Team dynamics, psychological safety, and context experience. A facilitator insights from Holis, a social impact summer school held in rural Portugal.
Late August 2019, together with Henryk Stawicki (Change Pilots), we have had a chance to individually facilitate two interdisciplinary teams, during the Holis Summer School. The 6th edition took place in Odemira, rural region inland Portugal. It’s already our second encounter with Holis, as three years ago we have been helping out with parts of the program held at Sobole Foundation (run by Gosia and Tomek Rygalik) at a rural settlement in Eastern Poland. We immediately felt as we are in the perfect time and place, taking on a role that might help participants to make an impact through future scenarios they design.
Holis-school is an interdisciplinary school that fosters social innovation through collaborative creativity. Camp helps designers and young specialists to engage with NGOs, local governments, and social entrepreneurs to learn skills that will help make changes in their industry. The best part is that the participants, coming from various backgrounds and cultures, choose to spend their 9-day vacation time working on a real social innovation project in the form of intensive design sprints. This year design challenge for all teams was to design social impact making future scenarios for CLARA, a center for rural sustainable development which aims to bridge the gap between the urban and the rural and create shared, local community values.
Odemira is the municipality with the largest territory in Portugal, its interior has one of the lowest population densities in Europe. Over the last two generations, it has lost more than 70% of its inhabitants due to major shifts in agriculture and lack of alternative opportunities. This results in an aging population, dispersed over a vast area, affected by isolation and social exclusion. Its shrinking population leads to a change in land use, the infrastructure frozen in time, as well as fading traditions, knowledge, and culture. These major shifts may at first present problems, however, at the same time they present design opportunities to flip gaps into solutions or shift existing paradigms.
To approach such complex and interconnected challenge, as Change Pilots, facilitators we have carefully prepared a social innovation design sprint process using principles, methods and tools taken from human-centered design, solution-based psychology, circular and systems thinking, service design and yes, a bit of linear design thinking too.
In this article, I won’t share with you the vast number of generated ideas and scenarios for the future of Odemira local community. Of course, the outcomes of our work are crucial and already taken into the next phases of development. However, as we see it — the impact we make with social innovation design ideas is great, but the impact such work has on ourselves might be even greater and much important to scale. What participants learn in such an immersive process by practice, they bring back as small habits to their daily work routines and colleagues. So here I want to share with you 3 key elements you could easily take in mind when working on your projects with others.
The project itself didn’t have rigid brief or KPI’s that the group would need to follow dramatically. The program has begun with a broad problem statement and general hopes to create future ideas that are socially, financially and environmentally sustainable (Triple Bottom Line based). Such a broad kick off usually requires a lot of flexibility and psychological safety (clarity on goals and directions) from the participants, who used to work with solid briefs and target clients.
We have managed to create psychological safety by postponing worries and needs for brief and project scope definition, as in this case, we were not just following a given brief — we were also responsible for creating it. We had to define our own project boundaries and problem arena, based on pre-arrival collaborative research, as well as identify what we know, what we don’t and what questions we have. Based on that we were able to define opportunity areas we could leverage, as well as who are we designing for, from all possible stakeholders and what are their challenges and needs we are solving for.
In the end, this is that sweet spot right in the middle of the Double Dimond approach, however, it is never given as ideal. In my practice, even when brief is given, we still need to always make a few steps back, question what’s given as a fact, and redefine the stated assumptions to feed our design process.
Therefore, the ability to respond to all known and unknown that are given is a crucial set of soft skills in a process that cannot be often followed as given and linearly. This in return may create needs for psychological safety of being in the right place, even if feeling lost or unsure. These emotional moments are always there in the process, especially at the beginning, and should not be skipped through, as taking responsibility of asking right questions may lead you to surprising answers the brief has not been prepared to give.
Even if you think, you can stay cool, self-controlled and calm on a team project work — no worries, in such an intensive design process you will not. As I have mentioned before, coming from a well-controlled working environment, some participants may expect to follow a process step by step, use pre-selected tools and respond to a specified target audience. Opposite conditions, as at our project, may create a whole new emotional environment full of excitement, worries, personal fears, unexpected growth and immersive experience you won’t forget for long. Welcome to my world of 8-handed facilitator, who seems to only have two hands to give out tools and unfold a linear process. I promise, there is a bit more on facilitator’s hands than that.
At the core of Holis, team bonding and soft skills may take a majority of the space at a time. I believe, that by building a right culture of trust and honesty we, as a team, are able to happily take ownership of the project, safely go through the stages of the unknown, and simply reach a commonly envisioned end without unnecessary frictions, dramas, and self-blockages. This is especially important when teams are formed with strangers, where members might bring in different values and interests or have very little in common at first.
So, how to make it work then? It is always possible, but at some times might require some uncomfortable moments and deep dives into personal reflection from the start. I believe that the team should see both the imperfections as well as the prettiness of their actions. It is crucial to experience a set of various emotions, going beyond joy and acknowledge them as all good, and give guidance to share them as soon as they arise. In the end, it’s much better to have participants speak out their heart rather than force it silent and have the emotion impact others through the process or burst out too late to solve it at the source.
All this, build well starting at the very beginning, create clear, honest guidelines for transparent communication and empathic listening as well as gives all of us tools for addressing issues as soon as they arise before they turn into problems or personal prejudice. But don’t get me wrong — as a group, we don’t need to agree on everything (diplomacy may get us stuck or even kill us!). We need a clear way to say NO and back it right (I highly recommend using Loomio voting system, where you can vote yes, no, block, or abstain). It helps to treat potential conflicts like fire and stop at the right moment before it spreads.
The best way to start a group project is to immerse everyone in the context you are solving for. Try to do it as soon as possible — not only to experience the environment and hear out people feelings and emotions, but simply find ways to spend time with them using casual reasons, such as dining together, share a coffee, or just arrange a home visit to chat or tour their farm. Thanks to this, we as designers, are able not only to understand the context, see the bigger picture and the complexity of our stakeholder’s and community challenges but most importantly flip the scripts that our brains follow based on past experiences. It would not ever happen in a workshop or office space, but only in the real context, through an immersive design research experience where we not only see but feel, smell and touch the context in real-time and space. This is one of the reasons, why at Change Pilots, we use our Design Safari tool and method as a key phase to stimulate our brain away from copy thinking and the stereotypes we are unaware of — as soon as possible.
At Holis, with the fuzzy, ambiguous beginning, the empathy phase was one of the key parts of the design research phase, conducted for inspiration, discoveries and shifting that paradigms our brains use without us noticing. In such an immersive process, working at the site we would eventually design for, my team members could interact, listen, observe and feel on their own skin the key topics of interest as soon as they appeared on our post-its.
This is why we set up a DIY workshop space at the hear of the infrastructure that just begun to be renovated, where everything was covered in the dust daily, where we could experience the heat of the sun and see how deforestation results feel. We had a chance to spend informal time with different local communities while they were working at the construction site or taking a break at local cafes. We talked about youth and freshness vs. tradition to a young tourist information point employee who was also one of the few young people who didn’t move out to a bigger city. Of course, outside of that Holis had arranged pre-arranged in-depth interviews with representants from the local community such as farmers, Portuguese and foreign newcomers, municipality representatives and those who already invested their hopes in CLARA. Without all of this, we would be only left with what we have already experienced in the past, collectively known as a group or read online during the pre-arrival ‘desktop’ research.
Be aware: Immersing ourselves in a context flip-the-script and paradigm shit for our collective brains. At the same time, if not prepared, it may scare you, as it may bring you hundreds of new input knowledge points in a form of not only answers but always a lot of new questions. Therefore, it is crucial to download your new context knowledge and inspirations within the same day or the next one the latest, by categorizing it and map it qualitatively (using Information Maps, List of Searched Informations, As Is User Journeys, Pattern Maps, etc.). This is crucial to begin with clarity and enthusiasm, the most complex and at the same time the most awarding process of synthesis and analysis. We say that synthesis is hard, but it brings relief, clarity and qualitative arguments coming from the heart of the context we are designing for. In return, this delivers a psychological safety, clear guidance and a kick of endorphins, a perfect mix you need to get your creative phase to begin right after in the subsequent phase.
In the end, social innovation is not about creating an ideal new solution that would make all stakeholders happy. Sometimes it is more powerful to identify a key opportunity or a system element (a nod) and choose a minor design intervention to use already existing element and present it to the community in a totally new form.
At Change Pilots we follow our deeply rooted idea of always exploring new environments and learning about what design and our systemic skills can do for delivering an impact that’s needed. We believe in never-ending self-development and learning from others. Honestly, it’s awfully hard to say no to hard dusty work in a rural Portugal knowing how valuable experience we might get while making an impact.