The worn down “dirt path” is the preferred choice and the best answer to the problem.  As I have held this picture up for over 500 leaders, they often smile and acknowledge they have built their own version of “brick paths”. These leaders know their solutions miss the mark in many areas of society: education, health care, transit, water, and housing to name a few.

When I reflect on how I, as a leader of social change, often developed and led initiatives, I have to admit that too often the organization, program, or grant became the core focus.  Placing the person being served squarely in the center just didn’t happen enough.

In almost every instance, the “brick path” solution doesn’t deliver results to the desired level.  Moreover, the results are difficult to sustain or scale up.  This design gap gnawed at me and posed the following questions.

  • Why would good design be primarily for those with financial resources, but not for those with the least in society?
  • How might we design solutions that BEGIN and END with the user?
  • How might we design in a way that is more enduring and scalable by listening to the needs of those we serve?
  • Why as leaders are we drawn to “brick path” solutions?

In my thirty-years of working on social issues at a local, national and international level, I have had the privilege to partner with some of the very best leaders from the private, public, and NGO sectors.  I want to be clear. There are powerful and beautiful examples of high impact work taking place in all corners of the planet. And there are brilliant leaders in all sectors of society. But, at the end of the day, we need to obtain a higher level of impact from the amount of time and money applied to the problems.

When you get courageous leaders to a quiet and safe place, they will admit a few things.

  • The complexity of the problem has gotten bigger than their solution “tool box”.
  • The progress made isn’t enough—nor is it possible to scale up.
  • They don’t know how to design the “new” while running the “now”.
  • They feel alone and stuck.

I recently co-founded Civilla, a center for social innovation, to help courageous leaders reframe social problems so they can discover and implement the “dirt path” solutions.  At Civilla we:

  • reframe complex problems so innovative solutions can be discovered;
  • build a new set of tools that leaders can apply;
  • create empowering mindsets for leaders to guide their decisions;
  • deliver results that create a step, leap or jump change;
  • develop a compass and map for leaders so they can create the new;
  • provide a place that is “oxygen” for courageous leaders.

No leader would say this out loud but, in many ways, leadership roles have become inhumane.  The volume and velocity of change outpaces a leader’s ability to discern the necessary actions required.  Leaders face a complexity ceiling that is difficult to penetrate with existing know how, resources, and strategies.  The lust for certainty by boards, stakeholders, employees, and customers is pushing organizations into a metric rut that causes a loss of perspective, context, and ingenuity.  When combined with the current model of leadership, a superhero of sorts, today’s leaders either become frozen by volume and complexity or they burn out.

The odd thing about this is, when you ask most leaders how they are doing, they will say “doing fine”—never quite able to reveal their own thoughts.  What we have learned at Civilla is that courageous leaders have the ability to be vulnerable, to admit they are unclear about the solutions or even the problems.  These leaders are the ones Civilla seeks to work with.  These leaders have the will to shine a light on their vulnerability and get after entrenched problems in new ways.

At Civilla, we believe in the democratization of design—great design available for all.  We believe that cities, schools, hospitals, transportation systems, and the like can have greater civility, function, and impact when designed first and foremost with the user in mind.  We believe that leaders, freed from the traditional mindsets and methods of problem solving, can unleash powerful and innovative solutions.

Because of those beliefs, we have worked at Civilla to create a space of oxygen for leaders; to offer leaders the capacity of an R&D team for the social and civic sectors;  to build a network of change makers who, together, can find a new way forward; and to poke the universe of leaders to create good design for the benefit of all.




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