• Metastrategy In Malmo: Adventures at The Conference

    On: August 22, 2016
    In: culture, design, economics, Smithery 3.0
    Views: 6122

    I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote talk at The Conference in Malmo last week, to an audience of 1000 people. Which is a big room…

    Here’s the ‘before’ picture…


    …and here is the ‘after’… although technically ‘during’, now I think of it…


    The talk itself was on Metastrategy, the need for ‘a strategy of strategies’.

    It’s the ‘third act’ after the Metadesign talk at last year’s dConstruct, and ‘Metamechanics‘ at IAM in Barcelona this year.

    In a brilliant move, the guys at The Conference were live editing the videos as they were recording, and posting up the videos of the talks about an hour after they’d happened.

    Which means if you want to watch the talk, you can do that here.

    There is also a whole mountain of amazing talks from across the two days, some which I saw and some I’m now going to catch up on after hearing so much about them.

    I also ran a masterclass on the Thursday with a small group of people who’d signed up (apologies to those who tried but couldn’t get in, I might come back to Malmo to run it again) on using the ‘9 Box’ agility map as a springboard for metastrategy.

    Using masking tape, we quickly made the framework to work within, and then populated with Artefact Cards to keep moving around types of work and activity and examine different potential routes through projects.


    It’s set off a whole series of subsequent thoughts about working on the horizontal plane rather than the vertical too (in short, people are more likely to reach out and move things around; the tabletop seems to be ‘common’ space much more than walls do…), but I’ll think about that more and write it up.

    And, of course, because it’s the year of The Chair Game, we played that at the end, to examine the nature of multiple strategies folding in on themselves, becoming appropriate depending on how the context shifts, and each deployment of a strategy changing the nature of the game and so therefore the next strategy needed. Scholars of The Chair Game will notice a new chair set-up tried by the players, which we shall christen ‘Malmo Rows’ I think.


    Anyway, thank you again to all the team at The Conference for a splendid, splendid week. Whatever they do next year, get it in your diary.

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  • 3.31 – Smithery at Scale

    On: August 31, 2014
    In: Smithery 3.0
    Views: 3019

    “I always said I’d decide what to do with Smithery after three years. It seemed like a simultaneously short and long period of time in which to make decisions. Long enough to not worry about it on a day-to-day basis. Short enough to realise I had to do something about it at some point…”

    That’s how I began the first post of this project way back on 1st August. The point was to pull together a new thesis around what Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things meant, from looking back at the projects I had done, and then project it forwards into the projects I wanted to do in future.

    So on the thirty-first day, where do I find myself?

    I had detailed the three options for Smithery; after three years, I had always said when pressed that I’d decide to either a) fold it b) keep it as it is c) scale it.

    This answer is that it’s sort of the third one… but perhaps not in a conventional way.

    Scaling is a funny thing. Especially when you got an Economics background – “surely you’ve got to get bigger, to get economies of scale” people will say. Well, yes, sometimes. If you’ve making something that’s highly repetitive, sure. Which I don’t really (save for the Artefact Cards… more on those later). And don’t get me started on diseconomies of scale when you get beyond a certain size… that’s not a conversation for now. Grab me in the coffee shop tomorrow.

    Perhaps there are three reasons why I’m not a fan of ‘scaling’.

    Firstly, I’ve never really had this burning desire to grow a business at a phenomenal rate just for the sake of it. The mechanics of that particular game don’t excite me, and the idea of being trapped in doing the same thing for ten years terrifies me. I’d rather do something great that might be big than do something big that might be great.

    Secondly, I took to heart something I saw Douglas Rushkoff say in a talk about four (?) years ago; “The only reason to scale is to stop doing what you do now.” For the last three years I’ve been really enjoying the work, and the ways of working… so why stop now? Why become the manager of a team that does what I enjoy doing?

    Thirdly, the more you scale, the less able you are to weave in and out of the cracks that other people can’t see and don’t fill, which are usually the things that really need changing. It harks back to a lot of the classic generalist ethos that I first wrote about when I was talking about the blacksmith and the economist in early Smithery explorations.

    Yet, it seems that the things I’ve been doing with clients and partners over the last three years are in high demand (which makes for long days when you decide to write a blog post a day on top of it… Helen points out I should tell you all now I’m not doing this again for another three years…).

    So finding a way to make these things more beneficial to more people is probably a good idea. Keep doing what I do, but make sure more of it happens.

    Instead of scaling, how do you operate at scale instead?

    Well, rather than building up, you perhaps build out, and partner with people whom you can create bigger versions and visions as appropriate. I thought I’d quickly outline five allegiances which I think might come to greatly characterise the next three years of Smithery, and what each might help me reflect more on with regards to the thesis of the last month.

    Firstly, I’ve been very lucky in these last three years to work a lot with Mark Earls; we seem to counterpoint each other’s strengths, make great things happen quickly together, and have a lot of fun doing it. The most exciting thing we’ve been working on recently has been hooking up with Adaptive Lab (another long-term collaborator) to create Month One.

    As the name suggests, it’s a month-long programme for companies who want to change both their culture and their outputs simultaneously… this video below will give you a flavour of it:

    I’ll talk more about it soon as a separate post, but save to say it’s been an absolute thrill to work on delivering this programme for clients, and will no doubt continue to be so. It’s really helped me see what happens when you use fast-moving techniques in combination with slow-moving layers, in order to create lasting change in businesses that sticks.

    Next up, I’m delighted that Fraser Hamilton, who spent two months working with me last year before heading back to Loughborough for his final year of the Industrial Design & Technology degree, is hooking up with myself and Mark to not just help us explore interesting work, but to find out more about what sort of thing he wants to do. Fraser was a brilliant foil for me in various things last summer, from designing the new Artefact packs to running around the Saïd Business School making sure we were melting all the things we should have been melting during The Key To Leadership. Together, we’ll be looking to explore all of the different facets of People & Space which cropped up this month, and making new things for projects to see how the space around people can change the way they work. Testing out new forms of embodiment for Flow Engines might be a big part of our work together too.

    Fraser H

    Fraser will also be working on the further development of Artefact Cards, which of course wouldn’t be possible without Tim Milne of Artomatic and Keith Rockett of the Axminster Printing Co. Tim’s been someone I’ve worked with since PHD days, basically my go-to guy whenever I think “I wonder if we could make a thing that does this…“. Which must get very tiring, given how many emails I send him. And Keith and his band of merry men are the people who make and ship your Artefact Cards to you, wherever you are in the world.

    Since changing the packaging to the new one last September, we’ve shipped out just over 7,000 packs of them in various order sizes (which isn’t bad at all for a hobby-business built from scratch I guess). It’s been such a fun and useful thing to make, that with the team we’ll be looking at the right way to take it to the next level over the Autumn. In a way, Artefact Cards is a crash-test dummy; I can experiment with the business as much as I like when all the risk and consequence falls on me. I’m definitely going to make a Culture Map for it, just to see what’s inside.

    I mentioned the Saïd Business School project before, and I’m delighted to have kept working on projects with Tracey Camilleri (who runs the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme there) since then. I always come away from conversations with Tracey thinking how little I know, but feeling remarkably good about it; it’s like there’s a whole new world to discover, or mountain to climb, but there’s someone there I can ask daft questions and not be afraid of the answers. Projects with Tracey tend to be with people who’re thinking in three, four, five-year terms, or even more. It’s only by working with people who’re occupying the slower layers of People & Space that I can understand the knock-on effects throughout whole business cultures.

    Finally, I’m delighted that not only will I still be working on projects with my friends at Gravity Road (we’ve been doing things together since I started), but until Christmas we’ll be taking a little space upstairs there; it’s a space to test space, as it were. Working with Gravity Road on projects means tapping into the immediacy of the world as it rushes by, operating along the fastest layers of popular culture. Which means that, as an environment to set up a test-case space for Fraser and I to work from occasionally in London, it feels like the right place to do it. What can we pull out of that torrent to create things from?


    There we have it, then. A completed project on the future of Smithery, and a newly-forged thesis to work from. Besides all the brilliant people I’ve worked with so far in this journey (yes, you know who you are), there are three who need thanked much more than most; my wife Helen, son James and daughter Charlotte, without whom I wouldn’t have any reason to try and change a little bit of the world. Thanks to all of you who’ve read, commented and shared… I may lay off the blog for a week or so now, I don’t think I can typ mushh morrr…

    John V Willshire
    31st August 2014


    PREVIOUSLY – 3.30 – Map Making


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  • 3.30 – Map Making

    On: August 30, 2014
    In: Smithery 3.0
    Views: 2988

    Over the last month, I’ve been exploring the roots of a new idea, a thesis about organisations as a complex (yet playfully navigable) interaction between people who do the work, and the spaces they do it in.

    Now, in the first of two summary posts, I’m going to recap the most useful elements that this project has shaped and produced. It’s been three years since I started Smithery, and being able to look back at 36 months worth of projects has helped me understand what the guiding mantra, Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things, has actually meant in a practice.

    As an aside, I’ve found it really quite rewarding thinking back on what has worked, and what hasn’t, in order to bring together a set of principles, methods and approaches that characterise the work. It’s certainly nice to know that there does look like there exists something beyond intuition and creativity.

    What have I got to, then? Well, three simple things. Firstly, a way to make maps. Secondly, a way to add detail to the map. And thirdly, a way in which to quickly explore specific areas.  I’ll explain each individually.


    A Way To Make Maps

    30 - maps

    In hindsight The Culture Matrix, as it became called, was the wrong sort of metaphor. A matrix, when referred to in business, usually suggests fixed points along the rows and columns, bewteen which you can plot and deploy strategies and yadda yadda, so on and so forth…

    It demands a high level of certainty in how the Matrix is constructed in the first place; you must know what goes down the side, and along the top. They’re probably really useful in times of certainty, which this current era is definitely not. There is no model. Here be dragons.

    Maps, on the other hand, are a much more flexible, familiar and useful metaphor for what I’ve been describing theses last thirty days.

    Every map is different; the scale, the detail, the content, the purpose, the land mass, the key… it can all flex around. But maps retain the same basic operating principles, which means people can pick them up and pull something useful from them.

    Now, usefully I’ve been working with Mark Earls on his new book (I’m doing the illustrations) which is due out in a few months, and there’s a chapter in that about just how useful it is to draw out maps of information; sneak preview from it:

    “Making visual representations of things and ideas and their interrelationships can provide us with the means to see the connections between things in the real world – not just in time and space”

    – Mark Earls, from Copy Copy Copy (Wiley, early 2015)

    We make maps so we can see what’s going on. We make a matrix to suggest that our problem can be slotted into someone else’s answer.

    You’ll also find that most maps will have something key in common; you always know which way ‘up’ is, because that’s where ‘north’ on the compass would be. If I look back to the drawing I did originally of the intersection of the PEOPLE & SPACE layers, instead of turning it into a precise matrix, I could instead form a rough and ready compass from it.

    05 - b links

    North is where the people layers are slower, and South is where they’re faster. East is where the space layers are fastest, and West is where they’re slowest. I think anyone could then be asked to draw out a ‘map’ of the organisational culture they belong to based on those simple parameters; What We Do (North-South) and Where We Do It (East-West).

    The trick then is being able to flesh out more detail…


    A Way To Add Detail

    30 - detail

    Turning the Culture Matrix into a Culture Map makes a lot of sense when looking specifically at two things that emerged during the last month; the Book Matrix, and the Question Engine.

    Firstly, the Book Matrix was a thorough enjoyable exercise to undertake, dancing around in my kitchen dividing up all my books into 25 distinct sections, as specified by the Matrix at the time.

    18 - books

    I think the approach has been ‘Broadly Right and Precisely Wrong‘, to paraphrase Keynes. What is the value now of those precise groupings, given they were generated by a framework which is now fluid, constantly moving? Should they be changed? I could revisit them and group them as a map at some point, or indeed think about how books would move of different maps. But the point is to be broader than that… to know what I have at my fingertips, theories and examples and propositions to pull from and drop into the right place at the right time. Also, as an exercise to try with others, the Book Matrix would be an interesting learning journey for a group over the course of a few months.

    Secondly, the Question Engine is a rotating, more fluid piece anyway (perhaps because it arrived later in the project; it saw how the party was going and dressed appropriately…).

    There’s something useful, I think, in just asking three random questions of the places in which we find ourselves. Don’t look for the obvious questions, because you’ll immediate find an obvious answer. What you’re looking for is the question you might ask if you squint a bit, or see it in your peripheral vision…

    I’m going to keep testing the Question Engine as a concept by using the webpage it’s built on. If it proves useful and interesting enough, it could always become something else – an app, for instance – but it’s got to pass the utility test first.

    Overall, I’ve learned that the way to add detail (and frankly we all should have known this anyway) is to only ever add just enough at any one time.

    There were times in the project where the detail just got in the way. So conceptually, for myself, thinking of this approach as a series of layers that deepen with complexity is the right approach, as long as I remember the preference is to be as near the top layer as possible. Yes, there can be a complexity underpinning the relationship between everything, but there’s no need to ‘show the workings’ as it were. It only serves to slow down and confuse people, when the aim is quite the opposite…


    A Way To Explore Quickly

    30 - explore

    Finally, the Flow Engine process, as a way to design working sessions either for individuals or groups has already proved itself to be useful on numerous occasions since writing about Designing Flow Engines just this week.

    The set-up becomes almost effortless. Take one Indicator Event which suggests there are larger factors at work that make them happen, then create a process with three steps, using the three flow triggers of High Consequences, Rich Environment and Embodiment. These three triggers are rotated round each of the three steps (as primary secondary or tertiary triggers for a step), so are continually reinforced in the work people are doing.

    It also considers the use of space in everything around what people are doing, which means that you’ve a much greater chance of getting people working well, and working quickly, even in unfamiliar or testing scenarios.

    Funnily enough, thinking back to a lot of the working situations I have created in the last three years (and before), it’s easy to spot where I was using these triggers anyway… but not always as consistently as I could have. The approach of reinforcing each step in the other two feels reassuringly strong and simple.


    Together, these three outputs from the last thirty days feel like they’ve strengthened my own understanding of what I do (or in some cases why I do things in the way I do). It’s also shown me where I need to sharpen and refine more, and where more fresh input and learning is needed.

    Tomorrow, then, I’ll wrap up by thinking about where this is going to take me in the next three years…



    PREVIOUSLY – 3.29 – How It Ends?

    NOW READ – 3.31 – Smithery At Scale



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  • 3.29 – How it ends?

    On: August 29, 2014
    In: Smithery 3.0
    Views: 3069

    We’re in the final straight now. It occurred to me as I sat down tonight that I just didn’t have time this month (not nearly enough) to chase down all the things I was going to cover, the people to speak to, the things to read and reflect upon. With every little thing I discovered, it seemed to bring with it another three things that became part of the puzzle too. That, though, is to be expected, when dealing with the entirety of PEOPLE and SPACE.

    What I have seen though is that all through the process of writing these daily posts, I more often than not would end up trying to make a thing that would not just describe what was going on in the system, but could actually be used in some way to change a system. I didn’t set out to do that, but maybe it’s the way that you have to deal with such big, complex mazes. You can’t talk your way out of them, you can only make your way out of them.

    With two posts lefts, Saturday and Sunday, I’m going to scrap everything else up to this point (apologies if you’re waiting for something I said I’d return to… future posts will appear on these, no doubt), and concentrate on two distinct things, for each of the days:

    i) Saturday will be about the things I’ve made as part of the project. The Culture Matrix, the Flow Engine Design, The Question Engine and so on. I’ll think about how they’re useful moving forwards, who they might be useful for, and what else they may become.

    ii) Sunday will be about Smithery itself; after three years, and an intensive month-long reflection, what does all this suggest for the future direction of what I do next, and who I do it with.



    PREVIOUSLY – 3.28 – Question Engine

    NOW READ – 3.30 – Map Making



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  • 3.28 – Question Engine

    On: August 28, 2014
    In: Smithery 3.0
    Views: 3956

    Ok, so I was quite taken with the whole Flow Engine thing. Engines are useful things, after all. So I’ve made a Question Engine.

    Why? Well, good question…

    Yesterday morning in the post I received my paper copy of Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary“. It’s something that I have as an ebook, in my Kindle app on iPad mini, but I realised that it hadn’t made it into either the Book Matrix when I built it, or indeed specifically in my thinking around the Culture Matrix this far. Well, consciously at any rate. And yet one of the pages Dan showed in the new printed version featured two very familiar models; the civilisation and building layers from Stewart Brand’s Clock Of The Long Now and How Buildings Learn:

    28 - strategic design 2

    I wonder if I’d seen them before Rob and Alex separately told me about both this summer?

    If so, it’s another great example about the importance of context; perhaps I’d seen these models before but the time and surroundings weren’t right to make them notable. Fast forward a year or two, and suddenly they help unlock a bigger puzzle.

    I saw Dan talk earlier this summer, as it happens, at one of James Bridle’s Right To Flight events in a Peckham Car Park. As part of the talk, he reiterated the importance of asking the right question, which leafing to the end of the book now I can see again, so I’d like to quickly quote:

    “As opposed to engineering, with its focus on problem solving, strategic design is focussed on questioning the question, reframing if necessary…”

    – Dan Hill, Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

    Given my focus in these last few blog posts of the project on making useful things, I thought I’d use this inspiration to tackle the “questions for Indicator Events” idea. What sort of other questions (beyond the simple four yesterday) might you use to tackle things that you come across inside a working culture?

    Now, I’ve been back through a fair few different posts and versions of things I’ve made this month, and realised just how many questions I’ve actually framed and asked; it’d make a terribly dry and dull list. So instead, with a little help from a WordPress widget called mg Quotes I’ve built a Question Engine.

    It sounds grand. It’s basically a webpage. But what it does do is rotate, at random, a reworked form of every question I’ve asked as part of the Culture Matrix project, and serve them up three at a time for you as little provocations for you. Then just refresh the page, and get three more:

    28 - Question Engine

    It means you can use it on phones, tablets, computers… anything you like, fairly easily. It also means, because it’s not an app, that I can keep adding things in there, as a resource of questions for myself when working on projects.

    I’d love to hear from you, if you give it a wee try. Let me know how you get on.


    PREVIOUSLY – 3.27 – Simple Starters

    NOW READ – 3.29 – How it ends?


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