Why Groupaya?

I have been consulting for over twenty years. I was originally drawn to consulting because I saw it as a way to transform people’s lives for the better. Why be miserable at work when we spend more than half of our waking hours there?  Why not have more fun at work and get more fulfillment? Why not have businesses make money and contribute to making the world a better place?

Though many books have since explored these questions, I am still surprised by how many organizations continue to consider them irrelevant, and therefore miss opportunities to create a more innovative, adaptable, and committed workforce.

Early on, I learned that groups of humans could be smarter together than they can be alone. I also saw that groups could make a much bigger difference together than individuals could alone. I discovered the simple act of aspiring to do something beyond making money yields disproportionate commitment and creativity.

My quest became, “How do we help leaders and groups — be they leadership teams, organizations, or multi-stakeholder groups — think more imaginatively about the future, dream bigger dreams, and find the courage and tenacity to turn their new visions into reality?”

When I left Monitor over 2 years ago, I could have remained an independent consultant, focusing on what I know best — executive coaching and organizational development — or gone back to being an internal consultant. However, my quest was not complete. I wanted to build an organization that was consistent with my aspirations for what is possible in the realm of work that would give me a chance to “walk my talk.”  I also wanted to have a bigger impact, through mentoring and developing others as they followed a similar path.

Two people strongly influenced the next chapter of my quest: First, working with Pete Leyden, the enthusiastic founder of Next Agenda. He introduced me to the idea of using online platforms to extend meetings in time and space, so that more people could participate over a longer period of time and the conversation could go deeper.

The second was working with the extremely competent Eugene Eric Kim, who co-founded Groupaya with me. Pete hired Eugene because he had loads of experience with using online platforms to support collaboration. What appealed to me about Eugene was that, unlike me, he was not an organizational development or leadership development consultant. Yet he was also passionate about collaboration, participatory process, learning, development, and having a big impact. We seemed to have a lot in common at the philosophical level, though we’d been approaching our work from different lenses.

As we worked together, I saw that my focus on helping groups create something together over time, whether it be creating a more adaptive culture, creating a more innovative strategy, or creating stronger external partnerships, was limited. I knew how to design great meetings and processes that create the space for reflection and lead to the kinds of conversations in which people are jazzed because they are thinking more intelligently together, talking about things that really matter, and moving into right action.

But what I didn’t know how to do was expand the conversation to include people who weren’t in the room. And how to ensure the conversation and learning would continue when people were back in the reality of their crazy, busy “run-from-meeting-to-meeting” schedules.

As Eugene and I worked together, I saw new avenues for bring individuals, organizations, and networks alive.

I learned about Google Docs (see A Simple Technology that Enhances Team and Organizational Performance), the power of having an internal Wiki to enhance organizational learning, and the power of using Twitter or Chatter to open up a conversation. Our team was doing 60 second Flip camera interviews of participants in meetings, posting pictures, data and video on an internal wiki right after the meeting,  and making these available to those who were not there in person. It was amazing!

We were using technology to support and enhance collaboration. Instead of it getting in the way of human connection, it was enhancing it.

The next phase of the quest
Though I have no interest in sitting in front of my computer all day, feeling compelled to read each email or tweet as it comes in, I do want to see how technology can enhance our ability to work together, to tackle tough problems, and to create the organizations and future that we want.

I have seen that technology can help us to be more transparent, more nimble and smarter. I want to further explore how it can also help us to be more human, more intimate and more connected.

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Activation on Steroids

After designing and facilitating a 200 person meeting in Europe last week, intended to be the kick off of a larger change process, I am much clearer about the potential of Groupaya. I’ve been saying that we are OD (organizational development) on steroids. I now see we are simply “Activation on steroids.”

I’ve always loved designing large group meetings, because of their potential to bring a system alive, to tap into the collective intelligence of everyone and to create a highly aligned and committed group of people, ready for whatever change is in store for them.

Many conferences and internal large group meetings rely on keynote speakers and panels, thus limiting the interaction between participants to breaks. Why does this matter? Isn’t there value in learning from an expert or a trail blazer? Absolutely! We always can get ideas and be inspired by those on stage. However, in conversation with a peer or small group of peers, it is much more likely that we will further our own thinking. Instead of being left with thinking how great the speaker is, we will be left thinking how great our life is – excited about our own insights and the next thing we now see we want to do.

Simply put, it tends to be much more empowering, not to mention more effective, to develop insight in conversation, and less so in one-way forums in which we are a silent listener, having a conversation in our own head about what is being said.

In our meetings, while we may bring in an outside speaker or two to act as a provocateur to stretch the thinking of the group and while we certainly encourage the presence and active participation of the formal leaders, more than anything, we focus on creating a design that gets people talking: thinking in new ways about old topics, imagining the future they want to create, together. Everyone becomes a leader.

As soon as you walk into the room of one of our meetings, you realize this meeting is going to be different. Instead of rows of immovable chairs side by side, facing the stage, the room is set up in small circles of chairs, inviting 6-8 people to sit, facing each other. When we face each other, it is uncomfortable not to talk. The room is set up to invite conversation.

Once the small groups get started, the room gets louder as the conversations warm up. Within a few minutes they are into the work, the world drops away, and they are writing and drawing on their flipcharts. Some groups even leave their chairs and have the whole conversation standing up, focused on one another and the flipcharts. The energy in the room is palpable.

Inevitably, after the first session, many people are jazzed. They are delighted with themselves and the people they are interacting with. They are excited about the quality of conversation and insight. They realize this is may be the most productive and interesting meeting they’ve ever been a part of. They see that individually and collectively, they really have the potential to make a difference.

In spite of the fact that it is relatively uncommon, it is not a new idea to design a highly interactive meeting. I have been designing meetings like this for 20 years. Others have been doing it for 30+ years. What was new for me in the meeting we did last week was bringing in technology and social media to activate not only those in the meeting, but also those who were not able to attend. We set up an internal microblog (Salesforce Chatter), similar to Twitter, but not limited to 140 characters, which enabled the people in the room to write about how they were feeling about the meeting, to post new insights and questions as well as to highlight quotable moments.

Not only did it give the group a greater sense of itself, it also enabled their colleagues, who were not at the meeting, to feel connected and to contribute. Those who had not been invited were so appreciative of having a window into the meeting and said they felt like they were there. While we didn’t realize the full potential of this extra channel, I saw it!  What if we designed a meeting with an eye toward encouraging conversation between those in the room and those not in the room? What if explicitly framed the channel as a way for people to practice collective sensing? What if we framed the channel as a way to practice organizational learning?

Though I have not been an active participant on Twitter to date, I now see the potential of a Twitter-like channel to help groups more skillfully and more joyfully create their future.

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A Simple Technology That Enhances Team and Organizational Performance

I have recently been discussing a new topic with clients and friends: the company that Eugene Eric Kim and I are launching together. It is called Groupaya, a combination of the words “group” and “upaya.”  (Rhymes with papaya!)  In Sanskrit, “Upaya” translates to “skillful means.” We want to help groups, whether leadership teams, organizations or nations, work together more skillfully to create their futures.

I describe what Eugene and I do as “organizational development on steroids.”  In other words, we not only provide excellent strategic thinking, design thinking, development expertise, and facilitation savvy, we also implement tools we think will be useful, ranging from developing an internal website that our clients can use as Communication Central to ethnography to social network analysis to data analysis to tools development.

In these discussions with clients and friends, I am discovering that many of the basics of creating high-performing teams and organizations, which to me are completely obvious, are not the norm in their organizations. Everyone seems to know the value of having clear and shared goals, though rarely do they insist on them. Everyone knows the difference between a good and a bad meeting, yet few companies make it a priority to ensure that all of the hours employees spend in meetings are actually productive.

Some of the simple things we’ve been doing, which take advantage of new technologies and seem to provide mini “breakthroughs” for our clients, include the following: in all our projects, during every meeting, whether it be a conference call or in-person, we ask someone to be the official note taker. Definitely not a new idea. But what’s new is taking notes in a Google document and giving all participants access, so that anyone who is in the meeting can edit or add to the notes at the same time.

This is highly useful in meetings where some participants are speaking English as a second language – easier for them to understand what people are saying when they can see it written down. It also makes it easier to understand different accents, further increasing comprehension, which increases the quality of the conversation and the quality of thinking a group can do together.

The notes are a much more comprehensive recall of the critical aspects of conversation than could ever be captured on a flip chart or by a single person. For in-person meetings, we also project the notes onto a large screen, in case people would prefer to look at the screen instead of their laptop.

As soon as the meeting is over, we post the notes to a private internal wiki, where those who missed it can immediately find out what happened and add their own comments. At the end of the meeting, we also might videotape a few people discussing it. The videos are also posted, giving those who weren’t there a quick and tangible feel for the meeting.

Every meeting follows the same protocol before, during and after. Before the meeting, a Google document is created to collect items for the agenda.  Everyone can see this document, which resides in the “cloud.”  Everyone can edit the document. In other words, everyone has a chance to give input ahead of time. The document also gives people the opportunity to see whether or not they want to attend. It doesn’t take much time to put this together, and it forces a level of rigor when one has to publish the purpose and content of a meeting before it takes place.

After the meeting, once the Google document has been transferred, it makes it easy for employees to find critical streams of information and stories, comment on them and continue to evolve them.

Why is this so exciting? Through this process, the knowledge generated in meetings is captured so that those absent can still contribute. And when a discussion in a meeting requires more time, it can continue online. Essentially, you can expand the number of people who can participate in a meeting/conversation and the amount of time within which the conversation can take place. Meetings are no longer bound by space or time. More people can contribute to a meeting, more thoughtfully. One more benefit of capturing conversations online – when people leave the company, their knowledge doesn’t go with them.

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What to Remember When Waking

Dear friends and family,

Wow!  What an experience to post my first blog post.  Talk about feeling VERY alive!  Pressing the word “Publish” last night, just before midnight, was such a rush!  And today, receiving your private comments via email and the public comments via the blog posting has been such a treat.

I love Valkyrie’s image of grown ups camping out in a tent in the living room.  Some of my favorite memories from childhood are of my brother and me making giant indoor “forts” that had sheets for a ceiling and walls and makeshift hallways and rooms.  It was so magical to create a place that was too small for the adults and so cozy for us kids.

Linda’s description of her head rush at the top of the Rockies made me want to plan our next Tahoe weekend.  Gwen’s evocation of the singing of mountains and rivers, sea turtles and mongooses was delightful.  And I was so happy to hear what Tawny is exploring in her morning practice.  Oz’s comment about looking out the window made me think of a favorite David Whyte poem, which my dear friend and lover of words, Vanda, introduced me to years ago, when I was looking for something for a leadership class I was teaching.  I have used it often since then, when working with individual leaders, leadership teams and groups who are open to reflecting on the deeper purpose of their lives and as well as that of their organization’s.

What to Remember When Waking

In that first hardly noticed moment
in which you wake,
coming back to this life
from the other
more secret, movable
and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.

What you can plan
is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly
will make plans enough
for the vitality hidden in your sleep.

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden
as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.

You are not a troubled guest
on this earth,
you are not an accident
amidst other accidents
you were invited
from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.

Now, looking through the slanting light
of the morning window
toward the mountain presence
of everything that can be,
what urgency calls you
to your one love?

What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky?

Is it waiting in the fertile sea?
In the trees beyond the house?
In the life you can imagine for yourself?
In the open and lovely white page
on the waiting desk?

by David Whyte in House of Belonging

“What you can plan is too small for you to live.”  Aye!  Isn’t that the truth!  What urgency calls you?  What shape waits in the seed of you?  Such powerful questions.  Which makes me realize – a good question brings me alive.  It calls me to explore it, to live with it, to live into it.  And time and time again, I have seen a good question bring a group alive, shifting people from being disengaged, their bodies present while their minds are elsewhere, to sitting on the edges of their seats, tracking every word of the conversation, eager to jump in.

I also have seen a provocative poem, an ethereal piece of 17th century choral music, and a recording of intense African drumming completely shift the energy in a room, making it absolutely bursting with life – especially in a business context where it is so unexpected, so far from the norm. 

What I am struck by is how many of the personal and public comments seem to be about feeling alive in non-work related activities.  It could be that the focus of the blog posting overly influenced the comments. It could be that it is easier to feel alive outside of work.  I find myself wondering, when you have felt most alive in a work context? What was happening?  What do you think enabled it?  Again, it would be lovely to hear from you!

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Living in Service of Life

What is the purpose of life?  Is it to survive? To pass on your genes?  To raise great kids?  To amass the most toys?  Is it to be safe? To have total control? Total freedom? Is it to ensure that you will retire in comfort?  Is it to give back?  To have fun?  Be happy?

For me, one purpose is to LIVE!  To find the limits of what it means – given my personality, my body and my background – to be on this planet, during this lifetime.  I have always loved Rilke’s poem, in which he encourages us to experience
e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.  Yes, the good and the bad.  The darkness and the light.  Expansion and contraction.  Control and chaos.  He writes that no feeling is too small or too big.  Speaking on behalf of God, he says, “Make big shadows that I can move in.”  Such an invitation!

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going.  No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Burrows in The Book of Hours

When I try new things, when I learn new skills, when I work up the courage to have an honest conversation about a difficult topic, I feel so alive!  For me, feeling alive means extra energy tingling in my body, an extra openness in my chest, a psychological and physical sense of spaciousness.  It means feeling excited, with perhaps a dash of fear thrown in.  “How will this go?  Will I be able to do it?”  It is the land of uncertainty.  The land of not knowing. The land of less control.

I love taking on challenges with groups of people where I don’t know exactly how, let alone if, we are going to succeed.  My mind doesn’t wander to my to-do list as the task of doing that-which-has-never-been-done-before demands that I pay full attention. I love (though sometimes dread) having a difficult conversation with someone about a challenging issue.  Yes, even the kind that makes me sweat. My mind does not wander. I am fully present. My senses are heightened, as if I were an animal tracking the movements of a potential predator.

Don’t get me wrong.  When it comes to experiencing everything, which includes difficult feelings and experiences, I often I resist – when it shows up – my sadness, my self-doubt and my anger.  I have to remind myself that fully experiencing these feelings will transform them from dirt into gold, allowing me to mine the gifts of those feelings.  Experiencing them also creates contrast, so that the lighter feelings are even sweeter, having known their opposite.

In spite of this intellectual understanding, not to mention lived experience, there are still times when I resist uncertainty and instead go into fear and action so that I can feel like I am doing something.  While action gives me the soothing sense of control, it is usually, in fact, the illusion of control.

If I were to design my own life to be more fully alive, I would make sure that through out the day, I took 5-10 minute breaks outside, to move my body, feel sunshine on my skin, breath fresh air and give my mind a break.  It would make me happier to remember I have a body and I am not just an extension of my laptop.  And it would make me more productive, as I re-entered work feeling refreshed not only in body and spirit but also in mind.

It would also mean that I would take the time to reflect on what I am learning in this journey called Life.  I would write down my theories of leadership, of relationship, of change, of parenting … of all the things I care about.  And in writing them down, I would become more conscious of them and I would then explicitly test and evolve them.

It would mean that I would go on regular sabbaticals, to live in other countries and experience other ways living in and seeing the world.  It would mean I take off at least 4 weeks in a row every year, for the same reasons.  And I would work 6 hour days, so I had more time with my son, more time to engage in civic and volunteer activities, more time to learn new skills such as sculpture, a new language, a new dance form.  Yes, that is 30 hours of work per week.  Max.  How’s that for balance?!

As an employee, it would mean that because I have such a strong interest in helping our world move away from consumerism, which causes us to use up the world’s resources faster than it can replenish them, I would help my company go green, help my company develop services over products, help my company connect with customers at a whole new level.

As a leader of a company, it would mean I focus on creating a culture of caring … about employees, customers and the planet.  For real.  Treating each other with respect. Treating the planet with respect.  Wanting to bring out the best in one another. Wanting to help one another achieve our full potential.

This raises the question, “What if companies were designed around serving life?”  Imagine companies asking employees to contribute that which brings them most fully alive.  Companies asking employees to make decisions in the context of what would serve employees being more fully alive, customers being more fully alive, the communities within which they are located being more life supporting and the planet on which we all live in being more alive?

What would that look like?  Creating inspiring corporate goals that call on companies to truly make a difference in the lives of their customers, communities, employees and partners.  Creating a corporate culture that encourages people to be continually growing and stretching.  Employees sharing feelings.  Individuals, teams and organizations taking on the seemingly impossible.  Challenging one another’s thinking.  Challenging power.  Challenging the status quo.  Asking the tough questions, “Why” and “Why not?”

What if companies that made products were trying to create product that was beautiful, and would actually be a contribution to a person’s environment, instead of one more thing for them to tune out.  What if these products could also be easily dismantled and re-used, so they wouldn’t end up in a dump somewhere? What if companies focused on how to turn their products into a service?  Lease transportation from us instead of buying a car from us. Lease ease in cleaning your clothes instead of buying a washing machine from us. What if companies were to take on the challenge of bringing their products to the third world so that the products are completely re-imagined such that they enhance quality of life and do not draw more resources from the earth?  And then they sold these break through products back to the West? What if companies were figuring out how to do local manufacturing and distribution?

What I have seen time and time again in my work is that when groups and companies take on breakthrough goals that really matter to them, but do it in such a way that people are being measured and rewarded on minimum goals, stretch goals and breakthrough goals, movement happens!  We become more alive when we are working on something that matters to us, something that is bold and calls out to our higher selves – to the part of ourselves that wants to participate in something grand, something bigger than oneself.  Breakthrough goals invite us to think out side of the box, to think creatively.

As I write this, I am aware of how idealistic or Pollyannaish this may sound.  It is amazing that we have created a world in which wanting to care about one another, wanting to enable people and the planet to thrive is not the norm and is not considered practical.  We are so used to it that we don’t even question it.  We don’t question being focusing on the financial bottom line and ignoring the social bottom line and the environmental bottom line.  We don’t question spending 40-60 hours a week with colleagues and 20 hours/week with family, in other words, making work a much higher priority.  We don’t question choosing to lay off employees instead of reducing everyone’s salary, so everyone can stay employed.

What would the world look like if we all took the hiker’s oath to leave the planet better off than we found it?  What if we extended this oath to all of our human contact, aspiring to leave each person we met better off than we found them?  How do we make designing for people and the planet to thrive a top priority for ourselves personally, and for our businesses, our government, our non-profits and our places of worship? This is a long first blog.  Calling it a manifesto would probably be more accurate.  I hope to make subsequent ones shorter and more pithy!  If you made it all the way here, thank you for listening.  I’d love to hear your reflections.  What brings you alive?

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