No Jazz these days on failing leadership and the potential to re-design collaborations
What didn’t you represent to me: gratitude from my ancestors, leadership in democracy, the opportunity to join a design and innovation consultancy that became one of the most celebrated in the world, and later a design school that became one of the best rated in the US. Today I am an alien in a country where elitist organizations and academic structures struggle to evolve.
I worked in product and interaction design when technological innovations started to change our work and life. No jazz after several years at IDEO I left the company in 2001 and co-founded an NPO for humanitarian flights in the DR Congo. Four years later we handed the leadership over to the local team. It was clear to me that after centuries of exploitation, an “us for them” approach is unethical and does not work. I started teaching, mentoring new minds how to apply what emerged as “design thinking”, creating spaces where they can take off themselves.
We did not work on products, but on designing systemic interventions to engage highly needed change processes in societies and organizations. I have been at Parsons for over ten years now, and I have been working as an executive mentor in this same period. To me it looks like challenges and opportunities are understood, projects and people are ready. Just that leadership stands in the way.
Beauty and the Beast
With the ambition to respond to inequalities and to strive for diversity, equity, and inclusion, it would be time to move from recognition to active integration and change – in everyday life, in education, and at the workplace. There is an urgent need to respond to racism beyond solidarity. A precious response is to start collaborating. No jazz this also means that we open up and actually allow for diversity, instead of resorting to assessing compatibility with our systems. If we recognize and integrate diverse cultural content, values, and knowledge, we can better design for social, environmental, and economic needs, better address the complexity of our burning issues. The communication of different approaches is a reciprocal enrichment, a mutual engagement and catalyzation. In contrast, the selective integration into a uniform, static system does inevitably lead to exclusions.
The beauty of Jazz is that all members can play their improvisation of a theme at some point. Supported by the others, something unheard can become audible. In our professional world, new solutions can come to light.
Our systems instead have become more and more rigid. Bureaucracy has taken over, with partially absurd, inhumane procedures. We work in established, perfectionalized structures, trying to understand and to apply their processes. As a result, we fear making mistakes, fear that the process could be not exactly what the authors of the system intended. Many systems are not really masterpieces though.
The responsibility to change our workplace culture is mostly seen as a leadership task. But what can we do if this very leadership seeks to maintain the status quo?
The problem for any change process is not necessarily the very top, but the sub leaders. Populist politics with simple answers to complex questions polarized, damaged culture and the economy. It created a Zeitgeist with long-lasting impact: it legitimized bad leadership habits. Everything went low and radicalized, just like in the US over the past years.
Many of us experience how this infiltration of bad leadership habits look like. It makes it in any micro cell of a greater structure, on both sides of a polarized country. Sub-leaders make top-down, on-off decisions, even though they might do alibi consultations with the team. Some team members keep quiet, others make a lot of noise, as much as they can. Competing outweighs collaboration. All what is left of a democratic sense is the fear of a majority, so those leaders comply with the louder ones, even augment their noise to keep their power. As this scenario evolves, the work concentrates increasingly on self-defense; it lacks authenticity as it must comply with the dominating dynamics. We will see individuals take on less and less responsibility. There will be poor integrity, lack of accountability, but power and fear. Welcome to hell.
Since the stock market became so popular in the early nineties, top leadership seems to focus on efficiency and profit maximization only. We are close to the limits – you can make a product so cheap that nobody wants it anymore, and healthcare so complicated that nobody can afford it. This leadership considers less the impact their corporation has on their workers, their families, the society and the environment (as long as a bad reputation could not harm the sales volume). Maximizing profit and shareholder value get all the attention. It has been the times of the big that set the markets also for the SME, if they managed to survive. Even in Design, big management consulting firms bought big design consulting firms and got even bigger. Collaboration amongst the two worlds did not always work out, but sharing clients was good for the business.
In the meantime, there are new, small, smart initiatives taking place, that will hopefully build coalitions and form better systems together. In my field, in design and innovation, there are numerous smaller consulting firms, many of those in the southern hemisphere. They show new perspectives on common challenges, all together certainly more significant than what the big players show. There are new educational structures evolving all over the planet and I wonder where and how a western, elitist institution for the privileged still makes sense.
Change is in the air, in the US, a natural advancement from having a dream to active change processes might finally become a reality. No Jazz it seems that there is a wide support to fight racism, strive for equity and allow for diversity. There is enormous potential in the inclusion of diverse perspectives in solving our challenges, in the world and at our workplaces. It would be a good moment to move on from recognition to action, to make sure that what is coming to light does not vanish.
After the opportunity is recognized and a concept formulated, in innovation processes we develop a strategic plan. We place innovation competencies across organizations, align those in different departments and build communication models to monitor the progress. No jazz we should understand how decision-making works in our organizations and visualize it in a diagram, assess regarding efficiency and map out roles and responsibilities. Decisions can be made based on information, and information comes with communication. How does the communication flow throughout an organization? How does this relate to decision making? By analyzing, visualizing and improving decision making processes and communication models we can not only increase efficiency, but we can anticipate where roadblocks are and work on those before we kick off development and change processes. No jazz we can see where crucial intersections are, and communicate what evolves where, to make sure that the whole ship navigates in a desirable direction.
Access to Education
During the pandemic, we had a truly international year at our institution, Parsons The New School for Design. We are the most international university in the US, our students were at home, we connected online. Jazz in my project-oriented courses, we continued working on social and organizational design projects. We have been addressing local requirements in Asia and Africa, I engaged them to work in their language. New energy, new insights and new solutions came to light, while they did not feel the need to comply with a western culture as they do when they are in one of the old centers of the world, in Manhattan.
The pandemic showed the resilience and dedication of faculty that came up with striking teaching innovations while working online. But the potential to extend the reach and access to education seems to vanish as we are waiting if leadership decides to incorporate the achievements in new teaching models and academic structures, or if we will be returning to same old, pandemic permitting. For now, this is not so clear. Academic institutions can have decision making processes and communication models that no-one understands.
Most administrative roles are executed by faculty that has been part of a university for a long time, with little experience in professional practice, management, or people guidance training. Many academicians read and write about their research area and publish to get evaluated by their peers. It is not really result oriented working, besides the intellectualization of concepts which can have its own beauty and theoretical insights that can be enlightening. In any case, this mindset of “how am I perceiving by my peers” creates an interesting organizational culture. It is based on theory and perception. The translation into practice, to make things happen, to plan and strategize change is not really part of academic ecosystems.
However, in academia there is also an approach to respond to top-down leadership in the starting blocks: shared governance. There is a whole range of extremely competent faculty that could stick their heads together, what an enormous potential.
Universities, like many structures of organizations, work like machines though, with little leeway for improvisation. As a consequence, also here there are new initiatives popping up anywhere, financed by corporations. Those places can be critiqued, but the developments to change academic settings is irreversible. What is the future of a design school that insists on being a research institution to justify its existence. Its cost and credibility, while competing with the new emerging formats?
Anything can be designed. With systemic interventions in organizational design, we can evolve systems that allow individual integrations and contributions. Jazz can create flexible, adaptive frameworks that allow leeway. We can make decision making processes transparent and connect them to communication models to enhance efficiency. With bottom-up approaches and shared governance we can increase our innovation capacities and competitiveness. We can boost our economy if we turn around an elitist approach. And not only let in but listen to those that have been excluding from the games.
What we cannot design is pride. If people have been treating as badly as indigenous and black people. A first step to regain pride is a clear unanimous recognition of this guilt. A second step is that a nation takes on the responsibility. For what these people have been facing throughout the centuries. The third step is to create new, collaborative spaces at the workplace and in education.
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