Doing “More” Is a Terrible Goal

When I was in my early 20s, I used to play pickup basketball with a guy who was 20 years older than me, but didn’t look it. He was in superb shape, and he never seemed to get injured. At one of our games, I sprained my ankle, and when I was healthy enough to return, I asked him if he had any rehab tips. "Yoga," he replied. He hadn't sprained his ankle in over ten years, which he attributed to his yoga practice.

I was intrigued, but never seemed to get around to trying it. It took me another ten years before I took my first yoga class. It was hard, it felt great, and I could see the value of making it a regular practice. But I never did, and I was totally okay with that.

Now I’m in my mid-40s. My partner is an avid yoga practitioner, so I’ve been doing it more often too — at least once a month. As someone who likes to push myself, I used to chuckle when my instructors would encourage us to do the opposite, to appreciate where we were and to celebrate that we were doing something rather than strain to do more and possibly hurt ourselves along the way. It was the opposite of how I was used to doing things, but I ended up embracing this kinder, gentler mentality. Frankly, if this weren’t the culture, I would probably never do yoga at all. Which is the point!

Here’s the thing. The last few years, I’ve done yoga more than I ever have, but I’m not noticeably stronger or more flexible. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m less flexible. The yoga has almost certainly slowed my deterioration, and it’s undoubtedly had other positive effects as well. However, if I want to counter or even surpass the impact of age and lifestyle, once a month clearly won’t cut it.

High-performance is a choice. It’s okay not to make that choice (as I have with yoga and my overall flexibility), but it’s helpful to be honest with yourself about it. If you’re the leader of a group, it’s not just helpful, it’s critical, because saying one thing and behaving differently can end up harming others, even if your original intentions were sincere. I have seen this play out with groups my entire career, and I’m seeing it play out again in this current moment as groups struggle with their desire to address their internal challenges around racial and gender equity.

The root of the problem is lack of clarity and alignment around what success looks like. A good indicator of this is when leaders say their groups should be doing “more,” without ever specifying how much. What do you actually mean by “more”? If you have a yoga view of the world, then “more” might imply that whatever you end up doing is fine, but not necessary. You’re not holding your group or yourself accountable to the results. If this is indeed what you mean, then it’s better to make this clear. (With the Goals + Success Spectrum, you can do this by putting it in the Epic column.)

If this isn’t what you mean, then you run the risk of doing harm. People project what “more” means to them, which leads to contradictory expectations, working at cross-purposes, and toxicity. Worse, people’s definitions can shift over time. When this happens, the person with the most power gets to decide whether or not the group is succeeding or failing, and ends up doling out the consequences accordingly.

A team can’t perform if the target is obscure and constantly moving. Furthermore, if someone is already being marginalized in a group, a system like this is only going to further marginalize them. It’s also natural to question a group or leader’s sincerity when they aren’t holding themselves accountable to clear goals.

Instead of saying “more,” groups and leaders should practice asking, “how much?” How much more revenue are you trying to make? How much more equitable are you trying to be? How much more collaborative are you trying to be? What exactly does success look like to you? Most importantly, why? Why is it important to make this much more revenue, or to get this much more equitable or collaborative?

Your answers to these questions will help you understand whether or not your strategies and even your goal make sense. If your goal is to stay in shape, then running a few miles a week might be enough. If your goal is to run a marathon, then running a few miles a week isn’t going to get you there. If you don’t want to run more, maybe it’s better to prioritize staying in shape over running a marathon.

One of my favorite tools to use with groups is the Behavior Over Time graph. Once a group has articulated what “how much” success looks like, I ask them to draw a graph, where the X-axis is time and the Y-axis is the success indicator you’re tracking. I then ask them to put the current date in the middle of the X-axis and to graph their historical progress. Finally, I ask them to graph their best case scenario for what the future might look like if they continue doing what they’re doing.

For example, if my goal is to run a marathon by November, but I’m only running a few miles a week, my Behavior Over Time graph might look like this:

The gap between the best case scenario and where I want to be is a signal that I either need to do something differently or change my goal. However, someone else might have a different hypothesis for what the best case scenario is:

The goal of all this is not to rigidly quantify everything, nor is it to analyze your way to a “definitive” answer. The goal is to make your mental models and theories of change explicit, so that you and others can talk about them, align around them, test them, and either hold yourself accountable or openly and collectively adjust your goals as you learn.

Getting concrete about “how much” is a lot harder than simply saying, “more.” You might think you can do everyone a favor by keeping things ambiguous, but what you’d actually be doing is exacerbating toxic power dynamics, where everyone is left guessing what the goal actually is and starts operating accordingly.

The way around this is to do the hard work while applying the yoga principle of self-compassion. When you don’t achieve a goal, I think most of our defaults is to be hard on ourselves. The challenge and the opportunity is to re-frame success so that it’s not just about the goal, but about both the goal and the process. If you’re doing anything hard or uncertain, failure is inevitable. What matters is that you fail enough so that you have the opportunity to find success. Holding ourselves accountable to goals is important, but celebrating our hard work and stumbles along the way is equally so.

Photo by Eun-Joung Lee.

Online Collaboration Isn’t Just About Meetings

COVID-19 has forced many of us to reckon with a working world where we can’t be face-to-face. I’ve been heartened to see how collaboration practitioners have been responding overall. I love seeing folks tapping the wisdom of their own groups before looking outward and sharing their knowledge freely and broadly.

I am especially happy to see people reminding others and themselves to pause and revisit their underlying goals rather than make hasty decisions. There is a lot of amazing digital technology out there, and it’s easy to dive head-first into these tools without considering other, technology-free interventions that might have an even greater impact in these difficult times. It’s been interesting, for example, to see so many people emphasize the importance of checkins and working agreements. When this is all over, I hope people realize that these techniques are relevant when we’re face-to-face as well.

After all, online collaboration is just collaboration. The same principles apply. It just takes practice to get them right in different contexts.

One adjustment I’d like to see more people make is to focus less on meetings. (This was a problem in our pre-COVID-19 world as well.) Meetings are indeed important, and understanding how to design and facilitate them effectively, whether face-to-face or online, is a craft that not enough people do well. However, meetings are just a tool, and a limited one at that. I’d like to offer two frameworks that help us think beyond meetings.

First, try not to think in terms of “online” or “virtual.” Instead, think in terms of work that happens at the same time (synchronous) or at different times (asynchronous), and collaboration that happens in the same or different places (remote).

Many collaboration practitioners tend to focus on synchronous collaboration — stuff that happens at the same time (which often ends up translating to meetings). I think some of the best opportunities for improving collaboration lie with asynchronous collaboration. Many of us assume that we can’t replicate the delightful experiences that are possible when people are in the same place at the same time. I think that’s narrow thinking.

Many years ago, I asked Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the wiki (the collaborative technology that powers Wikipedia), how he would describe the essence of a wiki. He responded, “It’s when I work on something, put it out into the world, walk away, and come back later, only to find that someone else has taken it and made it better.” To me, that beautifully describes what’s possible when asynchronous collaboration is working well, and it resonates with my own experiences. It also offers a North Star for what we’re trying to achieve when we’re designing for asynchronous collaboration.

Second, it’s important to remember that collaboration consists of three different kinds of work: task, relationship, and sensemaking. Breaking collaboration into these three categories can offer greater guidance into how to design and facilitate asynchronous work more effectively.

For example, a common type of task work for knowledge workers is creating documents. Agreeing on a single place for finding and editing documents hugely simplifies people’s abilities to collaborate asynchronously. It also better facilitates the kind of experience that Ward described than, say, emailing documents back-and-forth.

A common sensemaking exercise is the stand-up meeting, where everyone on a team announces what they’re working on and where they need help. (People are asked to stand up during these meetings to encourage people to keep their updates brief.) You could easily do a stand-up meeting online, but aggregating and re-sharing status updates over email is potentially more efficient and effective.

One interesting side effect of so many people meeting over video while sheltering in place is that we literally get a window into each other’s homes and even our families and pets, an emergent form of relationship-building. Pamela Hinds , who has long studied distributed work, calls this “contextual knowledge” and has often cited it as a key factor for successful remote, asynchronous collaboration. (It’s why, when we were designing the Delta Dialogues, a high-conflict project focused on water issues in the Sacramento Delta, we chose to rotate the meetings at people’s offices rather than at a neutral location. We wanted people to experience each other’s workplaces to enhance their sense of connection with each other.)

Once we recognize this form of relationship-building as useful, we can start to think about how to do it asynchronously. In my Colearning community of practice, which consists of ten collaboration practitioners across the U.S. and Canada, each of us posts a weekly personal checkin over Slack, often sharing photos and videos of our loved ones. We post and browse at our own convenience, and the ritual and the artifacts forge bonds that run deeper than what would be possible with, say, a monthly video call, which would be incredibly hard to schedule and would almost certainly prevent some of us from participating.

Similarly, we don’t need video to see each other’s faces. A trick I stole from Marcia Conner many years ago — well before video was ubiquitous — was to get silly photos of everyone on the team, combine them in a document, and have everybody print and post it on their office wall. This not only enhanced our conversations when we were talking over the phone, it created a constant sense of connection and fun even when we weren’t in a room together.

While I hope these examples dispel the notion that synchronous collaboration is inherently more delightful and impactful than asynchronous, I also want to acknowledge that designing for asynchronous collaboration is more challenging. I think there are two reasons for this.

First, you have to compensate for lack of attention. When everyone is in a room together, it’s easier to get and keep people’s attention. When people are on their own, you have no control over their environment. You have to leverage other tools and techniques for success, and you’re unlikely to get 100 percent follow-through.

The two most common tools for compensating for lack of attention are the artifact and the ritual. An artifact is something tangible, something that you can examine on your own time, whether it’s a written document, a picture, or Proust’s Madeleine. A ritual is an action — often with some cultural significance — that’s repeated. It could be a rule (with enforcement) or a norm that people just do. It’s effective, because it becomes habitual, which means people are able to do it without thought.

The trick is finding the right balance of artifacts and rituals. At Amazon, Jeff Bezos famously requires people to write a six-page memo before meetings, but they designate shared time at the beginning of each meeting to read the memo together. On the one hand, writing the memo requires discipline and attention in-between meetings, or asynchronously. On the other hand, rather than save meeting time by having people read the memos beforehand, they devote synchronous time to reading the memos together. I can guess the reasons for this, but the truth is that I don’t know what they are. Different practices work in different contexts. Everybody has to figure out what works for themselves. Certain kinds of cultures — especially transparent, iterative, developmental ones — will be more conducive to these kinds of practices.

Finally, our relationship to technology matters, but maybe not in the way you think. On the one hand, if you are going to use a tool for collaboration, then it’s important to learn how to use it fluently and wield it skillfully. On the other hand, technology has this way of making you forget what you already know. It may be that the tools that will be most helpful for you have nothing to do with the latest and greatest digital technology.

This has always been easy for me to understand, because I have always had an uncomplicated relationship with technology. I love technology, but its role is to serve me, not the other way around. When I design structures and processes for collaboration, I always start with people, not tools, and I try to help others do the same.

What I’ve come to realize over the years is that this is often hard for others, because they’re worried about what they don’t know and they have a block when it comes to learning about technology. I get this. I have blocks about learning many things, and I know that advice that amounts to “get over it” is not helpful. Please recognize that these feelings are not only real, they’re okay. While I’d encourage everyone to find peers and resources that help them learn about digital tools in a way that feels safe, I also want to remind you that collaboration is ultimately about people. Keeping your humanity front and center will not only help you with your transitions to remote work, it will help you through this crisis.

From Go-Go-Go to Going Slow: Lessons from My Own Painful, but Ultimately Successful Journey

I discovered weights freshman year in college, and as a weak and skinny kid, I found them to be a revelation. One of my friends had played football in high school, and he and I would work out together often. He worked out hard — at least five days a week — and I liked his routine, so I adopted something similar.

I rapidly gained strength, but I also peaked quickly. Naturally, I tried working out more, but it didn’t seem to help. I maintained more or less the same routine throughout my sophomore year without any significant gains, which I found frustrating and demotivating. It led to long stretches where I would stop working out altogether.

Junior year, I restarted my workouts, and again saw little progress. My next door neighbor that year turned out to be a serious bodybuilder. One day, I asked him for advice. I started by telling him how much I worked out, and he cut me off. “You’re working out too much,” he said. “Your body needs rest to recover and build muscle. Try doing 45 minutes three days a week.”

“Are you sure?” I asked incredulously. Everything he said made sense except for his specific recommendation, which amounted to half as much as I had been doing for years.

“Try it,” he insisted.

I did. After just a few weeks, I saw marked improvement for the first time in over a year. I was floored. It turned out that, in order to get stronger, I just had to do less.

The Power of the Pause

I am often approached by groups with go-go-go cultures asking how to:

When I hear more about their current situations, I often find myself channeling my bodybuilder friend. You can't do any of these things if you aren't regularly slowing down to pause, to:

  • Reflect together
  • Listen deeply to each other
  • Have hard conversations with each other
  • Make adjustments
  • Rest and recover

If you're not committed to developing your muscles around pausing, you not only will not succeed at any of the above, you may even hurt yourselves.

When my friend told me to try working out less, I was more than happy to try, even though I was skeptical. When I tell other collaboration practitioners they need to practice pausing, I get the same skepticism, but none of the joy. There are reasons why they are go-go-go, and trying to shift those habits and mindsets is not only very hard, it can be downright anxiety-inducing.

I know this all too well. For the first dozen years of my career as a collaboration practitioner, I was the worst perpetuator of this go-go-go mindset. It took me six years of consistent effort and constant failure along with a health scare to learn how to slow down. It's made me a better person and a better practitioner, and it's also made me tremendously empathetic to others who are suffering from similar afflictions.

I blogged a lot about my journey as I was going through it, both on my personal blog and on this one. I also shared a tool — my Self-Care Dashboard — that ended up being enormously useful. But I never bothered writing about how I eventually turned a corner, how I've been able to sustain this balance, and the impact it's had on my life and my work. I'd like to correct that here, both to complete the record and also hopefully to offer actionable encouragement to other practitioners dealing with this challenge.

Developing Bad Habits

The first thing to know about my go-go-go ways is that I wasn't always this way. I was capable of tremendous focus and endurance, especially when it came to things I was passionate about, but I also valued my chill-out time. My childhood was spacious and wonderful, full of time to think, explore, and zone out. My first few years after college were similar, which enabled me to realize my passion for collaboration as well as to develop some initial practices.

My lifestyle started to change for the worse when I cofounded my first collaboration consultancy in 2002. I was extremely fortunate to have a mentor who taught and encouraged me and a cofounder with whom I could play and learn. But I was also in my 20s with no formal experience and a job description that I had more or less made up. Moreover, we were trying to make do in a down economy.

Needless to say, business was not good. I went into debt and barely scratched a living for several years before things slowly started turning around. It was stressful and unhealthy, and even though I was barely making any money, I found myself working all the time. I was also young and single, and I suffered a bit from the Silicon Valley mindset that idolatrized struggle before success. I thought I was simply paying my dues, like any good entrepreneur or changemaker, and if business ever got better, I promised myself that I would return to my more balanced ways. Unfortunately, I was not precise with myself about what "business getting better" looked like, and my difficult habits and scarcity mindset continued to perpetuate themselves.

In 2009, three things converged, causing me to finally reconsider my ways. First, I experienced the painful end of a long relationship. Second, I was massively burned out. Third, my then four-year old nephew, whom I adored (and still adore), came to visit San Francisco for the first time ever, but I was so busy that week, I barely spent any time with him. I was extremely upset about this, and it caused me to reflect deeply on what I was doing and how I could change.

First Steps

One of the first and best things I did was to hire a coach. She helped me to articulate a clear vision of what a balanced life looked like for me. Put simply, all of the best, most balanced times of my life had three things in common: basketball, books, and lots of time with family and friends. Imagining a life replete with these three things made me feel light and happy, and they became my personal North Star.

The next step was to understand what, professionally, was preventing me from having these things. Two answers quickly came to mind: Bad habits perpetuated by a fear of not making enough money and a constant feeling of isolation. I was lucky to have community, but what I needed were colleagues. If I could make more money, and if I felt like I was part of a team, I thought I might take a break every once in a while, which would hopefully and eventually lead to me to my North Star.

I still had more questions than answers, but I made two concrete changes as a result of my coaching sessions. First, I raised my rates for the first time in seven years. More money, I reasoned, would give me more space. I considered myself to be one of the top people in the field, and I had known for years that my rate was not commensurate with others, but my deeply engrained fear of not getting enough work had prevented me from raising them earlier.

Second, I decided that I would never take on another complex systems change project without an equal partner. This decision both thrilled and terrified me. On the one hand, I craved partnership. On the other hand, it meant that I wasn’t just raising my rates, I was essentially raising and doubling them. Would I ever get any work again? I believed, in my head, that I would. I had seen others do it, so I knew it was possible, but I was still really scared.

Fortunately, I was able to test these changes almost immediately. The CIO of a Fortune 100 company approached me about some possible work. He fit the profile of a lot of past clients, in that he had tried working with a few traditional (and very expensive) management consulting firms, he had been dissatisfied with their results, and he was looking for something more outside-the-box. He was already talking to some prestigious design firms, when a colleague mentioned me as a possible candidate.

I felt excited about the possibility of working with him, I knew that budget was not going to be an issue for him the way it might be for a smaller organization, and I already had someone in mind with whom I wanted to partner. I thought my chances of getting the work was low, which emboldened me to really go for it — to put together a team of folks with whom I really wanted to work and to propose what I felt would be the ideal project without constraining myself. When I put together my budget, I could feel my palms sweating and my heart beating. I had managed projects with large budgets before, but I had never before written a proposal for that large a sum of money.

Somehow, we got the work! He and his team turned out to be dream clients, and a few members of the team I had pulled together became the core of the consulting firm I cofounded one year later.

After we secured a verbal agreement with our client, we had to work through some bureaucracy. I had been planning a vacation a few months in advance, but as the date approached, we had still not agreed on an actual contract, and I felt old anxieties cropping up. I strongly considered canceling my vacation, but my partner insisted that she had everything under control and that I should not only go, but fully disconnect while I was gone. I listened to her, and everything worked out. The structures I had created and the people with whom I had surrounded myself liberated me to take my vacation, my first in eight years.

Falling Over and Over Again

I felt relaxed for the first time in my career, and it was showing in the work. I was excited about new opportunities, and I loved everyone with whom I was working. More importantly, my life was feeling more spacious. I thought I had turned a corner. Unfortunately, I had confused taking a few steps with walking. I still had a lot of inner and outer work to do, and — as it turned out — I was going to have to fall a lot more along the way.

Things started getting out of balance again when a few of us decided to formalize our partnership. We spent a lot of time thinking about what we wanted to build together and how. In addition to being great consultants and building a great company that modeled our values, I wanted to explore ways of working outside of consulting, as I was feeling like we were reaching the ceiling of the impact that consulting could have. But, in theory at least, I was happy for that to be a stage two project, focusing our initial energies on building a great consultancy.

Over the course of several months, we converged on three priorities for our first year, the third of which was, “Space for Renewal, Learning, and Play.” Everyone was fully committed and aligned around this goal, and we did some things well. We did a good job of protecting other people’s time. We instituted practices such as starting all of our meetings with checkins, a tiny, but much needed pause that enabled us to breathe and be human together on a regular basis. We started tracking our time, which we all hated, but which gave us real data to see how we were doing collectively and to make adjustments accordingly. I designated my Wednesdays as "play days," which at minimum meant no meetings and at maximum meant open time to read, experiment, or simply take a break.

Unfortunately, I was still falling back on a lot of terrible habits. Running a company is stressful. A lot of people are depending on you to bring in revenue and to create a healthy, thriving work environment. I also felt urgency to do more. On top of the day-to-day challenges of building a successful consultancy, I was anxious to at least start exploring models outside of consulting, even though we had agreed not to prioritize this that first year.

All of this pressure — some real, some self-imposed — kickstarted my superhero complex. It was important to me that everyone else on the team had balance in their lives, but I believed that I could make do without, at least temporarily. I was motivated, I was confident in my endurance, and I felt it would move all of us forward without harming anyone. Besides, it would only be for a little while. Once we got over the hump, I could focus on restoring balance for myself.

Of course, it didn't work out this way. As a leader, I was not modeling the behaviors I was professing to prioritize. Everyone noticed this, everyone felt stressed by this, and — fortunately for me — everyone called me out on this. Moreover, intense stress and not enough rest was making me a bad teammate. It also was impacting my health. I thought I felt okay, but I discovered at a regular checkup that my blood pressure was alarmingly high.

This was the ultimate wakeup call for me. I needed to prioritize balance immediately. My life literally depended on it.

Turning the Corner

Shortly after founding my company, I started tracking a set of self-care practices every week on a dashboard that all of my peers could see. It was stark to see how often I neglected all of my self-care practices, including the low-hanging fruit, such as going for a walk. The simple act of tracking helped me make sure I was always doing some form of self-care, which was an important start.

However, it also made me see that "some" self-care was not going to be enough. This forced me to explore more deeply why I wasn’t able to make time to take better care of myself. I realized that working made me feel powerful and in control. When I felt like things were going poorly in my personal life, I defaulted to working as a way of feeling better about myself. I needed to confront these patterns head-on. I also adopted some simple tactics that helped. In particular, I took up photography as a hobby, which served as a much-needed creative outlet, helped reconnect me to my community, and unexpectedly had a profound impact professionally.

All of this core work turned out to be critical for me to implement the simplest and hardest solution of them all. In order to work less, I needed to stop doing something. That meant taking something off my list, which I had never managed to do.

I decided to leave the company I had co-founded, which — to this day — remains the hardest professional decision I have ever made. Leaving helped a lot. I was able to maintain a modicum of balance for the next few years, but I noticed that I easily fell back into old habits. I re-focused on working less, even declaring my intentions here on this blog. Repetition helped, and I was finally getting the hang of being real with myself and taking things off my plate. But, as it turned out, I needed to do one more thing before I truly turned a corner. I needed to stop checking my email so often.

Turning off my work email before dinner and on weekends had long been on my list of self-care practices. They were the easiest to do, and yet, after three years of tracking, they were the things I practiced the least. All of my hard work finally made it possible for me to do these “simple” things, and my self-care scores soared as a result. More importantly, it felt good. It turns out my email behavior was a good leading indicator of how much balance I had and also a keystone habit that unlocked other important practices.

In September 2016, I went to my self-care dashboard — as I had been doing every week for over four years — and decided that I didn't need to track anymore. After six long years of failing over and over again, I felt like I had finally achieved the balance I was seeking.

The following year, my nephew and his little brother came to visit me in San Francisco for the first time since that crazy week in 2009. I cleared my schedule so that I could maximize my time with them. We played basketball every morning, we went on long walks, and we ate delicious food. As I drove them to the airport at the end of their trip, I started to cry, not just because they were leaving, but because I remembered what my life and work was like the first time my nephew had visited eight years earlier, and I felt grateful for how my life had changed since.


It's been five years since I stopped tracking my self-care practices, and I've maintained this balance since. Not only am I as happy, healthy, and fulfilled as I've ever been, I am a significantly better collaboration practitioner than I ever was. Just as my bodybuilder friend explained with weightlifting, to get better at my work, I “simply” had to learn how to do less.

I share these stories not because I've landed on some magic formula for achieving self-care and work-life balance. Everyone's story and circumstances are unique, and I don't want to pretend that what worked for me will work for everyone. I share these stories, because I want folks to know that self-care is really, really hard. If you don’t already have work-life balance, there are likely very real, very hard reasons for this — both internal and external.

Achieving balance requires hard work, experimentation, and tons of support, and — if your experiences are anything like mine — you will fail over and over again. Even if you manage to achieve balance, you will always have to work to maintain it. You will constantly face obstacles, and old habits and mindsets will continue to rear their ugly heads. At the same time, achieving balance will also strengthen your faith in the importance and power of going slow, which will serve as motivation for you to continue your practices.

This matters, especially for collaboration practitioners trying to improve the performance of their groups. Working with urgency is not the same as working urgently. In order to be agile and impactful, in order to learn as you go, in order to do values-aligned work, pausing regularly isn't nice, it's necessary. One of the most powerful acts of leadership — regardless of your job title — is to model this. It's hard, but it may end up being the most important and impactful work that you do.

Confronting Despair, Building Muscles, and Saving Democracy (and the World)

For the past 18 years, I have begun almost every introductory conversation about my work with the following questions:

  • What was your best experience collaborating with others?
  • What would your life be like if all of your collaborative experiences were at least as good as your best?
  • What would the world be like if everyone's collaborative experiences were at least as good as their best?

People’s reactions are fascinating. Some respond quickly with great stories. Most do not. Many seem to find it easier to think of stories from their personal rather than their professional lives. Everyone finds it easier to come up with terrible experiences than with great ones.

We all want to live in a world where our experiences working and being with others feel vibrant, productive, and meaningful, where we feel more capable and alive with others than we do by ourselves. I believe that this world is possible. It’s why I do what I do. Most people with whom I come across don't share this belief, and I can understand why. If it's so difficult to come up with one great experience collaborating with others and if most of your experiences collaborating with others are terrible, why would you believe in the collective potential of groups?

Belief. This is where the work has to start.

All the Bad Things

My friend and colleague, Travis Kriplean, had his first kid three years ago. As with many of my friends, impending parenthood caused him to reflect about the world he was bringing his son into and what he could do to make it better. As part of that, he began a deep inquiry into the impending planetary crisis we find ourselves in.

As Travis started to emerge from his inquiry, he pulled together a reading list and started organizing one-on-one discussions with friends, including me, to help him make sense of what he was learning. I read each of his carefully curated items over the course of a few weeks, then we talked for over two hours about the readings. I happened to be in the middle of my own little experiment around sensemaking, and as part of that, we both agreed to draw and share a picture that somehow represented what we had heard and felt from our conversation. The following day, Travis sent me his picture of our conversation. He had taken my vision image that’s on the homepage of this website and performed a cheeky (and accurate) cut-and-paste job:

As was clear from his reflection of our conversation, I had been completely demoralized by the readings and our conversation. The day after we talked, as if to punctuate the all-too-likely doomsday scenarios we had discussed, San Francisco became engulfed in a smoky haze from the Camp Fire, which ended up becoming the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. The filthy air enveloped us for two weeks, reminding me that blue skies and breathable air might soon become a thing of the past.

What made it worse was that I wasn’t exactly starting from a place of cheeriness to begin with. Watching intolerance, white supremacy, and isolationism become normalized, even celebrated, all over the world has been disheartening to someone whose mission for the past two decades has been to increase self-awareness and empathy, to encourage critical and systemic thinking, and to find healthier ways to lean on each other for the benefit of all.

For the past three years in particular, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering whether I’ve been doing the things I need to do to move the needle on the world I want to live in, or whether I’ve been fooling everyone, myself especially, peddling false hope, smoke, and mirrors. It’s been a tortuous process, and I’ve made many changes as a result.

Despite all of this, I still believe.


Twenty years ago, when I was in the gestation period that would put me on my current path, I learned something interesting about Benjamin Spock, the famed pediatrician and author of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946. For 50 years, Spock’s book was the number two best-seller in the world. (Number one? The Bible.)

I found this startling. How could this be? Humans have been around for thousands of years, and we’ve been parenting that whole time. We have a lot of practice and experience and wisdom to build on. Why would we suddenly seek validation and knowledge from this one person about something we’ve been doing for so long and that’s so inherent to whom we are? Was Spock so much more insightful than anyone else about parenting? Was he better at explaining parenting than anyone else? Had we collectively forgotten how to parent?

As a child of immigrants, I am acutely aware of how easy it is to collectively forget. Like many immigrant kids of my generation, my parents taught me and my sisters English first, because they didn’t want us to speak with accents and they didn’t realize that it was easier to learn multiple languages when you’re young. Like many immigrant kids of my generation, I never ended up learning to speak my parents' native tongue, Korean.

When I was 14, my family went to visit my grandfather in Korea. He had not seen me since I was three years old, and he didn’t realize that I couldn't speak his language. As soon as we arrived, he asked me to come into his room to speak with me privately. He then started asking me questions in Korean. I felt disoriented and ashamed as I tried to explain to him in English that I didn’t understand him and as I watched his face shift from confusion to deep disappointment.

I never got another chance to speak to my grandfather, as he passed away the following year. It wouldn’t have mattered. I still can’t speak Korean, which means that I can’t speak to most of my relatives, I can’t read through old family letters and documents, and that so much of my family’s history and tacit knowledge will end with me.

It takes just one generation to forget, and the conditions for forgetting keep getting more optimal. Over the past century, families have separated and gotten smaller. Civic and community engagement have deteriorated (as Robert Putnam documented in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone), seemingly replaced in this day and age by clicks and swipes.

There was a time when we, as human beings, understood what it meant to thrive together, both in work and in play. We passed along the know-how and the rituals for generations. Now, it seems like we’re starting to forget. As our memories of what it means to be and thrive together wane, so does our faith.

On the one hand, the timing couldn’t be worse. On the other hand, maybe the popularity of Spock's work is simultaneously a sign of remembering as well as forgetting.


In 1949, three years after Spock first published his book on parenting, the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, delivered a lecture entitled, "The Question Concerning Technology." In it, he argued that the essence of modern (i.e. post-Industrial Revolution) technology was to make us see everything — including each other — as things to be exploited and manipulated. Seeing and engaging in the world in this way resulted in us forgetting our humanity.

It’s a bleak essay, especially in the context of these times, but Heidegger does offer one tiny glimmer of hope. Toward the end of his lecture, he quotes the poet, Friedrich Hölderlin:

But where danger is, grows
The saving power also.

He then argues that the act of losing your humanity also makes you remember it, maybe even value it more. This awakening is a necessary (but not sufficient) first step in taking back what you’ve lost.

Heidegger’s framing of technology and humanity resonates with me on many levels. I think of it often when I think about my mentor, Doug Engelbart, who is the reason I'm in this business. Doug is most remembered for the long list of technology that he and his lab invented in the 1960s, including the mouse, graphical user interfaces, and hypertext. But Doug was never about inventing things. He was about lifting people up, about addressing the challenges that we were about to face, about augmenting our collective intelligence.

It took me a while to understand how radical and threatening these ideas were at the time. Most of the research in computer science in the 1950s and 1960s was focused on automating intelligence, replicating, even replacing humans, further validation of Heidegger's critique of modern technology. Doug was ridiculed, even reviled, but he was stubborn, and he was fortunate to have some visionary support in high places.

When I first met him in the late 1990s, it seemed like there was a large-scale awakening in society that had started happening, an appreciation of Doug's centering of people, which still felt radical, although perhaps no longer reviled. Still, he was scarred from those early experiences, and he continued to be troubled and depressed by how few people took his dire warnings about the future seriously. He passed in 2013, and I can't imagine how he'd be feeling if he were alive today.

Doug's commitment to his enormous vision was powerful, but that was not what ultimately had the most profound impact on me. What affected me most was how he treated me.

From the very beginning until the very end, he was curious about me, and he valued and cared about what he saw. When we first met, I was in my early 20s and hadn't accomplished anything of significance. None of that ever mattered to Doug. He treated me like a peer, and he cared about all aspects of me as a human being. I spent a lot of time wondering why he treated me so well and why he was so generous with me, before finally understanding that he treated everyone this way.

Imagine that. Doug treated everybody well, like they mattered, simply because they were fellow human beings. This impacted me more than any of his brilliant ideas, it's why I do what I do, and it's why I still believe. It seems so ridiculously simple and obvious, but I believe we've collectively forgotten how important it is, and more importantly, we're out of practice. If we start here, we have a chance. But we can't skip this step, because without it, we won’t remember how good it can be to be with others.

Practice, Hope, and the Trickle-Up Effect

Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with Sarita Gupta, who is not only a brilliant leader and organizer, but who also treats people the way Doug did. Before transitioning into her role at the Ford Foundation late last year, Sarita was the long-time leader of Jobs With Justice and Caring Across Generations, and had spent her entire career focused on the well-being of workers around the world. I spent a good amount of time with her and other progressive leaders trying to understand and help synthesize their visions and theories of change, so that they could see and explore where they were aligned.

Here’s what Sarita explained: Living with each other harmoniously, productively, and equitably at a national (or larger) scale doesn’t just happen, even when there’s structural support (which, for many people, there’s not). It requires lots and lots of practice to do it right. Trying to practice at a national scale is hard, perhaps impossible. However, it becomes viable and is just as valuable when we try it at a much smaller scale — with families, friends, community groups, schools, unions, the workplace, and so forth. When enough of us are leveraging these smaller spaces to practice, then we start to build collective power, a natural trickle-up effect starts to happen, and things start improving at a larger scale too.

Said another way, if we want to thrive collectively at a large scale, we need to start by learning how to thrive collectively at very small scales. When we ask each other, “What’s the best experience you’ve ever had collaborating with others?”, we need to be able to easily come up with stories. If we can do this, we will remember and believe. In these exceptionally challenging times, it’s hard to imagine anyone truly believing in democracy otherwise.

I already shared Sarita’s beliefs around the importance of practice and building “muscle,” but her overall framing has given me greater clarity and resolve around my own strategic focus. Specifically, we can have the impact we want on the larger world if we all start small, if we focused on spaces and groups in which we already have agency.

We can start with this simple principle, which Doug and Sarita modeled so well: Treat everybody well, like they matter, simply because they are fellow human beings.

When we invest in our personal relationships, we are building collaboration muscles necessary for a stronger democracy. When we invest in our own teams and organizations so that they have exceptional cultures where everybody brings their best and feel valued, we are building collaboration muscles necessary for a stronger democracy.

As we start to experience vibrant, productive, and meaningful relationships in small spaces, we will start to remember how powerful and wonderful it is to engage with each other collectively, which will inspire us to flex our collaboration muscles in all aspects of our lives. The more of us who start to do this, the more we will start to see larger-scale shifts.

This is how we will remember. This is how we will believe.

This is why I do what I do. This is why, despite all of the challenges we face today, I still believe.

Lemon Meringue Pie, Stiff Peaks, and What Effective Collaboration Feels Like

Stiff Peaks

Stiff Peaks

The summer after my junior year in college, I decided that it was finally time to learn how to cook. I had barely managed to feed myself in previous summers, largely subsisting on pasta and jarred sauce and also "pizza" made with slices of bread, cheese, and jarred sauce. (I ate a lot of jarred sauce.) I was able to survive, but I like to eat, so survival felt like too low of a bar.

Rather than start with something simple, I figured that if I could cook something difficult, I could cook anything. I decided that the hardest thing to cook was lemon meringue pie. I recruited my friends, Justin and Jay (who similarly enjoyed eating food and lacked competence in preparing it) to join me in this experiment. Miraculously, they were persuaded by my convoluted reasoning and enthusiastically agreed to participate.

Our first mistake was to search for a recipe on the Internet. This was in 1995. Recipes on the Internet weren't very good back then. Still, that was the least of our problems. The bigger problem was that we couldn't understand the recipe that we found. The crust required that we quickly roll slices of frozen butter and drops of water around in flour until they formed "marbles." The lemon custard required "tempering" eggs so that they cooked without scrambling.

Needless to say, we mostly got it wrong. Our crust barely held together and tasted like… well, it didn't taste like anything. Our lemon custard was actually lemony scrambled eggs — strangely compelling in their own way, but not good. At the very least, our results were edible and even resembled the bottom of a lemon meringue pie.

We could not say the same for the meringue. The recipe called for us to mix egg whites with cream of tartar and to whip them until they formed "stiff peaks." None of us knew what "stiff peaks" were, but we figured we'd know them when we saw them. None of us owned an electric mixer, much less a whisk, so we went to the store, bought a hand mixer, and proceeded to mix away.

And mix. And mix. One of us would mix until exhaustion, then another would take over and continue. We kept stopping to examine our results and debate whether we had achieved "stiff peaks." It didn't look very stiff, but we still had no idea what "stiff peaks" were, so we kept mixing. All told, we mixed for over an hour until finally giving up. My forearms were so tired, I could barely make a fist. We poured our runny egg whites over the custard, baked the darn thing, and celebrated over slices of glazed, scrambled egg and lemon pie.

The next day, we debriefed with a friend who knew how to cook and who somehow found our whole ordeal hilarious. She laughed heartily at most of our story, but paused in surprise when she heard about our failed meringue. "You mixed for over an hour?!" she remarked. "It shouldn't have taken that long, even by hand."

"How long should it have taken?" we asked.

"Five minutes, maybe ten," she responded.

We started speculating about why our meringue had failed, finally concluding that we should just buy an electric mixer and try again. We did, and this time, it worked. We all stood around the bowl and marveled, "So that's what a stiff peak looks like!"

What Do the Different Stages of Effective Collaboration Feel Like?

Last year, Amy Wu and I announced version 2.0 of our DIY Strategy / Culture toolkits. The following week, I spoke with my friend and colleague, June Kim, who had generously pored over our work and had lots of helpful feedback to share. He said, "You do a pretty good job of explaining how to use your toolkits, but you don't explain how it should feel and what it should look like when you're finished."

This hit a nerve. One of my core mantras is, "Chefs, not recipes." In a previous blog post explaining this principle, I wrote:

Recipes and tools have their place, but they are relatively meaningless without the literacy to wield and interpret them.

In a later blog post detailing the design philosophy underlying the toolkits, I confessed:

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

June's feedback felt like my worst fears come true. Without a clear sense of how it should feel to do strategy or culture work or what it looked like when done well, my toolkits would not be as effective as I wanted them to be for "cultivating chefs." I had written recipes that called for "stiff peaks" without explaining what they were or what the process of creating them should feel like. I swore I would fix this immediately.

Almost a year and a half later, I am happy to announce that… I am still at a loss as to how to do this.

My blog post about alignment was a first attempt, but more still needs to be done. I think my Good Goal-Setting Peer Coaching Workshop is also a step in the right direction. It exposes people to how others use the Goals + Success Spectrum, and it helps develop muscles around looking to peers for feedback, rather than biasing toward self-proclaimed experts. I’m in the process of designing similar offerings for other aspects of the work.

Still, I want to do better. The reason this bugs me so much is that I see groups going through collaborative processes all the time without really understanding how the outcomes are supposed to help them. Consequently, they end up blindly following a recipe, often at great expense, both in money and time. They think they've made lemon meringue pie, but they're actually eating glazed lemon and scrambled egg pie.

If people knew what the equivalent of lemon meringue pie actually looked and tasted like, this would simply be the beginning of a learning process. They'd be able to debrief and make adjustments, in the same way that me and my friends did when we were learning how to cook. But because many people don't, they just end up making and eating glazed lemon and scrambled egg pie over and over and over again. Most people sense that something is wrong, but because they don't know what right is, they keep doing the same things over and over again, hoping that the benefits will eventually present themselves.

The best way I know how to do this is to bring people along in my own work, encouraging them to "taste" along the way, pointing out when things feel right and wrong. It's how I learned, and I think we as a field can create many more opportunities for this. I think it's extremely important that all of us, as practitioners, take time to shadow others and create opportunities for others to shadow us. I continue to experiment with this.

A greater emphasis on storytelling is also critical, and I think that video is a particularly good and under-explored opportunity. If I were trying to learn how to make a lemon meringue pie today, a quick YouTube search would turn up hundreds of examples of what "stiff peaks" are and how to create them. What would be the equivalent videos for all things collaboration? What videos could we, as practitioners, easily make that would help the field understand what effective collaboration feels like? (Here's one of my early attempts.)

What do you think? Have you run across or created really good examples of what a good collaborative process feels like, with all of its ups and downs, be it strategy, culture, experimentation / innovation, or any other process? Please share in the comments below. Don’t feel shy about sharing your own work!

Photo by Tracy Benjamin. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Habits of High-Performance Groups

I am passionately committed to helping as many people as possible get better at collaboration. Within this larger mission, I am most interested in helping groups collaborate on our most complex and challenging problems. Over the past 17 years, I’ve gotten to work on some crazy hard stuff, from reproductive health in Africa and Southeast Asia to water in California. I’ve learned a ton from doing this work, I continue to be passionate about it, and I’ve developed a lot of sophisticated skills as a result.

However, for the past year, I’ve been focusing most of my energy on encouraging people to practice setting better goals and aligning around success. My Goals + Success Spectrum is already my most popular and widely used toolkit, and yet, through programs like my Good Goal-Setting workshops, I’ve been doubling down on helping people get better at using it and — more importantly — making it a regular habit.

I’ve been getting a lot of funny looks about this, especially from folks who know about my passion around systems and complexity. If I care so much about addressing our most wicked and challenging problems, why am I making such a big deal about something as “basic” and “easy” as setting better goals and aligning around success?

Because most of us don’t do it regularly. (This included me for much of my career, as I explain below. It also includes many of my colleagues, who are otherwise outstanding practitioners.)

Because many who are doing it regularly are just going through the motions. We rarely revisit and refine our stated goals, much less hold ourselves accountable to them.

Because much of the group dysfunction I see can often be traced to not setting clear goals and aligning around success regularly or well.

Because doing this regularly and well not only corrects these dysfunctions, it leads to higher performance and better outcomes while also saving groups time.

And finally, because doing this regularly and well does not require consultants or any other form of “expert” (i.e. costly) help. It “simply” requires repetition and intentionality.

Investing in the “Basics” and Eating Humble Pie

In 2012, I co-led a process called the Delta Dialogues, where we tried to get a diverse set of stakeholders around California water issues — including water companies, farmers and fishermen, environmentalists, government officials, and other local community members — to trust each other more. Many of our participants had been at each other’s throats — literally, in some cases —for almost 30 years. About half of our participants were suing each other.

It was a seemingly impossible task for an intractable problem — how to fairly distribute a critical resource, one that is literally required for life — when there isn’t enough of it to go around. I thought that it would require virtuoso performances of our most sophisticated facilitation techniques in order to be successful. We had a very senior, skilled team, and I was excited to see what it would look like for us to perform at our best.

Unfortunately, we did not deliver virtuoso performances of our most sophisticated facilitation techniques. We worked really hard, but we were not totally in sync, and our performances often fell flat. However, something strange started to happen. Despite our worst efforts, our process worked. Our participants gelled and even started working together.

Toward the end of our process, after one of our best meetings, our client, Campbell Ingram, the executive officer of the Delta Conservancy, paid us one of the best professional compliments I have ever received. He first thanked us for a job well done, to which I responded, “It’s easy with this group. It’s a great, great group of people.”

“It is a great group,” he acknowledged, “but that’s not it. I’ve seen this exact same set of people at other meetings screaming their heads off at each other. There’s something that you’re doing that’s changing their dynamic.”

My immediate reaction to what he said was to brush it aside. Of course we were able to create that kind of space for our participants. Doing that was fundamental to our work, and they were all “basic” things. For example, we listened deeply to our participants throughout the whole process and invited them to design with us. We co-designed a set of working agreements before the process started, which was itself an intense and productive conversation. We asked that people bring their whole selves into the conversation, and we modeled that by asking them very basic, very human questions, such as, “What’s your favorite place in the Delta?” and “How are you feeling today?” We rotated locations so that people could experience each other’s places of work and community, which built greater shared understanding and empathy. We paired people up so that folks could build deeper relationships with each other between meetings.

These were all the “basic” things that we did with any group with which we worked. I didn’t think it was special. I thought it was what we layered on top of these fundamentals that made us good at what we did.

But in reflecting on Campbell’s compliment, I realized that I was wrong. Most groups do not do these basic things. For us, they were habits, and as a result, we overlooked them. They also weren’t necessarily hard to do, which made us undervalue them even more. Anyone could open a meeting by asking everyone how they were feeling. Only a practitioner with years of experience could skillfully map a complex conversation in real-time.

I (and others) overvalued our more “sophisticated” skills, because they were showier and more unique. However, it didn’t matter that we were applying them poorly. They helped, and they would have helped even more if we were doing them well, but they weren’t critical. Doing the “basics” mattered far more. Fortunately, we were doing the basics, and doing them well.

Not doing them would have sunk the project. I know this, because we neglected a basic practice with one critical meeting in the middle of our process, and we ended up doing a terrible job facilitating it despite all of our supposed skill. The long, silent car ride back home after that meeting was miserable. I mostly stared out the window, reliving the day’s events over and over again in my head. Finally, we began to discuss what had happened. Rebecca Petzel, who was playing a supporting role, listened to us nitpick for a while, then finally spoke up. “The problem,” she said, “was that we lost sight of our goals.”

Her words both clarified and stung. She was absolutely right. We knew that this meeting was going to be our most complex. We were all trying to balance many different needs, but while we had talked about possible moves and tradeoffs, we hadn’t aligned around a set of collective priorities. We each had made moves that we thought would lead to the best outcome. We just hadn’t agreed in advance on what the best outcomes were, and we ended up working at cross-purposes.

I was proud of Rebecca for having this insight, despite her being the most junior member of our team, and I also felt ashamed. I often made a big deal of how important aligning around success was, but I had neglected to model it for this meeting, and we had failed as a result.

Habits Are Hard

After the Delta Dialogues, I made a list of all the things I “knew” were important to collaborating effectively, then compared them to what I actually practiced on a regular basis. The gap wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t trivial either. I then asked myself why I ended up skipping these things. The answer generally had something to do with feeling urgency. I decided to try being more disciplined about these “basic” practices even in the face of urgency and to see what happened.

I was surprised by how dramatically the quality and consistency of my work improved. I was even more surprised by how slowing down somehow made the urgency go away. The more I practiced, the more engrained these habits became, which made them feel even more efficient and productive over time.

In 2013, I left the consulting firm I had co-founded to embark on my current journey. Helping groups build good collaborative habits through practice has become the cornerstone of my work. Anyone can easily develop the skills required to do the “basics” with groups. They just need to be willing to practice.

I’ve identified four keystone habits that high-performance groups seem to share:

The specific manifestation of each practice isn’t that important. What matters most is for groups to do all four of them regularly and well.

Over the past six years, I’ve had decent success developing practices and tools that work well when repeated with intention. Unfortunately, I haven’t been as successful at encouraging groups to make these practices habits. As I mentioned earlier, I think one reason is that it’s easy to undervalue practices that seem basic. I think the biggest reason is that developing new habits — even if we understand them to be important and are highly motivated — is very, very hard.

In his book Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande writes that every year, two million Americans get an infection while in a hospital, and 90,000 die from that infection. What’s the number one cause of these infections? Doctors and other hospital staff not washing their hands.

For over 170 years, doctors have understood the causal relationship between washing their hands and preventing infection. Everybody knows this, and yet, almost two centuries later, with so many lives at stake, getting people to do this consistently is still extremely hard, and 90,000 people die every year as a result. Gawande explains:

We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way. Instead, success requires making a hundred small steps go right — one after the other, no slip-ups, no goofs, everyone pitching in. We are used to thinking of doctoring as a solitary, intellectual task. But making medicine go right is less often like making a difficult diagnosis than like making sure everyone washes their hands.

If it’s this hard to get doctors to wash their hands, even when they know that people’s lives are at stake, I don’t know how successful I can expect to be at getting groups to adopting these habits of high-performance groups when the stakes don’t feel as high.

Still, I think the stakes are much higher than many realize. I recently had a fantastic, provocative conversation with Chris Darby about the challenges of thinking ambitiously and hopefully when our obstacles are so vast. Afterward, I read this quote he shared on his blog from adrienne maree brown’s, Emergent Strategy:

Imagination is one of the spoils of colonization, which in many ways is claiming who gets to imagine the future for a given geography. Losing our imagination is a symptom of trauma. Reclaiming the right to dream the future, strengthening the muscle to imagine together as Black people, is a revolutionary decolonizing activity.

We all have the right to articulate our own vision for success. When we don’t exercise that right, we not only allow our muscles for doing so to atrophy, but we give others the space to articulate that vision for us. Hopefully, these stakes feel high enough to encourage groups to start making this a regular practice.

For help developing your muscles around articulating success, sign up for our Good Goal-Setting online peer coaching workshop. We offer these the first Tuesday of every month.