3.08 – Ask Good Questions

We’re on day eight, the start of week two.

As a result of yesterday’s review, I’ve made several changes to the Relativity Matrix, the first being I’ve decided that “The Relativity Matrix” is a good enough working title for it, but it is definitely up for review when I find out what it’s most useful for, and how it’s used by people.

Is it a map? Is it a game? A scenario planner? A set of cards? All of these things?

The next is in the PEOPLE layers, switching ‘Marketing’ to ‘Customer’. Various reasons for this, but the most important two are:

i) you’ve got to be able to see where the customer sits within your organisation, so having them overtly in the map helps you do that. It’s also what proper marketing is; ‘make the business do what the customer wants’.

ii) I keep having to explain to people what I don’t mean by marketing, because of the terrible things done in the name of marketing which has been growing stronger in culture probably since Bill Hicks. Marketing as a discipline has a massive perception problem, which is grimly hilarious when you think about it.

Next, an overhaul of the SPACE layers, in keeping with Scott’s point about both the SPACE & PEOPLE layers having some sort of symmetry as they move from slowest to fastest. I’d built upon Stewart Brand’s original layers to get the previous, but I like these new ones (that Scott Smith suggested) better; Surroundings, Structure, Infrastructure, Services, Materials.

It also picks up on the rise of things like cloud services (which didn’t exist when How Buildings Learn was written) to show how quickly new services can be added (as long as you have the infrastructure to sit them upon; no point getting massive cloud storage if you’ve got a crap broadband connection, for instance).

Slight tangent; ages ago, when I was at PHD I think, I started differentiating between work as a verb, and as a noun; it was a thing you did, and the place you went to do it.

Increasingly, I found it hard to do the verb by going to the noun in that conventional “this is my workspace” way. Thinking about the PEOPLE layers as ‘the things you do’, and the SPACE layers as ‘the places I do them in’ is useful short-hand, perhaps.

But to what end?

Well, I wonder if it’s about asking good questions, around issues that an organisation has, in all of the different layers…

For instance, some examples of the sorts of things you might ask, based around a part-hypothetical / part-client issue:


CULTURE –  Why does a company have a low ‘volunteer margin’?  i.e. nobody really steps up when there’s a new project outside standard job descriptions.

LEADERSHIP – How might you create an experiment, or platform, which is a place where people might step up? Is it a different reality, hidden in plain sight?

CUSTOMER – How can we see the sorts of customer needs that aren’t being met? Everyone is running around doing ‘business as usual’

COMMERCE – When’s the most profitable quarter to do things in? When is the organisation more likely to be able to invest in an experiment?

ACTIONS – How do we spot the likeliest candidates for pushing the company in a new direction? Is it in the way they approach their current day-to-day, or something else?



SURROUNDINGS – What resources from the nearby city can we draw upon? We’re not going anywhere, so how do we use what we have?

STRUCTURE – Do we have a room we can hijack? A floor we don’t use? A section of the breakout zone that we can take over? Where does this live?

INFRASTRUCTURE – What does it look like, and feel like when you work there? How do we mark it as a differentiated space?

SERVICES – What’s missing from the picture? Access to technology? Access to different people? How can we bring them in on top of our infrastructure?

MATERIALS – how to we work on a day-to-day basis to make things? How do we make it real, so others can quickly see (and touch) what we’re doing? How do we make it as fluid as possible?


It’s especially interesting if you then put two questions like this together… for example:

How can we investigate the sorts of customer needs that aren’t being met, by using a technology we currently don’t have?

When would the organisation be most likely to be able to invest in an experiment using what we find in the city around us?

…and so on.

Approaching it like this might also start to show us the sorts of hacks needed between the layers (that people do themselves, or can be suggested to help organisations).

And then we can look at the knock-on effects doing something in one place, can have on other parts of the business…

Relativity Matrix 1.02


Right then, that’s got me excited.

I think my next step might be to generate a lot of questions, using a mix of past Smithery projects, and things I find around the internet (or that you send me, hint hint), to use practical examples to tease out the good questions to ask.

Progress, I think. Definite progress.


PREVIOUSLY – 3.07 – Conversational Time Travel

NOW READ – 3.09 – Why? What if? How?



6 responses to “3.08 – Ask Good Questions”

  1. Fantastic what you are doing here. Thanks very much for the provocation!

    Some random things:
    Reid Hoffman and the temporality of people in the new ways of working – Rotational, Transformational, Foundational (In The Alliance – Managing Talent in the Networked Age).
    Brian Eno’s “scenius” concept and an “ecology of talent” – “So I came up with this word “scenius” – and scenius is the intelligence of a whole… operation or group of people. And I think that’s a more useful way to think about culture, actually. I think that – let’s forget the idea of “genius” for a little while, let’s think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.”
    John Hagel and his platform thinking, and especially the concept of “creation spaces” – http://blogs.hbr.org/2009/04/three-elements-you-need-for-su/


    1. john v willshire avatar
      john v willshire

      Thanks Jim, it’s already made me realise hoe little I know, and how amaing that is for inspiration. Finding loads of new things, grabbing bits, putting them together with other things. How did we ever make anything without the internet (answer: just the same, but slower…)

      And thanks for those links – bought the Hoffman book, and off to read Hagel. I’ve read the Scenius idea before, funnily enough used it on a project this year. It’s funny that companies rewrite out the ‘scenius’ that goes on at the time, in favour of ‘heroes’, the brave souls who struggled manfully against that terrific problem… it’s not helpful when they want to inspire the current generation of people they have.

  2. Practical example? We’ve been trying to break down the walls between design, engineering, fabrication and testing in our work for product developers – auto manufacturers and their suppliers – conventionally separated in typologically distinct buildings. We’ve generated a hybrid/integrated model we call “The New Technical Workplace” built on principles around the subjects of Projects (the new organizational model), Products (which everybody wants to touch), Presence (of the customer, the supplier, the culture, the market), Proximity (actually, time-based teaming adjacencies), and Platform (the corporate real estate arm as a provider of a rich palette of resources for teams rather than as a policeman of “standards”). Our model is physically inverse to your concentric “people” circles – We have a “hot”/”fast” center of project/product-touching development surrounded by a ring of flexible product leadership resources and technical/technology infrastructure surrounded by a “slow” home base for people still in touch with the outer world and not yet immersed in projects.

    1. john v willshire avatar
      john v willshire

      Oh, I LOVE this – could we possibly have a skype call this month at some point? Would love to say hello and find out more.

      1. John, I’ve learned a lot from your perspective, so that would be great! Off on vacation next week…after the 18th would work well.