Three Steps for Acting Strategically: Get Clear, Stay Clear, Practice

Sunrise Over San Francisco

All good consultants — no matter what the field — are strategy consultants in disguise.

I was a collaboration consultant for over a decade, which meant that my job was to do whatever it took to help groups collaborate more effectively. Collaboration is about working together toward a shared goal, and I naturally thought that my focus would be on the “working together” part. However, more often than not, the “shared goal” piece ended up becoming the crux of my work. I was not explicitly in the business of helping groups develop strategy, but that’s often what the job entailed.

Good strategy consultants are many things, but fundamentally, they are good at asking “what” and “why” questions:

What are you trying to accomplish?


Why really?

Good technical consultants — from communications to design to evaluation to technology — do the exact same thing. They can’t do their work effectively without understanding your what and why, and their jobs often necessitate helping you figure out your answers to those questions.

Really good consultants help groups figure out their answers to these questions in a collaborative way. (This is why good collaboration consultants make good strategy consultants.) You’re creating space and time for them to have conversations that they probably wouldn’t otherwise be having. Skilled consultants are good at both creating the space and helping to guide the conversation in that space — which, at its core, consists of asking good “what” and “why” questions.

Making space for conversation and asking good questions. Do we really need to hire consultants for this?

My exploration over the past year has been about scaling collaborative literacy. As a consultant, I was able to hone my own collaborative literacy and apply it toward client projects. When I started thinking about how others could develop this same proficiency, I started by asking myself, “What do I do that’s valuable and that anyone else could also do?” I came up with a list, which included making space for conversation and asking good questions.

I then asked, “What am I really doing when I do these things?” I came up with three things:

  1. Get clear.
  2. Stay clear.
  3. Practice.

This, in a nutshell, is the essence of acting strategically. All of the special tools and methodologies that good strategy consultants use are in service of these three things in concert. When groups stray, it’s because they’re not applying these tools in service of getting clear, staying clear, and practicing. It has to be all three. Just doing one or two doesn’t cut it.

I truly believe that anyone can learn how to do these three things well. All it requires is time, commitment, and intentionality. The first time you do it, you will be terrible at it, or at least very mediocre. Nevertheless, you will still find the process valuable. Furthermore, if you are intentional about learning and trying over and over again, you will eventually become great at it. Having external support — be it consultants, colleagues, or friends — can accelerate and enhance this process. Regardless of whether or not you seek additional help, all groups should be doing these things themselves.

I’ve been experimenting with a set of very simple do-it-yourself tools for developing strategy and culture, which I’ll be unveiling here next month (although if you’re interested in a preview, email me, or leave a comment below). They are designed to support anyone in the process of getting clear and staying clear, and they require no special skills or experience to use. The practice part is up to you. It’s been both humbling and gratifying to watch our testers use these tools. On the one hand, testing has surfaced a lot of faulty assumptions, which has forced me and my colleagues to go back to the drawing board. On the other hand, our testers are getting great value out of using these tools, even in their rough forms.

All good consultants are strategy consultants in disguise, but everyone is capable of doing what strategy consultants do… and more. I am incredibly excited about the potential of scaling this literacy, so that this kind of consulting becomes a niche, not a proxy for doing the kind of work we all can and should be doing ourselves. Get clear, stay clear, practice.

Navigating Complexity Through Collective Sensemaking

A core strategy for navigating wickedly complex problems is to try to make collective sense of the system. Like the blind men and the elephant, we all have a narrow and incomplete view of the system in which we’re operating. If we could somehow see and fit each other’s pictures together, new and powerful insights and actions could emerge.

That’s the theory, at least. But how do you do this in practice? What does the process feel like? And how do you reconcile this approach with my earlier assertion that collective intelligence is not about enabling individuals to grasp the whole system?

At last week’s Garfield Foundation Collaborative Networks initiative kickoff, Joe Hsueh walked us through his answer by drawing this graph. (Joe himself explains the graph in the above two-minute video.)

Navigating Complexity Model

We as individuals try our hardest to navigate complexity until we hit our mental capacity. Generally, that experience is so exhausting and dissatisfying, we find ourselves dropping back into simplistic, siloed thinking.

The goal of a collective sensemaking process is to help individuals endure greater complexity than we normally can handle. At some point, we still have to simplify the system in order to process it as individuals, but the hope is that, by raising the overall bar, you end up at a higher place than you were before.

With system mapping (which is the tool that Joe so skillfully employs), the map itself is of limited utility to individuals who have not participated in its creation, because they have not gone through that process of mental endurance. This is a critical point. The real value of system mapping isn’t the final artifact. It’s the process of developing shared understanding by collectively creating that map.

An Aside on Facilitation

You can’t design or facilitate these kinds of processes effectively unless you yourself have a strong framework around complexity and systems thinking. Good designers create the space for participants to live in this complexity.

Living in complexity is inherently disorienting, and people have different appetites for it. Part of the facilitator’s job is to help the group maintain their faith in the face of intense discomfort. One way you can do that is by walking the group through your framework.

Unfortunately, I often see facilitators make the mistake of spending too much time explaining frameworks up-front rather than giving the participants the space and time to experience the framework. It’s a tricky balance, and finding that balance is a sign of mastery.

At last week’s meeting, Joe offered the framework at exactly the right time. You could see the relief on the participants’ faces as he explained that the joint struggle and frustration that everybody was experiencing was all part of the process.

It reminded me of a similar moment with one of my mentors, Jeff Conklin, during the Delta Dialogues in 2012. The participants were getting frustrated by how much the conversation was jumping around (which was by design), and I felt like we were starting to lose them.

Jeff stepped in, and drew and explained a graph that described the different ways that people learn. It was beautiful to watch people’s faces light up with understanding. Jeff’s impromptu (and brief) lesson in theory not only helped orient our participants, it gave them language to describe what they were going through.

Tic-Tac-Toe and the Squirm Test: Building Trust and Shared Understanding

Elliott's Monster Face

Trust. Shared understanding. Shared language. I constantly mention these as critical elements of collaboration. But how do we develop these things, and how do we know if we’ve got them?

We can start by playing Tic-Tac-Toe, then by applying the Squirm Test.


Many years ago, one of my mentors, Jeff Conklin, taught me a simple exercise that gave me a visceral understanding of why trust, shared understanding, and shared language were so important, as well as some clues for how to develop these things.


  1. Find a partner.
  2. Play Tic-Tac-Toe.

Try it now! What happened?

Hopefully, nobody won, but don’t stress too much if you lost. It happens!

Second: Play Tic-Tac-Toe again, except this time, don’t use pen or paper.

Try it now! What happened?

In order to play, you needed to come up with shared language to describe positions on the board. You probably managed, but it was almost certainly harder.


  1. Play Tic-Tac-Toe without pen or paper again, except, this time, play on a four-by-four board — four rows, four columns.
  2. Play until it’s too hard to play anymore, until someone has won, or until there’s a dispute about what the board looks like. When you’re done, both you and your partner should draw what you think the board looks like without looking at each other’s work. Now compare.

Try it now! What happened?

Research suggests that we can hold between five to nine thoughts in our head at a time before our short-term memory begins to degrade. This is why American phone numbers have seven digits. It’s also why three-by-three Tic-Tac-Toe (nine total squares) without pen and paper felt hard, but doable, whereas increasing the board by just one row and column (sixteen total squares) made the game feel impossible.

How many ideas do you think you’re holding in your head after just five minutes of moderately complex conversation? How often are you using some kind of shared display — a whiteboard, a napkin, the back of an envelope — to make sure that everyone is tracking the same conversation?

While you were playing, how much did you trust that the two of you were seeing the same board at all times? Were you right?

In cooperation theory, the most successful groups trust each other by default. You almost certainly assumed that your partner knew the rules of Tic-Tac-Toe and was playing it fairly to the best of his or her ability. If you already had a strong relationship with your partner, you probably trusted him or her even more.

But trust is fragile, and it’s not always relational. If it’s not constantly being reinforced, it weakens. A lack of shared understanding is one of the easiest ways to undermine trust.

With the Delta Dialogues, we were dealing with a uniquely wicked and divisive issue — water in California. As a facilitator, you always want to get the group out of scarcity thinking. But water is a zero-sum game, and no amount of kumbaya is going to change that. Moreover, we were dealing with a half-century legacy of mistrust and a group of participants who were constantly in litigation with each other.

We did a lot of unique, relational work that played an important role in the success of Phase 1 — rotating site visits, asking people to share their favorite places in the Delta, implementing a buddy system, leaving plenty of space for breaking bread. But we were not relying on these things alone to build trust.

Our focus was on building shared understanding through a mapping process that allowed the group to see their ideas and track their conversations in real-time. Prior to our process, the group had been attempting to play multi-dimensional Tic-Tac-Toe with thousands of rows and columns… and no pen and paper. We brought the pen and paper, along with the ability to wield it skillfully.

Like many of my colleagues, I believe strongly in building and modeling a culture where people are engaging in powerful, constructive, sometimes difficult conversation. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to get people into a circle and to have them hold hands and talk about their feelings. The more wicked the problem, the more inadequate our traditional conversational tools become, no matter how skillfully they are wielded.

This recognition is what separates the Garfield Foundation’s Collaborative Networks initiative from similar well-intentioned, but misguided initiatives in the nonprofit and philanthropic worlds, and it’s why I’m working with them right now. We happen to be employing system mapping (and the talents of Joe Hsueh) right now as our “pen and paper” for developing that shared understanding, but it’s how and why we’re mapping — not the specific tool itself — that separates our efforts from other processes.

The Squirm Test

How do you know how much shared understanding you have in the first place? And if you choose to employ some version of “pen and paper” to help develop that shared understanding, how do you know whether or not you’re intervention is effective?

Many years ago, I crafted a thought experiment for doing exactly that called the Squirm Test.

  1. Take all of the people in your group, and have them sit on their hands and in a circle.
  2. Have one person get up and spend a few minutes describing what the group is doing and thinking, and why.
  3. Repeat until everyone has spoken.

You can measure the amount of shared understanding in the group by observing the amount of squirming that happened during the presentations. More squirming means less shared understanding.

You can implement the Squirm Test in all sorts of ways, and it even appears in different high-performance communities in real-life. For example, the Wikipedia principle of Neutral Point of View is essentially the Squirm Test in action. If you read an article on Wikipedia, and it makes you squirm, edit it until the squirming goes away. If enough people do that, then that article will accurately reflect the shared understanding of that group of people and will thus achieve Neutral Point of View.

Toward the end of Phase 1 of the Delta Dialogues, we designed a whole day around the Squirm Test. We had participants capture on flipcharts what they thought the interests and concerns were of the other stakeholder groups. Then we had participants indicate whether these points represented themselves accurately and whether they found shared understanding on certain issues surprising. There was very little squirming and quite a bit of surprise about that fact. It was a turning point for the process, because the participants were able to see in a visceral way how much shared understanding had been built through all of their hard work together.

Last week, I was describing the Squirm Test to Rick Reed, the leader of Garfield Foundation’s Collaborative Networks initiative. He pointed out a discrepancy that I had not thought of before. “People might not be squirming because there’s no shared understanding. They might be squirming because, after seeing the collective understanding, they realize that they’re wrong!”

This is exactly what happened with the Garfield Foundation’s first Collaborative Network initiative, RE-AMP. When you are able to see the whole system, including your place in it, you may discover that your frame is wrong. The kind of squirming that Rick describes is the good kind. Understanding how to design for it is a topic for another day!

The Art of the Start

Triathlon Start

Two of my mentors, Gail and Matt Taylor, often stress the importance of “clean beginnings.” Whenever you take on any hard, collaborative project, you have to expect that it will get messy in the middle. If you take the time to set up conditions for success at the beginning of the project, you will greatly increase your chances of surviving — even thriving in — that mess. Folks in this business often refer to this as “creating a safe container.”

I’m in the process of doing this with two projects right now — an experiment with the Code for America Incubator Program and the kickoff of Garfield Foundation’s latest Collaborative Networks initiative — and I wanted to share some of my experiences in “the art of the start” from these and other projects.

Creating a safe container consists of three activities:

  1. Literally creating a delightful, inviting space (physical, virtual, or both) in which the group can interact
  2. Developing shared understanding among the group
  3. Making explicit working agreements.

When done effectively, these three things in combination lead to greater trust within the group, which enables it to work effectively moving forward.

1. Create Delightful, Inviting Space

The physical spaces in which we work have a huge impact on our ability to work effectively. Dark, tight spaces affect the mood of the group. The seating arrangement can physically reinforce certain power dynamics. If it’s hard to get to the whiteboard, people won’t use it.

These issues don’t just apply to physical space. If your group has a weekly two-hour phone call with poor audio quality and no shared display, people will dread (or simply tune out) those calls. If you’ve chosen to interact using an online tool that nobody knows how to use, then no one will use it.

Spatial issues may seem trivial, but I think they are just as important as facilitation. In 2012, I co-led a project called the Delta Dialogues, where we were facilitating a multistakeholder group around California water issues. Our participants had been fighting over these extremely contentious issues for decades, and many had standing lawsuits with each other.

One of the early decisions we made was to rotate our meeting locations among the participants rather than seek “neutral” space. We had six one-day meetings scheduled, and we decided to devote half that time to “learning journeys” — essentially tours of each others’ spaces. We did this because the Sacramento Delta is beautiful, and we wanted to spend as much time as possible in that beauty to remind ourselves what this was all about. We also did this wanted participants to experience each other’s environments first-hand to build greater empathy.

This was not a decision we made lightly. Given the complexity of the issues we were discussing, devoting half of our times to field trips felt hard to swallow, and we went back and forth on this decision a number of times. However, when the process was over, participants consistently cited these learning journeys as the most powerful part of the process for them.

Rick Reed, the leader of the Garfield Foundation’s Collaborative Networks initiative, feels as strongly about the importance of the physical experience as I do. He seeks out great meeting space with beautiful light, and he makes sure that the food is excellent and memorable. Some people do not think foundations should be spending money on things like great space and food in light of the economic hardships the nonprofit sector is currently facing. While I am a fan of fiscal discipline, if foundations want to contribute to great collaborative experiences, I think investing in great space and great food are two of the easiest and most impactful ways to do that.

Creating an inviting, delightful space is not just about physical or even virtual space. Language, for example, is a big part of this. I often use the term “ground rules” to describe working agreements (see below), but when I used the term at a Collaborative Networks design meeting, our teammate, Ruth Rominger, pushed back. She thought the implications of “rules” ran counter to the culture we were trying to build. On Curtis Ogden’s suggestion, we decided to adopt the term “working agreements” instead, which is more inviting, but still meaningful.

2. Develop Shared Understanding

The group norming process is about developing shared understanding, which leads to greater trust and stronger relationships. The default way to build shared understanding is to work together. There are great merits to this, but they are easily neutralized or worse if you don’t take the time to have explicit conversations about norms as well.

For example, when I worked as a consultant, I spent a significant amount of time helping stakeholders get aligned and clear around the goals of the project. It was a straightforward, but time-consuming step, one that most groups would skip if left to their own devices. And yet that step alone made a huge difference in the quality of the engagement once we got going. Often, individuals do not feel empowered or accountable to the rest of the group, simply because there is no shared understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing or what’s expected of them.

How do you develop this shared understanding? The simplest first step is to carve out time to have those conversations as a group. A huge part of my experiment with the Code for America Incubator is simply that — giving startups structured time to have explicit conversations about things such as what kind of organization they’d like to be and how they’d like to work together.

Beyond this, there are a few useful tricks. One is to tap into people’s personal experiences and values. Rather than start with the question, “How would you like to work together?”, ask each other, “What’s been your best experience working together?”, or better yet, “Why did you get into this work?” Have people share those stories with each other, then pull out key patterns and insights from the stories.

With the Delta Dialogues, we had participants answer the question, “What’s your favorite place in the Delta?” Many of the participants had known each other for decades, yet did not know each other’s answers to these questions. It reinforced the fact that everybody in the room (including the supposed “bad guys”) had deep connections to the Delta, and it reminded everybody about what was at stake.

Another trick is to design these experiences to be in-the-flow as much as possible. People who design collaborative engagements — consultants in particular — often make two mistakes: They focus too much on meetings, and they don’t pay enough attention to the work that participants are already doing. You’re almost never starting from scratch. People have pre-existing relationships, and they may already have done the work that you’re wanting to do.

I joined the Wikimedia strategic planning process in 2009. The Wikimedia Foundation had hired a traditional management consultancy four months earlier, and they were stuck. These consultants had no experience with participatory processes or with the Wikimedia community, and they had designed a process that was not viable. Their plan looked like most traditional strategic planning processes. They would spend four months doing research on their own and coming up with the “right” strategic questions, then they would unleash a polished presentation to the community at large and ask for feedback.

Not only did this approach not account for the spirit of the project (wiki-style strategic planning) or the culture of the community, it completely ignored the challenge of enrollment. The Wikimedia editing community consisted largely of men in their teens and twenties. They had no concept of what strategic planning was, much less why they should engage in it. Even if they did understand what strategic planning was, they had no reason to engage with us about it. Why should they trust our claimed intentions to facilitate an open, wiki-style process?

I wanted to develop a shared understanding of the work that had already been done, and I also wanted to develop a shared understanding around what we were trying to do with this process. Rather than wait four months to do research in isolation, within a week of starting the project, we were engaging with the community on a wiki. We explained what we hoped to do, and we listened. We didn’t make grand promises, and we didn’t claim any expertise. We basically invited people to tell everybody (not just us) what they thought the Wikimedia movement’s priorities should be and to point to work that was already happening.

In the spirit of creating an inviting container, our facilitator, Philippe Beaudette, stressed the importance of making our space multilingual, given how international the community was. We invited people to engage in any language with which they felt comfortable, and we did our best to translate our requests into as many languages as possible.

We had a clear ask, and that ask felt very familiar to the Wikimedia community. They were used to sharing and organizing their thoughts, and they were not shy about expressing their opinions. Within a few weeks, we had an incredible compendium of well-organized thinking that had already been done by the community, along with a set of thoughtful, strategic questions that people felt were important to explore.

More importantly, people started trusting us. They saw that we got it, that we weren’t going to try to impose something top down on a movement that was inherently bottoms-up. (We would have failed if we tried.) We didn’t try to have some grand kickoff meeting or to facilitate a bunch of private, insider conversations. Instead, we spent time in the spaces that already existed (such as the wiki and in real-time online chat channels), and we facilitated a many-to-many conversation, not just a one-on-one conversation. The community was taking ownership of the process, and we were contributing to it. Even if they didn’t fully understand what we were trying to do, they understood it well enough and they trusted us enough to give it a chance.

3. Make Explicit Working Agreements

I find making explicit agreements on how you’d like to work together to be one of the most valuable things a group can do, whether it’s a small team or a large network.

For example, some might think that “treating other people with respect” should be implicit in every working arrangement. Even if that’s the case, making it explicit can’t hurt, and it can even help. For one, it forces you to develop some shared understanding around what “treating other people with respect” actually means. To some, it might mean never raising your voice. To others, it might have nothing to do with how you express yourself, only that you do. Getting these things out into the open earlier rather than later, then coming to agreement on them will prevent trouble later on.

Establishing working agreements has two other important effects, especially with larger groups. First, it makes everyone accountable for holding him- or herself and each other to these agreements. Often, in large meetings, people depend on a facilitator to keep the conversation constructive and civil. That indeed is one of the facilitator’s responsibilities, but it’s a muscle that everyone in the group should be exercising. In healthy groups, everybody will help each other abide by these agreements.

Second, they set agreed-upon conditions for kicking people out of a group. A lot of people fear open processes, because they’re worried that others will hijack the conversation, and they mistakenly assume that you can’t kick people out of an open conversation. If you create clear working agreements up-front, and if you make sure people are aware of those agreements, then when people unapologetically cross the line, you have the right to expel them.

We had over a thousand people participate in the Wikimedia strategic planning process. Over the course of the year-long process, we kicked out two people from the process as a whole, and I kicked out one person from one meeting (who apologized afterward, and went on to be a very constructive participant in the process). None of those incidents were easy, but when we made those moves, everyone in the community understood and agreed with our actions, because of our previously established working agreements.

This blog post is also available in French. Many thanks to Lilian Ricaud for the translation!

Hack: Defining Good Goals, Success, and Failure

Goal / Success Template
As I wrote earlier this week, I believe strongly in being intentional, but holding it lightly. These hacks help you do just that. (This is actually three hacks in one.) I have found this process invaluable for all of my projects, both individual and group.

Hack #1: Put your goal statement prominently at the top of all of your key documents. You’ll notice that I’ve done exactly that on all of my meeting templates. A prominent field at the top of every document will remind you to have a goal in the first place. A prominent filled-out field will remind you of what that goal is.

Hack #2: Define success (and failure) scenarios across a spectrum. (You can use my goal template for this.) The three categories I use are:

  • Minimum Success: The bare minimum indicators of a successful project.
  • Target Success: I also call this “stretch,” because these scenarios should be hard, but attainable. These are the scenarios for which you aim. They should have about a 40-70 percent likelihood of happening if you do your work diligently.
  • Epic Success: Success beyond your wildest imagination. You are not expecting any of these to happen, but they are within the realm of possibility, and you are overjoyed if they do.

I also discuss failure scenarios as a way of gut-checking the spectrum.

For a real-life example, here’s the spectrum I created for myself before attempting to officially launch Changemaker Bootcamp last August:

Minimum Success Target Success Epic Success
It happens. Need minimum of six enrollees showing up 4-6 times each. 6-8 enrollees. 12 enrollees! People already start inquiring / registering for January 2014 Bootcamp.
Regular blog posts. People engaged in website and process. Positive evaluations at the end. Participant assessments give them an accurate sense of how much progress they’re making. Three self-organized “workout” groups, including at least one not in Bay Area.

I had originally written “4 enrollees” under minimum success, but when I walked through my failure scenario, I realized that I would consider it a failure if I only got four, so I changed it to “6-8 enrollees.”

Going through this process as an individual exercise is fairly straightforward (although you have to be disciplined in actually doing it). Doing it with a group requires a much larger commitment, and it can be a lengthy process. Take the time to do it anyway. It’s well worth it.

Hack #3: Review your spectrum as part of your project debriefs. It is very easy to lose sight of your original goals throughout the course of a project, especially if the project is long and complex. The spectrum helps keep you grounded and focused. When you do your debriefs, be sure to start by reviewing your spectrum. If you’re doing a group debrief, review the spectrum together.

In the case of my official Changemaker Bootcamp launch last August, I wasn’t able to get six enrollees, one of my minimum success targets. A few people had wanted to enroll, but couldn’t make the dates. I tried to reschedule, but the space I had reserved wasn’t available for the new dates. According to my spectrum, the launch was a failure.

However, I felt confident that if I could just get enough participants, I could hit many of my success targets. I decided to launch another pilot (I had already done two up to that point), which permitted me to lower my standards a bit. I ended up getting five participants, I hit my other minimum target, and I was about 75 percent successful on the evaluations and assessments. I even partially hit one of my epic targets: Two separate workout groups self-organized, which shocked and delighted me!

When you’re doing something hard and meaningful, and when things aren’t going your ways, it’s easy to get morose and start beating yourself up or, worse, panic. My spectrum allows me to maintain a more objective perspective on how well things are going and on what adjustments to make.

Be Intentional, But Hold It Lightly

Garfield Foundation West Coast Climate Action Network Meeting Goals

The Parable of the Roast

There once was a young boy whose mother cooked a roast every Sunday. Every weekend without fail, she would buy meat, lop off the end, and stick it in the oven.

One day, the boy asked his mother, “Why do you always cut the end off the meat before roasting?”

“Because my mother always did that,” she responded.

The next time the boy saw his grandmother, he asked her, “Why did you always cut the end off the meat before roasting?”

“Because my mother always did that,” she responded.

A few weeks later, the boy visited his great grandmother and asked, “Why did you always cut the end off the meat before roasting?”

“Because my oven was too small, and the whole roast wouldn’t fit,” she explained.

Be Intentional…

What are you trying to do? Why?

These two questions form the basis of my practice. They are the first questions I ask when faced with a challenge — others’ or my own — and I often have to repeat them (even to myself) to make sure they are addressed. Even the best of us often get lost in the how without ever asking for what or why?

High-performing groups do everything — big or small — with intention, even if that intention turns out to be wrong or misguided. (More on this below.)

Being intentional is hard enough to do as an individual, but it’s even harder to do as a group. It’s a lot faster to assume that everyone is on the same page, but that assumption is costly. According to Robert Kaplan and David Norton’s, The Strategy-Focused Organization, only five percent of the workforce knows what their companies’ strategies are. That’s a lot of people lopping off the ends of their roasts for no reason and potentially even at cross purposes with their companies’ actual goals.

Getting clear about collective intentions starts with creating the space for that discussion. This can take a long time, but it saves you time in the long run.

In my consulting practice, if I allocated six days to design a two-day meeting, I often spent as much as half that time with the client getting clear on goals. Clients would sometimes get antsy about the seeming lack of progress, but the reality was that alignment around goals was the actual work. Once we had that, the answers to the how questions easily fell into place. Moreover, alignment around the what and why gave me and others permission to improvise on-the-fly, because we trusted that we all understood the underlying goals.

I use artifacts to remind me of the importance of goals. For example, all of my meeting templates start with a blank form field for clearly stating the goals, and I constantly refer back to these so I don’t lose sight of them as I do my work..

… But Hold It Lightly

As we all know from personal experience this time of year, it’s easy to have resolutions, but it’s far more challenging to follow through on them. How do you avoid this trap? The classic S.M.A.R.T. framework (Simple, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) is an excellent starting point, but figuring out what’s relevant is an art.

Suppose you resolve to lose 10 pounds in six months. That’s a simple, measurable, attainable, and time-bound goal, but is it relevant? Why do you want to lose 10 pounds? Is it because you’re outgrowing your old clothes and don’t want to buy a new set, or is it better health? If the latter, is losing 10 pounds relevant? Maybe your goal should be to work out for an hour three-times a week. But is that a goal or a strategy?

You can go in circles like this for days on end, and perhaps legitimately so. I think the better approach is not to stress too much about getting it right up-front. Be intentional, but hold it lightly. If you realize that your goal isn’t quite right, then change it, and learn from that experience. With practice, you’ll develop an instinct for whether a goal is relevant or not.

“Relevance” can be about head or heart. When I cook tofu, I always boil it first. I do it, because my Mom does it that way. It’s my version of cutting the end off a roast, except that I know her reason. She does it, because she thinks it’s healthier to do it that way. There is no evidence to back up this line of reasoning, and you could even argue that you lose nutrition this way. Still, I do it anyway, because when I practice this little ritual, it reminds me of my Mom.

Happy New Year! Be intentional, but hold it lightly!