Good time for a tough question

Advance Retreat #1: The Culture Question

Bottom line: we’re working with Rosenfeld Media to produce the first Advance Retreat, February 11-12, in Palm Springs, California. We are gathering no more than 50 design leaders to work together on this critical question: “How can we foster an effective, open, enduring culture of design in our organizations?” Want to know how we’ll tackle it, and if it’s for you? Read on.


How can we foster an effective, open, enduring culture of design in our organizations?

The question is not only about design capacity – hiring enough staff, getting the right tools and skills in place, etc. Those are certainly important, but as many design leaders have quickly found, there are foundational, cultural challenges that underlie the work of building design capability.

This year I’ve met people who are working on sweeping organization shifts toward design, with executive sponsorship and plenty of funds. I’ve met far more people who are working from the middle-out, or from the bottom up. Many are influencing guerilla-style, looking for ways to grow new habits, processes, and patterns in any corner of their organization they can.

Their questions aren’t just about hiring enough designers. They have questions like these:

  Much of my job involves influencing others. Surely there are better ways than persuasion, argument, and yet more slide presentations (which don’t seem to be working that well). I wasn’t trained in advocacy – help me!

   We can teach design process, but how do we affect the underlying values of this long-established engineering/marketing/technology culture?

  People seem to want recipes they can follow for good design. How do we grow recipe-followers into chefs, who sense the situation and make the best of what’s on hand?

   Design research is great, but when its insights conflict with established beliefs and agendas, it’s almost impossible to open the organization to those new ideas. Any ideas for how the “observe” part of the design process can move from niche for specialists to strategic essential?

As people all over the world wrestle with these issues, they are gaining experience in our question: How can we foster an effective, open, enduring culture of design in our organizations? It’s time to get together and talk.

The best way to tackle the culture question is together.

Rosenfeld Media and Fit Associates are hosting a new event called Advance Retreat. It gathers 50 seasoned design leaders from diverse organizations to pursue the questions of design culture together.

Here’s an overview of the concept (a “studio retreat”), the focus question, and the experience.

The concept: co-learning, harvesting the wisdom of a peer group

When Lou Rosenfeld and I cooked up this idea, our reasoning went something like this:

We realize that some questions, like fostering a culture of design, are too important to ignore, but too complex to address in a large conference setting. Culture greatly matters to our work, but it’s beyond any one person’s expertise. Culture also falls into the “important but not urgent” zone, making it easy to punt when our to-do lists compete for our attention.  

But what if we could convene a small group of like-minded peers around the difficult, big-picture, close-to-the-bone question of culture?

What if we facilitate a studio experience instead of a conference? Design activities that immerse you into the topic and spark great connections. Foster provocative conversations and unexpected collaborations. Facilitate the creation of ideas from the group that are bigger than any of us. Instead of sitting in an audience listening to experts talk at us, what if we we participated in conversations that push our thinking? What if we focused people’s time around being  productive, connecting dialog and creative challenge?

What if we  held it someplace warm and fun? Like…Palm Springs?

The approach and activities

My colleague Hannah du Plessis and I have learned a great deal over the past five years about ways to facilitate group reflection and creativity. We’re going to put all that to good use at the Advance Retreat.

The Retreat will include only short periods of slides and videos and such — just enough to inject some outside points of view and provocative ideas into the conversation. The rest of the time we’ll be doing stuff together.

We are going to work with a few different kinds of activities, each of which has a dual purpose: you’ll learn from the activity, and you’ll learn a method that may have use back in your own organization.

Group methods: Listen to the whole room, grow the agenda bottom-up

On the first day we will use a method called World Café. Often in our organizations we keep repeating the same meetings and conversations over and over again. The same people assert their voice, the same people hold back and stay quiet, and so we get to the same results. And at conferences we’re used to sitting in an audience while one person talks.

A World Cafe breaks that pattern by replacing the typical work meeting – with a different but still familiar and comfortable frame: the café. It emphasizes listening, it emphasizes co-discovery, and it’s fun. In our work we have used it with people in many different situations and roles, and it almost always helps open the possibility for a new kind of conversation.

Through the rest of the days you will have the chance to experience other ways to change how groups listen and create together, including anecdote circles and good old “team with a ridiculous creative deadline.” <smile>

Sparking breakthrough conversations

People often say that the best part of a conference is the conversation during breaks and happy hours. We are building a lot of that into Advance Retreat, providing just a little structure to help people get into the conversations they really want to have with the people they really want to learn from. For much of the first day, you the choice of facilitated group exploration of the key themes, or time to talk or work with just one or two people – share a whiteboard, interview one another, or simply take a “philosopher’s walk.”

Tapping theatre methods to get to the bottom of stuck situations

Culture is largely learned and reinforced through relationships. So if we are talking about design culture, we need to talk about patterns of relationship in our organizations. But relational dynamics are incredibly hard to understand, and even harder to shift. Becoming aware of our own patterns and then learning new ways of relating and working together – that is fundamental to The Culture Question.

So we need new tools to help us get past the surface of what people are saying and doing so we can see underneath to the “why.” And that is where theatre can be a powerful tool. The afternoon of day one will include an opt-in session with Hannah du Plessis, in which you can experiment with a family of theatre-based methods for exploring stuck group or team dynamics. You’ll learn the basics of using this kind of method with your own group, and perhaps gain some insight into your situation.

Using art-based methods to see the big picture

Most organizational cultures emphasize brains, asking us to be smart enough to figure everything out. Make a decision. Solve the problem. But there is a side to every human that sees situations in a different way than the “strategic mind,” and which has a difficult time expressing itself through language. We hear it often: “I feel strongly about this, but I’m having a hard time finding words….”

You’ll learn to work with images and model-making materials to have a new kind of conversation about “what’s really going on” — a creative process that can complement and bolster any decision-making process.

Adding tools to your kit: explore the “safe to fail portfolio” approach to the really tough challenges  

Finally, you will have the opportunity to practice a tool we learned from Dave Snowden, creator of the Cynefin framework, for matching management approach to the complexity of a situation. This activity will let us look at many people’s situations through a common lens, and consider how some of our most difficult challenges might be better served through an approach other than prototypes and iteration.

The outcomes: you learn, you make friends, we build a collection of insights

We’re going to work you pretty hard. We’ll feed you well, and the Ace Hotel is a great place to relax. Have a swim, sit by the fire, have a drink under a palm tree.

Find Out More

This retreat is intended for seasoned design leaders who are currently creating a design-centered culture in their organizations. If you’re hungry to learn new frameworks for shifting culture, and if the idea of a studio approach to learning sounds good to you, download the brochure and complete a  simple two-question application at advanceretreat.net. Got questions? Email info@rosenfeldmedia.com, and we will respond as quickly as we can.

By | 2017-06-28T18:44:05+00:00 December 2nd, 2015|Categories: Culture work, Events, Past events|1 Comment

About the Author:

Marc’s career spans 35 years in business, design, education and technology. His work as designer, researcher, and educator has put him on the frontier of applying design methods to social and strategic questions. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Practice at the Carnegie Mellon University Graduate School of Design. Marc’s interests include cultural immersion, language, cooking and photography.

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