I’m coming out of retirement.
I wanted to test this hypothesis aggressively and honestly, and I wanted to challenge every assumption I had about how best to do this work. In order to help others solve their own collaboration problems, I had to stop designing and facilitating custom processes for them, and instead focus on how to help them develop their own skills. I often had trouble explaining what I was doing and how it was different from my previous work, so I just told people that I was retired.
Retirement was fun and generative, but hard. Challenging my assumptions at times felt like my identity was unraveling, which was humbling and emotionally taxing. Moreover, few — even close colleagues — understood what I was trying to do.
Still, it was worth it. I am both a better practitioner and a better person. I learned an amazing amount, and I think I can have a much bigger impact on the world as a result. I’m excited to continue to build on what I’ve learned, and I have a growing community of practitioners who are also engaged with the work I’ve been doing. I also love the life balance I was able to achieve over the past three years, and I’m not about to give that up.
So why am I coming out of retirement?
One of my primary points of emphasis these past three years has been around field-building. When I decided I wanted to devote myself to collaboration professionally over a dozen years ago, I had amazing mentors who were incredibly generous with me.
Furthermore, no one expected anything of me, which was good, because I didn’t know anything. I spent my first four years trying stuff and failing, trying stuff and failing. I was able to come into my own on my own, which was an incredible luxury, and by the time I retired at the end of 2012, I felt like I was at the top of my profession.
My path was fruitful, but challenging. I made it because I was passionate, persistent, and very, very lucky. It was a good path for me, but if it’s the only path for people who care as much about collaboration as I do, we’re not going to have many people in our field.
For several years now, I’ve done whatever I could to make that path easier for anyone who was hungry and committed to learning, from sharing all of my templates to providing professional opportunities to promising practitioners. I’ve been able to help a lot of people simply by making time to talk with and encourage them.
However, at the end of the day, the best way to learn is to do the work, to try stuff and to fail over and over again. Before I “retired,” I was able to create safe opportunities for others to do exactly that by inviting them to work with me on real projects.
Those who shadowed me were able to see how I thought about problems and how my ideas manifested themselves in practice. They were able to experience and develop good preparation habits. They were able to practice on real problems without fear of failing, because I could act as their safety net.
When I retired, I lost this platform. I was focused entirely on capacity-building, and while I could share stories and advice, I couldn’t show people how I approached process design and facilitation, because I wasn’t doing that work anymore.
This alone wasn’t reason enough to unretire. I know many great practitioners in this space, and I referred people to those who were willing to open up their work practices. I also devoted a lot of my own time to shadow these peers myself for my own learning.
While I learned quite a bit from shadowing, I was extremely disappointed overall by the quality of work I was seeing from some of the most well-respected people in this field. The standard for what it means to do this work well is very low, and it seems that many good practitioners are simply hopping over this bar, which they can do easily.
The problem is that simply clearing the bar does not lead to high performance. If we want to live in a world that is more alive, if we want to address the challenging, urgent problems that we all face, then we, as practitioners, need to raise the bar, not just clear it.
There were exceptions to my shadowing experiences. They tended not to be consultants, but rather people who were embedded in organizations, often younger practitioners who had skin in the game and a hunger to learn. I saw some excellent work from these practitioners, most of whom are largely invisible both in their organizations and in this larger field of collaborative practitioners.
Furthermore, even though I stopped designing and facilitating processes for hire, I actually got better at it during my retirement. I have a much greater understanding for how to integrate capacity-building into my processes, and I can design interventions that are more scalable and sustainable as a result. Also, because I’ve been doing my own workouts (as well as leading them for others), my own collaboration muscles have simply gotten stronger.
I wrote previously about how we need chefs, not recipes. In order to inspire great cooking, people need to taste great meals. I’m hungry to show what’s possible by taking on problems that are hard and meaningful. I want to raise the bar, and I want to do it in a way so that others can learn with me.
I’m still prioritizing my capacity-buiding efforts. I have more programs to offer and more things to give away. I am convinced that these are levers that have the best chance at improving our abilities to collaborate at scale.
At the same time, I’m open to taking on consulting work again. I will be extremely selective, and I will only take on one project at a time. I’ll use these projects as a way to model best practices and as a platform where other practitioners can learn with me. As it so happens, I already have a project, which I’m excited to share more about soon.