What’s up at Circl.es? CEO Update

Over the years, we’ve delivered authentic human connection for circles of school kids, grown-ups, faith-based communities, micro-entrepreneurs, climate activists, universities, medical teams and more. We’ve built a system and technology to support them, with many applications.

Now, we’re focused on simplifying our business model in order to create a sustainable company that can fulfill our mission: providing inclusive spaces where people can connect and grow.

On Building Direct-to-Company Sales

The earliest Circl.es adopters weren’t specific companies, they were communities that spanned several organizations, such as Harvard Business School, Aspen, Young Presidents Organization and Ken Blanchard Companies. As of this writing, communities (vs. organizations) still account for over half of our revenue.

With or without a campus, we believe community is the future of learning. A recent quote I’ve been pondering suggests that “Building community is to the collective as spiritual practice is to the individual’ (Grace Lee Boggs).

Yet while we love partners that span multiple companies, it was hard to build a fast-growth company without many individual companies or organizations as primary partners.

In 2021, we had a few crushing disappointments as we waited for partners to step on the gas.

In 2022, we sensed that these communities would be even slower in the face of an economic slowdown.

In the meantime, I made some expensive marketing decisions that didn’t pan out. We spun our wheels for a year as a result. I want to celebrate my partner Bart de Vocht who was running operations and then stepped into marketing, saying “I can solve this.” His excellent team, led by Maria Tenberge and Luz García Garona rose to replace him, and Bart created a B2B lead-gen machine. How? By zeroing in on our target prospects within companies, and inviting them into circles with each other.

The answer was under our nose, and it’s a “who” not a what. There’s a new type of leader rising in the business world, who wants to listen to and connect with one another. They believe in relationships over transactions, conversations over presentations. They’re struggling to fight disconnection at work and achieve a sense of belonging together.

And–backed by data from this funnel–we continue narrowing our focus.

We recently simplified our offerings to a menu of concrete, popular programs that add social learning to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Leadership Development, Onboarding and several other applications that our clients have helped us invent over the years.

On Sucking it Up and Rearchitecting our Video Space

We have a cadence of quarterly business reviews, which we weirdly call “offsites” out of longing for our in-person days. In the April ‘22 offsite, we discussed how to develop technology features faster. This is always a sensitive discussion, and finally our development team, led by the sage Bernard Duggan, got fired up. “You want speed? Pay down the Tech Debt!” (Do I need to define?) 

His concern was valid: often, just when you get the features right, the business takes off, and it’s really hard to hit the pause button, take months off from adding new features, and tear it all down. Additionally, some companies build lots of features quickly, producing a tangled spaghetti code.

When Franko and I started Circl.es, we had many late night discussions about M5 Networks where we both worked, and what we were going to do differently at Circl.es. One thing we agreed on was a move that’s hard to pull off: quickly build a prototype to test ideas, then once we’re clear, tear it down and rebuild the right way. Founding teams struggle with this all the time. Mitch Kapoor of Lotus Notes famously stopped the whole train in the midst of a huge success, to completely rewrite. It was the difference between good and great: Notes went on to become dominant for a decade.

“The customer doesn’t come first” is a cliche sometimes attributed to Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher, and we’ve found it to be true: if you listen to your employees first, they will take care of the customers. So we did–we listened to Bernard and gave our development team 6-9 months to rebuild the video room, our biggest source of tech debt–and our customers in turn experience a much better product. The foundations of this rewrite went live on our alpha environment this week.

On Sustainable Profitability

Last year, having passed most of the typical Series A financial milestones, we started meeting with VCs. I DO want to build a big company fast and have a big impact sooner than later. I had a good experience with the VCs that helped me build M5 and I know a lot of great people in this profession. But, having been through the VC-backed journey, I had reservations. And to be honest, no one was jumping over the table to fund us. My excuses were: I was more interested in running the business, unwilling to play the exaggeration game, maybe much more interested in talking about mission than making better slides. Eventually, I stopped pushing on the VC front, because customers started pulling.

Turning the corner into 2023, we are a beat away from sustainability: able to support growth and a software development team on our own. We’ve had the incredible support and patience of our seed investors. I don’t think my heart is saying no forever; if in the future, the opportunity is clear, the investor is right, and the team is ready we’ll absolutely entertain outside financing. But I have to say, I’m thrilled with how this shook out.

On Circles@circles

My last circles@circles session was weird and wonderful.  What’s circles@circles? It is us drinking our own champagne. We’ve run several “Seasons” of circles programs for our 25-person company: our “community of belonging” program, a custom DEIB journey, Onboarding, A She/Her Circle, and now a more open-ended peer connection design. We’re a time-zone mess, so this ain’t easy. The experience not only connects us fabulously, it reliably delivers insights about what our clients experience.

Back to weird and wonderful: in our circles, we talk about weight loss, burnout, struggles prioritizing, wasted workdays, fear of losing a parent. I noticed some stressy voices in my own head: should we be spending an hour on this at work? Is it ok to be the CEO in this room, or am I in the way? 

And then I realized that these circles are gold. They’ve impacted my connection to my colleagues, who are now influencing me more than ever, and improving my understanding of our company.

This aligns with Microsoft’s recent huge study of hybrid work which led them to stop measuring engagement and start measuring flourishing. Wellness became the measure of how their workforce is doing. It isn’t just about the work. I heard somewhere that your company grows as fast as your people do, and I agree. But the last couple of years have revealed a whole other level to the game. Your company is only as well as your people. And this is EXACTLY what giving space for community at work can help with.

Well, thanks for reading this far into storytime. I’d be curious to hear if you all think this is the right kind of company update.

Our work fighting disconnection has become more urgent as the world sees deepening polarization, a disengaged workforce, kids left years behind, and declining mental health. Many blame technology: social media, distributed work tools, online classrooms. But we’re techno-optimists. Our diagnosis is that it isn’t technology itself, it is the way it is built and structured. Facebook, Zoom and Netflix make it easy to amass huge groups, lined up in rows, facing experts or entertainers, connecting us in a shallow way (or just broadcasting at each other). The Circles System produces a deeper, more authentic human connection, consistently.

There’s a time for rows, and certainly a time to be alone too, but it is out of balance.

What people need more of are circles.

Social Learning: How People Magically Connect & Grow

Over the years, our team at Circl.es has worked to define the magic Circl.es offers and locate ourselves in a particular category. Those of us who have experienced a successful YPO forum, Aspen Fellowship, or Mastermind will understand what I’m talking about: the unparalleled deep human connection and growth experienced in those spaces is hard to describe, let alone categorize. At the intersection of three massive markets –  “Education,” “Collaboration,” and “Community” we’ve found a specific category: “Social Learning.” In this post, we’ll share a few thoughts about the benefits and limitations of categorizing circles as “social learning.”  

Social Learning in Action

The label “social learning” encompasses two intertwined outcomes that circles accomplish: (1) enhancing learning and development programs and (2) building the deep ties that create community. Many existing programs today defy categorization as one or the other, especially, diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Sometimes a use-case emphasizes “social,” sometimes “learning,” but both are always present. 

On the social side, Glassdoor recently used social learning structures to help employees connect to process the war in Europe. Many leaders fear that divisive issues of our time will rip the social fabric of their organizations, but Glassdoor saw the crisis as an opportunity to care for employees. The facilitated circles gathered people from around the world, and proved to be especially meaningful for employees with personal ties to Ukraine and Russia. There was an agenda, but the focus was more social: with a unique opportunity to socialize on a global scale, employees shared their feelings and brainstormed possible ways to help each other.

On the learning side, a global supermarket conglomerate layered circles into a learning journey for rising high-potential leaders. Their program success criteria included practice and application of specific competencies: in the first year of the program, the circles emphasized social aspects of the experience like networking and connection, and value scores came back good, not great. For the program’s second year, we tuned the experience–making it more application focused–and Circles became the highest rated component of the journey.

Defining Social Learning

Social learning theory stems from behavioral psychology, and rests on the idea that humans naturally observe, encode and then imitate others around them. We learn how to be human through our social environments. We aren’t necessarily aware of social learning taking place–it’s simply happening to us all the time. Asocial learning, by contrast, refers to individuals learning on their own, through trial and error. Social learning begins at home when we’re children, continues through our developmental years in school, and extends throughout our lives into the workplace. One of our favorite books about social learning is not academic at all: “The Inner Game of Tennis” unpacks just how much we learn from observing and imitating, vs being told what to do.

One common question is, “but don’t I need an expert?” If we allow learning to happen peer-to-peer, won’t people simply copy each others’ rookie mistakes? The answer is a bit counterintuitive. Vygotsky–a prominent contributor to social learning theory–explained “proximity theory:” We actually learn more from people close to our level, and are more likely to notice their mistakes as our own and correct them, while an expert’s’ teaching goes over our heads. As a teenager, I went to a military academy for a summer of Russian-language immersion; we were strictly forbidden to speak English, and I was a beginner. I felt like I was living with other neanderthals, our communication skills reduced to the Russian equivalent of “Me want food.” But in the end, my language skills progressed at an almost magic pace, with all kinds of silly fun along the way.

A few sticking points with using the phrase social learning: first, it’s sometimes used with “social media,” which certainly has some social learning applications. Social learning isn’t using your friends to engage you with one-way entertainment–there has to be conversation and community involved. Second, Social learning is sometimes lumped in with ‘peer learning,’ which is more a subset of what we do. And third, for many people “learning” is a complicated word. It harkens back to school and rows-based learning experiences, where the expectation is mastering facts. Social learning is much more about exploring uncertainty together than transmitting certain facts. So, even as we adopt the category “social learning,” we’ve got work to do to establish its definition.

Social Learning Benefits

 Studies have established the workplace benefits of social learning. For instance: in a recent LinkedIn Learning remote work study, one of the top ten L&D strategies identified that driving hybrid workplace engagement involves making learning more social. The study revealed that 98% of participants agreed that people generally learn better together, and are much more engaged when learning in a group of peers. One practical suggestion from the study: ‘don’t simply convert in-person training into video conference. Reimagine how live virtual could look: Can you drop the slides and just have a conversation?” (LinkedIn Learning study).

Psychologists agree: trading slide decks for dialogue fundamentally changes the way we work together. Because people mimic one another and naturally integrate each others’ emotional expressions to better connect, two brains function better than one.  Conversations facilitate more than sharing information; remarkably, by boosting the production of hormones and neurotransmitters, dialogue causes physical and emotional changes in the brain. The result is transformational conversations and social learning.

The sheer number of professionals seeking out peer learning communities for themselves is another data point proving the power of social learning. Consider the recent rise of Chief to Unicorn status.  Describing themselves as “the only private membership network focused on connecting and supporting women executive leaders,” their brand promise is not simply to network and climb corporate ladders together, but to connect and grow: “Connect to a network of leading women, build a personal board of advisors, unlock access to prominent business experts and programming, and grow as a leader.”

Applying Workplace Social Learning

Many workplace learning and development professionals subscribe to something like the 70-20-10 rule, which acknowledges that formal learning comprises merely 10% of a professional’s learning journey (20% comes from developmental relationships like mentors, and the other 70% happens on-the-job). Yet despite what these numbers show, most budgets are still invested in formal learning–webinars, multiple-choice assessments, and other one-way communication experiences. Luckily, In these formal settings, social learning can’t help but take place in the margins–during the breakout groups and side conversations, if those are provided. But many L&D professionals are left struggling to impact the crucial development going on during 90% of a professional’s learning. 

A way through this conundrum is to establish social learning practices in the formal experience, and then extend them into the remaining 90% of the calendar. When bosses carve out time and space for reflection during work, strong social ties carry over. Intentionally layering social learning into formal settings matches people with intention, and these relationships reinforce learning objectives over time.

In short, we’ve found that all the benefits of social learning, can easily be added to stuff you’re already doing, provided there’s three elements: space, facilitation and re-defining success:

  • Make space – leaders must set aside task lists and dedicate time to social learning 
  • Facilitate – minimal strategic structure and/or guidance
  • Reset Expectations– shifting from having all the answers to welcoming questions, which takes vulnerability and listening with a growth mindset.

Organizations that have infused social learning throughout their programs, projects, and teams experience transformation. They start to approach what Peter Senge and others call a ‘learning organization’. Because they’ve built trust, they innovate faster together. They are more agile. And in the end, they are fun, safe places to work, filled with human connection, a sense of belonging and a comfort in your own skin.

What do you practitioners and participants think? Is Social Learning the right label for what you’re all raving about?

Companies Need Community: Three Things I got Wrong About Culture

Circl.es is a radically distributed workplace: Brooklyn, Buenos Aires, Saratoga Springs, Portland, Barcelona, London, Auckland, Canberra. Since we’ve grown these last two years, I’ve gone from knowing everyone to not having met most of our team, which can make establishing culture tricky. As a company builder, culture has always been a big deal to me; and, selfishly, important to get right so I can be happy at work. Today I’m seeing flaws in my old ideas about company culture, and also noticing one big missing piece: community.

There’s a ton of proof that culture-forward companies outperform others in sales growth, profitability and stock price. I’ve written a lot about culture, and it’s always helpful to start with a definition. I like Greg Besner’s book, Culture Quotient, in which he lays out ten components of culture. He also talks about Schein’s model, a diagram where cultural artifacts are visible above the surface and beliefs, values, and assumptions appear below the surface. Both help me assess and work on culture, for sure.

But the parts don’t quite add up to the whole. Besner even gives himself a “catch-all category” after describing Schein’s model, adding that “employee engagement is a big part of the answer.” As I reflect back on our award-winning culture at M5 Networks where I used to lead–and what is happening now in Circl.es and the companies we work with–there’s something that transcends the ten components on this list, something I think was missing from the way I understood and worked with culture. Working without offices has laid this bare.

I have been trying to pin it down. Here’s a few things that have led to my conclusion that companies need community:

1. Culture isn’t merely top-down.
When I led M5, we constantly talked about “alignment.” We repeated our mission and core values in all-hands company meetings, until we were blue. We built company-wide programs to reinforce and work on culture. But as we grew, there was an undertow–a truth that constantly eroded our progress: True culture developed in pockets. The warren of engineers on seven lived a different reality than the sales team on the open floor on five. The team leaders (and certain other leaders on the team) had a much bigger influence–intentional or not–than anything I ever did as CEO. Real culture, it turns out, is circle by circle, team by team–it doesn’t flow down the neat lines of an org chart. Culture guru Stan Slap captures this feeling in the title of his book, Bury My Heart at Conference Room B. A leader’s job in setting culture is to create space for communities to form and flourish, then stay connected to them.

I learned the importance of staying connected while spending time with one of my favorite business thinkers, Pat Lencioni, at his first live conference just before the pandemic. One big takeaway was his simple advice that leaders actively care for their employees; that they ask and care about people’s families and life outside of work. I found this explained in his book The Truth About Employee Engagement: A Fable About Addressing the Three Root Causes of Job Misery, which talks about the power of managers taking a genuine interest in people’s lives, to avoid the damage to engagement caused by the feeling of “anonymity.” 

2. Culture isn’t just about getting work done.
The last two years have exposed this like dirty laundry behind us in a Zoom square. Despite HR’s best efforts to keep things simple and safe, avoidance of personal topics – like politics and health – can build up pressure until they explode (like at Basecamp last year, when a third of the company walked out). I’m not suggesting obliterating privacy, and we all need separation; in fact, this Forbes article asserts that bringing one’s whole self to work is a fad for millennial employees, and Fast Company warns that it’s a trend not accessible to many, warning that “not everyone has access to meaningful and engaging careers.”

“With executive support and enough individuals to engage, peer learning can contribute more than any other force I have seen to building connection and a vibrant, trust-rich community within an organization”

But a recent HBR article entitled “11 trends that will shape work in 2022 and beyond” describes it less as a trend and more as the changing face of the future workplace. One of the trends they list is the rise of the Chief Purpose Officer, because “Issues of politics, culture, and social debate have fully entered the workplace. Employees have been asked to bring their whole self to work as organizations try to create a more and more inclusive and productive work environment. This is fundamentally different than a decade ago when employees were expected to leave their personal perspectives at the door.” One of our longtime partners David Pachter of JumpCrew recently wrote an excellent book called Remote Leadership, where he lays out what he calls the three pillars of great remote organizations–and one of them is peer learning. He claims that “Peer learning is transformative. With executive support and enough individuals to engage, peer learning can contribute more than any other force I have seen to building connection and a vibrant, trust-rich community within an organization.

3. Culture doesn’t form inside routine meetings.
What truly forms culture are the extracurriculars: training and training trips, employee resource groups, drinks out, conferences etc., which are difficult to replicate in our new virtual reality. Just like parents have struggled with the recent loss of their children’s sports and music classes, organizational culture-builders are feeling the effects of these disrupted practices (and the fact that even Zoom trivia-night doesn’t suffice). A recent HR Executive article lists the top three signs 2022 remote culture isn’t working as low meeting engagement, siloed departments and poor employee communication. Psychology Today claims that “virtual communication will never replace face-to-face communication.” But here comes the crisitunity: the silver lining is our chance to reinvent these important connection practices, intentionally, with more impact, equity and inclusiveness. The same Psychology Today article predicts that in 2022, organizations will “invest in technology that allows virtual or hybrid employees to get to know each other better,” exactly what we’re working on with our partners. 

Communities are like concentric circles, with highly engaged people at the heart working on them full-time, and more peripheral members at the edges, involved as they want to be

In summary: Culture isn’t merely top-down driven and involved with getting work done; it’s actually found in the margins, in the communities that form. The best of these communities are organic and fluid; their borders are porous, so it’s easier to think about including part-timers, vendors, customers, even former employees. Communities are like concentric circles, with highly engaged people at the heart working on them full-time, and more peripheral members at the edges, involved as they want to be. They are held together by shared beliefs and human connection, not paychecks and reporting lines. We inherently recognize that communities are tied to our identities, and we feel the gravity of other humans holding us to community standards, ideals, and behaviors. 

There are different kinds of communities, and I am most interested in what I call a “learning community” because I see a knowledge-economy company as a learning machine; as leaders grapple with the shortcomings of their cultures and look for ways to build a community layer, “learning communities” provide a useful framework. 

Lots of people are working on this type of community building: shout out to www.connectedcommons.com for their powerful research on learning communities in companies. I recently had the privilege of discussing this with new Connected Commons hire Greg Pryor, on a shiny beach morning in LaJolla, CA; it was his last day at Workday, and he was on his way to join Rob Cross at Connected Commons. After years of being in the heart of cutting-edge HR practices, Greg has concluded that learning communities are the most important and impactful area of work for his next chapter. Michael Arena, also at Connected Commons, wrote a great book, Adaptive Space, which is full of stories and data about the power of “social capital strategies.”

This need to change workplace culture through community building is fueling our growth at Circles, with partners like Glassdoor calling us their “work from home strategy.” Our shared vision with Glassdoor is to use the Circles platform and methodology to help reinforce and scale valued aspects of their culture, like inclusion, teamwork, resilience, and human connection. To highlight another of our partners: Dupont’s M&M division recently scaled up their Circles program, to strengthen their community in the face of the major changes 2022 will bring.

Our ongoing work with Circl.es partners gives me new insights every day into the cultural power of learning communities. Much of our work now is figuring out exactly what it means to build these communities at work. What’s clear is that community has an important place in the culture conversation, and getting it right has all the same commercial benefits that come from other aspects of organizational health.

Interested to connect and talk more?

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Is Your New Year Powered by a Learning Community?

Every January, humans make (and sometimes break) New Year’s resolutions. Much has been written on how to master the process, everything from discerning and focusing on your why, to turning when into actionable calendar items. Results vary as we engage the hard work of change in our personal and professional lives. At Circl.es, our work focuses on an overlooked but powerful dimension of change, one that might not emerge as readily when making resolutions: the who. How does one’s community augment not only personal growth á la annual resolutions, but also noticeable change in the workplace?

Our clients have experienced the transformation that happens when employees connect and grow together in small groups. Head of Platform at Union Square Ventures, Lauren Young, knows there’s no curriculum robust enough to keep up with the challenges facing executives in USV’s fast-growing portfolio: it’s not necessarily what those leaders need, but who–they need community with each other. As she puts it, “Leaders working at rapidly growing companies are constantly facing challenges that require a quick decision or response. One way we try to support leaders within our portfolio is by connecting them with peers who either have gone through that experience, or can provide a safe space to discuss and brainstorm ways to approach it.”

“Great leaders don’t move people around a board like pawns;
they cultivate conditions for growth”

Lauren practices what General Stan McChrystal refers to as the difference between  “gardening” and “playing chess.” Great leaders don’t move people around a board like pawns; they cultivate conditions for growth. In his video The Leader as Gardener, McChrystal expands the metaphor: “A gardener grows nothing, plants do that–that’s what plants are designed to do, and they’re really good at it. But the gardener’s role is not unimportant…all the things the gardener does to create an environment and ecosystem allows the plants to do what they do, and do it very, very well.” Like plants, humans naturally circle and grow together, provided leaders present the right conditions.

When the pandemic deprived leaders of offices, campuses, and hotel event spaces, it forced intentionality and creativity as they grappled with how to create garden-like spaces where employees can gather and flourish. Priya Parker, in her book The Art of Gathering, discusses the sin of being a “chill” host at a party, “Chill is a miserable attitude when it comes to hosting gatherings … I want to convince you to assume your proper powers as a host.” Thoughtful hosts decide who needs to connect with whom, and with a little forethought, what topics they should discuss. Like a good party host, organizational leaders can use small groups to set the stage for deep connection. Fortuitously, this combats pandemic realities like disconnection, disengagement and loneliness.

“Like a good party host, organizational leaders can use small groups to set the stage for deep connection.”

Leaders increasingly look for learning groups for themselves, many joining professional cross-company learning communities that connect them with others working on similar projects. Despite limited ability to gather in-person, our clients like YPO and Executive Networks reported record growth and renewals this year. New communities like Atlas One for sales professionals and Round for technology leaders emerged. Ryan Fuller, CEO of Round, says that “A vetted community rich with perspective and grounded in shared values provides unparalleled access to knowledge and opportunities from fellow members dedicated to helping each other.”  Degreed upskilling platform has documented this shift from internal connection to connecting professionally between organizations–their data revealed that 62% of executives sought to learn from professional networks in 2019, and we believe the pandemic has accelerated this trend.

This movement is consistent with an approach known as communities of practice, a term Ettiene Wenger-Traynor coined while studying the ancient system of apprenticeship. His studies informed him that many have long misunderstood the role of an apprentice’s master: traditionally, apprentices actually spent very little one-on-one time with masters–like the plants in McChrystal’s garden, apprentices mostly learned from each other. As we heard him say in a recent workshop: “finding the knowledge we need to solve today’s problems starts with coming together in uncertainty and figuring it out. We even saw university presidents form peer groups to figure out Covid.” 

Those of us who have taken a class from an expert or read a book alone have experienced the absence of such a community; we emerge swamped with expertise, yet starved for the practice and peer support that produces true change. Many leaders we work with also describe falling into another trap: while they may successfully group employees or community members together through directories, social media groups, and email newsletters, the results have been lackluster. As pointed out by Gina Bianchini–founder of the community management platform Mighty Networks–these large, flat groups are truly social media–that is, one-way communication that most of us passively consume, making it the junk food of human connection. Actual conversation and connection are vital to transformational small group communities.

“Actual conversation and connection are vital to transformational small group communities.”

In contrast, our partners are proving that small groups, like circles, elevate a community into a learning community, facilitating authentic connections and enabling social learning. The recipe is clear: gather a diverse cross-section of people with a common purpose.  Foster a safe place. Watch as the power of peer connection pressures action, and taps into another great need–the desire to serve something beyond themselves. At this point, the community benefits just as much as the individual, as shared trust and vision compels greater job longevity and performance.  

As February nears and we distill our lists of resolutions–some fade, and the right ones will inevitably rise to the top and stick–consider adding to your list of resolutions something that focuses not on why or how, but on who. Will we actively host our parties, tending the gardens of our companies and communities? We can not only improve the chances of seeing our own resolutions through; we can help create spaces and learning communities where others can thrive and become their fullest selves. 

We’re here to connect with you.

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Virtual hugs,
CEO, Circl.es

Interested in becoming a part of the Circl.es team? Check out our open roles.

This Is How We Can Shape A Better Virtual World

I have worked as an entrepreneur for the past 20 years, doing my part to build out the Internet. During that time, I’ve been comforted by the idea that helping humans connect is good for the planet.

But mass interconnection has drawbacks. Communication bubbles deepen tribal divisions. Mega-companies, like Amazon, are wiping out local brick-and-mortar shops. Misinformation abounds and we’re increasingly aware of our lack of privacy on the Internet. And, ironically, many of us feel more isolated than ever before.

Thanks to the pandemic, the world of virtual communication has seen a building boom. Clubhouse, an app that lets people gather in audio chat rooms, is one of the newest structures on the market; announcements of its arrival exploded onto front pages and Clubhouse received a $1 billion valuation after just a few months of live service. 

Companies like Clubhouse show that virtually, we can build big audiences and communities, and even companies, quickly. But are we architecting thoughtfully? As Winston Churchill said in 1943, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Can we imagine a new way to design these virtual spaces so they reinforce the best of our humanity?

Here’s a small example. Jodie McLean, CEO of EDENS, a real estate owner, operator, and developer, was, like so many other CEOs in 2020, grappling with how to help her newly remote workforce avoid the risk of being divided by this isolation. McLean was also aware that this physical isolation was occurring at the same time that the company needed to come together for conversations about systemic racism perhaps more than ever before. The first thing she tried was a large-format webinar for her 200-person staff. But it didn’t generate real conversation or connection.

The next time, she tried a different virtual structure. Staff were placed in small rooms of ten, faces arranged in a circle. They met for two 90-minute sessions. They had some quiet time to reflect, and then timers and an agenda guided their conversation. They talked about their identities at work and how the issues roiling our country show up in the physical communities EDENS constructs for customers. Staff were apprehensive at first, used to sitting back with cameras off. But after the sessions 95% of the staff raved about their experiences, noting that their conversations were authentic. No professionals facilitated the sessions. At the end of the day, McLean observed, “We’ve never felt more grateful for each other.” 

Sitting in circles is a very old idea. When people are in a small group, all facing each other, they feel included. They engage. They offer ideas and share their challenges. Over time, people connect and begin to help each other. Many of our physical spaces are not set up for people to be in circles. Think classrooms, or trading floors, or churches, or auditoriums. These spaces deeply embed ideas of hierarchy and assembly lines and teacher-as-expert. Our move to virtual spaces is a chance to question this. 

Double-click on the example of corporate learning and development. From 2000-2012, my previous startup had to grow fast to keep up with an exploding market. We couldn’t hire for new skills fast enough. We needed our people to grow, so our company could grow. I began to focus on what it would take to build a learning culture at work. Unfortunately, the learning tools we had fell short: a corporate “university” filled with out-of-date slide decks, skills training videos, managers coaching subordinates 1:1, a performance management system no one kept up to date, and the occasional one-off workshop. They failed to engage all but a few very self-directed learners. 

One thing we tried, though, worked: a “Battle of the Bands,” where about a third of the company took up bass, drums, guitar, keyboards, or singing. Music teachers helped remind people how to learn, how to listen to each other, how to practice. It was an exercise in how important it is to create an engaging experience where learning in teams can push individuals to be their best selves. 

Our common corporate learning structures were built for old circumstances. We no longer have to mass-produce workers for assembly-line jobs. Information is no longer scarce, requiring people to gather around an expert. We have the opposite problem: there’s a tsunami of information every day. Our workforce needs highly diverse and flexible creatives that can work together.

Corporate learning and development echoes the education system overall, which is also made of traditional structures and has a similar disengagement problem. While 63% % of kids are served by the four-year college system in the US, 40% of those students do not complete their degree within six years. It makes me think, if more of those students are fully engaged during college would graduation rates increase?

There’s evidence that study groups improve matriculation rates and success, and small groups or “team-based” learning improves the satisfaction of both student and teacher over lectures. The Harkness method, pioneered by Philips Exeter Academy in 1930, in which all classes are conversational and conducted at an oval table, is gaining popularity. Many states now have mandates to use restorative practices, a circles-based approach to community building and repairing at schools, which is proven much more effective than the traditional ways of organizing schools.

In fact, it turns out that many educational approaches draw on the power of circles. They have different names: forum, which is used by organizations such as YPO;  communities of practice, which are used across businesses, schools, and in government;  text-based dialogue, which is used by the Aspen Institute; and the list goes on. They all have common practices. Harvard Business School programs house their attendees in a living group of eight single rooms around a kitchen, and a coach helps each “living group” jell into a circle that works together on cases and projects. 

I’ve personally had some learning experiences in circles that helped me, taught me, and pushed me more than any class or coach or even consultant had done before. In my 30s, I was a first-time leader of a scaling company and my EO and YPO forums, each with 7-8 other CEOs meeting every month, were how I really learned to do that job. When do I reduce staff or leases when the economy was giving out? How do I show up at the office when my dad is slowly passing from ALS at home? How do you negotiate partner differences, is PR worth it, is my public speaking good enough? After exit, I was lucky enough to be picked for the Henry Crown Fellowship, a circle of leaders at similar transition points. In this Fellowship, The Aspen Institute gave me the space to explore values, what I thought was good for society, and next steps. These circles were transformational.

The learning field is bubbling with new ideas, technology, neuroscience, and data science. But quietly one of the oldest ideas is gaining traction with both approaches to learning and how best to work: sitting in a circle.

Almost everything we do at work is performed in a team. Team structure methodologies like Agile (cross-functional teams working sequentially in a structured manner), Scaling up (daily huddles to improve communication), EOS/Traction (working quarterly towards a set of company goals) and Holocracy (employee flexibility to take on tasks in a flat corporate structure) emphasize the importance and power of small teams learning together, quickly. They each have a small-group structured meeting at their heart. 

The success of these small group structures relies on teams to collaborate openly. Google’s Aristotle project found that psychological safety –  the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions or concerns  –  was the clearest success factor across hundreds of teams they studied. Circles practices foster this kind of safety, through group conversations where no one dominates the conversation, everyone is made comfortable speaking and feels heard. They help the boss sit alongside you on the team modeling vulnerability, instead of issuing updates and orders from the front of the room.

I spent a lot of energy as CEO trying to produce a consistent corporate culture and alignment throughout the company.  But the actual culture that an individual experiences day-to-day has everything to do with their immediate team. We need to learn to lead “teams of teams.” This will help with the ridiculously low level of employee engagement that Gallup reports across our companies year after year. As my Aspen Fellow, now Heineken’s CEO, Dolf van den Brink said to me, “We’ve done a good job of building structure across the global org chart, but not where it matters most: inside teams.”

The idea that led me to found Circles Learning Labs, Inc. (Circl.es) was to help make it easy for people to learn and work in circles. I wondered why everyone in the world doesn’t have a Forum, like I did when I was a new CEO? Or a Fellowship to help them figure out their next career move? I asked myself if I could help solve problems for all the restorative practice leaders or the Holocracy crowd who were increasingly working on this? 

When I started experimenting in 2016 I thought that we’d be building a matchmaking service: use LinkedIn to find, for example, eight new marketing leaders at small companies. But it turned out that this part was relatively easy: communities and companies had already collected like-minded peers. We didn’t think we’d have to build a video space at all, but when we experimented with a new interface where people were in a circle instead of a grid, we got incredible reactions. It turned out that all these different kinds of circles have very similar best practices, making it a good candidate for software. It was hard and expensive for companies and communities to set up and run lots of circles – another problem that lent itself to a software solution. 

So we’ve set out to build a virtual space where every feature we add or take away fosters authentic human connection and makes it easier to run and scale lots of circles. The outcomes so far leveraging Circl.es with organizations like EDENS, are encouraging:

  • Harvard Business School struggled for years to find the right way to support executive education students to practice and apply learned skills after leaving campus. Their “Virtual Living Group” program keeps busy CEOs meeting monthly in circles. When Covid hit, we added Circl.es to their virtual campus, reducing truancy in virtual programs to almost zero and “significantly deepening the in-classroom conversation.”
  • Millennium Schools ran circles of teachers and 89% said it improved their ability to support students, 90% said it boosted their wellness, and 92% said it reduced their sense of isolation.
  • Ken Blanchard companies found that breakout circles improve workshop outcomes and lead to successful follow-up. “There’s two things that lead to successful learning sustainment – accountability and relationships,” noted Diana Urbina, Head of Coaching Services. 
  • Chris Anderson, TED’s founder, started TED circles to help move his community from inspiration to action. The program has exploded to thousands of circles globally in under a year and is quickly becoming a core part of the TED community.
  • Jumpcrew, an outsourced revenue company in Nashville, TN, began its Circl.es program before the pandemic. It has continued to grow quickly in a remote working environment as they’ve found that building “circles for our upcoming leaders has reduced employee churn and improved our culture.”

Even more encouraging than the program outcomes are the participant testimonials we receive after a session on Circl.es.

“I love the discussion in each session and navigating real, deep life situations together.”

“Circl.es makes space for a high level of open honest communication.”

“So good to hear from others – so many common threads of struggle and celebration which is incredibly encouraging!

“Continuing as a tight-knit group to grow, evolve, learn and gain insight from one another.”

Circles are humanizing. Research suggests that when we feel we can show up more authentically, we are more open to new ideas and feel a greater sense of well-being. It has never been technically easier to form small circles of people from all over the world and run a circle well. Anyone can use Circl.es’ best practices to facilitate the energy, timing, and flow that makes time together in a circle feel packed. The output from a well-run circle in a virtual setting can expose us to true diversity and change the way we think.

Maybe the future of learning and work is a return to the past. Fewer presentations, more conversations. Space and time for small groups to connect, without the torrent of thousands of voices reaching you through your screens. Space to reflect and process, instead of taking in more information second-by-second.

Over the years, we’ve built big, hierarchical structures; now leaders can focus on what happens at the edge, fostering more intimate connections where people can bring their authentic, full selves to conversations and connect as humans. And with a little help from the pandemic, we can take advantage of the fact that many employees aren’t returning to their rows of desks, and change the shape of our reality.

Dan Hoffman is CEO & Founder of Circl.es. To hear more from Dan, connect with him on LinkedIn here or continue to follow our blog.

Circl.es for Teams

I’m overdue for a Circl.es update.

Over the past three years, we’ve been building software for peer learning circles. Those of you that know the story know that this mission came from a personal place. My YPO and EO forums, Henry Crown Fellowship at Aspen, or even M5’s Battle of the Bands were the most impactful learning experiences I’ve had. The Circl.es team and I have been chasing the question, “Could everyone in the world grow in a peer circle?“ The software we built, with a new kind of virtual meeting space at its heart, helped launch and scale learning programs at schools like Harvard Business School and companies like Square and Bankers Life.

Along the way, though, we discovered something interesting. The practices that drive effective peer learning generally happen during powerful meetings. These practices foster more authentic communication, quickly build connection, and help people listen to each other. They gently push people to surface and address bigger issues than they might normally do.

Who else needs better listening, authentic communication, and to face big challenges head-on? Teams. I’m talking about modern teams – creative, agile, small groups – not the kind when subordinates follow orders. This kind of teamwork requires psychological safety, accountability, and engagement, just like peer learning. We’ve started to discover that peer learning practices in team meetings can produce breakthrough performance and a sense of connection. This kind of real, high-quality “collaboration” is in demand.

When we surveyed friends that are managers (many of you), almost everyone had an issue near the top of their priority list that required better teamwork. “I’m a bottleneck.” “I need better division of labor on my team.” “I’m worried about losing a key person.” “We don’t have enough resources to make plan.” “We need to innovate.” And so on.

Regular, small doses of peer learning practices injected into meetings boost teamwork.

This is a more durable way to build teamwork than implementing project management software to create accountability, creating yet another inbox with Slack or a trip to the ropes course. (you should consider those things too. I do love offsites.) If our hunch is right, it’s a way for teams to build better and better teamwork over time, while getting things done.

We’ve been testing on ourselves for months. Our team meetings, in the words of our skeptical CTO, became “so much better.” Last month, we ran a small pilot for 15 standing teams. Two had technical glitches, three didn’t get it, but about 10 of them loved it and wanted more. So, we’ve decided to expand into a larger pilot that starts this January. Can Circles be a platform that helps teams learn and practice techniques that build teamwork, meeting by meeting?

I know that my YPO forum and my Aspen seminars are the best meetings I attend. I know that I feel more connected to those peers than to many others in my life. Many of my fellow participants in these “Circles” programs, say that they bring practices from Forum or Aspen back to their companies that improve them as leaders. But I’ve seen most of my friend’s attempts to bring their experiences back to their teams be clumsy. If only this was easier …

In my experience, the best innovations are not pure invention, they are cross-pollination. In 2019, we will find out if our peer learning software can instill practices that transform work teams. Happy New Year!

Are you interested in an easy way to build real teamwork? I’ll be I’ll be talking more about the practices and how we’re enabling them in coming posts. If you are up for it, try Circles in one of your upcoming meetings. I’d love your feedback. And later in the year, we’ll invite you to a formal beta program.

Becoming a B-Corp

Here’s a story about selling my previous business, M5 Networks.

Anyone that worked at M5 could see how living by a mission and values motivated us. The mission was not even particularly glamorous or unique, just simply getting customers to love us one by one. Measuring that gave us all real satisfaction. But there was always an undercurrent: Isn’t our real mission making money for shareholders?

By 2011 the market  we’d pioneered, cloud phones, was heating up. The team and I knew that we needed to go bigger or go home. In the course of putting together financing for our big growth plan, ShoreTel’s CEO asked me to lunch. This evolved into a buyout offer. We faced two options: take some more investment and play more hands at the table, or move on and cash out our chips.

I was surrounded by VPs and VCs. The VPs were relatively new, and were tempted by a quick payback. The VC’s had a 6-year itch and rationally were motivated to return capital. Their structure, our structure, meant I was surrounded by people who were tempted to sell. Once we started to explore the SHOR offer, I was surrounded by bankers and lawyers. Their incentive was to sell. I tell this story to any entrepreneur considering their exit. Before things go too far, go for a long lonely walk and make up your own mind. Once a deal is rolling, a lot of people around will be pushing for it. As we at Circles know, peer pressure is a thing.

After the successful sale, there was a certain sadness. A lot people felt that M5 had more good work to do. Some of our customers and staff felt that we’d let down our mission in the name of a juicy buyout offer. I’ve now had a chance to reflect on that tension.

I believe that business is the best structure for propagating a change in the world, and for-profit is the most likely structure to produce fast growth. So I’ve been looking for a way to set the right balance for Circles, the company (formally incorporated now as Circles Learning Labs, Inc.) I want employees, investors, customers all to be aligned around a better balance of growth, profit, and mission. I want us to be able to make balanced choices between applications that are lucrative – like corporate leaders – and ones that may be lower price like helping my friend Aditya create circles for the 5,000 school principals he works with in the toughest parts of India.

I get that one part of that is maintaining control, and leading with strength. Warren Buffet only reports once a year and does it his way because he’s an amazing leader. Some family businesses have this figured out and are the most long-term thinkers around. Kudos to Circles advisor Jeff Snipes who has helped a community of “enduring” companies with a long-term view called Tugboat Institute. I think I’m a clearer leader now, and I do have enough control to make these choices.

Another part is structural: things like compensation and options, the deal we cut with investors, or the way we measure our success. I’ll write more on those things as they crystalize for us.

Ultimately, though, I do believe in the power of peers. I want to be surrounded by people motivated by business as an instrument for social good. I want that kind of peer pressure. The Henry Crown fellowship has certainly been a positive force for me in that regard. Circles is my fellowship project.

Another famous HCF project was the B Corporation. Three fellows set out to create a corporate structure that made shareholders responsible for both share value and mission. Almost a decade later, they’ve created the Benefit Corporation structure in almost every state. There are about 2,000 B Corporations worldwide. They’ve added a stringent certification process layered on top of the legal requirement. And they’ve built a vibrant community so these entrepreneurs can help each other. Famous B corps now include Warby Parker, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Honest Tea, Kickstarter, and the list goes on.

So we’re going to be a B. But we are going to go one step farther. Since we’re a new company, we’ll elect to become a benefit corp, B Lab’s requirement to ensure considerations of stakeholder interests in our governance, which will allow us to be a Pending B Corp. After a year of performance above the bar for certification, we will try to meet the high standards to become a Certified B Corporation. Plus, the Circles team is excited about having an impact in helping this community, our new community. So we’re prioritizing launching circles for B corp leaders. We’ve just started calling around to make friends in our new community and gauging interest in B Corp Leadership Circles. It makes sense to us to help these leaders, help each other, help the world.

If you are a B Corp leader and this sounds like something you want to be a part of, you can

Circles Advisor Update: Learning and The Road Ahead

Dear Advisors:

It has been a long time since I shared an update!

I’m more determined than ever to make Circles happen. It might even help stitch the fabric of the country back together. An online language teacher I worked with reminded me of the Yoda quote, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. And hate leads to suffering.” We know that ignorance and lack of familiarity can lead to fear.

What if we matched “reds” and “blues” together – not to talk about politics, but to work on and discuss common interests? Can face-to-face video bridge rural and urban when physical distance makes it impossible to be together? Would team-directed learning be an attractive option for some of the 2/3 left out of the higher education system? Can Circles help build empathy?

What we’re learning

Circles 4 -11 are running, with ten more coming behind them. Our merry band of part-timers is evolving towards being a founding team. We just spent 10 days together including two colleagues based in Barcelona and San Francisco. We’re getting a better idea of what we need to build.

We need speed. Launch to live is critical. We need to shorten the first email to first meeting interval if the business model will work.

Are the learners learning to learn? We’ve taken “The Meta Journey” and turned it into “The Learning Experience.” At its most fundamental, this is about encouraging self-directed learning, making peer groups accessible, and forwarding the “circles not rows” movement. More about all of that in an upcoming blog post. Here’s a cartoon that gives an overview of the experience.

Guides. We developed guide training and several guides have participated. We are learning a ton. The next step: a “launch guide” model in which the guide is only present for the first few meetings showing the learners how to guide each other. “I do, we do, you do.” This requires some interface work on the video meeting platform. We’ll start testing in a few weeks.

Video technology. Most of our meetings run without major issues now, but it is still not good enough. There are two dimensions to our core video technology: WebRTC vs. a native app; and using a service provider vs. building it ourselves. We continue to research possible partners and platforms.

User Interface. We’ve accumulated a backlog of features to build on the video meeting platform. Now that we have a couple more developers on the team, it will be exciting to roll these out into the current trials. Here’s a recent iteration of the new UX design we’re building upon:

The road ahead

More Test Circles. We need one more revision to all our key components: sorting/onboarding, the process, and the interfaces. Then we need to do about 10 more tests before we crystalize the plan.

Then, a jump. We started with 4 circles, now we are tracking about 15 circles, and next we’ll drive to 100+ circles. The shortest path to 100 circles is focus. And the most obvious, where the idea has already been socialized, is entrepreneurs. So that will be the theme for our first push. Can we recruit over 1,000 entrepreneurs from around the globe to pay and participate in Circles v1? The goal is for a small team to pull this off by next summer with our current technology.

Technology. We have two clear technology priorities. The first is an immersive video meeting experience, tailor-fit for this use-case. The second is onboarding quickly. We need to be able to recruit peers, match and spin up peer groups fast and at scale. We’re piecing together tools that will help us automate marketing, configuring surveys, sorting and communicating with prospective learners. After we get familiar with available tools, we’ll decide what we should build ourselves.

Team. I’ve received some lucky breaks and the team is coming together. We’ve got a small group of generalists who are figuring out how to divide the work and work together. As the strategy becomes clearer, our needs become clear. We still need a couple more core participants before we’re ready to take the next step up. But the biggest variable is that everyone, especially me, are still only working on this part time. I think our productivity will more than double if we moved to full time.

I would love to hear from you with any questions or ideas.

The Meta Journey Draft

This is an early draft design of a learning journey, our first one. All learners will take this journey. Below is an outline of each drop, exploration topics for the first three meetings, and the ongoing drumbeat of topics intended to develop learning skill. Unlike the other journeys, we will spend 15 minutes visiting Meta at the start of every Circles session.

Imagine that each drop is injected into a particular circle’s WhatsApp discussion, every day or so. When someone responds to a question, it may or may not spur ongoing discussion. The meeting exploration process is outlined here.

This needs a ton of work. I’m looking forward to the input of the real experts advising us that have experience designing learning journeys.

A. Pre-kickoff drops (a “drop” is short content or a reflection injected into chat) B. Orientation to Learning to Learn: paper, podcast and/or movie (20 minutes) C. Kickoff Exploration: Committing D. 6 drops E. Meeting One Exploration: Visualizing Goals F. 6 drops G. Meeting Two Exploration: Beginner’s Mind H. Follow-up Drops and Meeting opener topics for all next meetings

A. Pre-kickoff drops

1. Joke. My ideal learning experience. This is what we’re trying to build:

2. What we’re interested in is “skills acquisition.” Let’s take wide definition of a skill. Being honest is a skill. Showing up for work on time is a skill. Collecting an inventory of people to delegate to (plumbers, accountants, you name it) is a skill. Creating, welding, meditating, using Evernote to track stuff – skills.

I’m not against learning facts. I agree with David Brook’s op-ed that “The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom are based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy.” But can’t we afford to spend less energy on teaching facts now? They are widely available. And the world is too wide and dynamic for a teacher or employer to keep up with important facts. Maybe if we can back off a little on shoving facts down the collective gullet, people will go after the facts they care about, and build lasting skill while doing it.

Another way to look at it all is “Knowledge is the capacity to act.”

Q:  What is the quadratic equation (don’t cheat)? – answers sent around the circle Q2: What skills do you want to learn? – answers sent around the circle, noted by guide

3. Some messed up stuff. We have some less-than-optimal beliefs, habits, and practices about learning.

Gandhi – Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever.

Graduating. The past tense word “educated,” stunts growth. It prevents people from paying attention to maintaining important skills.  Worse, adult education has a light stigma, a tinge of the remedial, a waft of seekers and weirdos. Life-long learning sounds like retirees taking art history classes.  Most people go after degrees for any reason except to learn stuff.

Q: What do you do to learn, now? How many hours out of about 600/month do you  spend learning? What activities exactly are you counting as learning?

4. Some messed up stuff. We have some less-than-optimal beliefs, habits, and practices about learning.

Teaching.  Minerva founder Ben Nelson did a one-week wine exploration of Argentina guided by an expert, and a similar one-week tour of Chile that he had to research and organize himself.  Two years later, Ben remembers barrels about Chilean wine and only drops about Argentinian wine. We need a new word – our old expectations of a teacher are obsolete. The subject matter can now be decoupled from the teacher. People can stop waiting around for someone to shove information into their heads. We do need people to help us learn, but in very different roles than we are used to. When learners own their learning, it sticks. I like the saying “There is no teaching, only learning.”  Socrates knew this, Maria Montessori knew this, and recently a whole battery of “learning scientists” have rediscovered it.

Q: Are you a good teacher? Do you wanna be? Why?

5. Some messed up stuff. We have some less-than-optimal beliefs, habits, and practices about learning.

Classes. In the 1800s, we lifted our education model from the Prussians. It efficiently marched people through material in a defined interval of time, called a class. All higher education in the US runs on this system, and usually uses units called credit-hours. Think 12-week courses, then a test. If you score 70%, you pass, get your credits, and move on.  Formal corporate training generally seems to copy this idea. Why doesn’t a course end whenever a learner gets to 100%? Then there would be no gaps in their understanding of the material, and learners can move on confidently. People learn at different speeds – maybe some can finish faster? Courses need to be structured with the goal of achieving competency or mastery, not just logging the hours. This would be a huge mindset and institutional change.

6. Some messed up stuff. We have some less-than-optimal beliefs, habits, and practices about learning.

Tests. Sal Khan of Khan academy has a riff on how our test-driven schools are messed up. Tests take a snapshot and don’t measure how well you will retain the information. They randomly discriminate against those that happened not to study the subset of the subject on the test. And they punish failure, one of the best ways to learn. He’s talking about summative assessments, which measure what you learned AFTER a class. Formative assessments – little pop quizzes and teachers that use the socratic method and so forth, which help you figure out what you are missing while you are learning, and get you to interact and wrestle with the material, are helpful.

7. Some messed up stuff. We have some less-than-optimal beliefs, habits, and practices about learning.

The way we organize knowledge in school – math, science, english, etc. – is another vestigial artifact. The problem exists in corporate training as well, where, except at the level of “leadership training” we tend to organize around roles – “sales training.” Yet research by Daniel Goleman and others shows that more than two-thirds of success is related to “softer” factors. How can we work on the pieces underneath the technical skills?

B. The Framework Paper, Podcast, Movie

The main “chunk” of content in this journey (so has to be awesome) This should take 20 minutes to review We’ve posted an initial design for this

C. Kickoff Exploration: Commitment

Discussion question. Group picks one to start with. A leader prepares, opens in depth.

  • Life is busy. How do you keep a commitment? What has worked and where have you failed?
  • Do you help anyone else in your life keep a commitment?
  • Do you make New Year’s resolutions?
  • What commitment are you prepared to make to this Circle? (guide can put some examples on screen).

D. Next Drops – mostly around goals and visualization

Draft coming very soon…

8. Art of Learning: Entity vs. Incremental Excerpt (1-2) pages 9. 10. 11. 11. 13.

E. Exploration Two: Goals

  • Share your most important three goals right now in vivid detail?
  • How will you know if they are completed? Measure progress?
  • Do you have all the skills you need to complete the goal? What skills might help?
  • What are your personal goals for this Circle?

F. Next Drops – mostly around Flow

14. Quotes from Art of Learning 15. More from Art of Learning 16.Ted Talk:

G. Exploration Three – Beginner’s mind

  • Describe your feelings starting Circles?
  • Do you have all the help you need? What stops you from getting help?
  • Are you competing with anyone in the Circle right now?
  • What are three things you can work on to become a better listener?

H. Follow-up Drops and Meeting opener topics for all next meetings

Draft coming very soon…

Circles Meta Journey

circleIn the first wave of testing Circles, we learned the limits of our learner’s ability to absorb content. We’ve tried to boil things way down to have a simpler experience during this next wave of tests. We restricted ourselves to one “drop” of content every two weeks, with an activity and discussion. This is designed to nudge the group forward from strangers to becoming a “level one circle” that functions smoothly. They are open, believe brains are plastic, trust each other, give and receive feedback well. They use the circle to set and monitor their personal learning goals to reflect and deepen their learning. Ultimately, we want them to reach week twelve of “level one” open to the power of a Circles experience, ready to keep going. So here’s our updated draft plan for doing that. We’d love any questions and feedback.

Meta Journey Overview

In the first three months of a journey with Circles, learners form a level one “learning circle,” capable of solving each other’s problems and accelerating progress towards their personal goals. Learners will get better and better in three fundamental areas, which we categorize as Act, Learn and Teach (ALT). These fundamental skills contain many sub-skills, such as setting clear goals, having an open mindset, being vulnerable, building a safe circle, giving and receiving feedback, developing habits, and rewiring your own brain. The Act, Learn and Teach cycle repeats every three months, each time covering new sub-skills and building towards mastery. This dynamic ALTernative approach contrasts with the traditional educational model in which students receive information from teachers and follow a static curriculum.

The following outlines the proposed outcomes, structure and content for the first three-month “meta journey.” (meta = metacognition, learning to learn).

Preliminary Goals. The journey with Circles begins the moment a learner applies to join. They are guided through the Circles Sorting App; a series of questions to profile, identify and refine a goal they want to achieve over their first three months. Diverse examples might include running a marathon, to learning to meditate, or developing a work skill such as leadership, design thinking or coding.

Themes. Circles have a “theme” which is a common area of interest that incorporates each of their preliminary goals. The theme is likely to last many three-month cycles, but the group may decide to change it.

Guide. Each circle is matched with a guide, whose role is as the “facilitator” of the group. The guide may be familiar with the theme or goal of a circle, but is no expert. Guides are responsible for:

  1. Reducing Friction:
    Ensuring that the technology works well for everyone, developing and guiding meeting agendas and process, facilitating scheduling and answering questions. Helping the group get and stay comfortable.
  2. Guiding the meta journey:
    A guide supports the learning process – both as individual learners, and as a group becoming better and better as a “learning circle.” Guides are also responsible for keeping discussions relevant to learner goals and weaving metacognitive skill development into the experience. Guides work as guides in part to build their own mastery in the “ALT skills”.
  3. Ignition:
    Guides light the initial fire and keep it lit. This includes managing engagement, understanding learner motivations and making sure they align with the circle.

The Level One Meta Journey: Structure and Outcomes

The meta journey consists of:

  • MEETINGS: The group and guide meet in the Circles video room bi-weekly for 90 minutes
  • DROPS: Weekly activities and information delivered and completed via a chat platform
  • Other touch points from the guide or Circles team that support the learning experience

The meta journey is designed to build the skills and capabilities of learners to form a learning machine, where their circle is capable of keeping the Act, Learn and Teach cycle in motion, and deepen their learning over time.

The Meta Journey: Content


Learners identify the specific outcome they want to achieve by the end of the initial three months. They also learn the brain science that underpins goal-setting and learning.

Week 1

  • Orientation: 40 minute video call between learners and guide to test the Circles technology and walk through the circle norms (see Orientation process below)
  • DROP: Group introductions: Learners introduce each other using available public info

Week 2

  • MEETING 1: Joy/Pain sharing, present 12 week goal to group (see Agenda below).


Learners build self-awareness through insights into the key skills and character traits associated with a growth mindset and being vulnerable.

Week 3

  • DROP: How the brain works/neuroplasticity. Podcast explaining how brain science relates to learning. Learner from another circle reaches out via email, testifies and offers support.

Week 4

  • DROP: Goal setting activity that supports learners to refine and clarify their goals (visualization exercise leading into SMART goal process).
  • MEETING 2: Goal check in, challenge exploration (see Agenda below).

Week 5

  • DROP: Vulnerability: Brene Brown’s TED talk with accompanying key facts and resources

Week 6

  • MEETING 3: Goal check-in, challenge exploration (see Agenda below).


Group awareness is built as an understanding of group dynamics and the power of peers is gained. Learners begin to teach each other.

Week 7

  • DROP: Storytelling: Send videos of learners storytelling from a previous meeting. Learners self-reflect in online chat.

Week 8

  • MEETING 4: Goal check in, challenge exploration (see Agenda below).

Week 9

  • DROP: Learners are asked to share questions they have about their goal. This is a fun, upbeat activity to encourage reflection and active group learning.

Week 10

  • Learners are sent an email to get them thinking about their next goal and next circle (no call to action)
  • MEETING 5: Goal check-in, challenge exploration (see Agenda below).


Active learning is understood and practiced, and the group knows how to use each other to keep accountable and achieve goals. Learners reflect on their goals, assess, adjust and set new goals.

Week 11

  • DROP: Learners are asked to write, draw or create a self-assessment on their progress, goal and other key skills such as vulnerability and storytelling. They are also asked to provide feedback to their peers.

Week 12

  • DROP: Learners are taken through a new goal setting process to identify, refine and set their goal for the next circle.
  • MEETING 6: Goal closure and reflection, group reflection, present new goals, discuss and choose next theme and confirm meeting time.
  • Guide sends thank-you notes


The orientation is a 40-minute video call in the first week of a circle between a learner and the guide. The guide will set up a few times for the Circles learners to sign up. There might be a few learners in a session. Eventually, we might automate this as an interactive and gamified experience. The primary focus of orientation is to:

  • Ensure the learner has the Circles technology platform set up and working
  • Introduce the Circle norms (expectations)
  • Familiarize learners with process such as meeting agendas
  • Introduce the “learning circle” ALTernative vision

Over 40 minutes, this looks like:


Each meeting (with the exception of a circle’s first meeting) follows the same agenda, facilitated by the guide. Each learner is allocated a week to present their challenge, which the group will then explore in detail, using it as the launch pad for learning.

First Meeting Agenda

Regular Meeting Agenda (Meetings 2-6)