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.

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.

The Secret to a Good Retrospective? Actually Having Them!

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

Scheduling them, for example.

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

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

“Why?” I asked in surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Cathy Haglund. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Using the Goals + Success Spectrum Skillfully with Groups

This past year, I facilitated a number of workshops on the Goals + Success Spectrum, the tool I use to help groups get clear, specific, and aligned around objectives and metrics. It’s essentially a guided brainstorming activity (using sticky notes or Google Docs) where you categorize your goals across a spectrum — from Minimum to Target to Epic.

I’ve been focusing on doing trainings for this tool rather than my others, because it’s a low-overhead, high-leverage way to get groups aligned and practicing, which are critical steps toward achieving high performance. It’s useful for individuals and for groups, and people generally recognize its utility immediately, even without the benefit of a workshop.

In my workshops, I focus on helping participants experience the mechanics of the tool. They practice using it as individuals, then spend time reviewing each other’s spectrums in pairs and giving each other feedback. I offer no other guidance about using it with groups other than to follow the exact same instructions.

In practice, of course, using the tool with groups is harder than with an individual. Multiple people mean more ideas, and you have to figure out how to consolidate them. That requires critical thinking, communication, conflict, and convergence — all things that make collaboration hard in the first place.

My stated reasons for not offering additional guidance for groups are:

  • The tool itself is designed to address some of these collaboration challenges
  • I want groups to learn how to work through the harder challenges by trusting their own skills, by using the tool repeatedly, and learning and adjusting as they go. That’s ultimately the point of all of my tools — to help people develop strong collaboration muscles and habits through practice.

While these are true, I also just find it hard to offer simple advice about how to facilitate this with groups. Any tactical advice I might have is deeply intertwingled with my philosophy about collaboration, groups, and the design of my tools in general. I can’t talk about one without the other.

All that said, many participants in my workshops have asked thoughtful questions about how to use the Goals + Success Spectrum with groups, so I’m going to attempt to articulate the relevant aspects of my philosophy and answer their questions here.

My Beliefs About Groups

I believe that:

  • Most of the challenges that groups face stem from not talking with each other enough about the right things.
  • People are generally smarter than we give them credit for. If we give people the space and opportunity to be at their best, then we can tap into a group’s collective wisdom, which is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
  • Collaboration is a craft. You will be bad at it at first, but with enough practice, you will eventually get better.

At their core, all of my tools — including the Goals + Success Spectrum — are designed to do three things:

1. Remind you to think about critical, foundational questions. These questions are easy to take for granted, but in our day-to-day grind, we often forget to think about them. In the case of the Goals + Success Spectrum, the questions are:

  • What would the spectrum of success look like for your project, from Minimum to Target to Epic?
  • What would failure look like for your project?

2. Encourage you to write down your answers so that you and others can see them. Forcing you to make the implicit explicit and specific helps you get clear individually and is a critical step helping groups align.

3. Make it easy to practice over and over again. My tools were designed to help you practice and develop strong muscles and habits around group process. The tools themselves aren’t as important as your group continuing to develop and use the right muscles.

My basic approach to using all of my tools with groups is to just use them. Get people in a room, run through the instructions, and see what happens. Groups often are more capable than they themselves believe. This is the best way to demonstrate that.

At best, the tool will encourage everyone to stretch their thinking, de-personalize the ideas, and help people feel heard, which will lead to safer, more constructive conversations. This, along with incorporating a greater diversity of perspectives, will improve the overall quality of and lead to greater collective ownership over the final outcome.

At worst, everybody will get to see what each other thinks, and you’ll learn something from doing the exercise. Make some adjustments based on what you learn, and try it again. And again. People will learn how to set better targets and how to navigate difficult conversations with each other. It’s like learning to speak a language or play an instrument. Failure is both inevitable and okay, as long as you continue to try and learn.

Facilitation Tactics for the Goals + Success Spectrum

Given all this, here are some of the questions people in my workshop asked about how to use the Goals + Success Spectrum, along with my thoughts.

Who in your group should use the Goals + Success spectrum?

Everyone. Talking through goals and success should always be a group exercise, not an individual one. Deciding on goals and metrics doesn’t have to be a consensus activity (and you should be clear about how decisions will be made up front), but coming up with good ones benefits from everyone’s voice.

That said, with larger groups, it may not be practical to bring everyone into the room for the whole process. In these cases, you should aim to have a representative cross-section of the group participate (which means it should not just be the leadership team), with entry points for everyone else to review and give feedback.

How does having groups use the Goals + Success Spectrum work in practice?

There are two constraints: space and time. Larger (simultaneous) groups require more physical space, both to be in a room together and to capture their thinking. It doesn’t necessarily require significantly more time to capture and read everyone’s ideas, because that’s happening in parallel, but it definitely takes more time to work through hard questions and conflict and ultimately converge and align.

I generally find that groups do not allocate enough time for to thinking through goals and success (the “what” and the “why”), instead preferring to rush to the “how.” Alignment is hard, but the payoff is enormous. It doesn’t help if everyone in a boat quickly starts to row if they’re not all rowing in the same direction. Agreeing on where to go might take time, but it will make the subsequent rowing a lot easier.

Why does alignment take so long? Because people’s perspectives are often rooted in deeply held beliefs, and understanding and reconciling those beliefs can take time. Again, groups don’t have to decide on goals and success by consensus. However, alignment is much more likely if people understand the underlying reasons behind a decision and if they feel others understand the reasons for their objections.

You can accelerate alignment through the tool in two ways. First, explore different scenarios before getting into arguments. Second, continuously synthesize and edit the spectrum so that areas of alignment and misalignment are sharpened. I often joke that using these tools with groups is ultimately an exercise in sticky note management, but it’s true. The more you can help keep it clean, the more the group will be able to focus on the important challenges.

While the tools are designed to support a healthy group conversation, they are not a panacea. Any time you’re having a group discussion, group dynamics come into play. By giving everyone an opportunity to fill out and share their ideas on stickies, the tool encourages inclusion. However, once people start talking about the ideas, the tool can’t prevent the voices of a few from drowning out everyone else’s, for example. If this is a frequent problem, you may want to consider appointing a facilitator from either inside or outside of your group.

How would you use the Goals + Success Spectrum across multiple groups within a larger organization or group (e.g. cross-functionally)?

One of the reasons I love doing the Goals + Success workshop is that it’s a great way to build community, because looking at a filled-out spectrum is a great way to get to know another person or group quickly and more deeply. Knowing that your group works on housing issues tells me a little bit. Knowing that your group is trying to create housing for 10,000 people in one year tells me a lot more.

Similarly, the Goals + Success Spectrum can be a powerful way to help de-silo an organization or network. I would have each sub-group do their own spectrums first, then bring all the groups together to gut check each other’s spectrums. Celebrate where the different spectrums complement each other, discuss where they conflict and why, and make adjustments in the respective spectrums.

Most importantly, put the completed spectrums somewhere so that everyone can easily find and see each other’s.

How do you use the Goals + Success Spectrum to assess success or failure afterward?

I start every debrief by asking everyone to review each column of the Goals + Success Spectrum and to mark the ones we achieved and the ones we missed. (I use this debrief template to guide the process.) If there are differences in opinion as to whether or not we hit a mark, that’s both an opportunity to make meaning of what happened and to come up with a more specific and objective metric for next time.

If the group has missed marks in the Minimum column, then the project is technically a failure. This is an opportunity to discuss whether or not you had the right minimum targets and to make adjustments for next time.

Aligning around success is a craft. If you do it repeatedly, you will get better at it over time. Use your spectrums to help you with your assessments, but also recognize that the assessments will help you create better spectrums next time.

Rubber Bands and the Art of Visioning

Reaching for the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of this is easy.

Getting Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stretching the Rubber Band

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

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

Most visioning processes fail in one of two places:

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

How do you find that right tension?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebration and Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designing Collaborative Engagements

Dana Facilitates the Code for America Retreat

One of my goals is to figure out how to create safe opportunities for others to practice the skills needed to collaborate effectively. My main experiment in this regard has been Changemaker Bootcamp. Most formal learning emphasizes knowledge transfer — teaching a framework, for example, then perhaps creating some opportunities to practice it. My philosophy of bootcamp has been exactly the opposite: Move directly into the practice, then let the participants draw lessons and identify patterns from their experiences.

Many of my bootcampers have found this approach uncomfortable. I’ve mostly accepted this discomfort as the process working, as the results of this approach have been powerful and effective. It has helped the bootcampers viscerally recognize the wisdom they already have about collaboration and the even greater wisdom that any larger group will share. Once you are aware of that wisdom, you can not only tap into it, but you can also develop it further through intentional practice.

I’ve had one workout where this approach has not worked: designing collaborative engagements. I’m not sure why this particular topic has been resistant to this format. It could be that people generally do not have much experience designing collaborative engagements, so the exercise feels too foreign and unsafe. It could be that the language I’ve been using is too wonky. (What the heck is a “collaborative engagement”?!) Or it could be that my workout just isn’t very good.

Regardless, I decided to shift my usual approach with this particular workout and start my bootcampers with a framework. Not only has it helped, it’s made me realize that my approach is not universal, even for experienced practitioners. My approach consists of three parts:

  • Get clear about your goals
  • Know your group physics
  • Think beyond meetings

Get Clear About Your Goals

I’ve already written extensively about the importance of goal clarity, but it bears repeating. Having clear goals not only grounds your design, but it also guides your evaluation afterward. I use a success spectrum to help prioritize and gut-check my goals.

Know Your Group Physics

Physics is about space, time, matter, and energy. Designing an engagement for a small team of three is different than one for a thousand people. Designing a three-day engagement is different than one that is three years. Designing a meeting for ten people in a cramped, dimly lit room is different from one in a spacious, well lit room.

For meetings, it’s as simple as starting with these questions:

  • How many people will be there?
  • How much time do you have?
  • What does the space look like?

This may seem simple and obvious, but it’s amazing how many people don’t start with these very basic questions when designing meetings.

This is doubly true with online space, where the rules of group physics still apply. Time works the same way online as it does in the real-world, but the notion of space and proximity are different.

When I’m helping groups design collaborative engagements for distributed groups, I start with the following thought experiment:

What if you could take your entire group and magically transport them so that they’re in close physical proximity to each other? How would you design your engagement?

This thought experiment essentially duplicates how group physics generally works in online space, which changes the meaning of physical distance. And it often surfaces unconscious flaws in our design approach — namely, discounting the importance of time.

For example, when designing a community of practice for a distributed group, I often see people mistakenly focus their energies on figuring out what tool they’re going to use. That’s an important part of creating a delightful, online space, but the more important question is, what’s going to compel your community to make time for this? The reason most communities of practice fail isn’t that the tools are inadequate, it’s that the participants aren’t or can’t make the time to participate.

Think Beyond Meetings

One reason we are so baffled by this time problem is that we are overly dependent on meetings when designing collaborative engagements. Meetings can be tremendously powerful, but they are also time-consuming and resource-intensive. I often see people make the mistake of designing meetings that duplicate work or conversations that are already happening. The reason I call this a framework for designing “collaborative engagements” is to de-emphasize meetings.

Designing engagement outside of meetings does not have to be about interacting online. One of my favorite techniques is to assign pair exercises. For example, with the Delta Dialogues, we paired up our participants, and we asked each pair to touch base before and after each meeting. This not only served as a way to keep people connected to the process when they had to miss a meeting, it forged stronger relationships among the participants, and led to some unexpected friendships and collaborations that would not have happened through meeting interactions alone.