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.
And today, I was reading something and the word ‘fidelity’ set my memory running. There was something I had written once about fidelity, maybe in relation to Zenko Mapping, but I couldn’t find it on the site. Which turned out to be because I’d written for Mind The Product back in 2015.
So I’ve republished it below; in part because no doubt I’ll go looking for it again one day, but also it maybe points to the underlying critique of all design models that masquerade as a fixed, followable process.
Perhaps old models are a form of mental asbestos. People didn’t really understand the implications of putting them in originally, but fast forward a few decades and they become problematic to remove.
That shouldn’t stop you trying though. I’ve just started reading Adam Grant’s Think Again (thanks to Brad Berens for the tip), which captures that sentiment nicely…
As promised, then, that original post…
Want to improve your Design process? Question your fidelity.
I was sitting in a cafe in Brighton a few months ago, having breakfast with Andy from Clearleft. We were talking about I thing I was working on, and I’d used the word ‘fidelity’ to describe how close a project was ‘to the real world’ specifically in terms of people, rather than products.
We talked for a while about what fidelity typically meant in general design and usability circles, and a a result, I went away to think some more. Chats with Andy usually work out like that.
It turns out that fidelity is a tricky word. It comes from the same etymological well as faithfulness and loyalty, and the broader concept of fealty. We talk about it in terms of our behaviour; how faithful (or otherwise) we are to partners, friends, practices, ideals.
In this respect, the object comes first, and our fidelity to the object is judged from that point onwards. We look backwards. When we use the term fidelity to anthropomorphise other things, we see again that it is a concept that’s used to compare what we have in front of us to what happened before.
For instance, fidelity in audio is about how closely the sound we’re hearing compares to the sound and the point of recording. High fidelity, or “hi-fi”, was so great because it sounded like you were actually there. And in scientific disciplines, fidelity in modelling refers to how well the simulation reproduces the state and behaviour of the real world object (which has existed for millennia perhaps).
Yet, because of the nature of the design process, when we use the word ‘fidelity’ to describe how close we’re getting to a final product, we are using it not to compare to what we have seen in a known past, but to something we imagine in an estimated future.
When we describe a “low-fidelity prototype” for instance, we’re not comparing it to something in the past, but something still quite far away in the future.
We are not comparing, we are guessing. Of course, these may be very good guesses, based on sound practice and great experience, but they are guesses nonetheless. It may be because of the way we view time as part of the design process.
There are three useful examples of design processes highlighted in the Sketching User Experiences Workbook (Buxton, Greenberg et al). I shan’t dive into the detail of each of the models, but have a look at what unites the three…
It’s time. Time is used as a tool to tell us what we should be doing, and when. These three design models (and many more besides) all move along an X axis, left to right, from the beginning of the project to the end, as if the process itself is as predictable as a written sentence. This might have a big implication that we perhaps might be better doing without.
When the model you use is locked onto a time axis, there is not much room for other dimensions, especially if you’re only working in 2 dimensional models.
Typically, the other axis in all of the models above is being used for ‘activity’; what are we going to do when. A time-based model has a presumption of good practice, that you will regularly put things of front of people to test, in different ways to validate different things.
That’s not always the case though. With clients who work in a different system, or even when circumstances get the better of you, good disciplined practice can slip, as activity just starts to mean “we must get to the end bit of the model”.
What’s the solution? Well, what follows isn’t perfect, but it’s a useful start. It’s something we’ve been working with for the last few months, and it’s a broad tool for thinking, of which this is just one application (you can read some background here).
It’s a model which uses two different facets of ‘activity’ in order to help remember that we always have one of two choices; Improve or Share.
Along the horizontal axis, we have ‘people’, and up the vertical axis, we have ‘things’. For us, fidelity is all about the people axis; how close is this to the real world? That’s the future point, when the product is out in front of lots of people, being used often, at scale.
If you want to increase fidelity, then you show whatever you have to more people.
Which leaves the vertical axis, things, to be all about resolution. Resolution is a much more technical description of what we have in front of us, used across many different fields to description the detailed specifications of what the thing involves. It’s been much more useful when you’re using that language around the thing you’re working on.
That’s the territory the model describes, but how do we use it?
Take the familiar mechanics of Low, Medium, High. If we had a time-based axis from left to right, they’d line up in their familiar form, chronologically. In this model though, we can use Low, Medium and High to describe both Fidelity and Resolution. Rather than a three-step process, we can create a nine box grid.
Notionally, Low sits bottom left, Medium in the middle, and High is top right. But they’re now more like places to visits, rather than territories to cross. We’ve been thinking of each axis in the following ways to determine the sort of activity we do.
Low Fidelity – very simply, the people in the room, the project team. It’s as far away from the real world as you can get, and you should always remember that.
Medium Fidelity – sharing your ideas qualitatively. Face to face user research, talking to people in different parts of the business, talking to experts.
High Fidelity – sharing your ideas quantitatively. Everything from the tried and tested trick of putting up one web page about a product and buying search ads for it, to in depth quantitative research to test a specific hypothesis at scale.
Low Resolution – working on pens and Artefact Cards, LEGO and plasticine, Stickers on Boxes; anything that create fast physical space to create a representation of an idea
Medium Resolution – working on surface detail to create simulations and wireframes of things, but not anything that actually works yet
High Resolution – building out the back end, both from a technological and business perspective; how is it going to work, and how is it going to make money to be sustainable?
We always start bottom left, small teams of people working in physical materials to create rough representations. Then the crucial part of using the model kicks in; you have to choose what to do next. Are you going to take those representations, and put them down in front of people for qualitative feedback? If so, then you should share. Alternatively, are you going to take the ideas away, spruce them up a little, sweat the thinking a bit, perhaps? Then that’s fine too, you’re talking about improving.
At every stage on the journey through the process, you stop and ask “should we share, or should we improve?”.
By stripping out time from being one of the axes, we introduce a sophistication which informs the process at every step. But time hasn’t been lost from the model altogether. Instead, it becomes a more passive data source, as you draw out your process across the territory.
For example, below we can imagine two different journeys across the model:
The red journey has a lot of early stage test and learn; make things, show them to people, rinse and repeat. The blue journey perhaps takes the first set of concepts, tests them with people to pick one, builds a wireframe, tests it quantitatively, and gets ready to ship.
The red journey is long, the blue journey is short. But they’re different projects, there’s no law that says they should be the same length of time… unless, of course, your process demands it.
So far, this model has proved very useful both conceptually and in live projects, but we’d love to hear what you think. How do you think about fidelity? Do you see an enforced sense of time in a design process as a hinderance, or a benefit to keep things moving? Can you see projects you have worked on (or are currently) fitting into this model?
There are very few ways in which Smithery is like The Queen.
The only one worth mentioning is that we both have two birthdays.
Ten years ago today, on May 4th 2011, I resigned from my previous job as Chief Innovation Officer at the media agency PHD in London. I was going to start… well, something. Potentially called ‘Smith & Benkler’*, definitely around innovation.
I was 33 years old, and thought there was something fitting about resigning on Star Wars day – ‘May the 4th be with you’ etc etc. There is probably a long German word to describe the mix of pride and embarrassment I have about that now.
Anyway, I though I’d write two blog posts this year, for each of the birthdays .
The second one, at the beginning of August, will probably be longer, more interesting, and cover things I’ve learned in ten years of running Smithery.
This is just a short one, about resigning.
Given the general state of everything (*waves hand towards the window*), a fair few folk are no doubt wondering about what to do next, in order to make work work for them.
Which may well entail resigning from their current job.
So here are three pieces of advice I’d give anyone thinking about doing that. Of course, it’s only based on my own particular experience, so YMMV. Oh, and there’s a bonus piece of practical guidance too at the end.
If you’re thinking about resigning, think about these three things…
1. Describe the opportunity you see
I knew what I wanted to do based on the evidence in front of me. I’d become very interested in creating and embedding ideas with clients that started internally, worked through communities, then out externally.
This was based on the IPA Excellence Diploma Thesis I’d written, The Communis Manifesto, the abstract of which goes like this…
The brand communications which evolved in the mass media era are becoming more and more ineffective at changing peoples’ perceptions of companies and brands.
The connections people make and communities they form nowadays are increasingly where they source their information; people are influenced most by people and communities.
I believe that the future of brand communications lies in finding a way to become part of communities, and communicate with them in a way that is shared, participatory and reciprocal.
In this way companies can affect peoples’ perceptions of them, and make all of their brand communications more effective.
Starting that sort of work even now is hard, because you naturally need to connect silos in a business (Product, Marketing, HR, IT etc etc) that often seem to know each other without ever working together.
And eventually I reached the point that I was more interested in working on innovation projects that looked like this than anything the agency did.
Yes, I could point to the value created for clients in doing this, but not in a way that could persuade the agency business to invest in pursuing it further; it was too far outside the core business activities. So I left to pursue that initial idea.
Being able to describe an opportunity to do things differently, who it benefits, and why you can help people get there, is key.
I’m not suggesting you need to write a thesis to get there, but have a well-worked through perspective on something. If you’ve had the opportunity to test it, even better. It would even help you differentiate yourself if you wanted to apply for freelance roles in your existing industry; you offer something different.
But remember, it’s not even the thing you need to hold onto forever…
2. This is your next leap, not your last
So you can see the shape of an opportunity there, and why it’s not being done by others, but is it yours to grab? What happens if it goes wrong?
Well, the first thing to know is that even if you’re pursuing a new idea from the perspective you’ve identified above, it doesn’t preclude other types of work. By it’s very definition, if you’re proposing new ways of working, there won’t be many ready-made client tasks waiting there for you.
Think of the opportunity as a place to get to, with explorative paths along the way. They might well lead you to where you think you’re going. Or they might take you somewhere else which is equally or even more interesting for you.
But at the end of the day, youcan always get another job. I came at this from an innovation background, obviously, but as the years have past I think that doesn’t matter so much.
Trying to do something new in any field, even if you fail at it, makes you more employable and not less.
In the meantime, you need to find some willing collaborators who’ll pay you to help them experiment…
3. Have a client to get a client
This video was very popular ten years ago, as the excitement of early stage social networks took hold or everyone (and every budget)…
I was thinking about it again when writing this post. It takes a brave client to be the first person who’ll stand up and dance with the weirdo. But as soon as someone’s up, it becomes easier for anyone (and eventually everyone) to join in.
If you have a client when you start, it makes it much easier to get a second one.
Because as you talk to new prospects who get in touch, you can describe some other work you’re doing (or about to do), as a tangible demonstration of what you’re trying to do for them.
You have the strategic opportunity you’ve defined in the first instance, and proof that there’s something in this as someone else is dancing with you. So if at all possible, before you resign, get a first client to work on.
Now, ideally it shouldn’t be anyone your employer works with currently; although possible, it’s probably a whole heap of trouble you don’t need.
There may be alternatives unique to your own circumstances. For me, there was another company trying to recruit me to be their innovation lead; I asked about what job they were hiring me to solve, and whether they’d be interested in me working as an independent consultant instead.
Instead, you could think about people you’ve worked with before but have moved on, peers you respect in other places, or anyone you have a mutual connection with who might introduce you.
So there you go, three tips worth thinking about as the world around you changes. Comments are open below, if others want to offer their advice too. And I promise I’ll write that longer ‘what I’ve learned’ post when our second birthday comes around.
And as promised…
That final PRACTICAL advice…
When I resigned to start Smithery, we had one eighteen month-old child, and Helen hadn’t gone back to her previous role after maternity leave. Everything we had was to come through Smithery.
The smartest thing I think we did was to move into our first house we’d ever owned, the month before I resigned, with a five-year fixed rate mortgage.
It meant that whilst starting up your own business, there wasn’t a bank asking for three-years worth of accounts at the end of a two-year mortgage deal.
However you do it, make your monthly outgoings as predictable as possible for as long as you can.
*That, my friends, is another story. But interestingly, the featured image for the post is the last picture I have in my iCloud folders from the day before I resigned, which will give you a small hint…
It was one of those things that had flown past my eyes, and I’d leapt at without *that* much thinking. Basically because I studied Economics at Uni, and feel that it’s informed my practice in various ways ever since.
So after a good session with Simon, I put together a little tour around some thoughts on a Miro Board, talked about that fairly briefly, then opened up a wee working session to try and map different micro and macro models across economics and design.
Design and Economics has been shaped by ideas, guidance and input from Mark Simpkins, Simon Gough, Paul Sternberg, Sally Brazier, Victoria Hands, Jim Coleman, Joanna Boehnert, Tanvi Yardi, Kas Moreno Madrigal, Leonardo Gentili and Zarida Zaman.
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.
A self-styled drop-inaudio 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…
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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 vividimagination, 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.
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?
Restlessnessseems 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 hardwork 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?
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.
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?
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.
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, andwill 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 2020with ‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.