This is an edited version of the first part of a longer and more academic-style paper, written for the 2015 Transition Design Symposium at Carnegie Mellon University. The paper goes on to say a few things about addressing the “systems gap,” though there’s plenty more to say and it can certainly be better expressed.
My colleague Hannah du Plessis also wrote a paper for that symposium, which deals with the stance of a someone working in these gaps, and also offers some ideas about the “people gap.”
You can find those papers online as PDFs:
If you work for yourself, can you quit your job?
It turns out the answer is yes. Three weeks ago, my partner and I closed business as usual for our consulting firm, Fit Associates. Here is an extract from our announcement:
Sailing your boat out of port is liberating, but not entirely comfortable.
We say that in a fresh and very present state of freedom mixed with disorientation, as one morning this week we finally looked at each other and declared that we have had enough. Enough of giving our attention to a never-ending stream of short-horizon, artificially narrow corporate agendas, leaving little for the things we most deeply believe in and which have been calling us for years. We finally took action. The day before pitching to a room full of vice presidents for work that would have kept us solvent for a year, we sent out emails withdrawing all of our outstanding proposals. We withdrew from five conversations with both new and familiar clients, big and small. We closed business as usual.
We’ll be working through the summer in a way that makes room for many kinds of creation, tapping the poetic, intuitive side of ourselves, the strategic, figure-it-out side, and the iterative, learn-by-making side. We’re excited to see what kind of boat we wind up building. Building while sailing, without losing the wonder of the sea: that’s the skill we’re practicing.
A five-year retooling
For the last five years or more, we have been working on the side to study, practice, and equip ourselves with new ways of working. My first career was in software, giving me great experience in digital systems. In the mid-90's I shifted to design: interaction design, product strategy, strategic design, with nearly every project involving a heavy dose of ethnographic-style research. I soaked in the life of homes, offices, streets, and factories across many industries and many continents, and worked to “ship great stuff” in many different corporate cultures.
Despite all the satisfying moments, that 30-plus-year career left me with a sense of dissatisfaction, painfully aware of gaps in the way I have been working and, so far as I can tell, the way much of industry is working.
I “quit my job” so I could pursue full-time the work I have done on the side for the last six years or more: advancing the practice of creating in social complexity, furthering our collective ability to close these gaps.
Relationship and human depth are key to understanding situations and producing lasting results, but we aren’t good at working with them.
Here’s a story. Well, the start of a story. I’ll tell the end of the story in a follow-up article. It happened like this….
Report from the front lines #1: The farmhouse basement
My colleague Hannah and I are in the basement of a 150 year-old farm house in central Pennsylvania. Folding tables, exactly like those from the church basements of my childhood, are lined up and covered with paper. Between the vertical pipes (how can one farm house involve so many pipes?), the walls are covered with paper. And already, one hour into a four-day workshop, our clients have begun to cover those papers with notes.
They are not here to design something. They are not here to make decisions. They are here because they don’t understand one another.
Four of the people in the basement are from the Sales division of a major food company. They are experienced, thoughtful, open and jolly. They have personal stories and inside knowledge of grocery stores, Walmarts, and gas stations all across the country. They have firm handshakes and smell like aftershave. The other eight are from the same company’s Information Technology (IT) division. One of them is The Boss. The others, like the sales people, have long experience both in their craft and in the company they work for. They make software to support the company’s sprawling operations: sales, manufacturing, marketing, research, human resources, accounting, inventory.
Here’s the first thing we heard from the IT guys, in the first four minutes of the phone call that eventually led to this workshop: “People don’t like what we make.”
Here’s another important thing we learned in that first call: IT makes software for Sales (as well as all the other departments), but the IT people almost never talk to the Sales people, or to people from any other departments.
Teams of smart, highly trained, creative people show up every day to work with people more or less just like themselves. They work hundreds of days a year and spend millions of dollars to produce software for their customers — software that those customers don’t like and don’t use. Rather than use the tools created for them at great expense by seasoned professionals, these “customers” prefer to use spreadsheets they created for themselves. They are like hunters sharpening sticks right outside the doors of Winchester Repeating Arms.
That is “The Current State of the System.” Hannah and I are in the farmhouse basement with these folks. They’re full of anticipation. They’ve said yes to being there, and set aside almost a week of their precious time. They’re looking to us to help them move toward “The Preferred State of the System.”
How do we work?
The people care. The people are smart. Resources are plentiful. What is in the way? What’s going on?
Culture is going on: self-creating, self-reinforcing, self-propagating social systems. The system (i.e. the company, the department, the team) consistently resists change to its habits of process, its explanations of how the world works, what it values as good or successful, and all the stories — repeated and reinforced through thousands of water-cooler, orientation-week, annual-review, happy-hour conversations — about “who we are,” “who they are,” and “how we work.”
Five years ago, I would have felt utterly unequipped to engage in that situation. Given how common this is, the fact that we seem so ill-equipped to create healthy, honest, open, creative relationships across such boundaries is just weird! People who are undaunted by five levels of abstraction in their code are sent hiding in their cubicles by a little distrust. People who are unfazed by the complexities of a global supply chain can’t get over their invented, biased story of “the others” in the next department down the hall.
My whole career, even my years as a software developer, had been about people, but I didn’t recognize it.
The truth is, I think I did recognize it. But it scared me, so I avoided it. I could complain grumpily about conservative, future-blind, revenue-obsessed, close-minded, bubble-enclosed management and process. Then I could pretend that my only choices were compliance, bailing out, or subversion. It didn’t occur to me that there might be a way to create intentionally in a social system.
We know how to work with the form of things. “Solutions.” We know something about creating organizational structure and process. But we don’t know nearly enough about how to work when the “material” is human relationship, conversation, and inner life — their beliefs, values, and stories about the workings of the world.
Many of our challenges are systemic, but our methods are honed to produce “solutions.” We need new practices for intentionally shifting the patterns of complex social situations.
Here is another start-of-a-story:
Report from the front lines #2: Population health
A hospital network in the Midwestern part of the U.S. is facing a challenge. The organization consists of a dozen hospitals, plus many more community and special care facilities, thousands of employees, and hundreds of services. It is a keystone of healthcare for nearly three million people. Hannah and I have an extended conversation with people who are responsible for the long view of the future of this organization. They are wonderful people — brilliant, open-minded, and soulfully committed to a career of care. And here’s what they say.
“We serve a large number of low-income and elderly people across a wide territory. And they tend to use the emergency room as their only way of getting health care. That means they either wait until their condition is severe, or they come to the emergency room with the least cough or sneeze. This is not a good way for them to be cared for, to be healthy and well. And it is tremendously expensive for the hospital. Looking into a future with an aging population and growing poverty, the situation is unsustainable.”
“We have worked with major design firms on service innovations, and have a number of prototypes now becoming operational. That helps, but it’s just a bandage on the long-term trend. Our question is this: How can we increase population health? We are one institution, but our future depends on a systemically healthier population. This is not a service design challenge. It’s bigger than that. We are willing to commit to an effort even if it takes a decade or two, but we need to know we are investing in an approach that will improve levels of health in the whole region.”
The current state of the system is unsatisfactory, unsustainable, and infused with regional dependency on a single institution. The desired future state is unclear. The desirable outcomes are easy to name, but it is impossible to foresee what they will be like in reality.
How do we work?
The community health situation illustrates another thing that has kept repeating itself through the decades of my career: when faced with a truly complex situation, we typically avoid the complexity. (I am not talking about “really complicated” situations like say, an airline reservation system, but complex adaptive systems. And what’s worse, socially complex — made of humans, their inner lives, and their relationships, all of which are invisible.)
I’ve worked on teams that were trying to address diabetes, urban transportation, family and community communication, oil field safety, and organizational culture, all of which involve emergent behaviors that cannot be understood or addressed through point solutions aimed at individual symptoms. But because we had nothing in our toolkit for working with such complexity, we made diagrams, convinced ourselves that those diagrams represented reality, found “opportunities” in those diagrams, imagined and heavily invested in solutions that no one could be sure would actually be good for the system, and proceeded to use the tools in our kit to craft products and services.
And even when we do have good practical ideas, complexity still rears its head in the form of organizational inertia. After decades of practice in design, development, research and strategy, it is obvious that good ideas aren’t the thing in short supply. I have seen teams produce scores of great insights and great ideas in my career. But most often the insights gather dust on the shelf while we fall once again into dream-state repetition of the old pre-insight processes. And great ideas are run through a gauntlet of “the way we do things around here” that beats the greatness out of them. What actually ships is a shadow, an anemic wisp of what is possible.
The consequences of the gaps
These two gaps — blindness to the fullness of human depth, and lack of good ways to create with social complexity — are causing damage.
They limit our progress toward thriving societies.
They impair our ability to create and maintain thriving organizational cultures.
They decrease our ability to make products that matter.
They prevent us from creating with a systemic view and a long horizon.
They cause us to minimize or turn away from systemic challenges.
And they feed our belief that social challenges are beyond our reach.
When faced with something they don’t know how to address, most teams and organizations default to doing what they already know how to do: try to figure it out. Bring their powers of research, expertise, and decision-making to bear on the challenge.
But if we rely solely on approaches that depend on “figuring it out” — expertise, research, iteration, making good plans and executing well — then we will find ourselves applying solution-methods to systemic challenges. It’s forestry with a butcher knife. Community health with an medicine chest. It’s relying on cookbooks to win a Michelin star.
- We can handle information architecture, but we can’t handle conflict.
- We can create social communication tools, but the dynamics of social power are outside our scope of work.
- We can change our materials and supply chains, but we are flummoxed by habits of consumption and waste.
- We can deliver treatments for symptoms, but the lifestyle habits that gave rise to the symptoms are beyond our powers to affect.
As a society, we know quite a bit about decision-making. We can bring our expertise to tremendously complicated challenges, then craft and iterate our way to solutions. That’s two things in our management and creativity tool kit: decision-making and iteration. Now we need something new in our kit: participatory systemic emergence — ways to work with the true complexity of these situations, and with the full depth and range of human experience, both light and dark.
What is the practice — the way of seeing, working, and being — that will equip us to create intentionally in social systems? That is the question of our time. That is the frontier of management, design, and education.
First in a series
These are the questions that led Hannah and I to spend years learning and retooling. We read as much as we could, learned from as many people as we could, and covered our walls with sticky notes as we worked through attempts to synthesize.
We found, to our great excitement, that the new ways of working are being born. There are parts on the shelf. The leaders and practitioners are already hard at work. But this new practice is fragmented and unpolished. As a community and a society, we have a lot of room for improvement.
We also found that working in new ways not only requires new approaches and methods, it requires new ways of seeing the world, and a shift in our personal stance. Not easy.
It has been profoundly exciting, but terrifically difficult to talk about. We’ve collected a book list here, but in future articles I will do my best to introduce and summarize the approaches we have found.
And for the stories I’ve begin in this article, I’ll describe the answer to my own question. I’ll describe how we worked.