A conversation with Jennifer Houlihan. Lead Instructor, Product Management & Design at Flatiron School

“When you look at what’s happening with the population, boomers aren’t getting any younger and they’ve got plenty of discretionary income and a lot of the solutions that are out there aren’t very friendly feeling to that population. And it’s hard to design for a group that you’ve never been a part of or that you don’t know anything about. It became really important to me to be part of teams where there was a wide variety, not just of backgrounds and races and genders and that sort of thing, but also across the age spectrum that you had people who had lived experience of all of the customers that we might be facing, not just the ones who looked like us.” –Jennifer Houlihan

In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jennifer Houlihan about her experience transitioning into the UX Design industry later in her career and teaching other adult learners.  She starts with how a project working at a local Non Profit exposed her up to UX Design.  Later, Jennifer discusses the importance of lifelong learning and keeping a beginners mindset.  We then discuss how and why to include play at work and while learning.  Listen in for tips on how to activate different learning models for your students and yourself.

Show Highlights

[1:40] How Jennifer Got Her Start In Design And Facilitation.

[10:32] Agism And The Value Of Lived Experience.

[20:27] The Value Of Reverse Mentorship.

[28:50] How To Use The Whole Brain In Learning.  

[33:20] How To Bring Play Into Work.

Jennifer on Linkedin

Jennifer on Twitter

Jennifer on Medium

About the Guest

Jennifer Houlihan serves as lead instructor, Product Management & Design, for Flatiron School, where she is currently assigned to the Army Software Factory (US Army Institute for Software Development). Previously, she served as lead instructor in the User Experience Design Immersive program at General Assembly. Ms. Houlihan has also served as Managing Director of the Austin Forum on Technology & Society, a nonprofit organization that explores the impact of technology on society, and Managing Director of Austin Smart City Alliance, a consortium of companies, organizations, and individuals collaborating to advance Austin through digital technologies, data collection, analytics, and modeling.  Additionally, she has served as executive director and chief lobbyist for Austin Music People, the trade association for Austin’s $2 billion music industry. She is an award-winning public speaker and writer, with recent appearances at ProductCamp, Control the Room, Austin Design Week, Hire Women Week, and AIGA Changemakers. She is a certified facilitator and holds a BS in Communications from Northwestern University and a MA in Social Psychology from Pepperdine University. She likes dinosaurs.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.

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Full Transcript

Douglas: Welcome to the Control the Room podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures to the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our weekly Control the Room facilitation lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real time with other facilitators. Sign up today at Voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab. If you’d like to learn more about my book, Magical Meetings, you can download the Magical Meetings quick start guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at Magicalmeetings.com. Today, I’m with Jennifer Houlihan at the Flatiron School, where she is the lead instructor for their immersive product design course. Welcome to the show, Houli.

Jennifer: It is great to be here. Thank you, Douglas.

Douglas: So good to have you, I have been looking forward to this conversation. So, let’s get started with hearing a little bit about your journey and how you got into this work of immersive product design.

Jennifer: Oh my gosh, I had a wonderful adventure getting into this field. I was working for a small nonprofit and we had an idea and that was that we could help people find affordable housing here in Austin by using technology. We thought that there was some way. We didn’t what the solution would look like, but we definitely knew what the problem was. And we wanted to get to work on that. And we had the good fortune with this small nonprofit, Austin Smart City Alliance to work with pros from IBM and University of Texas and City of Austin Housing Authority, tons of really talented people and did a lot of work and put together a solution. This was done by City of Austin staff in conjunction with Code for America that put something really lovely together. I had the opportunity to be part of the team that introduced it to our potential users.

I was sitting in a meeting room at the housing authority with a bunch of folks who had just gotten their first computers. They had earned their computers from the housing authority and they were setting up their passwords and their email accounts. And we were able to say, “Hey, as long as you’re here, could you do us a favor? And let us know if this app works, let us know if it does the trick.” And I sat down with one woman and her husband and daughter, and walked her through the quiz at the beginning that asks, what’s your income? How many bedrooms are you looking for? What bus route do you need to be on? What school district is your child in? And watched her hit the search button and saw those responses come up and the map and the detail with all the information she could possibly need.

She started crying and she said, this is a blessing, and I thought, this is a job. This is something you can do that you can solve problems for people or interview them about their problems and give them potential solutions and get feedback on how to make it even better and I started researching what user experience design was. I had never heard of it before. I went back to school, got my degree in it and realized as a TA that I loved teaching, that there was just something about watching people understand an idea, watching people’s eyes light up when something clicked, and watching them create something new and useful and helpful that had never been there before and it’s been incredibly rewarding work. I’m so grateful to have stumbled across it.

Douglas: So amazing to hear stories of people having these epiphany moments around, is this a job?

Jennifer: Right.

Douglas: Such a really cool experience to have.

Jennifer: Yeah. I mean, nobody majors in, well, maybe they do now, but when I was coming up, nobody was majoring in UX experience design. No one was majoring in customer experience or service design. None of that was even really a thought in most corporations and certainly not a non-profits, which was my background. And so, to discover not only where there are jobs in this field, but it was a discipline with academic rigor and intellectual standards, and there were best practices to be followed that it was something very serious and very quantifiable in terms of the impact you might be able to make on an organization or community, and that’s what sold me on it.

Douglas: Yeah. It’s really interesting that there’s lots of boot camps and courses and workshops, but not as many kind of formal degrees that are dedicated to this kind of field of work. That’s certainly folks come from design backgrounds and some of them engineering backgrounds when they kind of do this work and there’s the long history of human factors. Like some folks come from that world, too.

Jennifer: Yes. Yes. Yeah, and human computer interface design and that kind of thing. But that wasn’t necessarily about the consumer, right? That wasn’t necessarily about moving business metrics or making sure the experience was delightful as much as it was originally about, is this the right corner of the screen for us to put this button? It’s gotten a lot more sophisticated since then, which of course leaves room for mischief with some actors who aren’t necessarily on the up and up, but I’ve been fortunate that all the environments that I’ve worked in and certainly all the designers, I’ve been lucky enough to help train. I have a very strong sense of ethics and empathy and that’s what attracted them to the position in the first place so it’s not really a negotiable for them.

Douglas: Yeah. I think you’re alluding to maybe the misuse of kind of behavioral psychology or behavioral economics.

Jennifer: Yes. Those kind of inadvisable patterns or malicious patterns that folks can be. Sometimes you’ll discover it yourself on a perfectly legitimate site, but you’ll realize why can’t I find the price for this item? I’ve been looking all around for it, but it’s not showing me the price until after I’ve put it into my cart. Or why are these two opt in buttons next to each other but they say different things that if I click one button, I’m adding myself onto the mailing list and if I click the next button, I’m taking myself off the mailing list? Why is this inform… And it’s intentional, it’s intentionally confusing to drive a certain kind of behavior. As consumers, we need to be alert to that and be responsible. But as designers, I would hope that the new generation of designers we’re creating now is just making sure that’s not even an option. That’s not going to be humored or tolerated and design is better than that.

Douglas: Yeah. I think I’ve even heard it called dark design before.

Jennifer: Yes, dark patterns.

Douglas: Yeah, which is kind of nuts. When you just thinking about how people may be doing things to overly optimize conversion rates, as the disservice, it reminds me of, we did some work with AT&T years and years and years ago and I found out that there were still… This actually will be a nice segue into something else you’re passionate about, but you and I are both old enough to know that you used have to rent telephones.

Jennifer: Yes. Wow. I haven’t thought about that before.

Douglas: Yeah, there were party lines where I grew up that’s I don’t know if you even know about that but…

Jennifer: Yeah.

Douglas: Yeah, the phone would be an AT&T phone and there were two or three models and you’d picked it. You had maybe a few color choices…

Jennifer: A few colors, yeah.

Douglas: … and it was just part of your bill, just like they would rent routers. Some people would probably still do rent their routers versus buying Netgear from Amazon or what have you. And the thing I learned from AT&T, and this is maybe 12 years ago or so now, but there were still old ladies that had a phone rental fee on their bill.

Jennifer: Oh, yes.

Douglas: Because they had never like, and I’m like, okay, can’t you just remove it, at this point, just remove the fee? You know how these programs get grandfathered in or what have you.

Jennifer: Right. Right.

Douglas: Then it just sticks around. And some of those are less intentional than other, if it just sticks around, but it’s definitely when it’s designed in, so insidious.

Jennifer: Yeah. It can be very dangerous to consumers who are less sophisticated or use methods less frequently, perhaps there’s a senior in your life who doesn’t use their internet as frequently as you do to make purchases or there’s someone who just doesn’t prefer to do their shopping that way of any age. There are absolutely tricks that you need to have a little savvy to be able to avoid.

Douglas: Talking about the older folks, the more mature folks that we have in our communities and in our workplaces, I know this is something that you’re really passionate about and you actually spoke about at our conference this year and wanted to hear a little bit about your journey in that work. I think you mentioned even in the pre-show that when you went back to school, that was your first kind of experience of going, oh wow, this is serious.

Jennifer: Yeah. It absolutely was. I had gone back to school once before in my career when I was in my 30s and got my master’s degree. But it had been a minute since I’d been in the classroom and I was 54 when I went back to school to learn about design. There was only one other person in the classroom who was even close to my age. It wasn’t anything intentional from the folks in the classroom, leading the lessons and they were absolutely sensitive to it. But we realized after a couple of weeks that the examples they were using, the visuals they were using in their slides for example, were really skewed to a much younger audience. And some of the examples were harder to connect to. There was also not a lot of vocal appreciation for the kind of learning that you do when you’re older, when you’re younger, of course, you’re a sponge, right?

You’re assembling all of this new information, absorb, absorb, absorb. And when you get older, it’s more a question of application. You’ve got all this lived experience now and so you can say, this is like this, this is like this thing I’ve done in the past, this is like this activity that I’ve completed before. And there wasn’t necessarily a vocal or formal appreciation of the value of that in the workplace and certainly in the field they’re designed.

When you look at what’s happening with the population, boomers aren’t getting any younger and they’ve got plenty of discretionary income and a lot of the solutions that are out there aren’t very friendly feeling to that population. And it’s hard to design for a group that you’ve never been a part of or that you don’t know anything about. It became really important to me to be part of teams where there was a wide variety, not just of backgrounds and races and genders and that sort of thing, but also across the age spectrum that you had people who had lived experience of all of the customers that we might be facing, not just the ones who looked like us.

Douglas: Yeah, really important. The thing that struck me there was this point you brought up around this pattern matching we do where people say, this is like this, or this is like that and we’re applying these models. We’ve kind of developed throughout the years. I’ve heard this called the curse of knowledge, right? It’s like once we know something to be a certain way, it’s really hard to unknow that, or we can often lump things together when maybe there’s some nuance there we’re not picking up on. You mentioned in the pre-show chat that you’ve been noticing how mental models have been impacting your work and around even just thinking about what it means to be these students that you have in the military.

Jennifer: Yeah. Right now, one of my main clients is a branch of the armed forces and I have the opportunity to work with soldiers who are pivoting in their careers. They’re coming from whatever field they’ve been in, logistics, communications, whatever it might be and they’re moving into design and they’re going to be designing software solutions for their fellow soldiers. That is their task. That is their mission. I had my own mental model before I started working with these folks. I thought, oh, they’re going to be very rigid and they’re all going to be alpha males and we’re not going to have any fun and it’s going to be fine, but it is not going to be the most joyful work experience so I kind of resigned myself to that. I’ve got to tell you, Douglas, after just a few days in my first classroom, I was laughing more than I’ve laughed in a really long time.

These are people who are fearless. They are not going to be stressed out about learning a new software. They know there are more stressful things in the world. I was walking into a classroom where no one was complaining about having to be there on time. Nobody was ever late. Nobody was complaining about, they don’t like this person that they got put on a team with and they can’t possibly work under those conditions. I wasn’t getting any of that. I was getting this authentic, really joyous curiosity, and it was contagious. I have to say, I’ve got a whole different understanding of the armed forces from having been, if you will embedded in this classroom than I did initially having seen that community from the outside. I think that is something that doesn’t just make us better designers, but it makes us better facilitators and better human beings.

If we’re willing to say, this is what I think I know about this population, I’m doing a workshop for a bunch of accountants. This is what I think the tone is going to be. But at the same time to be willing, to let go of a 100% of that, if you get new information and realize you were completely wrong, and I got to tell you, I was completely wrong. The last cohort we finished, usually, you finish a class and they give you a Starbucks gift card or they give maybe a plaque. And my students gave me some really, really awesome Lego kits to make dinosaurs because those are two of my favorite things in life and they knew that from having been open to get to know me as a human being, rather just this instructor delivering information at the front of the room, and that makes for a deeply satisfying work experience for me and for them.

Douglas: Yeah. The other thing that comes to mind is coming back to the ages stuff. I think as we age, it’s important for us not to play into the stereotypes, right? Like, are we doing things to maintain our neuroplasticity and be open to shifting mindsets? Because if we’re not, if we don’t have the capacity or the curiosity, then we may find ourselves kind of more rigid.

Jennifer: You’re absolutely right and that growth mindset is so important to all of us as we look to our futures and realize we’re probably going to be in the workplace longer than maybe we had realized in our 20s. We’ve got to remain competitive, we’ve got to remain current. We want to remain useful contributors to our companies and our communities and so that mindset of being a lifelong learner and understanding, I’m not great at drawing yet, but I bet if I practiced, I could get better at it, and it’s absolutely true. Three years ago, maybe I could draw a smiley face and a little stick figure, and now, I can teach sketching classes because I’ve practiced and it’s still recent enough that I remember how scary it was to pick up the pen in the first place. That’s a gift for me as an older learner to be able to say, you guys, I didn’t start doing this until I was 56. So, you’re 27, you got this, you got this, let’s learn something new.

Douglas: I think regardless of age, that is such an important thing to keep in mind that beginner’s mindset and how painful and scary it can be when you’re approaching it for the first time and that is that curse of knowledge coming back again, right?

Jennifer: Right.

Douglas: Because we can’t remember what it was like to not know something.

Jennifer: Well, that’s yes, and I think that’s what’s so great about starting new things frequently, it’s because you never get too comfortable. You never get too relaxed to go, well, that’s it, I’ve learned all there is to know, and now I’m bored, I’m visiting my sister and I’m looking at her house and going, I bet I could learn how to do crown molding. I bet there’s YouTube videos for that. I bet there’s a class for that. We’ve got tools at home. I know where Home Depot is. I bet I can learn how to do that. Whether I will or not, I’m not sure, but that’s how I try to look at the world is that dish was really interesting, I wonder what the technique was for that. I wonder if they can tell me what herbs they put in that dish or what kind of pepper that was, because then I can go to the Spike store and check out all the 5 million peppers, when I thought there was only one. The world is crazy. There’s so much out there, you couldn’t possibly learn all of it.

Douglas: So amazing too, because it ties back into the point you brought up during your talk at the summit this year, which was advice to find a reverse mentor. I think that was really wise advice because to your point, it’s important to stay curious and to constantly seek out new things and new understanding and what better way to learn. Like, I don’t know if you’re going to learn jargon and fund bits of detail, like on Urbandictionary.com, that’s a great recipe for showing up and making a fool out of yourself.

Jennifer: Yeah, who are getting sent to human resources.

Douglas: Right.

Jennifer: Yeah. No, I think you’re absolutely right. There’s something about just that willingness to be open to new experiences. Yeah, this is the music I like, but there’s nothing wrong with listening to new music. In fact, that’s been a really, really fun experience, has been talking to my students and say, “Hey, can you help me put together a Spotify playlist? This is a kind of vibe that I’m trying to put together for this workshop. I want it to be upbeat and positive. We want it to be pretty fast tempo because we want to keep people’s energy up.”

And they’ll come up sometimes with really fantastic oldies that just make me laugh and sometimes with music I never would’ve heard otherwise, but turns out to be perfect because they have a different library than I have. It’s like, we all have different library cards, right? I know what volumes I’ve got, but if those are the only books I ever check out, I’m not going to be very interesting to talk to. So, the idea of continually being able to add to my library collection with new tracks and new books and new characters is great fun.

Douglas: It reminds me too, when you say that, how important it is from a leadership standpoint to embrace this idea, right? Because there’s so many different ways to solve a lot of the problems we’re confronted with. And if we’re so fixated on solving it the way we think it should be solved, then we really aren’t unleashing the team in a way that is most productive or most powerful.

What I heard there is you didn’t say, we need this music. You said, “Hey, what’s this tempo or what’s this?” You provided some constraints. So what are the valuable guidelines? Okay. We’re bowling here, here are the gutters. Like as long as you stay inbounds, we’re good, and so that just struck me as a really powerful way to not only stay curious and learn about new things in the world around us, but also new ways to solve problems with them inside our companies.

Jennifer: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think one of the things that my students will tell you, I probably say far too often is we need to fall in love with the problem, you’re solutioning too early. I don’t want to hear about solutions yet. We need to go back and fall in love with the problem and understand it deeply and understand what our users are going through. This isn’t about matching a product we have for sale to a perceived need in the market, it’s deeper than that. Why is this person looking for this tool? Is it because they want to get home faster? Or is it because they want to be a better parent to their child and they want to spend more time at home? That’s a whole different conversation. That’s a whole different level of branding and marketing that you’re going to do and you won’t discover that if you stop your user interviews or your customer interviews, when someone says it’s really taking me too long to get home.

That’s not the problem. The problem is not as taking them too long to get home. The problem is something else. The problem is that they don’t want to be in their car. They want to be with their dog or they want to be on their bike or they want to be at their piano lesson or whatever it is that they’re doing that makes their life exciting and interesting to them. That’s the problem we need to solve is what’s between our user or our customer and their desired state, their aspirations. What’s keeping them from being the person that they think they can be or that they’d like to be? That’s the problem we need to solve and it’s probably not going to be traffic lights, it’s probably not going to be something that simple.

Douglas: It reminds me of your point earlier around watching to understand and the story you gave was about a moment when someone saw an app. I wasn’t sure if it was a functioning app or a prototype, but they were seeing the thing. It was probably functioning because they saw search results and brought a tear to their eye and whatnot, right? I think it’s important to also honor the fact that quite often we show these things and it doesn’t have that kind of response, right?

Jennifer: Yes.

Douglas: But that’s just as equally important, right? Because that’s when we learn. That to your point, we’re watching to understand.

Jennifer: Yes. We’re absolutely watching to understand and sometimes you have to go the extra mile, even if you don’t know that’s going to make sense because you’re going to discover something unexpected. I discovered when I was researching that, I thought, well, I think I understand what it’s like to be a person looking for affordable housing, but I bet I really don’t because I haven’t done that since college. And even then I had a really good support system so let me see if I can recreate this experience. And I saw what it was like to try to find the hours of this particular municipal office and find buses that would take me there because perhaps I’m a person who doesn’t own my own transportation, and what if I had a child, would I be able to take my child with me or would I have to find childcare and how late is this office open?

Then when I got there and made my request, the fact that the resource they gave me was paper and that it was not particularly well organized, that was another piece of the problem that I might not have picked up if I hadn’t gone through it myself. I think there’s something to be said for leadership to be leading from somewhere other than behind your screen, from somewhere other than behind your desk, it’s actually getting on the bus and seeing maybe that’s why we’ve got an attendance problem because the buses in our town don’t run as frequently as they might. Can I be more flexible on my hour because I’m probably not going to be able to buy new buses for the fleet. What can I do on my end to solve that problem for my people? What’s in my control? What is the smallest possible thing I can do that doesn’t require resources and doesn’t require permission from somebody else?

What’s something I can do myself to be part of creating this change? And that’s a big conversation that we have with folks when we’re facilitating conversations about culture is let’s not necessarily talk about policies today or meetings or things that need to be approved by the C-suite, what can you personally do before the end of the day that’s not going to require an increase in your budget, that’s not going to require somebody’s approval? Maybe it’s reaching out to somebody another department and saying, “You want to meet me for a cup of coffee. I don’t know anybody in purchasing.” Sometimes it can be that small and that’s where the culture begins to change.

Douglas: Has it come from a deep sense of curiosity as well, right? We have to pull in those threads.

Jennifer: Absolutely. It all comes together. Curiosity, lifelong learning, empathy, just wanting to be part of something bigger than yourself and understanding whether you’re aware of it or not. You are part of something bigger and that may be your organizational culture and/or you contributing to it in positive way, that’s moving the culture forward in a healthy direction or you helping it stay still.

Douglas: You were telling me that you’ve been using more tactical or I should say tactile. I went tactical maybe because of the DOD students that you have, but the tactile nature of some of the games and things you’re doing with pipe cleaners and stickers and glue. Yeah.

Jennifer: Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the things that I think has been a great gift in being able to teach adults is the people who are in that classroom have generally speaking, self-selected, they’re ready to take some chances, they’re ready to unlearn some things, they’re ready to try something different. And it’s a perfect opportunity for me as an instructor to push the boat out to some ridiculous distance and get them to come back in. So, we use Lego, we use pipe cleaners, we use Play-Doh, we use beads. I have bags of little army men, I’ve got little plastic tanks and aircraft carriers and blue ribbons and we lay them out and we make a river and then there’s a T-Rex in the cage. I’ve got some little tiny zombies. We put these things together, these toys to tell stories and say, you know what it’s like, Houli?

It’s like, when you’re trying to get across this river and the team that was supposed to bring those supplies for the bridge is in the wrong place. And so we’re like, well, what does that look like? What does that look like? And we get people away from their screens and into telling stories. In my experience, there’s something so valuable about activating multiple learning styles at the same time. Because if you’ve got somebody building something out of bricks, or you’ve got somebody who is trying to use a new kind of watercolor marker, they’re not looking at their phone. They’re using their hands. They’re working in three dimensional space with an object that needs to be manipulated in some way and they’re listening to you for the direction and they’re seeing what other people are building, and they’re sharing those stories with each other, if you facilitate it that way.

You’re engaging the whole mind and the whole body and you lose that time. That so many of us have been lost in meetings where we ask a question and everyone kind of goes, hmm. And they stare out the window or stare out into the middle distance and they’re like that meme with a woman looking into space and all the beautiful mind, math equations happening behind her head and running those calculations. People are doing calculus. And sometimes I just need them to put a block on top of another block.

So, by literally getting them away from screens and saying, don’t have a meeting with yourself, put your hands in the bag and pull out, oh, it’s a fireman. Okay. What can a fireman tell us about the story you’re dealing with? Well, it feels like I’m always putting out fires. Oh, tell me more about that. Yeah. Yeah. And here’s a tiger and this tiger represents blah, blah, blah, blah. I wouldn’t have gotten that if I had been more conventional. I absolutely believe in the power of play and using your hands and using fabric and balloons and different kinds of color pencils and crayons and markers and hanging things from the ceiling because you never know what’s going to be revealed.

Douglas: 100%. There’s research that’s gone into what parts of the brain are activated during different modes of activities. And certainly to your point, when you are using these multisensory approaches or activating multiple parts of the brain, and it’s really interesting, the research that’s gone into musicians when they play scales versus like improv, there’s the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex versus the medial prefrontal cortex. And it has to do with activate when we’re improving, when we’re playing, when we’re experimenting, which is kind of what you’re asking them to do, right? Versus them sitting back and trying to recall something, replay something. That’s when they’re having that meeting with themselves, right? Versus getting into this zone of unknown and what’s going to emerge as I start to move these things around and the spatial relationships that start to emerge because that activates even other parts of the brain so it’s like super fascinating.

Jennifer: Well, there’s another piece that goes with that too. What you point out is extremely important and so accurate. I mean, there’s a literal physical reason why these things work. It’s not just because it’s different. It’s literally activating different parts of your brain. But the other thing that we talk about on learning sometimes is when you are drawing something, when you are telling a story, when you are building a chair out of pipe cleaners, you can’t get it wrong. There’s no possible way to make a mistake. It’s literally impossible to do that wrong because there’s no standard for it. There’s no mental model that people have that says, if you’re building a chair out of pipe cleaners, it needs to be French Regency and it needs to look like this and use exact, nobody knows what is supposed to look like.

If you say that’s an elephant, I am with you, that’s an elephant. Let’s go, take me along for that ride. Let’s go, show me what you got. And that is so different from how we live most of our lives, right, Douglas? Is someone telling us that there’s a right way to do this, that’s the correct answer, that’s getting us where we need to go. And if we have a space, however, small in our lives where we know it’s impossible to make a mistake, how powerful that is for self-esteem, for self-expression, for building your risk tolerance, for being willing to innovate and take chances. You can’t innovate in a place where everything has to be black and white at a 90 degree angle. There are too many constraints there. Sometimes we’ve got to blow all the constraints out and say, you know what? You can use pipe, cleaners and Play-Doh. There are no rules here. Go crazy and see what people come up with.

Douglas: That also makes me think about how helpful it is to have a prop when telling the story, if you were to ask them to tell you that story about that elephant or whatever the subject was, they might not even have included the elephant or thought about the fact that the elephant was relevant. But the moment of constructing that prop and making the thing, made the story come alive in ways that they probably can’t even fathom until they’ve done it.

Jennifer: Oh, you’re so right. In fact, a breakthrough moment I had watching a facilitator was someone who was talking about being in an unfamiliar environment and the feelings that come up for you. And he took two of the markers we always have when we’re facilitating, he took two of them and he put them up on his head, like they were antennas, like you were an outer space alien and you were trying to make sense of something. I don’t think I’d ever seen somebody do that particular move.

It’s not an extraordinary maneuver, but it was unexpected. It was charming and it was using something that was already in the room in a completely unexpected way that got my attention. And I remember that story because he literally had given himself antenna to do that, well, all right, not literally, but he had figuratively given. They weren’t actually functional, they were just markers, but that was a great memory and so that’s one of the experiences I’ve had as an audience member where I’ve learned something and it’s reminded me how important and how valuable props can be when we’re doing our own storytelling.

Douglas: So cool. What a great place to end with these, like literal figurative antennas, and want to invite you to leave us with a final thought.

Jennifer: Oh, I would love to leave you with the final thought. I would say my final thought for anybody listening and anybody getting into this business is to fall in love with the problem, whatever it is, even if it’s making you crazy and it’s making your life miserable. If you can flip your perspective, so that is something you’re falling in love with and you want to understand deeply, and you really want to be able to explain it to anybody who’s trying to understand it. You’re like an archeologist of this problem and that focus on the problem, ironically enough leaves you open and so spacious to possible solutions rather than finding a checklist of solutions and then trying to reverse engineer them and say, is this close enough to solving the problem? It’s really, really take your time to roll around in the problem before you try to fix it.

Douglas: Excellent. Well, we will all try to do a lot more rolling around.

Jennifer: I recommend it.

Douglas: I wanted to say thanks for being with me to here today. It’s been a pleasure chatting.

Jennifer: Thank you. Thank you so much for having this conversation and holding this space for the community.

Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe, to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want to know more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about radical inclusion, team health and working better, Voltagecontrol.com.