“Walkers are ‘practitioners of the city,’ for the city is made to be walked. A city has a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.”Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
This beautiful passage by Rebecca Solnit reminds me of how much I love exploring cities; walking miles, lost in curiosity, the excitement of new discoveries around unknown street corners. I once walked so far in Paris, I didn’t realize I wore a hole in my Frye boots until it had begun to rain. Unexpectedly, it also makes me think of my years of working as a consultant and service design practitioner with and within organizations.
Like a city that holds infinite possibility, so do organizations. More specifically, the people—the citizens, the walkers—that make up organizations. Possibility lives in between and presses on the edges of the what is and the what is to be; expanding beyond present state boundaries to reveal new and nearby opportunities. Possibility asks us to open ourselves up, embrace uncertainty, see in new ways and challenge our “hidden assumptions of peril." Possibility is the fuel for innovation and breakthrough. It means not being afraid of putting a hole in your boot as you walk into the unfamiliar in search of the new.
The practice of service design excels at creating and holding space for people to collaborate in the realm of possibility. Not just for unearthing opportunities and exploring new ideas, but for helping people understand that it’s possible to transform how they work—that through the practice itself, an environment of cooperation, connectedness, and possibility can be cultivated. Yet, challenges remain. For those participating directly in the practice of service design (especially for the first time) the where, when, and how far they can “walk” is often limited by deeply-rooted legacy ways of doing, a web of underlying assumptions and fears of failure. Like the architecture of a city that limits where one can walk, so can the built structures and culture of an organization. But like the walker who “invents other ways to go” in a city, so can the member of the organization.
If you are embarking to work in the unfamiliar edges of the what is and the what is to be through design-led approaches, you are most likely seeking “other ways” to realize the promise of your organization. With that, I’d like to share some ideas that might help guide you through your “city” and spark some thought on how you might show up as a “practitioner of the possible” in your day-to-day work.
Arrive as a generous citizen in your organization—an inspirational connector fostering healthy relationships, actively bringing light to the bridge between present and potential. Instead of hanging on to the safeguards of fear that keep possibility out of view, you arrive every day with intention, creating invitational space for the imagination, for people to thrive, and for what could be. You recognize that you play a direct role in the challenges and environment you experience, so you are self-aware and deliberate when it comes to your thinking, use of language, and actions. Consciously working to ensure your behaviors—even in the face of frustrating situations—are not roadblocks to creating the conditions that will better enable you and your colleagues to walk greater distances, do the good work, and make new discoveries.
When something appears not possible and you catch yourself saying “we can’t…” take pause and ask: How could this not be true? What assumptions might I be making that I may not be aware of? You understand that you possess previously written stories that can limit your ability to discover “other ways to go.” Instead, you choose to challenge your assumptions by learning from new and diverse perspectives; knowing they’ll bring unexpected opportunities that can broaden your organization’s potential. You also seek to make meaning by provoking questions to understand in new ways; knowing that learning will evolve your organization. And while the pull of the “that’s not possible,” can make this stretch of the walk feel arduous at times, you may find that others will follow as you begin to open up new vistas of conceivable futures.
Gusting between buildings, the changing strength and speed of wind in a city can make walking a struggle. So, too, is the struggle of finding yourself working in the realm of optics, excessive bureaucracy, and political theatre. Aware of this, you instead choose to lean into the wind to transcend it. You work with intention to focus on what matters—making efforts to immerse yourself in the realm of possibility where value creation happens. You know that time and energy in a workweek are not infinite, so you put your energy towards performing tasks that are aimed at making an authentic difference for people and propelling your organization forward. You are cognizant that working in a new way requires time and space so you ask yourself “what potential practices in my day to day might be getting in the way of doing our best work?” then courageously propose experiments to eliminate potential inhibiting practices that may no longer be serving your organization. You find the pockets where the wind has decelerated—where you can focus on what matters.
Inspired by the possible, you know that the simple act of a real conversation holds many opportunities and potential. You are deliberate in starting, designing, and participating in purposeful conversations with those that are caring, open, and curious; provoking creativity, action and planting the seeds for informal communities of practice to emerge in your organization. You help people be a part of honest conversations to open up the possible, working with intention to create an atmosphere that promotes meaningful exchange. Like the walker who pauses through the city to talk with locals, open to what unfolds, making meaning and connections that alter the direction each continues to walk, you embrace even the briefest of conversations in your organization as an opportunity to spark new trajectories.
As a “practitioner of the possible” in your day-to-day work, perhaps you can think of these ideas as a few simple rules that inform how you might “walk” in your organization. Over time as you interact with people within your organization according to your simple rules, you may notice new patterns of behavior emerging in your “city,” helping to form more favorable conditions to design-led ways of working.
In our world of uncertainty, rapidity, and intensifying climate change, organizations are increasingly moving forward with design-led thinking, methods, and practices as an effective way to evolve and unlock new opportunities. This is a good thing. However, while organizations are more willing to bring in design to create more relevant and meaningful offerings, this more holistic, flexible, and open way of working can be quite challenging for many organizations to adapt to.
But there is much hope if companies choose to tap into the “repository of possibilities” that people hold in their organization. Like the walker in the city who moves beyond a city’s architectural limits, inventing other ways to go, people in organizations can make small shifts in how they show up in their day-to-day to move beyond real and perceived organizational limitations.
So I invite you to begin walking in the realm of possibility. Be thoughtful and courageous, acting in accordance with your simple rules, embracing discoveries around unknown street corners to help your organization thrive, realize its potential for driving positive change, and deliver upon its organizational promise through design.
Harmonic offers one-on-one and team coaching to help your organization create the conditions for success in understanding and using service design approaches. Contact us to see how we can help.
Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation
Steven Johnson, 2010
Where Good Ideas Come from (Presentation)
Steven Johnson, 2010
The ‘Adjacent Possible’ of Big Data: What Evolution Teaches About Insights Generation
The Art of Possibility
Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, 2006
Experiences in Visual Thinking
Robert H. McKim, 1980
The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization
Peter M. Senge, 2006
Org Physics: The 3 faces of every company
Niels Pflaeging, 2017
Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization?
Aaron Dignan, 2019
Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future
Margaret J. Wheatley, 2002
Good Talk: How to Design Conversations that Matter
Daniel Stillman, 2020
Influencing Patterns For Change: A Human Systems Dynamics Primer For Leaders
Royce Holladay and Kristine Quade, 2008
Weaving Complexity And Business: Engaging The Soul At Work
Roger Lewin, 2001