In mid-August we held our first ever staff retreat, gathering 10 people in a house in the Oakland Hills to set the direction of the company for the next year. It was an opportunity to begin to answer the question: what is it that we stand for? What is Forte Labs’ role to play in the world, as a team and individually?
We are spread all over the country, and working together can sometimes feel abstract and impersonal. Our intention was to get to know each other better, forge a new identity as a team, and clarify our principles and values.
I’ve known for some time that we need to make a change. This summer is the five-year anniversary of the company, and it has become abundantly clear that what got us here won’t get us to the next milestone.
The culture of solopreneurship that has served me so well is now creating a fragmented and disjointed company without a clear purpose. The series of barely related product “experiments” that I’ve always found so interesting and fun are not inherently motivating to others. My preference for quickly moving on to new things instead of capitalizing on existing products and services has left them languishing, and it shows in the financial results.
On a personal level, I also need to make a change. I’ve been able to push forward on multiple frontiers for an unusually long time because of my productivity systems, but in a way that has just postponed the inevitable to the point of collapse. Too many projects have been stalling because I have to have a hand in them. Too many decisions aren’t being made because I insist on having the final word. I’ve found myself waking up with a pit in my stomach, dreading the endless stream of uninspiring work I know I have to do.
The retreat felt like a very clear fork in the road. One path was worn and beaten – pushing forward alone and hoping everyone else (and the results) would follow – and the other, a new path that might empower all of us to take on the work collectively. We gathered at a residential event space with a stunning view overlooking the bay, to explore what that might look like. No one quite knew what the facilitator, my friend and collaborator Nick Collins, had in store for us.
On day 1, after a morning meditation and grounding exercise led by my partner Lauren, we took some time to silently write out some of our personal intentions for the weekend. Here were mine:
- To decide on a clear direction and future for the company and group
- To take a stand that others can take with us
- To make myself accountable for growing where I need to grow
- To surround myself with wise people who care about me and my work
- To make the work stand on its own, with its own power and momentum
- To create a movement that outlasts and exceeds all of us
- To bring together a group of capable, fun people to share our lives and work together
Most of the rest of the first day was spent getting a handle on the current state of the company, which until then had lived only as a hazy picture deep in the recesses of my brain. My natural tendency is to be so tactical and action-oriented that I can go months without looking at the big picture. Formulating it for the first time for others gave me a striking sense of clarity.
I presented our financial results for the first two quarters of the year, provided an overview of how our products and services fit together, and talked about what I thought were the biggest opportunities. Seeing how much of this was new to most of the team was a wakeup call. I saw that I need to do a better job of articulating the narrative, of locating our efforts in a broader story that gives them meaning.
This kind of “leadershipping” hasn’t come naturally to me, because it is the flip-side of my strengths. I can make progress anytime, only because I’m agnostic as to the overall direction we are moving. Anytime I get blocked, I immediately pivot somewhere else – which is like someone switching the TV channel every time there’s a commercial. Sure, you never have to be interrupted. But there’s also no story to follow to the end. I can strategically align projects, only because I always keep my goals and intentions loose. I can always stay motivated, because I only work on what I feel like working on. All these tendencies helped me so much in the early years. But they have prevented me from unleashing the much greater productivity of the group.
We closed out the first day by taking a first pass at a mission statement in pairs. My pair came up with “Empowering every person to uncover and manifest their intrinsic purpose.” Other themes that came up for me included:
- Personal effectiveness as a gateway to personal growth
- Continuous learning and transformation
- Challenging the apparent nature of reality
- Creating as much value in the world as possible
- Human freedom and autonomy
- Doing work that is meaningful, fulfilling, and enjoyable
- Transcending limitations and boundaries
Day 2 was about uncovering each person’s unique gifts and abilities. Each person had 30 minutes to give a presentation, lead a discussion, or facilitate an exercise demonstrating what they knew, and the contribution it could make to our work.
Kevin Holmen, who manages our online courses, told us about his background in scribal traditions, historical faith traditions, and epistemology. We identified a number of principles from centuries of knowledge preservation that we could use in our own teachings.
Corey Padnos, our head coach, presented his learnings from coaching individuals and small businesses on productivity and effectiveness. We learned about what it looks like on the ground leading people through learning new ways of working, as well as what the sales process looks like. This inspired a discussion about what kinds of content (simpler) and tools (more practical) we need to develop to support coaching in the future.
Chinh Pham, our second coach, led us through a powerful exercise to identify each person’s “superpower” – the innate ability or energy they bring to any situation or environment, without any effort required. It was a moving experience seeing that we all agreed on what each person’s was.
Ben Mosior, who is in charge of operations, infrastructure, and strategy, led us through an exercise mapping the different kinds of customers we serve, and the needs we think we are fulfilling. It shed a lot of light on how little we actually understand about our customers and why they come to us. We’ve relied so much on organic marketing – on people finding us and sorting out for themselves what they need – that we are relatively weak in speaking directly to the most important benefits we offer.
Michael Fogleman, who goes by Tasshin, recently moved from managing the Praxis blog to “special projects.” He presented his findings from teaching people how to build a “second brain” on Emacs, a text editing program popular among software developers. Focusing not so much on the particularities of the software, and more on the lessons learned from translating our methods to a different platform, he revealed some principles that we’ll be using to extend to other platforms such as Microsoft OneNote.
Clay Nichols presented lessons learned from online marketing, psychology, and his experience running a software business, that we could apply to Forte Labs, which lives at that intersection. He outlined steps we could take to understand our customer acquisition funnel, and make it easier for people to progress through it and then to complete the course.
We closed the day with a discussion facilitated by our marketing partner, Tevah El Emmet of Nspired Media. He showed us some of the marketing assets we’ve been working on together, which are designed to speak to people that aren’t necessarily steeped in technology and who don’t care about theoretical frameworks.
Our core audience has been pivotal to getting Building a Second Brain off the ground. But to have an impact on those who most need it, we need to go beyond them. We need to simplify our message, and make it digestible for those just looking for a way to get organized, get a project to completion, or reduce their stress level. The question hanging in the air was, “Are we serving people where they’re at?” The answer is that we have a lot of work to do.
All this matters, we decided, because what we have is immensely powerful. Methods of capturing and deploying knowledge bring people closer to reality, stripping away what comforts but also constraints them. These techniques allow people to use their creativity and agency not only to choose between existing options, but to imagine new ones. Our commitment to getting these tools into people’s hands became even more crystal clear as the days went by.
The discussion went late into the night on day 2, as we all sat around the table talking through each of our visions for the future. The future of the company – what we were doing here and why. The future of the world – what changes we wanted to see because of the work we are doing. And our individual futures – how we wanted to learn and grow as a result of our time together. It was a profound and moving moment, an alliance of people with many interests and goals choosing to make Forte Labs the vehicle for the ones that overlapped.
Taking me aside for a moment as the others worked, Tevah asked me why I do what I do. It took me aback. I don’t normally think about the “why.” It is implicit for me, embedded in the pleasure (or pain) of each moment. But I was still surprised to find that the motivations that came to mind were short-term and visceral: fun, satisfaction, interestingness. This leads me so often to do what is fun and interesting, to hunker down on a new speculative theory instead of taking advantage of the enormous business opportunities sitting right in front of me.
Tevah asked me to make empowering the team my new source of fun. To extend my reach by loosening my grasp. To trade the solitary flow of a soloist, for the larger flow of an orchestra conductor. This led me to my own vision of the future: “Everyone around me is thriving, their dreams and hopes and ideas being constantly manifested and launched and creating impacts which then feed back into the system, multiplying forever.”
Day 3 was dedicated to formulating the first draft of our vision and mission. Ben led us through multiple rounds of “ritual dissent,” a structured process in which an idea is progressively refined through structured critique. I was given control of the whiteboard marker, and incorporated ideas and suggestions as each iteration brought up new concerns.
We had a vigorous debate about what our mission and vision should be that played out for hours. It was a healthy debate – one that allowed everyone to share what they wanted, why they wanted it, and what they thought Forte Labs could be. We’re not quite ready to share what we came up with, but we’ll be putting our first prototype to the test over the next few months, to see how it shapes our decisions and actions. More to come.
One of the strongest themes that came up throughout these discussions was our concern over the state of the environment and the world. We tend to focus on the tactical and practical sides of work, but increasingly we cannot ignore the impact that human economic activity has on the planet. If our teachings allow people to suffer less, be more prosperous, waste less, and create more creative solutions to problems, we believe that has the potential to profoundly transform our impact on the environment. Effectiveness without responsibility just leads to more efficient destruction.
Here’s what some of the team had to share about their experience:
“[The] weekend was phenomenal. I left with deepened relationships and learned so much through the eyes of good friends. My own vision for the future emerged rather unexpectedly, resulting in greater clarity and new commitments for the present. Reflecting on the experience still brings tears, and the caring intensity of this team continues to push me forward. Most importantly, I now see what Forte Labs needs to be, and I will be nudging it in that direction every opportunity I have.”
– Ben Mosior
“The staff retreat was a terrific time. I enjoyed connecting with my teammates, and found it immensely clarifying to surface our collective tensions, hopes, and dreams. We came up with a trial version of our vision and mission, which I found clarified not only my projects and roles at the company, but also how my work at Forte Labs relates to the other components of my “stack.” The new roles and projects I have coming out of the retreat are even more in line with my skills and goals, and I’m excited about what I can create with my teammates.”
“What I got out of the weekend is: I’m excited about the future. I have hope. I see possibility for our company, for our mission, and for many more humans being impacted by our work and many more dreams being fulfilled. I saw how others see me and I was moved and changed forever. It’s rare that you get to see yourself through another’s lens. I got the impact I get to make in others through just being myself, and this is something I’ve known but it still boggles my mind how I don’t actually have to “try.” I got true connection, collaboration, genuine care and concern from each of you. How incredible it is to feel such love and connection with new friends you’ve only spent a couple days with!”
Coming out of this retreat, one of our biggest priorities is taking our message “on the road.” We’ve spent the last couple years focused on creating online content, but there is simply no substitute for working with people in person, in the organizations and communities where they will be applying what they’ve learned. Trainings are actually where Forte Labs first started, so it is a return to our roots.
What we have to offer is a new way of working. An approach that makes work more effective, enjoyable, humane, and creative. Building on the ideas and methods published on our blog, in our ebooks, and in our online courses, we offer a series of four hands-on workshops, facilitated work sprints, and off-sites. Each one covers an essential aspect of modern productivity, and is facilitated by an expert facilitator from our team.
We are giving Praxis members first dibs on the few spots we have available this year for live programs. Whether it’s a training for your staff, a leadership retreat, or a public event for your community, we’d love to bring your people the best techniques we’ve discovered in the world of productivity.
We know that the landscape of modern work is rapidly changing, and it can be hard to get a handle on what effectiveness looks like. We’d love to partner with you on reinventing what it means in a way suited to the needs of your organization.
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