Autonomy, mastery, meaning and the future

Can design firms be truly future-focused if they’re not appealing to the next generation?

What will attract the best designers of the future? How do firms give talent the right platforms to make a positive difference? We are obsessed with how design can make a difference in the future so in this episode of Hassell Talks we dive right in.

Even before COVID-19, organisations were undergoing enormous change – a discerning generation was seeking a wildly different career path to the generation before.

The future of design firms is inextricably linked to the future passions, skills, capabilities and empowerment of design talent.

Steve Coster, sat down with Jan Owen AM, Co Chair / Convenor of Learning Creates Australia, and former CEO of Foundation for Young Australians, to explore how design firms that are more eco-centric’, will appeal to designers looking for autonomy, mastery and meaning in their work.

The next generation of talent is saying: We want to do things which are meaningful and will have a meaningful impact on the world’ says Jan - and that means a shift from egocentric to ecocentric organisations.

We know coming generations will face challenges that make the role of design even more relevant, and it’s up to organisations like Hassell to connect talented future creatives and thinkers with opportunities to make a difference to our collective future – and amplify their talent along the way.

Listen to the podcast below and find out more about Hassell and the current opportunities with us.

Hassell Talks

Season 2, Episode 1


Steve Coster, Managing Director 2017-2022


Jan Owen AM, Co Chair / Convenor of Learning Creates Australia, and former CEO of Foundation for Young Australians


Justyna Kazmierczak

I always think about these three things when I’m thinking about kind of next generation of employees: I think about autonomy, mastery, and meaning. That’s the individual, organisational and societal shift that we’re in.”

Jan Owen, AM

Steve Coster introduces episode:

Hi, I’m Steve Coster. This is Hassell Talks, a podcast series exploring the diverse perspectives, open-minded collaborations and creative thoughts that we know be key to navigating the increasing complexities of our world. We’ve been thinking about the future a lot at Hassell, because with things changing the way they are so much, even before COVID-19 arrived, we’ve been putting a lot of thought into what kind of design firm might be needed for the future and how that might be different from design firms that have been needed in the past.

And that of course provides massive opportunities for designers because potentially design becomes more important than ever in the world. But it’s also a challenge in terms of design talent, what people might want or need, or be looking for in a career as designers and the sorts of skills and capabilities they might need in the future.

So I’m super happy to be joined today by Jan Owen. Who’s the co chair and convener of Learning Creates Australia. She’s a patron of Good Design Australia. Until recently she was the CEO for the Foundation for Young Australians for 10 years. She’s been named one of Australia’s true leaders in 2018 and awarded a member of the order of Australia in 2000.

And Jan, you’ve spent a lot of your life thinking about the future and how the future will be different and why that will need different skills, different capabilities, and the different kind of education in particular. Can you tell me a bit about your journey and how you got into this space?

Jan Owen answers

That is such a brilliant question, Steve. I think that most of it was through two avenues. Number one was I was a failed student. Like epically failed. Not just a little bit failed, but like thrown out of three high schools, went to university three times and dropped out. I mean, the only qualification I actually have is my driver’s licence.

Steve Coster asks Jan:

So you were an authentic critic of education from the very beginning.

Jan Owen answers Steve:

I lived it as a critic. And so it wasn’t that I was doing nothing at school. I was doing a heap of things at school. It’s just that there was no way that the school could actually warrant that in any way or give that any kind of credence or articulate that into my learning. Because the backdrop to that of course, was that I was in a family that was highly academic. And I mean, my father was a professor. My father worked with Hewlett Packard on the very first computer that was for retail in the world. He was a chemist.

So I was in this, quite very scientific family and I was the absolute outlier. So although I was doing things, there was no understanding of that in my family. And there was no recognition of it in the system. So I guess that sat with me, but then I started to work with children and young people. And that was really my working life was spent a lot of time around advocating, particularly for those young people who were on the margins, for instance, with children and young people in foster care or state care.

And so in that process of seeing the world from the perspective of, I guess, the most marginalised and the most vulnerable, you start to see pretty quickly where the gaps and where the inequalities are.

Steve Coster asks:

And where the traditional system is sort of biassed.

Jan Owen answers Steve:

And where the traditional system just doesn’t meet people. So it doesn’t just not me, kind of unconventional learners. It also specifically in a very systemic way, doesn’t meet the kind of people on the margins. And fast forward, I guess, I then ended up at, after working with children and young people in state care, after working at Social Ventures Australia helping kind of start the social investment kind of movement and entrepreneurial movement in Australia. I then end up at the Foundation for Young Australians. And that’s where I think I kind of brought it all together. And we doubled down for about six or seven years on research about what the future would look like for young people.

Steve Coster asks:

So tell me a bit more about that because that’s the stuff that really became really topical, right?Timely in the sense that just at the time people were starting to see that the future of work could be quite different. You guys had looked right into it and had a real platform to talk about it.

Jan Owen answers Steve:

I think what we decided to do was think about our role as the Foundation for Young Australians and think about the future. So sort of now and next, rather than just the present and dealing with present issues. And that led us to look at two things. Number one, the broader landscape. So where were we in Australia? How were young people fairing just generally and intergenerationally? So compared to their parents at the same age and stage, where were they? And extremely kind of catastrophically I think difficult piece of work because there was a huge wake up call in that piece of work that said, and this is five years ago, that our young people were in no way under any measures as well off as their parents were at the same age and stage.

Now there’s only one intergenerational promise, Steve. There’s only one. You leave it better for the people behind you on every measure. Young people were actually worse off. And then I think we started to think about, well, where are the things that you really can a difference? And one of those is obviously in work. Because work is more than just the thing you do to earn money. We were watching a generation looking for very different things in work. We were watching a generation looking for meaning and purpose and things that were absolutely never discussed by their parents or their grandparents.

We saw the gap in what was on offer in the education system. And then we saw what was coming, the kind of new economy, the future issues, the kind of global inequality. We saw what was going on in terms of the environment. We saw that in Australia we had an ageing population where by 2040, there’ll be more over 65s than under 25s in this country. We just saw these huge trends. And we said, we’ve got to really start looking at what it means to work and what it means to be educated, and what it means to thrive and succeed.

Steve Coster asks:

You can look at this at a societal level or a systemic level from education, or you can look at it in a really organisational level. I mean, what should organisations be thinking about because of what you’ve learned along the way? What is it that they need to think more about than they have in the past?

Jan Owen answers Steve:

There are three things that I think were really, really interesting. I think the number one was we expect a 15 year old today to have up to 17 jobs in five different industries. But of course that doesn’t translate into 17 different degrees. It doesn’t translate into 17 actual different jobs. Our research really said that the tasks are going to change inside those jobs and you will change industries. And so that’s very, very different. That is a transition from the kind of career ladder that certainly my parents sort of went on. And where you kind of, you went to the bottom of the ladder, you spent your whole life climbing the ladder relentlessly. And that’s very, very different to what we could see, which was what we would describe now as a career portfolio. And on the way there’s a kind of a jungle gym in the middle there.

What was great about that theme is whenever we went to students and said, So, there’s this ladder thing, invisible, invisible, you sort of go on it relentlessly and that’s sort of one path. Or there’s the jungle gym where you might go in and out and up and down and through and back and forwards. What sort of sounds interesting?” Nine out of 10 would say, I’ll take the jungle gym.” Just that idea of it being more expansive and more interesting, I think is good. So that was one big theme.

So this transition from ladder to career portfolio, I think is huge. The other distinguishing feature of our research was that we went to the demand side, straight up at the front end of this. We didn’t sort of go and play around in education. We kind of went to what’s being required.

So I think there’s two things. Number one is something you said before, which is the intersection of all of the skills and capabilities. You could call it careers, or you could call it roles, but just that intersection. I mean, we’ve always said it. I’ve always thought that the best solutions are going to come from not just cross sectoral partnerships, but from cross discipline, multidiscipline, undisciplined, you name it.

So that intersection is really, really, really important. And the skills to work in that intersection are profoundly different to a skill that you need in a siloed or purely technical. So that’s part of the new, and I think that’s why those so-called soft skills, which are now the hard skills come into play, because it doesn’t matter if you are a genius mechanical engineer, if you can’t work, and this is always the case by the way, except that there’s a lot more people in the room.

If you can’t work across all the disciplines and effectively, it doesn’t matter how good you are. It genuinely doesn’t. You will not get the gig. You will not be on the next project team, et cetera, et cetera. So I think that’s a really key part of this story is how have you got the people who are adaptive enough to work in different contexts very authentically, with a sense of security about what their technical skills are, but a huge sense of openness and adaptability about how you’re going to do things.

Because it seems to me that we know why now, we know what the big issues are. We have a huge amount of the what. We have the tools, the know how, we actually have more intelligent people on the planet than there have ever been on the planet. It seems to me, that the question is how. And how is going to be the thing that makes or breaks us.

The second thing we know is that we’ve got like a triple threat. We’re underutilization, unemployment and underemployment right now, very serious. And so, but this whole story about talent and how do you find talent, how do you nurture talent? What is your mindset about talent?

I mean, this is a huge thing and it must come out of the beautiful hallowed halls of HR. It must, it must be a thing that is actually spoken about at the board level and all the way through an organisation all the time. What are we doing? How are we doing? And have we got best practise? Have we gone and asked the last people in to tell the first people in how things could be done differently?

Steve Coster asks:

Yeah. And this is why it’s so great to have you involved in the advisory board for Hassell as of recently because that’s exactly right at the front of every conversation about how to set our firm up in the right way for the future. I mean, the fundamental lever, or one of at least one of the main fundamental levers is trying to get your head around what kind of people they will need to be. How to attract them, how to develop them, how to empower and inspire them to do what they already want to do. But how do you give them a platform that’s suitable for doing it? And it’s really challenging to think about it. I think that’s why I liked the notion of thinking about a future generation by thinking about young people, is it sort of forces you to think further ahead and not just a small iteration.

It’s not about a few development programmes, it’s actually a whole different set of people and how will they be different and how will your organisation need to be different to unlock that potential? Because that’s really the task. And if you don’t provide them with the right kind of platform, you simply won’t get them wanting to come and be part of your organisation and then you’re in real trouble.

Jan Owen answers Steve:

Yeah, that’s right.

Steve Coster asks:

So it really is, I mean, it’s a massive, it’s a massive challenge.

Jan Owen answers Steve:

I mean, all bets are off at the moment about many, many, many things.

Steve Coster asks:

Because of COVID-19 you’re talking about?

Jan Owen answers Steve:

Well how are we going to work and … But also what has emerged of course in every crisis is the kind of don’t waste an opportunity mantra. And so what are the things that were unimaginable that happened and how do you keep that window open long enough to make sense of them? Just, you don’t have to do anything. Nobody’s going to say change your entire organisation because you did one thing differently. But it’s about that sense making, the design principle of kind of discovery and immersion is so powerfully important right now. Because you slam the window and then you’re kind of done for another 10 years or something.

So there’s something here about what are all the experiments that have been done? How do we curate them, understand them, capture them, how do we empower actually our new and young and coming through talent to have a look at those and kind of make sense of them and think about what are the fail fast, but safe experiments that could happen? And in every organisation in the world, that’s a conversation that should be going on.

Steve Coster comments

Sometimes you find people who are resistant to the idea of another generation being invited into the conversation. But for me, this is where it comes to a leadership question about custodianship, not control, right? Like I think most of the good leaders talk about feeling a sense of temporary custodianship for something, for a period of time that you should leave better off than when you came to it.

So the challenge for me is always thinking, Okay, well, five to 10 years from now …” And in my case, thinking about Hassell, Five to 10 years from now who the hell will be around this table then, and will that be better than what we’ve got now? Because if it’s not, we haven’t done what we needed to do.” And so that brings it all very starkly into contrast because if you’re not engaging with what skills they’re going to need in a future environment, if you’re not thinking about how to help them consciously build their confidence and capability to play that role, you’re going to end up going backwards in the future instead of going forwards.

So that usually is enough to make people think, Yeah, wow. Actually, we need to engage with these people straight away, like right now, because every day we don’t is another day that we’re missing an opportunity for them to grow into that space.”

Jan Owen answers Steve:

I think that’s right. And it comes back to that mindset thing that we talked about. Because you do need to help people shift through stages. And we are very poor at this kind of transitioning and eldership and marking time and places for people except the gold pen. There’s something that we’re missing. And so organisations that do have strong cultures and do have people that may stay intergenerationally, there’s a real opportunity to get this right, actually. And to think about and I like to think about it in terms of regeneration, not intergeneration.

What is the regeneration programme here and how do you help the older trees nurture the younger shoots? And regeneration of people and time and talent is absolutely critical. And where is the best use for that talent that we have and how can we build the best intergenerational teams based on mindsets, not based on ages?

Steve Coster comments:

I’d like to link that to something you said earlier about the platform that you set for young people. Because we’ve done a few interesting things in that space, which we found really rewarding as a firm. Like most firms, we get our principal level people together once or twice a year for a sort of principals conference or a partners conference. And that’s sort of fairly predictable. But we got a lot of value out of that as a peer group. And so we realised that maybe the younger people in the business would also get something out of that, which was this sort of breakthrough moment, isn’t it?

So we started a programme of every year flying 30 or so of the up and coming future leaders of the firm together from all around the world and getting them together. And it’s been fascinating to see the energy and thinking, and perspective and challenge that has come out of that forum for us as a firm.

I think it’s one of the best things we do every year, because it really makes you stop and think whether you’re engaged with the right issues in the right way. It’s always challenging, not in a difficult way, but just progressive and forcing us to keep looking ahead, which is really good. And then recently we, at the principals conference, the main leadership conference, we gave an open session to some people from the next gen forum and said they could talk about whatever they thought they should talk about. What message would you get across to the leaders of the organisation?

And it was fantastic. And the kinds of challenges that they posed were exactly as you were saying before, they were big integrated holistic existential questions. These are people saying we’re not here because we’re interested in designing intricate objects. We’re here because we can see an opportunity to engage with ecology and the environment, to engage with the economy, to engage with societal problems through the form of our cities, places and how they get used.

That’s what we want to get our hands on, which is exactly what you’re talking about. It’s like, if that’s what you want to get your hands on, then you have to have a skillset that’s about collaboration and facilitation, and multidisciplinary thinking and mindset because you can’t even start unless you’ve got it.

Jan Owen answers Steve:

Yeah. That’s fantastic that they had that platform and that you did that with them.

Steve Coster says:

It was a little bit scary.

Jan Owen answers Steve:

Yeah. I know all the [inaudible 00:19:57] were like, What are they going to say? Are they going to shoot us down?” But they didn’t you see because they’re brilliant and they went to the next level. I think that there’s such a message around kind of, I always think about these three things all the time when I’m thinking about kind of next generation of employers, I always think about autonomy, mastery, and meaning.

If you can deliver those things, you can deliver the degree of autonomy that you can work on a project and get it done and see it all the way through. And not be a widget in a machine, that’s hugely meaningful and giving that sense of responsibility to a team and being part of that mastery is a … We’ve gone through this kind of a strange world or time where we’re kind of brilliant at just sort of just enough, social media is the best example of this, right? And the last idea of mastery.

Steve Coster says

Real deep expertise.

Jan Owen answers Steve:

Real deep knowledge and expertise, and thinking, and all that comes with that, the discipline that comes with that I think is going to serve people really well, actually in the future. And then meaning to your point about what these younger people, the next gen was saying, we want to do things which are meaningful and will have a meaningful impact on the world. And that is that egocentric to ecocentric organisations. That’s an individual about an organisational and almost a societal shift actually that needs to take and that we’re in.

And you can see it when you talk to those young people.

Steve Coster wraps up:

Well, thanks Jan, for your time. It’s great to have spent time talking to you. I could have spent all day talking to you actually. I’m Steve Coster, and you’ve been listening to an episode of Hassell Talks. If you enjoyed this conversation and would like to hear more, please subscribe and check out our other episodes. Thanks for listening.