The MESA Method is full of firmly held beliefs and sharp distinctions. To understand why they’re so important, you have to understand where they came from. I recently sat down with Bárbara Soalheiro, the founder and CEO of MESA Co., and Lígia Giatti, her number 2, to try and understand the origins of this new way of working.
The journalistic instinct
Bárbara traces the beginnings of MESA all the way back to her first job. After graduating from college, she entered the New Talents program at Editora Abril, the biggest publishing house in Latin America. She worked on a magazine called Superinteressante (meaning “Superinteresting”), which involved diving deep into topics such as mental health or prostitution or alternative medicine for 3 to 4 months at a time, before turning it into a feature piece.
This was the beginning of her fascination with immersive deep dives into interesting topics.
By the time she was 26, Bárbara became one of the youngest ever editor-in-chiefs at Editora Abril. She was charged with a major restructuring of the teen brand Capricho, which included a magazine, a website, a range of licensed products, and events. Her approach was a radical change from the magazine’s past: to treat young girls and their concerns as legitimate and worthy of attention, instead of as trivial and silly.
In 2006 they launched a new edition, and the only story related to beauty was a serious inquiry into why frizzy hair was automatically assumed to be bad. Bárbara recalls thinking hard about why the magazine had been such an important part of her teenage years. She realized that it was the one place that took her concerns seriously. She remarks, “Hair is actually the most important problem in the life of a 13-year old girl!”
Working at these magazines formed the foundation of Bárbara’s career and professional outlook. Her experience as a journalist taught her how to seek out the best person to help her answer a question or solve a problem. It gave her experience in creating products targeted to a very specific audience. And critically, to deliver those tangible products on a regular basis.
Learning by doing
In 2008, Bárbara was invited to work at Fabrica, the communications research center for the Italian clothing brand Benetton in Treviso. There Bárbarta became editor-in-chief of Colors, a magazine founded in 1991 by photographer Oliviero Toscani and art director Tibor Kalman to “show the world to the world.” The magazine looks at social issues around the world through the lens of first-person interviews and attention-grabbing photography.
Colors gave Bárbara’s her first in-depth experience with technology. She worked on the digital transformation of the magazine, turning their website into an early collaborative platform and launching one of the first ever augmented reality issues in the world.
Working on these projects, Bárbara fell in love with an open-ended, improvisational style of working that favored learning by doing. She says: “At Fabrica, this really unique place which I’m really in love with, I had the happiest two years of my life. It was working in an environment that was super chaotic, dramatic and intense. There were no rules. There isn’t a really clear idea why you are there. Some people hate it. It made some people leave because they couldn’t function in an environment like that. But it gave me the opportunity to just do whatever I wanted. And by doing whatever I wanted, to learn how to do it.”
It was during her two years at Fabrica that the idea of MESA was born. She used as her starting point the atmosphere she wanted to create – home-cooked dinners with family and friends seated around a table. She recalls: “It is really important to me, this idea of sharing the same table. So MESA is born from that: sharing the same table, and picking carefully the people who are sitting around this table. And we will make sure that in every group there are all these skills we need to deliver that specific project. And, we make sure that the people come from as different backgrounds as possible. That automatically makes the experience really interesting for everyone.”
In a 74-page Google Doc called “The school,” Bárbara poured out her core beliefs about the best way to work in creative fields, which had emerged from her experience as a journalist, researcher, editor-in-chief, and creative director:
It’s no use waiting for certainty
People want one more study or one more survey to confirm that they are going the right direction. But nothing is 100% certain today. Everything is changing rapidly, and we need to learn to take action anyway.
Making decisions is essential
Decisive decisions carry a team forward. But it takes courage to make a decision when you’re not certain it’s the right one. But if you can’t operate from this place of vulnerability, you’re going to feel ever more vulnerable in this world.
Listen before talking
Thinking you already know the answer is one of the greatest impediments to learning. The best results come from those who are the most open to new ideas.
The problem is always about the whole business
Large organizations tend to treat problems as isolated to one specific division or area. But the greatest problems touch every part of a business. Sometimes the solution can be found in marketing, but sometimes you have to change the product, or make a change in the logistics. Every problem should be treated holistically.
You MUST work with the problem owner
It doesn’t work to “outsource” problems to someone else. The person who is closest to the problem and owns it must be deeply involved in the creation of the solution. If the problem owner can’t participate, there is no MESA.
To work is to create
To work is to create things, which is one of the most fundamental human needs. As such, work should be treated with a certain respect. But often it becomes so procedural and so rote, that people lose touch with the final product or impact it will have.
Returning to Brazil in 2010, Bárbara took on the role of Creative Director at Cubocc, a digital ad agency in São Paulo. She found the transition from journalism to advertising jarring: “Advertising in an agency is a completely different thing and it didn’t make much sense to me, a journalist. One thing I really didn’t get was why I had to solve a problem for Google without people from Google. I used to think: no one knows more about this than my client, why can’t I sit with him and work? It seemed not very smart to me.”
Using her Google Doc as a starting point, the first MESAs were “independent,” in that they weren’t delivered for a corporate client. Bárbara viewed the experience initially as a form of professional education, teaching real-world skills through doing, rather than theory.
She started by inviting well-known professionals to “take the head of the table,” including people like Perry Chen, the founder of Kickstarter; advertising expert and serial entrepreneur Cindy Gallop; and “human cyborg” Neil Harbisson. Together they chose a mission that connected to or advanced the work of these headliner names, which is what drew them. Participants paid for the chance to work up close with these thought leaders.
Bárbara explains her thinking: “The first idea was that when you hear someone speak – in a TED conference, for example – you get very inspired. But it’s only when you work with that person – see how he/she makes decisions, how they solved unexpected problems, where they invest energy and where they don’t – that you really learn from them. And when you are a professional with 5 or 10 years experience what you need isn’t inspiration, but this kind of learning.”
MESA started out as a “school for professionals,” where a team of participants would pay to work with someone known for their creativity, experience, or unique perspective. Unlike any other form of professional learning, the team had to deliver something tangible at the end of 5 or 6 days. Bárbara tested this educational format with 7 MESAs over 16 months, slowly working up the courage and the credibility to pitch it to a paying client.
In 2013, MESA Co. began running MESAs for paying corporate clients. Bárbara hired her first co-leader, Lígia Giatti, who is now her right-hand woman and head of U.S. operations. Together they’ve delivered 140 MESAs for more than 30 clients in 8 countries, for companies like Google, Fiat, Samsung, Nestle, and Coca-Cola.
Never use the word “collaboration”
Over this period of testing and refining the MESA method, new beliefs and principles slowly came to the surface.
During the preparation for one early MESA, Bárbara overheard a member of their small team inviting an external participant to “take part in a collaborative process.” A lightning bolt shot through her – she knew it was wrong, but couldn’t immediately explain why.
The reason soon became clear, and has become one of MESA’s core beliefs: to never use the word “collaboration,” because it invites people to work without responsibility. In the experience of MESA Co., using that word creates an environment where no one is responsible for anything in particular. People will “collaborate” to produce a mediocre, middle-of-the-road solution, which usually isn’t one they are truly proud of.
Bárbara cites as an example working with Fernando Meirelles, the respected Brazilian director of such films as City of God. She needed him to show up at the table as nothing less than “someone who knows how to tell stories with moving pictures that reach millions of people.” He needed to own and to advance that responsibility with all his enthusiasm and energy. Bárbara explains, “If you give someone a territory, they will hold that territory and you will have excellent results.”
It is this belief that inspires many aspects of the “MESA experience.” Invitations are made not to “participate,” but to take direct ownership of a specific ”pillar of knowledge.” Each pillar is essential to the fulfillment of the mission, and unique to that person’s expertise. Even the venue and the place settings are designed to impart a sense of gravity and importance. Every participant must feel that they are there for a reason.
Bárbara explains, “We want the best each person has to offer – when the leader uses the word collaboration, it blocks them from understanding why they need each person…This will make it more likely that you’ll have people you don’t need.”
Results over process
Other core beliefs developed in response to what MESA calls the “Workshop World.” These are default attitudes that have taken root among facilitators over the years, and have become ingrained and unquestioned.
In one early MESA that did not fulfill its mission, Bárbara noticed that the Leader had told participants repeatedly to “trust the process.” She realized that this had caused them to lose focus on the final result, to proceed blindly in the face of evidence that no progress was being made.
She tells people today to NOT trust the process. She explains that “When you emphasize the process, you get something in the middle ground, and the middle ground is never excellent.” The focus should instead be on the final result, and whatever it takes to produce it.
Bárbara cites the example of a MESA in which the participants were 11 year-olds. The initial idea was to have them create a collaborative art project, which would become the homepage of the client company. But then they realized that most kids aren’t good at drawing. They had to make a decision: trust the process and put up with whatever it produces, or change the process in order to produce the best possible results?
They chose the results, and adapted the MESA process to produce it. A professional illustrator was hired to turn the best of the drawings into a homepage that met a high standard of excellence. Although there was some disappointment on the part of the kids, in the end everyone could be proud of the solution they contributed to, even if indirectly.
Lígia explains it this way: “Trusting the process has people think more about the process they’ll be participating in, and less about the result.” And a MESA Leader is focused above all else on the result.
The bigger the challenge, the better the MESA
In more recent years, a few lingering questions about when and where the MESA Method applies have been resolved through experience.
For example, “How big of a challenge can a MESA be used for?” After numerous experiments with a wide range of clients, MESA Co. have concluded that it isn’t the size of the challenge that determines the feasibility. Because the most talented people are driven by the greatest challenges, in Bárbara’s words, “The more difficult the challenge we get, the better the MESA is.”
What does need to be calibrated is the mission and the prototype. The Leader and her team needs to determine what the team can make in a 5-7 day timeframe that will help unlock the problem. This is a question of experience and judgment, to thread the needle between feasibility and ambition.
Bárbara cites a MESA with the Italian automaker Fiat as an example. The problem was, “How can you create a connected car when everyone has a better system in their pocket?” She knew that everyone who had anything to do with cars was thinking hard about this problem. It is an enormous challenge, and MESA Co. had to think of a prototype that would meaningfully advance a solution in just a week.
Following her instincts as a journalist, Bárbara reached for the most talented person she could find: a well-known and respected car designer working in Tokyo on one of the world’s biggest brands. He had never heard of MESA and didn’t know what to expect, but the pitch was irresistible: to fly to Brazil for a week to work directly with the decision makers at Fiat, along with 15 people with all the relevant skills and knowledge he would need.
They knew they couldn’t prototype a car in 5 days, but they could prototype an online store selling connected car accessories. Such a storefront could be created in hours, and would allow for enough learning to forge a path forward for the company.
Anyone can take part in a MESA
Another lingering question was, “Who can participate in and benefit from a MESA?” Internally, the team used the example of a dentist as someone who probably wouldn’t work very well in such a free-form environment.
That is, until they actually had a dentist take part in one. The “cyborg artist and transpecies activist” Neil Harbisson led an independent MESA, and chose as his mission creating a “telepathic tooth” that would allow him to communicate with others subvocally.
They decided that they needed a dentist to advise on the feasibility and health implications of the implant. He turned out to be an enthusiastic and critical contributor, helping develop a hardware prototype that could be tested within one week. Bárbara reports that he had a transformational experience, and has become one of their most ardent supporters.
A new view of diversity
One question I had for Bárbara about the multidisciplinary team that makes up a MESA was, “How do you mitigate the friction between different disciplines?” Working across so many different fields sounds great in theory, but I wanted to know how such a diverse team could work together effectively.
It turns out that it is this very friction that is essential to MESA’s success. Finding themselves in a room of non-specialists, each participant is forced to put aside the jargon, shortcuts, and conventions that are commonly used in their profession, but that can often hide what needs to be revealed. They have to set aside the built-in assumptions of their discipline, introducing what they know in a new way.
One of MESA Co’s most loyal clients is Coca-Cola, and they have done numerous MESAs together. Each and every time, their employees are asked to introduce themselves and their product anew. “But everyone knows what Coke is…” they say, but it is in these re-explanations that new insights are found. Instead of assuming that “everyone knows,” they have to explain it as if no one does.
“Having diversity forces you to go back to the essentials,” Bárbara explains. Each participant begins to see the people around the table as resources, instead of hidebound specialists. This view of diversity is not about keeping up appearances or meeting an artificial quota. It is about producing the best possible results, The MESA team has found again and again that the greater the diversity of the team, the more relevant the solution is to the world. The diversity of the team needs to match the complexity of the challenge.
Five people with the same knowledge and same experience arguing around a table simply do not produce breakthroughs. It is the sixth person, with their new angle and new lens, that can see what no one else can see. This leads Lígia to identify diversity as key to the speed and effectiveness of a MESA: “I don’t believe you can reach the result in 5 days without a diverse group.”
The MESA Method of today is the product of a long journey, including both breakthroughs and breakdowns. It borrows from journalism, advertising, research, branding, and technology to accomplish the seemingly impossible: to “conceive, develop, and prototype something in less than 7 days.”
This requires recruiting the most talented people in the world. As Bárbara describes it, “We look for people who are running some of the most innovative and forward thinking businesses of our time. Real doers who can share their mistakes and learnings and, therefore, accelerate decision-making. We are not talking about a specific pool of professionals that we fish from. We are talking about finding the best person – whoever they are, wherever they are – for that specific challenge. In that sense, MESAs resemble good journalism: go and find who can best help you.”
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