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Kevin Neilson

The Power of Positive Organizations

June 25, 2014

Last month at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, HopeLab was honored to be named one of five finalists for the Positive Business Project, a contest designed to celebrate exceptional businesses and business leaders that make a positive difference in the world.

“Positive business practices can—and do—have transformative results within organizations and the entries are proof of that,” said Wally Hopp, senior associate dean for faculty and research at Ross.

Please take a moment to watch our video submission.

Questions and curiosities—they’re all welcome!


Leave the Drama Behind…

April 18, 2014

From presidents to parents, we are all leaders in some way. Every day we make choices that matter. In this multi-part series, we encourage readers to consider their choices as leaders using HopeLab’s Questions for a Curious Leader. The goal? To spark a personal, fiercely honest reflection that supports greater clarity – where new possibilities and perspectives can then emerge. 


We can be fully committed to taking 100% responsibility for our lives and living with integrity even if we know we will fall short at times.  It’s not about perfection. It’s about intention and commitment. How might we begin to appreciate what it means to take 100% responsibility, being fully accountable for our lives and our decisions?

To better understand this, at HopeLab, we often use a simple tool – the so-called “drama triangle” to help us discern whether we are taking more than or less than 100% responsibility. The drama triangle has three roles on it – the villain, the victim and the hero. Each role demands the presence of at least one of the others in order to exist. (A hero needs a victim to rescue, a villain needs a hero to blame, etc.)

Let’s take a closer look at each role.

The Victim

What are we doing when we choose (and it is a choice) to play the victim? As victims, we feel at the effect of the world, overwhelmed and powerless. We may complain of being overworked, underappreciated, and tired, but we continue to seek out situations that will cause us pain and suffering so heroes rescue us or villains exploit us.

When we find ourselves saying “I don’t have a choice,” or “I can’t get out of this,” or “I have to sacrifice myself,” we’re playing the victim. We have sad eyes and sorry excuses. As victims, we feel so burdened. We take less than 100% responsibility for our circumstances and seek out heroes to come to our rescue or villains to blame.

The Villain

What about the villain? Every drama requires a great villain! As villains, we play the juicy part of blaming others or ourselves, zeroing in on someone or something to criticize. We finger-wag. We are masters of the blame game. Self righteous in our condemnations, villains are “my way or the highway” actors. We might be cynical, narcissistic, puritanical, or sarcastic, but we are always right. Just ask us.

When you find yourself saying “You’re doing it all wrong!”, “Whose fault is this anyway?” or you’re blaming the government, the DMV, or the weather for your woes, you’ve cast yourself in the role of the villain.

Villains gladly take more than 100% responsibility for a situation so we can blame ourselves when things don’t turn out as we’d like or less than 100% so we can blame others. Who cares as long as we get to place the blame? As villains, we require victims or heroes.

The Hero

Finally, the hero! It’s evident why one might not wish to be a villain or a victim, but what could possibly be wrong with wanting to be a hero? Well for one thing, on the drama triangle, it demands we perpetuate others acting like victims or villains so we can maintain our hero status. It’s exhausting, but somebody has to do it.

As heroes, we crave problems to fix and people to save. We will protect, analyze, listen, provide, and go the extra mile, all in an attempt to seek temporary relief from pain or discomfort we would just as soon not face. For example, doing workarounds for colleagues rather than having a direct conversation with them about their performance. Or paying an addict’s rent rather than allowing her to bottom out.

When we find ourselves saying “I’ll keep you from harm,” or “I’ll make it all better,” or “I can do it all right now,” we’re playing the hero.

As heroes, we take on more than 100% responsibility so we can feel appreciated and acknowledged. We love the applause. We live for the curtain call and the standing O.

These are the actors on the drama triangle—victim, villain, and hero—and they can consume us, running the show, leaving our integrity in shambles and our energy drained.

In some of our more elaborate performances, we even play the roles of victim, villain and hero all by ourselves. We’re a one-person show: as the victim, we cry about being loaded down with work, as the hero, we stay up all night to complete the job, then as the villain, we gossip at the water cooler, blaming others for our woes.

Sound familiar? So, what to do?

Step off the off the drama triangle and into presence, fully into our lives. Stop blaming, rescuing or whining.  Seek meaningful resolution and accountability. Keep the promises we make. Stop saying things about others we would be unwilling to say in their presence. Exchange self-righteous certainty for curiosity.

100% responsibility for 100% of our lives. It’s our ticket to integrity, to energetic lives of impact, connection and purpose. Better than any drama. It’s the greatest show on Earth.

This blog series is based on the writing of Pat Christen, Susan Edsall, Chris Murchison and Richard Tate. In creating Questions for a Curious Leader, we’ve benefited greatly from the contributions of several colleagues and partners. To learn more, please download the quick reference guide.    


Integrity: The Path To Self-Mastery

April 18, 2014

From presidents to parents, we are all leaders in some way. Every day we make choices that matter. In this multi-part series, we encourage readers to consider their choices as leaders using HopeLab’s Questions for a Curious Leader. The goal? To spark a personal, fiercely honest reflection that supports greater clarity – where new possibilities and perspectives can then emerge.


Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success breaks down the concept of masterful practice. In his book, Gladwell cites the work of K. Anders Ericsson who studied mastery and top performance in a wide array of professions including surgery, acting, programming, music, and firefighting. Ericsson found that “the journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor the impatient.” The same might be said of the practice of integrity.

Mastery of any endeavor is not simply about practicing a lot. It is also about a particular type of deliberate practice that pushes you beyond your competence and comfort with attention, intentionality and resilience.

Ericsson’s research illustrated the “10,000 hours or 10 years” rule of practice essential for mastery. Athletes and musicians alike brought precise attention to the placement of their bodies, their thoughts and their emotions as they cultivated their genius. Purposeful, highly focused practice might occur up to 5-6 hours per day, but rarely more. Rest was essential.

Ericsson’s research also revealed that one may well need “a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself.” We can’t go it alone.

Integrity too is a practice that takes discipline. We inevitably fail along the way. Mastering the practice is a lifetime’s work. And the practice will not look that different from the aspiring violinist or the Olympic swimmer–to get better we’ll need knowledgeable instructors and a willingness to push at the boundaries of our learning edge. Curiosity, candor and accountability are handy assets in the practice. It is humbling, rewarding work.

There are no short cuts.  Staying curious and keeping the promises we make—living in whole-hearted integrity—may be the practice of a lifetime; but we need only start with this moment. What do you intend to do with it?


This blog series is based on the writing of Pat Christen, Susan Edsall, Chris Murchison and Richard Tate. In creating Questions for a Curious Leader, we’ve benefited greatly from the contributions of several colleagues and partners. To learn more, please download the quick reference guide.

Chris Murchison

A Thriller of a Farewell

April 15, 2014

Recently we said goodbye to an employee in a truly remarkable way. Instead of telling you about it, I encourage you to watch it. Spoiler alert: You’ll love this behind-the-scenes look at one of the most joyful and unorthodox send-offs ever. Plus, you’ll get a glimpse into the positive organizational culture we strive to cultivate here at HopeLab. Please enjoy!

How We Put the “Good” in Goodbye

Departing from a job is a significant milestone in anyone’s career. These endings are inevitable, and we make every effort to mark the milestone in a meaningful way at HopeLab. To honor the individual in their transition, we consider the whole person, their interests and passions, and curate a farewell that respects who they are as an individual and how we know them. Our farewells will often include a memory book with photos and hand-written notes from staff. There might also be a meal with favorite foods or at a favorite restaurant, a handcrafted article like a handmade card or a fun activity. We try to create an event and/or gift that delights the individual and communicates how much they matter to us.


Endings are significant cultural events at HopeLab. Although sometimes sad, acknowledging and honoring these transitions strengthens our community and builds resilience. Every employee will one day leave your organization, so paying attention to endings is one of the best ways to live the values of your organization.

For insight on how honoring endings can impact your bottom line, read Jessica Amortegui’s article in Fast Company.

Chris Murchison

What Gardening Taught Me About Thriving Organizations

March 18, 2014

Although I tend to neglect plants (often to their peril), I recently found inspiration in an unlikely spot: my own garden. As my partner and I redesigned our backyard, we had to pay careful attention to so many details—the soil, shade and irrigation, as well as the pattern and visual tapestry of what we planted. I was struck by a similarity: Cultivating a garden is a lot like cultivating a healthy and vibrant organization. Both require vision, a principled approach and careful tending over time.


Seeds of wisdom

Out of curiosity, I scanned the web for insights and lessons on gardening. I found many that nicely reflected the practice of tending and building organizational culture. These wise sayings inspired me the most:

  • There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments
  • Gardeners must dance with feedback, play with results, turn as they learn
  • Leave one corner of your garden untouched, chaotic, free and you will reap insights
  • Think about how the landscape you govern represents the footprint that you leave behind you on this Earth
  • Watering is the practice of gentleness
  • The wise gardener knows when to stop

One of the most common metaphors of the workplace is a well-oiled machine. But this focuses solely on efficiency and productivity, ignoring other aspects of a vibrant organization. The gardening metaphor is a good reminder that tending to workplace culture requires presence, creativity and improvisation.

So, what wisdom might you add to the list?

I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

For your use or sharing pleasure.
Print. Share. Be inspired.





Kevin Neilson

Four Ways to Promote a Culture of Curiosity at Work

March 3, 2014

They had us at “HopeLab is a curious place”

Authors Katie Smith Milway and Alex Goldmark wrote an excellent piece in The Harvard Business Review on our culture of radical curiosity.

“We look at our culture as a product, just like Re-Mission and Zamzee are products,” says Pat Christen, president and CEO of HopeLab. “And we believe a culture of curiosity is key to innovation.”


In their conversations with HopeLab staff, Milway and Goldmark identify four practices anyone can implement:

  • Encourage inquiry
  • Write agendas as questions
  • Avoid blame
  • Assume all learning is good

Intrigued? Read the full article here.

You can also follow us on LinkedIn where we provide regular updates on our work in organizational culture.

Chris Murchison

10 Tips for Effective Onboarding

January 30, 2014

Effective onboarding is essential for the vitality and success of your organization. In fact, adding a new team member to a workplace environment is both the chance to pass on and reinforce your organizational values as well as the opportunity to influence and enhance your culture. So we give a lot of thought to the orientation and onboarding of new staff at HopeLab.

Get Onboard

We’ve found the following practices to be helpful in welcoming a new employee and setting them up for success:

1. Start before they’re hired. Orientation of a new team member begins before you’ve even made an offer. You influence someone’s impression of your organization and culture from your first interaction with them as a candidate. Make those first moments matter for everyone you consider for the job, and the one you eventually hire will start with a positive and solid grounding.

2. Assign pre-work. Sure, you can’t really put people to work before they’ve started, and you don’t want to overwhelm your new hire. But by giving a new team member some pre-reading material before their start date, you can heighten their commitment and excitement for the new opportunity they’ve said “yes” to. What to share? Perhaps your organization’s strategic plan, a project outline, or other relevant background materials that give deeper insight into the long-term goals and day-to-day work. We tend to keep the pre-reading at a high altitude at HopeLab, providing materials that give context for the particular work a new employee will be doing. It helps them feel more prepared on Day 1.

3. Help them feel they belong. This one’s so simple but so impactful, in our experience: After the offer, send a note card of congratulations to your new hire signed by everyone who interviewed her. On Day 1, let your receptionist know when your new team member is arriving so she can be warmly greeted and announced. Have flowers or a small gift on her desk. Begin the day with a walk around the office and quick introductions. Schedule social time (lunch, coffee, tea) with key staff throughout the first week. Make sure she has a few lunch companions that first week, and seed conversation by suggesting topics. These are ideas – the point is, take time to do one or two small things that make your new colleague feel welcomed into the organization.

4. Have everything up and running. I began a job once and didn’t have a working phone or computer for almost two weeks! No surprise, this didn’t leave a good impression. It takes some planning, but ensuring that everything – desk phone, cell phone, computer (desktop and/or laptop), etc. — works on day one helps a new staffer settle in and get to work.

5. Show them the ropes. Support immediate productivity by showing the new employee how things work around the office – where the coffee is, how to use the copy machine, using the phone system, location of office supplies, how to access the fileserver, calendar meetings, etc. An introduction to these office practices will help make the new employee feel “at home” quickly and able to hit the ground running.

6. Make it personal. We each learn in unique ways, socialize in different ways, and enter into new situations with different interests and needs. Customize the onboarding process for your new hire. First, find out the preferences of the new employee and craft an orientation and onboarding experience that honors their style. For example, ask if your new employee prefers to get up to speed by reading or learning through talks or presentations, then build in time during their first week’s schedule accordingly. Bonus tip: If you’ve hired an introvert, schedule quiet time throughout the day or week for reflection. They’ll be more energized and engaged.

7. Share through storytelling. Stories are a powerful way to share an organization’s history and culture. We take full advantage of storytelling by giving each new employee a deck of cards that contains images of staff, events, and cultural artifacts. During their orientation, the employee is invited to choose a card and ask their new colleagues to tell the story behind each image. A myriad of tales are told in the process, even about a single card! In this way, the new employee gets an inside view into the organization’s culture.

8. Help them experience progress. Identify short-term wins. Successful accomplishments early in a new job empower and fuel excitement for greater contribution later on. We often set these up within the frame of a 30-60-90 day work plan.

9. Invite questions. We introduce new employees in our agency-wide staff meetings. One of the questions we have them answer is “How can we be most helpful to you in your new role?” We invite new employees to ask any question that they might have because we’re all invested in their success.

10. Be transparent. Every organization has practices that are spoken and known or unspoken and implicit. Be fully transparent in orienting new team members. Answer their questions honestly and share openly about both the positive aspects of your organization and culture and also where you struggle. No workplace is perfect and this kind of openness can create opportunities for new staff to contribute to your organization’s success in ways that might not be a part of their job description.

Many organizations provide a “sink or swim” onboarding experience. Although this may work in some cases, it leaves a lot to chance and may not work when you’re trying to create a culture where people feel like they matter and belong. By paying greater attention to the beginning of an employee’s experience with your organization, you help ensure that your staff are engaged, productive, and happy in their roles and in your organization.

To me, that’s a key success metric for any organization.

Chris Murchison

Are You in a Rut or a Groove?

January 16, 2014

Fun Day SF Jazz 081Recently we had the great fortune to explore this very question. At our year-end Fun Day last December, we spent three hours with One World Music, a team building and leadership company based in Oakland, CA. They specialize in the unique use of music to support leadership and organizational development. We partnered with them to explore the themes of change, collaboration, and resilience.

These themes are particularly relevant for HopeLab right now.  With the launch of our new resilience initiative, a number of staff departures, and several new staff additions, 2013 was a year full of change.

One World Music helped us reflect on the reality of change by posing a provocative question,“What’s the difference between a rut and a groove?”

Rut—stuck, deep, rooted, comfortable, unchanging, hard to get out of.

Groove—in sync, flexible, able to change easily, in flow with others.

Both a rut and groove can have positive and negative meanings. Sometimes being in a rut can be of great service. And while change can initially be uncomfortable and even scary, something wonderful can come of it.

Fun Day SF Jazz 147The idea of ruts, grooves, and change was driven home in an exercise called The Rock Game, a fun pastime originally from Ghana. In the game, you pick up two rocks, knock them together, place them on the floor in front of the person to your right, clap your hands, and then repeat. Deceivingly simple, the game beautifully shows what happens when change is introduced into a system (i.e., changing the direction of rock passing, speeding up the game, etc.) and how a group responds to that change. What happened for us?  Chaos! We had a good laugh and then reflected on how chaos is natural and valuable and often a necessary part of change, getting out of a rut and into a new groove.

The Rock game and the ensuing music we composed and performed together — through improvisation, new-found talent, and collaborative play — created powerful metaphors for our individual and collective resilience. We learned so much about the implications of how we influence one another and how we might better work together through times of change and chaos.

One World Music expertly guided us in an active and reflective inquiry that left a lasting mark on us all. We left the session in a definite groove and one that will impact our work together for months, if not, years to come.


Chris Murchison

How To Build A Healthy And Connected Workplace

January 6, 2014


Meaningful connections are a powerful perk

In Silicon Valley, where tech and social media start-ups are commonplace, it has become a standard practice to offer some unusual perks to employees — a well-stocked pantry with all your favorite snacks and drinks, professionally prepared gourmet food, laundry services, napping stations, ping-pong tables, and more. These perks are designed to attract and retain talent and drive innovation and productivity.

Do perks work?

There are lots of fun ways to provide incentives to employees. It seems as if there is now a competition to see who can provide the most outrageous and newsworthy perks! At the core, though, is an interest to create connection between employees and build a fun and positive workplace. There are many means to this end, but the qualifier here is “meaningful.” The more meaningful these connections are the more dynamic and positive your organizational culture will be—building trust, fostering innovation and increasing productivity.

Five tips for promoting connection

Here are some connection practices that have worked beautifully at HopeLab:

  1. Show and Tell. Provide opportunities at team or department meetings for people to share with each other the things they are passionate about — a hobby, a recent trip, something learned. We base our shares on the Pecha Kucha format, and it creates a super way for staff to get to know each other better.
  2. Staff Meetings. So many organizations skip this step or don’t take it seriously. How you gather people is important. Staff meetings with rich, interesting content connect people to your organization’s mission, your team’s priorities, and with each other. This alignment supports a sense of purpose and progress, which is deeply meaningful and empowering.
  3. Check In! Often at the start of a meeting at HopeLab, we do a check-in. Although they vary in format, each one is an opportunity for people to become fully present and share what is on their minds and in their hearts. Check-ins set an amazing tone and intention for any gathering!
  4. Learn Together. Take time out from your daily routines to learn something new together. If planned and timed well, you will find it to be a great bonding opportunity.
  5. Play Together. Celebrate each other and major milestones of the organization. Be creative with your play and match activities to the unique collection of people you have and the culture you’ve created. At HopeLab, for example, we mark the end of each year with a Fun Day, where we celebrate the year’s accomplishments in a creative way. Last month, we did this with a fun music activity that enabled us to play with and explore concepts of change, collaboration and resilience.

Every organization is different, and perks that work in one environment might not work in another. But one thing that doesn’t change is the importance of promoting meaningful and high-quality connections between employees. That is a constant. When you focus on that, it’s a lot easier to figure out which perks make the most sense for the vitality of your team.


Exploring the Ocean of HopeLab’s Culture

December 17, 2013

Ben2012My name is Ben Uchimura. I’m a 17-year old from San Francisco but live in Columbus, Ohio. One day I hope to study at Stanford and major in business or Spanish. Last summer I landed my dream internship at HopeLab. One of my main projects was to capture and creatively document HopeLab’s culture. But how does one capture something as subtle and unique as culture? A daunting task!

Pride goes before a fall

After my internship kicked off, five themes emerged right away. I was about to dive in and start crafting my presentation when my supervisor Chris Murchison, VP of Staff Development & Culture, suggested I meet with a product designer from Daylight Design. This was a great opportunity to test my ideas and get some feedback from an expert.

Very quickly Sven helped me realize that I couldn’t fully accomplish my project unless I interviewed the staff and got a more complete view of the culture. I was trapped in my own thinking. Although I felt like I was starting all over, I agreed with Sven and scheduled interviews with employees. Afterwards I learned that some of my ideas were on the right track. But I benefited greatly from the expanded view provided by the staff who have more experience and a longer history at HopeLab.

ocean-acidification-threatens-coral-reefs_306The big idea

After nailing down my five themes, I began visualizing the main creative concept. Together Chris and I decided that my presentation should be similar to a video, meaning it wouldn’t require any explanation beyond the material on the slides. My final product was an ocean-themed Prezi. The ocean is a perfect metaphor for HopeLab because the culture is complex, unique, fun and bursting with life.

When you have a moment, I hope you explore the Prezi, as much or as little of it as you want. That will give you a chance to learn more about HopeLab, where incredibly smart, caring people do scientific work with a human touch.

Please enjoy!