Looking Forward

I’m coming out of retirement.

When I left my consulting firm three years ago, I had a simple premise that I wanted to test: Anyone could get good at collaboration with enough practice.

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.

Most importantly, they could watch me fail and understand that failing is simply part of the process, that we all do it, and that there is an art to doing it gracefully and successfully.

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.

About 

Eugene helps groups learn how to come alive and collaborate more skillfully together. He spent ten years consulting with companies across different sectors, from Fortune 500 companies to grassroots movements. He’s now focusing his efforts on helping others develop the same skills that he uses to help groups.

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Comments

  1. I’ve only really known you since “retirement” and you’ve taught me a ton in those few years! So I’m not sure your theory holds that by working on your own things you were not mentoring others. Very grateful for all I’ve learned from you!

    1. Thanks, Renee. 🙂 It’s not that I wasn’t mentoring others. It’s that I lost a valuable platform to help others learn. Think about how closely you’ve worked with Rebecca Petzel the past few years and how much you’ve undoubtedly learned from that experience (and vice-versa). That’s what I’m talking about.

      It’s generally been discouraging watching other practitioners struggle, then hearing them say that it’s because we’re all just learning how to do the work. Sometimes, that’s been the case, but more often than not, it hasn’t been. I saw practitioner after practitioner struggle simply because they were not disciplined in their preparation, or because they approached design too narrowly. I hated playing the role of contrarian. I’d rather show, not tell.

      Shadowing aside, you happen to be the only person who participated in both Changemaker Bootcamp and Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets, so you got to learn from me in a different way than most other folks. (I also learned a ton from you and your encouragement and feedback, and I am very grateful for that!) In my new incarnation, folks who work with me will be doing workouts as well as shadowing. It’s going to be very hardcore.

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