Want a Vision? Disrupt the Advice Market

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Companies like TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Amazon.com have created powerful tools to help us gather advice on seemingly everything – where to sleep, what to eat, and what to read. But have you ever noticed that the boom in peer-to-peer advice has tended to skip over the more important decisions we make – what kind of work to do, whom to marry, how best to live?

One could argue that these matters should be kept far away from anything to do with startups and technology. Perhaps, you would say, advice is and should remain the job of your parents, priests and peers.

But what if you could keep these sources of advice constant, but use new tools and structures to improve the quality of counsel that you receive?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve focused on identifying obstacles that prevent people from thriving. In my next few posts, I would like to offer some solutions that I’ve seen help individuals create and execute on visions that are aligned with their values and skills.

Let’s start today with what I call social implementation: techniques that help people do what they say they’re going to do by tapping into their social networks. In her recent book, Join the Club, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tina Rosenberg talks about the power of positive peer pressure, or what she calls “the social cure,” in changing behavior. In my work, those who create social structures for themselves to examine where they most want to focus their time, energy, and resources have been more likely to implement them.

Here are some structures that people can create to tap into the wisdom of their intimate crowd and keep them on their proper path.

The Personal Cabinet. The idea of the “personal cabinet” or “personal board of directors” has floated around management circles for years – from work by Jim Collins to coverage in Fast Company and other publications. Organizations like the Aspen Institute, the Young Presidents’ Organization and the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization use versions of personal boards to help their members think through work and life problems. But, despite the prevalence of the idea in the popular press and research on the effectiveness of group mentoring, advice is still often taken informally and through one-on-one consultations. My own experience has taught me that putting formal structures together that create time to focus on what matters leads to greater clarity and often increases the courage to make those tough decisions.

So what is a personal cabinet? Here are three good posts by Caroline Dowd-Higgins, Vanessa Van Petten and Jason Young on how to set one up. I have a personal cabinet that I convened to help me think through my work and how to build Thrive Labs. During periods of transition and decision-making, I convene this group as often as every two weeks over a focused dinner. We create an agenda, and they help me think through major decisions and how to better align my work with my values. This cabinet has not only helped me clarify my thinking, but also holds me accountable to implementing what I commit to do.

The Pop-Up Board. Not every decision requires a full-fledged personal cabinet. Sometimes gathering great minds together for a one-time meeting does the trick. One of my favorite experiences of a Pop-Up Board was helping a comedian tap his inner circle’s wisdom to strategize about his career. We gathered for just one day. He invited a trusted group of friends. We met for six hours and focused collectively on a single question. As the facilitator, I developed the structure of the meeting, and we gathered as a group of friends and advisors to help him identify how he can be authentic as he builds the next level of his business and uses the platform he’s developed to both entertain and make the world better. We had a limited amount of time, and he agreed to specific goals and commitments at the end of our session. It was like the flash mob of boards.

Develop a structure that works for you. The clients I know who get things done are the ones who develop structures that make sense in their everyday life. One person I worked with belonged to a large family business with more than a dozen grandchildren. The grandfather, in order to keep the values of the family aligned and refreshed over generations, hosted a family conference one Sunday each month. They began the meetings by saying their family vision and mission for their generation, and then spent time sharing updates. Each meeting, one grandchild had a chance to present a problem and gain advice and feedback. Another person I know created a weekly Sunday night conference call with his brothers. Though they lived in different cities and had their own lives, they found that carving out deliberate time for each other to share advice, and more, helped them each in their own lives and work.

I should add some words of caution. First, a board meeting is only as useful as the preparation for it. Convening group structures often works best after a period of individual thinking and reflection. William Deresiewicz writes eloquently about the power of solitude and leadership. Second, choose the right people. If you are trying to make a difficult decision about leaving a certain type of work or lifestyle, surrounding yourself with advisors who have that lifestyle may not be the best form of advice. One of the biggest criticisms of Rosenberg’s work is that it’s not clear who defines what is “positive” peer pressure and what is “negative” peer pressure. And we also know that group pressure can often lead to bad behavior. As you convene people to help you think through your vision, select individuals whom you trust and admire, who have your best interests at heart, who can take you where you want to go.

Creating formal structures of advice and support is particularly useful for members of the creative class, who tend to be unembedded and thus freer and lonelier than other workers. But it is also useful for salaried professionals and people in transition. With the rise of independent consultants and freelancers, and with 40 percent of Millennials wanting to start their own companies, it’s quite possible that personal cabinets will one day be as commonplace as good old-fashioned bosses. Let’s get there faster.

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