A Sonic Screwdriver For Thinking

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”.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

How To Start Being A Common Brand

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.

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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:

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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…)

Froebel’s Gifts for The Internet

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?

Computer, remember this…

I’ve been retelling an anecdote from IBM’s speech-to-text experiments recently, and couldn’t remember where I’d got it… and indeed, I couldn’t remember if it was even true, as happens when you retell teh same story again and again…

Searching for combinations of things like “speech-recognition”, “IBM”, “faked test” and so on wasn’t getting me anywhere. But I’ve finally found a source: Jeremy Clark’s Pretotyping@Work eBook.

I’m posting the main bit of the anecdote here for two reasons. Firstly, I think you might find it interesting, and perhaps useful. Secondly, now that I’ve put it on my own site, using the aforementioned search terms which are the ones I clearly use to look for it, I’ll find it easier to find in future, hopefully…

“In the 1980’s, IBM was in discussions with several important customers about a radical product idea: hardware and software that could turn spoken words into a text on a screen. The fundamentals of the technology were still years away, yet customers seemed very enthusiastic: many declared they would pay generously for such a solution.
Traditionally, IBM would have launched an R&D effort to develop the algorithms and electronics necessary to demonstrate a prototype. In the case of the Speech-To-Text idea, however, a team member had an intriguing alternative suggestion: they should pretend to have the solution, to see how customers actually reacted to the capability.
What the team did was to create a movie-set like testing lab, in the form of a typical office space of the day. Customer subjects would be briefed on the Speech-to-Text solution, then seated in the space. The subject would speak into a microphone, dictating a variety of office correspondence, and would almost immediately see their words appear on the screen on the desk in front of them. What the subjects didn’t know was that the electronic output was being produced by a typist in a nearby room, listening to the dictation through headphones.
What the IBM team learned was that, in practice, customers didn’t like the solution, not because of flaws in the product (the transcribed text) but because of a host of hitherto-unseen environmental challenges: speaking taxed the subject’s throat, there was concern for privacy surrounding confidential material that the speaker would not
wish to be overhead, and so on.
Actual exposure to the essence of the proposed solution completely reversed the earlier customer enthusiasm.”

 

What It Takes

I’m hooked on the new Sleater-Kinney album, “No Cities To Love”. If you follow me on twitter, you’ve probably guessed that this week. Sorry. You’ve probably unfollowed me already.

I’m calling it as the album of 2015. Already. Really.

I mean, listen to this:

Or this:

I started wondering why this album has made such a deep impact on me, like no other has in years. This is a band who’ve not done anything for ten years, but who I loved and followed back then. But it’s not a nostalgia thing. Because they’ve not done that terrible thing of playing 157 gigs playing ‘the hits’, before going in to the studio to strangle their muse one last time.

If you watch this interview (and you should, the whole thing), you’ll get an idea of the craft, dedication and vision that they put into the process of making this album:

They started it in May 2012… that’s nearly three years ago. They canned loads of earlier songs… they just weren’t good enough. It’s almost as if the process of going through those songs were more about discovering how to work, rather than being about the work itself. They didn’t tell people. It was so secret that the first anyone really knew about it was when a track was released in the box set remasters of previous albums in October 2014. That’s two and a half years of quiet, committed, focussed creation.

It seems quite counter to how a lot of records, no, a lot of projects of any type, are created now. Maybe this is what it takes in some cases. There’s no one right way to make the best work. There’s just the best way for you.

2015 Projects / #3 – Produce

This is the final post from a series of four so if you have missed any of the previous ones feel free to catch up first – it’ll all make a little bit more sense if you do.


Slack HQ put out a great blog post in the past week about how companies only really build two things; the content they produce and their internal culture. Most of the time production is external and culture internal.

Seeing as Smithery is now a two-man band at the core, we find changing the culture is quite an easy thing for us to do, and generally we don’t have to consciously make changes to help the internal culture we just have a chat about what kind of work we want to do and how we want to do it.

What we produce however is slightly trickier – I think we are “general specialists”, and whilst we have both had more definite job descriptions in the past, it’s hard to know what to call ourselves when we don’t know what we are going to be doing next. We do a lot of different stuff, which is a massive perk of the job, we are never bored or have jobs which are repetitive of a previous job.

I think that may be the reason that I wanted to steer away from a full-time Industrial Design job, despite that being what I studied at Loughborough Uni.  Generally making a product start to finish for a client takes too long.  The last product I designed was Orb Wheels, a set of motorised wheels for manual wheelchairs which would give users the choice between manual and powered propulsion.

And I did enjoy it, at times I really enjoyed it, but then there were times that I would rather have been doing absolutely anything else.  Maybe this was because I was working on it alone and not in a team or maybe it was the fact it took 9 months of pretty much solely working on this 15 hour days, 7 days a week.  But when I look back on the design process it is the negatives that really stick out.  I enjoyed the other projects which I was involved in that had much quicker results.  I do miss designing though and I really love the way we work so quickly here at Smithery and that no two jobs are ever the same.  So I really want to try and combine the two somehow.

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Because of this variation I often find it quite hard to actually define what Smithery does. Maybe John has more luck, we have previously called  “A one-man studio”, “an innovation and strategy consultancy”, and most recently “a product and marketing innovation studio”.

Generally the easiest way to explain it is through the mantra – Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things (MTPW>MPWT).

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So the third project for 2015 is going to focus on the “Make Things” part of MTPW>MPWT. In the past John has had people contact him as ‘the man who makes stuff’ asking for help – in fact there was even an email asking exactly that yesterday morning. We have had great fun making loads of completely different things in the past including Artefact Cards, Fiducial Keys, SuperGrid Postcards and Field Kits so we are very open to new briefs.

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All have seemed to be fairly successful – well, by that I guess I mean people seem to like them. So we think we might be on to something with this whole making things business. But what’s more, it helps us learn more about people, and culture – sending out little emissarial ideas in physical form, like Grant McCracken’s Culturematic idea that John talked about a while ago.

If there is something you have always thought might be a good idea, and you want to explore a little, pop us an email or even better let’s grab a coffee and help us on our way to producing something new.

So goals for Project Three:

WBB (Why Bloody Bother) –If you don’t make anything yourself you’ll never make anything of yourself” now this might not be completely 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 (Wooly, Doable Goal) – 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.

2015 Projects / #1 – Practice

Right then, the first project of the year, in a bit more detail after the original intro. This post will be much more about questions and hunches than answers and declarations, so YMMV.

You might well remember the Culture Matrix, but if you don’t this is the last iteration of what it got to:

Culture Matrix 1.04

 

The most important thing to pay attention to here is the axes… People, and Space. Now, in working around the basic idea in the months since, it has occurred that “things” is a much more useful definition, as it’s not just the space in which you work, but the objects you work on.

There was also a more useful way to draw the relationship between the two is to switch the axes around, so that you start bottom left, and aim for top right. If economics taught me anything, it’s basic chart skills…

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So what do these axes represent?

Before, they were cribbed from Steward Brand’s work, so represented the faster and slower moving layers of both civilisations and buildings. Now though, I think they’re less about speed, and more about scale and impact.

For instance, perhaps the way that you think about the people axis is that it’s a function of the number of people (n) times the magnitude of the effect you create (m). What does that mean? Well, within a given population (say an organisation), you could run a small piece of work with a few people from the business. It’d score low down on the axis, as even though it would have significant effect, because it’s a small proportion of the population.

You could repeat the same work with small groups often, and that’d get higher up the scale (but might be expensive to do it for everyone). So you establish ways to take output from the work, and turn it into things that might have a bit less impact on a lot more people. How do you best scale ideas for populations, essentially. This could be internal, external, comms, culture change, whatever.

On the things axis, it’s about the impact you’ll have in the work you do – perhaps the level of detail (d) times the number of things you’re making (n).

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You can hand sketch some prototype ideas, and that’s right at the bottom of the vertical axis. You can work through the detail a bit more, make some clickable prototypes, versions to share out – increasing the detail gets you so far. But you must start making them in sufficient volume, compare to the total output of the organisation, in order to make the greatest impact.

Both of these axes need more finessing, obviously. But you get the rough idea.

It’s also become apparent that you could simply set a new quadrant across the space, to encapsulate the work we do at Smithery… Strategy, Innovation, Design & Culture things, basically.

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Again, something to be pushed, prodded, investigated.

Finally going back to the idea behind the Culture Matrix, you can get a lot more granular about the sorts of work that exist at all these different levels. Taking the same 5×5 format, but tweaked across the new axes, we’ve now a Trello board to refer to with a topic per box on what we think might exist there.

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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.

 

 

Making A Board Game

As a last thing for the year, we’re trying out something at home this Christmas. Most of the fun at Christmas is about making the things the way you want them. Food, especially. But also the people you invite, the presents you give, the things you do… and even, perhaps, the games you play?

Most families, I reckon, like a board game at Christmas. Santa used to bring one to us every year, long after we knew it was Mum and Dad. This year though we wondered about trying to make one instead.

Why make a board game? I’m no proper game designer, of course, but I’ve spent a lot of this year looking at the crossover between Work & Play (a proper write-up of that to come).

And over the last few months at Smithery, we’ve been using a specific game-like structure to help the prototyping of ideas. Essentially, there are two decisions in the game you can make at any point; improve the thing you’re working on, or share it with other people. There are various complexities in it beyond this, of course, but one morning earlier this month, the kids and I tried it at the most basic level we could… and it worked just as a game, seemingly.

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So we bought the basic materials to turn it into a board game of sorts, the last of which arrived this week. Then yesterday we started drawing out the game on a blank board game and started testing how it might work by playing it over and over again.

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It’s the best way of finding out how well a game plays, as I’ve learned from working with games masters like Alex Fleetwood and James Wallis over the last few years. I was also inspired by Dan Catt’s talk on the algo-generated Snakes and Ladders boards a couple of years ago at Playful, on the search to find the perfect balance in a really simple game.

The kids have been adding in different elements (like the ‘Hazard Cards’, featuring monsters, electrocution, cats, giraffes and Minecraft).

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You realise at times like this there is nothing as productive as a kid with a pen, a stack of blank cards and a mission to create. It also started me thinking that there’s perhaps a fun version and a work version of the game, though they should reflect each other (what is the ‘monster’ in the prototyping process?)

Hopefully though, the simplicity remains enough to make it enjoyable, and repeatable, tomorrow on Christmas Day? We’ll find out after pudding, I guess…

All that remains for now is to wish you all a very Merry Christmas – have a wonderful time, everyone. And happy playing, when you get round to your board games…

Interview with Beth Kolko

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:

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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”.

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(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.

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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.

Flow Engines vs. Fracking

I ran an innovation session yesterday for The Network One, to a group of owners and CEOs of various nimble, independent agencies. I was going to just explore some of the ideas in Fracking The Social Web, but given it was an afternoon session I tried something new.

(Also, as a rule of thumb, just talking in an afternoon slot isn’t as good as getting people to do things. I can’t remember where I first heard this theory, but it’s always worked for me. Mornings are for heads, afternoons are for hands.)

By using the Flow Engine approach to set up ‘different ways of working’, and using Artefact Cards as went, we moved through three steps.

Firstly, I asked people to write on a card the biggest issue for them in bridging the gap between traditional marketing structures and the more fluid, granular approach needed for working on the social web. In their groups, they then shared these in the centre of the table; some would be similar, some different, but what was interesting was the conversation betwen the teams about the different issues.

Secondly, we then used the Fracking themes to think about why agencies need to work differently; as I went through the themes and examples, the participants in groups would be noting down things on cards (either direct points, or ideas set-off by the thinking), so that in small groups they could start addressing the points in the centre of the table, building out a map of the territory.

Finally, I asked people to looking at the map and just write down a final card for themselves on what they would change tomorrow when they got back to the office, taking inspiration from the map they’d created together.

The slides are up here, so you can get an idea of the session. In hindsight, I think I tried to do slightly too much in the allocated time, it’d have been nicer to have some extra reflection time.  Apart from that though, it seemed to work pretty well – thanks to everyone there for throwing themselves in, and thanks again to Paul, Victoria and Doug from The Network One.