The paradox of today’s workplace is that we spend more and more time working and, at the same time, we’re less and less engaged at work. Technology divides our attention, friction drains our energy, and we spend less and less time doing work we find meaningful. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The day to day habits, rituals, and structures of work need to be redesigned around people before people will bring their whole selves to work. We help organizations reduce burnout and increase engagement using methods from community organizing, nonviolent strategy and human-centered design. We’ve brought these disciplines together to create practical tools that transform how people work together.
We design day to day tools that create great workplaces. In our Workplace Lab, we’re always trying out the latest tools and designing our own. We're taming email, making meetings more engaging, and conquering guilt, and we share our experiments online so other organizations can learn from them.
As the world grows more complex, traditional problem-solving methods become less effective. We use design thinking to bring clarity to intractable social problems and help organizations thrive in unpredictable environments. If you have a can of worms, we’d love to help you open it.
My first job after graduating college was as a community organizer in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston. At that job, I learned how to connect with people in meaningful ways and how to envision and create an alternative future. It is also where I learned how to build collective power.
10 years after leaving the Fenway and relocating in Philadelphia I'm a partner at The Action Mill, a small design firm. Every time I use the word "design" to talk about what we do, I know that I leave some people scratching their heads. When many people hear design they think about graphic design, or architecture, or even industrial design. They think about things that are pretty, and often luxuries. But looking back, I now view the past 20 years of my work – as a community organizer and a consultant – through the lens of design. By design I mean a method of understanding and solving problems, recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities, and engaging with people and communities.
I know the adrenaline rush that comes with a new idea. In that moment, the possibilities are endless. But innovation should be more than just the creation of something new; it should be the creation of something lasting and meaningful. Truly innovative ideas often take time to emerge, and they are usually more about taking away rather than adding to. Like any good journey, they lead to unexpected outcomes that seem obvious only in retrospect.
When I designed a six-month diet and exercise program for myself last fall, I never expected that learning to feel full would turn out to be the most important outcome. I tried out seven different iPhone apps and started wearing a Fitbit 24 hours a day, and I generally dove into the Quantified Self movement. But in the end I discovered the feedback I needed to lose weight was built into the very enzymes and systems of my body. That doesn’t mean those apps and a little electronic pedometer weren’t useful; they were valuable steps along the path to finding the best solution for myself: becoming aware of my own body.
It’s the difference between layering on more complexity and peeling the layers away to find a simple solution already embedded in the system. We tend to throw both of these approaches together under the name “innovation,” but they lead to vastly different outcomes. We’ve started using “novation” around our office to distinguish the two. The emphasis on the “no” is our shorthand for editing down, getting smaller, making simpler.
A week before Roger Ebert died, my colleagues and I gathered for a meeting withDr. Karl Ahlswede, a former cardiac surgeon who stepped away from his practice 2 years ago to start something new. Dr. Karl’s practice is now dedicated to advance care planning, or preparing for the end of life. We hired Dr. Ahlswede to offer his program to our entire staff; to help us each be better prepared for dealing with our own health issues, and for issues facing our families and friends.
Advance care planning might seem like an unusual service for a business to offer it’s employees, but we’re finding that thinking about our own mortality (and the mortality of our families and loved ones) gave us unexpected benefits.
Roger Ebert’s cancer diagnosis in 2002 changed much about his life, but some things didn’t change. He lived publicly, choosing to continue his career as a film reviewer even after he lost his ability to speak in 2006. As he told Chris Jones of Esquire in 2010 (via a blue Post-It note): “There is no need to pity me. Look how happy I am. This has lead to an [explosion] of writing.”
UPDATE: We'll be holding Guilt Hour on Twitter on Wednesdays from 11am-noon EST. Post your One Guilty Task with the hashtag #GuiltHour.
idea taking off, especially since we find this method so useful in our own workplace.
The social aspect of Guilt Hour is important: declaring your One Guilty Task to other people is usually a big relief, and it helps us move past our guilt and get things done.
But what if you don’t have a team to support your Guilt Hour? We humbly offer this experiment: join us for ours! For the next few weeks, we’ll be tweeting our tasks at the start of our Guilt Hour with the hashtag #GuiltHour, and then we’ll check in on twitter again at the end of the hour.