Friday, January 04, 2019

Business as usual will no longer suffice…

A version of this post has been published on LinkedIn.

While carolers recently proclaimed “tis the season to be jolly,” twas also the time of year to be easily reminded of the excesses of capitalism, from Black Friday to its expansion in many cases to Black Friday Week (and longer) motivating purchase of things not needed, to the distaste for and dehumanization of the poor exhibited by A Christmas Carol’s Ebenezer Scrooge and It’s a Wonderful Life’s Mr. Potter (both with their many modern day counterparts).

But the holidays are not needed for such reminders, particularly these days, with reports of the unethical behavior of major tech companies continually in the news along with reports of the damage their products continue to inflict. And denials of climate change in the face of irrefutable evidence and predictions of likely doom; as Marc Benioff (CEO of Salesforce) tweeted in August:

Benioff’s highly visible support of a tax on large San Francisco companies to help the city address its major problem with homelessness was a recent bright spot in the world of tech and capitalism and apparently key to the proposition’s passage.

However, this is all about corporations giving money to others to help others address societal problems. Corporations also do this via various philanthropic programs, but as Marc Wexler (Co-Founder of Not for Sale) argues, the model of corporations doing whatever they need to to make money and then giving money to others to address societal (or environmental) problems is broken. Indeed, corporate behavior often perpetuates the problems corporate taxes and philanthropic contributions go towards fixing. Wexler calls this “soul crushing.”

Some have argued for the need for a different approach to capitalism. For example, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer have stated:

“Capitalism is an unparalleled vehicle for meeting human needs, improving efficiency, creating jobs, and building wealth. But a narrow conception of capitalism has prevented business from harnessing its full potential to meet society’s broader challenges. The opportunities have been there all along but have been overlooked. Businesses acting as businesses, not as charitable donors, are the most powerful force for addressing the pressing issues we face. The moment for a new conception of capitalism is now; society’s needs are large and growing, while customers, employees, and a new generation of young people are asking business to step up.”

The concept of “conscious capitalism” has received considerable attention. From the Conscious Capitalist Credo:

“Conscious Capitalism is a way of thinking about capitalism and business that better reflects where we are in the human journey, the state of our world today, and the innate potential of business to make a positive impact on the world. Conscious businesses are galvanized by higher purposes that serve, align, and integrate the interests of all their major stakeholders. Their higher state of consciousness makes visible to them the interdependencies that exist across all stakeholders, allowing them to discover and harvest synergies from situations that otherwise seem replete with tradeoffs. They have conscious leaders who are driven by service to the company’s purpose, all the people the business touches, and the planet we all share together.”

Sebastian Buck (Co-Founder of Enso) argues for a need to move from “extractive capitalism” to “generative capitalism.”

“Generative capitalism contributes new value to the world; extractive capitalism reallocates existing value.”

To date, Porter’s and Kramer’s concept of “shared value” — “creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges” — has probably received the most attention, perhaps in part because it involves, as stated earlier, “businesses acting as businesses.” Unlike corporate social responsibility or philanthropy, “it is not on the margin of what companies do but at the center.”

And, as Porter and Kramer stated, “customers, employees, and a new generation of young people are asking business to step up.” One sees evidence of that in, for example, Amazon employees using their shareholder power to demand corporate action on climate change and in employees elsewhere spearheading diversity initiatives.

Some businesses have responded, including Walmart (whose Chief Sustainability Officer proclaimed in 2017 that “business exists to serve society,” and the company has increasingly acted in accordance with that view) and other companies identified by Forbes as “using the profit motive to help the planet and tackle social problems.” 

The profit motive” appears to be key, so when environmental or social problems can be talked about in terms of money….

Or to put it more simply:

Businesses acting as businesses…”

Yet, businesses have not responded as much as some predicted. SO much more can and needs to be done.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, part of the problem is the difficulty corporations have understanding social and environmental issues adequately and working effectively with others already working on such issues. As I’ve also stated, designers schooled in effectively designing for social or environmental impact have skills that can help corporations address this difficulty. I’ve identified some of those skills; Mike Youngblood elaborates on how anthropological thinking — an essential component of good design — “can help make business greener; and Jared Spool highlights another of the essential skills below:

But as I’ve argued in multiple talks (e.g., at the Interaction Design Education Summit in Lyon France last February) and as Marc Rettig argues in my conversation with him about what it takes for companies to move toward social and environmental responsibility, designers need to elevate their game. At the same time, companies have to elevate their understanding of design and of the role designers can play in business.

However, Calvin’s Hobbes so sadly concludes:

But we are at a point of crisis. Business as usual will no longer suffice…

Perhaps the final Calvin and Hobbes strip ever published offers a ray of hope:

Here’s to a happy new year!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Leveraging design to help overcome key challenges to creating shared value

A version of this post has been published on Medium.
Design is used extensively to “reimagine social change” (the tagline of the best known “shared value” consultancy), yet design is largely ignored in efforts to create shared value (i.e., to expand the connections between social, environmental, and economic progress). Tis perplexing given the increased acceptance of the need for “design thinking” to play a role in creating business strategy, though perhaps understandable given the persistence of outdated concepts of design and of the role of designers in business.
Plus, the benefits of employing design have been rising, since great progress has been made in understanding how to effectively design for positive social and environmental impact. And those benefits are needed now more than ever, as social and environmental problems seem increasingly insurmountable while corporations, seeking innovative ways to differentiate their offerings and improve shareholder value, struggle to understand them adequately to determine whether they can address any of them as part of their core business strategy. Indeed, shared value goes beyond typical corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects, which are peripheral to core business and exist largely to manage brand and reputation. Hence, corporations are not accustomed to addressing social and environmental problems in this way.
Non-profits, governmental institutions, and community groups — i.e., organizations conventionally considered to have greater responsibility for addressing social and environmental issues — are also not accustomed for corporations to address social and environmental problems in this way. As Michael Porter and Mark Kramer have stated,
 Leaders in both business and civil society have focused too much on the friction between them and not enough on the points of intersection.”
Indeed, shared value partnerships with corporations can more greatly than corporate philanthropy or CSR ease the financial strain such organizations often experience while achieving greater impact than would otherwise be possible.
More from Porter and Kramer:
 Capitalism is an unparalleled vehicle for meeting human needs, improving efficiency, creating jobs, and building wealth. But a narrow conception of capitalism has prevented business from harnessing its full potential to meet society’s broader challenges. The opportunities have been there all along but have been overlooked. Businesses acting as businesses, not as charitable donors, are the most powerful force for addressing the pressing issues we face. The moment for a new conception of capitalism is now; society’s needs are large and growing, while customers, employees, and a new generation of young people are asking business to step up.”
And businesses have begun to step up, as suggested by Fortune’s recently published list of companies changing the world “using the profit motive to help the planet and tackle social problems.”
But figuring out how to achieve shared value and doing so is difficult. Corporations excessively focused on short-term economic gains may lack the patience required to make this work. Figuring things out often requires consideration of entire ecosystems, the meaningful participation and collaboration of many, and determining how to align the purpose of multiple stakeholders. Corporate executives and managers must shift their mindset from being in total control to one that empathizes with people and business partners that they typically haven’t had to engage with in the past.
Designers schooled in effectively designing for social and environmental impact know, among other things, how to:
  • consider entire ecosystems, facilitate the meaningful participation and collaboration of many, and facilitate the alignment of purpose of multiple stakeholders;
  • achieve an adequate understanding of social and environmental issues, suspending often false presuppositions in order to appropriately and creatively frame those issues;
  • generate insights that identify opportunities to “reimagine social change” (and/or environmental change) and accompanying business strategy change;
  • explore and test potential opportunities for creating shared value without risking damage to the social or environmental sector or a corporation’s reputation.
The integration of such design expertise with expertise more typical of business innovation process but specific to the concept of shared value and its successful implementation should greatly help organizations overcome key challenges to creating shared value.
— — — — —
Unsure about the ethics of the concept of shared value? See Porter and Kramer’s two publications referenced above and Phil Preston’s recent “Answering the Critics of Shared Value.”
Desire a better understanding of shared value from the perspective of non-profits? For two examples, see OE Strategy’s Susan Wolfe talk about Vayu, a non-profit delivering healthcare via drones in remote locations around the world (from the 12:15 time mark to 26:55, embedded within talks by Phil Preston and Derek Wood) and Mark Wexler’s talk about Not For Sale, a non-profit he co-founded with the mission to put an end to human trafficking.
Desire a better sense of the role design and designers can play? See slides from the March 2018 version of my workshop entitled, “Question everything — Designing more effectively for social impact,” my recent conversation with Marc Rettig “on what it takes for companies to move toward social and environmental responsibility, how we might help, and what that means for design,” and the entirety of the curriculum of the Austin Center for Design, where I am a member of the faculty.
I have begun to work with Phil Preston — who provided input on this post — on leveraging design to help organizations figure out how to effectively create shared value. What questions do you have about all this? Please share them via comments below or by contacting Phil or me directly.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Good conversation

A version of this post has been published on LinkedIn.

I love to engage in and facilitate good conversation. Here is a small sample of both personal and professional relevance.

Some of the best conversations I have are impromptu conversations with people I just happen to meet, such as:

  • the conversation I had Friday morning just prior to Creative Mornings with a young Australian woman who recently moved to San Francisco from Hong Kong about cultural differences between San Francisco and Hong Kong and the challenges she was having living here so far and about the tragedy and nuances of gender and age discrimination in the workplace,
  • the conversation I had last week just prior to a Consumer Biotech & Digital Health Showcase at Indie Bio with four other attendees about how safe it is to live in Beijing relative to San Francisco, what safety means in both cities, and what one needs to do or not do to remain safe,
  • another recent conversation I had standing in line to get into an After Hours event at the Mill Valley Library with a couple married for 59 years, most of them spent in Mill Valley, about how Mill Valley and the Mill Valley Film Festival have changed over the years and the roles they played in some of those changes and why and about their favorite novels and what they thought of each other’s favorites and of the 100 semifinalists in the Great American Read competition,
  • a conversation I had earlier this year in a CapMetro Bus in Austin (as I described in The Benefits of Riding the Bus) with a homeless fellow about the unsold suitcase, duffle bag, jacket, and novelty cane he had just happily found in a trash bin, about the kind of person his mother had been, about the difficulties he was having getting food stamps, and about the recent stormy day when the homeless shelter refused him and others entrance because of a worse than usual bed bug infestation,
  • and a conversation I had last year during lunch at a Silicon Valley forum on the future of robotics in Japan and the U.S. with a female investor about (as I described in a tweet thread) our very different perspectives on the shortage of women speaking at the forum and working in tech and about whether business and robotic products should be of benefit to society.
Others occur during planned, informal gatherings, such as:

  • the dinner party I attended Saturday evening during which we had in depth conversations about how to properly make risotto (an activity in which we were engaged), about the wine industry and how to best taste different wines to assess their quality (an activity in which we were engaged), about the compositions of Handel and Mozart and the role improvisation — musical conversation — is supposed to play in performances of Mozart’s music (you can guess what we were listening to), and about different reactions to and ways of dealing with the loss of loved ones,
  • dinner parties I’ve planned over the years bringing together a mix of professional associates who had never before met, as when I brought together Don Norman and Sara Little Turnbull and watched and listened in awe (and occasionally spoke) as the master — Sara — educated the fellow — Don — who many consider to be the master,
  • and the many meetings for coffee or some other beverage that I have with professional associates; recent topics of such conversations have included the challenges of addressing homelessness, using trauma informed care techniques in design research, shortcomings in design education, working in India, designing for confrontation, reframing design as activism, the concept of shared value, the challenges of running a social impact design agency, dealing with book publishers, and why we do the work we do.
Some occur during workshops I facilitate, classes I teach, and talks I give, such as:

  • the design studio I facilitated remotely for groups of data scientists in a University of Michigan social research lab focused on advancing intervention data science via design; the structure of the design studio enabled them to generate ideas and conversations about ideas which they had not had before, resulting in a breakthrough one particular group badly needed,
  • the “Designing More Effectively for Social Impact” (aka “Moving Beyond Standard Human-Centered Design”) workshop I teach during which participants experiment with and discuss the meaning and relevance of approaches new to them so they can determine whether or how to begin to experiment with modifying their existing design practice,
  • the advanced “Theory of Interaction Design & Social Entrepreneurship” course I teach at the Austin Center for Design which is comprised, in part, of a series of intense conversations I facilitate about the meaning of various theories — old and new, their strengths and weaknesses, and their relevance to design and social entrepreneurial practice today,
  • and (hopefully) in association with an upcoming talk I’ll be giving in a San Francisco residential living room about how important it is or might be to be or to have been or to not be or to not have been a member of the (marginalized) community for or with which you are designing.
Some occur on stage, such as:

  • the somewhat contentious conversation I facilitated during San Francisco Design Week between five terrific designers on whether designers are becoming the new activists, a conversation that has led to so many more and to proposals about how design as conventionally practiced needs to change,
  • the wonderful conversation I had on stage at San Francisco’s de Young Museum with Meghan Schofield (see top photo) about the unconventional path she had taken into and through the design profession, helping the audience of mostly new and prospective designers see and consider what might be possible for them,
  • and the many other special conversations I’ve had or facilitated on stage over the years, some at CHI (e.g., with Bill Buxton & Cliff Nass about the human limits to HCI & design) and DUX (e.g., with Sara Little Turnbull about her amazing, pioneering design career) conferences, many at BayCHI events (e.g., with Paul Saffo & Jaron Lanier about looking back & looking forward), …
Some occur via text message, such as the wonderful witty conversation I’ve been having off-and-on for months with a UT Austin ESL faculty member about, among many other things, concepts which her students have difficulty learning, Texans and Texas culture, goats, yoga, happiness, diversity, and word meaning, use, and origins. And did I say goats? And goats?

Others that occur in writing are in considerably longer form, such as:

The depth and nuance, the emotion, the uncertainty and the certainty, and the insight accessed and generated via good conversation are to be savored, often prompt or influence numerous important followup conversations, and are critical to our individual and collective growth.

Wanna engage in a good conversation? Give me a holler.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

On what it takes for companies to move toward social and environmental responsibility, how we might help, and what that means for design  --  my conversation with Marc Rettig

A version of this post has been published on Medium.

I’ve interviewed lots of people on stage at professional events over the years, engaging in and facilitating conversations that are often wide-ranging though with a primary focus on design. And when Jon Kolko and I were Editors-in-Chief of interactions magazine, we ended most issues with a simulated “cafe” conversation on topics of relevance to that issue’s content. We started to resurrect such conversations last year on topics of relevance to design today (see "On the relationship between design and activism" and "On the importance of theory to design practitioners"), and I’ve started having such conversations with others as well (see "On what it takes to effectively design the future of healthcare"). Here is the second with another: a conversation with Marc Rettig.

Marc is a Principal at Fit Associates, a firm based in Pittsburgh, PA that helps people learn to create change together; he also teaches at CMU and SVA DSI. I met Marc many years ago when he was Chief Experience Officer at a Chicago-based design firm called HannaHodge. (Marc, always a trail blazer, was the first Chief Experience Officer anywhere ever.) In April, I interviewed Marc when he met with my students remotely during a course I was teaching at the Austin Center for Design. I invited Marc to extend that conversation.


Posing the big question, and seeing companies as emergent patterns of relationship
Richard: I’ve been exploring what it takes for companies to become (more) “ethical” — to pursue goals that are, for example, social or environmental as vigorously as goals that are economic — to move beyond side Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives that many claim exist mostly for PR reasons or to make employees happier about working there. Jon Kolko and I addressed this a bit in our conversation on the relationship between design and activism, and you began to address it in February via Twitter conversation you had with Jared Spool.

Do you have the answer? Do you know what it takes for companies to (begin to) make it (more of) their responsibility to improve society or the environment?

Gardening versus changing
Marc: Hoo boy, there’s a lot in there.

I’m not saying this is what you asked for, but a question like that can seem to expect a direct, action-oriented answer: “The Thurston-McKinney approach will set you on the right path for sure.”

But of course it’s messier than that. There ARE some good ways to get started, and good tools we can bring to bear. But that beginning and those tools are systemic rather than direct.

So I need to start with a way of seeing organizations and change that’s different than the view we all seem to have soaked up through the Big Old Societal Story.

A company is an emergent system made of people in loose relationship, not a machine made of parts in tightly constrained order. We can’t “work on it” with predictable results.

It is more accurate and useful to see an organization as a process. And to notice that this process (or really this woven bundle of patterns of processes) is mostly concerned with reinforcing its existing structures and repeating its old processes and stories. That process view of organizations gives us…

--Useful question #1--
How can we nurture the conditions in which at least some part of the organization pauses its process of repetition and reinforcement of the old story, so it can begin exploring a new story?

As some systems sage has pointed out, “No gardener ever made a rose.” But good gardeners are great at working with the conditions in which roses can become healthy and flourishing. That is a clue.

Relationships as our "material"
I’ll make one more point about social systems, then I’ll pause.

Say you’re setting out to influence or change an organization to “take responsibility to improve society and the environment.” The most common thing has been to focus on the people—the executives and managers maybe, or the strategic innovation group. The naïve idea is to somehow persuade or motivate them to care, to take new actions, to measure success by different values. This kind of persuasion has been tried so many times in so many ways, we can say confidently that persuasion is a dull tool.

If people are the “material” of our approach to change, then we’ve got two problems. One is that we’re working with the least malleable aspect of the system. All the models of individual change tell us that it takes time, it’s not easy, and it doesn’t happen because someone else wants it to.

The other problem is that we’re trying to apply a parts-and-whole view of a system, when social systems are mostly made of relationships. It’s easy to see the outcomes we’d like to change as coming from the people in the organization. But that’s not what’s really going on. The outcomes emerge from the relationships between those people, and from thousands and thousands of conversations across those relationships. For the topic we’re discussing, there’s barely even such a thing as an individual person.

When we focus on relationships as our “material,” we see people as participants. We become interested in the conversations through which those relationships are formed and maintained or blocked and disrupted. We notice how a large proportion of those conversations have to do with maintaining and repeating the status quo. “Johnson, I know you’re new here and full of ideas, but why can’t you be more like Williams? He was innovator of the year!”

Conversations shape relationships, relationships play a dominant role in individual change and development, and conversations are far more malleable than individual human behavior. So if people are not the “material” of change, but instead we’re focused on patterns of conversation and relationship, we have,

--Useful question #2--
How can we work with conversation and relationship in ways that can attract and sustain new patterns of organizational behavior?

Organizational narratives, the seeds of change, and four ways to "cross the gap"
Richard: Great questions, both prompting additional questions.

Regarding the first… I don’t want to over-extend the metaphor, but don’t good gardeners ever plant the seeds in addition to working the conditions in which the roses become healthy and flourish? Or, within an organization, is it better to find the desirable seeds that have already been planted or just assume they are there somewhere? If one of the latter, how does one gain access to nurture their growth (or must all change occur from within)?

And both of your questions bring to mind John Hagel’s concept of a “narrative” which, unlike a “story” which, as defined by Hagel, has a beginning, middle, and end, is open-ended, inviting participation and contribution to shape how it unfolds. According to Hagel’s definition, a corporate narrative is about the corporation’s audience rather than about itself. Nevertheless, how can a narrative about the goals and roles of a company become a part of the conversations its people have and, hence, the relationships those conversations help shape? And how can such conversations and new relationships be nurtured?

However, isn’t the approval of people still needed? Don’t people still need to be convinced at some point or at multiple points that change — even change in the form of different conversations — is beneficial? While facilitating the exploration of a new corporate story via nurturing new conversations is important, people still need to be persuaded.

Marc: I like your question about where the seeds come from. Sometimes I use a little drawing to talk about that question. On the left side is “the way things are,” on the right is “the way things could be” or the way we’d like them to be, or sense that it is possible to be. And in between is a gap.

Somebody, it might be Brené Brown, calls that “the cynicism gap.” It’s the gap we aren’t sure how to cross, and with enough repeated disappointment we might start to believe it can never be crossed.

Water the sprouts that already exist
So how do we work? How do we go about getting ourselves across the gap together? One answer is to look for the seeds that already exist. John Thackara sometimes says, “What needs to happen is already happening.” By which he means, whatever big challenge or stuck situation you’re considering, you’re almost certainly not the only one. Others have already started, some have made progress, and a couple of them are probably onto something.

Then he says, “You just need to find where it’s happening, connect those people to each other, and ask them what they need to grow.” And he’s more or less made a career out of that statement.

Plant new seeds
So that’s the approach of “The seeds have already been planted.” And you’re right, there’s also the “Let’s plant some seeds ourselves” approach. We can manage a portfolio of little pop-up futures—experiments to find out what will attract people toward new patterns of behavior and relationship. I draw them like this, like they’re able to latch on to the edge of the gap and pull it closed.

These aren’t prototypes in the way the business and design world usually thinks of them. They are experiences of a possible way of living, working, relating, etc. For example, “You’ve said your two departments don’t get along and seldom talk. Each of you send a vertical cross-section of your people, and for one week you’ll try three different kinds of collaboration and communication. At the end of the week you’ll design a set of inter-department experiments—artifacts, roles, rituals, practices, processes, etc.—that a) you have reason to believe might work, b) you can establish as practice if they’re great, and c) you can stop if they’re not great without causing any damage.

This is an oversimplified version of Dave Snowden’s approach to managing in complexity, and it has great power. There are many less principled grassroots versions of this out there, some of them pretty inspiring. Take a look at Better Block (TEDx talk & website) for example.

There are at least two other overall strategies for crossing the gap. I’ll say less about them, but just to complete the list, one is to build creative capacity in the community so more seeds will sprout on this side of the gap. Another is to convene across the system and make a facilitated journey of co-creation together. These all have different expressions in different fields, but so far as I’ve been able to find those are four ways people are successfully going about crossing the gap. 

Both of those “seed” approaches—planting seeds and nurturing the sprouts you find—are grounded in good theory about how socially complex systems change. You don’t shift the dominant paradigm through direct pressure on its center. You don’t persuade those who are fully invested in the old pattern, convincing them to change their minds and adopt a new one. Instead of persuading, you attract to something. You activate urges that are already present.  

Some people call the experiments and sprouts “hopeful monsters.” To people in the comfortable middle of the system, they’re strange. They look like monsters. But to others they are hopeful, they are attractive. As they become more visible, as they connect, they become more and more ready to move to the center once it inevitably weakens.

Persuasion vs. attraction and the stories that keep us stuck
That point about attraction versus persuasion connects to your question about narrative. Narrative or story is a hugely important topic. In our work with facilitation (“hosting conversations that matter”), we are sometimes very deliberate in working with the kind of deep narrative you describe.

I mentioned people who are fully invested in the old pattern. They repeat and reinforce its behaviors and relationships. “Johnson, you’re doing it wrong. Why can’t you be more like Williams?” What’s under that? Where does it come from? It comes from that underlying narrative about the company, its place in the world, and their place in it. It might be unconscious. But it is repeated constantly in the choices of who to reward, who to mock, what to prioritize, what to fight for and against.

“We sell as much coffee as we possibly can.”
“We provide the comforts of home and office, with coffee.”
“We are partners with the planet and society in the use of coffee.”

The old story is comfortable. We’ve been living it a long time, we know how to do it, we know our role. But we have to stop the old story in order to find the new one. It’s uncomfortable—a real stretch!—to hit pause on the story that defines your identity and your place in it all, and move into a place between stories—a place that makes room for uncertainty, that gives time to find the new story that has the strength to draw you out into new patterns.

You asked how this kind of conversation can be nurtured. And you asked if it isn’t always the case that some people need to be persuaded to change, to explore, to let go of the old story and consider a new one.

Can you persuade someone to have an open mind? I find persuasion to be the dullest knife in the drawer, but for reasons I don’t understand it’s the one people always seem to reach for.

If you like I can expand and give examples, but the big picture answer is to say, 1) experiences have far more power to open minds than any argument, and 2) there is a very old craft of hosting conversations in ways that make it more likely that people will suspend their presuppositions, see through other people’s eyes, reflect and reframe together. And we can connect those experiences over time with some real hope of shifting things.

Earlier in this conversation I mentioned that it’s useful to view a company as a process, busily repeating its patterns or perhaps experimenting with new ones. Exactly the same can be said of people. Of leaders, decision-makers, designers, builders. They are in the process of repeating their old stories, and/or becoming the next version of themselves. The gardener suggests tending to the conditions for their becoming, rather than trying to persuade them to stop being who they are.

What does that look like?
Richard: Suspending presuppositions, seeing through other people’s eyes, reflecting and reframing with others, … — all skills purportedly in the designers’ wheelhouse, and while perhaps those experiments with other ways of doing things aren’t prototypes in the way the design world usually thinks of prototypes, it seems like designers are at least somewhat well-equipped (and are well-positioned to become better equipped) to play a key role in making or helping to make all of this happen. But how might they be empowered to do so? Via experiments with such empowerment?

Plus, since we’re discussing all this in the context of exploring what it takes for companies to (begin to) make it their responsibility to improve society or the environment, what might little experiments in that direction look like?

The indiscernible beginnings of a storm of change
Marc: Maybe it will help to try to make up a story – a bit of process fiction. The story is needed because my response to the two things you just asked about--the prototypes and the role of designers--need the context of a bigger story.

How does the story get started? What is the beginning of an organizational shift toward social and environmental responsibility? In her book, The Storm of Creativity, Kyna Lesky wonderfully compares creativity to a thunderstorm. When does a storm begin? What is the sequence that leads to the formation of the right clouds, the right conditions? What reinforces those conditions until the rain begins to fall? We can’t say, because it is not a matter of direct cause and effect. It is a matter of pattern emergence in complexity.

So in our imaginary organization let’s say there are the seeds of a storm. There are people who feel uneasy with the status quo. A few managers have been to the Sustainable Brands conference. HR has hired a diversity and inclusion manager, and emails are circulating about other companies’ local community efforts. This is the visible, surface evidence – the smoke. The fire producing that smoke is still invisible in the quarterly reports and project briefs. It’s still in the form of coals, deep in people’s thoughts and emotions. Managers who find themselves daydreaming on the drive home, wondering about moving to a company where they can feel like they’re giving something to the world other than more disposable containers.

It starts with listening
Should we make this story about a lone catalyst? A team leader somewhere, not a VP or anything, who decides to begin taking action? Or should we make this about someone more senior who has a little budget and power to convene? Either way, the first step is to listen.

What does it look like when we listen to an organization? With a full dose of “it depends,” listening might involve….
  • Making a map of leaders and influencers, and scheduling time for deep “dialogue interviews.” More personal than business or research interviews: the story of how they got where they are, what they really care about, what they’re trying to accomplish and what’s in the way, the values that underlie their work, and whether they think about their legacy—how things will be different because of their time at the company.
  • Something more systematic like a culture scan, gathering stories about the way choices are made, the way the organization is and isn’t already living out the sort of policies and behaviors we’re aspiring to. The patterns in those stories suggest where the “adjacent futures” might be—informal patterns and practices that some people are already living, moving toward, and which others feel attracted to.
  • Finding the pioneers, asking what they need, and helping them connect to each other. It is often (always?) the case that when a system or paradigm is peaking, is dominant -- like the one playing out in our imaginary organization that’s driven by concerns other than long-term quality of life for all species – that’s the time when some folks become dissatisfied and start jumping off. They might not know exactly what they’re jumping toward, but they can see how things can be better, they see the damage of the status quo, and they head out to experiment. They are the seeds of the next thing. Help them find each other! 

In the case studies we’ve looked at, people take up to a year to simply listen to the system, gather people for conversation, sense what’s going on, and put in place the conditions for the next steps to be perceived as legitimate.

Our beliefs about change affect our default approach
Where does it go from there? I’m working on a piece of writing that describes how our world view – the story we’ve chosen to believe about change – strongly affects the way we think it’s “smart” to go about working toward change.

Do you believe we can manage our way to just, equitable, and sustainable practices through an innovation process? Do you believe shifting the system will require a whole-system approach? Maybe you believe in bottom-up change and the power of the grassroots, or the power of community and dialogue across boundaries. The importance of building capacity for participation and co-creation? The power of place?

My point is not that there is confusion about approach, or that change strategies are purely subjective. My point is that organizations are complex in a truly formal sense: emergent, nonlinear, unpredictable. And we live and work in a time of great energy toward finding better ways to engage with that kind of social complexity. Out of that energy comes a lot of inadequate approaches—nice tries, no cigar. There is a lot of “I’ll just keep swinging this same hammer at these things I’ve decided to call nails.” And there are a few really beautiful hard-working approaches we can learn from. They all originated outside the “design” conversation. One or two are starting to be embraced by people who call themselves designers.

What a wonderful time to be learning and working!

Prototypes and probes: Where do they come from? What do they look like?
Well back to the story. You asked where the prototypes come from, and what they might look like.

Where they come from is conversations, same as anything else. And that, by the way, has been a blind spot of design practice. We’ve spent decades on how to have good conversations about new ideas, but little attention on the conversations before that: who needs to be involved, who’s being left out, what’s going on, what’s possible, what gifts are available to this situation, what great intention – bigger than ourselves and our organization – are we aligned toward, what stories are we aiming to bring to life in the world, how can we hold on to that intention throughout the process, what are we afraid of, what is driving us (fear? self-interest? creative fire?), and so on.

It’s one thing to miss these conversations when you’re making a new blender or hospital admittance form or whatever. It’s quite another when you’re pursuing the question we’re talking about, which is basically about the way an organization can be a place for soulful, life-giving creative participation of the people who work there. This doesn’t need to feel like church. It just needs to be open, honest, and big enough. I’m hurrying through this point because it is a deep well and probably another conversation to have.  

So maybe in our story we get to a place where we have a gathering of people with some commitment to shift the status quo. They have different ways of going about it, they’re in different parts and levels of the organization, but they are joined by a sense that a better way is both possible and deeply desired. And they’re hip to the complexity of the situation, so they decide to work experimentally at the edges, rather than planning some kind of frontal attack on the center of the status quo.

The prompts might be things like:
  • “We have a few stories of socially / environmentally responsible choices and strategies in our organization. How might we get more stories like those, and fewer of the opposite stories?”
  • “We have identified pockets where people are already making something happen in their corner of the organization. How might we support and amplify their efforts? How might we connect them? How can we encourage the birth of a community of practice?”
  • “We know that experiences are more enlightening and persuasive than arguments and presentations. How might we engage influencers and decision-makers in experiences that invite them to re-examine their old stories and open to the idea of creating new ones?”
  • “We know that this conversation is taking place in isolated silos and groups of our organization. How might we scaffold bridges of relationship and conversation between like-minded leaders, projects, and teams?”

Imagine the experiments that might come out of such briefs! I feel funny making up examples, because the real thing would be much more specific to the people and organization than anything I can invent. But examples help, so maybe…
  • Pop-up studios and labs: a day or a week of cross-functional exploration, or provocative experiences of possible futures
  • A pecha-kucha event to help people become aware of each other’s efforts
  • Learning journeys / strategic immersions: getting people out of the office to experience say: organizations that are further along in the change we seek for ourselves, the positive and negative impacts our organization has on people and places, parallel but relevant skills and contexts that can inspire our own strategies
  • Any number of experimental artifacts, roles, or rituals that might make it easier for some group of people to live out their values in their work rather than setting them aside in service to status quo habits and pressures.

Sometimes the point of the experiment is the results you hope it will yield. Much more often, the point of the experiment is the way conversations will be born and relatedness will increase. I wouldn’t imagine any of these ideas, even a pecha-kucha one-off event, to be standalone. There would be attention before and after to tend the conditions for conversation and relatedness.

If our fictional gathering of people has the ability and sponsorship to formalize this work, they can manage these experiments as a portfolio, learning from them all, stabilizing or feeding the ones that spark attraction to something positive, and dampening the ones that don’t. All the while encouraging and hosting conversations, reflections, and new connections.

But even without that, this sort of local experimentation and conversational fertilizer can’t help but nurture the conditions for something new to grow. It encourages the pioneers. It sheds light on what’s working. It is the natural starting point for a community of practice, and once something like that has formed you are well on the way to a new dominant paradigm. The storm has formed.

Are designers prepared for the work of social pattern-shifting?
Okay. Having said all that, I’ll return to your question about designers’ skills: “…Suspending presuppositions, seeing through other people’s eyes, reflecting and reframing with others, … — all skills purportedly in the designers’ wheelhouse….”

Some barriers
I’ve taught now in three graduate design programs, and have been a visitor to two or three others. And I’ve spent countless hours among practicing designers and design leaders in organizations and at conferences and so on. I’m going to throw a blanket statement over all that, with the disclaimer that there are certainly many hundreds of exceptions to what I’m about to say.

When I think about all those students and professionals and managers, what qualities come to mind besides their skills and qualities—their training, imagination, good heart, care for craft, and so on? Here are some that come to mind for me:
  • They believe that they have the tools to tackle just about anything, from beginning to end.
  • They love to be recognized for their expertise.
  • They’ve been soaking in the idea that the primary home for design sponsorship and the exercise of design’s power is the world of business. Which is to say, most designers think in terms of business goals and intentions.
  • They’re so used to working with technology that they tend to assume (often unconsciously) that it will somehow be part of the “solution” they design.
  • They believe that the best way to work is in strong small teams. Outside the team they see stakeholders and “users.” Their idea of participatory work is an afternoon workshop with stakeholders and users.
  • They’re in a big hurry. Grad school, internships, first jobs, agencies, big companies, non-profits,… all their experience has been intense, aggressive, non-stop. They don’t like that this compromises what they know to be good practice: taking time to really immerse and understand, to explore many directions, giving equal time to divergence and convergence, not rushing to conclusions, evaluating alternatives, and so on. They don’t like it, but they don’t know how to fight against it. And in fact many take pride in the fact that they can get to results quickly.
  • They aren’t in the habit of stepping back to see the connection between their current project and the long-term greater good, and when they do they are poorly equipped to stand on its behalf.

All of these make for terrible conditions in which to work in the way I’m suggesting is necessary for fostering social shifts: “suspend presuppositions, see through other people’s eyes, reflect and reframe with others.”

You are right that these that these are all close to the heart of design. We could go deeply into each of those things, but I’ll pick just one to harp on: “with others.”

The critical piece: "Together" -- participatory emergence
What most designers aren’t trained to do, and what most processes don’t include, is helping everyone who is somehow a stakeholder in the situation create together.

Yes, designers seem to be well-positioned to become equipped for a truly participatory, systemic, and emergent way of working. In my classroom experiences the biggest challenge for designers is to let go of their engrained sense of themselves as expert problem-solvers who will be the source of the good ideas and the shapers of the resulting forms.

Design practice is full of hero mentality. It is still colonial, in the sense of “I’m here with knowledge and skills to make things better for you, people who aren’t like me.” Design doesn’t trust the people it calls “users” to be full peers in co-creation.

When it comes to the social complexity of organizational culture, no single project will suffice. No single design is sufficient. The challenge will not yield to research and expertise. You cannot design-and-implement, you can only bring your gifts to your participation in the process, your citizenship in the future. 

There is plenty of design-and-implement work to do down in the details, and huge help to be given in service to insight, communication, facilitation, and so on. But there’s so much work to be done together before we know what to design. Designers can make themselves ready for that work by
  • expanding their ability to work in complexity and uncertainty,
  • learning to bring their process expertise into communities of peer co-creators,
  • learning to focus more on the conditions from which new patterns of relationship and behavior arise—the conditions in which a storm might form—rather than “solutions to problems.”

It starts with ourselves, and experience trumps persuasion
Richard: I agree with your assessment of the tendencies of today’s designers, design students, and managers and of their readiness (or lack thereof) to work in the ways that you argue are crucial. What you argue is consistent, I think, with what I’ve argued needs to change in a lot of design education and even in the way design is framed, and there are a few frameworks for engaging in design in ways related to this, including equity-centered community design and transition design, the latter with which you are probably intimately familiar since its development has been led by some of your colleagues at CMU. I’m encouraged by the increased attention such proposed changes are receiving.

Regarding the relative power of experiences versus persuasion to open minds, a past tweet by Dave Gray seems relevant:

Years ago, I spearheaded a project in which I sent a diverse set of stakeholders — many strongly committed to very different perspectives of how potential customers of a proposed business behaved and what they would want— out into people’s homes and workplaces to find out. Those experiences opened minds dramatically, subsequent workshops and conversation resolved most remaining differences of opinion, and the stakeholders asked that all future projects be run in a similar fashion. However, one individual — the executive leader of the project — did not engage in those experiences, and the course of the project (i.e., the nature of the business offering), though signifcantly affected, wasn’t changed as dramatically as many argued was advisable.

That story is akin to a story you shared recently in comic strip form, which concluded with comments of concern. OK, this is a tad weird, but I’m going to quote you here:

“The biggest difficulty in this work came from lack of executive involvement. The team had an experience that transformed how they saw the company’s place in the world, and which led them to a new kind of strategic direction.

But then the team found itself having to persuasively communicate unconventional ideas to executives who hadn’t been through the same experience. They had remained in the same institutional structure and old everyday conversation, while the team had been shaken into a new realization by their travels, new friendships, and serious reflection.”

So, it seems that one cannot always avoid the need to (attempt to) persuade.

Lastly, the act of gardening takes time, sometimes lots of time, as you have stated. But we are already experiencing multiple significant social and environmental crises. Do we have the time that such gardening requires?

Business as usual: unredeemable?
Marc: Oh, I’m glad you mentioned “significant social and environmental crises.” I read your conversation with John Kolko in which you made a half-joke about not pontificating. But two weeks ago I promised a room full of people that I would start speaking up more often about a couple of things, and given the topic we’re discussing this seems like just the right time to do so.

There are a few important topics that we too seldom talk about in design, and unless we get brave, stop avoiding them, get humble, and begin the long walk into their wide territory, we are going to continue to do more harm than good.

Two pillars of our dysfunctional status quo
We stand on and work in a long history of systems that leave people out, that deliberately give some people advantage at the cost of other people’s disadvantage and suffering. In the U.S., that dynamic has been predominately based on race. It’s getting easier all the time to take ourselves to school on this topic. We don’t talk about it nearly enough. How must our practices change in order to contribute to an equitable and just society? Can we start experimenting, making commitments, and telling each other stories about these changes?

We stand on and work in a long history of systems built on an assumption of growth as the measure of success, as the engine of business, as an undiscussed given. Growth in what? Quality of life? Wellness? Peace? No, growth in one thing. Profit. We say we practice “human-centered design,” but the fundamental metrics of our business sponsors and the systems that support them will refuse to put humans at the center unless they believe it will create more profit.

And as Joanna Macy says, any third-grader can see that growth has limits in a world of limited resources. But if you say that in a boardroom they think you’re being silly.

A story big enough for a lifetime
So we shouldn’t end this conversation about our hypothetical company without getting seriously big-picture for a moment. I want to make sure I don’t give the impression that I believe that with the right new approach and methods, it’s otherwise business as usual. We have been talking about organizational responsibility and change at the scale of one organization and an effort of a few years. But let’s not kid ourselves. This is not a one-project, learn-a-few-new-tricks kind of conversation.

This is a paradigm question. It reaches deep below the emotional layer, down into the place of identity, care, and sense of connection. Millions of managers have built their entire career on the assumptions that these questions invite us to challenge. That’s scary, that’s disorienting, and it causes many people to get defensive, to grip tightly to the story in which they’ve finally come to be comfortable, to feel known and accepted, to feel capable. The dominant paradigm comes with a library of how-to books. The next paradigm, the one yet to be born, can currently offer only a few clues amongst uncertainty.

In light of this, persuasion is a ridiculously inadequate tool. It’s pea-shooter versus glacier. The move to whatever a sustainable and equitable society will not be a tidy process of reason and debate. It will be (and already is) a messy, billion-fingered, organic, emergent process of co-creation. It will involve creating attractive alternatives that draw people forward much more than it involves “changing” the participants in the current paradigm to somehow act differently together. In the process, I expect that most of the institutions and systems in the center of the current paradigm will come to an end.

Some say this great transition, this “Great Turning” compares in scale of impact to only two previous shifts: the agricultural era and the industrial age: each involved creation of new alternatives, displacement or destruction of old patterns, and a shift in societal consciousness.      

Now THAT is a story big enough to live into. Unlike all the previous invitations I have received in my career—to improve home appliances or a web site, to bridge division between departments, and so on and on—unlike all of those, I find THIS invitation too thrilling to refuse.

. . . .

Richard: Thank you for the conversation. You knock me out, Marc. I look forward to many more conversations.

Marc: That’s kind of you to say. Thank you very much for a fun conversation, and yes I’m sure there will be more.