John Bernard: An interview by Bob Morris

John Bernard

John Bernard is the author of Business at the Speed of NOW, published by John Wiley & Sons in December of 2011.  He’s a top-rated speaker for the Conference Board, discussion leader on the Harvard Business Review blog, and his monthly newspaper column is syndicated to 41 Business Journals across the U.S.  For 30 years John has been building and reengineering organizations to enable them to aggressively grow the top and bottom line. As the principal architect of the NOW Management System℠, his passion focuses on leveraging best-practice management with social media INSIDE the organization to engage employees, sharpen focus and accelerate execution. John’s deep and varied career ranges from serving as an executive team member at multi-billion dollar StanCorp Financial Group to being the founding CEO of a technology start-up, which he led through its sale. He also served in senior positions at Omark Industries, Floating Point Systems and ESI. John has led operations, manufacturing, customer service, product development, human resources, quality, information technology, strategic planning, engineering, shared services, marketing and communications. He has consulted with senior executives at all levels in high technology, health care, insurance, banking, forest products, distribution, manufacturing, and a wide range of service companies, along with many large government agencies. John loves writing and spending time with his family; he has toddler boy/girl twins in addition to three grown and accomplished daughters. John has a BA from the University of Portland in Mass Communications and Journalism.

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Morris: Before discussing Business at the Speed of NOW, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? Please explain.

Bernard: This is tempting to evade because people have preconceived notions about what it means, but I am a Christian. I believe we were created to bring gifts to the world and the workplace is the ideal place to share those gifts. His teachings put great responsibilities on leaders to hold to a set of values that respect the individual and demand growth of every one of us imperfect human beings. The whole principle of grace bridges the chasm between our desire for perfection and the reality of being human.

Morris: The greatest impact of your professional development?

Bernard: Dr. W. Edwards Deming played a big role in what I have come to see as the great truths of management. Early in my career I spent some time with Tom Peters who lifted both my courage and my sense of responsibility to challenge the status quo.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning-point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow?

Bernard: I was interviewing the chief operating officer of the first big company I worked for, Omark Industries. His name was Jack Warne. I was probably 23 years old and was writing the company’s annual report to employees. I asked Jack what was the single thing the company could do to become more productive. I was sure he would wax on about it being all about the people. His answer set me back, “Buy more productive capital equipment.” I simply believed his answer was wrong and that it really was about the people. I have spent my career proving that to myself and to anyone else who would listen to me. As a side note, a couple of years later (circa 1980) Jack toured Japan on one of the very first business study missions to see what companies such as Toyota were doing. Jack became a total zealot and globally recognized early advocate for lean — and a real believer in the power of people.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have achieved thus far?

Bernard: I was a mass communications major with an emphasis in journalism. My passion for employee engagement and my ability to articulate provocative ideas have always been assets.

Morris: Of all that has changed in the business world during (let’s say) the last decade, which single development – in your opinion – has had the greatest impact? Please explain?

Bernard: No doubt it is the Internet coupled with social media. The truth will set you free and now the truth is unavoidable.

Morris: What do you think will be the single greatest challenge that CEOs will face in (let’s say) the next 3-5 years? Any advice?

Bernard: CEOs have to figure out how to tap into the passions and innovations already resident in the minds of their employees. We have to move from a centrally planned organization to one where decisions truly are being made where the work is done. There’s no choice because increasingly the only value proposition that matters is YES and the only acceptable timeframe is NOW. The rules have changed and so must the game.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of initial expectations. Why?

Bernard: That’s because the search for the Holy Grail leads to complex solutions, solutions that demand a lot of work and a lot of soul searching. I remember someone telling me the reason American managers don’t do well dealing with complexity is that they much prefer to do “happy work” — the fun, challenging and creative work. But if you have them sit down and build a detailed project plan or insist they follow a structured and disciplined problem solving methodology, it’s like asking them to volunteer to have their teeth all pulled. Most change fails because people don’t understand what they are committing to and they don’t have the discipline to do the work and stick with it until the results arrive.

A great example of this is that when organizations get into process improvements everyone’s process is under consideration for improvement (lean-outs, Kaizens, Six Sigma implementation) except management’s. Management doesn’t view its work as a process even though it will assert that all work is a process. Think about it, the management process is the mother of all processes. The management process decides what work matters, allocates responsibility and resources, establishes accountability, determines whether problems will be visible, defines how problems will be addressed and ultimately measures success. Why isn’t this seen by management as a process? Because it is hard work to manage an enterprise and for some reason management’s processes are not subject to the same scrutiny or discipline.

Morris: In Leading Change, James O’Toole asserts that most resistance to change is cultural in nature, the result of what he aptly characterizes as ‘”the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome cultural resistance?

Bernard: Culture, the hidden rules and norms, is often talked about as some mysterious force. Culture is the set of expected behaviors which are shaped by what management expects. If you want to change the culture, change the management system and you will get new behaviors.

Morris: Percentages vary from one major research study to another (e.g. Aon Hewitt, BlessingWhite, Gallup, TowersWatson) but the fact remains that, on average, about 70% of employees in a U.S. workforce are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, doing whatever they can to undermine the success of their organization. How do you explain this?

Bernard: Most organizations seek employee engagement but operate a system of management where engagement is not only discouraged, it is impossible. If you are an employee and have an idea and your boss has to approve the idea and your boss has a million more pressing things to do, you’ll try a couple of times and then give up. Why are we surprised our employees aren’t engaged when they work in a system of management that was not designed for engagement.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. In your opinion, which strategies are most effective when leveraging best-practice management with social media within an organization to engage its employees, sharpen focus and accelerate execution?

Bernard: Social media is simply a free-flowing conversation of ideas and the immediate exchange of information. To survive in a NOW-centered economy a business must listen to the voice of its customers and the voice of its employees or it will quickly be hopelessly out of touch. The truth will set you free, if you are willing to listen and respond to it.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Business at the Speed of  NOW. When and why did you decide to write it?

Bernard: I had been trying to write this book for 20 years, but the ideas weren’t ready and the economic environment wasn’t ripe enough for people to listen. Our old ways of managing have worked so well why should we question them? But our floundering economy, I believe, is not just a rough economic patch soon to disappear to another boom, it is the grinding gears of change from an old mass production-based economy to one driven by mass customization. It seemed to me the economic climate was creating a real demand for thinking and approaches that were not mainstream.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it?

Bernard: Yes. As I wrote, the compelling nature of the economic shift became more and more clear to me. The evidence is overwhelming that there is a fundamental shift underway and we don’t see it. The era of mass production has ended and mass customization is here to stay.

Since I wrote the book I have thought a lot about how critical it is to understand that there are two type of engagement, volunteered (when people choose to step up) and caused (when the system people work within calls them to take action without management involvement). I think there is a lot about engagement to be learned.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from the one you envisioned?

Bernard: I had lots of advice from my literary agent and eventual collaborator (Michael Snell) and a woman he referred me to help better articulate my ideas, Betty Rauch. Together they helped me frame my ideas in much more clear terms. Michael also challenged me to preach less and use stories more. I also had lots of friends and readers who guided me in the process.

When you let go and let others influence your thinking and challenge your assumptions, you are in for one great learning opportunity. The research I did along the way added depth to my thinking and clarity to my ideas.

In the end, the book is way better than I had envisioned.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a customization economy? What unique challenges (or demands) does it pose to companies?

Bernard: A mass customization economy is one where people want what they want and they want it NOW…and if they are willing to look they can find someone who is more than happy to meet their needs. This means as organizations we have to be increasingly flexible on the frontline because that is where adaptation takes place.

In the era of mass production the people on the frontline were simply cogs in the great production machinery. It’s a different world today. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. But the logic of mass production as a system of management permeates most organizations today even if unconsciously. In the mass production era creativity and decision-making took place in the chain of management and among the experts.

The simple reality is most of today’s managers grew up in this system and its logic is not seen.

You can’t fix something you don’t see.

Morris: What is “YESability” and why can it be “the ultimate value proposition?

Bernard: YESability is simply the skills, knowledge and authority to solve problems and make decisions. At the lowest levels of YESability employees are told what to do — they have no ability to say yes. At the highest level they fully own the solution and can do what is necessary to solve the problem.

In a Mass Customization economy the ability for every employee to say yes is critical to an organization being able to compete in real time. It’s all about math. More brains engaged more customers satisfied.

Morris: In Chapter 2, you identify and discuss “Seven Deadly Sins” of management that squander “the talent and resources desperately needed to succeed in a new economy.” Here’s my question: Of the seven, which seems to create the most serious problems? Why?

Bernard: All the sins are problematic, but I believe the most problematic is sin #5, Poor Issue Transparency. This is all about fear. If it is not OK to have problems (problems in my opinion are the natural reality of any complex system) then the problems that do exist will be hidden. If you can’t see a problem you can’t fix it. Fear kills the engagement of employees and having a problem calls on all of our fears.

When it becomes safe to have problems the problems will get solved.

Morris: In Chapter 3, you identify and discuss “The Nine Rules of THEN.” Which of them seems to be the most difficult for workers to challenge? Why?

Bernard: Rule number three: Please your boss because he/she controls your future.

This is hard for EVERYONE to move through because we have for so long been boss focused. Shifting to seeing whomever it is that receives your work as your customer changes all the rules. Effective NOW organizations understand the effectiveness of the link between one part of the process and the next is the key to a fast moving, high quality solution.

Morris: How best to reduce variation to minimize waste?

Bernard: Variation in a process is when something happens that is not planned or expected. Variation, however, is very much part of nature. Few things work flawlessly. When variation does occur in a process we work in it teaches more about that process. As a process varies and is important to understand what is causing the variation so these diamonds of insight can help us expect and ultimately prevent the most common causes of variation. Reducing variation saves resources because variation demands intervention and intervention consumes resources. Variation walks us right up to the most common causes of waste in any given process, especially the management processes we use to manage the enterprise.

Morris: What are the “NOW game-changers”? How best to leverage them effectively?

Bernard: Social media. Cloud computing. The Millennial Mindset.

Social media is all about the immediate exchange of information. But what is does most is drive transparency as it gives the voice of your customer and the voice of your employees a platform to be heard. These are conversations that have long gone on behind our backs, but now they are smack dab in the middle of our daily reality. Social media gives us the opportunity to broaden the conversation and engage and access ideas, criticism, passion and truth. In the end the truth will enable leadership to take the right action at the right time — assuming it has the courage to do so.

Cloud computing is all about driving the cost of having and using data down, which is making the possibility of every employee having the information they need to make smart decisions in the NOW affordable. Common platforms and mashups of tools such as mixing social media with business decision making data creates a powerful real-time opportunity to meet customers’ needs for mass customization.

The Millennial mindset is all about setting aside things that don’t add value like hierarchy for hierarchy sake.  Millennial thinking helps us understand the need our customer have for real-time gratification — for instant everything. This generation has little tolerance for corporate wrong doing and believes that fairness is not just a concept, it is a critical reality.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Business at the Speed of NOW, you identify a number of strategic objectives. Briefly, please explain how to each, beginning with creating a context for speed.

Bernard: If people do not understand the nature of our real-time economy, they will not understand the context for change. Value creation in this economy increasingly depends upon an organization’s ability to respond in an instant. That kind of response puts many variables in play, but no variable is more complex than employee engagement. Our employees must have a level of understanding about where the organization is going, what their part is, how to solve problems and make decisions — all of which turns our management models upside down. This is hard stuff for many leaders to see, but essential as the foundations for a huge shift in the role of management.

Management’s new job is to enable every employee to act on every opportunity every time.

Morris: Next, closing the “execution gap”

Bernard: The vast majority of organizations are great at thinking of new important and strategic things to go do. But few actually are capable of pulling off with a high degree of predictability whatever they set out to do. In the book I contrast TRYING companies with DOING companies. The difference between the two is the ability to plan sensibly and manage execution in a way that causes plans to adapt as more is learned. The root of all this is discipline, and DOING company leaders exhibit a level of discipline not seen in TRYING companies.

Morris: Finally, accelerating the shift from THEN to NOW

Bernard: There are five levers that accelerate everything needed to make the shift:

•  Connecting the work people are being asked to do to the social good it serves. Understanding this provides meaning and purpose beyond the walls of the organization. We all want to be part of something that matters.

•  Inviting people to help create a shared vision of the future. This vision is a powerful bridge across the sea of change as people can see the rich “why” behind the change.

•  Engaging the respected leaders early on and asking for their help. Respected leaders have surprisingly definable patterns they follow, patterns that cause others to respect them. Selecting and involving the organization’s respected leaders without regard to the power and position structure of the organization will accelerate adoption as people follow people they trust.

•  Encouraging personal change and growth. Any fundamental shift taps into the personal fear of failure we as humans often struggle with. It is important to recognize that change is very personal, and we need to help people see that and understand what it means and understand how to deal with it.

•  As people do new things, we must reinforce the right actions and recognition is key as it signals to others what matters in the new NOW world. But recognition is a complex area to understand and what is important to realize and that in the end it must  be customized to meet the needs of the person being recognized.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of an effective NOW leader?

Bernard: I love this question. There are three:

1. They believe in people and the untapped gifts they bring to the workplace.

2. They believe in their organization’s mission and/or customers. These leaders understand that an organization with purpose is an inspiring place to be.

3. They are avid learners and dogged implementers. They do no shy away from the details and teach others how to manage the details. Great leaders are persistent.

Morris: For those who aspire to become one, which of those characteristics seems to be the one most difficult to develop? Why?

Bernard: I think it is the third one. The first two have to do with who you are and what drives you as a leader; that is hard to learn. But the third one takes a level of discipline that can and must be developed. The best leaders I have every worked with understand that great organizations work the details and work them hard – not taking control and micromanaging but teaching those who are managing the details what that really means in a healthy and productive way.

Morris: Of all the business lessons that can be learned from Joseph Campbell and his classic work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which do you consider to be most valuable? Why?

Bernard: I think his Hero’s Journey model is the basic human experience of transformational learning. I share that with all leadership teams and it always rings true. Change is never easy, but when we understand the natural human cycle we can put words to what we are experiencing which reduces are fear and bolsters our belief that what we have set out to do is the right thing – even when the shift gets challenging.

Morris: I commend you on the provision of a “Speedometer” assessment exercise at the conclusion of each chapter and then, in the Appendix, a means by which to calculate a NOW score based on the individual per-chapter net scores. How specifically do you suggest that the assessment data be used?

Bernard: I think it’s a place to begin a conversation in an organization. If the members of a team, be it the management team or a working team inside the organization read the book, discuss it chapter by chapter and complete the scorecard along the way, they can create a lot of common understanding about where the organization is relative to the need to be centered on a NOW economy. The speedometer is intended as a simple tool to assess an organization’s gaps between THEN thinking and NOW management.

Morris: Does a NOW inevitably become a THEN or can it become and remain a NOW?  Please explain.

Bernard: In the end if we stay agile enough and listen to what is going on in the world where we compete we can stay in the NOW. It’s not easy but it is possible and for obvious reasons, essential.

Morris: People and organizations as well as vehicles “run better” with preventive maintenance, usually based on periodic inspections. Can – and  do  — the “Speedometer” assessments serve the same function? Please explain.

Bernard: Throughout the book I put in scorecards at the end of each chapter to help readers assess whether their organization was living in a THEN world or thriving in one driven by NOW thinking. This, of course, is a continuously moving target. I think as leaders we must be watching the winds of change and reading all the latest books. Change is often subtle but if we watch it enough we can see critical mass beginning to form. Gary Hammel, Daniel Pink and I are all writing about similar things. We see similar patterns and I know the three of us are convinced a new set of rules has emerged that are actually pretty straightforward.

Morris: My own opinion is that at least a few companies seem to remain in the NOW for years, even decades. Apple, for example, during Steve Jobs’ years as CEO. What do you think?

Bernard: I think it is incredibly hard to change with the times. The ability to adapt is hard when as organization’s we are forced to make one bet after another. Jobs will likely prove out to be one of the rare leaders who could keep up, and who built an organization that was agile enough to make his ideas into highly profitable products. The real challenge is to figure out how to build organizations that are not totally dependent upon the insights of one individual. GE seems to be thriving after Welch. Can Ford thrive once Mulally is gone? Will Apple manage to stay hip after Steve Jobs’ death? No one knows. If they have built the management system to embed the lessons and the habits, the chances are far better than if they have not.

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John invites you to check out the resources at these websites:



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