Knowing what greatness looks like

So often, as people who have been deep in the work for years, we forget what it’s like to not know. We forget what it’s like to have never seen greatness.

Adopting a beginner’s mindset helps us step back into the shoes of someone just beginning their journey. Assume the best about a beginner’s intent. Assume they want to do great work, but just don’t know what “great” looks like, or don’t have the resources to achieve it.

I’m trying to show more examples of greatness early on in design work with students. Showing them how people at IDEO work and think about projects. Now, we can reference their process and ask questions like “how might we be more like that?” Those are questions we could not have asked if we had never modeled greatness.

Show examples of incredible work, then help people believe that they’re not as far from achieving it as they think.

Prioritization and decision making

With many different balls in the air, it’s often impossible to get everything done. And that’s okay! Prioritization and decision making are key skills most people need to improve.

What’s particularly interesting is that when you’re a student, prioritization isn’t nearly as crucial for success. Generally, you complete all your work for all your classes. Sometimes your paper isn’t as good as it could have been, or you didn’t study as much as you wanted, but you still finished.

In the working world that’s just not the case. Tasks are not clearly defined. You set your own check points and manage your time accordingly. In some ways it’s liberating, but in others it can be crushing.

Your to-do list is constantly shifting in importance. Dancing back and forth. Demanding the scarce resource of your attention. Luckily it’s up to you who you choose to dance with.

Shifting space

As facilitators of collaboration, learning and transformation, we often accept space as a given. The status quo of meetings, the conference table, is often a barrier to our best work. Unfortunately, the default is so strong, we rarely think to reconsider it.

The next time you have a meeting, don’t start with the assumption that you’ll be sitting down at a table. Start elsewhere. Imagine a walking meeting, or a standing huddle, or a hands-on prototyping session.  Imagine the interactions you want to see between participants, and choose the space accordingly.

It’s not about the fancy office building, or booking the conference room. It’s about being deliberate with how the distance and objects between us change the way we interact.

Redesigning the obvious

How might we change the way people interact with something so simple as a plastic bag?

It’s a staple of food shops, convenience stores and many others. It’s so common that it’s almost invisible.

What if we redesigned it? Made plastic bags a statement. Or made it a warning about the effects of single-use plastic. Not an advertisement to be sold to the highest bidder, but instead, a representation of values.

Everywhere around us there are opportunities to reconsider the obvious and promote the greater good.

FAD framework

Any good experience, whether you know it or not, follows a similar format:

Frame – setting expectations for what’s about to happen

Activity – the thing

Debrief – reflecting on it

Your upcoming vacation has been framed as a relaxing, island getaway. It’s been framed by travel companies, friends, and now you, too, have kept that frame around it for a long time. You finally go there and it’s everything you expected. When you leave, you debrief with all of your friends, reflecting on all of the fun times.

While this is true naturally, you can also design it. You can frame activities to be profound, although they may initially seem simple. With the right frame and debrief, a walk in woods could lead to a huge creative breakthrough. Or a game of Pictionary could unlock your team’s communication potential.

Too often, we focus all our energy on the A, and not the F or D. To make any activity better, remember to frame it well, and reflect appropriately.

Inclusive language

It feels like “political correctness” is the term one uses when they don’t know or care about any of the people being excluded with language.

If you knew the people who were offended, or felt not seen, you wouldn’t call it “political correctness.” You would just call it inclusion. You would just call it the right thing to do.

How much should you work with users?

When starting something new, working with users has two efficiency frontiers.

One is that it’s efficient to work directly with users because you’re the most experienced and can serve them best. The flip side being that you should train the trainer and scale impact.

The other is that it’s efficient to work with users to build empathy necessary to scale impact. On the flipside, only ever focusing on scald takes you away from the original focus on users.

I think we can agree there’s a balance to be struck. You should spend time working with users, and learning from them. But you should also spend time thinking about scale. At the very beginning it might look like 99% users and 1% scale as you prove the concept and gather information. As you grow and mature as an organization, that will start to shift. Maybe it’s 20% users and 80% scale, or even more skewed toward scale. But I don’t think it should ever be 0% users. That’s when leadership gets out of touch.

That’s when people lose sight of why they’re there in the first place. That’s a situation that’s not good for anyone.

The gift and curse of Growth Mindset

When you know that you can improve at anything, the world is full of abundant possibilities. But, it’s also harder to let yourself off the hook.

I’ve written off my ability to go to the gym more times than I can count. I usually say, “I’m more of a sports person.” “I’d rather get my exercise from hiking or surfing.” or “My body isn’t meant for lifting weights.”

But, that’s my fixed mindset talking. I was trying to let myself off the hook.

A world exists in which I overcome that self-talk and a growth mindset will help me get there. The gym is just one, tiny example. Growth mindset can be applied anywhere. Your capacity is not fixed. Work at it, and you will improve.

Could there be any more empowering notion?

What we need to get right

I think AI, Blockchain, and other high tech are all important things to get right, but I think community is what’s the most urgent.

If we can’t get it right, we’re going to leave too many people behind. It’s already happening in San Francisco. An enormous rift between classes and races. Skyrocketing company valuations matched with staggering homelessness rates.

The same way we find great models for building startups, we need better models for building truly inclusive communities. It’s urgent and we need it yesterday.

Doing as thinking

“When I stopped trying to describe what I was going to do and started doing it, things got better.”

-Elif Batuman, author and journalist

I heard this profound quote recently and it immediately resonated with me. For years I was trying to describe what I was good at. I was trying to put a job title on it, and package it into the neatest possible box. I couldn’t do it. I got frustrated and felt like I had no direction.

In reality, I knew what I was good at. I felt it in my core. I just couldn’t put words to it.

Things got better when I just followed the spark that lit me up in the first place. It’s never clear where you’ll end up in ten leaps, but it’s usually obvious where the first one should be.

You don’t need words to describe your magic. Feel it inside yourself and follow it.