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.

Metastrategy – Movement, Loops and Layers – Video

I was very excited to be invited to Oslo to give the final keynote of the Webdagene conference. It’s one of my favourite cities, and the speaker line-up was immense too – you should check out all of the talks.

My talk was an updated version of the Metastrategy idea, with cleaner entry points into the theory, and an extended practical back-end. Please enjoy, and as always questions, additions and thoughts in the comments below are most welcome.

John Willshire: Metastrategy – Movements, Layers and Loops (Webdagene 2016) from Netlife Research on Vimeo.

Metastrategy In Malmo: Adventures at The Conference

I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote talk at The Conference in Malmo last week, to an audience of 1000 people. Which is a big room…

Here’s the ‘before’ picture…

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…and here is the ‘after’… although technically ‘during’, now I think of it…

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The talk itself was on Metastrategy, the need for ‘a strategy of strategies’.

It’s the ‘third act’ after the Metadesign talk at last year’s dConstruct, and ‘Metamechanics‘ at IAM in Barcelona this year.

In a brilliant move, the guys at The Conference were live editing the videos as they were recording, and posting up the videos of the talks about an hour after they’d happened.

Which means if you want to watch the talk, you can do that here.

There is also a whole mountain of amazing talks from across the two days, some which I saw and some I’m now going to catch up on after hearing so much about them.

I also ran a masterclass on the Thursday with a small group of people who’d signed up (apologies to those who tried but couldn’t get in, I might come back to Malmo to run it again) on using the ‘9 Box’ agility map as a springboard for metastrategy.

Using masking tape, we quickly made the framework to work within, and then populated with Artefact Cards to keep moving around types of work and activity and examine different potential routes through projects.

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It’s set off a whole series of subsequent thoughts about working on the horizontal plane rather than the vertical too (in short, people are more likely to reach out and move things around; the tabletop seems to be ‘common’ space much more than walls do…), but I’ll think about that more and write it up.

And, of course, because it’s the year of The Chair Game, we played that at the end, to examine the nature of multiple strategies folding in on themselves, becoming appropriate depending on how the context shifts, and each deployment of a strategy changing the nature of the game and so therefore the next strategy needed. Scholars of The Chair Game will notice a new chair set-up tried by the players, which we shall christen ‘Malmo Rows’ I think.

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Anyway, thank you again to all the team at The Conference for a splendid, splendid week. Whatever they do next year, get it in your diary.

How does #thechairgame work?

We’ve had a good sign-up rate for The Chair Game tomorrow, Friday 22nd April, at the V&A Performance Festival.

We gather at 1:45pm for a 2-4pm game, after which we’ll repair to a local pub. Come along if you can, and sign-up here so we have a sense of numbers.

But how does it work many people have asked. So here’s a quick ruleset:

  1. Everyone sits in a chair, randomly distributed in the space.
  2. One player is “chair zombie” – they vacate their seat, walk to the other side of the space
  3. The chair zombie can only walk, at a steady pace
  4. They must try and sit in the empty seat.
  5. It’s everyone else’s job to stop that happening, not by blocking them, but by occupying the empty seat
  6. Which means vacating the one you’re in, so the zombie heads for that one
  7. Everyone else can move as fast as they like – e.g. they can run between seats.
  8. Once you’re up, you can’t sit back down in the same seat
  9. The round ends when the zombie sits in an empty chair
  10. Repeat, ad infinitum

What happens as a result of multiple plays, as people learn the game, is the interesting part. We’ve trialling out two specific (non-playing) roles tomorrow to help this part of the game along…

The Whatcher – the person who, at the end of every round, asks what went wrong, and what the group’s next strategy should be

Waits & Measures – The timekeeper, who tells the group how long they succeeded for, and what interesting things happened (and when)

See you there if you can make it.

(previous post on what this is all about…)

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The Chair Game – Live at the V&A

This is the year of The Chair Game“, I said to Rob, over a pint after an evening’s play in London Bridge. He’d just spent two hours running the game for all of us who were new to it, save for Clarisa.

It was her fault, apparently. She’d been in a workshop Rob was doing where he’d used The Chair Game as an exercise. “If you run a workshop that’s just The Chair Game for hours, I’d come to that” she told him. Hence London Bridge. True to her word, Clarisa flew over from France especially for it.

The Chair Game is pretty simple. Everyone has a chair. They’re randomly distributed around a space. One person gets up, and walks to the side; they’re the chair zombie. They have to amble towards the empty chair. It’s everyone else’s job to stop them by sitting in the empty one. They can’t block them, but they can run as fast as they like. But once they’re up, they’re up – they can’t sit back on the same chair.

Chaos ensues…

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The first round is always really quick. Like, six seconds as an average. Then you ask the players what went wrong? And what their strategy next time should be. And you go again. And again. And again.

It’s a game that is about strategy as much as you want it to be. You can stop, analyse, plot and plan, instruct and act. Or you can just play. It is compelling to watch, and addictive to play. Since learning about the game, I’ve been building it into various strategy workshops as part of the narrative, and prototyping workshops as part of the fun. We started calling it Karaisu, for fun – like karaoke; Japanese* for “Empty Chair”…

Karaisu

Another thing happened after the night Rob showed us the game.

James was there, and James works at the V&A in London. We joked on email that we should play it on all the very expensive chairs at the V&A. Ho ho ho. Wouldn’t that be a lark?

Two weeks later, James emails again. We’re on. Not on the expensive chairs. But at the V&A. As part of the Performance Festival. Look, we’re even listed on the site.

We’re playing next week, on Friday 22nd April, 1:45 meet-up for a 2pm start. We’ll be in the John Madejski at the V&A in South Kensington. We finish at 4pm, and then head to a pub to unpack what goes on.

And we need some more players.

If you are around, and fancy it, then please sign-up here. We need around 30-40 players. Send this on to anyone else who might fancy it too, and we’ll send confirmations out next week.

So sign up, and come down and play.

Because this is the year of The Chair Game.

 

*I checked with a Japanese friend – it kinda doesn’t mean this, but also kinda does.

 

 

 

“The best for the most for the least” – 2016 Projects

Every year, we set three internal projects for Smithery; things we want to work on that will improve our own practice, be fun to explore, and originally to occupy a little downtime too. As perhaps evidenced by the performance on last year’s projects (see 2015 project write-up), we seem to have a bit less time nowadays to purposefully muck about.

Firstly, some of that is down to workload; we’re working on more complex, nuanced, interesting problems for clients. They’re more compelling to get readily lost in, to wander through and wonder about. We’re doing the sort of projects I started Smithery for.

Secondly, a lot of the things we do as part of projects nowadays perhaps take the place of the more makery stuff we used centre some personal projects around. Adopting various things into our approach, like the principles from Seymour Papert’s Constructionism, means that more often than not we have ‘a thing’ in the middle of the table to facilitate discussion, design and direction. We make things all the time.

And perhaps thirdly, the internal projects have served as useful proof-of-concepts, and in pointing to them (and subsequent clients things) we are asked to do more things like those. Getting paid actual money for things you really like to do anyway is always nice.

I talked a while ago about ‘The Blacksmith’s Sign’; a beautiful wrought iron sign that hangs from a post, an ornate piece of communication about the type of work done within. People would see the sign, and think ‘ah, there’s someone who could help me with X…’ and another client was secured. The client didn’t want a sign, of course. They wanted the skills that created that sign. In some way, that’s what some of the Smithery internal projects have been about, wittingly or not…

In the light of all this, we’ve been thinking a lot over the holidays about the right internal projects this year, and how after four years they might change focus a bit, beyond just thinking of ourselves.

‘Internal projects’ seems a little small. We have decided we want to be a little more ambitious in how we make the projects as useful as possible beyond our own walls. Stealing an idea from Charles & Ray Eames, how do we use the projects to deliver “the best for the most for the least”; to create really useful outputs from the projects, which can offer greater value for more people, making the very best use of the resources we have available.

With all that in mind, here’s our three for 2016.

There’s a What, a How and a Where

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1. WHAT – Strategic Design Unit

What is Smithery? Ah, the perennial question. The original answer was long and uncertain, as proved by the thing I must’ve written when asked by Campaign on leaving PHD:

“…called Smithery, the business will look to work with clients on brand and service innovation, community initiatives, crowdsourcing projects and marketing and media strategy.”

About a year in, and after I’d reflected on the actual work I was doing, it become “an innovation studio” (after a German magazine called PAGE called it that). Formulating “Make Things People Want > Making People Want Things” helped explain what it was about.

What about now though? Smithery has always been centred around innovation; an inheritance of the previous role I’d had for five years, a comfortable legitimacy.

But increasingly, looking at the work we’ve done over the last twelve months, that’s not the right definition anymore.

It’s harder to see what I thought innovation was looking at how it’s used everywhere now. As a term, innovation is at risk of being meaninglessly overused and abused. In too many cases, it just means ’slightly better than useful’, or ‘the things we do to hide the day job’. It is hard to discern what it is someone’s actually talking about when using the word. It is a fat, unhelpful descriptor, just like digital became before it. I find myself having to go through layers of conversation with people when they say ‘innovation’ to find out what they actually mean

you keep using that word

Which is partly what the system we’ve developed around our practice is a reaction to, I think.

Rooted in the gearbox idea from Smithery 3.0 in 2014 (around Stewart Brand’s shearing layers), the system uses four complementary realms, and in particular their relationship to each other, to help us define what sort of job we’re actually looking at. Or at the very least, helps state the question that everyone at the start of the project thinks we’re trying to answer (it usually changes, but that’s another story).

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None of the realms are described as ‘innovation’, of course, and you can’t describe everything we do as innovation, either in our own understanding of it or that of others. So if Smithery isn’t an innovation studio, what is it?

I went back through the bookshelves to find some clues, and I picked up Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary” again.

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

DMATH is a terrific read, and in reading Dan’s post about it, which started from Dan’s talk at the first Laptops & Looms, which itself was an important experience for me, as I found myself at it barely a month into starting Smithery at Toby & Russell’s invitation.

L&LRead Adrian’s take on what it was, if you don’t know, which is a) great and b) links to lots of other reactions to it, as all good rabbit holes should.

But it’s only in reading DMATH again, in context of the last eighteen months of work, that I’ve started to appreciate what Dan is really getting at, from a practitioner’s perspective, when talking about Strategic Design.

Rather than trying to design specific solutions, and ones constrained by the same silos that create previous failing ones at that, Strategic Design bridges disciplines and departments within the organisation as currently exists, and seeks to change the cultural, political and social factors which prevent necessary change; the hidden things, the ‘dark matter’ the title refers to.

Another thing I’ve been reading (for the first time) is John Harwood’s The Interface, an exploration of the seminal IBM Design programme led by Eliot Noyes (who brought in Charles & Ray Eames, Paul Rand, etc), which transformed the business starting in the late fifties. What you realise from reading the stories back is just how much the politics and the social structures that Noyes & Thomas Watson Jr (his client, and new IBM CEO) navigated their way through were part of the design project.

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I could keep going in, but in this first week of January though, I’m very aware that there’s a lot more to research, and this is just the setting out of our stall. What other examples and takes on Strategic Design should we appraise ourselves of? This one? These folks? Does it really match up to the system we have? It does feel, on the surface, like what we’ve been working on with Smithery (somewhat unknowingly to an extent):

Exhibit A: We’re working with an innovation team from one end of the business, as well as the sales team from the other end. Rather than waiting three years for innovation to hit the front line and change the organisation, we’re helping them create and deploy the ideas and constructs immediately to make a difference for their customers.  Building conceptual and functional platforms and methods upon which they create things together. It’s a long, investigative journey of researching, prototyping, talking and observing. Developing a feel for the rhythm of the organisation, things we can see, things we can’t. What results is a field kit, a box full of the future, in many different iterations, that the sales team can use with clients to scope out problems together.

Exhibit B: We were asked to put together a ‘War Game’ for a global strategy team last autumn. They were bringing together the thirty strategic leaders from across the globe, who don’t see each other that often. The brief time they have together is valuable. Traditionally, ‘War Games’ are long extrapolations of one scenario. And it’s a rational thing for global strategy teams to ask for. No one gets fired for asking for a war game. But in rooting around in what the problem actually was, they wanted their people to become better at reacting to unforeseen circumstances. So instead of running a long game of ‘Risk, one long, exhaustive scenario, we designed a card game, more ‘Poker’ (multiple, recombinant, rapid scenarios). Instead of one scenario, we build 21 in three hours. But we only build half the deck; half are blank, for the client teams to create their own additional and variations in the future. In a sense, rather than just create a fully formed thing for one experience in the business, we made a half-formed thing they would take back home with them, and create their own experiences with.

In both these cases, of course, it wasn’t just us. We pull together ‘units’, small specialist teams to work on these things, according to the task. Sometimes individuals, sometimes wee groups of people from other companies. But importantly, I think, people from the inside of the client teams too. It’s less about building units for people, but building the units including people.

So the WHAT project is this: What Is A Strategic Design Unit?

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) In these first fresh weeks of 2016, inhabiting a new way of seeing what we do is something to test out. Then with further reading and reflection, we’ll be experimenting and investigating what it takes to be a “Strategic Design Unit”.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Working out what Strategic Design means for us, how we describe ‘strategic design units’ helpfully for others, and creating an artefact of our investigations (writing a guide on how we get on to publish,  a white paper, or something). The best articulation we can create, available to develop and build on through creative commons, that asks the least from others and ourselves in order to take the most from it.

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2. HOW – Universal Agility Map

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sketched the thing below in the last year. Using the same axes of ‘people’ and ‘things’ as the system above, it’s nine-box variant for appraising what you should do next on a project basis. If the four box system model is the what, then this is the how.

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Very simply, you start projects in the bottom left, work quickly with a small team, then work out what to do next; Improve or Share. Go out to the right to share with more people, taking what you’ve got into qualitative, then quantitative ways of testing what you’ve made, before you spend all your resources making it better. Go up to improve, and make a better version of what it is you’ve come up with as a team.

As a simple instruction, ‘improve or share’ shares a lot from modern, iterative working, but there’s some additional things in there too.

For one, it’s non-judgemental. There is no right and wrong in the approach. Instead, it simple demands that you ask yourself, as truthfully as you can, what the most appropriate thing to do is. For another, it allows you to perceive the empty spaces in the process, and think about where else you might have taken the project, had you chosen to go there.

There’s more detail on what this method is here, but in short it’s about using a design process that isn’t wedded to time. Time doesn’t sit on the X axis of the two-dimensional model, so therefore the emphasis is not simply on moving from left to right. It’s like a self-directed version of snakes and ladders for projects.

The more we’ve used it ourselves, and talked about it to other people, the more it seems useful in situations as a way for other people to think about the way they work.

We think it might be a Universal Agility Map.

The idea that it’s a map, specifically, came from an afternoon we spent hanging out with Ella Saltmarshe and Tim Milne, reflecting on a project each of us had done and mapping the out across the grid, plotting points according to the action we’d taken at each stage (improve/share).

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Then the best bit, which was Ella’s idea for the session, was to then think about how it felt at each stage of the project, and to map those feelings on too. We got to some really interesting ways of describing the territory through this.

For instance, if you only keep improving something, without sharing it with others, it gets harder to share it eventually and take all the feedback on board at once. It’s like a mountain range that’s easier to cross when you’re further south in the foothills, but the further north you go, the higher and colder it becomes to make it over the mountains.

If you only talk about and get input and data about a project, on the other hand, and never use any of that to make significant steps on, you get lost in ‘the forests of constant chatter’… you never get anywhere as you’re lost in the reactions of what you get from external sources.

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All of this is something we want to work on more this year, and make something that people can take for themselves and use as a way of improving their own working process.

The HOW project is this: How Do You Use The Universal Agility Map?

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) We’ve found it really useful. We think other people will find it really useful. How we communicate the value we’ve found in that will be a good challenge for us (we’ve spent a year on it, surely it doesn’t take that long to learn), and beneficial for others.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Work out a way to teach it to people. Then teach it in person, at places where I teach already, like IED Barcleona & Google Squared, and in new places too. And, just maybe, create an artefact of the method too, so that people can teach themselves. Our friend Tina does a wonderful range of maps already, we should talk to her…

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3. WHERE – Perpetual Spatial Ranges

The book I recommended most to people last year was Prototype, edited by Louis Valentine. It features a cornucopia of different takes on what prototypes are, written by practitioners in quite different spheres. It’s from 2010, rather than being from last year, but when I stumbled across it, I loved it from the off.

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One of the ideas I kept coming back to was from an essay called ‘Prototypes as a Central Vein For Knowledge Development‘ by Pieter Jan Stappers, in which he references ideas created during a PhD by dutch designer Ianus Keller.

Keller proposed that there could be ways to set up working environments for people engaged in prototyping which bring together what they are working on immediately in their hands, what is close to them on the table, and what they see in the environment in line-of-sight.

The bodily interactions in design activities can be divided into three spatial ranges, each serving different cognitive functions” as the essay puts it.

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The simple idea of the ‘spatial ranges’ gripped me, partly because of the Artefact Cards work over the last few years (which starts at the precision range, then stretches into the layout range), but partly because I’ve always been fascinated at exploring the spaces we all work in (effectively and not).

The Atmosphere range is one I personally think we at Smithery should concentrate this year on understanding more, and linking back to the other ranges. We’ve also been working these last six months on a fascinating ‘Future Of The Workplace’ project with a client, which we should be able to say a lot more about soon, I hope.

It’s not just a way to think about the way people work when in particular set-ups (like Keller was exploring with ways of prototyping) but in every moment we work. Do we always pull things in from the precision, layout and atmosphere ranges when working, knowingly or not?

Do we work in what we might call ‘Perpetual Spatial Ranges‘, three circles around us we should be much more mindful of? By considering these ranges, and understanding how they relate to each other, and what makes for good working practice for ourselves and teams, can we learn how to adjust and align the ranges, like a dance of working practice?

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When you start thinking about it in this way, you realise that in most work environments, the design of the spatial ranges aren’t that aligned. Team leaders, facilities managers, IT Departments, the board’s latest attempt at interior design… the number of different people taking unilateral decisions about the ranges soon stacks up, and perhaps damages or impedes the work people are being asked to do.

So what to do about this, then? Well, we have, by chance, some projects lined up this year which have a lot to do with the realms in which teams work. How to design environments which are most conducive to the sort of work you want people to more readily and easily produce. We might also explore our own working environment more, and set up an experiment of working practice that plays on these ideas.

Finally, then, the Where project is this: Where can you see Perpetual Spatial Ranges at work?

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) From the 2014 work based on the Stewart Brand shearing layers, it’s been really apparent that the spaces in which people work are part of the domain of trying to solve the problems we’re asked to. This is the year to get to grips with that properly.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Find a place to show people what we mean by Perpetual Spatial Ranges, whether it’s a place we work in, or someone else works in, or one we’ve designed for someone else for a specific purpose. Then, perhaps, run a tour of the space…?

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There we go then. That should keep us busy, but hopefully in a way that creates more value for more people. We’ll see at the end of the year in the wrap-up.

Here’s to 2016.

 

 

Metadesign For Murph – Video

The audio stream for my dConstruct talk popped up yesterday (thanks Drew), so I’ve put it together with a film of the slides to make a video. I’d have normally just dumped in the images and stitched it together that way, but the animation parts help bring some of the core concepts to life, I think, so it was worth filming. Enjoy…

Metadesign For Murph, and How To Organise Your Library

Last Friday, I spoke at the final dConstruct conference in Brighton. dConstruct is a legendary conference, it was an honour to be invited to talk, and as a result I’ve spent most of the summer pulling together the ideas behind the talk. As a speaker, you’re meant to be ‘oh yes, all the talks I do are equally good’ and all that, but that felt like the best talk I’ve ever done. In a rubbish sporting metaphor, I left everything out there on the pitch, Brian…

The audio has been recorded, and I’ll share that/mix it with slides soon, but in the meantime I’ve written an annotated version for you to read:

Also, with the follow-up questions people asked about the ‘library’ part of the talk in particular (and creating a systems view of the world you work in), I’ve written a Medium piece on ‘How To Organise Your Library‘.
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It’s a Tolkienesque appendix, perhaps – there’s no real need to read it to get the point of the story, but you might find something interesting or useful in there.
Anyway, thanks to the gang at Clearleft for the opportunity to grace the dConstruct stage, thanks to my fellow speakers who set my brain fizzing with new things, and thanks most of all to the audience, who were very kind about the talk in general and my ‘Russell Crowe as Jor-El‘ impersonation in particular…

Wearing Culture’s New Shoes

I’m wearing new shoes today. They’re made by Atheist Berlin. They feel like hot chocolate for the feet.

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Now, I’ve been following the Atheist story for a while, because I know David, Chief Atheist (is that a thing?) from when we did the IPA Excellence Diploma together some years ago (dates redacted to protect the aged). Indeed, it’s interesting to reflect on the number people from the IPA ExDip who’ve gone on to do their own thing; consultancies, accelerators, etc. The course clearly gives people a bit of motivation to do something differently.

But within that those who’ve made a thing. Making things is different from service industries. Not better or worse, just different. Another example would be Matt’s success with Two Fingers Brewing. I make some card things you might have seen. There are no doubt more examples from diploma alumni too. And there are definitely lots of examples of ex-agency people who start making things instead of selling other peoples’ things. But it’s not just a few agency folk leaving uninspiring surroundings to play around at ‘maker’ (although Murat’s post from 2013 still hits upon most of the reasons why that happens).

There’s a cacophony of forces driving more and more people to start making their own things. Some are positive; access to funding of some sort (grants, investors, crowd-funding), the ability to use the internet to learn new skills and find an audience at the right scale. Some are negative; lack of fulfilling work, high youth unemployment, cost of higher education.

They all add up to interesting times for existing companies. Take beer, for instance. The number of breweries operating in the UK in the last five years has tripled. Yet beer sales in the UK remained in a long-term decline until last year, when they managed a 1.5% annual increase. All in all, it adds up to more suppliers fighting over less sales, and more interesting suppliers stealing share from less interesting ones.

This summer has felt like what started as an expression thing for the creatively minded has started to become a business thing for a lot of people. The conversations I’ve been having and become aware of are less about how brands can support makers do their own thing, and more about ‘what happens when they start to make our thing?’

Our culture has a new pair of shoes, and it’s starting to test just how far it can walk in them.