Connecting with Richmonders

The James River is 560 km long and one of the 12th longest rivers in the United States that remains within the same state (source: wikipedia) and the centre piece to a design challenge at Collegiate School in Richmond Virginia.

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How might we connect with Richmonders to bring awareness to the James River?

This HMW question was the frame for a 1 week design challenge and I had the pleasure of being able to kick of the design thinking work with Collegiate. I travelled to Virginia for 2 intense days of design thinking following a half day Jane’s Walk aka “Jenn’s Walk” designed specifically for me by the Collegiate Students ūüôā

Often, the question about design thinking is around what are the outcomes and what are the students really learning by being involved. Most evidently are the practical outcomes of producing a product and being able to present that idea that get assessed and evaluated, and then there is the process and perhaps more intangible outcomes. These are the outcomes that I took notice of.

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Talk to strangers ¬†We teach kids not to talk to strangers.¬†For some of the students, it was unnerving to go up to complete strangers to ask questions and they soon realized that they had to pick themselves up quickly from rejection.¬†It was invaluable how the students had to learn to grab someone’s attention and to try and state their intent quickly, this was something they had to iterate on often.¬†These grade 8’s at Collegiate very quickly had to learn how to talk to strangers and we had a critical conversation about when it is appropriate to observe strangers and a few expressed concerns of unease when it came to people watching and making notes about it. The major difference between your personal comfort level as a researcher/designer¬†and how to gain information needed to inform your work to be human-centered.

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Collaboration takes time We have expectations of what collaboration should look like. For students to work together is a key to learning how to negotiate, how to balance power and where the boundaries of roles are that influence and distract from the team. As Heidi Siwak once said “Collaboration is not group work“. It is not as easy as putting students in groups and expecting them to perform a specific way. On day 2, the teachers at Collegiate and I had a conversation that I think captures this well.¬†It was pointed out to me that one of the groups “was behind”. This prompted an interesting conversation about what it meant to be in this emergent process and how this group was performing in comparison to the other groups. Ultimately, it was the tension of what collaboration should look like and what it actually did. The group stayed together and worked their way through the week at their own pace.

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Ask for what you need It takes vulnerability to verbalize how we work. During design thinking 101, I watched as groups pushed through the process and for some it was physically a struggle. I could see the frustration in some of the students faces as they worked through uncertainty and ambiguity. Following DT 101, we had a conversation about Task, Team, Self to reflect and in particular one student spoke up about her personal frustrations of having to move forward before she felt like a task was complete. It was inspiring to hear her share this and together we were able to work out a way for her to ask her team for time to pause before moving on. Later in the day, she told me that it helped her greatly to let her team know what she needed and for the team to be able to reciprocate.

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Our time was brief together, it was a ton of fun and I know the students got a lot out of it. It was exciting to be a part of their engagement with the James River. The river that runs through some of their backyards and is the root of a nature, physical activities and economy. Through design thinking 101, an introduction to ethnography through observations and interviews, and a deep dive into defining the problem and developing solid HMW questions; I was inspired to observe some of their lessons learned through engaging in the design thinking process.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.¬†

Ringing in 2013!

Welcome 2013, we are excited to see you!

This year we are looking forward to some innovative ideas, some projects that have been incubating for a few months to start sprouting and a refinement of our impact. We are going to be starting some strategic planning and exploration of what the future holds.

As with years that have passed before, we see the changing of the calendar as the opportunity to start or restart initiatives. We welcome the chance to feel renewed and to engage in the swell of refreshed energy.

In 2013, we resolve to:

  • make room for experiments
  • explore our failures
  • share progress
  • respect the need for iterations
  • process our process

Goodbye 2012, we promise to remember you for your ups and downs. You have taught us a lot. We bid you adeiu.

Jenn

c/o of the Exhibit Change Team