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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.





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!


Cultivating a culture that supports our mission – By Chris Murchison

June 17, 2011

I have a fancy title: Vice President for Staff Development, Learning and Innovation at HopeLab. In a nutshell, my work is to cultivate a culture that supports our mission and values.

HopeLab dedicates substantial resources to creating culture.  Six years ago, as a young, small organization of less than a dozen employees, HopeLab’s management team made a conscious decision to invest in shaping our internal culture based on the belief that, over time, this investment would pay off.  With our collective professional experience, filled with successes and lessons learned from previous organizations, HopeLab management was prepared to apply our value of courageous experimentation with organization development. And we now approach this work like tending a garden (or making custard from scratch!) with constant care and attention.

One of HopeLab’s early investments was in my position; a high-level role tasked with visioning and building a work environment in which individuals are able to do their best work and are supported in living whole-heartedly, fully engaged and curious. The idea is that a well-designed organizational culture can drive business success.  This focus on culture guides everything we do — from our HR policies to performance management to the set up of our cubicles in the office.

I am a great believer in the power of culture and what can be achieved when this is a core focus of organization design and development.

This is the first of a series of blog posts offering insights into various aspects of our work to cultivate culture at HopeLab — our experiments. This will be a collection of stories, anecdotes, thoughts, and reflections, from me and from others inside and outside of our team at HopeLab. We invite you to make this a conversation and respond to what interests you!