A web site for a new company called Groupaya quietly cropped up last week. If you read the first blog post, you’ll see that I founded it with Kristin Cobble, and that Rebecca Petzel is part of our little cohort. I did a bit of explaining over there, and I’ll be doing much more over the coming weeks. What I’d like to do here is tell a more personal story about why Groupaya came to be and what it means for me moving forward.
2010 was a great and a challenging year for me professionally. My professional reputation had crossed some threshold where I had a steady stream of projects coming in, and the projects were getting bigger, harder, and more meaningful. I was also dissatisfied and completely burnt-out.
Blue Oxen Associates should have failed back in 2003, shortly after I had started it. We had no clients, a misguided strategy, and lots of debt. My cofounder had just left the company, and I felt very alone. We survived because of faith (both in ourselves and from others), because we worked like the dickens, and because we were very, very lucky. That survival process is a great teacher, but it comes at a personal cost, and if you’re not careful, you never heal.
As well as things were going in 2010, I wanted more. I was getting work opportunities, but I didn’t feel like I was fully empowered. I had big ideas about possibilities, and I was gradually moving toward those, but it was too slow, and I was exhausted from seven years of scrapping.
So I started creating space for myself so that I could think about what I really wanted and what I could do to get there. It was the healing process that I had put off for years. As I got clarity, I created new structures for myself, and the cycle of healing and clarity reinforced itself. One thing became very apparent very quickly: I was ready for a big change. I just didn’t know what that change should be.
That’s when beautiful, reliable serendipity took over.
Courage and Vision
In 2009, Pete Leyden, a journalist and entrepreneur who had been one of the founders of Wired, was returning to San Francisco after a stint in D.C. as director of New Politics Institute. He had this brilliant, wildly ambitious idea of combining the best of Silicon Valley and the web with a more traditional think tank as a way of revolutionizing public policy. He called his new company Next Agenda.
Part of his vision entailed bringing the best tools and processes for both face-to-face and online collaboration into a single, coherent practice. He started recruiting a team to help him make this happen. Henry Poole, one of Blue Oxen’s advisors, suggested that he talk to me.
Through his friend and former colleague, Katherine Fulton, president of the Monitor Institute, Pete also discovered Kristin Cobble. Kristin was an organizational and leadership development superstar. She had started her career at Innovation Associates (Peter Senge‘s consulting firm), and she had served as the Director of Strategic Change at Banana Republic.
Several years ago, Kristin had started to formulate a vision of a large-scale, participatory process that would empower the people in this country to take ownership of our future. When Pete discovered her, she had just left Monitor Group to try and make this vision a reality. She called her new company, “Courion Group,” where “Courion” was a combination of “courage” and “vision,” values that she herself embodies.
I immediately bonded with Kristin. We shared strong values around group process and the future of the world, and we brought complementary lenses and experiences to our work. Plus, I simply admired the heck out of her abilities. She is a tremendously skilled coach, designer, and facilitator, and she has the ability to think through complex, systemic challenges quickly and deeply.
We spent a lot of time outside of Next Agenda talking about our respective philosophies around collaboration, coming to a much deeper shared understanding in the process. Kristin also became a valued friend and advisor, and I started leaning on her as I worked through my professional angst.
By April 2010, I was 99 percent sure that I would shut down Blue Oxen and pursue new opportunities, most likely at someone else’s organization. I was exhausted, I needed a break, and frankly, I was curious to know what sort of opportunities were out there. Then I got an unexpected email.
My friend, Scott McMullan, is responsible for partnerships for Google Apps. One of his customers (let’s call him “Harry”), then a CIO at a Fortune 500 company, wanted to explore an initiative for improving collaboration across his organization. It was a very big, very vague idea, and he was looking for a non-traditional thinking partner who understood collaboration deeply and who wasn’t afraid to play and take risks. Harry asked Scott if he knew anyone, and Scott generously mentioned me.
So Harry sent me an email. One energizing conversation later, I realized something about myself: As tired as I was, I still felt passionate about my work and my path. All it took was the right conversation with the right person to get excited again.
I knew that Harry was talking to other larger, more reputable firms. I also knew that we could do a better job than any of those firms. So I started putting together a team and a plan.
This was also an opportunity to start testing some of my structural changes. One of those was a requirement that I bring in a senior partner for all big projects. The first person who came to mind was Kristin, who, to my delight, agreed to join me.
Another change was an intention to create opportunities for people who were less experienced than me, but who were as passionate as I was about collaboration and who were hungry to learn.
I had recently met Rebecca Petzel at a tweet-up organized by Christina Jordan. I was literally on my way out the door when I met Rebecca, but she stuck out for three reasons. First, she had started a cohort in graduate school that called themselves “collaboration ninjas.” Second, she had moved to the Bay Area without a job because she was drawn by the people here and their purpose. Third, when I told her I was a collaboration consultant, she was absolutely delighted. She had no idea that such a job title actually existed!
We had coffee a few times, where I learned more about her work and her drive. In the process of putting together our team, I learned that Rebecca was thinking about transitioning from her job as community catalyst at Myoo Create. I told her about Harry, and I set up a meeting with Kristin. The three of us clicked, and the third member of our team was in place.
Kristin and I filled out the rest of our team from our network of colleagues, we made our pitch, and we got the gig. Thus began the best working experience of my life. We were working on a complex project in a large, global organization with strong leadership support. We had a superstar team in place that kept challenging my thinking and motivating me to work harder. Everyone on the client’s team was smart, great at execution, and simply good people.
Working with Kristin was just really generative. It broadened and deepened my thinking, and it emboldened me to step into my vision. It had a reverberating effect on the rest of my work and even my personal life. I was happier and more productive, and I felt a renewed passion for my work.
In September 2010, we decided to join forces. Rather than ask Kristin to join Blue Oxen Associates, I decided I wanted to create a new organization with her. I’ll explain why in a more detailed post on the Blue Oxen blog, but the short explanation is that I wanted a sense of closure and starting anew.
We’ve spent the better part of a year figuring out what we were going to do together, and we finally signed our partnership agreement last month (September 15, 2011). We’ll be documenting that part of our journey over the next few weeks on the Groupaya blog. It’s a great story, and it involves a lot of important people in our lives. I can’t wait to tell it.
And the journey continues. We’re still getting clear and moving forward, but we wanted to start sharing earlier rather than later. It’s part of our ethos of openness, and it’s also a great way for us to learn with a broader group of people.
In some ways, I feel like I’m getting married after living with someone for a long time. It’s special, but it’s not really new. Kristin and I have been working together for over two years now, we’ve been working with Rebecca for almost a year, and we’ve been operating as if we were already a company since the beginning of the year. That said, we have so much ahead of us, and I’m really excited to be making more and more people a part of this story.