Because one conversation can change everything

Photo credit: Kimberly Sirman

Photo credit: Kimberly Sirman

The pipeline engineer and the environmental administrator share their hopes for their children and their communities and their joy in building better places to live and work.

The board chairs share their fears and their passion for dance in Canada, holding nothing back.

The Stoney Nakoda Elder stands, interrupting, and declares that she won’t tolerate language from academics that belittles her traditions or her people any longer.

The researchers and scientists admit their confusion working on new technologies for businesses that are inviting their people to bring their own devices to work.

The young leaders speak of their frustration with a generation of institution builders refusing to move aside, leaving few opportunities for meaningful work or advancement.

Communication matters. Culture and identity, coordination and organizing, decision making, strategy, innovation, and conflict are all products of people talking to each other. When how we talk to each other doesn't change, the outcomes don't either.

We have been privileged to help organizations from across sectors and across geographies talk their way through change. We work with organizations that can’t afford to avoid the conversations that need to happen. Change asks us to work with strangers, to move through discomfort, and to situate new ideas and approaches. The problem seems to be that we have forgotten how to be with other people, particularly those people that don't agree with us or see the world the way we do. And sadly, a lot of our institutions have built their prosperity on this sad fact. We are more useful as consumers, voters, and workers when we aren't complicated by an understanding of the 'other'.

We are inspired by the work of Mary Parker Follett, an American social worker, management consultant, philosopher, and pioneer in the fields of organizational theory and organizational behavior from about a century ago. She saw conflict as something to be embraced and an opportunity to develop integrated solutions rather than compromise or exercise power. She argued that, "We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature". However, too many of our interactions – with other people and with the artifacts we create – oppose integration.  Our interactions seem designed to polarize us, to isolate us from caring about others, and to move the burden of caring for others onto systems that are clearly ill-equipped to cope.

Our big assumption in all of this is that we aren't putting enough time and attention on designing the moments when people get together. There is a cultural fascination with heroic individuals and a growing interest in complex systems but not enough attention is paid to the millions of conversations that shape who we are as people and that build the systems that operate around us – visibly or invisibly.

At Intervene Design, we want to be intentional about the moments when people come together. We design and implement interventions in social settings that challenge people to change their perspectives, attitudes, and actions. We want those interactions to feel better and ultimately, better systems to emerge as a result.

My name is Jerrold McGrath, and I am the president of Intervene Design. When I was about ten or eleven, I spent parts of summers at my father’s trailer at a KOA campground on the Rideau Canal system near Ottawa, Canada. The rest of the year I didn’t spend a lot of time with my father and so I felt quite nervous being around him and his family for weeks on end. During the day I could run away with my step-brother, who was one year and 357 days older than I was. We swam, played pinball in the general store, and hid in the woods to spy on other families. But in the evening, we were pushed in close together and had to sort out some way to talk among ourselves. I’m sure I made my father nervous too, and to my step-mother and brothers I was some alien creature, unfamiliar with their rules and their customs - a fat kid with big blonde hair already in pajamas at 4:30 in the afternoon. I loved the way they said good night to each other. They let me wear pajamas at the picnic table where we ate most of our meals. Dinners were awkward and clumsy.
After dinner, when it didn’t rain, we could have a fire. Ten to twenty lawn chairs formed a circle around a fire pit made of stones from the woods (not the lake). When it was warm, the circle was misshapen and open. When it got cooler, we would tighten up to capture more heat. Families would gather from other trailers and bring offerings of hot dogs, marshmallows or drinks in Dixie cups that would go to kids or adults based on their contents.

What I enjoyed about the time around the fire was that there were no expectations to participate or perform. People talked, or they didn’t talk, and although all were welcome no one was ever sure who was extending the invitation. Even as a child I could see that imposing one’s own expectations on the others around the fire was taboo. If someone wanted to sing, they were free to do so, but insisting that others join in was clearly not OK. The fire somehow celebrated work by asking people not to.

Today, I can’t help but feel that we have given up our right to shape the spaces where we meet as people. I am at many ‘fires’ where I am expected to sing with everyone else or to keep silent to avoid bothering the neighbours. People act as if these rules are older than the rocks, but I think they’re wrong.

We believe that our work needs to be about arresting some of the creeping isolation that defines our age. Hopefully, different spaces and different interactions will allow people to gather in ways that address needs to which we don’t attend.

We help organizations talk their way through change. We redesign the conversations you have in service to better relations, better outcomes, and a more effective organization. We analyze existing communications to surface hidden assumptions about how work gets done. We design and facilitate interventions to move through ambiguity and uncertainty.  We develop leadership to sustain the change now and in the future.

And we are new, nervous, and learning our way forward. Let us know what you think.