Marco Polo Project – designing new practices

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

‘Lots of people talk about engaging with China. You’re one of the few who’s actually doing something about it.’ I received this affirmation from a business manager at the Sydney University China Centre in 2013, after speaking at an Australia China Youth Association event. A number of others have praised my work with Marco Polo Project in similar ways over the years. For a while, this caused me confusion, since my core skillset is about arranging words together. I’m too dim-witted to raise a question in reply to a compliment, so I was left to find the meaning of the statement on my own. Here is what I made of it.

Back then, there was a lot of money flowing to China-stuff, and associated opportunities. I benefited too. There were a lot of public events, roundtables and conferences, with recurring injunctions and recriminations: ‘We must do more of this. We must do less of this.’ As for the details of implementation, what precisely we should do more of and less of, this was not a matter for the future leaders of Australia-China engagement to define.

Major changes in global macro-structures require new micro-structures. Seating arrangements matter when people don’t share the same language, as does acoustics, and turn-taking rules. Good intercultural networking calls for clear instructions. Loose ‘discuss and mingle’ models only shift the burden on the more culturally intelligent participants. Online, sharp editorial choices are needed – or smart algorithms – to break the filter bubble. Established ways of doing things will only replicate existing structures and dynamics. New formats must be designed, and put to the test, then packaged, and shared.

Self-appointed ‘big picture thinkers’ stay well clear of those details, and the efforts involved. After all, public funding and other official accolades are mainly focused on outcomes. I’m an earthy guy at heart, and ill-suited to business as usual. I don’t put much credit in standard outcome frameworks. I like getting my hands dirty, and play in the mud of outputs. Or if I’m not, I look for impact at the nth degree. I guess that’s what they meant by ‘do something’.   

I was reflecting with an Indonesian friend, a few weeks back, on institutional failure to meet the core social needs of migrant populations and international students. For their well-being, as well as for professional success, newcomers need to form supportive, trusting relationships – personal and professional. Which means, at the very least, a chance to follow up on initial conversations. Migrants and international students must also find ways to integrate all the new things they learn about their new context to their existing understanding of the world, and their identity. Yet most events – networking and otherwise – are marketed as opportunities to ‘meet new people’ and ‘learn new things’, and designed in line with that goal.

You know the joke. A man is looking for his keys under a streetlight. ‘Is this where you dropped them?’ asks a supportive passer-by. ‘No, but it’s pitch dark where I did, so I’m looking over here.’ I always think of this when I attend an intercultural get together. I still remember a Facebook conversation on the topic. I was back from yet another disappointing event at some university, with boring speeches and no meaningful encounter. Yet there were prawns and scallops on the buffet table. I wrote a post about it. ‘Why do the people running those events spend so much on food, and nothing on experience?’ It sparked a lively discussion. It led me to finally realise – and accept – that improving participant experience must fall outside what most people consider even possible. Pretentious food and poor design may well not be matters of malice, cowardice, or laziness. Just a lack of imagination. This is where design comes into play. It’s not just about prototyping to figure out what could work: it’s offering something concrete, as a way to shift perceptions of where action is needed, possible, and fruitful. And this is what Marco Polo Project has done over the years. 

We have developed a broad range of new formats and resources. Some have achieved their final form. After numerous iterations, starting in 2012, we landed on Translation Club, a collaborative translation event to build deep intercultural empathy and trigger insights of cultural self-awareness, with low facilitation overheads. Using design-thinking as a template, we developed Design for Diversity, a one day program to train better intercultural collaboration in creative problem solving. Our Marco Polo Manual documents a number of micro-structures, components of facilitated events and programs trialled over the years. We’re still iterating on Culture Flip, a card game to support better language exchange by playing on conversational archetypes, and a few more tools and formats for better networking.

The doing certainly worked, yet we failed at one point in the process. We neglected the work of convincing. We fell short of producing sexy media to document our workshops, anchor assumptions in scientific articles, or get big names to vouch for us. And so, we stayed small. Maybe my new Dr. title will bring about an added layer of legitimacy? Or maybe now is time for scientific retrofitting? Time to make our assumptions explicit, articulate our practice to new trends in language learning, social health and psychology, and make academic sense of our efforts. Then we can focus on sharing the models, in hope to see them scale.

Listen to your anxiety

People in my circles are emotionally literate. They share the general wisdom that we should listen to our bodies and lean into our emotions. We all get in our heads too much. Emotion is our heart’s attempt at telling us something. It’s important, and we should listen.

Not all emotions, though, seem to be treated equal. Sad or angry, we should accept. But if we’re feeling anxious, we should breathe, meditate, or take pills.

I’ve observed this difference with interest. What would happen if we treated anxiety not as a trick of our minds, to cure with better breathing techniques, but as a signal of something important, that our heart is trying to bring to consciousness?   

Over the past year or so, two similar situations prompted a peak of anxiety. On both occasions, I was invited to run a workshop at a digital conference. Organisers hyped up the marketing – it was going to be grandiose, mind-blowing, ground-breaking. It put pressure on me to do well, of course, and I didn’t mind that. But as a presenter, I had access to the backend, and could see what they weren’t doing.

Experience design was neglected. The team was focused on sleek marketing and putting bums on seats – or eyes on screens. Nobody seemed to think through the details of parallel engagement, break-out rooms, or managing different and unpredictable size groups. As a workshop facilitator, this is where my attention went. Online formats are demanding, and new. Smooth transitions between sessions, group size and matching, all those would be the make or break for participants. I knew that I was unlikely to match the promises made.

The first workshop was a minor bomb. Organisers suggested I design for 100 people. Six turned up. Five of them were friends and colleagues. Second one was a bigger bomb. People kept dropping in and out, cameras off. The technical support person let break-out rooms run for longer than I asked for. And to be frank, my content didn’t match the participants’ expectations or interest.

Looking back, I realise that both times, my anxiety was a clear signal that I should have anticipated disappointment – even pull out. I was placed in a position to keep the promises of shiny marketing, without the means to deliver. I was cast in the role, not of educating and exploring truth, but of keeping up appearances on behalf of someone else.  

I’ve been wondering since. What if anxiety was a fine-tuned antenna, signaling collective illusion? Lies create an image of the world distinct from what is true. When discourse is thus splitting representation from reality, we face a choice. Either we maintain the collective illusion, so we can stay connected with the people around. Or we stand up and insist that the emperor is naked, with the risk of finding ourselves ostracised and cast out.

Anxiety marks a fear about the future. Common wisdom says, ‘it’s not about the now, therefore it’s unreal’. Hence breathing and visualisation techniques. I propose a different diagnosis. Anxiety signals an impossible dilemma – a future-oriented double bind. A collective lie is spreading, and I have to choose between the group or the real. No matter what I decide, the future will be tough. It is wise to fear this future. And maybe, the collective call to chill out is nothing but peer-pressure to keep pretending.

Young people face this anxiety. This is precisely what Great Thunberg and the climate kids are shouting about. A refusal to maintain the collective lie that things will be fine. Old white men in boardrooms and corporate jobs face that same anxiety, but their choice to remain silent is too much a part of their identity to change now, unless everyone changes.

Whether we have a way forward is unsure. But maybe, just maybe, we should all start leaning into this pervasive anxiety. It will not solve our collective disconnection from the real, it will not solve climate issues right away, and it will certainly come with an amount of pain. But only by doing this can we collectively return to the real – and stand a chance of building something worthwhile together.

Values cards project – sensuality

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: Let’s start with this. What about, sensuality is about increasing you own sense of calm. ‘The best way to resist a temptation is yield to it’, right? So, when you satisfy your desire, you’re more calm. Temptation is gone. Sensuality, then, is about increasing your capacity to satisfy you own desire. That’s something I actually came to when I reflected on temperance: that paradoxically, if we became more able to gain pleasure, we would crave fewer things. And so, sensuality may be the cornerstone of temperance.

B: Ah, to me, it has more to do with physical distance, and physical contact, how close you are, or you’re willing to be. And this varies person to person.

A: Well, there is something about reciprocity. I like to think of sex as a massage. It’s pleasant, let’s have more of it. But then also, it’s not that meaningful. It’s somehow – interchangeable

B: I like this. But then, is a massage with a masseur sensual or not, and why?

A: OK, the way I like to think of it is this. Sport increases our capacity to act, build up muscles and project ourselves outwards. That’s one of the things we do with our bodies: it’s the shell, and the muscles to punch. But the body’s also a receptive tool, a sensory medium. And there are other practices – Qi gong, mindfulness, I guess that’s what tantra does as well – that are about increasing our capacity to perceive. Sharpen the senses so we understand the world more accurately. And so, sensuality then is about prudence and strategy.

And then, there’s an interesting paradox. Because in a way, if you train yourself to resist pain, it’s probably a good thing right, but then you probably reduce your capacity to feel pleasure as well. And what that means is, to reach the same level of excitement, you need greater stimulus. While sensuality is all about increasing the capacity to feel, so you can get excited faster, and be satisfied faster. And so, what I’m saying is, if the body gets trained too much, that is, if you’re just building the muscles as a shell, then you might be less receptive to pain. That’s what those gym people are about – but then, what about your capacity for pleasure. Pleasure becomes a form of guilt, or weakness, or it’s connected with excess. The simple satisfaction of the senses, that kind of animal well-being, it becomes limited.

B: So what you’re saying is, the more you go to the gym, the less satisfied you are, the more you consume, the more you serve the capitalist machine. I like that. There’s this seires I like. It’s called Bref, and it shows how the Paris metro attacks the five sense. If you’re going to take the metro in Tokyo, you have to block your senses, or it’s unbearable. In an inhuman place, you have to put the reception of the external world on off mode to preserve yourself. And so interestingly, orgies in the metro are super typical of Japanese porn. Fucking in the metro or at the back of the bus, it’s a kind of standard fantasy.

I’ve always found that a bit weird because – here’s a thing – when you do a mindfulness exercise with black chocolate, the quality increases when you try to feel all the flavours. But I tried that with a Mars Bar, and it’s really gross. Industrial chocolate bars only work if you put your sense on off mode, or lose attention.

A: Ha, so here’s a thing that would be fun – run a mindfulness workshop in McDonald’s – mindfully munching through your big mac, feeling the sweetness of the sauce, the crunch of the lettuce, the smell of the meat, savour all the flavours, and feel how shitty the thing is. That’s how we might get rid of it!

 

On distraction

Strengths and weaknesses are context-dependent.

I often hear concentration praised. The capacity to remain unaffected by noise in our environment, stay focused on a complex task, and achieve consistent results over long periods, this is a desirable trait. Not so the tendency to switch off fast: sensitivity codes weakness and incompetence.

Yet excessive concentration can harm. Always follow the usual procedure, irrespective of changes in environmental conditions: surely, nothing bad could ever come out of that? Easily distracted people may be better at adapting – always shifting, always balanced in a fluid world.

Saturation stiffens then? Concentration kills? By the same token, excessive distraction amplifies ambient chaos. Never resist entropy, surely, no wrong could ever come out of that?

The message should not be therefore, how can we concentrate better, or how can we become better lateral thinkers? But rather, when is it appropriate to court distraction, and when is it appropriate to ward it off. Neither teachers nor managers seem to make a very good job of it, unfortunately.

On blurred focus

I have never worked on just one thing for more than a week. For as far as I can remember, I have always juggled professional identities and projects. This has made every utterance of the question ‘what do you do’ an opportunity for self-reflection.

Diversity of practice is core to my sense of freedom. Separate the powers: let not my life depend on just one person or one organisation. Hang on different spots, so that if one thread breaks, the web survives.

At times, this juggling is a source of energy. I can hover from one activity to another over the course of the day, following my own rhythm. I pack in more than I would otherwise, with a sense of joy and independence. But there have been moments when I felt a sense of saturation, experienced as internal panic.

Not that deadlines are pressing, but rather, than my focus becomes unclear. I shift my glance left and right. No matter where I look, everything is on a spectrum from complete blur to slight haze. Nothing is crisp and sharp. I can’t figure ‘what to do next’. The mind flickers. Progress stalls.

Three things will precipitate similar states of uncertainty: when deadlines are too close together, when I work with more than three different sets of people, or when expectations and quality criteria for a project are unclear.

What’s the way ahead? Write a piece like this one. Recenter. Stop, reflect. Take a step back. What is my general goal? Where does everything fit? Then, from the big picture, zoom back on the details, and execute.

On hard work

Yesterday, a friend posted the following on her Facebook wall: “Which of those sounds more true to you? A: You can achieve anything if you set clear goals, believe in yourself, and work hard. B: You can achieve many things if you prepare for an opportunity, see it, and act upon it.”

I publicly rejected A as an assemblage of cliches. To my French mind, ‘work hard’ signals idiocy, palliating the lack of strategic thinking with pure effort. “Believe in yourself’ codes blindness and stupidity. “You can achieve anything” sounds like plain delusion.

All this sounds utterly obvious to me. I was surprised to see people choose “A” or, more disturbingly, “a mix of both”. Since then, I’ve been wondering what kind of mindset would lead to this preference. Goal setting may be the main hinge. Is it about perceiving the shifting patterns of the world, and identifying a way forward among the ripples? Or projecting a vision into the blank space of the future, and self-generating a pathway to this vision?

I’ve always been suspicious of self-proclaimed hard workers. If you ‘work hard’, how will you feel the subtle tremors in the fabric of the world? They tell you where to press, and where resistance will be. If you work a little softer, it’s easier to find the joint – and you won’t have to saw through the bone.

 

 

 

On business books

Last week, I received a new book in the mail: Alex Ostervalder’s Value Proposition Design, a quasi A4-sized illustrated volume in landscape format. It attempts to provide organisations with tools to develop products and services that match customer demand. The book is divided in four colour-coded sections: canvas, design, test, evolve, and offers a series of graded activities to the reader.

Value Proposition Design explores an innovative model of blended publishing. A website offers extensions to the book, including an online test, printable blank canvases, and further exercises. The paper version originally combines text, images and diagrams, is clearly written, and quite an enjoyable read. It sold remarkably well too.

In spite of all these qualities, I doubt if Ostervalder would ever make it to the guest list of a Writers’ Festival. In cultural circles, business books are dirty. They hover halfway between noble writing and instruction manuals for vacuum cleaners.

My first job in Australia was with a strategy unit in government, and I’ve since done my bit of project management. I realised that the skills required in these ‘office jobs’ were exactly those I developed as a novelist. What is the precise sequence of steps required to take a set of characters from A to B? And what is the best way of conveying this information to a reader, so that they understand the complexities involved, both cognitively, and emotionally?

Whenever I enter a bookshop, I leaf through the pages of novels on the front shelf. Few capture the complexities of our contemporary world with such elegance as Ostervalder. Few pay such attention to form. Few shed such a clear light on our present context. Yet I keep returning to the fiction shelf with more reverence, excitement and anticipation than I do when I browse through the business section.

On strategy

We spend a lot of time looking for ways to reach our goals; but spend remarkably little considering what these goals should be. This applies to people and organisations.

Solving the ‘how’ question is a process most of us have mastered. I want a new phone, which one should I choose? I want to see the latest James Bond, where should I go? I want a partner, how do I get one? But often, even with a brain well-trained to find convenience and a good deal, we procrastinate, ponder options, and never act; or follow a course of action, eventually get what we want, and feel no satisfaction.

Corporate strategy is a sexy domain. It is the black box of executive decision-making: setting direction, asking the big questions. Yet the term and practice blur the distinction between the Big What – why are we together and what is it that we do – and the small what – how do we succeed and what do we do next?

The same applies to personal strategy, we blur these two levels. The Machiavellian quest for power, status, wealth – how do I get to my goal – overlaps with the Socratic, Cartesian, Freudian quest for purpose: what should I want, is it what I want, and do I really want it? And so we believe, because we’re making plans and considering options, that we’re deploying wisdom.

On building bridges

“If you’re building a bridge, you can’t think like a farmer”. This is what I almost posted on my Facebook wall earlier. But then I caught myself: farmers observe nature continuously, and may be wiser than most of us city dwellers. The better proposition would be, “if you’re building a bridge, you can’t think like a gold-miner.”

Over the years, as I presented Marco Polo Project to potential partners, funders, even mentors, the same question came popping up: what sector are you in? When I tried explaining that we spanned across industries and countries, and didn’t really fit in any, eyes rolled. Some wise advisors even told me that we’d better locate ourselves more clearly, because if we didn’t, who would ever consider funding us?

Find a niche, hey? I understand your logic, but now tell me: what’s the use of a bridge inside a tunnel? And if you’re building on air, then don’t you think it’s wise to rest your weight on two pillars at least?

No wonder we don’t fit in any clear-cut category: our very purpose determines our structure. Not hiding in the cave, digging for gold, but anchored across a range of sectors: literature and education, multicultural communities and partners internationally. We build connection between them and – like bridges – are neither here, nor there, but in-between.

But hey – if you’re looking to dig a gold-mine, you shouldn’t think like a bridge-builder.