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It Slices, It Dices, It Juliennes

Ginsuknives Roger von Oech recently posed a question for me about thin-slicing office politics when I come into a new client environment.  The idea of thin-slicing comes from Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink, and is about trusting your intuition to size up your surroundings to observe patterns.

So, what five things do I look for to quickly size up how political I think someone might be?

  1. Body Language/Handshake - these are "high lobs."  I tend to look for extemes here:  slouched or closed posture OR overly straight and rigid posture; an extremely weak or very over aggressive handshake at least put something on the radar screen for me.
  2. Facial Expression - again... go for the extremes.  Too much smiling or not enough smiling (in the appropriate context tells me that this person either has no sense of humor or they think they can cover something up with laughter
  3. Word Choice - a consistently passive sentence structure ("the status report was written by Tom") as opposed to an active sentence structure ("Tom wrote the status report") makes me wonder if they're hiding other things in semantics
  4. Cubicle - what artifacts are on display that can quickly tell me about this person's values?  Pictures?  Posters?  Awards?  Level of organization?  Positioning of desk?
  5. General Interaction - how do they treat others (both present and absent); how engaged are they in meetings; and how do other people react to them when they walk into a room?

A few projects ago, I dealt with a guy who was very passive-aggressive and highly political.  He had all the "classic symptoms" listed above.

Now, before Mike Wagner tags everybody I know, I'll ask Rush Nigut and Brett Trout how they thin slice clients and cases.  Matt Owen can tell us how he thin slices a bull (or a bull-rider) before a ride.  Steve Farber can tell us how he thin slices somebody's LEAP potential.


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How do I "thin-slice" cases and clients? Thin-slicing a client is different than thin-slicing a client. I will leave it up to Rush to reveal his insight on thin-slicing cases and will limit my remarks to how I quickly size up a patent client in an in... [Read More]


Roger von Oech

Good set of criteria. Sounds like you've have to made these assessments often!

There's a down-side to "thin-slicing": we can easily jump to conclusions. QUESTION: which of the above do you find sometimes leading you in the wrong direction?

Best wishes,

Roger von Oech

Timothy Johnson

I try not to fall into the assumptions trap, Roger. However, the ones that I've misinterpreted in the past have been the facial expressions and the word choice. The first and last ones are the easiest assessments for thin slicing politics.

Michael Wagner

Timothy - great to see you thin-slice office politics. Always fascinating to see how words and speech can either hide or disclose.

And I love Roger's follow up question; always going for the second right answer...and more!

By the way, there is a rumor that our friend Patti Digh is working on a thin-slice post.

You never when you cook something like this up what will happen; so it is a delight to see you and others slicing the blogosphere up!

Keep creating,

Valeria Maltoni


I agree with you -- body language and general interaction are the hardest to fake. I'm now reading a book called "Why we Lie", which outlines the evolutionary reasons of deception and making some fascinating discoveries. So far, the author agrees with you. Even when we're pretty good at deceiving, sometimes we unconsciously unmask our own motives through body language.

Brett Trout

Great post; you are the Ginsu of Project Management.

With regard to how I “thin-slice” cases and clients, thin-slicing a client is different than thin-slicing a client. Here is how I quickly size up a potential patent client in an initial meeting:

Are they truthful? – Truthfulness is of primary importance. I can tell the client is merely telling me what they think I want to hear. Rehabilitation of “white liars” is rare. I encourage such clients to find an attorney more suited to their temperament.

Do they listen? – Patent clients come to me for patent expertise. If I tell them “X” is wrong and “Y” is right, and they persist in believing “X,” I foresee an unhappy attorney-client relationship for both parties.

Are they overly/underly concerned about the fees? – You do not want the nickel dime client, but you do not want the money-is-no-object client either. The money-is-no-object client likely: 1) has unrealistic expectations of what you can do for them; or 2) does not intend to pay anyway. The best clients are interest in getting accurate cost estimates and value for their money.

Are they smart? – The best clients ask the smart questions and process the answers. I have worked with dumb PhDs and brilliant high school drop-outs. Even in a short initial meeting smart clients ask smart questions. They come across humble and unconcerned that you might confuse inquisitiveness with a lack of intelligence. These “smart” clients extract the most value from my hourly fee.

Are they (too) willing to trust me? –If a potential client approaches me preoccupied with how I might cheat them, the meeting typically ends rather quickly. If a client is too far in the other direction, however, saying things like “You do what you think is best, I trust you” I start to feel the hairs on the back of my neck tingle. Clients have to take ownership of big decisions. In the initial meeting I identify big decisions, give them options, the pros and cons associated therewith and my advice based upon what I know of their goals. If they shirk big decisions back to me, I take a good hard look at whether this is a client I can afford to have.

Judicious client selection, based upon thin-slicing clients in initial meetings, has given my law practice a bigger boost in the last five years than any other single factor.

Timothy Johnson

Mike - always a pleasure to slice and dice a different way.

Valeria - try reading the book "Never Be Lied To Again" (Lieberman). You'll love it!

Brett - awesome contribution! You nailed it! Glad to see you posted it on your own blog as well. As far as my being the Ginsu of project management.... hmmmmm :)

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