I am the founder of Portigal Consulting, a boutique firm that brings together user research, design and business strategy. Portigal Consulting helps clients to discover and act on new insights about how their customers work, play, shop, entertain, eat, and live their lives around products and services.
This past weekend at Asilomar we put together a small (50-person) "unconference" referred to as Overlap, nominally set up to address the (perhaps emerging) confluence of design and business. The emphasis was not on the typical conference top-down presentations by "experts", but on the creation of discussion moments.
But in planning the event, we took a open-ended approach. We didn't define or even seek to define what the Overlap really meant or what the outcome of this conference should be. We conceived of an approach where presenters were asked to keep their remarks extremely brief, and work with another person to really facilitate a targeted discussion. Unfortunately, that didn't play out in execution. Presenters ended talking for much longer than I had expected, and then it was thrown open, often without a mechanism for facilitating either the speakers or the topic. And 50 people piling on was often unmanageable - it takes a fair amount of force to jump into a discussion with that many inhabitants (not participants; that's my point, you couldn't easily participate unless you were loud and fast, at least).
It wasn't chaos, it was engaging and it had an energy, but it was not fully inclusive, and it was rather tiring. We had highly spirited discussion, and even some persistent disagreement that I think was extremely healthy (in contrast to the hushed horror seen at DUX and other events when an idea was challenged) without being excessively personal or inappropriate in tone.
Tom Mulhern opened the event by asking everyone to go around the circle and talk about what they thought the Overlap was between. What were the endpoints? The answers were fascinating and grew in depth as the circle proceeded. This was truly a group looking to bust some paradigms, with exciting, diverse backgrounds and an intensity towards moving towards...something. Indeed, this discussion (and our effective warmup intros via email, in the days leading up to the event) made me feel better about various insecurities. Feeling like I don't fit, or don't have a clear identity, or the identity that I want were all themes that other participants echoed flavors of, while offering up fantastic credentials and passions...hmm, if these people are so awesome, why do they have the same troubling feelings I do? Maybe there's some lesson to be learned here. Indeed, I returned to the blogosphere to find rather similar thoughts from PeterMe.
Some of Tom's presentation [Note - I took a few notes about a few different parts of the event. I'm not summarizing every aspect of every presenter and I won't mention some presenters. That doesn't imply that there was nothing of value. I'm lazy, and some presentations don't easily translate to a blog posting. I imagine more exhaustive notes will emerge over the next while] about the things that design can bring to business, or the "products" of design, were built on his structure of Grease, Grit, and Glue.
Grease - the power of design to align people, i.e., make people work in a team - if you are going to have the pleasure of becoming unconfused, you have to allow yourself to be confused
Grit - we encounter people taking on Newspeak terms about the future, about their products or business, but bringing a real person into the process (a real "user") brings the 15,000 foot view down to a real level (and prototyping is a way to do this even further)
Grout - taking things and holding them together - i.e., a wall doesn't work without grout, but the grout is not really what it's about, this is helping people connect stuff, such as communication design, i.e., creating a brand "bible" that everyone would believe in
After Tom's piece, something changed when Richard Farson led the first session the next morning.
Richard said a lot of great stuff in a direct and articulate voice of authority. For example - design is one of the few industries that is dominated by its clients and this is not healthy - we are a business not a profession - we have a vendor mentality when we approach clients, not as peers (he referenced the period in history when architects were at the highest level of a society and mixed with presidents) - we must move from a market orientation to a goal orientation; from meeting wants to meeting needs - (designed )situations are more powerful creators of behavior than [a long list that included genetics etc.] - i.e., "no one smokes in church"
But this shifted into a discussion of social responsibility or rather Social Responsibility that seemed off-topic. But had tremendous gravity for the group. It became this underlying theme for the event (why, I am not sure).
Immediately the discussion turned to ways we can start to address the list of social ills that Richard presented, and whether his public/private sector perspective was the way to handle it. And the "we" became "designers." I started hearing that dreadful "As designers, we...." preface to statements from every corner of the room. I can't stand when people start doing that. Suddenly people were acting as if we were a bunch of designers on a retreat somewhere to talk about design which therefore means saving the world. We weren't people with multiple professions and identities, we were one thing: designers. I tried to flag this for the group, but the language didn't change; the traditional behaviors are hard to break, perhaps.
There were lots of other presentations, some with breakout exercises where we might try and design a solution to a complex problem. Brad Nemer gave us a task where we looked at a range of media sources or artifacts (Reese's Pieces in E.T., Fox News, blogs, "4 out of 5 dentists", NYT, Oscars, and 25 more) and asked us to deconstruct the issues of trust within those sources, and then to design solutions. I was struck by the framing of the exercise, where "the problem with society and media" was baked in, rather than being more open-ended.
Unpacking the issues of trust was fascinating our breakout group. But our design was an unsexy Google-News-on-steroids that would automagically do a lot of shit better. One other group came up with the same thing. And three other groups couldn't finish. It was a bummer - I saw none of the "sweeeeet" moments in the entire event - where someone comes up with something that maybe isn't fully realized, but is elegant in a way that grabs you in the gut and brain simultaenously, making you utter in a low voice "sweeeet!" without even thinking about it. I don't know if the exercise was at fault, or the framing, or the save-the-world tone that pervaded the groupthink by that point.
A fascinating, if troubling, exercise was led by Erin Liman and Marc Levine. 1/3 of the group was brought up to be Influencers. The rest of us sat in our chairs and were Influencees. The exercise was for the Influencers to get the Influencees to try drinking some buttermilk.
But first a bit more context - this was an enormously social experience. We dined together at special tables for Overlap in the dining hall. We stayed together in one or two buildings that were exclusively Overlap folks. We talked extensively during the many breaks, during meals, with beer (which people independently purchased and shared), during walks. There were many familiar faces, other faces put to names, and other new people met. It was really a great connection where everyone was pretty much really nice to each other, convivial, welcoming and collaborative.
And that informed the exercise and my feelings about it.
Structurally, the Influencers would have some time to go plan their approach, then some time with the Influencees (which I was one of), then more time to revise their approach, and then a final session with us.
What happened was fascinating as a story if unnerving as an experience: the Influencers did what seemed very natural in the setting of a workshop exercise. They play-acted. They did improv, taking on characters that were enormously familiar. They parroted the language of telemarketers and informercials.
Watching them do it was amusing and kind of meta-ironic. But then they wanted us to actually do something. To take an action. To drink something. It wasn't about the drinking of the buttermilk, it was about the feeling of being treated that way. Insincerely. Manipulated. And these were new friends acting this way.
That really sums it up. I had people standing in front of me and channeling every awful camp counselor/peer pressure/telemarketer/religious zealot/scammer - people with whom I had developed these great relationships. It was horrifying, and in a couple of cases I was not even really able to repair the post-exercise relationship.
And of course it didn't work. What worked was people who approached each other sincerely, even acknowleding the frame of the exercise. The fact we had to learn that insight so viscerally through failure is really a drag.
I'm not entirely sure how this was an Overlap-relevant experience, but again that was one of the risks with such a (deliberately) ill-defined brief.
The nearest thing to a "sweeet" moment happened in this session, however. The Influencers realized that buttermilk was good in other foods, say, pancakes. They went to the Asilomar kitchen and in the space of a few minutes managed to get them to make some buttermilk pancakes. Sadly, they arrived as the session was concluding and so it didn't serve to persuade us (too late), but it would have been pretty cool. The fact that they pulled that off is a tribute to the power of creative thinking and extroversion.
The event ended with a discussion of what comes next, and I think that's still being sorted out. There's some real passion for an outcome, I'm not sure if there's too much around a specific outcome (we've talked about future events, regional events, taking on projects, creating a publishable archive of what we've done, or what we will go and do, etc.), or even the individual leadership to take on any of those outcomes (because we've all been in groups where there's clear energy towards doing something, but have seen the success or failure when a single person does or doesn't step up and move things forward).
I'm not fascinated by fixing the world and those big-picture initiatives - at least where they are now. When they get "real" I can definitely get on board, but I was so burned out from the hard work of the experience (and lack of sleep) that I couldn't see how that will happen. I am fascinated by more personal connections and more insights into who we are and how we do what we all do, and I think that will be an outcome in one form or another.
I had a good time and I approached Overlap with few in-depth expectations, and so I'm not upset or disappointed by what happened. I'm a bit surprised, sure, but we did frame this in the organizing as a planning meeting, keeping it relatively unconstrained, so the results do seem appropriate for that. There's a desire among most of us to further define this thing we've unleashed, and I may find more comfort or my own personal niche as that definition gets refined.
I think people brought a lot of passion, insight, hard work, committment and other good-tasting-ingredients to Overlap and I'm so appreciative of that. I'm okay with things not working, or not working the way I want; that's part of letting go and riding the experience. I wouldn't have changed the approach too much, even with what I know now (I'd do it differently next time, but I wouldn't have done it differently this time). I look forward to ongoing connections with the new friends I've made.