Reading Time: 7 minutes

The Core Protocols – Make Yourself And Your Team Great

Main Takeaways
Reading Time: 7 minutes Productive and high-performing teams need psychological safety. Jim and Michele McCarthy's Core Protocols are an instrument to ensure this safety. This set of practices enables people and teams to learn results-oriented behaviour, enter a state of shared vision and stay there focused, trust each other, stay rational and healthy, make decisions effectively, and keep moving toward the team’s goals. The Core Protocols are patterns of human behaviour to support teams in collaboration, communication, and commitment to the common goal. As rules and guidelines, they describe how to behave properly as a team, in meetings, and in interpersonal interactions. They are best practices to become an exceptional team. 



The Core Protocols

From Google’s Aristotle project (2015) we know that successful teams need to have Psychological Safety. And we have very few ideas on how to achieve this, measure it, or even explain it.

Google started his research studies about high-performance teams in 2010. In the same year, Jim and Michele McCarthy published their now famous "The Core Protocols" (TCPs for short) after starting their research with an experiential workshop in 1996 about the conditions of high-performance, results-oriented, successful teams.

Jim and Michelle published their The Core Protocols in the tradition of SW design pattern thinking, 1 This framework of behavioural communication patterns, stipulated in a strong technical and nerd affine prose, affected Google in its Aristotle project very much.
Today,, and Richard Kasperowski are vivid promoters of the TCPs. I had the pleasure to attend a workshop Richard gave about Core Protocols at the ALE 2017, Prague. I am happy that I 'am allowed to use a lot of Richard's material under CC-BY-SA in this post.



The Core Protocols In A Nutshell

The Core

The TCPs are patterns of human behaviour to support teams in collaboration, communication, and commitment to the common goal. As rules and guidelines, they describe how to behave properly as a team, in meetings, and in interpersonal interactions. They are best practices to become an exceptional team. These practices enable people and teams to:

  • learn results-oriented behaviours,
  • enter a state of shared vision and stay there,
  • trust each other,
  • stay rational and healthy,
  • make decisions effectively, and
  • keep moving toward the team’s goals.

Fundamental for the TCPs is a positive, results and solution-focused attitude and worldview: non-negativity, non-negation, and no pretending. Linchpin is the "Yes-and" game, a well-known pattern for innovation, brainstorming, and improv theatre acting.

In addition to the foundational Positive Bias, the Core are five necessary conditions that must be fulfilled: Freedom, Self-Awareness, Connection, Productivity and Error Handling

To apply the TCPs in your organisation or team, you have to create a space of:

  1. Non-Negativity. – Accept the positive mindset by your personal commitment: "Everybody has to agree on a positive bias for the time of our mutual collaboration."
    Personal commitment can be stated as a written contract with oneself or with a certain group (team, workshop participants, co-learners in training, etc.). Examples of personal commitment forms are Greatness Guild Core Form, and LiveInGreatness Personal Commitments Form.
    Sounds easy and it's hard: It really means, never, ever, negating others' ideas. – In terms of the "Yes-and" game: always say "Yes-and"never, ever, say "Yes-but".
    You show your co-workers your willingness to cooperate by entering the Check-In protocol.
  2. Freedom/Autonomy. – The work of Daniel Pink and Susan Fowler show us that autonomy (freedom) is a major motivating factor for us humans. More than any financial bonuses.
    In TCPs freedom means that every team member can choose and make decisions by themselves. – For e.g., if a meeting shows to have no value for me, I have the right to quit. – To guarantee freedom, everybody can “pass” an activity to which she doesn't contribute any value anymore. When someone is passing, ask for reasons, if needed. – But never, ever start a discussion about the "Why". If the person gives you reasons, accept them. If no reasons are given, accept the fact only. Period. – The Pass protocol has its equivalent to the Open Space Technology by the "Law of two feet".
    Other core protocols to ensure freedom and autonomy are “Asking for help” or “Personal Alignment”. With these protocols, you address your desires and what’s blocking you, what you really want.
  3. Pretending. – In its negative connotation "pretending" is equal to faking and lying. The positive interpretation of "pretending" however is "asking for respectability".
    Thus, in the TCPs context, pretending stands for as well of  "always behave you are respected" (a kind of Kantian imperative) as "always demand the respect you deserve".


The Core Protocols – High-Performance Teams


The Core Commitments

The Core – Non-Negativity, Freedom/Autonomy, Pretending – founds eleven Core Commitments. And the eleven Core Commitments establish the Core Protocol Stack consisting of eleven Core Protocols. Some of the Core Commitments can be split into more granular details. (For more details about Core Commitments see here.)

  1. „I commit to engage when present.” – This is the most crucial, most important and most difficultly realisable commitment. In easy words: If you show up be fully engaged. No side work or preparing other stuff in parallel. Either you are 100% in or you should leave –  Check-Out (Right to Pass): Show your teammate the respect she deserves: "I'm 100% with you  - I'll support our goal/team" or "Sorry, don't count on me".

To know and disclose what I want, what I think, and what I feel. – To always seek effective help. – To decline to offer and refuse to accept incoherent emotional transmissions. – When I have or hear a better idea than the currently prevailing idea, I will immediately either propose it for decisive acceptance or rejection and/or explicitly seek its improvement. – I will personally support the best idea regardless of its source.

  1. „I will seek to perceive more than I seek to be perceived.” – I ensure you I'll support you even if I won't get out of it as much as you. – A very altruistic momentum.
  2. „I will use teams, especially when undertaking difficult tasks.” – I rely on teamwork and cross-functional collaboration, not on heroic firefighting.
  3. „I will speak always and only when I believe it will improve the general results/effort ratio.” – I shut up if I can't/won't contribute value. – This is VERY, VEry, very difficult for alpha egomaniacs.
  4. „I will offer and accept only rational, results-oriented behaviour and communication.” – I ensure you, I'll keep personal emotions and animosities aside.
  5. „I will disengage from less productive situations.” – 

 When I cannot keep these commitments.  – When it is more important that I engage elsewhere.

  1. „I will do now what must be done eventually and can effectively be done now.” – I ensure you take the needed actions immediately.
  2. „I will seek to move forward toward a particular goal, by biasing my behaviour toward action.” – To reach the goal I'll focus on actions/activities.
  3. „I will use the Core Protocols (or better) when applicable.”– For me, the Core Protocols are a valuable instrument. To use it properly I'll use the Protocol Check protocol as often as needed.

I will offer and accept timely and proper use of the Protocol Check protocol without prejudice.

  1. „I will neither harm—nor tolerate the harming of—anyone for his or her fidelity to these commitments.” – This is for me a reminder that yes I am committed to these protocols, and also others.
  2. „I will never do anything dumb on purpose.” – It's actually a lot harder than it seems. It's in sync with behaving rationally, and unfortunately, in the corporate world, not everybody behaves rationally.


The Core Protocols Stack

The Core Protocols can best be visualised as a layered stack (Richard Kasperowski). This is a very intuitive way to understand the idea behind these procedures.

Core Protocol Stack

Core Protocol Stack



Attitude Theme Core Protocol Description
Error Handling Protocol Check Use Protocol Check when you believe a protocol is being used incorrectly in any way or when a Core Commitment is being broken.
Decider Protocol Use Decider anytime you want to move a group immediately and unanimously towards results.
Focus on Results Productivity Resolution Protocol When a Decider vote yields a small minority of outliers, the proposer quickly leads the team, in a highly structured fashion, to deal with the outliers. The Resolution protocol promotes forward momentum by focusing on bringing outliers in at the least cost.
Perfection Game Protocol The Perfection Game protocol will support you in your desire to aggregate the best ideas. Use it whenever you desire to improve something you’ve created.
Investigate Protocol Investigating allows you to learn about a phenomenon that occurs in someone else. Use it when an idea or behaviour someone is presenting seems poor, confusing, or simply interesting.
Listen to Other Connection Intention Check Protocol Use Intention Check to clarify the purpose of your own or another’s behaviour. Use it when you aren’t expecting a positive outcome resulting from the current behaviour. Intention Check assesses the integrity of your own and another’s intention in a given case.
Ask for Help Protocol The Ask For Help protocol allows you to efficiently make use of the skills and knowledge of others. Ask For Help is the act that catalyzes connection and shared vision. Use it continuously, before and during the pursuit of any result.
Check-In Protocol Use Check-In to begin meetings or anytime an individual or group Check-In would add more value to the current team interactions.
Listen to Yourself Self Awareness Personal Alignment Protocol The Personal Alignment protocol helps you penetrate deeply into your desires and find what’s blocking you from getting what you want. Use it to discover, articulate, and achieve what you want. The quality of your alignment will be equal to the quality of your results.
Right to Pass Protocol The Pass protocol is how you decline to participate in something. Use it anytime you don’t want to participate in an activity.
 Law of Two Feet Freedom Check-Out Protocol Check Out requires that your physical presence always signifies your engagement. You must Check Out when you are aware that you cannot maintain the Core Commitments or whenever it would be better for you to be elsewhere.
 Say "Yes"  Positiv Bias Non-Negation


How To Apply The Core Protocols

In the following, I list some situations you can use the core protocols to get back on track again.

Cultur Hacking

Culture Hacking — The Essentials

Culture hacking at its best is about creating organisational or team cultures that enable people and teams to achieve greatness. A culture hack is a small change exploiting a single area where your culture is vulnerable to change. Hacks are small, emotional, immediate changes having big impacts. They are not quick fixes for "cultural deficiencies". It’s more about focusing on small things more frequently rather than only trying to tackle and change the big things.
Culture Hacking is a cornerstone of the startup scene and lean change management.
Hand Assumps It Agree Agreement - Finger-wrestling

Levels of Commitment

Commitments are the fundaments of all collaboration. You are not alone in a certain task, challenge or endeavour if I commit myself to support, to assist, or to help you. If I refuse or withdraw my commitment you are maybe lost.
Giving and accepting commitment creates trust. I rely on your promise to be on a certain day for a certain time to support me. If you can't do this or do not show up I am disappointed. You are for me not a trustworthy person any longer. And all of a sudden commitment gets an ethical touch. Commitment is an act, not a

Nudging – The Ideas Behind It

Nudging is a concept in behavioral science, political theory, and behavioral economics. The basic concept of “Nudging” is that a relatively subtle policy shift – the “nudge” – encourages people to make decisions that are in their broader self-interest. A nudge makes it more likely that an individual will make a particular choice, or behave in a particular way, by altering the environment so that automatic cognitive processes are triggered to favour the desired outcome.
Passing by.....

Pass or Check-out – Take Care, Show Responsibility

Do you are familiar with Death By Meetings?
As a dedicated disciple of the Core Protocols, you are generally positively inclined to everything you do.
Use the Personal Alignment protocol to identify what blocks you. – And it is your freedom and autonomy to Check-Out or to Pass whenever you think it is necessary.
Protocol Check

Protocol Check – Prevent Getting Hijacked

Use the Protocol Check to stop being hijacked. Use the Protocol Check when you believe someone misuses a core protocol or breaks a core commitment in any way.

Show With Minimal Effort Your Respect, Commitment, Engagement, And Concerns

Use this 6 linguistic triggers and 2 communication patterns to show with minimal effort your commitment, engagement, and concerns.



Further Readings

Books, Blogs

  • Jim, Michele McCarthy: The Core Protocols. HTML, PDF, book (Amazon)
  • Richard Kasperowski: The Core Protocols. A Guide to Greatness. Amazon 2015.
  • Paul Sobocinski: Core Protocols and Mindfulness Part 1, Part 2, via, 2016
  • Mu Qiao: Core Protocols: magic behind making good decisions quick, via, 2017.
  • Hannes Horn: An approach to build great (agile) teams, via, 2016.


Presentations, Videos

  • _Scrum Pulse Webinar: Ralph Jocham, The Core Protocols. Youtube, 2016.
  • Peter Antman: Core Protocols. A workshop. Slideshare, 2016.
  • Yves Hanoulle: The Core Protocols Zen. Slideshare, 2009.

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  1. The gang of four, Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph E. Johnson, John Vlissides: Design Patterns. Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software. Prentice Hall, Reprint 1994.