A conversation with Lisa Solomon. Futurist in Residence and an Associate Professor at the Stanford d.school
“I wanted to find a different way to think about the future and specifically wanted to understand the decision making process that leaders go through when they’re facing extraordinary amounts of uncertainty. Because frankly, a lot of what I saw was just bad behavior. I was really lucky in finding my way to this extraordinary community of learners, of questioners, of facilitators, of designers. It changed my trajectory in many ways to build on what had been a long history in design to now include future thinking as part of that.” – Lisa Solomon
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Lisa Solomon about how she felt disillusioned with how leaders were behaving after the dot com crash and wanted to understand their decision-making process when facing uncertainty and how that shaped her work. Later, Lisa explores how the disruption of AI could change the way we educate and the effect it is having on students, teachers and policymakers. We also discuss the skills that every leader should have to be successful. Listen in to reflect on what can make your meetings more generative and level up your facilitation skills.
[1:33] How Lisa Became A Futurist in Residence at Stanford d.school
[5:54] Could AI Shift The Way That We Teach
[12:08] The Skills That Every Leader Should Have
[20:11] How You Frame The Question Is How You Solve The Problem
[28:42] Designing The Vertical Space
Links | Resources
Lisa on LinkedIn
Lisa on Twitter
Stanford d.school on Twitter
Linkedin Course: Like a Futurist
About the Guest
As the core of Lisa Kay Solomon’s work is a belief that “The future doesn’t have to be something that happens to us.” Lisa designs environments, experiences and classes to help people expand their futures, adapt to complexities, and build civic fellowship. Her work blends imagination with possibility, building the capacity to take the long view when today’s problems seem overwhelming.
Currently a Designer in Residence at the Stanford d. school, Lisa focuses on bridging the disciplines of futures and design thinking, creating experiences like “Vote by Design: Presidential Edition” and “The Future’s Happening” to help students learn and practice the skills they don’t yet know they need. At the d.school, she teaches classes such as Inventing the Future where students imagine, debate and analyze the 50-year futures of emerging tech, and works closely with the K12 community to make futures thinking a mainstay of 21c core curriculum.
Named to the Thinkers50 2022 Radar List and one of ixDA’s Women of Design 2020, Lisa co-authored the bestselling books Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change, and Design A Better Business: New Tools, Skills, and Mindset and Strategy for Innovation, which has been translated into over a dozen languages. Lisa created the popular LinkedIn Learning Courses Leading Like a Futurist and has written extensively on helping leaders productively navigate ambiguity through teachable and learnable practices.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a facilitation academy that develops leaders through certifications, workshops, and organizational coaching focused on facilitation mastery, innovation, and play. Today’s leaders are confronted with unprecedented uncertainty and complex change. Navigating this uncertainty requires a systemic facilitative approach to gain clarity and chart pathways forward. We prepare today’s leaders for now and what’s next.
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Welcome to the Control The Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of facilitation and transformative leadership. Some leaders exert 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 transformative experience. Thanks so much for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our Facilitation Lab. It’s a free event to meet 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. You can also learn more about our 12-week facilitation certification program at voltagecontrol.com. Today, I’m with Lisa Kay Solomon, who’s the futurist in residence and an associate professor at the Stanford Stanford d. school. She’s the co-author of the bestselling books, Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change and Design a Better Business, which has been translated into over a dozen languages. Welcome to the show, Lisa.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.
It’s great to have you. And as usual, let’s get started by hearing a little bit about how you got your start. How did you get into this work of being a futurist in residence? It’s so cool.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Well, my work in the future started about 20 years ago when I was very lucky in becoming introduced to a really exciting firm called Global Business Network, which focused on helping organizations around the world think more expansively about the future through a practice called scenario planning. This was started by some futurist greats. Stewart Brand, some of your listeners may know who started, the Whole Earth Catalog, one of the great futurist thinkers of our time. Probably talk about him for the rest of the conversation, but also Peter Schwartz, who worked at Shell and helped commercialize the practice of scenario planning, which was at the time a known discipline within military ranks.
But he really helped bring it into the commercial world. I stumbled upon it honestly, Douglas, after the dot com crash V.1 out here in the Bay Area where I moved out here from the East Coast. I am an East Coaster proudly, came out here because there was so much entrepreneurial energy in ’99 after finishing business school where I really did focus on entrepreneurship and bringing new ideas to the fold, and was a little bit disillusioned with not only what happened in the markets, but really how leaders were behaving when the market wasn’t supporting their growth.
I wanted to find a different way to think about the future and specifically wanted to understand the decision making process that leaders go through when they’re facing extraordinary amounts of uncertainty. Because frankly, a lot of what I saw was just bad behavior. I was really lucky in finding my way to this extraordinary community of learners, of questioners, of facilitators, of designers. It changed my trajectory in many ways to build on what had been a long history in design to now include future thinking as part of that.
It’s really interesting that you talk about these moments of uncertainty because it seems like the gaps between the moments of uncertainty are shrinking. We just get hit by these pockets of uncertainty way more frequently than we used to.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
For sure. There’s lots of ways to talk about that. The easiest one, I think, is that it feels like the future is coming at us faster and faster. You framed me the question or the observation that you did is that we’re somehow expecting certainty. I think that’s one of our biggest problems is that what if we never get to certainty or clarity or simplicity?
In fact, why would we expect that we would, which brings us to what I do every day now in my role as associate professor teaching classes at the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of Design focused on futures thinking is to help fill that gap, is to help address the mindset and the assumptions that we have that life works in linear ways because that’s what we learned in primary school.
We were graded on problem sets and spelling tests and things with known answers. I think we are woefully under prepared and underdeveloped when it comes to the reality that our world is filled with ambiguity and complexity and our future will be filled with more ambiguity and complexity. We have to not only unlearn a lot of the mental models that were thrust upon us, that we can get to a steady state, we have to double down on learning those other skills that we’ve never really been taught, but I think are learnable. That makes me an optimist.
It makes me think about how there’s certain folks now with this rise in large language models that are so afraid of them replacing our ability to know things. I was starting to think about that as you were explaining the root of this problem being and us learning this linear way of thinking. I personally think that if we embrace the language models in how we begin to learn in K through 12, in education, because there’s a lot of people that are trying to outlaw it, but if we actually embraced it, it could shift the way that we teach.
We could lean into critical thinking skills and other deeper layers of learning versus memorizing something. I don’t know. As someone that deeply works in K through 12, I’m really curious to hear your thoughts about this.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Listen, 100%, Douglas. We’re in the midst of what feels like a tsunami of disruption. It’s not like we haven’t been disrupted by emerging technologies before, but I think that the power of the generative AI that smacked us all in the face in some ways, except if you were an AI researcher where you knew this was coming, it’s like, I don’t know if I said this, another saying about the future, the future changes gradually, then suddenly, building off the Ernest Hemingway quote. It changed suddenly in November when ChatGPT hit the scene.
And within five days, there were a million users. We’ve seen exponential tech before, but never at that scale. I want to save all your listeners, I am not an expert in it. I have dabbled, but I am not an expert in the technology. But I think that our reaction to try to quell it in part is a reflection that we’re not comfortable with our sense of imagination of what it could be. We’re in the assault mode of something new on the horizon. That’s big and powerful and, by the way, very scary.
I mean, very scary that we don’t really understand the models that are underlying it, and the models are getting more complex. It’s building on itself. Again, partly we’re not taught how to imagine with exponential thinking. If we do imagine, sometimes it’s a linear imagination. It’s based on what we know. We’re very quickly getting into the realm of what we don’t know. I think we have to approach this moment with as much empathy as possible that certainly the educators and folks that are in the business of teaching others are at a place where they fundamentally don’t know what the future might bring.
They’re having to come up with policies and points of view about how to integrate this emerging technology when it’s moving faster than we can adapt, faster than we can comprehend. In some ways, the easiest thing is to go back to the regulation. Just stop it, let’s just stop it. But that’s folly because you know it’ll work around. It really requires us to think more deeply about what we care about and what we mean when we say we’re in the business of helping young people learn and thrive so that they can be high contributing members of our societies and communities.
Douglas, I’ll just give you one more real example of this. We’re spending a lot of time at the d.school thinking about this and trying to understand the implications not only for design, but of course, for our students. I teach a class called Inventing the Future where we actually teach our students ways of thinking expansively about the future to help them become better critical and creative thinkers. The capstone of this class is that we divide them up into teams and they develop 50 year utopia/dystopia debates on emerging tech.
Now, we didn’t do ChatGPT on this. We did a version, brain-computer interface. Of course, the purpose is not to be right, can’t be right in 50 years, but the purpose is to expand our surface area and to unpack our assumptions of how we’re thinking about it and to try to understand the state of the technology so we could be smarter about, to quote Wayne Gretzky, where the puck is going. Fundamentally, the class is not about can we build it, because it’s not a technical class, it’s should we build it?
Again, how do we use world building and other futures techniques to get into that sphere? But of course, as we were teaching this quarter, ChatGPT was in the news every single day. It was great fodder for us. I mean, it was fantastic for us as educators to be able to use that and be like, look, this isn’t fantasy land. This is real. All of these articles were coming up at the Implications for Educators.
We were using a tool that’s in one of my books, Design a Better Business, called the Design Criteria, which asks leaders to think about what are the values that they care about when bringing something new to the world, what must it have, what should it have, what could it have, and what it won’t have from a value standpoint to just make sure they’re not building something that goes against what they stand for.
We said to the students, okay, we’re going to practice using ChatGPT. You now are the admissions committee of an elite college. You must come up with a policy about how you’re going to change college admissions that reflect the reality that ChatGPT is here and many students can use it to create their essays or their personal statements or whatever, and just to get them to practice this idea of an integrative point of view about the future. It was just very interesting to see them wrestle with this.
I mean, some groups said, “You know what? If it’s powerful now, in a month, in year, it’s going to be 10X, 100X more powerful.” Let’s not restrict it because that is a fool’s error to do that, right? We are setting ourselves up to be in a protective mode. If we’re in the business of attracting the best talent, let’s figure out other ways of trying to understand the potential of incoming students. There were, of course, some student groups that said, “No, we just got to create an even better ChatGPT detector. We need to get rid of it.”
Again, all of this to say, a fundamental belief of mine is that you can’t get better at things you don’t practice. We have to practice asking different questions, prototyping out different scenarios, bringing that back to the things we care about, trying to understand that the decisions that we make today, are they in alignment with what we want to see for tomorrow?
We have a saying here at Voltage Control, I’m sure we borrowed it from somewhere else, but practice makes practice. You can’t be a great facilitator unless you facilitate. That is something that gets in the way of so many folks that are new to facilitation. We just encourage folks to just get out there and do it, whether it’s with your family or community group or your peers at work. Not every meeting is high stakes. How can you just get in there and start learning and experimenting and what’s the prototype?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Oh my gosh, I couldn’t believe more. I’m laughing because I have two teenage daughters and they’ll sometimes call me and like, “We do not want to be facilitated.” But I have done some crazy things around trying to have family conversations about our next vacation. As you said, something lower stakes. I’ll say just a couple things. One is I love that you’re focused on facilitation. People often ask me, leaders of all ages, young to the boardrooms, what are the skills we need to be learning? Facilitation, facilitation, facilitation.
Because if we, going back to what I said earlier, believe that the problems we’re solving can’t be solved by any one individual, we have to bring diverse perspectives to the table and have them combine and question in creative and generative ways. It turns out, that’s not taught. It’s just like, well, they’ll just learn it. The way that we’re taught about getting through meetings if we’re taught at all is to get to next steps. Well, next steps are useless if you haven’t learned along the way, if you haven’t explored new territory, if you haven’t considered adjacencies, if you haven’t brought in the right perspectives.
I think that’s why a lot of ideas that people are excited about don’t progress is because they haven’t done the work ahead of time. I think you probably know, I think facilitation is the start, not the end. You have to learn another skill, which is how to design those conversations that then can be facilitated. But too often we conflate good facilitation as the person at the front of the room taking notes or keeping the meeting on track. That’s not really what a great conversation looks like.
Your point around learning along the way really resonated with me. That was really the impetus between Eric and I designing the workshop design experience that we created. The idea is that every experience we create, every meeting we have, every workshop we run should be considered a learning experience. Because if you’re going to be really receptive to other people’s ideas, you have to be in a learning curious mindset. Anyway, that really spoke to me that you said, what have we learned along the way?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Notice, Douglas, that we don’t often think of that as a successful meeting. Again, how do you know it’s successful? I’ve asked thousands of people at this point, what makes for a great conversation? The instant default is next steps. We got those decisions, not like we learned something, my mind was opened, I’m walking away with new questions. In some ways, that feels unsatisfying because it doesn’t feel like closure. I would say in part, a couple things for that. One is as human beings, we like certainty. We know that from caveman times. Are you getting eaten by the lion, yes or no? That’s where lizard brain taking care of us, making sure we survive, and survival is connected to certainty.
And then the second part is, again, we’re unpracticed at it. We’re unpracticed at naming ambiguity. We’re unpracticed at calling what feels like grace space or diverging successful. We’re just very uncomfortable with that. I think we need to expand our vocabulary, expand our practice with getting used to having different ways of talking about what success means.
Yes. It’s so critical that we frame that ahead of time. Because if we go into the gathering, the meeting, knowing that the closure we seek is expansion.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Yeah, right. Or the output. Right, right, right.
Yes, exactly. We can still close that time together, we can still exit together knowing that we accomplished what we sought out to do. I would say the number one reason people think they had a bad meeting is because they had different expectations going into it than whoever was hosting the meeting, or someone ran it horribly. But nine times out of 10, they probably had different expectations. They thought we were going to make a decision, but the leader was just collecting the information.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Oh my gosh, again, we could spend hours on this. Yes, yes and yes. A lot of times people don’t even know why they’re invited in the meetings. They’re just like it shows up on your calendar and you’re like, “I have no idea why I’m here today,” or sometimes the person calling the meeting wants to surprise the people. They don’t want to give it away ahead of time. You know what? Bad move 99% of the time, unless you’re surprising them with a bonus or new car, you’re Oprah giving out your favorite things. People, they don’t like to be surprised. Usually with your call particularly to a high stakes meeting, our brain, again, our lizard brain goes off and we think we’re being fired, demoted, bad news.
This is where the design part gets in ahead of time. You should be very clear about what kind of conversation you’re going to, what’s expected of you, how you can prepare so that your time is being used productively. Again, the most important thing we have in this world is time. If I said to you, “Hey, listen, I’m just going to take 100 bucks out of your wallet or your Venmo, whatever, and I’m not going to tell you why,” you’d be like, what the heck? Where’s the money? But we do that all the time. It’s like we steal each other’s time. There’s no accountability for it. And by the way, you can get the $100 back.
You can’t get the time back. I’ll just say one more about this. I do have a lot to say about it, but one of my favorite cartoons around this topic… And I talk a lot about this because that was the essence of my book, Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations to Accelerate Change. We have a whole chapter on engaging multiple perspectives and why that matters. There’s this one cartoon I found by Tom Fishburne, who’s a just brilliant, brilliant cartoonist, because he’s a business person and he really understands the nuances of humans and navigating decisions. There’s this cartoon of someone sitting at a board table.
The room is filled, every seat is taken, and then you see people Skyping in, or Zooming in from Hong Kong, London, all over. It’s like 2:00 in the morning their time. The person at the front says, “I’ve invited you here today not because I think you can add value, but because I didn’t want you to feel left out.” And that’s what happens, right? It’s like we’re navigating all this politics, but it’s like, what do people really want back? They want to feel useful. They want to feel like they can add value with being there. Give them a heads up about what this is about and why and how they can actually contribute in meaningful ways, and then design the meeting to allow them to contribute.
Again, if you said to them, “Hey, look, we’re going to have a conversation because it’s a complex problem and we really need to surface as many ideas as possible,” and you have a 90 minute session and you speak for 85 of them, you’re out of alignment. You haven’t delivered on the thing that you said you were going to do. And by the way, you’ve broken trust. The next time you ask people to show up for a meeting, they in the back of their mind said, “Well, I don’t know, is this going to happen again? I spent three hours preparing, but I never had a vehicle. I never had a forum to share. Now I don’t trust you.”
They didn’t mean anything by it, right? Maybe the person running the meeting got really excited and got carried away with all the things they wanted to share. These things take time. It’s a trade craft. You get better over time, but we, again, need to continue to develop the vocabulary and the accountability to get better.
That meeting FOMO or just the pendulum swing around diversity and trying to get all the people in the meeting I think is an anti-pattern because it doesn’t really invite real inclusion. And to your point, it’s just eating people’s time when they could be doing other work. I want to come back to something you said about getting to the action items. I actually have been on a bit of a… There’s a lot of rhetoric around the business community like buy-in and action items and things that I think are actually… Everyone can nod their head and agree that they’re good things and that they’re things we seek for.
But actually if you really unpack them, they’re not great because action items assume that we’re going to spend all this time in the meeting talking and then we’re going to list out things and then go try to do them later, which is antithetical to actually working together and collaborating. Why not build a prototype in the meeting? Why not work on an artifact together? I would be curious, what are some of your go-to ways to bring people into the creation versus just listing out stuff at the end of the meeting saying, “This is what we’re going to go do?”
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, what we talk about in Moments of Impact after talking to hundreds of people that run these conversations is that, and this gets back to something you said earlier, not all meetings are the same. There are so meetings particularly at the beginning of a project where you should be building understanding. That’s not an action item. That’s a learning meeting. Why are we spending any energy on this? Why does it matter to the organization or the communities that we’re serving? What is it that we want to learn? Why are we coming together to share how we’re framing it, or even what is the right frame?
Again, because we know how you frame the question is how you solve the problem. If you jump into solving the problem without questioning the question, chances are you’re solving the wrong problem. That takes time. We talk about this idea of going slow to go fast. It’s really important to frame that upfront really, really getting buy-in and understanding from the beginning. Why are we spending any energy on this at all, whether it’s resources, time, budget? Why does it matter? What do we understand to be the current state of the information that we have, which is probably incomplete? That’s a building understanding meeting.
From there, you can start to say, “Hey, look, wow, look at all these things we need to research more, different conversations we need to learn more.” Then you can come back together after you’ve done some work to have a shaping options or shaping choices conversation. There, you can get into prototyping, I think. To say, “Hey, look, I think that we’re going…” And by the way, you can be prototyping the question. Prototyping doesn’t need to be an artifact. We used to prototype what is in scenario planning the focal question. Let’s say you’re exploring the future of reading. Is it the future of books?
Is it the future of reading? Is it the future of how people read or when they read or who’s reading? I mean, that’s an easy question versus some of the more complex questions. And then the final category of conversations is really making decisions. Once you’ve built understanding, you diverge, you come back together, then you shape choices, diverge, you then maybe examine those choices based on feasibility or desirability or viability or whatever criteria it is that you’re looking at with your ethical questions. And then you come back together and say, “Okay, now we’re ready to make some decisions on this.”
Maybe that’s when you get to implementation and actions. But each one of those can have action steps, but it’s not necessarily we’re commitment. Action steps to, going back to what we said earlier, to learn, to advance. Are we advancing our understanding? Are we advancing the trajectory of the project? Are we advancing and getting close to a place where we can create value of why we’re even spending time on this to begin with?
I love that you pointed out that you can prototyped a prompt or a question. I think so often people hear the word prototype and it can conjure up so many images. Such a great example that a sentence can be prototyped. I think that the big difference between just talking about it and prototyping means we got to make it tangible. Literally write it down on the whiteboard or put it on a sticky note or put it in a mural or put it in a Google Doc and magic will start happening. Now it’s just not words floating by in the meeting, people see it and they can react to it and they can beat up on it and change it.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Couldn’t agree more. Couldn’t agree more. I mean, from very early getting into the design work, I’ve been fascinated with the power of visual thinking, the ability to draw pictures or to map out ideas and diagrams or to, as you said, have the courage to put down a number of ideas, and as a leader saying, “I’m not sure which of these is the right path. Can we spend some time talking about it?” I went to business school many years ago, a leader leads right? Cascades down.
A leader doesn’t ask questions or show vulnerability by saying I don’t know or we need to learn more. We really have to get comfortable with a whole different stance about how we think about starting off these projects, which include practicing giving form to ideas when they’re half-baked.
Yeah, absolutely. Coming back to the large language models, that’s the use case I’ve been the most excited about, which is generating lots of possibility and bringing that in for the team to react to. It’s so much fun because it’s just like boundless sources of… Also, If I get an inspiration at 2:00 in the morning, I can’t call my team, but ChatGPT is right there.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Well, that’s the thing. I mean, if we learn how to use it as a source of generation and we’re not relying on it, because again, we still don’t understand the underlying models. It is capable of sending out fake things that we don’t always fact check or exasperating biases because we don’t understand the data that it’s pulling from. I think we are just at the baby, baby, baby steps of saying, how can we productively and positively and inclusively and ethically augment our intelligence or compliment, not substitute, not outsource, but amplify or unleash the possibilities by using these technologies?
That’s a worldview that we can’t assume everybody has, and it’s particularly hard to have that point of view if you feel under threat. That’s up for the leaders, to your point, to say earlier. Look, I believe the success of a meeting happens before you step in the room. That doesn’t guarantee success, but it certainly can guarantee failure if you haven’t done your homework. The other is how you frame those first opening minutes. You’re building trust. Everyone’s getting a sense.
If the person that has called the meeting says, “Look, here’s what we’re trying to get after today, and here’s what we’re going to do to help tee everybody up for success,” now, there’s a variety of different ways, depending again on the intention of the conversation and the gathering of what is you’re trying to do. But what people are doing is, whether they realize it or not, they’re sensing, is this a safe place? Is this a safe place? What’s expected of me? That’s why we really talk about design. What are the choices you make ahead of time?
Are you having this meeting, this important high stakes meeting in a fancy boardroom with no windows and a big oak table and leather chairs and everybody’s status meters is going off the charts? Again, you’re just looking to see who’s sitting next to the boss. Am I going to say something smart? Oh no, am I going to look stupid? Maybe I shouldn’t say this. That is a losing game. That’s a losing game because you’re already in protection mode when you need to be in generative mode. I think really how you think about the choices to dive into these important topics at every level is important.
You alluded to space there with the status meters going off because of the way the room is organized. That’s so important and it’s often missed by so many people. One of my favorite things to do at Southby is just to sign up for all the workshops. Because as someone who trains facilitators, I just love watching how different people facilitate, how they show up, how they don’t show up, how prepared are they, how unprepared are they. I got the pleasure of seeing some d.school folks facilitate the Southby. I know it was a whole d.school crew. I’m not sure if Aisha herself was from d.school, but they were the only crew that literally came in and just removing the tables, putting stuff on the wall.
They got in trouble for putting stuff on the wall, which was hilarious. I was helping them take it down and put it on the floor. I was just so enamored with like, wow, they’re really doing this right, taking it to heart of like, what people’s experience going to be when they walk in and see these rows of tables classroom style. It’s a totally different experience versus being brought into a group around tables and you can move around. I love that you called out space and how we arrange it.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
It’s huge. If you ever come to the d.school or check out some of our materials in the website, we take space very seriously. In fact, one of my colleagues, Scott Doorley, when we first moved into our now permanent home about 15 years ago, he wrote a book called Make Space, which how they recommend, why it’s important to have things on wheels, why is vertical space important, why is Post-it notes important. Sure, they’re a little bit lighter than an Excel spreadsheet, but they really democratize ideas. It’s really the posture of learning and the posture of collaboration that space can connote.
I love working with my colleagues and our extended community like Aisha and others is because they always lead with the humanity first. They’re doing a quick scan. They’re saying, “How do we make this more human?” We’re not born to sit at tables. That’s why it’s such a crying that we do that to our youngest learners. Why do we do that? Why is that? That’s the industrial model. I think the great learners and, as you said, I think the great educators are facilitators and they use everything at their disposal, including the first opening minutes of a class. Hey, why don’t we all sing? Why don’t we dance?
Why don’t we shake it out? Why don’t we stretch? Why don’t we play a game? Why don’t we dream? Why don’t we laugh? It puts us in a better space. Our brain gets lit up. We get a little dopamine hit. Maybe we didn’t expect it. We’re in a much better place to learn versus that we’re still fighting the old model of I’m the teacher, I will deliver content and you will absorb. I think that there’s so much more at our disposal to create conditions for real engagement. Again, it makes me very excited that a lot of these are not fancy. They just require an openness of wanting to learn.
And an attunement to what’s going on and what’s needed. If we’re not paying attention in the tuning to it, then it can’t happen.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Again, this is where the practice comes in. I mean, listen, when I first started facilitating, and I’ve been doing facilitation for over 20 years, I was very technical about it. I’ve done a lot of training. Okay, am I going to use the voting N/3? And then over time, hopefully, you get a comfort by, then turning your attention to what’s happening in the room, that sensing, that feeling. I think one of the hard skills to learn in facilitation, I think there are two that are really hard. One, we talked about already, the framing of it and realizing you may have to change the frame in the moment and just being really thoughtful about how you’re setting things up.
The other is, we talked a little bit about it, but just to name it, how you’re leaving them at the end. Great facilitators know how to integrate. Great facilitators know how to call back what’s said, how to connect dots, how to synthesize on the fly, how to show both clarity without certainty about why the time spent together mattered. That’s really hard to do. It’s hard to do when the stakes are high and we don’t exactly know where it’s going next. You have to do that with confidence, not arrogance, confidence, graciousness, humility. We need to practice that. I mean, it’s one of the things that I think goes really underdeveloped that I think is critical.
You mentioned connecting the dots, and I think that is such a powerful thing to do. I like to refer to it as linking. If you can link two concepts, it’s a total magic act when people think they’re disagreeing and you can link them and their epiphany goes off. I think that’s total Jedi move and that’s what facilitators should be paying attention to and trying to do. You’re right. You have to on the fly synthesize and be paying attention at a meta level.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Absolutely. I mean, it’s really hard to do, right? It’s the duck model. They’re paddling like mad while you’re making it look… Because if you look flustered, that’s going to translate. It’s like you go to someone’s dinner party and the host is all over the place. You’re like, “This is relaxing.” This is where, again, I go back to my obsession. Let’s just name it, Douglas, obsession, passion, great sense of purpose and care around design. Great design is about making choices that tee up functional utility. We’re going to learn something or do something and emotional engagement. How do we feel? A lot of times we over-index on the functional utility if we even have that at all.
We don’t really think about where people are leading. Whenever people ask me to design anything, whether it’s a speech, it’s a workshop, it’s a conversation, it’s a board meeting, I say, “Let’s design backwards.” Let’s imagine it’s 15 minutes, a half hour, an hour after it ended. What are people thinking? What are they feeling? What has happened? What does success look like? I really make the people that I’m working with spell it out in detail. What does this feel like? I’m calling up my partner and what am I saying about how I spent my day? And that will really help you understand how to best utilize that precious real estate we’ve been talking about called time.
I love it. I’m a huge fan of backwards design. I even like to have people keep moving backwards. What happens right before that and before that, before that? Because often when they’re moving forward from now into the future, it’s like they can’t… In fact, Matt and Gail Taylor, I had a pleasure of interviewing them. I don’t know if you’re familiar with their work, but I’m a huge, huge fan and fanboy even. They had this thing that you can get to here from there, but not from here to there.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Once you do that… I’m not familiar with the work, but I will check it out. I think all these things help make it more accessible, help say, look, I’m doing this on your behalf. When you facilitate, it’s an act of service. It’s also an act of responsibility. You are asking people to trust that you have their best interest and the interest of where it is that you’re going in mind. Sometimes, again, in those openings minutes you have, if not also ideally communicated in some form ahead of time so it’s not the first time they’re hearing it, but it’s the first time they’re feeling it, this is why we’re doing this. I just feel like particularly in this world that’s so noisy and so filled with distrust, we can’t say that enough.
Another term that I hear a ton in the business world is things like no agenda, no attenda. You always got to have an agenda. And while there’s some truth to it, I think it’s really misleading. So many people get it wrong because they think of agendas as list of topics. We are always preaching we should think about these experiences. I know you know a thing or two about this because there’s a chapter in your book about designing for experience. I want to just hear some of your thoughts there because I’ve just been anxious to hear about this straight from you.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Well, thank you for that. I agree. Again, partly we’ve been told that myth. Again, get to the end of the meeting, get through your agenda items, get through. Part is the source of safety. I know if I get through these content things, I’ve done my job. Emotion is scary and we’re unpracticed. But yet, if we lean into emotion to say, look, if I march through all these agenda items and I get to the end of the meeting and I feel successful, but no one’s learned anything, no one’s been moved, no one remembers anything, because by the way, what helps you do those things? Emotion. But if you boxed out all that emotion, it’s a big lose.
Why did you even have people there? Just do it on video, do a flip meeting style, or send them something to read. But yet, we’re not practiced at designing for that. We’re not practiced to say, wow, I’m really excited to be here. Wow, tell me more. What excites you? Or gosh, I’m really nervous about that. No, I can’t say that. Why? There’s data in that, data in the questions, data and how you’re feeling. We have to learn how to, first of all, understand that as humans, emotions are a huge part of what makes up who we are and how we make decisions, whether we name it or not. And that if we lean into it, we could really help the outcome of where we’re spending our time and the connection we feel to each other.
When we’re in a space that allows us to be vulnerable without being scary, without being overwhelmed, which is tricky to do right now, I mean, believe me, we’re in some really, really tricky territory around some complex topics, we can learn to be closer to each other. We can learn to trust one another. We can learn to rely on each other differently because we’ve allowed ourselves to be seen and heard in different ways. I think people, again, just haven’t had exposure to some very effective ways of bringing emotion into room, show a movie clip. Do something that makes people laugh appropriately in some ways.
Be vulnerable yourself. Hey, I want to kick off this meeting with this story, or hey, I want everyone to share what’s on their mind, so we’re going to break up into pairs and talk about it. We’re so worried that no, we don’t have time for that. Why not? Do we have time to go through stuff that no one remembers? I feel like we don’t have time for that. How we do that and how we model it ourselves. I’ve recently finished my class, as I mentioned, inventing the Future, and one of the best compliments I got was from a student who said, “Listen, I’ve read a lot of your stuff on leadership. You know what? You show up exactly like you write. You modeled everything that you write about.”
It was just really, really powerful for me as a young emerging leader to see that in action. I was like, drop the mic. Yes, thank you. It was like one of the best compliments I got of the quarter.
I love it. So great. We could go on for a long time. We’re going to have to start shifting here, unfortunately. I want to give us a moment to talk about the future. As a futurist, I’m sure you have plenty of thoughts there. But specifically, you spoke around expansive futures. I find that pretty interesting. Because when topics around divisiveness or people that are pushing back around diversity or some of these emerging topics, I always make the point that I believe that this is the result of scarcity thinking.
If they get something, I don’t get something. I think abundant perspectives tend to create a more interesting view of the future and create more possibilities. I’m curious, when you speak of expansive futures, is that similar to what you’re thinking, or does it go more deeper than that?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Yes and, as we like to say. Yes, yes, 100%. I completely agree with you. We are uncomfortable with abundant futures, even more so lately. I’ve been also really thinking nonstop about this. What is their image of the future, and what are we indulging in, and what are we highlighting? It’s often ones of scarcity. It’s often ones of division. It’s often ones where we have winners and looters. Look, we have real problems right now around equity, around access to power, around things that generate folks that are able to do well and folks that are really struggling. But I do think it’s a limit of our imagination that we don’t have more methods to question even the constraints or systems to try to change.
Again, in our class, we literally teach methodologies around how to challenge assumptions, how to look at things through a systems lens, how to understand change over time, how to understand how you can shape futures in more a genic and abundant ways. And not only do I teach it, I do it. A whole body of my work for the last three years almost accidentally, Douglas, I didn’t mean to, was I become a civic futurist right before the 2020 election. At the d.school, we have a lot of freedom to design classes that we think are appropriate that will allow our students to practice the design skills.
I created a new class called Designing the President, because the futurist to me was looking at what happened in 2016 in our presidential election. I thought, has anything changed at the macro level? Are we going to have less money, more certainty, less noise, less social media intervention? Of course not, and yet young people we’re continuing to get yelled at for being apathetic. But young people are not apathetic, they’re under supported. We created a class that flipped the model of how to engage young people in exercising their right to vote in every way, starting with changing the question.
Not like, “Why don’t you vote? You must not care,” but we said, “Hey, look, you’re 18. You’re a hiring manager. You get to hire the most important public position we have in this country called the President of the United States. What is the job you’re hiring for? What would make someone good at that job?” We just continue to break down how to help them scaffold better thinking. It was kind of like Daniel Kahneman thinking slow in a world that’s speeding up meets Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is a presidential historian on leadership, written a lot about Lincoln and others through an experience.
There was a lot to say about it. I encourage people, if you’re interested, we’ve renamed it votebydesign.org. We’ve made everything publicly available, lots of reasons why. But I share all that in that fundamentally, I believe the future has to be about helping our young people find agency amidst an environment of complexity and to do that as much as early as possible.
Wow, super cool. I’m going to have to go check that out. I was not aware, and it sounds super interesting. If I go to votebydesign.org, can I find these job descriptions people wrote?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Well, you can’t find the job descriptions, but you can find all the materials. We did that in the fall of 2019, by the way. There’s a whole scenario planning component. We had people, once they identified the leadership qualities they cared about, we gave them these surprise scenarios. Every single one of them came true, by the way, including we wrote a scenario of a flu-like virus that emanated in China and took down the world economy. We wrote that in July of 2019, not because we’re clairvoyant, but because one of my colleagues had worked on avian flu.
Again, it’s this adjacency applied. We had one on climate change. We had one on hacking. We had one on political insurgents. It’s banana how dead on we were. But when the pandemic did actually hit, I took it out of the d.school. I was just going to deliver it to classrooms, and we made everything available online via Creative Commons. And that set a journey of even more futures work that I’ve been doing around civics to help people find more agency. Yes, all that is available. I encourage people to check it out.
Wow, amazing. Well, we are hitting the end here, so I want to make sure that we have time for you to leave our listeners with a final thought.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Yeah, thank you for that. Well, first of all, thank you for these great conversations that you’re having and putting out in the world. I think my final thought for people is to try to find ways that they can make a choice, perhaps an abundant choice that unleashes values for others starting small, whether you’re in a mode. My colleague likes to say every challenge is an opportunity. To try to look for opportunities to say, what’s a different choice I could make that would get to a different place?
Fundamentally, what I want, all the people that I learn with and work with and people that read my stuff to know is we don’t have to let the future happen to us, but it starts with us. It starts with that point of view that says, look, I know I can’t change everything. There’s stuff that I read every single day that makes me crazy. But the question is, what is the choice I can make that will actually advance an idea or value that I had? I think people will find there’s a lot more that’s in their control than they realize.
Impressive. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you today, Lisa. Thank you so much for joining me.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
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 facilitation, team dynamics, and collaboration, voltagecontrol.com.