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December 11, 2012

Three keys to sustainable design

The more audacious an institution’s animating purpose, the greater its danger of substituting grandiose posturing for the unglamorous grit of lasting change. That danger is acute indeed in institutions driven by the Gospel’s promise of cosmic redemption, which might explain why Christian leaders seem to struggle to put their transformative ideas into practice in the communities that so desperately need them.

A recent piece on Fast Company’s design blog brought together innovative business leaders to reflect on the structures that have allowed them to cultivate what author Matthew E. May has called the elegance of “effortless effectiveness” within their organizations.

Here are three practices springing from this conversation for leaders seeking to ease the friction of putting ideas into action.

Model the future

Karl Heiselman, the CEO of Wolff Olins, stressed the need for organizations to develop “prototypes,” models for future projects. Interestingly, Heiselman emphasized that prototypes are storytelling aids, tools that allow organizations to “build a narrative for themselves, a story that answers the question ‘where will we be in 3 to 5 years?’”

For a Christian leader seized with a vision for a new outreach or grand partnership, a pilot program or soft launch can offer the means for narrating -- for herself and for her community -- the uncertain passage from present reality to glorious future.

Burst your bubbles

The intensity and passion of creating something means that the designer experiences his work very differently from later participants. When designers become insulated from participant experience, ensconced in a “bubble” of self-congratulation, the result could be a horrible mismatch between expectations and results.

Joe Gebbia, CPO and co-founder of Airbnb, observed that when he had his engineers sit “next to the customer service reps who would have to deal with what they’d made,” the results were often hilarious: "Engineers are just like, ‘Oh my god, this thing I built that I thought was amazing is horrible for users!”’

The Christian leader’s best gauge of success is the lived experience of those who work with or live among their programs and services, so cultivating a steady stream of feedback “from the front” and learning on the go are key tools for shaping elegant design.

Plan to be surprised

Gebbia also “pointed out that the challenge of innovation often simply comes down to a physical challenge: That is, creating a culture where people feel ‘closely packed’ -- a living room type scale that fosters useful but serendipitous interactions.”

Likewise, Greg Jones commends an organizational shift from the rigid, hierarchical silos typical of large corporations to what Wired magazine founding editor Kevin Kelly calls the “loosely coupled, permeable, center-less” configurations of thriving cities. This highlights the need for an open organizational ecology, which can burst the bubble of an individual team’s insular thinking and offer fresh insight to re-vitalize stagnant or rutted ideas.

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