The creation of a commonplace book
As perhaps we all have, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting in the last few months about how to make those precious moments when people are together really matter.
For a lot of people, the working week has been transformed by the pandemic, of course. Moving into this year, it feels that businesses now must learn to live in a world where shadows of this pandemic and future ones will hang over daily operations to some degree. Pining for a return to the past is no longer an option.
Instead, being thoughtful and intentional about the platforms you provide for people to come together effectively is vital. If your colleagues only see each other in person one day a week rather than five, what can you do to make the most of that time together?
One thing we worked on last year now seems to have extra relevance in this regard; a commonplace book created for an event designed by our friends at Thompson Harrison. What follows is a quick overview of the project, and then some reflections on how the principles might apply more broadly in future.
Shaping collective experiences
Thompson Harrison is a leadership and organisational development consulting business founded by Tracey Camilleri and Sam Rockey.
Tracey and I know each other from the early days of Smithery, where she invited us to be part of the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme she runs at the Saïd Business School. We created an experiment together called The Key To Leadership.
It was a visceral, hands-on creative process for a small group of leaders as a container for their experience. The key we helped each of them make was a physical totem representing their learning journey, linked to a digital repository of notes, images and the like they made during the week.
With this project in mind, Tracey and I started talking last spring about something new she was plotting.
“What might we do that’s like the key” said Tracey, “but for more people… over 400, rather than 35…?”
The event was for Thompson Harrison’s client Convex. A relatively new player in the international speciality insurance space, since the start of the the pandemic Convex had seen significant growth in terms of business and headcount. This meant that a significant majority of people had not spent any time working together in person.
The plan was to create a two-day experience for people to come together and celebrate the shared culture and values through a series of diverse, compelling learning sessions.
There were to be over twenty different sessions, across seven different themes (Space, Language, Image, Movement, Sound, Magic and Memory), and each person would only be at three of them.
Which brought some challenges when it came to thinking about replicating what we achieved with the key. What sort of material mechanic could work between that many people? What thing could connect over 400 people through an experience which would be shaped by the participants themselves?
One of the things which struck us early on was how much would be going on that an individual wouldn’t see. Whilst you were learning and reflecting in your own sessions, you’d also be aware that other people were doing the same in different experiences.
The organisation as a whole was learning new things, which meant that you as part of it should be able to access to that knowledge. Therefore, finding ways to encourage people to discover what others had recently learned became a key principle.
After much thinking, sketching and deliberating together, we decided that we should make a commonplace book.
What is a commonplace book?
Commonplace books have been used throughout history by everyone from Roman
emperors to Enlightenment philosophers, pioneering scientists to modernist
authors, US presidents to technology moguls.
They are a place for collating knowledge in a way that will help you see the world
differently. A place to gather snippets of stories, observations, experiences, quotes and
anecdotes, sketches and models, poetry and verse. Everything from the enduring
ideas of the ages to startling new perspectives you’ve never heard of before.
A commonplace book is somewhere you can collect anything that feels important in the moment, even if you’re not yet sure why.
The most powerful thing about commonplace books is how they illuminate
connections between ideas in ways previously unimagined, simply by bringing them
together in one central place.
In the more recent decades, of course, personal collation of this sort is well supported by digital tools – early blog platforms, Delicious, Tumblr, Pinterest, and so on – and we toyed briefly with the idea of something as a shared digital experience or app.
But as we thought about all of these different people joining sessions with new people, learning a wider variety of different things, it felt that something physical and visible to others was really important.
A commonplace book could be used be participants to collect, connect and reflect on their own experiences throughout ConvexUnited. And yet it could also be something they could take pride in showing others in the moment.
This would prove to be especially useful in the moments in-between sessions, where people would stand next to each and ask “so, what have you just learned?“
Making a commonplace book
We brought in long-time friend Emily Macaulay of Stanley James Press, printmaker and bookbinder extraordinaire to help us make a commonplace book just for this event.
Yes, we might have used just a high-end blank notebook instead, but there were two reasons for making something bespoke.
Firstly, the moment where people receive the book on registering was to be a vital one. Every opportunity to make something extra special mattered. A custom commonplace book would immediately feel like something ‘just for us’.
Secondly, we wanted the learning themes to have a specific place in the book. You might only be going to three sessions, and therefore use the blank pages in just three sections. But the invitation was there in your book to go and find out what others learned within the wider cohort. Fill the pages with the knowledge of others.
This wasn’t just a book for individual learning and connection. If you were to gather all the commonplace books together, the sum of the knowledge would be greater than all the individual notes.
Small pieces, loosely joined
We needed more ways to help reinforce this message however. Asking people to share their notes and ideas left a lot of work to be done on their part.
We wanted to make it as easy as possible to give ideas away. The goal was to make items of information hop from one book to the next.
So in each session, we gave each participant an envelope. Inside these envelopes was a postcard based on a key insight from that session, and a series of custom stickers from Sticker Mule to help prompt reflection.
Some of these stickers were key questions to reflect on the general theme. Others featured a QR code leading to some further viewing related to the session.
Throughout the experience, we saw people using the commonplace book in three ways. Firstly, as you’d expect, as as a freeform space for notes in each session. Secondly, as way to explore the theme more broadly for themselves and the organisation. And thirdly, as a vehicle for shared experience, as they told others what they’d just been a part of.
Those moments were small parts of a much larger whole of course, expertly designed and delivered by Tracey & Sam. Yet from the large communal spaces to the small intimate moments, all of these moments were connected by the commonplace books as a way to capture, build and share understanding.
Layers of interaction
What’s this got me thinking about for 2022 then? Here’s an initial sketch I made used the Zenko Framework to play this out…
From the bottom-left upwards, what matters in this area is about individuals and teams. How people gather and work together, what they did to compensate in the last year, what will work moving forwards. Often, you’ll find that small groups can create effective ways of working together and problem-solving that aren’t replicated across the business.
Then from the top-right downwards, there are existing large, slow-moving structures that contain companies. The buildings rented or bought, or the decades-old functional silos. These large structures offer stability which means a company stands a good chance of persisting into the long term.
Both of these dynamics, of course, link back to some of the original Pace Layers thinking by Stewart Brand that the Zenko Framework is based on – “the slow proposes, and the fast disposes” and so on.
The creative and imaginative energy that small groups of people come up with frequently bump up against the functional way that both the building works, and the structures of the business.
But what if there’s now an interesting space that could emerge in between these two dynamics, as businesses start examining what a building is really for?
Staging social imaginaries
The opportunity in 2022 might be to build in more flexibility in fixed office space and firmly structured groups. A company could make imagination and creativity more scalable on a regular basis by continually creating temporary, social imaginary spaces.
What’s a social imaginary? Let’s use this definition by Charles Taylor:
When people in your organisation imagine how they work together, what it is they have in common, the viewpoints and ideas they share… well, it isn’t just about the work.
If everyone in a company only imagines they are linked by the prosaic output of the business, and the office is just a place to make that happen, the obvious pushback becomes “well, we’ve shown we can keep creating the output when we work from home“.
Which is probably true.
Instead, the office might have to become an ever-changing, inspiring centre for collective imagination.
Employ themes like those we used in at Convex United, and captured using the commonplace books; ideas that are stimulating, and open to interpretation.
Embrace seasonality, and shape activity, spaces and sessions around the things that are really important to your people at a given time.
The office space in this regard might become a stage, a playhouse even, where shared social imaginaries act as a container for the organisation’s imagination.
Rather than just expecting everyone to trudge back into the office at some point this year, eyes down and forward focussed, what might you do to make their shared experience of work a joyful, exciting, inspiring one?