The Element: Chapter 9


The Element: A series of articles to explore and improve the methods used for meetings between small teams striving to perform at an expert level.

The Blue Tractor

Rusty recognized his meeting location immediately.  It was The Blue Tractor, a favorite haunt for his family that has the best BBQ in town.  It was after hours.  All the storefronts were dark, but the door was open so he cautiously walked in and slid onto a barstool.  His eyes were open, but his face was without expression as his mind was occupied, going over the team’s next steps. Just then someone started snapping their fingers in front of his face.

“Mister, you look as if you are deep thought. Those seats do not come for free. May I suggest a whiskey?” the bartender said.

Rusty was startled, but heard one of the opening phrases used at the Culture Spy Syndicate (CSS) to identify a friendly. She spoke in an articulate English dialect, not like the movies, but the real deal. “Bourbon, no ice, neat,” Rusty said.  This was the proper response when an agent felt safe enough to engage in discussion.

“Hi Rusty, my name is Alex,” the bartender said. “The seat and advice are free, but the bourbon will cost you $100 per shot.”

“How much if I just have a coffee?” Rusty asked.

“Still $100,” Alex said.

“Then give me a bourbon, but in a proper tumbler,” Rusty said. “Just can’t stand tulip shaped glassware.”

The bartender slid a generous pour of Pappy Van Winkle in front of Rusty.

“So you are the Border-Guard for our mission?” Rusty said. A Border-Guard is used to monitor each Design Thinking project, determining if the team is ready to move forward. It takes someone with keen experience to perform this independent review. The process includes review of the mission documentation, followed by a face-to-face meeting with the team’s nominated representative. The team has been working hard during the Emapthize step, which will be followed by Define, Iterate, Prototype and Test. Often, the team nominee feels like they drew the short straw. Not Rusty. He relished the challenge to lobby for progress.

“Yes,” Alex said. “The deep dive research performed during the Empathy mission phase is very interesting. So many teams rush getting to work before assessing what is needed to build a solid mission foundation. Your team is thorough, I will give you that.”

Rusty took that opportunity to bring the Pappy to his lips and let it warm his mouth before swallowing. He was not one to give away more than needed, as he often found that the details are only relevant when requested. Overloading past Border-Guards had often resulted in a disappointing showing, so he played it cool and became hyper focused on Alex’s needs.

“Why?” Alex said.

This question was a well known Dirty Trick, letting an open-ended question hang out there to draw more from an Asset than they might care to reveal. It often produced bits of information that would not be spoken, the type that were weighing heavily on the Asset’s mind. Rusty knew never to assume when it came to this question, so he played it dumb, which is actually a method of being smart.

“Why what?” Rusty responded.

Alex grinned and said, “you are very good at this Rusty. I meant why choose a mission that you know is almost impossible?  It wraps up human nature, culture shifting for not just two people, but a 5-Man Team.”

“That is just not true,” Rusty said. “Elite teams exist in Special Forces, SWAT and a host of other organizations. So why not business? You don’t think that every manager would like to have their core 5-Man Team to neutralize their problems?”

“Then what are you leaving out?” Alex asked.  “I can see there is still something missing to create a mission definition.”

“You are the one that is good,” Rusty said. “The missing ingredient is the choice of whether to engage or not. It is the human part of having a human team. It is not hard to see the right the right thing to do. Choosing to put that knowledge into action, rather than sticking it up on a shelf is the hard part.”

Rusty downed the rest of his bourbon and set the tumbler back on the bar. Alex immediately filled it up and said, “that’s $200. Now I know how stubborn you can be about never surrendering when it comes to a difficult mission. You seem to do your best work when the pressure is on.”

“Are you hinting that engagement requires some urgency?” Rusty asked.

“You said it,” Alex responded.

Rusty tried that thought on for a minute. It couldn’t be that simple. When things are going good enough, do we disengage? Big problems tend to create workarounds that are easier than creating new process. He often heard others talk about procrastinating long enough on new process, and maybe it would just go away. What makes people engage? He did not see it. He did not see it. Wait for it. Got it!

“The pressure is not a directive,” Rusty said. “It is a challenge! This applies specifically to those with a strong internal Locus of Control. They feed on a challenge, and consume it. The harder the task, the more engaged they become.”

“So what does the mission definition look like now?” Alex asked.

“How might we create missions that challenges the team to e-n-g-a-g-e,” Rusty said as his speech slowed and his face mashed with the bar top and then his body slid sideways onto the floor.

Alex walked over to Rusty’s motionless body and said, “sleep well my Team Leader. You will know how to proceed when you wake up.”

Rusty was in a deep dream. It was a presentation in front of the Mission Element team, and then something weird happened. He felt a slap on his face, and then another, and then his eyes jolted open in time to block the hand that had been striking him. Grabbing the wrist, and a hard twist put the assailant on the ground.

“Rusty, it’s me!” Coach said.

They both stood up and Rusty groaned from pain. He did not know if it was from hitting or sleeping on the hardwood floor.

“What happened to you Rusty? Coach asked.

“I received an encrypted text to meet at this location,” Rusty said. “I was speaking with our border guard, Alex, and then the lights went out.”

“Here, take these,” Coach said. He extended his open hand with two pills in his palm.

“What is it?” Rusty asked.

“A personal blend of amphetamine and pain killer,” Coach said. “Better living through chemistry. Just kidding, they are Tylenol. It should help with some of the symptoms from whatever they gave you, and the pain you might have.”

“Might have!” Rusty said. Every part of Rusty’s body ached. “Sure feels different since I turned fifty.”

Rusty swallowed the pills and gladly took a bottle of water that Coach offered.

“Alex, huh,” Coach said. “Girl or guy?”

“Girl,” Rusty said. “She had a English accent. Strong arms and her knuckles were rubbed red, probably from working the heavy bag. You can wear any type of glove when punching the heavy, but the knuckles still show some abuse. Yep, she could definitely handle herself.”

“Did you drink anything?”  Coach asked.

“She offered me some Pappy Van Winkle,” Rusty said. “It must have been laced with something. Likely a cocktail of peyote and Sodium Pentothal.”

“How could you possibly know about the affects of peyote?”  Coach asked. “Never mind. Let’s just get you home.”

“How did you find me?” Rusty asked.

“You know how the company got into that fitness kick?  Coach asked.

“No!”  Rusty exclaimed. “Not the Fitbit!”

“Yes,” Coach said. “I got a call from your wife, T, at 4:30 this morning and she said you did not get home last night. I activated the tracking device and was able to see that you were in a deep sleep. Figured that I had better pick you up before you got into too much trouble. So what was the purpose of last night cocktail? Why knock you out?”

“Peyote is a hallucinogen,” Rusty said. “It can provide an ability to look at a topic with focus and from a very much different perspective.  Don’t you watch any movies?  It’s in there all the time.  Plus, it is required training for the CSS.”

“Did it work? Coach asked.

Just then Rusty received a text.

The Element Mission team is approved for progress to Design Thinking Step #2, Define.


“Oh yeah.” Rusty said. “I will brief the team about the border guard meeting so we can finalize the mission definition. I also think it is about time to let a younger team member handle these meetings. Getting too old for this type work.”

“You know what they say,” Coach said.  “Those that can no longer do, teach.  I also don’t think that the owners of this establishment would look kindly at finding a couple spies here when they open.  Probably a good idea to get out of here.”

Just then Rusty and Coach received a text.

If you boys are done bonding, get Rusty home!


“On that note, take me home,” Rusty said.

Design Thinking [Define] Chapter 10 is up in our next issue.  You are on the team, so please comment on this issue to add additional experiences that can be drawn from to create a solid project definition.


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