Thoughts on The Core

Back in June when I interviewed Jim McCarthy he was keen to tell me about The Core. So keen, in fact, that I posted a follow-up to that interview devoted purely to Jim’s story of what The Core is and how it evolved.

The Core is an intriguing idea. It is a document that attempts to define an optimal way for members of a team to interact. The document is similar in style to documents that describe technical protocols like TCP/IP and HTTP. However this isn’t a document focussed on technology but rather on how people should behave and interact in order to achieve the best results possible.

Overall I think it is fantastic and I thoroughly recommend reading it to anyone. It is highly concise and will probably take less than 20 minutes of your time but covers a lot of very useful ideas. Having said that I do think it has some limitations and I’m going to start by talking about those.

In order to apply The Core exactly as it is described then everyone on a team would need to understand it and believe in it. I suspect that Jim and Michelle have the ability to get a whole team on board in this way during one of their BootCamp training courses. However I must modestly admit that I don’t think I could personally achieve this with everyone on my team. The good news is that you can apply a lot of what is contained within The Core without everyone having to buy into it.

The style in which the document is written will not appeal to everyone. As it happens myself and other technically minded colleagues found it quite easy to read. It is very concise and concentrates purely on what you have to do rather than why you have to do it. However other people I know who aren’t from a technical background found the style strange and confusing.

The document is very dry and, if I imagine a workplace where all interaction followed this exact protocol, then I am imagining a workplace that I would not like. I see certain non-work related communication (such as asking about someone’s kids, finding out what they got up to at the weekend, sharing the odd joke, etc.) as essential to building an effective team. These things are not ruled out by The Core but neither are the expressly ruled in.

So, negative points aside, what did I find really appealing about The Core? In a word what I like is its simplicity: this is a short document that contains the bare minimum of information you need. Specific aspects that I feel are particularly useful are as follows:

Checking Out

The Core states that if you are physically present then you must be fully engaged with the task at hand. There is no requirement to always be engaged. However if you aren’t engaged then it is your responsibility to get out of the way of other people who are. You are required to Check Out with a minimum of fuss and others are required to not judge or in any other way hassle you for doing so.

Asking for Help

Asking for help is often an area where I have seen significant tension within teams. The types of phrase I have heard used are “How am I supposed to get my work done if I always have to help other people” or “I don’t like to ask someone for help if they look busy”. The Core has a nice description of how help should be requested and given (or declined). I especially liked the following guidance:

“Asking for help is a low-cost undertaking. The worst possible outcome is a “No,” which leaves you no further ahead or behind than when you asked. In the best possible outcome, you reduce the amount of time required to achieve a task and/or learn. Asking in time of trouble means you waited too long to ask for help. Ask for help when you are doing well.”

Reaching Group Decisions

I have made no secret of the fact that I think the best meetings are short. But a common reason that meetings go on longer than they should is that it can take a long time for a group to reach a consensus decision. The Core describes a quick process for reaching group decisions which is based on the premise that if you vote “no” to something then you must be able to clearly state what would need to be changed for your vote to be turned into a “yes”. This makes it impossible for people to hold up progress by pointing out what is wrong with a particular approach. Rather they have to be prepared to move things forwards by suggesting something better.

The Perfection Game

The Core describes the perfection game as a way of improving any product (code, a document, a presentation, etc.). The way it works is that you present the product and then people tell you what they liked and give it a mark out of 10. Crucially they must then state what you would need to change about it to score 10. This means that no matter how much they dislike something they must give it 10 if they cannot suggest any changes that would make it better.


Often you have to improve your understanding of something in order to be able to work with it or improve it. The Core provides excellent advice for how to do this without causing offence. Everybody hates it when someone questions their approach to something with a phrase like “That seems an odd way to do that. Why don’t you do it like this?” and even though Harry Enfield based a whole infuriating character on this strategy it still seems remarkably prevalent. The Core gives sound advice for avoiding this style:

Ask only questions that will increase your understanding.

Ask questions only if the subject is engaged and appears ready to answer more.

Refrain from offering opinions.

Do not ask leading questions where you think you know how he or she will answer.

Avoid theorizing about the subject or providing any sort of diagnosis.

Consider using the following forms for your questions:

  • What about X makes you Y Z?
  • Would you explain a specific example?
  • How does X go when it happens?
  • What is the one thing you want most from solving X?
  • What is the biggest problem you see regarding X now?
  • What is the most important thing you could do right now to help you with X?

Ineffective queries include the following:

  • Questions that lead or reflect an agenda.
  • Questions that attempt to hide an answer you believe is true.
  • Questions that invite stories.
  • Questions that begin with “Why.”

Stick to your intention of gathering more information.

If you feel that you will explode if you can’t say what’s on your mind, you shouldn’t speak at all.


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