Misconceptions about Collaboration

I was really annoyed when I read Cynthia Gibson’s piece on collaboration (which was also reposted by my friends at the Monitor Institute). I actually agreed with many of the points in the piece — the importance of clarity in roles and decision-making, for example, and the fact that collaboration is in service of a goal.

What bugged me was the erroneous premise. Why associate a “collaborative culture” with lack of clarity or regression to the mean? That’s not a collaborative culture, that’s a crappy culture.

“Collaboration” does not mean “non-hierarchical” or “consensus-driven.” It simply means two or more people working together toward a shared, bounded goal. You can do it well, or you can do it badly, but in both cases, you’re collaborating.

Let’s look at some of the most high-performing organizations in the world. Consider the New England Patriots, for example. Since 2001, they have 107 wins, 37 losses, and three Superbowl championships. Their organizational model? Hierarchical.

Or consider The French Laundry, widely acknowledged as one of the best restaurants in the world, with a large kitchen staff helmed by the superstar chef, Thomas Keller. Their organizational model? Hierarchical.

Or consider the Vienna Philharmonic, which is consistently considered one of the best symphony orchestras in the world. Organizational model? Hierarchical.

These are all hierarchical organizations that far surpass their peers because they are more collaborative.

Hierarchy describes a structure. Consensus describes a decision-making process. Neither is a measure of how effectively collaborative a group is.

I’m not just nit-picking language. These misconceptions are often the very reason why groups are led astray in the ways that Cynthia describes in her otherwise excellent piece.

With groups, it’s rarely a question of whether or not they’re collaborating. It’s almost always a question of whether they’re collaborating well. Having a “collaborative culture” doesn’t mean you’re collaborating with more people. It means you’re collaborating effectively. Every organization should be striving for this.

Sometimes, this means exploring alternative decision-making processes or figuring out ways to work with more people. You determine this through careful thought and experimentation. And that’s really the bottom line. I’ve never seen a group that was ineffective because it was “too collaborative.” Groups are generally ineffective because they don’t think carefully and they don’t work thoughtfully.

Tech Literacy and the Joy of Dancing

My Nephew, Elliott, Dancing

My six-year old nephew, Elliott, is an amazing dancer. I’m sure genetics had something to do with it. After all, both of his parents are musicians. But what really makes him great isn’t his rhythm or his moves. When he dances, there isn’t a trace of self-consciousness or thought. He simply moves and radiates joy. I often watch a video clip of him when he was three, boogeying his little heart out, and it always brings a huge smile to my face. (I have no plans to share that clip here, but if you ever see me face-to-face, ask, and I’ll gladly show it to you.)

It makes me happy to see him enjoy himself this way, because I personally have a huge mental block about dancing. I didn’t always have it, or at least it used to be much, much smaller, but it’s grown into a veritable albatross over the years. When I put my learner hat on, I know all the things I should (or shouldn’t) be doing. Don’t think. Don’t worry about “doing it right.” Just enjoy the music, and let your body move.

It’s silly. I’m fearless about so many things in life, and I generally don’t care about looking stupid. And I’ve been able to let go at times with certain people or in certain situations. But for the most part, my fear of dancing is debilitating.

It’s not about my relationship to my body. I’ve always loved sports, and I’ve always held my own on the court or on the field, even though I’m a mediocre athlete.

A big reason for that is that I’m hyper-competitive. Another reason is that I developed a basic literacy for sports at an early age. I can run, throw, and catch. I can dribble and shoot a ball with both my hands and my feet. More importantly, I have a basic feel for how to play team sports, how to move without the ball, how to use my body to create space. I can play several sports serviceably, and I can pick up new ones easily.

The bottom line is that I’m sports-literate. My body speaks sports fluently, and so I’m able to play without thinking, to express myself joyfully through sports.

I’m lucky to be literate in a lot of things, and I find joy in all of them. But I also feel lucky to be grossly illiterate in other things. Foreign languages, for example. And dancing. I’m lucky because it makes me understand and appreciate the value of literacy and the level of effort required to develop everything from basic proficiency to virtuosity.

That brings me to technology.

I have a gift with tools. It’s a huge advantage in this day and age, especially as a knowledge worker. I know that I can figure out how to use almost any tool quickly and skillfully. When I work with clients, I’m often able to adapt my processes to use the tools they’re already familiar with. I also know how to build my own tools, which means I can build things to do exactly what I want them to do, and I can speak fluently and familiarly with other tool-builders. I can do all of these things without letting my technology lens blind me.

On this basis alone, I can offer way more value to organizations than most consultants in my space. I consider the Blue Oxen philosophy and approach to be a much more significant differentiator, but even without that, I’d still be able to separate myself from the pack on the basis of my tech literacy alone.

I don’t expect my clients to have the same level of literacy. I adjust my expectations, and if tools are to play a heavy role, I focus on being a coach and supporter. I don’t let my clients create an artificial hierarchy based on what they think they don’t know.

My project teams, however, are another matter. High-performance teams always have some Shared Language that they speak fluently. When one of those languages in which your team is fluent is technology, it expands your possibilities. Frankly, it also makes the work a lot more fun. I’ve worked with a lot of teams that have had that baseline level of tech fluency, and it’s always been a magical experience.

However, it’s not always possible to have that team-wide fluency. In those cases, as with my clients, I adjust my expectations. The difference is that I still hold my teams to higher standards of performance, and that makes me less patient.

Right now, I’m working with one of the top three teams I’ve worked with in my eight years at Blue Oxen Associates, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t take the top spot by the end of our project. We also happen to have mixed levels of tech literacy.

I am more than happy to accept this, because everyone brings unique skills in other areas. More importantly, we have a shared fluency around our principles and approaches to collaboration. Frankly, that’s made us vastly more effective at using tools than many of my previous teams where we started with a higher level of tech fluency.

Needless to say, I am having an incredible amount of fun working with these folks. Still, I find myself getting frustrated every once in a while by the different levels of tech literacy. We occasionally have to slow down to get people up to speed on things that seem trivially easy to me. I know it’s an unfair response on my part, but I can’t help feeling impatient.

At times like these, I think about dancing. I think about the fear that even the thought of dancing evokes. I think about how I’ve felt when friends and loved ones, who are great dancers, have patiently danced with me when they almost certainly could have been having more fun dancing with others — a mixture of appreciation, but also guilt, misplaced or not.

I think about all of these things, and I feel my impatience drift away in favor of empathy and appreciation. I think about how everyone on my team is pushing their boundaries, setting aside their discomfort and even fear because of their hunger to learn, to improve, to perform. I think about how they encourage each other patiently and without judgement, creating a space that’s safe to try, to fail, to learn, and I feel deeply humbled.

Then I think about Elliott dancing, how he radiates joy without fear or shame, joy that’s contagious. I think about the innocent wisdom that our children share with us when we are smart enough to pay attention, and I hope beyond hope that Elliott and his little brother, Benjamin, never lose that wisdom and that unbridled joy.

A Symphony of Yaks

Our Ferry to Ulleungdo

One of the reasons Ulleungdo is so pristine is that it’s hard to get to. The island is small and mountainous, and there’s no airport. The only way there is by boat.

From the port of Pohang, it’s about a two-and-a-half hour boat ride, assuming all goes well. Leading up to our trip, my Mom was worried that it wouldn’t. Rain was in the forecast, and the East Sea is notoriously fickle.

I was less concerned. I knew it was a large boat, and I figured that if the weather was good enough for us to go, we’d be okay. My sister, Jessica, in her usual ultra-organized fashion, had packed Dramamine and Sea-Bands, these mystical bracelets that were supposed to ward off seasickness. I declined both. Jessica and my Mom opted for the wrist-bands. The Kim family is hardy… and medicine-averse. We’d be fine.

The good news? My no-vomit streak of almost three years remains alive and well.

The bad news? About 200 people, including my Mom and Jessica, were not so lucky.

Cramped Quarters, Painted Windows

There was no sign of the horror that was to come when we arrived at the port early in the morning. Although the sky was gray, the sea looked calm. The boat itself was a large catamaran that carried about 400 people, and it looked strong and stable.

Boarding the boat, we got our first hints of the unpleasantness to come. The inside felt stuffy and crowded. Many of the passengers had brought floor mats, which they placed in the aisles and sat in picnic-style. There were large windows all along the walls, but most of them had been painted over with tacky images of the island.

Sitting On The Floor

Koreans are obsessed with television. There are widescreen televisions everywhere, playing a constant stream of weepy dramas and obnoxious reality television. Our ferry was no exception. There it was, planted in front of all of us, blocking the gorgeous view we would have had had the windows not been painted over.

We sat among a large tour group of middle-aged travelers, mostly women. You could barely hear yourself over the din of excited chatter, intermixed with the cacophony of silliness that was streaming from the television.

Although the sea had seemed calm, the boat was rocking from the start. At first, it seemed like a minor nuisance, like driving on a road with minor bumps here and there. Occasionally, the bumps turned to swells, eliciting screams of amusement, followed by a rise in excited chatter.

My own amusement soon became boredom, and I began to feel drowsy. My senses had been on full alert since arriving in Korea, and my weariness from travel and jetlag was finally getting the best of me.

I dozed off.

About an hour later, I stirred. Something strange was happening on the boat. I listened, still only half-conscious, and realized that the chattering had completely subsided, replaced by almost total stillness, interrupted by the occasional sound of yakking. My eyes were still closed, and my brain was unwilling to process this. I could not be hearing what I thought I was hearing. It must be a dream.

I opened my eyes and looked around. Silence. People were draped over their chairs and on the floors, their faces pale. I looked over at Jessica and my Mom. My Mom was leaning forward, with her head against the back of the chair in front of her, her face scrunched in deep concentration. Jessica just looked miserable.

“I threw up,” she said.

“Uh huh,” I responded. I leaned back again, still unable to process what was happening around me. “Wait, what?”

“I threw up. And Mom feels like throwing up.”

Jessica described what happened, and I listened, saddened by their misery, still unable to process the other sounds I was hearing throughout the boat.

“Drink some water,” I urged them. They drank some water, and I closed my eyes again.

Silence, yak, silence, yak, yak, yak. I opened my eyes again, this time fully conscious, and I finally realized what was happening. People were barfing all over the boat. It was a symphony of yaks, and I had an orchestra seat.

My Mom sooned joined the chorus, and I turned to help her. The boat had supplied everyone with these comically inadequate plastic barf bags. Jessica had taken things into her own hands, pulling out two large shopping bags, one of which my Mom was painfully filling with the remnants of that morning’s meal. Then Jessica rejoined the fray.

As I did my best to comfort my family members, I tried to tune out the sounds around me. All that did was shift attention away from the sound to the smell. Imagine 200 people on an unventilated boat retching continuously for an hour. The whole place reeked of regurgitated ramen and spicy 반찬. It was like the blueberry pie scene from Stand By Me, only with smell-o-vision.

The motion of the boat wasn’t bothering me, but the smell and the sound were starting to take its toll, and I began thinking nostalgically about my no-vomit streak. Trying to ignore what was happening around me was only making me more conscious, so I changed tactics and tried to soak (figuratively) everything in.

I scanned the boat, sympathetically observing my fellow passengers, as the boat staff ran around futilely with fistfuls of lilliputian barf bags. I cracked inappropriate jokes and avoided the subsequent glares from my Mom and sister, who were doing an impressive job of filling their shopping bags.

Thanks to the weather, our trip took an hour longer than expected. Watching 400 mostly seasick passengers disembark from a stuffy, smelly boat after three hours of continuous ralphing, I understood for the first time what true gratitude looked like.

As I helped my Mom and Jessica off the boat, grateful for the fresh air and stable land, we all thought the same thing: Ulleungdo had better be worth it.

Christakis, Gladwell, and Catalyzing Movements

Last month, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a provocative essay on online networks and social movements. I personally thought it was a brilliant articulation, but he made one problematic claim: “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties.”

This was a gross and unnecessary simplification. Folks on the Internet — including much of my close community — predictably threw a hissy fit, which was justified, but unfortunate. We missed the opportunity to use Gladwell’s piece as a launching pad for thoughtful deliberation on how to make social media platforms even better at facilitating meaningful connections.

I skirted the issue then, but I’m compelled to enter the fray now, thanks to Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, the authors of Connected and two of the leading researchers in the field of social networks.

I am a card-carrying member of their fan club. And so it pains me to say that their essay, published today, on Tweeting and behavior change completely mystified me.

They start with an interesting anecdote. The actress, Alyssa Milano, who has over a million followers on Twitter, tweeted about their book and posted a link to purchase it. The net effect? Zero extra books sold.

Alyssa Milano MLB 2008

As an experiment, they decided to get someone “more influential” — in this case, Tim O’Reilly — to tweet about their book to his 1.5 million followers. Net result? A few extra books sold.

Finally, they had Susannah Fox of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project tweet about their book to her 4,000 followers. This time, they sold three extra books.

What were their takeaways from this sordid experiment?

  1. The nature of your ties is what matters, not the number. Furthermore — and they directly call out Gladwell here — online connections can be either strong or weak.
  2. “Second, it is not just “influentials” who matter, but also “influenceables.” O’Reilly and Milano can both be persuasive, and they are connected to millions of people. But it was the thousands of followers of Fox who ultimately won –granted, not by much — our little contest. To make change happen, we need sheep as well as shepherds.”
  3. Online interactions must feel real in order to cultivate change.

I’m completely on board points 1 and 3. I have no idea of what 2 means, which is why I just quoted them.

My problem with their essay is that none of these points follow from their anecdote.

Their experiment centered around a simple set of desired actions: Click on the link, buy the book. In all three cases, basically no one completed the second step. If anything, this result supports Gladwell’s argument: online connections are mostly weak ties.

But that doesn’t follow either. Case in point: In 1999, the day after Barbara Walter’s interview with Monica Lewinsky aired, the lipstick Lewinsky was wearing (Club Monaco in Glaze) completely sold out. I can’t give you a definitive explanation for why this happened. What’s certain is that everyone who was watching the interview that night was a weak tie, and yet somehow, Lewinsky was able to get thousands of her “followers” to go out and make a purchase.

Here’s my takeaway: Yes, the nature of your ties matter. Yes, authenticity matters. But space matters also. We react to space in visceral, often irrational ways. Rational or not, if we understand how space affects our behavior, we can leverage that space accordingly.

This is why architects installed long stairwells leading up to the entrances of the great cathedrals. (People look up when they walk up stairs, and looking up elicits a feeling of reverence.) This is why you won’t find clocks or windows in Las Vegas casinos. This is why I chose to use a picture of Alyssa Milano in this blog post, even though she is only peripherally relevant here.

And this brings me back to my original point. What we — people interested in leveraging these new tools for social change — really need to start talking about is how the tools themselves can do better at eliciting desirable behaviors, how to transform transactions into meaningful action.

Why I’ll Only Eat Naengmyeon In Korea

I was only in Seoul for two days, but I went out of my way to eat 냉면 (naengmyeon) while I was there. After having eaten it several times in Korea, I’ve basically stopped ordering it in restaurants here in the States. Once you’ve had a really good bowl, you can’t accept anything less.

Why is it so hard to make well? Consider 물냉면 (mul naengmyeon), the classic summer version of the dish. Imagine, if you will, a bowl of buckwheat noodles piled high in a cold broth, with a few slices of beef, cucumber, and Asian pear, all topped with a boiled egg.


Simple, right? And… well, simple. It probably sounds fine, but not particularly appealing.

The magic happens when you put some care into the noodles and the broth. The noodles are thinner and silkier than soba. Truly good noodles aren’t simply a vehicle for a broth; they actually taste like something. And of course, the right levels of chewiness and slurpiness are essential. As you can imagine, there’s a world of difference between homemade and dried noodles. As you also might guess, most restaurants don’t make their own noodles.

And then there’s the broth. Naengmyeon is a classic North Korean dish (mul naengmyeon is often called Pyongyang naengmyeon, after the North Korean capital). Given its origins, very few people actually know how to make the broth correctly. True mul naengmyeon uses a clear, rich stock made from beef and pheasant.

Naengmyeon is generally served with spicy mustard, rice vinegar, and sugar on the side. If the broth is good, the condiments are largely unnecessary — maybe a dash of mustard for heat and a tiny splash of the vinegar to accentuate the flavor. At most restaurants, the broth is so mediocre, the condiments serve as the flavor.

We ate mul naengmyeon at the original 강서면옥 (Kang Seo Myun Oak) in Seoul the day we arrived, just before setting off to Pohang. There’s actually a second restaurant in Los Angeles, but it’s nowhere near as good as the original. These folks are master craftsmen. You can taste the quality of the ingredients in everything they make, which is cooked perfectly.

How good is their naengmyeon? There’s food that tastes good, and then there’s food that feels good going down. Their naengmyeon was both. At most places, I leave some of the broth, partially because there’s so much of it, but mostly because it’s not that great. At Kang Seo Myun Oak, my bowl was absolutely clean afterward. I drank every last drop.

I also got to try something new — 한우소편육 (Hanu So Pyun Yuk), steamed, sliced beef shanks made from Korea’s native Hanu beef, which is often eaten with naengmyeon.

Hanu So Pyun Yuk

These were absolutely perfect — moist, tender, beefy. As with the naengmyeon, it felt good going down. There’s nowhere to hide with food like this. Your ingredients have to be great and your technique exquisite to pull it off.

After touring Gyeongsangbuk-do, we returned to Seoul, where I had chance to eat one more bowl of naengmyun. This time, we had 비빔냉면 (bibim naengmyeon) at the best bibim naengmyeon place in Seoul, bar none: 오장동흥남집 (Ojang Dong Heungnam Jib).

Bibim naengmyeon comes from Heungnam in North Korea, where seafood and sweet potatoes are plentiful. The noodles are made from sweet potato starch, and it’s often served with raw, marinated skate.

Ojang Dong Heungnam Jib is a family-owned restaurant founded in 1953. It’s in the neighborhood where my Mom grew up (Ojang Dong). It was her favorite naengmyeon place then, and it’s her favorite place now. It’s also my favorite naengmyeon place, not just because of sentiment, but because the food is so incredibly tasty.

Hwe Naengmyun

As with mul naengmyeon, most restaurants butcher this dish. Again, it starts with the noodles. The proprietors make their noodles from their own sweet potatoes, which they grow in Jejudo. The noodles are slimy, but firm, with just the right amount of chew. The spicy pepper sauce is just about perfect: substantial texture with a nice balance of spicy and sweet.

I finished my bowl in about six minutes, then spent the next ten minutes waxing poetically about how perfect everything was there. I badly wanted another bowl, but I decided to hold out so I could eat other meals later in the day. That was almost certainly my dumbest decision on the trip.

Damn it. I want a bowl right now.