March Progress Report on Balance and Impact

At the start of this year, I reported that I had left Groupaya in pursuit of greater balance and impact. In addition to closing out some client work, my plan was to pause, reflect, and play.

Two months into 2013, I would say I’ve had moderate success. My life is certainly more balanced than it was the past few years, but it’s only been moderately more spacious. It’s been very easy for me to fill up my time, as I predicted it would. Overall, I’ve been good about filling that time with life as opposed to “work,” but “work” has crept in a bit more than I would like. For example:

I could have said no to some of these things, but they haven’t been the main reason for my lack of spaciousness. The main reason has been poor boundary management with my remaining client obligations. Ironically, I’ve been missing a lot of the structures from Groupaya that enabled me to maintain those boundaries. I left the company to create more space for myself, but that also meant losing some structures that enabled me to maintain that space. In particular:

  • I no longer have a team and operational infrastructure supporting my work. A lot of this stuff is mundane (like invoicing and scheduling), but time-consuming. I’m also missing some of our team accountability practices, which helped keep me disciplined in my obligations.
  • I stopped maintaining a regular work schedule, which made it all too easy for obligations to pile up rather than distribute evenly. I’ve also missed some of our team’s practices that helped me maintain a strong rhythm throughout the week, like our weekly checkins and our virtual water cooler.
  • I eliminated my Wednesday Play Days. I figured that all of my time right now is supposed to be play time, so I didn’t need to carve out a formal day for this. I was wrong.
  • I stopped time-tracking. I have historically avoided time-tracking like the plague. But at Groupaya, I actually became one of the strongest advocates and enforcers of the practice, because it enabled us to quantify our progress in many areas. We learned a ton from the practice, and it helped us improve many of our processes. But when I left, I immediately reverted. One of the reasons you leave an organization is so that you don’t have to do stuff like this. This was a mistake. As it turned out, tracking time is a wonderful way to keep you focused and to help you maintain your boundaries.

The good news is, I don’t need to be part of an organization to implement any of these structures. Now that I’ve felt their absence, I’m slowly bringing these structures back into my life, tweaking how I implement them to better fit my current circumstances.

The better news is, I’ve managed to retain other structures from my time at Groupaya that have enabled me to create more space in my life. (I’ll share these structures in another blog post.)

The best news is, I’m much more relaxed these days, my life feels much more balanced, and I’m learning a lot from unexpected places. (Again, more details to come in a future blog post.) Highlights have included:

  • My work! (I know, I know, I’ve got problems.) I’m excited about a workshop I’m co-organizing with Rebecca Petzel next week on how consulting can have a more transformational impact on the nonprofit sector. And I’m super excited by the culture change work I’m doing with the Hawaii Community Foundation. I’ve been able to do these projects slowly and spaciously, which makes them all the more fulfilling. And I’m being disciplined about not taking on any more client work as I finish up these projects.
  • I spent a week with my older sister and her family (including my two awesome nephews) in Cincinnati.
  • I’m seeing and reconnecting with lots of friends. I’ve been negligent about this the past few years, and it’s felt really good to make time for people I care about.
  • I’m cooking more.
  • I’m reading a ton, including two novels, which has been great, because I almost never read fiction anymore. I love to read, and I know my life is appropriately spacious when I’m doing a lot of it.
  • I’m running and hiking more, and I’m starting to play basketball again regularly.
  • I’ve started to get more serious about photography.
  • I’m taking care of a lot of real-life stuff. I’m examining and implementing systems for everything from financials to information management. This will require several more months to complete, which makes me wonder how anyone manages to do this stuff without taking extended time away from work.
  • I’m learning and re-learning a lot about myself. I’m still trying to make sense of what I’ve learned over the past ten years, and I don’t have clarity yet on what I want to do in the future, but I see the fog starting to dissipate.

I’m having to tweak things here and there, and I miss my old team a lot, but beyond that, life is great.

Balance, Impact, and Next Steps

Sunset over Kaimana Beach in Waikiki.

It’s a warm January evening in Honolulu. I’m sitting on my hotel lanai in my shorts and bare feet, looking out over the ocean. Here I am, two weeks into my self-imposed  “unemployment,” and life is good.

Since my announcement that I was leaving Groupaya, the company I cofounded in late 2011, lots of friends and colleagues have written to wish me well, which I have greatly appreciated. Several have asked for more details as to why I was leaving and what I was going to do next.

The main theme of my parting post was my desire for balance. But that only tells half the story. The reason I didn’t have balance in my life was that I wanted to maximize my impact in the world. I didn’t know how to live my life so that I could have both balance and impact. That’s what I want to figure out this year.

There are lots of things I love about consulting, but I don’t think it’s the route for me to maximize my impact. Otherwise, I would never have left Groupaya. My life the past few weeks is a case in point. I still have some client commitments that I’m completing as a contractor under Groupaya, and I basically have a full client load right now. I’m here in Hawaii for work, although I’m staying a little longer for pleasure.

And that’s the point. I didn’t feel like I had the space to take that time for myself last year. And even though I still have a full client load right now, I am far less stressed than I was when I was running Groupaya. For example, I like to sleep, but I averaged six hours a night all of last year, not because I didn’t have the time, but because I wasn’t able to sleep any longer. Since leaving, I’ve averaged eight hours a night.

Why was last year so stressful? Part of it was the strain of supporting a company. As a consultant, the challenge is less about revenue and more about cashflow. This is doubly the case when you have people working for you. We exceeded our revenue goals last year, but we had to deal with some gnarliness around clients paying us on time. Such is the life of a consultant. However, while we had to bring in consistent revenue to support our team, my peers also enabled us to do bigger things better, and they enabled me to focus on things I wanted to focus on. They also just made everything more fun and alive. The team more than compensated for any additional stress.

The real source of stress was completely self-imposed. Our goal was to have a greater impact on the world than consulting would enable us to have. Our strategy was to focus on building a stable consulting practice while simultaneously and aggressively learning and exploring. We were able to do both, and we were even able to protect our team from overworking themselves, but I was not able to protect me from myself.

We did a good job of maximizing our impact as consultants. We chose clients who were bold learners, we only worked on projects directly sponsored by C-level leaders, we turned down work that was not properly resourced, and we were just starting to increase the minimum lengths of our engagements. The nature of our work also helped. All of our projects were participatory, which meant that our projects generally had greater organizational alignment and buy-in.

We had plenty of room to improve, but we were also rapidly approaching our impact ceiling. I wanted to blow through that ceiling. We had ideas for how to do this, but we needed time and resources to play with these ideas on top of the time and resources we were already spending on client work.

I was motivated to do both, and we had the team to do it. But it was impossible for me to do both and find my balance, and it wasn’t going to happen this year either. When you’re motivated, it’s easy to tell yourself, “Just do it for one year.” This is a viable strategy if you’re disciplined about setting that boundary and if you’re not simply kidding yourself.

I wasn’t. That’s why I had to leave.

So how am I going to have both balance and impact? I can think of two possible directions. The first is to get out of the meta and apply my skills toward something more concrete. In other words, focus on a vertical (e.g. children’s health) rather than a horizontal (i.e. collaboration). I have no idea what that vertical might be, but I’m open to this possibility, whether it takes the form of my own company or somebody else’s.

The second is to continue playing with some of the ideas we started exploring last year, except without the burden of having to find and deliver consulting work simultaneously. More specifically, I’d like to find ways to develop the field, giving motivated changemakers real opportunities to practice and improve with guidance and feedback.

For example, my friend and colleague, Rebecca Petzel, was already talented and experienced when we first started working with her two years ago. Thanks to our strong brand, we were able to create opportunities for her that she wouldn’t have gotten on her own. Rebecca took those opportunities and ran with them, going from very good to great in just two years. She would have gotten there without us, but we were able to accelerate that process. Plus, we got the better end of the bargain, because she was a delight to work with, and we learned a ton from her.

What if I could create those same opportunities over the same amount of time for 100 people like Rebecca, talented changemakers building their own practices or embedded in other people’s organizations?

This is the question I’m currently pondering. While I do that, I’m going to finish up my client obligations, create lots of space for myself, and play and explore. To help me with this process, I’m going to go from sunny Hawaii to frigid Cincinnati next week to consult with some experts on play. I can’t wait!

Breakfast at Tucker’s

Last month, I decided to fly out to Cincinnati to surprise my older sister on her most recent “milestone birthday.” I hadn’t visited in a while, and in the interim, she had given birth to her second son, Benjamin.

As a present, I wanted to give my sister space. Those of you with kids know that parents of young children — especially babies — basically have negative amounts of time.

My plan was to hang out, take care of the kids, and do what I could to create some space for both her and her husband so that they could have some time for themselves. My only agenda was to get to know my newest nephew, Benjamin, while wreaking (quiet, manageable) havoc with my eldest, Elliott. I had no plans to spend much time outside of their apartment, much less explore Cincinnati.

As it happened, my trip coincided with a large snowstorm and bitter cold. While that sounded terrifying to this native Californian, it had an unexpected silver lining: snow days! School was cancelled for both my nephew and my brother-in-law, Isaac, a teacher. I had come to create some space for my sister’s family, and the weather ended up creating space for all of us.

We put that time to good use. I went sledding for the first time with Elliott and Isaac. As you can imagine, I handled my inaugural trip hurtling down a hill on a frictionless surface with skill, comportment, and aplomb.

The following day, we had breakfast at Tucker’s, a small neighborhood eatery that’s been serving down home food for over 60 years. To understand the significance of the place and our meal, you need to understand the story of the neighborhood.

My sister and brother-in-law are musicians and teachers. They live humble lives in a part of town known as Over-the-Rhine (“OTR” for short). As with many artist enclaves, OTR is very affordable, which loosely translates into “bad neighborhood.” It’s the poorest, most violent neighborhood in the city.

My sister lives across the street from Washington Park, which is a haven for drug dealers and miscreants. In 2001, a white cop shot and killed a young, African-American male in OTR, igniting city-wide racial tensions that had been building for years and resulting in the worst urban disorder since the L.A. riots in 1992, which I had had the misfortune of experiencing first-hand.

OTR is a challenging place, but there is something special about it. For starters, if you look past the poverty and pain, you can see that the neighborhood is beautiful. The brick buildings evoke an old elegance, dotted with dilapidated storefronts and the occasional quirky gallery, perhaps foreshadowing the hipster gentrification that sometimes seems inevitable for these little enclaves of starving artists. The hipsters come because of the artists, but the artists come because of the beauty, the charm, the essence.

The essence of OTR — indeed, of Cincinnati and perhaps of the Midwest as a whole — seems to be community. Unlike my adopted hometown of San Francisco, people who live here tend to come from here. They are tied to their neighborhoods, their churches, their local haunts, their people. As Isaac, who comes from nearby Dayton, said to me the other day, he loves living in Cincinnati, because Cincinnati is home.

For many who live in OTR, Tucker’s has been a favorite eatery for generations. Down the street from Findlay Market, on a battered street under a nondescript sign, there are maybe six tables and a long counter inside of Tucker’s.

The service is wonderful… if you don’t mind waiting a very long time for your food. They greet everybody warmly, they keep your coffee cup filled, and they take their time cooking the food. And that’s fine. The food is good — healthy portions of rib-sticking, diner food, all made from scratch — but that’s not the main reason people come here.

People come for the people. They come to rub shoulders with their neighbors. Everyone from the community comes here — the owner of the store down the street, long-time residents, the pastor from the local church, local politicians, homeless people, young artists. Because the place is so small, people often share tables with strangers, and they walk away friends. Tucker’s is a haven, a melting pot in a neighborhood that has seen violent racial strife.

People come because they’ve always come there. Maynie “Ma” Tucker and her husband, Escom, started the restaurant in 1957. The place hasn’t changed much since. Their son, Joe, and his wife, Carla, run the place now. Escom died six years ago, but Ma Tucker, now 90, still works in the kitchen.

Earlier in the week, two gunmen had entered the diner and attacked a customer. The customer walked away unharmed, but two women were shot, including Carla. Both women were fortunately okay.

Tucker’s had shut down for a few days. Unbeknownst to us, it had just reopened the day we arrived. The place was packed, as it always is. People greeted each other warmly, as they always do. The service was good… and slow, as it always is. Ninety year old Ma Tucker popped her head out of the kitchen from time to time to check on things, as she had been doing for over 60 years.

You would not have known that anything had happened earlier that week if not for the journalist taking video, and even she melded seamlessly into the room. She just seemed like another local artist who had come to ply her craft and enjoy the morning at Tucker’s.

When we sat down, Isaac spotted the local pastor, Father Gregory, sitting at the counter, and went over to greet him. Father Gregory joined us for breakfast and filled us in on the history of Tucker’s and the meaning it had in the community. He himself had come here since he was a child. As people walked in and out, they stopped to greet Father Gregory, who smiled and chatted with everyone. Isaac knew several people there as well. They were colleagues, neighbors, fellow church-goers, and friends.

Of course, people were happy to see Elliott, who always seems to make people smile and laugh, and he greeted Isaac’s friends warmly as well. I watched my nephew interact with people comfortably, and thought about how — at six years old — he had already established roots here in the community.

Time always seems to slow down for me when I visit friends and family in the Midwest, regardless of how busy I actually am. People there are in love with their neighborhood, their community, their home.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for 15 years and in California for most of my life. I love it here. And I’m lucky to have friends all over the world, some of whom I’ve known since I was a child. I stay connected with them via technology that has been around for most of my adult life, and I even have opportunities to see them face-to-face on occasion. It’s a wonderful world of connection and community that, for many, is new and exciting.

For some, it’s scary. There’s a sense of loss, this notion that all of this virtual hyperconnectedness will disconnect us from place. I understand that feeling, because when I visit my sister and her family in Cincinnati, I feel what I’m missing.

But it doesn’t have to be a choice. Community is not a zero-sum game. For me, visiting my sister’s family in Cincinnati, becoming part of their community for even a few days, enjoying breakfast at a place like Tucker’s, all of this is a visceral reminder that, at the end of the day, behind all of the wires and waves and screens, it’s about people. It’s about connecting to other living, breathing human beings. How we do it and where we do it may evolve, but why we do it and how it feels when we do is fundamental and constant.

This is the wonderful video that Carrie Cochran, the journalist who was at Tucker’s that day, created:

Walking and Learning in Chicago

The first time I met Howard Rheingold, he suggested we go on a walk. A few weeks later, I met Howard at his house, which lies at the foot of Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, and we walked and talked. It was wonderful.    (MND)

Ever since I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, I’ve suggested to many a colleague that we go on a walk. I live a few blocks away from Lands End, a beautiful trail along the ocean on the northwest side of San Francisco, with gorgeous views of the coast, the Presidio, and the Golden Gate Bridge. I still do the coffee thing, but when opportunity knocks, I tell people to meet me at my apartment, and we walk and talk.    (MNE)

There’s something about the act of walking that stimulates the brain. It brings a natural rhythm to conversation, giving you space both to talk and to listen. The Peripatetics knew this. So did Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s magnum opus was entitled, Sein und Dasein. Dasein loosely translates to “existence,” or “being alive.” Heidegger likened it to walking in the forest and suddenly coming to a clearing, an Open Space, a place to breathe. It’s in these places, at the end of a journey, where we become most aware of ourselves and our surroundings.    (MNF)

I’m in the Midwest this week — South Bend, Indiana visiting my younger sister, then Cincinnati to visit my older sister, my brother-in-law, and my three year old nephew. It’s not vacation. Things are crazy at work (in a good way), and so I’m still chugging along, with breaks here and there to spend time with my family.    (MNG)

My original plan was to work from my sister’s place in South Bend. Then I decided that it would be wrong to be this close to Chicago and not visit some of my colleagues and friends in the area, and that it would be just as easy to work in Chicago as it would be in South Bend. So I made some last minute calls and spent yesterday in Chicago.    (MNH)

After spending the morning working, I had the pleasure of meeting Eric Sinclair in the flesh for the first time. He asked me where I wanted to eat lunch. I responded, “Somewhere distinctly Chicago.” He delivered.    (MNI)

Afterwards, I hopped on the El and headed north to visit Michael Herman. Michael’s still doing lots of Open Space, but he’s also got a new project that’s been keeping him very busy: Restoring an 80 year old home, which he and his wife, Jill, recently purchased. After assessing the state of the house and seeing the most magnificent radiator I’ve ever seen, Michael suggested that we go for a walk.    (MNJ)

And so we walked. We walked through his neighborhood and along the Chicago River. In between catching up on life and work, Michael talked about the city’s architecture and history. We discovered new streets and old bungalows. We saw kids playing in parks with their parents, and houses decorated for Halloween.    (MNK)

We walked, and we talked, and we ended up at the local elementary school, which also serves as the home for a community garden, “community” in every sense of the word. Only the students have plots; the rest of the space is community owned. Anyone in the community is free to garden any spot, weed any plot, pick vegetables and herbs from any plant. In the middle of this beautiful, old, urban neighborhood, amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, was this clearing, this beautiful, Wiki-like, community garden where the city seemed to disappear. Dasein.    (MNL)

I began the day with my nose to the grindstone, working on my various projects. I ended it walking, breathing, talking, learning. As I rode the train back to South Bend, reflecting on the day’s events and conversations, I couldn’t help but feel thankful.    (MNM)

My life and my work is ultimately about people, about maximizing our collective potential. As I’ve pursued this passion, I’ve found myself surrounded by incredible people with similar values and passions. I take great pride in the number of groups I’ve helped, the movements I’ve helped catalyze, and the knowledge I’ve shared, but all of this pales in comparison to what I’ve learned from others. What motivates me is the opportunity to share these same experiences and learnings with as many people as possible.    (MNN)

I’ve got a clear vision for how to do this more effectively, and while the mechanisms that make it work are complex, the actual actions required are relatively straightforward. Walking and talking are excellent ways to start.    (MNO)