• The Chair Game – Live at the V&A

    On: April 12, 2016
    In: culture, education, people
    Views: 2184
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    This is the year of The Chair Game“, I said to Rob, over a pint after an evening’s play in London Bridge. He’d just spent two hours running the game for all of us who were new to it, save for Clarisa.

    It was her fault, apparently. She’d been in a workshop Rob was doing where he’d used The Chair Game as an exercise. “If you run a workshop that’s just The Chair Game for hours, I’d come to that” she told him. Hence London Bridge. True to her word, Clarisa flew over from France especially for it.

    The Chair Game is pretty simple. Everyone has a chair. They’re randomly distributed around a space. One person gets up, and walks to the side; they’re the chair zombie. They have to amble towards the empty chair. It’s everyone else’s job to stop them by sitting in the empty one. They can’t block them, but they can run as fast as they like. But once they’re up, they’re up – they can’t sit back on the same chair.

    Chaos ensues…

    Mexico - P1090203

    The first round is always really quick. Like, six seconds as an average. Then you ask the players what went wrong? And what their strategy next time should be. And you go again. And again. And again.

    It’s a game that is about strategy as much as you want it to be. You can stop, analyse, plot and plan, instruct and act. Or you can just play. It is compelling to watch, and addictive to play. Since learning about the game, I’ve been building it into various strategy workshops as part of the narrative, and prototyping workshops as part of the fun. We started calling it Karaisu, for fun – like karaoke; Japanese* for “Empty Chair”…

    Karaisu

    Another thing happened after the night Rob showed us the game.

    James was there, and James works at the V&A in London. We joked on email that we should play it on all the very expensive chairs at the V&A. Ho ho ho. Wouldn’t that be a lark?

    Two weeks later, James emails again. We’re on. Not on the expensive chairs. But at the V&A. As part of the Performance Festival. Look, we’re even listed on the site.

    We’re playing next week, on Friday 22nd April, 1:45 meet-up for a 2pm start. We’ll be in the John Madejski at the V&A in South Kensington. We finish at 4pm, and then head to a pub to unpack what goes on.

    And we need some more players.

    If you are around, and fancy it, then please sign-up here. We need around 30-40 players. Send this on to anyone else who might fancy it too, and we’ll send confirmations out next week.

    So sign up, and come down and play.

    Because this is the year of The Chair Game.

     

    *I checked with a Japanese friend – it kinda doesn’t mean this, but also kinda does.

     

     

     

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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: 4609
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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.

    P1080135

    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.

    P1080136

    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.

    P1080142

    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.

    P1080140

    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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  • Conceptual Strategy for Intranets

    On: September 17, 2015
    In: artefactcards, people, technology
    Views: 2227
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    I know, that’s a rock and roll blog post title, eh?

    A short video, explaining something that Chris, Mark and I worked on a while ago for a client, but that came back round again today when someone asked ‘any thoughts on setting up intranets?’. Rather than a long blog post, or a detailed email, I made a scratchy video…

    …using the webcam/lamp stand thing I hacked together a while ago.

     

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  • Where Does Responsibility Lie?

    On: June 16, 2015
    In: culture, people
    Views: 2056
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    (A foreword, in the style of Samuel Pepys)

    Late to bed, but not before receipt of an electronic mail from Mr. Fitzpatrick of Boston, a most good-humoured fellow of curious and sharp intellect, to whom I promised action of a distributary nature come the morning.

    He asks for assistance in the pursuit of data for an ongoing pursuit of where in a company ‘responsibility’ does reside.

    I made plain my own interest in his endeavours, and did promise to avail my friends and associates of his intent. I republish his letter in full, so as not to vex the reader further…

    I’m working on a new study on the accountability for the role of customer experience within the modern organization, and I’m looking to get some data that will help paint a better picture of where that responsibility lies and how it’s measured/used. At present, there’s not much usable/useful data on the topic.

    In the interest of casting as wide a net as possible, I’ve put together a quick Google survey; found here: http://almty.co/cx that I’d like to put in front of a few hundred members of large organizations.

    I’m hoping that you can help put this in front of people I’d otherwise not reach.

    I’d appreciate any help you could provide in sharing the link with anyone you know within a large enterprise organization, and inviting them to share it with others (multiple responses from the same org are especially helpful in this process). I’m aiming for as broad a cross-section as possible: junior/mid-level/senior, marketing/HR/product/engineering, etc.

    It shouldn’t take anyone more than 2 minutes to complete. It’s completely anonymous, and no one will ever be contacted, nor will the company they work for ever be directly referenced.

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  • A Sonic Screwdriver For Thinking

    On: March 5, 2015
    In: culture, design, making, people, work
    Views: 3855
     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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  • Fanfare For The Common Brand

    On: February 18, 2015
    In: marketing, people, technology
    Views: 2532
     1

    I’m fresh out of presenting the below for the first time at the latest intake of Squared. For the last two years, I’ve presented various iterations of ‘Are Brands Fracking The Social Web?’, but over the last month or so, I realised that there’s something in the water around the relationship between the brand idea, the execution of it in practice, and what’s happening to the social web.

    So, here we are. A first version of a new thing…

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  • Fighting Fires or Lighting Fires?

    On: January 27, 2015
    In: culture, people
    Views: 2612
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    This flew by my eyes yesterday (HT Mark Storm)

    fightong vs lighting

    The bit I’m most drawn to is the pithiness of definition – it’s by Kenneth Mikkelsen:

    If Management is about Fighting Fires, Leadership is about Lighting Fires

    It’s so easy to get drawn into fighting fires. The machinations of the organisation around us make it easier for you get involved in the urgent thing that must be solved. It sucks the time, the energy, the impetus to do anything but focus on the problem at hand.

    But if you work that way, if you battle to extinguish every fire in the business, it’s probably at the moment just after you put out the last one that you realise there’s no more fires to be fought, because the company has run out of things to burn. There’s nothing left to do.

    Remember to light more fires, folks.

    NB.

    Of course, I have a track record in natty turns of phrases involving firey metaphors. I never use that one at all anymore, but somewhat unbelievably it’s five and a half years old. Where did the time go, eh?

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  • A Flow Guide For Field Trips

    On: November 21, 2014
    In: material culture, people, rivetings
    Views: 1629
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    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.

    e.g.

    “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?

    e.g.

    “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.

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  • Interview with Beth Kolko

    On: November 10, 2014
    In: making, people, technology
    Views: 1169
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    As part of the preparation for running the third lab of the Stirling Crucible at the University of Stirling, I spoke to Beth Kolko, Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington, about an Experiment called Hackademia, which is “an attempt to infect academic pursuits with a hacker ethos and challenge non-experts to see themselves as potentially significant contributors to innovative technologies.”

    It’s not just great as an example of creating new conditions for learning in an academic setting, but also offers some great inspiration for other types of organisation where there’s a need to break down the barriers of ‘expertise’. Here’s what Beth said:

    Beth_Kolko_web_bw_pic

    Hackademia had two starting points. The first was my own personal journey as an academic who stumbled into hacker communities around 2005/06, the early days of the maker community. I did that work solely as a non-professional activity, it was what I did in my off-hours. I would think “wow, this is really interesting, it’s an alternative research community”. It was like a third place, not academic or corporate, with its own emergent social and organisational practices.

    Part of my interest was that people didn’t have formal expertise or credentials. My PHD is from an English department, but I’m a professor in an Engineering department; this means that all of my technical knowledge has been gained through informal means. Essentially, I studied the internet before it had pictures, and as the technology changed I kept up.

    So I was an academic within hacker communities, really interested in how non-experts were gaining technical expertise. It is uncommon for someone at my stage of career to be a novice learner. There was something quite magical about that.

    The second piece of the genesis of Hackademia was an undergraduate student I was working with, who was changing her major from social work to our department in Engineering. She said she’d never really thought of herself as someone who’d major in a technological discipline, and then we started talking about gender and technical fields. I said to her “well, I don’t know what makes women, or anyone, who is non-technical feel that they can enter a technical field… but let’s figure it out”.

    I advertised for a group of students as an independent study, something they could take and get extra credit for it. You didn’t have to have a technical background to apply. We bought a first generation Makerbot, and I said “We’re going to build it. I don’t know how to do this, but you guys are going to have to figure it out, and you’re going to keep track of how you learn. You will be your own object of study”.

    Metrix-3-9-10-0232

    (Hackademia class of Winter 2010 – with honorary member Bre Pettis)

    So that was the first ten weeks, and I did it again, and again, and again. Every quarter for the first two years, keeping track of the failures and the successes… there were many more project/experiment failures than successes, but the programme has been very successful.

    People had to learn the vocabulary of a new area. We had a room, and we had tools, and at the end of each quarter the room would be a mess. So what I would do is start each new cohort and say “we’re going to clean up, and we’re going to put things away”. It gave everyone the chance to learn the names of things, as we labelled the shelves and the bins that they would go in.

    Instead of giving people the vocabulary on a list, it was a functional activity; they were creating the space that they were going to work in so that they would have ownership of that space. The conversation around the activity emerges to introduce vocabulary, which is really important; if you don’t even know the name of something, you can’t go and look it up online.

    There was then a series of activities that were designed for success, but also to make people curious. I would always start people out with making an LED blink, by writing a few lines of Arduino code. Then you learn about copying; you can copy other peoples’ code, then refine it yourself. Usually there would be people who knew how to do that, and they would show people who didn’t know how to do it, which showed co-operative learning. Then they moved on to gradually more sophisticated tasks, then they’d finally do their own task.

    I’d make them go off-campus, and see what was available in the real world, activities that took them outside their momentary learning community. Everything we did also leveraged online resources. I didn’t teach them anything; I wanted them to get into the habit of navigating the knowledge universe.

    We created some data collection sheets, and started a blog about the technical aspects, they wrote reflective autoethnographies of their learning process; we produced a lot of documents. We then did exit interviews at the end of each quarter, with retrospectives of peoples’ experiences. Eventually, we’d put on our academic hats and analyse the data available to us (the autoethnographies, individual journals, and a bunch of other artefacts) and extracted six dimensions of technical learning, around which the Hackademia curriculum is built:

    Identity, Motivation, Self-efficacy, Social Capital, Material Technical Practice, and Conception.

    They’re built on top of what we know about informal science learning, but tweaked for engineers.

    In the university community, we value expertise, and that is the death knell of innovation. If you really want interdisciplinary, transformative inquiry, professors like myself who are ‘experts’ have to learn to talk to people who have different expertise, and overlap these vocabularies and come to some sort of shared understanding.

    ———————-

    Thanks to Beth for kindly taking the time to share the Hackdemia experiences with me. You can read more on the Hackademia blog over here, or read the full Hackademia paper that Beth and the team produced for the Participatory Design 2012 conference.

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  • Interview with Nell Haynes

    On: November 10, 2014
    In: people
    Views: 1025
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    As part of the preparation for running the third lab of the Stirling Crucible at the University of Stirling, I spoke to Dr Nell Haynes, one of the team who’s working on the Global Social Media Impact Study, about their approach to recording and sharing the project as they go. It’s very interesting specifically in terms of open academic research projects, but also more broadly in terms of how open working might apply to other types of organisation too. Here’s what Nell said…

    nell haynes profile

    It’s certainly the intention that this project is more open and visible; we’ve been doing the blog for about two years, which gets a fair number of hits, but there’s only really one post that got ‘picked up’. The idea is that it’s not just for an academic audience, or for an english-speaking audience, but it’s a global project that everybody should be able to learn from it.

    We’re currently all writing a book about each field site [the locations around the world where each of the team is researching], but the idea is that they’re quite short and accessible; the ultimate goal is to have everything translated into eight languages (possibly more), everything open access, a final website with videos, photographs and all of the documents, and whatever else we come up with along the way.

    My previous work had nothing to do with social media or technology, but I do think that in an anthropologically foundational way, social media is important to humanity, so it’s easy to get excited about those aspects of the project.

    I finished my PHD in 2013, having started the research for that in 2011, and one of my Professors has had a blog for years and years, for as long as blogging has existed really. But she’s the one who encouraged me to blog, to put field notes, to put random thoughts on that. I’m not sure I’m the most effective blogger, but I’ve at least been trying it for a while. I think it’s helpful to the process for me because if I even just write a little description of what I did that day, I can go back in and slip that into the project later as it’s already in language that’s accessible. And if I need to make it sound more academic-y, then I can stick stuff in there. I try to make my writing interesting, rather than theoretically dense.

    In terms of collaboration, when we were still in the field sites, every month we would write a 5,000 word report, and send it out and read everyone else’s. It was helpful to make yourself write something every month but also read other perspectives.

    It was good for generating ideas of methodological things, or connections to think about. The man who is working in China talked a lot about Chinese spiritual beliefs, and how that’s connected to morality and social media, and that forced me to think about these things in context of the work I was doing in Chile.

    Chinese family watch television on computer

    (Photos from the GSMIS Flickr group)

    I was actually the last person on the programme – they applied for a grant for eight people, and then a Chilean University got a separate grant and I started later. They’d had several months of planning here, and had been on field sites for four or five months. So I had to play catch up, but they had already collaboratively made a methodology plan, surveys already. I had to catch up, but I also had a lot of resources that were handed to me to help.

    For me, this approach is very different from any other anthropology project I’ve encountered. I think it is a new thing that’s gaining a little bit of traction and respect. I did the US academic system, and as far as I know I’ve never seen anything as collaborative. And certainly there are senior researchers who write blogs in partnership, but usually they go to the same place to do it. In terms of having nine different field sites, I’m not aware of anything else like it.

    We have a central blog, a Flickr, a Facebook and a Twitter, technically we have a Pinterest (but I don’t think anyone’s ever done anything with it). But the blog has definitely been the central piece to it, and the website has a lot of descriptions of the project and little bios of everyone working on it, but most of the traffic comes in through the blog. There are certain posts that get a lot of comments, but in generally speaking it’s about one a week.

    There have been several people who have said “I’m really interested in the project, is there any way I can help?”. So we have various people translating things into different languages, and some people helping out with some social media stuff. There are some film-makers who’re not academic film makers, and there are some masters students too. It’s either educated professionals or academics, we’ve been fairly visible amongst the academic community. There’s not a lot of interest from the people in the field sites. Part of that is there are only a few posts translated.

    Danny Miller wrote a blog post, and in it used the phrase “dead and buried”; I think what he actually said was “for teens, in this small English Town, Facebook may as well be dead and buried”.

    The title of the post was then reworded slightly [“Facebook is dead amongst teens]”, and that’s what got picked up. It prompted everyone to go back to the blog post, but not necessarily paying attention to the exact wording of the blog post. [The headline of the post in question was picked up by several national and international news organisations].

    It was what prompted us to put a disclaimer on the top of blog, “this is still in process, these are initial insights, not to be taken as forecasts”. We had a lot of discussions in December (2013) after it happened, and a US academic wrote this critique saying that ‘anthropologists shouldn’t be in the business of making predictions’, when actually we weren’t.

    So it created some tension there, but we discussed it a lot, and vetted the blogs a little more, and making sure there was nothing scandalous. I don’t think it’s changed what we blog though. There’s been an increasing awareness though about making sure that if we are going to make some sort of bigger claim, we have some more data included.

    For me, and the way I blog, it always starts with a story. I just sit down and write it, and whilst I’m writing it. I feel it should be something good, and have a point. I edit it a lot, it tends to be much longer the first time I write it. Part of it is figuring out what your style is, and how you like to write, and not putting too much pressure on yourself.

    Readability is important. I have an audience in mind, for the most part; my sister, she’s an artist who lives in Madrid, she’s nothing to do with academia, so I send her things and she’s like “I have no idea what this word means, what do you mean by this sentence…”. She’s my imaginary audience because she’s a really smart person, but not at all in an academic sense, or not at all part of the academy. So if I say something pointless or dumb, she’ll say “don’t say that”.

    There’s a tendency to try to fit in; you have to use this particular big word to try to fit in with a crowd of people who’re particularly into a specific topic. It’s almost like a rite of passage, a social norm. You have to perform this academic identity in order to be accepted, or even just feel like you’re part of it. And I think for some people, it becomes a kind of crutch. But at the same time, to be published in prestigious academic journals, you have to play that game.

     

    ———————

    Thanks to Nell for her generousity of both time and openness. Follow the Global Social Media Impact Study here, and if you’re interested, a good further read on the implications of the reaction to the Facebook post is this piece by Peter Spear, “Qualitative Illiteracy and the One-Eyed Business“.

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