Drilling down into what solutions are right for you

One of my “side” jobs (meaning outside of being FMC’s Senior Research Associate some hours per week) is working as an independent consultant with individual markets and with networks or state associations on their projects. Often, this comes through FMPP funding or through another grant meant to increase capacity for that market.

This past weekend I went and worked with one of those projects. The board of the market took 3 hours from their off-season Saturday to discuss the strategies they have for increasing their capacity. This funded project (I’ll let them decide if they want to name themselves in this post) has 3 parts: to create a paid position for a market manager and to increase vendor and customer participation.

So to assist them with that thinking, one of the tasks was to lead them in an exercise that they will continue in the next few weeks on their own to decide what and why and how they want to do.

The exercise called Abstract Laddering is one of the human-centered design exercises that I saw and tested at a training in Pittsburgh a few years back, thanks to Knight Foundation funding given to FMC. The training was designed and led by the folks at Luma Institute and if you can convince a funder to pay for your way, I promise it is worth it. The course is offered in different cities and is an engaging and practical course.  Additionally, they offer their materials for purchase which are easy to use, even for a novice. This is similar to the Ideo firm whose work I have followed for some time and also offers their materials which I have read and employed on my own. They actually offer their courses online for much less than Luma but not having taken them, I cannot vouch for the training.

Human-centered design is an excellent way for markets to strategize and to include more people in the decision making. At Luma, the tools they work with are in 3 stages: “Looking, Understanding and Making” and each of those stages has a set of exercises to choose from which allows for dozens of different combinations. The main point to make about this type of design is that it is meant to be iterative, which in design means to allow constant input to alter the course of design and even to go back to square one if the design is not working for people who will use the solution.

The Abstract Laddering exercise is mean to help “reconsider a problem statement by broadening and/or narrowing its focus.”

Markets write lofty goals that are often quite broad into their grants.  This weekend, we focused on one of those: “to expand product variety and amount” which is a typical market goal. However, there are many things to consider in this goal, including what products, and how to encourage this.

The exercise has you write the problem to the right in the middle of a sheet of paper and draw a ladder on the left extending up and down. The up is Why and the down is How.

It is easy to see that this allows for a communication message to emerge in the How but it also encourages a team to expand their question if necessary. What if the expansion of the product goal requires the market to work on policy changes in their city or state? Or if to encourage their vendors to increase their products means resource development for product development is necessary?

The other way allows a team to narrow the focus of the problem  through open discussion. What kind of products? Immediately a board member asked if everyone thought this meant fruits and vegetables only or should they consider valued added or even producer crafts. That question is exactly why this exercise can be helpful.

Using post it notes, they each wrote and placed their ideas for how and why and once done, had a good start to that goal. I promised to transcribe their sheet and then they may create steps and assignments (WHO does this is also to be considered) for How, and for Why to see the many ways one could see this problem.

This entire exercise took less than 30 minutes and offered the board a simple path to designing a solution to their stated problem. They will continue this for the other stated goals and out of that, find a set of steps for each goal that will work within their current capacity.

And if it turns out that their solutions are not to the scale and pace of their market, why then we have other exercises to do that will help them get there.  After all, my goal is to assist them in creating a system that allows for clear and transparent decision making; human-centered design principles certainly help me in that work.



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