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

A Personal Case Study in Network-Building: Pre-IPO

Last week, I shared a preamble on my plans to build a network of collaboration practitioners. Given the high-level nature of my post, I was surprised by the reaction and strong interest, especially on LinkedIn . I think it spoke to two things. First, despite all of our connectedness on social media, people crave deeper community. Second, it’s easy to be enthused about something when it’s described in a high-level, hand-wavy way. In this and subsequent posts, I’m going to try to get less hand-wavy by sharing actual experiences. I want to start by sharing my first “formal” experience building a network over 20 years ago.

In 1998, I made the difficult decision to leave the only full-time job I had ever known (and, to this day, the only time I’ve ever worked for someone else). I loved my boss and my team, and I liked the work, but I didn’t love it. I wanted to do something that I loved.

The problem was that I had no idea what that was. Or at least I had no idea how to get paid doing it. My default solution was to start my own company, which was one of the reasons I had moved to the Bay Area in the first place. But I didn’t have an idea that felt compelling. I decided to give myself a year to figure it out, marking the date when I would give notice in my calendar.

One of the things I love about the Bay Area is that it’s a physically small space where lots of interesting people live, which means that serendipitous collisions are common. This structure complements Silicon Valley culture, where people really value relationships. This culture manifests in a wonderful and a not-so-wonderful way. On one side of the spectrum, there is this wonderful openness, where people are willing to grab coffee with just about anyone — even “competitors” — to talk excitedly about their work and passions. On the other side, there are a plethora of networking events largely attended by drive-by networkers — people who treat relationships as a kind of game where they try to spread and collect as many business cards as possible.

I figured that a simple next step in my quest to figure out what to do with my life would be to go to some of these networking meetings. However, the thought repelled me. I wanted to spend quality time meeting interesting people doing interesting things. Going to a networking meeting felt like a painful and inefficient way to do this.

Then I had an epiphany. I was lucky enough to already be friends with some interesting people doing interesting things. Rather than try to meet new people, I decided to make up an excuse to hang out with the people I already knew (and liked). I invited a few friends to my apartment to eat pizza and “help me figure out what to do with my life.” We didn’t solve my problem that night, but I learned a lot about their work and hopes and dreams, I got a lot of encouragement, and I had a good time. In retrospect, it was an obvious thing to do, but I had never thought of doing it before, and I was hungry to do it more.

I decided to expand my invitation list to about eight people and do these dinners monthly. I wanted to keep the gatherings intimate, but I also wanted to open up the group to others. I decided to do two things to address this tension.

First, we decided to call the group, “pre-ipo,” a nod to our shared interest in startups.

Second, I established two ground rules. The first was, “shameless self-exploitation.” My reasons for forming this group were completely selfish. I wanted to figure out what I was going to do next, and I wanted to hang out with fun, interesting people in the process. I wanted to be clear about my own selfish intentions, but I also wanted others to be similarly selfish. This first ground rule made it clear that it was not only acceptable to want to get something out of participating, it was required.

The second was, “The Eugene Rule.” I had to like you for you to be part of the group. I also assumed a transitive property of relationships. In other words, if you liked someone, and if you thought I would like that person too, it was highly likely that you would be right. Rather than act as a gatekeeper, people were welcome to invite others, no questions asked, as long as they were confident that these others would pass The Eugene Rule.

As it turned out, these two ground rules, along with a strong initial set of relationships, helped create the balanced culture that I sought. It enabled all of us to explore our “selfish” goals while developing deep, authentic relationships with each other.

Every month, someone would do a deep dive into their work. One person was building online community tools. Another was building GPS-powered pedometers. (Remember, this was the 1990s, well before smartphones.) Another had developed a Palm Pilot app (again, it was the 1990s) for doctors to write prescriptions, so that pharmacists didn’t have to try to interpret their notoriously bad handwriting. My favorite was when one person described his experiences starting a hip hop music label.

I never paid for space. We always managed to find people to host for free simply by asking. After the talks, we would eat pizza and hang out. We generally had about a dozen people every month, with about 25 people at our largest gathering. Many people ended up partnering with others, in some cases joining each other’s boards. More importantly, people felt comfortable letting down their guard, which led to lots of real friendships being formed.

After nine months of doing these gatherings, I still had no idea what I wanted to do next. However, engaging with this community helped me realize that I didn’t have to decide right away, that I could put myself out there as a consultant and continue to explore, a decision that eventually led to the work I’m still doing today over two decades later.

I often think fondly about pre-ipo. My only regret is that I have no photos or any other form of (easily findable) documentation from that time. It was well before digital cameras, much less smartphones, and I also didn’t value documentation or leaving trails as much as I do now. Regardless, it was a wonderful, generative time, and it also helped me better understand some underlying principles for building networks, principles that I think are often undervalued in other efforts. Specifically:

Be clear about what you want. I often see groups wrestling with questions about governance and structure without voicing what they actually want. With pre-ipo, I had a clear goal that was embodied in the group’s name, which made it clear to others too.

Avoid premature and unnecessary structure. We started small, and we assumed high trust, which meant that we were able to be open without having to worry about complicated membership or governance rules. Instead of worrying about structure or scale, we focused on developing a warm culture that encouraged us to form deep, authentic, generous relationships.

Assume abundance! There were already plenty of formal entrepreneur networks in Silicon Valley, but I didn’t want to participate in any of those. That was fine! There doesn’t have to be only one group for a particular purpose, and in truth, there never actually is. Every person in pre-ipo already belonged to other entrepreneur networks, both formal and informal. Being part of multiple networks benefited everyone, because it gave all of us access to more people and broader learning.

Having an abundance mindset also made our first ground rule, “shameless self-exploitation,” work. I often see groups unintentionally develop a culture of martyrdom, where people feel obliged to sacrifice whatever individual desires they have for the “greater good.” This reflects a zero-sum mindset where people assume that their individual goals come at the expense of other people’s, and it results in spaces where people feel timid and fear stepping on each other’s toes. We assumed that our individual goals would complement and reinforce each other’s, which created a liberating and generative space.

Building a Network of Collaboration Practitioners

Most groups have at least one person who is motivated to help their group get better at collaboration, regardless of their role. I call these folks, “collaboration practitioners.” They are the people I am most interested in empowering and supporting. The more I can help them, the more groups I can impact.

In order to support collaboration practitioners, I need to find them. “Collaboration practitioner” is not everyday parlance. Most people have no idea what I’m talking about when I use this term. Moreover, many people who play this role are not doing it formally. It’s not in their job description, and they may not even realize they’re doing it.

Self-awareness is the first step. It’s hard to seek help if you don’t have a name for what you’re doing. Having that name makes it easier to find and learn from others who play similar roles.

In the past, I’ve played a small role in connecting collaboration practitioners with each other. For the most part, it’s been a selfish endeavor. When I first got started in this business, I was desperate to find and learn from other practitioners. When I started finding them, I held onto them for dear life. It took me several years before I stopped feeling isolated. Ever since, my community has been an invaluable support structure.

Weaving some of these relationships together came naturally to me. After all, it’s one of the muscles needed to be great at collaboration. At the same time, I intentionally shied away from spending too much time doing this. I wanted to focus on going deeper, not broader.

This year. I want to invest more of my time building a network of practitioners. It’s always been an important part of my strategy, and it feels like the right moment to prioritize it.

I also want to be open and transparent about how I’m trying to do it in order to model network principles. As the field has professionalized, I’ve felt a narrowness in how many practitioners interpret and practice network principles. I want to offer a counter to this.

The beauty of trying to model network principles in my own field rather than for a client is that I have fewer constraints. I can be much more creative about what I do and how I do it, and I can be much more candid about my experiences.

Sometimes (hopefully more often than not), I’ll be successful. Other times, I won’t. I want to show both. This work is hard. Pretending that it’s not is not only dishonest, it’s a disservice to those of us trying to learn and improve.

I’ll start by sharing a series of blog posts over the next few weeks about past experiences, surfacing and exploring important principles through these stories. I’ll then start sharing what I’m thinking and doing about this new network. A lot of those posts will be half-baked, because… well, these things take a while to bake. I hope that this half-bakedness serves as an invitation, an opportunity for you to shape this network as well through your thinking, ideas, and participation.

The Secret to a Good Retrospective? Actually Having Them!

People often ask me how I structure retrospectives — meetings where a team debriefs and harvests its learning. As with all of my techniques, I am happy to share, and my framework and template is freely available on this website. As a process geek, I love exploring the art of leading good retrospectives. But when it comes to most groups, I prefer talking about some of the more mundane aspects of retrospectives.

Scheduling them, for example.

First, a story. One of the hardest, most time-consuming problems in software development is finding bugs — mistakes in the software’s code. Bugs are inevitable, and fixing them takes up large chunks of a programmer’s time. When I worked in tech over 20 years ago, I met with a vendor that had an extraordinary debugging tool. It would analyze your code and automatically spit out a list of bugs. It wasn’t doing anything magical, it was just clever automation of some oft-practiced techniques.

I was blown away by the simplicity of what they had done. I asked them how others were receiving their tool, figuring that it was selling through the roof. The representative furrowed his brow and responded, “Most people don’t react positively.”

“Why?” I asked in surprise.

“When we demo our tool,” he explained, “we ask people to point it at their actual software, so that it’s working with real data. When it starts spitting out bugs, people start freaking out. They don’t have the resources to fix all of the problems it finds before their scheduled release. They’d rather not know about them.”

It was hard for me to fathom at the time, but as I spent more time in tech, I started seeing this for myself. As I transitioned out of tech into organizational work, I started seeing this manifest in a different way.

Simply put, in my experience, most teams never schedule retrospectives. If we’re being honest with ourselves, I think this is because most of us are afraid of what we might discover. Maybe we’re worried about our ability to fix the problems. Or maybe we’re afraid of negative feedback and challenging conversations. Either way, what it boils down to is that getting better has to wait… possibly forever.

When we do schedule them, they are often the first to get canceled when things get busy, which for most groups is always. I say this with the utmost humility, because this is absolutely true of me. I try really hard to be disciplined about doing them with my teams, and I’m probably better than most. But that’s not saying much, because the bar is really low, and my track record is mottled with canceled meetings.

Perhaps you’ll understand why, then, if you ask me how to lead a successful retrospective, I will often respond, “By scheduling one.” I’m not being facetious. If you’re actually having retrospectives, you’re already doing better than most.

Scheduling them, unfortunately, is only step one. Step two is integrating what you learn. As I wrote last week, people forget things at an exponential rate. It doesn’t matter how artfully you facilitate your retrospective if you’re not building in time to review what you learned, because you will likely forget all those lessons anyway. If you can’t remember what you learned, you’re not going to have anything to integrate. What’s the point of learning if you’re not integrating those lessons?

Step three (which is actually step one) is aligning around goals and success as a group. If you haven’t aligned around goals and success at the beginning of the project, then how can you assess how well you did? For most groups, the answer is generally that whoever has the power gets to decide. There’s no accountability to actual results, because you haven’t decided as a team what you were aiming for. It’s too easy to rationalize anything as success.

If you’re truly serious about learning and improving, then you are, at minimum:

  • Aligning around goals and success as a group
  • Having retrospectives
  • Taking time to review and integrate what you learn

Make sure these are on your calendar, and protect those times.

Photo by Cathy Haglund. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Planning Isn’t Helpful If You Can’t Remember Your Agreements

When my friend, Kristin Cobble, and I founded Groupaya, my previous consulting firm, in 2011, one of our goals was to model the best practices of high-performing groups. We didn’t want to just help other groups develop these skills and habits. We wanted to show what a high-performance group looked like.

One habit we were sure we’d adopt was making time to talk together about strategy and culture. In our planning stage, our associate, Rebecca Petzel, facilitated us through a number of important conversations, including one about our values. We eventually converged on six words that we thought best represented our most important shared values.

I was proud, even smug about the time we had invested in this work. In my mind, we were modeling what it meant to be a values-driven company. So I was taken aback when, six months later, Rebecca asked us if we could name our six values, and both Kristin and I could only name four between us.

What was the point of coming up with a list of values if we couldn’t remember what they were?

Entrepreneur and investor, Marc Andreessen, once said, “The process of planning is very valuable, for forcing you to think hard about what you are doing, but the actual plan that results from it is probably useless.” In some ways, this was true for us. Because of the conversations we had had with each other, we were more aligned, and we understood and trusted each other more. Furthermore, even though we didn’t remember all six of our words, we still cared deeply about each and every one of those values, and our work reflected this. How your values come through in your actions is the point of values work, not the list itself.

However, what if we hadn’t been living the values that we had named? How would anyone have known? The problem wasn’t that we couldn’t remember our six words. The problem was that we weren’t constantly thinking together about them, talking together about them, reflecting together on what it meant to live them. We weren’t holding ourselves accountable to our values, because we weren’t taking the time to assess ourselves. We were making it hard to stay aligned around our values, because we weren’t taking the time to talk about what this meant and why it was important.

I was embarrassed, but I also knew that we weren’t alone. Donald Sull, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, asked middle managers at over 250 companies to list their companies’ top five strategic priorities. Half of them could not even remember one. Only a third could remember two. Even worse, only half said they understood the connections between their companies’ priorities and initiatives. They had seen the priorities plenty of times — almost 90 percent said that top leaders communicated the strategy frequently enough. Those who remembered them just didn’t understand them.

Once we recognized the problem, we were able to fix it. But I’m amazed by how many leaders and consultants make the same mistakes that we made… and keep making them. It starts by understanding what the mistakes are.

The first mistake is not making time for the whole team to talk about strategy and culture.

The second mistake is assuming that your work is done after one meeting.

My colleague, Catherine Madden, made this wonderful video last year about psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus’s pioneering research around memory and the “Forgetting Curve” for Edutopia.

The brilliant Nicky Case took these concepts even further in this interactive explanation of how you counter the Forgetting Curve. I highly recommend that everyone look at both, but I’ll summarize their key points here:

  • In the 1880s, Ebbinghaus found that — without any reinforcement — we forget what we learn or hear at an exponential rate. After just one hour, we will already forget half of what we’ve learned. After one day, we will forget two-thirds.
  • There are a number of ways to counter this. The basic one is to reinforce what you learn. But you have to do it quickly, and you have to do it repetitively, because doing it once only slows down the curve. (Explore Nicky’s explanation of spaced repetition to understand this more deeply.)
  • Some methods are more effective at reinforcing than others, specifically peer learning and visualizations.

Given this, what’s the right way to do strategy and culture work? The first step is to create space for the whole group to discuss strategy and culture. However, if all you’re doing is scheduling one meeting, you’re doing it wrong, regardless of how expertly you design or facilitate it. You also need to:

  • Write down the agreements from the meeting. Bonus points if you use pictures. More bonus points if the participants themselves draw the pictures. (As an aside, this also applies to next steps and decisions made at any meeting. If you don’t write them down, they might as well not have happened.)
  • Make sure everyone knows where the agreements are. Put them somewhere where everyone will see them often. (Again, this also applies to next steps and decisions made.) My colleague, Rachel Weidinger, has a great trick with remote teams. She’ll have her teammates print their agreements, post them somewhere near their workspaces, and take and share photos of where they put them so that everyone else knows that they’ve done this. It creates accountability, and it also lets people see each other workspaces, which has other benefits with remote work.
  • Schedule followups at the same time as you’re planning your meeting. These could take many forms. They could be pair conversations, they could be designated time at the beginning or end of regular standup meetings or checkins, they could be regularly scheduled reviews of the artifacts, etc. Be creative — they don’t have to be meetings. What matters most is doing these repetitively and frequently.

None of this is easy. Doing them doesn’t mean that you’ll succeed, but not doing them guarantees that you’ll fail.

Everybody Is People

Many years ago, a colleague, Nick Papadopoulos, told me about a complex negotiation he was asked to facilitate between a large corporation and a community of angry activists. They had met several times without external facilitation and were not making progress. Nick practiced Dialogue Mapping, a visual facilitation technique for mapping complex issues in real-time, and he had other sophisticated skills in his toolbelt as well.

The first meeting he attended started at 8am on a Saturday morning in one of the company’s conference rooms. When he arrived, there was no food or coffee. The meeting began, and people were predictably grouchy. The issues they were discussing were political and personal, and they were also discussing them on an empty stomach.

As it turned out, Nick’s wife had just started a catering business. At the next meeting, he brought a tray of her muffins. The tenor of the discussion shifted noticeably, and he started doing this regularly. Several weeks later, after he had successfully brought the negotiation to a close, several of the participants came up to him and told him how much they enjoyed his wife’s muffins.

I wasn’t at any of those meetings. I have no idea what role the food actually played in Nick’s success. He is both modest and skilled, and that probably mattered more than the food in the end. However, for me, his insight about the food was part of what made him skilled. I’m sure it played a significant role in his success.

Why am I so sure?

Everybody is people.

It’s likely that most people have not yet eaten at an 8am meeting on a Saturday morning. People need food in their systems to be at their best. People like tasty food, especially the homemade kind, which reminds us of family, of people we love, of our humanity. When the topic of conversation is controversial and complex, people need to be at their best. Depriving them of food — consciously or not — is not a good idea. Reminding them of their and each other’s humanity is an excellent idea.

This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to forget. We get so caught up in complexity that we forget simple, important things. Things like everybody is people.

I led the Wikimedia open strategy process from 2009 through 2010. We had over a thousand people from all over the world participate, mostly virtually. It’s not the hardest project I’ve worked on, but a lot of people still marvel at it. They wonder how we were able to get so many people to volunteer their time and to work together so constructively, especially without seeing each other. The answer was simple.

Everybody is people.

The fact that we were working mostly virtually didn’t change the fact that we were dealing with people, and people have certain basic needs. We did three things that are often overlooked, because they were so simple and the project was so complex, people have a hard time believing they were that important.

First, we took the time to individually welcome every single person who showed up. Everyone.

This is the simplest thing that you can do in any online forum (and in any face-to-face meeting), regardless of the tool you’re using. There happens to be lots of data showing that welcoming people when they show up is one of the best ways to improve engagement. But really, do we need the data to justify this? Welcoming people is a simple way to establish a relationship, to show people that they are seen and appreciated.

Second, we held virtual office hours once a week for the entire year. We alternated the times to make them convenient for people in different timezones, which meant that every other week, we were up late at night talking to people. We happened to be using a tool called IRC, which is an ancient real-time chatting tool that Wikipedians like to use, but it would have worked with any tool.

These were not meetings, and there were no agendas. The sole purpose was to hang out with me and Philippe Beaudette, our facilitator. We wanted to meet people, to get to know them, and to listen to what they had to say. We also wanted to invite others to do the same with us.

People came. They were often surprised by the lack of formality. They expected us to be guarded or to have agendas. We answered questions, sometimes in great detail (I can get very philosophical), but we weren’t there to evangelize. We were there to listen and to get to know our participants.

Not only did we achieve that goal, it turned out that participation in office hours led to participation in the overall process. We had the data to prove this. But even if we didn’t, we still would have continued doing this or something similar. Relationships matter, and this was one of the best ways we had for developing them.

Third, we tried our best to get to know people as whole human beings. My colleagues, Renee Fazzari and Curtis Ogden, both like to say that we’re not just brains on sticks. Unfortunately, it’s amazing how often we treat each other that way, even in a face-to-face context. It’s even easier to make this mistake online when you can’t actually see the person.

Early in our process, we had one participant who was causing a lot of trouble over an obscure decision that we had made and with which everyone else had agreed. It had to do with whether or not Brazilian Portugese is a different language from Portugese. The issue is more complex than it sounds, and we chose to go in a different direction than other Wikimedia communities, which was within our rights but also required explanation. Our reasoning satisfied everybody except for this one participant, who was making it difficult for us to move forward.

We tried engaging with him in a number of different ways, but nothing worked, and I decided at some point that we just had to do our best to ignore him. As it so happened, Philippe, our facilitator, was going to Brazil to meet with community members there, and I asked him to look out for this one participant just in case.

While Philippe was in Brazil, the participant’s demeanor abruptly changed, and he became one of our most constructive contributors. I asked Philippe what happened. “I just talked to him for a bit,” Philippe said. “He was really great — whip smart and very nice. Oh, by the way, he’s 14.”

I got a good laugh out of that. I had envisioned him as a large, cantankerous man in his 50s, and I was probably communicating with him as such. Knowing his age wouldn’t have changed my respect for him, but it would have helped me engage with him more productively.

Everybody is people.

Earlier this year, I was helping a practitioner at a large company design a high-stakes offsite for the leaders of one of its divisions. They had been having intense friction, and they were hoping to work through it at this offsite. This practitioner’s instinct was to schedule a 30-minute working lunch, because… well, that’s what they always did, and they had a lot to cover.

I pushed back. I generally treat lunch and breaks at my meetings as sacred time — time to break bread, to reconnect with each other, to rest and reset. I doubted that the extra 30-minutes would result in substantial progress, but I was certain that not taking a break would detract from the rest of the day’s conversations.

To this practitioner’s credit, she not only embraced my feedback, she made some surprising suggestions. Instead of giving them an hour for lunch, why not give them 90 minutes? And instead of hosting a lunch, why not encourage them to go into the city and eat out together? All of these leaders were used to eating at their desks or in meetings during lunch. Going out would feel different.

We went with her idea, and we had our meeting. I facilitated the conversation using my mindset cards, and I felt like I was on top of my game. It was as intense as we expected, but it went well overall. At the end of the day and in our evaluations, our participants had many good things to say, including appreciations here and there about the mindset cards and about my facilitation.

However, the one thing everyone kept mentioning over and over again was the lunch. Everybody loved how spacious it was, the conversations they got to have with their peers that they never had otherwise. Everybody loved getting out of the meeting room and spending time in the city together. It led into a surprisingly deep conversation about why they didn’t always do this and how they might start.

Six weeks later, I checked in with the practitioner to see how things were going. The team was still having issues, but there were signs of progress here and there. The biggest takeaway from our meeting that had stuck? It wasn’t the mindset work that I had so expertly facilitated. It was the long, luxurious, so-unproductive-it-was-productive lunch. People were going out to lunch together more often. People were scheduling more lunches with their teams and protecting lunches in their meetings.

Everybody is people.

I’ve been helping groups collaborate more effectively for 16 years now. Many of these projects have been extremely complex, which has helped me develop lots of sophisticated skills. I’m proud of these abilities, I have no doubt that they make me a much more effective practitioner, and I work hard to continue to develop them.

But in reflecting on my work over the years, the skill that has undoubtedly had the most impact has been remembering that everybody is people. It’s simultaneously obvious and extraordinary and humbling to realize this. We all understand this at some level, because… well, everybody is people. However, we often forget to incorporate this into our work. We are dazzled by stories of perseverance through difficult circumstances, our ability to “suck it up” or “tough it out,” and rather than optimize our work to help us all be at our best, we create circumstances that require us to be superhuman to succeed and that punish us when we’re not.

This is lunacy. Sadly, it’s all too common.

I don’t think it has to be this way. I think all of us have the power to make changes that will impact our groups in positive, sometimes profound ways, if we just remembered that everybody is people. It starts by looking at ourselves, by asking what we need — as people — to help us be at our best. Maybe there’s something simple that we can do that doesn’t depend on anyone else, whether it’s remembering to eat breakfast or to welcome someone else on your team. It doesn’t have to be hard, but it will make a big difference.

After all, everybody is people.

Thanks to Amy Wu for reviewing an early draft of this post.

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.