Doctor’s Note – Issue 21 – Escaping your personal escape room

In this issue: Escaping your personal escape room / desirable, feasible, desirable’s translation problem / podcast gratitude / The Linkhole / Book Corner

Welcome to Issue 21 of Doctor’s Note. If you were forwarded this by a friend, you can sign up here. It’s still free, but if you love it, you can buy me a coffee and I’ll love you back even more.

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Escaping your personal escape room

It is traditional at this time of the year to either write an end of year round-up or predictions for 2021. I’ve read enough of these this year and I don’t want to add to the pile. Another tradition is New Year resolutions that you’ll fail to keep up after March. What is it that we are really doing when we make these? 

They are really reflections about the dissonance between our current lives and our sense of who and what we should be.

Getting fit, eating more healthily, not binge-watching Netflix are all fine resolutions. I’m not knocking them and if you’re struggling, I can recommend James Clear’s Atomic Habits and habit stacking as a way to keep them. The key to those is to think small – atomic – since that keeps barrier to change low and small changes add up over time. Write 500 words a day (about two-thirds of this article) and you’ve written a novel’s worth in six months.

When people approach me for coaching, it is ostensibly about how their design leadership role is challenging them in some way. But, as James Hollis says, “it’s not about what it’s about.” Most often the coaching processing reveals their life at an inflection point and they’ve lost their way or are struggling with difficult choices.

My job is to help them set some boundaries to make some mental space so they can find their shape and re-calibrate their personal compass. Only then can any kind of leadership development work really take place. Most of the time the work is really about personal development and the leadership challenges are just the stimuli.

We all like to think we know what we’re about, what we believe in, and what is important to us. But the drift that happens when we’re heads-down busy means we lose touch with those principles. Worse, the busywork can be an alluring way to rationalise away and avoid examining the inner dissonance. The days, months and years go by and we end up in a place we didn’t intend, not sure who we are anymore.

It’s as if we spend a large proportion of the first half of our lives building an elaborate room for ourselves, only to realise mid-life that it is actually an escape room that we have created. We find ourselves locked in, no longer able to remember the clues and riddles to get out of it. These puzzles take the form of professional, familial and societal roles and scripts we’ve taken on, as well as all the classic trappings of a life built up: education, house, mortgage, children, career ladder, money, status.

The good news is most people have a sense of the clues they left in the room. That’s the itch you’re feeling when you make New Year’s resolutions. It sometimes takes a major catastrophe like, say, a global pandemic, to remind us that they’re even there.

Many of the obstructions are not as solid as we think they are. Some require prising open another locked box before we can explore the one we’re really struggling with. Others are tackled by reframing our view, or gently pulling instead of pushing with all our might.

Two activities I frequently ask coachees to do form the foundation material of coaching sessions. The first is to map out their loves, hates, hopes and fears in a territory map (a type of affinity cluster map). Loves and hates usually reveal the past and present. Hopes and fears are future-oriented. Done honestly and authentically, the demons, battlefields and dreams of the personal territory are revealed.

The second activity is a future work visualisation activity I did for myself a couple of years ago and then wrote out once for a coachee. I have found it useful ever since and return to it often. The approach separates the rationalised future ideal embedded in career titles (such as “Strategic Design Director” or “Head of Product”) from the everyday tangible activities (“in the field conducting research” or “at the whiteboard with the client team”).

It’s these daily activities that lift us up or grind us down. The title is always an illusion that benefits the organisation more than the individual (and is why you should be highly suspicious of a “title promotion” that gives you more responsibility without the commensurate pay rise and decision-making powers).

Both of these activities can help you start to get a sense of your true shape and find your inner compass again. All of this helps you make life decisions as well as changing the way you present in your current work role. Discovering that a source of stress is something you actually hate doing and no longer want to do sounds remarkably obvious, but it often comes as a bit of a surprise to coachees when they unlock that puzzle. As is discovering negative interactions with teammates and bosses echo familial patterns laid down decades ago.

As you reflect on the past year and your future resolutions, I invite you to use the visualisation activity to kick start the process. I’ve uploaded it on my website here. Many find it revealing, many find it challenging, which is often a sign of having lost track of your inner compass. When you make New Year’s resolutions, it’s tempting to think in terms of “a new you,” but that implies an old you that you separate from and leave behind. That’s not how it works. There is only one you with all the baggage that you’ve gathered along the way. It’s coming to terms with that stark fact that takes the work.

If you’d like some coaching and guidance in the New Year, do get in touch. I should have a couple of slots opening up.


Podcast gratitude

I’d like to take a moment to thank all the guests on my Power of Ten podcast this year. Although it’s billed as being about “design operating at many levels of zoom,” it’s secretly my excuse to speak to interesting people. Here’s the episode list of wonderful people who gave their time:

The older ones are on the old podcast feed that is no longer active, so make sure you subscribe to (and share!) the new one. Thanks, too, to the guests I recorded already this year for upcoming 2021 episodes:

Feasible, viable and desirable’s translation problem

I live in a dual language family and in a foreign country. As I became more fluent in German, I came to realise that people must misunderstand each other in their own languages far more than we think. Adjectives are the worst. Several, like gemütlich in German, simply don’t translate one-to-one. And it boggles my mind that there is no English word for schadenfreude, given that it is such a central aspect to British humour and far less so German humour.

We take our mother tongues for granted. The tell is when you look up a word and find a list of 20 in the other language. I teach international students on the Masters of Service Design at the Hochschule Luzern where English is the shared, middle language. One of my students asked me about the difference between “feasible” and “viable” in the classic IDEO desirable, feasible, viable Venn diagram, because when she looked the terms up in the dictionary, they were often synonyms.

I tweeted about it and the responses turned into an interesting thread of both languages and values. Many, quite rightly, pointed out that viable can be thought of as “sustainable,” but usually not in the sense of ecological sustainability, even though it should be. I’d argue that desirable should also be reframed as being ecologically sustainable and equitable – a point we made in Fjord’s 2020 trend, Life-Centred Design (which I can no longer find on Fjord’s website 🤔).

The Linkhole

  • The presentation on design leadership for Futurice’s Show & Tell event is now available for your viewing pleasure.

  • I’m taking part in a thematic discussion on Metaphors of service for ServDes 2020. Those who know me know I like metaphors a lot. They’re foundation stones of teaching (see what I did there?). Do join us, it should be a good discussion and the whole programme is looking excellent.

  • Speaking of Fjord’s Trends, the 2021 ones are out launched first on Accenture’s site, I noticed. Congratulations to Mark, Martha and Lucia. I’m mostly withholding judgement until I can have a good back and forth with Mark about them on the podcast. My first impression was that I found them more reflective of 2020 than forward looking. Perhaps that was inescapable in a year where everything has already changed so much.

  • If you’ve ever had a clear out and done the three piles method for sorting stuff, you might find Three Piles of Life by Scott Berkun useful. It’s a good way to approach those New Year resolutions.

  • When I was talking to Ariba Jahan for the podcast, she mentioned the idea of avoiding running on “amber” energy levels all the time, because you end up dipping into red when times are tough. Like the whole of this year. Why monitoring your ’emotional gas tank’ is critical to fighting burnout is a good piece on this idea. Keep it green as much as you can.

  • Jacinda Ardern is a shining light of leadership. It’s tempting to put “female” as a modifier to leadership there and I’m sure it’s a key aspect of it, but it somehow makes it seem like this is unachievable by everyone else. It’s not. Nor is she immune to imposter phenomenon, but the way she deals with it is to reframe. “I try to turn self-doubt into ’something more positive”, she says.

  • It’s Time to Replace the Public Corporation. We need a model that truly focuses on the long term says none other than Roger L. Martin. He’s right, though I’m not entirely convinced by his solution. Here’s a good quote though:

In 1959, almost two decades before his prediction about pensions, Drucker alerted the world to the arrival of a new breed of employee: knowledge workers. Instead of the muscles in their arms, legs, and backs, these workers would employ the muscle between their ears. He warned that they would be pickier about the nature of their work because it is done in and by their minds. They are their work.

That is at the core of the problem with the public corporation. Knowledge workers, the primary driver of a company’s value, are being asked to work for the benefit of its shareholders. They are asked to make sacrifices to meet quarterly financial targets. When activist hedge funds circle, they are asked to acquiesce in the firing of friends and colleagues across the company to improve earnings.

So the dominant model asks workers to toil under executives whose financial welfare is determined by the stock price, in the interests of owners no one knows. That seems about right for a workplace in which, according to Gallup’s 2020 results, only 31% of employees are engaged in their work, 54% are not engaged, and 14% are actively disengaged. Drucker would probably have predicted those numbers had he known the environment in which his knowledge workers would be toiling. The modern public corporation has become a terrible home for them.

“In the tech world there’s a lot of looking down on people who aren’t living their passion. You had to be very passionate and excited, and everything was the most important thing that you could be doing. I felt a lot of times like I was faking it,” she says. “This idea that your job has to be your dream and the thing that you live for, and not just the paycheque, it’s difficult – because it is a paycheque. Having to put this mask on and pretend all day is very draining.” Or as she put it during a recent comedy performance, “People always ask me if it was fun to work at Google, and it was fun. I knew that it was fun because they kept telling me how much fun I should have each quarter, else I would be fired.”

  • I’ve been listening to the WeWork story on the Foundering podcast. It’s a very good podcast, but I found myself wanting to punch most of the people interviewed. Or just Silicon Valley VC culture in general, if it had a singular nose to target.

Book Corner/Christmas reading

I’m mostly catching up with books I’ve started, but here are a few that I’ve been reading and recommending to coachees:

And with that, I wish you all a safe and happy 2021!

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Photo by Mike Szczepanski on Unsplash