25 years ago, the British acid jazz pioneers The Brand New Heavies (BNH) had just cracked the American market. Originally an instrumental band, they now had a talented vocalist (N’Dea Davenport) and a successful album. They had reached a position most music artists aspire to, but that few reach. So what to do for their next project? More radio-friendly same-same?
No. BNH were fine musicians, but they wanted to keep learning, keep collaborating. Like David Bowie in his recording of Young Americans in Philadelphia in 1974, they wanted to immerse in some African American influences while based in the States. Instead of the soul of Luther Vandross, for them it was pursuant to their interest in rap. Their next project became Heavy Rhyme Experience Volume 1: a collection of jams recorded live with some hip-hop royalty (such as Gang Starr) and up-and-comers (like The Pharcyde).
I still love that album, and it sounds as fresh today as when I first heard it as a 17 year-old. Until now, I hadn’t ever really analysed why, but here are my reasons: it is spontaneous, unpolished, fun and brings an artistic integrity. As the listener, I feel invited in to the creative process; a privileged part of it. The bringing together of two worlds – with great mutual respect – has inspired me.
4 weeks ago, I started my new dream job at my employer of 20 years. The restructure we went through is now pretty much finalised; some people have left, some have stayed and some have joined. There are a myriad of emotions in all that, and writing more about it right now is not helpful to anyone. All I know is that my approach to the changes kept me stable through it and in many ways meant I could hit the ground running. I’m now in a strategy-setting design role, with the first responsibility to articulate a new learning eco-system for our global 40,000-strong workforce. High expectations, big opportunity.
The settling-in period has meant new work protocols and relationships being gradually established. In handing over my old responsibilities to new people, and commencing a new blue-sky role in a new blue-sky team, I have needed to decide how I will go about it. I feel like I’m at a tipping point that the Brand New Heavies were at in 1991, and I reckon their decision brought great rewards. If the learning eco-system makes people feel the same that Heavy Rhyme Experience makes me still feel, and it can be built in the same way, I’ll be happy. In homage to the album, here is a summary of what my approach to work will be, as influenced by a lyric from each track.
“Putting the funk back in it…”
Track 1: “Bonafied Funk”. BNH featuring Main Source. 3:37
Have fun. I’m not feeling performance pressure, which is a direct correlation to embracing something related to my interests, with sufficient personal stretch and able to utilise some core strengths. This equates to personal satisfaction over time, but not necessarily fun. The fun will come out of really enjoying the people I work alongside in the design process – colleagues, leaders, our company’s customers – and weaving as much art into my work as I can. I want to feel the pulse. I want to feel the funk. I want to remember the next year as the greatest in my professional life, and I want to bring that vibe to the team. I want to laugh and smile, not grit my teeth.
“I’m supplying the needy…More than just intellect…It’s getting hectic, it’s getting wild.”
Track 2: “It’s Getting’ Hectic”. BNH featuring Gang Starr. 3:59
Use design-thinking. There is a view that design-thinking is just a fad. I agree it is a fad, but not just, and it will hang around. The point of design-thinking to me is that it is an attractant to people. As a process facilitator, I heard the buzz a long time ago before I practiced it. That matters: If change should happen with people, not to people, then design-thinking is a mechanism to bring that. My company – like all – needs to change more rapidly in the next 5 years than what people have historically been comfortable to change at. Design-thinking brings people along, partially because by being led by the user/customer/learner, we can tell authentic, visual, in-the-moment stories.
“I’m flowing to this type of hype.”
Track 3: “Who Makes The Loot?”. BNH featuring Grand Puba. 3:24
Design for the experience: simplicity and flow. Accessing relevant learning needs to be the easiest thing you ever do, because it is something we individually push down the list of priorities whenever we need to make such a decision. Designing for the experience will bring this. Couple simplicity with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow and you have a heady mix. Flow is the best experience you can have personally at work: In a period of high challenge and high skill, you become engrossed, you perform, and it is intoxicating. Flow is high engagement. The rest of the Flow model is also a useful reference point for designing for the experience, as it reminds the designer that the challenge level should be somewhat tailored to the person’s skill.
“If this was the opera, I’d probably sing Figaro.”
Track 4: “Wake Me When I’m Dead”. BNH featuring Masta Ace. 3:40
Circle high and wide. Defining a learning ecosystem means taking a huge bite rather than a nibble. Proving efficacy to senior leaders is about a simple message, but underpinned by metrics, case study examples, empirical research and industry papers. We are in the midst of that research phase. The industry thought-leaders I’ve spoken to are enthusiastic about the opportunity and my ideas; just maybe a bit sceptical about getting it happening fast in the machinery of a massive company. I’m not sceptical. Our new HR leadership group are really high-calibre business people, with a mandate for sustainable change. I’m in a hurry, but it has been a relief to spend the last 5 weeks researching as everything has settled down operationally.
“Pick out your mark now…this is not Bart Simpson and Dick Tracy.”
Track 5: “Jump N’ Move.” BNH featuring Jamal-ski. 3:18
Get mentored and coached. The thought-processes involved in systems-thinking can cause me to float, without enough anchors. I can look for anchors anywhere, but I’m paid well by a business, with shareholders and customers. Therefore business coaches and business mentors are providing anchors with focus. I’m choosing them to maximise the utility of my mental floating. In a personal growth sense, I’ve been backed to do the job in a stretch role. In part, this is due to demonstrating some self-belief. People want to see me do well and to help me, which is an amazing feeling. Coaching (to hold me accountable to goals) and mentoring (to feed me advice and networks) are the best modes to enable these people to help.
“I don’t paint a pretty picture.”
Track 6: “Death Threat.” BNH featuring Kool G Rap. 3:21
Tell stories. My team have set up a little glass-walled space called the “Learning Innovation” room. When people come in, they are a bit overwhelmed usually: there are upwards of 700 post-it notes alone that surround them. The systems-thinking learning ecosystem map in the middle is even more intimidating. The space demands the viewer accept the rigour of research and the complexity of ideation; but it does not take anyone by the hand on the path to understanding. We will therefore craft stories. Some borne of the potential of the draft ecosystem as it stands, some built through journey-mapping with the people who will learn within the ecosystem one day. Stories of learning are the most powerful, as they speak directly to hope, to achieving potential. They will need to inspire.
“Filling up the gap from eve to dawn…let your mind make connection.”
Track 7: “State of Yo”. BNH featuring Black Sheep. 3:35
Get as many naïve ideas down while I am still naïve. As every moment passes, the physical form of the learning ecosystem is gradually solidifying. That brings with it a begrudging acceptance of limitation, and a concrete understanding of place. Ideas are born without limitation. The ecosystem is not going to be a product of only my brain, but many; in having to synthesise others’ ideas, I need to gradually forgo my own virgin ones. Naivety is also a strength right now for another purpose: asking the hard questions and assessing the hard feedback. It is working devoid of pre-conceptions. This feels rare, and maybe that is why I’m finding it oddly thrilling.
“Yo I’m not a hood, but you’ll see me in a hoodie…I’m somebody always got something to say.”
Track 8: “Do what I gotta do.” BNH featuring Ed. O.G. 3:21
Working out Loud. This is not only a critical avenue for telling the stories. It is about building the curiosity and tickling people with the notion that what is being worked on right now is going to change their future. If people are aware of that, they can intervene. Even if this intervention is to express bald-face fear, it helps us as designers to gauge mood for change. Working out Loud (WOL) is seen by most – at surface level – as an unequivocal waste of time, for the writer and reader. I know this as someone who has tried for 3 years to convince people of the merits. But with design-thinking, WOL just becomes a natural way of conducting business reporting. Iterations happen fast. Feedback is conducted with immediacy, and acted upon almost as fast. These habits will be crucial in future learning. This learning ecosystem we are building will navigate ambiguity by having real-time narration of work build an ongoing common organisational direction. Something of shared solidity for people to not only latch on to, but co-own. WOL now sets up expectation of future habits for everyone.
“Everybody a community, what about that.”
Track 9: “Whatgaboutthat.” BNH featuring Tiger. 3:07
Co-create. Lean Six-Sigma has eight ways of classifying waste. The one that is most personal is “Non-Utilised Human Potential”. Against a menacing backdrop predicting evaporation of white-collar production-line roles, we in HR have a duty of care to engage the brains of these affected people now. Their roles as they know them to be are eventually doomed, no doubt. The gig economy will increase; so people will need to shift their notions about how to approach their work and their self-development. If we involve them now in co-designing their way to adaptation, then we fulfil that duty of care. Where I work is a community to me. I care about these people. I want them to know that. I need them to work with me to help them. We will co-create.
“I’ve got more flavours than a bucket-full of fruit.”
Track 10: “Soul Flower.” BNH featuring The Pharcyde. 3:41
Build in important issues such as diversity, accessibility and mental health as highlights of the design, not afterthoughts. Inequity riles me, and I want to bring as much of me as possible to the work I do. It is so much better if those things I bring are also just importantly human things. It will be a social justice flavoured narcissism! I’ll get the most out of myself if I can harness that sort of enthusiasm, and I can feel there is meaning and legacy. It has to start from within. It has to then be transmogrified to something that fits our company values. That won’t be difficult.
The fat ‘thwack’ of a bass groove in funk has a quality of elasticity. That elasticity invites movement, forms a cadence that you must follow, and not unexcitedly. Despite this, it maintains a strength of definite form and substance. This is the same sinuous quality that the learning ecosystem will have: one understood best by feeling it.