June 10, 2024

A word from the wise

Three themes from last month's studio's session.

We’re often asked to share the methods behind the madness here at Franklin Street and it sounds something like this: 

“We have a big team retreat coming up. How do we make sure it's substantive and still helps people recharge? How do I strike the balance?”

    “Our team has a huge goal to accomplish so we carved out a full 3 days to go deep on it — help!”

      “I’m about to facilitate a big strategy sprint for the leadership team and I want to make sure the agenda feels like something I’m uniquely able to lead.”

      Last month we set out to answer these tricky questions. We codified our “methods” for the very first time and brought 15 leaders from across sectors together for a 2-day Studio Session. We shared our design tools, provided space, and created a community for them to design experiences that inspire in their own contexts.

      Not only that, but each participant brought a real project with them to design during our time together. They brought high-stakes board retreats, team culture reset moments, cohort-based experiences, and more. Over two days, we contemplated how best to design intentionally with learners in mind and prepared and practiced to facilitate those experiences with confidence and authenticity.

      During the Studio Session, we spoke with our participants to learn what resonated most. Three themes surfaced during our conversations and we’re offering them now in the form of “advice”. Think of these like three provocations to consider as you design meaningful experiences of your own:

      Design in community

      Designing in isolation inhibits creativity. Participants at the Studio Session shared that they often design their experiences in a silo without the benefit of collaborators to spark new ideas. Mark Gabriel from Embark reflected on the challenges of working solo, saying, “Most of the time, I sit by myself and I spin on all these ideas in my head. I think [my spinning] is related to this attitude of perfection and wanting to reveal the perfect design.”

      There’s often a sense of pressure for facilitators to have all the answers. But in reality, “it’s so important to show vulnerability and ask a peer how to improve my design or a participant how I can make their experience better,” Mark reflected. “The session helped me recognize that there’s a community of thought partners I can lean on to help me and make my work better.”

      Balance spaciousness and constraints

      Professional gatherings are often tightly scheduled, but the Studio Session emphasized the importance of allowing space for processing. Bianca Van der Meulen from Lean Solopreneur said that the Studio Session, “enabled me to hold a problem without forcing myself or feeling any pressure, so my stuck places untangled themselves. When I try to solve a complicated problem, it's as if the more directly I approach it, the more complex it gets.”

      We kicked off the session with a series of prompts for participants to consider like:

      • Using no more than 7 words, describe your identity as a facilitator.
      • What commitments do you believe are essential to be an effective facilitator?

      By reflecting on these questions, participants had space to think more broadly about why they do the work they do. “The Studio Session provided so much space to think gently. It was a low-stakes place for my brain to just be and reflect,” Bianca shared. 

      Enable your learners to unlock real challenges

      Workshops are most powerful when your participants can apply the learning to relevant challenges and projects. To enable your learners to do that, get to know them to understand where they feel stuck in their work. Before the session, we hosted office hours to understand what participants are grappling with. Richard Maez from Ednium said, “the Studio Session was so different because we came with a real product to work on and received real-time feedback from other facilitators.” By making progress on a specific work task, the skills they learn are more likely to stick and will instill a new sense of possibility in how they approach their challenge. “It was inspiring to see professional development done in a new way.” Richard said.

      As you reflect on these three provocations, we want to know — what go-to moves would you add to this list for designing experiences that are rooted in a strong purpose? With this first Studio Session under our belt and tons of rich feedback from our participants, we are eager to refine and share our methods with our partners and the Franklin Street community at large. Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest news on upcoming Studio Sessions and for more on our favorite design and facilitation methods!

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      April 25, 2024

      From playgrounds to board rooms

      A facilitator’s guide to navigating group dynamics

      Last Saturday, I took my 5-year-old daughter to a birthday party at our local playground. Watching little kids navigate social time is an anthropological experience: first, there’s the total lack of decorum (which I obviously love) — the vocal volume, the range of facial expressions (grimaces, total blankness, maniacal grins) and the incapacity to feign even a modicum of interest in, well, anything? But examine the scene more carefully, and you’ll realize that playground antics don’t look all that different from most of our workplace gatherings. 

      “You’re it!” screeches Towering Kid with side-swept bangs. Smaller Sidekick cackles, whacking (note: ‘tagging’) unsuspecting loner who turns away to burrow in mom’s legs. Coffee spills. Helpful Kid cleans it up. A gallery of Perimeter Kids munch on Pirate’s Booty watching the scene unfold, attentive but happily removed, using cheese dust to “fingerpaint” a nearby swing. Tag concludes instantaneously. Very Loud Kid broadcasts that it’s now time for everyone to zig-zag, backwards. 

      Kids, they’re just like us! What’s striking is just how early our social habits take root. And, no surprise: when we aren’t intentional about setting the conditions for cooperative play, the loudest voices tend to reign supreme. So, if you want to understand the different roles that adults play in our grown-up spaces (see: the visionary, the deflector, the peacemaker) then look no further than your local playground where you can watch group dynamics at play — literally. 

      Group dynamics manifest even in the most innocent of settings beginning from the moment we learn to walk. Whether we’re on the playground or in the boardroom, we all impact dynamics in groups.1 And when we are members of complex institutions – our workplaces, schools and community centers — factors like authority, credibility and influence come into play. 

      At Franklin Street, we think a lot about how to design and host experiences for all sorts of groups – from large, cross-functional teams working in mission-driven organizations to cohorts of professionals who are meeting for the very first time. Next month, we’re launching our very first Studio Session: Design and lead experiences that inspire. Professionals from across sectors and geographies will come together to think deeply about what it takes to foster the right conditions for diverse groups of people to build rapport, cultivate trust and ultimately, learn and create together. And this matters, because we know that groups that have a positive dynamic are nearly twice as creative than groups that don’t.2

      When people convene for a shared experience, they bring different identities, experiences and backgrounds to the table to form a collective personality. As a designer and facilitator, your job doesn’t stop after you've finished writing your agenda. Before you step into the room, you have to get a real handle on who holds sway and who is vulnerable to being sidelined. 

      So, what can you do to prepare? Work with the information you have: you may know the team well (they could be your own colleagues!), or you may not know anyone in the room. Perhaps you’ll have the opportunity to host 1:1 phone calls prior to your event to get to know people, which we recommend. Either way, you need to consider:

      Who will be in the room? Where is the potential for friction? Convergence? How can I harness these dynamics to create opportunities for learning and productivity?

      At Franklin Street, one way that we routinely prepare for facilitation is to take a look at our session plan and ask ourselves five power-mapping questions. These questions help us think proactively about how to ensure that everyone – no matter their identity, positional authority, or learning and participation styles – can contribute meaningfully. These are not meant to be value judgments: an alpha is not a bad actor just because they wield influence; nor is a skeptic negative because they hold a critical lens. We all play important roles in groups, and the key is to create an inclusive environment and use practices that distribute power equitably across the group.

      Download the power-mapping questions

      Here’s how we use them: the designer sits down with a teammate and asks each question out loud. We share what we know about each participant, debate our respective hypotheses about where influence lies and then assess whether the activities and modalities we’ve envisioned for our gathering are the right ones to manage the dynamics in the room. As we inevitably uncover risks in our own design, we revise our plan to integrate new tactics that will maximize the chance that everyone will feel empowered to contribute.

      Recognizing dynamics ahead of your gathering is crucial for fostering an inclusive environment. Yet, you have to remember: these 5 questions demand that you make some pretty blunt assumptions about the group. While we encourage you to map dynamics as best you can, it’s just as important that you don’t get too attached to your hypotheses. Really, keep an open mind: once you get in the room, you might discover that you're wrong.

      In the end, your job as a facilitator is to prepare as best you can and then sense and respond to what’s in front of you. Mapping group dynamics can help you anticipate who’s the reigning tag champion, but you never know: you might end up being surprised by the person who hides behind mom’s legs when they’re “it.”

      1. The Mind Tools Content Team. Improving Group Dynamics. Mind Tools, Leadership and Management. ↩︎
      2. The Mind Tools Content Team. Improving Group Dynamics. Mind Tools, Leadership and Management.  ↩︎

      March 27, 2024

      Studio Session: Design and lead experiences that inspire

      Join us in Denver on May 14-15th for our first-ever Studio Session workshop!

      Last week in my coworking space, I observed a familiar scene: a team huddled for a virtual check-in with their remote colleagues. I smiled knowingly as each of them multi-tasked on the call — one person wrote an email, another edited in Photoshop, and one, as far as I could tell, ordered lunch. The extent of the team’s input during the meeting was minimal, which made me wonder:

      How might we design our gatherings so that people can do their best and most important work?

      We’ve all been there — whether it’s checking messages during an org-wide retreat or catching up on work during a session at a professional conference. Research shows that 73% of employees report doing other work in their meetings1 and the common complaint that “this could have been shared in an email!” is valid. But at Franklin Street, we’re not advocating for less time with our colleagues. We believe that what folks actually crave are gatherings planned with purpose.

      That’s why on May 14th-15th in Denver, we’re launching our very first Studio Session: Design and lead experiences that inspire, a 2-day workshop about the nuts and bolts of hyper-intentional experience design and facilitation.

      This experience will be highly practical and challenging (in a good way)! As a participant, you’ll:

      1. Design something real and relevant to your work. 
      1. Practice useful design and facilitation methods and get real-time feedback. 
      1. Cultivate your authentic facilitation style. 
      1. Learn alongside a cohort of people across sectors who face similar design and facilitation challenges in their day-to-day work.

      Too often, we assume that great facilitators are born, not made. But the truth is, there's an art and craft to learning design and facilitation. As we began planning for the studio session, we spoke to both partners and expert facilitators in our community. We heard reflections like:

      “I feel tied to the end result of the meeting and I want to learn ways to be more flexible to real-time needs of the participants.” 

      “I want to learn how to design a process that gets to the root of what my audience is grappling with. What are the right questions to ask? How do I approach planning with intentionality while staying nimble as a facilitator in the moment?”

      “Most of what I learned came from watching amazing facilitators. But sometimes I struggle to do what they do in a way that feels authentic to me."

      We know this is just the tip of the iceberg. 75% of people report having received no formal training on how to conduct a meeting2, never mind a mission-critical strategy sprint or community town hall. May's studio session will offer a rare chance to collaborate with others who care about intentional gathering, make real progress on something you care about, and get the real-time feedback you're craving. You'll be sure to transform your gatherings into opportunities for connection, growth, and collaboration.

      Interested to join us? Register by April 12th!

      Know of someone who might be great for this experience? Share this post with them!

      Unsure if this experience is right for you or want to learn more? Reach out to us at [email protected] to schedule a call.

      1. Rogelberg, Steven G. (2019). Why your Meetings Stink — and What to Do About It. Harvard Business Review: Meeting Management. ↩︎
      2. Pidgeon, Emily. (2014). The economic impact of bad meetings. Ideas.TED.com: Business. ↩︎

      January 31, 2024

      Overcoming the retreat “scaries”

      We spoke to members of our community for their take on what ingredients make a successful team retreat.

      A few weeks ago, my dad shared that my extended family would be hosting a family reunion in the Midwest. He has eight brothers and sisters, so picture a full Filipino affair: lots of cousins, multi-hour food comas, and boisterous late-night karaoke. My dad waxed poetic on whether he could attend between his busy tai chi, travel, and painting schedule. Then, as an afterthought, he said, “you can come if you want.”

      I could come… if I want?? Surely this was a trick question. What kind of activities would we do? What would I talk about with family I haven’t seen since pre-covid? Would I face repercussions if I didn’t attend? With his simple and unbound proposal, I felt like my dad was setting me up for the reunion scaries.

      A familiar term amongst millennials, yet a feeling shared across generations, “the scaries,” is the mental preoccupation about impending commitments (regularly associated with the “Sunday Scaries,” or a feeling of dread or anxiety about the upcoming work week). Whether we’re attending a family reunion or a work retreat, gathering can feel unnerving when we aren’t sure what resources (e.g. your active participation, cognitive energy, emotional stamina) you will be asked to contribute.

      Some of the Narcisa Family in 2019
      1/3 of the Narcisa Fam, 2019

      You’ve heard us stress the importance of being hyper-intentional about gathering, and team retreats are no exception. If planned without intention, your team might experience a common gathering obstacle:

      The Retreat Scaries.

      We were curious to learn how some of our closest friends and colleagues approach designing work retreats to avoid the retreat scaries, so we spoke with two gathering aficionados:

      Lavada Berger (Managing Partner at Transcend — who also facilitated our most recent Franklin Street retreat) and Bre Dóvez (Founder, Executive Director at Joy as Resistance). Here are some of the nuggets of wisdom they shared. 

      Marielle: Lavada, you facilitated one day of Franklin Street’s team retreat in December. You opened in a really unexpected way. Can you talk about what you did and why you made the choice to kick off that way? 

      Lavada: I started [our time together] by reading Mona Simpson’s eulogy for her brother, Steve Jobs. Why did I do that? At Franklin Street you make an impact on teams, which then influences how they impact their community. Because that connection appears less tangible, [and therefore more difficult to describe], I looked for examples of vivid storytelling about real people.

      I was inspired by the eulogy Maya Angelou wrote for Coretta Scott King and I continued to read other eulogies. In doing so, I noticed that impact written in the form of a eulogy felt different from the typical and predictable ways organizations often speak about impact. 

      I hoped that the feeling you had while listening to Simpson's account of her brother would stay with you as we spoke about Franklin Street’s impact. I hoped you’d be inspired to speak about your impact in a similar way, perhaps by spotlighting actual people in your work that would [in turn] build conviction about your work and move people in the same way. 

      Marielle: Listening to the eulogy set the tone for the rest of our retreat and it’s clear that it was an intentional choice to start that way. What ingredients would you name that make team retreats impactful?

      Lavada: A few elements that come to mind include striking the balance between wonder, comfort, and surprise. With my team, we try to make a connection between place and people by going somewhere where teammates have personal stories or somewhere that’s related to our collective work in some way. 

      When thinking about content, it has to be bite-sized enough that there's something meaty for us to collaborate on without feeling cognitive overload. Spaciousness in the agenda is important, as well as time to just have fun with each other, unscripted.

      "A few elements that come to mind [when planning a retreat] include striking the balance between wonder, comfort, and surprise."

      In a different conversation before the holidays, we spoke with Bre Dóvez, who shared that she’d been preparing for her team’s retreat. We were struck by the unique activities she had planned, so we followed up this January to hear how the retreat went. 

      Marielle: Bre, tell us about some of the lessons you learned from your team retreat.

      Bre: Ahead of our team retreat, I was thinking a lot about team dynamics, bringing together folks who might be experiencing interpersonal conflict, and balancing content with time for connection. Here’s what we’ll be taking into the future:

      Logistics set the tone. Our retreat took place between Wednesday - Friday, which ensured the team had the weekend to rest before returning to work. Teammates had their own bedrooms to recharge, and we organized team meals so that team members from different teams could meal prep and cook together.

      Frontload the deep thinking. We started our retreat by doing heavy content work, like reviewing our data and discussing the organization’s vision. Clear bounds for this discussion at the start of the retreat allowed our team to fully focus on connecting for the remainder of our retreat. 

      Share facilitation. Teammates led and shared their voices throughout various elements of the retreat. At this moment at the organization, it made sense for me to lean more [into facilitation], but moving forward, retreat facilitation will be a shared responsibility.

      Balance structured time vs. unstructured time. The most impactful activity we did as a team during the retreat was a game called Colorblind, which helped team members unpack different communication styles that can affect team dynamics. We hosted a murder mystery party, with guest actors and friends from our community that the team loves. Every day we set our altar where we shared our intentions as a team about the space. We also discussed this article on Building Resilient Organizations and considered how unstructured time with colleagues can facilitate deeper connections within a movement. 

      We couldn’t agree more with Lavada and Bre. To combat the common “retreat scaries,” start with three design principles: 

      • Ensure you have a clear purpose;
      • Inject elements of comfort, wonder, and surprise; and
      • Balance productivity with unstructured time for connection.

      Cultivating the sense of deep connection — to place, to each other, to the purpose —  are essential to team retreats, family reunions, and any gathering in between. Thankfully for my family, the connections run generations deep (by design) so the reunion scaries are avoidable yet. But best believe I’ll be requesting design briefs from dad for all foreseeable Narcisa reunions.  

      Lavada Berger (she/her) is a Partner at Transcend. She has devoted her career to the movement for educational excellence and equity. Her investment and interest in new school models was sparked during her time as a third grade teacher in Newark, New Jersey and enhanced over the last few years.

      Bre Dóvez (all pronouns) is a dreamer, innovator, and disruptor. Bre grew up in the greater Denver area, experiencing the trials and triumphs of being queer in Colorado. Coupled with their three years as a middle school social worker before founding Joy as Resistance, Bre has been reminded in too many situations that mental health resources are severely lacking, especially for LGBTQIA2+ youth.

      December 15, 2023

      3 rules for your next virtual gathering

      Each virtual gathering we lead is an opportunity to create an "alternative world."

      To me, December means we’ve entered peak gathering season. We spend lots of time coordinating holiday plans and getting ready to gather for our final celebrations of 2023. With family and friends all over the world, unfortunately there are gatherings I’ll have to miss. But there’s one I’ve boycotted since 2022: the virtual happy hour. 

      The pandemic was a harrowing time for us all, and to me the “virtual happy hour” calendar invite triggers pandemic-level dread. Borne out of a need for close connection without being close, the virtual happy hour started with good intentions. In practice, though, it still means I’m drinking alone in front of a computer screen.

      Happy hours done in-person are casual gatherings, a great way to float from one unstructured conversation to another. They THRIVE on rambunctious interruptions. When we try to replicate this experience online, we’re left with mute button malfunctions and awkward apologies when you’ve spoken over another person as you tell your joke for the second time because somebody interrupted you. Cringe.

      Those of us who work virtually have learned: designing and pulling off an awesome virtual gathering is a new art form. A virtual host can make or break the experience. At Franklin Street, we take that role very seriously. As hosts, we meticulously plan for every kind of virtual interaction — 30-minute update meetings or 2-hour workshops — because we want our participants to walk away feeling like the time they spent with us was purposeful. 

      In Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering, she writes about the importance of not being a “chill host.” To explain this, she describes her experience in a class on “adaptive leadership” at the Harvard Kennedy School in which the professor, Ronald Heifetz, discreetly enters class on the first day of school without acknowledging students. The start of the class comes and goes in continued silence, building collective nervousness among the students. Eventually, students speak out in frustration.

      Parker explains that being “chill” about hosting assumes we’re allowing participants to feel a sense of freedom. Instead, if we as hosts don’t create guardrails for a gathering, we undermine the purpose of the gathering by creating confusion and uncertainty.1 (It should be noted that Dr. Heifetz actually creates uncertainty on purpose because its part of his learning objective. But that isn't the case for most of us!)

      "If we as hosts don’t create guardrails for a gathering, we undermine the purpose of the gathering by creating confusion and uncertainty."

      When we think about guardrails for gatherings, we might visualize restrictions or rules. You might ask, “What uptight person creates rules for a gathering??” At The Inspiration Project’s October session on ART SCHOOLS we considered how shared rules, when aligned with a specific purpose — like fostering creativity in the classroom — can help to create a shared experience or environment for participants that is conducive to learning. Look at these rules by Lynda Barry, who teaches Interdisciplinary Creativity at the University of Madison-Wisconsin.2

      By following these agreements, artists can make art without judgment, thus creating an “alternative world” where they can take risks in their creativity. Imagine if we used similar rules for our gatherings with loved ones. I know of a few critical family members who’d do well following the rule “we don’t give advice or opinions on the work [or lives] of our classmates.”

      When we think about a virtual gathering at Franklin Street, there are simple hosting rules we assume for any meeting’s purpose:

      1. Seek inspiration and draw connections, 
      2. Balance comfort with challenge, and
      3. Ensure equity of voice.

      At the bare minimum, “party tricks” like welcoming each participant by name as they come in, playing music as guests enter the Zoom room, turning on closed captioning, or inviting folks to be on camera, allow guests to not only feel these rules in play, but enable us to feel more human throughout our digital-heavy work day. Virtual connection can be a challenge, but if you’re a fully remote team like us, following a set of virtual rituals are incredibly important in maintaining an online workplace culture, as Yvonne shared with us last month

      Virtual gatherings can be a drag, but they don’t have to be. Each virtual gathering we host is an opportunity for us to create an alternative world or simply, a more memorable shared experience that is aligned with our gathering purpose. Gathering agreements don’t need to be rigid, but can and should be used to set an important tone for participants. As we begin to celebrate the holiday season, both in-person and virtually, consider what it means to be “unchill” about hosting your gatherings. And in the meantime, we’ll add “reimagining the virtual happy hour” to our list of future design sprints. 

      Happy holidays to all our Franklin Street friends!

      1. Parker, Priya. (2018). The Art of Gathering. New York: Riverhead Books. ↩︎
      2. Wille, Andrew. (2016). Syllabus, By Lynda Barry. Andrew Wille Writing Studio. ↩︎

      November 14, 2023

      The Power of Workplace Rituals

      What Oreos and team meetings have in common

      Every Thanksgiving at approximately 6:30pm my mother starts her high-intensity kitchen circuit: a lunge to mix the brussel sprouts, a deep squat to peer down at the illuminated oven, a long jump to baste the bird. At the end of the routine, the competitor leans against the counter and beckons the attention of her rapt audience: "Let me make this clear as day: I will never do this again!" And yet, each year, November rolls around, and there she is, in her competitive garb (apron + sneakers), ready to attack the circuit once more. My mother’s performance has become my family’s most treasured (and amusing) holiday ritual.  

      No doubt many of you have holiday rituals too: you might watch football or share a note of gratitude with your dinner companions. Or maybe you resist the hubbub altogether and head to your favorite take-out spot. Every day we perform rituals, big and small. Why do we insist on engaging in these practices? Some might argue that ritual is simply about control, but I wonder if there’s something more intrinsic that motivates us.

      Take eating as an example. In the Power of Rituals in Life, Death, and Business, Carmen Nobel makes the case that people who perform a ritual before they eat actually believe that the food tastes better. That must be why I do that wine swirl thing before I take a sip of an exorbitantly priced two-buck chuck at a restaurant and then say to the waiter, “Oh, that’s delightful!” When I eat an Oreo, I must rigidly adhere to these 3 steps:

      1. Twist the cookie in order to separate it into two halves. 
      2. Scrape off the sweet filling with teeth.
      3. Consume each cookie with exaggerated chomps, creating the loudest crunch effect possible. 

      To imagine just eating an Oreo sandwich intact… no, no, no! Apparently, my neurosis has a basis in actual research. “With consumption, rituals seem to work because they increase your involvement in the experience" (Nobel, 2013).1 In other words, rituals help us engage more fully in whatever it is we're doing. As a result, we are more likely to be fulfilled.  

      At Franklin Street, we extend the power of rituals to our work. We use rituals to increase predictability in an increasingly unpredictable world; to help us feel a sense of shared purpose as a team; and to express our core values to the communities we work with. I’ll share a couple of examples. 


      Every Monday, we host a team huddle during which we answer the same 5 questions: 

      Predictability is comforting. It’s soothing to know that on Monday afternoons we gather to connect and run through our week’s priorities. When we ask, “What has your attention?” we are inviting people to share –  openly and humanly – about what’s occupying their headspace. Rituals around connection help teams foster “psychological safety”, and teams with higher psychological safety feel safer taking more creative risks and embracing mistakes as learning opportunities (Gallo, 2023).2

      Shared purpose

      We also use rituals to stay focused on our collective purpose. Once a month, we set aside a half day to pause and reflect on our strategy. This intermission from the everyday buzz helps us ground in our shared purpose. We remember why we’re doing what we do and focus together on strengthening our strategy. The result is that we find meaning in our work, and that doesn’t just feel good – we actually do better work. Teams who view their work as meaningful are “more motivated, happier, and more productive” (Senz, 2022).3 

      "Rituals around connection help teams foster “psychological safety”, and teams with higher psychological safety feel safer taking more creative risks and embracing mistakes as learning opportunities."

      — Amy Gallo, Harvard Business Review

      Core values 

      Rituals also help us express our espoused values in tangible ways. Every December we give our closest partners and collaborators resources to donate to any organization that they care about. We do this because we believe in contributing directly to communities that we value. 

      So, as you wind down for your holiday break, take stock of the little weird rituals that bring you comfort and joy (how do you eat an Oreo?). And ask yourself: what's one small ritual I can introduce to my team at work? Rituals at work don’t have to be complicated or over-the-top. They can be as simple as asking a good question at the beginning of every team meeting. Rituals help us connect more deeply to each other and our shared purpose.

      1. Nobel, C. (2013). The Power of Rituals in Life, Death, and Business. Harvard Business School: Working Knowledge, Research & Ideas. ↩︎
      2. Gallo, A. (2023). What is Psychological Safety? Harvard Business Review: Leadership and Managing People ↩︎
      3. Senz, K. (2022). Rituals at Work: Teams That Play Together Stay Together. Harvard Business School: Working Knowledge, Research & Ideas ↩︎

      September 18, 2023

      Risk-taking: A secret ingredient to learning

      Our team takes a 2-week collective pause in July to rest and recharge. In past years, I’ve spent this time practicing Spanish in Oaxaca and spending quality time with my parents in Montana. But this year, I stayed local and set an intention to soak up time in the mountains and tap into the beauty that is close to home. 

      More specifically, I set an intention to take a new-ish hobby — road biking — up a notch. While I’ve been a bike commuter for my entire adult life, I only got into more serious road biking seven years ago when my husband convinced me we should ride 300 miles down the coast of Sardinia on our honeymoon. That trip was 95% exhilarating and 5% grueling (I only cried once, but I took daily naps because I was so exhausted at the end of each day’s adventure). 

      But that was seven years ago. I’m a stronger biker now and our July break gave me an opportunity to step it up — this time I took a 5-day road trip with my bike. I navigated the Rockies solo, researched and rode my own routes, and climbed peaks that were higher than anything else I had ridden before. 

      As I transitioned back to work after those two weeks, I couldn’t help but notice that my solo adventure mirrors something we believe in our work:

      Taking on a new and unfamiliar challenge is one of the most powerful catalysts for growth.

      The research agrees. Learning & growth is one of the most important ingredients for individual and team success. James McKenna made the case recently in Harvard Business Review “...people with the will to learn, the skill to do it effectively, and the ability to apply that learning in ways that positively impact their performance and that of their teams.”1

      And yet, it’s rare that professional learning experiences live up to their potential. McKenna’s research suggests that professional learning is often too abstract or too generalized. He calls this the “one-size-fits-none” phenomenon. Similarly, learning at work often happens in a vacuum via courses instead of in-the-flow of real work and therefore requiring practice, feedback and iteration.

      It doesn’t have to be this way. Unfamiliar experiences, and the discomfort or challenge they invite, can unlock new possibilities at work. Mary Slaughter and David Rock wrote about the “just right” amount of challenge or discomfort in professional learning. “Quality learning requires what brain scientists call “desirable difficulty”. To be effective, learning needs to be effortful. The same way you feel a muscle “burn” when it's being strengthened, the brain needs to feel some discomfort when it’s learning.”2

      We see the same thing play out with our partners. Liloni Ramos, who leads the Piton Fellowhsip at Gary Philanthropy shared her reflections on taking a group of Denver-based leaders to New Orleans in May.

      “We make a point to take leaders out of their daily routines, work environments, and comfort zones to immerse them in learning in a new city. Introducing them to fresh experiences alongside others, we aim to sow the seeds of innovative ideas and connections that can enrich their work and communities back home. These initial seeds of inspiration take root during their time away from the usual routine, but they truly flourish and evolve when our leaders return to their respective roles, ultimately bringing about positive change.”

      Mark Gabriel who leads adult learning experiences at Embark reflected on the wonder and curiosity that newness brings.

      “Only when we get out of our comfort zone and engage with new and diverse experiences can our minds (and thus body) be fully engaged. New experiences allow us to lead with curiosity and have a sense of wonder. They activate new parts of our brain, so that when we go back to our comfort zone, we bring a new perspective and ultimately new ideas and solutions.”

      This fall, we’re excited to share more about how we design experiences that are ripe for learning in a short series of Kith posts. In the meantime, we hope you’ll find opportunities — big and small — to immerse yourself in something unfamiliar or take on a new challenge. Notice how it pushes you. Where discomfort arises. And ultimately how you grow as a result.

      1 McKenna, J. (2023). Build a Strong Learning Culture on Your Team. Harvard Business Review.

      2 Rock, D., Slaughter, M. (2018). No Pain, No Brain Gain: Why Learning Demands (A Little) Discomfort. Fast Company.

      June 9, 2023

      A case study for reimagining school

      How might we redesign schools to be responsive to learners' needs and aspirations?

      For the last 100 years, schools have taken a one-size-fits-all approach to student learning. But we know that one-size-fits-all does not address the diverse needs and interests of our kids. We often look to academics or politicians to propose changes to transform our outdated education system. But what if we trusted our students as the experts of their own learning experiences? 

      We’re working with Maureen Joy Charter School, a preK - 8th grade school in Durham, NC to redesign how students learn (and teachers teach), so that 8th graders who walk out of Joy's doors are motivated and empowered to shape their own futures. We spoke with Meen Cho and Kim Bowen, teachers at Joy, to discuss how they’re thinking about the ambitious work they’re taking on.

      Marielle: From your perspective, has anything changed about the role that teachers play at school since when you first started teaching?

      Meen: When I first started teaching, I believed my only role was to ensure students learn. I kept a distance between me and my students. Now, I see teaching less as delivering information, and more about having an experience alongside the young people I work with.

      Kim: I found out after my first year teaching that we are not just teachers. We are parents, we are counselors, and sometimes we're nurses. Sometimes we're social workers when we need to be. I wish people would see these other roles we take on because, to some, we are just babysitters, and that’s just not true.

      Marielle: We all know that the world is changing at an unprecedented pace, yet schools basically look the same and function the same as they did a hundred years ago. As you embark on this redesign journey at Joy, what are some initial ideas that you have to bring your students into the future? 

      Meen: First, getting input from students about their learning is so important. When they're given a choice, you can see that students take great responsibility for that choice. From a student’s perspective, the journey they’re experiencing is more important than what comes at the end. When I ask myself, ‘what’s the point of school?’ it's about the students’ journey of exploring their interests and the interests of their peers. Our role is to provide a safe and guided environment for them to make these discoveries.

      Marielle: What mindsets and skills do you believe students need to be successful in the future?

      Kim: A growth mindset. I've heard a lot of my students say, ‘I can't do this.’ They don’t believe that it's okay to get things wrong. When they make a mistake, it's like the end of the world. I feel like school needs to be a space where students can connect things that happen here to what happens out there in the real world. When school seems irrelevant, my students stop learning because they think, “well, we're not gonna use this in the real world anyway.”

      Marielle: When you talk with your students, what do you hear from them about the kinds of learning experiences they most crave? 

      Kim: I feel like students want that responsibility back over their own education. They want more fun. The number one thing I hear is that they're bored. To kids, we do the same thing all the time and I think they're looking for more relevant experiences. For example, they’re so tech savvy, so we could bring more technology into our lessons. They could use their phones as a positive tool, to share ideas, to integrate tech into our lessons in a positive way. 

      Meen: Students want to pursue their interests. I have students that want to do more drawing in math class or that want to learn how to make an origami box. I think one of my kids is really obsessed with axolotls. And all these different things they want to learn inspires other kids to say, “oh that's interesting to me too!” They'll center around the idea of their peers, learn together, and then we move on to the next kid’s idea. But they all have ideas about what they want to learn.

      Marielle: In April, we visited schools and organizations throughout Durham who think about learning in different ways than a traditional school might. What did you see that made you think differently about your work at Joy?

      Kim: At Central Park, students were roaming free. I saw one student on an exercise bike getting his notes done, there were some sitting on the floor, the room had a coffee table, etc. Kids had more ownership. This made me think that learning doesn't have to look uniform. Kids can have independence and still focus. School can be a place where kids feel like they're at home. 

      Meen: Watching the teacher give everyone a voice was really refreshing to see. She asked questions like “Is it okay if we do this now? What's going to happen next?” Seeing that kind of democracy is something I would like to try here because I think it shows students that their opinion actually does matter and their teacher is a facilitator, not a tyrant. 

      Marielle: What makes Durham unique? What experiences do you want your kids to have outside the classroom in their city? 

      Kim: I went to The Inspiration Project’s session on Museum’s and Libraries and it reminded me of all the untapped places that we could bring students to here in Durham. We could invite folks to come and talk to the kids about the different things they’re interested in, like podcasts, and talk shows, and music. Knowing these people and organizations exist here could help students explore their passions.

      Meen: Durham has grown so exponentially within the last 10 years. And it's going to continue growing, though I feel like sometimes the kids feel like there's nothing special here and so therefore they're not special. But it is a unique place and so are my students. If they see that uniqueness of Durham, they might see that uniqueness in themselves. Once they start to love where they're from, they can start to love who they are and love their fellow community members too.

      Kim Bowen

      Teacher, Maureen Joy

      Meen Cho

      Teacher, Maureen Joy

      April 24, 2023

      What can Trash Art teach us about curiosity?

      It is time to pause, to listen. 

      My name is Alison Kerr and I've worked in education for over twenty years in various educator and leadership roles. I know how to go hard, grind, and hustle. My ultimate purpose of transforming what schooling can look like and disrupting our inequitable system has never wavered — I mean, it’s what has gotten me out of bed for the last two decades!

      As a leader, I want to thrive. I want to grow. I want to expand. I want to imagine what's possible in my work and in the world. 

      So, it’s no surprise that I’ve frequently sought out many ‘professional’ learning experiences. From a learners’ perspective, these experiences have predictably focused on technical strategies or used overly-complex leadership frameworks. To me, these experiences were like eating a tasteless meal of boiled vegetables on repeat, simply because I was told they would be ‘good for me’. 

      What impact did they have? A feeling of overwhelm, the shame of ‘not doing enough’, loneliness, and a pit in my stomach as I considered how I was going to start implementing ten new things tomorrow.

      In January, I experienced a learning experience that actually fueled my appetite; I joined the Inspired Leader Cohort with a group of fellow courageous leaders from across the country. Over ten weeks, in five sessions, we explored the relevant topics of curiosity, focus, disruption, sustainability, and creativity — but with a very out-of-the-box flavor. We sourced our inspiration from non-educational spaces and people. I left each session satisfied (emotionally and cognitively), energized, and still hungry to apply my new insights in my own context. 

      After our first session of inspiration, I was left thinking: Who knew that I could learn so much about curiosity from a trash artist?

      In this session with trash art activist Benjamin Von Wong, I was struck by this idea that he posed: ‘curiosity starts a conversation and ignites the desire for people to learn more’. 

      "In this session with trash art activist Benjamin Von Wong, I was struck by this idea that he posed: ‘curiosity starts a conversation and ignites the desire for people to learn more’. "

      48 hours after this session, in my day-to-day at a team meeting, I offered a new idea about how we could better support educators. Instead of dreading the anticipated conflict and roadblocks from the team, I actually leveraged the divergent viewpoints to engage them more deeply in curiosity. The team, now fired up in all the best ways, reengaged with the topic via something relevant (the unique needs of educators they work with). This allowed us to think bigger and arrive at a bolder idea that we believe will profoundly impact educators and ultimately, young people.

      We spent only 90 minutes with a trash art activist considering curiosity. Within two days, I translated a learning insight into an action that was deeply relevant to my work. And the best part? It was engaging, simple enough to try on and joyful! 

      Throughout the cohort experience, I had additional aha leadership moments from provocations from a ceramicist, a nun, and a breakdancer. I got the rare chance to hear brutally honest and compelling storytelling. I was given permission to slow down, glean my own takeaways, and collectively make meaning of my learning within a community of peers. 

      We strive towards cultivating transformative learning experiences for young people but it makes me wonder — why do we rarely have access to these transformative learning experiences as adults and as leaders in the field?

      The ten weeks in this fellowship have been the disruptive and immersive experience I didn’t know I needed. It has provided me with nourishing ways to stay focused, inspired, and sustained in the work that I do. It has also created a clearing, where I have found new courage to shift patterns in my leadership that I’ve held for so long. 

      So, pause, listen, learn. Inspiration can live in the most unexpected places.

      Alison Kerr

      Partner, Network Learning & Development at Transcend

      March 29, 2023

      Learning from learners

      At Franklin Street, we've created a design brief to help us understand who our learners are and what they need (and don’t need!) to engage in an inspiring learning experience.

      Read more