Perspective & Context is the third of Dynamic4’s core values and guiding principles. “Keep sense of perspective, remember the context of what and why, and don’t get lost in the detail”. This is an active reminder to be mindful of how we look at and see things, and the meaning we make – all through the lens of our purpose… the driving why of what we do.
Context is powerful. It shapes our perception. It sets up patterns and relationships. It’s how we make meaning. In cognitive psychology, the context effect impacts how we recognise objects and words, our learning abilities and memory. None of us like to be taken out of context.
There are so many definitions and examples of context. In different contexts. Meta. The etymology of the word is from the Latin contextus “a joining together”. It’s “the surroundings, circumstances, environment, background or settings that determine, specify, or clarify the meaning of an event or other occurrence”. There’s a lot in there.
When we remove the context, we usually remove or change the meaning. The reality is contexts are dynamic. Situations change. The last 18 months have shown how sudden and dramatically that can happen.
The reason this is one of our guiding principles is context matters – for everything but especially in design. Good design always needs to design for the context of use – and the people who will use it.
“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”Eliel Saarinen (Finnish-American Architect)
Perspective, Empathy & Creativity
Perspective is our way of seeing things. Our attitudes and beliefs. Our point of view. When we have a sense of perspective we can see the bigger picture and how things relate in the broader context. We all have our unique perspective shaped by our particular tuning of our cognitive biases through our lived experience and contexts.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”Anais Nin (French-Cuban-American Essayist)
When problem solving, it can be easy to get lost in the detail and only see things from our own perspective. We’re rarely designing for ourselves though – and in a social enterprise context, we’re usually designing for behaviour change to address systemic issues. This means taking a human-centred design approach and building empathy. As I talked about in my People First post, a core part of that is to see things from other people’s perspective but to also feel what others feel – and have the compassionate empathy that moves us to take action.
Intentionally taking different perspectives is also an important part of creativity. We need creativity to solve problems – especially divergent thinking. This involves looking at things differently – including from other people’s perspectives. As Micah Goldwater, a cognitive scientist at USyd says “creativity is found in those moments when your perspective shifts, and you find a new way of looking at things”.
There are plenty of things we can do to get fresh perspectives and be more creative. Simple things like building empathy by talking to people to understand how they see the world – and breaking routines, such as taking a different route to get somewhere – and a 2014 Stanford study found that just walking boosts our creativity and problem solving.
“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.”Edward de Bono
Another simple thing we can do is zoom out.
Zooming Out to See the System
Social enterprises and purpose-driven organisations usually work on very complex problems and are often focused on systemic change. Complex systems have many possible cause-and-effect pathways with a lot of people and interconnected moving parts to the system.
Systems thinking is a holistic approach to understanding the system we’re focusing on. Rather than breaking the system down into separate components and analysing the parts at a point in time and in a vacuum, it looks at how things work in their actual context over time.
Why apply systems thinking? It helps us zoom out to understand the context we’re focused on. It’s easy to get lost in the detail but pausing to zoom out to see the whole gives us a better perspective, which often results in us seeing things in new ways. It’s also important because it helps us see how some of the decisions we make will impact other parts of the system or interconnected systems. Some of these impacts may be unintended consequences that cause harm. With these insights we can make better decisions.
A sense of perspective and context helps not lose sight of what’s important. When we lose perspective and stop seeing the bigger picture, we tend to fixate on things that don’t really matter and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
What I’ve Learnt
Looking Up & Out
Using Jungian based tests (including MBTI – which will trigger some critics) my preference is ENFP (or ENFP-T on 16Personalities)… borderline extrovert, extreme on intuition, feeling, and perceiving. I also know that under sustained stress I often flip to my shadow type. I tend to withdraw and rather than looking at the bigger picture as I normally do, I narrow my focus and look for information to analyse and process rationally – to seek more certainty. These traits have also served me well, but if it becomes my primary way of seeing things for a while, I know it’s probably stress based.
When we went into lockdown a few weeks ago I started what I thought was going to be a little two or three week photo project to help me keep looking up and out. The purpose of it is to give me more incentive to get out for a walk to take my daily photo… and to keep me looking up and out, rather than just sitting and being focused on a screen all day. It looks like it will be going for a while yet…
This project has given me a reason to explore different paths (within my 10km radius) and to look at things differently – seeking different perspectives, lighting, and composition – and keep looking up and out.
Reflect & Refine
As I talked about in my Intent & Direction post, I’ve learnt to always be reflecting and refining – especially when looking to the future. No plan exists in a vacuum. The world has changed and is changing. With any plan over any time horizon, it’s important to regularly reflect on how the context is changing and take different perspectives. What trends are emerging or playing out – and how’s it relevant to our strategy and plan.
I find being mindful, meditating, and other happiness habits are key to helping me keep my sense of perspective. Part of this is regular reflection, including recognising and celebrating the wins – as they happen. As Shawn Achor talks about, there’s always more to be done and it can be easy to fixate on the next thing – pushing happiness over the cognitive horizon as we chase success… I keep working on my happiness habits with the knowledge that success follows happiness. It feels good and is key to me sustaining a healthy headspace.
Dynamic & Adaptable
Contexts and perspectives are always changing. We live within adaptive systems full of adaptive challenges. That’s why our fourth core value and guiding principle is Dynamic & Adaptable. To thrive, we always need to be anticipating and adapting to the dynamic nature of life.
It’s only couple of months now until our 20th birthday – and also the launch of my book Solve Problems That Matter. A new phase of Dynamic4. A change of context and perspective. Over the past few months, I’ve been architecting Dynamic4 v8.0 and the transition is in progress. In part 7 of this series, I’ll reflect on 20 years of Dynamic4 – the different phases we’ve been through and some highlights of the past few years.
In part 8 of this series, I’ll share what Dynamic4 v8.0 is, what that means we’ll focus on, what we’ve transitioned away from doing… and why.
Dynamic4: The 20th Year
It seems a good time to reflect on the journey so far and some key things I’ve learnt on the way. This is Part 6 in a blog series as we count down to our 20th birthday on 1 October 2021.