(Image courtesy of fineartamerica.com.)

Sometime between 125,000 and 400,000 year ago (there’s debate about exactly when), human existence got a major upgrade. All of the sudden, all kinds of things changed: later bedtimes, better food, fewer bug bites even. Why?

Because of fire.

Discovering that we could burn things was a major epiphany! But it also introduced a new problem: keeping the fire lit. The hearth was a catalyst for the stabilization of community, provided it kept burning. After all, now that you could cook, you had a reason to grow more things. So, farms. And farming meant you could have a more permanent camp. What was once a bunch of nomads on layover became a settlement. But, the fire had to stay lit. Someone always had to be worried about it — whether there was enough fuel, whether it was burning efficiently, whether it was hot enough, whether it was under control.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, what a community needs to remain intact? Today, we’re many layers of abstraction removed from the fires that continually burn to keep our lights on, our houses warm, and our food cooked. But there are still fires we need to tend.

Just recently, I found myself chatting with a new colleague and friend at a dinner organized at the HOW Design Conference. As we waited for our main course to arrive, he asked me a great question:

“How do you keep inspiration and engagement alive on your team?”

I imagined a fire and keeping it lit. And then I thought of all of the ways we do that. We’ve got a bunch of practices that I consider to all be parts of a broad enrichment program for professional development that is central to our culture.

So I shared with him the most recent one that I’m pretty excited about: our book club.

A few months ago, I started putting together a list of current books that cover a wide range of topics relevant to what we do. I put them on a spreadsheet, shared it with the team, and invited everyone to choose a book to read. The deal was simple: I provide the books, they read them and share what they learn with the rest of the team, either as a lunch and learn presentation or several blog posts or both. Everyone signed up.

Ultimately, I want everyone on our team to grab a hold of some aspect of what we do, get excited about it, inspired by it, dig deeper in, and find a way to apply that knowledge in a way that benefits them, their colleagues and their clients. Curiosity, knowledge, and inspiration are all fires that must stay lit for this working community to persist and this tiny bit of structure is what we needed to rekindle them.

I’m excited to see my colleagues chasing after new knowledge, and even more excited to learn from them in the coming months. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes, and you’ll certainly be hearing from them about the books they read right here on the blog.

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