1. Thoughts from the Zeitgeist

Learn by Doing It With The Best

#24 Those Who Do Teach — Get Out There And Do

This is the final installment in a series of blogs based on conversations with Bruce Mau, designed to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

The last of our 24 Design Principles throws sand in the eyes of the old, unkind adage that suggests ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ Bruce Mau understands that when we design our processes and procedures in the right way, those who can — especially those who can do specialized work — are always teaching those with whom they work. And in an industry (and business world) in which it’s impossible to know everything, we all have an opportunity to teach and to learn every day.

“Doing is the best learning methodology that we have,” Bruce says. “Instead of teaching by talking about it, teach by doing.”

That’s an added benefit of working in Renaissance Teams — by collaborating with people who have expertise outside our own, we are always learning from the best. And it’s another area where the scope of our industry and our enterprise works to our advantage. “If we think about Freeman,” Bruce notes, “if we learn by doing, no one can learn more than us, because we do more than anyone.”

It’s no coincidence that successful companies build this strategic advantage into their processes, just as we do at Freeman. In fact, it’s built into the design-thinking approach that’s captured in the 24 Design Principles of which this is the capstone. In the events industry, we are privileged to touch so many business sectors, health care practices, lifestyle and entertainment arenas, that acquiring expertise in any one field brings tremendous value to the assigned team. Multiply that by the specialized capabilities an individual might represent — in strategy, creative, digital, event tech or logistics — and it becomes clear that we are all called to be both teachers and learners for the very reason that we are doers.

Bruce becomes animated when he applies this to how we work at Freeman. “This is where the ‘learning’ of all the principles comes into play,” he says. “We are a doing industry. Our product is an experience of doing something.  We’re a verb company. So that puts learning clearly in our business model…. We’ve been doing the Housewares Show for 40 years; we want the next 40 years of Housewares Show to be 40 years of innovation. It’s possible because we’re learning by doing, because we’re applying the Learning Cycle and the Debrief experience that, in every case, drives us forward, and maps out what we should be doing and can be doing with our clients.”

Talk to the best people in the live events industry and ask them how they learned to do what they do. To be sure, their expertise was launched from an academic foundation. They may even have specialized certificates – which is awesome. But most of us can point to the people and assignments through which we gained our most valuable experiences. This is proven out every time I meet with industry colleagues and swap stories. Inevitably, people start sharing tall tales that involve a ‘trial by fire’ experience — or more accurately, an opportunity to jump off the high dive into the deep end of the pool and learn by keeping up with the strongest swimmers.

I remember taking Bruce to a CES planning meeting that’s known, internally, as “the garbage meeting.” It’s one of the best ways to learn about logistics. In addition to helping the team at CES advance its sustainability goals (recycling and repurposing exhibit materials) we have to understand how to remove consumer-generated garbage in a way that prevents log-jams in loading out the show. Our people have developed an expertise that could only be learned by working on a show of such enormous scale. For example, in 2017, more than 1.6 million square feet of carpet were reused and more than 23,000 square feet of paper and mesh banners were recycled. CTA’s booth donation program enabled exhibitors to repurpose raw materials and furniture no longer needed after the show — 285,000 pounds of materials donated to organizations such as Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity, and Opportunity Village.  Bruce was blown away, remarking that a plan of this scale works like a military operation. He’s right, of course. But it’s not the kind of thing you can teach someone without having them be part of it.

“The only way you can do CES is to learn CES,” Bruce says. “Our people who do CES know things that no one else in the world knows…. We would never think of garbage as a design problem, but it absolutely is.”

Freeman is in the process of realigning our organization to make it easier to harness the full breadth of our expertise in service to our customers’ businesses. The idea of learning while collaborating is essential to the premise. So is the notion of flexible leadership. A sales growth person who heads an account may have more client-expertise to contribute early on, but she’ll want to learn early in the process, from her colleagues in design and delivery, how best to bring the customers’ dreams to life.

“The knowledge and experience we have in our people, because of what they do every day, is such an extraordinary asset,’ Bruce explains. “And the way that we’re organizing our work is to get that intelligence into the original conception of the design and, in fact, into the conversation with the client at the outset.”

The implications of this final design principle are pretty far reaching.  The notion of teaching by doing  brings with it an obligation to be a patient, intentional teacher and, conversely, an eager, open-minded learner. Further, once we agree that people learn best from watching their leaders, we have to own that this “teaching” extends beyond the work we accomplish to the values that define us. How we do the work, the trust we extend to our colleagues and earn from our clients, is every bit as important as the actual skill sets we’ve acquired.

Ironically, perhaps, but entirely by design, this final design principle, which instructs us to teach by doing, brings us back full circle to the first design principle: First Inspire. Design Is Leadership. Lead by Design.

When design thinking becomes a matter of habit, we are intentional about what we do and how we do it. We know that success is an iterative process. We are both optimists and realists – we constantly seek data in pursuit of better solutions. We are entrepreneurs. We embrace collaboration because we know we don’t know everything. We despise waste — which is a manifestation of bad design — but we love huge, thorny challenges that present opportunities for massive change.

Design is leadership. You now have 24 lessons in leadership that you can apply to your work, your world and your life. Lead by design.