A new focus

Serving movement toward new ways of working together

Dear Marc,

I have one more question, about you personally. Your business focus has shifted from the area of digital design to a much wider area for facilitating change in groups and organizations. I know that you conduct retreats as well as workshops. Please can you describe what you have been doing recently, and why you decided to shift your focus?

Hello again dear Shino. Thank you for asking about this.

I have taken a long road to my current perspectives and work. I entered professional life in 1980 as a mainframe programmer for a gas company. Fifteen years later I began steering my career toward design. I was uncomfortable with software culture’s technology-first approach to human problems. That didn’t seem like the right place to start if my work was going to be good for the world. I understood that design begins with people, which was very attractive.

Fifteen years later I still had exactly the same discomfort. I’d worked in product design, user experience, design research and strategic design. Ideally design starts with people. But as practiced in industry it starts with business. And whatever the question, it usually assumes the “answer” will be some form of technology.

In 2009 I began to pursue new questions. “What is the nature of social problems? What do we understand about how they change? How can we learn to contribute to positive change?” This took me into many areas of study.

Complexity science, and especially social complexity or “anthrocomplexity” taught me new ways to see situations that are mostly made of people. This is so important, because we have all inherited and internalized the habit of seeing everything in the world as a mechanism. Whatever it is, we tend to think of it as an assembly of parts. We think we can make it better if we can only learn to improve the parts or their assembly. But of course anything that’s alive is not that way. We need to add to our kit ways of seeing and working appropriate for the complexity of living systems.

I found exciting new communities of practice among people who “host” or facilitate groups who want to make profound changes in their relationships and collaborations.

I collected approaches that have been successful at shifting difficult social challenges. I found them in areas like public health, education, poverty, global food systems, and government.

Through those years of study, conversation and experimenting I found that there is a beautiful trend happening all over the world. People are finding new ways to make change together. Some of this is happening in professional and academic work. And there are many thousands of small efforts by people in communities and organization all over the world. They come from different backgrounds: social justice, racial activism, biology, environmental issues, policy and government, feminism, education, family therapy, healthcare reform, and many more. They may use different terminology and emphasize different priorities, but there are common frames and movements in their work.

Finding this gave me a huge sense of relief and excitement. I realized that my discomfort hadn’t been with technology itself. My discomfort had not been with design. Both are valuable, both are full of possibility. My discomfort had been with unspoken assumptions and goals. Every project assumed a transactional consumer relationship between the organization and its “customers.” This is not how we will achieve a better society. It’s how we continue in the same direction we’ve been traveling since the beginning of the industrial age.

I have worked on projects in health care and wellness. Those projects all assumed an institutional “solution.” But I have learned that increasing community relatedness and supporting neighborly attention and care has huge results in health, education, safety, crime — almost every area of life’s quality. This doesn’t happen through single-project efforts. It is multistakeholder, with multiple funders and multiple centers of power. It is complex, and it takes years.

Even the organizations that engage with such work were using industrial approaches of problem-solving, planning, and quantitative assessment. But what I learned in my studies and saw in those thousands of good efforts is that another way is possible. Another way of working is being born.

The work I am doing now is to help leaders and teams, organizations and communities practice working in ways that better serve the life of their situation. These ways of working are:

Participatory: involve the people who live the situation as full participants in creating what’s next

Relational and conversational: they attend to the patterns of relationship, conversation, and story

Experimental and emergent: We are used to investing in an imagined “solution” or specific outcome. Instead let’s make small steps in the direction we’d like to move. We’ll try things, then notice when something attracts better patterns of relationship and behavior. it is stabilized as a step in the desired direction.

Trauma-informed: our processes have too long avoided the fact that our societies are full of people who carry pain and trauma. In the U.S. this may have to do with race, which has caused generations of trauma. Of course there are many other sources: childhood, poverty, health, etc. It is important that we learn how to include these challenges in our creative process.

Over the past few years, my work has involved two main activities: working with clients and teaching. The client work is often focused on challenges of organizational culture. Some kind of conflict or historical pattern is preventing the organization from moving into the future they know is possible. I also work with networks of leaders, non-profits, and community groups. It is challenging because most of these efforts take a long time, and they are often uncomfortable. Our society expects quick solutions. We have to relearn how to move together by being together.

Also I have been teaching for the last ten years, in two graduate programs. One is the MFA in Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and the other is the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University.

Altogether, I see my efforts as supporting the birth of a new community of practice. I want to prepare leaders who will help us shift from consumer models of design and creativity. Who have already committed themselves to creating a life-sustaining world where everyone belongs. It is an investment in our great-grandchildren.

I believe we can create together a future we are excited for our great-grandchildren to have. This work asks us to collaborate deeply, in ways that include us all in processes that model the world we seek. We can each learn to do this. We can acquire the mindset and skills needed for working as a gardener of emergence. We can learn to partner with the gifts and creative possibilities that live in our community, organization, or system.

Banner image: Marc Rettig in conversation with MidJourney.com.

This is part of a collection called Hello Shino: Short essays on design management. You can learn more about the author, Marc Rettig, from his personal web site and his place of work: Fit Associates.



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Marc Rettig

Marc Rettig


Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Carnegie Mellon School of Design