Words of Wisdom for
Leadership, Learning, and Life in
Exactly 99 Words

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Talk Quick!
99-Word Stories to Spark Discussion about Common Management Issues
by Brian Remer

Talk Quick! is a collection of group discussion starters designed to inspire meaningful conversations about important management issues.
(12 Discussion Activities, 33 pages, Cross Referenced, $10)

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99's On the Go

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99-Word Stories by ,
Creative Learning Director of
The Flirefly Group.
© 2017 Brian Remer
Updated July 2017

99's on the 9th

Ideas based on 99-Word Stories that
come to you on the 9th of every month.

July 2017

Readers React to 99's on the 9th for June 2017

Glitch: What's your "goof" default mode?

What's your gut reaction when your team experiences a glitch or you, yourself, step into an "oops"? Each of us has an immediate reaction to mistakes whether our own or another person's. That reaction has a huge impact on how the problem eventually is resolved. Lead a discussion with your team about the two most common default modes for reacting to gaffs and errors. Then learn about a third way that's more productive in this issue of 99's on the 9th.


In the middle of my project, this message popped up on my computer screen:

Server Error in Application.

Runtime Error Description: An exception occurred while processing your request. Additionally, another exception occurred while executing the custom error page for the first exception. The request has been terminated.

Well, that was not helpful! What's an "exception" exactly? Sounds like something rare, unique, maybe even non-fatal in a polite way - yet it occurred twice. And I have no explanation, no resolution!

Cut the euphemisms! Let's name this a catastrophic failure, own it, get to the bottom of it, and reboot.


You can build upon the theme of this 99-Word Story by using some of the following questions for your own reflection or to spark a discussion within your team or organization.

There are many ways to understand this story as the discussion questions suggest. If you or your group would like to compare or contrast your interpretation with an outside viewpoint, consider this analysis.

When mistakes happen - and they always do - we seem to have two default modes. We respond with blame or react with denial.

At one organization where I worked, a pet peeve of the Executive Director was having the coffee maker in the kitchen left on overnight. Of course this was a potential fire hazard, but his reaction was extreme. He blamed people for being thoughtless and threatened severe consequences. At one staff meeting he bellowed that he would rip out the whole kitchen if it ever happened again. To everyone's surprise, one person confidently announced, "Oh, that must have been me. I had a late meeting last night." Shocked at this admission of responsibility, the Executive Director was silent. After a moment, he moved to the next item on his agenda.

With blame as his default mode, the Executive Director relied on intimidation to change behavior. But the immediate consequence of following his default was that people were too fearful to solve the problem - until one person with a different default setting took responsibility. Then the Executive Director was at a loss. Without the ability to blame, he had no plan for moving forward.

In another situation, a woman I know was providing personal care for an elderly man in his home. She would leave tasks like laundry unfinished. She was often late. She interfered in the relationship between the elderly man and his family. When confronted, she always had an explanation that diverted attention from her to someone else. The person on the previous shift had not emptied the trash. She was late because her neighbor needed help with his car. She had found information on the Internet to justify not following the family's wishes.

There may have been occasional validity to these excuses. But in all cases, she avoided the one solution she could control: Her own actions. After all, if I make a mistake, I'm probably closest to the problem. Doesn't that mean I also have the most insight about how to fix it? When we say it's not my fault, when we believe we never make mistakes, when we deny responsibility, we may be ignoring the one person with the best opportunity to invent a solution.

The problem with the error message in the 99-Word Story is that, ultimately, there is no explanation of what went wrong and so no way to fix it.

Whoever programmed the error message acted in the denial default mode - which leaves the user in the blame default mode, "That stupid computer!"

In the blame default mode, the purpose is to intimidate and, eventually, to punish. With the dual threat of fear and pain, how can we expect people to take responsibility?

In the denial default mode, the purpose is to save face and avoid punishment. With the dual threat of shame and pain, how can we hope to take responsibility?

Whether you default to blame or denial you will run through a dark urban alley of emotions that dead ends at the original, unsolved problem.

But if you reprogram yourself to a default mode of responsibility, you can skip the negative emotions and arrive at a solution with integrity and the self-confidence that comes from a well-learned lesson.

Here is a summary of the blame and denial default modes in contrast with the default mode of responsibility that promotes results and learning.

Default Mode:
People are stupid; People do dumb things intentionally

I am not at fault;
I was justified;
I never make mistakes

People make mistakes but they can also fix them
To intimidate;
To punish
To save face;
To avoid punishment
To solve problems and learn so they are less likely to occur in the future
Someone else is blamed;
I have lied to myself and others
Trust; Growth;
Sense of Achievement
The problem still exists The problem still exists The problem has been solved


Did you use this 99-Word Story and the discussion questions or interpretation in your work or personal life? If so, about your experience! If you would like help using 99-Word Stories in your organization, please me.

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