Most of what we need to know about life is learned through experience.
Artists develop the habit of standing back from their work to study it from different viewpoints. Likewise, we gain fresh perspective on life by standing back to view our experiences.
The artist’s palette can be seen as a symbol of blended elements and unscripted possibilities. Artists develop their strengths through a blend of practice, experiment and observation.
In addition to acquiring technical skills, artists “feel their way” forward by “sizing up” situations and “figuring out” what to do next. Solutions emerge through a process of trial and error: this works, that didn’t work so well.
Artists tend to be lifelong learners. Lifelong learning is about continuing to grow as a person, in addition to acquiring technical skills. This pursuit requires both formal and informal learning.
Formal learning is best for conveying technical knowledge, when we must depend on instructors to tell us what matters most and what we need to know.
By contrast, human skills are best absorbed informally through experience. Informal learning is an organic, natural way to grow—which is generally how artists develop their talents. Artists are purpose-driven. They formally acquire some technical skills, then learn by doing. They see their whole world as offering potential takeaways.
Making the most of day-to-day learning opportunities is a crucial skill for the future. This involves being guided by purpose, learning in action and discovering our own takeaways. Social learning clubs can show us how to see more lessons in everyday life.
photo: Boston Public Library, sculptor: Bela Lyon Pratt, 1912
How can we gain more life experience from our everyday encounters?
Learning how to learn in action is an essential meta-skill for the future.
Mind the Say–Do Gap
Knowing what we ought to do in difficult situations isn’t enough to change what we actually do. Defaulting to old habits is normal. Finding ourselves in these predicaments, it’s not unusual for there to be a Say–Do Gap between good intentions and our actions.
Best practices and theories about people skills might make us smarter, but that’s not enough to change ingrained patterns of behaviour. If we want to continuously develop our communication and collaboration capabilities, we’ll need more than knowledge. We need to regroove our neural pathways.
As Jerry Sternin has observed, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.”
Stepping back to observe how we wrestle with slice-of-life situations gives us a fresh view of how we make hundreds of day-to-day decisions. Noticing more details and possibilities for moving forward, we become more empathetic, and confident in our judgment. We make real progress in narrowing our Say–Do Gap.
When thinking about social learning clubs, it’s helpful to understand the benefits of learning in action by wrestling with micro-situations.
The Alternative UK @AlterUK21 is a platform for imagining what civil society can be. We share a belief in the need for lifelong learning models that advance this purpose on a day-to-day basis. Read their recent editorial on the potential for Social Learning Clubs here.
Tight or loose management – which way should firms respond when projects are not meeting their objectives? Should we clamp down to achieve better results?
These are the wrong questions…old school questions.
Instead of a tight or loose?* we should be asking: Which aspects of our business require us to adhere to rules, and where do we need room to move within boundaries?
To begin this conversation, let’s think about the true nature of work today (along with how we need to respond):
Work is unpredictable (so we need to create a flexible way forward)
Work involves messy human relationships (so we must nurture cooperative interactions)
Work depends on discretionary effort (so it’s vital to understand what motivates people to do their best work)
There’s a yearning for meaningful work (so should define the firm’s purpose, as well as each project’s purpose beyond meeting schedule, budget and scope)
When we apply tight management to the wrong aspects of business, we stifle initiative and potential. Likewise, the misapplication of loose management results in wasted time and effort. “Loose” does not mean sloppy, haphazard and uncaring. In any case, striving for a uniformly tight mechanical system of management goes against human nature and leads to endless frustration.
Let the conversation begin! Which aspects of your business are tight-appropriate and in what ways do you need more room to move?
– Sharon VanderKaay
* I first encountered the concept of tight/loose management in Tom Peters’ and Robert H. Waterman Jr. 1982 book, In Search of Excellence – and yet we still wrestle with this issue.
Most clients don’t really know how to evaluate design firms. Also, due to the large sums of money they are spending on projects, they’re scared of being blamed for making a bad choice.
Imagine how you might apply empathy to this tense situation. Rather than react to every onerous RFP, why not meet with potential clients well in advance of the selection process? Why not ask if they want your help in writing the RFP? Your inside knowledge can help them avoid pitfalls.
Interview your clients
Instead of talking about your work for most of that intro meeting (Me! Me! Me!…oh right, you), what if you used this time to understand where they’re coming from (You! You! Me!).
Yes, we should bring our portfolio and be ready to tell a story that demonstrates our depth of knowledge. Yes we should focus on a relevant example that paints a picture of what it’s like to work with us. But we can enrich relationships and gain an edge by interviewing our clients. Maybe we can help shape the content of the RFP and be the proverbial firm with the inside track. I have been in this advisory/winning position several times, so I know it can be done.
Empathy-driven questions for a client might include:
1. What are your biggest challenges?
2. What do you look for when choosing a design consultant?
3. What problems do you seek to avoid?
4. Do you have any dissatisfactions with your current RFP process?
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 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.