#33: My design practice, Part 2

Designing better conversations.

I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.

Hello, dear reader,

Well, I’ve been bad and missed another week. I must confess I find it much harder to write in lockdown. I had imagined myself being able to sit here and churn out content—oh, all the extra time I’ll have to write…!—but that has not eventuated. I think my lack of a routine is partly to blame. I’ve struggled to convince myself that one is necessary (reader, it is necessary) and my motivation has taken a hit as a result.

So, selfishly, I’m requesting some motivation from you. What do you like about this newsletter? What have you learned from it? How has it changed the way you approach your systems and complexity practice?

Let me know

It’s been so heartening to see the community around this newsletter grow over the past nine months. I continue to be staggered by its reach—geographically and across different fields of practice—and by the depth and richness of the connections and relationships made as a result. I really do value the feedback and the conversation, so please do keep it coming 🙏🙏

Designing social processes

In the last issue, I reflected on the ‘stuff’ I make as a designer—conceptual frameworks and social processes—and shared some my approach for making frameworks that articulate complex phenomena as systems.

Framework is itself a slippery concept. It means a whole bunch of different things depending on the person and context. To me, a framework is tool for thought, for conversation, and for action. The challenge for the designer is to create the contexts and social processes that enable people to use those tools effectively. In my day job, this typically involves designing conversations, workshops, and meetings, etc. where the objective is to understand the diversity of perspectives present (not consensus) and make a decision about how best to respond to that shared complexity.

There is no recipe for how to do this stuff without defaulting to the tired, old trope of it depends—but, over time, I have developed some rules of thumb that help me design and facilitate these different spaces.

  1. More free jazz, less classical orchestra. The metaphor of the meeting facilitator or chair as the conductor of an orchestra runs deep in many of the organisations I have been a part of. Even at the most surface level, that metaphor does not stand up to scrutiny—for the social processes I am a part of there is no sheet music, there have been no rehearsals, and I am almost certainly not in charge. For me, the designer/facilitator is not an orchestrator but an equal and active participant in a free jazz ensemble—muddling through, improvising on the go, balancing order and disorder, the process and result always imperfect.1

  2. Conversations as improvisational ecologies. Free jazz does not mean anything goes. The designer/facilitator can shape the constraints within which particular conversations or social processes can occur, just as I shape the ecology of my vege garden by positioning it for optimum sunlight, planting seedlings at an appropriate spacing, etc. For social process design, this includes things as blasé as providing framing for a conversation and giving people ample time to read meeting papers in advance. At a grander scale, the designer/facilitator uses different activities and conversational patterns to enable particular—desirable—modes of thought and interaction and to limit participants from engaging in undesirable ones. None of this is a barrier to improvisation. Quite the opposite: it enables it.

  3. Put purpose over process. We can be too wedded to our favourite constraints. Friends and colleagues will know, for example, that I hate nothing more than the classic design activity Rose, Thorn, Bud. It typically generates a laundry-list of unimportant things at the expense of genuine reflective conversation. Others have written about the dangers of holding other design techniques—the “How might we” statement, for example—too tightly. Whatever the technique, activity, or conversational pattern, the designer should hold them loosely and only ever in the service of the deeper purpose of a social process.

As a final thought, I have been reflecting on how easy it is to fall into the trap of thinking about the relationship between framework design and social process design in linear terms: I design a framework so that particular social processes are possible (framework → process). In my project plans, that’s the way it often reads. That’s the way I framed it in the previous issue. There is truth to that framing, but it is partial. Frameworks enable processes, but those same processes are always an opportunity to test, experiment with, and revise the input frameworks so that the group can better understand and respond to complexity (process → framework). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the two exist in relationship and are mutually reinforcing.

Anyway, that is how I think about my practice. Hello, I am a designer 👋👋

Not unrelated miscellany

  • A genuinely inspiring discussion between Tyler Marghetis and Michael Garfield that covers critical transitions and complexity in jazz and math, embodied cognition, and what it means to leap recklessly and breathlessly from one idea to another, one timescale to the next. 

  • A set of great reflections from Sam Rye on the quiet and subversive ways that complexity can be practiced when it is not already part of a prevailing organisational culture, including tidbits on trojan mice and the importance of metaphor and storytelling.

  • Speaking of metaphor, I love this sketch from Thea Snow on the stories we tell ourselves about storytelling. As Keira Lowther points out in her reply on Twitter, there are some beautiful parallels with the recent On Being episode featuring forest ecologist Dr Suzanne Simard. What I like most about Thea’s metaphor is that it challenges us to consider the practice of story-seeking as much as story-telling in a mutualistic, reciprocal network of meaning-making.

For Australian readers, some jobs

A final thought

Bit by bit, I found myself relaxing into the conversation. Kitty had a natural talent for drawing people out of themselves, and it was easy to fall in with her, to feel comfortable in her presence. As Uncle Victor had once told me long ago, a conversation is like having a catch with someone. A good partner tosses the ball directly into your glove, making it almost impossible for you to miss it; when he is on the receiving end, he catches everything sent his way, even the most errant and incompetent throws. That’s what Kitty did. She kept lobbing the ball straight into the pocket of my glove, and when I threw the ball back to her, she hauled in everything that was even remotely in her area: jumping up to spear balls that soared above her head, diving nimbly to her left or right, charging in to make tumbling, shoestring catches. More than that, her skill was such that she always made me feel that I had made those bad throws on purpose, as if my only object had been to make the game more amusing. She made me seem better than I was, and that strengthened my confidence, which in turn helped to make my throws less difficult for her to handle. In other words, I started talking to her rather than to myself, and the pleasure of it was greater than anything I had experienced in a long time.

— Paul Auster, Moon Palace

By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.

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Find me elsewhere on the web at www.lukecraven.com, on Twitter @LukeCraven, on LinkedIn here, or by email at <luke.k.craven@gmail.com>.


Improvisation as an organisational management strategy is a recurring meme in organisational science, and has been given extensive treatment by management scholars including Karl Weick and Mary Crossan. 1998 was a bonza year for the meme!