Reflecting on habitat. Real and virtual.

This week started with a conversation about habitat. My colleague Sid and I geek out on models and frameworks. In particular, we like the Cynefin framework, a Welsh word meaning habitat, used to explain how we behave (or should behave) in different domains.

an image of a natural park with a playground in the distance
A walk in the park through several different domains, from simple to complex. How we interact with each matters.

At the Exchange Lab, we work in primarily the complex domain. We’re way-finding and pioneering new approaches. We’re also solving problems that haven’t been adequately solved to date, as far as we can tell. Where possible, we create or borrow structures, or we use existing tools that create some relief from the constant ambiguity.

Habitat matters. As a geographer, I’m acutely aware of this. Everything from the movement of wind, to the evolution of animals, to the inspiration of poets is a product of habitat. So the fact that we’ve put thousands of people in small grey cubes to do important work matters.

Executive tend to have less bounds on their habitat, as they move from meeting to meeting. Other than in a walled room (that many people around them are afraid to go into) they often sit behind the barrier of a conference table. That habitat is restrictive especially given the rules (spoken and unspoken) of how to behave at that table.

It’s something I like to puzzle over. How might we create habitats that help us discover and get to desired outcomes in complex systems? It’s in this curious space that I’m reflecting on my week.

What’s working well?

I really got to experiment with space this week.

First, my team and I have been building a journey map to examine the pain points of our clients so that we can build appropriate services. Given capacity challenges, I needed a low effort, low barrier way for about 20–30 people to gather around what we’ve created.

I use Miro board (some might say I love Miro board, and they would be right). I created the journey there, where my team pitched in. Then, I hosted a 90 minute feedback session entirely online, with the lab team huddled around a couple screens and a speaker phone. It nearly felt like a campfire.

The Lab has several “corporate partners” who also help public servants to hone their service delivery approaches with new-to-them improved methods. Behavioural insights, data science, and Lean practice, to name a few. (There’s a handy list here under “Using Ideas at Work”.)

I needed them to understand this journey map is one method to illustrate our program. I also needed them to see themselves in it. As we document the pain points our clients face, our partners can get insight into how to offer solutions.

Of course, we had some of our actual users (product owners) engaged as well.

So, I took the first 45 minutes getting them oriented in the history, the tools, and the process we were going to experience together. I oriented them to the habitat.

The rest of the time involved really rich conversation about the Lab community’s experience, and what we think we are collectively trying to solve for. What I really needed was for that explicit feedback to be recorded then and after the session. My biggest worry was that after the orientation they’d say “hmmm, interesting” and hang up the connection. But then this happened:

Facilitating an online experience is hard because it is a strange habitat that some are really fluid in (we might call these people “digital”) and many, many more struggle to get oriented in. So we need to take care here. And have excellent tools.

(As an aside, when you combine “digital people” in the online space with non digital people, the struggle get’s amplified if you don’t find a way to manage the friction. I’ll probably share more about my observations and ideas on this in a future blog about reverse-mentor-ship.)

This brings me to my next experience: Mozilla Hubs.

What worked well about my experience gathering some people to experiment in person and in Virtual Reality space so that we could explore climate solutions? Mostly learning.

Elgin, a Mozilla Hubs Community Manager, stopped by with a headset for the team to try. Some really liked it, others preferred the 2D experience.

I’m new to the VR tool set myself, but as a fluid digital person, I went from entering a digital room to building one in about 24 hours. This is mostly due to how easy the Mozilla team has made it. Not only with their design, but with their open approach to facilitating orientation to the tools.

I was having regular conversations with the development team in an open chat channel. They pointed me to resources and prior experience in the community. I avoided pitfalls and was even able to contribute back:

The results on the event day were not wide reaching. I don’t know for sure, but in addition to the seven people that tried out my space in person at the Lab, maybe another 5–10 visited from a distance. I received messages from several others that tried, but had firewall or some other kinds of issues.

Honestly, I was hoping for more. In hindsight, I think that would have been difficult to facilitate, given that I am also new to this.

As for depth of engagement, there were some people that really, really enjoyed the experience. We’re now having conversations about the potential use cases.

TIP: Keep your fridge stock lean so things don’t get lost and organize to optimize!

Of course, the reason we were meeting in person and online was to discover ways to reduce our carbon. The tool might offer some reductions, if adoption takes off. We also took the Drawdown quiz and learned about other ways we can have an impact. Some of us are committing to the eco-challenge. I’m extra inspired to keep my fridge in minimalist fashion now. Less habitat for unwelcome organisms too!

Around the world, in Australia, Finland, Norway, the UK and other parts of Canada, brilliant public servants were trying other engagement methods in different habitats. I’m looking forward to learning from James Arthur Cattell, Elspeth Body, pia jøsendal, Kit Collingwood, DavidBuck, Eric Shoesmith about their experience.

What is challenging me?

On the habitat front, we’re reaching a threshold carrying capacity at the Exchange Lab. Teams are feeling the crunch, as we fill every corner with very motivated people. And more are waiting at the threshold.

Meanwhile, we’re trying to get people outside the lab oriented so they can be ready when we have space and capacity to more actively support their journey. I’m playing with communication concepts that might help with that orientation.

For example, if the journey is like learning how to SCUBA dive, what do we need to pay attention to for success?

I’ve written a separate blog on this to keep this one short, but the punchline I’ve come up with is:

  • take time to orient people,
  • let them learn through experience with the right tools, and
  • do so in an immersive environment where they can feel a connection to others and are safe to validate their learning.

While this tidy bullet list makes it sound simple, it is challenging to find the time, resources and patience to match the enthusiasm.

Maybe we can solve for space with VR?

After building a little world for an exploration of climate solutions, I couldn’t help but think of the applications at the Lab.

What if I built a 3D model of our Lab, included videos, illustrations, and links to show what is happening there, and made it available to you? What if it was hosted during open office hours so that as you wandered around, if you had questions, you could talk to a real, experienced person?

Would you take a chance and click on the link?

What am I looking forward to?

This next week will be full of more rich learning I’ll share through #weeknotes:

  • A workshop to learn Wardley Mapping, direct from Simon Wardley.
  • Reviewing all the feedback on our Journey Map to improve it.
  • Integrating the results of bullets 1 and 2.

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Heather-Lynn Remacle

Heather-Lynn Remacle

Slow to judge, quick to suppose: truth and alternatives I’m keen to expose. Open by default. How can I help? https://bit.ly/32Fmz2l