Congrats, Startup Pirates!

Dear friends,

This quote by Maya Angelou appears often in my Twitter time line:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

While we were together yesterday and in the days leading up to the workshop, this quote kept popping into my head. The workshop I planned for you was designed to be somewhat informative, yes, but really I was thinking more about feelings. How to bring us all to a positive place in thinking about how we “do” teams.

It’s the morning after and, to quote another African American Icon, James Brown, “I feel good!” I hope that is true for you, too.

Our topic was “Team Management” and already in the introduction I took issue with that title. I think for our purposes and my intentions, “Self-Management in Teams” would have been a more accurate description. Because throughout the workshop I encouraged you to think about yourself and your behaviors and desires. My fundamental assumption about you as people is that you have and exercise agency. If you are thinking in the direction of startups, this must be the case.

“You and your expertise are the source of energy, creativity and learning here.”

That’s what I said and it’s what I hope you experienced during the afternoon. I certainly felt and enjoyed how your energy and humor and curiosity moved us through each phase of our conversation.

What did we talk about?

Purpose, Success and Resources.

What distinguishes a team from a group is a common purpose and the intent to accomplish a goal together. We talked about “knowing your (or the team’s) why”. And Rina raised the question of whether or not this was necessary at the outset of a project, suggesting that beginning without a clear picture of “why” might also provide an avenue of discovering it in the process.


We moved on and wondered about the truths embedded in the phrase “better together.” Rather than assuming that this is always true, we talked about when and under which circumstances and the specific advantages being part of team affords. The advantages that emerged, however, made a remarkably compelling argument for the power of working in a team. You listed:

  • Motivational support and stamina
  • Shared risk and responsibility
  • Greater reach through connections and networks
  • More fun
  • idea pool is mutiplied
  • Diversity of experience, know how, attitudes, backgrounds, etc.
  • Team members can complement each other

This conversation led us nicely into the next phase related to success. I explained why I put success here in the middle of the workshop rather than at the end. In formulating the plan for the afternoon, it occurred to me that success begins early on. Success must be part and parcel of our whole process: We need some idea of what success we are aiming for, we need to be able to recognize success along the way and as Amir pointed out, we need to be able to refine and adapt our notions of success as we gain feedback.

To encourage this view within a team I suggested a few ideas to keep in mind:

  • celebrate the small wins
  • Open your meetings with good news
  • Create and share vision(s) of success often
  • Discover the lessons in setbacks

I titled this slide: “Planning For Success.” Because a team’s success needn’t come as a total surprise. Particularly when we are focused on success with and among people – we need to think broadly and generously about the wealth of contributions that may be available. That means a large part of “people success” is recognizing the resources which individuals bring to the party.

Meanwhile I opted to leave out a special treatment of leadership. The irony of course is that I call myself a “leadership coach.” My argument: because our mental models of what leadership is and does remains typically “male and bossy,” I wanted to work differently, featuring team member behaviors that anyone can implement, regardless of position in a hierarchy. Also going back to my opening premise – that each of you has agency and decision-making power – when you form teams, each of you has some degree of leadership and can make conscious decisions as a team about how you will organize yourselves to accomplish your goals.

Here’s a poem about leadership that I didn’t find time to share with you yesterday but captures something essential that I still can’t quite put my finger on:

The Leader

By Robert McGough

I wanna be the leader

I wanna be the leader

Can I be the leader?

Can I? I can?

Promise? Promise?

Yippee I’m the leader

I’m the leader

OK what shall we do?

And this is how we arrived at the final section: Resources.

Rather than talk about money, I believe that in teams the more critical resources are:

  • time
  • attention
  • know how
  • people/connections

To which you added:

  • space
  • tools

When we look at resources in these broad categories it helps us see how and where these apply in our specific context. As you noticed, I was struggling a bit with time – trying to  balance activity with discussion and yes, some lecturing. I tried to remain mindful of your attention by keeping you engaged with your peers and the content. This was the section to talk about meeting well and I asked you to create an agenda for “The Best Meeting Ever.” Honestly, I had never tried this activity with a group before, but you made it look like a stroke of genius! Thank you for that!

When we spoke more specifically about the “ingredients” for meeting well, I sensed that we had, during the course of our time together, experienced some of these aspects: I shared the agenda at the beginning, we had a clearly defined purpose, and I used time limits (not always successfully).

As you’ve seen I’m a fan of big picture thinking. And for this workshop I decided on big and broad rather than specific and clinical because you can find detailed models on how to run a team, project or business from any number of sources. My aim was to get you thinking about where you’ll derive your energy, how you will sustain your motivation, what factors will permit you to trust others, and what will remind you that fun and joy need space in this undertaking, too.

To that end I mentioned celebrating. A lot.

That’s why you were up and down, talking to this person then that person, sharing viewpoints, raising questions, making jokes, all while you were processing, taking in, deciding and wondering (in English as your second or perhaps 3rd language, by the way). It was designed to be a workshop and you worked.

You worked with enthusiasm and laughter and thoughtfulness. You were productive and playful. Our work together was a celebration of our capacity to be human: to share purpose, to act on our know-how, to cooperate and create meaning.

This is my wish for you as you continue through the rest of your jam packed week of start-up immersion: That you remain playful as you become ever more productive.

Thank you for your time and enthusiasm!




What is this post about?

  • I led a workshop on Team Management as part of a week-long immersion program for people with start-up ideas, called Startup Pirates Vienna.
  • Although the whole week’s program is held in English, the group members hailed from Finland, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Costa Rica, Austria, Romania, Belgium and Italy; all of whom currently live in Vienna.
  • Among the participants, women were in the majority. (Yes!)
  • I spent lots of the time listening to conversations rather than steering them.
  • We talked about purpose, success and resources.
  • Besides being a wonderful group of people, organizers and participants confirmed for me that there are many great ideas in the world and plenty of clever, kind people committed to making them reality. P1030695

Inclusion, Intent and Extraordinary Value

It’s workshop season and I’m pulling my resources together trying to design adult learning experiences that create value for participants. When I am in this phase of mapping, planning, sketching and drafting, a number of competing ideas come up for me. I find myself zooming out, then zooming in; attending to the details while keeping the big picture in mind – these are the intellectual challenges that I love in this work. And this time I see that I have created a special task for myself. The workshop that I want to deliver struggles with the premise of the workshop that was accepted.

Let me explain. The title of my workshop is: “The What, Why and How of Inclusion Activities” and in a nutshell, it is billed as offering participants a framework for when and why to use activities which are designed to foster inclusion in a group setting and of course, practice selected activities as we go.  Sounds reasonable enough. For participants there’s a predictable outcome: ideally they will leave with some specific activities that they can use in their classrooms and offices. In practice the workshop looks something like this:

Participants arrive, we do an activity, I talk, we talk, we do another activity, I talk, we talk, next activity, I talk, we talk …time to wrap up, I talk, we talk, round of applause, participants depart, done.

There are worse models, to be sure. Participant involvement and reflection are central to any plan I create. At the same time, I want to do more. I want to bump up against the boundaries a little. The phrase that keeps coming up is: “mess with.” I want to “mess with” people’s ideas and assumptions about how this process works. It is not particularly hard to select a series of activities which may be useful, practice them a little, create a handout for folks to take home and send people on their merry professional way. In principle, that sums up most of what I have planned. Yet the call for more persists.

Here’s what more might look like:

  • After having participants circulate in the room for a minute or two, stop and ask them to note down: 1.) Their hopes for this workshop  and 2.) Their intentions for participating in the workshop.  The purpose here is to invite participants to make an internal commitment to the time they are about to spend on something. Asking about hopes and intentions alerts participants to their role in co-creating the learning experience they are about to have. That is more.
  • Create space for activities completed in silence. We tend to talk so much, especially in the role of facilitator, that we forget how powerful and revolutionary it can feel to let go of talk for a time. Just because we are not hearing each others’ voices  does not mean that dialogue will disappear. Calling for silence and restricting the use of voice can feel like a huge counter-cultural demand. And yet if we just go ahead and do it, model it, let it be – our results are often stronger for it. That would be more.
  • Create space and time for participants to connect input with pre-existing knowledge and experiences. Again it is so easy to fall into a trap of delivery. We offer a workshop and we should deliver new, interesting stuff to the participants. And yet, what allows any learning to stick is when it finds an anchor, a connection that already exists in the individual. Even if that connection is the realization: “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.” The key is reflection. The learning is not in the activity, it is in the reflection on doing the activity.  In our insufferable quest to squeeze lots of content into skinny little time pockets which should then be applicable, portable and transferable, we often do ourselves and our participants a great disservice.  Deliver less and value the wisdom and expertise of the room. This, too, is more.

While these ideas do not strike me as radical, I can acknowledge them as unconventional. They are not the professional development norm in education circles. And I know that I have to brave experimenting with them. I’d like to “mess with” my participants’ notions of what compelling adult learning can look like and I expect them to teach me in turn. Actively co-creating the learning experience is what I am after and it gets to the heart of what Inclusion Activities are actually about.

Inclusion assumes that every member has a contribution to make to the group’s success.

In Will There Be Donuts? a book that advocates for designing and running real meetings, author David Pearl says:

The question I always ask clients – and have them ask themselves – is how can this meeting create extraordinary value for everyone involved? Not just value but extraordinary value. Not just for me, but for everyone, most particularly the other participants…

When people are queuing up in the corridor for your meetings, camping overnight in sleeping bags for the doors to open, we’ll know that we are creating extraordinary value. And it’s the intention that gets us there.

(David Pearl, Will There Be Donuts, Harper Collins 2012., p. 76)

Applying that mindset of “creating extraordinary value for everyone involved” to my workshop planning, it becomes absolutely clear that the path to more for participants and me starts with clear intentions – internally formulated and explicitly stated. Every participant who walks through the door must be aware that her presence is valued, his voice is essential, that our work is shared.

This mindset also underscores the importance of only employing inclusion activities if inclusion is the genuine intent. When participants are encouraged to behave as if their voice mattered only to be quickly reconfigured back into traditional roles of power distribution (teacher-student, boss-employee), then they will quickly learn to resist such offerings and see them as a form of mockery. So I will make a point of asking participants to consider this intersection of intent and impact before trotting off to simply “try something new” with their unwitting groups.

In this way, the workshop as conceived and the workshop as advertised become one and the same: Art in the making, adult learning experiences eager to take on lives of their own. More than the norm. More about participant growth and connection than about content delivery. More about listening and sharing than about telling and showing. I’m going for more. Wish me luck.



I want to give a shout out to Elena Aguilar whose excellent post on Edutopia is a foundational reminder for me in this process: “10 Tips for Delivering Awesome Professional Development”:




On Becoming Adaptive

...and I'm in.  CC via
…and I’m in.       (CC via

When we experience new learning that is exciting and valuable, we are often bubbling over with the desire to share and to envelop others in our heartfelt enthusiasm. I’ve recently returned from exactly that kind of learning experience.  A seminar where I left feeling love and gratitude for everyone in the room, where I had daily “a-ha” moments which nearly knocked me off my seat, where the teaching was so good that it often felt more like magic than learnable practice –  that’s the kind of experience it was.

I attended the Adaptive Schools Leadership Seminar ( which was hosted by the Tashkent International School in Uzbekistan (TIS). The 4-day training which focuses on developing individual and group capacities in leadership and collaboration was sponsored by the Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) of which my school is a member. A small contingent of international educators from Delhi, Dubai, Bangkok, Vienna and Vilnius joined the TIS staff in creating a tremendously trustful atmosphere for exchange and community. Our facilitators, Carolyn McKanders and Fran Prolman,  guided us expertly through a rich program of awareness raising, skill building and actionable next steps. And yet, the content, as compelling and applicable it may be in its own right, was not the star of the show. No, the real star, the giant outcome for me, was the overarching process which I would dare to call a transformation.

In four days it’s possible to cover a lot of content. And we did that. What was different was that at every stage we were consistently exposed to these four things:

  • Our facilitators maintained a fully relational approach to the group.
  • There was 100% transparency on the What, Why and How of each step.
  • We received both modeling of and practice in every strategy that was introduced
  • Reflection was built into the instructional plan at every turn.

Our facilitators maintained a fully relational approach to the group.

Both facilitators engaged participants by being authentic, welcoming and approachable. Questions were encouraged. Attention to feedback was meticulous, so that small changes in the program which better served the group’s understanding were honored and carried out. As a participant, I felt empowered to participate fully without fear of stepping on the facilitators’ toes. In the Adaptive Schools framework, I believe this might fall under the heading of “promoting a spirit of inquiry.”

100% transparency of the What, Why and How of each step

Skilled educators understand the value of making it clear to students, participants and group members why something is going to be done, exactly what it is that is going to be done, and how it will be done. Throughout the training every strategy, reference point and skill was described, explained and recorded, so that the information was consistently visibly available – posted on the walls all around our meeting space. By the last day we were literally surrounded by the fruits of our learning. If I was ever unclear as to what we were doing and why, all I needed to do was look around or ask a question. I never needed to leave thirsty for an answer.

Our facilitators provided modeling of and practice in every strategy that was introduced.

This practice really hit home for me. “What? Why? How?” is in fact a strategy which says that you answer these three questions for the group before asking group members to do something.  You play with an open hand by providing clear rationale and reliable instructions. This frees group members up to actually focus on the task at hand rather than second guessing the possible motivations or likely outcomes.  This piece is so important because it, demonstrates and reinforces an uncontested respect for group members’ time, presence and energy.  And the effect of seeing the strategy in action and then actually practicing it in real time builds a participant’s sense of efficacy. Seeing is believing – believing that, “yes, I could try this, too.”

Reflection was built into the instructional plan at every turn.

The oft repeated sentences offered by our facilitators spell it out: “The learning is not in doing the activity, it is in the reflection” and “any group that is too busy to reflect on process is too busy to grow.”  We don’t get smarter by simply doing, we need to reflect on what happened and how, in order to make sense of it on our own terms and eventually internalize what holds meaning. In the space of 4 days, there were no superfluous activities. All of our doings had a purpose and at each stage we were given opportunities to process our thinking sometimes silently, or by talking with a partner or in a small group; sometimes in writing and in pictures. This habit of reflection steadily contributed to group trust, participant efficacy and enthusiasm, and a gradual anchoring of the content in our lived experiences.  Brilliant!

While there may be plenty of resources, agencies and consultants out there that offer to teach a group how to run more successful meetings, boost employee morale or even how to build and sustain professional learning communities, the capacity to stimulate genuine transformation remains rare.  The Adaptive Schools Leadership Seminar achieved more than most by attending to the needs of adult learners in fundamentally deep ways. Rather than focusing exclusively on tips, tricks and raw skills, we addressed the significance and contribution of identity, mission and values in the mix. In order to do that we had to make ourselves a little vulnerable from time to time. In some cases we had to let go of a few long held ideas while making friends with new ones. Carolyn and Fran, by applying the four characteristics mentioned above provided the space, structure and atmosphere for the group to feel capable and prepared for true transformation to take place.


For more information on the work of Adaptive Schools, please visit the thinking collaborative website (see above) and consider getting a hold of the sourcebook: The Adaptive School, Garmston and Wellman, 2009, Christopher Gordon Publishers, Norwood, MA.