Depending on your job, your political persuasion and where you call home, the word “energy” conjures images of solar panels, windmills, gas stations or coal mines. Or, it can bring to mind oil spills and oil bills. For the most part, humans being humans in the twenty-first century, we tend to think of energy as something we control.

In a time of politicized resources, we forget about another kind of energy to manage—the human kind. Tweet This Quote

What we often forget, in this time of politicized resources, is that we have another precious energy to manage: the human kind—the one we need a lot of in order to solve the nasty problems we face.

For entrepreneurs more than anyone else, time and energy are precious and never in adequate supply. Chasing opportunities that are never realized is not just a waste of time, it can be life threatening.

But anyone committed to social or environmental justice who is paying attention to all the things that need to be done, or fixed, or turned around, is exhausted. There is more to do than any single person or community or city or country could ever manage on its own, yet each of us already has requests for our time and attention far beyond what we can possibly handle.

So we get together to talk about it. We have meetings, conferences, consortiums, conversations—all in the hope that ideas will emerge, and that those ideas will be the ones that change our trajectory.

For entrepreneurs more than anyone else, time and energy are precious and never in adequate supply. Tweet This Quote

What I’m going to say next may be a bit too direct for some, but stating the obvious is required given the urgency of what we want to accomplish. We are all familiar with the convening dynamic: the gathering in groups of smart people who are extremely committed to “Doing Something”; “Giving Back”; “Changing the World”—whatever we call it.

In these gatherings, half the time is taken up by everyone going “around the room” to introduce themselves: who they are; what they think; what they care about. (In the interest of time I will skip, here, the grandstanding dynamics that can accompany this ritual, including the time a woman asked a room of one hundred experts gathered by the National Academy of Sciences to engage in a mini-meditation as the preface to her ever-so-long introduction to herself).

Another nine-tenths of the second half goes to surfacing ideas, one at a time, typically by those most fond of holding the floor to talk about what they think. Sometimes, these ideas are not being done already, and every once in a while, they are excellent and deserve to be developed, researched, even implemented. People leave with greater or lesser commitments to get together and keep the momentum going.

There is more to do than any single person, community, city or country could ever manage on its own. Tweet This Quote

Yet almost inevitably, we go back to our daily lives, where we are still exhausted and overworked. The great convening and the great ideas fade away. That’s because the people in the room with the experience and the connections to make something lasting happen are the ones with the least time available to follow up. We tell ourselves we should feel good about having gotten together and that there were some really good ideas that emerged. But we know it’s not enough.

So why don’t we design for the reality of this dynamic instead of pretending that if we just get together one more time, with the right group of people, the outcome will be different?

We don’t typically succeed in follow through, because there isn’t an implementation process that helps diverse people, with varying amounts of time and experience, work together.

At conferences, great ideas emerge that we hope will change our trajectory—but then we go back to our daily lives and rarely follow up. Tweet This Quote

We have a methodology for coming up with ideas (design thinking) that has been adopted by businesses, educational institutions and non-profits around the world. But we flounder and run out of steam when we try to collaborate in developing and prototyping these ideas or implementing them at scale. The way we work together in solving the problems we face is a critical but overlooked aspect of impact design.

Methodologies for getting stuff done are everywhere. The way movies are made is a great example. So is the way buildings get built, or new products or divisions get launched by corporations. It’s not brain surgery, but it’s a ballet that needs to be intentionally choreographed. The trick is to put it in place, and to link the idea generation to the evaluation, prototyping and making or doing. Here’s what it takes:

A deliberate conversation

Ideally before people leave the convening, they discuss what success is for the idea, what talent, resources and time it will take, and who wants to be on the team. Not a vague conversation, of the “I’ll be in touch” kind, but an honest conversation about what everyone wants and what they can give. An important part of the deliberate conversation is, who is going to pay for this? Are people expected to donate their time? Is there money to be raised? Who will do it, and how much is needed? Have this conversation up front, so people can decide if they can live with the answer. Then, if money is needed, there’s time to figure out how to creatively find it.

The way we collaborate in solving problems we face is a critical but overlooked aspect of impact design. Tweet This Quote

An “owner” of the project

Someone who says, I will take the lead, not just in making this happen, but making it great. This is someone who has the time and passion and experience (not one out of three). If you are an entrepreneur and it’s your mission on the line, this is you. You can assign someone on your team, but you should stay central to the collaboration so you can act as the accelerator and director of it.

A “producer”

This is the person in charge of keeping all of the trains running on time and all of the calendars synced. I love great producers. They are a pain in the butt because they demand specifics instead of generalities, but they are amazing, and so critical.

A strategy and plan

Determine how people can contribute what is needed, what they can commit to, and how to keep the project flowing. Filmmakers do an amazing job of this. This doesn’t have to be a big deal, and it can be very simple, depending on the idea to be developed. (Of course, it can get very complex if that’s what’s called for as well.) The point is that nothing ever gets done without it.

We need to stop wasting our own energy and treat it as a precious resource needed for survival. Tweet This Quote

A name

Let’s name this process something cool so people don’t forget to do it after every meeting or conversation where something worth developing emerges.

I’d like to find out what happens when we stop wasting our own energy and treat it as a precious resource needed for survival.

Cheryl Heller

Author Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, founder of design lab CommonWise, and a pioneer in social impact design. Cheryl received the AIGA medal for her contribution to the field of design in 2014. She is the former Board Chair and founding faculty for the