I didn’t feel ready to start this year. Instead, I decided it was time to redesign the home office.
Our work went longer into December than it would normally, yes, but there was something more to it than that. After twelve months that saw the return of work trips abroad, two weeks teaching in Barcelona, and an ongoing tentative, collective remaking of what work was now, I felt more inclined come January 3rd to reflect and shape the surroundings of Smithery.
And not in the piecemeal fashion that I’d done before.
It’s probably fairly obvious; all the signals, wherever you work, point to a different future around gathering together to get things done. As a company we work with a number of clients on different projects concurrently. There used to be greater value in being in London more often, as clients who worked in the city were likely to be there most of the week.
Nowadays, there’s no density of presence across multiple clients – even if people are in of two or three days, it’s never the same ones – so our permanent desk presence at Makerversity has no real need to return. We’re still members, it’s the best environment I’ve worked in ever in London, and I pop in whenever I’m passing. But there’s no need for a percent base there.
Our home office then, more than ever, is the heart of Smithery – the nest, perhaps, if we want to go down The Poetics of Spaceroute – and accordingly I felt it deserved much more attention.
It’s taken us a week. Which is admittedly longer than I’d hoped.
But to sit here writing (an admittedly self-indulgent) piece in this space feels… well, delightful.
What’s changed, then?
The room is now split in two; a working half, and a study half.
Only a few pieces of furniture are new, most are repurposed. The desk I’m sitting it is one we found in a closing down sale in the aftermath of 2008’s financial crisis (which feels kind of apt given what may be ahead). I find it a good reminder to invest in thing that last and can be open to reinvention. This has been a desk, a kitchen table, a dining area shelf, a kids table at New Year, and more besides.
I still subscribe to Austin Kleon’s idea of the digital desk and the physical desk; two separate spaces to work differently at. Behind me, there’s a smaller desk against the wall, with a board full of projects, ideas, sketches and more.
Colour wise, with wooden floors it would have been very easy to disappear down the slightly sterile greys and whites which still seem to dominate a lot of interiors. Instead, I wanted to pick out the colour in the things we owned already, and find a punchier way of bringing them together. Hence the teals, reds, oranges and so on, and leaning into natural wood surfaces wherever possible.
Then, once the hard work was done in redecorating, arranging took another couple of days. The thing that I think must dominate any thoughts of working space at home is probably what it’s going to look like on Zoom…
Finding a way to make a wall work in real life, and yet still frame you well on a video, is something I’m still working on. But this is fairly good to be going on with, I think.
It’ll be interesting to see how the camera set up I’m using (Opal C1 currently) reacts to the different colour in the background, through different phases of the day and different weather conditions.
Finally, I feel we’re now into the final tweaks; putting up pictures, arranging objects and prompts.
My favourite thing I’ve started experimenting with is using a prism cube. By placing it in particular places on certain days, it catches the sun and cascades little assemblages of colour around the room. I wonder if I can make it pick out certain sections of the bookshelves on particular days of the year, like a mundane version of the Staff of Ra from Raiders of the Lost Ark?
You’ve likely read the first post, introducing the context for this tool, the Community Power Compass, and how it pulls three key freedoms and controls from The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber & David Wengrow. The post then, is the practical session; how might you use each of these segments to consider the sort of community you’re looking at, joining, leaving or forming.
1. Freedom to Disobey
When you’re part of a community, how easy is it for you to dissent, disagree, argue a case in a way in which it is properly heard? And afterwards, what you feel is the right thing to do anyway?
Graeber & Wengrow refer to this as ‘the freedom to disobey arbitrary commands‘, where no central authority has the power to make people comply with their will. Instead, you have to try and persuade people.
The emphasis is on examining how rich, diverse debate can be a very valuable part of the decision-making process for societies. If you raise a different perspective from the common one presented, you would hope not to be dismissed out of hand, ignored or ostracised. Instead, your perspective adds to a collective understanding.
The conversation to understand different views makes for a more powerful community. The conversation is more dialogic than dialectic – something I touched on in The Dialogic Brand work back in 2013 or so, examining where brands could evolve from being centralised and one-dimensional into being a decentralised total of many ideas.
It makes me intrigued by the rhetoric in the communities around Web3 and Crypto. If an arbitrary command is from a distributed source of power, can you still ignore it? For instance, HODL has evolved to being a communal rallying call for everyone with a given investment in a cryptocurrency (originally Bitcoin) to not sell. No matter what. Not easy today (Wednesday 15th June, as I write), and not even possible for all. And yet, I think, fairly easy to disobey… who will ever know?
The Freedom to Disobey becomes important (and complex) in realms where there are different, new ways of encoding agreement. If you don’t have that freedom, you can be increasingly part of something you’re no longer comfortable with.
Starter Questions: When I speak, am I being heard? How many different voices and viewpoints are properly recognised? What formal or informal processes are there around conversations? Where do we discuss and debate? How do we decide? How do we change our minds?
2. Freedom of Movement
Do you remember the first time you left Facebook? I actually managed to leave Facebook the month after starting Smithery, but I’ve been particularly unsuccessful in leaving other services (notably Twitter). But the lock-in of the Web 2.0 business model has always been plain to see, and keenly felt for all.
In exchange for the free service, we’ll take your data, activity, connections and graph, and make money that way. It’s meant that Web 2.0 companies have spent a lot of their time, money and energy on keeping people locked in to their services, buying others that threaten them, and generally closing down connectivity between services. It may have been your data once upon a time, but it’s locked up in a system you can’t see.
The next generation of social networks, then, are seemingly driven in part by a desire to undo this Faustian pact. This is manifesting in different ways, of course. Early examples in this Bloomberg article from last month talk of building new social networks that are decentralised and run by their members.
When you dig into it, the detail around the how is scant (for the moment). But the intention is there; imagine your social profile was yours, to move between sites and services, encounters and interactions, as you wished.
As with all Web3 things, it’s really good to ask ‘but why does that need to be on a blockchain‘ at all times. It raises interesting (and challenging) questions across social, moral and technological boundaries. Emerging initiatives like Jack Dorsey’s Web5 (more here & here) are asking those questions in different ways, and protecting more of the freedoms that Graeber & Wengrow might recognise (e.g. that initiative is open-source).
The direction feels in keeping with the idea of the Freedom to Move. Not just to ability to leave your home and surroundings, but to be able to join another just as easily. It allows people and communities to grow and evolve over time, not be trapped in a specific location because of the needs of the powerful at the centre.
Starter Questions: What constitutes my presence here? How do I sign up? What do I sign away? What do I bring or create? How much is already mine? Of that stuff, what can I leave with? Where can I go afterwards? Does this space work like other spaces?
3. Freedom to Reorganise
The third of the freedoms is really interesting; “the freedom to imagine, then practically enact, different forms of social existence” as Wengrow referred to it in a recent interview in the Real Review.
It’s also the case that the third freedom is dependent somewhat on the first two; you should have the ability to leave (en masse as an ultimate threat, of course) if you’re prevented from being able to firstly reimagine the community you’re in, and then enact that new idea to change the balance of power.
In The Dawn of Everything, the freedom to reorganise social relations covered in a wide variety of examples, from rotating leaderships to seasonal power shifts and so on. The context of the environments play a large part in how people best decide to organise themselves in certain circumstances. the ability to change how the systems works, together, allows that to happen.
There’s a fair case that this is what a good number of people in the Web3 space would say they are trying to do; reimagine the way the internet works, and ‘corrects the mistakes’ of previous generations.
The stated goals behind a lot of projects are to reimagine and enact different ways of… well everything from land ownership to brewing.
It seems a lot of DAOs (“member-owned communities without centralized leadership”) start off with a broad, expansive purpose, open debate and exploration of ideas in an online space (e.g. a Discord server). But then the end goal is to get to a state where there is action enacted by code, determined by voting using governance tokens, shares or other mechanic. (There’s a good HBR piece on some of the ins and outs of what DAOs can and can’t do).
I tend to struggle with this concept a bit. There’s a trade-off between to ability to discuss and debate together, and then enshrining decisions in code so that the entity keeps doing that thing unless enough people vote for it to stop.
Sure, it’s efficient, and doesn’t require as much organisation as traditional communities. But what happens if enough people don’t turn up to vote? Or a small cadre of people make sure they vote in an organised fashion? Or the DAO converts all the matter in the universe into paperclips when left to its own devices?
Starter Questions: Who decided how this works? Were they always involved? Are their intentions consistent? How’s it going so far?Are we getting what we signed up for? What would make it better? Can we redesign and remake it? What happens if we do?
4. Control by Influence
In Graeber & Wengrow’s work, they define this as “control through individual charisma“, and describe it as usually the most ephemeral of social controls. After the sovereignty of a state is set up (control through violence), and the bureaucracy (control through information) means it is embedded in the everyday existence of all citizens, to door is open for this personal charisma; in short, the democratic process which asks ‘who should we trust with this apparatus?’.
Here though, I’m making a direct link from that ‘personal charisma’ to a more prevalent word used in today’s online communities; Influence. Of course, being ‘an influencer’ was riding high for a while as a very desirable career path for kids, but more recent stories of influencer burnout may temper that a little. More broadly though, I wonder if there are different types of influence we can look at here.
Firstly, influence through expertise; the people creating a new way of doing things (obvious example: Vitalik Buterin), who are arguably afford sovereign status in the worlds they inhabit; they are allowed to break the rules they set, as they transform the system around them striving for new goals. I think there are likely to be identifiable pioneers in all emergent communities like this: who do these ideas start with? Then there’s influence through money; those who’re accelerating new communities through funding in exchange for equity, tokens, and so on. Hello there, VC land. Then (finally for now) there’s influence through celebrity….
This celebrity angle in particular raises a good set of questions that I think can be used for the whole ‘control of influence’ area. It is just as legitimate to ask ‘what does this person know?’ of Michael Owen as it is a VC investor or a crypto-engineer.
Starter Questions: Who is using their influence here?How much do they know? What interests do they have? What’s their track record? Are they an active part of this community? What’s their vision for this community? How realistic is it?
5. Control of Information
The Dawn of Everything has a wide range of examples of civilisations where, at some point or another, the control of sophisticated ways of tabulating and storing information becomes a major force in their development. They run from high priests and their arcane, complex rituals which are vital to this year’s crop, through the scribes and artists encoding information for future records, to the tax-collectors seeking the tribute owed from surrounding lords. Control through bureaucratic means is very much conditional about who knows what, when, and where.
Perhaps the aforementioned Discord server culture surrounding Web3 is a great modern example of what we might consider control through information. If you want to learn more, you must join the server in the first place; read threads and follow previous discussions, start to get a feel for the main folk involved. Information can be controlled through access to spaces, channels, DMs, and so on.
Then you need to acclimatise to certain forms and phrases in the language which (similar to academic work) are used to display knowledge in a space, rather than to aid simplicity for the receiver. Information can be controlled through obfuscation, though, and you need to understand what you don’t understand, and why that might be.
And information is controlled by being part of the right crowd. If you to get a detailed sense of how (VCs in particular) are advancing their interests through insider knowledge, I’d recommend reading The Pivot to Web3 Is Going to Get People Hurt in Vice recently.
But simply speaking, if you know an event (e.g. a particular NFT drop) is happening before everyone else, you’re in a pretty good place.
(NB Given the nature of blockchains, which mean any financial trades are visible forever, and that it appears nearly impossible to delete all your past messages and presence from a Discord server, it might mean there’s a *lot* of potential evidence lying around for prosecutors to pick through some point in the future…)
At heart of this control, you have to recognise that information can serve as the fuel for the belonging people feel when part of a community. By being a part of the collective, and accessing that information, you feel your participation is valuable to you, and valued by others.
But it has to be true for the whole community if it is real, and so the follow questions might help you decide that.
Starter Questions: Are we all party to the same information? Who knows what, and when? Is there an advantage in getting information early? Is there a cost for people being late to the party? Can we reduce any asymmetries of information?
6. Control of System
Finally, I’ve taken Graeber & Wengrow’s Domination through Control of Violence, which refers most of all sovereignty, the power to set the laws of the land (and in certain cases to be above them), and directed it into specific sense of who controls the system.
The two share, at their heart, some notion of property; what here is mine? What are my claims to access and control of what is mine, within a given territory, and what are my legal rights to keep others away from it? And if we all agree on this common understanding, who polices legal understanding for the whole community that this is mine, and I can do whatever is necessary to get you off it?
Some of this manifests itself in strange ways. There’s a strange strain of libertarianism underpinning a lot of the space, it would seem, where the same communities who’re keen to make a clean break from centralised state control when it comes to money, would quote like the help of the law in getting back their stolen NFTs.
But ignoring that ‘state within state’ angle for now, just understanding more about the ‘rules’ as set out and policed within a community becomes importantly whenever you’re joining one.
I touched before on the nature of DAOs, and that central idea of writing into code the way the organisation will work for all its members. The phrase ‘code is law‘ is attributed to Lawrence Lessig’s late-nineties work, and this Forbes piece from John Quinn draws out some key lessons for today. The main thrust for me is this:
“…other than in the simplest of contracts, code cannot necessarily account for every eventuality. Drawdowns on letters of credit, for example, which are supposed to be automatic on presentation, are occasionally enjoined for nonperformance, fraud or on other grounds. It is impossible to anticipate, let alone reduce to code, all scenarios that might unfold. Contracts would have to be hundreds or thousands of pages long to address the nuances of every possible scenario.” – John Quinn, Forbes
Using code to govern organisations internally seems wrought with similar problems; even in the simplest communities, with the most straightforward of aims, how would you enshrine a bit of code that ‘addresses every possible scenario‘?
It feels like, as people wrestle with this very tricky problem, online communities reply on good ol’ fashioned carbon-based bipedal regulators to manage the system. And so having sets of questions to ask about who holds these powers, and what they might use them for, becomes more vital.
An example from this week; crypto-lender Celsius froze withdrawals and transfers in order to “stabilise liquidity“. There’s a metaphorical big red switch they can throw to shut people out of their accounts. And yet… in the statement below, they claim they’re doing this in the interests of ‘their community’.
Now yes, this is more like a bank run than it is anything else, despite the use of the C word (and perhaps ‘investors’ or ‘customers’ is what they really mean). But it gives us a sense of what to look for; who has their hands on the metaphorical big red buttons, and what does it allow them to do?
Starter Questions: Who has admin rights? What do those rights enable them to do? What is the code of conduct? Who wrote it? When was it last updated? What happens if people break it? Who would people appeal to? What legal rights do I have?
What’s next then?
Well, this project started as a scrappy blog post over a week ago, but it’s much better for it. I’m going to test the tool when it comes to looking at various types of community over the summer, and perhaps think of three additional lenses to put over the top, if I was an individual or an organisation:
At what point is this not a community I’d want to be part of?
At what point is this not a community I’d want to create?
At what point is this not really a community at all?
I hope others out there might find some use for it too. If you use it for anything, let me know how you get on, either discreetly or publicly.
This started as a quick blog post a week ago, simply collecting together some field notes and some emergent ideas on how to cast a critical view across the Web3 space. Through the process of writing it up, it has has evolved into a potentially useful thing which I’ve called the Community Power Compass for now.
Rather than just deciding that all communities of a type are the same, maybe tools like this can give people a better nuanced approach when thinking about whether to join new communities, leave ones they are part of, or just observe them from the outside.
What makes communities very different underneath, even if they appear very similar on the surface? And how might having a more nuanced way of describing these differences help people and organisations join, find or create better communities?
This first post below is the context; what’s the background I’ve been working through.
This started as an exploration I first mentioned on Twitter a while back. I was thinking about different ways of expressing what this ‘next generation’ of the web might be by looking at what people imply they want, not just what a certain kind of technology can provide. MTPW > MPTW, etc etc.
To set out my current position; I am yet to be convinced that the monotonous ‘put X on a blockchain‘ refrain of Web3™ is a good idea, but then neither am I convinced that this simplification captures the detail of what every community in the space is proposing.
There are of course plenty of sources you can read or watch on the the dangers and delusions of the space. You could easily spend your days becoming a full-time prophet of doom, and their are more and more folk out there. Indeed, part of the (subsequently useful) delay in publishing this blog post has been the endless source of new articles and examples which appear on a delay basis. Oh, and the latest cryptocurrency crash.
Disclosure time: I have never owned any cryptocurrency, bought tokens to be part of a DAO, or anything similar. Yet I’ve been fascinated by it all for a long time, since watching Dave Birch’s talk at Playful back in 2014.
Why? Firstly, the Web3 space seems inexorably, willingly, deliberately linked with blockchains and cryptocurrencies. It is the ‘financialisation of everything‘, and suddenly all relationships are seen through an economic lens.
Given that’s what I studied back at university – and I would argue continues to furnish me with tools and methods for thinking with – the draw of this space is compelling.
Often though, the stories of Web3 always seems to me be the economic equivalent of someone explaining that gravity works sideways rather than downwards.
That may be because it’s so fundamentally revolutionary that it changes the way everyone thinks about everything for ever. But equally, it may be because everything is not what it seems at all, and what my gut is telling me on a lot of occasions is right. Either which way, I enjoy the challenge of having to think differently about it.
Secondly, it increasingly appears that there are a lot of people are getting caught up in the excitement who can’t afford to be; things I’ve heard anecdotally, being in forums where it’s brought up, reading coverage online, and so on.
The space feels highly predatory as a result, reminiscent of the famous Hunter S. Thompson quote on the TV business. I don’t enjoy watching bad actors take good people for a ride, or complacent actors leading others up the garden path. I clearly do like mixing metaphors, however.
As always though, the people are the interesting bit. There’s lots to learn here about how people feel, what they think, and what they do, whether as individuals or as part of communities.
Generations of the Web
‘Community’ is (once again) the concept du jour for thinking about generations of the web. I wrote a thesis on communities way back when, of course, when the promise of building open, accessible, interoperable communities online still seemed a genuine possibility. Layer the communities onto the economic aspects, and you therefore have catnip for me.
Why are people willing to (once again) entertain a community-based generation of the web? When they look at the web works today, what is letting them down? Where do they see the potential of fixing it this time around? What will stop the same thing happening again? What are they prepared to do about it?
(NB I am assuming that there are more interesting things beyond ‘get-rich-quick‘ or ‘we’re all going to make it‘ going on, because I do try to be optimistic about people generally.)
In reading and researching, it clearly appears there are things that people want which are deeper than financial gain. Nods to the distribution of power, notions of ownership, the dynamics of healthy online communities, and so on.
Much of it is then wrapped up in the philosophy of ‘decentralisation‘, as a rejecting of the centralisation of Web 2.0. “Decentralise, and all will be well.“
I sketched out the below set of quadrants (going back to the Cross-Quadrant Working Group work for inspiration), thinking about centralisation of generations of the web. What do generations of the web present as to the world, and what are they actually?
For many, ‘Web 1’ would have felt centralised, accessed through The Information Superhighway for example (note the definitive article), via whoever your first internet service provider was. Yet in reality, it was decentralised in the delivery, these services simply curating links to pages and resources built and curated by a wide variety of different people and organisations.
Then ‘Web 2.0’ appears, with Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, BeBo, and all the other also-rans. They offer broader access for people to create and share things on the web, but at the cost of… well personal data just for starters (“You Are The Product” etc). From a Read only web, to a Read/Write web… as long as you used the in-house facilities, as it were.
As well as presenting as a centralised world, it really is centralised, and all the power lies at the centre. You can understand why people want to rebel.
Web3 or Web Free?
Now, there’s a notion inside Web3 that declares instead of just Read/Write, this version of the web should be Read/Write/Own. All of your contributions to any platform should be (in some way) owned by you, and even offer you a return (e.g. rewards, a share of revenue, etc). And you can take all of your valuable assets with you from place-to-place, and therefore power is redistributed amongst a broader community of use.
To me though (and I’ll explain more below), it feels like this becomes a way to present an environment as being decentralised, whilst actually what it is doing is making the centralisation more opaque.
Originally I started thinking of this quadrant as The Whaling Grounds, where actors who have a disproportionate interest in a particular thing can make sweeping decisions under the surface of a notionally decentralised world.
Currently, I wonder tying the Web3 world to blockchain and crypto is what fundamentally centralises it, rather than decentralises it. Maybe there’s also a system in the middle, it’s just a matter of trying to find one in which the Whales can’t hide their actions.
Meanwhile, other things which appear more like decentralisation are appearing here and there. For example, there’s the Fediverse, “an ensemble of federated (i.e. interconnected) servers that are used for web publishing (i.e. social networking, microblogging, blogging, or websites) and file hosting, but which, while independently hosted, can communicate with each other.” You run your own version of a platform, host a server, yet still have it connect to others which are operating off the same open principles. You could almost argue it’s an alternative reality Web 2.0 – what we could have had – and there’s some efforts to get there from here.
There are also other aspects of merging trends – no-code platforms and services might be a good example – where there’s more of a direction towards Read/Write/Publish than Read/Write/Own. How do you give people ownership of their own platforms rather than their own content? And make sure that these platforms work together?
From this perspective, you can see how decentralisation has to come hand-in-hand with interoperability. This is the hardest thing to achieve for Web3, as it fights against the financial imperatives of things like VC money fuelling current growth.
As a result, I started wondering about how you might tell whether a community which presents itself as decentralised is actually decentralised. And then, as you do, started a book on ancient civilisations, and some things started falling into place.
The Dawn of… Something
David Graeber & David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is over five hundred pages of anthropology meets archaeology. It explores how a lot of experts over the years have taken for granted that there can only be one natural progression for humans in terms of society, governance and so on. Yet the evidence, as you might expect, points to there being many different systems and social relations tried over time across the world.
Whilst the book is dense and full of lengthy examples, it also contains some basic principles which are really useful to apply in other places you might be thinking about groups of people. Like, for instance, online communities.
First of all, there are the Freedoms which people value, and help them create robust societies; the Freedom to Move Away, the Freedom to Disobey, and the Freedom to Reimagine Society.
Then there are the three elementary forms of Domination which those in positions of power will call on to keep that power; Domination through Control of Violence, Domination through Control of Information, and Domination through Personal Charisma.
These are about two sides of power; freedom and control. Given the underlying philosophies of decentralisation and interoperability within the Web3 space, they feel useful ways to understand some of the complex human dynamics at play.
As an initial experiment, I wrote out a brief passage under each broad area, and started playing with titles a bit to make them more relevant to my uses. Then I started to hone a set of questions under each title to use as an ongoing interrogation device when orientating around new communities, initiatives and more. That’s all below.
Then, having mulled it over a bit more, I turned it into a fleshed out tool, thinking about how those freedoms and controls might play off against each other. It’s not perfect yet, but seems potentially useful.
In Part 2 here, I’ll dig into each segment, and describe how I hope to use it.
Spotted in a barber shop last week. I won’t name names, as I’m not entirely sure how legal it would be…
During last summer, they opened up within strict COVID guidelines, as did the pub nearby. As with most pubs, the pub implemented a technology-powered table service system – just order where you are, and we’ll bring you your drink.
The folks at the pub and the barber shop know each other pretty well, and as with a lot of businesses were trying to help out friends where they could in difficult times.
So each barber chair last year was allocated a ‘table number’ from the nearby pub. You could order a drink whilst getting your hair cut, and they’d pop round with it.
They’ve stopped now, but what a lovely idea. It also reminded me of this from a recent train journey. No need to queue in the buffet carriage any more, just order at your seat and they’ll bring it to you in ten minutes.
The way we think about space and service will keep changing. Can central London bars and pubs operate differently, flexibly, more profitably, if licensing laws allowed bars to be wall-less? Could offices be less fixed, and breathe in and out based on needs, adding local rooms and desks as appropriate?
I’ve been in London and Brighton recently, getting back out into the world. I’ve been uploading a bunch of pictures over here on Flickr, just gathering a bunch ofthings I’ve noticed in the layers of these places. It’s not ‘the new normal’, but a walk through a city today can be instructive in terms of what forms of renewal are taking place.
One interesting experience in particular was Leather Lane yesterday in the sun.
Formerly a fashion stall street (hence the name, and vestiges of which still persist), for a good while now it’s been home to a stretch of pop-up food stalls, coffee shops, restaurants and more. Perhaps as the food scene in London grew, it squeezed out the fashion stalls to some extent.
Leather Lane at this moment is an interesting living example of how thinking about the layers of social and material cultures (à laZenko Mapping) can help you to spot interesting things in environments.
Take this example, the seemingly closed Chick (a falafel and schnitzel place; I’ll let you work it out…). I’d eaten there a couple of times maybe in the past, so it grabbed my attention when I saw it was closed.
Of course, Leather Lane has never been that short of Falafel stalls. Indeed, as the lunch crowds have started to come back, there’s a Falafel stall right in front of where Chick was. It’s not that unexpected, really; there’s known demand in the area, and it’s a fairly easy and versatile sheet food. You just need to quickly cook one type of thing, then serve it up in a variety of ways with wraps, salads, and so on.
In uncertain times, I suppose having an on-street food license is much lower risk than taking out a lease on the building behind. And with lower overheads comes more experimentation, as it means people can be quicker to jump on trends.
It’s notable, for instance, that on the sign they make a point of these wraps being vegan. Maybe all falafel wraps always were, but it’s now just a better thing to lead with as more and more people turn vegan.
However, just across from the vegan falafel stall was an Argentinian steak place. Mortal enemies of the Vegan Falafel Gang, I’m sure.
But looking closely at their stall, I spotted… well, can you spot it?
That’s right, you’ve got it. It’s an old napkin tray from Chick, the closedfalafel place across the street.
How did it get here? Did any of the crew setting up the Argentinian Steak place used to work at Chick, and take it on the way out? Was it left on the street as part of a clear out? Was it stolen by a drunk customer sometime in March 2020, and left in an alley?
The answer is: ‘we don’t know’. But we might find out more by asking people.
Observations from the environment, moving through the layers from hundred-year-old restaurant buildings to branded napkin trays can only get you so far. They’re certainly a good hint for where interesting stories may lie. But the social layers that overlap with the material will offer richer, deeper insights.
Who’s running the stall? Who owns it? How long have they been working on Leather Lane? How well do they know other stall holders, or customers? Is it the same customers who came before, or new ones? Are they still working in the same jobs? Are they in London as much as they were?
Spot things. Ask people questions. Repeat. And you can even grab a falafel whilst you do it.
No-code platforms like Airtable are beginning to give people a whole new way of seeing, without being hardcore data-viz specialists. It’s become the practical application of a theoretical philosophy
Back to the rare v common configurations.
Common insights are the ones that most people will come up with at a glance. The first three or four points that jump out to people when presented with common occurrences. Most businesses will be naturally configured to generate common insights, especially if people tend to be looking around at their own area of specialism.
Rare insights happen when combinations of information are put in front of people who don’t often see them. For instance, you give an existing team new information from a different part of the business. Or bring in a new team, give them existing information, and ask for a fresh perspective. How can we look at things differently?
I would reckon that this is a standard practice as a one-off; a business cycle inevitably has a phase where people are trying to see things in new ways.
But to the original point, entropy kicks in when that cycle ends. A business returns to a place where the insights are more likely to be common ones, rather than the rare type.
Are good (even great?) businesses more likely to be the ones continually committed to finding rare insights, acting upon the valuable ones so they become common, and all the while seeking the next rare ones?
As perhaps we all have, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting in the last few months about how to make those precious moments when people are together really matter.
For a lot of people, the working week has been transformed by the pandemic, of course. Moving into this year, it feels that businesses now must learn to live in a world where shadows of this pandemic and future ones will hang over daily operations to some degree. Pining for a return to the past is no longer an option.
Instead, being thoughtful and intentional about the platforms you provide for people to come together effectively is vital. If your colleagues only see each other in person one day a week rather than five, what can you do to make the most of that time together?
One thing we worked on last year now seems to have extra relevance in this regard; a commonplace book created for an event designed by our friends at Thompson Harrison. What follows is a quick overview of the project, and then some reflections on how the principles might apply more broadly in future.
Shaping collective experiences
Thompson Harrison is a leadership and organisational development consulting business founded by Tracey Camilleri and Sam Rockey.
Tracey and I know each other from the early days of Smithery, where she invited us to be part of the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme she runs at the Saïd Business School. We created an experiment together called The Key To Leadership.
It was a visceral, hands-on creative process for a small group of leaders as a container for their experience. The key we helped each of them make was a physical totem representing their learning journey, linked to a digital repository of notes, images and the like they made during the week.
With this project in mind, Tracey and I started talking last spring about something new she was plotting.
“What might we do that’s like the key” said Tracey, “but for more people… over 400, rather than 35…?”
The event was for Thompson Harrison’s client Convex. A relatively new player in the international speciality insurance space, since the start of the the pandemic Convex had seen significant growth in terms of business and headcount. This meant that a significant majority of people had not spent any time working together in person.
The plan was to create a two-day experience for people to come together and celebrate the shared culture and values through a series of diverse, compelling learning sessions.
There were to be over twenty different sessions, across seven different themes (Space, Language, Image, Movement, Sound, Magic and Memory), and each person would only be at three of them.
Which brought some challenges when it came to thinking about replicating what we achieved with the key. What sort of material mechanic could work between that many people? What thing could connect over 400 people through an experience which would be shaped by the participants themselves?
One of the things which struck us early on was how much would be going on that an individual wouldn’t see. Whilst you were learning and reflecting in your own sessions, you’d also be aware that other people were doing the same in different experiences.
The organisation as a whole was learning new things, which meant that you as part of it should be able to access to that knowledge. Therefore, finding ways to encourage people to discover what others had recently learned became a key principle.
After much thinking, sketching and deliberating together, we decided that we should make a commonplace book.
What is a commonplace book?
Commonplace books have been used throughout history by everyone from Roman emperors to Enlightenment philosophers, pioneering scientists to modernist authors, US presidents to technology moguls.
They are a place for collating knowledge in a way that will help you see the world differently. A place to gather snippets of stories, observations, experiences, quotes and anecdotes, sketches and models, poetry and verse. Everything from the enduring ideas of the ages to startling new perspectives you’ve never heard of before.
A commonplace book is somewhere you can collect anything that feels important in the moment, even if you’re not yet sure why.
The most powerful thing about commonplace books is how they illuminate connections between ideas in ways previously unimagined, simply by bringing them together in one central place.
In the more recent decades, of course, personal collation of this sort is well supported by digital tools – early blog platforms, Delicious, Tumblr, Pinterest, and so on – and we toyed briefly with the idea of something as a shared digital experience or app.
But as we thought about all of these different people joining sessions with new people, learning a wider variety of different things, it felt that something physical and visible to others was really important.
A commonplace book could be used be participants to collect, connect and reflect on their own experiences throughout ConvexUnited. And yet it could also be something they could take pride in showing others in the moment.
This would prove to be especially useful in the moments in-between sessions, where people would stand next to each and ask “so, what have you just learned?“
Making a commonplace book
We brought in long-time friend Emily Macaulay of Stanley James Press, printmaker and bookbinder extraordinaire to help us make a commonplace book just for this event.
Yes, we might have used just a high-end blank notebook instead, but there were two reasons for making something bespoke.
Firstly, the moment where people receive the book on registering was to be a vital one. Every opportunity to make something extra special mattered. A custom commonplace book would immediately feel like something ‘just for us’.
Secondly, we wanted the learning themes to have a specific place in the book. You might only be going to three sessions, and therefore use the blank pages in just three sections. But the invitation was there in your book to go and find out what others learned within the wider cohort. Fill the pages with the knowledge of others.
This wasn’t just a book for individual learning and connection. If you were to gather all the commonplace books together, the sum of the knowledge would be greater than all the individual notes.
Small pieces, loosely joined
We needed more ways to help reinforce this message however. Asking people to share their notes and ideas left a lot of work to be done on their part.
We wanted to make it as easy as possible to give ideas away. The goal was to make items of information hop from one book to the next.
So in each session, we gave each participant an envelope. Inside these envelopes was a postcard based on a key insight from that session, and a series of custom stickers from Sticker Mule to help prompt reflection.
Some of these stickers were key questions to reflect on the general theme. Others featured a QR code leading to some further viewing related to the session.
Throughout the experience, we saw people using the commonplace book in three ways. Firstly, as you’d expect, as as a freeform space for notes in each session. Secondly, as way to explore the theme more broadly for themselves and the organisation. And thirdly, as a vehicle for shared experience, as they told others what they’d just been a part of.
Those moments were small parts of a much larger whole of course, expertly designed and delivered by Tracey & Sam. Yet from the large communal spaces to the small intimate moments, all of these moments were connected by the commonplace books as a way to capture, build and share understanding.
Layers of interaction
What’s this got me thinking about for 2022 then? Here’s an initial sketch I made used the Zenko Framework to play this out…
From the bottom-left upwards, what matters in this area is about individuals and teams. How people gather and work together, what they did to compensate in the last year, what will work moving forwards. Often, you’ll find that small groups can create effective ways of working together and problem-solving that aren’t replicated across the business.
Then from the top-right downwards, there are existing large, slow-moving structures that contain companies. The buildings rented or bought, or the decades-old functional silos. These large structures offer stability which means a company stands a good chance of persisting into the long term.
Both of these dynamics, of course, link back to some of the original Pace Layers thinking by Stewart Brand that the Zenko Framework is based on – “the slow proposes, and the fast disposes” and so on.
The creative and imaginative energy that small groups of people come up with frequently bump up against the functional way that both the building works, and the structures of the business.
But what if there’s now an interesting space that could emerge in between these two dynamics, as businesses start examining what a building is really for?
Staging social imaginaries
The opportunity in 2022 might be to build in more flexibility in fixed office space and firmly structured groups. A company could make imagination and creativity more scalable on a regular basis by continually creating temporary, social imaginary spaces.
What’s a social imaginary? Let’s use this definition by Charles Taylor:
When people in your organisation imagine how they work together, what it is they have in common, the viewpoints and ideas they share… well, it isn’t just about the work.
If everyone in a company only imagines they are linked by the prosaic output of the business, and the office is just a place to make that happen, the obvious pushback becomes “well, we’ve shown we can keep creating the output when we work from home“.
Which is probably true.
Instead, the office might have to become an ever-changing, inspiring centre for collective imagination.
Employ themes like those we used in at Convex United, and captured using the commonplace books; ideas that are stimulating, and open to interpretation.
Embrace seasonality, and shape activity, spaces and sessions around the things that are really important to your people at a given time.
The office space in this regard might become a stage, a playhouse even, where shared social imaginaries act as a container for the organisation’s imagination.
Rather than just expecting everyone to trudge back into the office at some point this year, eyes down and forward focussed, what might you do to make their shared experience of work a joyful, exciting, inspiring one?
This feels strange… I’m doing a talk, live, in person, to people. I vaguely remember people – legs, arms, faces, right? Wave their arms around when talking. Those folks.
It’s at Watch Me Think in London, on 13th October. There are a host of brilliant speakers I’m really looking forward to hearing. And it seems strange just to be typing these thoughts and thinking these words.
But please do come along – all profits are being donated to Commercial Break, who make job opportunities in the creative industries for young, working class talent.
What am I talking about?
Well, notionally, the below… I’m sure that’ll evolve as it gets closer.
The language we use to describe our work is more important than we might think. Whether we realise it or not, it forms and shapes our actions. Often, we use metaphors that suggest of information is liquid. Let’s have a brainstorm. We’re drowning in the detail. It’s backed up in the cloud. Data is the new oil…
This means we’re often concerning ourselves with the containers in which it’s held, and the channels through which it flows, not about what information actually is at the moments where it is most useful.
We also, less often, refer to information as light, not liquid. Let’s pause for reflection. It was a glaring omission. Is this in scope? This is pure speculation. It suggests that information is fleeting, hard to perceive, and transitory, rather than solid, permanent and additive. And that might lead to some interesting principles for action…
Helen and I were standing in the kitchen this morning, talking about how today marked the official tenth birthday of Smithery, when we officially opened the doors to take on client work. “Ten years since you decided just to leave your job with an infant son to support” remarked Helen, in jest. I least, I think it was jest…
Of course, I’ve talked about that resigning process before of course, so let’s not dwell on that here. But I also said I’d write a wee thing on what we’ve learned over the last decade.
Perhaps it’ll offer thoughts and inspiration for others thinking about doing their own thing. I’ve tried to compose a little broadly applicable lesson at the end of each part.
If nothing else, it serves just to mark the occasion in some small way.
Connect & Expose
I’ve always been struck by how true and persistent the silos metaphor proves to be in large organisations. It was part of the galvanising experience that made me leave my previous job.
I realised that being smaller and nimbler, separated from larger structures, would allow teams to join up different parts of organisations. The basic model in my head for this hasn’t really changed over the years, and is sketched out below.
It’s also the model that helped me articulate what Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things meant on a practical level; where are the key intervention points within a company’s typical processes.
Overall, though, it’s predicated on the idea that silos won’t change. There are (often) very good reasons for keeping them in place, even if there are other very good reasons to get rid of them. And even if a company beyond a certain size does want to change them, it’d take so long to make it happen that the people trying it would leave and do something else.
Instead, Smithery set out to be tiny enough to link between silos, connect dots in different parts, and expose the gaps in between existing knowledge, abilities and structures. It’s like squeezing between the gaps in the silo wall.
Now, traditional consulting companies, of course, prefer the ‘Land & Expand‘ model; fill as many client silos as they can with their own specialists who *just so happen to be* the only people who can help. But that simply serves to increase a client’s problems, rather than identify and solve existing ones.
Instead, working in this ‘Connect& Expose‘ fashion for me is much more rewarding and stimulating. It increases the experience and understanding of a wide variety of fields and problems, and keeps us front and central on the work itself.
Lesson: Have a mental model of the terrain you operate in, and the perspectives that others hold of the same terrain. Remember that it’s easier to change perspective than terraform the terrain around you.
Antifragile by accident
Being small has also proved useful in another way.
It sometimes feels like I’ve spent the last ten years building a library, paid for by our project work on the side. Arguably, somewhere in there is the real work; connecting things from different disciplines, schools, minds, approaches and examples.
Not that I’ve read all of these books yet, mind; dip into Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s essay on the Antilibrary approach for more on that. But in short, the library is a living work in progress, not an ossified record of achievement.
As Anne-Laure mentions, Antilibrary is a term used by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan. For me, Taleb’s a good example of the internal struggle you can face when trying to separate specific ideas from their creators; from the pages of a book to the ephemera or twitter, I find myself unable to like him. But I find the ideas he writes about interesting to think through. His follow up book, Antifragile, is a good case in point. Here’s the key concept:
It’s fair to say that there’s been no shock like the last eighteen months have presented us with. And it turns out Smithery is antifragile by accident. Scaling back physical presence in London, working from the home office, connecting with the people we work with who’re doing the same. The nature of our business model came into its own.
And then, when projects paused or disappeared, we were really fortunate to be in a position not just to ride it out in a resilient manner, but to direct energy and focus back towards the real thinking work. Reading, researching, connecting and creating.
The ‘exposure to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors‘ has actually served to improve how we think, and what we’re able to do for clients moving forwards, because that energy had a place to go.
Lesson: Building something like this doesn’t have to be about the numbers; employee numbers, square feet, billings per annum etc. It’s about building the ability and agility to work in lots of different ways, in order to create different sorts of value, for both clients and yourself.
Wandering the Visual Fields
The work that’s come out of this period, the TENETS project, is a collection of ten tools to transform the way you think. What this has really helped with is abstracting what we do across the different project types we’ve worked on over the years.
The information you collect, the way you recombine and order, and finally the way you show the results, is something that exists in different ways across fields like innovation, design and futures.
There’s a unifying factor in the tools and materials, and the way practitioners collect, connect and create from external information in order to achieve their goals, whether it’s as narrow as assembling the information for a user’s account page, or as broad as creating a vision of a possible future for a city.
Having this thought across our work has been really helpful, allowing us to remake the tools from one domain apply to another, wherever they happen to be most useful.
Lesson: Reflect upon ways of connecting all of your work, and do it regularly. Don’t rely on the existing names for things, because what you’re doing might not have a name yet. Understanding the in-between space helps you carry things from one place to another.
A Blacksmith’s Sign
Another key part of the Smithery journey, and one linked to that idea of continually recombinant pieces of information, has been Artefact Cards, a side project that’s lasted almost as long as Smithery itself.
For as long as I can remember though, I’ve informally described them to people as a little like a Blacksmith’s Sign.
When you happen across a blacksmith’s forge, hanging outside you’ll probably see a very ornate, intricate sign shaped in wrought-iron, a display of the craftsmanship you’ll find within. Yet mostly, people don’t walk in because they want a sign like that.
The blacksmith’s sign is a demonstration of the work and craft inside, an approach and an aptitude with materials that you want applied to your own problem.
And so it is with Artefact Cards. They’re a demonstration of an approach, a way of working with ideas and information in a way that generates connections, offers inspiration, provides enlightenment.
If anything, there’s part of me that thinks perhaps spending a little less time on them over the years might have been a more conventional thing to do; design them once, put them out, retire them at the end of the run.
But I really enjoy the community around them (they are a very social object). Because they are blank cards, just waiting for people to make their mark upon them, there’s an invitation to create. And the mechanics therefore underpin a broader community who want to experiment with their own card decks.
And perhaps crucially, the tinkering and experimenting on our own terms means we can do what we like, when we like. It’s another place to focus energy when it’s not going into client projects, to learn new things, and to find out what it means to make a useful thing.
Lesson: Make public experimentation a habit, inviting new perspectives through open innovation and community building. When you do side projects, have an idea in your head of what they’re for, where the value lies, and what sort of value it is.
Knowing what good looks like
Earlier this year, Katie Dreke and I were having a wee chat across many miles of ocean about a whole host of things, and I drew the model below as a way of thinking about where one might focus themselves and their efforts.
It’s a simple input/output way of thinking. There’s the ‘good it does me’; how much do you get from a some work, personally. Does it grow you?
Then this is mapped against the ‘good you can do’. This could be in terms of specific value, like providing a client with a valuable service in return for payment. Or it could be broader, like the time you spend campaigning for issues, or volunteering for a cause.
One aim is to be, overall, above the horizontal line. There can be some things you’re really good at, and people will pay you more each time to do them. Ideally, you’d want to be in the top right quadrant all the time. Doing work that does you good, whilst you do good.
But if you’re not getting anything from it (no current pleasure or future utility), then the further you’ll drift left. In a way, you can be trapped in the very top left of the map, if the money you’re paid for something is too much to step away despite what you’re really getting from it.
Meanwhile, you might get really excited like I do at learning new things, that might not help you do good immediately, but take a while to enter your toolkit. But it certainly does make you feel good.
Revisiting this today, I’ve realised there’s a useful mapping technique in here, because it helps you draw out a range of projects and activities in a way that helps you find balance. Here’s a quick sketch version as an example.
Even without this tool these past ten years, we’ve tried to keep a sense of what a good balance looks like for us. Projects we can both work on, just me, or working with others on. Balancing out investment in time to learn new things, versus taking projects where we see the opportunity to grow our own skills.
Lesson: Find a way to find a balance that does you good in a variety of ways. Long term and short term. Financially, intellectually and emotionally. Know what good looks like for you.
It’s all about the people
Finally, having thought through all of the above, I’ve realised again that more than anything, it’s been about the people we’re lucky enough to call friends, colleagues, clients, mentors and more.
In larger businesses, you don’t really get to choose to work with people who get you and vice versa. You are thrust together with different teams, turn up in client meetings with twenty new faces, all wrestling the mysterious process someone else has defined for you to follow as you plod along in whichever silo you’re allocated.
In a tiny business, everything is about who you connect with. Really connect with. Finding people to work with who you’re almost instantly at ease with lets you start pulling apart problems and exploring ideas in a way that makes the most of your collective energy.
Its been ten years, and this isn’t an Oscar speech, so I’m not even going to try to list out everyone who’s meant so much to Helen and I on this journey. Instead, we’ve been working on a wee thing that we’re going to send out in the post later this month.
But until that arrives; thank you, you awesome, brilliant people.
Here’s to the next ten years.
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