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

“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.

Eating Humble Pie: Lessons in Listening

The most fundamental exercise in my Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets workout program is the “one-minute drill.” It’s the first exercise people do, and we repeat it several times throughout the course of a program. It’s an exercise in listening deeply and showing that you’re listening.

Even though it seems simple, people quickly discover that it’s not. Really, truly listening is hard. Furthermore, being capable of listening well isn’t the same as actually doing it. When I work with groups, even skillful ones, I often see good listeners talking past each other. All too often, we’re distracted by other things, including our own emotional states.

Making people feel heard — which is deeply intertwined with listening, but is not the same thing — is even harder. The one-minute drill helps you quickly and objectively recognize how hard these things are. It humbles you without humiliating you.

I don’t just lead workouts, I do them myself. I’ve done the one-minute drill hundreds of times with many different people, and I always seem to learn something new. Recently, I’ve been working out with my friend and colleague, Kristin Cobble. The past few times I’ve done the one-minute drill with her, she’s docked me points. “You’re reflecting back everything that I’m saying,” she explained, “but you’re not acknowledging how I’m feeling.”

She was absolutely right. I am very good at listening for substance and at reframing and reflecting back the essence of the content. It’s one of my strengths as a facilitator. But sometimes, people aren’t actually trying to convey a substantive message. They’re trying to get you to understand how they feel.

I had heard the emotion that Kristin had conveyed in the one-minute drill, but I hadn’t recognized the importance she had placed on them. Upon receiving her feedback, I was able to see what I had done and adjust my reflection accordingly.

However, it’s not always that straightforward. If someone is expressing anxiety, for example, how do you acknowledge that? Saying, “You seem really anxious,” might be appropriate in some circumstances, but it’s almost certainly the wrong thing to say in others. How you say it also matters. If someone is feeling excited, the words, “You seem excited,” may not be appreciated if your tone feels apathetic or resentful.

My experience with Kristin was timely, because I’ve run into this exact issue twice (that I know of) in the last month. In both cases, I was having difficult conversations with colleagues. In both cases, I was relatively calm, I was breathing slowly and consciously so that I could listen more deeply, and I reflected back the content of what I heard. And in both cases, my colleagues let me know that they didn’t feel heard.

It was frustrating to get that feedback, and if I had not had similar experiences with Kristin in recent practice sessions, I might have missed what was happening. In one of those cases, I was able to make the adjustment, but not in the other. Honestly, I’m still not sure what I could have said in the other case both to truly hear my colleague and to let her know that I heard her. That’s why I keep practicing.

In 2009, I worked with a think tank that was trying to grapple with very hard public policy challenges through both traditional, expert-oriented methods and bottoms-up, participatory processes. The first challenge we took on was clean energy. We kicked off our process with a day-long gathering in San Francisco with about 200 participants. The plan was to let the conversation go in multiple directions throughout the day, then weave it all together into something coherent that we would share at the end of the day. It was essentially a listening and reflection exercise at scale.

We asked our friend, the brilliant Katherine Fulton, to take on the difficult task of distilling six hours of discussion into a 10-minute talk in more or less real-time. She listened deeply throughout the day, as she is so skilled at doing. Then she went up on stage, and said to the audience, “Raise your hand if you feel scared.”

Most of the participants raised their hands.

“Raise your hand if you feel hopeful.”

Most of the participants raised their hands.

“I think that’s the essence of human condition,” Katherine opined. “I don’t think we’re going to fix this with just rational argument or all the great innovative ideas in the world. We have to have those. But the energy to do it and the will to do it is actually also going to have to come from another part of the human spirit, from our resilience.”

I still vividly remember how the energy of that room felt as Katherine got us out of our heads and into our hearts. She recognized that trying to reflect back what everyone had been saying was an exercise in futility and — in that moment, at least — would lead to more harm than good. What we all needed from her in that moment was an acknowledgement of how we were feeling.

I learned something very important watching Katherine that day, and I continue to work on developing this muscle. I’ve gotten better, but I still have a ways to go, as my experiences this past month reminded me. That’s why I keep practicing and encouraging others to do the same.

The “Secret” to High-Performance Collaboration Is Practice

On March 22, 2017, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote at The Collaboratory 5, a forum of about 200 Jewish innovators and entrepreneurs focused on grassroots change. My talk was on my favorite topic and the driving force behind my work for the past four years: how practice can lead to better collaboration.

Afterward, I led the whole group through the one-minute drill, followed by two breakout sessions where I led smaller groups through a power workout (including power video analysis and playing with status). My goal was not only to tell people how important practice was, but to lead them through an experience where they could get a sense of what I meant by practice and its value, especially if repeated over and over again.

I had an incredible time. It reminded me how different this mindset around practice is and how much I enjoy talking about and doing this stuff with new audiences. I’m looking forward to giving more talks and workouts in the near future. (If you’d like me to do this with your group, drop me an email.) Many thanks to my friend and colleague, Adene Sacks, for referring me and to Lisa Lepson, Jenny Kibrit Smith, and all of the organizers for inviting me and for being great hosts! Thanks to Duane Stork for the photo above.

Here’s a video of my talk!

Edited Transcript

Here are my slides and a tightly edited transcript.

What’s the best collaborative experience you’ve ever had? It could be personal or professional, with one other person or a large group, etc.

How many of you were able to come up with an example?

How many of you came up with one easily?

The story I want to share today has nothing to do with my work and didn’t even involve me. I have a friend who used to teach violin. She would start her beginning students by teaching them variations of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The first time I saw her teach, she was teaching this very serious five-year old. Toward the end of the lesson, after numerous repetitions, my friend — who was playing alongside her student — decided to harmonize the last few bars. When she heard the harmony, the little girl’s face just absolutely lit up.

I’m lucky to have been a part of and to have seen and studied many great collaborative experiences. But that time I watched that little girl’s face light up upon experiencing that simple little harmony that she herself was a part of stands out in my mind. I get chills thinking about that moment, because hearing that simple little harmony lit me up too.

When I ask folks about their best experiences collaborating, most people have a hard time coming up with an example. But, whether you can easily recall an experience or not, I think everyone has had a moment like that little girl had with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. We all have an intuition about what great collaboration should feel like, even if we have low expectations about getting to experience it.

What would your world be like if all of your experiences collaborating were at least as good as your best?

What would the world be like if everybody’s experiences collaborating were at least as good as their best? Imagine this world for a moment, and soak in the feeling.


My mission for the past 15 years has been to create a world where everyone’s baseline experience with collaboration feels exactly like that little girl did when my friend started harmonizing with her.

How do you do this? How do you help improve everybody’s collaborative experiences?

Said another way, what’s the secret to high-performance collaboration, and how do you scale this?

About five years ago, I realized that most of my successes in helping others collaborate more effectively were hollow. We would do good work together side-by-side, we would achieve good outcomes, and people would have a good experience getting there. But when I left, most groups would fall back on old habits. I was like a ringer in basketball. If I played on your team, I could help make everyone better, but once I left, the team would revert back to what it was. Maybe folks picked up a thing or two along the way, but the impact wouldn’t be what I wanted it to be.

So I decided to rethink how I did the work. To help me do this, I started with the premise that collaboration is very hard to do well. If it weren’t, we’d all be doing it already, and it would be simple for everyone to come up with examples of great collaboration.

Then I thought about what it takes to achieve things that are very hard. I thought about things like playing the violin or learning a language (my personal bane). And my conclusion was simple.

The more you practice, the better you will get at collaboration.

Things that are hard require lots and lots of practice to do well. Everyone is capable of doing them better. You either put in the time, or you don’t. And if you don’t, you generally aren’t going to be successful.

Simple, right? Maybe so, but to me, this was a revelation. I realized that everybody I ever knew or saw — myself included —who was good at collaboration had had lots of opportunities to practice, whether it was conscious or not.

How much practice do we need to get really good at collaboration?

Consider one example of high-performance collaboration: professional basketball.

Professional basketball players play six months out of the year — November through April, not including the playoffs. They play 82 48-minute games over the course of their season — about 66 hours total, or 11 hours a month.

11 hours a month! Great job, right? Of course, they’re working a lot more than 11 hours a month. The rest of the regular season — about 93 percent of their actual working time — they’re practicing, training, working on fundamentals, both individually and as a team.

We’re talking well over a 9:1 ratio of practice to performance. Performance, of course, is a form of practice, but the main distinction I’m drawing here is that, when you’re performing, the results count. You can afford to fail a lot when you practice — that’s all part of the process.

Think about your job for a moment. How much of your job relies on collaborating effectively with others? What percentage of your time do you spend practicing versus performing?

I’m not arguing that 9:1 is the right ratio in every context. But I’m going to guess that, for most of you, your ratio is pretty much the opposite of this, and I think that a 1:9 ratio is definitely wrong. Folks who care about getting better rarely consciously consider how they can practice more.

Our predominant culture believes that collaboration is some special knowledge that, once acquired, will magically make groups better. All of our learning mechanisms are oriented this way. We scour articles looking for magical tricks, we invest in magical apps, or we hire consultants whom we hope will share some magical secret.

At the end of the day, none of that works very well. If we want to get better at collaboration, we need to find ways to incorporate a lot more practice, to get our practice-to-performance ratios up.

How do we do this?

Supporting Practice

One way is to provide more structures for encouraging practice. To explain what I mean, consider fitness.

Fitness already has a culture centered around practice. We don’t technically need any structures to help us do that, but structures help. To understand how, let’s map out the ecosystem of structures that support practice in physical fitness along two axes: supply (how much of it is available) and cost.

We’ve got lots of books and free articles on the Internet that give us advice. Those go in the upper left of our chart.

You could work out with a friend or enroll in a gym or take a class or a bootcamp. Some of these things are free, and some cost money, but they’re all still relatively cheap, and there are quite a few options.

You could also hire a personal trainer. These are the most expensive options, and they’re the least used of the options, so we’ll put them on the lower right.

I’m going to claim that this is an ecosystem that more or less works. If we want to get fit, we can find all sorts of structures across a broad price spectrum that will support us in doing so.

What does the collaboration ecosystem look like?

As with fitness, you can easily find thousands of pretty decent articles that explain how to get better at collaboration.

There are plenty of one-off trainings, some of which might even be pretty good.

You could go to business school. This is more on the high-end in terms of cost.

And there are a plethora of folks like me — the equivalent of a personal trainer — you could hire.

This ecosystem favors the high-end. We have very few structures in the middle, which means that there are a lot of people who get left behind.

I would argue that, if we want to support more collaboration practice, we need the collaboration ecosystem to look more like the fitness ecosystem.

We don’t need as many options in the high-end, and we need something to fill in the middle. If we could figure out how to shift the collaboration ecosystem so that it looks more like this, then I think more people would be practicing collaboration. If more people practiced collaboration, a lot more groups would be good at it, and we’d start getting closer to this vision of a world where everybody’s baseline experience with collaboration is a great one.


How do we shift the collaboration ecosystem so that we’re doing a better job of encouraging and supporting effective practice?

First, we have to get clear about what we’re talking about when we’re talking about “collaboration.” We need to get more concrete about what we mean by “collaboration muscles.”

Collaboration is an aggregation of several skills, some of which are context-dependent. For example, good communication — listening in particular — is clearly important. Your ability to recognize and navigate power dynamics in groups is also important.

Over the past four years, I’ve identified and refined a set of muscles in four different muscle groups.

Once we’ve identified specific muscles, the exercises (or workouts) start to become clearer. I’ve aggregated a bunch that I use on my website, which I’ve made public domain so that you can do whatever you want with them. I’m not going to say too much more about these now, as we’ll do a listening workout together after I’m done talking, and I’ll be leading power workouts in both the morning and afternoon breakouts.

What’s important to remember about these exercises in the context of practice is that doing them once or a few times or even ten times isn’t enough to be useful. You have to repeat them over and over and over again to develop your muscles, and you have to be intentional about how you practice.

Finally, once we know what the workouts are, we can start developing programs to support them — the equivalent of gyms or bootcamps, the equivalent of exercise “equipment” or apps, muscle assessments, etc. And voila, the ecosystem will start to shift the way we want it to shift.

Shifting Culture

At the end of the day, what I really hope to achieve is a shift in culture. I simply want people to associate improving at collaboration with lots and lots of practice. I hope that all of you walk away from this talk thinking about how you can integrate practice more in your own work and lives, and I hope you’ll try to convince others to do this as well.

If enough of us start doing this, culture shift will happen. Still, I don’t want to make light of how difficult this shift I’m describing will be, both societally and also individually.

Over the past four years, I’ve completely changed how I work with groups. Instead of being a ringer on a basketball team, I’m now their workout instructor. It’s been successful enough that I continue to do this work this way, refining the process along the way. My biggest takeaway, however, has not been how valuable practice is, but how emotionally challenging the journey can be.

To close, I want to share a personal story about what it takes to learn something hard through lots and lots of practice.

One of the things that I am really bad at is learning languages. I don’t speak Korean, which has always been a sore spot for me, as it’s prevented me communicating with many of my relatives and even my own parents, to some extent.

About five years ago, my mom invited me to go to Korea with her. In preparation for this trip with my mom, I decided to enroll in my very first Korean class. I knew that it would take a lot of practice to learn, and I used every trick in the book to try to support me in this. I had lots of people supporting me, and I was super motivated. But I wasn’t having much success, and it was killing me.

At some point, it hit me. Babies are really good at learning languages, and my sister recently had a baby! My nephew, Benjamin, is six now, but he was about one when I was about to go on this trip, so we were both learning a new language at the same time. I decided to watch him closely to see what tips I could pick up from him.

Here’s what I learned. Benjamin, my one-year old nephew, really sucked at speaking English. He was really, really bad. But what was different was that he didn’t expect to be good. When he did speak, everybody — including me — would go nuts! It didn’t matter if what he said made any sense or if he pronounced the words correctly. We would all laugh and coo and celebrate, and he would clearly respond to that. Learning a language, for my one-year old nephew, was a joyful experience, not a painful one.

This was a revelation to me. Benjamin took a good three or four years before he spoke English more or less fluently and correctly, and it was a joyful experience all the way. Here I was, beating myself up after a few weeks of Korean classes, where I wasn’t even fully immersed, thinking for some reason that I needed to be speaking Korean better than I was. What if I assumed that I was going to suck for a long time, and instead of beating myself up for it, celebrated the same way we celebrated Benjamin?

Getting good at collaboration is really hard. It takes practice to get good at it. If we’re really going to get good at it, we all have to learn from Benjamin’s example. We have to understand that we’re going to trip and fall and suck for probably a long time, but we can still celebrate the little victories along the way. And if we give ourselves enough time, we will eventually get so good at it that we won’t even think about it.

Imagine that. What would our world look like if we all became that fluent at collaboration?

Thank you very much!