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In Part 2, I laid out what I believe are the 10 principles that MESA Co. uses to fine-tune the working environment.
But what are they fine-tuning the environment for? Unlocking people’s creative potential.
The open secret of MESA (and other Accelerated Work Experiences) is that, beyond the rules and guidelines and structures, their true purpose is to unlock people’s potential to achieve more than they imagined was possible. And critically, to unleash that potential in the direction of a single, focused mission for 5 days.
This isn’t easy when working with a diverse group of people, most of whom have never worked together. About half of the 12-16 participants are external to the client organization, split evenly between “experts” (subject matter experts in topics relevant to the problem) and “makers” (designers, coders, video makers, illustrators, or others with specialized skills).
How do you get 12-16 people from a wide variety of backgrounds to all commit to one mission for 5 days?
With a precise mix of three ingredients: full commitment, limited collaboration, and intensity. Full commitment provides the raw energy, limited collaboration provides the channel, and intensity focuses it on tangible results.
The selling point for full commitment is different for each of the groups present.
For experts and makers, who are being hired as contractors, a big selling point for a MESA is that there is zero pre-work or post-work. There are no pre-planning calls, followup meetings, feature requests, or client presentations once the 5 days are finished. All that’s asked of them is to be present. This is so rare and cherished in the life of a freelancer, that they tend to jump at the opportunity.
For participants who work full time at organizations or for other reasons can’t join long-term projects, a strictly fixed timeline allows them to know exactly how much time is required. The sprint format allows more people to work on external projects besides self-employed freelancers.
For employees of the client organization, their commitment comes from the chance to work on a unique project that takes them far beyond their normal routine. They are often very grateful to have the chance to work with experienced experts and makers. They gain experience working in a faster-paced, more improvisational way than they’re used to at a large company.
Beyond these considerations, one of the key jobs of the MESA team is to choose a framing that attracts people to the problem, instead of making it a chore. They will often invite experts and makers with a personal or professional connection to the problem, such as inviting an influencer who advocates for healthy eating to a MESA about changing baby food recipes, or a sustainability advocate to a MESA about making product packaging more eco-friendly.
Bárbara Soalheiro, the founder of MESA, often says that “collaboration is an invitation to work without responsibility.” Although the MESA Method is obviously highly collaborative, she is pointing to the lack of individual responsibility that often accompanies so-called “collaborations.”
How do you get each participant to take ownership of their knowledge and skills, and advocate for their point of view? By assigning each person a “pillar of knowledge.”
A big part of the preparation by the MESA team is to break down the problem into “pillars of knowledge,” each one representing a key capability they believe will be needed. This might include “an expert in global supply chains for eco-friendly products,” or “a specialist in the production of affordable baby foods.” These pillars are often framed as intersections or combinations of traditionally defined specialties.
There is usually only one expert invited for each pillar, which means they are the sole representative for that domain. And this person is always a “doer” – someone who has produced real results in this area, not just studied it or talked about it. This kind of individual assignment produces a remarkable level of ownership that is missing from collaborative projects where no one is responsible for anything in particular.
Once the environment has been optimized for productivity, everyone is totally committed, and an appropriate level of collaboration has been established, it’s time for intensity. Like a laser that only activates when all the parameters are just right, this is the point where MESA really begins to shine.
What allows for such intensity is that all the necessary knowledge and skills to make progress are present, all in one place and all at one time. 5 days might not seem like a lot of time, but if you think about it, that’s 40 continuous hours spent on one mission, by one group of people. It might take months in the “real world” to reach 40 hours of time spent on a problem. And that will likely occur as a long series of 2-hour stints, which don’t build the same momentum or conviction as one focused bout.
The Problem Owner has no reason to delay a choice – there will never be a better time or place to make the decisive decisions that determine the fate of their project. With all the conversations and objections and concerns and reservations out on the table, with everyone on the same page, with every facet and angle considered, the only thing left to do is to act.
And act they do.
Unlike other workshops or meetings, the goal of a MESA is not “alignment,” “learnings,” or “clarity.” The goal is to deliver published results. The end result of a MESA is to deliver a working prototype that embodies all the constraints (budget, time, brand image, etc.) the organization is facing, and all the decisions made during the week.
The prototype is, in many ways, the most important and unique element of the MESA Method. Without a tangible working prototype delivered on the final day, the week amounts to a very exhausting brainstorming session.
Getting a bunch of smart people together, it’s very easy to spend endless hours debating. People like to talk as a way of postponing a decision, but that doesn’t make the decision any easier. Switching people from criticizing to making turns off the fault-finding lens, and activates the solution-finding lens. Debates focus on specific, visible features of the prototype, instead of abstract concepts that everyone interprets differently.
The goals of the prototype are many-fold:
- To see if the solution will work, or is just a pipe dream
- To make better decisions, by grounding them in reality
- To build a common vocabulary, which requires specificity
- To lock in the most important strategic decisions, and embody them in something practical
- To demonstrate the solution, instead of describing it
- To make people fight for and challenge the solution, instead of arriving at a lukewarm consensus that no one feels particularly proud of
There are a number of guidelines that MESA Co. has developed to fulfill on all these goals. For example:
- The prototype should be as high fidelity as possible (i.e. as close to a real working product as possible), including functional back-ends whenever feasible
- Stay away from “could be” or “might be” – make firm decisions, make tradeoffs, kill options
- Don’t do user testing (which only leads to diverging opinions and delays the timeline) – trust that the experts, makers, and client employees know their audience and their market, and launch the prototype as-is to accelerate the learning process
The entire prototyping process is massively convergent, raising concerns and either addressing them or eliminating them at a furious pace. It takes a high-fidelity prototype to force the real issues to the surface: can we actually build a product using technology this sophisticated? Can we actually build this new sales channel without damaging existing ones? Will our executives appreciate the importance of this message for our customers?
I believe that the trends of just the last few years have made high-fidelity prototyping possible. Developers can spin up cloud computing instances in minutes with free trials. Designers can use front-end web frameworks to build full-featured web applications in hours. The modularization and SaaS-ification of everything has drastically shortened the time horizon required to build things. That horizon has shrunk to fit within a single week.
Some examples of what these prototypes look like include:
- A retail stand for smartphones that translated what was on the screen into various visual, audio, and tactile experiences, adopted almost as-is by a major consumer electronics brand in their stores
- A beautifully shot video introducing a new ad campaign and strategic direction for a major international food brand, with a final product that adopted almost all of the major elements of the prototype video
- A new recipe for more eco-friendly baby food, produced in an actual commercial kitchen during the MESA week, which strongly influenced the final product
- A completely new sales channel for a major makeup brand that might have directly threatened their primary channel; a quick launch and test showed that it complemented, instead of threatened, their existing channels
There seems to be a kind of inversion at work as the horizon of action shrinks ever smaller. The movement around human-centered design in recent years has introduced us to “user testing” as a crucial part of product development. But in many cases user testing has just added a whole new layer of bureaucracy and delay. It has in some cases made us distrust our intuition and our insights, in favor of “validated learning.”
Perhaps we’ve reached an inflection point, in that we can reach consensus and produce a prototype so quickly, that we can use it as the point of reference for our user testing. Instead of starting from “everything is possible,” and taking months to slowly converge on something tangible, we start with something tangible that takes into account the real constraints that we know the organization will have to face no matter what.
What if instead of seeing user testing as an initial, anticipatory phase of product development, we saw product development as an initial, anticipatory phase of user testing? Maybe “making” could become so compact and efficient that we could make three things in the time it used to take to plan for one.
But this new approach is not just another bureaucratic process to institute. Because a MESA is not a predictable event that can be optimized. It relies on the spontaneity and improvisation of a diverse mix of people. It seems to allow for, if not call for, heroic feats of sacrifice. It is an eminently human phenomenon. The most complex problems have a life of their own, and perhaps they can only be addressed with an equally complex group of humans.
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