Equipping Ourselves For These Complex Times
The skills that 2020 and beyond is asking us to discover
It’s all gone a bit nuts
For most of us, 2020 will be the year when the world went truly cuckoo-crazy bowl-of-nuts nuts.
I mean, it was always a head-scratcher, but there was a veneer that lay between us and the reality of the peanut-ness that has fallen away, and now it’s like:
As many of us find ourselves in the second half of 2020 navigating the emerging future alongside the death-knells of current ways of doing things and old ways of doing things, it seems to me ever more worthwhile taking some time to explore skills we benefit from discovering in ourselves to better meet these times.
I originally penned this list at the end of 2019 and these six skills make more sense with every month that arrives.
So, what skills did we think we’d need in 2020?
But is this right?
The above list was published as we approached the end of 2019 and had no idea of what 2020 would bring.
As I was reading it, I started to wonder: What skills do lists like these miss out? Ones that we don’t often find on these lists but might be important to our current times?
Around the same time, I was finishing the free online course ‘Design Thinking for the Greater Good’. Within the course, Dan Pink presented ‘Six Abilities that Matter Most’ and while he was talking them through it hit me that these six skills didn’t just matter to Design Thinking, these six skills might just be key to navigating our current times, and beyond.
The 6 skills (in no particular order)
We can all design.
I know this because I am now a partner in a creative agency designing graphics and websites and social media approaches, and I’m the kind of person that when drawing a stick person ends up with something that vaguely looks like a pumpkin with bunny ears squashed onto a snowman with baguettes for limbs.
Simply, design matters. Quality matters. How we present information matters. People want to be engaged and moved, and we are just as much visual creatures as anything else (we all know that sinking feeling when we sit down to a presentation and it looks like it was made in 1992).
It’s not just physical design either (like graphic design, or architectural design, or engineering; or any other technical form of design) — though learning my way around Photoshop, InDesign, and creative software has opened up a new career for me.
We design all the time.
When we approach a challenging and complex problem and seek a workable solution or solutions, we’re designing. When we notice patterns around us and see how the pattern can be rearranged so that it functions better, we’re designing. When we feel stuck in life and we reflect on what we need to change so that we end up in a different place than we seem to be currently heading, we’re designing.
In a visual and complex world, we benefit from learning how to see the world through the eyes of a designer and taking the time and care to learn to design well.
Play is such a challenge for me. I have friends who go to laughter yoga and love it, yet the thought of seeking out spaces of play scares the bejesus out of me.
But bringing play — and playfulness — into our work can only benefit us. I don’t mean that awkward, forced silliness that is, unfortunately, a seemingly necessary part of every dreaded team awayday; when Dan Pink talked of play what came to mind is play as giving space for the unexpected.
It’s letting something breathe and allowing it to show the solution or next step.
It’s dropping our usual route from A to B and giving space for a new path to open up.
And it’s sometimes re-framing our definitions and approaches to challenges and difficulties. Taking a problem and flipping it, seeing where it’s like a game or a puzzle that engages our imagination and our creativity and asking ourselves if there’s another way of viewing it that could surprise us.
Framed like this, play doesn’t seem forced or uncomfortable. Instead, it’s something we’re all capable of.
Most of us want the time we spend on things to matter; to care about our work, and feel useful and valued doing it; to be in environments that help us thrive and grow and discover new abilities we never knew we had; and, to create lives that we can look back on and know were lived to their fullest.
As Mark Manson states so clearly:
If we’re struggling, we’d do well to forget finding purpose; look to create meaning instead.
This last year, being self-employed and therefore having greater dominion over how my time is spent and where my focus goes, I have been experiencing a previously-unknown sense of rightness and contentment. Even when the outcomes of my time and care are not clear or immediately positive, I get to follow my inner guidance on every aspect of my working life: which abilities I sense I need to develop and how I choose to do so; which clients and opportunities to say yes or no to; who to have in my network and who to step away from. Basically, I choose what matters to me.
I choose my meaning for my work and my life, and this brings with it a sense of purpose. I have never worked so steadily, nor with such commitment and careful consideration. I reach out to those that are doing work I’m inspired by to see if I can help, paid or not. I self-study topics that I feel are important to improving my abilities so I can be a more useful human being.
When we have meaning, we are committed, resourceful, hard-working, and weather-proof. We get up when we feel like shit. And we show up fully.
There’s a layer to empathy that I’ve only just started to see: empathy as a design tool.
When we set out to gather a true understanding of how the world or a situation occurs for another, we can uncover solutions that we couldn’t possibly have access to, even if we try to approach the situation with empathy and imagination. When we leave direction information-gathering from the people we’re including in the solution, we cannot possibly build a solution that is going to work for all of us.
Let’s say you’re part of a community council that is looking to find a solution to an increasing polarisation of its members about how community funds should be allocated. How can you possibly create a solution if you don’t spend time actively gathering information from your members so that you can understand what’s important to them, why they hold a particular view, what fears and hopes are? If there’s anything in their daily lives that means they would need the solution to be designed a certain way so that it covers their needs?
That’s empathy in design: seeking unimaginable information from the very people that the solution is intending to be a solution for.
By actively seeking stakeholder or user engagement in whatever we’re designing (from solutions to the climate emergency to UK politics to a physical entity or a new technology) we’re actively seeking the information we couldn’t possibly imagine and we’re giving our solutions the best chance to work for the people we’re designing for.
Empathy is gaining a greater understanding of the people that we’re designing with or for, so helping us discover solutions that may actually work.
Symphony: bringing together different (perhaps seemingly disparate) elements; the musical composition of so many instruments playing their individual part to create a whole; harmonious composition.
It’s such an apt description of what 2020 is asking of us.
While orchestras create a symphonic sound with intention, it seems to me that the kind of symphonic approach that this world is asking of us is more about noticing the immense complexity of the world we‘ve already created, and the fact that most of the complex issues we’re facing are interconnected and systemic.
Like an experienced composer who knows that an orchestra is a system, so are we surrounded by systems that behave much like an orchestra: the outcome is (more than) the sum of its parts, and every single part plays a key role in how the system functions.
Our organisations, our politics, our health care, our communities, and our families — almost everything we find around us that is complex and has many aspects to it — are systems within systems within systems; and if we’re looking to change something about them, we need to keep the whole system in our view. When we find ourselves narrowing in on one aspect and forgetting that each aspect sits within a larger system, we’d do well to approach it like those magic eye pictures that seem like random dots until your gaze relaxes enough and boom, there’s this intricate picture you can’t believe you didn’t see before.
Today’s world is formed of many intricate systems; our solutions must be that too: systemic, and symphonic.
By no means least, we come to the importance of story: story-weaving and story-telling.
There’s a new superpower I’ve recently discovered, that of the vision-story. When we weave and share stories about the future we want for humanity — for the Earth, for our communities, and our loved ones — we help people believe they’re possible by igniting parts of the brain that facts alone don’t:
There are some fascinating neurological explanations behind the power of stories, too. Science has begun to uncover what’s happening in our brains when we hear a good tale. In 2006, researchers in Spain discovered that when we are presented with vivid stories, lots of different centres in our brains light up. For instance, if a ballet scene is beautifully described in a novel, the sight and movement centres of our brains respond (even for those of us who can’t dance). When a scent, such as jasmine, is described, our smell centre lights up. In short, we can have an emotional whole-brain experience rather than the tiny blip that happens when we are exposed to fact.
In the very process of creating and sharing vision-stories, we create a felt and lived experience that helps embed that possibility in a way that facts and information can’t, like this beautiful ‘Message from the future’ from The Leap and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9uTH0iprVQ.
And it’s not just stories of our possible future that have an impact. We can share the stories of our work and our organisations: the values we hold — and why, the hopes we have — and why, our organisational purposes and visions, and the stories of our organisation’s people. We can share the stories of what matters to us and why and through this sharing we can spark that human, felt, lived connection.
If we want to make an impact, we need to be telling a story. Story-telling is an art, yes; but it’s an art we can all learn.
Weaving it all together…
At the very least, I hope that this article has inspired you to reflect on the skills and abilities you already have but didn’t realise. And if they’re skills you don’t have, that you’ll take some time to discover at least one of them.
The world’s gone nuts. Cuckoo-crazy bowl-of-nuts nuts. It’s no zombie apocalypse, but would we be surprised if that happened? No.
These 6 skills certainly won’t be of use if we do get attacked by zombies. But if we don’t, they just might help us meet these times, in business and beyond.