“If I had a million dollars I’d still be at Collective Next, but I’d build my own studio to mash up songs, combine lyrics, mix-up beats on the side…” So waxes Solution Designer Mason Smith, the now not-so-closeted rap fan, whose favorite current album is Macklemore’s Gemini. While he is working on that, Mason says he is more than happy going on family hikes, coaching his kids’ soccer and hockey teams, and rocking out in the car. Every January for the past twelve years, Mason and his brother have traveled to Lake Nokomis in Minnesota to compete in the US Pond Hockey Championships. Their team has had their ups and downs, but one year they may well bring home the grand prize…a golden shovel.
How did you get into this work?
I had just graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in English and my mom gave me “I Could Do Anything If I only Knew What It Was” by Barbara Sher. The book prompts you to imagine your dream job without using any job titles. I wrote that I wanted to be part of a group of people focused on helping others realize their potential to effect change. But I didn’t know how to translate this ambition into a reality. The closest thing I could think of was to become a psychologist so I went back to school and earned a doctoral degree in the field. Through a series of internships, I realized that my passion lay in intervening at both the individual and organizational/systemic level. It was at this point that I became aware of Collective Next. As I learned about their work, I felt like I had found the title-less dream job I had described years earlier. Sometimes I think of my job as “therapy at grand scale”— I help individuals and groups of people articulate their goals, identify roadblocks in the way, and develop the most effective process to remove the roadblocks and achieve their objectives.
What is your favorite part of the job?
I love harnessing and directing human potential towards collective growth. Lev Vygotsky’s model, The Zone of Proximal Development, asserts that the role of the “instructor”—in my case the facilitator—is to create “scaffolding” for learners to move from their comfort zone into their development zone. My job is to design collaborative processes and offer a safe environment that will make it easy for individuals and groups to move from one zone of development to the next. I find it rewarding when people leave a collaborative design session exhausted but fulfilled and with the conviction that they will be happier and more effective in the future.
Can you name a few specific creative interventions of which you are especially proud?
I recently worked with a Fortune 500 company to develop and rollout a new strategy for their operations team. Our intervention involved a multi-phased approach that began with senior leadership and cascaded down through the organization. The first step was to hold a 20-person, two-day, co-design session focused on developing a bold strategy for transforming the organization. Next, we actively engaged the broader, 150-person leadership team through a series of interactive sessions. In these sessions, we introduced the new vision and strategy, provided hands-on learning opportunities, and solicited input and reactions. Rather than feeling the new strategy was imposed upon them, the broader leadership and organization felt invested and excited. In contrast to the high-touch model used in the upfront vision and strategy session, the interactive sessions with the broader leadership were carried out mostly via self-facilitated exercises (Collaborative Learning Maps™) making it a scalable and cost-effective approach.
Another especially rewarding intervention focused on working with a financial services company to develop a new culture around learning that would be in keeping with the larger transformation efforts underway in the organization. We invited 25 leaders from all parts of the organization to participate in a two-month pilot in which they would define their own vision of the ideal learning culture. During the pilot, we facilitated several co-design sessions and assisted the participants in conducting extensive research into effective learning cultures. The pilot culminated in a presentation to the CEO and top 300 leaders of the organization to engage them in their vision of a new learning culture. It was well received and is now being put it in place.
You do a lot of work in the leadership and development space. What is your underlying philosophy?
According to self-determination theory, people thrive under conditions that provide autonomy, the pursuit of mastery, and a well-defined purpose. Our core program, the Leadership and Development Laboratory, which runs for about six months, is structured to promote precisely these conditions.
The accelerated pace of change demands that organizations approach their business strategy, organizational culture, and learning with equal levels of intentionality to ensure their people continue to drive themselves and the organization forward. It used to be that organizations valued their business strategy above all. Then, they began to appreciate the need for an intentional culture to help motivate their people to achieve those business goals. Now, we see more and more leading organizations placing learning at the same level of import.
What is one of your non-work passions?
I love coaching my kids’ hockey and soccer teams. I think what is most important at this phase is not the skills or the details of learning the moves but falling in love with the sport and learning to be a good teammate. My job as a coach is facilitating that experience. Kids are good reminders of what matters. Once while I was in the middle of worrying about team lineups and tactics, I noticed my youngest son running across the field. He was looking down at his feet while he ran with the biggest smile on his face, simply because he was wearing cleats, an official soccer uniform, and running fast in a real game. He was just psyched to be in the game with a bunch of buddies, in a cool outfit, playing the best he could.