, just… People… You guys will throw us money and bonuses and things, but ultimately, we didn’t have time to go and spend the money, or pay my bills, or things like that, because we were working too hard. So we launched, kind of, an autonomous practice at the office. So our guys don’t have… It’s not flexi hours, it’s just, kind of, come when you want, leave when you want, get your work done. There is one compulsory meeting on a Monday, but other than that, just come and go as you please.


We have a Slack channel that we utilised, just so people can say when they’re going, so we know not to look for somebody who’s not there. But the funny thing was, is we made them autonomous, and we gave them control of their time, but absolutely nobody is working less. They just wanted to feel that they had the control. They actually don’t want to work less hours; they just want control of their time. And that really, really was so weird for me. I was very nervous when we launched it, because I thought, are these… Are people just going to stop coming in? And we had one or two instances where we had to, maybe, have a discussion and say, look, this doesn’t sound like you’re maybe taking this for us bit of a ride… But it was really… Everything was, like, one person twice. For the most part, people just worked every bit as hard, if not harder than they were before.

TH      That’s brilliant. I mean, the power of autonomy is amazing. Daniel Pink, I guess it was, who wrote about the power of motivation.

RM     In Drive.

TH      Yes. What was it? He said, the three things that motivate people, autonomy, purpose and challenge.

RM     Because that was 100% where it came from. I’d been listening to Drive. I’d been talking about with a friend of mine who worked in an agency. We had this discussion, and it was a very, very quick decision to be made thereafter.

TH      And you said, before you put this in place, you had tried with bonuses, and you had tried, sort of, more of the carrot and stick style forms of motivation.


RM     We still do a lot of that, regardless. We still do have some sort of motivation. We use a system we call caught in the act. It’s currently called Gas [? 00:29:30]. It’s, kind of, re-themed, but the original construct was very simple. I guess it came back to autonomy, though, as well. So we have a book… Let me go back a step. It used to be that I had this business coach, and he made me read his book years ago, called The One Minute Manager. And one of the principles in One Minute Manager was one minute praising, where you want to be able to say thank you to people quite often. And as the business grew, I realised that I was no longer able to do that because I was out of the office more and I missed a lot of what was happening. So I wanted to create a vehicle for me finding out the things I was missing. So we created this book, called the caught in the act book, which was the things that we catch you in the act of doing that isn’t actually your job. So all those little extra little things that were people were doing. And what we did is we asked everybody to try to catch everybody else in the act of doing stuff that wasn’t their job and to reward them for it.


And on the side of that, there was a series of gift vouchers, and each gift voucher would… These guys could just sit and apply them, and give them to anyone. So what they would do is, if they caught someone doing something that wasn’t their job, greeting a client, maybe taking them around while somebody was away, or whatever it might be, they would go to the book and they would say, you know, Greg caught Ross in the act of making master tapes for this job that he wasn’t part of, just to help out because we were so busy. And then he would give him, maybe, one, two or three gift vouchers. So the guys were in control of their own bonus system, and that worked really, really well for many, many years. It helped us create habits that became just the way that we do things, but they were originally these remarkable things. So that it was still a bit of a carrot and stick, but it wasn’t so much, if you do this, we’ll give you that. It was more, do what you’re going to do, and if we like what you’re doing, we’ll reward you. And of course, the we was the members of the team.

TH      That’s brilliant. I mean, I suppose what you’re describing is the idea of taking initiative. And I suppose one way of attempting to do this is to, you know, in your core values, stick it up on the wall. But it really, like, it just makes you want to yawn and roll your eyes. And what you’ve done here is you’ve actually created a bit of a game.

RM     So, I guess my thing I somewhat… And I understand the people who use them, but my somewhat cynical view on values is that the only the person who needs to know your corporate values is the person who does the hiring, because you don’t get to instil or change people’s values. The values, by the time the people come to work, have already been instilled in them by schools or parents. What you have to try and do it hire people that have a likeminded set of values. And even there, it’s not like you’re going to get a six out of six. What you, kind of, want to do is get people whose world view is similar to yours. A friend of mine, another EO member, put on Facebook the other day, how do you interview people for empathy? And my reply to him was, have the interview in a restaurant and see how they deal with the waiter. And being a waiter myself, I was… I like to gauge how people treat people in the service industry, to see if they’re superior [unclear 00:32:19]. And that way, I try and hire people that maybe share the same outlook on the world as I do. But that’s a close as I can get. Thereafter, all it comes down to is behaviour and how you behave in certain situations. And we try and hire for that. Or more importantly, we try and create a space in which certain behaviours are expected.


TH      I love that story. I need to do that the next time we hire. What about, what about values…

RM     Dom gave me a Kit Kat while he walked past, and it’s just melted all over my keyboard.

TH      Brilliant.

RM     Yes. Sorry. What kind of values? You were saying?

TH      I was going to ask you, the other, the other time I’ve really noticed values to be helpful is in the form of… If you think of them as perhaps brand values, as artefacts to help, at least me, make decisions more consistently, or more intentionally. I know that I can, I can completely screw up, make a decision, or do a certain thing that completely violates my aspiration or the way I want to be, the way that I want to lead, or some previous decision I’ve already made. Have you ever, have you ever, sort of, thought of values as a guidepost to inform future decisions?


RM     No, I guess it’s more like an asshole metre. Everywhere, I look at things, and I think, well, I feel like an asshole if I do this, then the answer is no. And I guess so much… so many of the values that I would have had will be, will be tied to that scale. And we really do try and not make decisions. We were having a discussion with our sales guide the other day, and he was saying to Don and I that, he says that we’re scared to make money, because he believes that if we go to clients and the client would pay more for something, we should charge them more. And our argument is, but we already know what it’s going to cost us to make it and the profit we can make, we don’t want to charge them more. And he said, this is silly. But we would feel… We both said, listen, we’d feel like an asshole, charging somebody three times more they need to pay to do something, so we’re not going to do it, even if it means that we’re going to make less money. Now, I understand that might seem naive to other people, but to us, it just seems like the way that we want to run our company. And I don’t think I would need to write down a set of values to understand that. You know, I think both Don and I have a very clear understanding of how we want to behave in certain situations. And the cool thing about that is… And again, I guess that’s because we have similar outlooks on things. The cool thing about that is that those decisions are easy to make. And we may disagree about some of the little things and the details, but we’ll very, very, very rarely disagree on the big deals, on the big things.


TH      One of the things… It reminds me, actually, Rich, as you say that, one of the things I love most about watching your presentations on TED, and also in Mexico, was how unapologetic you are and, like, how authentic you are. And… I don’t know. Like, you know… I would imagine you have to invest a lot into being that authentic, but I didn’t really know, actually, in fact, if it was a challenge for you to be that authentic. Is it a challenge, or does it just, kind of, come across naturally?

RM     Okay, so, it’s… When we teach people to present, the first thing, the first thing we tell everybody. So, let’s go back to Mexico. I was very nervous, presenting in Mexico. Here I was, a South African guy with tattoos, and who swears a bit, speaking to an audience of North American and South American, and I guess central American, people, a culture that I don’t understand. And everyone told me, listen, you’re going to have to tone it back, these guys are going to be much more conservative than you’re used to, and you’ve really got to… But the problem is, that’s not me, right? So I’m not going to come up there and be this conservative, hello, ladies and gentleman, and welcome. And the reason is, when we teach people the basics of presenting, the very first thing you’ll learn is that audiences have really, really, really highly tuned authenticity detection units. And the first thing you can see when someone stands up is if they’re not being themselves. And when you feel like they’re not being authentic, it immediately taints everything that comes out of their mouth. So I believe that I get away with a lot of things because people at least think, well, that guy, yes, maybe he said, shit, or something, but you know what? He’s a good guy, and he’s really… He feels passionately about what he says.


And what I tried to do in Mexico, and I’m not sure if you’ll remember, there were a few vehicles I used, as I realised, for me to get to your audience level was very difficult, because, one, you are completely multicultural, so there was no, there was no mean point that I would be able to say, okay, well, this is who that audience is. And secondly, even if I did get there, I wouldn’t be able to be authentic. So what I thought is, let me try bringing you to a place that we… Where our worlds collide. And in that instance, I did two things. First of all, I went up and I introduced myself as a fellow EO member, and I spoke about my son’s birthday, and I made everybody record a message to my son because I was missing his birthday on the talk. So I immediately resonated with people as a family man, an EO member, a parent, so that was the first thing. And second tool was I asked if everybody had seen the movie, The Hangover. And it seemed like a small, throwaway comment, but what I did is I framed the level that I would be taking the talk to as not as bad as The Hangover. So if you were now expecting me to be a crazy of eight, what The Hangover was at, if I was a seven, you actually felt it was mild and you got away lucky. Whereas, if I walked in and you expected a business presentation at a level three, and I then delivered at a seven, then you’d be shocked and horrified, and people would have got up and left. So it’s about framing, getting to a point to which your audience is going to be comfortable with who you are. And thereafter, you don’t have to think about apologising, because you can just be who you are people will buy into it. Sometimes, you just have to set the context right, though, beforehand.


TH      Yes, it makes a lot of sense. I love that, Rich. I’m going to have to use it myself

RM     Yes, cool.

TH      Thanks so much. I really appreciate the time you’ve spent with us, hey?

RM     [Overtalking 00:38:04]

TH      And it’s been a real treat to connect with you again, after Mexico.

RM     Absolutely. And it’s so cool that the longer we talk, the more South African you sound.

TH      Rich, how can…

RM     You’re going to have to get your accent again.

TH      Yes, I think, I think the next few episodes are going to have some residual South African accent in them, hey?


RM     Fantastic.

TH      Rich, tell me, how can listeners get in touch with you?

RM     Well, they’re more than welcome to email me at rich@missinglink.co.za. They can find me on Twitter, which is @richmulholland, and on [unclear 00:38:39] most places @richmulholland. Better still, they can download Star Realms and challenge me as [unclear 00:38:44].

TH      Brilliant. I’ll have to do that myself. Thanks again, Rich.

RM     Yes, you must. Tim, thanks so much. It was a real privilege, and I really appreciate you asking me to be on the show. Thanks so much.


TH      Likewise. Cheers.

UM     For show notes and written insights, go to Praxent. That’s P R A X E N T.com/commandingbusiness. To send us feedback or suggest topics or interviews you’d like to hear, email us at podcast@praxent.com. You can follow us on Twitter, @praxentsoftware. Tim Hamilton is founder and CEO or praxent.com, a web and mobile development firm, providing solutions that will help your business, expand your reach, and lead your organisation to success. Learn more at praxent.com.

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