Kangaroo Court: A Tool for Constructive Feedback

One of my personal challenges at Groupaya was not overwhelming my team with negative feedback. I was generally proud of the quality of my team’s work, and I think I was decent at expressing that pride in the form of positive, constructive feedback. However, I also generally had a long list of nitpicks, and I never felt the need to hold any of that back. In my mind, my positive feelings far outweighed my criticism. However, I often had difficulty communicating that.

My friend, Alex Kjerulf, is a happiness guru, and he speaks often about negativity bias. Humans are biologically more attuned to negative than to positive feedback, between three-to-five times as much. To compensate for negativity bias, you need to share positive feedback three-to-five times as often as negative.

I tried to do this, and I was sometimes even successful, but there was a deeper issue. Rebecca Petzel once said to me, “You’re the most positive person in the company, but somehow, your negative feedback stings more than anyone else’s.” My problem wasn’t necessarily quantity, it was quality.

I tried a lot of different things, and nothing seemed to work well. Out of desperation, I decided to invent a game inspired by kangaroo courts.

Kangaroo courts are essentially arbitrary forms of justice. In government, they describe a corrupt judicial system. In sports, however, they’re used as a way to enforce unwritten rules and to build team camaraderie.

A team’s veterans are usually the arbiters of justice, although the coaches sometimes play this role as well. Veteran leaders might fine their teammates for something ludicrous, such as wearing a really loud tie, but they also dole out justice for disciplinary reasons, such as showing up late to practice. Fines are often used to fund team parties.

I decided that Groupaya needed a kangaroo court. If I could attach a number to my feedback, then the magnitude of my feedback would become more clear. For nitpicks, I would dole out small fines. For major problems, I would dole out larger ones.

Given that we were not as liquid as professional athletes, I figured that an arbitrary point system would serve our purposes. Since we were using points instead of money, I figured we could actually reward people as well as penalize them. Since we had a flat, collaborative culture, I decided that anybody in the company should be able to both dole out and take away points. And if we were going to go through the effort of giving and taking points away, we might as well keep track of them.

On June 13, 2012, I created a page on our internal wiki outlining the “rules” of the game, and I announced the game on our internal microblog. I then modeled the game by docking two points from myself, one each for misspelling two people’s names in different places. (This is a huge detail pet peeve of mine, given that we’re in a relational business.)

The game lay dormant for a few days, then on June 17, 2012, I gave and took away points four additional times:

Eugene: +5 to Kristin for her June 14 addition on Charter markers to the Groupaya Way wiki. It was great information, and it showed that she’s developing an instinct for how to use wikis in-the-flow. Love it!

Eugene: -1 to Kristin for being overly motherly with Rebecca

Eugene: -1 to Rebecca for comparing me and Kristin to her parents.

Eugene: +1 to Eugene for unintentionally conceiving of a way to get people to learn how to use the wiki.

Out of the six times I delivered justice, three were “real,” and the rest were jokes. Two of the three “real” instances were me penalizing myself, and the other was me awarding points rather than taking them away.

At this point, our ops guru, Natalie Dejarlais, figured out what was going on, and contributed her own dry sense of humor:

Natalie: +1 to Rebecca for not comparing me to her parents.

Rebecca and Kristin Cobble, my Groupaya co-founder, were mystified. Rebecca, ever the competitive one, was miffed that she was down a point in a game that she hadn’t signed up for. Keep in mind, all of this was happening online. We had not seen each other or talked over the phone, so I had not had the chance to explain the game verbally.

Shortly afterward, I left town for a client, and while I was gone, Natalie explained the game to Rebecca and Kristin at coworking. They got it, both started playing, and the game took on a life of its own. Everyone played. We gave and took points away from each other and ourselves about 40 times a month.

Lots of them were silly, where we were simply goofing off and having fun with each other. Many were concrete and substantial. Unexpectedly, the vast majority of these were positive. I had designed the game to be a safe way to give negative feedback, but it had emerged as a way of celebrating each other’s successes, of tracking what we were doing well, and of lightening the overall mood.

At some point, I decided that the points winner each month should win a trophy (a Surfer Obama bobblehead doll I picked up in Hawaii along with a tiara that Natalie contributed to disincentivize me from trying to win) and that the points would reset each month. We had a monthly awards ceremony, where Natalie would blast the theme song from Rocky, and Kristin would pretend that she didn’t love Surfer Obama. (When she finally won, she confessed her true feelings.)

The game had its desired effect in terms of improving the overall learning culture in our organization, but its most important contribution was joy and humor. I often pondered writing a mobile app so that we could extend the game to our larger network, as we often found ourselves granting points to our external colleagues and clients, who never got to actually see them (or, more importantly, win Surfer Obama).

I’m strongly considering introducing some variation of the game into Changemaker Bootcamp, as I’m looking for creative ways of introducing more concrete feedback so that participants can track their progress. Amy Wu, Groupaya’s brilliant designer, recently told me that she had adapted the game for her kids to great effect. If you decide to adopt or adapt the game for your team or organization, let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear about it!

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.

Seriously! A Movie About Play

My friend, Gwen Gordon, is a play consultant. Yes, you read her job title correctly. Even having known her and having worked with her, I’m still not sure what that entails. I’m not even going to bother citing her ridiculously impressive credentials. All I know is that a little dose of Gwen leads to creative breakthroughs and makes everything more delightful.

When Kristin Cobble and I were struggling with what to name our company, we called Gwen. “Groupaya” was born. When we were struggling with our logo and driving our graphic designer, Amy Wu, crazy, we called Gwen. Voila. Breakthrough.

When we were working with the IT division at a multi-billion dollar, global company, and we decided we wanted to introduce a little play and humor into the project, we called Gwen. We consistently got feedback like, “I love your reading your stuff. It’s not your usual business mumbo jumbo.” That may sound like it was a bonus, but it was actually critical. We were trying to elicit participation and engagement among a group that “didn’t have time” to participate and engage, and we wouldn’t have pulled it off without Gwen.

Gwen loves play. She embodies it, she obsesses about it, and she practices it. And for over a year now, she’s been developing a documentary about it. And it’s awesome.

Now she needs some additional funding to finish it. So she started a Kickstarter campaign. Watch her video below, then give a little something to help make it happen.

Need another nudge? Go check out what Kristin had to say about Gwen on her movie on the Groupaya blog.