Two really interesting posts were written in close proximity recently, about Planning.
NB – By which is meant Account Planning, an advertising term for a specific role in an agency. If you want to know what it used to mean, before the jump, then read this APG definition introduced by Merry Baskin from 2001. I have never been an Account Planner, but reading that definition back realise my work comprised a lot of the skills and activities listed whilst in Adland. So, you know, these are my thoughts, YMMV.
There, that’s the small print, up front, in bold.
Firstly, there’s Heidi Hackemer’s post on Planning’s Lost Generation. It points out that, through that perfect storm of increased complexity, not enough time, reduced tenure in the labour market, and so on and so forth, agencies aren’t really training the next generation of planners anymore. Which causes even bigger future problems, as how do expect a geneation who hasn’t been trained to do any training themselves when the time comes. As Heidi says:
Secondly, there’s Richard Huntington’s Can Any Planners Still Plan? He questions whether this younger generation even want to plan anymore, to understand what that is:
“I have long argued that while there are many ways strategists add value to their agencies and the business of their clients, the greatest contribution that we make is taking those brands to new places in the lives and minds of their customers. It is our ability to help brands and businesses re-invent the future that makes us most useful.
And yet I am beginning to lose count of the number of planners I come across in my wanderings that don’t want to do that. That either are not interested at all or who have little idea that this is what they are supposed capable of doing.
These planners seem to want to do one thing and one thing alone, something that they call making things.”
In short, the two posts together suggest a generation who Can’t Plan, Won’t Plan.
Of course, there followed a massive twitter exchange as happens in Planning when anyone mentions Planning and its inevitable worth/decline/reinvention/hopelessness.
But I thought I’d just stretch out a couple of points that can’t be made on twitter.
Firstly, if there’s no time and resource to teach a new generation what Planning is, there’s undoubtedly a complex variety of reasons, all of which are at odds with each other yet all true.
But reading back on that APG list of what roles a planner should play, you realise that so much of what actual Planning consisted of is now being done elsewhere:
- market researcher
- data analyst
- qualitative focus group moderator
- information centre
- bad cop (to account management’s/client service’s good cop)
- NPD consultant
- brainstorming facilitator
- target audience representative/voice of the consumer
- media/communications planner
- strategic thinker/strategy developer
- writer of the creative brief
In a way, perhaps Planning won. It raised the importance of all of these requirements for companies, and so now there a multitude of specialists that do them instead. Planning happens everywhere, just not by “Planners”.
Secondly, on Making as Thinking.
For the last three years at Smithery, and for several years before that at PHD, I’ve been using making as a way to explore things, to find things out. It’s a different sort of learning approach, one that helps you bridge the gap between ‘novice’ and ‘expert’ by playing with and creating different things in the spaces you find to aid understanding of the spaces themselves.
For the ongoing background research for Artefact Cards, I’ve recently fallen down the rabbit hole of “Constructionism”, a brilliant learning theory. If you want a useful place to start with this stuff, this post by Steve Wheeler is the shorthand version, then this talk by Edith Ackermann from MIT will give you some ideas of how you might set up learning structures like that:
However, it seems a bit disingenuous to talk about the value on “Constructionism” vs “Instructionism” by writing blog posts, debating on twitter, and largely doing nothing but talking lots. This is a part of Planning’s problem, perhaps.
It all made me think of a talk I did years ago at an IPA course, which I called The Planner’s Book of Things To Make.
It was an exhortation for young planners to make more things; not because these would be the things that would become a central campaign idea, or sell a million units, but because they would inform thinking, draw in users, reach out to niche interest groups, create feedback loops to steer brands and so on.
But, in hindsight, it was a talk, and talk is cheap.
So as I wind my way up to London on a train towards Playful at the Conway Hall, I’m wondering if it would be more useful to put on The Planner’s Day of Things To Make sometime in the New Year.
It would be an exploration of how to use making as a route into a lot of the things that Planners need to be doing to Plan properly.
Sounds niche, huh? Well, yeah, maybe. So here’s how I’m going to gauge demand.
And when you sign up, sign up to “yes, I will buy a ticket to this woolly sounding nondescript event and not show up”.
Price wise: no idea. We will pay all people running sessions, and the required materials, and refreshments, and lunch. So whatever that’s going to cost.
Anyway, that’s it at the moment. Let’s see what people make of that, and we’ll go from there.
This is fascinating, from change.org… sign a campaign, then you’re asked if you want to donate money to place an ad to show to it to more people (and a very specific amount of people) who might also then sign it.
How long until there’s a “design your ad” feature on there too?
“I’d pay £5 a month for Twitter, for instance” said Neil. “Nobody does that though. Well, apart from app.net. But why not?“
What followed from me is an 88mph reckon, which I’ll repeat here.
(YMPHMV, of course.)
It’s easier to get investment for a business built on rapid user growth. It’s easier to get rapid user growth if your product is free. It’s easier to make a product free if, when people ask “but how do you make money..?”, your answer is “advertising, my friend”.
We all know this, no news here.
What matters here, I think, is market perception of the potential revenue per user.
Nobody knows what the maximum revenue figure for a social network user is in the advertising model.
Yet potential revenue per user for a paid-for network model, is a relatively easy to guess at.
With good research, to establish how much people would be willing to pay for a social network. It might be £5 per month, it might be £10 a year, whatever. You can find out. You’d even get a good sense just by thinking ‘oh, I’d pay that’ or ‘oh, that’s too much’.
But if you’re working in an advertising revenue model, there’s much more potential.
Recently, Facebook’s ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) was $6.44 in the US & Canada, and $2.24 Worldwide.
The key point is that this figure isn’t static; it’s growing. People start thinking “if it can make an ARPU of $6 per year, then it can probably do $8. Then $10. Then…”
Nobody knows where that stops. We have a good feel for how much is too much to charge for a service, but not for how much can be potentially made through advertising… but when Google can make $45 ARPU, then people suppose that everyone else, if they find a secret sauce, can at least make half that, right?
Where does that leave us? What about Neil’s question? Will we see a paid-for social network as a service?
I wouldn’t have thought so, as long as most social networks are taking investment from people who want to turn their capital into more capital quickly.
To explain why, we started talking about Back To The Future III.
Quick plot reminder. The Doc and Marty are stuck in the ‘Old West’ in 1885, with a DeLorean time machine they must get up to 88mph in order for it to take them back to 1985. To do this, they steal a train to push the car on rails in front of the train past the necessary speed.
This involves doing it on the ‘only piece of track suitable’, meaning they must reach the speed before hitting the as-yet-unbuilt rail bridge where the train will plunge into the canyon below.
This last bit is just a plot device to introduce a bit of jeopardy, obviously. You can tell when there’s jeapordy involved in films when they must build a small scale model of it beforehand, and write things like “Point Of No Return” on it…
The plan is to do whatever it takes to push the train faster and faster, so as to push the DeLorean past escape velocity out of grubby, dangerous, Real Cowboy America and into the bright, shiny future of Actor-Cowboy Ronald Reagan’s America.
In this analogy, there are two things that matter.
If you’re using the service, then you’re sitting in the train.
You’d be quite happy if it just pootled around various stations, doing train things, forever. Phenomenal, abnormal speed isn’t an issue. When you got on, the train was standing on a platform, heading to a place you wanted to go to, with some people on it who were a bit like you. You’d like the train to be a train,
If you’ve got shares you’d like to cash in, you’re sitting in the DeLorean.
You don’t really care about what happens to the engine behind, because you have a clearly defined point at which you want to get out (perhaps, even, at $88 dollars per share). It’s in your interest to push the engine as hard as you can, so that you get to that escape velocity.
You’re probably inventing all sorts of fancy coloured fuel-logs to make the engine run hotter. More ads, more formats, different sales approaches, research studies… anything that makes the business make more money more quickly, so the share price goes up, and people start thinking that the potential revenue per user might just keep growing and growing.
The trick is making the share price go as high as it can before the train tumbles down into the canyon.
The thing is, I’m not sure there’s a way to make the people in the train and the people in the DeLorean both benefit. As soon as you start going at a certain speed, and pushing the ad revenue model in a way that starts to annoy people, you pass the fabled point of no return.
Here, when you get past it, you can’t go back to the previous model. You know that the network you’ve created is heading down the canyon. So you just have to push it fast enough to hit 88mph.
I’m going to think a bit more about this, obviously, and so would welcome other perspectives. If anything, I think the digital-bubble fuss around the Ello signup T&Cs at least shows people are now considering carefully which trains they get on in the first place.
In the meantime… some mild jeopardy:
I ran an innovation session yesterday for The Network One, to a group of owners and CEOs of various nimble, independent agencies. I was going to just explore some of the ideas in Fracking The Social Web, but given it was an afternoon session I tried something new.
(Also, as a rule of thumb, just talking in an afternoon slot isn’t as good as getting people to do things. I can’t remember where I first heard this theory, but it’s always worked for me. Mornings are for heads, afternoons are for hands.)
By using the Flow Engine approach to set up ‘different ways of working’, and using Artefact Cards as went, we moved through three steps.
Firstly, I asked people to write on a card the biggest issue for them in bridging the gap between traditional marketing structures and the more fluid, granular approach needed for working on the social web. In their groups, they then shared these in the centre of the table; some would be similar, some different, but what was interesting was the conversation betwen the teams about the different issues.
Secondly, we then used the Fracking themes to think about why agencies need to work differently; as I went through the themes and examples, the participants in groups would be noting down things on cards (either direct points, or ideas set-off by the thinking), so that in small groups they could start addressing the points in the centre of the table, building out a map of the territory.
Finally, I asked people to looking at the map and just write down a final card for themselves on what they would change tomorrow when they got back to the office, taking inspiration from the map they’d created together.
The slides are up here, so you can get an idea of the session. In hindsight, I think I tried to do slightly too much in the allocated time, it’d have been nicer to have some extra reflection time. Apart from that though, it seemed to work pretty well – thanks to everyone there for throwing themselves in, and thanks again to Paul, Victoria and Doug from The Network One.
I’ve been using the Flow Engines principles a lot since late August, when it arose from the Culture Mapping blog project. It’s certainly the most developed, fully realised tool that came out of that burst of work.
Anyway, I used it last week to write a general guide for people to run field trips. I’m not going to detail out below the stuff under the bonnet, as that’d be a bit dull, but save to say it uses the three steps (Consequences, Environment, Embodiment) reinforced inside each other as before.
Why share it? Well, I love a good field trip. But I don’t think people do them enough. So I thought it’d be good to put it up here, as it might be useful to others, but also so that people can add thoughts and ideas on how to improve it.
FIELD TRIPS: GETTING OUT, LOOKING AROUND, WRAPPING UP
A good field trip is something that everyone in any sort of business can get a lot from. Think of yourselves as giant, rechargeable ideas batteries; a field trip provides more good input to replace the output of looking down and typing (which, let’s be honest, we all do too much of).
A field trip doesn’t need to be planned meticulously (though you can if you wish), but you should have a plan in mind to at least give yourself something to deviate from should you need to.
This quick guide will help you write out a plan, and make sure the people you’re leading out have an interesting, useful time.
Step 1 – Getting out
When you have a location in mind to go to, don’t just say “we’re going to xxxx…”, make sure you have a short, focussed explanation in mind of what you want people to learn from going out.
“We’re going to the Science Museum, to learn more about how scientists and inventors discover new ideas.”
“We’re going to Trafalgar Square, to see what happens when you take people out of their natural environments”
To get people to come along, make an invitation that has the location and the reason clearly explained. You can just send an email, or you can be more creative if you wish. What often works well is setting up a little fiction for the trip out; let’s pretend we’re another group of people, or let’s assume that the world is different in this particular way.
Step 2 – Looking around
You don’t have to have been to the location before yourself, but it’s useful. If you haven’t, you should make it clear to the people you’re taking; “we” are going on an exploration. Invite them to be complicit in the discovery of what’s there.
But you should definitely have a good idea of what might be there, from using the internet, or intel from other people who have been.
Once you’re all there, you’re playing two roles.
Firstly, you’re scouting around, looking for the sorts of things that you suspected may be useful. If you spot things, invite others over to see, and think back to the reason you outlined for coming in the first place in order to ask questions?
“What’s interesting about the way Watt discovered a new idea here?”
“How can we tell who are the tourists here? What are they doing that others aren’t?”
Secondly, you’re bringing up the rear, just checking around to make sure that people are happy and comfortable discovering new things for themselves. As you have different conversations with different people who’re on the field trip, try to cross-pollinate thoughts and discoveries – “oh, David was just talking about that with Gillian, you should catch up with them and talk about it”.
Step 3 – Wrapping up
Finally, at the end of the trip, make sure you have time to all sit together and discuss what you’ve all found, in relation to what you set up to explore.
Having a way to write a communal set of notes around the table is really useful; it locks in the learning of the trip, and will help people remember for future use. I usually use Artefact Cards for this, of course, but whatever you want to use is fine. It needs to be in the middle of the table between you all though, to prompt discussion.
If you go somewhere with a gift shop, for instance, you can get everyone to buy a thing that represents what you’ve learned from the trip, and get everyone to explain their object.
There you go then, hope it’s useful. As always, builds and critiques most welcome.
This is a short written version of an even shorter talk I gave at the launch of the new Creative Social book, Hacker, Teacher, Maker, Thief, for which I’ve written a chapter on Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things.
You can buy it now, and you should; the other contributors are a stellar cast who’ve written cracking guidance for The Future of Advertising.
The problem with the ‘greater than’ symbol ( > ) is that it’s called the “greater than” symbol.
It doesn’t have a cool French or German name, or some abstract Latin origin. It is the Ronseal of mathematical characters; it does exactly what it says on the tin.
So when I say it out loud when saying “Making Thing People Wants > Making People Want Things“, I kind of improvise what I say in that tricky middle bit.
Sometimes I will say ‘greater than‘. It can sound a bit much, that’s true. But it’s a nod to the effort required, I think; it takes more to create new demand than exploit existing demand.
Sometimes I say ‘rather than‘. It’s when it represents a fork in the road, a choice in the short-term; which of these two roads will we travel down for a bit? The thing with roads is you can come back and go down the other one if you find yourself in a cul-de-sac.
Sometimes I say “is better than“. As a long-term strategy for clients, it is a better idea. Sure, some short-term Charlies want a quick hit and run to further their career and find another job somewhere else. Finding clients that want to make a real difference helps.
And sometimes I just say “beats“. Being selfish, it’s just that feeling it gives me inside, actually making something that makes a difference to people, helping people to help people. It’s a rush.
But I always, always try to never say “not“.
It isn’t “Making Things People Want, NOT Making People Want Things”.
It’s not an extreme position.
It’s an equation. It suggests balance, the existence of two things with different value, not the destruction of one to serve the other.
That’s advertising all over. Looking for extremes where there aren’t any. Forcing us to pick one thing and one thing only.
Perhaps advertising is an industry riddled with the wood worm of the mass media age, where the choice about “the big idea” and “the perfect line” had to be made, before it was printed a million times, or transmitted to 26 million people. That’s a problem that’s going away.
If advertising is to die of anything, it will be of a chronic case of extremes and ultimatums.
“I always said I’d decide what to do with Smithery after three years. It seemed like a simultaneously short and long period of time in which to make decisions. Long enough to not worry about it on a day-to-day basis. Short enough to realise I had to do something about it at some point…”
That’s how I began the first post of this project way back on 1st August. The point was to pull together a new thesis around what Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things meant, from looking back at the projects I had done, and then project it forwards into the projects I wanted to do in future.
So on the thirty-first day, where do I find myself?
I had detailed the three options for Smithery; after three years, I had always said when pressed that I’d decide to either a) fold it b) keep it as it is c) scale it.
This answer is that it’s sort of the third one… but perhaps not in a conventional way.
Scaling is a funny thing. Especially when you got an Economics background – “surely you’ve got to get bigger, to get economies of scale” people will say. Well, yes, sometimes. If you’ve making something that’s highly repetitive, sure. Which I don’t really (save for the Artefact Cards… more on those later). And don’t get me started on diseconomies of scale when you get beyond a certain size… that’s not a conversation for now. Grab me in the coffee shop tomorrow.
Perhaps there are three reasons why I’m not a fan of ‘scaling’.
Firstly, I’ve never really had this burning desire to grow a business at a phenomenal rate just for the sake of it. The mechanics of that particular game don’t excite me, and the idea of being trapped in doing the same thing for ten years terrifies me. I’d rather do something great that might be big than do something big that might be great.
Secondly, I took to heart something I saw Douglas Rushkoff say in a talk about four (?) years ago; “The only reason to scale is to stop doing what you do now.” For the last three years I’ve been really enjoying the work, and the ways of working… so why stop now? Why become the manager of a team that does what I enjoy doing?
Thirdly, the more you scale, the less able you are to weave in and out of the cracks that other people can’t see and don’t fill, which are usually the things that really need changing. It harks back to a lot of the classic generalist ethos that I first wrote about when I was talking about the blacksmith and the economist in early Smithery explorations.
Yet, it seems that the things I’ve been doing with clients and partners over the last three years are in high demand (which makes for long days when you decide to write a blog post a day on top of it… Helen points out I should tell you all now I’m not doing this again for another three years…).
So finding a way to make these things more beneficial to more people is probably a good idea. Keep doing what I do, but make sure more of it happens.
Instead of scaling, how do you operate at scale instead?
Well, rather than building up, you perhaps build out, and partner with people whom you can create bigger versions and visions as appropriate. I thought I’d quickly outline five allegiances which I think might come to greatly characterise the next three years of Smithery, and what each might help me reflect more on with regards to the thesis of the last month.
Firstly, I’ve been very lucky in these last three years to work a lot with Mark Earls; we seem to counterpoint each other’s strengths, make great things happen quickly together, and have a lot of fun doing it. The most exciting thing we’ve been working on recently has been hooking up with Adaptive Lab (another long-term collaborator) to create Month One.
As the name suggests, it’s a month-long programme for companies who want to change both their culture and their outputs simultaneously… this video below will give you a flavour of it:
I’ll talk more about it soon as a separate post, but save to say it’s been an absolute thrill to work on delivering this programme for clients, and will no doubt continue to be so. It’s really helped me see what happens when you use fast-moving techniques in combination with slow-moving layers, in order to create lasting change in businesses that sticks.
Next up, I’m delighted that Fraser Hamilton, who spent two months working with me last year before heading back to Loughborough for his final year of the Industrial Design & Technology degree, is hooking up with myself and Mark to not just help us explore interesting work, but to find out more about what sort of thing he wants to do. Fraser was a brilliant foil for me in various things last summer, from designing the new Artefact packs to running around the Saïd Business School making sure we were melting all the things we should have been melting during The Key To Leadership. Together, we’ll be looking to explore all of the different facets of People & Space which cropped up this month, and making new things for projects to see how the space around people can change the way they work. Testing out new forms of embodiment for Flow Engines might be a big part of our work together too.
Fraser will also be working on the further development of Artefact Cards, which of course wouldn’t be possible without Tim Milne of Artomatic and Keith Rockett of the Axminster Printing Co. Tim’s been someone I’ve worked with since PHD days, basically my go-to guy whenever I think “I wonder if we could make a thing that does this…“. Which must get very tiring, given how many emails I send him. And Keith and his band of merry men are the people who make and ship your Artefact Cards to you, wherever you are in the world.
Since changing the packaging to the new one last September, we’ve shipped out just over 7,000 packs of them in various order sizes (which isn’t bad at all for a hobby-business built from scratch I guess). It’s been such a fun and useful thing to make, that with the team we’ll be looking at the right way to take it to the next level over the Autumn. In a way, Artefact Cards is a crash-test dummy; I can experiment with the business as much as I like when all the risk and consequence falls on me. I’m definitely going to make a Culture Map for it, just to see what’s inside.
I mentioned the Saïd Business School project before, and I’m delighted to have kept working on projects with Tracey Camilleri (who runs the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme there) since then. I always come away from conversations with Tracey thinking how little I know, but feeling remarkably good about it; it’s like there’s a whole new world to discover, or mountain to climb, but there’s someone there I can ask daft questions and not be afraid of the answers. Projects with Tracey tend to be with people who’re thinking in three, four, five-year terms, or even more. It’s only by working with people who’re occupying the slower layers of People & Space that I can understand the knock-on effects throughout whole business cultures.
Finally, I’m delighted that not only will I still be working on projects with my friends at Gravity Road (we’ve been doing things together since I started), but until Christmas we’ll be taking a little space upstairs there; it’s a space to test space, as it were. Working with Gravity Road on projects means tapping into the immediacy of the world as it rushes by, operating along the fastest layers of popular culture. Which means that, as an environment to set up a test-case space for Fraser and I to work from occasionally in London, it feels like the right place to do it. What can we pull out of that torrent to create things from?
There we have it, then. A completed project on the future of Smithery, and a newly-forged thesis to work from. Besides all the brilliant people I’ve worked with so far in this journey (yes, you know who you are), there are three who need thanked much more than most; my wife Helen, son James and daughter Charlotte, without whom I wouldn’t have any reason to try and change a little bit of the world. Thanks to all of you who’ve read, commented and shared… I may lay off the blog for a week or so now, I don’t think I can typ mushh morrr…
John V Willshire
31st August 2014
Over the last month, I’ve been exploring the roots of a new idea, a thesis about organisations as a complex (yet playfully navigable) interaction between people who do the work, and the spaces they do it in.
Now, in the first of two summary posts, I’m going to recap the most useful elements that this project has shaped and produced. It’s been three years since I started Smithery, and being able to look back at 36 months worth of projects has helped me understand what the guiding mantra, Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things, has actually meant in a practice.
As an aside, I’ve found it really quite rewarding thinking back on what has worked, and what hasn’t, in order to bring together a set of principles, methods and approaches that characterise the work. It’s certainly nice to know that there does look like there exists something beyond intuition and creativity.
What have I got to, then? Well, three simple things. Firstly, a way to make maps. Secondly, a way to add detail to the map. And thirdly, a way in which to quickly explore specific areas. I’ll explain each individually.
A Way To Make Maps
In hindsight The Culture Matrix, as it became called, was the wrong sort of metaphor. A matrix, when referred to in business, usually suggests fixed points along the rows and columns, bewteen which you can plot and deploy strategies and yadda yadda, so on and so forth…
It demands a high level of certainty in how the Matrix is constructed in the first place; you must know what goes down the side, and along the top. They’re probably really useful in times of certainty, which this current era is definitely not. There is no model. Here be dragons.
Maps, on the other hand, are a much more flexible, familiar and useful metaphor for what I’ve been describing theses last thirty days.
Every map is different; the scale, the detail, the content, the purpose, the land mass, the key… it can all flex around. But maps retain the same basic operating principles, which means people can pick them up and pull something useful from them.
Now, usefully I’ve been working with Mark Earls on his new book (I’m doing the illustrations) which is due out in a few months, and there’s a chapter in that about just how useful it is to draw out maps of information; sneak preview from it:
“Making visual representations of things and ideas and their interrelationships can provide us with the means to see the connections between things in the real world – not just in time and space”
- Mark Earls, from Copy Copy Copy (Wiley, early 2015)
We make maps so we can see what’s going on. We make a matrix to suggest that our problem can be slotted into someone else’s answer.
You’ll also find that most maps will have something key in common; you always know which way ‘up’ is, because that’s where ‘north’ on the compass would be. If I look back to the drawing I did originally of the intersection of the PEOPLE & SPACE layers, instead of turning it into a precise matrix, I could instead form a rough and ready compass from it.
North is where the people layers are slower, and South is where they’re faster. East is where the space layers are fastest, and West is where they’re slowest. I think anyone could then be asked to draw out a ‘map’ of the organisational culture they belong to based on those simple parameters; What We Do (North-South) and Where We Do It (East-West).
The trick then is being able to flesh out more detail…
A Way To Add Detail
Turning the Culture Matrix into a Culture Map makes a lot of sense when looking specifically at two things that emerged during the last month; the Book Matrix, and the Question Engine.
Firstly, the Book Matrix was a thorough enjoyable exercise to undertake, dancing around in my kitchen dividing up all my books into 25 distinct sections, as specified by the Matrix at the time.
I think the approach has been ‘Broadly Right and Precisely Wrong‘, to paraphrase Keynes. What is the value now of those precise groupings, given they were generated by a framework which is now fluid, constantly moving? Should they be changed? I could revisit them and group them as a map at some point, or indeed think about how books would move of different maps. But the point is to be broader than that… to know what I have at my fingertips, theories and examples and propositions to pull from and drop into the right place at the right time. Also, as an exercise to try with others, the Book Matrix would be an interesting learning journey for a group over the course of a few months.
Secondly, the Question Engine is a rotating, more fluid piece anyway (perhaps because it arrived later in the project; it saw how the party was going and dressed appropriately…).
There’s something useful, I think, in just asking three random questions of the places in which we find ourselves. Don’t look for the obvious questions, because you’ll immediate find an obvious answer. What you’re looking for is the question you might ask if you squint a bit, or see it in your peripheral vision…
I’m going to keep testing the Question Engine as a concept by using the webpage it’s built on. If it proves useful and interesting enough, it could always become something else – an app, for instance – but it’s got to pass the utility test first.
Overall, I’ve learned that the way to add detail (and frankly we all should have known this anyway) is to only ever add just enough at any one time.
There were times in the project where the detail just got in the way. So conceptually, for myself, thinking of this approach as a series of layers that deepen with complexity is the right approach, as long as I remember the preference is to be as near the top layer as possible. Yes, there can be a complexity underpinning the relationship between everything, but there’s no need to ‘show the workings’ as it were. It only serves to slow down and confuse people, when the aim is quite the opposite…
A Way To Explore Quickly
Finally, the Flow Engine process, as a way to design working sessions either for individuals or groups has already proved itself to be useful on numerous occasions since writing about Designing Flow Engines just this week.
The set-up becomes almost effortless. Take one Indicator Event which suggests there are larger factors at work that make them happen, then create a process with three steps, using the three flow triggers of High Consequences, Rich Environment and Embodiment. These three triggers are rotated round each of the three steps (as primary secondary or tertiary triggers for a step), so are continually reinforced in the work people are doing.
It also considers the use of space in everything around what people are doing, which means that you’ve a much greater chance of getting people working well, and working quickly, even in unfamiliar or testing scenarios.
Funnily enough, thinking back to a lot of the working situations I have created in the last three years (and before), it’s easy to spot where I was using these triggers anyway… but not always as consistently as I could have. The approach of reinforcing each step in the other two feels reassuringly strong and simple.
Together, these three outputs from the last thirty days feel like they’ve strengthened my own understanding of what I do (or in some cases why I do things in the way I do). It’s also shown me where I need to sharpen and refine more, and where more fresh input and learning is needed.
Tomorrow, then, I’ll wrap up by thinking about where this is going to take me in the next three years…
ACTION 30 – MAKE A MAP OF SOMETHING
We’re in the final straight now. It occurred to me as I sat down tonight that I just didn’t have time this month (not nearly enough) to chase down all the things I was going to cover, the people to speak to, the things to read and reflect upon. With every little thing I discovered, it seemed to bring with it another three things that became part of the puzzle too. That, though, is to be expected, when dealing with the entirety of PEOPLE and SPACE.
What I have seen though is that all through the process of writing these daily posts, I more often than not would end up trying to make a thing that would not just describe what was going on in the system, but could actually be used in some way to change a system. I didn’t set out to do that, but maybe it’s the way that you have to deal with such big, complex mazes. You can’t talk your way out of them, you can only make your way out of them.
With two posts lefts, Saturday and Sunday, I’m going to scrap everything else up to this point (apologies if you’re waiting for something I said I’d return to… future posts will appear on these, no doubt), and concentrate on two distinct things, for each of the days:
i) Saturday will be about the things I’ve made as part of the project. The Culture Matrix, the Flow Engine Design, The Question Engine and so on. I’ll think about how they’re useful moving forwards, who they might be useful for, and what else they may become.
ii) Sunday will be about Smithery itself; after three years, and an intensive month-long reflection, what does all this suggest for the future direction of what I do next, and who I do it with.
ACTION 29 – THINK ABOUT THE LAST MONTH. WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU’D MADE TIME FOR?
Ok, so I was quite taken with the whole Flow Engine thing. Engines are useful things, after all. So I’ve made a Question Engine.
Why? Well, good question…
Yesterday morning in the post I received my paper copy of Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary“. It’s something that I have as an ebook, in my Kindle app on iPad mini, but I realised that it hadn’t made it into either the Book Matrix when I built it, or indeed specifically in my thinking around the Culture Matrix this far. Well, consciously at any rate. And yet one of the pages Dan showed in the new printed version featured two very familiar models; the civilisation and building layers from Stewart Brand’s Clock Of The Long Now and How Buildings Learn:
I wonder if I’d seen them before Rob and Alex separately told me about both this summer?
If so, it’s another great example about the importance of context; perhaps I’d seen these models before but the time and surroundings weren’t right to make them notable. Fast forward a year or two, and suddenly they help unlock a bigger puzzle.
I saw Dan talk earlier this summer, as it happens, at one of James Bridle’s Right To Flight events in a Peckham Car Park. As part of the talk, he reiterated the importance of asking the right question, which leafing to the end of the book now I can see again, so I’d like to quickly quote:
“As opposed to engineering, with its focus on problem solving, strategic design is focussed on questioning the question, reframing if necessary…”
- Dan Hill, Dark Matter and Trojan Horses
Given my focus in these last few blog posts of the project on making useful things, I thought I’d use this inspiration to tackle the “questions for Indicator Events” idea. What sort of other questions (beyond the simple four yesterday) might you use to tackle things that you come across inside a working culture?
Now, I’ve been back through a fair few different posts and versions of things I’ve made this month, and realised just how many questions I’ve actually framed and asked; it’d make a terribly dry and dull list. So instead, with a little help from a WordPress widget called mg Quotes I’ve built a Question Engine.
It sounds grand. It’s basically a webpage. But what it does do is rotate, at random, a reworked form of every question I’ve asked as part of the Culture Matrix project, and serve them up three at a time for you as little provocations for you. Then just refresh the page, and get three more:
It means you can use it on phones, tablets, computers… anything you like, fairly easily. It also means, because it’s not an app, that I can keep adding things in there, as a resource of questions for myself when working on projects.
I’d love to hear from you, if you give it a wee try. Let me know how you get on.
ACTION 28 – USE THE QUESTION ENGINE FOR SOMETHING YOU’RE WORKING ON NOW – IT’S HERE