Leaving Trails and Serendipity

This morning, I’ve been doing some time travel. I’ve been doing a lot of writing and reflecting this weekend. Some of it has been for clients, some of it has been for this blog and the Groupaya blog, and some of it has been on internal wikis. I do a decent job of leaving trails, and tools like blogs and wikis have nice features that encourage serendipitous connections. That’s resulted in some interesting stuff I’ve written in the past rising to the surface.

Here are two previous blog posts that turned up serendipitously because of stuff that I wrote this weekend (including this post):

About five years ago, I wrote a post entitled, “Work Rhythms.” (This post turned up as a “Related post” under my previous blog post, since Nancy White is mentioned in both.) It talks a lot about the merits of slowing down, and it references influential interactions with folks such as Nancy, Chris Dent (my Blue Oxen Associates cofounder), and Howard Rheingold. It’s interesting to see how much I thought about this stuff five years ago, how much that thinking has stuck with me five years later, and how much I still struggle with this.

Here’s a nice historical piece about coworking, a blog post I wrote in 2005 entitled, “Coworking Open House, November 21.” (This post turned up because I was searching for stuff I had written previously about wikis encouraging serendipitous interactions. I couldn’t find what I was looking for, but I found this post instead.) It’s an invitation to an early event my friend, Brad Neuberg, threw to spread the gospel of coworking, a term that he coined. It’s awesome to read and remember this, knowing what a huge phenomenon coworking has become since. What’s even more interesting about that post is that I didn’t know Brad that well at the time, but I had clearly connected strongly with him. A few months later, I hired him to be the architect and chief developer for Doug Engelbart‘s HyperScope, a wild professional and personal experience that I still treasure today.


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.

Leading Change

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.

New Life

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.

You can follow the ongoing Groupaya saga at our blog, on Twitter (@groupaya), and on Facebook. I’d love to hear what you think!

My Ideal Project

I had coffee with a colleague last week, and she asked me to describe my ideal project. I didn’t even have to think about my answer. My response:

  • Socially impactful
  • Collaborative
  • Very, very hard

I love projects that make you stop and think, “How the heck are we going to do this?”

I love projects where stuff gets done, not just talked about.

I love projects that require you to gather as many smart, passionate, caring people as possible and to get them aligned and activated in order to even have a chance at succeeding.

I love projects where everyone is working their butts off, learning, and having the time of their lives.

I love projects that are meaningful.

Not all of my projects are hard, but they’re all meaningful, and I feel very fortunate about that. Still, I’m constantly craving bigger, more impactful challenges.

Recently, I’ve been turning down a lot of speaking opportunities. I love to give talks, and I want to give more of them. They’re great excuses for me to reflect and synthesize and tell stories. But sometimes, I get the feeling that people are asking me to speak as a proxy for actually doing something.

The more my reputation grows, the more people give weight to what I say. It’s a nice feeling. It’s gratifying, it’s safe, and it makes me uncomfortable. I hate safe.

In theory, I know that all of this translates to more opportunities to work on the kinds of challenges I crave. Still, I would much rather have someone say to me, “I don’t want to hear what you have to say. I want you to show me.”

And when my reaction is, “Wow, that sounds super hard and super scary, and if we pull it off, a lot of people will be better off,” then I know that I’ve found the right project.

Wednesday Play Days

This is my calendar for this week:

It’s a pretty typical week for me, except for one thing. Can you see what it is?

One of the things I need to be happy, creative, and productive is space. Lots of it. I usually fill it up quickly, but that’s okay, as long as I have space to fill. One of the things I’ve done poorly since starting Blue Oxen Associates is create space for myself. It’s hard to do when you have your own company, especially if you love what you do. But it’s necessary.

Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been making some structural changes to try and create space for myself. One of those changes was to start taking vacations. I took my first extended vacation in eight years last October, and last month, I went on vacation again.

(Vacations, by the way, are awesome. I highly recommend them to everyone — real vacations, where you leave your devices at home. I know this is obvious to most people, but for the rest of you, please, do yourself a favor, and take a week off.)

Another change I made was to raise my consulting rates. I had not raised my rates since starting Blue Oxen eight years ago, and I was below market rate, so it was definitely overdue. That made a difference as well, partially because it gave me a bit more financial peace-of-mind, but mainly because it allowed me to hire more and better people for my projects. That made the work better and more fun, and it created some additional space for me to focus my energies on the stuff that excited me the most.

Still, at the end of June, I decided I needed a heart-to-heart with my partner-in-crime, Kristin Cobble. We had just finished a massive project together, busting our butts toward the finish line. Along the way, we had also been pouring hours into building our business, cultivating new clients, recruiting new talent, and planning and thinking together. Not surprisingly, we were exhausted.

So Kristin and I sat down together, and I said, “I want to take the entire month of July off. I don’t know if we can, but I want to. And then we need to make more changes so that we have more space — space to rest, to reflect, to play.”

Kristin was supportive and enthusiastic. We both already had vacations planned in July. Our previous client wanted to do some more work with us, but we weren’t sure when that would get started. We were also in discussions with other potential clients. We knew at worst that we’d have our vacations plus a small break from client work. But knowing that was not enough. I wanted to make more structural changes.

We decided to experiment with a new practice: Wednesday Play Days. In short, we would essentially treat Wednesdays as a weekend. That meant no meetings and no client work. Beyond those constraints, we could choose however we wanted to spend that day. We were using “play” in the broadest sense of the word.

We had several inspirations for this. One was Kristin’s dad, who believes strongly in working intensely for two days, then taking a break. He’s been practicing Wednesday Play Days for a long time. Another inspiration was my friend and colleague, Odin Zackman, who keeps his Wednesdays clear so that he can use it for thinking time. I was originally surprised that he did it in the middle of the week, but he made a really compelling case for breaking up the week that way.

We put it into practice immediately. Kristin has since stopped doing it, finding that, as a mom, it works better to distribute her rest time throughout the week. I’ve been doing it for a month now, and I’ve been absolutely loving it.

In the beginning, it was painful for me to schedule around Wednesdays. When client work is light, I tend to schedule more meetings. Wednesday Play Days prevented me from doing that.

It got easier quickly, though, because the impact was immediate. Whenever I look at my calendar and I see that blank space in the middle, I feel joy.

I’ve filled that space in different ways. A few times, I did “work” — not client work, but thinking and writing work, stuff I really enjoy and never find enough time to do. One time, my parents were in town, and so I spent the day with them, completely guilt-free. One time, I literally did nothing. I just relaxed.

So far, it’s had the desired effect, and I’m going to try to maintain it. This week, I’m being severely tested. A new project is starting, and we’re going to be working our butts off again. I also have some proposals to write for potential projects that I’m excited about. We’re in the middle of an internal strategy process, and we have the usual laundry list of things to do for everything else we’re involved with. What’s truly making it challenging is that all of this stuff is actually fun!

I am sorely tempted to break the “no client work” rule tomorrow, but I’m going to do everything in my power to resist. It may be easier to lift that rule and just keep Wednesdays meeting-free, but I’m not going to lift it without a fight. Things are picking up, but not insanely so. Leaving space in the middle of the week is enabling me to maintain that sanity, and I think the results will pay off for everyone — my clients, my colleagues, my friends and family, and most of all, me.

See you all on Thursday!

Advice for (Female) Changemakers

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years reflecting on where I am in my career, how I got here, and where I want to go. I find myself in a funny place. I still feel like I’m just getting started. I’m still hungry to learn and to play, to find fulfilling ways to make a bigger impact on the world.

But I’ve also been around the block a few times. Nine years ago, I had a vision for the world and my role in it, and I scratched and clawed to where I am today. I messed up a lot along the way, but I was very, very stubborn. I created a job description for myself that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I do the kind of work I want to do, the way I want to do it, with the people I want to do it with. Some critical mass of people know who I am and respect what I do, and that keeps me in business. Among that critical mass are changemakers themselves, people and organizations doing amazing things. I love what I do, I feel blessed to be doing it, and I’m hungry for more.

So now I’m in second grade. And naturally, there are folks in the first grade who are curious about how I got here. And since I’m tall for my age, there are folks in the third grade who think I know more than I do, and they’re curious too.

So I want to take a moment and offer some of that hard-earned wisdom. I want to offer this to anyone who wants to be a changemaker, but I especially want to offer it to women.

I have two reasons for this. First, for whatever reason, several women have recently reached out to me for advice, so this is in large part for them. Second, based on my experiences with an admittedly unrepresentative sample, I think that women could use this advice more than men. I’m not going to articulate my reasons for this better than Clay Shirky did last year, so I’m not going to try.

Find Your Voice

First and foremost, find your voice and own it. I can’t tell you how often I meet brilliant, passionate people who have important points of view and who aren’t willing to share them. It’s not because they feel proprietary about their thoughts. It’s because they feel unworthy of them.

There’s a psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It suggests that people who are incompetent tend to overrate their abilities, whereas people who are highly competent tend to underrate their abilities. I find the good kind of Dunning-Kruger rampant among the people I meet and know. It’s not bad on average, because it results in a learning mentality. But it becomes bad when it prevents you from owning your voice. If you’re not voicing your ideas, if you’re not interacting with others, you’re impeding your learning.

If you are humble and authentic, then most people will reward you, not punish you for owning your voice. I know people who are shy about talking about love or compassion or courage in public or even to their peers, because they fear they won’t be taken seriously by others. There may be people who won’t take you seriously, but there are many who will. If you own your voice, you will find those people.

My company has an overtly social mission, but I needed to see others do this successfully before I had the courage to do it myself. And I’ve taken my share of lumps for it. I went to Harvard, and despite the many, many mavericks who graduated (or not) from there, there is still a significant subculture among its alumni that defines success in a stupid way.

A few years after starting Blue Oxen Associates, a college friend said to me, “I’m surprised you’re doing this, Eugene.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I always thought you were more ambitious,” he responded.

I was confused. I had made it my goal to do my part to make the world a better place, and I was not being ambitious? It turned out that my friend had a very specific definition of “ambition,” one that had to do with the single-minded pursuit of money and status. Now that I’ve helped some of the most prestigious organizations in the world, he’s started taking my company seriously. Frankly, he’s still missing the point.

Anyone who claims they don’t care what other people think is a liar. Everyone cares. The question is how much you’ll let other people’s perceptions shape what you do and say. If your answer is “a lot,” the real question is, do you even know what other people think?

Most people don’t. We massively project, and then we listen selectively to feedback, disproportionately latching onto what we expect to hear. (This goes a long way toward explaining the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

I find that women have a bigger problem with this than men do, and I’m not alone in this observation. I have seen many brilliant, accomplished women not speak up in a room or not pursue opportunities that they should be pursuing, because of some self-doubt that no one else has about them. It bothers me every time I see it, because it’s not just a disservice to them, it’s a disservice to the world.

Own your voice. People may or may not take you seriously, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is being authentic, stepping into your power. When you own your voice, you will feel better about yourself, regardless of what others have to say, because you are being true to yourself.

Find Your People

Second, find your people. Owning your voice is the best first step toward doing this, because it helps your people find you. Frankly, if it’s the only step you ever take, you’ll do fine. But there are other great steps you can take as well toward doing this.

Finding your people is not about exchanging your business card with every person who passes your way — the dreaded Drive-By Networking.

It’s not about “friending” a thousand people on Facebook or LinkedIn. Social media can be a powerful tool for finding your people, but it’s not a prerequisite. Some of the best connected people I know have almost no presence on any online social networks.

It’s about being intentional and authentic about whom you reach out to and how. It always start with listening.

When I started Blue Oxen Associates, I had zero experience or reputation in this space, but I had a list of people whom I respected and admired. I had met some of these people personally, but I hadn’t worked with many of them. So I took a risk. I contacted every person on the list, and invited them to coffee.

Every person I invited said yes. I made it a point to listen and learn from them, and if I liked them, I also asked them to join my advisory board. To my surprise, everyone I asked said yes. Moreover, every one of them went out of their way to help me get started, never turning down a request to meet, giving me much needed advice and encouragement. I would not have made it here today had it not been for their support.

At first, I couldn’t understand why they were not only willing to take a chance on me, but were so generous with their time. All of these people were extremely busy, and some of them were big names in their industry. Over time, it dawned on me. They were seeking their people too. It’s not about finding people with big reputations. It’s about finding people who listen, who are constantly learning, and who care passionately about the world, even if they happen to be naive kids in their 20s with no experience.

Putting together this advisory board was the single best decision I made in starting my company. But a few years later, something felt off. My advisors had recently become too supportive. They rarely criticized me, and that didn’t make any sense to me, because I knew that I was making mistakes. I wanted my circle to kick my butt if it needed kicking. I started recruiting more advisors, folks whom I knew weren’t afraid to give me some tough love.

At our next meeting, I presented a new strategy, a shift I had been wanting to make for some time. And my newly expanded advisory board did what I had hoped: They were critical. Very critical. The response was universal: Too soon. I didn’t like what they said, and I ended up sticking with my plan. But the truth was, I listened. They forced me to reexamine my thinking critically, and I developed contingency plans that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

As it turned out, they were right. Knowing that now, I still wouldn’t have done anything any other way. I needed to try it to know for sure. I had hoped I was right, but I was prepared when it turned out I wasn’t, thanks to my advisors.

Sometimes, people are reluctant to ask for advice or help, because they want to be a little more prepared, have a bit more to show. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. You want to surround yourself with people who will help you as you’re developing your ideas, as you’re trying new things. Don’t wait.

At the same time, make sure you find the right balance between folks who will encourage you and folks who will be honest with you. It’s a very tricky balance. The first few years of my company were very difficult. I didn’t really need anyone else to criticize me; I was doing a great job of that myself. The support I got from my advisors, my colleagues, and my friends meant everything to me and kept me going. Later, when things started going better, and I started gaining more confidence, I needed my people to be more critical of me to keep me honest.

Many of my most successful women friends have women’s circles, which I think are fantastic. Some of them have asked me whether I would ever consider putting together a men’s circle. I usually jokingly respond, “I already have one. It’s called poker night.” The truth is, I’ve thought a lot about it, and I prefer having diversity across multiple axes in my circles, including gender. I think all women would benefit from having a strong women’s circle, but I think that many women would benefit from having strong male mentors as well.

Just Do It

Probably the biggest obstacle I see that prevents people from pursuing their passions is fear, fear of what others will think, and fear of not being ready. Don’t wait until you’re ready. You’ll never be ready. Changing the world is a moving target.

The path to changing the world is to start. Don’t worry about finding the perfect medium or the perfect job. Don’t worry about whether or not people are paying attention. Find every opportunity to try something, to practice, because that’s the only way you’ll ever get good at making change.