How do you develop the skills of ‘feeling’, ’seeing’ ‘dreaming’, ‘making’ ‘learning’? How do you stretch your mind so that it can add value in the robotic era? How do you do this whilst there is a global pandemic on?
Back in March 2020, during the early stages of the COVID-19 Pandemic, something special happened. A global challenge was opened for candidate submissions by LEVEL-C. A business headed up by best-selling author Marty Neumeier and his business partner Andy Star to help get brand thinking into the board-room.
This "METASKILLS Challenge" was to occupy 4 months of my work life and below is my review of the experience. I hope it will help to inspire you to put yourself out there a bit, grow and learn new skills.
Background and my personal connection to Level-C
I have been a huge Marty Neumeier fan for years. As I have progressed in my career Marty’s thinking, outlined in his excelling “whiteboard” style books, (Such as The Brand Gap - written in a punchy, principled easy to understand language) have helped me hugely to solve business problems, give me broad concepts to work within and to add value to my clients. Over the years I had had the privileged of corresponding with Marty and he was always very gracious in his replies. I had the privilege of first meeting him in 2017 when, on my recommendation, as part of a team rebranding Capital One, we were able to get Marty to come and speak as the new brand was launched into the business. It was epic. I was next honoured to be included in proofreading and being part of a steering group for Marty’s business thriller “Scramble” (my claim to fame is being mentioned in the credits in the first edition!).
When LEVEL-C announced their first training course in 2019 at the Barbican in London I jumped at the chance. I was privileged to be one of the first people to complete the LEVEL-C Level 1 Masterclass and obtain the accolade of a Certified Brand Strategist (read my full review of this here). It was then I got to know Marty a little more and also Andy Starr, Marty’s passionate business associate. I found them both very genuine, full of knowledge and a drive to help designers, strategists and businesses create more meaningful customer-centric work. As you can imagine, we got on well! The Masterclasses took off and a handful were conducted by Marty around the world. They are ongoing - book yourself on one here.
The next time Marty and Andy came back to the UK I found myself helping them out as an assistant in the autumn of 2019. During this time I also helped them plan for 2020 and locate a London venue for the Level 2 Master class which I was hoping to be at the front of the cue to be part of as a delegate. It was not to be. Covid-19. Note: Level 2 is going ahead virtually later this year. See here.
When lockdown began to kick-in all over the world Marty and Andy were keen to connect with the tribe of brand strategists around the world. Four virtual “fireside chats” were set up, co-hosted by myself and Andy with Marty featuring and encouraging the tribe to grasp the opportunities to make a difference before them. These global groups of brand strategists and designers met and shared mutual support in the difficult situations that we were all facing.
It is into this context that Marty and Andy suddenly announced their global challenge. And when I heard about it I knew it would be good and signed up straight away. I was not disappointed.
Metaskills - human skills for the robotic era
According to the competition announcement, The METASKILLS Challenge was “designed to help you shape change while change is in motion”. It was based on Marty’s 2012 book “Metaskills: Five Talents for the Future of Work”. A 230 page book unlike the whiteboard books Marty was famous for. This one is deeper. Less pictures. More academic references and examples. I had not read it. If I'm honest, it's not really my kind of book.
The basic premise of the book is that, as we move from the “Industrial” era into the “Robotic” era (where machines can complete automated tasks and information is readily available to us), we as humans will need to develop new skills in order to meet the challenges of the day if we are to solve the seemingly intractable (wicked) problems of modern life. “It is not that our problems are too difficult, but that our skills are too basic” says the blurb on the back of the Metaskills book cover. The book argues that we need to move from static, linear and step-by-step thinking to more dynamic, creative and holistic thinking.
The challenge was to be based around five modules, each based on Marty’s five “Metaskills”. These are: ‘feeling’, ’seeing’, ‘dreaming’, ‘making’ and ‘learning'.
If you want to know more obviously buy the book - or you can get a taster by downloading this free handy cheat sheet, based on Marty's book which gives you an idea of how these skills can be developed and applied.
The Metaskills Cheatsheet that my team developed this as part of Module #5. Someone even got it professiaonly printed!
The competition was to be judged by industry heavyweights:
• Chris Do - CEO, The Futur
• Robert Jones - Strategist, Wolff Olins
• Lulu Raghavan - MD, Landor
• Anaezi Modu - CEO, REBRAND™
• Lisa Peyton - Strategist, Intel
• Dennis Hahn - CSO, Liquid Agency
• Kevin Duncan - Business Consultant
• Andy Starr - Founder, LEVEL C
• Marty Neumeier - Author of METASKILLS
So whilst the rest of the world was panicking and defending into negativity I knew this would be a good thing to connect with. To keep me learning in a positive way so that when we came out of COVID-19 I would have grown. I was not the only one who thought this. 150 people from across the world signed up and were placed into 26 Global teams of 4-5 people.
The name and brand identity for my team - We Are Not Robots
The first job was for each team to meet and create a name for themselves. We were left to our own devices to do this. My team consisted of team members from the Netherlands (Jolande van Straaten 🇳🇱), Czech Republic (Jakub Kantor 🇨🇿) and also someone from Newcastle (Nathan Holloway 🇬🇧) in the UK like me. These guys all ran their own design studios and were brilliant professionals. Knowing a little about the premise of the book, and keen to stand out, we chose the rather long but different name “We Are Not Robots”. Other teams called themselves things like “Brand Pirates”, “The Fab Four”, “Cultiv8”, “Metashot”, “Metanauts” and “Hi5!” to name a few.
The METASKILLS Challange Modules
Each module was issued by Andy Star via email. It contained a single PDF sheet each detailing the schedule, process, tips and module exercise. Each module had a deadline that required a PDF deck of no more than 10 slides to be submitted by.
The PDF announcement for Module #1
There was also a hint at the criteria the judges were looking for. I say a hint because often the modules were quite open. This was a good thing in that it encouraged exploration and out of the box thinking but it was also quite hard sometimes to know if we were doing the right thing or not.
The modules and deadlines were spread out across 4 months. We were usually given around 2 weeks to complete them with around a week in-between for judging and the release of the next module.
The basic idea of the competition was to initially select a brand to evolve and to take that same brand through the five different modules deepening the evolution further and further each time. Our team however chose a radical and different tactic. Keen to broaden our learning, we chose five different brands each time. We did ask Andy about this and he told us it was within the rules but, judging by the judges comments, it did probably harm us a little as each time we were introducing them to a new concept rather than deepening a previous one. It also meant we had to do a full research phase for each module amongst ourselves which probably added more time on than was necessary.
To give you a flavour of each module and what my team did see below - I’ve also added links to our team’s PDF submissions:
👉 1: Feeling - We “felt” the pain of traditional libraries & created a solution which brings beauty and joy - LoT (Libraries of Tomorrow)
👉 2: Seeing - We "saw" the brand ecosystem of BrewDog clashing with the unanticipated problem of COVID-19 and imagined an innovative new pop up Pub experience (PubUp).
👉 3: Dreaming - We dreamt up an ambitious, equitable and 'fit for the robotic era' global education system based on LinkedIN Learning (“WorldClass”)
👉 4: Making - We prototyped and made a new retail experience for Nike to solve the problem of ill-fitting shoes (ShoeSpace)
👉 5: Learning - We reviewed the previous four modules and detailed what we had learnt and how it had informed our strategy
As an example of the PDF submissions my team put together for our submission for Module #4. You can see every team's submission here.
As you can see the competition stretches you to think in a multidiscipline, non-siloed and holistic way. This is typical of how Marty sees the world. He takes the principles of design and encourages their application to more than just logos and fonts but to systems, innovations and business. It is super valuable to think in this way and use the Metaskills to widen one's outlook.
After each module Andy would give us feedback and add in the comments from the judges.
One thing that we were not ready for as a team was to receive unedited and quite blunt feedback. Speaking to one judge (who shall remain nameless!) afterwards on a Podcast interview, I told him (with a smile and a wink) about our team's shock at the curtness of his feedback. He explained he hadn’t realised at first that his comments were going to be sent, unpolished, as was, straight to the teams. However, after we overcame the anguish we realised it was a good thing. We got to see how these industry giants really thought of our efforts. And we were able to learn. Grow. And be better. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all that.
A couple of examples of the feedback we received from the judges
Because each module was based on Marty’s book it made sense for every member of the team to read that chapter before we began to dig into the challenge. The way my team did things was to set weekly “huddles” on a Monday. In these huddles, we shared what we knew, made broad decisions and set ourselves work to sprint on before the next meeting. When there was a deadline coming up we intensified the meetings, sometimes speaking every other day. Emails flew back and forth regularly. We had all entered the competition as professionals having our own clients to also juggle this work with. Sometimes people would pull out of a meeting to jump on a client call or would not be able to complete a specific piece of work due to something else coming up. We all pulled together though at those moments and we pulled through. Teamwork makes the dream work. Roughly I would say I was personally spending between half a day to a full day per week on the challenge. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
A shot of team "We Are Not Robots" as we met in one of our huddles
It was a great experience as we got to know, admire and appreciate what everyone brought to the table. It is this kind of team connection that I love about training with LEVEL-C. I no doubt will keep in touch with the team and continue these professional relationships into the future. Already I have completed a professional project and partnered with one of the WANR team to deliver for a client on a paid project.
After each challenge a “Best in Module” team was announced. We so wanted these! My team were privileged to win this accolade twice during the competition. It was the best feeling ever!
This added edge to the challenge meant it was more than simply something to do. It became a competition with something to win. This gave us the drive to push the boundaries of what was simply asked for in the module PDF. We found ourselves doing things like conducting interviews with experts from other industries, making cardboard mockups, creating user interface prototypes, sketching out environments, making videos and conducting user research. All of these not only added depth to the work but ensured we kept pushing ourselves, all of us learning along the way.
A cardboard prototype I put together for Module #4, Making
After each module was completed all the teams decks were placed not he Metaskills web page (see it here: https://www.levelc.org/metaskillschallenge). Personally I did not take much time to look at these but many in my team did. The next time the huddle met people would say things like “did you see what Metashot did - such a cool idea”. This meant each team learnt from each other and pushed ourselves on. One member of another team told me afterwards his team were looking at our team “as the ones to beat”. This gives you a sense of the pressure and spirit of the competition.
At the end of the process, three awards were given out - a gold, silver and bronze star. We Are Not Robots were pipped to the gold by the very talented “Cultiv8” team who had evolved the BP brand into a 100% sustainable energy provider focused on the greater good. A worthy winner of the competition and an excellent rethinking of an iconic brand. We were still very chuffed to receive the silver star and it did feel good to have even received anything at all as the competition was fierce with 26 teams entering the competition. Read my post about getting a silver star here.
All along the way positive comments flew around social media, especially LinkedIN. These were posted by the judges and other competitors and added a community feel to the whole process. People would congratulate each other on their submissions. The following are an example of public comments made to me and my team which really encapsulate this:
“This was a long and detailed programme so it required endurance and sustained cooperation as well as the usual skills of excellent strategic thinking and smart creativity. The winners showed these qualities in abundance. Well done.” Kevin Duncan, METASKILLS Judge and Best Selling Author
“Team #NotRobots were truly inspirational .. formidable (using French pronunciation) “ Gillian Hunter, METASKILLS Competitor, Team CULTIV8
“Not to take anything away from CULTIV8, but #notrobots could have also taken the Gold in my opinion—it was very close. Very well done Matt Davies ⚡️Jolande van Straaten Jakub Kantor Nathan Holloway” - Dennis Haun, METASKILLS Judge and Strategy Director at Liquid Agency
Overall view of The METASKILLS CHALLENGE
So I’ve given you a feel for what it was like competing in the challenge what is my over-all thoughts? Was it worth it? Absolutely yes. As long as you have time and energy to set aside to commit and you are dedicated to developing your skills then it is 100% worth the effort.
This is a different kind of learning than many might be used to though. It's not just learning what the skills are. It is experiencing them in action. You are literally thrown into the unknown deep-end. Not only do you need to focus on grasping the concepts being taught you also need to navigate team dynamics. I heard of some people having a less than enjoyable time when their teams fractured or some people couldn’t cope and had to drop out. If you enter a competition like this, you need to commit and you need to develop a relationship with your fellow team members. You need to collaborate and work together. If you think you can do it alone you will not last the distance.
It is world-class learning though, well thought out and very well orchestrated in a personal and human way.
The learning you receive is amazing. It definitely stretched our minds. It also forced me to read a book I probably wouldn’t of! Metaskills is quite heavy conceptually and academically in parts (as a creative I usually like more pictures over walls of text!) but incorporating the reading of the book into the challenge spurred me on to stick with the book which I was grateful for. Having learnt about some concepts I then found the next day I was putting into practice - “doing” the Metaskills and seeing their power take shape in our work.
I also found myself immediately being able to bring models and ideas into my professional consultation work. The Meta-skills challenge particularly helped me with one project where I was able to propose a new innovation workstream which was accepted by a leadership team of a global B to B business and it may see a completely new “Blue Ocean” open up in a stagnant category (watch this space) - having the confidence to propose such a thing was definitely strengthened by being part of The METASKILLS Challenge.
In terms of slight negatives, sometimes we felt the judges may not have read every part of our submissions as some feedback was occasionally asking for things we had actually put into our deck - however, this can be forgiven when they had to go through 26 decks each time (poor people!). Also, there was a global pandemic raging! Also, the judging criteria was a little loose, a little more focus on what we were being judged on would have helped us and possibly push us further in each module- however agin this was a minor thing over-all and did not disterb our learning or experience too much at all.
If LEVEL-C open up another competition would I recommend folks sign up? Absolutely! Why?
Learning - and because you not only do you learn the depth of the theory intellectually you are forced to put it into practice. You learn it in every sense of the word. You learn by application and experience.
Relationships - Also because of the connections you receive with this type of learning. Developing relationships with other brand strategists is so helpful and invaluable. You get to know your team and others within the competition - professionals who believe what you believe. There are not many of us out there so it’s important we stick together.
Validation - putting yourself out there to the world is not easy but it is nice to listen to the feedback of the judges and to be able to adjust what is not working but also obtain validation for what is. This gives you confidence in your approach and thinking which is super helpful to overcome “imposter syndrome” (a condition I occasionally suffer from!). If you do too consider a LEVEL-C course!
So - I for one am very grateful to Marty, Andy and all the judges for putting this challenge on. For stretching our minds and for helping to provide something positive and valuable through the difficult times of the pandemic. As the world begins to think about opening up I’m sure it will be a better place because of their efforts. Well done LEVEL-C and thanks. And if you get a chance to be part of a challenge in the future. Do it. You will not regret it.