As a child our holidays were often spent on the laid back south coast of NSW. One summer, my dad and I participated in a sand castle competition at the caravan park we were staying. We had so much fun. My dad (an engineer) set about designing and implementing our castle with precision whilst I helped. We were unable to stick around for the judging, going back to the camp instructor later that day to ask whom had won. To my childish delight I was handed a first place ribbon and I skipped merrily back to display our prize. Having reflected on it later I suspect we were one of many with first place ribbons that day.
Definitions of personal success are engrained in our culture from an early age, whether it be an award at the school assembly, employee of the month, hierarchical job titles or in a designer’s case a beautifully curated and ever-evolving portfolio of work. Whilst children need positive reinforcement, I consider how much this way of learning and evaluating the world continues in our everyday adult life.
We thrive on positive affirmations and tangible evidence of our status, success, happiness and good fortune. We only have to skim our Facebook page to see evidence of this. But sharing and curating our life through stories is in our DNA and has been around since cave men.
I like a pat on the back as much as the next person, even when taking a new direction in life I desire the odd sign to say ‘you’re going the right way’. However, as my career infuses more and more into one that trades in creating change, I find myself swimming in complexity and ambiguity. This is not to say measurements of success do not exist in my world; nor is it not important whether you’re on the corporate or social side of the scale. But they are more difficult to define when they’re open and networked problems that incorporate many players.
As a designer, I’ve spent hours pouring over images of past work, analysing the perfect angle to take a perfect photo that captures months of hard work. In my first job out of Uni as an exhibition designer, a client cut me down in a meeting whilst I espoused the highlights of my concept for his company saying ‘I don’t like it, but don’t worry you’ll get something to put in your portfolio’.
Letting go of that need to point at your recent ‘gold star’ for that clearly defined ‘thing’ you’ve just delivered is something I continue to practice. I’m sure I’ll never fully let go of that need and I’m ok with that. Those beautiful images of recent work that convey your struggle, creative process and emotions are things that continues to inspire me. But of course, sometimes these beautiful images are just that. Flat images of projects that have been photographed at just the right angle, just like my first exhibition design that I thought was going to be great in my portfolio. That photo could never tell you that it didn’t answer the business’s need or foster the meaningful conversations my client had hoped to have during the conference.
I rarely update my portfolio these days, I have less and less traditional projects that I can point to on a pretty page. So as more and more of us deal with complex problems through collaborative systems approaches how can we feel like we’re contributing to change? What road sign do you have to say ‘you’re going the right way’?
I believe the answer is in stories. A client’s small shift in perspective triggering new and unchartered paths, a creative seed that germinates in an emotionally charged workshop or the defining of a problem that now begins to re-frame how an organisation understands their user. Get out there and start listening and observing the ideas your team has set free and where their journey takes them – even if it is not for years later. Change takes time.
ROI has another meaning when you’re trading in stories of change. Pinpointing you’re exact influence in these journeys is difficult and certainly one that goes against the traditional measures of success in business. But it is these compelling stories that will be passed from person to person, motivating others to seek out new ways of doing things, unravels complexity and allow people to understand each other in more meaningful ways.
We will always have the need to define success, prove our worth and measure impact in business. But as I continue to grapple with complexity and ambiguity each day, I listen and look for those precious moments when occasionally I can think to myself ‘ooh there’s a new story’.