Kristen G: Hi, welcome back to Upright and Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.
I’m so excited to have another episode of season two today. We’re on episode three with Dan Szuc and Jo Wong from Apogee and Make Meaningful Work. I want to introduce them just a little bit. Dan is the co-founder and principle at Apogee and co-founder of Make Meaningful Work, and he’s the co-founder of UX Hong Kong. He’s been involved in the UX field for 25 years and has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He’s lectured about user centered design globally and has co-authored two books including Global UX with Whitney Quesenbery and The Usability Kit with Gerry Gaffney. I also have Daniel’s business partner, Jo Wong, who was also co-founder and principle at Apogee, Make Meaningful Work, and the co-founder of UX Hong Kong. Jo grew up in multicultural Hong Kong with a Chinese Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. She collaborates with global teams conducting research in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. Jo is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems, and how we can live healthier and happier lives while not adversely impacting less fortunate people. She’s co-founder of Apogee and joins us today.
I think I first met Dan in person at a Refresh Portland event hosted by a mutual friend, Matthew Oliphant in maybe … was it mid-2017 or early 2017? When were you last in Portland?
Dan Szuc: You probably remember more than I do, but I think it’s the last couple of years. Yeah. That sounds about right.
Jo Wong: Last year.
Dan Szuc: It was last year. Jo … see Jo’s helping.
Kristen G: Well, you go all over the world it seems.
Dan Szuc: Yeah, we do travel quite a bit. I feel like we’re reminded how much we travel when we meet friends and they say, “Well, you travel a lot.” It often doesn’t feel like we travel a lot, but I guess we do.
Kristen G: Well, do you like traveling? I think that’s probably the first important thing.
Dan Szuc: Yeah, I think we both do. I think travel has a number of benefits to it. Well, I guess if I connect it to the core elements of what we call our bedrock to make meaningful work or effectively to create a bedrock to make meaningful work, it’s made up of four core elements that have come about over the last five years of thinking about a framework to help answer the question of how we can make meaningful work and research.
The four elements are … and they intersect. The first one is character; to be able to understand yourself as an individual and also others, but you could also use character as a way to describe the character of a context or an environment or other objects. Character, as the first circle intersects with perspectives. So, the idea of perspectives as it says is to be able to grow a perspective and gain a perspective and tap into practices to help open up your perspective hopefully as one gets older. Then, perspectives is intersecting with the third circle, which is identification, clarification, and I guess, an iteration through practice with meaning determining what things are important to you, why you work on what you work on, and why you pursue the things that you do in your working life. That is intersecting with impact.
I’m presenting all those four circles not just as an introduction to create bedrock to make meaningful work but to also focus in on … and not solely on perspectives. The travel question is related in a way to all four circles. Not that we have to pick one but if I were to pick one where it sits really nicely, it’s perspectives. Travel outside of what we would describe as your own comfort zone is a way to … travel’s a way to check in with your own biases. Travel is a lovely way to check your biases as related to your assumptions about people and places. It’s also a nice way to check in on what’s described as boundary objects or effectively boundaries to be able to say, “Well, what is over a boundary? What lies just across the other side of the boundary or other side of the fence and then, what lays across the horizon and things you might not be able to see?” Travel’s a lovely way to grow perspective, to remain open, to speak to one of the practices of zooming out, and be able to see that it’s a pretty interesting, diverse, and colorful world out there. Travel does that really nicely.
There are, of course, some downsides to travel as well. I’d say if I were to connect this to what Jo is in part passionate about, I’d say the major downside is just the emissions of doing plane travel and especially long haul travel. That’s probably the biggest downside of it I would think but otherwise, I think we both enjoy it. I’m looking now across to Jo, and I can ask Jo the same like what do you enjoy about travel?
Jo Wong: The most enjoyable is, I think, meeting people; people with different backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds, different locations, and I think, help me see things clearer and help me to reflect as well. That’s what I enjoy most about travel.
Kristen G: I so appreciate the connection just from a simple perspective — travel to make meaningful work — but also from the reflection that you did just then and there. You called out a couple of things I find very interesting; that travel specifically outside of your comfort zone allows you to check biases, to cross barriers, and to challenge assumptions. So much of what I’m trying to do with this podcast and with the guests that I bring on is to ask those questions, how might we do those things, and I’m curious if there are specific places or times that you’ve traveled that have been challenging for you that maybe were outside of your comfort zone.
Dan Szuc: I’ve got some thoughts on that, but this time I’ll let Jo go first.
Jo Wong: I can think of two occasions I think I find it hard. I think it was either 2008 or 2009 when the financial crisis is happening around the world, we were in Paris. We walked past this park and there are quite a lot of homeless people camping there, so we put some food outside one of the tents. There was this guy. I don’t think he was living in that tent. He already spotted us from far and asked us if that’s food. We said, “Yes,” and he said can we give it to him? We said alright. The way he was just eating the food right away, and it really makes it hard to see that.
There was another occasion in San Francisco was very similar. We were just like two streets away from a friend’s place, and there were so many homeless people around. Yeah, it’s very difficult to see that type of things when you travel in countries or cities that are meant to be quite developed. I’m not sure if this is right word … That people are not getting helped from others that are much more well off. Yeah, that’s things that’s hard for me … versus we were in India a few years ago too, but it seems like people are much more happier. I don’t know. Yeah, it’s just the different things that you see from different places kind of give you perspectives and I don’t know … give you more angles to think about things.
Dan Szuc: As I was listening to Jo, I’ve got a couple of thoughts. This was more so when I was living in Australia I guess, and perhaps it was because of geography as well because Australia geographically positioned is a very different geography to say living in Hong Kong in terms region, in terms of place in the world. For Australians, maybe with the exception Perth and maybe with the exception of some of the east coast cities … depends where you’re flying. If you’re flying to New Zealand, it’s not so much of a stretch from the east coast. It’s further if you’re traveling to Perth. If you live in Perth and you travel to say Asia or to Hong Kong, it’s actually not such a long flight but in general I would say to get from anywhere to Australia say to Asia in general or to Europe, it’s a long way. It’s a long way to travel, so I would often hear people say when they return and if they go to a place that is … and this is not to focus on differences but rather touch on it to say if they were to travel from Australia to another country, that feels to them on the surface wildly different across a number of different dimensions including social and economic, perhaps even related to education and literacy and so on and so forth.
It’s very easy to go to those types of countries and simply look at it from the perspective of the presentation layer or what’s just happening on the surface, and then to come back home, to immediately compare those points of reference, and see a huge gap in between. Something that Jo and I talk a lot about in Make Meaningful Work as it relates to frameworks of thinking and models of thinking, if you take that story, it’s easy to compare what seems like one absolute to another absolute and draw all sorts of conclusions. One of the conclusions might be related to … and this is what Jo’s stories reminded me about. It might draw some conclusions around poverty and to be able to say through the eyes of a western construct … and I know that’s a very general term as well. It might be easier to go to another that seems very different on the surface and through a western filter, I’ll be able to say, “Geez, they’re really poor.” On the surface, “Geez, it was hard. I found it difficult. It was so different to home, and I really feel sorry for those people.”
What’s interesting with that is that I understand those feelings, and I don’t necessarily critique those feelings, but it’s also, at times, I feel a very surface layer way of seeing things. Also, at times, somewhat of an arrogant perspective because you’re comparing one absolute to another absolute and you’re drawing conclusions to be able to say … It’s almost like you are implicitly looking down upon people before understanding first where you are without having to compare. Poverty’s interesting because … back to Jo’s story, you go to a place like San Francisco that is contextually very close to probably one of the richest places on the planet as described by Silicon Valley, yet you still see poverty. I’m not talking about just poverty on the streets, visible poverty about homelessness, I’m also talking about poverty of thought.
Poverty of thought’s an interesting one because one might ask what are the contributors to that? If you bring it back to the idea of what’s at the heart of Make Meaningful Work as described as bedrock and be very deliberate to name it bedrock as came out of a conversation with one of the advisors and part of the bedrock core team, Michael Davis Burchat. He mentioned that term at the end of 2017 while we were enjoying a breakfast together in Toronto. I can get into that story a little bit later, but the idea of thinking about character, perspectives, meaning and impact as a contributor to defining bedrock also implies that you are in effect letting go of some of your preconceived ideas of the world. Also, what you’re doing is your contributing, one would hope over time, to multi-modeled and multi-framework ways of thinking to then contribute to, “Well, what could the world look like?”
I guess I’ll conclude this by saying, it’s very easy to go into different contexts and make judgments about it as it pertains to models that you’re used to, and I get that. I really do, but if we can practice letting that go a little bit and then rethinking about it in reference to what we want the futures to be as it pertains to the question of how we can make meaningful work, which really isn’t necessarily about more work. It could in fact be about less work, or the question could be about what is that we can let go of completely and effectively start again? What would that mean? What would that mean for a richer … and not richer necessarily in the financial but a richer sense of body, heart, and mind. Just some really quick thoughts based on Jo’s story.
Kristen G: There’s so much that I would to be able to dive into in so many of those topics just part of the travel and perspectives that can be challenging to take in, but also the kinds of poverty of thought. I can completely understand and relate to that. I also wanted to say this is big stuff and probably quite challenging to a person who thinks or has allowed themselves to be comfortable in a very specific realm, a specific ecosystem of building businesses and working in a “traditional capitalist model.” The kinds of things that make meaningful work might engender could completely change those models, could completely change how work and money and interactions happen. I wonder have you met with some of that feeling from people?
Jo Wong: I think that’s almost the unique proposition of make meaningful work, which is start with the individual. Like the story about these people that you saw on the streets that obviously need help, people started to become numb about things, so I think it’s the same with workplaces. If you see the little things are not right and you don’t say about it or you don’t do something about it, people started to get numb. It’s almost like a blind spot. You don’t see it. It’s the same thing … I’ll give you another story like yesterday, we were in a coffee shop in Hong Kong. It’s a financial district, so most people go to that coffee shop with [inaudible] financial institutes. This person took a coffee from the counter and dropped the receipt on the floor. I don’t think he meant to do that, and he didn’t notice it, but the person next to him, obviously because I was sitting behind, I was observing that situation. I can see him saw that happen, and his body language was telling me that he knows that was happening. The rubbish bin was right next to the counter, and he didn’t pick it up. He pretend not to see it and just walk away.
[inaudible] straight to me that these things happening a lot whether to yourself, your team, to your family, to your friends that the numbness or numb yourself to not seeing these things happens every single day, every single hour. That’s why we trying to use character card to get people to think deeper about themselves, get in touch with how they feel, get in touch with who you are, and do some reflection. I think this is already affecting people’s health, which is one of my passionate area; people’s wellness. If you’re so numb, you don’t feel, you don’t know that you’re not well basically. That’s why when people started to get numbers from all these tests, all of a sudden, you’re sick. Most of the times people don’t realize that these sickness are accumulated of all these negative things that’s tracked inside their body on a cell level. Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that we would like to start with this individual instead of changing the system because we’ve seen so many these change management at the process level or that type of level. It doesn’t work that well.
Jo Wong: Yeah, we tried to kind of work on one person at a time level.
Kristen G: I love that idea. The concept that you just shared; that these almost little pieces of debt and micro-aggressions and things that build up in your body almost in a biological sense … I don’t know the research, but I’d be willing to bet that there probably is research suggesting that there are biological components about built up stress and anxiety from work and from our behaviors. It does seem for somebody who … I work with companies on process, learning and development, and all of these things that are systematic. It’s almost refreshing to think maybe we could just do this individually and change one person at a time, and that would have this cascading, domino effect.
Jo Wong: Yep.
Dan Szuc: Yeah, exactly. What both of you said resonates strongly with me. I guess that coming back to your question … see if I can stitch a couple of things together is that … agree. The starting point of character as the four elements in describing dimensions of character and potentially a multilayered view of character says that a person has an opportunity, hopefully at multi-stages in their life, to be able to say, “Who am I?” and “What am I about?” and “What do I believe?” on that adventure. The idea of helping the individual’s end or individuals as part of teams and communities is important. Thinking about this from what positions you want to start that from, I think there’s something interesting that says that it doesn’t have to start from a point of change.
I’ve been thinking about that a bit. You read articles that talk a lot about change. They use the word “change.” I think Jo just said transformation as a starting point or as a centerpiece to learning. I’m not critical of it yet, but I’m curious about why that has to be or if it is indeed my assumption that it has to be the center piece or the focus. What I think is a nicer way of thinking about it is to say that you should always be learning. If you can exercise your brain, your heart, and your body to always be learning, what might be described in some respects as flow, then you might be in a better position to feel better over time as Jo was describing by wellness, which I think is an admirable thing to be doing every day.
A couple more reflections is it also got me thinking about systems. As much as we think about the individual as described like character, perspectives, meaning, and impact, but we also think about the team as described by character, perspectives, meaning, and impact. We also can’t ignore the organization by character, perspectives, meaning, and impact. Whether we like it or not, we all are part of systems at play. It lends an interesting question to say if you can help the individual get better at being, as Jo said, in part more reflective about themselves without it being selfish, without it being individualistic and by the way, without it having to feel too new age, to actually make it feel … You can borrow a lot from new age thinking, but you can also just see it as one data point … but to also make it very pragmatic and practical for people.
It then suggests that if you can do that for people and open up their mind and heart and give them safe ways to do that with bold, underlined safe, trusting ways, and open ways to that because that can be difficult for some people. It also might suggest that then once they’re starting to do that, they might become more hyper-aware of the systems that they work in. If I think about the coffee shop example that Jo said, and I assume that person did see that piece of paper being dropped on the floor, that person then might say, “Hey, I can see why I need to pick that up,” and they can also connect it through perhaps, “Why are they using paper?” They might connect that to, “Where does paper come from?” and then, they might connect that to trees. Then, they might connect that to nature and so on and so on and … so the cascading effect that you’re describing is very much about a person placed within a system.
Then, the final piece is to say that I thought about templates. Doing this project to create bedrock to make meaningful work is by its nature not easy. One framing might be as you described, the idea of a step at a time shift away from templates and systems that might be in place right now that are clearly evidence-based, clearly hurting the planet. Two days ago, literally two days ago, in Hong Kong you could hardly see 500 meters to 1,000 meters ahead on the horizon because of pollution. We were getting throughout the day alerts about the air quality. You think about that. You think about here we are in some form or instance of the future called 2018, and we’re dealing with a situation of living in, at times, subpar air quality. Now, that’s not a criticism at all. It’s not a criticism of mainland China because the president of China is in Davos, and he’s publicly … and he has been committing to improving the environment in China and improving infrastructure that takes us to sustainable futures, which is marvelous. It will take some time for it to get there.
If you don’t look at this as, “Oh, the government needs to do this,” or “The larger x, y, and z needs to do this,” you just simply bring it back to the person in the coffee shop and say, “What is it that we could do to help a; look at the templates in how we work and live and in b; if you feel or you see there are certain things that just don’t feel right then practice how to either voice it or how to either reflect on it,” and say, “How could I just do that a little bit better? Just do that a little bit better?” That’s the way I see it. I see that the individual and the system are both at play, and I also see that as it relates to your question, creating bedrock to make meaningful work is absolutely about a move from an industrial age way of doing things towards something else.
Now, if I may, the other piece to it, and I do promise this is the last piece of the question, is that it’s too big of a question for Jo and myself to do on our own. Nor do we want to because two brains and two hearts and two bodies are just simply not enough to answer such a big question. If part of the question infers that we’re asking about could there be alternative models to growth at any cost, could there be alternative models to profit at any cost, could there be alternative models to consumerism at any cost, as just a couple of examples, and I’ll tell you there’s enough momentum now in the world saying … and much smarter than us … people saying, “Yes, there are across political, socioeconomic, philosophical, psychological as it relates to cognitive, a whole range of topics that can contribute to answer that question of how can we make meaningful work, which is really saying how can we rethink the way we live and work as templates today and what we want those templates … or maybe we don’t want them to be templates.”
It then suggests at some point in the next couple of years, we’re also going to be thinking about some form of bedrock event, which will then, by its nature, invite people across a number of different domains, topic areas, and thematic of thinking about this and to open up that discussion. I think the minute you open it up, just as we’ve been doing it for ourselves the last five years as a self-imposed learning or PhD, we now over time slowly want to open it up to other people, so we can get other people thinking about this as well and then turning that into some form of action. Just as we’ve met and how it’s linked to these podcasts, it all helps. It all contributes to that forward movement because what we don’t want to do is we don’t want to go backwards. When you recognize something is not the optimal way of doing things, I would rather just stop doing that and in effect … It sounds a bit dramatic but in effect, just let it die and then work with other people on working out what is the more optimal way of doing things and being open to that discussion with more people.
Kristen G: Oh my gosh. All of that resonates with me for so many reasons. What you’ve just said and not to be dramatic but yeah, maybe we should let some of those things die. Maybe some of them are old templates. Some of them are old ways of thinking. I think that we can’t afford to go backwards. We can’t afford to not build businesses and build ways of working and rebuild sometimes our organizations so that the planet and people are more healthy and are more taken care of. I think this way of thinking is a route to that. What I think that I’m hearing from you is that there could be many routes, and that many people need to contribute to this thinking and to this sort of body of knowledge; as you call it a PhD idea.
I was going to ask a question of what is one step that a business founder, an owner, someone in an organization might take, but I think that you actually stated it, which I thought was wonderful. How might you notice the smallest of things that, “Oh gosh, I have this piece of paper, this receipt. Why do I even have to have paper? What can I do to not have to have this extra paper and then what would I do with this paper when I throw it away? Where does it go? Where did it come from? What was it made out of? Is it actually toxic? What happened to the people who made the paper?” That just builds out into these networked questions that allow to make choices I think; that you can then be much more transparent and much more intentional about the way that you operate in the world.
Dan Szuc: Exactly.
Kristen G: I love that. Well, I so appreciate both of you taking time to talk with me today. Is there anything else that you wanted to add and share with listeners?
Dan Szuc: I’ll suggest something and then, I’ll hand over to Jo if she wants to offer up something. This question of creating a bedrock to make meaningful work intentionally implies that it helps, I think, to have a foundation. Part of the hypothesis is as we continue to research this is to say for the individuals and the teams and the organizations, the ongoing research will be to ask does the bedrock or foundation exist? If it doesn’t exist or if it partly exists, what are the benefits and/or the harm of that? If it absolutely doesn’t exist at all, what’s the harm of that? If people are open to creating it, what would be the benefits of it? We still have some research to effectively prove the benefit of having a bedrock.
Related to that is the question in an organizational setting is to say do we want work just to be about production? Is there an opportunity within work to say that when people, for example, answer the question of, “How is work? How’s work going?” do we want the answer to be “busy” or do we want the answer to be something else or a range of things beyond just busy. In other words, do we want work to be something more than just head down, churning away, being busy, hitting targets, and delivery? Maybe what we also want work to be is … and this is a very important part and not unique to the make meaningful work framework and bedrock itself as a platform. We also want work to be a place that we can go and learn but not learn by just doing the production work itself but having opportunities within an organization to practice, and to have explicit programs in place whereby there is peer to peer learning happening; to constantly iterate on bedrock and continue to define it.
Now, what’s interesting is we’re doing that for ourselves, so it’s one thing to talk about it to others, but it’s another thing to also test it on ourselves. It’s going to be interesting for us over the next couple of years is as we head towards something that we’re describing as a bedrock institute, we’re testing this on the workshop called bedrock. We’re testing it on what the digital portion of that could be as it pertains to person to person learning and what that might look like. We’re also testing it with creating an event at some stage to be able to invite other people to talk to, in some respects, what work of the future could look like. I think that’s gonna be very interesting for us, but I’m happy to say and to report that since Michael mentioned bedrock at the end of last year, something shifted. It shifted in a really positive way to effectively give us a nice focus. Make Meaningful Work is a beautiful way to describe framework and a nice way to create a question in a journey that we sometimes describe as from sleepwalking to sparkle, which isn’t necessarily linear. It’s more of an iterative practice.
We have a practice tree. We have the four elements of it of character, meaning, perspectives, and impact, but when Michael mentioned bedrock, something clicked. It gave us what is described in some articles talking about strategy as a North Star. I felt it was the missing piece, so now that we’ve got that, something has accelerated. It’s gonna be really interesting as we now think about product to look at it through the eyes of a workshop, a digital portion of that, or a digital experience within and also an event, and think about that within a possible curriculum of a bedrock institute. To connect that all, and this is the really key part of it … to connect that to the idea that we want people to fall in love with the idea of life learning. Whether that’s as an individual outside of an organization or an individual within an organization or an individual working within a team, there’s something really nice about doing activities, exercises, or tasks that contribute to just being that little bit smarter about things and as we go back to the very beginning of the conversation, opening up your character, your perspective; certainly your perspectives and your meaning and impact.
It’s interesting because I feel like it almost becomes … in a good way and maybe this is not the best word, it almost becomes addictive or intoxicating that the more that you learn and certainly you can’t get away with it, you have to read. You just have to read. The more that you read, the deeper that you inspect things across a diverse set of topics and things. It’s absolutely intoxicating because you then begin to connect with other people who sink into a portfolio of ideas that you have that we call a learning portfolio. You start to be part of a larger conversation. I enjoy that personally. I enjoy that every day with Jo; pretty much every day. It’s lovely to have a learning buddy in that. It’s an extra bonus to have a life partner to do that with, but I think what we also want to do with bedrock is to help people connect with other people that can help guide that type of learning journey for them as well.
That’s sort of gives a glimpse as to what we’re thinking about with the program, what we’re thinking about digitally, and what we plan to do with event and certainly bedrock institute. It’s really gonna be an interesting couple of years ahead, but boy oh boy, if I were to share with whoever’s gonna be listening to this, it’s worth the effort. It’s really worth the slog and the effort to really arrive at a sense of your own make meaningful work. I hope, through our study certainly over the last five years on thinking about this project, through meeting people, talking to people like this or workshopping with people, we can help at least take a first couple of steps to identifying what the bedrock would be for other people as well. I can only say as I’ve come out slightly at the end of this, kind of the other end of it having been stuck a little bit at the end of 2012, learning and being open to learning is a really nice and easy way to create that sense of movement. Eventually over time, if you’re doing it and you’re getting some guides along the way to help you clarify it, you will then begin to arrive at elements that relate to character, perspectives, meaning, and impact that will give you a sense of your bedrock.
That’s been some of my final thoughts on this. Jo, what about you?
Jo Wong: I would like to throw in a little bit of Chinese wisdom into this. Most people are busy and have to work in speed like really fast, so the Chinese character “busy” is made up of two things. One side is heart and the other side is death. For “fast”, one side is heart, the other side is break or dismantled, so all these mode that people have been in are damaging to their heart. That’s why I mentioned about how people are numb. I hope the bedrock project that we have can facilitate to almost put a spark on people to have a little bit of awakening on what they have been doing or the path that they’re on because I think individually, you can do a lot.
I’ll share a final story with you. Last year, we were in Shanghai and after a conference, we having dinner, sitting and talking with people. This lady sitting next to me, she’s working in almost like a innovation lab for a very big Chinese tech company. I don’t know why our conversation start to talking about environment because I think probably the air quality wasn’t that good, and I was talking to her about all these environmental things. You know my thoughts about those things, and I said to her … Her son is eight year old, and I said to her, “Can you imagine that your son since he was born, he hasn’t breathe in fresh air that we were … now, it’s almost like a privilege to breathe some clean air into your lung.” She was in tear. I said, “As an individual, everybody can do a lot.” I said to her, “In your job, you’re in charge of all these future innovations. What kind of materials you choose for your products? What kind of … ” What do you call it? “… circular economy thing that you can do to have a closed loop for your products that you can do?”
There are a lot of things you can do on a daily basis of all these decisions you’re making. As simple as going to a 711, do you buy plastic bottle of water or you just bring your own? That’s as simple as that. You’re talking about we have seven billion people on this planet; … and do something.
Kristen G: I really appreciate that wisdom, and I think it is just that. The concept too of something being life and death and really, actually the way that we work contributes to that death. It’s changeable, right? We can make a decision about whether or not we want to continue to work that way, to behave that way, and what choices we want to make.
Gosh, Dan and Jo, this has been a very enlightening conversation for me. I wish I could continue it for hours. I know that we will many other times, but I just want to say thank you again for your time. We will continue to see you out in the world making meaningful work.
Dan Szuc: Thanks for having us.
Kristen G: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, grow better.