Wiring ourselves for greater cohesion

Scientists postulate that “the cells that fire together, wire together.” This is true for how our minds work as well as for how design teams work. With the demands of project work, both our minds and our teams are in constant flux, but with the right focus we can have some influence over how they evolve.

A few weeks ago, our local studios came together to explore how we work and access our abilities and energy to form high performing teams. In this, we explored a little around how our brains work and how they create patterns and preferences that can be leveraged and evolve over time.

Slowing down increases reflection

Our work is fast-paced, and we are often required to be at the forefront of change, be it technological or societal. We also value time allocated to observing, reflecting and slowing things down to increase insight.

In our recent team exploration, it was fascinating to see how the group dynamics shaped the flow of the event. I observed our team unconsciously slowing down and turning our gaze inwards, taking turns to add to discussions and allowing brief pauses between each additional point made.

This act of slowing down, exploring and connecting is a great overarching metaphor for how our brain works when in a more ideal “flow state.” In this state, we have access to a “higher-level” executive function that is more creative, generative and better at long-term planning.

Lesson — It’s important to the health of our minds as well as our teams and social connections to be able to sometimes slow down and practice deeper connections.

How we access our “higher level” functions

Our brain is a dynamic, electro-chemical system — perhaps the most complex in the known universe. When we come together in social groups this shared “system” becomes even more complex.

No one part of the brain does solely one thing, and no one part acts alone. All our thoughts, emotions and actions are the results of many parts of the brain (and body) acting together to create patterns of activity. Despite this, areas of the brain do have specialised functions. The “sensory zone” is toward the back, which receives input from the outside world and sorts, processes and stores all of our sensory representations. It also allows us to act “automatically to external stimuli, when we need to. The front is devoted to planning, strategising and sculpting our responses to the world, and it’s this area that has been adapted for use in abstract thinking and imagination.

Sound familiar? We are constantly cycling between the concrete observations of people and their context and abstract sense-making activities. Also, if design is defined as “improving the human connection with the world around us” and “designing interventions that create the world we want to experience”… then we are highly reliant on front parts of our brain — in particular the right frontal cortex. Empathy is processed in the right hemisphere, while the left is more focused on “systematising.”

(My suggestion is a new line of Fjord helmets that protect our right frontal cortex at all costs!)

“The frontal lobes perform the most advanced and complex functions in all of the brain, the so-called executive functions. They are linked to intentionality, purposefulness, and complex decision making. Motivation, drive, foresight, and clear vision of one’s goals are central to success in any walk of life. All these prerequisites of success are controlled by the frontal lobes. Even subtle damage to the frontal lobes produces apathy, inertia, and indifference”. - Elkhonon Goldberg

Lesson — Having this mix of abilities and talents — within us and within our teams — is fundamental to effectively operating in our environment. Our work is an attempt to create a more meaningful and deeper connection with the world around us.

Understanding the “threats”

As a team, one of the most pertinent topics we covered was the SCARF Model (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness) and its impact on our behaviour and emotions in social or group settings. I was introduced to this model a number of years ago and have been lucky enough to meet and spend some time with David Rock and others who have popularised it. It certainly is a framework that I have found to be highly useful in understanding the dynamics that play out in social environments.

Our team spent some time exploring how certain conditions of threat or reward can alter our ability to fully leverage our facilities and functions.

On a fundamental level, we seek to avoid pain in social situations and maximise the feeling of reward. When “under threat,” we divert energy away from our executive function and frontal lobes described above towards the parts of the brain that allow us to take survival-based action (flight, fight, freeze). I was only half joking when I said we need a line of helmets. We need to protect our executive function from the threats associated with shortfalls of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. This was useful for our team to understand how we work with each other as well as refining how we work with our clients.

Empathy (and the chemical oxytocin) are incredibly important part of being a designer (and having a design mindset). Our daily work requires us to exhibit two fundamental empathetic processes: sharing others’ internal states and explicitly considering those states. As social beings, we are wired for empathy, to feel what others experience as if it is happening to us. We imitate in order to gather data that is vital for knowing how to interact with them.

When empathising with the emotions or sensations of another person, cognitive perspective-taking takes place which supports our ability to understand the intentions, desires and beliefs of others. The first step of cognitive perspective-taking is to distinguish between ourselves and others. In the next step, we imagine how another person feels and understand his or her intentions, desires, and beliefs. This process engages and relies on the prefrontal cortex areas mentioned above and is therefore susceptible to the impacts of the threat and reward responses.

Fruitful collaboration depends on healthy relationships, which require trust and empathy. But in the brain, the ability to feel trust and empathy about others is shaped by whether they are perceived to be part of the same social group. This is where SCARF model is important to our understanding of creating these conditions within ourselves and with our client organisations. Applying empathy and co-design techniques will naturally create better conditions for a high level of coherence across each element of SCARF. We have good foundations, but we cannot be complacent as it requires constant vigilance.

Lesson — it’s vital for anyone attempting to properly function in an environment that is experiencing exponential change — not just for designers who attempt to influence that change.

Using design to create the right conditions

Often, as designers, we are called on to partner with an organisation or team who are undergoing some form of ‘threat response’. That is, they might fear the uncertain future they are facing, the lack of relatedness to each other or their customers, the perceived status reduction from disruption to old foundations.

This reaffirms why we use the methods and practices we have within the human-centred design toolkit. These methods give us lots of little platforms and opportunities to connect our functions, reduce reliance on “automatic” thinking and allow us to be more empathetic and intentional.

To unlock this potential, we need to rebalance some of the chemicals swirling around in ourselves and the groups we inhabit. Dopamine has been shown to be particular driver of the right frontal cortex. Dopamine (our pleasure, fun, happiness chemical) has also been shown to be the “creativity” chemical, with levels of dopamine and dopamine receptors related to one’s capacity to hold visual images in one’s mind, whether they are visionary, futuristic images or hallucinations. The stimulus that triggers this is novelty- that is, anything unfamiliar, whether it be in the form of ideas, foods, theories, values, art, hobbies, people or environments. Novelty helps shake us out of our familiar cognitive patterns, opening up opportunities to engage in new ways of thinking and being. In other words, dopamine is shown to drive exploratory behaviour in novel environments.

Throughout our engagements we look for opportunities to connect and have fun and play. We also leverage activities and processes that make it possible for us to rise above our present habitual responses and allow us to reinforce our connection to each other and our social responsibilities. Our challenge is to ensure that we are aware of the things in our environment, as well as those created by our clients, that generate the threat conditions that may dampen our ability to work well as a team and to work creatively, intentionally and holistically.

Lesson — my workplace and team members are both fun and creative, which is no accident and something we are proud of. It makes strategic sense to nurture such an environment when you understand how these two states are intrinsically linked.

Firing up our connections

From our clients, we often hear things like “how can we be more agile, innovative or customer centric?” Our practices and principles surrounding experience design are often employed to address these threats. When done well, we can intentionally reconnect with empathy and creativity. We can help people exercise their frontal lobes again by leveraging the principles of visualisation, co-creation, play and observation.

Just like the brain requires a balance of zones for healthy function, we as a team also require a balance of functions that are wired together but also have plasticity. Plasticity, in this form, refers to the ability for the brain to reform and rewire itself in response to experience. This capacity is also highly relevant to the organisations we work with and their need to re-wire and respond. The methods and mindsets we bring to clients allow us all to learn from experience, reinforce what works well (seeking reward and moving away from threats) and focusing on strengthening what makes us human.

Design is an extreme activity. It tends to call on all of the faculties of those engaged in it. It is contextual. It is embodied. It uses the whole person’s mind and body, left brain and right, hand and heart, analysis and taste. And it never gets enough of any of them. — Fred Collopy

Lesson — we need our entire mind, body and social structure to perform well. We also need to look after each element intentionally.

Being vigilant in how we grow

Despite the tremendous similarity in our biology, we all act differently, have unique abilities, and have distinct preferences, desires, hopes and fears. Over the few days, we heard some amazing personal stories of how we got here— each of us has had a unique pathway that shouldn’t be forgotten. The key to individuality, is not found in the overall organisation of the brain, but rather in the fine-tuning of the underlying networks. This happens both through neuroplasticity in our individual brains and collectively in a form of “group neuroplasticity”… or what I like to call co-created culture. We bring our history and story and co-create the environment in which we form relatedness and novelty in a coherent state. This continual process of surfacing, adjusting and reflecting is the vigilance that is required.

Which brings us back to the promise that “the cells that fire together, wire together.”


Leigh Whittaker
Transformational Strategist / Experience Designer / Ambassador for seeing new possibilities / Explorer of the world

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