Kristin Cobble

From Faster Than 20

Kristin Cobble co-founded Groupaya with me in 2011. My time with her — her intellectual partnership, her coaching, and her friendship, not to mention the company we built together — enabled me to take my skills and practices, which were plateauing, and catapult them to the next level. She continues to be the best person I've ever designed with and my go-to person for handling challenging situations. (Here's me going to her for advice about facilitating complex power dynamics.)

Kristin's own journey is eclectic and tremendous. Professionally, it includes starting her OD career at Peter Senge's Innovation Associates, serving as the Director of Strategic Change at Banana Republic, and working as a consultant at Global Business Network / Monitor. Her consulting company at the time was Courion Group — "courage" + "vision" — which I think nicely summarizes what Kristin is about.

How I Met Kristin

(Here's what I wrote in October 2011 about meeting Kristin and deciding to co-found Groupaya with her. There's a lot of overlap, but differences in details and frame, so it's worth reading both.)

I met Kristin through a mutual client, Next Agenda, which was trying to be a participatory do-tank for complex, social problems. (Pete Leyden, its founder, was a speaker at the Planetwork Conference where I first worked with MG Taylor, but I didn't meet him until six years later when he hired me to work with Next Agenda.) Pete wanted to incorporate the best of face-to-face and online collaborative practices, and his unique twist was to incorporate video. Think C-SPAN for collaborative processes. Here are videos of me and Kristin talking about Next Agenda:

Pete wanted me to focus on the online collaboration aspects and Kristin to focus on the face-to-face aspects. I was willing to do this with one caveat. All collaborative practices — whether face-to-face or online — has to happen within a common conceptual framework. He was conceptually on board with that, but I was worried about whether or not my "counterpart" would be as well.

I knew immediately upon meeting Kristin in the summer of 2009 that I had nothing to worry about. She and I were very much on the same page, we both had similar values and overlapping skill sets, but we also each brought our own unique abilities and experiences that we deeply admired about each other. We quickly found that we were seeing similar challenges with the project, and we decided to spend our own time getting together and understanding each other's conceptual frameworks. We spent a day together mapping out our respective theories of transformational change, diving down deeply into every nuance of our shared beliefs and differences. I thought she was unique among practitioners in that she had a well-developed (and, in my opinion, correct) conceptual framework in the first place, and I found it exciting to explore all the little avenues of synergy and difference. I had not had such rich conversations since starting Blue Oxen Associates with Chris Dent.

As it so happened, I was undergoing a pretty significant shift in both my personal and professional life at the time. On the professional side, in addition to our shared work with Next Agenda, I was leading the Wikimedia Movement Strategy process, which was hugely challenging for a variety of reasons. I began leaning on Kristin informally, and she became a source of peer support, both intellectually and emotionally. By early 2010, I was totally burned out and running on fumes. I had not taken a vacation of more than a few days since founding Blue Oxen Associates eight years earlier, and I felt massively frustrated, because I did not feel like I was in the position to do my best work.

I asked my friend and colleague, Lisa Heft, if she would coach me, and she helped me enormously. I walked away from that experience with a clear idea of what I needed for better work-life balance and satisfaction. On the professional side, I was uncertain about continuing as an independent consultant, and I seriously explored joining another consultancy. But in the interim, I decided that if I were to continue carving my own path, I would make two "simple" structural changes:

  1. Increase my rates
  2. Come in with a senior partner for large projects

I felt comfortable increasing my rates, since I had not raised my rates since entering this line of work, and I felt like I was bringing much more value than some of the larger management consultancies, that were charging significantly more than I was. Only taking on big projects with a senior partner felt risky and scary to me, since that essentially meant that the cost of hiring me would essentially double. I knew other companies were able to do this successfully, and I knew that the quality of my work would improve significantly as a result, but I didn't have confidence that I could sell this.

Then Todd Pierce, who was then CIO of Genentech called. He was looking for help, but he wasn't sure exactly what (a common refrain for my clients), and he had a poor experience with a more traditional management consultancy (yet another common refrain with my clients). A friend of mine had suggested he contact me, and he was also talking to a prominent design firm. I was juiced about the potential project. It was the perfect opportunity to test my new structures. The first person to pop into my head as a potential partner on the project was Kristin.

To my delight and surprise, Kristin said yes. We talked through different scenarios, met with Todd and his team, and pulled together our own dream team, which included Rebecca Petzel and Amy Wu. We got the work, and it was predictably fantastic. Genentech, to this day, was the best client I ever had, and working with Kristin and our team was a joy. It was so joyful that Kristin and I decided to start Groupaya with Rebecca and Amy.

Kristin and I spent a year visioning, talking through scenarios, and then experimenting working as a company before we actually incorporated or even had a name. Kristin suggested framing our vision around aliveness, which immediately resonated with me and which I have continued to do since leaving Groupaya. Here's a little video summary (filmed by Kristin's son) captured after we had landed that framing:

We officially founded Groupaya in September 2011. It was a glorious, glorious ride on so many levels, I was absolutely in love with my colleagues, and I learned a tremendous amount from that experience (some of which I'll share below). I did the best work of my life in my time at Groupaya, and I've continued to improve since, which is all a testament to my partnership with Kristin and our whole team.

Our biggest project together was the Delta Dialogues, which was also an opportunity to work with my mentor, Jeff Conklin. Jeff captured this snippet at one of our early design meetings, where we were discussing storytelling:

As I explained in a subsequent blog post:

I love this clip for a variety of reasons. It offers a peek into our design process, including some of Kristin’s on-the-fly brilliance and wisdom. It shows us moving around the computer with Joe via Skype, so that he could participate remotely. Even though Campbell’s not talking in this particular clip, it shows how we make the client partners in the design process. And, it’s interesting to compare what we explored in our design conversations with what we actually ended up doing, which you can see on our Delta Dialogues project website.

At the end of 2012, I made the tremendously hard decision to leave Groupaya, which I discussed in more detail on my blog. Kristin has continued to be a dear friend and a valued colleague. I miss our partnership, but I am grateful for all I learned from her and our ongoing friendship.

Lessons Learned

Visioning. As I noted earlier, Kristin placed a very high value on the importance of having a powerful, compelling vision. In her blog post, "Invoking the Hero's Journey," she describes her long-held belief that:

"[W]hen a group of people is brave enough to imagine a future that is truly visionary and truly compelling, they create a container in which they can accomplish the seemingly impossible.
"When visions and goals are big and meaningful to those who will do the hard work of making them reality, people often surprise themselves. They are more creative, they are far more productive than usual, and they are much more excited about their work. There can also be the need to access grit and resiliency. And there is often more fear, but it doesn’t matter. The fear is not a driver of their decisions; rather, their vision is the driver."

Innovation Associates, her introduction to the OD world, was one of the first companies that really emphasized visioning in corporations. Kristin also introduced me to Robert Fritz and his rubber band metaphor. Her thoughts on goal spectrums inspired the success spectrum, which is almost certainly my most widely adopted tool.

Kristin was very good at surfacing vision through asking excellent questions (a common refrain with her), and I stole some tactical tricks as well. For example, when she led people through a visioning process, she always had them write down their age first — the perfect way to ground people in the future. She also noted that people were prone to self-censorship, especially when it came to thinking big. She would get around this by naming this dynamic and repeating the question, which got people to go deeper.

Systems and scenario thinking. Kristin's frame for transformative work centered around systems thinking (influenced by her time at Innovation Associates and her involvement with groups like Society for Organizational Learning) and scenario thinking (influenced by her time at Global Business Network). I was familiar with both through my work with Gail and Matt Taylor, but Kristin introduced me to more formal disciplines around both, disciplines that have strongly influenced how I design.

Deep, canonical knowledge. In addition to visioning, systems thinking, and scenario thinking, Kristin had deep canonical knowledge of many frameworks for organizational leadership and development, and she introduced me to many of them, including:

She really got me to appreciate and practice enneagrams. In general, she had incredible depth around coaching, emotional wisdom, and personal development.

I had come across some of these frameworks on my own, but had never bothered exploring them in depth. They landed differently with me when Kristin introduced them to me, because they were always in the context of real work, and they were always translated into actual practices.

Always game to try things. In addition to being such a great intellectual and emotional counterpart, Kristin was a very willing experimenter. One of the reasons my work with her was so generative was that she loved playing with ideas and didn't feel locked into one way of practicing them. I loved taking the frameworks I learned from her and translating them in ways that many formally trained practitioners wouldn't recognize. Kristin not only understood the connections I was making, but she played along and helped advance them even further with her own creative spins. This was classic, "Yes, and..." — not just saying, "Oh yeah, that's great," but synthesizing and building upon the ideas.

We played with many ideas in our time together, many of which often pushed Kristin's comfort level, but not her willingness. I've really come to appreciate how exceptional of a partner she was in this regard. Reviewing past notes and videos to pull this page together, I'm reminded of how many of my practices today had its origin in my time with Kristin and how great of a thinking / play partner she was. (My experience with Chris Dent was very similar.) For example:

  • She immediately took to my practices around collaborative authoring (which had its roots both in my software development past and in my work with Doug Engelbart). See my notes below on discipline.
  • She was a willing partner in incorporating video and photography into our processes.
  • She loved our forays into online space, and even though it was not a strength, she gritted her way through many experiments, and she was delighted when they worked for her. This motivated me to be more attentive and compassionate to her needs and to try to find ways to support them. (See the story of Kristin's Kitchen as an example.)

This mentality was so critical to our partnership. We didn't just cede strengths to each other. We embraced and played with them. One of the practice frames that I brought centered around giving up control. It stemmed from my work with Doug Engelbart and Matt and Gail Taylor, but it was also strongly influenced by my experiences with open source software communities, wikis, Agile, and Open Space Technology. Kristin's practice frame (like most OD practitioners) was more control-centric, even though she (and many other OD practitioners) embrace more cybernetic approaches conceptually. But she was always willing to withhold her doubt — even in high-stakes situations — and play with my more open designs, which often helped shift her views. The reverse was true with me as well. She had deeper, more sophisticated experiences around larger, more traditional organizations than I did. I often found myself leaning heavily on her experiences, which in turn helped shift my views.

Other experiments that came out of our time together:

Design (and editing) matter. Kristin and I were very aligned around the importance of design, and our design styles and experiences complemented each other. Kristin really values the importance of asking the right questions, and she is exceptionally good at it. If you land on the right questions, the design will more easily flow around it.

In addition to my more open approach to design, I also am a natural editor, which is really important to good design, where almost everyone inevitably tries to do too much. While Kristin (like many practitioners) is not great editor, she (unlike most practitioners) really valued editing, which again, really helped our partnership sing. My work with Kristin really helped me see that in myself more explicitly as a critical strength, and my most recent experiences studying other crafts (like photography) is encouraging me to explore this as a more formal role in design processes.

Skillfully facilitating through questions and empathy. As with design, Kristin and I share a similar philosophy around facilitation, only she is much more skilled at it than me. A big part of this centers around her ability to ask the right question, but a huge part of it was her ability to sense and navigate group dynamics, especially the emotional aspects. My facilitation style orients more toward the head, but through watching and working with her, I have gotten much better at developing a sensitivity around the heart aspects.

Kristin often pushes back at my claim that 60-80 percent of good collaborative experiences is a result of good design and the rest is facilitation. She agrees that design is important, but she places a higher value on good facilitation than I do. Part of the reason for this is that she is such a great facilitator, and she is drawn to the kind of work — typically emotionally hairy and complex situations — where her skills are absolutely critical. I totally agree that these are situations where great, external facilitation is essential, although I still would hold that most group situations do not require this.

Checkins are simple, powerful, necessary interventions. Most facilitators are familiar with checkins, but I never met anyone who placed as much importance on them as Kristin did. (Read her excellent blog post about them.) She convinced me, and checkins have become a core discipline in my practice.

Structure's role in supporting discipline. Kristin didn't teach me this — conceptually, I was strongly influenced by situational psychology and behavioral economics as well as my own personal experiences). But I got to experience this first-hand, thanks to my partnership with Kristin as well as my whole team at Groupaya. Prior to meeting Kristin, I knew that I was not modeling my beliefs as well as I would like, and I also knew that I needed more structural support in order to succeed. Kristin's willingness to partner in this attempt helped me succeed. I felt accountable to her and to the team, and so I became better at modeling. The more I modeled, the more it became habit. Specific areas that improved for me:

  • Information hygiene. I was okay at it, but not great when I worked with Chris Dent, but I valued it strongly. I saw the results of sharing that philosophy and burden with my team with the HyperScope project, and doing it with Groupaya helped take my abilities and discipline in this regard to the next level.
  • Drawing boundaries. I don't know that I would have had the courage or the discipline to not give discounts and to only take on certain kinds of work had it not been for my partnership with Kristin. Again, doing it several times with her helped me develop the habit, so that I'm able to do it successfully on my own now.
  • Taking the time for learning and strategy. Same story as above.

This work is hard and humbling. Again, Kristin didn't teach me this, but because we were both so committed to living our values, this really sunk in for me in my partnership with her. We failed all the time, we were hard on ourselves about it, and I was hard on everybody about it — including myself. It has taken me several years to be more compassionate about the learning process, and it's an ongoing journey, but it has made me a much more skillful, empathetic practitioner.

When you really hold yourself accountable to something, you discover how important it actually is to you, especially emotionally. Kristin were extremely aligned in a thousand different ways, but there were some things where we discovered the hard way that we were not as emotionally aligned. We were both skilled at acknowledging and discussing this, and yet, it was still really, really hard to work through some of this stuff together. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the different levels of alignment and — again — with how hard this work truly is.