A conversation with Karen Holst, entrepreneur, author & LinkedIn Learning Expert
“I had this moment of really enjoying the launching of ideas within existing structures. ” -Karen Holst
I’m excited to have Karen Holst with me today. She is an entrepreneur turned intrapreneur and helps companies drive product innovation as a product strategy leader. Karen has deep expertise in human-centered design strategies, creative problem-solving, and product innovation. She worked on Ex-IDEO led innovation at Autodesk, for the CA Dept. of Education and is the co-founder of MyEdu. She currently teaches at LinkedIn Learning, and most recently, we co-authored the book Start Within: How to Sell Your Idea, Overcome Roadblocks and Love Your Job.
If there was one thing she could change about meetings, it would be “that everybody comes in with an understanding of the goal,” Karen says. “I think that sounds so simple, but I think that having the same meeting over and over again and feel like you’re not moving the ball any further down the field is one of the most frustrating experiences.”
In today’s episode, we talk about how you can energize the life of your job and the work you are doing. This is advice Karen also gives for using our book, Start Within, and how it can help you at any part of your growth journey. Listen in to find out how you can use an anthropologist’s view of running a meeting, how to focus on the one element that can make the most significant impact for leading a meeting, and how to shift your expectations to fit another company’s culture meeting process.
[01:15] Karen’s genesis story.
[03:58] How egos can get in the way of meeting productivity.
[06:04] How to dive into Start Within.
[10:12] Understanding meeting culture for the purpose of co-creation.
[16:08] Removing the lense of how to lead a meeting “the right way”.
[19:25] Running meetings how your boss expects them to be run.
[21:54] Go beyond the cookie-cutter approach to meetings to create your own leadership style.
[24:50] What Karen learned about meetings during her first startup.
[26:55] Being interested equates to asking questions and discovering purpose.
[29:55] Tactics Karen has seen groups implement to get unstuck with their vision.
[34:52] Other books suggestions to move your vision forward.
Links | Resources
About the Guest
Karen Holst is a product leader with deep expertise in human-centered design strategies, creative problem-solving, and product innovation. She has taken her career from a business strategy and entrepreneurship to strategic partnerships and market communications. Karen loves to create technology with a broader impact. She is a leader in her work, co-founding a startup and launching a new technology within a government agency.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Engage Control The Room
Intro: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.
Douglas: Today, I’m with Karen Holst, entrepreneur turned intrapreneur. She co-founded an education-tech startup in Austin, Texas, and later went on to join IDEO, and then, led innovation at Autodesk. She’s currently teaching at LinkedIn Learning, and most recently, coauthored the book Start Within: How to Sell Your Idea, Overcome Roadblocks, and Love Your Job.
Welcome to the show, Karen.
Karen: Hi. Thank you.
Douglas: So, Karen, I’d love to start with a little bit about how you got started.
Karen: Sure. So I, my junior year in college, had met two guys at my rival university. I went to the University of Texas, and they went to Texas A&M. I’d heard about a company that they were thinking about starting. And I just had—I was brimming with ideas on what I could do to make this happen. And I approached them and said they needed to bring me on board. And we just clicked, and I became a co-founder, and we launched the company. We, then, grew it through multiple rounds of funding and then ended up seeing a successful exit. So my first job was really a job I created.
And then from that point on, saw that over and over throughout my career. Joined the California Department of Education and helping lead educational technology within the state, and that was really about bringing new tools and services into the classroom and figuring out how to make that process more smooth and get through the red tape.
After that, joined IDEO and helped them launch IDEO U, which is an online-learning platform, teaching design thinking and creative problem solving. And had this moment of really enjoying the launching of ideas within existing structures, that being an entrepreneur, I thought I needed to own the idea, but it shifted. I could own the idea anywhere that I work. So then I was able to just go follow the shiny problems.
Later joined Autodesk in their media and entertainment space and helping them innovate, and gotten to do lots of projects within corporations, nonprofits, government agencies since then. And that all led to writing the book, Start Within.
Douglas: Exciting. So if you could change one thing about most meetings, what would it be?
Karen: That everybody comes in with an understanding of the goal. I think that sounds so simple, but just having the same meeting over and over and feeling like you’re not moving the ball any further down the field is one of the most frustrating experiences.
Douglas: Yeah. And I think that aligns with quite a few of our meeting mantras and philosophies about meetings. And two that come to mind is this idea of never starting without a clear purpose. So purpose and goal are at least cousins. And then, also, you talked about how this Groundhog Day kind of feeling, just like the meetings just kind of repeating themselves. And I think, often not being clear on if we’re ideating or making a decision, and if we’re making a decision, what’s the process by which we’re going to make that decision?
Karen: Yeah. And I feel like people get in the way of the goals. So even when they’re well communicated in advance and alignment, egos can get in the way, where either people are just really married to their ideas and wanting that to try to drive the meeting around that notion, or they’re just blindly and accidentally, perhaps, getting in the way of progress because they’re just stuck in the ego side of things.
Douglas: Yeah. And I didn’t intend on it, but the Groundhog Day analogy came out, and we talk about that in the book, this notion of, is everything kind of repeating itself? Are you just kind of stuck in the hamster wheel of the day to day and feeling just inundated with monotony? And so maybe let’s talk a little bit about that feeling and how the book can kind of help guide you out of that feeling in that situation.
Karen: Yeah. So as humans, we are wired to innovate. We’re wired to see creativity and make the mundane not mundane. And you think about while we’re recording this, it’s during the COVID pandemic, and we’re seeing this everywhere. People are taking up new hobbies. My toddler son is asking me to read the kids’ books in different voices or to change the ending of the book, just because we’re so bored of everyday feeling like the day before. And if we’re wired for that, what’s holding us back from actually doing that? And I think meetings, being such a big part of our work, are a key place to really energize the life and job and work that you’re doing.
And a lot of what we talk about in the book is to find that purpose and breathe new life into your job so that you love it, so that you feel passionate about it. So there’s lots of steps in that process in how to make that happen throughout the book.
Douglas: And when you think about all the steps and someone wanting to just get started, in your perspective, is it just to pick up the book and jumping into the first chapter, or is it more of a choose-your-own adventure, where it’s like, this might apply more to me? Maybe help guide the reader, the doer, into how they might dive in.
Karen: Yeah. That’s a great, great analogy, the choose your adventure. I say it’s more like that. The process and work of bringing an idea forward is not linear, so there’s different places that you’re going to start from, and that you’re going to get stuck and need assistance. The book reads that way. You can just jump in where you need to. And then I say proceed with caution, because as humans, we’re also wired to kind of go after the things that we’re most comfortable. And that’s okay to start where you’re comfortable, but not to ignore the places where we need to grow.
So as an example, I think about the structure of the book. It’s set up in three sections: get ready, get set, and go. And I am a “go” gal through and through. I want to start prototyping and experimenting my way forward. And it takes discipline to do the work of the “get ready” and “get set.” And if I pick up the book as a lay reader, I might just dive right into the “go” because that’s where I want to get started. But that’s a place that I’m already pretty skilled at, and where I would really benefit is perhaps starting there, but then making sure that I’m going back through the other sections and phases of this work and building those muscles as well.
So it’s very similar to working out, you know? We feel great when we do that same elliptical machine or whatever, weights that we’re into, but when we challenge ourselves to do a new machine or new exercise, our muscles start to learn new ways of working.
Douglas: Yeah. I love that analogy of kind of cross training. It’s incredible. And I often like to think about the maturity of a project. And so if we’re two years into something, the book might mean something different to us than if we’re about to start something or we’ve been afraid to start something. So I like the fact that can really help folks no matter where they are in the journey.
Karen: Yeah. That’s so true.
I was talking to someone about this. And in the book we talk about when you’re doing a new idea and trying to push something forward, that there’s this, for every 80 hours of work that you put towards your project, there’s two hours of work in communicating that with your team and bringing along stakeholders. And I’ve gotten pushback from people that said, “Wow, that’s a lot of communication that you’re spending time on,” and then others saying, “That is totally not enough to bring stakeholders along.” And I think that rule of thumb can be shifted based on where you’re at in the project and trying to make new things happen, and that context is important as you go through this work, right? You’re going to have a playbook through things like Start Within, and then you have to intuit what is and isn’t working, and then, kind of fine tune things beyond that.
Douglas: Yeah. Also, think about—was it Malcolm Gladwell that said 10,000 hours of anything will make you an expert? And there have been people that have pushed back on that concept, like, “Well, if you’re doing it wrong for 10,000 hours, you’re just going to become an expert in doing it wrong.” And I like to think that this book has provided folks with some real tactical and very actionable advice to where, as you’re getting your reps in, you can start to tweak the way you go about it.
Karen: Yeah, absolutely. To that point of the 10,000 hours, it’s definitely about the practice of doing the work, and it’s also letting go of the idea that this is only for the charismatic, extroverted people, that the one that you see standing out there and getting to do new things, it does not have to be exclusive to certain types of people. It can be learned.
Douglas: Yeah, I love the idea that we can put it into practice, and we can hone that skill—to bring back the fitness analogy—we can strengthen those muscles.
Karen: Right. Right.
Douglas: So, you’ve had experience at small companies and big companies, public and private, even consulting and in-house. I’m really curious. With your vantage point across all these different types of companies, what are some of the differences that you’ve seen as far as meeting cultures and ability to co-create and collaborate? Just what kind of patterns have you noticed?
Karen: Yes. I love that idea of a meeting culture, because going in, understanding that and even using that term for yourself really allows you to then go in with the anthropologist view of, like, here’s how it’s done, and where can I find opportunities of changing that and making it better? So every company I’ve ever worked with—nonprofit, large, big, small—have different ways of doing their work, right? The informal and written rules of how meetings should run, it changes based on team, it changes based on who’s running it. But the theme at the bottom of all that is you’re having these meetings in expectation that it will lead to something. So if you can take a step back and look at how meetings are being run and how efficiently and quickly you’re able to go out and do the work post meetings, then you have the opportunity to reflect and say, “Where are there opportunities to make the improvements?”
I think the most stark difference was at the California Department of Education. So I was coming from a startup, where we’re doing scrum, we’re doing standup, we’re doing lots of fast-moving meetings. And then at the California Department of Education, they weren’t. And it wasn’t a criticism; it was a different way of thinking, a different framework, that when I went in, felt so uncomfortable. I was like, “Hey, when are we going to start picking up the pace and start taking action?” And if I went in there and behaved like that, like a cowboy here to change things up, it would have really turned people off. I needed to learn how they did things to then be able to create the right changes and grow together. It allowed me to be more thoughtful in my approach. It also allowed the team to evolve in how we did our meetings.
Douglas: Yeah. And that’s something we’ve talked about extensively, and I think it’s a really keen insight that people really need to consider, which is you can change the process. You can change the method. You can change the corporate goals and objectives. But if you seek to do those things, that’s going to be really difficult to also push your idea. In fact, the method, the process, and the goals and objectives, those are two separate things that are best done in isolation. If you’re trying to change all that at the same time, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle. It’s hard enough to make any change, much less just blowing a bunch on at the same time.
Karen: Imagine going into a room, and you look at a person who is writing with their right hand, and you say, “All right, switch. Switch to your left hand. And I want you to close your eyes. And instead of writing in English, write in a different language.” That would just overload the person. How do I think about all three of these things you’re trying to get me to do? And in pushing an idea forward within an organization, whether that’s improving meeting outcomes all the way to launching a new idea, if you’re trying to bend and shape things in multiple areas, you’re just going to overload the humans that you’re trying to bring along in this. So it’s really about focusing in on the thing that can have the biggest impact, and then you can go back and after having made that change and seeing the change in place, reapply and do different layers of changes.
Douglas: That’s right. I’d even take the analogy one step further, which is, if they’re doing all those things, and then we’re also trying to tell them, “Let’s actually write some different things on the wall. Let’s bring on a whole new concept and put that up there,” you can see how it just starts to get absurd. And yeah, that’s a trap that a lot of people fall into because when—it’s almost like, well, we’ve got the patient open; let’s go ahead and make all these changes. Like, we’re operating on their lungs; let’s work on their heart, too. It’s maybe not the best decision.
Karen: Right. Yeah, I mean, meetings, it is such a part of our work and the culture of where we work that at the very root could be the cause of dysfunction in what’s going on. So I love that being in a place of leaning in and trying to improve.
Douglas: So let’s also take a step back and think about—I love this notion that you talked about, being an anthropologist. And in the book we talk about this element of house rules and understanding how things work at your organization so you can navigate it better. Then, we were just discussing this need to clarify and understand, are we changing the process, or are we pushing some other idea forward? And I think that metaphor of the anthropologist is really powerful because we at Voltage Control do a lot of work where we’re were analyzing the meeting systems or helping people understand it, and what does that culture look like, and what sort of systems are going to support a culture that we are aspiring to be, to have? instead of just kind of going full force into the change. Like, really thinking about, do we need to be that anthropologist, or are we actually going in to make change? And so if we’re in that mode of anthropologist, what sorts of things do we need to do? How might we put that anthropologist hat on and be really successful at understanding what’s in front of us and how we might take advantage of it or how we might just respond to those understanding?
Karen: So in doing this work, it’s very hard, but you have to take out your experience elsewhere. So typically, when I coach people through trying to do this kind of work, there’s an urge to think back to where you saw it working. Like, great meetings, so we want to do it like that. I came from Amazon. We did it like this, and it was great. We got really far, and we were able to make changes and go out, do quickly. That doesn’t mean it’s going to work somewhere else, so you have to remove that lens of what I’ve seen is the right way, and I’m going to figure out how to force that fit, that puzzle piece. Instead, being an anthropologist is really trying to just open up and learn. So it’s not directing learning. It’s not that one person’s going to teach you, so you want to lean in on that person. It’s really just trying to open the aperture and figure out where are there these aha moments on what is and isn’t working?
And, you know, just going back to the root of that word. If you are going into a village, you wouldn’t go into a remote village and expect to be able to instill your values and how you do things and expect this group of people that have a completely different background to take that on. Instead, you’re going in to learn from them and build something together. And I think that’s hard to do. So it’s starting with that beginner’s mindset.
Douglas: We also talk about cross examining the silos and then questions that get to real learning. And I think that questions can be really powerful, and listening and observing, as kind of the anthropologist hat that you kind of speak of. And my perspective, if you can get down to actual first principles and understand what are people already upset about, if there are things about the meeting systems or the methods and the process that your organization is using that everyone’s already disgruntled about, then that’s low-hanging fruit to go after. But you can’t learn that stuff unless you get curious and start to examine the silos and start to listen and learn. And to me, I think that’s a real powerful opportunity. I’m just curious to hear if you have anything to add there.
Karen: Yeah. I think the other opportunity in all this, if you’re going in with this mindset, it allows you to make changes without authority. So even if you’re not the person who’s running the meetings, you can affect how they’re run and how effective they are over time. Now, certainly it might be easier if you’re the person of authority to do this work, but it’s not a barrier to making things change and happen. You can lead by example. And this all starts with learning and listening and figuring it out as you go forward. But I think that is one of the biggest barriers to this kind of work. And making change within an organization is the belief that if you don’t have a title or permission, then you’re just kind of an active participant that has to go along with the way things are.
Douglas: Mm, yeah, that’s an interesting meeting dynamic, too. Like, if the meetings are set up such that there are active participants and not-so-active participants, the distribution of control and influence and participation can be quite skewed. I’m just curious if you’ve experienced that, and what thoughts you might have to offer there.
Karen: Yeah, of course. I mean, whenever you’re not in charge and someone else is, it might be a meeting you called, but your boss or leadership come into the room as well, that shifts everything. You look at them, and they have an understanding of how the meeting should go, and you report to them, so there’s an understanding that you will run the meeting the way they expect it. So you kind of have to shift your own expectations and your own approaches to fit what they believe is the right way forward, even if it isn’t sometimes.
And so all of that just points to these baby steps, these baby experiments, that can get you closer to making those changes if you don’t have the authority to make it happen, and even when you do, that there’s, again, ego in the room or belief systems in the room that there’s a way to do it. The little experiments, the small steps, are what can lead to big change over time.
Douglas: You know, it’s funny that you say that because it reminds me of times as a leader when my intention was to coach and to show alternative ways of doing things, but I basically just created a little mini-me versions of me, and that can be difficult to notice sometimes. And so we talk a lot about how the book was really inspired by this idea that so many innovation books are focused on the leader and innovation culture and this kind of top-down, like, how are we to shift the organization? And our belief was the best way to shift an organization is a direction from leadership, but empowering the doers to go do the work. And so we really wanted to have a manual for the doer. Now, even though it’s a manual for the doer, this is a great tool for the leader because they can take this book and give it out to their folks and use it as a guide for them to be a better coach. And as I’ve thought about my coaching, even sometimes the best intentions can backfire, and just really paying attention, that have I created a mold of myself that needs to be broken so that they’re free to go about doing things the way they would do them so that we have true diversity?
Karen: Yes. I advise startups, and I just had a session this week with a startup that is in the educational technology space. And so it was one that I was really well versed, but also a few years removed. And he wanted to talk about some of the approaches to funding, and then later, marketing that we did. And I went into some coaching lessons, and then I paused and said, “You’re in a different time and different products. So here’s what we did. Now I’m going to start asking you questions that are kind of the extreme other sides to this. Don’t just follow the cookie cutter of what I just shared with you. What are ways that you’re going to be different?” And I think if you intuit your way that you’re creating many yous—which is a great eye opening, like, how do I not do that? because we just don’t want a world full of people like ourselves—a lot of that is because we’ve got experience in what does and doesn’t work for ourselves, and so we reflect that on others. But if we can pause on that and say, “What did and didn’t work on me might be in opposition to the person I’m talking to,” can we just reframe the question to say, “How might we…” and then don’t lead it towards your solution. Instead, think about these might be the ideas that do work for them, or what worked for me is not going to work for them.
Douglas: There’s another really beautiful way to approach that, which is just being appreciative.
Douglas: Recognizing and being appreciative of everyone’s input and contributions. And sociologists have a term called positive deviance, and basically, it sounds almost like deviant, but it’s really about making sure that we look at those positive differences. Like, what are those deltas that are positive. So when things have been working well, what were we doing? And often, I think it’s easy to look at, “Well, when I did it this way, I got this positive outcome.” Having that dialog with others can be really powerful and really kind of lifting them up on a pedestal, and then it kind of relinquishes that burden to feel like, “Hey, here’s this process that I need to burden you with.”
Karen: I love that. Yeah, that word needs to be rebranded so that people will be more open to it. But yeah, I think there’s opportunities to reflect on what does and doesn’t work and how that reflects on yourself and the people around you. So, again, it’s not the cookie-cutter answer and formula that works for me will work for these other people, but instead, it’s framing it in questions to allow them to explore that on their own.
Douglas: Yeah. I love this. I’d already written down questions and underlined it because I wanted to come back to that because you were starting to give some advice to your mentee, and then you stopped yourself and said, “Well, let me ask some questions.” And I think that is the hallmark of a really great leader and a great facilitator is to ask really incredible questions. And I think this advice—it just dawned on me—can apply to not only the leaders—because it’s very clear, like, “Hey, leaders, ask more-provocative questions of your people,”—and for the doers, it can be equally as powerful, because if your boss, if your leader, is not asking you tough questions and they’re doing nothing but giving you advice or criticizing, perhaps you can prompt them to ask you questions.
Karen: Ooh, I love that. Yeah, get them curious.
So, in my startup days, there were really tough meetings with our board, with our investors, and I learned early in my career how to handle those types of meetings. And then later, I started working at IDEO and had a meeting with Tim Brown and other people that were—I’m doing air quotes—”invested in our idea” because we’re launching this idea within the company. And so I was ready for what questions I would hear based on that experience of these tough investors and what they asked me in my years prior. And Tim Brown and the leaders there asked such thoughtful questions that floored me, and it really shifted my thinking in how to do this work. I thought it had to be bottom-line growth. And there’s other questions around this kind of work and pushing ideas forward that are far more thoughtful around the humans you’re building it for that will lead to growth and business strategy. So it’s not leaving it up on the table. But instead, it’s more thoughtful and deeper than that. And I think when we have productive meetings and great purpose in our work and what we’re doing, at the root of it, somebody was asking very thoughtful questions. And you can choose to be that person. And if you are that person, I think, to your point, you can get others around you very curious. Like, it’s contagious. When you’re being a thoughtful person and really trying to understand things, you’ll start to see that shift among others as well.
Douglas: You know, I think that, especially in your LinkedIn Learning course, and a good chunk of our listeners are product people, and I once heard this really profound description of a great product person. And it was that a product person is interested, not interesting, meaning that if you come to a conversation and you try to be interesting, then you’re going to share a lot of things. You’re going to talk a lot. You’re going to tell stories. You’re going to try to be cool and hip and, like, “Oh, I know this. I know that.” Whereas if you’re interested and you’re curious, you’ll ask lots of questions. You discover all the pertinent things. That always just really stuck with me is that even if I’m in the room with someone who is intimidating and I feel like I need to impress, the best way to impress them is to ask them great questions.
Karen: So, I went to a Super Bowl party. I was living in Canada, and it was at my neighbor’s house. And they’re not really into American football. It was just something to do on a Sunday. And in the room was a former astronaut and minister, I believe, of transportation—I’m sorry, I don’t know his title—who has one of the most fascinating backgrounds. And he asked me—I couldn’t get to questions about his background and what he did. He wanted to know more about startups and the book I was writing. And we get about an hour in. I’m like, “Okay, can we talk about what it’s like to be an astronaut?” And I just remember leaving there, thinking he was so gifted in exploring the world around him. And it made complete sense that he had gotten to the point that he had in his career, but that he could have very well have been a person that was full of himself and talking about all the important things he’s done. And instead, he wanted to learn about me.
Douglas: That’s the hallmark of an amazing person. And that’s cool that you got to witness that, especially with someone who has already made such great accomplishments, because sometimes those traits, that innate curiosity can wane with popularity and accolades. So it’s always amazing when I find someone that’s had some amount of fame and notoriety and they’ve held on to that, because it’s a gift, and it’s pretty rare.
Karen: I think they’re also gifted at finding time and space for allowing those conversations. So, on the other end of the spectrum, a CEO or someone very busy and important can brush you off and make you feel unimportant and not be listening to your answers or not even interested in having the conversation in the first place. And when you are tight on resource for time, that can change who you are, and you have to find opportunities to still be productive, but also learning and listening from each other.
Douglas: Yep. That aligns with one of my philosophies, which is that when you create space, that’s when innovation can rush in. If you’re constantly whizzing and whirring to and fro the next thing and pressing the buttons, there’s really no opportunity for change or new things to develop.
Karen: Yep. If you think about it in meditation or yoga, it’s the space between breaths. We’re doing this work of breathing and being thoughtful, and then it’s in between those moments that you have these eye-opening, kind of out-of-body experiences.
Douglas: So, I’m going to shift gears a little bit here and just talk about tactics. So really curious about what you’ve seen teams use to get unstuck and start building on their vision.
Karen: So, we recently talked to a woman within a software company, and they’re a very large company and been around for many years. And she was really excited about bringing back to her product teams our chapter in work around busting assumptions. And that was so refreshing. You know, this is a company that has figured out a way forward. They can continue to build and move beyond doing things the way they had been. But instead, she and the organization realized they needed to reflect on what’s holding back their ideas, what’s holding things from becoming something bigger, and how they’re holding back innovation. And I think that’s an exercise we could do with our teams—get out of the rut of what things should look like and have looked like, and how you might do things differently.
In thinking about assumptions, there’s this onion of layers, right? At the very core is the assumptions that you hold on to. And then as you build out, it’s the assumptions of the team, of the organization. And then you go all the way out to the world that we live within. And if you can think about each of those layers and how they’re blocking you from change, from seeing things, from understanding each other, then that can unlock you, the team, and how you work together, the work that you’re doing. There’s so many—it’s exponential levels on ways of thinking. And it’s a great framework for just moving forward and doing things differently.
Douglas: It makes me think that earlier we were talking about meeting systems and meeting culture, and when and why we meet, and what’s the goal, and what’s the purpose. And so often meetings are just called to discuss something or make some quick decision. I get really excited when people start to open the aperture and to think about, “What if we meet to talk about our assumptions?” or “How about we make a team charter?” so these more kind of meta conversations about the team, the way we work, and things that might be getting in our way, because those types of things can have really profound ripple effects versus just being so into the tactical, like, moving things forward or, heaven forbid, a status report. And so this idea of coming together around assumptions, even applying some of the tools in the book that are designed for an individual, just kind of repurposing that for the team.
Karen: Yes. Going back deeper into the tactical and beyond assumptions, one of my favorite exercises in the book that you can do solo or that you could bring to a team and do together is “No, because. Maybe if. Then, what?” And you start with these three columns of “No, because. Maybe if. Then, what?” And you think about something that’s blocking you and your team from moving forward on something, and you just brainstorm all the “no, becauses.” No, because we don’t have the resources. No, because… You capture each one of those on a Post-it Note.
And then you pause and you go into the next column, “Maybe if.” So, no, because we don’t have the resources. Maybe if we prototype this smaller, that didn’t require as much resources. Or maybe if we found funding outside of our organization. Or maybe if… You go through that same exercise for each “no, because,” and you start to brainstorm the “maybe ifs.”
You can take a step back, and when you’re doing this by yourself, kind of circle where there’s heat, or if you’re doing this with the team, you could do voting, but moving beyond and really counter attacking the “no, because” with a “then, what?” You know, what are the small experiments that you could be doing to get past this roadblock, if you could pass the barrier that is seemingly holding everybody back? And doing this work over and over with different people in teams, you see this very simple exercise open up people’s thinking and to, “All right. I tangibly have something to go after.” This feels so much better than the crossed arms, and “This is hard,” and the roadblock being right in front of them.
Douglas: It’s really cool. And I’m excited because we’re working on some templates on MURAL. They’ll be launched. And if someone’s listening to this in the future, I would say just go and check out the MURAL templates, because they’re probably ready at that point.
Karen: Yep. Start within.
Douglas: The other thing I was thinking about was this notion of unlearning and constantly be curious and open to reinventing ourselves. And I think that kind of aligns with a lot of the stuff we’ve been talking about today, whether it’s creating that space as a leader or coming together as a team to look at these assumptions, and just making sure that we’ve got some time reserved to just allow some of that stuff to happen and being curious about what we might not realize about the world or about our idea or about our team. I guess I’m curious to hear of what else folks should be thinking about in that regard.
Karen: So I do have on my reading list Barry O’Reilly’s book Unlearn, and so I haven’t read it. I’m going to stop with that because I think that is so hard to do. Even when you say it, you think, “Okay, I’ve accepted that I’m going to let go of my assumptions and try to lean in and unlearn some of the bad habits, or maybe good habits, so I can find new ways of doing things.” We are, again, we are wired to take the inputs that we’ve had over our lifetime and have that help us move forward. And it is not always obvious where those are, how they’re holding you back, or how they might be helping you, too. So that’s a book I want to lean into this year and see if that’s a place of exploration.
But where I try to do that is stepping back and creating different roles for myself. So when we talk about this in the book, if you’re a person who is very positive, a “yes, and,” and trying to push things forward, could you go into a meeting before it even starts, say, “I’m going to be the naysayer. I’m going to poke holes in some of these ideas. And you, person over there, you’re going to be the positive person.” Or we have different roles, and maybe we’re shifting what we typically lean into and think about things differently. And how would that dynamic change the meeting? It’s not meant to be comical and necessarily a strange meeting that is just run amuck and feels like a comedy show because you’re trying to be a naysayer and you just aren’t. It’s really just about trying to turn your brain into thinking one way, into thinking a different way, and how that helps lead the team in a different direction.
Douglas: I love this idea of examining the roles, and even shifting them and trying on different roles, and I think, not to overload the term role, but role playing can be really a phenomenal way to have a new lens into the world, and also, certainly will disrupt how your teammates think. And we also have talked about the idea of taxonomy, and so how can even the words that we use to talk about meetings can have an impact?
So, for instance—the problem is that we just gravitate to using the word meeting, and it’s just what we naturally do. And so it doesn’t matter if we’re assembling 20 people to talk about how well the product went or it’s just two of us having a quick chat about what we’re going to have for lunch; we call it a meeting. And I think that is a disservice because it doesn’t allow for a clear understanding of the purpose. And that’s something we kind of started off with when I asked what was the one thing you would change about meetings is about, you said we need to be more clear about the goals. And so I really love this concept of shifting the roles, examining what those roles are, and trying new things on, because that can really align with us understanding our purpose and even pursuing our purpose more deeply.
Karen: Yes. And that jargon, again, comes back to the meeting culture. So you say meeting. It means one thing at one company; it means another at another. And I saw this happen with calling it brainstorm. So doing a brainstorm from one company where we’re standing up, we’re active, we’re putting Post-it Notes up. There’s lots of conversations happening, lots of ideation. And then you go to another company that doesn’t brainstorm that way. They do have brainstorm meetings. You go into it, and people are sitting, they’re taking notes on their little notepad, and it can be frustrating if that’s not—it was frustrating to me. I was like, “Why aren’t we all standing up and talking?” And to them, they’re like, “Why are you trying to force this other way of doing a brainstorm?” So I think the terms also have different meaning within teams across an organization and certainly within an organization.
Douglas: So, Karen, in closing, what would you like to leave with our listeners?
Karen: I think what’s key in this moment, whenever you’re listening—if it’s recent to when it’s posted, it’s around the COVID pandemic, and we’re working from home, and things are very confusing. Or we’re beyond that—there’s going to be these times of uncertainty and wanting to hold back on changing things within our team, our organization because we’re waiting for things to smooth out. And this opportunity for while things are uncomfortable and uncertain to be when you make the changes and be thoughtful on how big those changes are and how you move forward into them, but that’s really what Start Within is all about, and the importance of finding in yourself, that you can affect the change and with the right playbook and tools in hand, you can see it through.
Douglas: Karen, I wanted to double stitch on something you said there, which was, we are living through an unprecedented time right now, and I just wanted to say that I’ve been grateful to have you as a copilot through some of this, especially as we’ve looked at inspecting and exploring our own white privilege together, what that means for speaking out around the book and the work that we’re doing and supporting others who are struggling through this and needing the help, and how can we be better allies. So I just want to express a little gratitude on the air that it’s been phenomenal to work through these challenges with you.
Karen: Yes. I echo that as well. It’s uncomfortable and challenging, for lack of better words. And just finding other people that are struggling through this is—finding your community and knowing that you’re not alone and doing this kind of work is so important.
Douglas: So, Karen, in closing, how can folks find you and find out more about the book?
Karen: Sure. I’m on LinkedIn, very active there. So, Karen Holst. You can find me. We also have, for the book, the website is start-within.com. You can find it on Amazon to purchase it. And yeah, we have lots of conversations with people that are trying to affect change and bring new ideas forward within organizations. So love connecting with people on that front.
Douglas: It’s been great having you, Karen.
Karen: Thank you, again.
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