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.
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
3. See reason 3.
One Reply to “A Sonic Screwdriver For Thinking”
A Sonic Screwdriver For Thinking: Why tools might be more useful than techniques. @willsh http://t.co/hJXauXogXy
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