Celebrating What You Accomplish While Looking Forward to Improving

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post over on Faster Than 20 entitled, “Made of Love.” All I wanted to do was to tell a brief story of a remarkable moment I experienced at a meeting I was shadowing and how that moment made me feel. It turned out to be more complicated than that. I wrote a long, confessional draft that made me feel raw and vulnerable, I asked people I trusted for feedback, then I sat on that feedback for a while, before finally deciding to revise and publish the post.

I’m really glad I did. I got a ton of thoughtful, moving responses from friends and colleagues, which has me thinking and wanting to share a lot more.

For the most part, I’m thrilled about everything I cut and rewrote. However, there’s one tiny story that I wanted to share here, because it’s a bit of a North Star for me.

There’s an episode of the PBS cooking documentary, Mind of a Chef, that follows Magnus Nilsson — considered one of the best chefs in the world — through the process of conceiving and creating a dish with a young protege. (You can watch the episode on Netflix if you’re a subscriber. Oh, how I wish for more open access, so I could easily share video clips. Another blog post for another time.) It’s mesmerizing to watch, partially because of the beautiful setting (a frozen lake in the Swedish countryside), partially because of the creativity and skill of execution.

Two things jumped out at me in particular. First was the delight that Nilsson expressed throughout the process, including when he tasted the final product. He clearly was not satisfied by it, and he methodically walked through how he wanted to make it better. But he still seemed really happy about what he had done. Second was the the relationship between Nilsson and his protege. The latter seemed nervous (perhaps more because he was on camera than because of his mentor), but he also seemed… safe? Excited? It’s hard to describe exactly, but it felt productive and loving.

That’s the balance I personally want to strike for when I create something. I actually think I’m a lot more joyful about iterations than others see, but I definitely could let myself appreciate and celebrate more. More importantly, I can let others see this appreciation and joy. I definitely hold back because I don’t want me or others to get complacent, but I think I can strike a better balance.

My Target Audience for my Work

I have a new online workshop offering at Faster Than 20 (Good Goal-Setting Peer Coachingregister today!), and I’ve been in the process of getting the word out. My friend, Danny Spitzberg, asked whom my target audience was. I figured I’d share my response here, as others might be interested in my answer.

Here’s a rough approximation of my target audiences:

In general, I’m targeting “collaboration practitioners” — anyone who:

  • Thinks effective collaboration is productive and fulfilling
  • Is motivated to improve their group’s collaboration, regardless of their role

The vast majority of collaboration practitioners do not self-identify as such. It’s sometimes in their job descriptions — any leadership and management position, for example — but often is not. It often ends up being invisible work by people who do not necessarily have positional power and that others may or may not value or even see (and hence is often uncompensated), but is nevertheless critical. Much of my strategy is about helping people recognize that being a collaboration practitioner is indeed a thing, that a lot of others think and care about doing this well, and that a community for this exists if people want it.

Good collaboration practitioners care about performance. Great practitioners care about the intersection between performance and aliveness. Truly high-performance groups both perform and feel alive.

My sweet spot audience is the intersection of collaboration practitioners and changemakers — people who care about making change in their respective groups. Not all changemakers have a broader or explicit social mission (which is where my heart is, personally), but I suspect that most changemakers have this implicitly.

“Unemployables” is a cheeky category (coined by Gwen Gordon) that came up at a dinner party the other night to describe independents who probably will never (and perhaps can’t) work for another person’s organization. There could be many reasons for why one might be an “unemployable,” some not necessarily good, especially in the context of collaboration. But when I use it in this context, there’s an implied (admirable) quality of being very values- and systems-driven.

I included this category mainly as an observation, not as a particular focus area, although I definitely care about these folks and count myself among them. They tend to be radically motivated, the folks who are most likely to take my public domain material and use it to learn and practice on their own.

What do you think? Are the categories clear? Do they resonate?

On Blogging and Maintenance (and my Website Refresh)

I updated my website look-and-feel for the first time since 2010, which is when I migrated it from Blosxom (!) to WordPress. The overall architecture is the same. I just wanted to update the theme to something more modern — responsive on mobile, more photography-friendly, support for the latest WordPress features including the new Gutenberg editor, etc.

I built the new theme on top of CoBlocks, which saved me a ton of time, gave me a bunch of things for free, and will hopefully future-proof me a little bit better than last time. (My previous homegrown theme lasted over eight years, so it did well all things considered.)

Still, the update took a long time. I had to get clear about what I wanted and research the available themes. I had to experiment with different themes to see which ones worked best. I had to brush up on CSS and the wonders of responsive design so I could create a homepage that looked more or less how I wanted it. I had to go down many ratholes, because that’s just what I do.

My impetus for all of this was that I missed blogging, and I want to do more of it this year. Updating the site was akin to buying a new outfit — not strictly necessary, but feels pretty fresh.

What do I miss about blogging? Becoming less dumb by chewing on half-baked ideas and having others help bake them further.

When I first started in 2003, blogging was like exchanging letters out in the open. The act of writing things down (especially in public) forced me to slow down, reflect, and crystallize my thinking in whatever state it happened to be at the time. The act of curating links helped reinforce the lessons learned from others (and myself), while also giving me a chance to acknowledge them publicly. Doing this out in the open meant anyone could jump in, which helped me get out of my silo and discover wonderful new voices. All of this helped make the web a more useful, humane place.

I’ve done pretty well over the years, but the tenor of it all gradually changed. Social media has cannibalized a lot of people’s attention (including my own). Because it’s not a slow medium, the nature of how I engage with others (not just where I engage with them) has changed. It’s more frequent, but it’s also more shallow. That’s actually a nice complement when I have a face-to-face relationship with people, but it’s not generative otherwise.

Last year, I only wrote five posts on this blog, my fewest ever. It wasn’t for lack of material, and it wasn’t even because I didn’t have enough time. I did lots of journaling and drawing, I just did most of it in private.

Some of it was social media backlash. I was on social media a lot for my 365 photo project in 2015, and while the experience was overall positive, I think it burned me out on sharing so much of myself. I’ve been much less active on social media — and on the Internet generally — since.

Some of it was an unexpected professional side effect, one I’m actively trying to counter. Most of my current colleagues don’t blog, and when they do, it’s rarely half-baked. (I have lots more to say about this, which I’ll probably share on Faster Than 20 in the near future.) This had the effect of lowering the bar for me, which is not what I want. I want to raise the bar for others.

Because of how I blogged when I first got started, I have about eight years of archives of a lot of my early thinking about collaboration. It’s so valuable for me to be able both to mine and to share this with others. Unfortunately, that’s not true of a lot of what I’ve been working on and thinking about for the past eight years.

I want to re-adjust. I’m inspire by my friends, especially Alex Schroeder, who have kept it up consistently over the years. I want to think out loud a lot more, especially about my work, while also still sharing the occasional personal tidbits. I’ve worked hard to balance my life so that I have more reflection time, and I want to make better use of this time by sharing more. I’d also love to experiment more with mining and making what I’ve already written more visible.

I’m sure the experience won’t be the same as it was in the early days, but I’m going to keep at it. I’ll continue to share what I write on Twitter and maybe Facebook, but the better way to track is to subscribe to my feed via your favorite feed reader (I use Feedly) or via email below. As always, I welcome comments below (or on social media), but I’d especially encourage you to try commenting the old-fashioned blogger way — by responding in your own blog with a link to the original source. Either way, would love to hear from folks!

Learning via Artifacts: A Conversation with Dave Gray

Next Wednesday, April 2, 2014 at 12:30pm PDT, I’ll be participating in a public Google Hangout with my friend, Dave Gray. The conversation will be about learning via artifacts. All are welcome to watch. We’ll also be using a public Boardthing to take notes during the conversation, and we encourage everyone to join in that as well.

Why are we doing this, and what exactly is “learning via artifacts” all about?

The short answer is that this is a response to my recent blog post over on Faster Than 20, “Documenting Is Not Learning.” That post was a mini-rant on how many people seem to equate “learning systems” with trying to get people to write down and file everything that’s in their heads so that others can read and access them. It’s an incredibly naive approach, but people often pour thousands of dollars (and sometimes orders of magnitude more) into trying to build these kinds of systems, most of which inevitably fail.

My overwhelming desire to make this point caused me to wave my hands past a subtle, but equally important point, one that is foundational to all the work that I do: The process of documenting is one of the most powerful ways of catalyzing learning.

Dave (and a few others, actually) called me out on this point on Facebook. I agreed, and I said I needed to write a followup. But since I was already talking with him about this, and since he happens to be one of the foremost practitioners in this space, I figured it would be much more interesting to highlight his voice. Thus, next Wednesday’s Google Hangout was born.

The Boardthing is a huge bonus. Dave and his team recently created a wonderful collaborative tool that is the online equivalent of putting stickies on walls. If that sounds simple, it is, but when done right, it’s also incredibly powerful. Up until now, no one has done it right. We’ll use Boardthing to model what we’ll be talking about, and we hope that many of you will jump in as well.

The long story starts with this gift from Dave on October 18, 2006:

Designing for Emergence

Dave was participating in a collaboration workshop I was facilitating in St. Louis. To him, this isn’t anything special. This is simply the way he takes notes.

To me, this was a gift on many levels. Whenever I think about that workshop, I think of this image first. I actually took copious notes from that workshop, some of which I even blogged. I wrote a piece about the things I said that led to Dave drawing this. I also posted pictures from that workshop, including shots of the flipcharts from the day.

There are lots of great knowledge nuggets, most of which have been sitting around, collecting virtual dust for years. Until I think about this picture, that is. This image, for me, is the start of a trail, and whenever I start poking around it again, I remember old insights, and I look at them in new ways. I’m willing to bet that this holds true for whomever reads this, that you are far more likely to start poking around than you would have had you not seen the picture. There is something about the visual that draws us in, that stirs our emotions, that makes us want to know more.

This is all after-the-fact learning. But what about in-the-moment learning? What was happening in Dave’s head as he drew that picture? How did the act of drawing help him learn? What would happen if you made that synthesis process collaborative? How would that impact learning?

I’ll leave you all with these questions for now. This is the stuff that we’ll be talking about this coming Wednesday. But I do want to say a few more things about Dave.

Dave is and has been my hero in so many ways. I’ve known many brilliant visual thinkers and learners for many years, but there has always been something about Dave’s style and presence that has encouraged me to practice these skills myself more actively in a way that others haven’t.

The first time we met, he explained to me how he draws stick figures. His trick? Draw the body first. Why? Because body language says so much! That’s really the essence of what you’re trying to communicate. How freakin’ simple and brilliant is that?!

My partnership with Amy Wu over the years has been strongly influenced and inspired by Dave and his work, and you can see that in the evolution of my slides over the years and even in the Faster Than 20 website. What you don’t see in those final products are all of the sketches that both Amy and I drew to help us think through these ideas. Dave is one of the people who strongly inspired me to work this way.

To me, Dave personifies the learning mindset. At XPLANE, the wonderful design consultancy he founded years ago, he started something called Visual Thinking School, one of the ideas that inspired me to start Changemaker Bootcamp last year. He is a great speaker and writer, but he is also constantly making things — tools like Boardthing, companies like XPLANE, brilliant books like The Connected Company, beautiful paintings.

When he learns, he learns out loud, so that others can participate in and benefit from all aspects of his process, not just the beautiful, final artifacts. He wanted to learn more about Agile processes, so he decided to write a book about it. He’s interviewing great practitioners in order to learn, and he’s doing them live on Google Hangout, so others can learn with him.

I love every opportunity I have to chat with and learn from him, and I hope many of you will join us this Wednesday!

I’ll write a followup blog post on Faster Than 20 after our conversation about learning via artifacts, but in the meantime, you can read and watch some of the things I’ve said on this topic in the past:

Finally, here’s video from a brown bag I led in 2011 entitled, “Saving the World Through Better Note-Taking.”

My Six Favorite Essays on the Groupaya Blog

A random interaction with an old friend earlier today caused me to search for something I wrote on the Groupaya blog a few years ago. That got me nostalgic, and I ended up reading every post on the blog.

It was great to revisit these, and it stirred up some useful, sometimes nostalgic memories. I’m proud of what I wrote in my time there (2011-2012), but I’m even prouder of what Kristin Cobble and Rebecca Petzel wrote. They shared some wonderful gems.

It’s unfortunate that the company no longer prioritizes real-time knowledge sharing, since there’s a lot of wisdom in that group from which the world could benefit. It’s understandable, though. Sharing what you learn openly and in real-time is challenging, even scary, and it’s not for everyone. You have to really value it to do it.

If you do, however, you’ll find that it’s not that hard to make it a habit. It’s also tremendously rewarding, as I’ve been rediscovering through my Faster Than 20 blog. The act of writing and sharing is valuable in and of itself. It helps you think, and it helps you find your people. I am constantly humbled by the people I meet and touch through my writing.

But the most valuable benefit of blogging this way is that your ideas become persistent. (This is also what scares a lot of people.) Others can discover what you write long after you’ve written it. That can lead to new connections and possibilities. “Others” sometimes even includes yourself! I find revisiting old thinking to be a hugely valuable learning process, if only to remind me of thoughts I once thought and have since forgotten.

Here, in no particular order, are my six favorite essays from the Groupaya blog that I wrote:

  1. What Does the Collaboration Field Look Like?
  2. Measuring Impact: How You Feel Also Matters
  3. The Illusion of Control
  4. Practicing for the Emergent
  5. The Skillful, Intentional Practitioner.
  6. The Secret to High-Performance: Constant Striving

Enjoy!