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

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.

Practice

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.

Muscles

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!

Why I Do What I Do, and What That Means for 2017

Seven years ago, a friend challenged me to clearly articulate why I do what I do. She had repeatedly heard my spiel — adopted wholesale from my mentor — about society’s problems growing more complex faster than our ability to address them and the resulting urgency to get collectively smarter faster. She understood what I was saying, but as far as she was concerned, it didn’t fully explain why I was so passionately driven by this work.

I spent many months reflecting on her question, repeatedly asking myself why, and challenging myself to go deeper. The answer finally came to me in L.A., where I was visiting my parents and younger sister. We had gone to the beach together, a family tradition since childhood, and when we arrived, as if on cue, my family immediately splintered. Everyone moved in his and her own direction, with no sense of what anyone else was doing and no coherent rhythm. I watched this lack of synchronicity unfold before me and felt all sorts of old wounds rise up within me.

I was lucky to grow up in a family with lots of love, but — like all families — we had our share of dysfunction. Some of that dysfunction felt especially jarring, considering my parents’ strongly-held value of togetherness and mutual support. As a kid, I grew frustrated over watching seemingly little things disrupt our ability to be together, especially lack of listening, communication, and self-care.

I also had the good fortune of experiencing really great collaboration with others, starting with my love for team sports. I have always been a mediocre or worse athlete, but I quickly learned that teams that practiced together and that played with heart and smarts could easily transcend any individual shortcomings, and I grew to love how it felt to do that. In other collaborative pursuits where I already individually excelled, I found that I could channel my strengths into lifting others, which led to greater success than what was possible by myself and which felt even more joyful and satisfying.

I knew what it felt like to move together in sync and with power with others, and I wanted it in all aspects of my life. I knew that the fundamentals of this wholeness were simple, but not easy, and that small, but significant gains were easily within reach for most groups. When I met and started working with my mentor in 2000, all of this came together for me. I had discovered my purpose and my passion, and I was ready to make it my life pursuit.

2016 Lessons Learned

2016 was a hard year for me on two fronts. I had spent the prior three years experimenting with this notion that the key to high-performance collaboration was practice, and I had directed all of my energies toward exploring ways to encourage and support practice at scale. I wanted to spend this past year focusing on the things I had learned that felt the most promising. My goals were to:

  • Scale up my Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets program and Do-It-Yourself Strategy / Culture toolkits, while continuing to refine and improve them
  • Continue to find ways to support emerging practitioners, including finding ways to connect them with each other and offering real opportunities to practice with me and each other
  • Return to my consulting past by taking on a really big, really hard problem, incorporating the things I had learned over the past three years, while also telling the story of the work as it happened, so that others could learn from our successes and failures in real-time

While I did plenty of work I felt proud of, most of the things I tried did not work out the way I had hoped. More egregiously, I felt like I ended up making excuses that prevented me from trying things that were higher-risk, higher-reward. Specifically:

  • In general, I was not disciplined about writing up and sharing what I was learning in the moment, which resulted in only two blog posts in 2016, compared to seven in 2015 and 30 in 2014! I published more posts in this blog’s debut in December 2013 (five) than I did in all of 2016.
  • This lack of storytelling was particularly bad with my really big, really hard client project. We did good work together, and we also struggled at times. While we did the work transparently (including creating a public dashboard, synthesizing and sharing our framework for experimentation, modeling transparency internally, and inviting outside colleagues to shadow), we did not share enough context for what we were doing for others to be able to learn with us. Some of this was beyond our control, but there were other things that were simply failures on my part, including not writing a single blog post about the project.
  • While I did some work toward refining and scaling up Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets and the DIY Strategy / Culture toolkits, most of it was reactive rather than proactive, and even then, I was very slow to react. I ended up missing lots of simple opportunities to spread the word and involve other people. For example, Duende, my design partner for the toolkits, created an online store where you can order the toolkits, but you can’t find that store from my website. (Voila! The preceding sentence fixed that problem! More to come!)

While I didn’t accomplish my high-level goals, I don’t want to lose sight of the good things that happened:

  • Publishing blog posts is not the only thing that matters when it comes to sharing. It’s about the quality of what you share and the number and kinds of people you reach, regardless of medium. I found myself sharing and linking to my two 2016 blog posts more often than average. While I only wrote two, my colleague, Anya Kandel, became the first guest contributor here, writing two really great blog posts about her driving questions and experiences.
  • In addition to writing up the aforementioned experimentation framework (which I did in collaboration with my colleague, Alison Lin), we did an accompanying webinar in partnership with Social Transformation Project and Leadership Learning Community (LLC) that had almost 400 registrants, third all-time among LLC’s excellent five-year roster of webinars.
  • I published several of my collaboration workouts, with more to come. My lack of blog posts didn’t prevent my mailing list from growing, and you can now follow me on Instagram and Facebook as well as Twitter. I also made a bunch of subtle design and technical changes to this website, which will help support its ongoing growth and evolution.
  • I did a Do-It-Together Strategy / Culture Workshop in New York with Anya Kandel, my first outside of the San Francisco Bay Area and hopefully the start of many more.
  • I maintained the self-care success that I achieved in 2015, not a small feat considering how much work I’ve put into this over the past four years.
  • I met, worked with, and shadowed lots of great practitioners, especially the aforementioned Alison and Anya, through my informal meetups, my colearning experiment and a similar experiment with my friends at MAG, and my client work.
  • My client projects were meaningful, and I learned a ton from each of them. I did organizational culture work with Addapp, organizational strategy work with General Service Foundation, which included a strategy-focused Muscles & Mindsets program, and really meaningful work on network strategy and culture with Social Transformation Project, my heretofore un-blogged-about “big, hairy client project.” I got lots of practice, including designing and facilitating two unusually challenging meetings, and I identified lots of areas for ongoing improvement. In addition to having lots of new fodder to write about, I also developed lots of new infrastructure and templates that I plan on packaging and sharing this year.

It’s not that I didn’t accomplish good, valuable things. It’s that I have a larger goal that I care about, and the only way I’m going to have a chance at achieving that goal is through focus, discipline, and rapid adaptation. I’m trying to run a marathon, and while I worked hard and am in better shape now than I was a year ago, I’m not developing strength and endurance quickly enough to successfully complete that marathon.

Which brings me to the second thing that was hard about 2016, for me and for many, many other people.

There are many, many problems in the world today, and they all manifested in some very discouraging ways this past year. All of this divisiveness, siloization, and radicalization are what I and many, many others have been working so hard to shift and prevent for many, many years. These are fundamentally challenging problems, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s happening, but we can’t use that as an excuse not to be disciplined and accountable to how we’re trying to tackle these problems.

How do we know if we’re investing in the right places? Where should I be directing my energy in order to have the biggest impact?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do have hypotheses, and my intention has been to test them. My actions in 2016 were not fully aligned with my intentions, and I want to fix that. Which leads me to my three-year goal and my priorities for 2017.

1,000 High-Performing Collaboration Practitioners by 2020

I believe there are a set of core principles underlying high-performance, collaborative work. I believe we need lots and lots of people who understand those principles and who practice them with devotion and joy.

I practice these principles to the best of my ability, and I want to find others committed to the same principles, whether they are external practitioners trying to help other groups or internal changemakers embedded in their own groups. I want to learn with them, support them in their practice, and help the community grow and improve. By the end of 2020, I want to know of at least 1,000 of these practitioners all in movement together.

Why 1,000? Because I think that number is the minimum needed to sustain a thriving, growing movement.

Why by 2020? Because I think it will be very hard, but doable if I’m smart and focused about how I approach this, and because we can’t afford to wait any longer.

How will I accomplish this? I’m still working out the details, but I’ve got some ideas. I think there are three overlapping categories of activities needed to help catalyze this community of practitioners:

  • Model these principles myself and continue to practice and improve
  • Synthesize and share what I’m learning
  • Nurture and support other practitioners

Most of my past activities have fallen in some subset of these categories, as is the case for similar practitioners. But I’ve realized (through experience and lots of helpful feedback from others) that there are some key activities on which many of these other activities depend. I’ve largely neglected these activities, and I want to correct that.

2017 Priority: Draft a Set of Experience-Based Principles for High-Performance Collaboration

In particular, I need to clearly and accessibly articulate the principles that I think are foundational for high-performance collaboration. Drawing on my and other’s experiences to draft these principles will be my primary focus in 2017.

I often use the metaphor of how we need more chefs. In some ways, I’m saying I want there to be 1,000 “chefs” that I know of by 2020. We can extend this analogy further to explore how we might go about doing this.

One of the reasons I decided to start consulting again at the end of 2015 was my realization that we need more “great restaurants” in order to inspire people to become “chefs.” I thought one of the highest-leverage things I could do was to be one of those restaurants. I wanted to scale up how I modeled the principles of high-performance collaboration in order to inspire others to push their own practice.

I still think we need more “great restaurants,” but I no longer think that’s where my focus should lie. I need to be clear about what I think high-performance collaboration means and what the underlying principles are. Articulating those principles will help serve as a beacon for other practitioners with similar beliefs and commitment. It will provide a framework to help assess collaborative performance — the equivalent to a Michelin Guide in the restaurant world — which is an important step toward actual improvement.

I hope to have a first draft of these principles — which I’ll pull together in an open way with the help of my community (which I hope includes anyone reading this) — by the middle of the year, at which point I’ll use it as a way of scaling up my other activities. I will continue to model and practice, but it will all be in service of articulating these principles.

I’m excited about this renewed focus. It feels true to the reason I got into this business in the first place. I know what high-performance collaboration feels like, and I’ve learned a lot about helping others achieve it. I know that others know a lot as well, and that even more people want to know and learn. I think the path for supporting these practitioners — lots and lots and lots of practice — is straightforward, but challenging, and I’m excited about re-focusing my efforts to pave this path. I believe wholeheartedly in the world that is possible if we’re successful, and I’m going to do everything I can to help create that world.

Rubber Bands and the Art of Visioning

Reaching for the Moon

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack Up (1936)

My mentor, Doug Engelbart, was a visionary and a doer. When he first embarked on his career as an engineer in the 1950s, only a handful of computers existed — expensive behemoths controlled by stacks of punched cards. Doug had the audacity to envision a world where everybody had access to computers, where they could engage with these devices in real-time using graphical, interactive displays, and where all of these machines were connected to each other.

His ideas were so far-fetched, he spent the next 20 years battling detractors and disdain. That didn’t stop him from making his vision a reality, which he unveiled in 1968 at an event that would later become known as the Mother of All Demos. While he wowed everyone in the room that day, it turned out he was still yet another 20 years ahead of his time, as the technologies he demonstrated that day didn’t become widespread until the late 1980s.

Doug permanently instilled in me the importance of thinking big… then thinking even bigger. Thinking big requires thinking long-term, because big things take time.

But he also showed me that whatever you imagined also had to be realistic. As crazy as Doug’s vision for computing seemed to be in the 1950s, he knew it was possible. His ideas around display technology came directly from his experiences as a radar engineer in the Navy during World War II. Furthermore, he had spent some time studying the rate at which computing technology had been advancing — Moore’s Law a quarter of a century before Gordon Moore had articulated it as such — and he knew that it would be a matter of time before scaling effects would make computing technology both powerful enough and affordable. “A matter of time” happened to be four decades, a long time for sure, but well within the realm of possibility.

Finding the right balance between big and possible is the essential challenge of effective visioning. Doing it well requires the ability to shift back and forth between radically different perspectives without getting dizzy and losing your orientation. The challenge for practitioners is figuring out ways to support this dance between big-picture thinking and cold, hard pragmatism.

None of this is easy.

Getting Real

Last year, I helped support an innovation process for Forward Together, an amazing social justice organization based in Oakland. I led a cohort of staff and funders through a four-month Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets training in preparation for the actual experimentation process, which was led by Rebecca Petzel.

Rebecca kicked off the process with a two-day workshop, where participants rapidly brainstormed and refined ideas. We invited several guests who brought different perspectives and helped stretch what our cohort had previously thought was possible. This resulted in lots of energy, inspiration, and great, creative ideas. Everyone was in high spirits after the first day and a half.

Then Rebecca told the participants it was time to get real. She put up several large, poster-sized calendars, and she asked people to get out their personal calendars so that we could flesh out the plan for testing the ideas.

As people looked through their calendars, you could see their shoulders slump and their spirits deflate. Everyone was busy, and they were having trouble seeing how any followup would be possible. One person after another voiced this same concern loudly and clearly. It was like an avalanche of negativity.

I was taken aback. I had expected folks to get real, but I had not expected complete demoralization. After a very low-energy discussion, Rebecca and I huddled about what to do next. I had been scheduled to review some of the muscles and mindsets work we had done, especially for those in the room who hadn’t participated, but I wanted to scrap the exercise. “They need more time to work through the roadmap,” I argued.

“They need to review the mindsets and all the work they’ve done the past four months,” insisted Rebecca. “It will remind them of what’s possible.”

Rebecca was right. The first step in my Muscles & Mindsets program is for the participants to identify a core set of productive mindsets that they aspire to have, as well as the corresponding less productive mindsets that they want to shift. As it turned out, four of the five shifts they had chosen seemed to apply to this exact scenario:

Feeling stuck
“I’m scared of the unknown and would prefer to avoid it.”
Innovation
“When I walk into the unknown, I’m going to learn and grow. I don’t know what the answers are, but I’ll figure them out by trying things.”
Not enough time
“I don’t have time for anything more than what’s in front of me.”
Slow down to speed up
“Slowing down will help me make better choices and save time.”
Fixed reality
“There aren’t enough time or resources.”
Flexible reality
“If we think outside the box, we’ll see ways to create time and resources. To do that, we need to be conscious of power and equity.”
Me
“Everything depends on me.”
We
“We’re in it together. I don’t always have to be out in front. I need to be compassionate with myself so that I can be supportive of others.”

Reviewing these helped our participants become viscerally aware of how quickly they had snapped back to the very mindsets they had been working hard to shift. That relieved some of the anxiety, and we were able to end the workshop on a strong, hopeful note. Still, it was a stark reminder of how simply bringing people together and giving them an inspiring, one-off experience is not sufficient to move people on an ongoing basis, especially when faced with everyday realities.

Stretching the Rubber Band

My friend and colleague, Kristin Cobble, is skilled at getting people to a hopeful place and supporting them in staying there, and she strongly influenced how I approach visioning. In addition to sharing many specific techniques, Kristin introduced me to Robert Fritz’s rubber band metaphor, which has become a central principle for how I think about this work.

In short, a powerful vision is both inspiring and grounded. Think of it as two poles: Where you currently are and where you want to be (the vision). Fritz asks that you imagine a rubber band stretched between those two poles. The goal is to create just enough tension so that you feel pulled along by the vision. If the aspiration is too wild, the rubber band will stretch too far and snap. If it is too conservative, then the rubber band will lie there, limp.

Most visioning processes fail in one of two places:

  • They don’t find the right tension in the first place.
  • They don’t support you in maintaining that tension.

How do you find that right tension?

It starts by being specific, both about where you are and where you want to go. One of my favorite tricks, courtesy of Kristin, is to specify how far forward you want to look, then have you write down your age in that year. You can’t get more specific or grounded than that!

Another trick is to start with vision, then work backwards. Two of my mentors, Gail and Matt Taylor, have been harnessing group genius for almost a half century, and they’ve formulated a set of helpful axioms along the way. Their first two axioms are:

  • The future is rational only in hindsight.
  • You can’t get there from here, but you can get here from there.

In other words, articulate a clear vision, assume that it is true and that you are currently living in it, and work backwards. Tell the history of how you got to the future (getting from there to here), a process called backcasting. Working backwards in this way results in greater specificity and also helps you gut-check your vision. There’s also good research that shows that grounding your vision in this way makes it more actionable.

In a similar vein, Danny Spitzberg of Peak Agency recently shared a powerful trick that he uses with the Goals / Success Spectrum. After he has people articulate minimum, target, and epic success, he asks people to assign a dollar amount to each column designating what they think the cost is for achieving that success. Nothing grounds a conversation better than talking about money. Not only does it help surface different assumptions about costs, it helps people get real about what it will take to achieve different goals, which helps people adjust their rubber band accordingly.

How do you support others in maintaining the tension of their rubber bands?

This is the harder problem, one that has been driving much of my work for the past three years. Most of the time, spending a few days with a group articulating a clear vision and finding the right initial tension is not enough. Worse, it can be demoralizing and even destructive if there isn’t any followthrough.

Maintaining tension requires an ongoing practice of reflection and adjustment. One way to support this is to make sure the vision is captured somewhere accessible, so that people can find it and remind themselves of it constantly. This may sound obvious, but I am amazed at how often people seem to skip this step.

Another way to support this tension is to build in accountability structures. For example, build in time in standing meetings to revisit and check in on the vision. Assign accountability partners, or even hire coaches.

Creating a grounded, compelling vision is hard. Living into it is harder. One of the most powerful ways to support this tension is to acknowledge that it’s hard, to talk openly about what falling down looks like, and to expect that you will fall down often in pursuit of your vision. At our Forward Together workshop last year, Rebecca’s instincts to revisit the mindsets reminded our participants of how challenging this work was, and it enabled them to re-calibrate their rubber bands.

Celebration and Community

I first met Doug in 1998, 30 years after the Mother of All Demos, and I started working with him two years later. At the time, he had a corner office at Logitech headquarters in Fremont, California. To get there, you had to walk past rows and rows of cubicles, each of which had a computer — usually with a web browser open — and a mouse.

The first time I met him there, I asked him what it felt like to walk past those cubicles every day and to see his creations on every desk.

He looked at me sadly, and he answered immediately. “It feels like failure.”

Interactive, networked computing was only a tiny part of Doug’s vision. What he actually cared about was a world where people lived in harmony with each other and the planet. He saw, in the 1950s, that we were moving in the opposite direction, because our challenges were getting harder faster than our ability to grapple with them. He thought he could stem that by creating tools that would help people get smarter collectively. He did exactly that, but it took a lot longer than he expected, and there was a lot more work that needed to happen. Even though he lived in a world where many of his 30-year old inventions were more or less ubiquitous, people seemed to have missed the point of why he had created all of those tools in the first place.

Doug was depressed for most of the time I knew him (he passed away in 2013), and he spoke often about how he was a failure. That didn’t stop him from his single-minded pursuit of his vision, but it also didn’t seem very productive.

Moreover, I most certainly did not agree with his assessment. I was never a very nurturing, feel-good type of person, but I was always good at voicing my opinions. “You have to look at two things,” I would tell him, “Where we are now, and where you think we would have been if you had not done the work you had done. Furthermore, if you insist that we have a collective responsibility to change the way we are, then you cannot beat yourself up individually for our collective inability to do so.”

I wasn’t the only person to say these sorts of things to him, and I don’t think any of us ever swayed him or made him feel better. But while he remained stubbornly self-critical, he always took delight in the tiny, practically inconsequential victories of the many, many, many people who were inspired and touched by him.

I learned so many things about the importance of vision from working with Doug, but maybe the most important lesson is the one with which I continue to grapple: Celebration and community are critical to maintaining the right tension. If this work is so hard that you will fall down many times, then every time you get up is cause for celebration. Recognizing and doing this effectively is an art, one that is made infinitely easier with the support of others.

Brooking Gatewood, who is both a poet and a skilled practitioner, recently shared these wonderful words from Wendell Berry’s essay, “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” which I found both beautiful and apt:

There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form…. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Loving vs Hating Process

Morning Yoga in the Bandstand

When you fall in love with the process, and you do it the right way, you have a winning mindset, and the culture is set to make that push and build a winning team.
Tyson Chandler, NBA basketball player

A colleague was telling me about a challenging client project the other day, which included her client flat-out saying to her, “I don’t like process. I just want to get stuff done.”

I hear this all the time. It may surprise many that I actually feel the same way. I’d love to be in better shape, but I hate running, so I’m not. I’d love to play an instrument, but I hate practicing, so I can’t.

Which is exactly the point. Regardless of whether you love or hate process, you can’t get stuff done or be a high-performer without it. The harder the work you’re trying to do, the more this holds true.

I can empathize with people’s dislike of process as long as they can also acknowledge its necessity. The problem is that many do not acknowledge this. I often see people resist doing things that feel “process-y,” such as taking the time to build relationships, developing shared language, or getting aligned around strategy and culture, because they claim it detracts from the “actual” work.

I find this weird and troubling. In music or in sports, you don’t ever hear professionals object to practice because it’s too process-y or because it detracts from the real work. Everyone in these fields knows that process is the real work. I was reminded of this while watching Episode 3 of The Players’ Tribune‘s excellent video series, Rookie/Vet. (Tyson Chandler’s quote from above starts at the three-minute mark.)

I want to shift our mindsets in our field around process and practice. I want people to see collaboration as a craft and to understand that improvement requires practice. There are no shortcuts or magical substitutes. Moreover, the things we’re trying to accomplish via collaboration also require process and practice. It behooves us to acknowledge this and to learn how to get good at it if we truly want to “get things done.”

On the flip-side, those of us in the business of designing and facilitating process have to hold ourselves accountable for why people might have a negative attitude toward process in the first place. One reason is that their experiences with it are poor. If we believe that good process will lead to good results, then we need to do that and hold ourselves accountable to the results.

Fields that embrace a process mindset, such as sports and music, already do that. Tyson Chandler has the credibility to tell his younger colleagues to trust the process, because he’s been a good teammate his whole career and has won a championship. If we want to convince others to trust our process, we have to design with intention and integrity. The more we practice doing this, the more that results will follow.

High-Performance Collaboration Requires Experiencing “Great Meals”

Scrambled Eggs

I love eggs, but I’m not an egg snob. I used to scramble them by whisking them with a fork and cooking them quickly over medium heat. Often, I didn’t even bother with the fork. I simply cracked them whole in a cold pan, and stirred them up vigorously with a spatula as the pan warmed.

I had tried all the other best practices — using a whisk, adding milk or cream, folding them slowly over low heat — but, up until recently, I hadn’t found the results worth the extra effort. Then, a few weeks ago, I met a colleague at Boulette’s Larder for breakfast, where I had the best damn scrambled eggs I have ever eaten. They were tender, unctuous, and tasty, and they inspired me to revisit how I cook my eggs.

In my usual, OCD way, I’ve used every breakfast since as an opportunity to experiment. I haven’t quite replicated the Boulette’s Larder version, but my scrambled eggs are now significantly tastier than they ever used to be — enough so that I have permanently shelved my good-enough approach to cooking them.

I didn’t do any research, and I’m not using any new ingredients or techniques. The only thing that changed was that I had an experience that inspired me. That experience led to a renewed focus and a shift in how I applied techniques and ingredients that I already understood.

In my work as a collaboration practitioner, one of my mottos is, “Chefs, not recipes.” I believe this so strongly, I had it engraved on my phone. My insight three years ago was that practice was more important than tools for becoming a great chef, and I’ve been experimenting with ways to support and encourage collaboration practice ever since.

What I’ve come to realize this past year is that practice alone does not make great chefs. You also need to experience great meals. You need to understand what’s possible, a standard toward which you’re driving.

“Great meals” in collaboration are out there, but they’re in short supply, and they’re often not in the places most people are looking. I was lucky to have tasted the collaboration equivalent of some amazing meals early in my career, and those experiences continue to inspire me. I also see groups after groups that have not experienced great meals stop practicing after achieving minor gains. They settle, because they don’t understand what’s possible or what’s necessary for true high-performance. Their minor gains feel good enough, just like my fork-scrambled eggs.

Three years ago, I started with the premise that we needed an ecosystem of “gyms” where people could practice collaboration. I’m now realizing we also need an ecosystem of top-notch “restaurants” where people can experience great collaboration. It’s why I’m partially returning to my former practice of creating my own “great meals” and writing about them. However, this alone will not be enough. I don’t have any answers yet, but I’m looking forward to experimenting with possibilities in the coming year, and I’d love to hear your ideas!