Do you have a bar code inside you?

By David Sturt

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Dec. 20 2013 12:45 p.m. MST

This article originally appeared on

You have your own specialized brand of intelligence. As do all of the people you lead. Inside that intelligence is a background, a learning curve, a constellation of skills and talents that, when tapped, enable you to see things and solve things no one else can.

Here’s proof.

In the late 1940s, a graduate student at Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute of Technology overheard a conversation in the halls of Drexel. The president of a prominent supermarket chain Food Fair had come to the institute to consult with the dean.

The president had hoped the institute’s technicians could develop a system by which every product in his grocery store could somehow be encoded with the product’s information, including price. Retailers were having a terrible time tracking inventory accurately, and shoppers were having a great time peeling price tags off of lower-priced items, and re-sticking them to higher-priced ones.

According to the dean, such a system was impossible. But the grad student who had overheard the conversation, Bernard Silver, imagined otherwise. He took the idea to his friend, Joe Woodland — a graduate student and teacher at Drexel — and the two started working together.

Their first idea, which involved printing product information in fluorescent ink and reading it with ultraviolet light, proved unfeasible. Yet, certain that a solution was possible, Joe quit graduate school, holed up in his grandparent’s home in Miami Beach, Fla., and spent the winter of 1948-49 in a chair, on the beach, thinking, theorizing and dreaming.

He had no lab. No equipment. No chalkboard. But what he did have was his background, his skills, and the know-how he’d gathered over the years.

Joe was a World War II veteran who had worked on the Manhattan Project. He was fluent in the medium of classification by using symbols and patterns — in particular, the Morse Code.

One day, while working on the beach, his background prompted a hunch and then an a-ha: “What I’m going to tell you sounds like a fairy tale,” Joe told Smithsonian magazine in 1999. “I poked my fingers into the sand and for whatever reason — I didn’t know — I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines. I said, ‘Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes.’”

Joe had drawn the dots and dashes of Morse Code into long form, and in so doing, had invented the bar code in a swath of sand.

In October 1952, Joe and Bernard were awarded a patent for their invention. It was given the name “Classifying Apparatus and Method," but over time with advances in laser scanning and the microprocessor, their invention would become known as the Universal Product Code.

The ripple effect of Joe and Bernard’s great work is remarkable. There are now more than 16 versions of bar codes used on virtually every product. In the retail world, bar codes are scanned at the rate of more than five billion per day. Beyond retail, it’s used to track airline luggage, entertainment tickets, patient information, membership cards, data collection, car rentals and the list goes on.

In four strokes of genius on a sandy beach, Joe set into motion a new way to sort and streamline the world. Like Joe, you have your own specialized intelligence, informed by a career unlike anyone else’s.

When you define yourself, or any one of your team members, as a box on the org chart, you miscalculate your difference-making potential and theirs.

When your team is faced with a big problem or new opportunity, encourage them to pause and consider the know-how they’ve gathered over the years; to reach back to what fascinated them, what they have become good at; to trace the history of lessons learned from both successes and failures; to pay keen attention to their hunches and curiosities; and to pull forward into a present project their one-of-a-kind sensibility.

David Sturt is an executive vice president at O.C. Tanner and author of the New York Times best-seller "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw-Hill). You can follow him on twitter @david_sturt or visit

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