Taking time for immersion

NCI’s director Holly Madill shares her thoughts on where ‘slow work’ and charrettes intersect.

Taking time for immersion
I’ve been thinking a lot about how people work today and the shifts brought on or exacerbated by the pandemic. 
I recently heard an interview with “A World Without Email” book author Cal Newport where he explained that we check email every six minutes. Add to that other messaging that we check like Teams and Slack and constant Zoom meetings and it all leaves us feeling distracted with long to-do lists that never seem to get done and work needing focused time difficult to achieve. “Modern knowledge workers communicate constantly. Their days are defined by a relentless barrage of incoming messages and back-and-forth digital conversations–a state of constant, anxious chatter in which nobody can disconnect, and so nobody has the cognitive bandwidth to perform substantive work.”  
An article written by Paul Gentile at Fast Company explains what monotasking is, and why it's so important. “Monotasking, on the other hand, is what slow work is all about. Simply put, it’s about doing one thing at a time. When you set boundaries between tasks, you typically end up completing complex projects faster and deliver better results, because you can focus on a deeper level.”  
Paige Curtis, in an article written for Yes Magazine, talks about some of the benefits of slow work, saying “So what does the slow movement have to say about how we work? A slow approach to modern work means greater control over when to work, more space for ‘deep work,’ and, for some, the de-prioritization of work altogether.” 
I’ve been wondering how the charrette’s compressed time frame fits into all of this. At first glance, compressing a bunch of engagements together sounds counterintuitive to slow or deep work. But as I’ve wrestled with this, I find myself reflecting on one charrette principle: immersion.  
How often do we deliberately tune out everything else and immerse ourselves in just one thing? How often do we “workshop” with others? Are charrettes contrary to slow work or do they create space for it? This may be a situation where both are true. 
During charrettes, the charrette team and the community (used in its broadest sense) will spend a significant percentage of time within a short period focusing on one geographic area or on one set of questions. While the team and community are doing lots of different things during the charrette, ultimately, they are focused deeply on understanding the context of one issue and co-creating solutions.  
At NCI, we’ve found through the years that being both deeply immersed and working in collaboration can unlock potential and creativity, catapulting us into implementation. This ‘both/and’ blend of monotasking and collaboration is foundational to charrettes. Using and trusting the charrette model can be incredibly innovative and invigorating. I believe that our many success stories at NCI are proof that substantive work requires a correct balance of focus and flexibility. The NCI model helps to achieve that balance.  
If you are interested in learning how to create space for this kind of community engagement work, NCI’s Complete Charette System Certificate training can help. 


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