This is the penultimate post in the Tales from Universitas series. We started the month with the story of the Chinese Walk and followed up last week with our exclusive interview with Telefónica COO and frequent Universitas speaker José María Álvarez-Pallete. Here, in advance of our closing special announcement next week, we share some current thoughts on the nexus of the two main areas of focus at The LAB: executive health and design thinking. We build on content in the Sustaining Executive Performance book, specifically the chapter on Design Your Life, with these ideas being developed further in a forthcoming article to be published in The European Business Review.

Since March 2012 8088 people have passed through the doors at Universitas Telefónica. The data further shows that in addition to the transversal Sustaining Executive Performance (SEP) course which all have attended, they have been there to complete a total of 11 courses in areas including leading high performing teams, innovation, change, and general management. These courses have either been delivered internally by Telefónica staff or by external providers including including IMDOxford Leadership, and IESE. The pattern is the same. Each of those 8088 people arrive in the middle of a 122 hectare natural park on a Monday evening and depart after a fine Friday tapas lunch. But what happens in those three and a half days? Many things of course. The days are long but packed with experience and insight. Indeed, I often remark that:

At Universitas the days are long but the weeks are short.

If I were to best summarise those three and a half days of experience and insight I think those 8088 people have done one simple thing: they have designed themselves. Actually, in applying Stanford Professor Larry Leifer's 2nd law of design with whom I studied in 2001, “that all design is re-design” they have re-designed themselves. Let me explain.

Design is about finding a better way. Not just a better product or service but a better way of satisfying human needs. And those 8088 (mostly) Telefónica employees have looked to address their own needs, not just regarding knowledge acquisition, not even just for their professional selves, but to become better human beings.

Design is of course about process, and the quest for personal progress that is at the core of those three and a half days isn't just confined to SEP. The Universitas Telefónica team, led by Chief Learning Officer Rory Simpson and overseen by Chief Human Resources Officer Bernardo Quinn, have designed a program portfolio that offers ample opportunity to develop the whole person. Indeed, it is a Corporate University that is in many ways very un-corporate, encouraging the type of individual thought and disruptive action that turns good companies into great ones, but which is nevertheless a risky and challenging task.

Given this supportive context, both for The LAB as a provider and program attendees, we formally integrate design into SEP in four main ways:

We encourage deep observation: The location of Universitas, far from the urban centre, lends itself to deep observation and reflection. We encourage participants to employ a designer’s eye, by reflecting on the rationale on why something exists and attempting to observe a commonly seen view as if for the first time. Mindfulness has been a part of the SEP program since the beginning and most of that is present in a dynamic sense through mindful practice. Mindfulness walks for example allow participants to appreciate the value of silence and the use of non-visual senses.

We encourage re-connection with basic human needs: Running in the hamster wheel of daily corporate life can de-humanise the best of us. In SEP we emphasise the importance of basic human needs for long-term performance and positive leadership. For example, we trace on several levels the business case of physical movement which helps performance, and highlight the negative effects on human relationships and empathy that result from an irresponsible use of mobile devices.

We encourage trying something for the first time: Failure and experimentation are valuable elements of design. For that value to be realized they have to be carried out in the correct way, and one element is experimenting and failing in a context that is non-mission critical. We emphasise Universitas as a safe place, a place where you may experiment, fail, try something for the first time. In those three and a half days participants may better understand the cause and effect of their actions before going back to the reality of daily business life.

We encourage taking a dual view: This element helps to develop an understanding of iteration. Inspired by a common Universitas metaphor of getting on the balcony we practice viewing a situation close up, and at distance. Day-to-day business is mostly characterized by a close up view of many problems, and in many ways attendance at Universitas (through actions such as deep observation and reflection) allows distance from a situation, or getting on the balcony. Yet the iterative view of design is required to reap the value of that distance. Some level of intervention is required after observing from the balcony in order to fully test if those observations are correct, before repeating the cycle. We practice this dual view in something called the triangle exercise. With the class group randomly distributed into triangles of three persons each on the Universitas football pitch, we move while attempting to maintain the different triangle shapes. Observers from a vantage point high above the pitch see the patterns emerge and the source of harmony and chaos, but are powerless to intervene. Those on the pitch may affect quite a rapid change in the overall dynamic but fail to see the big picture. Such a dual view can be applied to similarly opposing views; short and long-term business results, or operations and innovation. As stated by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 

“the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Design, and specifically iteration, allows us to action that belief.

And that’s it for this week. Just a final note of appreciation for the encouragement I’ve received since 2012, from the team at Universitas and NH Hotels, and of course to those 8088 Universitas alumni who have been brave enough to re-design their lives.