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Cheryl Heller on Designing for Human Energy as a Precious Resource

Originally posted on Impact Design Hub

Depending on your job, your political persuasion and where you call home, the word “energy,” conjures images of solar panels, windmills, gas stations or coal mines. Or, it can bring to mind oil spills and oil bills. For the most part – humans being humans in the twenty-first century – we tend to think of energy as something we control.

What we often forget, in this time of politicized resources, is that we have another precious energy to manage: the human kind. This is the one we need a lot of in order to solve all the other nasty problems we face.

Anyone committed to social or environmental justice who is paying attention to all the things that need to be done, or fixed, or turned around, is exhausted. There is always more work to do than any single individual, community, city or country can manage on its own. Yet we feel the need to keep trying.

So we get together to talk about it. We have meetings, conferences, consortiums, conversations –– all in the hope that ideas will emerge, and that those ideas will be the ones that change our trajectory.

What I’m going to say next will sound a bit harsh, but stating the obvious is required if we want to change the direction in which we’re headed. We are all familiar with the convening dynamic: the gathering in groups of smart people who are extremely committed to “DOING SOMETHING; ” “GIVING BACK;” “CHANGING THE WORLD;” whatever we call it. In these gatherings, half the time is taken up by everyone going “around the room” introducing themselves: who they are; what they think; what they care about.

Another nine tenths of the second half of the meeting goes to surfacing ideas, one at a time, from individuals, typically those most fond of holding the floor to talk about what they think. Every once in a while they are excellent and deserve to be developed, researched, even implemented. People leave with greater or lesser commitments to get together and keep the momentum going.

Almost inevitably, we go back to our daily lives, where we are still exhausted and overworked. The great convening – and the great ideas – fade away. That’s because the people in the room with the experience and the connections to make something lasting happen are the ones with the least time available to follow up. We tell ourselves we should feel good about having gotten together and that there were some really good ideas that emerged.

But we know it’s not enough.

So why don’t we design for the reality of this dynamic instead of pretending that if we just get together one more time, with the right group of people, the outcome will be different?

We don’t typically succeed in follow through because there isn’t an implementation process that helps diverse people with varying amounts of time and experience work together.

We have a methodology for coming up with ideas (design thinking) that has been adopted by businesses, educational institutions and non-profits around the world. But we flounder and run out of steam when we try to develop, prototype, or implement these ideas at scale. The way we work together in solving the problems we face is a critical but overlooked aspect of impact design — and a much needed design project to take on.

Methodologies for getting stuff done are everywhere. The way movies are made is a great example. So is the way buildings get built and new products or divisions launched by corporations. It’s not brain surgery, but it’s a ballet that can be every bit as thrilling as coming up with great new ideas. The trick is to put it in place, and to link the idea generation to the evaluation, prototyping and making or doing.

Here’s what it would take:

A deliberate conversation: (ideally before people leave the convening) about what success is and what talent, resources and time it will take. And who wants to be on the team. Not a vague conversation, of the “I’ll be in touch” kind, but an honest conversation about what everyone wants, can and has to give. AND, an important part of the deliberate conversation is, who is going to pay for this. Are people expected to donate their time? Is there money to be raised? Who will find or provide money, and how much is needed? Can the model be self-sustaining?

Have this conversation up front, so people can decide if they can live with the answer. That way, if money is needed, there’s time to find a creative way to find it.

An “owner” of the project. A leader: Someone who says, I will take the lead, not just in making this happen but making it great. Someone who has the time, the passion and the experience (not one out of three).

A “producer”: Someone to keep the trains running on time; and the calendars. I love great producers. They are a pain in the butt because they demand specifics not generalities, but they are amazing, and so so important. We should treat them as the very special and valuable contributors they are.

A strategy and plan: for how people can contribute what is needed, what they can commit to, and how to keep the project flowing while still taking advantage of these contributors with varied amounts of time and sporadic schedules. Filmmakers do an amazing job of this.

This doesn’t have to be a big deal. It can be very simple, depending on the idea to be developed. (And, of course, it can get very complex when that’s what’s called for as well.)

The point is that nothing ever gets done without it.

A name: Let’s name this process something cool so that people don’t forget to do it after every meeting or conversation where something worth developing emerges.

A blog post is not good enough for working on this, but I hope it’s good for an invitation to join me.

This, in my estimation, is one of the most critical design jobs we have to tackle. Who wants to work on it together? Please email me at cheller@sva.edu.

And let’s find out what happens when we stop wasting our own energy and treat it as a precious resource needed for survival.

This is the first article in the “Linking Energy to Impact” series. Check back next week for the second article in our series or read all articles in the series in our Linking Energy to Impact features section.

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