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

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.”
“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.”
“Everything depends on me.”
“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!

Coming out of Retirement

Looking Forward

I’m coming out of retirement.

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

I wanted to test this hypothesis aggressively and honestly, and I wanted to challenge every assumption I had about how best to do this work. In order to help others solve their own collaboration problems, I had to stop designing and facilitating custom processes for them, and instead focus on how to help them develop their own skills. I often had trouble explaining what I was doing and how it was different from my previous work, so I just told people that I was retired.

Retirement was fun and generative, but hard. Challenging my assumptions at times felt like my identity was unraveling, which was humbling and emotionally taxing. Moreover, few — even close colleagues — understood what I was trying to do.

Still, it was worth it. I am both a better practitioner and a better person. I learned an amazing amount, and I think I can have a much bigger impact on the world as a result. I’m excited to continue to build on what I’ve learned, and I have a growing community of practitioners who are also engaged with the work I’ve been doing. I also love the life balance I was able to achieve over the past three years, and I’m not about to give that up.

So why am I coming out of retirement?

One of my primary points of emphasis these past three years has been around field-building. When I decided I wanted to devote myself to collaboration professionally over a dozen years ago, I had amazing mentors who were incredibly generous with me.

Furthermore, no one expected anything of me, which was good, because I didn’t know anything. I spent my first four years trying stuff and failing, trying stuff and failing. I was able to come into my own on my own, which was an incredible luxury, and by the time I retired at the end of 2012, I felt like I was at the top of my profession.

My path was fruitful, but challenging. I made it because I was passionate, persistent, and very, very lucky. It was a good path for me, but if it’s the only path for people who care as much about collaboration as I do, we’re not going to have many people in our field.

For several years now, I’ve done whatever I could to make that path easier for anyone who was hungry and committed to learning, from sharing all of my templates to providing professional opportunities to promising practitioners. I’ve been able to help a lot of people simply by making time to talk with and encourage them.

However, at the end of the day, the best way to learn is to do the work, to try stuff and to fail over and over again. Before I “retired,” I was able to create safe opportunities for others to do exactly that by inviting them to work with me on real projects.

Those who shadowed me were able to see how I thought about problems and how my ideas manifested themselves in practice. They were able to experience and develop good preparation habits. They were able to practice on real problems without fear of failing, because I could act as their safety net.

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

When I retired, I lost this platform. I was focused entirely on capacity-building, and while I could share stories and advice, I couldn’t show people how I approached process design and facilitation, because I wasn’t doing that work anymore.

This alone wasn’t reason enough to unretire. I know many great practitioners in this space, and I referred people to those who were willing to open up their work practices. I also devoted a lot of my own time to shadow these peers myself for my own learning.

While I learned quite a bit from shadowing, I was extremely disappointed overall by the quality of work I was seeing from some of the most well-respected people in this field. The standard for what it means to do this work well is very low, and it seems that many good practitioners are simply hopping over this bar, which they can do easily.

The problem is that simply clearing the bar does not lead to high performance. If we want to live in a world that is more alive, if we want to address the challenging, urgent problems that we all face, then we, as practitioners, need to raise the bar, not just clear it.

There were exceptions to my shadowing experiences. They tended not to be consultants, but rather people who were embedded in organizations, often younger practitioners who had skin in the game and a hunger to learn. I saw some excellent work from these practitioners, most of whom are largely invisible both in their organizations and in this larger field of collaborative practitioners.

Furthermore, even though I stopped designing and facilitating processes for hire, I actually got better at it during my retirement. I have a much greater understanding for how to integrate capacity-building into my processes, and I can design interventions that are more scalable and sustainable as a result. Also, because I’ve been doing my own workouts (as well as leading them for others), my own collaboration muscles have simply gotten stronger.

I wrote previously about how we need chefs, not recipes. In order to inspire great cooking, people need to taste great meals. I’m hungry to show what’s possible by taking on problems that are hard and meaningful. I want to raise the bar, and I want to do it in a way so that others can learn with me.

I’m still prioritizing my capacity-buiding efforts. I have more programs to offer and more things to give away. I am convinced that these are levers that have the best chance at improving our abilities to collaborate at scale.

At the same time, I’m open to taking on consulting work again. I will be extremely selective, and I will only take on one project at a time. I’ll use these projects as a way to model best practices and as a platform where other practitioners can learn with me. As it so happens, I already have a project, which I’m excited to share more about soon.

Bring Groups Alive by Establishing a Rhythm

Square Dancing

There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named…. The search which we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search of any person, and the crux of any individual person’s story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive.
Life is about rhythm. We vibrate, our hearts are pumping blood, we are a rhythm machine, that’s what we are.
Mickey Hart, Grateful Dead drummer, 1998 CNN interview

I strive to be a minimalist when it comes to designing and facilitating meetings, especially large ones. I get people into small groups as much and as quickly as possible, and I get out of their way. If I am thoughtful about the space I create, the questions I pose, and the tools I provide, then I can recede into the background, and the meeting runs itself.

When it’s working, I can feel the room vibrate. When people are engaged, when they’re leaning in, when they’re listening closely to each other, when they’re working, laughing, creating, converging, the group becomes alive. I can hear the group’s heartbeat, and I simply move along with it.

What makes groups come alive? I love Brooking Gatewood’s deceptively simple observation that what matters is that we feel like we matter.

How do we create conditions for people to feel like they matter? How do we support this, reinforce it, amplify it? There are no stock answers to these questions, and putting whatever answers you might have into practice is even harder.

If I had to focus on one thing, I’d start with rhythm.

In their book, Scaling Up Excellence, Stanford Business School professors Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao write:

Recent studies show that when people share rhythms with others they develop stronger emotional bonds and are more likely to pitch in for the common good. One study showed that even when a pair of strangers had never met before and didn’t talk, they still liked each other more if both simply walked in the same direction together, rather than in different directions.

When people share the same daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal rhythms, connections among them form faster and stay stronger. The people trust each other more deeply, and coordination becomes easier because they see and experience the world in the same way. (pp212-213)

In our drive to focus on issues of “substance,” we tend to forget about issues of biology. The notion that simply moving together physically might improve performance can be hard to believe, even in light of the research, but we ignore this reality to our detriment.

When we work together face-to-face, it’s easier to establish rhythms without being conscious of it. People have natural habits, reinforced by physical space, and rhythms sometimes emerge on their own. Still, skillful practitioners are sensitive to these emergent rhythms, but also don’t leave it entirely to chance. It’s why we see things like standing meetings and checkins in so many successful processes. What happens during these rituals may actually be far less important than the fact that they are simply happening.

When we’re not physically in the same space, establishing what Lisa Kimball describes as a “visible pulse” is even more important. Lisa (who has the best company name in the business) writes, “Human systems that thrive have a pulse… a rhythm… that connects and aligns them with the source of life. The essence of relationship is being in rhythm with others. To co-conspire, to breathe together with a group is a big challenge for collaborative groups in the same room together. It’s even harder for groups that are not in each others’ physical presence.”

Many years ago, I met a Disney IT manager, who shared an unexpected solution to a very common problem they were having. His whole team was based in Burbank, California, with the exception of one person, who worked in the Orlando, Florida office. This person predictably felt out-of-touch with the rest of the team. They tried a number of tools and process tricks to shift this, but none of them worked.

Finally, they decided to set up a video camera and monitor in the hallway of the Burbank office, and they left it on at all times. They put a similar setup in the Orlando office. That did the trick. Being able to experience the hustle and bustle of his California colleagues in an ambient way helped give this person a greater sense of connection to his team and to his work.

This strategy of starting with something natural and amplifying it is generally smart, but it can also surface new challenges. At my previous company of seven people, we used a wiki as a central repository for all of our notes. This gave us full transparency into what everybody was doing and thinking, and it also gave us the ability to work effectively at our own pace.

Most people followed the wiki by subscribing to email notifications, which would get sent whenever somebody made a change. The problem was that I had a propensity to think and write early in the morning or late at night, which meant that people would often wake up to a slew of emails. Even though I didn’t expect anyone to follow my schedule, I was unintentionally establishing a rhythm that others rightfully found stressful.

I didn’t want to change my habits, which worked well for me, and I also didn’t want us to lose the benefit of the notifications as an amplification of a natural rhythm. Our solution was to create a piece of software that would collect the notifications and publish a whole set once an hour and only during business hours. As an added bonus, we named the tool after a colleague’s dog and had it bark and grunt encouraging commentary along with the notifications.

Screenshot: Mona in Kristin's Kitchen

By taking behavior that was already happening and making it visible (and fun), we were able to establish a rhythm without any additional work. However, we needed to slow it down and curate it (both of which we were able to do automatically) in order for that rhythm to feel comfortable.

Understanding what rhythm will work best for everyone is part experimentation, part conversation. My friends at Forward Together, a pioneering reproductive justice organization, have a wonderful physical movement-building practice called, Forward Stance, which is a spiritual cousin to my Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets program. It includes one exercise that not only highlights the importance of rhythm, but enables people to have a concrete conversation about how to move in alignment at different paces.

It starts by someone establishing a physical rhythm — some combination of sound and movement. The rest of the group is asked to follow the rhythm in their own way and at their own pace to demonstrate the relationship they want to have with the rest of the group.

This exercise gives people concrete language to discuss an issue that can feel somewhat abstract. We used it as part of our Future Forward project — which consisted of a dozen stakeholders across multiple organizations — to establish a sense of how we wanted to work together over the summer, when many of us would be traveling. The entire exercise took a grand total of seven minutes, and it helped us get specific in a way that simply talking about it would not have.

When we are collaborating at our best, everyone feels alive, and the group itself takes on a life of its own. By definition, groups that are alive have a heartbeat, a rhythm that everyone can follow.

What is the rhythm of your group?

Is everyone listening and moving to it?

If not, what might you do to establish a stronger pulse or to make it more visible?