A short update/announcement episode.
About where Working Together has been for the past month, and what I’ve been planning for it’s future.
There are 65 million refugees around the world, over half of which are children according to UNHCR.
Many of these children will spend their entire childhood away from home. Some might be without their families, and many have experienced violence and insecurity (and continue to do so).
In exile, they are “at risk of abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, trafficking or military recruitment.”
In the face of a polarizing political climate in those countries receiving refugees and migrants–where politicians hungry for votes on want to turn the refugee crisis into an opportunity to benefit from the politics of fear–what can we do?
Send in the clowns.
In episode 21 of the Working Together Podcast, I interview Ash Perrin who, along with a rag tag group of fellow performers, works with widely varying groups–at orphanages, refugee camps, hospitals–to help bring smiles and happiness to people… through clowning.
They do this all through the Flying Seagulls Project.
The Flying Seagulls “believe that it is everyone, man, woman or child’s right to put aside the cares of life and smile for a while”. And they are clowns to the core for a good reason. As Ash puts it in our conversation, “the purpose of the clown is that a clown has no ego, and a clown represents the foolishness and the mockery of the human self. There’s no threat from the clown because they reveal their most foolish and flawed part.”
It turns out that the first thing to do if you want to help out people who are in a constant state of insecurity is to be non-threatening. And clowning around is the perfect way to do this, and create the foundation for living, being and working together.
The Flying Seagull Project has run their projects in 15 countries across the world, including in their homelands in the UK, across mainland Europe, in India, Cambodia and Ghana.
They’ve got a whole lot more planned, so if you can, please support their work here.
PS. This is the song that Ash references in his story about how he came to start the Flying Seagulls.
Credit Where Credit is Due:
This episode is a compilation of clips from previous episodes–all centered on the concept of efficacy, which is like a red thread running through my Minotaur’s labyrinth of conversations with thinkers makers and doers here on The Working Together Podcast. We will explore the concept of efficacy in personal, political and technical modes (in that order).
I think efficacy is like a motif behind all good social innovations, community engagement efforts, co-design efforts, barn raisers and work parties. It’s also behind more personal endeavours like tinkering in your basement or starting a small business.
I also think efficacy is less bombastic than “impact” (and certainly less bombastic than “disruptive”).
Efficacy is much more about the day-to-day, and the quotidian. But it is also about the messy problem that nobody wants to be responsible for dealing with (but that we all are responsible for). In this sense efficacy feels like a somewhat truer expression of a latent zeitgeist that has yet to fully emerge: the desire that many of us have to contribute something–to our lives, to our families, neighbourhoods, communities and heck, to the world.
The other, more pronounced zeitgeist is one driven by cynicism and fear. It is characterized by a feeling of paralysis, as if you are lockstep with a dark movement that is entrained towards inevitable catastrophe. Sadly, in this context “impact” and “disruptive” are at home–they are less a joyful smashing and bashing of the status quo, and more of an amplification of its underlying logics: innovation for innovation’s sake; better service delivery; more efficiency; more value for money; “fitter, happier, more productive…”
Efficacy isn’t afraid of messy problems, conflict, catastrophe, and so on. Efficacy has faith in “rolling up the sleeves”, “making fast friends”, “messing around” and working together.
On your own, regaining a sense of personal efficacy can be a fun challenge. You learn how to tinker with things, grow your own food, start your own business and so on.
Giving a group of folks or a community a sense of efficacy, on the other hand, is a damn hard thing to design for.
It requires careful preparation. It requires knowing a thing or two about your ingredients and how they will interact. It requires observation during the encounter–to help facilitate constructive work, and to learn how to design better the next time. In short, it requires recipes and a good chef.
So this episode is a series of recipes for efficacy.
Some recipes are loosely defined, and easier to incorporate into your life, because, well, it’s just about “you and your thing”. There’s less at stake when you are trying out a new dish by yourself. This is all about personal efficacy and I use clips from my interviews with Mark Frauenfelder and Kevin Kelly to explore that angle.
Others require a lot of work designing and facilitating–in short, a lot of meal prep and planning, and at least one good chef (if not a kitchen full of ’em!). These practitioners are always cooking up new ways to combine ingredients, always reflecting on what could be done better the next time and making edits to the recipe until it works. In short, they are always strategically designing. My interviews with Patrick Condon, Peter MacLeod and Gui Seiz are an exploration of some working recipes for helping groups of people achieve political and technical efficacy.
Have a listen to the episode and subscribe to The Working Together Podcast to hear more conversations like these, now and into the future!
Our techno-scientific world is a historical novelty, and it’s complex.
We humans did not evolve for this new world. We have not experienced the magnitude of it’s consequences (unintended or otherwise) and their harms.
I’m talking about things like environmental toxins, industrial pollutants, gamma radiation, and so on. I’m also talking about things we can sense, but can’t really get an accurate handle on, like mold, or noise pollution.
While we wait for our senses to catch up to the new reality, we can use technology to help us sense those unsensible things in our environment. Right? Not so fast. As you’ll hear in this episode, although the tech is there, it’s difficult to implement.
In episode 19 of the Working Together Podcast, I talk with Gui Seiz from Fab Lab Barcelona about a project they are piloting called Making Sense. As you’ll learn in this episode, it’s not the tech that’s the problem, it’s our ability to put it to use in a way that’s meaningful and lasting.
Although we explore the fascinating world of homemade sensors and citizen science, our conversation finds its gravitational centre in some big questions (some implied others not), like:
This episode reminded me of some of the group facilitation tools designed to help experts and laypeople work together. I’ve explored these tools in previous episodes: remember MASS LBP’s use of citizen reference panels (episode 6), or Patrick Condon’s work on design charettes (episode 11)? Where those tools were all about developing a sense of personal and political efficacy, my talk with Gui centres around the question of how to go about developing a sense of technical and scientific efficacy amongst the general public. I hope you enjoy it!
I have always had a hard time with conflict. Who doesn’t?
Whether it’s conflict with family and friends, or (very rarely) on the street with strangers. I freeze up and have a hard time knowing what to do other than try to avoid it.
If the worst case scenario happens and things get violent, then I really get paralyzed.
I’ve asked myself many times: What can I do? How can I stop this? How can I avoid this?
It wasn’t until I learned what I’m about to outline that I began to see a tangible path through conflict…
So, how do we constructively address disputes?
This is where the field of Integrative Negotiation enters the picture, and one tool in particular…
A simple set of questions that can help you see past “positions” to reveal and discuss the underlying interests in any dispute. By using this approach you create space in the dispute for everyone to begin understanding each other’s interests.
As you uncover the interests beneath positions, some interests will remain exclusive, others will be revealed that are complementary and some that are common. Once common and complementary interests are recognized by the parties, cooperation and collaboration can emerge.
A few definitions to help distinguish things at the outset:
There are lots of reasons why this approach is something worth practicing, here are a few:
At a high level, it’s simple. The tools are different types of open questions that you can use in a dispute:
Use Probing Questions to uncover and identify interests. This is where seeing past the position to its underlying interest(s) really begins. These questions are used to dig beneath the positional statements and encourage further elaboration, articulation and discovery. These sorts of questions expand the conflictual discussions, so be ready to get into the guts of it! But this is a good thing: this is fuel for your exploration of the interests underlying positions and rigid points of view:
Use Clarifying Questions to identify and reduce confusion. These questions are used to further break down positions and create shared meaning. Since they are the presentation of a preferred outcome, positions have a tendency to be subjective. In addition, we too often hide behind slogans, technical terms, or broad generalizations, assuming that everyone knows what we are talking about. Clarifying questions aim to create a common language between everyone:
Use Justifying Questions to identify change. These questions are used to respectfully point out inconsistencies to the speaker and to then listen to what has changed. When we argue, we get carried away, and we might not be aware of shifts and changes to our view and position. By asking these questions, you help the person realise that their interests are evolving through the conversation. To use these questions, be genuinely inquisitive and curious. Avoid a confrontational tone, as it will threaten the speaker (the reverse of what you want to have happen):
Use Consequential Questions to identify cause and effect relationships.These questions help you explore implications, test out hypotheses, and assess the practicality of options, ideas, and proposals. Think of it as a way to “reality test” potential solutions — these are great to try using once you feel like you’ve gotten past positions and established some rapport:
A notebook to take very high level notes in (you have to be engaging in the conversation, while capturing specific elements for when you ask your question).
A good pair of listening ears and genuine curiosity!
As you go through this work with people in conflict or outright dispute, you will begin to mine the hidden interests that will lead to common ground. This set of tools will help you do the mining that benefits everyone.
The best part is that you don’t have to be a neutral party to do this, you can be one of the disputants! By learning and practicing these tools you become an invaluable resource to any dispute — even your own.
You become an ally to working together.
Thanks for reading! If you liked what you read and found it helpful, be sure to click the heart and share the love!
If you want more tools like this, sign up for my weekly newsletter. Every week I send 1 big idea or tool that will help you work together, better.
PS. here’s some key resources I drew on for this post:
Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton is a foundation for the field of Interest Based Negotiation. Gordon Sloan and Jamie Chicanot’s training material The Practice of Negotiation: Solving Disagreement Through Skilled Discussion (2nd edition) was also extensively used to put together this post.
I believe that Sarah Schulman’s new book Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Responsibility and the Duty of Repair is an important step forward in working together through conflict. Victimhood and supremacy narratives feed off the same energy, misconstruing conflict as abuse. While I’m only part way through the book, Schulman seems to be offering some very helpful perspective shifts for people across the political and ideological spectrum. Even though divisive and partisan folk share little in the way of common interests (and have very vocal and at times narcissistic and exclusive interests), we can have shifts in perspective that will help us all accept and live with one another’s irreconcilable differences. What I’ve outlined above can help conflicting groups develop durable solutions, rooted in an exploration of common interests and collaboration on solutions. What Schulman outlines in Conflict is Not Abuse is how to live together, especially when we may never reach agreement.
Finally, interspersed throughout my time writing this, I had a listen to Robert Pogue Harrison’s interview with Philip Gourevitch on his radio show Entitled Opinions (you can also subscribe to his show as a podcast and listen that way). They talk about Gourevitch’s book on the Rwandan genocide and how unthinkable violence, once committed, is forever a human potentiality that we must learn to accept as possible so as to (hopefully) avoid in the future. I believe that learning these grim histories is a necessary task for reconciliation, and for appreciating the importance and challenging opportunity that day-to-day conflict presents us.
PPS. This piece originally appeared on Medium at The Working Together Review.
It’s 30 years in the future. Imagine that you are walking into work… no wait… imagine that your home is also your where you work. (“familiar enough” you might say, “what’s so crazy about that?”)
Because Artificial Intelligences (AIs) have so thoroughly taken over “the boring stuff” your “working” role is to help facilitate productive relationships between human and machine minds. (“ok… could happen… I’ve been reading articles about this… go on.”)
Because this sort of work is crowd-sourced from participants around the world, you really only “work” if and when you have the impulse, and inspiration to contribute. (“huh? that economy doesn’t even make sense to me!”)
There are a series of global wicked problems that you can contribute some time and effort to, and some local ones too. There are others that you haven’t unlocked yet… higher levels, so to speak, that you might one day master. It’s like a game. Or, you might contribute to creative endeavors unassociated with any wicked problems–choosing to instead work in “Centaur” formations with AIs that are programmed to accompany humans in their journey to plumb the depths of cultural expression through the traditional arts. (“ok this is getting weird… you mean I can just roll out of bed and choose whether or not to ‘work’ or to do art?”)
Today? You’re feeling inspired to contribute to the public good, so you decide to work away at some wicked problems in the domain of carbon capture technology implementation. You summon your Cynefin AI, your Bayesian AI, as well as a bunch of other experimental AIs that have developed their own type of non-human thinking that you can’t even fathom–some using quantum computing, others modeled on the thought and behavior patterns of dolphins. (“what? weirder still!”)
This little team–this “Centaur team”–presents a number of solutions, perspectives and angles to the matter at hand. As the human, your job is to make judgement calls, use your creativity and intuition, think laterally, combine solutions and elements of solutions, broker key partnerships and develop relationships, etc. The AIs of your “Centaur team” are also simultaneously presenting the same info to other “players” working on the problem. Your job, along with all the other human participants, is to come up with novel solutions, collaborations, implementation strategies, etc. All of which are aggregated and explored by all the participants according to different selection criteria–some random, some determined by AIs designed for the sole purpose of selecting.
Your job is to be human. It’s all about providing what the AIs still can’t provide–an element of surprise, creativity, love, passion, etc.–and initiating the difficult task of brokering relationships and coming to agreement with other players about how best to proceed. (“but wait, am I not just being further domesticated?… or maybe this is a good thing?… yea… we finally get the help we need to implement solutions and get traction on some stuff!… or maybe it’s terrible!? I’m so confused!”)
This is just one iota of technological possibility inspired by Kevin Kelly’s new book, The Inevitable.
Like Kevin’s other books, there is so much to think and act on–1000s of startup ideas, and social innovations, just waiting to be attempted.
In episode 18 of the Working Together Podcast, I am lucky enough to have a conversation with Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired, and author of many fascinating books on technology (of which The Inevitable is only one).
In our conversation, we barely scratch the surface of Kevin’s thinking on the past, present and future of technology, culture, and society. And yet… we still managed to cover a lot of ground. Everything from Kevin’s travels throughout Asia in the 1970s, to how the internet is the world’s biggest city, to what collaboration between 2 billion people might look like… think “Massive Open Online Collaboration”… a different kind of MOOC. 😉
How can technology help us work together, better? How can we work together, better… with technology?
Are the next thirty years of technological trends inevitable?
What kind of opportunities lie on the horizon–and right here in the present moment!–that we can start to take advantage of, today?
As it turns out, it’s less about answering the question “What do we want?” and more about answering the question: What does technology want?
“The Amish, unlike the rest of us, make their decisions about what technologies to use, collectively. So they actually have to have a discussion, a consensus… they actually have to articulate what their criteria are. Most of us haven’t really thought about what are criteria are for deciding whether we use a technology or not.”
“The time I was travelling through Asia was a very special moment. It was like a time machine. Someone like me who had very little money could travel to places that were still living many centuries earlier.”
“We have powerful tools that allow us to collaborate at a vast planetary scale. If you consider the 2 billion people on Facebook, they are collaborating at a very minimal, trivial layer of sharing gossip and cat videos. There certainly is a potential to do something like Wikipedia which is being done at the scale of millions. But imagine if 2 billion people decided to do something together–to actually collaborate on something–that would be mind bogglingly powerful. In terms of working together, I think the prospect of having even a million people work on something, all at once, is something that we have very little experience with on this planet… and it will become more and more common, as the tools make it possible, and as the global problems make it more and more necessary. I’m excited by the idea of these planetary collaborations.”
“I’m a big believer in slack and wasting time. I think it’s one of the advantages of youth. Youth can spend 50 hours on a game or spend a lot of time doing things without any productive goal in mind. Out of that slack comes an insight, or an appreciation, or an awareness, or mastery. That’s one thing that we do get from “progress”, we do have the possibility of leisure… to waste time in that way. […] Kids [today] aren’t wasting enough time. They’re over scheduled.”
“[Your life] is a landscape. You are ascending a mountain. And then you descent [and] open up into a big valley. And then you go into the woods. And then you are floating down the river […] And then you cross the valley and you have to ascend the mountains again. For a period of time, you’re just climbing, and then there’s a period of time when you are just meandering. There’s a period of time where you are exploring. There’s a period of time where you’re thrashing through the mud. It’s a landscape view of life.”
Beyond the salaried masses of 20th century bureaucracies and corporations… beyond the precarious moonlighters of the 21st century gig economy… lies the cooperative, an old answer with a new ring to it.
Cooperatives are typically founded on seven basic principles set out in 1844:
…and these principles still hold as true as ever. Today, new companies and orgs are popping up all over the globe, taking these principles to heart and applying them in new ways. The “old, reimagined anew” is a familiar theme for Working Together: as some of you know, I like to read “Social Innovation” as a not-so-new idea.
In episode 17 of the Working Together Podcast, I talk with Kayleigh Walsh of Outlandish, a UK-based digital cooperative that wants to “unleash technology’s potential to make the world a fairer, better place”. Along similar lines of Enspiral (interviewed in episode 7) Outlandish’s long-term aim is to “build a network and support services that make it easier for people working in technology to have good work and make a good living while working for social change.” Kayleigh and I talk about her experiences contributing to the cooperative, and the challenges that come with balancing autonomy and collaboration.
Outlandish is currently made up of around 20 collaborators and co-owners who “love humour, quality code, and apps that challenge the status quo.” Outlandish builds digital applications and websites for companies, charities and universities that make their lives easier and help them to discover and communicate new insights from their data. And, because Outlandish is a cooperative, they invest their surpluses into projects that matter and that make an impact (like School Cuts, a groundbreaking election campaign tool).
It’s orgs like Outlandish that inspire me… and it’s largely because they ascribe to the credo of the zebra and NOT the unicorn. 😉
“Sociocracy was introduced to facilitate consensus based decision making, and to prevent certain people from being left to make the decisions. It allows [everyone] to be accountable, because it’s based on participation. If you aren’t involved in a decision, the idea is that you are happy to not be involved in the decision (18min mark)… one of the outcomes that we aim to achieve is to put the right people in the right circles.”
“The way that meetings work… is to be in a circular formation. When it comes to making a decision, a proposal is made, and you do a round of clarifying questions, and you do another round to raise any critical concerns. If any critical concerns are raised, it means that proposal is not going to be passed.”
“It took a little while to get my head around [the cooperative model]. None of us have a fixed job role, so we’ve got a lot of freedom in to what work we do with Outlandish. The aim of it is to be valuable to Outlandish, but I don’t have a specific role as I did in my previous job… there are challenges around implicit hierarchy that emerges, and how to deal with that, and the best way to communicate, and things like that…”
What is the contemporary? How do we build and inhabit our city in a way that gels with who we are, and who we’re becoming? How do we grow and work together as a community, without stepping on each others’ toes in haste, without getting slowed down and frustrated with red tape and liability?
Episode 16 of the Working Together Podcast is a special one! It’s a recording from an event held in Victoria, BC the city I currently hail from, called Onward City. The speakers are:
This is part 2 of a wide ranging conversation about contemporary culture, public space and the forces that shape a city hosted by friend and collaborator Caleb Beyers of Caste Projects. (for part 1, listen here)
“You tread a careful line between neoliberalistic “let’s business control the world” [approach, and the approach] of leaving room for creativity and innovation in a city… from a city’s point of view, it’s really challenging to legislate right in that perfect zone… How do you create those spaces? Allow access for entrepreneurship at the ground level… If we don’t have spaces like that then we won’t see that groundswell of entrepreneurship to give people those entry points, to create those spaces, to create great cities, to invest in public space…” – Jill Doucette, Synergy Enterprises
“The cities and the places that are the most vibrant and the most exciting, are ones where people feel like they can do something–whether it is fixing things or taking on whatever activity [they want to]. At Open Space, we’re always looking for things, or things sometimes come to us, that by normal standards of what constitutes contemporary art, [are] a little bit funny… When I first moved here from Saskatchewan, I thought I knew everything about snow and ice, but the first time it snowed here, I realized that no, I don’t know anything about snow!… There’s this phenomena [here in Victoria] called the “snow day”. And on snow days, you get to see incredible activity here: I saw somebody trying to clean their driveway off with a leaf blower…[people] get their kayaks out and they start to go down the inclines on the kayaks. Everybody is witnessing this, and there’s a certain kind of creative energy circulating in the city because of that. There’s all kind of things that occur, or happen, or are instigated in the most casual and wacky ways here, that are largely under the radar. And it’s such a beautiful thing to be able to participate in that. I don’t know if you can legislate that.” – Helen Marzolf, Open Space
“Providing people with a sense of ownership is a great thing… If you feel that you own your existence, and you own your destiny and you own your time on earth, you’re going to feel more creative and more able to live in your habitat.” – Craig Dykers, Snøhetta
“I think the concept of critical mass is a really important one… the way that cities and the business community grow from being a place of shopkeepers to a place of strong entrepreneurship… is the ability to scale and creating some of the infrastructure [for this]… Cultural production is the same, we need to think about what the ecosystem is within our particular community that allows cultural production to occur.” – Jonathan Tinney, City of Victoria
“When I’m working in my studio, I can tinker, I can draw, I can make models, I can do whatever, because I know that they’re only ever going to exist there in my mind. When I start thinking about how to get them out into the world and how to make things happen… it almost feels like it’s too unwieldy and chaotic.” – Caleb Beyers, Caste Projects
“Inclusion and accessibility for families and kids [is important]… I’m thinking about festivals that have popped up in Victoria… over the years the city has started to allow drinking next to kids… it’s OK to have a beer, or however many, i.e. “you be the parent you know what you can do”, and kids are allowed to be in the space where adults drink, whereas before there was a big fence… and my kids have had glorious times at these events, where otherwise they wouldn’t have got to rock out with Courtney Love.” – Whitney Davis, Librarian
This event and podcast were made possible with support from:
What is the contemporary? How do we build and inhabit our city in a way that gels with who we are, and who we’re becoming? How do we grow and work together as a community, without stepping on each others’ toes in haste, without getting slowed down and frustrated with red tape and liability?
Episode 15 of the Working Together Podcast is a special one! It’s a recording from an event held in Victoria, BC the city I currently hail from, called Onward City. The speakers are:
This is part 1 of a wide ranging conversation about contemporary culture, public space and the forces that shape a city hosted by friend and collaborator Caleb Beyers of Caste Projects. (for part 2, listen here)
“We are all deaf and mute to the language of objects…” – Craig Dykers, Snøhetta
“When people say to me ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you have four kids, and you live in a 400 square foot house, and you have jobs, and your husband builds, and he’s doing this and that on the side, and you have one hot plate and a toaster oven to cook with right now for six people…’ I say ‘let me tell you about what my parents were doing at this time’…. Firsthand I know how little we need.” – Whitney Davis, Librarian
“Nowadays there’s all this structure to entrepreneurship: you do a business plan, there’s courses you can take, you get to an ‘incubator’, an ‘accelerator’, and mentors and coaches. But at [my parent’s time] you just make it happen if you can, and you face a lot of failure.” – Jill Doucette, Synergy Enterprises
“I remember once, when I was younger, the Gardener Dam was being built on the Saskatchewan river, and I remember going to this site where all the engineers lived… there was this suburb in the middle of the prairies, and I just thought ‘Oh maybe that’ll happen on our farm!'” It was so bizarre to see this. I mean, nothing was paved in those days and it had curves and sidewalks and houses… it was unreal.” – Helen Marzolf, Open Space
I see design working in the moment. And if it doesn’t work in the moment… and it’s either too much related to the past, or too much of an expression of the future, then it’s not about us, it’s about an intellectual exercise or theoretical understanding of who we are.” – Craig Dykers, Snøhetta
“The past I think is always with us, whether it’s the ghost at the side that effects how you might think about [art], because we all bring that to what we see in contemporary art, or experimental music, or performance art, or new dance, or whatever. I think it’s there and often unrecognized because we live in an amnesiac society… we forget and suppress.” – Helen Marzolf, Open Space
“What troubles me… is the editing of your life. The way that you can parse down the interactions that you have with the outside world to only those things that fit your particular viewpoint. I think that’s a challenge. We’re not getting the collective experience where we meet the next day at work and have a discussion about what happened on The National or on Hockey Night in Canada. So, it puts more emphasis on the real world to create collective experiences… When we think about the city and when we think about the way we design things and when we think about public spaces… and so opportunities, whether they are the big festival that happens every summer within your town that helps to bring people together or the little five minute, call them “urban bathroom breaks” where you can interact with other people and create a collective experience in a face-to-face situation… I think these just become more and more important.” – Jonathan Tinney, City of Victoria
“We don’t allow for too much professional judgement in the world, so if you’re an intelligent person, and you’ve studied engineering and you look at this thing and say “yeah this can work”, but you work inside the building department, you’re not allowed to say that because it’s not legally quantifiable.” – Craig Dykers, Snøhetta
And so much more!
This event and podcast were made possible with support from:
This is for anyone who is trying to create something.
This is for the artist who is trying to develop his body of work and share it with the world.
This is for the program director at a non-profit who is trying to create an innovative program to address an unmet need in her community.
This is for the business executive who is trying to create a new product line in their company.
This is for the bootstrap entrepreneur who, like me, is trying to create something of value from scratch.
If you have felt the uncertainty, depression, anxiety, fear, loathing, etc. along your journey, then this is for you.
If you have (supposedly) never wrestled with the negativity that comes with creating something, then this is especially for you! (stop lying to yourself!)
Episode 14 of the Working Together Podcast gives you a powerful tool to help you transform reality into your vision, Personal Mastery.
Personal mastery has two foundational practices:
“Creative Tension” is the gap between your personal vision and your current reality—it is generated the moment that you see your personal vision as something that lies beyond your current reality.
These lessons have transformed my life. Have a listen to the episode to learn about how personal mastery and creative tension can transform yours.
Is Design Thinking becoming more about thinking than design? Management by post-its?
As I’ve argued in previous blog posts, and in episode #8 of the Working Together Podcast, the cargo cult versions of design thinking (i.e. “post-it design”) tend to become polite, facilitated conversations around a table, but miss what the field of design itself has to offer.
How can we push for a more interventionist approach, instead of an analytical approach, to design thinking?
In episode #13, I talk with Christian Bason, CEO of the Danish Design Centre, and ex-director of the Danish cross-governmental innovation team, MindLab. We talk about how our changing world economy demands a new form of public and customer engagement… an approach to problem solving centred around co-creation and co-production… an approach that leans heavily on design practices to help shape solutions… literally. We also talk about prototypes so big that you can walk into them, minimum viable interventions, the six leadership engagements with design, and so much more!
Along with his work with the Danish Design Centre, Christian Bason is also the CEO of Design Society, a foundation which is the parent company of the Danish Design Center, INDEX: Design to Improve Life, Danish Fashion Institute and Copenhagen Fashion Week.
From 2007 to 2014, he was the Director of MindLab, the Danish cross-governmental innovation team. Prior to this he was a consultant and business manager with the international advisory group Ramboll, heading the organization and management practice. Christian is the author of multiple books on innovation and design in government, including Leading Public Design: Discovering Human-Centred Governance (2017), Design for Policy (2014) and Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society (2010).
“Those two games, the one being how is the world economy changing, on the one hand, and… how is public governance changing to become more impactful… those two are really what we are working with and that is the context within which we are trying to make a difference.”
Massive shifts in the world economy towards automation, digitization, etc. on the one hand, and emerging innovations in public governance drive the Danish Design Centre’s work. The first big change creates a reactive approach, the other necessitates a proactive one, since our tendency will always be to develop solutions within conventional structures of governance. What if instead of designing solutions within a traditional framework of public engagement and governance, we designed solutions within a new framework, using the tools of design? (This is a theme that’s come up a few times on the podcast: here, here and here.)
“If we keep… increasing the expenditure on pharmaceuticals in the healthcare sector in Denmark, by 2050 we will be spending the entire national [healthcare] budget on pharmaceuticals, there will be nothing left for buildings, for staff, for hospital beds, nothing. It will all be spent on pharmaceuticals […] so we’re creating a handful of scenarios and co-designing them together with the [health] sector across major healthcare companies, policy makers, and two major hospitals. Then we are taking those abstract, future, wild future scenarios and building them into shipping containers… we are simply creating experiences where decision makers, healthcare companies, pharmaceuticals, medical device companies, startups, digital firms of any scale, can explore possible futures of health, and then they can engage with each other, engage with citizens, and begin to have conversations about future solutions, products, services, business models, new markets, new governance, whatever […] and that is for us, a prototype.”
Prototypes of future scenarios that you can walk into and experience–like a mini World’s Fair! This “walkable prototype” approach can help participants understand policy drivers and forces and market drivers and forces that impact the sector as a whole. They create a space for all the right people to “ideate” together, which helps break down silos between everyone and open-up the solution space.
“Nothing worth doing is easy.”
To illustrate a point about wading into a fraught and conflict-ridden problem space, I paraphrased a Theodore Roosevelt quote which actually goes like this:
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
I love this idea of the minimum intervention–what you could maybe call a “minimum viable intervention”. Just enough of a taste of the design process to get potential partners and clients thinking: “hey, this could really help us collaborate and create something more impactful than our business-as-usual approach!”
“We’re trying to find the minimum intervention, the minimum offering that we can come with that creates a transformative experience for leaders [about] what design can do. What’s the minimum we can put out into the world in workshops, seminars, conferences, and one-on-one, where we really distill and provide an experience of what design might do, and a reflection around that. And from that touchpoint, we are working very hard to find ways to map potential transformation journeys that these organizations, and leaders within them could take.”
In terms of a working “minimum viable intervention”, I really liked what Christian had to say about the six leadership engagements with design–two for each theme: exploring, ideating, and prototyping.
Under the theme of exploring the problem space we challenge assumptions, and leverage empathy. Under the theme of ideating and generating alternative scenarios, we open ourselves up to different perspectives, and navigate this unknown space through research and analysis.
These first four are fairly comfortable terrain, and form the backbone of any good research and analysis effort. But we need to move past this comfort zone and we can do that by integrating design practices into our work.
The last theme–prototyping and enacting new practices–involves using design practices to help make the future tangible and concrete, and insisting on value creation as part of this process to ensure that the results achieved are practical to those we are designing solutions for.
Have a listen to here more!
Theatre is more than just a form of live entertainment. When theatre is applied–to education, social justice and social change, community building efforts, conflict, disaster relief, and so on–the power of its technique and its content can transform our social relationships for the better. This is Applied Theatre.
Usually coming in the form of participatory theatre created by people who would not usually make theatre, Applied Theatre can be scripted or improvisational. It combines the use of the participant’s indigenous knowledge and practice with the toolkit of drama and theatre: myths, plays, devised performances, dramatic technique, and so on.
In the 12th episode of the Working Together Podcast, I have a fascinating conversation with Dr. Warwick Dobson who is the University Scholar in Applied Theatre at the University of Victoria. We talk about reminiscence and intergenerational theatre, how to throw your plan out the window and improvise, how myth can be used to help a community better understand it’s shared past, and so much more. Dramatic technique, it turns out, is a vast storehouse of content and approaches that can be used to facilitate working together, no matter the context.
I believe that Applied Theatre, or Community Theatre for some, is an under-recognized social innovation. And as I am wont do do, I like to read Social Innovation quite broadly. It’s not just about some sort of feel-good, do-good, “socially” and “environmentally” innovative thing in the for-profit, non-profit, NGO, or government sectors. Buy one shoe, give one shoe, and so on. I’m (mostly) on board with Robin Murray, Julie Caulier-Grice and Geoff Mulgan’s definition:
“…new ideas that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations… innovations that are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act” (The Open Book of Social Innovation, p. 3).
I say “mostly” because there’s nothing new about these ideas. Sure, they can be considered new combinations of old ideas, but that’s splitting hairs a bit. Social Innovations are ideas as old as the hills. Nothing illustrates this better than my conversation with Warwick about how acting and performance can help a community gain perspective on their world. By becoming someone who you aren’t, or by re-enacting intense memories that you and your community share, the present and past are defamiliarized. A group of people, once bound by the conventions of the quotidian, are now a group of performers and participants undergoing group therapy, using ancient myth, fairytales and folklore as a wedge to open up possibilities for social change. Perhaps this is a new thing, but perhaps this is also just what good theatre has always been.
“Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, who was condemned to spend six months of the year in the underworld and six months of the year with her mother… she has to transition all the time… back and forth…”
What does transition between two worlds mean? What does condemnation mean?
Therapy is modern. It’s about singular and individual experience in conversation and analysis with the therapist. Of course, I’m ignoring Catholicism’s long history of confession, the Zen Koan and a whole bunch of other non-modern and non-contemporary forms of one-on-one “counsel”. But you get my point.
To take my oversimplification further, myth and theatre are premodern. They’re about a story that we play out together. They tell us something about our past, present and future together. They incite social change by holding up a mirror. They reflect the community as it always has been, as it is now, as it could be in the future. They are not movies. And it may not even be possible to experience theatre in it’s pre-modern mode… we are now all hopelessly enmeshed in the conventions of “movie-goers”.
Applied theatre is therapeutic for a community or a group, because it helps us shed our conventions around entertainment (to sit as an individual and watch). It helps us experience and enact the story as commentary, reflection, sense making, and so on. Instead of being entertained and watching, we perform, participate, observe and reflect. The myth of Persephone becomes closer to myth in the premodern key. The exact opposite of a hyped-up, CGI overwrought, Hollywood Blockbuster version of Persephone.
“[Teacher in role is] where the teacher steps in and out of the drama in terms of their role… [for example] we’re doing a drama about Cinderella. I set up a series of conventions which helps to establish the household within which Cinderella lives and works, and I take on the role of the lord chamberlain of the household. Not the head of the household, I’m not the duke, I’m someone that’s in the middle. The idea is that I can step in and out of the role, if I need the role of the chamberlain, I can do it. If I’m orchestrating the different elements of the workshop, I can do that too…. I use students in role as part of the workshop as well.”
I love this notion of the middle role, and how it offers the ability to flip from participation to orchestration. The middle enables the meta. The middle reveals the conventions that come with hierarchy, both to the middle role and to the participants when the middle becomes the orchestrator.
I think that facilitative leadership is easier to achieve from the middle role than from the top. But even if you are at the top of a hierarchy, you can practice facilitative leadership by empowering someone in the middle to use “teacher in role”.
This can be done easily at special events and workshops, but how can it be done on a day-to-day basis?
How can organizations create roles that enable meta-analysis and meta-action?
“You constantly need to be reading the group. You need to be keeping field notes. You need to be noting down: “they seem comfortable with these kinds of activities, they weren’t quite prepared to make that leap yet, etc.” […] you have to know what approaches you’re going to try. You have to be aware that they’re not all going to work. And one of the things that you always need to be able to do is change direction… throw the plan out the window.”
Again, advice that is broadly applicable to many instances of working together. What would it mean to think like a theatre director when engaging a group of folks? What would it mean to practice similar conventions as a facilitative leader?
“What are you going to leave behind? What’s your exit strategy? You can go in there and do you workshops… but what happens when you leave? What happens then? Do you leave something behind that is a reminder and an impetus to continue? So, one of the things you always need to bear in mind is what your exist strategy is.”
So many initiatives are one-off because capacity building was not taken seriously. Whenever we are doing engagement work with communities, there needs to be an exit strategy. Some strategy or approach, agreed to by all the parties, that leaves behind something more than an experience. One’s informants and collaborators need to undergo a metamorphosis: they need to become the theatre director or identify who in the community is best suited to carry forward the work.
As you can guess, I’m fascinated with what happens when you bring a diverse group of people together to solve problems. Think of the model of the work party, the barn raising, the “talkoot”, and apply it to deliberative democratic practice–whether at work or in your community. Working Together is all about this kind of creative group problem solving.
But what happens when you combine this barn-raising sensibility with art and design? Not just the ideas and concepts of art and design, but with actual doodling and drawing?
You get a Design Charrette.
So, in the 11th episode of the Working Together Podcast, I have a conversation with Patrick Condon who has over 25 years of experience in sustainable urban design: first as a professional city planner and then as a teacher and researcher. And who also happens to have written an excellent book on the subject called Design Charrettes for Sustainable Communities.
On the first page of that book he defines what a Design Charrette is: “a time-limited, multi-party design event organized to generate a collaboratively produced plan for a sustainable community.” He goes on later to say that:
“To be worthy of the name, a design charrette must elevate the contradictions inherent in the divergent questions confronted in our drive toward a more sustainable city to a level higher than “logic” or “proof”–it must create an atmosphere in which contradictions can be resolved not by proofs, but by empathy, intuition, understanding, and compassion. Elevating and resolving these contradictions through the agency of empathy, understanding, and compassion is not something you do alone. You do this with others.” (p. 12)
When I asked Patrick what a Design Charrette is, he gave me a pretty funny (accurate) definition…
“When you ask a bunch of people who don’t really like each other very much to work on an impossibly complex problem, and to do it all in a ridiculously short amount of time.”
It’s not possible to just use data, pure reason, professional expertise, and so on to deal with wicked problems. You need to move past “linear methodologies” and “one at a time problems” and bring people together to develop a collective answer…
“We admit that we’re not going to be able to come up with a perfect answer, but we suspect that by all of us working together we’ll come up with a good answer. An answer that’s better than these supposed answers from these speciality areas that have been proven not work. We expect that by working at this table for awhile, we can come up with a better answer than that. It operates on the faith in human capacity–partly informed by the intuitive dynamic of collaboration–to come up with a good solution. And it’s not going to a be a solution that you are able to prove is perfect. But the consensus conclusion that it’s a good conclusion and that we should move forward, is what a Charrette produces…”
Everyone has a stake in their neighbourhood. Some people are more interested than others in their stake. What becomes important for Charrette participants, is to see past the “cartoon image” of their fellow participants. To see the human beneath the caricature:
“People come to the table seeing each other, not as actual human beings, but rather as cartoon representations of their stake–whether it’s the fire chief, or the developer, or the politician, or the neighbour, or the guy who really loves to fish in the stream…”
Talk. Doodle. Draw. The three stages of the Design Charrette. For Patrick, the doodle stage is the most important stage in the process, as its where the non-designer participant gets to make his or her mark of political and personal efficacy…
“Everybody has to design, and if you fail in this mission of making everybody a designer, there’s going to be a distance between the stakeholders and the designers at the end of it. Their commitment to [the design] will only be partial. You really have to legitimately inculcate in them the feeling, through their experience, that they are designers. That’s why it’s critical that you hand the pen over to them and say “do you mean here?” And everybody has to scribble… and its really an ugly drawing, and its the most beautiful drawing in the whole Charrette process, because its the mark of their participation.”
Before the actual Charrette comes months and months of analysis, the necessary policy and context research required to prepare the design brief–which is really a series of constraints upon the Charrette process itself…
“[The Charrette] is like an iceberg, only a small part of it shows up above the surface of the water. There’s tons of time putting together the coalition, assembling the database… we spend a lot of time distilling what we call “the policy pile” down into a few pages. Any urban area that we work with has a ton of policy constraints, engineering constraints, legal constraints that influence what happens on the site. You can’t ignore that. If you just go in with a blank page, or a blue sky thing… that’s a recipe for failure.”
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:
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.”
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…
“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?
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 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:
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)
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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 Magic; Made 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.
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:
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 Designs, 48).
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.
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:
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!
(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.)
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!
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)
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.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!
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.
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:
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:
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.
This is the second 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 before tackling Session 2. Where Session 1 of Resolutions that Stick dives deep and comes at the bigger picture, Session 2 gets a little more detailed and comes at the nitty gritty day-to-day. Where Session 1 could actually be scheduled into your calendar as a kind of vision quest, Session 2 will take multiple shorter sessions, spread-out over days and weeks. There’s just so much detail that gets uncovered here, that you will want to break-up the work: trying to define and refine your buckets, projects, actions, and when you are closest to them (i.e. planning and thinking about family matters during the weekend, work matters during the work week, and side projects during the early-morning or evening hours).
As I’ve said before, the only certainty that we have is that death can come swiftly, and unexpectedly. That death is rarely planned, and so on. For those who don’t plan and contemplate their suicide, the closest we may get to a plan is a gloomy prognosis from a doctor.
As a result, you don’t know if your purposeful work on this earth will be stopped short. Ultimately some of your buckets will be filled with work that will remain unfinished when you die.
Because of this, I think that the term “bucket list” is wrongly used. Because we don’t know when we will die, every list of projects (part 5) and actions (part 6) that we need or want to finish, is part of a bucket list (i.e. as in “before ‘I kick the bucket'”). The list of grand adventures, vacations, and accomplishments (what we commonly refer to as the bucket list) actually belongs with your visions and dreams back in Session 1.
So, I use the word “buckets” instead of containers or themes or “areas of focus and responsibility” (as David Allen does), because I want the sense of urgency to be palpable: everything category of projects and actions that you need or want to do, must happen before you die.
David Allen barely gets at this existential anxiety when he defines “areas of focus and responsibility” as:
“Important spheres of work and life to be maintained at standards to ‘keep the engines running.'” (David Allen, Making it All Work, 298)
This is confusing because the only thing “keeping the engines running” is our continued existence, not our “areas of focus and responsibility”. Everything else is the work, creation, effort, and so on, that we want to complete before we stop existing–before we “kick the bucket”.
Further still, by thinking of the good work that you need and want to do in terms of fuel–the implicit gasoline metaphor behind “keep the engines running”–your work is framed as feedstock that continuously powers an engine. There is no prioritization of what needs to be done. Just feed the engine with a steady supply of busywork and go.
If instead you think of these spheres as bucket lists, then this will help you better prioritize what goes into them, when, how and why. You can never fully escape busywork, but you can be smart about how much of your precious time you spend doing, delegating, deferring or deleting busywork.
By thinking of the spheres of your work and life as something that can and will end, you will invariably seek to find your greater purpose in all that you do, AKA the meaning of your life:
“Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.” (Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 98-99)
So, with Frankl’s fine words in mind, some questions:
These are the outcomes that have to happen to achieve your goals, but they require a bunch of different actions (usually phased over a span of time). Project Management International’s (PMI) definition of a project is helpful here: “a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.” And they go on:
“A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal.”
Many of us are familiar with projects. But to give you an example, I could have a project in my “podcast” bucket, for instance, that is geared towards finding and working with a co-curator to develop a season of podcast episodes on a certain topic. Projects take a specific amount of time and coordination, and there’s a bunch of different actions associated with them.
For the kind of planning work that we are doing in these posts, I would suggest avoiding using actual project management tools. Save it for later if you need to. Instead, as a loose start I would mind-map some of my projects in a notebook using some questions from David Allen’s Natural Planning Model. Even if you don’t actually mind map this, you usually either consciously or unconsciously consider:
This is your to-do list. Some of these actions are associated with a project, others are stand-alone. This is what you can do, right now, to get something done. To be sure that you’ve thought something through sufficiently enough to act on it, David Allen argues that you need to be able to answer these three questions:
“What has to happen first?
What does doing look like?
Where does it happen?” (Allen, 174)
If you can’t answer this, you have to rethink your work. David Allen is at his best when it comes to the concept of Next Actions:
“Identifying the next action runs neck and neck with defining the desired outcome in terms of generating value in a given situation. But if I had to choose between those two questions that would be the most effective in increasing productivity [‘what’s the next action vs. what’s the desired outcome?’], I’d unhesitatingly pick “What’s the next action?”
Why? Because I’ve seen too many people come up with a confident response to what they’re trying to achieve, but have the whole effort falter because of a lack of clarity in what, specifically, to do about it. When. on the other hand, someone takes the responsibility to determine the next action a project, he will almost without fail begin to bump his focus upward and integrate that thinking into the higher levels of his commitments. Whats the next step? Yeah, but in order to do that, we need to decide if… Oh yeah, that brings up the key issue about whether we’re actually going to… and so on.
… Grappling with the answer to that question occasionally surfaces very fertile issues at higher horizons that often need to be dealt with, and often that’s the only way we can actually start to identify and confront them.” (Allen, pp. 174-175)
It seems that iteration is built into this process, for once we arrive at the finest level of detail, we find ourselves going back to Session 1 to refine and clarify further.
So, since it bears repeating, the question to ask yourself here is:
If you’ve come this far, you may find yourself saying “this is all well and good, Mr. Morales, but it seems like a lot of work. How am I supposed to make any of this actually stick? How am I supposed to execute all this… especially when I am at my worst?”
Stay tuned to Session 3, where we tackle these questions. Because for all the well intentioned planning, and personal organizing, the rubber hits the road in that moment when, after a heavy lunch, you sleepily stare at your computer screen and (if you’re lucky) ask yourself “should I check my Facebook notifications, or should I do what I know needs to be done?” If you’re unlucky? You don’t even think about your choice: you just find yourself on the other end of a distraction timewarp wondering how you got to 4PM.
If you are just jumping-in, go here for a starter. This is the first session of three that will help you make resolutions that stick.
Let’s be honest. Wading through productivity books like David Allen’s Getting Things Done is boring. Better stated, it feels like an incredibly adult thing to do. If you don’t normally read these kind of books, you might find yourself thinking “Look at me reading about getting my shit together! I’m being so responsible right now!” Whether its imposter syndrome, or just your inner child trying to give you a few slaps across the face, I agree with David Whyte when he calls this sentiment “false maturity”:
“In my early teens, I had looked around at the strange world of adults and saw with a kind of horror that almost all of them seemed to be preoccupied with the details of life in such a way that they had lost sight of the greater picture. Adults seemed to have forgotten basic elemental and joyful relationships with clouds or horizons or grass that seemed necessary to be a full participant in the creation I saw around me. This form of false maturity, this slow forgetting, was late in coming to me but I had fallen for it at last and it was now beginning to smother me.
…In fact my whole approach to work had become commoditized. No longer a pursuit but a kind of defensive stasis, things bargained back and forth at the outer edge with very little transacting at the center.
In my reverie over the page, I remembered the years of hard slog in sciences that got me to the Galapagos, and in particular I remembered a marine zoology professor at Bangor University in Wales who had looked at me in horror when I told him I had taken up diving. He thought it quite touching but almost unsporting to actually go down there and see the living versions of things he saw mostly under a microscope. I had walked away shaking my head; laughing to myself; but in my recent approach to work I was fast becoming a newly minted version of him.” (David Whyte, The Three Marriages, pp. 130-131)
In this moment, David was struggling to rediscover the very reason for why he became a marine zoologist:
“…I started to get close to something at the very heart of what had brought me into the field in the first place, something that had been of overwhelming importance to me as a young boy: a visceral sense of empathy with creatures and worlds that were not my own.” (Whyte, 129)
Getting clear on your purpose, and your core values and principles is impeded by your false maturity. Unfortunately, the well-meaning work of productivity authors like David Allen reinforces this mentality of false maturity.
So, like David Whyte, uncovering and clarifying one’s purpose requires you to dive deep. You have to do this kind of work before you can appreciate the meaning of the bench top work you will later do with finer instruments and dead specimens. This kind of work requires your childhood wonder and naive purpose. Psychedelics help for much of what will go on in this first session, but if you’re in your dad years like me, the occasional dérive or flânerie works too (aided, of course, by a few drams of whiskey and a good companion)!
Here are some basic questions to start you off:
Walk, journal, repeat.
Imagine a future where you are living and working in alignment with your purpose and your core values and beliefs. Continuing on the psychedelic theme, think of this as a vision quest: all of your senses should be employed. Remember, you are looking for a future where things transact at your center… your heart. Don’t just write it down. Close your eyes and imagine it. What does it taste like… feel like… look like… sound like? Go to a place that shares an affinity with this vision, immerse yourself in it (see dérive or flânerie above).
Here are some more questions you can ask yourself:
In the 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss writes about “Dreamlining” and he has some helpful templates online to help you do it (an example of a Dreamline can be found here). You can drill down and determine your “Target Monthly Income” (TMI) for your dreams in part 3 below. For now, stay high level with some of his prompts for envisioning your dreams:
“What would you do if there were no way you could fail? If you were 10 times smarter than the rest of the world?…What are the four dreams that would change it all?”
Goals describe the destination, objectives are a measure of the progress needed to get there (this distinction is important). Also, don’t focus on too many goals! Keep the number of your current “working goals” small, and try framing them in a “Positive, Immediate, Concrete, Specific (PICS)” format:
- Positive refers to motivation–your goal should be something you move toward, not away from. Goals like “I don’t want to be fat anymore” are a recipe for threat lockdown–you’re reinforcing the negative instead of using reinterpretation to change your mind’s prediction to get excited about improving. For best results, eliminate conflicts first, then move toward what you want to achieve.
- Immediate refers to time scale: your goals should be things that you decide to make progress on now, not “someday” or “eventually.” If you don’t want to commit to working on a particular goal now , put it on your someday/maybe list.
- Concrete means you’re able to see the results in the real world. Goals are achievements–you should know when you’ve accomplished what you set out to achieve. Setting goals like “I want to be happy” won’t work because they’re not concrete–how would you know when you’re done? When you reach the top of mount Everest, you’ve achieved something concrete in the real world–that’s concrete.
- Specific means you’re able to define exactly what, when, and where you’re going to achieve your goal. Climbing Mount Everest on a certain date in the near future is specific, which makes it easy for your mind to plan exactly how you’ll go about accomplishing it (Josh Kaufman, The Personal MBA, pp. 263-264).
Finally, set some fears. Watch this quick clip of Tim Ferriss describing how to do this:
“Fear setting” is an important counterbalance to goal setting, because let’s face it: we can be as positive as we want with our PICS goals, beneath our conscious rationalization of all things happy is a deep and murky sea of fear.
As I recall from my post-structuralist studies of Deleuze and Guattari, and training in Vippassana meditation, desire is a two-way street: there’s your desire to attain what you want, and there’s your desire to avoid what you don’t. The latter desire is often so potent that we “don’t even want to go there” and never actually go deep on our fears. If you are afraid to even “go there”, you could start by asking yourself: “what’s the worst that can happen if I go deep on my fears?” (and you will have already started!)
Again with the questions!
Now, move onto Session 2… where we’ll get closer to the everyday matters of “buckets”, projects, and actions.
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.
A couple of weeks after that burst of motivation (maybe a month later if you’re lucky), you start to falter. If there was a daily routine involved (and there usually is) you might miss a day here or there at first. Eventually a few missed days morph into a week… and then a month! Slowly but surely you get completely derailed from your original plan.
Every year during the week between Christmas and New Years, I find myself reflecting on the past year and planning the next one. Inspiration and motivation seems to be in the air. I crack the journal, set some solid intentions and venture forth into my new bright future (supposedly).
Lo and behold, a few weeks later (maybe a month or two if I’m lucky), I find myself completely off track.
And then I find myself asking questions: what happened to my motivation? Why can’t I achieve my goals? How do I firmly establish new habits and routines to take the actions I know I need to take? How do I become more self-disciplined?
Over the years I’ve experimented with a number of approaches to this conundrum, and today I’d like to put them all together for you into a “system” you can try out when the motivation strikes you, and in the days that follow from this flash of insight. Whether that time is at the start of the new year, your birthday, at a major life transition, or whatever. I, for one, aim to crack the spine on these pages of my journal every quarter: it keeps my thinking fresh and more adaptive to life’s varied circumstances. That being said, some of the exercises below are special and shouldn’t be repeated mechanically.
But why do all of this? It seems very self-centred. How does this tie-in with the challenges of working together and solving problems with groups of people? Well, aside from your own mental clarity that comes with the work of reflection and planning, there is also power:
“If you don’t have a plan, your actions will be determined by someone else. By refusing to make the effort to move in the direction you think is best, you’re ceding Power to those who do have plans.” (Josh Kaufman, The Personal MBA, 309 and in part, here).
Having a plan doesn’t mean that you are calculated and manipulative, but it does mean that you are venturing forth into your day from a place of power. Just like Carlos Castaneda described his tortured experiences finding his “spot” on Don Juan’s porch at the start of his initiation, the sessions below help you work outwards from a place of power and strength. Which is another way of saying from a place where you are not weak and fatigued. Coming at your life and work from a neutral or strong position gives you calm and purposeful strategy and tactics, as opposed to stressful and chaotic “hair on fire” busywork.
Let’s begin with a few suggestions/ground rules:
Now, go forth, dear reader!
As part of my ongoing quest to defamiliarize the everyday, I would like to present a short Christmas “story”.
This is a special little post to remind us of the historical depth of social innovation, or put another way, of our social inventiveness.
I believe that social innovation is older than we think. In fact, it’s ancient, and we have about 12,017 years of global human history (if not more) of humans coming up with new social practices to deal with all manner of problems and opportunities.
To wit, if you haven’t seen this video yet, it’s worth checking out. It will defamiliarize the calendar for you:
But I digress (just a bit).
To the Christmas “story”!
As we’ve experienced in the northern hemisphere, since June, the sun’s arc across the sky has been steadily dropping lower and becoming shorter. The reverse has been happening in the southern hemisphere. On December 22nd, the sun reached its lowest possible arc (as far as we northern moderns are concerned).
In fact, the sun gets so low that in the few days surrounding the solstice it appears to rise and set in the same place. This is why etymologically, the origin of the word solstice comes from Latin phrasing, meaning “sun stands still” or “sun stand.”
For our ancestors, either using the naked eye, or ancient astronomical instruments (like the one pictured above at Stonehenge) the solstice would go on for more than a day. This is why the festival of Saturnalia, for instance, would go on for about a week during winter solstice.
While we don’t know with absolute certainty the origin of the diverse and myriad winter solstice celebrations around the globe (in some cases, like the Saturnalia, our ancestors celebrated hard), we can surmise their importance:
People were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months”. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.
Feast before famine. Empty your stores to show your appreciation for the renewal of the year. Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.
While we don’t know for sure, we can imagine that these celebrations had their origin in a shared anxiety. There must have been some uncertainty as to whether or not our days were going to continue to shorten, and for how long. An ancient fear, perhaps, that the sun would continue to fall, never to return unless we humans intervened with “anxious vigil or antic celebration.”
How we dealt with this anxiety was through the celebration. Our ancestors’ social inventiveness lay in their ability to come together and have a good party.
Today, we know that every year the sun will come back (unless the earth is knocked off of it’s current axial tilt or orbit!). But the celebration remains.
For our modern capitalist version, we’ve intensified the “feast” and extended it well-beyond the agricultural ambit. We give all sorts of gifts, spending our money and supposedly stimulating the economy through our intensified exchange. This is the economic inventiveness that has sprung up around the winter solstice.
But instead of the fever pitch of shopping, what better time to really show your support for the sun and all that it does for our lowly little planet, than by having your own little Saturnalia? Let us re-invent our traditions, come together, and have a good time!
PS. I was first exposed to some of the ancient astronomical origins of Christmas in a fascinating “Physics for Non-Physics Students” class that I took in university many years ago–taught by Arif Babul.
I talk with Anne Cooper, who told me the story behind Revelstoke’s extraordinary success with early childhood programming, which has transformed elementary, middle and high-school literacy and drop-out rates for the better. We talked about the importance of unrealistic goals, and how to successfully develop partnerships across diverse organizations. Anne is the retired superintendent of School District No. 19 in Revelstoke, British Columbia, Canada.
When Anne arrived in 1999 in Revelstoke, BC, the community was concerned about the quality of secondary school education: 64% of children were graduating from high-school, and many children were dropping-out in grade 10 (primarily because of reading and behavioural issues). Anne, along with others in the education community, started a literacy committee to try to solve the problem. And in 2002, the community started piloting the Early Development Instrument (EDI) and began work on the “Success by 6” program. It was at this point that two parallel tracks met: the literacy committee, struggling to understand how to send more capable children into high school (starting in Kindergarten), and Success By 6 and the EDI, supporting families and children from birth through to kindergarten.
Today, the community of Revelstoke is guided by a Children’s Charter and an Early Childhood Dev. Strategic Plan with an inspiring guiding vision, where “Revelstoke envisions a caring community that acknowledges, values and supports the shared responsibility of investing in young children so that they may live, learn, play and dream in safe and healthy surroundings.”
Anne has been an instrumental force in the establishment of Revelstoke as the most successful school district in the Province of BC… and she continues to strive to make Revelstoke a truly family friendly city. As Anne puts it “if you are looking out for your children, living in Revelstoke will make a difference for your children, there’s no doubt.”
Earlier this year I spoke with author David Leach and learned some fascinating lessons from the complex history of the Kibbutz–lessons that really pushed me to rethink what community and coexistence can mean.
David Leach is the author of Chasing Utopia: the Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel and chair of the University of Victoria writing department. During our conversation we explored David’s experiences on Kibbutz Shamir, where he volunteered in the late 1980s, and where he returned in the late 2000s to discover that the entire communal movement in Israel—and the nation itself—had radically transformed. Our conversation touched on urban design, gender and equality, Zionism, tea kettles, and I learned that “to be a good kibbutznik, you have to be a good ‘kibitzer’”.
David’s humour articles, profiles, reviews, investigative journalism, columns, memoirs and travelogues have appeared in national and international publications, including The Globe & Mail, The National Post, TIME Canada, Reader’s Digest, THIS Magazine, Canadian Geographic, Today’s Parent and Communities. Along with Chasing Utopia: the Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel, David has also written Fatal Tide: When the Race of a Lifetime Goes Wrong.
Over the next few posts, I’m going to make some distinctions between a few basic approaches to design. You can think of these approaches as dispositions or attitudes that one can take to problem solving. These are meant to be really simple distinctions to help organize one’s thinking, and they’re spurred from Ezio Manzini’s new book, Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. In a way, these little reflections are meant to explore what the meaning of co-design is and whether or not this notion needs to be pushed further, or discarded in favour of something else.
What is the role of the designer in relation to complex problems? What entails good design work? Good design action?
From Big-Ego Design to…
Big-ego design is what we usually think of when we think of a designer or an architect: a highly regarded name and a highly regarded artifact.The gifted designer imprints his or her signature and stamp onto a unique artifact, multiplying its value beyond a comparable mass-produced object. Whether the outcome is functional or purely expressive, the signature of the creative genius creates a universe of meaning and value surrounding the end result, the work. Manzini rightly points out that this type of design becomes very dangerous when applied to complex problems. Complex problems will entail messy efforts to work together on a shared understanding of the problem and a vision for what the solutions might be. This is the opposite of the singular vision of an auteur.
Opposite big-ego design is what Manzini calls “post-it design”. It’s the kind of design work that you see in stock image photography of anonymous facilitators at work in anonymous team meetings. To wit, I bring you the perfectly titled stock photo “Portrait of creative professionals looking over a post-it note wall and brainstorming. Young man and women standing at the office behind glass wall with sticky notes”:
The post-it note is the penultimate symbol of this type of design work, and it shows up whenever you google: “teams brainstorming”, “design thinking”, “team problem solving” and so on… That and teams of faceless suits holding puzzle pieces (and on that note, I bring you the also perfectly titled stock photo “business team solving problem in the office”, because problems are usually as simple as a four-piece puzzle).
(The pieces don’t even fit together! But maybe they’re realizing that they’re missing pieces? or have the wrong pieces? Maybe the problem is the puzzle pieces! What does it mean!?)
But I digress.
Post-it design could be seen as a reaction to big-ego design: instead of a visionary designer leading the charge towards the solution, we have a designer asking the opinions and wishes of users, customers, citizens, etc., capturing their answers and clarifying them. Instead of a studio or a drafting table, or a desk and a personal library, any smooth surface can be turned into a space for thinking in diagrams (a lil’ nod to Deleuze and Guattari). The post-it note can be used wherever its adhesive will stick, making many spaces potential work spaces and stirring up stagnant office meetings with colour, movement and plasticity… transforming office space into AirSpace (more on this later).
The post-it note can track the best bits of a conversation and capture essential learnings, immediately broadcasting them to others in the room. Everyone can scribe their ideas, making everyone an instant contributor without the need for a moderator. The post-it note organizes our thinking, and enables the creation of a good first draft. The post-it note decrees: no idea is precious, no idea is stupid, jot it down and “put it out there.” Where the creative moment of big-ego design is singular, cloistered, focused, silent, etc. the creative moment of post-it design is singular or multiple, silent or cacophonous, but always modular, diagrammatic, plastic, open, unfinished.
“Post-it design is a way of seeing the design process that emerges from the positive idea of considering all the social actors, ordinary citizens included, as potential resources for the solution to a given problem: as people with something significant to bring to the design process.”
For Manzini the problem with post-it design is that in trying to counter big-ego design, it ends up “transforming design experts into administrative actors, with no specific contributions to bring, other than aiding the process with their post-its (and at the end, maybe, with some pleasing visualizations),” reducing the design process to “a polite conversation around a table of some participatory design exercise” (Design, When Everybody Designs, 66).
Designers need to be more aware of their unique role in a collaborative problem solving setting. Rather than fade into the background, the designer should develop their judgement to know when to come forward and lead, and when to hold back and let a process unfold. During a group’s efforts to creatively solve a problem, it is the designer’s ability to strategically switch between leading and following that will determine whether or not a process is just being facilitated, or if there is a measure of politic involved (We will explore politic in its relationship to co-design in the next post).
While it is possible that we can all be designers through post-it design and co-design, we cannot all be strategic designers (much of that hinges on whether or not one is mindfully being politic). What skills and tools can we practice to become more politic? How can group problem solving move from the work of sifting and sorting ethnographic data, to the action of making something happen?
Utopias often involve a lot of being together. What’s funny about this, is that to get to utopia we have to work together. Working together has a totally different attitude and vibe towards that public good of togetherness, as opposed to the public good that emerges from being together (also, see the last post).
Those who really believe that utopia is possible, will never truly be satisfied with being together after working together (i.e. going out for drinks). For those who believe in utopia, these moments of reprieve are but way stations along an impossible journey.
Those that don’t believe in utopia, are also never satisfied with being together after working together, because they either see it as a distraction from the hustle, or they see it as a vice that they are unworthy of. They are either a committed capitalist or a sad protestant-capitalist worker bee.
To wit, a thesis…
Therefore, both a marxist and a capitalist will be unsatisfying drinking partners, for they are both committed to a kind of game. One is simply taking a rest between matches, while the other is resigned to the exhaustion of the long-distance runner (I’m still not sure who is whom). The tired worker bee, who feels guilty for simply being together, is the saddest drinking partner of all. None of these characters actually taste the wine.
How can we resolve these attitudes towards working and being? Should we resolve that when working together, we also strive to be together and when being together, we also strive to work together? Is this what “work-life integration” would entail?
There are very few people and organizations asking these questions, but I believe that those that are, are on the cutting edge of social innovation as it applies to the question of how to find meaning and purpose in work, labour and life, solve problems, and taste the wine.
So, how can we find joy in tackling a problem as a group, especially when the going gets tough?
Everything we do when we are working together feeds into the creation of an institution.
When we work together we need to trust in everyone else enough to be able to think and act freely (i.e. to do what we need to do without worry), and to establish this trust we have to agree on some rules. A meeting is an institution, albeit very weak, hung together by an agenda and a request or requirement to be there together. A large bureaucracy is an institution, hung together by strict process requirements and standards.
I would argue that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to find an institution that does not have some rules written down, or tacitly accepted by everyone about how the whole arrangement of people and things should work best. In this sense, working together starts at its most basic level with an agreement about rules:
I’m going to do this, and you’re going to do that, and when we meet again, we’ll see how far we’ve come and adjust if we need to.
If we break the agreement and the rules too often then we might return with the courage to say:
This isn’t really working.
Or, if we are bound by power to continue to work together, then we may shrug our shoulders in resignation and make do:
Working together creates, or adds to an institution. Working together creates a public good through this process: the trust in each other to come together and make something happen.
Working together is very different from being together. Being together is loose, quotidian. It is time poached from work and labor. Being together is enjoyable, pure free time, etc.:
I am. You are. We are both. You are here, I am here, we are both here with each other…
And so on. Being together can clearly be an institution too, but it has a much different attitude towards the shared good that emerges from the togetherness. This attitude can be more like:
Or more subdued, like:
So how have you been? …I heard the other day about this interesting new theory about… Did you see so-and-so? Etc.
There can be humour, fun, and play in the attitude we take towards being together. Same with working together… though eventually the sleeves will be rolled-up, and so it’s attitude is always a little hard-nosed and pragmatic. Working together can be serious, critical, agonistic, analytic, frank, business-minded, and is more like:
How could we better do X and Y to get to Z faster.
And so on.
Obvs. I’m interested in mixing this up.
This is me, journaling my “Journey of Discovery” with developing an online business on the side, while working full-time. A business I’ve called, for better or worse, Working Together, and which is currently nothing more than a blog (and therefore just a hobby).
Yes, for the few Working Together regulars (whoever you may be) there is more to Working Together than just the writing! For one, there are bigger plans for an eCourse on design thinking tools and methodologies, as well as plans for a podcast and YouTube channel to share content faster and more “off-the-cuff” than the writing allows (I love to write and edit, but oh… is it ever so painfully slow). Hopefully there will be some honest insights in here that will help others in a similar situation. What follows was also posted to medium in two parts: here and here. Also, what follows is really long, but I promise there are some gems in here.
Let’s begin with a bit of background colour: I am trying to establish Working Together while also working a full-time, professional job and being a loving husband and father who is committed to quality family time. As a result, Working Together is pushed to the margins of my day. Basically, I have early mornings if I manage to go to bed early, or evenings if I manage to resist the exhaustion that washes over me while I rock snuggly babies to sleep next to our white noise machine. Sometimes, I also have lunch hour, but it’s not a guarantee. And that’s it!
It feels like everyone in the world has an unfair advantage over me, but I follow my intuition which tells me to channel my inner tortoise: slow and steady wins the race.
Because of my limited time, from the start, I’ve believed that my business model for Working Together should be simple and effective. My tendency is to gravitate towards the opposite… and then to overthink things… into oblivion. So, as soon as I started to turn my mind towards business, I knew I would have to constrain myself with a few founding principles. Here are a few that this post has forced me to articulate:
Simple and effective, as opposed to complicated and clunky.
Small, yet scalable online, as opposed to ornate and overly dependent on a bricks and mortar space.
Oriented towards creating value for a defined customer, as opposed to working in generalities.
Geared towards the intuitive and spontaneous, the messy and the experimental, AKA the authentic… as opposed to the intentional and planned, the overwrought and strategized, AKA the perfect.
Some of these come from having an idea about who I am, what my strengths and weaknesses are, etc. When things are simple, I find that I act. When things are complicated, I find that I theorize.
So, I’ve made a commitment to spend at least one hour per day on Working Together, and so far, I’ve done pretty good since I started in earnest five months ago. On my worst days I put in less than an hour. On my best days I get a few uninterrupted chunks of time to do the work, and I come out the other end with some real progress. But since I’ve started, I never spend no time on Working Together. Everyday there’s always something small that can be done, and there’s always lots of thinking and planning to do while in transit.
So, what have I been doing (aside from writing blog posts)? Well, over the past two months, I’ve been:
…interviewing potential customers and drafting some early value proposition designs;
…working to create a loose team of friends and family around me to act as a bit of a sounding board, to give my ideas the oxygen they need to survive and become actions;
…pivoting the online course concept to other audiences;
…slowly building and practicing a media production strategy that is appropriate to my needs: one that allows both flexibility and creativity.
On top of all this, I’ve also been: purchasing the necessary supplies for my podcasting rig and lining up the first five interviews; drafting some early concepts for an eCourse and an eBook; exploring cheap lighting options for video; taking online courses on personal branding and eCourse creation; researching and reading-up on all manner of business development literature, plus all sorts of other logistical things. I am endlessly surprised by how exciting business can be, and am fascinated by how the internet has changed the game.
I had started the Working Together blog with a broad and expansive notion of what I was interested in: social innovation and how groups of people can be brought together to make some magic happen. Knowing my tendency to gravitate towards generality, I niched down into a group that I had a little bit of experience working with through my wife’s business Connect-The-Dots: home learning families. This was a group of folks that I would one day join (since our plan has always been to “road school” our children). They were inspiring to me, and I wanted to learn more from them. Most importantly, they were a group of people I wanted to serve: I wanted to build awesome online learning experiences for home learning families. In particular, I wanted to work with teens in those communities.
So, pushing myself in the direction of action as opposed to theory, I had a few meetings with home learning families I had worked with in the past to ask them some questions. Before the meetings, I did my homework and read the first few chapters of Value Proposition Design, by Alex Osterwalder and others, and came armed with some good questions to ask. After three meetings, I organized my interview notes into a Value Proposition Canvas, and started thinking about ways that I could offer something of value to these families.
I couldn’t believe how productive the Value Proposition Design (VPD) process was! From three short meetings I had a fountain of ideas about potential products and services that I could provide this group of folks. However, a lot of these weren’t online courses… I wasn’t getting validation for my original idea of creating an online learning experience for my target audience.
I also learned of a few significant difficulties that I needed to consider. For one, my potential market was motivated towards a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach to education. They were also committed to providing immersive, face-to-face experiences for their children. This was what attracted Heather and I to home learning too: creating a learning atmosphere more akin to a field trip than a classroom. Providing an online course to these families would be a challenge, as it seemed that many home learners were being actively directed away from screens and towards face-to-face interactions with fellow learners and teachers.
In addition, because of the fact that these families were usually single income (with one parent staying at home to facilitate DIY learning experiences), my ability to charge premium rates would be limited… unless I wanted to pivot to kids enrolled in private school, and present the course as an extra-curricular prep-school that would give kids a competitive edge…but I felt that this group of kids didn’t need what I could offer. And besides, this wasn’t my original intent.
Finally, I realized I would be marketing on two fronts: on one, the parents; on the other, the teens. Two entirely different conversations, two entirely different social media marketing strategies. I needed to be competent with one group, and cool with another. Trust would be tough to build. A classic “war on two fronts” quagmire. Cue sweat.
Another thing that I’ve been up to is creating coaching and accountability networks around me — something that I get a lot of value from in my day-job (for more on that see here). So, along with my friends Matthew Lehner and Chris Naismith, we started a small mastermind group with a really simple structure: meet every two weeks for one hour, each give a ten-minute update on what we’ve accomplished and what are challenges are, then for the last thirty minutes, one of us gets to benefit from group coaching on one of our key challenges. Matthew and I have met a number of times already, and Chris will join us when he returns from his stay in Greece. We will be running full barrel by September, and possibly also have a fourth member by then too.
My wife, Heather, has also been a sounding board for ideas, learnings, frustrations, and so on. When we get the opportunity to talk one-on-one (usually when the kids are asleep or being babysat), I manage to squeeze some Working Together into the conversation, and benefit from her incredibly sage advice. She knows my strengths and weaknesses best, and helps me see the ways in which I might be hiding something from myself. Alas, the advice of a spouse is never disinterested! The history of our relationship gets woven into the history of Working Together. Things become loaded. Things have to be talked through. Ongoing conversation is a requirement.
To take a quote from a Metropolis screenshot:
I think that this quote captures a big part of the business development narrative that is often missed: the relationships that you have when you start, and the relationships that you build as you go. Not to mention the role the heart plays in the film: bridging the gap between the thinkers (the head) and the workers (the hand) as if class struggle could be so easily subsumed!!
Starting something new that you are passionate about, that you were put on this earth to do — whether it’s a business, or a non-profit, or a creative endeavour, etc. — does not occur in a social and emotional vacuum… especially if you are in a loving relationship(s)! And thinking that it does, feeds this masculine fantasy of a single male, striking out on his own to create his vision, a la Howard Roark of The Fountainhead. So much of the media around entrepreneurship tends to be about head, hands and the visionary singular genius.
This is not to say that vision is always compromised. It is to say that vision is always emotionally loaded. As it should be. This is, after all, what you were put on this earth to do. What could be more emotionally loaded than balancing your commitment to your creative work with your commitment to your friendships and your loves?
As I mentioned above, while talking with potential customers around the first product idea, I learned a ton. I validated some ideas I had, but I also didn’t validate others. This is to be expected.
I also started to consider the fact that the market I was focusing on was actually two: the parents (who also teach and facilitate learning experiences for their teens) and the teens. I had started with the notion that working with teens would be fun, and so I would get a break from the seriousness that permeates the work I do in my day job. But as I interviewed, and thought on the matter further, I realized that I would have to keep two totally different audiences happy and engaged! And as for any social media strategy, I would likely need to have an active presence on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram (for the parents, largely) and on emerging platforms like Musical.ly, Snapchat, Peach, etc. (for the teens). Not that engaging in social media isn’t fun — it is a part of my media production strategy (more on that below). But, engaging two different audiences, with two different conceptions of what a good product or service might be, seemed like a lot of work. However “fun” it might be, I had to think back to my starting principle — simple and effective — and ask myself: “Do I really have the time and energy to keep two target audiences engaged on multiple platforms?”
So, during one of our Mastermind sessions, I spoke to my VPD work and to some of my learnings and newfound apprehensions. Matthew dug further, asked some powerful questions, and held me accountable to come back with an answer at the next meeting. He understood the problem of a “war on two fronts” and agreed that the approach didn’t jive well with my principle of simple and effective. I also pulled a reference from episode three of Seth Godin’s short Startup School podcast, which I will quote here in full:
“The point right now isn’t to answer the question, “what problem is my customer waking up with?” The point now is to know the question is essential. That’s what I want you to be thinking about. You can change [your business] to anything you want and if you want to, you can open a kayaking school. That’s how early in the deal it is. What do you want to change it into so that you’re not always climbing uphill, so there’s something in it that the wind is at your back?”
Since I was just starting, and since the principle of simple and effective was guiding my work, what could I change my business idea into to ensure that the wind was at my back? I didn’t have the time, or the energy to start with a difficult scenario. So, Matthew and I agreed that I would come back next time with an answer to the question: who did I want to work with?
Basically, since I would be designing a valuable solution for a group of people, WHO did I want to be working with through that process of design? WHO did I want to work with after the product was designed, when it would need to be marketed? WHO would be buying my product? WHO would I be serving with my product? Indeed, the business’ namesake ‘Working Together’ takes on a whole new meaning in this light: the process of creating value for the world is very much a process of working together with others, especially those ‘others’ who will eventually pay you money for what you’ve created.
As I had learned from my VPD work with home learners, an essential starting point for your business is a WHO. Nothing is for everybody. You need a niche. Once you have a WHO, you have a way to find out an answer to the question “what problem is my customer waking up with?” The VPD work reveals all sorts of problems that can be solved through products and services, and you can organize the severity of these problems and align your offering with them. Having a WHO also allows you to identify where to focus your marketing efforts, both online and offline. A WHO is as essential as a WHAT, and a WHY.
So I went away and struggled with pivoting the concept. I felt lost and set adrift for a few weeks, I went back and looked through old notes, read a few old books that were impactful to me, reflected on the work that Heather and I did through The Wayward School, and selectively dipped into my small collection of business books to find some guidance. I also posted some epiphanies on Snapchat:
But, I’ll be honest, when I came back to Matthew with an answer it wasn’t quite what he was looking for (and now follows a dramatization, with limited bearing on the actual words spoken, and hands wrung):
Me (excitedly): “I realized that who I want to work with, is people like me: professionals who are interested in innovating through their work and solving problems creatively, whatever that work might be!”
Matthew: “Yea, but that’s pretty broad. Is there a group of people within ‘professionals’ who you want to work with?”
Me (anxiously): “Hmm. Yes, I see what you mean… I know that I want to work with people who are trying to learn new ways to solve problems… new ways to work in teams to design solutions… This is pretty broad… hmm…”
Matthew: “OK, you need to niche it down further… I want you to come back next time and tell me what niche you want to focus on within your new target of “professionals”, and I also want you to tell me what these folks will get when they are done taking your course.”
So, back to the drawing board, up to the present moment and toe to toe with a fancy new word: “psychographics” (aka the “new demographics” I mention in my snaps above). Psychographics, sez Wikipedia, is “the study and classification of people according to their attitudes, aspirations, and other psychological criteria, especially in market research.”
I had been stuck in an old paradigm about who my WHO should be: teens in home learning families (and indirectly, their parents). I was limiting myself to certain age groups within a broader psychographic of home learners. By being home learners, they shared the emotional commitment and belief in the idea that the whole family should actively learn together. Perhaps, for instance, it could be said that these families were united in their mutual distrust of the education system — there’s another shared feeling.
By pivoting to “professionals” I was getting caught up in generality. I needed to zero-in on what people within this group might share in terms of wants, values, beliefs, attitudes, etc. But how to do this? After a few more days of feeling lost and cast adrift, enter Heather (during a conversation one evening that happened to gravitate towards Working Together) (a dramatization, again with no bearing on the actual words spoken):
Me (anxiously): “I’m just so confused by this pivot that I’ve made… Basically, I want to work with folks like me… but I don’t know what to do with that… Matthew is right, it’s too general… what is it about this course that will align with this broader group of folks?”
Heather (matter-of-factly): “Well, that might not be the best question to ask. What is it that you have struggled with in relation to everything that you’re interested in? Surely there’s a reason why you feel the need to focus Working Together on social innovation and design thinking tools, facilitation stuff, and so on. Why are you pursuing this stuff in your free time? What’s driving you? Why are you fixated on it? Most importantly, what do you see missing or inadequate in the online courses and other facilitation tools you have learned about? Why would you need to make more of, or different?”
Me (with slowly dawning epiphany): “Well, my struggle with using those tools is never feeling like I’m practiced enough to whip them out in a project or a meeting, or whatever. I love to learn about design thinking and other new approaches to problem solving in groups, and it’s exciting to hear about people trying new things in innovative organizations, but it’s hard to put this stuff into action… The challenge that I have is that it feels like so much is at stake in any given meeting, or any given project… trying something new is the last thing that anyone wants to do… everything is so serious… and yet every meeting I am in is in some way part of an extended problem solving and solution designing exercise…”
Heather: “so, you need practice.”
Me (with conclusive epiphany): “Yes! There is also so little time to practice, let alone experiment with a new approach… What I feel I need is the ability to practice with like-minded folks, who are also interested in these tools, and feel more competent and comfortable using them. I also feel like I need strategies and tricks that would help me integrate these new approaches into the work that I do… and strategies for getting buy-in from colleagues and bosses on new approaches.”
Heather (with searching glare): “do you think other people you’ve worked with feel the same way? Or is it just you?”
Me (feeling validated): “I think that a lot of other folks, no matter their professional background, probably feel the same way… at once interested and wanting to learn more, but feeling like they aren’t practiced enough to integrate it into their work… or feeling like they need strategies for integrating this work into more conservative environments…”
Heather: “You have your target audience.”
So without further ado, my WHO (as of July 2016): working professionals, interested in innovative new approaches to management, team building, and general awesomeness delivery, who are keen to learn design thinking and other Social Innovation methods like that, but feel as if they have no opportunity to practice these new approaches and skills. They also feel that they don’t have the permission to try it out in their workplaces and would really like some strategies for integrating these tools into work.
What will the WHO get from taking my course? They would leave the course having learned new approaches to their work (design thinking tools, etc.), practiced and been coached with a community of fellow students, and been given strategies for incorporating these tools into their everyday work worlds. Basically, they would come out feeling like confident practitioners, able to utilize new approaches to their work without fear leading them towards the same old business-as-usual practices for chairing meetings, building teams, managing projects, leading, delivering deliverables, etc. They would learn to be creative within the constraints of work.
The best part about this pivot? I get to “stack the functions” while at work. Let me explain: to stack functions is to get two or more functions from a single element within a system. It’s a concept that comes from permaculture design (specifically from the principle to “integrate rather than segregate”) and “permies” use it to design gardens and farms so that different elements within a food production system can be stacked together to create multipliers of mutual benefit. For more on its application to check out this great little piece.
So, how does this apply here? Well, because my target audience is fellow professionals, whenever a colleague asks what Working Together is about, I get a chance to test and refine my copy about the course I’m building. On top of that, any insight I get from folks inside and outside of work feeds into the VPD I’m building in the background. It’s like market research on the fly, and all of this feeds into building the course.
And so… work on the course has begun again in earnest!
This is perhaps the hardest part, as it requires daily engagement. It requires me to be an active consumer and producer of information and ideas, with regularity, on social media channels where my target audience is directing its attention. It requires me to show up, even on days when I don’t feel like it.
Sure, there are elements to producing media online that can be automated and scheduled, but I’m with Gary Vaynerchuck on the matter: this stuff should be as authentic as possible. Using tools like Meet Edgar and over-scheduling your posts doesn’t seem genuine to me. Not that I won’t turn to Hootsuite and focus some of my social media making into chunks of time every week, but I don’t think this should be the only approach.
I’m also with Gary on the question of quality or quantity. It’s not a choice between producing a lot of lesser quality content, or small amounts of high-quality content, it’s about hitting both quantity and quality. There is no choice between the two, because choosing either leads you down the wrong path, and away from authenticity. To wit…
If we focus on quality, we slow creative production down, and with that slowdown, we create an entry point into our work for our fears, anxieties, uncertainties, etc., to pour into our creative process. We might spend too long developing something, missing the deadline we made for ourselves, or deciding to abandon our creation after “careful” consideration of its merits to the rest of the world.
Quality is guarded and overly concerned with being perfect… and guarded and perfect isn’t honest, vulnerable and real.
On the other hand, if we focus on quantity, the reverse happens, we find ourselves trying to flood our social media channels with “content”, whatever it may be, and the best part about the job of pursuing your passions and interests online becomes work.
Quantity is spammy and overly concerned with being loud… and spammy and loud leave no invitation to conversation and being social.
I believe that the phrase “putting yourself out there” captures the essence of creative work using online social media platforms. And in this setting, “media” is a better term to use than “content” (though I will tend to be messy and use both in conversation). This is because whatever we are on social media is an unreal representation of ourselves. You can’t physically put yourself out there, after all. Whether a curated log of your tastes in opinion and interest a la Twitter, or your aesthetic tastes a la Instagram and Tumblr; whether a rolling “story” of the high-points, epiphanies, and interesting tidbits of the last 24 hours a la Snapchat, or the random “sharesies” of politics, feelings, debate, pets, cuteness, etc. a la Facebook. Whoever we actually are in real life is ultimately mediated by the different social media channels and their unique conventions and vernacular. Every time we hit record, type a thought, post an article, and so on, we are “putting” the media of ourselves out there and onto a platform… but it is not us. We are mediated by the media we create.
I know, this is major “captain obvious” stuff, but I think it’s necessary to go here to defamiliarize the experience of using social media, and recognize how radical these playgrounds are.
Social media transforms the space you inhabit into a studio, a stage, a newsreel, a community board. If we understand what kind of space we are producing for, we’ve done half the battle. The other half then becomes: are you being real in what you are putting out there? After these two halves, anything more than the act of swiftly producing and “putting” can easily become overwrought.
So, two basic questions are at the foundation of media production online:
What platform is it?
Am I being real?
The first will tell you what your creative studio and toolkit will consist of, and how to interject into the conversation. The second will — literally — keep you honest… and honest is fast.
So the “media production strategy”, in a nutshell, is this: produce on the fly as much as possible and be real.
Fully elaborated, it is this:
Being real is being conversant… you know, like if you were really talking to somebody…
…social media is a social space, and depending on which platform you are in, you will have to practice and test what is and isn’t a conversation starter.
Be playful, but don’t forget about your core message…
…show motion and diversity in what you create, mix it up with your family and friends (if you’re cool with that), but don’t forget that you need lively content that connects to what your business is all about… if your business is bricks and mortar, and you’re bringing it online, then you have a huge advantage… if you have no bricks and mortar, think about creative ways that you can stage what your business is about, in-person. (Please-oh-please don’t let your social media channels just be quotes over stock photography! Do stuff. In-person. Record it. Then share it on social media. Why? Because it shows you and your business “in motion”. Motion and play need to be built off of some real, demonstrated work.)
Be messy, uncut, unpracticed, etc…
…don’t worry about messy, messy is real, and real is fast… you can’t figure out the conventions and vernacular in these spaces from the outside, you have to practice your engagement to see what lands and how… then adjust accordingly.
Practice the three R’s when creating media: reduce, reuse, recycle…
…be proud of what you’ve made and share it again, remixed and renewed, on different channels, or on the same again… producing media doesn’t always have to mean producing new media. Reduce the amount of time you spend on new things, reuse old things that are still relevant to your audience and your business, recycle what you’ve made into new mixes.
The long-form is not social media, it’s loner media… and that’s not a bad thing, it’s a great thing…
…the “long-form” (the blog, the long Facebook post, the Medium post, etc.) is a sandbox and a place to really think something through, ruminate, meditate — if you feel you need to consistently produce media at this level, be prepared to lean heavily on the three R’s above to be able to produce on a weekly schedule.
…stack everything onto your most important works… whether a long-form post, an e-book, an e-course, podcast interviews, and so on… the big things that you create are the nursery logs for your forest: they are the substrate that the little things can grow on and be nourished by.
So, to conclude? No! To continue the conversation and the experimenting!
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I swear by coaching. It’s one of the greatest tools for reflecting on your work and proactively progressing towards mastery, and through that process, alleviating stress. It came in handy during intense leadership roles, in lowly staff roles, and even in my relationships with my family and friends. I try to keep up my coaching practice to this day, and even use it in the development of the business side of Working Together. I’ve gotten a lot out of every coaching conversation I’ve had over the past 4 years of being coached, and nearly 2 years of trying to be a coach to others. The recipe can be very simple: active, global listening; powerful, open-ended questions; practicing giving and receiving feedback and acknowledgement.
Coaching goes against the grain of the old “command and control” management style within organizations and its implicit assumption that you can’t trust people to figure things out on their own. The old style says that there needs to be some sort of strong authority that commands staff and controls the journey towards the right outcome. The notion of the captain at the helm comes to mind. Coaching, on the other hand, starts with principles that fundamentally shift the approach:
During a recent course on coaching that I took, we went through these principles, and I realized that coaching is for organizations and the development of people and teams as the Montessori method is for schools and the development of children and classes—simply replace “people” and “employee” in the principles above, with “children”. Of course the two are not perfectly congruent (and my wife Heather who is training to become a Montessori teacher might cringe) I think that the parallels are interesting.
Like a Montessori teacher observing his classroom, during a coaching conversation, the coach is to be fully attentive, observing where someone is at through active, global listening, asking open-ended questions and not giving advice. By trusting that the individual will find their own answers to the problem that lies before them and their own path in trying out solutions, the coach, like the Montessori teacher, believes that people are naturally creative and resourceful enough to “know what’s needed”.
Through the coaching feedback model—what went well, what was tricky, what would you do differently next time—one reflects on actions taken, and what could be done next time. By practicing awareness and really listening to the feedback that you are getting from the world, control for error becomes self-directed. Coaching yourself through the feedback model and honestly reflecting on the answers you give yourself, gets you in the habit of being your own boss, in a sense. This sort of self-coaching can be said to be the ultimate goal of coaching. Just as in a Montessori classroom, the teacher will never correct the child, or tell them that they were wrong—the materials have control for error built into them—so too with coaching. Coaching builds control for error into the process, and builds your competency to coach yourself towards your goals.
At the end of every coaching session, when the coach holds the individual accountable to the solutions that they came up with, they are stamping out the final (and perhaps worst) vestige of deference to authority: “do it for me.” Instead, the attitude is thus, “you own the problem, you own the solution, there is no one to seek approval from for you to proceed with what you know you need to do… it is up to you…” and “…the next time we talk I want to hear that you’ve done the things you said you know you need to do.” As much as we might pride ourselves on the so-called independent spirit, especially in the west, the lazy attitude of “do it for me” can pervade our approach to personal growth if we don’t practice the very existential reminder that we are fundamentally alone to deal with our challenges. You might feel bad letting the coach down if you return with no progress towards your goals, but any good coach will remind you that you’re only letting yourself down… they’re just there to help you recognize what it means to hold yourself to your own word.
In September 2015, I stumbled across an On Being interview with Ellen J. Langer where she implored the listener to become more mindful by simply making an effort to “actively notice new things.” Having earnestly practiced Vipassana meditation in my mid-twenties, I was already familiar with the notion of becoming more mindful. However, because so many of my meditation experiences were grounded within Vipassana practice, I thought that the only way to cultivate an authentically mindful experience was through extended meditation retreats and hour-long daily practice. I found her approach to mindfulness uniquely western among the preponderance of eastern religious and spiritual teachings in the field.
What interested me about Langer’s approach was her different entry point: instead of studying eastern approaches to mindfulness, she studied the effects of mindlessness in the psychology lab. Her book, Mindfulness, is a culmination of over fifty psychological studies on the effects of mindlessness that she and her colleagues had conducted in the 60’s and 70’s—it’s definitely worth a read (non-affiliate link here). So, what is mindlessness, then?
The popular concept of “being on autopilot” captures the lazy attitude of mindlessness well. Not wanting to really think about a decision too hard, because “I’ve always done it this way.” Not wanting to ask “how could it be otherwise?” because that would require pause and consideration, both of which require time and effort. Not wanting to really think about what you want, because this would require honest reflection, thoughtfulness, choice. In many ways, being on autopilot is well-supported by a speedy, busy life. Being on autopilot is coasting, cruise control, ease-of-use, seamlessness… because being in a different state requires energy and effort.
So, I think that a core aspect of being on autopilot is a mild aversion (an attitude of “I don’t want to be bothered to…”, or “I’d rather not…”) in relation to the mild exertion of effort that any given moment invites us to offer. This mild exertion is simply the effort we have to make to be present in the moment and consciously consider how to respond, outside of the well-worn track of easy answers and habitual responses that constitute the fabric of our everyday conventions.
What is easiest, is to fall back into well-worn patterns of thinking and doing and respond to the moment with the easy answer. What is hardest to do is to recognize that every moment is radically novel. Every moment is something that has never happened before… the tip of time’s arrow. Mindlessness, then, is an attitude cultivated by our need to conserve physical and mental energy and effort in the face of a relentless emergence, in the face of a raw existential awareness that you can never be secured from “what happens next”. Mindfulness is about striving to notice the relationships you are embedded in, and honestly questioning and opening up concepts and practices that are well worn and asking how they could be seen and enacted otherwise. This goes for relationships with others, but also relationships with oneself, with one’s conventions.
So, what can we do about this? How can we cultivate mindfulness without the vow of silence and the years of asceticism in a mountain ashram? How can we be mindful during a fast-paced day at the office? How can we stop ourselves short of a caffeinated induced heart-attack while jamming through our endless to-do lists?
We can start with three small practices. Two of these can be adopted “in the field”, and one requires a little bit more time “in the lab”.
Practice one: we can take two or three very deep breaths. Try this: breath in through your mouth to your natural limit. When you’ve reached that limit, inhale a little bit more until you feel your diaphragm stretching out front, back and sides… to your very limit, and then exhale. (It’s possible to do this in most settings throughout the day, however, perhaps not during a moment when all eyes are on you—i.e. when you’re leading a briefing or giving a presentation.)
The goal of this practice is to become more aware of your bodily sensations. Yep, along with our smartphones, we also have bodies that beg to be checked in with constantly. Our bodies are sturdily anchored to the moment—your aches and pains, your breath, your stiff muscles, itches, warm feet, etc. These sensations wash over you, always. Three very deep breaths bring you back to your physicality in the moment quite nicely. Wherever your train of thought is taking you, it is usually taking you away from your body, from the moment—or at least just skimming the surface of bodily sensation.
Practice two: just sit quietly for one minute and notice the sounds around you. Notice when you’ve stopped noticing the sounds and are thinking about something… like what so-and-so said to you earlier that day, or how you totally bombed that thing and had so-and-so not done X then you could have easily done Y, etc. or that bill you had to pay… fuck! you forgot about that, etc. If all you do is manage to notice that you’ve stopped noticing the sounds around you, that’s fine. Don’t aggressively try to only notice the sounds around you. Just notice the distraction from the small goal you had, and next time try for a full minute.
This practice is all about cultivating your noticing muscles, practicing the act of stopping and raising your awareness above the level of autopilot. This practice develops the skill of pausing everything you might be caught up in to just notice your environment for a moment.
Practice three: cultivate mindfulness outside of work through a “10-minute sit” (i.e. a 10-minute silent meditation routine at the end or beginning of the day). It’s easy to agree that yes, in theory, the notion of being more present during the day makes sense. Why let life pass you by? Etc. But without a more effortful silent meditation practice, I have found that it is much harder to cultivate the ability to actively notice new things. I know this because as I write this, I am pretty lousy at regularly managing the 10-minute sit and I think that it undercuts my ability to remember to stop the blur for a moment during my busy day.
The 10-minute sit is really a synthesizing and integrating practice: not only does it help you with practice one and two, but it helps you to holistically address the day, your week, your life. When I’ve had long bouts of consistent 10-minute sits, I’ve found that my ability to simply understand and be at peace with things improves. Finally, I’ve found that it becomes easier to stop the autopilot for a moment and perceive the newness all-around me (in whatever context I might be in).
Although we may conceptually “get” the importance of mindfulness, when actually situated within the moment, we are largely in a mild state of drift between the task that came to be, the task at hand, and the task to come. We need intentional practices like those above to help us break out of routine and convention, especially in a world that is becoming evermore seamlessly integrated with automaticity (on this theme, and for a more realistic sci-fi rendition of how AI could change the world, watch Spike Jonze’s Her). But for those of us who may find ourselves too busy to imagine integrating new practices into our busy everyday (as I did during my most intense weeks working in upper-level management), then there is always Langer’s simple call to actively notice new things. Try to remember her phrase as you move through your day, and see what happens next.
In January 2015, back at the start of my leadership role, I sat down with my boss for one of our first meetings. Being a bookish type, I asked him if he had any good books on leadership that he thought I should read. He looked at me askance and said that he didn’t read that sort of thing. Instead, what he learned, he learned through his experiences, and it was a pretty straightforward lesson: leadership and accountability go hand-in-hand.
Basically, we aren’t leading until we’ve accepted that we are accountable for the outcome (good or bad) that follows from the work that we’ve led. Leadership without accountability is egocentric and protective: always seeking opportunities to better oneself, shielding oneself from negative feedback, and so on. We can certainly do a lot of good work this way, but only up to a point. Until we start to let negative feedback in, we really can’t start striving towards excellence (see an upcoming post for more on feedback). Striving for excellence can only follow from a path of accountability.
There are many different ways that excellence can be achieved. In my leadership roles I’ve learned that the practice of challenging outcomes is necessary to achieve excellence—from myself, from fellow staff and from team members. In my roles “in the trenches”, I’ve learned that autonomy and creativity are also essential for developing excellent outcomes from a team. So, wherever we lead from within an organization will determine the approach and the practices that we apply to achieve excellence.
A caveat: excellence isn’t perfectionism. There are always deadlines in the real world that will push us to be strategic and economical in the use of our time and energy. There comes a point where you have to stop one thing and move onto the next. This is inevitable. But throughout that window of time where the work must be done, the materials, the end product, the notions and analysis, the MVPs, etc.—these must be challenged. Again this isn’t perfectionism, this is work that has been stress-tested, this is work that is excellent in the sense that it aligns with the needs of its intended audience (customer, boss, decision-maker, etc.). In this sense, it is work that can be trusted.
I found that the leadership and accountability dyad produces an outlook that extends beyond blame and credit—both of which are egocentric. To take responsibility for the outcome of our work, to be accountable for the result, means that we cannot blame or make excuses when things go awry. To lead is to go first. To lead is to set the pace. To lead is to establish the direction. When the results of the work come in, you cannot turn to the world outside of you, point and say “things would have gone better, had so-and-so not more thoroughly analyzed the risk, etc.” or “we would not have ended up here, had the road not led to this perilous path,” etc. To lead is to find the direction, and continually re-calibrate the right direction as you move through the territory. Seek feedback, listen closely, exercise judgement. It’s not about you, it’s about the outcome that everyone is striving for.
On the other hand, when things go well, it is the team that is responsible for the positive outcome. This is the time to stand behind something, to put someone else in the front. The leader certainly has a role in the outcome, as the one who set the pace by challenging the team towards excellence, as the one who set the direction and steered and positioned all the elements towards a positive outcome. But it is the interacting effects of all the team members and their combined effort to creatively challenge the work that built a collective acumen for feedback and trust, which enabled a good outcome. Be humble when there is deserved recognition, be responsible when there is deserved feedback.
When I see an opportunity arise that makes me feel a little scared—whether its an entirely new job, or a new project, or a stretch-assignment, or a risky business opportunity, or planning and preparing all of the food for one’s own 3-day long and 100+ guest wedding—I seriously consider saying YES. Not only have I grown as an individual and built character through the learnings that I’ve mined from tough experiences, but the story of my life comes into sharper resolution. Challenges create a stronger impression, I remember what I’ve done more clearly and my past experience becomes a better story to tell—and this is especially good if you have a bad memory (like me). So, I join a well established chorus with the call to take the leap into new challenges.
I believe that we all need intensities in our life and that we need to do our best to seek them out rather than hide from them. This disposition has a certain degree of acceptance of the inevitable in it because whether we like it or not, life will always give us memories that are more than impressions. Life will leave scars.
This disposition is more a question of doing our best to choose when and how life will scar us—so, instead of simply taking it on the chin, you point to your chin and say “hit me.” It’s a bit tragicomic in this regard. By accepting and actively seeking out challenges, we become less passive in our experience of hardship and come to see hardship as a painful but essential aspect of our life. Because we are taking a greater measure of responsibility for the hardship that befalls us by actively choosing new challenges, we trade fate for failure. And so we will invariably fail more—sometimes spectacularly. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is through our active efforts to challenge ourselves—through our resilience to failure—that we learn to take ourselves less seriously.
Last week while I was out for drinks with an old friend from my university days, it dawned on me: I have never felt as precarious as I did during the liminal period of time between the last few years of high school and the first few years of university. Questions like “What if I fail? What if I can’t do this? What if I end up on the street?” and so on, plagued me, and my friend echoed that he had similar worries. Why was this?
The looming threat throughout school and later, throughout one’s career, is this: until you’ve clocked your time with years of education and training, and then finally with years of work experience as a good employee, you are at risk of “amounting to nothing”. But to whom? The labour market of course. You can’t have a market for something unless you have some system to register the value of the widgets exchanged therein. And there is no better assurance of value than time logged in class and on the clock. School and career are stamps of approval, an assurance of quality, etc. With each unit of human capital that gets churned out, a signal is given to the labour market: “this person is good at these things, and bad at these things”; “this person is good at everything”; “this person dropped out”; etc. A side effect of this production of human capital is that school invariably teaches us to avoid failure. We are taught to take everything seriously. We are taught to win and succeed. We rank and compare rank. We compete against each other for medals and recognition. We are humiliated in front of our peers when we get an answer wrong. We are evaluated continuously and reminded of our numerical worth—our GPA—and how this number will determine our future. We are taught to pursue what we already believe ourselves to be good at.
So, this question of taking on new challenges is far beyond anything that school was able to support. The question of whether or not to focus on your strengths or weaknesses is a question for the schooled. In direct opposition to the worry of whether or not we will amount to anything, is a largely unexplored ethos of exploration, an active acceptance of hardship, and a playful and humorous wonderment for all there is to learn.
I’m learning this lesson everyday. Caring is an attitude I take towards the world when I’m at my best. When I’m at my worst—when I’m deeply disengaged—there’s a pretty strong chance that I also don’t care about what’s happening. Caring engages me with the machinery of the moment. In any moment, especially when working and being with others—whether it’s a meeting, or a critical point in a project, or sitting at the dinner table with my family—the moment is tanking (or on its way to tanking) if I’m unable to care about what’s happening.
But if I’m able to remember in the moment “oh yeah… care about this,” it’s as if the room changes colour from pallid pastels and greys to vibrant colours and contours. Suddenly, I am engaged with the moment. Once I care, everything gets better (even if it was already pretty good). Once I care, even really difficult situations become necessary milestones along the journey towards constructive collaboration, towards familial love, towards being and working together.
Whenever I’m disengaged, I try to ask myself: “Why are you doing what you’re doing if you don’t actually care? If you don’t care, stop and ask yourself: what do you want out of your life?”
Regardless of what you believe will happen after you die, you can be certain that this “life” part of the story (or the whole story) has an end. We all get this. Most of us have had a friend or family member who came to an untimely end. Stick with that certainty and its lessons. Don’t let what you believe excuse carelessness during this window of time called life. Whether you believe that life is all there is, or that life is just a chapter—care.
The risk of not caring because of what you believe does, or doesn’t happen after death is the biggest wager to take. Forget the risky business of the entrepreneur, it pales in comparison to the passive risk that we mindlessly take when we let our beliefs get in the way of our ability to give a damn about this world, its relationships, your part in it, etc. We misrepresent this risk to ourselves as “acceptable” because we may believe life is just one part of a longer story, or we believe we’ve got a lot of time to kill. Stick with the certainty: death chooses when to really kill time. If you’re killing time, you’ve forgotten that it’s not for you to do.
So, care. Care about the work you are doing. Care about the relationships you are in. Care about where this is all headed. Care about your story and where you are at in it. Care that you are here. Care about the loved ones in your life. Care about that project you are working on in your spare time. Care about the assignment you have. Care.
(If you’re starting in the middle on this series, start here for a bit of context)
Last month I wrapped up a 15-month temporary assignment in a management/leadership role in a fast-paced environment. Before coming into that role I had worked “in the trenches” of various organizations. Before then, I had worked for a number of different food sovereignty non-profits “on the frontline” of the local and sustainable food movement.
Before this gig, I had no experience in a high-intensity, executive-level work environment. “Baptism by fire” one of my colleagues joked. And it was true. When interested friends asked about the role during the first month, I would say that it was a crucible. A crucible is a container that is meant to withstand intense heat and pressure so that the materials within are reduced down to some core elements. This was the kind of role that transforms you through its very intensity. The metaphor of the crucible was perfect to describe what I felt was happening to me: I had gone into the role like a chunk of ore and came out as metal…. though perhaps more vulnerable than before.
Over the next while, I will post an occasional series: 10 short lessons I took away from my time in that intense position. These lessons aren’t really things you can put a checkmark beside. They are continuous. They involve mindset, attitude, disposition. I’m still figuring them out in all facets of my life. I got to practice some of these lessons while I was in this particular leadership role, whereas some of them I’ve learned after reflecting on the role. With all of them there is always room for improvement, room for mastery. The list is also incomplete. There’s a lot more that could go in here, but… 10 just sounds nice. Right? (it’s how many fingers we have, after all).
Before embarking, it is important to point out the obvious (that we so often forget). To be your best in any setting requires some basic ingredients: getting a good nights’ sleep, eating healthy food, and getting regular exercise. When you are hobbled on any of these three, your day or your week is going to be that much harder. Finally, when you are hobbled on any of these three, a fourth basic ingredient—emotional well-being—becomes more difficult to achieve. These 4 ingredients are like a 4-legged table: drop any one and the table becomes unstable, drop any two and… well, you don’t really have a table anymore! These 4 basic ingredients are foundational for success in the other 10.
Stay tuned for the first of 10.
Watching Star Wars in My Pajamas: A Preschooler Learns About the Universe and What Might Be
One of my earliest memories is watching Star Wars when I was about five years old. It was a cold winter in Edmonton, Alberta, the Canadian city and oil refinery where I was born. I remember standing at the threshold between the kitchen and the living room in my grandmothers’ house on Capilano Crescent, watching the intro to A New Hope. I would pop in and out of the room throughout the movie to catch glimpses of light-saber battles and noisy TIE fighters.
What remains distinct in my memory is the notion that the film’s narrative happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Even when I was young, the very inversion of this narrative—that something futuristic could have taken place long ago—impacted me, and reverberated a realization throughout my elementary school days: there could be another place in the cosmos, in the universe, in the galaxy, where long ago, folks flew around in spaceships and engaged in harrowing adventures and such! What Star Wars taught me was that the realm of possibility in the universe could be so vast that in the depths of time (past and future) and space (here and far away) we could imagine seemingly endless variations of possible futures. In this respect, Star Wars was a gateway to my love of science fiction, outer space, and interstellar travel.
Unfortunately, nothing in my schooling or family life reinforced this passion (and my dream of becoming an astronaut) beyond the toys I was given, or the odd National Geographic magazine I tried to decipher. In middle school I realized that the science I was so interested in was based on the math I found so painfully difficult. I eventually gave up the notion that I would ever become an astronaut and explore outer space, and decided to follow my interests elsewhere. However, my fascination with these themes never diminished, and like many others I eagerly look forward to watching the next installment in the Star Wars narrative this holiday season.
I believe that we love science fiction because of the possibilities it expresses about our ingenuity, our encounter with the Other, and the power and potential of technology to take us places we’ve never been. The science fiction genre often presents a moment (whether in the future, the past, or secretly at work within the present) where we are less constrained and limited, where the vastness of the universe can be managed, and only the touch of a button stands between sentient Earthling life and a cosmos of possibility.
But (putting my “theory hat” on), our fascination with a limitless universe filled with a diverse array of other interstellar worlds and sentient beings and cultures is also an extension of an expansionist drive to colonize under the pretext of exploration and discovery. A narrative universe with so many different worlds to visit and inhabit, where there seems to be an overabundance of worlds and places to explore and “orientalise,” is so widely enjoyed because of the limitlessness depicted. This flipside of the science fiction genre is to be expected… especially today. For ours is a time acutely aware of ecological limits (to name a few: environmental toxicity, ocean acidification, and Climate Change), a time when our societies seem to be wobbling against the edge of some never-before-seen chaos, and therefore, a time when we enjoy, with great ardour, the imagined cosmos of limitless potential exemplified in science fiction (and, sadly, the imagined cosmos of limitless consumption). So it is not surprising that we create and celebrate in such imaginaries while we face extreme limits and intractable problems in reality. We are trying to mentally escape a dawning terror of realization that will eventually—and necessarily—overtake us. We are in denial of the fact that the party must end.
We are secretly disappointed that the dreams of the space-aged 1950s and 60s never materialized in 2001 (2001: A Space Odyssey never took place, even though the story seemed inevitable). We also are surprised that our ingenuity could so successfully catapult our societies into technological modernity while also creating so many unintended consequences. So, on top of looming terror, denial, disappointment, and surprise, we are faced with a challenge to our faith in scientific rationalism—at the same time we have to reinvigorate our faith in science, and develop a more sophisticated scientific rationalism in order to define the limits, challenges, complexities, and potential solutions that we must now address. We’ve learned that our ingenuity does not exist in a vacuum and that it was never confined to the laboratory tabletop. The results of our experiments spill out of labs and into factories, from factories into markets, from markets into homes, and from homes into landfills, and all throughout the lifecycles of our invented products, additional unintended consequences spill into social, cultural, ecological, etc. systems. The well-oiled whirr of the machine has taken a century to reverberate through the ecological cosmos, and we now hear it as a snarl.
This terror, this denial, this sense of surprise at the failure of technology’s promise, this loss of faith, this enjoyment of imaginary adventure and unlimited exploration—all of these cultural affects are important clues to our current predicament. Indeed, these clues are part of the mechanisms of a psychological and cultural trap that we must envision ourselves out of… but how?
Climate Change. What does it mean? Climate Change means cataclysm.
The choice we now face is between two models of how the cataclysm of Climate Change will play out: death, on the one hand, or transformation, on the other. The current discourse, however, is dominated by the former, and so the proposed solutions to Climate Change carry the scent of death: technocratic rationalism and pragmatism, evidence presented and dissected, policy mechanisms, international agreements, targets, measures, etc. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, we need the policy wonk conversation to generate traction and friction… but we also desperately need a big “unrealistic” dream to generate momentum (the simpler to define, the better). We need this dream because the realism and importance of Climate Change has created the unintended consequence of polarized and confused public opinion. Through amplified competing scientific views, divisive advocacy groups, and a diverse and seemingly endless source of information on the internet (to which this blog post simply adds), the complexity of Climate Change has led interested parties to simply confirm their beliefs and treat the matter in purely pragmatic terms. The future becomes less of a crystal ball that can surprise us with new insight, and more of a dead certainty. So, instead of calmly discussing how best to go about avoiding the worst (or simply denying that anything is wrong), we must passionately strive to achieve a big dream, perhaps the big dream: sentient Earthling life exploring the cosmos.
Technocracy has had its words, measures, and numbers at COP21—and with great success. Beyond this and any council of parties, however, democracy will continue to demand a shared vision. So, as a salve to the discourse that reeks of death, I want the change in tone that comes with the model of transformation: Climate Change is the penultimate wicked problem that must be solved or mitigated, not so that we can continue to survive on the Earth, but so that we can live on the Earth and beyond. The first model, and currently the most paradigmatic, emphasizes global political cooperation in the face of peril. The second emphasizes global political cooperation in the face of a future that has only been imagined, but is thereby more potent and real than the threat of death and finality. However, if we do not rise to the wicked problem of Climate Change with renewed vigor, the possibility of our imagined future (of our big dream coming true) is at best likely to be postponed for centuries or millennia; at worst, it is on the verge of being erased.
In a way, I am glad we have such terrifyingly complex challenge in Climate Change; it will teach us new things about ourselves, and about how we can work together in new and different ways. Indeed, without Climate Change, it would be impossible to pursue cosmic exploration as a big dream without it quickly turning into a big nightmare. The cataclysm of transformation is a threshold that we must first cross before we can pursue the type of development required to explore the cosmos. Why? Because although continuing on the same path of development may entail interstellar travel, it wouldn’t be done so in a manner that calls on the best of the world—perhaps such advancements would be pursued unilaterally, perhaps they would be pursued as a form of escape from a planet that no longer supports human life. Either way, pursuing a vision of space travel without solving Climate Change would be the penultimate expression of modernism’s decadence: the desire for grandeur at the expense of all else.
So, I call the alternate path of development that stems from the cataclysm of transformation that we face through Climate Change cosmodernism (cosmos + modernism), because what I am arguing for is a continuation of scientific progress, not as an isolated endeavor to the detriment of the Earth, but rather as an endeavor unfolding within a complex interrelated system of living and non-living forces. The pursuit of grandeur and glory to the benefit of all else is the affirmation of cosmodernism, and an affirmation only made possible through a concerted effort to work together in the transformation made necessary by cataclysm. The realization that Earth is a seed and a germ of life within the cosmos is the credo of cosmodernism, and the dispersal of this seed is its ultimate goal.
Climate Change is a very special problem for us to work together on, and to wrap our head, hands, and hearts around. Much of the discourse around the problem has been rooted in the head and the hands, with little emphasis on the heart—on the passion and vision that can take our interests beyond the literal and figurative “poverties of imagination” of the cataclysm of death. So, I believe that there needs to be something more that motivates our efforts to work together and tackle the problem, and I believe that this “something more” is a vision of the future that we already dream of. The technologically and infra-structurally enmeshed tangle of living and non-living life that is our current civilization—“the system” in all its “broken” and “working” glory—is simply a process of co-creation in the midst of a rapid transformation whose logical endpoint lies in interstellar travel. Until the momentum and the trajectory of this system shifts we should share no other vision than the following: to rein in the worst of our excesses; to work together as a planet of Earthlings; to innovate solutions to Climate Change and its cataclysm of transformation; and most importantly, to dream big about the future, so that we may share in the glory of centuries and millennia of limitless scientific and interstellar exploration.
One look at the current COP 21 “non-paper” and you can see where the rubber hits the road: mitigation. Why?
Climate change mitigation is where the hard politics of COP 21 will play out, because mitigation is a harder future to collectively imagine. Climate change adaptation, on the other hand, involves a future which is somehow more intuitive to us: come what may, we will survive. Imagining how we might adapt is more tangible than imagining how we might stop or slow climate change, and so there is simply less to negotiate about adaptation: no matter the uncertainty that climate tipping points may present, we believe we will adapt to what may come.
To wit: compared to the adaptation section of the “non-paper”, the mitigation section has so many brackets, each with their own world of possibility: “[shall][should][other]” and so on. Demonstrating, perhaps, just how diverse the imagined future of mitigation is in our contemporary pre-COP 21 moment. For example:
“Parties aim to reach by [X date] [a peaking of global greenhouse gas emissions][zero net greenhouse gas emissions][a[n] X per cent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions][global low-carbon transformation][global low-emission transformation][carbon neutrality][climate neutrality].”
There are so many possible worlds here! But which will the parties come to agree is the best? The answer will depend on how well we are able to imagine the mitigation future, share this vision, and work towards achieving it, together.
It seems entirely fitting to compose this first post while my 1-year-old baby boy is crying and vying for my attention. Here goes:
What Working Together is:
As useful a guide as possible for helping people work together. People can work together on all sorts of things. Though we will inevitably be exploring “all sorts of things” here, I am mostly interested in how people work together on problems. Problems that could be simple or “wicked” or anywhere in-between.
What Working Together is not:
Lazy panaceas. Murky and unclear theorizations. Closed to your feedback and input on how to make it the very best content.