Perspective

For the past four weeks, I’ve been doing a little experiment as part of a cohort in which I’m participating. Every week, I’ve set aside three hours to write about lessons I’ve learned from different people (Doug Engelbart, Jeff Conklin, Chris Dent, Gail and Matt Taylor, and Kristin Cobble) and projects. I’m doing it primarily as a bottoms-up exercise to surface the core principles of my work, but I’m also curious to see if the stories themselves help people better understand my own story — why I do the work that I do and the core principles underlying my practice.

It’s been challenging and fun. It’s definitely helped me get clear, and I’ve also gotten good feedback from peers. I’ve benefited from decently organized notes over the years, several of which I published on this blog.

At times, I find myself flummoxed by how long I’ve been doing this. I “officially” started focusing on collaboration in 2002 — 15 years ago! — and I started this blog the following year. I’ve been pulling up lots of posts that I wrote a decade ago or longer, and while it’s been fun to revisit work that I was doing and questions I was exploring, it also leaves me wondering where the years have gone.

Then I think about my mentors. Jeff had been doing this work for 20 years when I first met him, Matt and Gail for almost 30, and Doug for 50! One of the many things that all four of these good folks had in common was that they were still curious, still learning. They had strong points of view that they had earned through many years of real practice, but they never let that interfere with their hunger to learn more and from anyone, regardless of age or background.

Compared to my mentors, 15 years still squarely places me in the beginner category, which is good, because that’s about how I feel. Maybe I’m in second grade now. It’s firing me up for what I’ll learn in the next 15 years, at which point maybe I’ll graduate to third grade.

More importantly, it reminds me how lucky I’ve been to have important mentors in my life and how important it is for me to pay it forward.

An Anthology of my Critiques of Organizational Development

My friend and former business partner, Kristin Cobble, recently asked me to re-share some of my critiques of the organizational development (OD) field and of OD consultants in particular. It took me some digging to pull together what I felt were the most relevant posts, so I thought I’d share them here.

The best place to start is, “Group Process on Steroids.” I make the point that OD practitioners tend to be too meeting- or tool-centric. I think they need to be more principle- and practice-driven, like chefs.

In “Disrupting Organizational Consulting,” I talk about commoditizing the low-end of the market. For most people, hiring OD (or management, for that matter) consultants is overkill, and they generally get a low return on that investment. If we created more DIY and low-end support options (which is where I’m focusing a lot of my energy right now), we could eliminate that side of the market, which would also help weed out mediocre consultants. I riff on this some more in, “What Consultants Can Learn From the Photography Field.”

In “Organizational Development as Product Design,” I compare the two fields, and I talk about what OD consultants could be learning from product designers. One of those things is about naming and testing your assumptions up-front, which would give us a baseline for measuring our effectiveness. This rarely happens, especially among social change consultants, many of whom suffer from Noble Pursuit Syndrome.

“Lessons from the NBA on Life, Learning, and Navigating Power” is more of a personal riff, but I talk a bit about the lack of openness and collaboration in organizational consulting, something I’m trying to be a lot more intentional about modeling.

Finally, this network analysis of OD and related fields shows how siloed the OD field in particular is, and discusses some of the implications.

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!

Passing the Torch

We hired Dana Reynolds as Groupaya’s administrative assistant in the middle of 2012. She was a recent college graduate who had all the attributes we were looking for — hard-working, competent, detail-oriented, learning-oriented. She was also ambitious and aggressive, two attributes I love and relate to. She wanted to become an organizational development consultant, and she was looking for a place where she could learn the trade.

This past year, as I started to explore what I wanted to do next, I thought a lot about Dana. I knew she was learning a tremendous amount from working closely with Kristin Cobble, my former business partner, but I also knew that actual practice opportunities were few and far between.

My new mission, in many ways, can be boiled down to this: Creating practice opportunities for people like Dana. Changemaker Bootcamp has been my primary experiment, but I’ve been playing with other ideas as well.

Dana participated in my most recent Changemaker Bootcamp pilot, and I got to see first-hand how much she’s grown in the year since I left Groupaya. After my exit interview with her, we discussed her career goals, and I saw how hungry she was for practice opportunities.

A few weeks later, an opportunity unexpectedly cropped up. Meghan Reilly of Code for America reached out to me and asked if I would facilitate their staff retreat. I explained that I no longer do that sort of thing, but I asked if she’d be open to having someone less experienced facilitate the retreat, with me serving as backup. She very graciously said yes.

We had done this together once before. Meghan had reached out to me two years earlier about the same thing. I had just started Groupaya with Kristin, and I saw it as an opportunity to give our associate, Rebecca Petzel, some practice with me as backup. Meghan graciously agreed, and Rebecca killed. The difference was that Rebecca was far more experienced then than Dana was now, and she had known a lot more about the organization and the civic innovation space. Having Dana do it was risky, and I did not take the faith that Meghan and the other leaders at Code for America had in me lightly.

So we prepared. Dana worked really hard and put in extra time to make sure she was ready.

The day before the retreat, Dana and I were supposed to meet to complete our preparation. At the last minute, I needed to find a different location for our meeting, so I reached out to Rebecca to see if we could use her coworking space. Rebecca said yes, and she also found time to sit in on part of our meeting, which was an unexpected bonus.

At one point, Dana asked me if she could keep time during the retreat on her cell phone. I opened my mouth to respond, but Rebecca jumped in beforehand. She took off her watch (which her best friend had given her), and she handed it to Dana.

She explained, “When I did their retreat two years ago, I realized that it was hard to keep time with my cell phone. I didn’t have a watch, so Eugene loaned me his. Now I want to loan you mine, so you can use it tomorrow.”

It was a beautiful gesture, and the spot where I was sitting may have gotten a little dusty at that point. Dana ended up doing an amazing job, far exceeding my expectations.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mentorship this past year. I worked very hard to get to where I am, but the reality is that I was also incredibly lucky to have mentors who believed in me and who opened doors for me. The most important one — the one who set me on this path in the first place — passed away earlier this year. I feel a huge responsibility to create opportunities for others in the same way that he did for me.

I very much hope that my professional peers feel the same way. The kind of work that we do around collaboration is urgent and necessary, and a lot more people need to learn how to do it effectively. We have a responsibility not just to pass on our knowledge, but to create opportunities for others so that they can learn the way we did.

Seeing Rebecca “pass the watch” to Dana meant a lot to me, but what has been even more gratifying has been watching Rebecca work. This past year, she led a six-month collective learning process with a group of civic engagement funders that was innovative and transformative. There are only a handful of people in the world who could have done the work as skillfully as she did, and that handful does not include me.

I want to live in a world where there are thousands of people like Rebecca doing the kind of work that she’s been doing as well as she’s been doing it. Dana will get there, but we need many, many more. In order for this to happen, those of us who are already doing this kind of work have a responsibility to share what we’ve learned and to create opportunities for others so that a new, better generation can emerge.

A Shining Example of Failure, Courage, and Learning

Last year, I co-led a project called the Delta Dialogues, an effort to rebuild trust and shared understanding around critical water issues in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. I’m very proud of that work, and knowing that I would have to let go of this project was one of the things that made leaving Groupaya last year very difficult. However, I also knew that I left the project in the capable hands of Kristin Cobble and Jeff Conklin. Moreover, the success of this project ultimately hinges on the participants themselves, and we had a wonderful core.

From the start, we designed the Dialogues to be a transparent process. We hired my friend, Joe Mathews, to be the storyteller, and we gave him one task: Write what you see. He’s been doing that beautifully from day one, from the monthly blog posts on the Delta Dialogues website to his beautiful narrative in the Phase 1 Final Report.

Tonight, I came across Joe’s latest blog post, a description of last month’s meeting. On the one hand, it was hard to read. It was clearly not a good meeting, and clearly, my old team contributed to that.

On the other hand, I felt very proud. I’m proud of my old team, I’m proud of my old client, the Delta Conservancy, and I’m proud of all of the Delta Dialogues participants for continuing to demonstrate a commitment to transparency. It could not have been easy to experience a meeting like this, and seeing it described in this way for all to see could not have made it feel any better.

However, any attempt to solve a truly meaningful problem is, by nature, complicated and messy. When I see stories like this, I trust that I’m getting an authentic picture of what’s happening, and I also get an opportunity to actually learn from it. That doesn’t happen when you whitewash your story, prioritizing perception over learning. Most of the “failure movement” in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector feels whitewashed to me. We need to see a lot more authentic sharing if we’re going to get better at this kind of work, and I’m proud that my old team is modeling this.

I wrote previously about including a checkbox for failure in your list of success metrics, where I told a story of a failure we had at one of the Delta Dialogues meetings that I facilitated. Honestly, that story is like a badge of honor to me. We failed, because we tried something that was hard, we learned from that experience, and we made things better as a result. I’m betting that this most recent failure will turn out to be the same for the current team.

What can others learn from this particular failure? I’m sure there were a thousand things that could have been better, and I’m sure that Kristin and Jeff have been exhaustive in cataloging all of them. I’m also quite certain that they violated the first rule of Changemaker Bootcamp a thousand times over, and I probably would have done so as well if I were in their shoes. It’s easier to see the bigger picture from the outside. I had two major takeaways.

First, I was struck by the simplicity of Joe’s observation that 40 percent of the participants at this meeting were new. That should have been an immediate red flag, and yet, I can also understand how easy it might have been to miss that.

In Phase One, we brought a wide array of sophisticated tools, and yet, these only contributed in small ways to our success. The vast majority of our success was due to our ability to co-create a safe container with the participants  in which to have a very challenging discussion.

This was less about sophistication and more about effort. We devoted an incredible amount of time discussing this among ourselves and with the participants. We even threw in an additional meeting for free, because we felt it was critical to get right, and we needed more time in order to do so. We spent almost half of our precious time with participants doing site visits, rotating the location of the meetings, and giving participants a chance to viscerally experience each other’s lives and livelihoods. None of these ideas were particularly sophisticated, but the decision to prioritize these things in the face of many other pressures required skill and discipline.

In many ways, the current team was a victim of the original team’s success. Once you successfully create a container, people start taking it for granted, and it’s much harder to prioritize. If I were still leading the project, I don’t know if I would have had the skill and discipline to focus on these things in the face of intense pressure to do otherwise.

But, at the end of the day, facts are facts. Seven out of 17 of the participants that day were new. That’s a very large number. In that situation, you either have to commit time to reinforcing the container (either before or during the meeting), or you have to turn participants away.

Second, Jeff clearly had a bad day. I have worked with many great facilitators, and I have seen several of them have bad days. One of the things I learned from Matt and Gail Taylor was the importance of building a great support team and structure around the facilitators to increase the likelihood of their success. Otherwise, the only way a facilitator can be successful — especially when dealing with a wicked problem and a challenging environment — is by being superhuman.

No one is superhuman. Everybody has bad days, even with a great support structure around them. I think a lot of facilitators forget this, and when they have a bad day, they punish themselves relentlessly. Jeff is one of the truly great facilitators in the world. If he can have a bad day, then anyone can. This stuff is hard. It’s important not to lose sight of that.

The Delta Dialogues participants are committed and resilient. They’ll be back, and the process will get back on track.