I’m sitting in a bar in Managua next to Peter Stanley, the chairman of my board of directors, and we’re drinking cold Toña, the Nicaraguan beer of choice. We’re in the country for our annual meeting, which always involves a site visit to Clinica Verde, our health clinic prototype, along with a long afternoon in a hotel conference room filled with thoughtfully executed PowerPoint presentations. This year, however, we’ve decided to shake things up. The rest of the board is set to arrive within the hour.
“So, what are we supposed to do at this meeting?” I ask Peter. He looks at me, raises his eyebrows and kind of chuckles.
“Just kidding,” I say. “It’ll be great.”
I take a swig of my beer and push down the tail of doubt snaking up my throat. We’ve decided that this year I’ll lead the board in a design thinking workshop to help us shape the future of our organization – because, hey, after four months at the d.school, I’m an expert, right?
Alas, no, I am not. I have only my own experiences and the suggestions of the d.school fellowship director, Justin Ferrell, to equip me. Luckily, one of Justin’s superpowers is making others feel invincible. Because here I am in Central America with my bags of markers, sticky notes, large sheets of paper, and the stated promise that together we will arrive at a shared vision of the future.
My board is comprised of Nicaraguans and Americans, MBAs, MDs and entrepreneurs — people who know what they’re doing and are happy to share it with the world. Will they think the workshop is weird? Will they question its relevancy? More importantly, will I be able to navigate them through this messy process to arrive at a vision that inspires us?
Um … sure I will.
We’ve included, to frame the weekend, a farm-to-table lunch with produce from our clinic’s bio-intensive garden, a jungle zip-lining excursion and an outdoor meeting space with a view that bleeds into the sky above the Pacific. The hotel staff seems modestly concerned when I confirm that, no, I don’t want to move to a conference room and, no, I don’t need the “data show” (projector).
“All I need is a couple of whiteboards, some tables and the view,” I reassure them.
They look at me, smile eagerly and spread white linens on the tables. I narrow my eyes and chew on my lip a bit. “That’s really a nice touch,” I say. “But I think it will be easier for us to work on the bare tables. Thank you so much.”
They remove the cloths.
All of this is, of course, the opposite of awful. As someone who is unenthusiastic about meetings, I was personally psyched. But it’s massively important to me, as a founder and leader of my organization, to provide a meaningful experience that both challenges and excites our awesome team. Peter and I want – we need – tangible results.
“I’m a little worried about that,” I’d confessed to Peter about the tangible part. But he is 100 percent in. He’s thrilled, as a co-founder of a planning and urban design consulting firm, to be introducing design thinking to our organization. Our new vice chair, Kim Smith, is equally pumped. She had encouraged me to provide context and history to prepare the team, and gamely cranked out a survey to give us a baseline on board members’ priorities, talents and dreams for impact.
“Love it,” she said when I sent her a sketch of the plan.
But the truth is, after nearly eight years working side-by-side to bring our vision of a new model of care to life, we are at a crossroads. We have created something wonderful that everyone who visits regards with a kind of awe, but I am tired, feeling guilty about the strains I’ve created for my family and heavily aware of my inability to provide for and support them through my work. When I look at them, I feel the weight of responsibility and privately wonder if it’s fair for me to be who I am.
Our board’s founding vision was global: to create a prototype that transforms how we serve the health needs of families living in poverty. We had no more than an idea when we started — no money, and not even much experience. But we had passion and an excess of faith. I was on a zeal bender, and doubt was a phantom that haunted lesser beasts.
But now – now – most of our founding members have moved into advisory roles. It is just Peter and me, along with our two founding Nicaraguan members, Cristiana Chamorro and Margarita Gurdian. Their calendars are already full without Clinica Verde. Would our new team be able to move us forward? Could we inspire them to believe enough to make the necessary sacrifices – and to put up with me?
I feel both calm and excited moving into the afternoon session. Peter opens with a heartfelt story. He talks about the meaning our work has brought to his life. He stands as he speaks, leaning casually against a wood post with his thumbs hooked in the front pockets of his jeans. I imagine that everyone is thinking the same thing: What a stellar human being. I’d follow that guy. Peter sets a tone of humility and wisdom, and we move easily through some board business before getting to the main item on the agenda: design thinking.
After sharing the early history of Clinica Verde and the goal of the workshop, we begin the first exercise. It’s one that I'd been through during my d.school orientation: Redesigning the carry-on bag. I pair off the group with the idea of diversity of perspective and run the exercise as Justin had suggested.
It starts with partners interviewing each other about their carry-on bags – their experiences, wishes and any stories they can share about the role it plays in their lives. Then, each person redesigns the bag for their partner. The ideas that come out typically prove to be helpful, but nearly everyone designs an incremental way to improve the existing bag: some nifty new pockets, easier access, better organizing units, personalized flair.
After sharing their ideas, I then ask the bigger questions: What is a carry-on bag? Why do you need it? What does it do? Eventually, we arrive at a purpose: To have what you need when you get where you’re going.
Reframing the question leads to new possibilities. How else might you have what you need when you get where you’re going?Does it even have to be a bag? I then ask the group to take another shot at designing for their partner — and creativity blooms.
We flow through the exercise as a Pacific breeze keeps the space cool, then take what we’ve learned about reframing and apply it to our own challenge: What is a clinic? What does it do?And how might we create a new model of health that serves, empowers and delights?
One thing I’ve discovered at the d.school is that it’s tough to imagine a thing to be something other than what we know it to be. We’re conditioned by our previous experiences, and our minds have a way of cataloging those experiences as fixed truths. Even if you’re someone who considers yourself creative, the exercise can feel like a marathon. Is a shoe a shoe, or is it just a way to protect your feet when moving? How you frame the question radically impacts the nature of the solutions.
Our board teams work with focus for 15 minutes, then I capture their ideas. They are thoughtful and deep – some even radical. At one point one of my teammates says, “We’re all throwing out ideas, but we’re not hearing from you. You think about this 24-7. What do you think we should do?”
I pause. “Thinking about something 24-7 is sometimes a hazard,” I say. “That’s why I want to hear your ideas. But I’ll tell you which of them really excite me.”
Inside my head, I’m thinking the parallel thought that's also always on my mind: how can I make this organization not about me? How can I make sure it lasts beyond the days of my zeal and obsession? We’re still a startup, but we’re not my startup. We’re ours. There is no doubt, looking around the room, that the idea that seized me eight years earlier, that caused me to alter my life and subsume so many other desires beneath its mighty will, is much stronger and more hopeful in the shared ownership of this group.
I am no longer tired. My heart feels full.
And the team is all-in.
Not that we haven’t just unleashed a thousand new questions and a dozen other “how might we’s,” but we have the scaffolding we need to move forward. That puts smiles on the faces in the room — and, believe me, smiles are nothing to make light of.
Because here’s something I’ve learned at the d.school that no one explicitly told me. When you trust everyone’s capacity for creativity and wonder, you get a glimpse of humanity that’s nearly perfect. Messy, yeah, but sweet and hopeful and raw and untamable in the most life-affirming way. It’s like watching your child when she takes her first step – startled and a little afraid at the beginning, but then that face-swallowing, globe-eyed grin that says, “This is AMAZING! I can DO this.”
And if we can do “this,” what else can we do? If we can do “this,” then surely there is more. Because with these people, in this place, looking at me now with their globe-eyed grins – well, who knows? Maybe we will build cities, and decode dreams, and weave beauty from waste, tapestries from numbers, physics from poetry.
Sitting in the airport the next day, waiting for my flight home, I see that one of our new board members posted this message on his Facebook page: “Coming back rejuvenated after an exciting few days back in this beautiful country thinking about the future of this great organization. Inspired and humbled by the people I've met these past few days and to be a part of this wonderful team.”
I look out the window at the sun heating up the tarmac and feel pretty sure in that moment: Together, we will multiply light for every breath that follows.