The first book is a super useful read, a manual to keep dipping in and out of. In fact, I have it in my bag now, as I’m rapidly scanning everything I can to get further into the deeper backstory of John Boyd’s OODA loops for various projects.
Like many folk, I’d perhaps only scratched the surface of OODA. I started using in in workshops and teaching back in 2015/15, but only lightly as part of the metamechanics collection, basing work on the elements of movement, maps, loops and layers which help people think about their work using the qualities and power of information in the internet age, rather than fighting against it.
But in wanting to delve deeper into the OODA loops, I found this, which contains Boyd’s original 327 slide briefing document, and an introduction from Dr Grant T. Hammond, in which he writes…
“In introducing the 327 slides of “A Discourse on Winning and Losing,” I am hesitant. Boyd’s briefings were never meant to be a compilation of doctrine or dogma about how to fight and win wars. They were meant to be conversations between him and his audiences.
He never gave a briefing in which he did not learn something. He might have poorly conveyed a particular idea or skipped a step in the logic trail. Alternatively, perhaps, he forgot something or someone had added to the examples he used, the references he had consulted, or provided a different interpretation that he should have considered more deeply.”
“He could not bring himself to publish anything because it was never complete. Coming from an essentially oral culture of briefings in the military, Boyd put carefully chosen words on view-graphs, but never in print. The “Discourse” was an unfinished conversation with each audience, part of a perpetual learning experience. He learned every time from each discussion with his audiences, and this necessitated changes for the next iteration. There was a succession of unfinished OODA Loops.”
I’m totally going to use this as my excuse for not writing books from now on.
Firstly, because I believe it; all of the various theories, models, tools and so on that have developed over eight years of Smithery are not ‘finished’; they work differently every time, and are contextually powerful because of that, and always send me away thinking new thinks.
And secondly, because from the outside, writing books looks hard and often joyless, and my hat goes off to all those who do. I look forward to reading them all.
I was delighted when Neil Perkin invited me back after six years to speak again at Firestarters last night. The theme of the evening was on behaviours.
Richard Shotton was up first, and gave an excellent talk on three of the lesser known biases in behavioural sciences. In particular, I was interested in one of his assertions at the start that there are a whole collection of biases that are at play, yet there are probably more famous ones which everyone is aware of, and a whole set people are less familiar with. Perhaps there’s a long tail – the three that everyone knows, and then it all tails off a bit?
It’s occurred to me since last night that perhaps there’s a way to think about this whole ‘collection of biases’ not as a set from which you choose one that you believe is having an effect, but as a card sorting exercise in which you identify all of the ones that could have an effect for different people, and work out ways to test them against each other.
Maybe it’s about curtains an ‘assemblage’ of biases around the problem you’re working on, and pulling out the overall effects and implications of many things being at play. (If you want a crash course in Assemblage Theory, read this by Manueal DeLanda).
There is a perfect toolkit to do this sort of thing, in Stephen Anderson’sMental Notes. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re on sale any more, so you either have them or you don’t.
Stephen’s bringing back Mental Notes, with expansions in mind… follow him on twitter for more updates on that soon.
But I’ve recently become aware that Jerome Ribot has been working on something called Coglode, and has a really useful set of cards (potentially, I’ve not seen them, just pictures) called Nuggets – you can sign up here for news on them.
So thanks Richard, that talk really got me thinking.
Then I talked about a thing from the Smithery canon, The Pattern Problem. It’s more related to behaviours in the sense it’s about how we work on projects, and help clients think about working on projects too.
There are two tools in particular I talked about as ways of breaking away from endlessly repeating the same process no matter what the problem you’re facing. They are ‘The Obliquiscope’ and ‘Zenko Mapping’, both of which are designed to grow and change as you use them, so that they’re never the same tool twice.
All of my slides from yesterday are up here, though of course they’re probably of most use to the people who were there last night and want to reflect a little on some of the ideas in here:
I’ll probably be talking about these concepts in other places soon, though, so will make mention of that on here when I do. Thanks again to Neil, Richard, everyone who came along and to Google for continuing to support Firestarters.
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…
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).
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?
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&L – Read 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.
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.
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 UniversalAgility 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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
One of them has the light fixtures control in the middle, as you’ll see, and one doesn’t. Carlo’s having the non-light fitting one, to work upon the black linoleum without interruption. I have plans for the one with the light fitting, you see.
We could just put it back together as was, with the light switches and fittings making a great desk for working with Artefact Cards, models, sketches, whatever. And the plug socket would be handy to charge phones on and the like.
As an aside, I think it’s very interesting that desks designed over forty years ago have power sockets right in the middle of them there; back then, what would have they been for? Did Madin foresee the use of smaller electrical devices that you might have on a desk (electronic typewriters? Laptops?).
Anyway, now given the cavity in which the light/plug switches is there, it will be relatively easy to pop that out, and put something else in… a little time device.
I sort of mean a clock, but not just a clock. Something that can be flipped through various modes; clock, to pomodoro timer, to project time-counter, to… well, whatever. Being able to switch between time modes will let us investigate what different types of timing do in a work environment.
I use a pomodoro app on my phone at the moment; cycles of 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. It helps me focus on things that I need to get done (and allow myself time for messing about every so often). It’ll be interesting to see how to replicate that effect on something that’s not a screen.
Stealing the mechanism from a flip clock to do that would be good to look at too, I think… it’s not just about the movement, it’s about the sound of the clock ticking away on the desk that might be useful.
Anyway, that’s the plan. Drop an Arduino in underneath, have a clock that you can reprogram easily on top, play around with a new sort of desk.
First of all, though, find a room big enough to do that in…
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.
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”.
Well, from last year’s thesis work, which was all about People & Space, “things” has now replaced “space” as a more useful descriptor.
“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, PeopleandThings. 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).
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).
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.
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.
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 forthis…” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Some nice folk at Hiive got in touch this week – it’s a network for the creative industries where you can showcase work, get access to educational resources, look for relevant jobs and so on. It’s backed by Creative Skillset.
They asked me if I could offer some advice and tips to aspiring creative folk, which got me thinking (it’s nice to start the year with a bit of reflection).
So here are five things I believe now, but wish I’d known a bit sooner.
Whenever you apply for a job, or get a new job description, there’s a natural presumption perhaps that somebody somewhere has thought really long and hard about that description of the work to be done. I realised back when I had job descriptions that there were two things working against this presumption.
Firstly, the world changes, and you can’t expect someone writing a job description to get what the future might contain. Secondly, because they’re busy trying to do the work in a changing world, the opportunity for them to spend a proper amount of time defining a job description is rare. It’ll be scraped together in evenings, weekends, pieced together from older job descriptions and voguish terminology.
So don’t use a job description as a remit, a set of boundaries not to cross. Understand it as a platform, a place to start from, and reach out and up. It’s an excuse to start, not a place to stop.
I first really started doing innovation off the back of a pitch I worked on at PHD. It was for a major record label, it was 2007 or something, and nobody really knew anything about this thing called Myspace beyond how to buy a banner on it. Except at the time, I happened to be in a band as a hobby, and ran our Myspace page. It’s also where I learned to code (really badly). Somebody told the Strategy Director, I was drafted on to the pitch team, and it went from there.
We’re not simply the work side of what we do; we are whole people. Everything you do, everything you’ve learned, everything you’ve ever practices or tried… it could all come in handy, and you just never know when. It’s what the brilliant Nilofer Merchant calls Onlyness:
“Onlyness is that thing that only that you can bring to a situation, the collective combination of all your experiences, hopes, dreams, achievements, setbacks, meanderings and accidents of birth… until we honor Onlyness, we are limiting our selves, our organizations and our economies.”
You’ve got to be that whole person at work, otherwise both you and the company are missing out.
I do enthusiasm really well. It just seems to flood through me at certain moments, and then the whole experience of working well on problems to solve just seems to be the easiest thing in the world. But that state of enthusiasm isn’t the thing that gets things done.
Tenacity, understanding how to push through the hard yards, to get things into a shape is a much more valuable skill set to develop. Tenacity is still there at two in the morning long after enthusiasm slunk off in a taxi home. And that’s OK.
There’s nothing better when you find a new rabbit hole to fall down, a field or area or technique or movement which feels that it could inform a significant part of this next project that you’re working on. And the time pressures will force you to cram as much learning about it into as short a period as time as possible, so that you become the de facto expert in the room.
Always push through that learning curve, until you are comfortable in realising how little you actually know about it. It’s not The Matrix, you can’t learn Kung-Fu in a single download. But you can get to a stage where you understand the territory enough to know what sort of specialist you need to help you out…
I read this post, What Specifically Does A Generalist Do?, in 2008, and all of a sudden everything became crystal clear about what I might be. A few years previously, somebody had said over a pint “You know your problem? You’ve got to pick something to specialise in…” which sounded terribly, terribly boring. Where’s the skill, fun, learning in trying to do the same thing over and over?
Generalism has given me a lens to examine everything from client problems to my own skill set with. It’s helped me understand that there are specificities in a generalist approach which is vital for anything in a changing world; strategy, design, innovation or whatever else. It didn’t turn out to be a problem after all.
Hiive have recently been delving into the top drawers of creative from different industries. For a chance to win one of five Artefact for Pocket sets courtesy of Hiive & Smithery, add a picture of the tools you use on a daily basis to the discussion in Swarm and mention Smithery in the comment. Winners will be chosen at random on 5th February.
Catching up? You should read the overview to learn about the background to this… we’ll wait for you, promise.
I don’t know who my favourite band are, or what my favourite film is. I can tell you about lots of music and films and directors and albums that I love, but they leapfrog over each other as time, circumstances and context all change.
I can tell you though, with a great degree of certainty, that the late Iain Banks is my favourite author. Or should I say Iain M. Banks, as (if pushed to decide) I prefer his science fiction writing over his (un)normal fiction. Without turning this into a massive exploration on the universe he created with the Culture novels specifically, I would like to draw you attention to one book in particular; The Player of Games.
The Culture – a human/machine symbiotic society – has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Gurgeh. Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The Player of Games. Master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game … a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes Emperor.
I have been fascinated by this idea for a while; a game that represents a whole system, or organisation, so that the way that you play it means you fare well within the society for which the game is representative.
…indeed, once upon a time, when first starting Smithery, Mr Alex Fleetwood and I pitched an idea to a large FMCG company to design a game that they could use for recruitment of the right sort of new people. They didn’t go for it, it wasn’t really what they were expecting, I don’t think…
In the book, the word ‘Azad’ translates to mean “machine” or “system”. And as Vijay pointed out to me there’s also a Hindi / Persian word ‘azād’ which translates as “free”. Which is actually on some level, quite the opposite of the meaning in the book; those playing the game, which is everyone in the Empire, is trapped by it.
We are now approaching the part of the blog post where we could endlessly investigate the differences between ‘play’ and ‘games’. This is neither the time nor the place, and there are infinitely better qualified people than me thinking and writing about this.
Somewhere between ‘systems’ and ‘freedom’, between ‘play’ and ‘games’, I think there’s a rich fertile space for introducing more playful, gameful, systemized freedom into organisations.
And since this idea of AZAD won’t leave me, it’s be bubbling for years, so the only rational course of action is to play it out as a Smithery project this year.
As a starting point, we’ll look to play with the practice, to use the axes as defined in the last post as a starting idea, where a series of chance encounters and strategic decisions help groups of people play around with the language and actions as they become apparent to them.
Over Christmas, as I mentioned before, there was a wee boardgame version we created at home just for fun, to see what happened with a two-dimensional game that was a mix of choices, events and outcomes.
When thinking about it more though, I think there are interesting different ways to think about truning it into a real thing, at different levels of complexity and required time. So whereas there might be a ‘board game’ version (fully immersive, for teams), there could also be a simple nine square version, more akin to noughts and crosses perhaps, and even maybe a ‘back of the car’ version, where it just becomes about language and environment, and you don’t need anything else at all.
With all that in mind, let’s set the goals for project 2…
WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) “Playing With Ideas” works when designing workshops, one-off experiences, and so on. But it feels like there’s scope to go further, to set up systems and games people can use themselves to be more productive…
WDG (Woolly, Do-able Goal) Work up three general versions of this so that other people can pick them up and use them without us being there to scaffold them into it. And make a version of one of them to sell to folks, either crowd-funded or direct.
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:
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…
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).
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.
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.
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.
Ah, the famous annual Smithery projects. Well, famous might be pushing it, let’s go with ‘the thing that we do at the start of each year’. 2012 was about Making, 2013 was about Media, and 2014 was about Playing With Ideas, which in hindsight remained gloriously ill-defined but gave rise to August’s Culture Matrix malarkey, so we’ll let it off.
There have been various shifts in the Smithery universe in the last six months, detailed in the Smithery at Scale post mostly, but the tl;dr version is working with beloved partners (Mr Earls, Adaptive Lab, Gravity Road) to deliver awesome things, and the Smithery studio now being two, myself and Fraser. It’s a bit like the Sith, with less hoods and better coffee.
We sat down yesterday, and I’d explained the previous annual projects and the intention behind them, and decided what we wanted to achieve this year. We’ll cover each in more detail in a separate post, but this will give you an idea of how the 2015 projects will hang together.
Ever since I did an interview with a German magazine, PAGE, in which they referred to Smithery as a “one-man studio”, that’s what I’ve stuck to as a description. Studio. It sounds like a place, despite running as a pick-up-and-play office for most of the last three years.
But from Autumn onwards, Fraser and I have been operating out of the top floor of the Gravity Road office at the top of Carnaby Street. Having a bit of actual space has made me realise that it is not the space that defines Smithery, but the approach. The practice of working.
That practice, since the Culture Matrix work, has refined itself into being a rudimentary diagram, defining the interplay between People and Things. It’s a partial reworking of the Culture Matrix itself, simplified by the assumptions that:
i) You start bottom left, and move up through to top right (conventional economic chartage, essentially)
ii) Everything you do starts on the diagram somewhere, and it becomes about where you go after that defines the work you need to do.
Over the last couple of months, we’ve been using the basic framework a lot, without really knowing exactly what the underlying principles are, and how to use them. But sketching out examples this week has made me see there’s a definte reasoning behind the idea… we just have to properly define it.
Who’s it for? It’s a project that is very much for ourselves and clients we work with. Even then, I’m not sure if it’s something we’ll teach in its entirety to clients, maybe just the basic operating principles, and the specific relevant section of the map. It’s a shared language of practise, of habit, for ourselves at Smithery.
Back in August, it occurred that the Culture Matrix looked like a game, and that there might be a winning position to get to on the ‘board’. I backtracked from that at the time, because I didn’t really know how to express that properly, but it’s been playing in my mind since.
‘Playing’… ha, well, there’s a Freudian slip.
I’ve been really interested in using playful things and approaches to pull interesting, better ideas from people in work for a good eight years now, mainly because of all of the benefits that come with it. In short, if people feel like they’re playing, barriers drop, anything becomes possible, and people will try things again and again. Playfulness comes with its own special energy.
I wanted to explore the matrix in terms of a game, of playfulness. So over Christmas, I took a blank board game board (I know, such things exist!), and drew out a very primitive version of a game to play with family and friends. It became a game about “inventing”. You’d to start with a new invention, and then decide what to do with it; improve it, or share it. That’d move you up the board, where various calamities would befall you. My son and I stripped all the sensible things out of it and made up random things (Viking Attack! Show It To A Vampire!) that would happen to you.
We’d play, refine some rules, try different things… just exploring how the principle of playing something across a territory as defined by the Culture Matrix might work. In short, if you can hold the attention of a group of 5-7 year olds and their parents with a game, you might just have a mechanic that will work for everyone.
Who’s it for? This could be friends, partners, customers… we’ll see as we go. The core idea is to explore whether we can create versions of the complex Culture Matrix that anyone can pick up and play with, and find useful outputs from.
Thirdly, we feel that we should produce more, and produce regularly. Fraser talked about this being the first year proper that he’s been out of full-time education, and so he felt it was important to keep producing things that he didn’t necessarily know how to do when setting out.
Of course, Sennett’s “Making Is Thinking” tenet from The Craftsman gets a very regular outing at Smithery (maybe we should start calling it the ‘Sennett Tenet’…), linking together the different elements of the work we do (Strategy, Design, Product, Comms, Org change… we kind of gave up keeping track, because it didn’t seem relevent any more).
In 2012, the Making theme yielded the Artefact Cards, of course, which have gone from strength to strength… but the more something like that grows, the more it becomes less about making and more about managing. So making sure we keep the making habit up is something that Fraser will be leading on, fusing his industrial design background with the other things we do.
Onwards then… we’ll detail out more about each project in separate posts in the coming days. Happy 2015, everyone.