One of the skills that rose to the fore over the course of BIF-9 was the concept of problem-finding. In an age of relentless performance improvement and waster mitigation, solution creation has been the default position of most enterprises and their employee members. At BIF-9 we learned that solution creating is all well and good but if you are solving the wrong problem, or if you haven’t framed the problem appropriately, you will waste a whole lot of time, energy and resources—possibly evening compounding the very thing you were trying to improve.
I am not often moved when people share deeply personal experiences in public forums. When Whitney Johnson took the stage and revealed a deeply personal and tragic story from her life I had misgivings primarily driven from my own discomfort with bearing witness to her grief. The story she shared wove beautifully into her exploration of the notion of “showing up,” — being present and fully in the moment rather than paying casual attention to participation.
Do I dare disturb the universe? – T.S. Elliott
Johnson noted that you can not give up without dreaming but you cannot show up unless you dream. The key is that you have to show up to make the kind of difference that you want to make in the world. When we show up we open ourselves up to disappointment and failure. Being a victim is a pretty seductive plotline.
Dreaming is at the heart of disruption. In order to make the leap from one learning curve to the next you have to show up.
If showing up is the first step in appropriate problem-finding then moving from symptoms to root causes is the next. People mostly spend their lives managing the symptoms of problems but very rarely address the causes, said Roseanne Haggerty. While working with homeless youth in Times Square in New York City Haggerty discovered that without a home to go back to the issues of homeless could not be addressed by interim housing solutions. A permanent home solution was required.
To highlight the importance of the right question, Haggerty shared a powerful story of her own experience providing support to homeless people in Time Square. A woman on staff called from Bellevue Hospital, she said that a service-resistant person, Sarah, had informed her that Haggerty was her next of kin. When they finally connected in person, Haggerty asked why Sarah had been service-resistant, she found it was because the right questions had not been asked. “You didn’t ask me if I wanted a home,” stated Sarah.
This lead to the realization that we needed a solution that we hadn’t recognized before.
They created a new project using an ex-military intelligence officer who mapped the homeless in Times Square and through the application of data mapping and management they developed appropriate individualized solutions to the needs of the homeless. 100,000 Homes Campaign came out of this effort. This resulted in communities becoming energized by providing long term solutions based on the right processes, learning tools, and collaborations. From the housing efforts you can move towards long term systemic solutions that address the problem at heart.
Solutions can arise out of the most remarkable realizations.
A human rights lawyer who is the CEO of a luxury fashion brand, Paul van Zyl grew up in apartheid South Africa. His parents said they lived in an evil society and it was their moral obligation to change it. He became a lawyer to change a system that demanded to be changed. There were few business leaders who were admirable role models; lawyers offered a more viable role model alternative.
With partners, van Zyl created a luxury brand, Maiyet (after the Egyptian Goddess of Truth and Harmony) that is found on social justice and economic empowerment. At BIF-9 he shared a story about the Varanasi silk weavers in India, and noted that Varanasi is a seed bed of cross cultural and religious collaboration. The hand woven silk is some of the most beautiful in the world, and was in danger of being wiped out by low-cost Chinese manufacturers across the border. Maiyet seeks rare skills from unique and unexpected places in the world and have partnered with NEST to be able to bring products to market in a sustainable way. Working with David Adjaye to design and build a custom facility in Varanasi to ensure that this culture and these skills don’t die off.
You need to combine design with training and support and also access to markets, said van Zyl. Then you create real value:
- Value for artisans – they are paid what they are worth
- Value for brands – access to things of extraordinary and unique beauty
- Value for consumers – ownership of things that would otherwise be unavailable.
While Pauk van Zyl offered solutions for ensuring cultural longevity, Carmen Medina tackled the need to transform the culture of one of our own lasting artifacts, the corporation. Along with her partner in crime Lois Kelly, Medina presented the case for Rebels at Work, a movement dedicated to unlocking the potential of those who question the status quo inside the corporate sphere (also, see the way in which David Butler, at Coke, is sowing the seeds to capitalize on this concept.)
There is a worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of meritocracy. Not all are conspirators but many of us are unwitting co-conspirators.
Medina noted that most of the people talking at BIF are independent agents. They are usually trying to change systems from the outside. They are building alternative models and creating places for people to go. Those who are heretics at work need to learn to be uncomfortable so that they can do similar work insider their companies and organizations. The world needs rebels at work now more than ever, because we cannot tear down everything and replace it with something new. We don’t have that kind of time. We must change what we have and unlock the value already resident in our organizations.
As we shift the dialogue about our organizations and our roles in them, we can begin to reframe so many of the things that we take at face value. The challenges of managing our health and how we age were two additional areas that were presented for reframing.
The CEO of VisualMD, Alexander Tsiaris, showed us the power of visual information in changing the choices we make about managing our health. VisualMD is the NIH meets Pixar. It is a home for visualization artists, fine artists, researchers, high-level programmers all working in concert with a collection of huge amounts of data – they produce 150TB for every project they do. His company tells stories based on the data —it is story that gives the soul to the data.
The beauty of visualization is that it speaks to everyone.
Tsiaris believes we have to change the paradigm, using storytelling at the beginning of the spectrum to help people tell stories about what is going on inside their body. VisualMD created an ecosystem that helps people build a story about themselves which can be a part of an holistic educational system about personal health. If all your personal health records can be supplemented by a whole range of relevant sources and resources they can help you contextualize your health state.
Little stories from big data that explain little things going on inside your body so that you can understand the implications and be un-intimidated by the process.
As Tsiaris showed us the power of information in reframing how we see ourselves, Alan Webber, co-founder of FastCompany magazine and author, shared the value of reframing the public and private discourse we have about aging. The conversation is not about aging. It’s the wrong label. The categories are wrong for the way we live today. It’s about living and how we choose to live our lives. It applies not just only retirees, it is everyone no matter where they are in life’s journey.
This is not about career. It’s about making all the transitions over the course of a life and is explored in Webber’s book (co-authored with Richard J. Leider), Life Re-imagined. The conversation needs to be about how to cope with pain and possibility—answering the question, “What’s Next?”
To that end Webber offered “What’s Next” words to live by:
Everyone’s life is an experiment of one – no one can tell you how to do it.
No one should do it alone – everyone needs someone to help them with their experiment.
A good question beats a good answer. How are you seeking out the right questions so you can focus on the right problem? And who are you asking to help you on the way?