radical Insights.

Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.

Designing (Together) like We’re in It for the Long Term.

May 7, 2024

Building something for the long term—be it a company, a company culture, a community, or a social system—necessarily means designing it to outlast the involvement and extend beyond the control of any single individual leader. At a minimum, doing so successfully probably requires a shared sense of purpose, effective partnership, and the kind of durable and empowering trust that translates the purpose into action through the partnership. It also likely rewards the sort of approach that Jeff Bezos famously encapsulated as one of being “stubborn on vision… flexible on details” in remarks he made at a 2011 shareholder meeting (which are still worth reading in context for anyone interested in bold innovation).

This is a unique and perhaps unfamiliar mindset, and I had an opportunity at an event last month at the Stanford d.School to design a quick interaction to help a group of leaders access and explore it. The gathering—organized by the extraordinary convener (and our longtime friend) Lisa Kay Solomon—was intended to “explore and expand capacity for civic imagination and creative agency.” In other words, we were assembling to envision civic futures, very much predicated upon the sort of long-term projects that require a shared sense of purpose, effective partnership, and durable and empowering trust to flourish at scale and over time.

To get the creative energies of the leaders in attendance flowing playfully in that direction, I brought a simple interaction to a short workshop that Lisa and I co-facilitated, and I think this interaction is one that could be easily adapted to a range of different contexts.

Encouraging the participants to envision some aspect of a flourishing civic future (perhaps even the desired outcome of a current initiative), we asked them to briefly jot that vision down on a notecard—each of which had the prompt “Let’s design a future where…” at the top.

We gave them a moment to do this and then instructed them to follow whatever they had written with “AND…”—opening their vision to the contribution of an unknown future partner, and we had them pass the cards around the room, hand to hand, until they were well mixed in the crowd.

Then, we asked the participants to read whichever card they were now holding, consider the vision with which they had been entrusted, and take a moment to jot down a further contribution—a detail that might augment the original vision. After a few moments, we asked them to once again follow whatever they had written with “AND…”—again symbolically inviting unknown future partners to contribute.

After the next round, we invited a few participants to read out the aggregate future-visions on the cards they were holding, and we discussed the experiences of making a generative contribution to a future vision that wasn’t your own and of handing off your original vision to a set of unknown stewards to build upon as they felt appropriate. Finally, we collected all of the cards and posted them on a wall in the meeting space so that each civic imagineer could see how her vision had been developed and iterated by future partners—perhaps in unexpected ways.

The interaction was simple, but the conversation was rich in a way that suggested we might have quickly tapped into something valuable in conveying a bit of how it can feel to partner in designing for the long term. This, surely, is something we’re all going to need to get good at, so I look forward to spending more time exploring the mindset and practices here.