About Eugene Eric Kim

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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Here are my most recent posts

The Art of Aligning Groups

This essay is also available in French. Thanks to Lilian Ricaud for the translation!

My best experience collaborating with a group happened almost 20 years ago on a basketball court. I had just recovered from a back injury and was returning to my regular pickup game for the first time in two months. To my surprise, a bunch of new people had shown up that day, and I ended up on a team with four other guys I didn’t know.

It didn’t matter. That day, that game, we played the most beautiful basketball I had ever experienced. It was like a dance. No one was particularly great individually, but everyone knew how to play together. People moved without the ball, sprinting down the floor, screening and cutting. The ball barely touched the ground as we whipped it around to each other — dribble, dribble, pass, pass, pass.

We were playing fast, but I felt like I was seeing things in slow motion. I would pass the ball to empty spots, and the right guy would magically materialize just as the ball got there. Every basket we made was an easy basket, and we scored them in large quantities before finally putting the other team out of its misery.

The final score showed that we had collaborated effectively, but it didn’t tell the whole story. It didn’t say how it felt to play with that team, to be in flow with four other people, none of whom had ever played together before. Every movement felt effortless and joyful. I felt alive. The team felt alive.

Alignment Versus Agreement

People often ask how I measure effective collaboration. My answer is always, “It depends. What’s the goal?” Collaboration, by definition, is working together in pursuit of a shared, bounded goal. Whether or not you achieve that goal matters. However, how everyone feels in pursuit of that goal also matters. Success needs to take both of those things into account.

I think the word, “alignment,” conveys this nuance nicely by suggesting both directionality and movement. Alignment is dynamic. It’s irrelevant if the wheels in your car are in alignment if you’re not moving. Alignment is also not binary. If the wheels in your car are not perfectly aligned, you’ll still be able to drive. It just won’t be as smooth or as efficient as it could be. The level of resistance you experience is a measure of how aligned you actually are.

“Alignment” is not the same thing as “agreement,” although people often conflate the two. A group might verbally agree on a destination, but its participants might still move in conflicting directions. Conversely, a group might move in perfect lock-step without ever having explicitly agreed on where it’s going or how (as was the case in my pickup game). It might even achieve this while explicitly disagreeing.

This distinction is important, because it’s not necessarily hard to get a group to agree on something. One way is to make a statement that is so abstract, it’s both indisputable and meaningless. An example of something I often hear is, “We value collaboration.” Another one is, “Our goal is to better serve our customers.” Very few people would disagree with either of those statements, but by themselves, they’re too broad to mean anything. Agreement without alignment also often happens in groups with conflict-averse cultures, where people would rather assent than argue.

Being in alignment is different than moving in alignment. If the goal is for everyone to be moving toward the same goal in rhythm and without resistance, then everyone must both want to move in alignment with everyone else and be capable of doing this. You achieve the former by aligning. You achieve the latter by practicing.

How do you get a group into alignment? How can you tell when a group is aligned? And how can groups practice moving in alignment?

Alignment, Not Control

There is no one right way to get a group aligned. Sometimes, it just happens. More often than not, it takes work.

Most people seem to equate aligning as a top-down version of “getting buy-in.” In other words, someone — usually a person with positional power over everyone else — thinks really hard about the “right” way to do something, then tries to convince everyone else to go along with it with some combination of encouragement and threats, possibly integrating some feedback along the way.

This isn’t wrong, but it’s not the best way to motivate people, it doesn’t tap into a group’s full collective intelligence, and it doesn’t usually lead to great performance.

My philosophy with groups is that more perspectives lead to better outcomes. When it comes to goals and strategy in particular, rather than one or a few people coming up with their own ideas first and having others respond or comply, I want as many people as possible to think critically about the problem at hand and to co-create the solution. This is generally messier and slower (at first), because it requires people to align around language and worldviews and to struggle both individually and collectively. But that struggle leads to greater ownership and agency, which ultimately leads to higher performance.

Alignment obviates the need for control, but it requires stomaching the messiness of aligning. While the hallmark of moving in alignment is a feeling of flow, the process of aligning can feel exactly the opposite.

Building Alignment

What does a productive struggle look like? What does it feel like? How is it different from an unproductive struggle? How do you know how long to let it go?

The best I can offer are my own strategies for building alignment.

Ask and listen first. Give people a chance to think about something on their own first, even if you’ve already done a lot of your own thinking. If their thinking is aligned with yours, use their words, so that they see themselves in the work.

Write it down. We all lead busy lives. It’s easy to forget things, especially when they’re complicated. Capturing the state of people’s thinking, even when it’s messy, and constantly keeping it in front of them helps a group build on rather than reconstruct its thinking.

Put a stake in the ground. Stakes can be pulled out and moved, which means you don’t have to get it exactly right the first time. Don’t expect a group to align on the first try, especially if it’s about something that’s messy and complicated. Instead, get as much alignment as you can around something imperfect, move forward as much as you can, and revisit and revise based on your experience. The whole group will learn as it moves.

I use the “Squirm Test” and the “T-shirt Test” to help me gauge how aligned a group is. Simply put, if the group makes a decision, and someone starts to squirm, that person is not fully aligned. If people believe so strongly in a decision, they’re willing or even excited about wearing it on a T-shirt, they are aligned. Continue adjusting the stakes over time until the squirming goes away and everyone is wearing the T-shirt.

Create real-time feedback loops. Moving in alignment with others requires constant feedback. If you can’t see how your group is moving as a whole, you can’t adjust. The more real-time indicators you have (including the Squirm and T-shirt Tests) and the more transparently you work, the more likely others will be able to see and react to each other.

Remind each other what you’re doing and why. The best thing you can do when you’re struggling is to take a step back and remind yourself of why you’re going through this process. It’s helpful to remember times when you were in alignment with others and what it took to get there. It’s also helpful to remember times when you decided to take shortcuts without being fully aligned.

Moving in Alignment Is Hard

I’m particularly fond of physical (also referred to as “embodied” or “somatic”) practices as a way to viscerally remind yourself of what alignment looks and feels like and what it takes to get there. Pickup basketball is certainly one form of physical practice, but it’s not for everyone, and there are lots of other great practices that are a lot easier on the body.

One of my favorites is a group breathing exercise I learned from Eveline Shen, the Executive Director of Forward Together, a group that regularly uses a form of physical practice they call, “Courageous Practice,” as a way of staying grounded and aligned. It starts by standing in a circle and taking a few deep breaths together. You then add movement to your breath, raising your hand at a right angle as you inhale, and lowering it as you exhale. The goal is to breathe in alignment with each other. It helps to have a few people step out of the circle to act as observers, so that they can see how aligned the group actually is.

There are lots of different variations of this exercise. You can change the orientation of people in the circle, so that some people are facing inwards and other are facing outwards. You can stand in a line or some other shape. You can designate a leader or not.

It turns out that the simple act of breathing in alignment as a group is hard. Practicing not only helps you get better at it, but it also helps you develop strategies for moving in alignment that can apply to activities beyond breathing.

As difficult as it is to achieve perfect alignment, perhaps the most important lesson from this exercise is that, when everyone is trying, people are generally very good at breathing together. “Very good” is a worthy goal for any group trying to collaborate. As singular as that one pickup basketball game was for me, I’ve had many more experiences that were very good, and each of those were joyful, satisfying, and productive.

Alignment is a process. Set your expectations accordingly, and celebrate each victory along the way.

Many thanks to H. Jessica Kim and Kate Wing for reviewing earlier drafts of this post. Photo by Simon. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Announcing DIY Strategy / Culture v2.0

After many months of hard work, I am pleased to announce version 2.0 of the DIY Strategy / Culture toolkits, available now! My design partner, Amy Wu of Duende, and I have done a thorough update of all of the toolkits based on feedback from many of you as well as lessons learned from using them ourselves.

The goal of these toolkits are to help anyone and everyone get better at doing strategy and culture work for their groups, regardless of experience or role. We’ve put these toolkits into the public domain in order to support this goal. In this vein, it’s been humbling and gratifying to see these tools spread and to hear stories about how you’re using them, what you’re learning, and how we might make them better.

The new toolkits are cleaner and clearer overall. We’ve also updated the web pages about them, offering tips and tricks, making it easier to purchase, and even including a new video.

Changes include:

  • Re-designing the paper toolkits to make them more sticky note-friendly and to emphasize certain design elements. Plus, they’re now in color!
  • Updating all of the instructions, including best practices for many of the toolkits
  • The Mindset Cards now come with printed (color!) instructions and a box
  • A new toolkit for developing group Working Agreements
  • Convenient links to buy printed versions of all of our toolkits via Duende. (But remember, you can download them for free!)

These tools were modeled after balance bikes. Using them repeatedly should help you strengthen your collaboration muscles. In this vein, we’re experimenting with other ways to support the practice of using these tools.

For example, Amy and I created a self-guided, online video tutorial that walks you through using the Goals + Success Spectrum.

I’m also offering online peer coaching for the Goals + Success Spectrum starting in September. (Registration deadline is August 10, 2018.) It’s based on several pilots I ran earlier this year.

I am humbled by all the things we’ve learned about these toolkits from all of you, as well as the growing word of mouth about these tools. Please continue to share with folks and groups who might benefit from them, and please continue to share stories with us about how you’re using them!

“Balance Bikes” for Group Process

In 2013, I left the consulting firm I cofounded, because I wanted to figure out how I could make more of an impact with my work. Specifically, I wanted to figure out how to help groups collaborate more effectively in ways that did not require consulting support.

My hypothesis was simple. Collaboration is a craft, and as with all crafts — from sports to music — you get better through lots and lots of practice. My goal was to come up with ways to help people practice.

Initially, I was biased against tool development as a possible path to scale, largely because I felt that most people viewed tools as a silver bullet whose mere presence would magically make any group better. Even though this was the opposite of how I viewed tools, I didn’t want to unintentionally contribute to this problematic mindset, which I felt discouraged practice.

However, an unexpected conversation at a party changed my mind. I was catching up with a friend from college whom I hadn’t seen in years. He mentioned that he had gotten into bike racing, and we started discussing the joy and pain of learning something new as adults. That’s when he introduced me to balance bikes.

Most people my age learned how to ride bicycles either via brute force (keep trying and trying until you figure it out) or training wheels. The theory behind training wheels is that learning how to ride a bike is hard because people are afraid of falling. Training wheels eliminate that fear.

However, as my friend explained, the other reason that learning how to ride a bike is hard is that it requires balance, and balance takes practice to develop. Training wheels act as a crutch, and hence, discourage you from learning balance.

Balance bikes are low bikes without pedals. Kids (and unfortunately, I have only seen them designed for kids) propel themselves by pushing with their feet, then lifting their feet and gliding for as long as possible. They don’t fear falling, because they can put their feet on the ground any time. However, balance bikes also encourage you to glide (which is what makes riding bikes so fun), and, in doing so, encourages you to practice balancing.

Every tool that I’ve shared on this site is meant to be like a balance bike. They were designed to help you practice and develop strong muscles and habits around group process. You can keep using them for as long as you find them useful, but what matters most for your group’s effectiveness is that you continue to develop the right muscles, regardless of how.

For example, the Strategy / Culture Bicycle (whose name is a nod to how useful I find bicycle metaphors) is designed to help you develop stronger strategy muscles. When I facilitate strategy for groups, I usually eschew the Bicycle, instead custom designing processes based on the challenge at hand and the group’s readiness. However, these processes embody the same principles as the Bicycle. If you don’t have the know-how to custom design something, practicing with the Bicycle will help you develop that know-how.

I’m currently piloting a community of practice focused on using the Goals / Success Spectrum to build more strategic and collaborative muscles. I’m heartened to see how quickly people progress after just a few repetitions, and I’m even more excited about the few who are starting to realize that their quick progress is just the tip of the iceberg, that the real possibility comes from regular repetition and reflection. My hope is for everyone who uses my tools (however they come to them) to understand this — that it’s not about the tools themselves, but about building strong muscles, mindsets, and habits.

Photo by Strider Bikes. CC BY-ND.

The Art of Thinking Really, Really Big

What does it mean to be driven by vision?

It’s easy to know what you’re against, what you dislike, what you don’t want. But what are you for? What do you love? What is the world that you want to create?

How do you stay inspired in the face of a stark reality? How do you inspire others?

Last year, I made it a priority to articulate the most important principles for helping groups achieve higher performance. I decided to start this weighty task by writing down everything I learned from my most influential mentors and colleagues. (I would highly recommend this exercise to everyone. It’s a great reminder of who you are and what you believe as well as of how lucky you are to have these special people in your life.)

One thing that stood out for me was how BIG my mentors’ and colleagues’ visions were and how much of an influence that’s had on me and my practice. While I constantly preach the importance of intentionality, I’ve spent far less time talking and thinking about the art and practice of visioning, especially as it pertains to other groups.

The one exception to this speaks to what my perspective used to be and how it’s starting to shift. Two years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled, “Rubber Bands and the Art of Visioning.” While I made reference to some of the really big vision that’s shaped who I am and how I practice, my emphasis for others was less on stretching your vision and more on grounding it, which is where many processes fall short. One of my mentors, Gail Taylor, left a comment challenging me on this point:

Ahhh, the creative tension! Rubber bands are a nice metaphor, stretch too far and the darn thing snaps! But, I have found most people under stretch but if they are willing to go to the edge they reach further and never quite shrink to their former state.

I’ve thought often about Gail’s words. For the past two years, I’ve been working with an inspiring group of social change leaders who are struggling with how to make their vision real. It’s a complex project, with many challenging nuances and not-so-subtle obstacles, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this group is stuck because its vision, while ambitious, is still too small and too cloudy and because it hasn’t figured out how to integrate that vision into its every day work.

Moreover, I have become convinced that this is fundamentally the challenge that ails this country and perhaps the world right now.

My job is to help these leaders get unstuck, to help them get better at the art and science of visioning, of fostering radical hope in a grounded, rigorous way. I’m not sure how to do this, but we’re going to try some things this year, and I’ll do my best to share what we learn. Maybe there will be something there that’s applicable beyond this group.

Last August, I was in the beautiful Michigan wilderness facilitating a retreat for another group of social change leaders. Internet access and cell phone coverage were spotty, so it took us awhile to learn about the hate-filled, white supremacy rally at Charlottesville and the tragedy that ensued. I felt fortunate to be able to process and mourn among such incredible leaders, but upon leaving the retreat a few days later, I felt depressed and demoralized.

As it happened, my next destination was Toledo, Ohio to spend a few days with one of my best friends. Our original plan was to spend a day in Detroit, but as soon as I arrived, my friend asked me if I wanted to go to a rally instead. The white supremacist who had rammed his car into counter protestors in Charlottesville was from nearby Maumee, and organizers were planning a march against hate there that afternoon.

I said yes immediately. It felt like fate that I was there when I was, and I thought it would be cathartic. But I still felt unsettled and nervous.

As we drove to Maumee, we listened to old Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches. (They’re available for free on Spotify.) I found them mesmerizing. Other than his famous, “I have a dream” speech, I had never heard him speak. I was particularly struck by his 1961 commencement speech at Lincoln University, which begins:

As you go out today to enter the clamorous highways of life, I should like to discuss with you some aspects of the American dream: For in a real sense, America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled. It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities, and of all creeds can live together as brothers. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident — that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the dream.

Very seldom if ever in the history of the world has a socio-political document expressed in such profoundly eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us that every man is heir to the legacy of worthiness.

Listening to it settled me down, and I haven’t been able to forget the impact his words and his voice had on me that day.

I’ve kicked off 2018 thinking about what I’m trying to learn about visioning for this project, for myself, and for the world, and I decided to listen to this speech again, both to reflect on Dr. King’s craft and to find inspiration anew. It’s been working for me, and I hope it works for you as well. Happy New Year!

Using the Goals + Success Spectrum Skillfully with Groups

This past year, I facilitated a number of workshops on the Goals + Success Spectrum, the tool I use to help groups get clear, specific, and aligned around objectives and metrics. It’s essentially a guided brainstorming activity (using sticky notes or Google Docs) where you categorize your goals across a spectrum — from Minimum to Target to Epic.

I’ve been focusing on doing trainings for this tool rather than my others, because it’s a low-overhead, high-leverage way to get groups aligned and practicing, which are critical steps toward achieving high performance. It’s useful for individuals and for groups, and people generally recognize its utility immediately, even without the benefit of a workshop.

In my workshops, I focus on helping participants experience the mechanics of the tool. They practice using it as individuals, then spend time reviewing each other’s spectrums in pairs and giving each other feedback. I offer no other guidance about using it with groups other than to follow the exact same instructions.

In practice, of course, using the tool with groups is harder than with an individual. Multiple people mean more ideas, and you have to figure out how to consolidate them. That requires critical thinking, communication, conflict, and convergence — all things that make collaboration hard in the first place.

My stated reasons for not offering additional guidance for groups are:

  • The tool itself is designed to address some of these collaboration challenges
  • I want groups to learn how to work through the harder challenges by trusting their own skills, by using the tool repeatedly, and learning and adjusting as they go. That’s ultimately the point of all of my tools — to help people develop strong collaboration muscles and habits through practice.

While these are true, I also just find it hard to offer simple advice about how to facilitate this with groups. Any tactical advice I might have is deeply intertwingled with my philosophy about collaboration, groups, and the design of my tools in general. I can’t talk about one without the other.

All that said, many participants in my workshops have asked thoughtful questions about how to use the Goals + Success Spectrum with groups, so I’m going to attempt to articulate the relevant aspects of my philosophy and answer their questions here.

My Beliefs About Groups

I believe that:

  • Most of the challenges that groups face stem from not talking with each other enough about the right things.
  • People are generally smarter than we give them credit for. If we give people the space and opportunity to be at their best, then we can tap into a group’s collective wisdom, which is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
  • Collaboration is a craft. You will be bad at it at first, but with enough practice, you will eventually get better.

At their core, all of my tools — including the Goals + Success Spectrum — are designed to do three things:

1. Remind you to think about critical, foundational questions. These questions are easy to take for granted, but in our day-to-day grind, we often forget to think about them. In the case of the Goals + Success Spectrum, the questions are:

  • What would the spectrum of success look like for your project, from Minimum to Target to Epic?
  • What would failure look like for your project?

2. Encourage you to write down your answers so that you and others can see them. Forcing you to make the implicit explicit and specific helps you get clear individually and is a critical step helping groups align.

3. Make it easy to practice over and over again. My tools were designed to help you practice and develop strong muscles and habits around group process. The tools themselves aren’t as important as your group continuing to develop and use the right muscles.

My basic approach to using all of my tools with groups is to just use them. Get people in a room, run through the instructions, and see what happens. Groups often are more capable than they themselves believe. This is the best way to demonstrate that.

At best, the tool will encourage everyone to stretch their thinking, de-personalize the ideas, and help people feel heard, which will lead to safer, more constructive conversations. This, along with incorporating a greater diversity of perspectives, will improve the overall quality of and lead to greater collective ownership over the final outcome.

At worst, everybody will get to see what each other thinks, and you’ll learn something from doing the exercise. Make some adjustments based on what you learn, and try it again. And again. People will learn how to set better targets and how to navigate difficult conversations with each other. It’s like learning to speak a language or play an instrument. Failure is both inevitable and okay, as long as you continue to try and learn.

Facilitation Tactics for the Goals + Success Spectrum

Given all this, here are some of the questions people in my workshop asked about how to use the Goals + Success Spectrum, along with my thoughts.

Who in your group should use the Goals + Success spectrum?

Everyone. Talking through goals and success should always be a group exercise, not an individual one. Deciding on goals and metrics doesn’t have to be a consensus activity (and you should be clear about how decisions will be made up front), but coming up with good ones benefits from everyone’s voice.

That said, with larger groups, it may not be practical to bring everyone into the room for the whole process. In these cases, you should aim to have a representative cross-section of the group participate (which means it should not just be the leadership team), with entry points for everyone else to review and give feedback.

How does having groups use the Goals + Success Spectrum work in practice?

There are two constraints: space and time. Larger (simultaneous) groups require more physical space, both to be in a room together and to capture their thinking. It doesn’t necessarily require significantly more time to capture and read everyone’s ideas, because that’s happening in parallel, but it definitely takes more time to work through hard questions and conflict and ultimately converge and align.

I generally find that groups do not allocate enough time for to thinking through goals and success (the “what” and the “why”), instead preferring to rush to the “how.” Alignment is hard, but the payoff is enormous. It doesn’t help if everyone in a boat quickly starts to row if they’re not all rowing in the same direction. Agreeing on where to go might take time, but it will make the subsequent rowing a lot easier.

Why does alignment take so long? Because people’s perspectives are often rooted in deeply held beliefs, and understanding and reconciling those beliefs can take time. Again, groups don’t have to decide on goals and success by consensus. However, alignment is much more likely if people understand the underlying reasons behind a decision and if they feel others understand the reasons for their objections.

You can accelerate alignment through the tool in two ways. First, explore different scenarios before getting into arguments. Second, continuously synthesize and edit the spectrum so that areas of alignment and misalignment are sharpened. I often joke that using these tools with groups is ultimately an exercise in sticky note management, but it’s true. The more you can help keep it clean, the more the group will be able to focus on the important challenges.

While the tools are designed to support a healthy group conversation, they are not a panacea. Any time you’re having a group discussion, group dynamics come into play. By giving everyone an opportunity to fill out and share their ideas on stickies, the tool encourages inclusion. However, once people start talking about the ideas, the tool can’t prevent the voices of a few from drowning out everyone else’s, for example. If this is a frequent problem, you may want to consider appointing a facilitator from either inside or outside of your group.

How would you use the Goals + Success Spectrum across multiple groups within a larger organization or group (e.g. cross-functionally)?

One of the reasons I love doing the Goals + Success workshop is that it’s a great way to build community, because looking at a filled-out spectrum is a great way to get to know another person or group quickly and more deeply. Knowing that your group works on housing issues tells me a little bit. Knowing that your group is trying to create housing for 10,000 people in one year tells me a lot more.

Similarly, the Goals + Success Spectrum can be a powerful way to help de-silo an organization or network. I would have each sub-group do their own spectrums first, then bring all the groups together to gut check each other’s spectrums. Celebrate where the different spectrums complement each other, discuss where they conflict and why, and make adjustments in the respective spectrums.

Most importantly, put the completed spectrums somewhere so that everyone can easily find and see each other’s.

How do you use the Goals + Success Spectrum to assess success or failure afterward?

I start every debrief by asking everyone to review each column of the Goals + Success Spectrum and to mark the ones we achieved and the ones we missed. (I use this debrief template to guide the process.) If there are differences in opinion as to whether or not we hit a mark, that’s both an opportunity to make meaning of what happened and to come up with a more specific and objective metric for next time.

If the group has missed marks in the Minimum column, then the project is technically a failure. This is an opportunity to discuss whether or not you had the right minimum targets and to make adjustments for next time.

Aligning around success is a craft. If you do it repeatedly, you will get better at it over time. Use your spectrums to help you with your assessments, but also recognize that the assessments will help you create better spectrums next time.

Invisibility Doesn’t Serve the Work

Last year, I got an email out of the blue from Joanna Levitt Cea, Director of Buen Vivir Fund at Thousand Currents and a visiting scholar at the Stanford Global Projects Center. She and her colleague, Jess Rimington, Managing Director of /The Rules, had spent their Stanford fellowship trying to understand why the social sector didn’t seem to be as good as the for-profit sector at innovation. After some extensive research, they had pulled together some preliminary hypotheses, and they wanted to test these with other practitioners.

Neither Joanna nor Jess had heard of me before. A few people had recommended that they talk to me, and they thought enough of my online bio to invite me to a three-day workshop in New Orleans. When I spoke with them, they were incredibly warm and kind. They were curious about my work, and they were humble about theirs. I read an early draft of their research, which I found thoughtful and provocative, and I could see how much hard work they had poured into it.

I was particularly intrigued by their workshop attendees, mainly because I didn’t know any of them, which surprised me. I’ve been in this field for 15 years, and I’m obsessed with finding other great practitioners, yet I had never heard of any of these other attendees or their work. Googling didn’t turn up much either, but I found enough to interest me. For example, two of the practitioners were the hosts of our workshop: Steven Bingler and Bobbie Hill of Concordia, a community-centered planning and design firm. Among their many, many great projects was the Unified New Orleans Plan, a five-month planning process they led following Hurricane Katrina, which involved 9,000 residents and resulted in a comprehensive redevelopment plan.

I arrived at Steven’s house not knowing a soul, and he and Bobbie immediately made sure I and all the other attendees felt at home. Everyone was warm and friendly, and we bonded over crawfish, crab, and conversation before heading to Poplarville, Mississippi for our retreat. I rode in Bobbie’s car, where we talked about our lives and shared our respective journeys. I later got to learn more about Steven’s vision and philosophy as well.

I was struck by how different our backgrounds were, yet how similarly we approached the work and how aligned our values were. After getting to know Steven and Bobbie better, as well as the other participants, I was even more surprised that we had never heard of each other before. I thought Steven might have heard of Matt Taylor, one of my mentors, because they were both architects, but he hadn’t.

One of my favorite sayings when describing this work is, “Chefs, not recipes.” This simple phrase encapsulates everything I believe about the craft of collaboration, but it also says a lot about high-performance ecosystems. As it turns out, the chef scene is very tight. Everyone who cooks seriously — from top chefs to rising cooks — seems to know each other.

Part of this is due to the popularization of food culture and all the trappings that come with it — celebrity chefs, reality television, food blogs, and so forth. However, the roots of this tight-knit, informal network are far older and deeper. Cooks have long had a culture of staging (i.e. apprenticeship) as a way of learning the craft. Not only do cooks taste each other’s food, they often work side by side with other cooks to see how that food is made. Because of this, cooks not only know each other, they are intimately familiar with each other’s work.

That is not my experience with my field. Why is this? What would be possible if this were not the case?

Joanna and Jess recently wrote about their work in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article entitled, “Creating Breakout Innovation.” I think the whole piece is excellent, and I plan on playing with their assessment tool. I was particularly struck by this conclusion:

We found that actors delivering such breakout results cocreated in ways that represent a significant rupture from mainstream practice within their field. In fact, we were surprised to find that many of the big names in cocreation — including those speaking the loudest about seemingly cutting-edge practices like “collective impact,” “crowdsourcing,” and “design thinking” — were not actually significantly departing from the status quo, particularly when it came to generating a shift in power, voice, and ownership. Instead, breakout actors tend to be on the fringes of their fields.

I’m not surprised by this, but I’m troubled by it. The best practitioners I know in this space are fundamentally motivated to lift others up and couldn’t care less about talking about themselves. They are classic yellow threads — leaders who brighten everyone around them while remaining mostly invisible themselves.

There is something admirable about this, but it’s also extremely problematic. If people don’t share these stories themselves, who will? If we’re not learning about these stories or about the people responsible for them, how will the rest of us know where to go to learn, to stage?

Not surprisingly, Joanna and Jess themselves fall prey to this mindset in their article. One of the breakout projects they mention in their article is the Health eHeart initiative, a brilliant example of participatory design led by my friends and colleagues, Rebecca Petzel and Brooking Gatewood. Joanna and Jess mentioned Emergence Collective, the brand under which Rebecca and Brooking are working, but they never mentioned either of them by name.

As it turned out, this was intentional. They didn’t mention any individual practitioners unless they were quoting them. Why not? I recently asked them, and they had a predictably thoughtful answer: They didn’t want to overly shine attention on individuals when so many people were involved. However, in multiple cases, they did mention an individual’s name, and the individual asked them to replace it with the group name!

Clearly, most of the practitioners either didn’t care that they weren’t mentioned or didn’t want to be mentioned. Well, I care, and I want my peers, whom I respect so much, to start caring too. By not celebrating this less ego-centric form of leadership, we enable models that don’t work and the practitioners responsible for them to perpetuate. Invisibility doesn’t serve the work.

In fairness to Joanna and Jess, I had multiple opportunities to give them this feedback before the article was published, and I didn’t. It took a while to coalesce in my brain, which perhaps speaks to how foreign this kind of thinking is to many of us. I’m definitely not the best model of this highlighting behavior, at least not on the surface. I give my work away, and I do not require credit. I have seen other firms attempt to take credit for my work and have just shrugged my shoulders. I’m usually mentioned in projects I’m involved with, but not prominently (which is intentional). As a facilitator, my goal is to hold the space without being at the center of it. To this day, there are a number of people who have participated in meetings I’ve been involved with who think I’m a professional photographer, because that’s what they saw me doing.

None of this bothers me, because it’s not why I do the work, and I get all the credit I need to live a happy life. Frankly, I hate it when I hear people, who haven’t actually seen me work, speak glowingly about me. I’m flattered that people think highly of me, but I want them to withhold judgement until they actually experience my work side by side, as cooks do.

Maybe all of this is a disservice to my point about invisibility. I’ve been reflecting a lot about this recently, and I’ll probably try some different things. But there are a number of things I already do that serve my larger goals:

  • I try to amplify any great work I hear about, regardless of who did it
  • I don’t take on work I can’t talk about
  • I try to tell the story of my work in real-time. For the past seven years, I have intentionally made storytelling a (budgeted) priority on many of my projects.
  • I encourage people to shadow my work
  • While I don’t go out of my way to talk about myself, I don’t shy away from it either. I happily take credit for what I do well and responsibility for what I do poorly. This blog is evidence of that.

I’d like to see more of my peers practice all of these things, especially this last point, which I think will be the hardest thing for most of them to do. That includes Joanna and Jess. They have already transcended what most of us do by investing so much of their own time to find and tell these stories. They not only lifted up other people, they did so with rigor while also living into their own principles.

What makes them particularly unique is that they are not academics. They themselves are practitioners who have stories worth sharing. I hope that they — and all of my peers — start to value their own leadership as much as they’ve valued others. I hope that we, as a community, can find ways to lift and celebrate our own and each other’s stories.

Thanks to Anya Kandel and H. Jessica Kim for reviewing early drafts of this post.

Update (June 22, 2017): Joanna and Jess informed me that, in several cases, they did mention individual names, but those individuals asked that their names be replaced by the group’s name. I’ve updated the post to reflect this.