Each day is filled with opportunities to improve how we think and relate to other humans. But we need to know what to look for so that we can extract the most valuable lessons. Mindful learning from daily experience can become a habit that starts with these five diagnostic questions:
Active learning by design
Most of the knowledge we need to do our work is learned informally. To thrive in an unpredictable world, we can design ways to make the most of informal learning opportunities.
photo: “Run Beyond” by Angelo Bonello, Italy, taken at Light Fest 2017, Distillery District in Toronto
Where will future jobs come from? What will we do when robots take over more of our current tasks?
We’ll likely be liberated to do the things we do best. Making things is human. Conversations are human. Helping people is human. Being creative is human. The human touch is hard to fake.
Jobs of the future will stem from natural interests and capabilities. Robots will give us the freedom to pursue human-centric work.
Dehumanizing work became standard during the industrial era. Until recently, people who excelled at compliance, control and solving routine problems were among the big winners.
Industrial era workers learned to repress their human side. The ideal employee behaved more like a machine. In a word, this situation was unnatural. Stress, anxiety and overwork proliferated when workers believed they really didn’t have much choice. Meanwhile, some people who lost their jobs due to automation, became angry voters.
But future winners will be the most human of humans. They will apply their humanity (and humility) to a higher purpose and values. Everyone can participate in hands on work. Barriers will fall. Robots will ultimately lead humans to more natural work in a more inclusive world.
Machines got us into this predicament. Now (after 100 years) machines will help get us out.
LIBERATION IS UNAVOIDABLE
The AI revolution is removing the option to continue mind-numbing, heartless, soulless, clueless activities. To survive we have no choice but to give up our draining duties. In short, we’re going to be forced into humanized work.
Rewards and possibilities are growing for people who love what they do, can relate to others, make things, sort through complex client and customer concerns, and co-create better ways forward. The highest value work today involves seeing opportunities, rather that solving defined problems. Heads up rather than heads down workers are in growing demand.
People skills involving judgment and empathy—the basis for intense collaboration, complex consultation, problem prevention and creative thinking—are enduring differentiators. These capabilities are valuable because they improve business relationships, attract clients and can lead to innovation. They are also prized because they’re difficult to teach effectively to humans—and even more difficult for robots to learn.
MAKING THE TRANSITION
How can we support today’s workforce in making this transition? How can we change longstanding mechanistic managing habits? How will we tap into our power to survive by being more human?
A good place to start is with a group coaching method, known as active learning, aimed at learning from everyday human interactions. Anyone can learn to extract more know-how from every kind of situation—both positive and negative. To keep up with the demand for new capabilities and get ahead by spotting fresh opportunities, we need to learn how to learn on our feet. Active (vs. passive) learning involves knowing where and how to look for day-to-day lessons learned. As well the method helps us overcome common barriers to learning from experience: defensiveness, blame, fear and a know-it-all attitude.
Each day is packed with learning opportunities that can enhance communication, collaboration and leadership skills. You might be surprised by the nuggets of insight to be mined from the most mundane encounter.
Photo#1: Nao the French programmable humanoid robot in front of Toronto City Hall. Photo #2: “City People,” by Catherine Widgery, one of 18 painted aluminum cutouts at the Royal Bank Plaza. Photo#3: “The Beach” installation at the National Building Museum, Washington DC, designed by Snarkitecture.
Design thinking offers better ways of working by building on values, empathy and creative options for moving forward. Active learning (vs. passive learning) nurtures a mindful, accelerated approach to benefiting from everyday on-job experience. Design thinking-in-action skills and attitudes can be continuously honed through inquiry-based conversations.
As the integration of robots and machine learning grows in every kind of job, human-centric skills are gaining importance. We know that ‘soft skills’ such as critical thinking, judgment and decision-making are the hardest to teach.
However, design thinking offers an optimistic, assets-based approach to learning by encouraging our natural human curiosity. In essence, we can learn to design our way through messy situations at work—while more easily staying one step ahead of the robots.
We live in a global society that is threatened by wall-builders who incite fear, suspicion and conformity. Ontario’s greatest asset is its inclusive, diverse and creative culture. But much work needs to be done to keep our healthy spirit alive while serving “citizens, not consumers” across the province and beyond.
As the provincial government considers various ways forward, what if the stated ultimate purpose of Ontario Place was to nurture what Ontario does best? What if Ontario Place was once again (as portrayed in the original 1971 theme song) “a place to stand, a place to grow”—for Ontarians, as well as on a world stage?
I was a frequent visitor (and a new Canadian immigrant) during the early days of Ontario Place. In subsequent decades I was a less frequent visitor, although l worked with Eb Zeidler for ﬁfteen years and enjoyed many Zeidler office parties in the pods. During four visits between September 15 and 25, 2016, I was captivated by the entire experience that the in/future event organizers and participants created.
What have I learned by reﬂecting on that event and this extraordinary site’s legacy and potential over 45 years?
In addition to a strong, simply stated higher purpose, Ontario Place needs to identify speciﬁc values (see embedded slides above for suggestions) that will allow it to achieve its full potential while avoiding wasteful investments. Whenever a project is under heavy public scrutiny involving diverse stakeholders (including both naysayers and champions), there is a threat of settling for mediocrity. Project fatigue sets in, deadlines loom, and the inevitable cost-over-value critics emerge. Bland vision statements and design principles are not strong enough to carry a project through all the stages required to see greatness take shape in the form of built reality.
In order to build greatness—to create places people love and want to be—project leaders need to craft a higher purpose statement along with simple but evocative shared values. Places that stir our imagination and restore our energy do not germinate from vague, generic, clinical or corporate terms.
Ontarians are citizens, not consumers; we remove barriers, we don’t build walls. We are humans talking with humans. In the memorable words of that 1971 song, we want “a place to stand, a place to grow, Ontari-ari-ari-o!”
Read my summary, “Learning from Ontario Place” with examples and photos here
Kerrytown in Ann Arbor is a place people want to be. What can planners and developers learn from this example?
Architects tend to talk vaguely about design quality and excellence. This can lead to disappointment when bland places get built that nobody cares about.
We need to be more specific when discussing all the the intended functions of a space. “Function” includes technical specifications and program requirements, but also a purpose. The ultimate purpose of most building projects is to attract people: shoppers, diners, employees and others who will deliver ROI (return on investment) to the owners.
Developers and even the most cold-blooded business investor can avoid unnecessary risk by asking one simple question when making design decisions: “Are we building a place where people want to be?”
The answer to this basic question requires awareness of the kinds of places people don’t want to be, as well as analyzing places they barely tolerate out of necessity.
Why do people love Kerrytown? Five factors are evident there:
Human scale (not overwhelming, or making people feel insignificant)
Distinctive character (unique identity that people can relate to emotionally)
Flexible seating and overflowing activities (an organic sense of abundance)
Nature and the human touch (such as art, texture and living things)
Elements of surprise, whimsy, quirkiness that indicate people care (vs.”mean”)
These five elements add up to a wise business decision. When architects say, “business investors don’t appreciate good design” they are really saying “decision makers don’t recognize elements that contribute to places people want to be.” It’s not enough for designers to talk about excellence and quality.
In the middle of Detroit there’s a place that makes you think about the true nature of work today. Specifically, how should society address job creation and greater opportunities for all?
The Green Garage offers some practical and sustainable responses to the economic and political turmoil we face in our overdue and perilous transition beyond industrial era “jobs for life.”
Twentieth century so-called “lifetime” jobs were often monotonous, confining and exhausting. People were left with scarce energy and creativity for working beyond retirement age. Whether displaced as a result of trade agreements or advanced robotics, layoffs and plant closures threatened workers throughout their careers. Employment insurance was supposed to take care of gaps, but this whole approach to work was economically and personally unsustainable.
In contrast to the current rise of revitalizing “green jobs,” Diego Rivera depicted robotic, lifeless “grey jobs” in this fresco panel:
When Green Garage founders Peggy and Tom Brennan talk about “a more sustainable way to work” they think in terms of a full spectrum of eco-friendly and economically-healthy contributors. Every aspect of their physical working space serves to advance triple-bottom-line green practices. In addition, a wealth of sustainable approaches to lifelong employability are emerging from this former Model T showroom.
Employment today depends heavily on three factors: first, our reputation as active contributors; second, our capacity to make healthy human connections; and third, our appetite for continuous learning. The Green Garage provides a physical and mental environment that grows these three ingredients of sustainable work in the 21st century.
Green Garage participants are brought together by shared values. For example, Detroit Food Academy works with local educators, chefs, and business owners to inspire Detroiters ages 13-24 to develop entrepreneurial ventures rooted in food. These ventures include guiding artisan food projects from early stages of development to market. “Students learn by transforming their ideas into reality. Through this process, they grow as holistic leaders who are healthy, connected…” which they explain has the power to improve the local food system. These experiences “open doors, create connections, and spark confidence” which ultimately leads to more resilient workers.
Detroit Food Academy also stands in marked contrast to the economic monoculture which thrived spectacularly in Detroit for only a few decades. Relying on a single industry led to dependent and vulnerable workforce. Instead, DFA’s green job enterprises are diverse and committed to long term well-being.
As I described in a previous post, we can learn a lot about the new nature of work from such leading examples.
Designers like to talk about “solving design problems” but is that their most valuable activity? And is it really best to “define the problem” as a first step?
Problem-solving is an activity that drains people’s energy. This is not news. In the late 1960s, Ronald Lippitt at the University of Michigan found that when groups begin a major planning exercise by focusing on problems, they get depressed.
By contrast, Lippitt also found that when groups begin by developing a specific and persuasive definition of their future, they had more energy and motivation to work through problems along the way.
Problem solving tends to be about filling gaps and fixing deficiencies. Fixing large scale problems can feel overwhelming, maybe even impossible. The best planning process begins with vivid aspirational statements, rather than setting out to solve a problem.
We can compare Abraham Maslow, who was a leader in the positive psychology movement (along with Martin Seligman) to Aaron Antonovsky, who studied positive health (which he termed salutogenesis) rather than sickness, and Ronald Lippitt (originally with Kurt Lewin) who led a “preferred future” approach to planning (v. problem solving).
For all three of these pioneers, the idea of focusing on positive concepts rather than pathology is not merely about “positive thinking.” Pure positive thinking is vulnerable to ignoring blind spots while oversimplifying challenges, which can lead to bad decisions.
Instead, we can plan for greater possibilities using rigorous values-based criteria to guide our decisions. Planning for possibilities begins by identifying assets rather than deficiencies, and goes on to define a purpose, as well as values and aspirations. This planning approach leads to better decisions than the most creative problem solving model.
photo: Binocular’s Building, Frank Gehry’s design for Chiat/Day in Venice, California, 1985-91.
Every designer I know is puzzled by the term design thinking. It doesn’t really describe how they think. For starters, rarely do design thinking business models mention the natural stops and starts, the emotional ups and downs, the messiness and the rejection that brings inner turmoil. Then there’s the belief that, for many designers, empathy is more than a step in a business process; instead it’s a way of being. Also, designers must cope with the fact that innovators are too often perceived as a threat.
Another of the “multiple issues” as Wikipedia would say regarding this term is that there are plenty of card-carrying designers who have little interest in human-centric design and who tend toward linear thinking. Not all designers are capable of innovation, but plenty of engineers, scientists, writers and other non-designers engage in purposeful creative thinking.
And yet, other than over-simplifying a complex concept and ignoring emotional realities, design thinking has done much to fuel the conversation about how innovation happens. Everyone has the potential to think more creatively to achieve a values-driven purpose. But in order for DT to get beyond the perception of one more management fad, it is crucial to prepare people for the realities of coping with ups and downs.
As a long-practicing designer, it still cheers me up to remind myself that ups and downs are to be expected when doing pioneering, or even routine non-routine work.
* Detail from Sanko Trading Co. mural, Queen St. West and Claremont St. painted by Ken Galloway, Timothy Fukakusa, Mitsuo Kimura, Takashi Iwasaki, Darcy Obokata, and Shogo Okada in the winter of 2013-2014.
Creative people naturally resist being herded, or following the herd. So why try harder to do something that is unnatural? Why get stuck “herding cats”?
The fundamental management question today should be, “Am I working with nature, or against nature?” Attracting works better than imposing. Why not use catnip as the natural approach to moving those “cats” where you want them to go?
What is catnip for humans? One way to get things done is to work toward a shared purpose and values. Values and purpose are attractive. Forget the herding.
Ethical design thinking
For example, most “design thinking” process models (aimed at developing products and services using empathy to uncover latent needs) define a creative problem-solving activity. This sounds very 21st century, but where in the process do we account for ethical values? How do we even know if we have defined the right problem? And is problem-solving really a motivating activity?
Are we missing something here?
Most design thinking diagrams could easily herd us toward producing the next electric knife, margarita-maker machine or mediocre building. In other words, are we pursuing market growth for growth’s sake while designing future landfill?
What if we attracted people to our shared purpose and values as the foundation for design thinking? What if we were guided toward doing the right thing with all-natural catnip (ethics) rather than being herded toward imposed business goals?