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Recap: Herding Pink Elephants Webinar with Stephen Gates


We all should have been together in Boston last week, watching Stephen Gates kick off HOW Design Live 2020—but with the coronavirus pandemic putting life as we know it on hold, we got the next best thing: watching Stephen Gates kick off our brand-new online learning series together from the safety of our homes.

With his free session “Herding Pink Elephants,” Gates launched HOW Design Online—which we hope will bring you one step closer to your design dreams as we wait for a rescheduled HOW Design Live this fall in Atlanta. 

Gates, host of The Crazy One podcast, is Head Design Evangelist at InVision, a company that is 100% remote. So he knows a thing or two about navigating what are uncharted waters to many.

Before we dive into our recap, here are some of the helpful resources that are mentioned during the session:

“A lot of the issues that we’re facing started long before this pandemic,” he says. “These are things we always should have been investing in.”

Gates believes that remote work is a shortcut to exposing a company’s weak points, from leadership to infrastructure. So in this presentation he reveals some of the most common Pink Elephants—those problems that have always been right before our eyes.

Now, Gates says, we have a massive opportunity to address them as we establish the new normal going forward—and how we can thrive within it.

Pink Elephant 1: Cultural Apathy

At every company Gates has worked at, he has encountered a familiar paradigm: Someone proposes something exciting and new. Someone else chimes in and explains the institutional red tape of why it won’t work … and then they add: “Welcome to [company].”

“That is cultural apathy at its finest,” Gates says. It fosters a culture in which it’s easier to keep things the way they’ve always been—broken—versus actually finding a solution.

On his team, Gates has created an Apathy Swear Jar—and he brings it to meetings. Whenever someone drops the dreaded phrase, they also drop $20 in the jar. It thus becomes a tool to raise awareness about how ubiquitous the problem is—and a reminder that designers can forge a better path.

Pink Elephant 2: Fear of Failure

One of Gates’ pet peeves: framing creativity as “light bulb moments”—e.g., something that’s easy, that simply shows up. Another: Companies’ poor reaction to failure.

“Failure is badly positioned learning,” Gates says. “It’s what happens when we don’t share, when we don’t evolve.”

To start to breed a better culture, Gates recommends a “belly flop of the week” system that reward someone who admits that they did something wrong, and reveals what they learned from it. “The idea here is that we need to make these conversations OK. … It’s only failure when we don’t discuss it.”

Pink Elephant 3: Team Mentality

We tend to obsess over processes and methodologies—but Gates says processes and methodologies usually address problems retroactively, and reactively. And ultimately that leads to bloated and overworked processes. Tools like Mission Statements usually don’t work, he says, because they involve lofty goals that don’t translate to the everyday. Instead, he recommends defining behaviors and creating a system of culture cards. Print them off and mail them to employees. Keep yours on hand. Then, when someone is demonstrating a key part of the ideal company culture—say, inviting diverse behaviors, putting customers first—you hold the card up and frame the value in its real-world application. (Conversely, you can also hold up a card in the value’s absence.)

Pink Elephant 4: “Normal”

Especially these days, it’s easy to feel disconnected and overwhelmed—but traditional business etiquette tends to dictate that we suffer in silence. “What is normal right now is that nothing is normal,” Gates says—and companies need to foster a new culture of openness and connection, and empower vulnerability. Make not being OK, OK. Don’t just jump straight to work chat in a Zoom meeting—really check in on your team, and encourage honesty. If you create a mirage of false positivity and all smiles, you’ll eventually lose talent.

Moreover, Gates says, make interruptions on virtual meetings OK, be it the dog or a child’s impromptu visit. “Remote gives you the ability to get to know people in a much more profound and personal way than you ever did at work. You get to see into their homes, you get to see into their families—you get a glimpse of them that was not possible before.”

And make going slower OK. Empower your team to work their own hours, and to do things differently if they need to. “Empathy and humanity are going to matter more than ever, because the teams that don’t do it are going to see a mass exodus.”

Gates says the inescapable truth of everything is the importance of trust—and leaders need to wire themselves to trust and empower their employees. As jazz musicians and sports teams (and even superhero movies) prove, it’s all about trust, and everyone playing their part toward a shared goal. And InVision’s studies prove Gates’ hypothesis—teams with higher trust perform better. They have 106% more energy at work. 75% less stress and 40% less burnout. 50% higher productivity.

Pre-pandemic, in the regular flow of work, creating change might have seemed impossible, Gates says—there was just too much in motion to slow down and look at things anew. And that makes this a prime time to reframe our new normal for a better future.

“This is a once-in-a-generational opportunity for us to do some really rare things: To pause, to evaluate and to evolve,” he says.