• Metastrategy – Movement, Loops and Layers – Video

    On: October 26, 2016
    In: culture, design, economics, making, rivetings, technology
    Views: 1759
     1

    I was very excited to be invited to Oslo to give the final keynote of the Webdagene conference. It’s one of my favourite cities, and the speaker line-up was immense too – you should check out all of the talks.

    My talk was an updated version of the Metastrategy idea, with cleaner entry points into the theory, and an extended practical back-end. Please enjoy, and as always questions, additions and thoughts in the comments below are most welcome.

    John Willshire: Metastrategy – Movements, Layers and Loops (Webdagene 2016) from Netlife Research on Vimeo.

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  • “The best for the most for the least” – 2016 Projects

    On: January 10, 2016
    In: culture, design, economics, making, people, rivetings, work
    Views: 4706
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    Every year, we set three internal projects for Smithery; things we want to work on that will improve our own practice, be fun to explore, and originally to occupy a little downtime too. As perhaps evidenced by the performance on last year’s projects (see 2015 project write-up), we seem to have a bit less time nowadays to purposefully muck about.

    Firstly, some of that is down to workload; we’re working on more complex, nuanced, interesting problems for clients. They’re more compelling to get readily lost in, to wander through and wonder about. We’re doing the sort of projects I started Smithery for.

    Secondly, a lot of the things we do as part of projects nowadays perhaps take the place of the more makery stuff we used centre some personal projects around. Adopting various things into our approach, like the principles from Seymour Papert’s Constructionism, means that more often than not we have ‘a thing’ in the middle of the table to facilitate discussion, design and direction. We make things all the time.

    And perhaps thirdly, the internal projects have served as useful proof-of-concepts, and in pointing to them (and subsequent clients things) we are asked to do more things like those. Getting paid actual money for things you really like to do anyway is always nice.

    I talked a while ago about ‘The Blacksmith’s Sign’; a beautiful wrought iron sign that hangs from a post, an ornate piece of communication about the type of work done within. People would see the sign, and think ‘ah, there’s someone who could help me with X…’ and another client was secured. The client didn’t want a sign, of course. They wanted the skills that created that sign. In some way, that’s what some of the Smithery internal projects have been about, wittingly or not…

    In the light of all this, we’ve been thinking a lot over the holidays about the right internal projects this year, and how after four years they might change focus a bit, beyond just thinking of ourselves.

    ‘Internal projects’ seems a little small. We have decided we want to be a little more ambitious in how we make the projects as useful as possible beyond our own walls. Stealing an idea from Charles & Ray Eames, how do we use the projects to deliver “the best for the most for the least”; to create really useful outputs from the projects, which can offer greater value for more people, making the very best use of the resources we have available.

    With all that in mind, here’s our three for 2016.

    There’s a What, a How and a Where

    ————————-

    1. WHAT – Strategic Design Unit

    What is Smithery? Ah, the perennial question. The original answer was long and uncertain, as proved by the thing I must’ve written when asked by Campaign on leaving PHD:

    “…called Smithery, the business will look to work with clients on brand and service innovation, community initiatives, crowdsourcing projects and marketing and media strategy.”

    About a year in, and after I’d reflected on the actual work I was doing, it become “an innovation studio” (after a German magazine called PAGE called it that). Formulating “Make Things People Want > Making People Want Things” helped explain what it was about.

    What about now though? Smithery has always been centred around innovation; an inheritance of the previous role I’d had for five years, a comfortable legitimacy.

    But increasingly, looking at the work we’ve done over the last twelve months, that’s not the right definition anymore.

    It’s harder to see what I thought innovation was looking at how it’s used everywhere now. As a term, innovation is at risk of being meaninglessly overused and abused. In too many cases, it just means ’slightly better than useful’, or ‘the things we do to hide the day job’. It is hard to discern what it is someone’s actually talking about when using the word. It is a fat, unhelpful descriptor, just like digital became before it. I find myself having to go through layers of conversation with people when they say ‘innovation’ to find out what they actually mean

    you keep using that word

    Which is partly what the system we’ve developed around our practice is a reaction to, I think.

    Rooted in the gearbox idea from Smithery 3.0 in 2014 (around Stewart Brand’s shearing layers), the system uses four complementary realms, and in particular their relationship to each other, to help us define what sort of job we’re actually looking at. Or at the very least, helps state the question that everyone at the start of the project thinks we’re trying to answer (it usually changes, but that’s another story).

    Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 10.56.08

    None of the realms are described as ‘innovation’, of course, and you can’t describe everything we do as innovation, either in our own understanding of it or that of others. So if Smithery isn’t an innovation studio, what is it?

    I went back through the bookshelves to find some clues, and I picked up Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary” again.

    Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

    DMATH is a terrific read, and in reading Dan’s post about it, which started from Dan’s talk at the first Laptops & Looms, which itself was an important experience for me, as I found myself at it barely a month into starting Smithery at Toby & Russell’s invitation.

    L&LRead Adrian’s take on what it was, if you don’t know, which is a) great and b) links to lots of other reactions to it, as all good rabbit holes should.

    But it’s only in reading DMATH again, in context of the last eighteen months of work, that I’ve started to appreciate what Dan is really getting at, from a practitioner’s perspective, when talking about Strategic Design.

    Rather than trying to design specific solutions, and ones constrained by the same silos that create previous failing ones at that, Strategic Design bridges disciplines and departments within the organisation as currently exists, and seeks to change the cultural, political and social factors which prevent necessary change; the hidden things, the ‘dark matter’ the title refers to.

    Another thing I’ve been reading (for the first time) is John Harwood’s The Interface, an exploration of the seminal IBM Design programme led by Eliot Noyes (who brought in Charles & Ray Eames, Paul Rand, etc), which transformed the business starting in the late fifties. What you realise from reading the stories back is just how much the politics and the social structures that Noyes & Thomas Watson Jr (his client, and new IBM CEO) navigated their way through were part of the design project.

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    I could keep going in, but in this first week of January though, I’m very aware that there’s a lot more to research, and this is just the setting out of our stall. What other examples and takes on Strategic Design should we appraise ourselves of? This one? These folks? Does it really match up to the system we have? It does feel, on the surface, like what we’ve been working on with Smithery (somewhat unknowingly to an extent):

    Exhibit A: We’re working with an innovation team from one end of the business, as well as the sales team from the other end. Rather than waiting three years for innovation to hit the front line and change the organisation, we’re helping them create and deploy the ideas and constructs immediately to make a difference for their customers.  Building conceptual and functional platforms and methods upon which they create things together. It’s a long, investigative journey of researching, prototyping, talking and observing. Developing a feel for the rhythm of the organisation, things we can see, things we can’t. What results is a field kit, a box full of the future, in many different iterations, that the sales team can use with clients to scope out problems together.

    Exhibit B: We were asked to put together a ‘War Game’ for a global strategy team last autumn. They were bringing together the thirty strategic leaders from across the globe, who don’t see each other that often. The brief time they have together is valuable. Traditionally, ‘War Games’ are long extrapolations of one scenario. And it’s a rational thing for global strategy teams to ask for. No one gets fired for asking for a war game. But in rooting around in what the problem actually was, they wanted their people to become better at reacting to unforeseen circumstances. So instead of running a long game of ‘Risk, one long, exhaustive scenario, we designed a card game, more ‘Poker’ (multiple, recombinant, rapid scenarios). Instead of one scenario, we build 21 in three hours. But we only build half the deck; half are blank, for the client teams to create their own additional and variations in the future. In a sense, rather than just create a fully formed thing for one experience in the business, we made a half-formed thing they would take back home with them, and create their own experiences with.

    In both these cases, of course, it wasn’t just us. We pull together ‘units’, small specialist teams to work on these things, according to the task. Sometimes individuals, sometimes wee groups of people from other companies. But importantly, I think, people from the inside of the client teams too. It’s less about building units for people, but building the units including people.

    So the WHAT project is this: What Is A Strategic Design Unit?

    WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) In these first fresh weeks of 2016, inhabiting a new way of seeing what we do is something to test out. Then with further reading and reflection, we’ll be experimenting and investigating what it takes to be a “Strategic Design Unit”.

    WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Working out what Strategic Design means for us, how we describe ‘strategic design units’ helpfully for others, and creating an artefact of our investigations (writing a guide on how we get on to publish,  a white paper, or something). The best articulation we can create, available to develop and build on through creative commons, that asks the least from others and ourselves in order to take the most from it.

    ————————-

    2. HOW – Universal Agility Map

    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sketched the thing below in the last year. Using the same axes of ‘people’ and ‘things’ as the system above, it’s nine-box variant for appraising what you should do next on a project basis. If the four box system model is the what, then this is the how.

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    Very simply, you start projects in the bottom left, work quickly with a small team, then work out what to do next; Improve or Share. Go out to the right to share with more people, taking what you’ve got into qualitative, then quantitative ways of testing what you’ve made, before you spend all your resources making it better. Go up to improve, and make a better version of what it is you’ve come up with as a team.

    As a simple instruction, ‘improve or share’ shares a lot from modern, iterative working, but there’s some additional things in there too.

    For one, it’s non-judgemental. There is no right and wrong in the approach. Instead, it simple demands that you ask yourself, as truthfully as you can, what the most appropriate thing to do is. For another, it allows you to perceive the empty spaces in the process, and think about where else you might have taken the project, had you chosen to go there.

    There’s more detail on what this method is here, but in short it’s about using a design process that isn’t wedded to time. Time doesn’t sit on the X axis of the two-dimensional model, so therefore the emphasis is not simply on moving from left to right. It’s like a self-directed version of snakes and ladders for projects.

    The more we’ve used it ourselves, and talked about it to other people, the more it seems useful in situations as a way for other people to think about the way they work.

    We think it might be a Universal Agility Map.

    The idea that it’s a map, specifically, came from an afternoon we spent hanging out with Ella Saltmarshe and Tim Milne, reflecting on a project each of us had done and mapping the out across the grid, plotting points according to the action we’d taken at each stage (improve/share).

    P1030156

    Then the best bit, which was Ella’s idea for the session, was to then think about how it felt at each stage of the project, and to map those feelings on too. We got to some really interesting ways of describing the territory through this.

    For instance, if you only keep improving something, without sharing it with others, it gets harder to share it eventually and take all the feedback on board at once. It’s like a mountain range that’s easier to cross when you’re further south in the foothills, but the further north you go, the higher and colder it becomes to make it over the mountains.

    If you only talk about and get input and data about a project, on the other hand, and never use any of that to make significant steps on, you get lost in ‘the forests of constant chatter’… you never get anywhere as you’re lost in the reactions of what you get from external sources.

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    All of this is something we want to work on more this year, and make something that people can take for themselves and use as a way of improving their own working process.

    The HOW project is this: How Do You Use The Universal Agility Map?

    WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) We’ve found it really useful. We think other people will find it really useful. How we communicate the value we’ve found in that will be a good challenge for us (we’ve spent a year on it, surely it doesn’t take that long to learn), and beneficial for others.

    WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Work out a way to teach it to people. Then teach it in person, at places where I teach already, like IED Barcleona & Google Squared, and in new places too. And, just maybe, create an artefact of the method too, so that people can teach themselves. Our friend Tina does a wonderful range of maps already, we should talk to her…

    ————————-

    3. WHERE – Perpetual Spatial Ranges

    The book I recommended most to people last year was Prototype, edited by Louis Valentine. It features a cornucopia of different takes on what prototypes are, written by practitioners in quite different spheres. It’s from 2010, rather than being from last year, but when I stumbled across it, I loved it from the off.

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    One of the ideas I kept coming back to was from an essay called ‘Prototypes as a Central Vein For Knowledge Development‘ by Pieter Jan Stappers, in which he references ideas created during a PhD by dutch designer Ianus Keller.

    Keller proposed that there could be ways to set up working environments for people engaged in prototyping which bring together what they are working on immediately in their hands, what is close to them on the table, and what they see in the environment in line-of-sight.

    The bodily interactions in design activities can be divided into three spatial ranges, each serving different cognitive functions” as the essay puts it.

    P1080139

    The simple idea of the ‘spatial ranges’ gripped me, partly because of the Artefact Cards work over the last few years (which starts at the precision range, then stretches into the layout range), but partly because I’ve always been fascinated at exploring the spaces we all work in (effectively and not).

    The Atmosphere range is one I personally think we at Smithery should concentrate this year on understanding more, and linking back to the other ranges. We’ve also been working these last six months on a fascinating ‘Future Of The Workplace’ project with a client, which we should be able to say a lot more about soon, I hope.

    It’s not just a way to think about the way people work when in particular set-ups (like Keller was exploring with ways of prototyping) but in every moment we work. Do we always pull things in from the precision, layout and atmosphere ranges when working, knowingly or not?

    Do we work in what we might call ‘Perpetual Spatial Ranges‘, three circles around us we should be much more mindful of? By considering these ranges, and understanding how they relate to each other, and what makes for good working practice for ourselves and teams, can we learn how to adjust and align the ranges, like a dance of working practice?

    P1080138

    When you start thinking about it in this way, you realise that in most work environments, the design of the spatial ranges aren’t that aligned. Team leaders, facilities managers, IT Departments, the board’s latest attempt at interior design… the number of different people taking unilateral decisions about the ranges soon stacks up, and perhaps damages or impedes the work people are being asked to do.

    So what to do about this, then? Well, we have, by chance, some projects lined up this year which have a lot to do with the realms in which teams work. How to design environments which are most conducive to the sort of work you want people to more readily and easily produce. We might also explore our own working environment more, and set up an experiment of working practice that plays on these ideas.

    Finally, then, the Where project is this: Where can you see Perpetual Spatial Ranges at work?

    WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) From the 2014 work based on the Stewart Brand shearing layers, it’s been really apparent that the spaces in which people work are part of the domain of trying to solve the problems we’re asked to. This is the year to get to grips with that properly.

    WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Find a place to show people what we mean by Perpetual Spatial Ranges, whether it’s a place we work in, or someone else works in, or one we’ve designed for someone else for a specific purpose. Then, perhaps, run a tour of the space…?

    ————————-

    There we go then. That should keep us busy, but hopefully in a way that creates more value for more people. We’ll see at the end of the year in the wrap-up.

    Here’s to 2016.

     

     

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  • 2015 Projects – A Romjul Review

    On: December 31, 2015
    In: design, making, material culture, rivetings
    Views: 3244
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    It’s that time of year again; a review of the annual Smithery projects, as laid out here, and then start thinking about next year’s projects.

    …….

    **As a very early tangent, I realise why I’ve been pondering this in the days after Christmas, and before New Year – I love Lauren Laverne at the best of times, but in particular this week as in this piece she draws attention to the Norwegian term Romjul

    “Romjul is the Norwegian word for the last week of the year. It has a name and its own specific set of activities and traditions, which help make the most of the holidays, but also bring a bit of balance and recalibration to the last few days of the year. There’s eating, obviously, and a fair bit of staying in, creating a cosy nest. It’s a peaceful time to hang out with family and friends, but it’s also traditional to get outside and take walks, and to spend some time reflecting on the year that has passed and what comes next.”

    …sorry, worth sharing I thought. Back to the matter in hand…

    …….

    The Smithery projects have always been set up as something slightly apart from the client work, internal things I wanted to do that benefits how we work, that clients would ultimately benefit from indirectly. Last year was the first time there were two of us writing them (Fraser and I), but given Fraser’s halfway up a mountain at the moment, you’ll have to make do with me writing this review.

    The projects last year were an alliterative little bunch; Practice, Play & Produce. Each had their own specific intro (follow those links), and of course their own objectives.

    To quickly recap…

    1PRACTICE

    WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) – The aim of this project is to establish a shared language of practice for Smithery. As the work expands in scope, and the studio grows, having a common way to approach complex problems seems mandatory.

    WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal)Define the axes properly, identify what Smithery offers in each quadrant, and write something on each of the 25 sub-sections to help orientate different types of work.

    2 PLAY

    WBB“Playing With Ideas” works when designing workshops, one-off experiences, and so on. But it feels like there’s scope to go further, to set up systems and games people can use themselves to be more productive…

    WDG Work up three general versions of this so that other people can pick them up and use them without us being there to scaffold them into it. And make a version of one of them to sell to folks, either crowd-funded or direct.

    3PRODUCE 

    WBB “If you don’t make anything yourself you’ll never make anything of yourself” now this might not be true but I do think that only good can come out of trying to make something you have never tried before. Failing leads to learning and all that jazz. Also we can see how good we are at being the people who make things.

    WDG What will we be making? We don’t exactly know, we aren’t ruling anything out, there aren’t any criteria for just now other than no pointless stuff because lets face it the world is already full of loads of useless crap. Stuff that helps people, has a purpose or evokes a nice reaction out of folks. We do know that we will be aiming to make something every month (MSEM) and that will be the minimum requirement.

     

    So then… how did we do?

    I’m going to address them in reverse order, and give them a score out of ten.

    Produce was always going to be the most fulfilling to do, and hardest to achieve. One reason, perhaps, is that it’s harder to slot in the making of things in between client projects; it takes a mental shift sometimes to find the space to make a thing.

    Another is, as Alex wrote in her excellent review of the Good Night Lamp year, making is waiting. When you’re making physical things which need some sort of scale, this is especially true. For instance, you design a version of something, then send it off… and wait days to see the prototype. It’s not like more digital forms of making, where you can form a more instant test-and-learn approach as you see the results of every change and tweak. And it’s also not like pure craft, where you’re making a one-off piece (a pot, let’s say), and you feel and see every shift in the material as you go.

    Finally, of course, there’s Artefact Cards – we already have a ready-made (sic) production arm (albeit now a separate company), which we’ve been creating new products and things for all year. Sometimes it’s for Artefact Cards, sometimes collaborations, sometimes for Smithery client work (which I’ll blog about separately, next year, when I can).

    P1070929

    In hindsight… does this count, or not? Should we have been making different things? Or is it a useful platform upon which to make things to explore things with people.

    I kinda feel that if we were to count all the useful, provocative things we used the cards for this year, we’d pass the criteria as set for the project with flying colours. There’s been at least twelve. Part of the discovery of this year was just how deep the whole card thing goes, which I talked about at Adaptive Lab’s Pi People event in September:

     

    But there’s no point going soft on ourselves; this wasn’t the goal, as Fraser wrote about it back in January. To pass, we’d have needed much more non-card production, I think. So I’m going to state that it’s a 4/10 for PRODUCE.

    Next up, PLAY. I was about to fail us on this, totally, but then I read the description again…

    “Playing With Ideas” works when designing workshops, one-off experiences, and so on. But it feels like there’s scope to go further, to set up systems and games people can use themselves to be more productive…

    And thought back to something that happened after my dConstruct talk (below)…

    John Ellison at Clearleft took one of the games I mentioned in the talk, Popular Thing For Broken Thing, and wrote a brilliant description of the game as they put it into practice on a project – you should pop over here and give it a read.

    That game, and others, we’ve played at workshops this year in a very diverse mix of places, from Barclays Capital to Google Squared to the Museums Association. All the games have one thing in common, perhaps; they’re not terribly hard to remember how to run. And if you get it wrong, then hey, that’s a new version.

    In this sense, it’s all about what you leave behind, rather than what you bring. Giving people useful games to play with each other means, I think, they can be more productive when you’re not there. They’re also more likely to play the thing again, if it’s a fun, productive thing to do. It’s been a very useful way to create value this year for other people to take away.

    However…

    When I read the WDG again, it says ‘Work up three general versions of this so that other people can pick them up and use them without us being there to scaffold them into it. And make a version of one of them to sell to folks, either crowd-funded or direct.’. We didn’t do that at all. Hmmm.

    In the strictest terms, we’ve failed. PLAY gets a 1/10. In hindsight, the aims are wrong, and I’m much happier as a result.

    Finally then, PRACTICE

    We started the year with a vague notion that the card you see at the top, those cartesian coordinates of ‘people’ and ‘things’, was a way to describe… well, everything we did. The very point of Smithery, when founded 4+ years ago, was to stretch right across organisations in order to solve the problems that really needed solving, not just iterate in domains long-past their sell-by date.

    In this model, I think we’ve found it. It’s been tremendously useful and production on a weekly, if not daily basis, as a way to think about the type of project we’re shaping with clients, what stage things are at, what actions are most viable next.

    There’s an extended post on the thinking behind it here, too (though I’ve stopped referring to it as the ‘Axes of Praxis’, a joke that lost its shine at some point…) – http://smithery.co/making/a-sonic-screwdriver-for-thinking/

    What’s come out of it most usefully, I think, is the ability to clearly state what Smithery does (beyond ‘Making Things People Want > Making People Wants Things’), and why, and therefore what we would do at any given point for a client.

    Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 10.56.08

    These four interrelated areas we think about are Design, Strategy, Prototype and Culture.

    Prototypes are small things we do with small groups of people. When the thing we make together needs advancing, and the thing-thing is more important that the people-thing, we shift into Design. When we find that the wider organisation needs to shift in order to make the future successful, and the people-thing is more important than the thing-thing, we shift into Culture. And finally, when thinking about all of the people, and all of the things, we are operating at the Strategy level.

    Then there’s a nine-box grid version too, which details out a project as it progresses, which makes for a really useful design process where time isn’t used on the X axis… I talked about that at UX London:

    Overall, this PRACTICE section of the projects has been a real success – although I never did write 25 pieces about it.
    For that slip, let’s go 8/10 for PRACTICE.
    There we have it then, the 2015 projects in review, and just in time for Hogmanay too. We’d like to wish you all a very Happy New Year, and see you in a few days, when we’ll talk about the 2016 projects and the year ahead…

     

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  • The basic rules of coffee

    On: September 29, 2015
    In: making
    Views: 3177
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    It’s International Coffee Day, apparently. Ish.

    No better day than to share some pictures of my Father’s Day present from the kids this year – a 90 minute Home Brew Course at Small Batch in Brighton, which I did a week or so ago.

    It was terrific to get some basic rules in my head about what happens when you’re making coffee. How the bean is shattered by the grinder. The size of the lumps it shatters into. The length of time and the temperature you want to immerse those lumps for.

    It was a cross between an engineering and a chemistry course. With much, much better coffee.

    Highly recommended. Give it a go.

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  • Wearing Culture’s New Shoes

    On: August 24, 2015
    In: culture, design, making, marketing
    Views: 2937
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    I’m wearing new shoes today. They’re made by Atheist Berlin. They feel like hot chocolate for the feet.

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    Now, I’ve been following the Atheist story for a while, because I know David, Chief Atheist (is that a thing?) from when we did the IPA Excellence Diploma together some years ago (dates redacted to protect the aged). Indeed, it’s interesting to reflect on the number people from the IPA ExDip who’ve gone on to do their own thing; consultancies, accelerators, etc. The course clearly gives people a bit of motivation to do something differently.

    But within that those who’ve made a thing. Making things is different from service industries. Not better or worse, just different. Another example would be Matt’s success with Two Fingers Brewing. I make some card things you might have seen. There are no doubt more examples from diploma alumni too. And there are definitely lots of examples of ex-agency people who start making things instead of selling other peoples’ things. But it’s not just a few agency folk leaving uninspiring surroundings to play around at ‘maker’ (although Murat’s post from 2013 still hits upon most of the reasons why that happens).

    There’s a cacophony of forces driving more and more people to start making their own things. Some are positive; access to funding of some sort (grants, investors, crowd-funding), the ability to use the internet to learn new skills and find an audience at the right scale. Some are negative; lack of fulfilling work, high youth unemployment, cost of higher education.

    They all add up to interesting times for existing companies. Take beer, for instance. The number of breweries operating in the UK in the last five years has tripled. Yet beer sales in the UK remained in a long-term decline until last year, when they managed a 1.5% annual increase. All in all, it adds up to more suppliers fighting over less sales, and more interesting suppliers stealing share from less interesting ones.

    This summer has felt like what started as an expression thing for the creatively minded has started to become a business thing for a lot of people. The conversations I’ve been having and become aware of are less about how brands can support makers do their own thing, and more about ‘what happens when they start to make our thing?’

    Our culture has a new pair of shoes, and it’s starting to test just how far it can walk in them.

     

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  • Innovation + Community = X

    On: July 30, 2015
    In: economics, making
    Views: 2631
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    Mr Nick Kendall called me up the other day, as something had just crossed his path that made him think of (as he put it) the two realms of what he perceives I do, namely innovation and community.

    (I’m glad someone has a more precise handle on this, because I’m never quite sure myself…)

    He’d been listening to this Radio 4 programme on ‘Bread for Scotland‘, and he’d started thinking about the different sort of innovation that can evolve from getting all sorts of different people involved in an economy that surrounds something.

    I’m off for a listen now, but in exchange I told Nick about my new friend for Barcelona, Anahí.

    Anahi

    Anahí owns Onna Café in the district of Gràcia. We met on my first day there, when I was scouring the city for the best coffee shops I could find.

    Of course, great coffee shops are becoming an indicator species for any city nowadays – find the really good coffee places, and they’ll be in the heart of other interesting things.

    What’s more interesting than usual about Onna, and Anahí, is that she’s not come into the business just through a general love in all sorts of coffee from everywhere. She’s originally from Costa Rica, and is using Onna not just as a venture for herself, but to improve the way the coffee economy works for all the people throughout the supply chain of her home country.

    She works with everyone from the farmers who grow the plants and look after the soil right through to the wholesale customers she supplies with Costa Rican beans, to establish an understanding of exactly where the cofee comes from, how it’s processed, packed, shipped, roasted and so on.

    What it means I think is that everyone becomes visible to each other, all along the supply chain, and it’s helping Costa Rica step away from the commodity stock market approach to coffee beans (where price is dictated by the market), and help everyone realise greater value for the product through understanding how and why to make great coffee.

    It all means that the coffee economy for Costa Rica is changing – so much so, Anahí pointed out, that the very first Latin American winner of the World Cup Tasters Championship was Juan Gabriel Cespedes of Costa Rica (who apparently had never been outside the country before heading to Gothenburg to compete).

    Cup-Tasters-FINALS-050-740x494

    Which is another interesting thing about the visibility throughout the supply chain; it’s not just one way.

    It’s not just the wholesale or retail customers at the end of the chain understanding how the coffee is grown, processed, and delivered to them in their businesses and homes, but about the farmers and shippers at the other end what and how people value the coffee. If you need to grow and ship coffee that stands up well in a coffee cupping test, well, you need to learn how cupping works.

    When I think back to what Nick was describing, the crossover of innovation and community, I think more about this sort of business, and what businesses of all sizes can take from it. How do you make everyone visible and valued by others along the supply chain? How can they change the conditions in the chain for mutual benefit? And how do all these stories leak out to add to to a complex, compelling, authentic brand?

     

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  • Time And Relative Dimensions Of Desks

    On: March 17, 2015
    In: making, work
    Views: 2810
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    I’ve just taken delivery of two desks; one for me, and one for Carlo. The desks are from the recently closed Birmingham Central Library (which is sadly being demolished), and were designed by the architect, John Madin. They’re pretty big. They’re taking up a fair bit of our garage now:

    IMG_2730 JMD-BIRM-0022

    One of them has the light fixtures control in the middle, as you’ll see, and one doesn’t. Carlo’s having the non-light fitting one, to work upon the black linoleum without interruption. I have plans for the one with the light fitting, you see.

    We could just put it back together as was, with the light switches and fittings making a great desk for working with Artefact Cards, models, sketches, whatever. And the plug socket would be handy to charge phones on and the like.

    As an aside, I think it’s very interesting that desks designed over forty years ago have power sockets right in the middle of them there; back then, what would have they been for? Did Madin foresee the use of smaller electrical devices that you might have on a desk (electronic typewriters? Laptops?).

    Anyway, now given the cavity in which the light/plug switches is there, it will be relatively easy to pop that out, and put something else in… a little time device.

    IMG_2733

    I sort of mean a clock, but not just a clock. Something that can be flipped through various modes; clock, to pomodoro timer, to project time-counter, to… well, whatever. Being able to switch between time modes will let us investigate what different types of timing do in a work environment.

    I use a pomodoro app on my phone at the moment; cycles of 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. It helps me focus on things that I need to get done (and allow myself time for messing about every so often). It’ll be interesting to see how to replicate that effect on something that’s not a screen.

    IMG_2732

    Stealing the mechanism from a flip clock to do that would be good to look at too, I think… it’s not just about the movement, it’s about the sound of the clock ticking away on the desk that might be useful.

    flip clock

    Anyway, that’s the plan. Drop an Arduino in underneath, have a clock that you can reprogram easily on top, play around with a new sort of desk.

    First of all, though, find a room big enough to do that in…

    ——————-

    If you’re interested in the desks, there’s a few left on eBay here, and large ones too.

     

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  • A Sonic Screwdriver For Thinking

    On: March 5, 2015
    In: culture, design, making, people, work
    Views: 3964
     1

    Tools are becoming the theme of the year for me.

    From Dan Dennett’s “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking“, to the rediscovery (via Faris) of the McLuhan idea that “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”, it seems in reflection that the work Smithery is doing has a universal tool to start applying at the beginning of any process rather than the end.

    We’ve used it on everything from the Future of the Workplace studies with Konica Minolta, which is about the slower layers of technological and cultural change, to sector-specific trend analysis for Gravity Road, which is by nature fast and fluid. And it seems to work across all sorts of different things because it’s a tool, not a technique.

    It’s a sonic screwdriver of thinking kit; something to point at the unfamiliar, the unknown, and try to reckon something out of it or make something happen.

    Sonic Screwdriver

    I thought I’d explore it a little on here, partly as it’s part of the first of the Smithery 2015 projects, but also partly as a prompt to tease out any go-to thinking tools you lot might have, or indeed questions you can see around this one.

    First of all, having a general tool to start with feels very useful, and perhaps more important than I’d realised before.

    Arguably, you could say that the idea of Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things is a thinking tool, as it draws you in to a way of establishing about what you’re doing and where it sits across that divide. But I think that beyond initial divination it’s not that useful in a work context, and of course it’s open to the abuse of people think it has to be either one or the other.

    There’s more value in finding a thinking tool that acts as the primary device you pick up to assess a territory, but one that doesn’t dictate taking the same path every single time no matter what the problem is. It’s a tool, not a technique.

    Of course, repeatable techniques are great in times of certainty, but I’d argue that tools are better when you have to do something you’re not quite sure about, and need a way to attack it. It allows you more fluidity than being the person who says “computer says no…”

    Here’s two stories to illustrate this.

    A year or so ago, a client friend told me they were judging between two agencies who’d reached the final round. The first agency came in with a very proper, prepared walk through of their clever process. Essentially, they were saying “…put anything in this machine, and it’ll give you the right answer”. The second agency came in a lot less prepared, but with a team who teased out the right thing to do by asking questions in the meeting itself, reacting to conversation and aligning the strategy & tactics to fit. The second agency won because, as my friend put it, “that’s what they’re going to have to do on a daily basis anyway, so it’s nice to see them in action”.

    The second story; I spoke to another client friend who’d been through a massive pitch process with multiple agencies, who all had very precise, complex techniques that they presented at length. Each agency thought their clever technique would differentiate from the others. All that happened was the client team couldn’t tell the agencies apart. The proprietory techniques just served to make their proposals more similar than different, hid the teams and how they actually thought, and made the decision even more of a price-based one.

    Both illustrate The Law of the Instrument, of course: if all you have is a hammer, you treat everything as if it were a nail. And nowadays, a lot of companies are rolling out the Hammermatic 9000 in a bid to differentiate themselves.

    Instead of techniques, then, what do I mean by tools?

    The following model is our basic tool, based on the X and Y axes (of Descartes’ Cartesian Coordinates, as Dennett reminds us).

    We’re now using as a starting point for everything, like you would a compass for a map. If you understand direction, it helps you determine the correct course of action.

    Fraser and I have taken to calling this “The Axes of Praxis“, with tongues firmly in cheek, but there’s something important in the name which I’ll explain more about at the end.

    If you want (and I can really recommend doing this) you could grab a pen & paper and draw it out yourself as we go…

    *waits for you to get paper*

    On the X axis, we have “People”, and on the Y axis, we have “Things”.

    IMG_2665

    Eh? Things?

    Well, from last year’s thesis work, which was all about People & Space, “things” has now replaced “space” as a more useful descriptor.

    I wrote a bit about it too about in Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief:

    “When I say ‘Things’, it is a purposefully fuzzy description of potential outputs in this strange future. Not products, not services, not brands, not adverts. Things are something that all different parts of an organisation come together to realise.  Things are remarkable, in the sense that people bother to pass a remark about them. Things could mean, well, just about anything. Which is very useful, because in disruptive times established companies are often too caught up in the specifics of what they currently do to grasp and utilise the generalities of what they could do.”

    So yes, People and Things. That’s all there is in anything.

    On the diagram, both axes start at zero, and then increase in scale, according to each definition.

    As with all good Economics graphs, these are pretty rough rules of thumb; don’t get hung up on the exact numbers here. It’s just a little mental doohickey which allows you to quickly create a version on paper of the world in which you’re working. It’s a ready reckoner.

    Firstly, People (P) is determined by thinking about n (% of population) x m (magnitude).

    IMG_2669

    The population is all about the whole group you’re thinking of in the project in front of you.

    If you’re working within a business unit on culture change, then it is everyone who works in that business unit. It could be across an industry, if you’re in lobbying. And if you’re in marketing, you’re probably thinking about your target audience. Magnitude is about the size of the impact you think you’ll have on people. A light nudge? A life changing experience? This gives you a quick way to think about where you might be working along the People axis.

    If you’re creating powerful experiences that only touch a small percentage of the population, you’re still pretty small-scale in terms of the whole picture. Likewise, if it’s a lightweight advertising message, even though the reach is great, the impact might not be as great as you imagine.

    Secondly, on the Y axis, Things (T) is determined by i (instances) x d (detail).

    IMG_2668

    Thinking about Things in terms of instances (i) means that you can quickly work out what sort of change you’re going to suggest to a business.

    Does it change all of the output, a fundamental change to everything shipped? Or are you making a little standalone beta, or new product, that doesn’t change everything all at once. Using instances as a proxy for ‘% of output’ it helps you think of the scale you’re operating at within the business. We refine this by thinking about detail, the degree to which you’re creating a change in the output; is it a small tweak? A fundamental rewrite? Different packaging?

    Now you can do the same quick reckoning trick you pulled with the People axis on the Things axis. If you’re just working on a small public Beta of something that isn’t that radical a change, it’s probably not that high up the Things axis. Or if it’s a minor tweak to a service process that every customer goes through, it’s hard to see it creating a radical change.

    That’s the lay of the land, then, our thinking tool for whatever passes our noses. It can lend itself to different sorts of descriptive structures, question frameworks, job estimation, and so on and so forth. Like a sonic screwdriver, it doesn’t work that well on wood though. But we’re working on that.

    To give you an idea of how to apply it, here are some examples to bring that to life; two bigger ones, and a series of little ones…

     

    A. What sort of job is this?

    Firstly, we define the four areas of studio practice using it.

    IMG_2670

    Bottom left, where you’re working with smaller groups of people and early stages of work, you’re basically Prototyping. That’s not just to mean the prototyping of products and services, of course, but the prototyping of any sort of idea. (Now, having been chatting about it with David over coffee yesterday morning, I’m wondering if there’s a different word for this quadrant… Action, perhaps, or Habit? But for now, Prototyping will serve.)

    Bottom right, as you start increasing in scale along the People axis, it’s about Culture (and communications, and communities, and collaboration, and lots of other words that begin with c…). In short, it’s when the ‘people thing‘ is more important than the ‘thing thing’ (which as Mark will tell you is more often than you might think).

    Top left, where the priority is the things you’re working on, it’s about Design. Working out how the thing works, and how people react to it by putting it in front of small groups of users to improve and iterate. An important clarification; it’s low on the People axis not because people aren’t important, but just that compared to percentage of the population you’re thinking of, more often than not you’ll be testing with small groups.

    Top right, then, is about Strategy. How to think about whole outputs and whole populations at the same time, and setting new direction as a result of the needs you discover.

    All in all, thinking across these four quadrants has helped us see what jobs look like, but also what they might benefit from being connected to. For instance, we’ve recently been included on the GOV.UK Digital Marketplace for services, and we created a version of what we call Strategic Prototyping – if you have a strategy you think is formed, how can you make the first version implication of what it would look like, and then predict the likely consequences of what would happen as it scaled (basically drawing a line from top right to bottom left on the model).

    It’s also a way of thinking about project balance, client case studies, preferred operating quadrants, and more besides.

     

    B. What sort of thing are we looking for?

    I was doing some research work with the Gravity Road guys on a premium brand, and looking for concrete examples of different emergent trends across multiple sectors. Rather than ask for general “what’s happening in your sector?” questions, we used the chart to think about the extremes of each corner.

    IMG_2666

    Thinking about what might characterise each part of the map (Did lots of people use something? Was it beautifully designed but still largely a secret?) helped us create a simple set of four questions to ask various experts some precise questions:

    What’s New? – You’ve just seen something that’s made you stop, drop everything and focus in a way you haven’t in months. It isn’t finished, there’s still work to do, but it could change everything. What is it? Who made it? What recent development has helped it emerge?

    What’s Popular? – There’s something you’ve noticed that everyone who matters has. It’s become unremarkable to them, yet outside ‘the bubble’ it’s unknown. Describe it. Who’s behind it? What part does it play in peoples’ lives? Who will pick it up next?

    What’s Great? – It’s the most wonderfully designed, highly detailed, beautifully put together production you’ve seen in a year. But it’s curiously niche, as if nobody is looking properly at it. What is it? Why is it still to find its audience? What have its makers done previously?

    What’s Successful? – A year ago, nobody really knew about it, but now X is the go-to-example on everyone’s lips. “Oh, it’ll be X for this…” everyone says, a comparison point for success at scale. Who’s responsible for X? Where did it come from? Is it here to stay?

    So as opposed to the first example, where we’re using the map as a lens to see what we do, here we were using it as a lens on each of those different worlds, and then working out how each overlapped with the other worlds (for instance, do the same sorts of things appear top left in music and fashion? If not, why not?).

    In hindsight, what’s interesting about the tool in this respect is that it makes you think there are other areas you haven’t explored. It’s a little like in games like Age of Empires, where you don’t know what’s hidden in the unexplored areas of the map, but you do know that there’s going to be something out there.

    Age-of-Empires

     

    C. Some other quick examples

    – We’ve used it to map out personal development needs for Fraser and I – what are we good at across each part of the map, where do we need to improve? To do that we split each axis into three, and worked out which skills were most appropriate where

    – It’s the framework for the board game version of product development we’re playing with. This aspect, particularly stealing from rules of games like snakes and ladders where you traverse the board in different ways, helps you explore unexpected corners.

    – It’s been used with a client to compare with their corporate innovation stage-gate process. We realised that a linear stage-gate process wasn’t as linear as it first appeared, because the stages could be crossed in various alternative ways, which helped introduce better flexibility.

    – It’s good for drawing out typical workflow journeys, like the one for test & learn below, where you keep circling in loops between the team and small user tests until you’re ready to properly launch.

    IMG_2667


    So, PHEW. That wasn’t meant to be as long, but it’s only just a partial exploration of where we are with it at the moment. I’d love to hear from people who have different thinking tools they use in similar scenarios, to see what those are and compare, and of course if you have any thoughts on how else the tool could be applied or improved, then do drop them in the comments section below. If it’s of interest, we might even put on a workshop or two on some of the things we’re discovering.

    Above all though, I’d encourage you to make your own tools, or at least codify the loose ones you might use already. Everyone could use a sonic screwdriver in their head.

    —————

    UPDATE…

    I forgot to mention why we’re calling it The Axes Of Praxis, didn’t I? Three reasons:

    1. It Rhymes.

    2. Praxis means “the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas“. This tool gives us a way to do that.

    3. See reason 3.

     

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  • How To Start Being A Common Brand

    On: February 19, 2015
    In: making, marketing, technology
    Views: 4561
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    I finished and presented the “Fanfare for the Common Brand” presentation yesterday, about 150 yards out from the train station. I presented it 45 minutes later. Afterwards, Fraser and I talked about it, what needed to build on, what more should be in there. More examples, suggested Fraser, wisely.

    Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 09.34.27

    Brad similarly challenged me this morning… “the one question I have — and I suspect that you talk about it in the narration — is how companies can do what you want them to do with their products, brands and their customers at scale?”. It echoed something the audience yesterday at Squared asked to… “but, how…?”. And Peter on Twitter asked similar.

    So, with that in mind, and without taking an age, here’s a brain dump on how you can start being a Common Brand, using the three working principles from the end of the presentation:

    Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 09.34.44

    Keep Talking

    – Invite three customers in once a week for lunch with your team
    – Find the earliest customer you can, talk to them about why they believed in you then
    – Find three simple questions about your thing – ask them to everyone
    – Hang out where customers hang out, just watch people using your thing
    – Make everyone in the company meet a customer once a month. Minimum.
    – Solve tricky customer questions face to face. Go and see them. Understand what went wrong.

    Share Everything

    – Write the story of your thing, as reflection. Share with the team. Then make it public.
    – Show things early. Make pictures of your process public.
    – If you can’t do that in your publics comms stream, make up another one.
    – Be interested in other people working in similar space. Say hello. Be nice.
    – Show your working. Some people are interested in how you got there.
    – Show your mistakes. Some people are interested in how you got there too.

    Make It Together

    – Watch people using your thing. Hands tell more stories than mouths.
    – Don’t show them ‘how’. They didn’t use it wrong, you made it wrong.
    – Bring people together to play with your things. Ask them to improve them. Record it publicly.
    – Give credit where credit’s due. More people will come and play.
    – Let people steer your choices, not your existing processes.
    – Prototype the thing that people say “well, you probably wouldn’t do that…” about.

     

    *Bear in mind, this is a first version of a list written in 20 minutes. I don’t think it’s particularly new or ground-breaking stuff in terms of suggestions, but if you’re asking the question you may not be doing any of it.

    **Some people asked yesterday “have you got any examples of people doing it well?“. Which sometimes annoys me as a question, because it means organisations are making people too afraid to try anything without a precedent. Well, there are loads of easy, quick stuff on the list above that you can try really quickly. Pick one, and do it. Then the example of someone doing this stuff is you.

    ***Here’s the full presentation again, if you want a flick through and the chance to discover the answer to what the true weight of the internet is… (it’s not what you expect…)

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  • Froebel’s Gifts for The Internet

    On: February 11, 2015
    In: artefactcards, making, material culture, rivetings, technology
    Views: 4501
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    Over the past few days, after John first introduced the topic to me last week, I have been looking in to Froebel’s Gifts. For those of you who are unaware of Froebel’s gifts, they are a series of playthings for kids that are widely considered to be the world’s first educational toys.

    froebel

     

    The gifts, created by Friedrich Froebel, were introduced in 1838 at a similar time to when Froebel coined the term and opened the first Kindergarten. They appear deceptively simple but represent a sophisticated approach to child development. The six original gifts were accompanied by a series of “Occupations” such as sewing, gardening, singing and the modelling with clay, which were designed to help children mimic their experiences through play.

    The idea of these gifts and occupations did spark a thought with us over here at Smithery. What would Froebel’s gifts be if you were designing them today, to help people grasp the idea of the Internet? Can you easily translate the physical lessons from 1838 over to the digital age? This translation is something I have struggled with in the past, as my brain works towards predominantly physical solutions for things.

    Some of the lessons Froebel was trying to introduce included:

    i) The idea of learning through “focused play”

    ii) Seeing the interconnectedness of all creation.

    iii) The importance of knowing how information fits together, rather than memorising facts themselves.

    The last two lessons really stand out to really lending themselves to understanding the internet. Obviously the world is becoming more and more interconnected, and more recently the emergence of the Internet of Things will accelerate this. But also I like the idea of helping people develop a powerful skill; to be able to use the internet well without needing to be an expert in any of its particular disciplines. A way of closing the gap between amateurs and experts perhaps, or at the very least create common ground for dialogue between the two.

    So we’re setting ourselves a task; what would Froebel’s gifts and occupations be for a digital world? We’ll have a little play around, with the Artefact Cards which exist already, and some other ideas we’ve been playing with.

    And maybe, just maybe, we will try to create a collection of gifts to go along with one of our new years resolutions about producing more, and set up a subscription service for people to receive them.

    We have some starter questions that need answered; if you can think of any more helpful ones, please do drop them into the comments below.

    What would the internet look and feel like in your hands?

    What would Froebel’s occupations be to enhance education for the internet age?

    What’s the metaphor or analogy that helps you understand what the internet is?

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