Updated: Apr 22, 2021
Sometimes we think we need to make big, bold changes to see the biggest return on effort. In fact, smaller one-degree shifts can actually have bigger, more long term benefits to your personal or professional life.
On this episode of the Mind Meld vlog we chat with Eric Termeunde, who shares what he’s discovered about the power of small one-degree shifts in your life and business.
Read the following excerpt to get his insights and hear stories of how people have made small changes to get big results, or watch the full video to reap the benefits of this insightful interview.
JN: You're all about improving the workplace and helping people work more effectively in teams and companies. So I'm curious, what is this “one-degree shift” you’ve been talking about?
ET: A “one-degree shift” is the smallest viable change we can make over and over again. It’s like a minimum viable product (MVP) in the tech world. It’s something that you go to market with just to test to see how it works. You know, the one-degree shift is the MVP, but in sort of actions and behaviours. Knowing that the future is impossible to predict.
Gone are the days of the 5-10 year strategy plans that were married to. We have quarterly targets and weekly targets or even hourly targets that we can keep testing and poking and understanding to see if the direction that we're taking is working. And more importantly, if there's a new practice that we can implement.
For example, in 2002 the British cycling team had never had a positive experience in the 76 year history of the Olympics. They hadn't made it to the podium even once. So Dave Brailsford, the incoming coach of the cycling team, the way that I saw it, he had two options.
Number one, he could continue to pour money into the team and hope for better results, or he could scrap the team and start with new athletes. But he took a different approach. He took a one-degree shift approach. And in the shifts that he made, he wanted to understand where the friction was on the team, where were the little shifts that we can be making so that we could have a better result, not just on the podium, but the races along the way.
What he found is that the riders were sick too often, weren't sleeping well, and their bikes were not in top shape. So he removed friction, just by one little action at a time, over and over and over again, until he started to get better results.
The first thing he did was taught the team how to wash their hands. He brought surgeons in to teach them how to wash their hands. Then he had a policy for the team that when they were on the road, they wouldn't be shaking hands, they'd be doing elbow bumps. Who would have thought he was 18 years ahead of his time with that one!
Then he realised the team wasn't sleeping well. So he monitored what temperature each rider slept best at. And he adjusted the thermostats in their room. And when the riders slept better, they rode better. When they rode better, they placed better.
Then he noticed that the bikes were breaking down too often. So instead of tossing the bikes, he just looked in the back of the truck and it was getting dirty too often, which got into the gears and the mechanics of the bike. So he didn't toss anything. He just painted the floor of the truck white. And so when the dust and the dirt started to develop on the back of the floor, he just swept it out. Plain and simple. Bikes stayed cleaner longer, they rode better, and they got those key seconds that were really important in cycling.
It was these one-degree shifts that he made over and over again. Now, they weren't all positive one-degree shifts, but he learned from every single one of them. By the time the Beijing Olympics came around in 2008, the Brits didn't just win gold once, they won seven times. And the Paralympic team did too. I think when we can take this one-degree shift approach, testing and experiment with things over and over again, the future, as unpredictable as it might be, can be something that we can enter into with a little bit more confidence
JN: This aligns very much with my own experience. When I was younger, I had a boss who I hated and probably unfairly because I was basically a screw up who kept on making little mistakes because I wasn't paying attention to the details. And he actually had a saying, “take care of the little things and the big things take care of themselves.” And had I heeded his advice earlier, I probably wouldn't have hated them as much, because I would have gotten so much positive feedback.
I also implement this kind of philosophy of one-degree shifts in my own work as a PR guy and marketer. Not just in a sense of being more productive, but being more effective. For example, I'm obsessed with reducing cognitive load. If I have 5-10 seconds to make an impression on a reporter or somebody who's opening up my email, what can I do to make it simpler? Can I reduce the word count? Can I make the words simpler, easier to understand so they catch your attention right away and reduce, even by a second, the amount of attention they have to pay in order to get the message?
ET: Am I right in saying then that you can't get to better or best without making those little one-degree shifts along the way? You have to look back and analyse how successful that was. Was it better than the time before? Was it less effective? Over days, weeks, months and years, I think that's really how mastery is accomplished.
JN: Yeah. And a big part of that is losing the ego. That's a killer to just think you know what you’re doing. Okay, well I do, but you can always improve you know, having too much ego and thinking “I already know I don't have to be improving.” No, you have to be improving constantly. And at a certain level. You've done the big things and you’ve seized the low hanging fruit early on.
ET: Yes and you’re helping with my point because I don't want to get too conceptual here. But this one-degree shift is really what I'm what I'm building out. And it's important to note that the one-degree shift actually lives on the x axis, not the y axis. It's not about getting 1% better, because in PR or in marketing or in speaking, there's no 100%. There is no best, no finish line, no done or complete. So I think that by making these one-degree shifts you poke through enough hard spots, we're gonna get a soft spot. The way that I see it is that success really is an inevitability if we keep trying and poking and testing along the way. We're bound to get it right, simply by learning enough ways to get it wrong along the way.
JN: That's, that's such a great point. And I'm so glad you brought it up. It's very much akin to something I heard a few months back from, I think Sam Harris. It was about creativity and how to get good ideas. In his interview he said when it comes to creativity, it’s really hard to get better, naturally more creative than then you already are. But you can reduce the impediments to your natural ability. So, like you said about getting a good night's sleep, this will help the ideas flow better. Stepping away from your work because we don’t often get good ideas when we’re hunched over our desk trying to think of the idea. It's when you've already done the work, you've done the research, you've thought deeply about it, and you step away, take a walk, take a shower, that's when it pops in.
ET: The way that I see it, I've said this in my head 100 times, but I don't know if I've said it on a podcast before. So let me let me work through this with you.
I find that life is kind of like a combination lock that we don't have the combination to. You know, those master locks that go from zero to 60? If you look at it: 60 x 60 x 60 is 216,000 different combinations that you could possibly have.
Now, those who make the one-degree shift, and those who really test this framework, even without the combination will eventually be able to get the combination lock unlocked by, systematically spinning it enough times, until finally we can pop it open. I think luck comes into play on whether that's the second combination you try or maybe the 200,000th combination you try.
But for those who continue to practice this one-degree shift, and I almost mean that quite literally, when spinning a combination lock over and over again. I think in many ways, we'll find out what works by in part finding what doesn't.
JN: Maybe we can get into some specifics about what can speed that up. So it's not just a factor of luck or sheer brute force or serendipity. Just “I'm gonna do this a million times.” You take that approach and you want to be methodical, but it can be so demoralising. If you've been at it for a long time and you're not making progress. And you start questioning if this is the right path.
So what are some tips and tactics that you use in your own life to improve your work, your collaborations, or stuff you've picked up from your research?
ET: Actually, I recently had the absolute pleasure of speaking with the Co-creator and producer of the Queen's Gambit, Alan Scott. I'm not sure if you saw that show on Netflix. It’s an incredible show. I think the runtime was 330 minutes, my partner and I finished it in about 345 minutes with a little bio break somewhere in the middle. We just loved it. I saw posts shortly after this that said the Queen's Gambit took 30 years and nine rewrites to complete. He worked with an incredible amount of people. And I said to him, “you heard “no” for years and years.”
He said, “Well, you know, I made a lot of movies in 30 years, not just the Queen Gambit. That wasn't my soul project, but I believed in the project enough to stick with it until we got the yes that was right. And look. I don't blame them for saying no. And the first eight times it wasn't the it wasn't the film that was right. At the time or at the place."
And so what I would say is that while we're making these one-degree shifts and testing these different areas, whether it be in fitness, or relationships, or career, it doesn't have to be the sole dedication of all we think about along the way. So I would say even to your point, don't be afraid to step back for a second. Just because it's on the back burner doesn't mean it's off the stove.
JN: That's that's a terrific way of putting it. And I also don't want to push down the benefit of being persistent about something early on, when you're just learning the craft. I was listening to a speech that Stephen King was giving to a group of his fans and book lovers at a book conference.
He talked about his early days of writing short stories and the novels. He talked about how he would take all of his rejection letters, and he had a nail on his wall, and he would just put them on the nail. At one point, he gets to a point where it's full up. And so he's got two things he can do: He can give up or, as he put it, get a bigger nail. He kept at it. If I recall correctly, this was when he was 18.
ET: Isn't that the sign of a guy who doesn't have the combination to the lock so he just keeps spinning it? I think we can measure our success by the amount of times we failed. Look at Brian Chesky and the Airbnb, guys. How many times were they told no? How many times was Callen at Uber told no. How many times was anyone who's made it anywhere been told no? And I think the answer is at least one more time than they were told Yes. Because eventually somebody said yes.
JN: There's the power of persistence. We've talked about individual achievement and making yourself better. You shared the story of the coach who made the whole team better. In terms of collaborating with others, are there any one-degree shifts that you recommend?
ET: What I've learned is that the foundation of any great team is a deep sense of trust. And I think the one-degree shift when we make that across our teams, first and foremost, and even most importantly, develops that sense of trust.
I think we can build a culture of experimentation with each other, of practising vulnerability, and not being afraid to be wrong. It’s thinking “should this call be a zoom call? Or can we just chat over Slack? Could it be an email? Or could it be a text.” I think when we start to play with communication styles, with recognition, with rewards, with feedback, workload, whether we're asynchronous in terms of our working environment, where they're in the office, whether we're 9-5. I think when we can play with our relationships and how we can more effectively work together, then we build this sense of trust with each other because we communicate more effectively. And great things happen.
I'll give an example of a one-degree shift that happened in Toronto in 2009. Post Cereal was having a tough time with their Shreddies brand and sales were flat. When they asked a bunch of their customers what they thought of shreddies, they thought it kind of tasted like grandma's house. There was this nostalgic sort of “older” feel to shreddies and that they weren't exciting like cinnamon toast crunch or the kids; cereals. They saw that Shreddies doing well with the older generation but not doing very well with the younger generation.
So what they did is they asked their interns to come up with a new campaign that didn’t rock the boat too much. They said you know, they didn’t want sugar and cinnamon and strawberries and all the honey. We just want something small that can revitalise the brand.
A couple of months later, they came back and the idea that they came up with was to change the square Shreddies 35 degrees to be a diamond. They saw that sales for Shreddies go up 18% the next quarter. I share this because it’s what can happen when we experiment. And it’s what happens when we create and give trust to our team members to try something new. Not only do great things happen, but we build this better sense of belonging, camaraderie and safety across the team because truly, especially right now, I think we are all in this together. And the more groupthink we can apply to tasks like this, or to different projects, the more we can trust each other, to have each other's back, to be committed, to be held accountable, and to be attended to results.
JN: I'm glad you're talking about the idea of this as an ongoing experiment. You're looking at results, you're looking for what works. And again, going back to that conversation I mentioned earlier about the Harris podcast and creativity, a creative person is not a person who necessarily comes up with a higher per capita number of great ideas. They just come up with more ideas, period. And if you've got someone who comes up with 100 ideas a day, versus someone who comes up with five or 10 ideas, the 100 ideas guy is more likely to come up with some better stuff, just by sheer force of numbers. So with these one-degree shifts, it's not like every change you make is gonna work out but you don't have to reinvent the wheel.
ET: And I think that's, that's really important. I found that there are two things that people hate: change and the way things are. So it's kind of a lose-lose situation. But let's go back to that guy who comes up with 100 ideas? What if you were that guy with 100 ideas and your boss didn't have time for any of them? I mean, how suppressed or caged might you feel? And stuck.
I think we see this all the time in toxic or dysfunctioning teams. And I don't think it's about creating space to have all these 100 ideas laid out and put on display. But I think it begs the question, why aren't we hearing some of them? Look, you can have a democratic process to understand why they don't work. It doesn't have to be “No, no, no” all the time. But when we have the team on board, instead of saying “No, that won't work.” Why don't we say “yes, and what if we do it this way, too?'' Or how about we add this thing and make the idea bigger instead of smaller, and then test little things along the way?”
JN: Terrific. So what is a one-degree change you might have made this week or month in relation to your book writing process that you're just sort of experimenting with and maybe it seems to be working for you?
ET: I rearranged my working space which has been interesting. But from a writing perspective, I went and interviewed Alan Scott because I think that we can learn a lot from businesses and leaders and teams. You can learn a lot from what TELUS has done, or what Shaw Cable has done. You can learn a lot from these incredible organisations. But sometimes when you ideate and understand from different businesses, different industries, or learn from sport, all of a sudden you've got a whole different perspective on what might be a very similar topic. One of the things that I've learned, especially in my meeting with Alan, is that despite being in a wildly different industry, the importance of the relationships that he's built along the way and the trust that he's had in his people, has been fundamental in the Queen's Gambit finally being produced some 30 years after he started it.
I think that these tie-ins in the working world are always there and it sort of simplified the message that if we can trust each other, knowing that we can't predict the future, I think we can have a stronger chance of getting through whatever the world will throw at us together.
JN: One thing I have to ask is how did you get that conversation with Alan Scott. That’s a big thing to do to reach out to a high profile expert. And in a spirit of humility be like, “Hey, I really want to talk to you.” How did you make that happen?
ET: I'm actually kind of proud of it. I scoured the web for a couple of hours and had no luck. I went to websites, went to Queen's Gambit, read different news articles and everything else. No luck, no luck and luck.
Then I went to IMDb. And then I went and went to like, go hire him, you know, like for a talk or for something like that. But then I realised that with my basic IMDb subscription, I couldn't do it. So I had to sign up for IMDb Pro, which was 20 bucks a month, but the first month was free, so that I could get access to his agents.
So I went through his agents and I said, “I'm writing this book, here's the questions that I want to ask him. I appreciate the work that he's done and would really appreciate 20 minutes of his time.” They passed it onto Alan and Alan got back to me. We had the conversation, and the rest is history. And by the way, I did cancel my IMDb subscription right after sending the email, by the way!
JN: That is unbelievable. You know, we can't go in through the front gate of the castle. How do we get into the side entrance or the back? So terrific. And now I have a tip about how to reach out to celebrities.
So I've learned a lot from this conversation. I'm curious. For those who maybe are encountering you for the first time. How does one get into this line of work?
ET: A few years back, I had an HR consultancy and we built a tool that quantified workplace culture. So think of it like an employee engagement survey. But we didn't understand if employees were engaged, we understood sort of what a day in the life would look like.
I think in Vancouver, there are some 30,000 accountants. Obviously highly professional, skilled, respectable, responsible individuals. But you know, I've got friends that are accountants in the office and friends that are accountants at home. They work for big companies and small companies and even as an accountant, you can live a wildly different life than someone in the same profession. But the problem for accountants, or anyone for that matter, is that when you look at a job description, they all look the exact same. So you don't actually know if you're gonna like the job until you're three weeks into it. And if you don't like it then, either, it's too late, or you've wasted three months trying to find the right fit.
So we started to do a lot of research and consulting with companies across the country into the states and into the United Kingdom. We wanted to understand not how do you change your culture necessarily, but how do you find out really what's working and then leverage that story to attract people that would want a similar experience? And that was great. I wrote my book in 2017 and started speaking in 2015. And here we are about 350 stages later.
JN: And what was the name of that book?
ET: It was called Rethink Work.
JN: So going back to the one-degree shift again. Is there something about startup culture or working in an innovative company where you feel like you have some interesting insights into how things are maybe not working as well as they could. Or what HR departments or leadership can be doing to foster changes that boost productivity collaboration? Or is this more of a thing that sort of happens at a more ground level?
ET: It's a massive question. So, first a couple of mistakes I think that are being made... Number one, we think that perks keep talent. Perks attract talent. Experience keeps talent. Let's be very clear, the ping pong table, the pool table, which by the way, nobody's used for 11 months now anyways, used to look really good on the brochure or the career page or the About Us page. But if it wasn't being used, because people weren't being managed or working collaboratively together while they were there, then it's all for not.
I also think one of the big mistakes that is being made right now is that we focus too much on the why of our companies, and not enough on the how. Simon Sinek has built an empire on this idea of “starting with why” and I think it's a phenomenal idea, I’m a big fan of Simon. But if you and I are huge animal lovers, and we work for the World Wildlife Foundation and you can’t stand the person you work next to, it doesn't matter how dedicated to animals we are, we're probably not sticking around.
And the third mistake is that we all strive to have this startup-esque culture. And I agree the nimbleness and the added agility of these companies is great. But they're not for everyone. This idea of a “best culture” doesn't exist. The best place to work in America in 2020 was Hilton Hotels. And the second best place to work was Ultimate Software, I would suggest that somebody in a software company doesn't want to be making beds, and somebody making beds or in the valet or working in a hotel, probably doesn't want to be working in a software company. So to suggest that there's a best way to do things, fails to understand the uniqueness of our team and what really works for us.
So if we want to understand how to create the best place to work for our team, don't look somewhere else. Look inside your own organisation and ask the people that you're working with every day. If we're working in these remote situations where right now I'm staring at a camera, and I have been all day, how do we then increase the effectiveness of our communication? How do we work better together? I think these conversations are the ones that need to be had right now, especially remotely, to create a “better culture.” And I put that in air quotes for those who are just listening. Because I think culture right now is no more complex and how we communicate and interact with each other.
Eric gave us some fascinating insights into the power of using one-degree shifts to be more productive. We challenge you to see what one-degree shifts you can make in your life or business. Find one or two small things you can start right now to increase your creativity and productivity.
Looking to make a shift with news coverage about your company? Hire a Vancouver PR agency.