This past Spring I coordinated an experiment involving graduate students from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and the Goldman School of Public Policy addressing infrastructure challenges experienced by emerging organizations focused on democracy innovation.
I described the project’s structure in more detail in this blog at the beginning of the semester, and the idea was based on conversations I was having during the pandemic with leaders of different emerging democracy innovations. Admittedly, “democracy innovation” is a fuzzy term, but my thought going into the experiment – a thought that was reinforced by the experiment – was that there is a subset of new nonprofit organizations focused on improving functional aspects of our democracy. For purposes of the project I looked specifically at groups that lean centrist, are 501(c)3s – or at least partially 501(c)3 – and I excluded groups working on media. Most of the groups that ended up participating focused on voting and the structures that promote more inclusive voting, as well as organizations working to promote greater cooperation and collaboration across the political spectrum, including the promotion of more business engagement in the political process.
The project got off to a good start with six organizations and 12 graduate students, though we lost an organization and a student about a month into the process. I wasn’t particularly surprised by this attrition. As I said often (and probably somewhat annoyingly), this was always intended to be an experiment and there was as much to be learned from what didn’t work as what did. The group’s reason for dropping out of the process was that the staff person who had been assigned to the project wasn’t continuing with the organization, so they did not have the bandwidth to support the students. This proved to be a recurring theme throughout the semester with staff departures and illnesses significantly impacting the work.
The structure of the experiment also assigned an established nonprofit leader as a volunteer coach to each team. My hope was that they would be able to scope the projects prior to each team launching. Perhaps not surprisingly, project scoping took significantly more time than I had anticipated, and for most of the groups the work did not begin in earnest until at least a month in. Despite my relative lack of instruction, these volunteer coaches made some great contributions to both the organizations and the students they were supporting. I think with a little more structure and guidance that role could be leveraged to maximize their contributions.
Looking back over the semester, I am left with three main takeaways. The experiment did affirm the core premise that prompted the project in the first place: emerging organizations addressing issues of democracy innovation have significant infrastructure challenges that are limiting their impact and ability to achieve scale. What I did not understand going into the experiment, however, was that while I had a fairly decent idea of where I was hoping to help these organizations land, I was really lacking in understanding around their starting places.
It was in a conversation with a longtime campaign organizer in which she described the process of “raising the circus tent” - attracting large sums of money and quickly achieving notable outcomes while building minimal infrastructure - that I came to better understand some of the challenges that our teams were experiencing. I had erroneously assumed that in focusing on how these organizations might have stronger infrastructure that they were comparable to other nonprofits of their relative size and experience, and that the democracy organizations were seeking to build more permanent infrastructure as a key priority. But appearances can be deceptive, and the (understandable) expectations of our grad students around the basic infrastructure elements they assumed to be in place, along with the very real constraints of the organizations we were trying to help (time being the most obvious), made the work hard. My first takeaway was that a better understanding of the organizations’ starting points is essential to supporting them in building the infrastructure they want and need. While the concept of democracy innovation remains an under-defined concept, the experiment convinced me that leaning in to better understand these organizations and how they function – as distinct from other nonprofit organizations, essentially digging in to better define democracy innovation, will be essential to building the supports they require to maximize their impact.
My second takeaway was that I fell into the common design trap of failing to adequately define the “who” of my experiment. In attempting to coordinate an experiment for both organizations and students, I unintentionally designed an experience that underserved both groups. The structure of the experiment – as a paid experience for the graduate students – contributed to a more transactional attitude towards the projects. This was not true for all the student groups, but in the absence of a class structure to support relationships among students, coaches and organizations, the connection between the work and protecting democracy was often overshadowed by the frustrations of collaborating as part of a group whose more significant shared characteristic was a shortage of time.
On the day of the fellowship’s final presentations, I also sat in on the final presentations from the Haas course Social Sector Solutions (S3). That course is designed to support students in providing consulting services, and it was evident from watching their presentations that the course’s time commitment – and curriculum – ensured that the students were better prepared to address the needs of their organizations and the challenges of working on a team. The more rigorous vetting process – and commitment - for S3 also ensured that the participating organizations were better prepared to robustly support the process. While my experiment had focused on emerging organizations by design, this created a more challenging situation for the students because these organizations tend to be less well resourced and more prone to significant staff turnover.
The third takeaway was that I came away wondering if all of these organizations should build lasting organizations; that maybe some of them were best served in achieving their goals by being structured as time-bound campaigns. And not surprisingly, once I started wondering about this for these democracy innovations, I couldn’t help but wonder about the truth of this for other organizations in our sector. Organizations are a lot like living things and living things work really hard to keep themselves alive. How often do organizations lose sight of their intended outcomes because they feel forced to focus instead on their own survival?
This isn’t the first time I’ve considered this, but there was something about looking at the needs of an adjacent group that made the challenges of my own sector feel more obvious (sort of like how one realizes so many different things about the US when one is traveling abroad). It was in thinking about this need in the democracy innovation space that I began to wonder if the answer might be a new structure/business model that afforded organizations the benefits of infrastructure without the distraction of maintaining it. While we have fiscal agents and incubators that support emerging organizations, it is less common for these organizations to actively engage with the participating groups in thinking through the often un-sexy, but always essential questions of scale.
So, what’s next? I’m thinking about two follow up paths of experimentation. The first, addressing my second takeaway around better identifying the beneficiary, is exploring the idea of creating democracy innovation subcohorts within existing classes like the aforementioned S3. Leveraging these existing offerings and their expertise in preparing and supporting students in consulting projects feels like a more effective way to achieve the intended outcomes.
The second potential path involves exploring ways to support these democracy organizations independent of a student experience, a follow up of sorts to the question around the need for a new operating structure. I came away from the project wondering if there might be better ways for me to engage the coaches – possibly supporting existing fellowships for democracy innovation leaders with direct consulting or creating a process to identify veteran social sector leaders interested in serving as board members for these organizations. Could a group like this lean in to better understand the nature of democracy innovations and to design structures and opportunities better tailored to their needs? Could a group like this ultimately spark innovation that contributed to new insights relevant not only to the democracy innovation space, but to the social sector more broadly?
Inspiring greater citizen engagement with our democracy is going to require some exceptional creativity and leadership. While the original idea for the project sparked a great deal of enthusiasm among the participants, that proved hard to maintain as they turned to the actual, more mundane work of figuring out how to help these organizations operate more efficiently. That said, a couple of the groups were able to make progress and gain inspiration from the process.
There’s a story about the mathematician Richard Hamming and how he used to routinely ask colleagues what the most important work in their field was, followed by a question about why they were working on anything else. After a 35-year career in the nonprofit sector, I have come to believe that creating the opportunities for people to actively citizen and to support efforts to innovate in our democracy are both essential to protecting that democracy and the most important work in our sector. It will be challenging and success is not a foregone conclusion, but we can do hard things. If you or someone you know is doing work in this area, I invite you to reach out. The one thing that I know for certain – and that this experiment reinforced for me – is that we cannot do this work alone.
This month marks the kick off of a new project I’m working on, an experiment that I am leading as a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. As a follow up to 18 months of interviews with leaders of organizations working in the space of democracy innovation, the project is a semester-long design cycle out of the Center for Social Sector Leadership (CSSL). Six Haas MBA and six Goldman Public Policy MPP/MPA candidates have been selected to work in interdisciplinary pairs as paid fellows to address specific infrastructure challenges at six democracy innovation organizations (Block Power, Bridge Alliance, Business for America, the Institute for Political Innovation (IPI), New Politics and Turnout Nation). The student teams are being supported by coaches with relevant scaling and growth experience from other nonprofit sectors, with the project work beginning this month and continuing through April, 2022. The goal is to have project deliverables and presentations in May.
There’s a quote in Konstanze Frischen and Michael Zakaras’ book, Unfinished conversations: On democracy, race, the economy and a path forward, from Eric Liu, the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University which has felt particularly relevant to the why of my spring project,
“Well, I would say that democracy works only if enough of us believe democracy works. The process of self-government involved policy and legal structure and institutions, but what animates it all is civic spirit – a belief that participating in the first place will yield benefits. What we’re seeing in the United States right now and around the world is that democracy is not inevitable. It is not self-perpetuating. The belief in democracy requires constant nurturing and cultivation. And that belief has to emerge from the inside out: Showing up in this diverse community is something I should want to do because it benefits me and those around me.”
More than anything, my hope for this project is that it creates an opportunity for a diverse group of humans to show up and contribute, to actively participate and to be reminded that this whole democracy thing is an experiment that requires our active care and feeding. If I’m honest, I’m also hoping that it will be a reminder to those participating that engaging in this way – having the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to something larger than ourselves – can be both energizing and hopeful.
On the more concrete level, there are also some outstanding questions I hope the experiment will begin to answer:
While the projects are just kicking off this week, the learning has already begun, including:
There is still much to be learned and my plan is to write more about the process – I’m aiming for a mid-semester update as well as a final one - but there is one observation that I wanted to share in closing. In many ways, this is a very personal project borne out of my deep concern about what I perceive to be threats to our democracy and a desire to translate 25 years of helping people learn to play well together into a practical approach to mending our not-so-civil society. I have been gently called naïve, and I have been repeatedly reminded that the scale and scope of the challenge at hand makes my small experiment seem less than inconsequential. In the face of these entirely justified criticisms, I find inspiration in a sports adage, “Fight fatigue with focus.”
We are all tired. Shifting my attention from doom-scrolling to the work on this project has measurably buoyed my mood. I actually caught myself nerdily/optimistically thinking that experimenting with election reforms at the state level might actually get traction in a way that ultimately catalyzes a shift from gradual change to significant sudden change. I invite you to consider this moment and how you’re feeling about it, and to decide to shift at least some portion of your limited time to doing something about the things that worry you. No matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. I invite you to join me and my colleagues in this project in actively citizening.
As schools prepare to re-open after the quarantine-prompted year and a half hiatus, school leaders are wrestling with some significant decisions. School closures in response to the pandemic laid bare a host of pervasive educational inequities – from access to broadband to extracurricular learning opportunities. It also served to make the complexities of teaching and learning abundantly clear to many people who had simply not been compelled to consider them before. In particular, the multifaceted nature of teaching – combining both instruction and custodial care (the unfortunate educational parlance for all things non-instructional) - left many families reeling. Given the challenges of keeping one or two kids engaged at home, the idea of differentiated instruction for a classroom of 30 kids was at last understood to be an almost Herculean task.
One area where the importance of the “care” side of the equation was made particularly evident is in the practice of substitute teaching. While substitute teaching is very much the “elephant in the classroom” – at 10% of a student’s instructional time and a cost of $4B annually in the direct costs of subs – the practice has an outsized impact on the experience of school. Making it even more significant is the issue of “fill-rate.” The national average of 80% - meaning that for every 100 requests for a sub, on average 80 are filled – leaves schools to either sub in other staff (administrators, school counselors, reading specialists), or to distribute the untended students among other classes – a process that is often referred to as “farming out.”
Just as the pandemic helped people to fully grasp just how complicated – and important - care-taking actually is, the real and impactful challenges of substitute teaching were made similarly more visible. Efforts to contain the viral spread of COVID revealed that creating a structure in which subs are not going from building to building also has the happy unintended consequence of enabling them to form relationships – with both students and staff – that contribute to the greater likelihood of their success in the larger educational sense.
It may sound cliché, but there are huge opportunities in the challenges we face. Looking at substitute teaching - universally acknowledged as one of our most dysfunctional and un-loved legacy systems – provides some great examples. The opportunity in this moment is in not simply focusing on how to “get back to normal,” but rather to look at the challenges we face, the innovations that have emerged, and to ask the question “how might we build systems that works?” At Substantial, we have been asking just this question about the substitute teaching experience in an effort to shift the debate from “how do we get enough subs?” to “what might we do with 10% of student time and $4B annually?”
One example that has emerged is re-imagining the role of substitute teacher as a full time school-based position that not only represents an important pipeline for new teachers, but adds flexibility to school staffing that may help in addressing the unanticipated challenges that are likely to arise in the coming year. Another idea is engaging specialty subs in the short term – guest instructors who supplement instruction with a focus on a topic that might otherwise go uncovered like art or financial literacy. From the use of ed tech to inviting students themselves to assume greater responsibility for the “classroom” experience, reframing the design of our responses to emphasize co-creating systems that work for everyone involved proved most effective when our old systems were rendered temporarily unworkable.
This moment creates two very distinct opportunities – responding to our challenges with improvements or innovations – and one very real danger: settling for a “return to normal”. In the case of substitute teaching, a return to “normal” would be asking “How do we get more subs?” Improvement might mean shifting the question to “How might we get the great subs we have to come back, helping them to be even more successful?” Innovation, ultimately, involves asking “How might we design the best possible student experience?” Thinking about the myriad issues that face school leaders as they open from these three vantage points is helpful in sparking empathy for the incredibly heavy lift that they face in this moment.
The question we collectively face – not just in education, but more universally, is what will we do with the lessons of the pandemic? Will we hold on to our appreciation for the challenges of keeping students engaged throughout the day? Will we continue to feel thankful for those workers who were deemed essential and asked to risk more than the rest of us? Will we acknowledge the system’s inequities and seek to redress them? As schools re-open, reconsidering the role of the substitute teacher provides an opportunity to imagine how we might hold ourselves accountable to incorporating these lessons. And as we re-open as a society, we might allow these lessons to prompt our thinking more generally on how we intentionally design this next phase of our collective life in a way that honors the importance of relationships and connection.
It has been a difficult few weeks, which is really saying something when you consider that we’re still “languishing,” as Adam Grant so eloquently described, in a pandemic that’s ending seems hard to pin down. Nonetheless, the mass shootings and the ruling in the Chauvin case have contributed to a greater-than-usual sense of unease and overwhelm.
In the midst of this, the book I co-authored with my Substantial co-founder, Amanda von Moos, Substantial Classrooms: Redesigning the Substitute Teaching Experience was released. We wrote the book in the before-times, and it had originally been scheduled for publication this past summer, but Amanda and I convinced the publishers that absolutely no one was thinking about subs in that moment. People are, indeed, now thinking more about subs. As we consider re-opening, it seems likely that many places will face considerable teacher shortages. The pandemic has also laid bare the singular importance of connection in teaching and learning, and more specifically the extent to which teaching requires a blending of both instruction and the “custodial care” that we had previously managed to overlook, if not completely dismiss.
The other thing about our book, though, is that it’s about design, and specifically bringing human-centered design to bear in working with entrenched, under-loved and often dysfunctional legacy systems. In this way, it is also a book for this complicated moment of unease and overwhelm. In looking at how we might redesign the substitute teaching system, our book endeavors to highlight the importance of being open to entirely new narratives, of redefining the problem itself, and radically reimagining what's possible.
Along the lines of radical reimagining, I’ve found myself reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy over the past year. While it has been a great escape, inherent in the worldbuilding that these genres employ, is an approach that Leah Zaidi identifies as critical not only to science fiction, but also to foresight and design. This storytelling about plausible futures helps us to both imagine, and more importantly also to create, new visions for our society. I like to think that we have tried to bring a spirit of fantastic reimagining to the task of redesigning substitute teaching, and that it is precisely this level of fantastic reimagining that this moment requires.
Luckily, science fiction thinking starts very much on Earth. Three grounded takeaways from the book that I believe apply to this larger collective need to reimagine a better future are:
Start with a hack. One of the antidotes that Grant calls out to counteract languishing is the small win, which translates pretty directly into the design concept of a “hack” - a small, scrappy experiment that enables quick learning and requires very little expense or risk.
Identify bright spots. Great things are already happening. By focusing on the positive deviants, and amplifying their stories, we point the way to even greater innovation.
Lead with empathy. These entrenched, under-loved and dysfunctional systems we hope to shift are complex because they are human. Not losing sight of the fact that there are actual people behind both the challenges and innovations that are happening, and taking to understand them and what motivates them – uncovers essential truths that can help us imagine a better path forward.
While health officials still need to determine when schools will reopen, educators have begun turning their attention to how schools might look when such re-openings begin to occur. And one thing is clear: when kids return to school, they’re going to need a way to have social connections while maintaining physical distancing. Eliminating play and physical activity from their days—especially eliminating recess —is going to have the exact opposite effect of what is needed. Instead, looking at intentionally designing play activities that promote physical distancing, encourage hand washing, and promote youth leadership represents a singular opportunity to leverage students’ intrinsic motivation to cooperate by using one of the oldest parenting/teaching tricks in the book: turn it into a game. In whatever schedule configurations that emerge, having staff who can support small group, student-led play and physical activities will be essential to reopening schools that work.
Further, conversations about the post-COVID-19 learning losses as something equivalent to a super “summer slide” set up a potentially dangerous dynamic around academic remediation that is doomed from the start. The long and short of it is that academic remediation doesn’t work, but accelerating learning can. Dr. Will Massey’s research found that high quality recess was associated with improved executive functioning, emotional self-control, resilience, and positive classroom behavior in elementary school children—all essential preconditions for accelerated learning amongst the age group that is most likely to have experienced the greatest learning losses.
If COVID-19 has done nothing else, it has laid bare the messiness and inevitability of our interdependence. Play’s future is deeply rooted in its past: a risky behavior that has nonetheless survived eons of evolution precisely because it teaches us to navigate the demands of social connection.
OK, so your office has shut down and you’re working from home. Great, maybe it’s a few more Zoom meetings than you would prefer, but totally manageable, right? That is, until they close schools. Working from home with kids present is an entirely different situation. Here are three tips for not losing your mind, being a decent parent, and actually getting some work done.
If you watch any really amazing elementary school teacher, one thing you’ll notice is that they most definitely have a plan. In the best classrooms I’ve seen, the teacher starts each day off by going through the day’s schedule with the students, inviting them to ask questions, get clarification, and where appropriate, to participate in making adjustments and changes to the schedule. These teachers keep things moving, not staying too long at any one activity, supporting their students in maintaining focus, and they always have a few back-up activities in case (read: when) something goes awry. I’d also say these teachers put a lot of stock in the power of ritual, relying on certain consistencies to help students have a greater sense of agency, visibility into the process, and control of the world around them.
It may sound nuts, but starting off every day with a review of the day’s schedule is a really good idea. Post it up somewhere central and visible and refer to it throughout the day, checking things off as the day progresses. If your kids are young, drawing/writing it out with them is a fun way to spend the first 15 minutes of your day. Break the day into 15-30 minute chunks of time, interspersing activities you do with them, such as taking stretch breaks (@Playworks is posting online free #playathome activities like this), story time, making and eating snacks/lunch, or activities like these from @Inspired Teaching. As you make your way through the day, make notes for yourself about what worked well, how much time things actually take, and ideas that you come up with for new activities. Go over these notes with your child in the morning when you’re making the next day’s schedule and ask them about their observations.
A quick note about screen time. When my kids were little, I definitely used screens to distract them, so I have no judgment. I will share, though, that the transition post-screen time was almost always rough. As in, almost made me regret ever letting them have screens in the first place. If you are going to let your kids watch a movie during the day so that you get one 90 minute block, I’d recommend doing it towards the end of the day and to do a lot of pre and post prep with your kids to minimize transitional angst.
One of the biggest keys to success in all of this is recognizing that your kids are only a part of the challenge. Your behavior is a big factor in making this work. We are operating in a distracted age, and some estimates of actual work time are as low as 2.5 hours of productivity in the average 8 hour day. Your job in making this weird situation work is to choose 2-3 important work things that you are prioritizing on any given day and to resist/eliminate the many ‘urgent’ things – like email and social media – that can easily distract us.
This emphasis on focus also applies during the times in the day when you are interacting with your kids. This time is as important as the 2-3 important work things that you’ve identified, and actually focusing on your kids makes it much more likely that you will be able to actually focus on your work priorities during those allotted times. Close your computer and put your phone out of reach when you are with your kids. Treat it like a meeting with your boss or most important client/funder.
Maintaining perspective is everything. If you are in a situation where you are healthy, your loved ones are healthy, and you’re getting paid to work from home, you are in a privileged position and the most important thing you can do is to be visibly aware of how lucky you are and to make sure that your kids don’t take any of it for granted. They are watching you and what you say and what you do matter. That said, the Maya Angelou quote applies here as always: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Your job in all of this is to make sure your family feels safe, grateful and committed to doing what is right for the larger community.
This is not a normal time and we are all – our kids included – likely to be experiencing additional stress. Paying attention and noticing how you’re feeling, noticing how your kids are feeling, and acknowledging that things are really, truly, mind-blowingly out of the ordinary will help your whole family set appropriate expectations and maintain perspective. In thinking about your work, pretending that everything is normal and we’re just working from home is going to set you up for a frustrating experience. Adjusting your expectations – and articulating them as part of morning scheduling– can really help mitigate frustration and engage your kids as your partners in achieving your goals, setting them up to be the best possible “coworkers” they can be.
I spend a chunk of time at the end of every year reflecting on the twelve months past, and thinking about my aspirations for the twelve in front of me. It’s not really about resolutions so much as it is about being intentional and paying attention. This year, I was inspired to also think about having a theme, and I landed on practical magic (notably despite the late-90s Nicole Kidman/Sandra Bullock movie).
The inspiration for the choice was my desire to find a way to visit my son in New Zealand this Spring. He will be spending a semester at the University of Auckland, and I had begun putting the word out to friends that I was looking around for an opportunity to speak or lead a workshop there that would both justify and pay for my travel. It occurred to me that it is when I take this approach to life – working hard at getting lucky, or practical magic – that I am both happiest and most successful.
Practical magic shows up in a number of different ways in my life, but there are four ways that stand out: meditation, going outside, generosity and asking for help. I think of these as intentional practices that reap unanticipated benefits. They also fall squarely into my favorite definition of play – any activity undertaken for no apparent purpose. I remain a fervent believer that the most defining moments of our lives often happen in these privileged interludes, and that building effective educational and work environments – building a meaningful life - require extended time for play and reflection. It may seem like a contradiction in terms, but being intentional about having no apparent purpose at times is one of my keys to being happy.
So a bit about each of the four; meditation to start. A while back, Jim Thompson, the founder of Positive Coaching Alliance, and I decided that we would meet every 3 months to check in and provide a sounding board for one another. We did it for a few of years, and it was a professionally and personally important experience for me. One of the things that I took away was Jim’s description of how he made time every day for quiet reflection. I had read assorted books about mindfulness and meditation over the years, but never really established a practice. Jim inspired me to really commit, and I have been sitting every morning from 20-45 minutes ever since. I attend a meditation retreat every Fall to go a little deeper, and I am convinced that the practice has helped me to stay a little more present when times are hard, kinder when people cut me off on the freeway, and grateful when good things happen.
Going outside. I have always loved being outside. Playing sports, running through the neighborhood at dusk as a child, backpacking, hiking, running, mountain biking. And when my kids were babies, I remember the revelation that the single best way to get them to settle when they were fussy was to step outside with them. Maybe it was just the change in setting, maybe it was that it made me settle and they could sense that, but I took away the insight that going outside almost always freshens up my perspective.
Generosity. I’m not necessarily talking about giving money, (though if you’re reading this and inspired to make a donation to Playworks, that’s awesome!) but intentionally doing something nice for someone else is some of the most powerful practical magic I know. A compliment, letting someone go ahead of you in the grocery store line, sharing your cookie – really, the joy that sharing affords is weirdly outsized given the magnitude of the act. Maybe it’s because it frees us from the oppressive reality of being so constantly self-absorbed. Maybe it lightens the load of wanting stuff that seems to be such a natural by-product of capitalism. In any case, I am convinced that when you are feeling the most needy, the best way to help yourself is by being actively, selflessly kind to someone else.
Last but not least, asking for help. I find this one particularly challenging. Maybe it’s extra white of me, but I internalized a fair bit of the Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps myth as a kid. Turns out it’s total BS. We don’t do anything all that important all alone. You need to find great co-founders/co-workers, have great friends, collaborate, disagree, compete and share to actually make a go of it. We need each other, and asking for help is how you transform vulnerability from a liability into a super power. Hard-core, full-on practical magic.
I have some mixed feelings looking ahead to 2020. Even as Nick Kristoff points to the myriad ways the world has improved, I worry about politics and climate and our basic ability as humans to be kind to one another. So I am asking… please join me in practicing a little practical magic – however that shows up for you – in the hopes of making 2020, and the world, a little brighter.
I’ve spent much of the last nine months working with Susie Wise on the launch of a new organization, Workswell. Currently Workswell is a part of Playworks, but the idea is to spin it out as a for-profit subsidiary of Playworks when the time is right. More about that in a moment.
The why of Workswell is two-fold. Susie and I have spent most of our careers working in education, and to this end we’ve spent considerable amounts of time thinking about kids and what they need to thrive in school. We’ve also been a part of building institutions - schools, a few different nonprofits, a design lab – that involved a whole lot of managing and supporting grown-ups. Over the years we have been struck by the tremendous parallels that exist between school and work, most notably that it really, really matters how it feels. The more we talked about it, the more convinced we became that, just like in schools, the difference between workplaces that get things done over the long haul and those that either have quick wins and peter out, lose their mojo, or never really get it together in the first place is in the level of intentional design that goes into the whole gamut of work experiences that collectively make up what we think of as work.
The second why of Workswell has to do with money. Over the years of raising funds for all our assorted projects and watching as good ideas floundered for lack of funds while mediocre ideas trundled along, powered by a well-oiled fundraising machines, we have become… disillusioned isn’t quite the right word. Frustrated isn’t quite right either. Maybe just convinced that expecting the folks who have profited from the whole philanthro-capitalist system to be the ones to dismantle it seems silly to us. And so we are genuinely interested in trying to build an engine for revenue generation that unlocks all the assets and resources of capitalism in service of a really great and effective idea: Playworks. We’re excited about how this presents an opportunity to change the power dynamic, and ultimately interested in experimenting with having new points of access into capital markets – e.g., selling shares of Workswell to building an operating reserve. Maybe think of it as a more entrepreneurial version of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’.
In explaining the ‘what’ of Workswell, I want to start with what we are not:
1. We are not corporate recess. Play is an essential part of who we are and what we do, but it is delivered in the context of organizational experience design (OXdesign) and not as a standalone team-building service.
2. We are not an introduction to design thinking. Like play, design is integral to our approach, and in the larger context we introduce design tools and mindsets, but it is all done in service to creating a more human-centered approach to work.
3. We are not executive coaches. Workswell is focused on working at the organizational level. In nonprofit parlance, we’re a universal intervention as opposed to a targeted one, reflecting our belief that improving the environment is essential before more targeted efforts can be effective, including initiatives focused on building leadership.
4. We are not diversity, equity and inclusion experts. Again, our hope is to offer tools that build the foundational trust and practices that make DEI work possible, but that is not our particular area of focus.
Moving from what we aren’t to what we are, starting with our values can be illustrative. We are obsessed with learning. We’re convinced that belonging is essential to long-term success in all endeavors – from schools to businesses to functioning democracies. We really like getting things done. To that end, we’re interested in building tools and providing services that actually, concretely and measurably make a difference. And lastly, we’re big on starting from a place of focusing on assets: the idea that collectively we have what we need is central to our approach. Throw in a dollop of gratitude, a healthy splash of playful irreverence and a whimsical design sensibility, and you pretty much get us.
Workswell's underlying approach to helping organizations align their values and culture emphasizes putting the human capacities of play, design and storytelling at the center of the daily experiences of work. We’re calling this approach organizational experience design or OXdesign for short. We believe that workplaces are ripe for a new approach to intentionally designing the day-to-day interactions that constitute culture, and that by thoughtfully designing these experiences, they can make measurable strides towards increasing employee engagement while fostering more creative and productive work environments.
So, you ask, how might a group actually work with Workswell? Great question. Right now we’re focused on three basic buckets when it comes to engagement.
First dates: Introduction to OXdesign workshops give a sampling of play + design + storytelling activities to groups that are mixed by industries and roles. Organizations can also bring us in to do a custom one day introductory session for staff, portfolio companies, grantees, clients, etc.
OXdesign Sprints: Identify an aspect of your work experience that you are interested in re-designing – meetings, on-boarding, remote work dynamics, performance reviews, PTO – and bring us in for a multi-day sprint to engage your team in actively reimagining and then prototyping new approaches.
Catalysts: Bring us on to support the creation of an internal group that is focused on OXdesign embedded in your organization. We can train and support this group, co-designing culture hacks that they lead, and providing help around tools and mindsets that promote innovation in which employees feel ownership.
We’re also still experimenting with how we can mix and match these methods/modules so that we can work with companies to integrate OXdesign into staff retreats, strategic planning sessions, or, even better, co-design these gatherings bringing the idea of OXdesign to life. If you’re interested in learning more, don’t hesitate to reach out – email is probably easiest: email@example.com
At the outset, I should acknowledge that I’m not really a fashion person. My basic aspiration, when it comes to putting on clothes is to be warm/not naked, and in cases of more formal/professional events, to achieve appropriate. Happily, I have created a professional life – as one of the nation’s thought-leaders on recess – which makes very few demands on me in this area. The only problem, really, is that roughly 2-3 times each month, I am asked to attend an event where some level of effort is required AND, not infrequently at said events, people take my picture and post on social media. As a result, there are lots of pictures of me at various events, all wearing the same thing.
So I decided to try Rent the Runway. I think it’s fair to say that pretty much everyone who knows me found this to be almost unbelievable. But I went for it, and to make it more fun, I decided to approach it like a design experiment. I chose to make my first test in conjunction with a trip to Washington, DC for an event where I was speaking, but that was pretty low stakes. I jumped in the way I would on any prototype, taking notes, capturing the various steps through artifacts and pictures, and gathering information through interviews and other research.
I stay with my parents when I travel to DC, so I mentioned my experiment to my mother. Much to my surprise, my mother had very strong feelings about Rent the Runway, based almost exclusively on her reading of this article in the Daily Beast (and raising all sort of questions, including ‘my mother reads the Daily Beast?’). I reminded myself that the whole thing was a prototype, made note of my mother’s feelings, and continued on.
Once in DC, I made my way to the brick and mortar store in Georgetown, where I elected to take my dress back to my parents’ home to try it on as opposed to using the on-site dressing rooms. I suppose it would have been easier to return, had I not been happy with my selection, but I was I definitely happier and more comfortable trying the dress on in the natural lighting of my childhood bedroom. Go figure.
Pleased with the fit – and the dress – I asked my mom to take a picture of me for the prototyping process. “Why, exactly, do you want me to take your picture?” my mother inquired. I explained the idea of capturing the process as a part of prototyping the design, and my mom’s enthusiasm was an almost immediate confirmation of just how human a capacity design really is. Just like play and storytelling, I thought, we are born to design.
The dress received compliments, I ended up buying my first pair of Spanx (worthy of a whole different prototype, and the RTR folks should definitely get in the supportive undergarment upselling business), but I’d say the biggest win of my Rent the Runway experiment, was bringing my parents into the process.
My mother had read – in the aforementioned Daily Beast article - that the return was with UPS and not the regular post, a fact that I had somehow missed. There were more photos taken post-event – mostly of me looking unspeakably relieved to be back in jeans. And then my Dad wanted in on the prototype. He announced that he would walk the mail-able garment bag up to the UPS store as his walk for the day. More photos were taken. My mother ended up going with Dad to the UPS store and documented Dad dropping it off. Less than 10 hours later I received an email from the RTR folks that they had received my dress. Well, actually, their dress.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about organizational experience design lately, mostly as it relates to work culture. I am convinced that organizational experiences are more likely to be effective/healthy/successful when they emphasize human capacities. Along this same line of thinking, I believe that my experience of Rent the Runway was a pleasant one precisely because I treated it as a design experiment. The whole experience was a prototype, so whatever happened was going to be OK. And my parents played along – they became a part of the story, they became a part of the designed experience itself.
Undoubtedly, one could become completely obnoxious in bringing design into all aspects of family life, but my experience with Rent the Runway and my parents did make me wonder about how much angst could be spared if families brought a light-touch design sensibility to holiday dinners, weddings, vacations or even morning rituals around getting out of the house. As much as anything, I came away from my Rent the Runway experience appreciative of the chance it gave me to play with my parents.
I've been working on launching a new organization with Susie Wise called Workswell. As a first step we've built a prototype for a mini fellowship concept that we're calling the microLAB.
The basic idea is that workplace culture matters, and no matter what your role - you are the person to take it on. You know when culture feels good and when it feels bad. Building off Playworks 23 years of experience building culture in schools, lessons learned at the d.school about design thinking, and a career of storytelling for change, Workswell is an effort to support corporations in seeing these things as critical design levers in creating effective culture.
At the heart of the microLAB is Organizational Experience Design – OXdesign – looking at workplace experiences such as new employee engagement, meetings, space, feedback and performance reviews as critical design levers. OXdesign is an actionable approach to ensuring that people understand that culture matters and have clear opportunities to put it into practice daily.
HOW IT WORKS
The microLAB is a curated four-month experience designed to support you in developing the habits and mindsets to transform your work culture. Through easily accessible strategies employing play, design thinking and storytelling, the microLAB introduces proven practices that transform individual performance and culture to build the capacity of your team. Composed of four all-day sessions supported by workplace engagements “back at the ranch,” the microLAB offers a group of 8-14 individuals an opportunity to learn about culture from diverse participants and for workplaces to invest in change that is designed to be embedded in the day-to-day realities of work.
Hosted at Playworks’ national headquarters and training facility in downtown Oakland, the microLAB is an experiential learning opportunity. Over the course of four months, you explore – and, most importantly, test – new ideas, tools and approaches, based on your workplace’s specific needs and opportunities. Key to the microLAB experience is the overarching theme of finding and telling your own story, and each microLAB culminates in a community-wide celebration where participants tell their story at a gathering they design.
Session 1: EMPATHY
An intro to your cohort and the best practices of play, design thinking and storytelling
+ QUICK WINS (back at your office)
Empathy interviews with co-workers and leading a new game with a team
Session 2: SYNTHESIS
Experiment with new tools, rituals and games to support sense-making
+ DIG IN
Leading staff in a brainstorm session around meeting design
Session 3: PROTOTYPE + TEST
Deep dive into giving and receiving feedback and an intro to the use of artifacts
+ LEAD A SPRINT
Take your team at work through a rapid design cycle
Session 4: TELL YOUR STORY
Your chance to take the reigns from games and design thinking activities to the final celebration and talks!
+ BUILD ON!
Interested? More information can be found here
People need meaning, the opportunity for mastery, and community to thrive. Creating opportunities for people to contribute, and to find their best selves is some of the most important work we can do.