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MESA Co. considers their method not just a problem-solving tool, but an entirely new way of working. As their ambitions have grown, they’ve begun looking toward a future in which this way of conducting work is nothing more than common sense.
In this article, I’ll outline a vision for what the future of work might look like if MESA has its way.
The era of the briefing is over
Central to the work of so many creative agencies and consulting firms is “the brief.” It is the starting point of every gig. The bible that guides the project to completion. But MESA believes that the era of briefs is over, for several reasons.
First, because the assumption underlying briefs has become outdated: that a problem can be fully communicated in a written document. In fact, there is no way for the problem owner to ever convey everything they know. They don’t even know everything they know. So how can you?
Second, because briefs are a formal, bureaucratic process designed to satisfy the needs of administrators, not doers. No one ever writes “I don’t know” in a brief. They fill in some kind of answer, or more commonly, omit that section altogether. It is much easier, on the other hand, to say “I don’t know” in a group setting. This “not knowing” is the opening a maker needs to start exploring. Filling out forms only postpones the learning.
And third, because briefs do not get people excited to work on a project. Especially when working across silos or companies, it is critical to get everyone excited and eager to jump in. Handing them a long, dry document is just about the worst way to do so. MESA doesn’t allow clients to give participants a brief at any point. It would defeat the very energy they are trying to create.
What will replace the venerable brief? A mission. But it’s not enough to just change what you call it. A mission brings with it a certain context. Missions are completed by small, dedicated teams focusing completely on an objective. Missions strive for important and strategic outcomes under uncertain circumstances. There is an element of risk in completing a mission.
The future of work that MESA envisions is one in which boring briefs are replaced by challenging, but meaningful missions targeting the world’s most pressing issues.
We believe in doing
One of MESA’s favorite slogans is “We believe in doing.” The subtext continues, “…rather than debating.” This imperative runs deep in their culture – that it is doing that produces progress, not talking.
Their standard of success is not any of the typical ones used by most agencies or consultants: meeting the deadline, on-time and on-budget performance, customer satisfaction, or complying with the letter of the brief. A successful MESA is one in which the prototype becomes real.
It is a punishing standard, since so much of what makes a prototype into a real product is outside MESA’s control. No agency would touch such a metric with a ten-foot pole. But it is essential to MESA’s outlook on what they are working for: something real in the hands of real people, not a prototype on a shelf. Large companies now have the talent to do the hard thinking. What they hire MESA for is to help them take the next step into action.
Founder and CEO Bárbara explains that, without holding themselves to such a standard, it would be too easy to fall back into the “workshop world.” She recounts that out of 140 MESAs, there are only 7 that didn’t produce a successful prototype. She counts these as failures, even though the client got value from the experience.
The future of work that MESA envisions is one in which consultants, contractors, agencies, and even employees take responsibility for the ultimate results of their work, instead of just fulfilling their own narrow duties.
Social responsibility will be part of every product
Looking at MESA Co’s client list sometimes inspires a raised eyebrow – they work frequently with companies like Coca-Cola, Dow Agro, Nestle, and McDonald’s that have been criticized in an era of corporate responsibility.
MESA Co’s mindset is one of positive engagement. By working closely with these companies, they have found that they are able to shift how the company thinks about their impact on the world. When first formulating the mission and inviting external participants, it quickly becomes clear that the product has to have a connection to a worthy cause or important problem. Otherwise, experts and makers just won’t be interested in helping. The MESA process reveals that making socially responsible products is not just a marketing strategy anymore. It is essential for attracting the best talent.
This is a different approach to corporate responsibility. Instead of shaming or isolating companies and their products, they are invited to excel and to innovate beyond the constraints that currently lead them into questionable behavior. This makes them the source and the owner of their corporate responsibility, instead of just minimally complying.
The future of work that MESA envisions is one in which companies do good while doing well, not because it looks good, but because it delivers the best possible results.
The conviction of the maker
We are living in the midst of the “Maker Movement.” Around the globe, garage hobbyists and weekend warriors are making software, hardware, and content for side income, for fun and learning, or to solve a problem in their community
But in the future, everyone will need to have the attitude of a maker. They’ll need to know how to make things of high quality, even if that’s just a webpage, a text document, or a well-crafted email. They will need to have ownership over what they make, advocating for it in their organizations. They will need a spirit of curiosity and constant learning, to stay abreast of the changes rocking every profession and industry.
As Bárbara Soalheiro says, “Part of what we do is trying to understand how things are made. And that breaks this idea that there is a certain path that you have to follow. Participants get a better understanding that it can be easier than they thought, more in their hands than they thought. They get a better understanding that everything there is has been created. And if everything there is, is created, then I can create something that is completely new. Or that someone hasn’t told me to do before.”
Makers know how things work, or they know how to figure it out. They know that anything can be hacked. They understand that anything can be modified, enhanced, or adapted if you open the cover and tweak things. This “hacker” mindset is often totally foreign to people working in large companies, who are used to relying on a process for everything they need. Working with the MESA Co. staff and external experts and makers, they quickly learn that there is no prescribed path you have to follow to make most things. If you leave out what isn’t essential, you can often create a prototype in a matter of hours that gives you most of the learnings of the full-fledged version.
Working on concrete, functional prototypes has a final benefit: it is very clear what everyone needs to do after the MESA ends. There is a jerry-rigged but coherent thing sitting on someone’s desk, not just a pile of “takeaways” to decipher. In some cases, this prototype can be taken directly into production, instead of spending months in deliberations.
The future of work that MESA envisions is one in which people work out of personal conviction, not obligation. This conviction comes from personal involvement in the nitty gritty details, and seeing how every detail determines the final impact on someone with a need.
The power of feminine leadership
It’s hard to ignore that MESA is a company founded and led almost exclusively by women. Although this was not an explicit intention, it also wasn’t an accident.
Bárbara explains the connection to MESA’s founding metaphor: “A MESA is always better when it closely resembles one of those long lunches, where you enjoy yourself, but also have a conversation and argue. There’s something powerful in receiving someone well, in taking care of whoever shows up. And that seems very feminine to me.
One of the key roles in every MESA is “Experience Leader.” This person takes care of every little detail, from the place settings to the interior decoration to the food. The job of the Experience Leader is to make sure that everyone feels comfortable and at home. And this role has always been filled by a woman.
Contrasting feminine leadership with the masculine version that is so often the default, Bárbara says, “I think men really feel a pressure to be at the center of attention…Women tend to be more comfortable with the number 2 position. And there’s something very cool about that, in being okay with doing good work alongside someone you consider incredible…It would be a problem if everyone had to always be #1.”
For MESA Co., feminine leadership is about realizing that the more people shine, the better the MESA will be. It is about realizing that it doesn’t take away your power to give power to others. Power is multiplicative – the more you give away, the more you have. The MESA experience naturally tends to loosen the grip that people have on protecting their egos.
As Bárbara puts it, “It is about involving them in the situation that we all need to do this, we only have a couple of days, so you don’t really have time to bullshit, to be very ego-centric. It was very interesting when we started working with companies, bringing decisionmakers like presidents, owners of companies to the table, how the format didn’t allow them the space for their egos…That causes people to finally understand what collaboration is about. It is not about being nice, it is not about doing good to the world, it is about finding the perfect match between your self-motivation and a collective, shared motivation.”
The future of work that MESA envisions is one in which the viewpoints and the opinions of a talented group of professionals can become subsumed into a collective mission. Not against their will, and not forever, but occasionally, in service of a mission that is greater than any single person.
The MESA Co. team doesn’t often talk about it, but there is a transformation that happens in the week, sometimes and for some people.
Creative, talented people, sequestered in a room and pushed to the edge of their capabilities, find themselves amazed at how much can be accomplished in how little time. For the first time, they see something through from beginning to end, and show it to the world as their own creation.
Bárbara describes this epiphany: “It is the same feeling you get from when you bake a cake for the first time. The cake wasn’t there. You just have flour, eggs, and sugar. And then you take it out of the oven and then it’s a cake. If you have ever baked a cake, you know that feeling. It is really powerful.”
The transformation is conceiving of oneself as a creator. As the source of everything that could be. The future of work that MESA envisions is a future of our own creation.
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