Harvesting The Best of the Last 10 Episodes of The Working Together Podcast

On the 10th episode of the Working Together Podcast, I take a break from our regular programming and harvest some of the best bits of previous episodes!

Although the conversations are diverse, some key themes emerge, and I’ve tried my best to curate like-with-like in this show.

Whether you want to learn how to build awesome partnerships across diverse groups of stakeholders, or better understand the importance of architecture and city planning for cooperative living, this episode is jam packed!

I really enjoyed selecting and curating these nuggets of podcast gold, so I think I’m going to do this every once in awhile with the interview-oriented episodes. There’s so much rich information in the conversations I have with social innovators and practitioners of awesomeness, why not mull it over a bit more?

In order of appearance, here’s who I talk to:

Credit where credit is due:

The Power of Circle and Story to Transform our Workplaces and Communities with Chris Corrigan

Folks sitting around a campfire, enjoying circle and story.

I believe that the lowly old meeting can save the world.

Sure, meetings are universally despised–who doesn’t hate meetings?

We don’t plan them well. We run them terribly (god they can be so awkward sometimes!). In the worst examples, nothing comes from the meeting (except maybe a plan to have another meeting!).

Yes. Meetings do suck.

But it’s not because of some fundamental, unchanging characteristic of meetings.

For what is a meeting, but just a group of people coming together?

So, meetings suck because we suck at doing everything that comes before, during and after a meeting. And a lot of this work depends on defining the who, what, when, where, how and why of the meeting, and then designing and facilitating productive exchanges and follow-throughs.

To apply the old 80/20 rule, the meeting itself is 20% of the work. Planning and follow-through is the other 80%.

If you haven’t noticed already, the lowly old meeting is a central concern of Working Together. There is something magical about the practitioner who knows how to use meetings and encounters to make things happen. The practitioner who knows how to “design coalitions” and weave their partnerships and collaborations into their strategies and tactics. This theme pops up again and again in podcast episodes and blog posts–especially in the last episode (and associated blog posts) about Strategic Design.

In episode #9 of the Working Together Podcast, I have an engrossing conversation with Chris Corrigan, who is just such a practitioner of strategic design, and who works with organizations, communities and teams to address strategic challenges using dialogic approaches to decision making.

Chris calls himself “a process artist, a teacher and a facilitator of social technologies for face to face conversation in the service of emergence.” His business is “supporting invitation: the invitation to collaborate, to organize, to find one another and make a difference in our communities, organizations and lives.” And he’s an active member of a bigger community of practice called the Art of Hosting, which “is an approach to leadership that scales up from the personal to the systemic using personal practice, dialogue, facilitation and the co-creation of innovation to address complex challenges.”

In this vital conversation, Chris tells me about the art of hosting conversations that matter, the ancient significance of coming to a campfire to share stories, our one option for the challenges that face us in the future, and so much more. You’ll walk away from this conversation with an appreciation for the art of working together.

As Chris puts it:

“The fundamental human capacities of this era are among the most ancient: invitation and conversation. When we invite people to work with us, whoever shows up are the right people. When we live a life of invitation, our work becomes about making connections to make things happen. And once we have a group of people acting on an invitation, deep and meaningful conversation becomes the way we collaborate sustainably together to co-create the world we want.

I work with organizations seeking to improve their work, communities seeking to improve their future, people looking to improve their lives. I hold and care for process – the ways in which we work together – to encourage people to make their best possible contributions. I have an unflagging belief that the answers and leadership we need arise out of collaboration and conversation. By facilitating skillful dialogue, I do my best to hold space for futures to emerge.”

Some Big Ideas Exchanged: Circle and Story, Cowboy Songs, The Difference Between Ikea Instructions and Complex Problems, and much more!

Here’s some of what we talked about, with some reflections by yours truly!

“The Creator gave us two gifts: Circle and Story”

This was Chris’ only training in facilitation, given to him by an elder during his work at the National Association of Friendship centres. We have a natural inclination to come together in a circle and share food and stories. This inclination is rooted deep in our ancestral past: for millennia we have gathered around the campfire.

“The coal face of democracy”

For anyone who’s led public engagement on touchy topics, or even just facilitated difficult conversations at public events, you’ve probably been in “the coal face of democracy.” This is where you may find yourself truly outside of the opinions and beliefs of your peers, confronting opinions and beliefs that are contrary to everything you are about. What do you do in those moments? As a facilitator and a leader, you have to hold space for all citizens, “even if you find their opinions odious.”

“If you talk with people about what they know about, they’ll always tell you the truth.”

The people in the room are the experts, not the people presenting to them. What Chris talks about here reminded me of what Peter MacLeod talked about in episode #6 of the Working Together Podcast. MASS LBP starts with the same assumption, but then tries to find a middle-ground between “what people know” and “what people can learn”, designing their citizen assemblies and reference panels to accomplish this balancing act. If you haven’t heard that episode, I highly recommend listening to it with this one!

“Politics has become so volatile and it turns on minutiae…”

In our hyper-mediated world, politics has become a game of minutiae. The political staff closest to the political leaders are engaged in a relentless spin war with the opposition. Politicians and their personal brands become lifted one moment and tainted the next. Serious dialogue on complex problems? Yeah right!

This has changed the way that government interacts with the general public (a theme charted in Don Lenihan’s Rescuing Policy). In Chris’ view, we’ve gone from broad public consultation to “engagement”, where professionalized consultants facilitate more focused policy dialogues with smaller groups of “interested stakeholders”. (Although Lenihan talks about “public engagement” he’s really thinking about the type of consultation that Chris is referring to.)

“The map of the future is very clear when you are building an Ikea bookshelf…”

…but the map of the future is very unclear when you are trying to put out a massive wildfire. These examples came up when Chris and I were talking about the Cynefin Framework–a nifty little cognitive tool that helps you see what kind of system you might find yourself in, and how you should make decisions depending on which system you are in.

Is it a simple bureaucratic process? Is it a complicated, but “manageable” group of interrelated causes? Is it a complex problem with no clear answers? Is it chaotic? Or are you in total disorder? Adapt your decision-making to each. For systems that are…

  • …simple: look for best practices; sense, categorize, respond;
  • …complicated: look for good practices; sense, analyze, respond;
  • …complex: look for emergence; probe, sense, respond;
  • …chaotic: look for the novel; act, sense, respond.

“To improve society, spend more time with people you haven’t met.” – John Cage

During our conversation, Chris and I talk about the encounter between people and ideas you don’t know, and how to deftly navigate those boundary crossings. I mentioned how I put that lovely John Cage quote above on a t-shirt when I was in university, and would find myself in conversation with strangers. One such stranger became a dear friend of mine (he now co-curates at this little art space in Toronto). (See pages 39 to 64 of John Cage: Composed in America for an interesting discussion by Charlie Junkerman around the themes brought up in Cage’s quote.)

We went on to talk about the importance of balancing our tendency towards hanging with our friends and family (the “in-group”) with the need to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone and hang with people you haven’t met (the “out-group”) (see this little piece for an interesting analysis of in-group/out-group dynamics… a bit dated now in our emerging “populist era”). I mentioned Geoff Mulgan’s talk “What Will Make a Prosperous Society in the 21st Century?” and his effort to synthesize the old “globablization” thesis with the new “populist” thesis. Mulgan talks about all sorts of innovative examples of how to do this, but how can the in-group (populist) and the out-group (globalist) be synthesized in practice?


References, allusions, and mentions implied:

People mentioned:

Credit where credit is due:

How to Use Strategic Design to Become an Awesome Leader and Make an Impact in Your World

Different chalk boards depicting different game strategies for football. Strategic Design at play!

I’ve always admired leaders who had a strong ability to bring everyone along. Without using power and manipulation to do so.

These kind of leaders tend to be a rare breed–what I would oxymoronically call “honest politicians” of their field of work.

Sometimes they were big names, who I had only encountered in biographies and historical studies. Other times they were lesser-known folks who I was fortunate enough to work alongside in various settings.

In all cases, these leaders were committed to cultivating democratic exchanges. Within their teams.  Between stakeholders.  Through their partnerships.

They were also great strategists, and I would usually walk away from a meeting with them feeling like I had learned a whole new conceptual vocabulary. Words like “positioning”, “timing”, “selling”, “signalling”, and so on, took on a whole new meaning to me.

What was the common thread between these diverse leaders?

  • They designed interactions, staged and staggered engagements according to tactical and strategic considerations.
  • They knew when to speed up and slow down, and when the conditions were ripe for decisive action.
  • They knew how to use their creativity and critical thinking skills to democratically engage others, respond to feedback, and reorient the action towards making something happen.
  • Most importantly, these folks were practiced agents of change, with a history of failures and successes under their belt.

They were all practicing strategic design.

So, in the 8th episode of the Working Together Podcast, I talk about strategic design and the art of creative group problem solving:

  • I walk you through four design approaches as sketched out by Ezio Manzini: big-ego design, post-it note design, co-design and strategic design.
  • And I give you some tips on how to enliven your work through co-design and strategic design–regardless of whether or not you are a designer!

All of this was covered in these previous blog posts (you can go to these posts for links and resources mentioned during the show too!):

Beyond Post-it Note Chic (part I)

2 Design Practices that Will Help You Stop Being a Worker Drone (part II, where I really dive deep on Strategic Design)

Credit where credit is due:

Creating a Bossless Business and Helping More People Work on Stuff That Matters with Joshua Vial of Enspiral

A photo c/o Enspiral of some of the members of the Enspiral team, posing in their office. Bossless business at its best!

How can we work together in a way that balances our need for cooperation and community, with our need for autonomy?

How can we do all this, and create meaningful products and services that meet a real market need and make a positive social impact?

In episode #7 of the Working Together Podcast I talk with Joshua Vial, co-founder and catalyst at Enspiral about how this little New Zealand cooperative has taken the time to really focus on creating a bossless business model that achieves their vision:

“More people working on stuff that matters.”

Our conversation reminded me of  a time (over a decade ago now!) when I was an undergrad student in university.

My professor, Dr. Geoffrey Whitehall, was fond of dropping little theory bombs in the form of aphorisms. One that I remember well was this little nugget:

“In a game of soccer, it doesn’t matter which team wins. The game of soccer always wins.”*

The rules and processes that structure the movement of players on the field is what wins.

Not team red or team blue.

And by reproducing itself again and again, the game continues to win.

So too with the conventional, business-as-usual approach to starting and running a company.

We play the economic game like we play a sport. Team captains. Coaches. Competition. Etc.

We think that the only way to practice entrepreneurship is as a full-on, no holds barred, match of excellence against excellence.

But no matter how often the players win, the game always wins.

Enspiral is trying to change the game by creating a bossless business with a deeply collaborative culture. And they are keen to share the tools and mechanisms they use to achieve this.

In Joshua’s own words, they are an entrepreneur support network, or a “entrepreneur cooperative”. If you think this sounds like a contradiction in terms, have a listen to our conversation and find out how Enspiral strikes a truly amazing working balance between individualism and collectivism.

*After the release of this episode, I learned from Geoff that this quote is attributed to Stuart Hall from the video “Representation and the Media” (available on YoutTube here: part 1 & part 2.)

Some Big Ideas Exchanged: The delicate art of collaboratively running a bossless business; “Organizational DNA”; the power of sharing business model innovations and more!

  • Can software, information systems and the internet be used to make a bossless business or a cooperative more efficient? How do we keep (and strengthen) the values of democratic ownership, peer production, “power with” rather than “power over” online? Rather than designing digital systems for when people do not or cannot trust each other (like the so-called “trustless” blockchain ecosystem), what does it look like to design digital collaboration systems for when people do deeply trust one another?
  • On creating and maintaining a healthy culture in a bossless business: establish relationships in person, and then maintain them digitally. (This is Enspiral’s model for team-building and it’s how they ensure that their cooperative culture stays alive, even across big distances. Every few months, the Enspiral team gathers in-person to establish and maintain their relationships with one another. After the face-to-face gathering, everyone distant from the New Zealand group of core people, feels more connected online.)
  • At Enspiral, there is an ongoing, healthy tension between individual freedom and collective action. (In many ideologies, freedom is valued over collaboration, or vice versa. How do you create systems that try to strike a balance between these opposing human drives?)
  • How can a group of entrepreneurs provide care for one another in their mutual endeavours? (Hustle and grind, competition, winning, “crushing the competition”, etc. These are some of the constant themes in the discourse of entrepreneurship. They apply really well to talk about businesses competing with one another in their niche, but not necessarily to businesses that operate outside of one-another’s niches. If there is conversation around mutual support between entrepreneurs, it’s usually in the frame of mentorship and Masterminds. But support can look like so much more! There is a whole world of mutual aid to explore beyond the Mastermind group: as Enspiral demonstrates, entrepreneurs can also support one another through a common treasury or foundation. The trick is to think of mutual aid on a gradient from loose and informal–like a Mastermind group–to more structured and formal–like a cooperative foundation that provides a governance structure, and process for deciding on how to allocate funds.) 
  • Designing systems that are responsive to who human beings are. (In practice, this looks like a lot of conversation, reflection and questions, like: “how will this process impact personal freedom?” “how will this process impact community?” and so on.)
  • “Organizational DNA” like the “two-tier membership” or “the minimum viable board” to name a handful (see Enspiral Handbook below). (Using principles and concepts from biology to talk about organizations! Organizational innovations should be prototyped, experimented, and shared widely.)
  • Big “C” Capitalism versus small “c” capitalisms. (Talking about a “Capitalist System” misses the way that different markets are regulated differently in different countries and between countries. Rather, there are multiple capitalisms operating in patchwork systems of rules, and depending on what level you are designing at, you can do lots of interesting things with the simple produce/consume relation.)
  • I really liked Joshua’s fast answer to my question: “If you could write a 5,000 word paper on your three favourite books, what would your central thesis be?” Here it is:

“Open source your business and if you share everything you’re learning about organizing with technology, and if you copy other people who are sharing what they are thinking, you could speed up the pace of innovation in this whole sector… We can start to match the pace of innovation we are seeing with technology… By open sourcing our business practices and actively building community around them, we can see an explosion of innovation in the terms of how we organize.”

  • Joshua on trying out new things:

“Make small bets and decide for yourself… Look at an opportunity to try out the thing that interests you in the smallest safest way, give it space to be a valid experiment and measure the result… keep trying things… constantly put yourself in the persona of the scientist, who’s constantly researching something… and when you research something, publish it, share it with others.”

  • And so much more!

References, allusions, and mentions implied:

People mentioned:

Credit where credit is due:

Democratic Innovation and the Citizen as a “Barn Raiser” with Peter MacLeod of MASS LBP

Photo of citizens meeting at a table to learn and discuss Metrolinx reform. Democratic innovation at work!

In episode #6 of the Working Together Podcast, I interview Peter MacLeod who founded MASS LBP–an organization that is pursuing the long-game of democratic innovation.

What does democratic innovation look like? Well, in MASS LBPs case, it is a reinvention of public consultation through the pioneering use of Civic Lotteries and Reference Panels.

To get a better idea of what this means, let’s look to their name and ask the first question, what exactly does “MASS LBP” stand for?

As Peter has described, it is inspired from a Thomas Paine quote: “there is a mass of sense lying in a dormant state which good government should quietly harness.” The quote expresses an evocation of the role of government to tap into that latent intelligence called common sense. So, the MASS part of the name is a tip of the hat to Paine and to the sociologists who have tried to make sense of what it means to live in a mass society. LBP simply stands for Led by People.

Another way to put it is that MASS LBP spends their time working at the intersection of our 21st century mass society and the 18th century political institutions that struggle to keep up. They help governments “keep up” by providing strategy, research and public engagement services–being most famous for their civic lotteries and reference panels. Their goal is to “create greater clarity for [their] clients so they can make decisions that enjoy public confidence and support.”

And like Working Together, MASS LBP believes in people:

“Given the opportunity to participate in a thorough, fair, and inclusive process, citizens are ready to provide constructive advice, offering officials the intelligence, perspective, and sensitivity that difficult public issues require.”

Here here!

Some Big Ideas Exchanged: the Common-place Democratic Innovation of the Constituency Office, Choosing your Business Model, Town Halls and Murder Trials, How to Create a Learning Society, the Importance of Sincere Clients, and more!

  • The constituency office as the site of lively political engagement and democratic innovation. (Peter’s academic work on constituency offices demonstrates the value of looking to the least-likely, and least-flashy places for democratic innovation. Usually in ramshackle strip malls on the edge of town, the constituency office is the opposite of the flashy public engagement outreach efforts of the government. Yet it is at these locations, and through the men and women who attend them, that the citizen can have a surprising degree of impact on their representative.)
  • Thinking of starting something innovative? Choose your business model wisely! (Become an academic or a research organization? Well, then you’re tied to academic constraints… Become a nonprofit or a charity? Well, then you’re tied to fundraising and campaigning… Become a business? Well, then you’re tied to the demands and constraints of the market. Where do you have the most autonomy? Where do you have the most flexibility? Whatever you are starting, don’t get caught up in the “this is always how it’s done” trap. Whatever it is you are creating, find yourself becoming the accidental think-tank or business.)
  • Democratic innovation takes far longer than product or service innovation. (The market can respond instantaneously to a new product or service. It’s either something that people or businesses want, or something that they don’t. Experimenting and implementing democratic innovations, on the other hand, requires a long track record of success and the patience to wait-out multiple electoral cycles before politicians and citizens understand the new approach.)
  • “Town hall” stereotypes (captured so well by Parks and Rec) really come about because of the unconscious design choices made when we plan one. (Instead of sleepwalking into planning a town hall, first define the problem of citizen engagement accurately: it’s not about angry citizens and disconnected politicians, its about how the encounter between government and governed might be better designed. How people work together is as delicate a design process as a well-thought out stage performance: the meeting, the space, the props, the sequencing… all of it is performed by everyone involved.)
  • We would never see a sandwich board outside of a courthouse advertising: “Murder trial this afternoon! Jurors wanted!” Yet, we do the same for policy engagement and wonder why our public engagement skews in the direction of “interested parties”. (There are only a few situations where “sandwich board” engagement works–most involving the choice of where to go grab a sandwich during lunch. We need to more actively “fish” for participants beyond the circle of those who are most interested and have the most time and flexibility to devote to deliberation.)
  • Thinking about and designing different roles for “the citizen” (or any role for that matter). (Peter’s concept of the active citizen as a blend between “survey-taker and barn-raiser” is perfectly put… in one moment, we are too caught up in our day-to-day lives to become overly involved in the political life of our communities, in another moment we are excitedly prepared to roll-up our sleeves and volunteer our weekend for a cause we care about. It all comes down to personal efficacy: we want to learn about and understand the issues that concern our community, and we want to feel like our input and opinions are heard, understood, and seriously considered in-turn. It all comes down to a more invigorated exchange between learners.)
  • The importance of sincere clients: MASS LBP’s long-term business interests are closely aligned with the long-term success of citizen deliberation, so they pick their clients carefully. (Are you being asked to be a contractor on a last-minute initiative with impossible timelines? Are you feeling more and more like a rubber stamp in a bigger process? If you are a contractor, like MASS LBP, taking on the wrong client puts one’s portfolio of work at risk. More importantly, one’s ability to demonstrate the success and applicability of an innovative approach is put at risk.) 
  • Beyond and outside of the learning organization: part-adult education and part-policy development, creating a learning society. (An important concept. It recognizes that nobody has the answers and that everyone is learning. The importance of designing appropriate relationships between different learners, who are each situated in their particular role, becomes paramount. The MP, MLA or councillor is learning about their work and their role as much as the citizen is learning about a healthcare issue, or a planning issue. At some point, multiple roles meet, and things will go better if each others’ public and private interests are mutually empathized and understood. The intersection of these roles is a design problem that needs to be solved, particularly as we strive to create new relationships between existing roles–as in the case of the citizens reference panel–and new roles within existing relationships–as in the case of social innovators and entrepreneurs.)
  • People want to have a sense of worth and value, people want to make a difference. If the system keeps telling them that they can’t make a difference, then they will walk away. (… and they will only come back for the “big leader” who has all the answers. This is the danger we face today, with totalitarianism and authoritarianism emerging in western democracies, we are seeing a different model of the citizen… no longer the far-removed survey-taker, or the neighbourly barn-raiser… but the sports fan. The sports fan who puts all his/her money on their favourite player, and will loyally support the team no matter what. Treating complex and complicated policy issues with a closed mind, calcified by polemical debate points, the sports fan is out to see their side crush the competition and win. Does the sports fan want belonging more than personal efficacy? I’m still trying to figure that one out… What does democratic innovation look like in our emerging world of populist politics?)

References, allusions, and mentions implied:

People mentioned:

Credit where credit is due:

TWTP #5: Mark Frauenfelder on the Maker Movement and the Blockchain Future

A pile of many many different maker tools (hammers, scissors, etc.)

The market continually strives to provide what we need or want.

More. Cheaper. Faster.

All this readily available stuff is replacing our natural inclination to make, tinker and fix. And as our lives get busier and busier, we have less time to “noodle around” in a workshop. When something breaks or wears out, instead of taking the time to mend, fix and repair we  “go and buy a new one”.

To resist this ongoing trend towards consumption, you need to intentionally practice the arts and crafts of production. You need to become a maker.

For some, this is what the maker movement is all about, and my conversation with Mark Frauenfelder, the ex-editor in chief of MAKE magazine, explores the who, what, when, where, how and why of making.

Along with his work as a maker, Mark is also a blogger, illustrator, and journalist–a bit of a contemporary renaissance man if you ask me! He is co-owner of the collaborative weblog Boing Boing. Along with his wife, Carla Sinclair, he founded the bOING bOING print zine in 1988, where he was the co-editor until the print version folded in 1997. Mark became an editor at Wired from 1993–1998, and he’s written and edited a number of interesting books.

Mark co-edited The Happy Mutant Handbook and he is the author and illustrator of Mad Professor, World’s Worst and The Computer: An Illustrated History. Mark is the sole author of Rule the Web: How to Do Anything and Everything on the Internet—Better, Faster, Easier; Trick Decks: How to Hack Playing Cards for Extraordinary MagicMade by Hand: My Adventures in the World of Do-It-Yourself; and Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects. I originally came across Mark’s work in the foreword to the excellent Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun.

Mark currently works at Institute for the Future as a Research Director.

Some big ideas exchanged:

  • Mark talked about his upbringing with early IBM computers and a technical dad who would bring interesting gadgets home (along with many other things you can do to encourage children to be inventors, one is simply being a tinkerer yourself!)
  • Mark and Carla started making the Boing Boing zine for fun, printing short runs of a few hundred, and then they went to Mike Gunderloy at Facsheet 5 for a review. That review ended up leveraging his audience, and from then on, their print runs grew and grew, picking up more and more distribution opportunities culminating in their last print run 17,500 copies! (“Fake it ’til you make it!” is the motto for small business success. The internet makes this model even more of a possibility! Make something. Share it on social media. If the crowd bites, make a small production run and start an Etsy account! And so on.) 
  • Makers create their own educational opportunities for themselves and others: instead of working through bureaucracy to try and introduce making into educational institutions, they just “route around the interference.” (Doing something innovative sometimes requires you to just work around the roadblocks and Kafkaesque rules and procedures. Or as Grace Hopper said: “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It is much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”)
  • The relationship between “punk tech” (making, DIY, etc.) and “consumer tech”? It’s complicated. (Companies should build more maker-friendly consumer products, not just to go against the logic of planned obsolescence. Makers are both a decentralized and autonomous R&D department for existign companies, as well as the seeds of new entrepreneurs and companies.)
  • In North America, we’ve spent the last 30 or so years outsourcing manufacturing to other countries, so the very idea of the maker movement is revolutionary in the face of this trend (The rust belt never went away, its future was just distributed to other parts of America.)
  • Hacking the infrastructure (The majority of people in the world are “unbanked” (i.e. without access to traditional banking). Whereas the number of mobile phone users in the world is expected to pass the 5 billion mark by 2019. Bitcoin and blockchain fintech hacks the existing banking infrastructure, and this could be better for the global majority. The theme of hacking the infrastructure also came up when we talked about Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s early, illicit foray into phone phreaking.)
  • Make something that is going to make a difference in your life, give yourself a growing sense of self-efficacy (This theme of self-efficacy comes up again and again in my interviews… stay tuned, I might put something together on the lost arts of fostering self-efficacy: politically, technically and otherwise!)

References, allusions, and mentions implied:

People mentioned:

Credit where credit is due:

2 Design Practices that Will Help you Stop Being a Worker Drone.

A small flag with "explore" written on it

Are you a knowledge worker struggling to understand how your work is anything but varying degrees of coordinating?

You might find yourself leading a project, planning timelines, staging deliverables and milestones and working with a team.

You might spend half your day sending a flurry of emails back and forth, and the other half researching and editing briefs and data summaries.

You might create a branch to some code in GitHub and open a pull request to get input from your distributed team.

And so on.

What unifies the diverse types of knowledge workers out there is this mildly reflective practice of coordinating (“what needs to come next? how do I move this off my desk? what needs to be communicated and who do I need to communicate with?” and so on). Whether you work together with teams of people, deliverables, information and data, etc., you are doing a lot of coordinating.

But is there a way to deepen our practice of the shallow work of coordinating?

How can we take coordinating to a whole new level?

Aside from trying to diminish the amount of shallow work you do, to carve out more chunks of deep work time, I think that answering a couple of questions in your day-to-day work will help you deepen your coordinating practice:

  1. how might I better design processes, products and services to meet the needs and desires of all involved? How might I make the problem solving tent bigger than just me at my desk?
  2. how might I engage systems of people and things strategically? How might I become a better strategist in my efforts to get sh*t done?

The Power of Co-Design: How Bringing More People into your Problem Solving Tent can Enliven your Work

The impetus of co-design is to bring everyone together, to actively involve the end user in the solution design process so as to make sure that whatever product or service is created meets their needs and is usable. Co-design is also a big part of design thinking methods: working with the end user or customer to prototype and ultimately build a product or service that responds to their explicit and implicit needs. To get to this outcome, you need to involve the end user or consumer in a cooperative or collaborative design process, i.e. co-design.

I love process facilitation approaches that use design thinking tools to design products, services and solutions in collaboration and partnership with broader groups of user, customers, stakeholders, etc. It just makes sense. If you’ve been lucky enough to participate in a co-design session, you know how awesomely powerful this approach can be. So, we need to continue to learn how to co-design, share experiences best practices and iterate and refine the toolkits.

But there is still something more to master…

Co-design is great because its starting assumption is that everyone can meaningfully participate in the design process. Everyone can be a designer. If co-design is found in formalized processes where a team of stakeholders works together on an issue, “trying to create a common language and shared visions and strategies”, then in Ezio Manzini’s words, co-design is all about “sense-making” (Ezio Manzini, Design, When Everybody Designs48).

By simply coordinating around problems, we tend to keep our problem solving work under a small tent of our immediate team, our boss, and the most interested stakeholders or consumers. Some call this the silo. Perhaps it is more efficient, perhaps it is more expedient.

By making sense of a problem with more people, through a co-design process, we make the problem solving tent bigger. And while there will still be much coordinating work to be done, it will have fallen off of the well-worn track of “how we do things around here.” This is where things get interesting.

A rich plethora of ideas are generated. A palpable excitement fills the room. And the work that follows from a co-design session is energized by the commitment to represent the sense that was created in that moment. The more sense that has been made about a problem and the potential solutions, the more the process of working on the problems and solutions has broken out of previous moulds. But what about the solutions that come from this process?

If co-design is about sense-making, then strategic design is about the political art of making things happen: the messy terrain where teams of people and tools try to implement something, keep it going for awhile, and adapt and adjust course when needed.

Although reforms are usually designed by a few people, invariably they are implemented by many. It is through the implementation, and not the design, that the issues, contradictions, and dilemmas rise to the surface and become grounded in the reality of administration and politics. And it is often the implementers, not the designers, who are called upon to reconcile them. (Good, 186)

I agree with this quote from David Good’s The Politics of Public Management and the folks over at In/ With/ Forward: implementation is often overlooked by the design thinking hype, but it is the essential next step to any good co-design process.

Sure, everyone is a designer, but not everyone can lead the design process from start to finish and beyond. This requires moving beyond brainstorming, prototyping and iterating, towards the politically fraught terrain of implementation… of making something happen.

How to Become an Agent of Change through Strategic Design

Manzini’s book is both inspired by the degree to which “everybody is a designer” and troubled by where the design thinking/co-design mania leaves the role of who he would describe as the “design expert”, and who I would more generally describe as the politically astute leader, or the politic leader. Manzini argues that to counter the tendency to reduce the design expert’s role in co-design processes to the “narrow, administrative activity” of the “process facilitator”…

“…design experts should be at the same time critical, creative, and dialogic. That is, they should feed the conversation with visions and ideas (using their personal skills and specific culture), listen to the feedback from other interlocutors (as well as, more in general, listening to the feedback from the whole environment in which they operate), and then, in view of the feedback, they should introduce new, more mature proposals into the conversation.”

Then under the heading “Making Things Happen”, Manzini goes on (and I will quote him at length, because he nails it):

“To avoid both the post-it and big-ego design risks, design experts should cultivate their specific creativity and culture and their dialogic capability at the same time.

We must stress that dialogic capability… is not the application of a method but a very special skill: a kind of craft to be learned through practical exercises and experiences. The result is that they, the design experts, should consider their creativity and culture as tools to support the capability of other actors to design in a dialogic way. In other words, they should agree to be part of a broad design process that they can trigger, support, but not control.

Once they accept this view of themselves, assume this blend of creativity, design knowledge, and dialogic capability as their specific cultural and operational profile, design experts are in a position to become effective agents of change. They spark off new initiatives, feed social conversations, and help the process of convergence toward commonly recognized visions and outcomes. In short, they make things happen.

In my view, “to make things happen, to listen to the feedback and reorient the action,” is the most concise (and precise) way of describing the design expert’s role in the co-designing processes that we normally refer to when talking about design for social innovation.” (67-68)

To Manzini, the design expert has background in design disciplines: architecture, industrial design, graphic design, etc. Manzini also wants to ensure that we broadly understand “design expert” to include folks with backgrounds in service design and strategic design. Service design “to conceive and develop solution ideas that take into account the quality of the interactions involved” and strategic design “to promote and support partnerships between the different actors involved” (59).

This is all great (particularly the part about service and strategic design) but I want to push Manzini’s analysis outside of design backgrounds proper, and as I said above, broaden the design expert term to simply mean the politic leader.

Let me explain.

Encountering the notion of strategic design in Manzini’s book opened up a whole new way of  understanding what I had been working to develop in my own work over the past decade. Before coming across the term “strategic design”, the best way that I could describe the notion was by pointing to leaders who had a strong ability to bring everyone along, without using power and manipulation to do so.

These leaders tended to be a rare breed–what I would oxymoronically call “honest politicians” of their field of work. Sometimes they were big names, who I had only encountered in biographies and historical studies. Other times they were lesser-known folks who I was fortunate enough to work alongside in various settings.

In all cases, they were leaders who seemed to be committed to cultivating democratic exchanges within their teams, stakeholders, partnerships and so on. They were also great strategists, and I would usually walk away from a meeting feeling like I had learned a whole new conceptual vocabulary around positioning, timing, selling, signalling, and so on.

They designed interactions, staged and staggered engagements according to tactical and strategic considerations. They knew when to speed up and slow down, and when the conditions were ripe for decisive action. Most importantly, these folks were practiced agents of change, with a history of failures and successes under their belt. They knew how to effectively bring about change, using their creativity, critical capacity (i.e. design knowledge), and dialogic capability to design the interactions among team members and partners, respond to feedback, and reorient the conversation and action towards making something happen.

Manzini would call this activity “designing coalitions”:

“Every design initiative is the result of coordinated action by a group of social actors who have come to an agreement about what to do and how to do it. These design coalitions… do not emerge by chance; they are themselves the result of design: an activity proper to the discipline of strategic design that seeks to identify a group of partners and build with them a set of shared values and converging interests.” (69)

And a bit further on:

“…designing the coalition required to actualize the initiative and set out its program is the most delicate, if not the most important, aspect of what design for social innovation does or should do. The designing coalition must certainly include subjects who can bring all the necessary skills to bear, including those of the users/co-producers (who together constitute the design team in a strict sense). However, it must also involve the political figures required to give the ideas that may emerge some hope of success (in that they will promote them in the arenas to which they have access).

Building this coalition is then, to all intents and purposes, a strategic design activity in which visionary capacity must combine with dialogic ability. In fact, the coalition must be formed around a vision or a program (of what to do and how to do it). At the same time, this vision and program can only take shape in the conversation among actors. Managing the delicate balance between the need to put forward ideas and that of gathering ideas from the others is the first and most fundamental capacity that design experts must show they possess.” (70)

In sum, here are some key takeaways to help you enliven your work and practice strategic design:

  • make your problem solving tent bigger: practice participatory design, prototyping and iterating beyond the silo;
  • don’t just make partnerships, design coalitions: identify a group of partners and build a set of shared values and converging interests with them (a vision or a program);
  • don’t just facilitate, feed the conversation with visions and ideas;
  • listen closely to the feedback (read between the lines);
  • trigger and support, but do not control: introduce new, more mature proposals, and re-orient the action;
  • consider your expertise as a tool that can support the capability of others to design and implement in a dialogic way.

I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of what strategic design is, what it means to design coalitions and what the characteristic of being politic looks like. In many ways, what I am trying to tease out through my conversations with practitioners on The Working Together Podcast is the art and practice of strategic design (even though they themselves wouldn’t call it that). So, suffice it to say that this project is ongoing!

That being said, in my next post in this series I will elaborate further on strategic design by giving you a provisional toolkit that will help you build-up your political skills and become more politic.

Let’s stop coordinating and start using co-design and strategic design to deepen our practice, implement robust solutions and make things happen!

Stay tuned!

(Note: the precursor to this piece is this post on Post-it Note Chic. In that post, I make distinctions between types or styles of design (like “big ego design” and “post-it design”) from Ezio Manzini’s awesome book Design, When Everyone Designs: An Introduction to Design For Social Innovation.)

TWTP #4: Bob Chartier on How to use the Power of Engagement and Dialogue to Transform your Organization and Community

An example of engagement at work: looking up at the restored King Eddy Hotel sign in the newly dubbed Music Mile district in Calgary.
The restored King Eddy Hotel sign in Calgary’s newly dubbed Music Mile.

This episode is for all the meeting haters out there! If you are wondering how you can use engagement to “turn-on” your workplace and your community, this conversation is filled with pure gold!

In Episode #4 of the Working Together Podcast, I have a conversation with Bob Chartier, who is well known in Canada as a thought leader, author and a down to earth practitioner of new models for employee and citizen engagement, systems thinking and building leadership at all levels.

His style of leadership is based on the concept of an entrepreneurial “practice” off the corner of the desk. This approach is predicated on the belief that the real job of leaders is to create more leaders and that leadership can be found in the file rooms as well as the boardrooms.

During our conversation we explored Bob’s lifelong commitment to andragogy, his work with community groups in Calgary over the past few years creating the “Music Mile”, and why you shouldn’t “pitch” your ideas to your boss (among other things).

I hope you enjoy it!

Some big ideas exchanged: Engagement, Dialogue, The Learning Organization, Calgary’s “Music Mile”, the deleterious effect of Email, etc.

  • Hey teacher! Instead of thinking of what you need to cover in a classroom, design your approach to teaching from the vantage point of the students. What does the student need to learn? The teacher as a resource rather than an instructor. (Whether we are teaching a classroom, or leading a meeting, how often do we just come at the exchange from the approach of information and “knowledge transfer”? We need to spend as much time on instructional design, as on content development… who is your audience and what do the need to learn? How can you be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage”?)
  • On balancing theory and practice: the importance of keeping the blue collar approach in the white collar job. Give people practical tools that they can use on Monday morning, but also, don’t throw theory completely out! If you give people only the practical tools, people don’t get the context for their practice. (Provide both the theory and the practice, but lean more heavily on practice and actionable tools that your audience can try tomorrow!)
  • Finding your practice at the edge of your desk. (Whatever it is that will push the dial on your work, it is sure to be something that is done in addition to what you have to get done. Ask yourself: do I have room at the edge of my desk to take on a practice that I can leverage through other projects, and through my career? If no, what can I change about my workload and schedule to carve out the time to develop and maintain a practice? What practice will it be? Engagement? Design thinking? Leadership? Implementing new technologies? Etc.)
  • Engagement is its own continuous practice–not to be confused with facilitation or consultation, which are both episodic. To wit, a facilitator helps a room of people get to where they are already headed, easier (hence, facile). Consultation is a slow bureaucratic process, rife with approval bottlenecks and policy logjams, often treating public engagement as a rubber stamp. Engaging is about turning on a system of people, technologies, processes, etc. and keeping it on, every day. (Try this: take a big-ish, complicated project that you have to do, and answer the following questions in a mind-map: what are the processes and systems that tie into this? Who are the people involved? How’s communication going? For all of these, what’s working well, what’s tricky, what could be different? How might you better engage these systems of people and things through intentional conversations with partners, teams, and leaders?)
  • How instantaneous exchange of information (through email, slack, texting and other technologies like this) has taken us away from the capability to have deep work and deep conversations in our workplaces. (We sit at our desks, mere feet from one another, sending emails about all manner of thing! Our entire workplace culture has dramatically transformed: instead of walking to an office or cubicle, we avoid interrupting each other and send an email instead… BUT if you don’t have the self-discipline to relegate your email to certain times of day, you are in a constant state of interruption.)
  • Hybrid engagement model: designing blended digital communication and in-person gatherings. (Within a sea of online webinars, instructional youtube videos, and turnkey online courses, we need to apply our best instructional design efforts to blending online and in-person learning in a way that engages participants… this is something that Working Together is working on in the background…How do we use new digital technologies in a way that isn’t dehumanizing, that leverages our capability to have dialogue together?)
  • The “tick-box approach” versus ongoing engagement: how can we put together an engagement strategy that is continuous? (Hint: it is critical that leaders understand the importance of engagement and champions it as an opportunity to activate people, rather than an opportunity to comply… both inside organizations and in communities)
  • Train your own people. Build strategic capacity in your organization. (Some services shouldn’t be contracted out. Instead, develop communities of practice within your organization or community, where practitioners can share learning, mentoring and coaching–all towards building strategic capacity and developing “in-house” talent. Get your own people doing it!)
  • “Get off your knees”: “How can I help?” model of leadership versus pitching your idea. (Hey young people: stop going in with guns blazing to yer boss! Save your pitch deck for specific audiences–i.e. investors. Getting buy-in takes a whole lot more than a rapid fire, “salesy” pitch. How can you convince those with power in different settings? Show empathy for your leaders, understand the strategic context, and ask how you can help.) 

References, allusions, and mentions implied:

  • Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology (also, here for Owen’s own words, and here for his book);
  • Jean Lave and Étienne Wenger’s concept of the Community of Practice;
  • Peter Senge’s concept of The Learning Organization and Systems Thinking;
  • Bob Chartier’s piece on Strategic Planning;
  • The French Quarter in New Orleans;
  • Calgary’s Music Mile (news here, here, and here);
  • Rescuing Policy by Don Lenihan;
  • “This is the time to go back and re-read the writings of David Bohm and his acolyte, William Isaacs. Bohm, you will recall, was a contemporary of Albert Einstein. He became discouraged with the world of physics after bumping up against the worst of the McCarthy era. He decided to devote the rest of his life to the study of dialogue. Dialogue, if you will, is the cognac of conversation. Simply put, dialogue is a way for people to enquire together through focused conversation. It differs from discussion (a word which comes from the same root as percussion and concussion) wherein people tend to bounce ideas around and perhaps even try to score points. Dialogue comes from the Greek dialogos with dia meaning word and logos meaning through. Dialogue is much more the flow of meaning through a group of people. Four essential practices include voicing: speaking your authentic voice, listening: deeply without resistance, respecting: yourself and others integrity of position and suspending: stepping back from your deeply held assumptions and certainties. Dialogue requires time, skilled moderation and long term commitment. It is not for quick decision-making and immediate action.” from: Bureaucratically Incorrect: Letters to a Young Public Servant by Bob Chartier (out of print);
  • Bob Chartier’s new book, Handcrafted Leadership: The Art & Craft of Building Engaged Workplaces and Communities;
  • Chapter 6, “The Low Information Diet: Cultivating Selective Ignorance” in The Four Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich by Tim Ferriss. He has a whole category on his blog with different articles and tools to shelter yourself from the blizzard of shallow info;
  • “Preventative maintenance” from Margaret J. Wheatley’s work: book 1 hour per week, with an open agenda, and just have a conversation (sorry no internet resource or reference could be found!);
  • The World Cafe;
  • The Flipped Classroom Model: treat instruction as something you do alone, treat homework as something you do together.

People mentioned:

Credit where credit is due:

TWTP #3: How do you make Resolutions that Stick?


Do you ever go through a burst of inspiration and motivation, where everything seems to ‘click’ and you see exactly what you need to do to attain your goals?

You sit down, crack open your journal, put everything together and write out your game plan. With your intentions set and your plan sketched out, you confidently venture forth into the future! Then, a few months later, after you’ve accomplished your biggest goals, you live the dream!


Not so much.

This is a special New Years episode of The Working Together Podcast, with yours truly on the mic… solo. It’s my best effort to give you a framework for setting goals and resolutions that stick.

The framework is made up of three defined “sessions” to work through, and you can find blog posts about them, with all the resources mentioned during the episode, here:

How do you make Resolutions that Stick? (start here)

Session 1: The Deep Dive

Session 2: The Nitty Gritty

Session 3: The Well Crafted Habit

So, as much as I like to provide awesome show notes for you guys, for this episode I’ll just point you to these blog posts that already have resources and links within.


Credit where credit is due:

Resolutions that Stick, Session 3: The Well Crafted Habit

This is the third (and much shorter) Session of three that will help you make resolutions that stick. If you are just jumping-in, go here for a start and then Session 1 and Session 2.

This last part is all about building routines and saving precious willpower. It’s shorter because there’s little I can say on the matter as it’s really about trying out BJ’s method below (which I highly recommend). It will give you a practical understanding of how habits work, and by extension, how you work.

Part 7: How can you effectively take action, every day?

Don’t rely on willpower. You only get so much of it in a day. Instead, build tiny habits that can turn into routines, and structure your days around when you are at your best and worst. It’ll just take a few weeks and some planning. Let me explain how:

During the First Week:

Think back to your goals, buckets, projects and actions. On those actions that need to become a new habit, go micro: break them down into the tiniest steps you can imagine.

Try BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits process for one week (I’ve done this free program many, many times. It’s awesome).

The new habit or routine is less important than the cue and the reward. Build every tiny habit, and bigger routine around:

  • A cue: this is the trigger for the behaviour to start (like walking in your front door, or your alarm clock goes off, or…)
  • A routine: this is the behaviour itself (like sitting down to review your game plan for the day, or…)
  • A reward: this is the benefit you get for doing the behaviour (like having some chocolate, or taking a sip of your fresh cup of coffee.

If you are trying to change a bad habit, remember the golden rule of habit change: “you can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it… Use the same cue. Provide the same reward. Change the routine.” (Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, pp. 62-63)

During the Second Week:

For new habits, routines and actions that need to happen, pull out your calendar and draft up a plan for the next 2 weeks ahead:

  • What time of day are you at your best for doing the deep, important work that pushes the envelope on your work? Block this time out on your calendar–this is your most important time of every day, let nothing else in! Because the answer to the question “How am I supposed to execute all this… especially when I am at my worst?” is NEVER. When you are at your worst is when you need to be relaxing, playing and simply being together with friends and family. You want to be executing when you are at your absolute best.
  • Schedule in where you’ve cued up your tiny habits, new routines, and core actions for the projects you are working on.
  • Schedule in a chunk of time every week to review and reflect on your efforts (this is hard but so important!).

Because we have limited willpower in a day, it’s better to automize decisions around starting a new routine. This will save your willpower up for the creative problem solving that you want to apply to your purposeful work.