Arvid Olsson

The social brain and design thinking – nurturing a learning culture within a design consultancy

“Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. Encourage others to talk about themselves. Show respect for other’s opinions. When you are wrong, admit it quickly and empathically.” These are all things we learn in kindergarten. Pretty obvious stuff for most people, wouldn’t you agree?

Still we fail do this time and again as co-workers; we tend to criticize each other and complain, we fail to listen when others speak, and when we’re wrong, it’s the most difficult thing on earth to admit. We know full well what we have to do, but it’s very hard to execute on these social rules. How come these seemingly simple, fundamental values are so difficult to remember and act on in daily life?

We know from our Fjord Trends of 2016, that successful companies are currently investing in employee experiences (EX), to let their employees build critical skills and grow outwards. Successful organizations everywhere are reimagining their workplace processes, structure and culture to stay ahead of competition and remain relevant.

Another trend is Design from within – the evolving of culture as a differentiator, to claim sustainable territory, as it’s becoming increasingly harder to gain sustainable differentiation from technology and business focused innovation alone. A movement rooted in our design community and growing outwards!

Experiential learning is more than the things we build; it is also about the people.

I came to Fjord fresh out of Hyper Island, a creative business school situated in Stockholm and a strong promoter of ‘experiential learning’. If you’re in the business of experience design, you’re probably well acquainted with the formula of building and failing in order to create successful products – it requires a great deal of curiosity. To build truly relevant experiences for others to enjoy, we need to constantly apply a ‘plan, work, reflect and repeat’ approach.

Still, when people have asked me about ‘experiential learning’, I’ve been torn. It’s such an all-encompassing topic. It’s not just about the things we build, but the relationships we maintain and the learnings we acquire from them. It always comes down to people. The biggest ‘aha’ experience for me during my studies, was to suddenly practice how I can increase knowledge about my own depths, as well as others by clashing heads in collaboration. And that’s what experiential learning is all about. It’s commonly called the What and the How. I’ll come back to that…

Stockholm is considered a capital on the digital world map, by some called “The Silicon Valley of Europe”. But what makes our conditions and environment different compared to other countries? Is it the abundance of water? Or the cold winters? Or is it the inclination to stand in line at ICA supermarket? Research shows it might be the latter.

As with everything else, it comes down to people. There is compelling evidence that the experiences people perceive as both the best and the worst in their lives are not individual achievements such as winning awards, but social experiences, such as beginning and ending close relationships. It’s what truly makes an impact on us. The Swedish consensus on “needing to agree” might be easy to pick on by outsiders, but the reason behind it is essentially a desire to strengthen the group, establishing a feeling of belonging and create a place of emotional safety. In that space any opinion can matter, and decision-making is made on equal basis. If we can manage to better harness emotional safety at Fjord, then we can truly allow for a ‘Fail Forward’ culture.

“Our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental than our need for food or shelter” ­
– Matthew Lieberman


Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman researches social cognition and social experience, with particular emphasis on the neural bases of emotion regulation, persuasion, social rejection, self-knowledge, theory of mind, and fairness. He argues that our traditional schools and businesses attempt to minimize social distractions, and this has direct implications on engagement and learning – it literally shuts down our social brain.

A social culture is a learning culture

His research in social neuroscience reveals that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental, more basic, than our need for food or shelter. Social progress dictates an environment which stretches the tolerance for different ways of thinking and expressing thoughts, simply put, different ways of approaching problems. This is ultimately what has made humankind progress through evolution – because a social culture is a learning culture.

We have so many examples of diversity at our office here at Fjord Stockholm, a mostly even mix of men and women, a large variety and abundance of different experiences­ and cultural backgrounds; all of these viewpoints brought together to challenge the unknown and create the unexpected. Still, the only way for these differences to truly shine is by continuously growing a learning culture.

While we say we design for others, actually, the whole point of gathering competences from different industries, huddle them together in compact, agile teams, is to encompass every possible depiction of a user. We are their advocates, thus, in order to innovate for them, we need to deeply understand ourselves. We need better tools to channel that diversity.

So, the What and the How? Well, the what means we already use our knowledge and skills in design thinking to make services for our clients; simply put experience design. We build products, solutions in software systems, answer briefs and deliver projects. But since we as designers have a well-developed intuition to seek out
problems in order to get the right answers, we also have a great opportunity to design how we work; to challenge our interpersonal relationships, improve self-development and ultimately the status quo that exists within siloed, traditional ways of working.

Yep, this means there are tools to help you resolve that messy team conflict, or to grow your own self-awareness. We’re coming back to the how

The What & How01-01

The process toolbox

In the process tool box – there are three fundamental things I would like to highlight; namely Share, Reflect and Feedback. These three themes hold a variety of exercises of which you and your team can explore what works best depending on which stage you are in as a group. Some can and should be executed on a weekly, even daily basis for best result. I will give some easily digestible examples of each:

Share: Daily check-ins / check-outs are a great way of moderating current status of group members – it works kind of like the fuel gauge on a car. It’s a symbolic way of opening or closing a group process, and every member can express a reflection or a feeling to feel seen and heard.

Example of check-in topic: “My current mood and what I need from my team get through the day in the best way possible.”

Checking in emphasizes presence, focus and group commitment; checking ­out emphasizes reflection and symbolic closure. They can easily be combined with the agile standups, and that way you can keep track of both tasks and to dos along with monitoring and aligning wellbeing within the team.

Feedback: You do – I feel – We change. If your team is riding along in a car, feedback is what makes you end up at the destination without getting stuck in quarrels and discomfort, and prevents the risk of crashing in a nearby road sign. Regular feedback is all about timing – feedback is powerful, and the key ingredient in building constructive relationships and thriving teams. Take 30 minutes, sit down and reflect individually, then share between group members on a piece of paper:

“What I appreciate most about you is… What I’d like to see more of… “Feedback is all about focusing on behavior. Keep it intuitive. If you find yourself talking about someone’s ugly t­shirt, you’re getting it sort of backwards. Feedback works two ways, it gives you the opportunity to notify someone of a behaviour that’s been bugging you, but also alerts the other person of something they can improve upon, should they wish to do that.

Reflection: If sharing is the fuel gauge, a reflection session is the gas station. This is where you fill the tank and think about the road you’ve just travelled and how to move ahead. The main purpose of this is for members to express thoughts, feelings and opinions about a shared experience, to build openness and trust in the team, and to draw out key learnings and insights.

Preferably this is done in a quiet, calm space sitting in a circle with the team; first individually reflecting on each question, then sharing in the group.

“What happened during the experience?”

“How did I feel and what were my reactions?

“What insights or conclusions can I draw from the experience?”

“What actions can I take based on what I learned?”

These questions help guide the process, and creates a natural structure for the reflection. It’s very important to keep up the iterative repetition of reflections, to get the continuous learning throughout a project. Once a week is a great pacing, if you can fit it into the project plan.

We need to make a habit of learning from each other on a regular basis to grow an even deeper collaborative approach.

Design thinking is on the move, and in order to stay truly relevant, we need to target ourselves with the very same problem-solving minds we use to build services for our clients. Group performance is a product and need to be evaluated and treated as such. If the project delivery is the goal of the What, then a group’s wellbeing is the goal of the How. We need to make a habit of learning from each other on a regular basis to grow an even deeper collaborative approach. Only through these tools can we better understand ourselves, and truly become the advocate of the users.

Start small. Grow with time. The most important parts of applying the process tools of experiential learning as design practice are frequency, timing, and courage. Make it a routine. Apply when possible. Learn when to approach others and how, lean forward and tune in to the team, dedicate yourself, leave your ego at home and grow the courage to voice your needs as opposed to isolating yourself. This is the way forward, so start today!

Arvid Olsson

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