Design thinking at A Mindful Society — the story so far.

From the beginning, we saw our annual mindfulness conference in Toronto as more than a chance to build community. We saw it as an incredible opportunity to understand and support those on the front lines. In the past 3 years, we have engaged countless professionals bringing mindfulness into education, business, healthcare, and government to share their unique perspectives. Our third Toronto event in April is coming up, so let’s recap what we’ve learned so far through our ongoing design thinking process.

Before our first event in 2015, we asked all registered attendees to tell us about their unanswered questions around mindfulness in society. Survey results revealed a few key areas of inquiry. At the conference, we invited experienced design thinkers to workshop three key questions with attendees. I’ve recently published the output of each group here on Medium:

This mini-documentary (produced by Insightful) captures feelings and ideas from our 2015 event. If you don’t have 10 minutes, jump to 4:33 for a design thinking overview.

After analyzing each group individually, Michael Apollo and I brought all the data to a picnic in Trinity-Bellwoods park. We analyzed the findings across groups in search for a generalized understanding across sectors. It was a lovely afternoon, not only because the sun was shining, but also because we were able to spot meaningful themes in the data. The most striking trend which emerged was how professionals in a wide range of sectors were all advocating for internal champions to take the lead on culture change in their communities.

For our 2015 event, we crowdsourced key questions and workshopped them with attendees. Analysis of the outcomes led to a treasure trove of insights (which we’ve shared in previous articles) and a meaningful direction forward for our 2016 event.

Last year’s conference theme: “Change from Within”

At our design thinking workshops during A Mindful Society 2015, educators spoke of using embedded approaches and having students inspire each other. Managers and executives spoke of mindful leadership and making it a part of company culture and process. Healthcare practitioners discussed finding a common secular language to convince decision makers to support mindfulness initiatives from the top. Many had stories of inviting external facilitators to lead mindfulness sessions which seemed successful at first, but failed to produce lasting change.

Instead of looking outward, experts were clearly advocating for those already rooted within a community to lead the charge. Many also emphasized the importance of experienced facilitators teaching authentic mindfulness. This duality is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. We want internal champions to lead the charge, and yet we also want the practice to be taught by experienced facilitators. Communities who don’t have any experienced facilitators can’t have it both ways, so externals still play an important role.

We tried to capture these findings in our conference theme for A Mindful Society 2016: Change From Within. This phrase guided us with an intentional double-meaning. Culture change comes from the personal development of each individual, and also from the champions who advocate from within our communities.

Culture change comes from the personal development of each individual, and also from the champions who advocate from within our communities.

We targeted the next phase of our design thinking process toward supporting those advocating for change from within. We had a lot of mindfulness champions from a wide range of communities already registering for the 2016 conference, so we sent out two new survey questions.

The Motivation Discrepancy

When we analyzed the results of our 2016 survey, a fascinating discrepancy emerged. When mindfulness professionals described the challenges they face in sharing the practice, they clearly articulated five (as depicted in the left column above):

  1. Facilitators need clear support from their community to make mindfulness feel acceptable and appropriate to both participants and facilitators.
  2. Many don’t have a clear understanding of what mindfulness is, with misconceptions about it’s nature, origins, objectives, etc.
  3. Some feel a cultural resistance in their communities, based on perceptions that the practice is religious, strange, anti-productive, cultist, etc.
  4. Systemic and economic barriers often stand in the way, whether they involve funding, hierarchy, decision-making, policy or regulation.
  5. Mindfulness takes commitment and motivation — facilitators find it hard to get even the most well-intentioned participants to attend regularly.

Take special note of the last one — motivation is a common challenge with mindfulness. Interestingly, when asked what resources might help, there were complimentary answers to all except that fifth answer.

Attendees mentioned conferences, training, evidence, and advocacy, but they very rarely communicated a need for resources which support the motivation of their participants. Very few expressed any ideas on how to address motivation when bringing mindfulness to the communities around them. This was striking since they were very vocal about it being a major challenge.

This discrepancy struck us as a clear opportunity to move closer toward effective action. We decided to target our design thinking exercise at the 2016 event to explore how we might support motivation as a key element to organizational change. Want to find out what happened? The story continues in our next article: 6 Stages of the Mindful Champion!


Jay Vidyarthi holds the Design Thinking Chair for A Mindful Society. Between keynotes, workshops, and practice periods, we host and capture structured conversations for articles like this one. Follow us on Twitter for updates!

Interested? Join us at A Mindful Society 2017 on April 21–23 in Toronto!