Navigating the Emergent Process

The emergent process is often described as the way to deal with the ambiguity and uncertainty of complex problems. It is the opportunity to navigating the messy parts of usually social and systemic issues that are most commonly known in the design thinking world as “wicked problems” Wicked problems are problems that don’t stop moving and changing to be solved for. They are rapidly changing problems and therefore the solution must be adaptive and iterative to respond and react appropriately.The key is to work on pinning down the problem for long enough to propose a solution and recognizing that the solution is a piece of a much bigger puzzle.

It all starts with a single question. What if? How might we? I wonder? This curiosity can lead to many places.

The best example we have heard lately is that putting a man on the moon is not a complex or wicked problem. It is a technical problem. It requires specific expertise and planning. The details may change, but the outcome is the pre-determined.

However, something like education or healthcare is a complex or wicked problem. You cannot stop these systems from operating, there are many ways to decipher the future state of these systems and therefore many ways to interact and understand the problem.

We have learned a few lessons and wanted to share them as part of our ongoing learning:

1. Understanding Stakeholders

We strive to work in collaborations where the stakeholders are at the table, part of the decision-making process and can see themselves as part of the design and implementation. Our goal is to create engagement and ownership. Within in this principle we have to recognize how we are understanding stakeholders, who we see as having power, the relationships between stakeholders and the expectations that come along with that. We struggle to adhere to the status quo and often find ourselves challenging power dynamics. Ultimately, trust is the largest asset to be gained and lost by understanding stakeholders.


2. Balancing Decision-Making

While working in collaborations with stakeholders the negotiation of decision-making is inherently at the forefront of each conversation as it can make or break the ownership we have worked to achieve. When we engage in a co-design relationship with our collaborators we have to be clear what that means and how decisions will impact our collaborators and the stakeholders. What does it really mean to be co-designing? Who is really making the call? If a decision is made that is in tension with what stakeholders have said, how will that be communicated and evaluated later on? We recognize that time, pressure and expectations can counter intentions for co-design and so we are working to document when and where that is happening.


3. Embracing Messiness

Messiness, discomfort, awkwardness, uncertainty, unfamiliarity…whatever you want to call it, it is where the magic happens. We know it best as the ambiguity that we have to work to push towards and through to get to a solution that makes sense for this set of stakeholders, this moment in time and these circumstances. Our challenge is being able to walk people into the fog and convince them that there is certainty in the uncertainty. We battle with our collaborators desire to let their inner control freak come out when it starts to get messy. We are working on creating the safe space to help ourselves and others work in this awkwardness.


Being able to work this way is sometimes seen as a luxury of time and resources and we have to wonder ask ourselves if we see another way of doing this work and if we can really afford to keep doing things the way always have. It seems fitting to put an Albert Einstein quote here.

Albert Einstein

Question. Provoke. Evolve.

The Purpose of Ice Cream

In March, we hosted a series of design thinking workshops. It was a workshop heavy month and one resounding question emerged, “What is the purpose of ice cream?”

Having put on a bunch of workshops like these, we like to play with different design challenges each time for the group. It is not something we choose arbitrarily, but actually something we discuss a lot and very intentionally put forward. For the whole month of March, for every workshop we did was centred around ice cream.


Why ice cream? 

Our goal during design thinking workshops is for participants to walk away with tools that they can bring into their everyday work and lives and we have found if you are too close to the design challenge that you spend most of your time actually getting worked up with solving the problem rather than learning how to approach solving the problem.


We are really good at solving problems. 

We do it everyday. It is in our nature. In fact, we can almost always come up with a solution. Our quest is to have you question what the problem is so that you can better define what it is you are trying to achieve before coming up with the solution. This is our work.


We specifically choose a topic that we know our participants are not likely to have a large attachment to and instead can focus on getting through the process of learning design thinking. Often, in our everyday, we get told what the problem is and then everyone goes straight to solving for the problem without taking time to really understand what the problem is.

Ice cream is a perfect example of this. Through 3 workshops and 17 groups working on the problem of ice cream, we learned a few things too.


The problem isn’t ice cream As groups tackled understanding ice cream, some became frustrated that ice cream wasn’t a complicated enough task, it is mundane and not difficult enough. Sometimes the task seems as simple as ice cream until you really start to unpack it. We began to recognize a tension where participants felt if they weren’t engaged with the problem, they had less motivation.

The user knows the way As groups worked on understanding the problem, one of the greatest tasks is thinking of who the users are beyond what you as the designer wants to achieve. When we can let go of our designer ego, and let the user guide you to the solution then we can be responsive and human-centred.

There is no right answer Every group we worked with started with the same prompt of ice cream and we wound up with 17 extremely different ideas. Granted some were a little silly but nevertheless, there were 17 beautifully well thought out prototypes ready for feedback and iteration.


At the end of the day, there is no ideal design challenge to start learning about design thinking. The point is to start. The struggles that you face in learning will help you as you conquer greater and greater wicked problems.


The Value of a Pivot

Often, we set out with a plan in mind and it seems crystal clear exactly how we are going to make that idea happen. In our minds, we have probably been playing with this idea in different forms and sometimes just saying it out loud can take it in an entirely different direction.

13127049044_d9bdb3a598_cWe work in complex problems and sometimes find ourselves as the ones who have to say, “hold on… what are we actually trying to achieve here?”

This is an extremely difficult conversation to have especially when it feels like forward is the only way to go. We have all been on a project where the bias to take action is imperative, time is of the essence, everything around you seems to be saying yes, yes, yes and yet this is the moment when reflection and feedback serve the greatest purpose.

The value of a pivot:

  • Take a pause;
  • Reflect on how you got here;
  • Question the process;
  • Develop a strategy to the strategy; and
  • Fundamentally challenge your assumptions.

Find your repurpose.

It feels simpler to listen to everyone that is agreeing and seek kind feedback to justify what you are doing. The complexity is looking for respectful and challenging feedback for an opportunity to react and pivot.

Momentum can be dangerous, as it pushes you in the only direction it can. 

Let’s not kid ourselves, we are huge fans of bringing outrageous ideas to fruition, that is how we ended up doing a Nuit Blanche exhibit in a truck and a ball pit in a park. We love to play with making ideas happen and undeniably we learn greatly from these ideas.

So, sometimes it is awkward to be seen as the one driving towards action and simultaneously having to put the breaks on.


It may feel like taking a pivot is going sideways or even worse backwards, but we strongly value the role and position of being able to embrace this moment and push beyond it. It is an opportunity to fail up (push to, through and beyond failure) to be able to see what you are learning and what you need next.

It takes great strength to be able to acknowledge what didn’t work. 

We appreciate that is difficult to both give and receive feedback, especially with every intention of being empathic and vulnerable. (I know that I am trying to work on this.) It is common to be defensive, this is a skill we have honed for years.

This is the messiness of the process. It is never as linear as it is on paper or as clear as it is in our minds. We understand that a pivot may feel disruptive or even abrupt. We admire organizations that can take the time to reflect on the greater good for the users as opposed what the designers want. It can be difficult to separate personal aspirations from project aspirations.


Spending some time on us

This fall we embarked on strategic planning for Exhibit Change with our new core team, Colin and I, and our Makers, Terrence, Emily, Clara and Nisha to spend 1.5 days thinking through where we are headed. This is something we have tried to do before and always stumbled after the initial steps. This time around we felt like we needed to invest in a different way to get the most value out of the process. It was a pleasure to get to spend these days with some of my favourite people, focus our brains and not surprisingly I learned a lot about what it is like to be facilitated. 

After a few failed attempts at facilitating ourselves, we finally brought in Natalie Currie to help us out with our strategic planning. Much like a hair dresser trying to cut their own hair, we would have missed the hard to reach spots and only been able to see one perspective. Having a facilitator in the room let us concentrate on the content and not on the process (which was new for us) and such a relief. Natalie was fully warned walking into the room that we are a silly bunch and that her job was to keep us focused and reduce the number of tangents we went on – of course a few still got away from us.


Natalie used a few different sneaky facilitation tricks on us to get to some of the stuff below the surface. We designed a movie script for 10 years from now, an empathy map of our clients, ranked our priorities and came up with an intense 90 day action plan. Each day we left completely mentally exhausted. 

Moving forward, I am so proud of all that we have accomplished this year and totally “scare-cited” as Natalie would put it for next year. We have big plans for 2014, we are turning 5. 

ECOO 2013 Bingo

I am heading to ECOO later today and presenting tomorrow. While watching some of the twitter conversation. I am inspired from Audrey Watters work at #SXSWedu and figured I would take it upon myself to see where I could contribute some reality gaming to the conference.

Let’s see what happens and what I might learn from this experiment.

If you are around at ECOO tomorrow, come check out my panel with Andrew Campbell on “How Technology Can Break Down The Walls of School?

Play along via twitter at #ecoo13 or face-to-face 🙂

ECOO Bingo

Nuit Blanche is TOMORROW!

It has been 6 months since we started this journey. Through My Lens started from the idea of what if people took pictures so that we could start conversations about cities…

We are ready as we can be heading into tomorrow. We have printed the pictures, bought rolls and rolls of craft paper, we have markers and tape on hand, we have an amazing team of volunteers, photographers and conversation animators and now we just have to head into tomorrow with an open mind.

We know that hundreds of people will experience Nuit Blanche in Toronto tomorrow night and we know that people are thirsty for interaction. What we don’t know is how many people will come to our rental truck, how many people will want their picture taken, how many people will colour and draw on our truck, how many conversations will happen in our truck, around our truck and because of our truck…and we are prepared as we can possibly be!

With baited breathe, I am excited to see what tomorrow brings and where these conversations are going to take us.

Inspire Yourself,


Through My Lens – reflections

Over the past 10 days as the themes rattled around in my head, I have been overwhelmed by how much more I have loved Toronto and more importantly – the PEOPLE! I have been blown away by the people who lead our neighbourhood walking tours, by the people who attended our walking tours, by the hundreds of pictures we have collected so far and the stories of people’s photography adventures.


Thank you for reminding me why we do this work! We started this project to get people to take a second look at the city and to be inspired to take positive action. And I know that the project has done that for many individuals already and for me too. I am buzzing with excitement and admiration  for the powerful moments and images that I have come across these last 10 days.

What is green? How does Toronto express itself artistically? Where do you see change? Where do you belong? What is your everyday? How do you move through Toronto? What inspires Toronto? What fuels Toronto? What are the secrets of Toronto?

These themes are the center piece to the beginning of our Through My Lens conversations, we started with the photography adventure and were able to capture so many perspectives and these images will now be the focal point of our Nuit Blanche exhibit as vistors curate them into a community exhibit in a rental truck. We are looking to the community to tell us what they are focusing on.

For me, the themes had me not only looking for great shots in my day to day, but also thinking about the bigger picture of how these themes mean to me. I was especially struck by the final themes of What inspires Toronto? What fuels Toronto? and What are the secrets of Toronto? I know that Toronto and I have its issues, but I really renewed my love for Toronto. From the Urban Affairs Library closing, to seeing Cirque du Soliel in a parking lot, to walking to work, I know that the good and bad are part of what makes Toronto Toronto and that is what keeps me wanting to do more.

Expect to see a lot more projects from us that are inspired by these 10 days.

Inspire Yourself,