Facilitating my first public Bento

This article is meant as sort of write-up/translation of me facilitating my first public Bento: I wanted to share the experience with the great people of the Bentoism community, most of which can’t understand Italian.

The event

Matteo from Fifth Beat proposed me to speak at their Beat Camp event, on December 22nd and 23rd. There were two afternoon session involving 7 speakers, with two tracks and they were about:

  • Life in a pandemic world
  • The future we are trying to build

I choose the latter because, as much as I had written and spoke a lot about how to deal with work while forced doing it from home during a pandemic, I wanted to speak about “something else”, so introducing Bentoism to an audience of (mostly) designers seemed a good fit on the topic of the future we are trying to build.

My write-up will be about:

  • My introduction
  • The Bento
  • Interesting questions
  • Closing thoughts

My introduction

My first hook was from Fifth Beat’s people words: they have a format of “15 questions to 30 designers” that they publish regularly, and one of these question during the pandemic summer was “What kind of world are we building?”.

Some of the responses where quite in line with most of the themes surrounding Bentoism:

  • Too many useless stuff
  • We build only for endless growth
  • The only goal is increasing the GDP
  • Being in a world that we don’t like, but we are responsible of building
  • Who is this implicit “we”?

This last answer, a provocative thought about who and how much people are involved in this world-building effort, was something that stuck with me as the thread of the entire talk.

Then I brought in some thoughts on how we think about new or future generations: I was pretty harsh in underlining that we speak about new generations only when they come of age, get a job, have some money to spend, hence they become interesting targets for marketing campaigns.

We get upset when Gen Z call everybody who’s not Gen Z a “boomer”, but what do we do to avoid it? Nothing, because we have fundamentally exploitative relationships towards new generations, and we should do better.

To stress these exploitative tendencies even more, I used some concepts from the book “The Good Ancestor” to explain why it is so hard to think about the future, namely:

  • the concept of “colonized future”, where we treat the future as a distant colonial outpost where we can dump anything from social, political, environmental waste into these supposedly inhabited future. There will be people there in the future, and we should really take them into account;
  • the “marshmallow brain” vs. “acorn brain”, a continuous tug-of-war between thinking individualistically in short-term, appeasing our instant gratification, and the larger-than-me, long-term thinking that allowed us to build cathedrals, social movement, and long lasting change along multiple centuries.

Right before jumping into the exercise I explained the origin of Bentoism and the work that Yancey has done in the effort of creating better companies for a better world.

The Bento

The exercise was Yearly Bento one, so the inviting question was “Where should I put my energy in 2021?”: I didn’t do an up-front explanation of the Bento, but instead I did a follow-along, step-by-step introduction.

Right after the exercise, instead of digging deeper with an additional debriefing or another exercise, I explain what are a few of the common patterns that might arise while doing the Bento, namely:

  • Short-termism
  • Dreams deferred
  • Nothing but question

I wanted to reassure the audience that the exercise is simple in its form, but definitely not easy to confront: it’s not a quiz and there are no “right” answers, one can only become progressively more aware over time, by breaking down the yearly exercise in a monthly or weekly exercise, or by re-framing the question.

A closing thought was dedicated to this great quote by Ada Palmer:

“Progress is not inevitable, but it is happening.
It is not transparent, but it is visible.
It is not safe, but it is beneficial. It is not linear, but it is directional.
It is not controllable, but it is us. In fact, it is nothing but us.”

Ada Palmer

Interesting questions

At the end of the exercise there was a brief – it was 5:30PM of December 23rd and I was the last speaker, after all…but still 70 people online — Q&A sessions, and these are the insights that followed.

Can we use the Bento for a project on not for the individual?
Yes, of course, I also got two birds with a stone with this one because another question was about if Bento could be used for an entire company: I told them how Bento was originally born to align companies’ values first, and then was turned into an individual, self-reflection exercise.

But absolutely yes: in its simplicity the exercise can be done by a couple, by a group, by an entire company. Also, the inviting question is what makes a difference, so if it’s a broad or specific, collective or individual.

Can we use it to spot lack of coherence between goals of a group of stakeholders?
Though one, in principle yes. In reality, it depends: it is an exercise that requires a rather high-level of self-awareness so it must be introduced carefully, especially to your clients.

It might be too though for many, I wouldn’t do a Bento as a first exercise with my clients, for example, but maybe, after a while, once we built a certain level of trust, why not.

I invited them to let me know if they are going to try it with some of their clients or on some of their projects.

Do you have some example of futurespective exercises?
While talking about the work I do with teams, I talked about the difference between retrospectives and futurespectives, and Future Backwards is a great futurespective exercise. It entails describing the present (and how we got here), describing the best case future (and how we got there) and then the worst case future (and how we got there).

Then the debriefing is all about avoiding or preventing what might bring us on the path of the worst future, while supporting and enabling anything that can get us on the path of the ideal future. Powerful, a lot of overlaps with Bento of course, but group-based in nature.

Closing thoughts

I’ve been coaching, teaching and facilitating for the past four years: I had a different career before as a software developer, designer and project manager. As I told my mother, I went from “working with computers” to “working with people”.

That leap from computers to people alone is hard, and then there’s working with people in itself, which present quite a few challenges. Especially if you are not a natural born extrovert like myself.

I played around with a number of workshop formats and group activities during the past few years: what I love about Bento is its simplicity, power and, as we tech people like to say: scalability. You can quickly turn this individual exercise into a couple exercise, or a group exercise, or a company-wide exercise. You can work on small questions, big questions, and everything in between.

It was my very first try in facilitating something that didn’t have anything to do with what I do for work, on a huge topic like the “future”, and I felt at ease: the simplicity of the exercise helps but I wanna close this write-up with a huge thank you to Yancey for his example of down-to-Earth leadership and making me think “maybe I can do that too” –— we might not know each other well but rest assured that “maybe I can do that too” is not something I say often.

To the future then, and to more people that say “maybe I can do that too”.

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