The art of designing positive context

Last week I attended a two-day workshop on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Those who often read this blog or follow my twitter-feed know that I’m fascinated by the techniques of engaging others to participate in a story or idea. In my opinion good education is about engaging and empowering students. If you’re able to capture someone’s attention (whether they’re 5 or 85), and get them to engage with the idea your talking about, they will interact with it and learn from it. In this post I wrote earlier, Seth Godin talks about engaging students (or more specific, about how our current educational system fails to engage students).

Now, what was interesting about this two-day workshop is something I’ve witnessed over and over again: 30 something very bright, intelligent people, motivated for their cause, and unable to get going. To start doing. I will not go in deeper on the reasons or sophims as to why it’s so hard to get started and who’s to blame, but I would like to share with you a technique I’ve been using for the past years, and that has helped me greatly in engaging people and triggering action and creativity.

I have been looking for the official term of this technique, but haven’t found it yet (so if anybody knows it, please share). This technique lies somewhere between storytelling and framing. When working, I usually work with people who are specialized in an industry I only know briefly. That’s why I probably won’t come up with THE best idea of THE best (system)innovation for that industry. My job is to engage these people to combine my focus (making, doing, testing, thinking beyond the usual constraints,…) with their knowledge of the industry.

I do this firstly by listening to the constraints they’re facing and finding their drivers. It’s important to catch these as fast as possible (preferably within the first 10 minutes of your first conversation). Once I’ve figured out what’s driving the person I’m working with, whether or not they’re genuine (a basic requirement from my side) and what’s holding them back from actually doing, I gradually steer the conversation towards a positive story, one where their drivers are featured prominently, where the constraints don’t matter. This steering can be a pretty difficult process since most of them have been trapped in a context where they (tell themselves they) can’t act fast, think fast or change the things they want to, but once they’ve taken the step into a positive, creative context, my most tiring task is finished.

The second thing to do now is to keep the momentum high and engage them in the process of trail-and-error. Not the negative, try, fail, tell your boss and hope for another chance kind of trail-and-error. I’m talking about getting out, meeting your customers and confronting them with your enthusiasm, changing the idea, polishing the details, setting everything right and witnessing the pure joy of creating something.


About leyssensjan

Jan Leyssens is a designer and entrepreneur who strongly believes you can’t turn sustainability into a positive story if your main focus is on negative impact. When designing, he is always looking for the overlap between activism and entrepreneurship, technology and community. His main expertise lies in strategic business model development, Circular Economy, the makermovement, and social innovation. With a background in Industrial Design, Jan quickly shifted his focus towards business design and using the design process in strategic management. Jan is the father of two kids and founder & CEO of Regenerative Design, co-founder of Full Circle, ImpactBoost, and the Circular Design map, podcaster, storyteller, and changemaker.

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