Language Is Key, but Context Is King (Dean DiStasio)

Ben is joined by artist Dean Distasio to explore what it takes to create transformative conversations through complexity-informed artistic works. Dean shares his process and offers unique perspective on networks, narrative, and the importance of language and context.

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Intro / Outro Music by DJ Quads


Ben: Hello and welcome to episode seven of the Hired Thought podcast. Today I am very happy to be joined by Dean Distasio, and what I’m going to ask him to do is to introduce himself, but in the form of a story. And this story begins with me receiving an envelope on my front doorstep from FedEx.

It was labeled urgent delivery, and I had this panic moment. It was like, oh no. What would someone send me that was urgent delivery? There’s no way this can be good news. But then I open it up, and it is a print, a beautiful print of one of Dean’s works. It’s a concept proof. And it is absolutely gorgeous. So Dean, what led you to send this to me?

Dean: Well, first of all, I’d say if you look at the back, it’s a subpoena, so that urgent letter was a… No, I’m kidding.

Yeah. So I’m a technologist by trade. I’m in the agile space is, as they say, so I’m an agile coach. And the picture is kind of a result of many, many years of training in the agile space… and even saying in the agile space is probably a misnomer because most of the training was around scrum techniques, right?

So if you’re familiar with software development, agile and scrum are synonymous, right? Often get misused or conjoined together there.

Ben: I’m having a panic attack, just hearing you right now, 

Dean: So, you know, that’s kind of a method and how we deliver value to our customers, and in doing the training and then coaching teams, what I find is that they get, they understand the, you know, the ceremonies and the concepts behind it, but delivery was always still, difficult because there was something missing.

And we always go back to and look at the method, and being a methodologist for so many years, you know, you’re constantly doing research and you know, this is something that I picked up when I worked at IBM. I worked at IBM in the late nineties. kind of the during the .net boom and bust era there.

And, you know, continue learning that new space. And, you know, it was, it was kind of a big thing at IBM.  I helped introduce or, or open the innovation center in Chicago. Methodology by trade and continual learning is kind of always been one of my things since that, you know, that experience, which I felt was pretty positive.

Ben: So you felt something was, was missing. And I, I agree 100%, like the mechanical, like ceremonies and doing of the thing. Oftentimes, like that’s the easy part. Right. Okay.  and even thinking back to concepts like what we got from, from reading the Toyota Kata and thinking about lean in context, it’s like people adopt the behaviors without understanding the larger why.

Like, why would you have this practice? What does it actually intended to accomplish? And wrestling with that space, I think leads to some really interesting breakthroughs. So. As, as you’re playing around that space of something being missing. What, what was missing? Like what did you find?

Dean: Well, again, I, I gotta go back to my IBM time because when, you know, after the innovation kind of kicked off, one of the projects that I worked on was a knowledge management project. So I kinda got interested in that. And then that’s sort of the link back because let, years later, as I got into agile, you know, right around 2010, you know, in, in doing research, I think it was around probably 2014 or something. I ran across Dave Snowden and it was what caught my attention was. He was an IBMer and IBMers, you know, we kind of stick together. It’s just like, Hey, well, okay, that’s interesting. And, and then find out that the firm that he worked with, the Anglo Dutch firm that they work for, that was acquired by IBM, became Global Services, the division that I worked for. So that was kind of like, Oh, I gotta, I’m going to listen to this guy. And, and, and that’s kinda when I got into kind of the human system side of things. And in the complex adaptive systems approach to better ways of working or, you know, different ways of delivering value to our customers, whatever it is.

In my case, it’s, you know, digital products. And so that, that was really how I got into the space. And, and so in looking at the scrum training that I was doing, how could I start to incorporate some of the concepts and ideas in a way that was meaningful, and actually provided value and help people? You know, avoid some of the traps and pitfalls that are common in, in these software development efforts.

Ben: So tell me a little bit about that, ‘cause that’s really interesting and it takes me back to some of my own kind of like really interesting moments of discovery where it also occurred for me with Cynefin and Dave Snowden and Cynthia Kurtz and all the folks in this sort of complexity space.

And it also occurred for me with like Theory of Constraints and a couple other methodologies, but like. Those moments are really interesting where you have to reconcile all the work that you’ve been doing against these new frameworks and these new sort of world models, not that you have to collapse them and like resolve them, but you do have to reconcile them in a way.

So tell me about that process for you. Because teaching things in the agile space and helping people do good work, now suddenly you have a whole new toolkit and a whole new world that’s opening up for you in this realm of complexity. So what, what was that like?

Dean: Prior to my years in technology, I actually came from the multimedia world. So my career started in kind of a more creative space. I actually, I actually worked for a small multimedia firm in Rochester, New York, and Kodak was our main customer.

Ben: Oh, wow.

Dean:  You know, it’s kind of ironic, right? You know, a company that sits on like $3 billion worth of, digital photography technology, you know, and then kind of, you know, we know the story, right? So, again, Kodak, photography, multimedia. I mean, as I was running through the park, you know, I started looking at, there’s some pretty cool images in the park and you know, I got my cell phone here.

I started snapping pictures cause I go pretty early in the morning and sunrise and it’s pretty close to  the little Miami river, which is a scenic waterway that it’s a tributary into the Ohio river. And so, you know, some days there’d be fog rolling up. From the river in that, and I started getting the, I thought, some pretty cool pictures.

It was on at the time a Samsung phone, you know, so the resolution wasn’t really great, but at any rate, I started this maybe three and a half year, four years ago. So I got a boatload of pictures, but then I started trying to apply the concepts around complexity thinking to my images. And I got the idea that, you know, can, can I use art as a vehicle to get people interested in this space. Or if not, you know, just to get them to look at it and discover kind of what I’m discovering.

Ben: So you’ve made a brand, The Agile Wallaby that is,  kind of like the, in a way, the vehicle for a lot of these explorations. But let’s, let’s zoom in on the process itself.

Dean: Well, it’s a creative process. So I don’t know if you can really explain it, but…

Ben: Well even if it’s just phenomenological, right? How does it occur to you, even if it’s not some perfect framework, right? Like how does it happen? Like how did it happen? At least once.

Dean: I know this is kind of evolutionary thing. So I started going through the park, at least started start is taking pictures and then, you know, this is like

I mean, some of them really aren’t that good. I mean, you say, Oh, that looks really cool. You take a picture and you go back later and you’re looking at all of us. It looks, it’s not really that, you know, and then you start playing around with it. You know, changing the hue, saturation.  And you can start to get some interesting things.

Cause I like patterns, you know, being a designer, you know, patterns or, you know, important. And so that’s that. Again, that’s, that’s really, where it kind of started.

 This exploration that I’m doing kind of as a… I don’t like to use the word case study, but a live study. Yeah. Kind of like this is kind of, this is what I, I hate to use the word preach, but this is how I train and coach people. but what if I take something and just kind of do it, you know, kind of create a product and kind of do what you’re talk about.

Yeah. And get feedback from people and just see where it goes. Cause again, I come from the multimedia world so. I’m about creating content, but I don’t really need to create all the content. as it relates to this approach.

This Anthro-digital DNA concept that I’m throwing out there. So the DNA is the decision making the networks and narratives and the adaptability, kind of using that biological metabolic kind of construct or metaphor, if you will.

That kind of gets to the image that I sent you, . I’m a runner. So in, in, in the mornings I typically, I’ll go out and do a little jaunt around and, and there’s a, there’s a park, it’s not too far from my home.

So I, I used to go there cause they have trails and then it’s, you know, through somewhere through the woods and there’s a little Creek. I mean it’s 66 acres. So it’s pretty, it’s a pretty good size. And there’s plenty of, two and a half, three miles worth of trails that you can wind around. And that’s where I started when I started going to there.

And really, Mmm. When I got into the Snowden stuff. And then, you know, you have Theory of Constraints and even Wardley and, and you know, Boyd’s cycle and all that stuff. I would listen to a lot of podcasts and other things. And that’s what I would do when I would run, and as I’m running through the park, you know, I’m kinda thinking of these things and how can I apply some of the concepts and whatnot.

Ben: I know it’s kind of a kind of maybe crude to ask an artist to explain their work, but I felt like. That it’s so important that we find new ways to engage with these practices and these approaches that, I, I’m just so grateful that you were willing to come on and share a little bit about it.

Dean:   I’ve always kind of wanted to write a book about it. This whole experience that I’ve had through this agile space, but I’m not a writer.

I’m a designer. So I got this idea of a concept picture book taking the concepts of complex adaptive systems, and through artwork kind of. You know, leading people into the space.

Ben: So the, the piece that you sent me, Language Is Key, but Context Is King. and we’ll include , a way to sort of follow along, if you look in the show notes, you’ll, you’ll find this image as well. But what I see is, you know, just observing with my eyes, I see three images that have the same structure.

So it’s, it’s the same image, but the colors and the hues and the saturation and the way that my eye is actually following and looking at each instance of this image is, it is extraordinarily different depending on which one I’m looking at. And so what, what brought to mind this framing as a way to represent.

This idea that you look, language is key, but context is King. Talk to me a little bit about this particular piece.

Dean: Yeah. Well, the actually, the image kind of evolved and, and really first of all, the images. That’s a honey locust tree that has the spikes that come out of it.

So on one of the trails, there’s three pavilions in the park, by the way. So there, there’s, you’ll start to see threes coming up and a lot of the stuff that I do.

Ben: Oh, interesting.

Dean: so there’s this, this locust tree that has these spikes coming. What first attracted me to it is a bird build a nest in, Some of these thorns and it’s like, Oh, that’s pretty cool. So I try to take a picture of it. And,  eventually, you know, I started doing things in terms of changing the image around. I kind of mirrored the image. So that again, thinking dual systems, right, in mechanical and, and kind of the human systems thinking.

So that’s sort of how that evolved. And some of the images that I started getting out of. Doing that process of taking a section of an image and flopping it over and putting them together, created some kind of interesting things. A lot of them started to kind of take facial features in the, at least for me it did.

So they kind of looks like a face and.  I, I saw that and it kind of, the thorns kind of look like it made a crown to me. And so I sort of saw a face with a crown on and I got the idea of a King.  But then as I moved to changing hue and saturation,  that is kind of goes back to looking at, the approach that I was taking from a complex adaptive systems perspective in that, that first image just really kind of, I do a lot of space into the decision making areas where like the Cynefin framework and all that stuff. And then being a product designer, you know, is, it’s really about the narrative story is key when you’re trying to, you know, sell a product, if you will, even even a digital product.

And, and so the networks and narrative becomes important.

Networks being kind of making all those connections from the customer. To kind of understanding or gaining the knowledge it need to deliver that value to them down to the, you know, the people that are actually, you know, creating the product, the developers and testers and whatnot. So that’s sort of the next element to this whole concept.

And then the last one’s really about adaptability, being able to evolve. And “exapt” is a new word. Right? And so that’s how the image kinda came to be, is I was exploring these different areas and in different concepts in, in the language that they have… I tried to, to represent that in the artwork.

Ben: It’s one thing to see a work of art in a gallery. It’s a very different sort of thing to see it contextually,  somewhere else. And the way that we can engage with the work that we’re doing every day. And also in a way, the art itself depends a lot on the context that we bring to it.

Dean: Context is King, as they say.

Ben: It’s funny because when I, when I look at this piece, I didn’t see the faces and then. You shared the context of the faces and now I can’t unsee the faces. In fact, I keep seeing more faces and more sort of like human structures in here that I wasn’t expecting to see.

And so I think that is, I feel like I’ve learned a lesson just even just now. Engaging with this with you

Dean: And you’ll find that most of the work that I do is abstract cause it is. What I’m doing is an abstraction of these concepts and trying to draw people in through this abstraction.

Ben: Yeah. Well, it’s certainly effective.

Dean: And so if you, if you look at it at the print that I sent you, there’s, there’s also a QR code on there.

Ben: I did see that. I was just about to talk about that.

Dean: So you can kind of look at it and you, okay, Language is Key, Context is King.

And when you, when you click on that, it kind of tells the story. So that’s sort of the next dimension. So the, the concept was the book… it’s a trilogy, right? There’s three parts to the book. The first one is about decision making, the next one is about networks and narratives. And the third volume is going to be on adaptability.

So the idea is, and I’m still working on it, it’s just been a long process. I didn’t realize when I thought what, I’m going to create a, basically, a coffee table book. Yeah.

And, and so, so the book, you know, it’s going to be these pictures, but then you kind of have to tell a story. Yeah.

And so how can you tell the story? Because the story kind of evolves. Well, I could always do another version. You know what I mean? It’s like, well, that’s kind of like the old world way at it. So the words that are in the picture book, tell part of the story.

And then there’s other plot threads or whatever that you kind of get to through the QR code.

While this is my exploration, that’d be interesting to hear other people’s perspectives as it relates to sort of what my experience is and kind of the paths that I’m going down.

The other thing is, the images that I create is like, I’m not telling people what it, what it is.

It’s just really, they, it’s their experience. And, and really that’s the, the other concept behind the QR is, you know, you looked at it, you didn’t see what I see right. and every, cause everybody kind of looks at things from a different context.

Ben: Yeah. Okay. So you’re creating this interesting space where, because it’s art, right. And art as a way to think about the work that we do  You kind of create a space to do some work and to actually introduce some new concepts without beating people over the head with theory or really having to engage in the what as much as the visual and sort of multisensory kind of experience for that kind of thing.

 And I, I want to like, just take a moment to linger on some of the concepts that you mentioned. So you, you mentioned a dual systems. Do you want to talk a little bit about,  like what’s going on with dual systems?

Like what, what, what kind of conversations could we have about that,  when we start to look at this material through the lens that you’re providing?

Dean: Yeah. Um. I think it’s, you know, again, I take it from a software development work perspective and we, we get so focused on method and how we get things done, and being able to

Be predictable in how we do it. We find, you know, we kind of lean towards that more mechanical approach where we, Hey, we got to do it this way, and if you don’t do it this way, then it’s wrong.

And that kind of gets into the Taylorism thing, right?

It’s kind of the assembly line. Hey, you need to build a bunch of widgets. How do you do it? You know, the best. That you can, why are you able to do it this way? You know, best practices kind of come into play. See, now we’re kind of moving into the Cynefin framework, right? You know, when things are clear, we try to make everything clear.

Obvious or simple. Yeah, I hear that all the time. I just gotta be simple. It’s like, well, not everything is simple.

Ben: Yeah, that, that is an interesting point because you know, unlike a lot of our views of work where we kind of have this idea that one, one person can sort of see the whole system and make a bunch of decisions about it and then tell everybody what to do.

I think it’s a very broadcast centric. Kind of idea in complexity, like it really matters what the disposition of the system is and how the individual players are acting and responding. And so I like that, that frame for it. So you’re not just broadcasting, you really want to create close that feedback loop and actually start to sense how other people are navigating this space of practice and work.

Thinking about the process and then, and then the output, we can find out more about you by going to, we can engage with your work, and we can connect with you and start that feedback loop. But what are you hoping to see emerge over the next few years around this idea of art as a medium for creating the opportunity for discussion around this. What, what does that future start to look like in your mind?

Dean: Well, there’s more pictures or images. Actually, there’s a gallery series that I’m putting together, and I’m literally trying to get in in galleries. There’s like a gallery show that we can kind of move around from city to city,

One of the things, and one of the reasons why I went to the image, and I think this is key, is… this continual learning thing is expensive. And while the organization I work for, you know, I get, I get my fair share of training, I can’t complain, but I have a ferocious appetite. So I, when I find things, you know, I’d like to. Check them out. And sometimes that requires, I mean, there’s really good conferences and you can kind of get bits and pieces of them on YouTube or you know, some of the other video sites.

But. You gotta hunt around and look for him. So I, there’s the, this idea of the Agile Wallaby network that focuses on complex adaptive systems approach to digital software delivery. You know, that’s, that’s really kind of the, what I’m hoping to do with the network is putting that theory to practice, here’s all this information.

And, and then. You know, have content that here’s how it’s been applied, here’s how you could apply it. Here’s something you could try, and see if, how you can adapt it to your situation. You know, not really case based, but you know, experience-based, I guess. Experience it in your world. Try this, let us know how it works.

What did you do to modify it? That kind of thing.

Ben: One final thought, and this is gonna maybe be a little unfair, but I’m gonna, I’m gonna ask you a question.

So I’ve apparently been told that every podcast should have a slogan or a catchphrase, and I don’t have one. And so every time I end up podcasts, there’s just this sort of like awkward, like, “and thanks for being here.” And the music plays out, but here’s my question for you. If, if you were to make up a catch phrase for the Hired Thought podcast, what would you guess it might be?

Dean: So I, I guess I would have to ask some questions first.

Ben: I didn’t want to make you feel like you had to do some consulting!

Dean: You know, I’m a creative person, so I, this is a challenge to me. What’s the purpose of your podcast?

Ben: So the, the purpose of this podcast is to basically create a platform for folks who are engaging deeply with work. And, one might say the future of work and to give them a platform to, to discuss what they’ve found so far. And the very, very short context behind that is I find that a lot of people are doing excellent work and there’s kind of an absolute tragedy that they’re not having the chance to showcase it and talk about it.

So I’m kind of taking advantage of the fact that I’m absolutely fascinated by this stuff, have those conversations, and to just create that opportunity where someone might find out about it instead of it just sort of staying hidden away for, for far too long. So that’s my purpose here.

Dean: Cool. A catch phrase…

I can tell you the one for this episode.

Ben: Yeah,

Dean: Context is King.

Ben: Boom. All right.

Dean: Well, language is important.

Language is important. Just to be honest, I don’t know if this is a Snowden phrase or not. But I kind of changed it a little bit. I, you know, I hear all this stuff, I read this stuff, and then I remember it later on a, Hey, you know, this sounds pretty good. And half the time it’s probably because I had read it somewhere.

So language is key, but context is king.

Ben: Ooh. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So, so we’ll do the outro.

Dean: We didn’t even get into the language. Oh,

Ben: I’ll just be for next time. Oh, yeah. I wanted to explore scaffolding. I think that’s going to be next time, if you want,

Dean: And I have to come back now.

Ben: You’ll have to come back. And for those of you who are engaging with Dean’s work for the first time, you’ll have to look up scaffolding and explore what he has to share about

Dean: That and Ann Pendleton-Jullian, you know, and Dave Snowden had a pretty good talk around that, and

Ben: Maybe I’ll have to get a link to that in the show notes.

Dean: There’s a video. I’ll see if I can, I’ll send you the video to, to Ann’s talk on scaffolding.

Ben: Cool. All right, so here, here’s the outro. Dean, I want to thank you so much for being here today and for sharing your work with us, and I want to remind our audience, language is key, but context is King.

Thanks for being, that’s a wrap. That’s a wrap. We’re done!

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