Some organizations want to learn how to fish.

Once upon a time, there was an ant named Jessica. Jessica was the smartest, and most rebellious, ant in her colony. While all the other ants were busy lifting, moving, and working; Jessica was out exploring. Although Jessica’s mother warned her not to get too close to the termite mound, Jessica was inexplicably drawn to it. When Jessica neared the termite mound, the size was greater than she ever could have imagined. The termite mound made her colonies ant mound look like a sandcastle. “How the heck did they build this?” Jessica thought.

Jessica is the smartest ant in her colony.

All of a sudden, a massive line of termites appeared next to Jessica. They were marching toward the mound and hadn’t seen her. Jessica took cover under a dandelion head and watched the termites as they marched. They were all carrying more mound-building-material than any ant could ever cary. As Jessica watched them, she noticed they weren’t actually lifting the stuff they were carrying; they were pushing it on some sort of device. “I have to find out what those are!” exclaimed Jessica.

Jessica followed the squad of termites. They were all dumping their mound-building-material next to the mound. Next to the pile of mound-building-material was one of the devices the termites were using.

The termites were using a technology that was unfamiliar to the ants.

Jessica quickly grabbed the device and ran into the long grass to examine it. The top of the device resembled the baskets the ants used to haul food and materials. The bottom of the device was completely foreign to Jessica. Jessica decided to return the device before she headed back to her colony, but before she could, she heard a voice asking “What are you doing with that?”

Jessica spun around to see a termite standing behind her. “Well… What are you doing with that?” repeated the termite.

Jessica replied with fear in her voice “I…I…I… I’ve never seen anything like this before. How does it work?” The termite walked slowly around Jessica, examining her and examining the device she had taken.

The termite stuck a hand out, and said “Nice to meet you! I’m Fredrick.” Jessica shook Fredrick’s hand and said “I’m Jessica.”

Fredrick explained how the termites use the device, and how the ants could integrate it into their process. Fredrick showed Jessica how much easier it was to move large things with this device he called a “Fredrick-barrow”.

Fredrick suggested that Jessica take the Fredrick-barrow back to her colony as a gift from the termites. Jessica accepted, thanked Fredrick, and returned to her colony with the device.

When Jessica made it back, she met with the director of operations to show him the device she’d gotten from Fredrick. She was concerned that she’d be in trouble for making contact with the termites, so she told the director she’d found the device. After Jessica explained how the device works, the director of operations sent it out with next expedition of ants.

The ants were able to bring back twice as much as they normally could. Seeing these results, the director of operations began sending the device out with every expedition. A month passed, and the ants were able to build a larger mound than ever before. Until one day, the device broke.

The ants tried for weeks to fix the device, and then tried to build a new one. Something just wasn’t right. They couldn’t figure it out. Jessica racked her brain trying to figure out the key to how the device worked, only to fail again and again. Jessica finally decided she needed to visit the termites again.

Jessica waited by the termite mount until she saw Fredrick again. “Psst. Fredrick!” said Jessica. Startled, Fredrick approached Jessica and said “Oh, I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.” Jessica explained her situation, and asked if she could have another Fredrick-barrow.

Seemingly embarrassed, Fredrick told Jessica that she was welcome to another device, but it’ll eventually break just like the last one. They weren’t made to last forever. Jessica explained that the ants tried to repair the device, and even tried to build their own.

Finally, Fredrick said “Ok, Ok. I have to be honest. This isn’t a Fredrick-barrow.” Fredrick continued to explain that he wanted to impress Jessica, but the key to the device is called a ‘wheel’ — and the device is actually called a “wheelbarrow”.

Confused, Jessica started asking questions. Fredrick, looking despondent, said “If I tell you how to build wheels, you’ll have no reason to visit anymore.”

Jessica, looking embarrassed, walked over to Fredrick, sat down, and said “Us ants have been envious of the termites for as long as I can remember. We see your big mounds, and don’t know how you’ve done it.” Jessica continues “If you show us the key to the wheelbarrow, you’ll enable the ants to build our mounds bigger too.”

Fredrick looks at Jessica and asks “Does that mean you’ll be able to come visit more often?” Jessica takes the hand of Fredrick and says “Not only will I be able to come visit more often, we’ll be able to be friends.”

Moral of the story

There are a lot of ‘ant’ organizations out there. These organizations may hire people like me to fill a gap they have; but like Jessica’s colony, these organizations eventually need to evolve. The challenge for these organizations is to find their own Fredrick — someone capable of educating them instead of merely doing themselves.

For the first time, I’ve been engaged by an organization to do exactly this. Instead of being hired to be lead UX professional on a project, I’ve accepted a contract to mentor a team of in-house professionals. The team will work with me on research, testing, conceptualization, and establishing content guidelines — but the actual experience design will be created by the in-house team. They will only rely on me to review and consult throughout the project. My success will be measured on how capable their internal team becomes on a quarterly basis.

Not only do I think this will benefit the organization by moving tacit knowledge and skills in house, I think it’ll benefit me by opening my schedule to new opportunities. Instead of merely delivering fish, I’ll be teaching their fishermen how to deliver fish without me. It may sound like a counter-intuitive business model, but I believe I could spend my whole life doing this, and barely scratch the surface.

I’ll report on the progress of this contract. I’m sure this first quarter is going to be a learning process for both of us; and I want to share what I learn with everyone. Stay tuned.