Zenko Mapping, Inception and Pace Layers #WIAD2021

I was honoured to give a talk on Zenko Mapping as part of this year’s virtual Word Information Architecture Day. Thanks to Mike and Mari for the invitation, and help in planning.

As per the last talk I gave, I made a film to do it, using some of the previous ideas I’d used in the last Zenko Mapping film, and crucially some new parts more relevant to the

You can watch it here:

Additionally, some resources for you if you were at the talk (or just interested after watching this)…

Firstly, you might want to play around with the basic Zenko Mapping template, just to get a feel for how some of your own projects might play out. There was a copy or two on the Miro board as part of the event, but here it is here too.

Secondly, you might do this for a bit and think “well that’s interesting, but I need help applying it with my team”. Get in touch here, and we can help with that. We’ve been exploring different ways of using it with client for years, from running rapid orientation settings with teams, to designing custom versions for whole businesses to deploy.

Thirdly, I was also making an origami fox throughout the film, and so thought I’d share the instructions for that too so you can have a go.

Finding intimacy in the infinity of Clubhouse

Clubhouse is, as they say, a thing right now.

A self-styled drop-in audio app, it’s moving from beyond just the darling of the dilettante set of Valley media hobbyists, spiralling outwards past the long lines of social media specialists, and into that hot new space of brand opportunity.

There is a deliberate queasiness to that definition, of course, but fairly I think.

A cursory glance down the Explore section of the app, breezing past the bitcoin bunfights (“Hyperbitcoinization Underway! Are you a Lord, or a Serf?”) and delusional despotism (“Building an empire through your brand”) invites comparison to the Hunter S. Thompson misquote

[Clubhouse] is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.
There’s also a negative side.

Yet rather than writing about it before really using it meaningfully, I wanted to feel what is what actually like to run a room, rather than just skulk at the back.

So Anjali Ramachandran, Zoe Scaman, Mark Earls and myself got together yesterday to talk about what even the hell this thing is on the platform itself.

What follows below is a collection of quick thoughts, captured during and afterwards, all products of the conversation we had together, and the questions from some of those listening too.

A format free-for-all

Because it is in its infancy, there are no standard rules of engagement here. In in listening around to various rooms beforehand, we noticed that there are various different formats people are trying out. Is it like morning talk-show radio? A panel in a massive conference? A professionally scripted podcast? A chat between friends?

All of these bring different cues for a Clubhouse room to follow, but the underlying infrastructure (e.g. moving people between ‘stage’ and ‘audience’), creates opportunities for different formats to emerge over time, and might allow/encourage for rapidly switching between modes in sessions.

Structuring unstructured conversations

We’d prepped a little beforehand, structured loosely around a tool I’ve iterated over the years called The Obliquiscope (part of TENETS). It encourages you to think about the social and material construction around something over different time periods.

Whilst we didn’t need to reference it at all in the session, thankfully (try describing that on an audio platform…). It helped frame some questions and thoughts around the thing we were looking out. Also, it felt that we had a centre of gravity for the conversation, which allowed us to explore ideas in different ways.

Enjoy the silence

Beforehand, we’d come up with a little ‘card’ that all of us could play at any point, which we called A Question To Sit With. At any point in the conversation, when we felt it was important we could ask a specific question. This would be followed by thirty seconds of silence as people considered answers.

This turned out to be a really valuable thing which helped turn the conversation in different directions, and helped create necessary space for a little thought and reflection. Clubhouse seems very, very noisy as times, in part because…

Media is a place to dwell, not a place to sell

We were talking about the tendency a lot of speakers have in rooms to grab the mic and never let go. It’s like they’re playing a round of Just A Minute, and need to speak ‘without hesitation, repetition, or deviation…’

People are trying to grab the space to sell themselves, their past achievements, their current activities. It feels like the scene at the job fair at the end of The Big Short, a desperate, endless hustle.

Yet people are coming to rooms to give you their time, hang out, listen awhile, maybe learn, maybe reflect, maybe contribute. Formats and structures need to be better thought through to reflect this, perhaps, particularly by hosts.

Built for bad behaviour

There is something obviously problematic in building a social technology where there’s no proof of what went on in a room. For all the community guidelines and the like which are being built in from the start, it’s hard to see what genuine tools to identify, report and act on abuse exist on Clubhouse.

Come out and play?

“We know some people from your company. They’re pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you’re hiding? Can they come out and play?”

The Cluetrain Manifesto

There’s something really nice about how close it brings you to people in a room. Hanging with Elon Musk is one thing (and it’s not mine), but imagine companies start using this as a platform to talk directly to fans and customers. No agencies, no branding, no celebs… it might deliver well on a promise seldom kept in the social web.

The tension of Intimacy versus Scale

Finally, as we completed our little experiment in Clubhouse, it felt like we’d done something that was just the *right* size. Yet so many rooms are chasing numbers, and the platform itself will chase more numbers… more people, bigger rooms, more paid-for tickets, higher revenue…

There’s an interesting paradox here. It might feel best when it’s intimate. Being one of fifty folk listening to your favourite artist as an example. But those fifty tickets won’t support the artists, they’ll need to do that fifty times…

It’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds.

More thoughts soon, perhaps. See you at the back of the room.

Practical starting points for a polymath

I’ve been reading The Polymath by Peter Burke over the holidays. I make no pretence of being any sort of polymath in the sense Burke describes, but as a generalist who likes diving in and out of various disciplines the subject definitely appealed.

It didn’t disappoint, and there are some things in particular I thought I’d capture here as I think about them.

There’s a list below of 24 factors that may have helped polymaths thrive which I’ve taken from the book, but added my own questions and notes to to reframe them. First though, general observation from the book that grabbed my attention.

Collecting vs Connecting

Burke draws a useful distinction between the centrifugal and centripetal

“Another possible typology distinguishes just two varieties of polymath, the centrifugal type, accumulating knowledge without worrying about connections, and the centripetal scholar, who has a vision of the unity of knowledge and tries to fit its different parts together in a grand system… Most if not all polymaths can be located on a continuum between the two extremes.”

Peter Burke, The Polymath

It feels that the TENETS project I stated last year is very much pushing in the direction of the latter. I’ve been seeking and finding connections between the various tools and strand of thought I’ve been collecting over the years.

Yet the description of these less as extremes, and more as a continuum, helps me identify two modes perhaps of working like this. The accumulation of knowledge, and then the arrangement of it, and then back again. I think it’s also what The Gallery of the Mind essay, one of the TENETS tools, is largely about (in retrospect).

Perhaps inevitably, Isiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox comes up a lot in the book too. Here, though, it’s deployed to discuss the distinction between centripetal and centrifugal types instead of ‘specialists versus generalists’.

It’s the first time I’ve thought about the distinction in that way, and bears more mulling over; when do we act as hedgehogs, and see all the connections in one way, and when are we foxes?

Practical Starting Points

The most useful section for me is when Burke starts drawing conclusions in the final few chapters around the conditions that made it possible for those polymaths to emerge. The book profiles a lot of polymaths, so you can discover thinkers you perhaps only know from one or two different disciplines, if at all.

I’ve stolen Burke’s subheadings from these chapters in the list below. But rather than repeat his conclusions, I’ve set out my own notes on how these factors might apply for my own work, and when thinking about working inside organisations.

Burke sets out two key chapters in his conclusion. The first about the general characteristics of polymaths, which he calls the Group Portrait. I think these are more applicable to considering individual practice. I’ve split these into two sections below, Character and Application.

Character

Curiosity is often represented as an appetite for new knowledge (insatiable, hunger, thirst…). What new knowledge do you genuinely crave? How does it fit with your existing diet? How broad are your tastes?

Your concentration exists at different levels; not just the momentary ability to focus on something completely, but the unconscious grip you maintain on ideas that you are working on more slowly. Where do you keep track of all of these things?

Memory is hailed as a feature of great polymaths over times, but nowadays we have more aids not just to support memory, but an overall change in how we manage knowledge; search can be more important than recall. How do you train yourself to be better at it?

The speed with which polymaths could pick up new information is largely, perhaps, about learning to learn. For instance, once you’ve learned four disciplines, the fifth is easier still. But be mindful you don’t look at everything with the sane lenses, perhaps?

A vivid imagination, daydreaming, the ‘linking of facts’ (Darwin), the ‘perception of the similarity in dissimilars’ (Aristotle)… all feature heavily in the polymath’s makeup. Familiarity with many different domains makes it easier, though analogy and metaphor, to frame and explain possibilities in ways previously unthought of.

Application

Often noted is the energy that polymaths have for their work; it is not simply enough to have the abilities as listed, but the attitude to apply yourself to them too. Understanding how to focus that energy best, across multiple projects, or when engaging others, should perhaps be a key consideration?

Restlessness seems best characterised by wandering and wondering into the next field along. It’s not about searching for an end destination, a place in which to settle, but learning more about what’s out there. How do you open yourself to these new fields?

There’s also a predisposition for hard work drawn out in the profiles; long days, late nights, almost fanatical work patterns. Though this is not universal, and I surely shouldn’t be seen as a major requirement? Maybe when new enquiry is a passion, it feels less like work, and more like a hobby, or exercise for the mind?

Measuring time is perhaps a function of how much there is to explore, and how little time to do it in. Hence a driving force in how polymaths apply themselves to the world. How do you make sure you’re getting the right stuff done, though?

Competition is noted as a way to drive polymaths on, though naturally those rivalries perhaps fall into specific disciplines and tasks. How do you harness competitive nature to best effect where it exists? Where might it be counterproductive?

Finally for this section, there’s the play element. A good proportion of the polymaths listed explicitly refer to their work as a game or sorts, a puzzle to solve, a riddle to untangle. Does viewing problems as a game to play help you apply yourself differently to it?

Habitats

Then the second chapter is on Habitats, the structures which polymaths through the ages tended to live and operate within (and between). These are useful in thinking about how you connect with others, but perhaps more relevant for me currently in thinking how organisations can replicate some of these to break down silos. Again, I’ve broken this list down again into two sections; Culture and Connections.

Culture

First, there are two background religious perspectives. The work ethic refers to places where Puritan Protestants held sway, and whose ethics of hard work and frugality set a context for enquiring minds. The Veblen question refers to an essay by Thorstein Veblen in 1919, exploring the disproportionately great impact Jewish polymaths had on modern science and scholarship. Burke points to the ways in which Jews have often straddled two worlds; for example, between the highly traditional and the quest for new learning, or between a homeland and a ‘hostland’ (all the Jewish polymaths Burke identifies are either exiles or the children of exiles).

Taking both together offers interesting questions for organisations. How might you codify the ‘religion’ of an organisation in this sense? What commandments are followed, which behaviours are prized or punished? How do you see the best of this in the talent coming through your ranks? Then, how do you invite in people from other cultures to see things in different ways?

Education was always going to make the list, but it is non-conformist education that Burke suggests make a difference. Home-schooled polymaths seem to have less respect for the enforced boundaries of traditional schools, and benefit from that as a result. Where can you find people shaped by different educational experiences?

Independence, and considerations of enforced leisure, are both presented as ways that free the polymath, by replacing their need to make a living for themselves, or providing space to operate within. How can you build enough independence for people, when so many roles are burdened with responsibilities and tasks?

Connections

Families are important for polymaths; you spend a lot of time growing together. The proxy here is perhaps the team; how do you make sure a team’s habits are a positive, ongoing influence on each other?

The networks that polymaths formed were highly important. Salons, correspondence and the like are replaced in the modern age by meet-ups, podcasts, blogs and more. How might you use these methods to curate networks inside organisations?

Courts and patronage offered polymaths a forum in which to demonstrate their knowledge, and the support that encouraged them to go further. Mentoring and innovation programmes seem a useful proxy here; what are the value exchanges we can identify and leverage?

As well as the space and resources to work, schools and universities offered polymaths connections to others; shared spaces for enquiry without immediate pressures (of, for instance, commercialisation). Where does shared opportunity to think and teach like this happen in organisations?

Certain disciplines seem to offer routes to polymathy more than others (philosophy, for instance). Equally true seems to be that new, emergent disciplines could only be taught and led by polymaths; there are no specialists in an emergent field. How do you identify where generalists come from, and where they should be leading?

Polymaths through the ages often worked in libraries and museums, the material to hand allowing and encouraging them in their research. Additionally, the encyclopaedias and journals to which polymaths were considerable contributors were also broad sources from which to learn. How might you create and update similar repositories within an organisation?

Finally, collaboration was no doubt born of many of these supporting connective networks above. Working together with others, polymaths could push boundaries they found hard to do on their own. Can you forge these partnerships on purpose?

Conclusions and opportunities

“the explosion of knowledge has made it impossible for all but a few energetic and dedicated individuals to keep up with what is happening in even a few disciplines. Hence the many collective attempts to solve the problem, at the level of general education as well as that of problem-oriented research.”

Peter Burke, The Polymath

Burke concludes that complexity means interdisciplinary groups are a much more practical and plausible way of making significant breakthroughs.

I think there’s a way to use the factors above to help set out an infrastructure for cross-divisional teams; an organisational polymathy, as it were, a common set of principles managed by the group themselves. Within that structure though, I think there are still lessons for individual practice and reflection.

I am less pessimistic about Burke’s contention that we may have seen the last individual polymath, however. Through the centuries detailed in the book, there is frequent mention of ‘the last renaissance man’ or some similar phrase. It is often used when there is an explosion of information and it seems unlikely that someone could ‘understand everything’.

It feels that advances in supported knowledge, from the centaur approach to AI, to building second brains, means that if anything, we might be in for a resurgence in those we will consider polymaths in the future as they skip gleefully through a hundred fields or more.

Think of information as light, not liquid.

In the recent Zenko Mapping video, I talked briefly about a new idea, a lens through which to see the world; we should focus on thinking of information as light, not liquid.

It’s the fundamental philosophy at the heart of this year’s TENETS project, and will no doubt form the basis of Smithery’s work moving forwards. I’ll share more at length in the new year, but the thought of ending 2020 with ‘a clear vision’ is too good a pun to pass up…

Below you’ll find the relevant excerpt from the longer film, followed by some extended thoughts from the project so far.

Information is everywhere

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, especially when it comes to the use of metaphors. I’ve been thinking about this with particular regards to information.

This reflection started back in January. I was asked to give a talk about the different ways of seeing the world I’ve created over the last 12 or so years. Looking back, it was very apparent that all of my work was about ‘information’ in one way or another (arguably, perhaps, everybody’s is).

For instance, think about the information shared in workshops and classrooms, shaping new products, living inside services, informing strategy work, rolling down a production line, creating understanding in niche communities and broader societies. Despite different sources, characteristics, uses and so on, might all that information have similar qualities?

What if there was a consistent way of thinking about information that would offer ways to apply things learned in one domain to another?

After all, information is ‘the distinctions that make a difference’ (see Dennett), a collection of things that stimulates action in all of these situations; from the inputs gathered for an innovation workshop to the profile screen inside an app.

Information as liquid

When you look at frequently used metaphors in speech and text, it becomes clear that information is often described as if it were a liquid. Here are a just a few examples, from an extended project glossary:

  • Let’s have a brainstorm.
  • We’re drowning in the detail.
  • It’s backed up in the cloud.
  • Data is the new oil.
  • Our thinking is a bit stagnant.
  • We’re going against the tide.
  • It’s a stream of consciousness

No doubt you’ve often heard or used phrases like these. Whilst they refer to different activities, they all employ the same metaphorical base; information is comparable to a liquid, a resource for us to store or direct depending on our needs.

Yet it is perhaps not helpful to imagine information as an homogenous liquid, a pool into which we plunge, a tank we seek to fill, a tidal wave from which we must protect ourselves.

Too often the language used to think about information defaults to this idea of it. And the metaphors we use matter more than you might think.

Metaphors matter

Now, from one angle, you might perceive that the metaphors we use to describe information as unimportant. Surely people don’t believe that information is a liquid, pourable from one vessel to another?

Well, they don’t need to believe such a thing for it to behave as if it did. As Lakoff and Johnson describe, in their seminal work on metaphors;

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays central role in defining our everyday realities.

Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Basically, we need metaphors to help us work together, as they are ‘defining our everyday realities’.

Therefore, not just any old metaphor will do in order to create alignment. Our concepts about our work, and the metaphors we use to describe it, will structure how we see tasks, projects, goals, cooperation, competition and more.

Knowingly or unknowingly, our language defines our plans and actions, setting our priorities for how we look to make progress.

Which means if we think and speak of information as if it were liquid, our actions will reflect this.

Imagine our task is to ‘prevent news leaking out’. We’ll look for holes, and ways to mend them.

What if we’re asked to ‘cascade information down through the organisation’? We may readily imagine the ‘water’ channels and structures that help us do that.

And if we’re told ‘data is the new oil’? Our immediate thoughts turn to how to secure it at source, and make money from putting it in a barrel.

From light to liquid

If we rely simply on the metaphors of ‘information as liquid’, we only concern ourselves with the containers in which it’s held, and the channels through which it flows. Which means we’re not thinking about what information actually is at the moments where it is most useful and important.

Information is useful because of the differences we find in it, and the decisions it helps us make.

Separate pieces of information come together to help us focus, gain new perspectives, or fire our imaginations.

Therefore, the nature of this assembled information is not that of a homogeneous liquid melted together forever. All the contributing pieces can be taken apart and paired with other information to form another view, or even just reassembled to look like something else.

With this in mind, it is potentially very beneficial to employ a metaphor for information which readily works with this aspect of its nature. We want our actions and behaviours to be driven by what we actually want to achieve.

Information as light

Consider, then, thinking of information as light. Individual particles or pixels coming together to form a view, a glimpse, a perspective… something to inform the mind of those perceiving it.

The language we already use on a daily basis helps us see how often we do employ this metaphor anyway; once again, a selection from the glossary:

  • We need some clarity.
  • What’s the outlook?
  • It just dawned on me
  • She brought a fresh perspective.
  • Let’s pause for reflection.
  • It was a glaring omission.
  • Is this in scope?
  • This is pure speculation.
  • It was a real lightbulb moment.

If we shift our thinking as information as the light, not liquid, we can begin to question every piece of information we see, understanding its true nature; it is fleeting, hard to perceive, and transitory, rather than solid, permanent and additive.

Additionally, we can start to depict the processes by which information flows through everything, from the individual to the organisation level, and map out where we might intervene to improve our processes.

Casting a critical eye

Following this line of thought, every particle of information can be split out into constituent parts to help you understand more about it.

Whether it’s a slide in a presentation, a quote in a review section, an article in a newspaper, a link in a tweet, ask yourself a series of critical questions about its composition. Where do this come from? Who set conditions for its collection? Why was it created? How was it created? When was it formed?

The more you can reorient yourself to this way of describing information, the better you can interrogate the world.

Each new piece of information is not just another drop from the well of knowledge, but rather a glimpse of an uncertain vista, and one for you to compare to other things you’ve seen. Critical thinking is critical viewing.

What comes next?

This idea, that we should think more of information as light, not liquid, forms the basis of the TENETS project (“Ten Tools To Transform How You Think“). The tools are a wide variety of things, from group thought-experiments to system-view frameworks.

Overall, they simply help people, teams and organisations interrogate how they use information. That can be in forming strategy, creating new environments for innovation, creative problem solving, designing products and services, and more besides. Do get in touch if that sounds interesting for you.

‘The Infinite Anvil’ – a representation of all the tools, from which we can shape an infinite number of new tools.

Yet perhaps what matters most about this thinking right now, in the midst of COVID-19, is that none of us is seeing the world as we used to.

For organisations used to bringing people together in large containers, great big offices where the intent (or the interpretation) was that ideas sloshed around, mixed together and produced the forward momentum that pushed the business forward.

If you think of information as liquid, you’re probably still trying to recreate the containers and channels.

Think of it as light, however, and suddenly the actions you take become focussed on bringing the right view to the right people at the right time.

Zenko Mapping – A Video Introduction

I was delighted to be asked to speak about Zenko Mapping at the Marketing Society’s Brave Get Together conference last month, especially given how many people are looking for new ways of working at the moment.

I put together a little film as an introduction to Zenko Mapping, a tool I’ve been developing for the last six years or so.

It’s a mapping tool which helps you to ‘do the next right thing’, whether when collaborating with others inside and outside of your organisation, or making decisions on where to go next. It makes your strategy and tactics visible.

Once you’ve watch the film, you may want to do one of three things.

Firstly, you might want to play around with the basic Zenko Mapping template, just to get a feel for how some of your own projects might play out.

Secondly, you might do this for a bit and think “well that’s interesting, but I need help applying it with my team”.

Give us a shout here, and we can totally help with that. We’ve been exploring different ways of using it with client for years, from running rapid orientation settings with teams, to designing custom versions for whole businesses to deploy.

Thirdly, I was also making an origami fox throughout the film, and so thought I’d share the instructions for that too so you can have a go.

Quantum Markets

A short, exploratory post, prompted by the serendipitous collision in my head this past week of this thread by Jerry Daykin on proven principles for building brands at scale, and this great post by Zoe Scaman on moving from static frameworks to dynamic flywheels.

I’d like to caveat all of the below, too – the day-to-day efforts of building brands in a modern media landscape is not my wheelhouse anymore, so I would be inclined to bow in deference to Zoe & Jerry’s thoughts on this area.

Firstly, I’ve always liked to operate in worlds where many things can be true. The metaphor I employed that Zoe mentioned, ‘if advertising is a firework, social media is a bonfire’, was very much meant to speak about the two things coming together to work.

This of course was back in 2009 or so, when it looked like community building at scale might be possible on the platforms which are now, to the amateur eye, simply ad networks.

Since then, Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things has been purposefully open – it’s not ‘instead of’, there’s room for both. I just believe there is more interesting, powerful work for me to be doing in the former, rather than the latter.

So as a rule of thumb, I’m against holding absolute positions on things. I’ve even left myself enough wriggle room in that last statement should I decide to hold an absolute position on something in the future.

Basically, it all depends. It’s context, isn’t it?

As Faris said at some point this year I think, Context isn’t everything, but it is everything else. He might well have stolen that from somewhere, but I’m definitely stealing it from him.

Anyway, to the point; I think it’s perfect reasonable to assume that both Jerry and Zoe’s positions are true, even though on the surface it might not look like it.

Part of that is the context of what sort of brand you’re working on, and the sector it operates in. This has always been true of course.

However, I wonder if there’s also something deeper going on too, in the way markets and economics works in 2020.

I stumbled into another metaphorical comparison when I was replying to Jerry’s thread, and it seemed worth capturing here, as a way to think about some more if nothing else.

It was about physics, and what happens to the laws that govern how we perceive the universe when you get down to the quantum level.

(I mean, now we’re really straying far from my comfort zone, but let’s persevere…)

The short version; classical physics told us the big rules of how the observable world around us worked. Apples falling from trees, etc. These laws worked for everything it seemed.

Then along comes quantum mechanics, proving how things work down at the atomic and sub-atomic levels. And they don’t work in the same way as the classical laws of physics.

Yet… the world we see as governed by those classical laws is comprised of a miniature world that doesn’t obey them.

Cue much head scratching, books, TV shows, TED talks and Avengers references. Things work differently down at the quantum level.

OK, which means what in terms of the two arguments?

In short, if you’re a big brand (or want to be a big brand) then there are an established, proven set of laws you can rely on. You might as well follow those, or at the very least use them as your theoretical base.

Some will be trying, and just not get there. If they’re leveraged in some way based on that achieving that goal, they’ll disappear when they don’t make it.

Some businesses will never to be big. They might choose not to be, or that choice is thrust upon them. But the won’t necessarily disappear. They will use the tools at their disposal to be the size that works for them, given their beliefs, circumstances and so on.

The technology stack of 2020 provides a perfect democratised toolkit for micro businesses – from accounting services to video production, you carry around an entire business or seven on a mobile phone.

Which means there are thousands of businesses which work differently in making things for their audiences, as Zoe details at length in her post.

They aren’t markets in the classical sense. Perhaps we might think of them as quantum markets?

Tightly interwoven groups and communities where some of the dynamics that don’t scale (to Jerry’s points) when building big brands actually do for smaller businesses.

It sets of a whole series of questions in my head:

– Do the laws that apply to large brands (e.g. concentrate on reach and penetration) still work the same down at that level? If not, why not?

– Conversely, can you actually take the laws which seem to govern at the quantum level, and apply those consistently and well for large businesses?

– How do we define and describe the mechanics that replace them? At that scale, does context (the who, what, when of producer and audience) distort any general lessons you might learn?

– If we start finding out how things work down here, then does it change our thinking of how it really works up there too? Does it change the way we interpret the classical laws?

Perhaps most significantly, I’d like to think more about the market context for existing players.

If you’re a large, established business in a market that is susceptible to the quantum markets phenomenon, and you can’t operate in the same way, what can you do about it?

Rather than the classical economic idea of ‘barriers to entry’, where new entrants into a market have hurdles of resource and regulation to overcome, do established players need to think about ‘barriers to entropy’? What really stops your market breaking apart under your feet into a billion little brands?

Oh, it’s dinner time. I’d better stop there…

Assemblage Space for Service Blueprints

Yesterday I gave a talk on how some of the futures thinking from TENETS, specifically the Assemblage Space tool, might help teams move from current state to future state blueprints for Service Design. It was the talk I’d written yesterday’s Visual Fields post for.

It was hosted by the fantastic SDN Dallas Team (thanks guys), and the good news is that they recorded the whole shebang, including the Q&A at the end.

So grab a flask of coffee and dive in.

In addition, I’ve made the Miro board I used public access, so you can follow along there whilst listening to augment the experience. I’d be interested to hear from you if you do that, just to understand if it helps in communicating the ideas.

Finally, some folks asked about the FUTREP and How To Future cards at the end (and the forthcoming dice) – as always, the physical thinking tools side of things are over at artefactshop.com

Visual Fields

I’m giving an online talk shortly. In an hour and half from now, to be precise.

As always, as I get closer to a talk the more ideas come to light, as the particles of information collide with each other, shedding new light on things. Sometimes, when giving talks to a room of folk, you might manage to get something in, a new slide, or a just a quick aside. You don’t want to break the linear narrative.

In these interesting times however, I’ve been experimenting with using a Miro board instead of a slide deck, and exploring ideas and thinking as more of a wander with wonders; offering some paths to turn down, some places to stop and look at, or some directions that male it clear that this path is not for today.

A wander, with some wonders.

It means that I’ve managed to get one of those wonders in talk, but I’ve taken to here to quickly write about it first to see what I actually I think about it.

It’s about the similarities and differences between the disciplines of innovation, design and futures.

(The talk itself is on the subject of futures, to a service design network audience, so finding connections between these areas seemed important)

It’s a topic I’ve been wondering about for a while, perhaps more from a craft perspective than any other. Why do these disciplines often feel so blurry at the edges, and fall into each other (for better or worse)?

There’s definitely something about the tools and materials, and the way practitioners collect, connect and create from external information in order to achieve their goals.

The central idea which is reflected through the TENETS project I’ve been working on (Information is light, not liquid) helps support this.

Think of individual pieces of information as pixels or particles which come together to form an image, but can be reordered into a large number of alternatives views too. 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 in innovation, design and futures work.

I was trying to find a suitable label, and perhaps metaphor, for those three disciplines. I’ve settled on Visual Fields.

Innovation, Design, Futures: Visual Fields

That first image, with the overlapping areas, was by Harry Moss Traquair in 1938. It shows you different spatial arrays which can be seen by the eye when it is fixed in one position. What you can see clearly in front of you, and what’s still ‘visible’ but perhaps unknown as it sits to the edge. It feels fitting to think of the messy overlaps between three disciplines.

Then I was talking this through with Scott Smith earlier, and he mentioned spiders eyes. So I went looking online again, and found this…

Spiders usually have eight eyes: two very large front eyes to get a clear, colour image and judge distance, and extra side eyes to detect when something is moving.”

Again, a nice juxtaposition for different disciplines; sometimes you’re very focussed on the thing in front of you, sometimes you want to get a sense of what’s moving in the wider environment around you.

Finally, the camera array on a modern smartphone comes with a range of different lens and sensors; here represented by Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro, with it’s telephoto, wide, ultra wide lenses and LIDAR scanner.

Rather than having one sensor to force all reality through, a sensing array of different disciplines should act as a complementary set of capabilities.

These three Visual Fields (and there are more, perhaps) represent ways of seeing the world, collecting the information from it, processing it, and creating the stimulus for certain actions.

What needs further thought in this encapsulation is what happens when you try and cross the inputs of one discipline into the outputs of another.

That’s for another day though, when I’m not half and hour away from giving a talk. Wish me luck.

Letting a little light in

There is a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen

First of all, thank you to everyone who’s said nice things about this new website. And more crucially, perhaps, to those with more suggestions on how to make it clearer still. Thankfully, the design is built for iteration, and so all suggestions, improvements and comments are welcome.

The purpose behind redesigning the site is to create a space that naturally helps expand on the ideas that I’ve been pulling together over the last few months.

To do that requires more writing, talking, making and sharing. Making sure there are cracks for the light to get in. The crucial lesson then is that rather than trying to perfect things in isolation, I want to keep finding new places to talk and explore the topics with folk.

It was really useful, in this regard, that Jess and Phil at Subsector invited me to be their guest on a Subsector Short, a (supposedy) five minute discussion slot on a particular topic. I chose to see what would happen if I tried a crunchy, straightforward description of the idea that information is light, not liquid, the first of the TENET tools.

Jess listening, Phil drinking tea, me looking at something else it would seem.

Already it’s generated some great thoughts elsewhere about the concept, and how it butts up against other conventions in interesting ways.

I’ve also put together a Miro board to walk people around the thinking. I’m gradually pulling examples and projects into as a way of developing a relevant narrative in conversation with guests.

It is a little like being a tour guide around your own head, so I’m experimenting with quick introductions and then leaving folk to wander through at their own leisure over subsequent days.

Another work in progress – a Miro Map around the tools

Over time, it may be something I can just open up for everyone, if there is enough DIY guide material in there that helps people follow a rough route.

Finally, as I’ve been writing about topics, ideas naturally occur to me on how to visualise them.

For instance, one of the tools, Kaleidoscopes, is based on some work called Flow Engines which I talked about way back in 2014, at things like Brilliant Noise’s Dots Conference, and the Happy Startup Summercamp.

It evolved into the Smithery logo too, a glanceable glyph to continually prompt a way of setting up productive working practices.

Original ‘flow engine’ diagram, and the Smithery Logo it inspired

What evolved in combination with the new thinking was a need to accentuate the visual aspects of work more – especially relevant when thinking about when planning and running workshops remotely. How do you make sure people see the elements being ‘brought to the table’ and make connections they otherwise wouldn’t have?

The Kaleidoscope metaphor was a natural fit here, as a way of reminding people that no matter how creative the output, the inputs can be quite delightfully mechanical. You need to put all the materials together in such a way that participants can simply twist the devices themselves to see new possibilities. A simple bit of After Effects helps bring that to life, I think.

(And it also gave me the chance to make a GIF of a classic moment from High-Rise…)

If you fancy a tour of the board, do let me know, I’m really interested in the opportunities people can see for the tools for teams in a wide variety of different work. More soon.

Introduction to Assemblage Space

I wanted to expand on a new idea I’ve been working on, Assemblage Space. I was invited by Steve Simmance to give a short talk as part of a Future of Work Forum he was setting up for some clients. They were looking to take part in a conversation with other likeminded leaders about the Future of Work given all that’s been happening in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was a short, punchy, useful intervention it seemed, so I’ve recorded an audio track for it, and uploaded it below.

A short talk about futures from Smithery on Vimeo.

Most pertinently for me, the talk was delivered on the last Friday of July, which is typically when the Innovation and Future Thinking course I now lead at IED in Barcelona finishes. And the last day is presentation day, when the students in their groups come back and show what they’ve been working on – presentations, prototypes, experiences and the like – which point to a type of future they foresee in Barcelona.

The course was originally set up by Scott Smith of Changeist, of course – he led it, I came to teach on it for a couple of days, then we swapped over four years ago. We’re both missing spending time in Barcelona this year, with the students, our friends who come in to teach on the course (Christina Bifano, Natalie Kane, and Elisabet Roselló all joined us last year), and the brilliant staff at IED.

Somewhat tellingly, Scott and I seem to be trying to replicate some of the experience by making Spanish foods through this summer too, and sharing pictures as we go, as if it’s some niche, alternative universe Instagram…

Short PSA: If you want one book to read this Autumn, it’s Scott’s How To Future, which expands on everything which went into setting up the course in the first place and a whole lot more.

Anyway, what I’ve been doing in the absence of the course is reimagining some of the tools, methods and approaches we’ve used over the last five years.

With a title as broad as ‘Innovation and Future Thinking‘, the course covers a fair bit of ground, and the balance each day across the two weeks is to give students something to learn and take away, but also practice in applying it a practical sense. Each year, there are always thing that get dropped out in favour of other tools, or included because of the context of the class.

At first I was doing this with a mind to having an alternative ‘online’ version to offer in replacement of being there; how to teach in shifting pockets of time with global audiences and small groups, recording the presentation parts, breaking up into small tutorials throughout the day, making sure there were clear threads running through everything so that people could follow along from wherever they were.

Whilst the possibility of running an online version quickly faded (so much of the course, and our research material, is about bringing a wide selection of people together who often have little in common apart from the city itself), my own work continued.

It expanded into a full revision of basically everything in the Smithery kit-bag, with a permeating theme running through everything – the talk I did earlier this year, The Blacksmith Makes Their Own Tools, really helped me see that all of the work I’ve done in the last twenty years is around information as illumination, and suddenly a lots of things came together in a way they hadn’t before.

I’ll no doubt be talking about this a lot in the months to come as it evolves, but in short each section is an idea to hold onto, either in isolation or combination with some/all of the others, and is comprised of an essay and a model to help Identify & Illuminate, or Focus & Frame.

I just want to touch briefly on the last one, Assemblage Space.

It has it roots in the adaptation we made for the course of The Futures Cone, best explained here by Dr Joseph Voros (its most famous exponent).

Over the years, working with both students and clients in practical ways with the Futures Cone, two things have become apparent to me.

The first is that the boundaries should look as impermanent and uncertain as possible. People can and will get fixated about getting ‘the answer right’, and fitting their groups of signals, or whole scenarios, in a certain place.

Is this a Plausible Future?

The more solid the cone becomes, the more rarefied, the less useful it is.

You should fight against the trend of making lovely, designed versions of the Futures Cone with gradients, different coloured cones and so on; though they are perhaps logical in the act of making a nice presentation, they are not helpful for you in the practical application for the method.

Hence the point in the talk at the top; there is no cone. It is a container that help sets an enquiry off at the beginning, that sets some rules for participants about how they might start thinking of the research they do and the ideas they pull in, but you should work hard to make the cone disappear through the process.

The second thing that’s become apparent is that it’s useful to identify ‘other spaces’ to sort information in, rather than just the forward looking boundaries of the cone itself.

Assemblage space, or A-Space, is my way of making people think about the research and ideas they gather in a wider way. Assemblage Space is no more real than the Futures Cone, it’s just a device to help tease out information and connect it in different ways.

Assemblage is a term I’m pulling in from the philosophical definition“Assemblage theory provides a bottom-up framework for analyzing social complexity by emphasizing fluidity, exchangeability, and multiple functionalities through entities and their connectivity.” – without trying to get pulled too far into that particular rabbit hole.

There are six spaces on the map; I’ll talk about the four Over/Under spaces another day, but for now the point about going backwards to look forwards is what I want to concentrate on.

As people begin to populate the cone with information, we need to recognise that they have not made this stuff up. Even if the idea they pull in is seemingly from their own head, not based on research at all, the world around them, and their experience so far, has led them to that point.

So the key question becomes – “where does that come from?”

Reflecting the areas of the Futures Cone (Probable, Plausible etc etc), I found it helpful to think about the lived experience of the past, and what evidence we have.

Firstly, there’s tangible things, the things we can point to in the world. A bus stop, or a can of tuna.

Then there are intangible things; we know they exist, and they are part of our lives, and we can prove it by chasing down the visible aspects if we tried. A corporation, a press release, or a Pikachu in Pokemon Go.

Then there are things which are remembered collectively by people, but no longer exist. A long-defunct tram system in a city, or (the infamous) white dog poo.

Finally, there are things we’ve forgotten; sometimes they are waiting to be rediscovered, oftentimes not, and can only be summoned by inference.

These four things (Tangible/Intangible/Remembered/Forgotten) seem so far to be a useful way to start unpicking the “where did that come from?” question, and naturally help people focus even the most flippant futuristic notion in some vestiges of evidence from the past. It helps test the assemblages you bring together by grounding them in evidence.

Thinking back to last week, from the Future of Work perspective it helps you think about not just a continuation of the near-past, but makes you examine further ideas which may have been lost to time with different technologies.

One of the topics that came up in the forum was trust, and how leaders need to trust people working at home more to get on and do their jobs.

Thinking back to a pre-email work life though, how were people trusted then? When leaders didn’t have the chance to have an electronic record of conversations, decisions and actions? Where did trust live in companies, and what can we learn from that for now?

To finish then, this is a partial view of the practice, of course, but I hope a useful one in that it makes an abstract thing more practical. Practicality has been a theme running through the course at IED since the beginning.

Indeed, one year, at the final presentation, I decided it would be a good idea to draw parallels to the Susanna Clarke book Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, about the emergence in 19th century England of two ‘practical magicians’, much to the initial scoffing and disdain of the ‘theoretical magicians’, groups of learned men who would gather in taverns to discuss magic but not ever actually do any.

It was, to be honest, a little lost on the audience at the time (the strange Scottish man is saying strange things again…), but perhaps the point is more pertinent now; in these strange times, we need more practical futuring.