Culture work

Organizational becoming made practical

Marc Rettig
As presented at UX Advantage, Baltimore, August 2015

This was a keynote talk at the 2015 UX Advantage Conference in Baltimore. The words are my speaker’s notes, and the images are pulled from the slides. I thought it would be more helpful to combine the two into this format rather than simply sharing the slides. My thanks to Jared Spool and Karen McGrane for organizing the conference and extending the invitation.

You can download a pdf of this document from slideshare.

Audio of this talk is available on SoundCloud.


I’ve written this talk in response to the questions of the conference, as shown on the front page of the UX Advantage site. “What does it take to create a culture of design? How does putting user experience first change the way organizations work?”

These are great questions, and I’m glad we’re finally talking about them.

You should know that I am speaking to you from the bottom of a well, or the corner of a meadow. I have stepped back from projects for this summer, to make space for a time of reflection. And for most of this talk I’m stepping way back from specific situations and projects, to share with you some ideas that seem very important as places to stand while we address the questions of the conference.

It’s my job to be as clear as I can about the ideas. It’s your job to put the ideas in conversation with your situation. I’d be interested to hear what happens.

Let’s begin with a fable….

In a village not far from here, there lived a shoemaker. He was very good at his craft, and he was very happy. In the evenings he would stroll the town and talk to people, or they would visit the shop. And so he knew their needs, and the dreams they had for their shoes.

The shoemaker knew when school was about to begin, and he knew that the children would have outgrown last year’s shoes. When Fall came, he began work on warm winter boots of many sizes and styles. In spring he spoke to brides and grooms about their wedding shoes.

In short, the shoemaker was part of village life, in tune with village life, in a kind of dance with village life. And so he made his living.

Now, the shoe shop was owned by The Strategist. Until recently, the strategist had been most happy with the shoemaker’s work, and counted himself lucky to be in partnership with the shoemaker. All he had to do was order supplies, keep accounts, see to it that the shop was clean, the bills were paid, and the roof didn’t leak.

But the strategist was having an idea. “The world is changing!” he said. “A department store has opened, and they sell shoes much cheaper than ours. Yes they are all much the same, and the leather is not as good, and they refuse to fix the stitching when it splays. But we must react!”

The strategist went to the shoemaker, and told him his idea. “We will hire more apprentices, and put them to work making shoes all the same. I will order thinner leather, and order in bulk. This will cut costs. And we will sell our shoes in other villages, our neighbors all around. Lower costs, more shoes, great profit. The department store has shown us the way!”

Well, the shoemaker was silent. At first he was numb. Then he was sad. Then he was angry. Would the strategist have him abandon the people of the village, and leave them to get on with department store shoes that wear out so quickly? The shoes would be cheaper, yes, but they won’t last as long. People will spend more of their precious money on shoes, not less. How could the strategist consider such a thing?

And so they shouted and argued, and went to bed without resolving their difference, and continued the next day and through the week, alternating between loud strong words, loud strong silence, and loud strong frowns over the tops of their glasses.

We will leave them there. I’m sorry. We will come back to the shoemaker and the strategist later to see what becomes of them.


Two archetypes

This is just a fable. I know it is stereotyping, of course. It is meant to offer two archetypes.

The shoemaker sees the world as a village, and sees himself as part of its living fabric. He operates by spending time with the people he creates for. He knows their cycles and rhythms. He sees himself as part of a larger dance of life, doing his part to make it better, and receiving a living and a lot of love and enjoyment in return.

The strategist sees the world as a continuous interplay of players in a game, or participants in a grand battle. He sees himself as a lone actor who relies on good ideas and good plans to bring prosperity to himself and those around him. And he seeks to control things to ensure that his ideas and plans are well executed.

Pieter Bruegel

The shoemaker thrives on connection. He pays attention to the village, and acts in direct concert with what he learns in a kind of dance. His customers are real people who he knows and spends time with.

Morier, George II at Dettingen

The strategist thrives on control. He conceives clever ideas, and employs planning and execution in a kind of march. His customers are fungible abstractions.

I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried to write these without judgment. These are both legitimate ways to operate in the world.

Definitions: What is design?

Now, we need some definitions. If we’re talking about design culture, we should maybe have useful working definitions of those two things: “design” and “culture.”

And by the way, I’m trying to offer process definitions of design and culture. Working definitions, not precise or all-encompassing definitions. We just need something so we can talk to each other, and ask ourselves, if that is the essence of design and culture, then how do we WORK?

Let’s start with Design.

Modeling the creative process: meet Hugh Dubberly

Hugh Dubberly is a well-known fixture, consultant, educator, and all-round mover of things forward in the design community. Particularly in the world of interaction design and strategic design.

Hugh has made a number of thoughtfully crafted concept models, which you can find on his site. He spends a lot of time digging into whatever it is he’s chosen to focus on, then spends a lot of time getting to its essential components and relationships, and then spends a lot of time making all that clear in one model.

A few years ago, Hugh noticed that lots of people in lots of different fields were doing some kind of iterative process. He dug into them working with Shelley Evenson, Paul Pangaro, and Jack Chung. They made little working models of them all, showing the parallels.

Download the poster from dubberly.com

In this view, the design process is a special case of a bigger idea called The Creative Process. The whole model of the creative process comes in the form of a big poster, drawing out what’s common in the way people are working out there. It’s great reading, and I recommend it. We assign it as a reading in our courses.

For today I’d like to zoom in on his language for the three main movements in the big loop — observe, reflect, make — which if you’ll notice are themselves loops, and may connect to their neighboring steps with still more loops.

The three key movements in the creative process

Read this aloud, with feeling. Do a little dramatic reading for yourself.

Observe through conversations with context, observe through conversations with people. Observe with attention. Observe with openness, listening and learning from other people, and from other cultures.

We are looking for a useful working definition of design? Okay. Here is someone who is thoroughly studied, who has actively practiced in industry for decades, who teaches at the graduate level and so influences future practice, and who himself learned directly from past masters. This isn’t Hugh opining. He isn’t preaching. He’s documenting the foundation. And he is telling us that paying deep attention to the world, getting into real conversation with it with OPENNESS is one-third of the essence of design. As in, if you aren’t doing this, you aren’t doing design.

So we have a question in front of us at this conference: If this is part of design’s essence, what needs to be true about an organizational culture in which good design can grow? What needs to be true about our cultures for them to embrace the Observe aspect of design?

Okay, that’s observe. What’s next?

Reflect through conversations. Reflect to understand. Reflect to integrate, seeing patterns and building consensus.

There is a generous view of “conversation” at work here. Conversation has shown up in both of these steps so far, as a very deliberate word choice. Bring who you are into contact with the other. You bring something to it, it brings something to you. And you have an exchange. This isn’t our watered-down use of “conversation,” where it could just as likely be one side dumping its views onto the other side. It’s dialog. Reflect through dialog.

Reflect through dialog with experience — with your history! And reflect through dialog with values. Bring your beliefs and your sense of what you really care about, what you think is important, bring all that into contact and exchange with what you have observed.

This isn’t analysis alone. It isn’t only clustering the sticky notes. It is open reflection based on open observation.

So we have a question in front of us at this conference: If this is part of design’s essence, what needs to be true about an organizational culture in which good design can grow? What needs to be true about our cultures for them to embrace the Reflect aspect of design?

Make through conversations with tools and materials. Make to search, working quickly and iterative. Take advantage of accidents! Make to envision, imagining the future and making it tangible. Make to explain what the future might mean. Put yourself, your observation, and your reflection in dialog with tools and materials.

So we have a question in front of us at this conference: If this is part of design’s essence, what needs to be true about an organizational culture in which good design can grow? What needs to be true about our cultures for them to embrace the Make aspect of design?

Here’s the whole loop. What does it mean for these activities to characterize our culture?

The creative process: the mother of the design process

Design is conversational: the kind of conversation that requires open attention. Quality of attention determines quality of result.

Every step is conversational, every step involves some kind of collaboration, and every step requires openness.

So we have a start on the key question of the conference, “What does it take to create a culture of design?”

What does it take? It takes open attention, and it takes real conversation. Again, let me substitute the word “dialog.” A culture of design requires open attention and dialog with contexts, with people, with experience, with values, with tools and materials.

There is an entire design curriculum in this slide.

(At the UX Advantage conference where this was originally presented, someone asked if there is an order to these steps. Here’s what Hugh’s poster says about that: “The process need not begin with observing; it may begin with any step. Boundaries between the steps are not rigid. Each activity continues throughout the process, e.g., making also involves reflecting and observing.” That’s important! Please don’t read this as a step-by-step process prescription.)

Definitions: what is culture?

Here is a layered definition of organizational culture that we have found useful for our work.

At the top is the layer of “form.” This is the result of our collective efforts: digital, physical,… even if it is something abstract like a service, this is a way of showing that the things we do have some impact in the world. Something about the world is different because our organization does what it does.

But where do these forms come from? Well, they are born out of the way we organized, and the way we work together. The structures and processes of our organizations chug along, and out pop the results. It’s like that maxim in John Gall’s Systems Bible: “The system is perfectly designed to produce the results it produces.”

But where do those structures and processes come from? We don’t often ask that question. When we are in the planning meeting, and someone has made the suggestion that we experiment with agile methods, and people get excited and want to try it, where does that excitement come from? Executives have conversations and decide to put design up at the C-level, or they have it report to marketing or wherever, where does that agreement come from? What’s it’s source? This is a blind spot of industry.

The answer is, it comes from the next layer down:

Identity: who we think we are in the world, why we exist, what our purpose is, what our organization is for.

Values: what do we collectively care about? What do we think is important? What matters?

Relationships: how does our organization, our department, our team relate to others? Are we open in our relationships, or guarded? Do we see others as peers, competitors, dependents? Do we see relationships as alive, changing through conversation, or static, bound by contract? What flows across our relationships?

Explanations: what beliefs and stories do we all share about the way the world works?

These are all abstractions, which reside in the inner life of individuals and groups, and which are most often visible in the stories people tell, what we praise or ridicule, reward or punish. (Someone later at the UX Advantage conference referred to culture as “the stories we keep repeating until everyone believes them.”)

Shoemaker culture, strategist culture

By way of example, Here is the Shoemaker’s essential cultural story.

The world is a fabric of craft and care. My role is to cover, protect, and decorate the feet of the village. When I am in my place, the farmers can do their chores, the children can learn, the blacksmith can do his work.

And here is a summary of the Strategist’s story:

The world is made of exchanges of value. Some people produce much value, others produce little. I participate in a great eternal game of accumulation of wealth by being smart about how I play the game.

Of course, neither of them would be able to articulate this. They wouldn’t say these words if you asked them about themselves (unless maybe they were very drunk). These stories live as part of them down where there are no words. They are fundamental assumptions which may never surface into consciousness.

The culture layer is where the fundamental assumptions live. How is this story limiting for Shoemaker? I bet it can be a burden to him sometimes.

And by the way, there may be monsters down there that no one is brave enough to name. “We aren’t as good as our competitors.” “Our managers don’t understand what’s really going on.” “We are all very smart, but our work is harming the world.” These are things people are afraid to speak about. We don’t know what to do with this sort of stuff, despite the subtle power they can have in our organizations. But that is all a topic for another talk, another day.

Design culture, design capacity, and the opening between them

This summer we did a whole series of interviews, getting a picture of the efforts of managers in large tech companies as they work to grow UX in their part of their organization. It was a kind of benchmarking-lite exercise, both in the U.S. and in Japan.

And here’s something I noticed: we hear people say they want design culture, but what they really seem to be working on is design capacity. Let’s talk about that. I think the nut of some of the difficulty might be in there.

What do I mean by “design capacity”?
To have design capacity is to have the knowledge, skills, tools, places, people, processes, and structures you need to apply the design process in your part of the world.

The result is a practice that produces better results in service to your cultural story. But design capacity is not the same as design culture.

Design capacity gives you a way to make better results. Better forms. That’s what people seem to be reaching for. They become believers in design, and seek to develop the capability — the capacity — inside their organization so they can operate in a way that benefits from its power.

Most often, they don’t have as deep or hard-working a definition of design as the one I just presented. Never mind that the deep definition sits at the roots of design history and the best of design practice. For some reason, design is making its way into the corporate world with a case of anemia.

But I will stop whining. The point I want to make is that building design capacity is not the same as fostering design culture.

The capacity shift of our times

To oversimplify, to caricature, it looks to me like the story of the past decade or three is that industry (in the middle layers of the organization mostly, and a little but less so at the top layers) is about adding a new set of capabilities, and trying to lean how to employ them together with the old set.

For a long time, organizations have had linear decision-making as their go-to tool for getting new things out into the world. From linear decision-making, a manufacturing model, to iterative refinement. I don’t think I have to elaborate on that.

One way to characterize the broad adoption of design and so-called “design thinking,” is to say that organizations are adding an iterative way of operating to their kit.

This rarely touches the intention or values of the organization, or the team. It doesn’t really affect their stories about how the world works. Capacity, not culture.

The risk of design capacity without design culture

I don’t mean to say that capacity without culture is a terrible thing. It’s not. The generous view is that this is how any big change develops. We become, we grow, we evolve by acting like the thing we want to become. It is a fundamental impossibility to shift organizational culture deliberately at a grand scale. Organizations are complex adaptive systems, and you can’t affect those directly (a subject for another talk, and the third capacity we will soon see organizations working to build).

So building capacity first, then attending to the cultural consequences and necessities along the way is a workable strategy for fostering a culture of design.

In any case, let’s look at what happens when we try to build design capacity on top of an existing culture.

I’m going to use this little looping diagram to represent a single turn around the creative process’s cycle. It’s the grand version: we went into the world, we reflected on what we saw, and we put a result into the world. This is what we are trying to build the capacity to do. Of course there might be lots of little wheels inside this. Hopefully so.

Okay, here comes design capacity without design culture.

We send the researchers out. (Why go out ourselves? Ridiculous. Send the researchers.) They bring back a set of themes, insights, opportunities. We have a process for that! And hey, they saw orange! Orange stuff is coming into our company, because of our process.

Then comes the management meeting: what should we make in response?

“Oh geez. Orange. Thing is, we don’t do orange. We do blue. So if you could just take that stuff you learned about orange and use it to make a much better blue, that would be great. We have a process for that!”

The result is a repetition of the old story. People are frustrated (especially the people who are being evaluated by the “ROI of design”!). The world maybe has a different thing, but the organization is unchanged by the experience.

Design capacity that is not in open dialog with the organization’s underlying cultural story — its identity, values, relationships and explanations — will produce leaden results.

Let’s talk about “opening”

Attention and opening is so important to design culture that I’d like to spend just a couple more minutes on a series of slides that I find very helpful for myself, and which we also find helpful in planning team experiences. This may be abstract, but it is fundamental. It comes directly from Otto Scharmer of MIT and the Presencing Institute. (One place to learn more is Scharmer’s book, Theory U, where the introduction I give here is a foundation for much more depth about both attention and dialog.)

Ego-attention sees the world filtered through judgements, presuppositions, and old stories. (Figures based on Otto Scharmer’s, as published in Theory U)

In this figure, the eye is your center of attention. Or your team’s attention, or your organization’s attention. This is true at all scales.

The circle is a kind of screen or bubble. Some people see it as a transparent bubble that holds all your judgments. When you look out at the world, your vision is filtered by the bubble. You see the world not as it is, but as it comes to you filtered by your own stories, judgments, beliefs. Another way to look at the diagram is to see the circle as a screen onto which you project your beliefs. So what you actually see is the world with an overlay that you project onto it.

So that is the circle of judgment, and judgment is the enemy of observation.

It’s not hard to learn to move your attention outside your judgments to see with wonder, like a child or a good design researcher.

How do you conquer that enemy? By learning to MOVE YOUR CENTER OF ATTENTION. Learn again to see with wonder. This is not hard to learn. We teach it all the time, and probably a lot of you do too. Even teams and organizations can learn this, though it takes more conversation as you increase the scale.

But there is an enemy to this state of seeing with wonder: cynicism. Cynicism is the enemy of wonder. Cynicism is a product of repeated disappointment. “We won’t be able to do anything about this.” “No one will believe me when I tell them this story. I am not persuasive enough. The bad things about the world will soon squash all this beauty I’m seeing.”

We can overcome cynicism by taking a larger, systemic view, letting go of “me” and moving our attention completely outside ourselves to notice it’s not about just you, your team, your organization: there are many more participants and conversations.

The way to conquer cynicism is another move of your center of attention. Move your attention outside yourself. Now you see that you are among many others. I can see myself right now as a speaker trying to get a point across to an audience, or I can see us all as a room full of people who care deeply about what they are doing, and together we are all learning.

But there is an enemy to that movement of letting go. Fear. Fear is the enemy of letting go. “I have always been known as the one with good judgment. I get PAID for my judgments and decisions.” “If I let go, if we let go, who would I be? Who would we be?”

Fear of letting go diminishes as everyone involved sees themselves as part of a larger gathering of possibilities — participants in the greater dynamics and desires of a larger system.

The way to conquer this enemy is one more move of your center of attention. It is difficult to do on your own, but it often happens in the midst of profound group creativity and dialog. Recognize the bubble as a bubble. See that others have them too. Then dissolve the bubbles together, recognizing that there is a higher possibility for each of us, and a higher possibility for all of us together. Shift from seeing yourselves as being responsible for Getting it Done to seeing yourselves as a collection of possibilities that are invited to participate in a still larger story of becoming. Everything and everyone is always changing all the time. You are part of the dynamics and possibilities of a larger system. Your only job is to participate openly, wholeheartedly. That’s the work.

Design capacity in an open culture

Let’s try it again. We went out, we sent researchers out, and they learned about orange. Here comes the orange into our organization. Then as before, it encounters the culture: the identity, values, relationships, explanations,…

But this is an open culture. It understands that the creative process, the design process, requires us to put our stories, our explanations, our values and even our identity in conversation with the world. So what happens?

“Well, orange you say? That’s very interesting. Very challenging. We make blue. Let’s work with that. Who does a blue company need to become in order to thrive in a world with orange? This may affect our products, but it may also affect customer relationships and parts of our organization. Let’s explore the possibilities. We have a process for that!”

Here’s a way to tell whether design is getting into your culture:
after every project, something about the organizational conversation has changed.

A story about an elephant

A few years ago, we received a call from a product company, that produces all sorts of appliances and tools for people’s homes. Here’s the gist of their request:

Our design and quality people visit customers in their homes as they use test units of our products. But when we tell other parts of the company what we learned, they don’t always believe us or trust the information. We think that is hurting quality. Would you please run a training workshop for the whole quality function, to help us learn more from home visits, harvest the key insights, and better communicate them to the rest of the organization?

So we gathered a dozen people for four and a half days. The group consisted of people from engineering, field sales support, design, usability, quality management, and product management. That’s a lot of different organizational silos, a lot of subcultures (identity, values, explanations).

What did we do?

We learned to suspend judgment
The first morning, we learned about seeing and listening. We practiced suspending judgment and interpretation, and shifting our attention to see with wonder.

We observed and listened to people in their homes
For the next day and a half, we visited people in their homes. We watched them use appliances for common tasks. We looked at the overall setting of the house, and we listened as they told us about the flow and ebb of family activities.

We relived the visits by capturing observations from video
In small groups, everyone watched video of the home visits they weren’t able to attend in person. Marker in hand, stickies at the ready, everyone spent a good part of the next day paying attention to the voices, actions, and environments we had visited.

We reflected, harvesting themes from our observations
We used simple cluster analysis to group our observations, and worked together to find words for the patterns and themes that emerged from the visits. All of these activities were done in groups that mixed people across silos, and it was a great pleasure for everyone to hear from each team as they reported their insights.

Lesson 1: paying attention to customers dissolved silo differences
On the first day, there were clearly several different groups in the room. By the time we got to insight reports, we were a single new “subculture.” We had shared an intense experience, we had developed language for the things we had seen, and we had moved past seeing one another through labels like “designer” or “engineer.” The group had shared values, shared stories, shared identity.

Lesson 2: then we noticed the elephant
Paying attention together moved the conversation down into the values layer

On the second-to-last day, there was a key moment of honesty which led to a key conversation. One of the quality managers, after checking that he had everyone’s promise of confidentiality, said this: “I don’t feel trusted.”

The person who said that held go or no-go responsibility for the last toll-gate in the process, the guy who could green-light a new product for manufacturing and marketing, or give it a red light for quality issues. And he felt that if he said no, he would personally be blamed for costing the company millions of dollars and causing delays in the product line.

With that courageous sentence, the conversation dropped down into the culture layer. Within twenty minutes, the group (without our facilitation) realized that despite their different roles, backgrounds, and levels of responsibility, they all cared about quality. They all wanted customers to have things they love, that work, that are reliable and easy to use. And they were the people who could make that happen.

The last day of the workshop became a design session, in which the whole group conceived a new structure for the quality process. They pitched the concept to an executive, who agreed on the problem, agreed the new concept was worth trying, and funded the experiment.

What happened in that story?

This company had tremendous design capacity. But it was stuck in a repeating pattern. Other parts of the organization were closed to design’s insights, because of lack of trust. The people doing the design work were frustrated, because they “didn’t know how to persuade.” Persuasion was the only tool in their kit when it came to communicating across silos.

Getting outside together broke that pattern. They found purpose (remembered it, really) through conversation that reached down into their culture layer. This brought them to the place from which they could design and experiment in reconfiguring their quality function together, as an expression of that bigger story.

When you do it together, the creative process opens culture. You might even dissolve those judgment bubbles and gain a collective view of possibility.

I’ve used the term “culture work” in the title of this talk, and for me that last sentence is a fundamental tenet of culture work.

Design capacity without openness produces leaden results. But doing design together helps create the openness — the “letting go” — that’s necessary for fresh and relevant results. How to open a culture? It’s very difficult! It turns out that doing the fundamental creative process together actually creates openness. The process helps create the conditions it needs for its own improvement.

But by the way, your managers should know that if they say they are serious about developing design capacity, they are taking a virus into their organization that will attempt to pry open the cultural layer, the conversation about identify, values, relationships. It will try to raise the question, “Who must we become?” Design is scary damn stuff!

The formula for “organizational becoming” we’ve derived since that workshop (with a huge tip of the hat for this phrasing to Adam Kahane of Reos Partners)

Our efforts must be:

Systemic: convening a representation of the system (and give people experiences that help them de-abstract “the other”)

Participatory or social: something that people do together

Emergent or experimental: not “figuring it out,” but “agreeing on a number of things worth trying now”

We use the following sequence as a building block for facilitation plans.

  1. Document our “bubble” together: look together at “how we see what’s going on” — dump out all the presuppositions and conflicting points of view.
  2. Immerse together: go visit some slice of life and/or gather tons of stories from real life (maybe each others’!) in a way which challenges people’s judgments and presuppositions.
  3. Give people time for reflection, and give them a little structure ‘cuz they’re out of practice (e.g., intuitive methods like model-making).
  4. Facilitate great dialog in a way that makes it safe to say something other than the old repeating story.

Concluding invitation: this stuff is personal

The game is up, so far as the illusion that you can live your life and run your business in isolation from a larger story.

We are here at this conference because we are seeking creative change. In some way we are all trying to spark or lead creative change. This is one of the most damnably difficult things you can attempt.

Here’s one place to start if you are interested in Whyte’s application of poetic and mythic tradition to the challenge of creativity, collaboration, and organizational life. I had my first exposure to his work through CDs of his recorded lectures, then expanded out from there.

I’ve been studying the poetry of this work. I find this tremendously helpful, because (as the poet David Whyte points out) people have been seeking creative change for millennia, and some have been poets. The experience of attempting to improve the way we get along and create together is very similar, whatever the age. That means we can learn from the experience of others. And the poets are especially valuable because they are particularly skilled at portraying “the inner game of change.

Here’s what they say.

How do you know that you’re on your path? Because the path disappears.

How do you know that you’re really doing something radical? Because you can’t see where you’re going.

You’ve traveled beyond the realm of planning.

You are in the realm of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Dante began The Inferno, his epic story of the human journey, this way. These are the very first lines:

In the middle of the road of my life
I awoke in a dark wood
where the true way was wholly lost.

That’s what it feels like to begin. You are in the forest. The way is lost. What do you do?

What to do when you are lost

Here is a poem by David Wagoner, a Seattle poet. Wagoner made a whole book of Native American stories turned into poetry. The book is called Who Shall Be the Sun?

This poem conveys the advice of an elder to a young person, who has asked, “What do I do when I become lost in the forest?” Think Pacific Northwest here. Mature cedar forest, where you lose your sense of direction just 100 yards in.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

You find the conversation by paying attention: to the world, to your colleagues, and to your own interior. Including the negatives, the conflict, the fears. They are all part of “what is.” Part of the woods you’ve walked into.

Knowing where you are (so you can take the next step) requires room for silence, for reflection. To simply stand in what is. To take it into yourself, and get it into conversation with your stories, values, relationships, explanations. Don’t try to figure it out. Reflect. Then the attention can flower into something else. The grief you feel, the excitement you feel, the possibility you feel.

The courageous conversations are often the ones we have to have with ourselves, because we are out of the habit of standing still and listening. We are out of touch with our own “cultural layer,” which does a much better job of noticing and reflecting than our busy busy monkey mind.


We can read “Lost” as a design poem. Read that way it’s a clever poem because it leaves out the “Making” step. In the poem you never actually realize where you are and start walking. We get all the way to the end, and we’re still standing there in the forest!

The poem emphasizes the first two steps because we are so apt to skip them, shorten them, treat them with shallow attention, and rush into the making. We feel pressured to keep moving.

I see design as a tool for walking through the forest when you aren’t sure where you are when you begin.

You have intention. You immerse. You listen. You reflect. Now you can take a step.

It’s design fundamentals, for people, teams, and companies.

Open attention.

Reflection.

Then walking.


Experiments before prototypes

We can use “making” to let the world teach us what it wants. We can try things cheaply, quickly, and safely.

“Hey, we’re going to try something on Wednesday afternoon.” “Hey, I’ve arranged for a few people to watch people check into our hotels / use online banking / explain how they run their business. Would you come along? We’d love to have you there.”

Some experiments will become what systems people call “positive attractors.” Which is to say, they spark beneficial behaviors which people find themselves drawn to, which causes more beneficial behavior, which attracts more people, and so on. Those are your teachers. Those are “the forest finding you.”

Some experiments will fall flat. People won’t like them, they won’t come, or they’ll say they do but not want to do it again. Or maybe people love it, but it’s actually a negative attractor — it produces unwanted behaviors! Those are also your teachers. They are the forest telling you that this is not the way. Because you thought about it ahead of time, you’ll be prepared with ways to stop or dampen those experiments, those probes, when they don’t work out.

Julie Zhou, from her article on Medium, “Junior Designers vs. Senior Designers”

Coming after Wagoner’s poem, this may seem like an odd sidetrack into methodology. That’s not why I bring it up. I bring this up to make a larger point about doing culture work, which is this: we can relieve ourselves of the burden of responsibility for “making it happen.”

The conversation is the work.

The conversation depends on paying attention.

The quality of the results depends on the quality of attention.

Quality attention is attention that creates an opening between the world as it is and our deep defining stories. With such attention, our acts of making can be our guide rather than our gamble.


What about the Shoemaker and the Strategist?

Let’s not forget our friends, who we left tangled in an argument.

To resolve their dispute, the shoemaker and the strategist began to go into the village together. They went to the schools. They went to the factories. They visited the market, and the offices, hospitals, and gymnasiums. They even went to other villages, and spent time with other shoemakers and business owners.

They see that the world is changing. Other businesses have followed the strategist’s plan, and stores are loaded with inexpensive low-quality shoes. Other shoemakers are holding tight to their craft, working harder to make up for shrinking demand.

Both the shoemaker and the strategist realized that they had been clinging to their own story, and that reality is much bigger than either had perceived.

I can’t tell you their ideas. They aren’t sure themselves how it’s all going to work out. But they are very excited, because they are in new conversations. They are asking new questions, questions full of creative promise.

They are asking, “Who are we together?” “Who are we together with the children and teachers? With the blacksmith and the mayor? Who are we together with all the other small shoemakers in the neighboring villages?”

Excited by these questions, the shoemaker and the strategist thought of twelve experiments they can try. They know some will fail, but that’s okay because they don’t cost much and they don’t take much time. And they feel certain that some will be exciting to the people in the village, or the other shop owners, or other villages. And those experiments… those they will do again, only bigger.

They can’t wait to see what happens. And neither can I.

Thank you.


p.s.

There is so much more to talk about!

What I have called “culture work” extends beyond the capabilities of the design process into long-term management and participation in social systems. That means we need to marry what we know about working in complexity with what we know about the depths of human experience. At Fit Associates, we are doing what we can to contribute to the birth of a practice — a way of seeing and working that can be taught and that has approaches and methods appropriate to the challenge.

If you are interested in models of change, ways to sense whole systems, facilitation methods, models of leadership, the use of intuitive methods in combination with strategic approaches, working with power and conflict, social prototyping, working with long-term intentions, avoiding the dependency-trap of so-called “social innovation,” and related topics, please feel free to reach out to us.

If you have a mess on your hands and would like to consider how to shift it, we’d be interested in that conversation too.

Exploration of these ideas, methods of their practical application, and the wonders of “design poetry” will continue to be explored at fitassociates.com.