September 15, 2020

PG #66: Vulnerability in the Workplace

Illustration by Bel Giles

I cried a lot while working on my last project.

Sometimes I kept how I was coping to myself. Sometimes I shared it with the people around me. As a project team, we had a lot to process.

In partnership with Beyond Blue, we were exploring how COVID-19 is affecting people’s mental health and wellbeing, especially people who were already experiencing mental health challenges before this all started.

For a project like this one, being able to talk about how I was feeling was incredibly important. Working with experiences like isolation, suicide, or family violence is challenging on the best days – taking it on in the midst of this pandemic was nearly all-consuming. I found my own mental health lurching around wildly at times, and I'm grateful to the people who I was able to talk about it. 

I noticed that when any one of us shared openly about the emotional impact of the stories we were hearing, it became easier for others to do the same. When one of us allowed ourselves to be vulnerable, it created space for more vulnerability. 

I want to be mindful here about how I’m talking about vulnerability. Environments where people are expected to share openly about themselves are almost always harmful. What makes a challenging day can vary significantly from person to person, from too many Zoom meetings to the re-triggering of a trauma, but the window of ‘acceptable’ responses to the seemingly innocuous “How are you today” is often quite narrow in workplace contexts. The question becomes a trap: come up with a lie on the spot, or be judged for oversharing.

That being said, I can’t imagine how the time with our community of co-design participants would have worked out if we had all tried to remain impartial and unaffected. Embracing vulnerability – safely – as part of how we worked together allowed us to be deeply moved by the stories we were hearing, and for these stories to open up new possible futures to explore together. But, maybe more importantly, a shared sense of vulnerability made it easier to take care of each other – to anticipate concerns and anxieties, respond to difficult moments, and make sure everyone was getting the time they needed to process everything.

I am grateful to have spent the last few months with the people that I did. To the folks at Paper Giant, at Beyond Blue, and our co-design participants – thank you for being gentle with me.

— Ryley Lawson & the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #66 here

September 1, 2020

PG#65: High Rents Are Killing The Arts

Illustration by Wendy Fox

Australia is in the grips of an affordable housing crisis. Melbourne and Sydney have some of the most expensive housing in the world, behind only Vancouver and Hong Kong in the global rankings, and most of our other cities are classified as “severely unaffordable”. One of the great tragedies of increasing house prices is that it breaks apart communities. I used to live in a cluster within walking distance of a bunch of different friends. As rent has increased and our incomes haven’t, we’ve all moved radially outwards, further and further away from each other.

This disassembling of communities is pretty garbage for everyone, but it’s absolutely deadly for the arts. As economist Chris Dillow writes:

“Art and culture, as much as industry, benefits from agglomeration effects – the ability of creative people to live near each other. In the 60s and 70s countless musicians moved into rundown New York apartments where they could live cheaply whilst they honed their craft and waited for their break.”

As far as I can tell, you get good art by shoving a bunch of musicians or painters or writers into cheap flats in the same area until they form a scene and start collaborating and making incredible stuff. I mean, some people can make good art alone in a mountain cabin, but mostly that’s not how the movements that have pushed us forward have happened.

Art also requires a certain amount of free time and energy – if would-be artists are working triple shifts just to make rent, they’ll be rendered too exhausted and brain-shrivelled to do anything creative.

High commercial rent is also an issue, because artists need venues to perform, and venues need to pay rent. When rent is high, only the venues that appeal to the widest possible audience can survive. No strange little places that appeal only to niche audiences. You absolutely cannot afford to take a risk. Eventually all live music becomes cover bands, because cover bands draw a reliable crowd.

The Ramones, Blondie, The Misfits, Patti Smith, Talking Heads and a hundred other bands came out of the scene around New York’s CBGB club. In 2006, the CBGB’s landlord sued the proprietors for $90,000 in alleged back rent, on top of the $19,000 a month they were already paying. They couldn’t come up with the money and were forced to close.

The arts sector in Australia has been absolutely devastated by COVID-19 shutdowns and subsequent abandonment by the federal government. Alongside direct support, a Covid recovery plan that tackled affordable housing would help arts and culture to revive and flourish – and we’d all experience the benefits.

— Mckinley Valentine & the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #65 here

August 18, 2020

PG #64: “Be Ruthless With Systems, Be Kind With People”

Illustration By Bonnie Graham

"Be ruthless with systems, be kind with people"

Michael Brooks, 1983–2020

I’ve been really struggling this week, knowing what is going on here in Melbourne, and knowing bits and pieces of what is going on in the rest of the world. In a week of bad news, in a year of bad news, in a decade of bad news, it’s really hard to think of what to write about.

The other reason I’m struggling with the newsletter this week is that I’m worried I’ve got a bit repetitive in general: my schtick seems to be “we already know the solution, dummies!” Recently I’ve written or been speaking things like:

We already know the solution to poverty: give people money.
We already know the solution to homelessness: give people homes.
We already know the solution to climate change: a green new deal.
We already know the solution to our economic woes: doughnut economics (plus a green new deal, for good measure).

And I’ve said it before many times: ‘innovation’ doesn’t always mean doing something new; sometimes the most innovative thing you can do is apply the obvious solution that is right in front of you. This isn’t always easy of course. Sometimes that solution needs to be revealed in a compelling way before you can see it.

To take my somewhat trite ‘We already know the solution to poverty: give people money’ as an example here: the current pandemic has made it abundantly clear that a) poverty is no moral failing, it’s the inevitable outcome of an unjust and fragile system, and b) governments can mobilise resources and change economic systems extremely quickly to stop people falling into poverty, if they want to.

By one estimate, the raise in the ‘jobseeker’ rate in Australia lifted more people out of poverty (~425,000) than any other government action in our history.

So: the crisis has revealed that we can act quickly and compassionately (in this case to a sudden influx of unemployment) if we choose. What else can we react this quickly to if we treat it like it’s not an individual moral failing, but a systemic problem? How about homelessness? How about climate change?

Of course, what real innovation takes is political will to change the status quo, and this is usually the most difficult step. First you have to treat a crisis like the crisis that it is.

— Dr. Reuben Stanton and the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #64 here.

August 11, 2020

PG#63: Building Australia’s Mental Health Literacy

Over the past eight weeks, I have been working with Beyond Blue to understand people’s diverse experiences of mental health and wellbeing. I have had the privilege of hearing stories from ordinary people all across our communities. As a result, I have a deeper appreciation for what many people endure, not just because of their personal situations, but because it is so difficult to access mental health care in Australia. I have strong feelings of guilt for not having had this level of understanding earlier.

Equally, I’m frustrated that the task of changing the way our society approaches mental health has fallen solely to people with mental health challenges, and the people and organisations (like Beyond Blue) who support them.

I believe that mental health and wellbeing is a subject we should all be actively engaged in.

This could start with each of us educating ourselves. We could do a better job of understanding what it means to have anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or other conditions, and what it means to have mental health challenges that do not come with a neat label. We could do a better job of identifying when someone may need our support and not just leave it to clinicians and medical professionals. We could learn about ourselves – each of us has personal indicators that tell us when our mental health is taking a dip. It is worth learning what our indicators are, and having strategies already in place for when they show up.

We have a responsibility to our friends, families, colleagues and communities to build our mental health literacy. We have a responsibility to ourselves.

Beyond Blue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Servicehas been set up for anyone dealing with pandemic anxiety, lockdown isolation, financial worries, added stress on relationships, and so on.

They have web resources, an online chat service and a dedicated counselling phone line, all separate from the regular Beyond Blue support service, so please don’t feel like your problems aren’t big enough or you’d be ‘wasting’ their resources – that’s what it’s there for.

— Ernez Dhondy and The PG Team.

Read the rest of issue #63 here

August 3, 2020

PG# 62: Asking The Right Questions

Illustration by Wendy Fox

At Paper Giant, we’ve built a business around helping people find answers to their most important questions.

Some of our work is helping clients understand what the most important questions actually are. The rest is finding answers, using the tools of design, research, capability building and evaluation.  

A common question looks like this:

What should we [do, improve, make, stop], given [x, y and/or z]?

x, y and z might be the organisational structure, the markets or domain they’re working within, or their target user or customer group.

Many of our clients expect the answer to be:

Do this.

They want a very neat and well-defined answer. Often, we’re able to give it to them. However, in particular contexts, or at particular moments, there is so much uncertainty and things are changing so rapidly that a neat answer like do this isn’t possible.

In times or contexts of greater uncertainty, the shape of that original question isn’t helpful. A more useful question type is:

How might [x, y and/or z] influence our decision on what to [do, improve, make or stop]?

It’s a subtle difference, but asking this version rather than the first gives you much richer and more useful answers. Rather than telling you what to do right now – an answer that’s tied to the particular context and moment – you end up with an understanding of how to make decisions over time, even as circumstances shift.

Given the amount of change and uncertainty at the moment, we find ourselves working with far more how might questions than what questions. Here are some examples:

While we do give our clients specific and actionable what recommendations, focusing on the how allows us to create models and frameworks that give our clients longer term strategic tools, as well as the answers they need in the short-term.

–– Dr. Chris Marmo & The PG Team

Read the rest of issue #62 here

July 10, 2020

PG #61: The Strategy Itch

The "Process of Design' Squiggle by Damien Newman

Paper Giant is currently engaged in several projects that seek to understand the impact COVID is having on the way we work, how we relate with one another, our relationships and our mental health and wellbeing. While these projects may satisfy my interest in people and their behaviours, it doesn’t tell me much about organisations. That is the itch that the strategist in me desperately wants to scratch. 

For the last few months, I have been standing on the outside of these organisations, theorising about what is going on inside. With all this time on my hands I have come up with a few assumptions. I believe that COVID is forcing businesses to digitise. The customer’s demand for online products and services are only increasing, so I assume that business is scrambling to meet that demand. The knock-on effect of this must be an intense pressure to increase the pace at which digital transformation strategies are rolled out. 

COVID is also clearly impacting the employee experience (EX). Teams are more fragmented and disconnected than ever, making it hard to build or maintain culture or morale. Now more than ever,  organisations need to accelerate their understanding of and ability to deliver an exceptional EX. New capabilities and infrastructure will be needed to adapt swiftly and remain competitive.

These are just theories. I am waiting for organisations to spring back to life and start telling me what their objectives for the next six months are. 

If you have thoughts on what businesses need in the coming months, I’d love to know – you can reply to this email or shoot me a message on LinkedIn, let’s chat.

–– Ernez Dhondy and the PG Team

Read the rest of issue #60 here

June 30, 2020

PG #60: Police Are Not The Solution To Problems Of Inequality

Illustration by Wendy Fox

We can end homelessness, if we want to.

This year, Paper Giant had the opportunity to work with a community health organisation to co-design a booklet with people ‘sleeping rough’ on the streets in Melbourne. The first of its kind, this was a booklet produced by rough sleepers, for rough sleepers, to help them know their rights, access support, and stay safe when sleeping on the street.

The fact that this project had to exist at all makes me seethe with anger. Why should anyone need to sleep on the street in a society as rich as ours? 

In Australia anyway, our COVID-19 response has revealed just how easy it is to end rough sleeping – a little bit of resource allocation, a roof and a bed, and funded social support for those in need. 

What does this demonstrate? That we had the solution here in front of our noses all along. Why must it take a worldwide pandemic and economic shock to make it possible? 

Think about all the police time and public money wasted on moving on, ticketing, arresting and jailing rough sleepers, when we could have been helping people all along.

Locking up people sleeping on the street does nothing to prevent homelessness at all. It makes it worse, in fact – it’s well known that contact with the criminal justice systems leads to more contact with the criminal justice system. Helping people experiencing homelessness, on the other hand, creates a fairer, kinder, more just, and yes – safer – society.

When we position ‘policing’ as the solution to problems of inequality, we reinforce the idea that these problems can’t be prevented, only mitigated.

Now think of some of the other things we ask police to do. 

Are heavily armed, uniformed officers with minimal mediation training the best people to observe protests, ensure traffic safety, respond to mental health emergencies, negotiate arguments between neighbors, respond to noise complaints, and enforce civil law violations?

Police are forced to take on the work of paramedics, nurses, mental health workers, social workers, government administrators and teachers, while these professions are stripped of funding. Even when it comes to classic crime investigation – why do we need people with guns to interview victims, write reports and investigate the details of a burglary well after the fact? 

There may still be situations where a ‘first responder’ to an unfolding act of violence is required. But this is not the bulk of police work, either in Australia or around the world. 

If you bristle at the current calls to ‘defund the police’, understand that it is really about resource allocation. As a society we are constantly making decisions to fund some things and not others. It’s about what we choose to prioritise, and why. Funding policing of social ills rather than community-led solutions to these ills is in direct conflict with a progressive vision for our society.

Why not take some of the money we spend on enforcement and incarceration and spend it on vibrant, caring communities, so that enforcement and the carceral state is no longer necessary?

The response to COVID-19 has made it very clear that we have the opportunity and resources to end rough sleeping forever. We have always had this opportunity.

What else could we end if we decided to do so?

–– Dr Reuben Stanton and the PG Team

Read the rest of issue #60 here

June 12, 2020

PG #59: Listen, learn, act

But we can listen, and we can act, wherever we are. Remember, it’s not just America.

“The reason that black people are in the streets has to do with the lives they’re forced to lead in this country. And they’re forced to lead these lives by the indifference, and the apathy, and a certain kind of ignorance – a very willful ignorance – on the part of their co-citizens.”
—  James Baldwin explains the riots of 1968 

“The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people. That ideology of white supremacy was necessary to justify enslavement, and it is that legacy of slavery that we haven’t acknowledged. This is why I have argued that slavery didn’t end in 1865, it evolved.”
—  Interview with Bryan Stevenson, Civil Rights Lawyer 

“I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer.”
— Kareem Abdul-JabbarDon’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge

“Just because you don’t have your knee on our throat, it doesn’t mean you’re not holding us down. I’m afraid that if we don’t use this momentum to think critically about our own situation and what we can do to make a better Australia for every Australian, then the next (inevitable) death will pass and we’ll have no justice and no answers.”
—  Brooke BoneySo tell me again how ‘all lives matter’

Also: it’s long past time to pay the rent.

Dr. Reuben Stanton and the PG Team

Read the rest of issue #59 here

May 29, 2020

PG #58: Remote Research – Deeper, More Collaborative, More Inclusive?

Illustration by Wendy Fox

In response to social distancing restrictions that have been implemented around the world to slow the spread of COVID-19, people working in design (UX, service or policy) and research (user, social, market, etc.) have been grappling with what it means to do their work in restricted ways.

After years or decades of advocating that product, service or policy directions be informed by lived experience, genuine understandings of human needs and behaviours, and most recently by the inclusion of users in the decision-making process (through methods like co-design), it can seem like an insurmountable challenge to have have many of the those methods removed or diminished. It can seem like it’s too hard.

You shouldn’t despair, though. Rather than scrambling to upgrade your Zoom account so that your user interview can go longer than 45 minutes, you can think more productively and creatively about the opportunities that conducting research remotely provides. Like any design constraint, social distancing shuts down some possibilities but opens up many others.

Remote research, done right, can:

  • include a more diverse range of participants
  • give you more windows into a participant’s life
  • give you fresher, high-fidelity insights
  • empower participants by giving them more tools to express themselves with
  • create a dynamic of collaboratively building knowledge rather than a researcher extracting information
  • invite clients deeper into the sense-making process.

I’ve written more on each of these possibilities, as well as the challenges of remote research, over on Medium. Give it a read.

–– Chris Marmo and the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #58 here

May 18, 2020

PG #57: Working Together, Apart

Image of a laptop showing four different glasses of water in a Zoom call grid: one highlighted, one almost empty, one blurry and one broken.
Illustration by Wendy Fox

Over the past month I have developed strong preferences for the inconsequential functions of video conferencing software. I now have an opinion about how the “end meeting” button works in Zoom, know the keyboard shortcuts for Google Meet, and am convinced that using Webex is a test of personal fortitude.

For those of us that have transitioned from working in an office to working from home there has been an abrupt dislocation of space and habit. If your work involved being in an office, part of this new experience has probably been spending a lot more time looking at a grid of tiny faces on your computer.

There is an inequity to this experience. The experience of a homeowner with a separate study, big screen and an NBN connection is markedly different to someone perched on a temporary desk in a sharehouse kitchen. The parent with young children at home has a different experience to someone living alone. For some, a two-hour uninterrupted block of time is achievable, for some it’s challenging, for others impossible.

So how can we make our time together more equitable?

When people talk about being productive when working remotely, they often talk a lot about collaboration, and being able to work on things together. It can become a conversation about tools: which tool is most like “being there”, which tool best “facilitates collaboration”. But I think it’s important to point out that collaboration doesn’t have to mean working on something simultaneously. It doesn’t need a video call.

Collaboration is about finding ways to bring different perspectives and skills together and having a method to decide how to move forward. It’s a learned skill that requires practice, and part of that practice is trusting others to work in whatever way works for them, even if it doesn’t look like traditional work.

Maybe you really do need an hour on the phone from 9–10am for effective collaboration, but it’s equally likely to be three 15-minute blocks between 6pm and 10pm and then a 5-minute check-in the next morning at 8am.

Collaboration needs time together, but it also needs time apart.

— Dan Woods, General Manager (Canberra)

Read the rest of Issue #57 here.


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