personal reflections

Putting the Elephant Back Together

I’m reposting something I wrote back in May of 2010 – apologies in advance for the duplication and the length. It was the first time I blogged with my own voice (as opposed to merely logging books and articles I’d found) and I’ll never forget how terrifying it was to hit that publish button, thinking the design mafia was going to come after me. The post re-surfaced after a recent conversation with @SourcePOV of how design can help with the complex challenges we face. I still believe in that potential, however, what I went looking for at that conference was already within myself: the capability to host the conversations that matter. And I sure hope that designers and other unusual suspects join those conversations.

Putting the Elephant Back Together – Design Currency

When Ashwini Deshpande of Elephant Strategy + Design started her talk with the story about the blind men and the elephant, it was at once new and familiar. New because I didn’t realize the story had Indian roots, and familiar because I facilitate a portion of a workshop on systems thinking and use a similar elephant story: dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.

In the previous 14 blog posts I synthesized all my mind maps from the conference into key findings. But like the systems elephant, looking at Design Week through the slice of each presenter does not give you a whole elephant – or the whole story of my experience and reflection. So let me step back and put the elephant back together again.

Like all stories we must start at the beginning. I attended Design Week on the suggestion of @coryripley. I took one look at the organizers – with graphic design in their names – and thought not. You see, I’m not a graphic designer. Cory persisted, saying that itwasn’t just for graphic designers, and sent me this talk. When David mentioned systems thinking around the 2 minute mark I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to participate in this kind of dialogue. If you were to give me a soap box to stand upon, you’d hear me talk about the opportunity that design has in business – to help solve the complex problems they face both inside and outside their permeable walls.

But while I’m not a trained graphic designer, I am still a designer (it was even in my title at one time: learning design). My discipline? At my core, I’m fascinated with human behaviour in systems. My playground is learning, leadership, motivation, change, and performance – a blend of facilitation art and neuroscience. My tools are numerous and diverse and I’ve borrowed heavily from influences like IDEO, Adaptive Path, The GroveKim Vicente and more. So while I don’t know all the secret handshakes of the Design Week audience, it’s fair to say we swim in a similar pool.

Here is what I learned about that pool at Design Week: 1. You were an amazing, intelligent, fun and inspiring bunch of people I’m honoured to have met. 2. I was shocked and appalled at the devastation design has inflicted on our world via consumerism. 3. I didn’t want Design Week to end. 4. We still have too many silos.

It’s this last point that I want to noodle on further. What I know as World Cafe (started in the 1990s) appeared as dinner with design thinking. Change management peeked its head through when a question arose about resistance. Archetypes and story shone in one talk, packaged as a design tool however as classic system stories and narrative they can also be used to solve system problems. These are only a few examples.

In the spirit of what drew me to Design Week – a chance to further the use of design in complex problems and applied in a truly inter-disciplinary way, at times I found the topics a bit insular. This is no criticism of the conference organizers – I thought it was a terrific line-up. I only wondered if we could have benefited from more outside non-design perspective – perhaps an economist, an expert of today and tomorrow’s culture challenges, someone from youth and children’s services, a respected CEO sharing the problems she faces with her stakeholders? And even more so, where were other people with their unique capabilities interested in solving those problems together with the design minds that gathered in that conference room? As Saul Kaplan said in his Business Week piece, “if we want to make progress on the big issues of our time, we have to look up from our silos and become more comfortable recombining capabilities in new ways in order to connect with the unusual suspects”. That is the movement I went looking for at Design Week.

On the darker flip side, there were perspectives shared that reminded me of the news industry when blogging was disrupting that, of photography when that was disrupted, of the music industry when they were disrupted (even in the learning field a disruption is occurring). Why fight to hold onto a paradigm of yesterday when the world is presenting you new opportunities to make a difference? I saw so many hands go up when Mark Sackett asked who still loved what they do and who wants to do different things. That sounds like passion that can be channelled to connect with Saul’s unusual suspects.

To be clear, I believe there is a place for the ones who put the artist in graphic artist. For those who design sustainable products and services. And I also believe that we can live into an expanded continuum, where we reflect on our strengths, skills and passions and choose what part of that s-curve we want to contribute to. For me, it’s the second road that Dr. Tony Golsby-Smith described (and I wonder if Gregoire Serikoff would have provided similar inspiration).

But every moment spent arguing and defending our value amongst ourselves is a moment not spent making a difference. Instead, let’s be unusual suspects and swim upstream in the reorganization of our society (hat tip to @jonhusband for the video).