David Allen has been in an ongoing state of transformation for the past 35 years. As the bestselling author of ‘Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity‘ (GTD) he took a leap four years ago and moved with his wife Kathryn to Amsterdam to start a new chapter. They radically changed how they ran their company and expanded the reach to a global network of trainers from their new home base.
Following is part 1 of an interview he did with us this week.
Milestones of Transformation
We had one transforming moment, when it looked like the book was going to be successful, it showed up that I had a choice to keep doing what I was doing, keynote speaking about the book, keeping it fairly small, or whether to scale it up since the world was knocking on our door. That was a big choice to make.
Neither of us are the best choice to run a company or manage people. That’s not what I do very well or what I want to do. We asked our small team if they wanted to do it and they said yes. We figured the only way to pull it off was to create partnerships and use technology. That was a big change.
It took me 25 years ‘to figure out what I figured out’ and then I wrote the book. I thought I would spend the rest of my life figuring out how to distribute it, transfer the system and get it to stick as an education model. That is not my area of expertise.
We tried with someone who stepped in to run the whole organization, but it wasn’t a fit. I guessed I’d have to figure out how to run this company myself. So, I read everything I could about management. I knew I was not the right guy to market something and to have full accountability and responsibility to run something.
I did know I had a lot of people in our organization who were hip and smart and I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if I could figure out a way for the company to run itself?’, then I could be freed up to do what I do best.
I had that in my mind. Then I shared the stage with Brian Robertson at a Conscious Capitalism conference. He told me that he was a big champion of GTD and what it would be like to have an organization that could do that. It turned out that he had built a company around self-governing and organizing called Holocracy.
I wanted to do everything I could do to prove this wrong as fast as I can, because if it did work I didn’t want to wait another day. He had gotten religion around GTD and when he brought that into the company he was managing it was so easy to have ‘mind like water‘ (This refers to a mental and emotional state in which your head is clear, able to create and respond freely, unencumbered with distractions and split focus.) screwed up fast. As soon as you go from a 1 person company to 2 and then more, issues and challenges around staying clear, keeping your agreements, managing yourself and so forth is magnified exponentially.
Kathryn and I agreed that if this could work it would be what we needed, as we were ready to fold the company otherwise. The burden of management had become too much work. So we jumped in full bore and we’re still using that ‘operating system’ 7 years later.
That was a five year project. In this operating system there is no hierarchy only roles and responsibilities. It’s distributed authority in an elegant way, but it’s tough work. I always say it’s the worst way to run a company or the best thing anybody’s ever tried.
As we were doing that, our company became more virtual. My work was spreading around the world. So, we made a partnership with a company SMCOVE that knew how to build global franchise partnerships. We now officially have licensees certified for training in 60 countries. I found myself thrust into the global world.
“Let’s not get stale.”
In the meantime Kathryn and I were feeling a little antsy. We don’t have kids. We were seeing people a little older than us a little too sedentary. We were still active and healthy. We said “Let’s not get stale.” Let’s throw a dart and reinvent what we’re doing and the way we do it. From that came, “Let’s move to Europe!” It became a “someday maybe” We weren’t quite ready to jump away from the physical office we had in Ojai at the time. But we planted the seed.
We lived in a fabulous little house, but it was a teardown when we bought it and we planted and made a lovely garden around it. We decided to put it on the market and knew it would be an emotional buy if at all. Gods little acre. The market was crap at the time. As we say in the south, “You can’t catch any fish without bait in the water.” Within two weeks a guy walked onto the property and said that’s exactly what I want and gave us what we were asking for it. We said “that’s a sign.”
We wanted to unhook from the US-centric consciousness as well. Little did we know what was coming. So it was an intuitive call.
We first got trainer wheels for the change. We found a townhouse in Santa Barbara, where we could bike to town. Santa Barbara has a European feel to it. We were there for three years and finally said let’s do it.
We loved Amsterdam and had been there before, but it could have been anywhere as long as it was close to an airport. It’s the San Francisco of Europe. They call it the republic of Amsterdam. It’s edgy enough and comfortable enough and everyone speaks english very well. It’s cheaper than London and warmer than Stockholm.