A blacksmith makes their own tools

This week, I gave a talk (with a little bit of workshopping) as part of the third module of IPA Excellence Diploma. This was a course I did back in 2007/8, and without doing it, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do now, and definitely wouldn’t be thinking about things in the way I do.

It’s never a substitute, but people have asked if I’d be sharing the slides, so here you go. Just imagine that when you get to the ones that make no sense, I am in front of you saying something really profound. Ignore that pesky internal voice of yours that questions that how likely that would be, and just go with it…

It was an honour to be invited back by Amelia and Sera from The Fawnbrake Collective, who have taken over and reimagine dates course for the 2020s. Yet it feels like a gift, because being asked to reflect on 12 years of making / thinking and spot patterns in your own process has given me a view of my own work I’d never have seen otherwise. We alway look at the mountains ahead, rather than the hills behind.

The title of course comes from Dan Dennett’s 2013 book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking, and quite clearly I’m still a sucker for anything that extends the blacksmith metaphor…

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…


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


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.


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.


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.

3.31 – Smithery at Scale

“I always said I’d decide what to do with Smithery after three years. It seemed like a simultaneously short and long period of time in which to make decisions. Long enough to not worry about it on a day-to-day basis. Short enough to realise I had to do something about it at some point…”

That’s how I began the first post of this project way back on 1st August. The point was to pull together a new thesis around what Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things meant, from looking back at the projects I had done, and then project it forwards into the projects I wanted to do in future.

So on the thirty-first day, where do I find myself?

I had detailed the three options for Smithery; after three years, I had always said when pressed that I’d decide to either a) fold it b) keep it as it is c) scale it.

This answer is that it’s sort of the third one… but perhaps not in a conventional way.

Scaling is a funny thing. Especially when you got an Economics background – “surely you’ve got to get bigger, to get economies of scale” people will say. Well, yes, sometimes. If you’ve making something that’s highly repetitive, sure. Which I don’t really (save for the Artefact Cards… more on those later). And don’t get me started on diseconomies of scale when you get beyond a certain size… that’s not a conversation for now. Grab me in the coffee shop tomorrow.

Perhaps there are three reasons why I’m not a fan of ‘scaling’.

Firstly, I’ve never really had this burning desire to grow a business at a phenomenal rate just for the sake of it. The mechanics of that particular game don’t excite me, and the idea of being trapped in doing the same thing for ten years terrifies me. I’d rather do something great that might be big than do something big that might be great.

Secondly, I took to heart something I saw Douglas Rushkoff say in a talk about four (?) years ago; “The only reason to scale is to stop doing what you do now.” For the last three years I’ve been really enjoying the work, and the ways of working… so why stop now? Why become the manager of a team that does what I enjoy doing?

Thirdly, the more you scale, the less able you are to weave in and out of the cracks that other people can’t see and don’t fill, which are usually the things that really need changing. It harks back to a lot of the classic generalist ethos that I first wrote about when I was talking about the blacksmith and the economist in early Smithery explorations.

Yet, it seems that the things I’ve been doing with clients and partners over the last three years are in high demand (which makes for long days when you decide to write a blog post a day on top of it… Helen points out I should tell you all now I’m not doing this again for another three years…).

So finding a way to make these things more beneficial to more people is probably a good idea. Keep doing what I do, but make sure more of it happens.

Instead of scaling, how do you operate at scale instead?

Well, rather than building up, you perhaps build out, and partner with people whom you can create bigger versions and visions as appropriate. I thought I’d quickly outline five allegiances which I think might come to greatly characterise the next three years of Smithery, and what each might help me reflect more on with regards to the thesis of the last month.

Firstly, I’ve been very lucky in these last three years to work a lot with Mark Earls; we seem to counterpoint each other’s strengths, make great things happen quickly together, and have a lot of fun doing it. The most exciting thing we’ve been working on recently has been hooking up with Adaptive Lab (another long-term collaborator) to create Month One.

As the name suggests, it’s a month-long programme for companies who want to change both their culture and their outputs simultaneously… this video below will give you a flavour of it:

I’ll talk more about it soon as a separate post, but save to say it’s been an absolute thrill to work on delivering this programme for clients, and will no doubt continue to be so. It’s really helped me see what happens when you use fast-moving techniques in combination with slow-moving layers, in order to create lasting change in businesses that sticks.

Next up, I’m delighted that Fraser Hamilton, who spent two months working with me last year before heading back to Loughborough for his final year of the Industrial Design & Technology degree, is hooking up with myself and Mark to not just help us explore interesting work, but to find out more about what sort of thing he wants to do. Fraser was a brilliant foil for me in various things last summer, from designing the new Artefact packs to running around the Saïd Business School making sure we were melting all the things we should have been melting during The Key To Leadership. Together, we’ll be looking to explore all of the different facets of People & Space which cropped up this month, and making new things for projects to see how the space around people can change the way they work. Testing out new forms of embodiment for Flow Engines might be a big part of our work together too.

Fraser H

Fraser will also be working on the further development of Artefact Cards, which of course wouldn’t be possible without Tim Milne of Artomatic and Keith Rockett of the Axminster Printing Co. Tim’s been someone I’ve worked with since PHD days, basically my go-to guy whenever I think “I wonder if we could make a thing that does this…“. Which must get very tiring, given how many emails I send him. And Keith and his band of merry men are the people who make and ship your Artefact Cards to you, wherever you are in the world.

Since changing the packaging to the new one last September, we’ve shipped out just over 7,000 packs of them in various order sizes (which isn’t bad at all for a hobby-business built from scratch I guess). It’s been such a fun and useful thing to make, that with the team we’ll be looking at the right way to take it to the next level over the Autumn. In a way, Artefact Cards is a crash-test dummy; I can experiment with the business as much as I like when all the risk and consequence falls on me. I’m definitely going to make a Culture Map for it, just to see what’s inside.

I mentioned the Saïd Business School project before, and I’m delighted to have kept working on projects with Tracey Camilleri (who runs the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme there) since then. I always come away from conversations with Tracey thinking how little I know, but feeling remarkably good about it; it’s like there’s a whole new world to discover, or mountain to climb, but there’s someone there I can ask daft questions and not be afraid of the answers. Projects with Tracey tend to be with people who’re thinking in three, four, five-year terms, or even more. It’s only by working with people who’re occupying the slower layers of People & Space that I can understand the knock-on effects throughout whole business cultures.

Finally, I’m delighted that not only will I still be working on projects with my friends at Gravity Road (we’ve been doing things together since I started), but until Christmas we’ll be taking a little space upstairs there; it’s a space to test space, as it were. Working with Gravity Road on projects means tapping into the immediacy of the world as it rushes by, operating along the fastest layers of popular culture. Which means that, as an environment to set up a test-case space for Fraser and I to work from occasionally in London, it feels like the right place to do it. What can we pull out of that torrent to create things from?


There we have it, then. A completed project on the future of Smithery, and a newly-forged thesis to work from. Besides all the brilliant people I’ve worked with so far in this journey (yes, you know who you are), there are three who need thanked much more than most; my wife Helen, son James and daughter Charlotte, without whom I wouldn’t have any reason to try and change a little bit of the world. Thanks to all of you who’ve read, commented and shared… I may lay off the blog for a week or so now, I don’t think I can typ mushh morrr…

John V Willshire
31st August 2014


PREVIOUSLY – 3.30 – Map Making


3.30 – Map Making

Over the last month, I’ve been exploring the roots of a new idea, a thesis about organisations as a complex (yet playfully navigable) interaction between people who do the work, and the spaces they do it in.

Now, in the first of two summary posts, I’m going to recap the most useful elements that this project has shaped and produced. It’s been three years since I started Smithery, and being able to look back at 36 months worth of projects has helped me understand what the guiding mantra, Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things, has actually meant in a practice.

As an aside, I’ve found it really quite rewarding thinking back on what has worked, and what hasn’t, in order to bring together a set of principles, methods and approaches that characterise the work. It’s certainly nice to know that there does look like there exists something beyond intuition and creativity.

What have I got to, then? Well, three simple things. Firstly, a way to make maps. Secondly, a way to add detail to the map. And thirdly, a way in which to quickly explore specific areas.  I’ll explain each individually.


A Way To Make Maps

30 - maps

In hindsight The Culture Matrix, as it became called, was the wrong sort of metaphor. A matrix, when referred to in business, usually suggests fixed points along the rows and columns, bewteen which you can plot and deploy strategies and yadda yadda, so on and so forth…

It demands a high level of certainty in how the Matrix is constructed in the first place; you must know what goes down the side, and along the top. They’re probably really useful in times of certainty, which this current era is definitely not. There is no model. Here be dragons.

Maps, on the other hand, are a much more flexible, familiar and useful metaphor for what I’ve been describing theses last thirty days.

Every map is different; the scale, the detail, the content, the purpose, the land mass, the key… it can all flex around. But maps retain the same basic operating principles, which means people can pick them up and pull something useful from them.

Now, usefully I’ve been working with Mark Earls on his new book (I’m doing the illustrations) which is due out in a few months, and there’s a chapter in that about just how useful it is to draw out maps of information; sneak preview from it:

“Making visual representations of things and ideas and their interrelationships can provide us with the means to see the connections between things in the real world – not just in time and space”

– Mark Earls, from Copy Copy Copy (Wiley, early 2015)

We make maps so we can see what’s going on. We make a matrix to suggest that our problem can be slotted into someone else’s answer.

You’ll also find that most maps will have something key in common; you always know which way ‘up’ is, because that’s where ‘north’ on the compass would be. If I look back to the drawing I did originally of the intersection of the PEOPLE & SPACE layers, instead of turning it into a precise matrix, I could instead form a rough and ready compass from it.

05 - b links

North is where the people layers are slower, and South is where they’re faster. East is where the space layers are fastest, and West is where they’re slowest. I think anyone could then be asked to draw out a ‘map’ of the organisational culture they belong to based on those simple parameters; What We Do (North-South) and Where We Do It (East-West).

The trick then is being able to flesh out more detail…


A Way To Add Detail

30 - detail

Turning the Culture Matrix into a Culture Map makes a lot of sense when looking specifically at two things that emerged during the last month; the Book Matrix, and the Question Engine.

Firstly, the Book Matrix was a thorough enjoyable exercise to undertake, dancing around in my kitchen dividing up all my books into 25 distinct sections, as specified by the Matrix at the time.

18 - books

I think the approach has been ‘Broadly Right and Precisely Wrong‘, to paraphrase Keynes. What is the value now of those precise groupings, given they were generated by a framework which is now fluid, constantly moving? Should they be changed? I could revisit them and group them as a map at some point, or indeed think about how books would move of different maps. But the point is to be broader than that… to know what I have at my fingertips, theories and examples and propositions to pull from and drop into the right place at the right time. Also, as an exercise to try with others, the Book Matrix would be an interesting learning journey for a group over the course of a few months.

Secondly, the Question Engine is a rotating, more fluid piece anyway (perhaps because it arrived later in the project; it saw how the party was going and dressed appropriately…).

There’s something useful, I think, in just asking three random questions of the places in which we find ourselves. Don’t look for the obvious questions, because you’ll immediate find an obvious answer. What you’re looking for is the question you might ask if you squint a bit, or see it in your peripheral vision…

I’m going to keep testing the Question Engine as a concept by using the webpage it’s built on. If it proves useful and interesting enough, it could always become something else – an app, for instance – but it’s got to pass the utility test first.

Overall, I’ve learned that the way to add detail (and frankly we all should have known this anyway) is to only ever add just enough at any one time.

There were times in the project where the detail just got in the way. So conceptually, for myself, thinking of this approach as a series of layers that deepen with complexity is the right approach, as long as I remember the preference is to be as near the top layer as possible. Yes, there can be a complexity underpinning the relationship between everything, but there’s no need to ‘show the workings’ as it were. It only serves to slow down and confuse people, when the aim is quite the opposite…


A Way To Explore Quickly

30 - explore

Finally, the Flow Engine process, as a way to design working sessions either for individuals or groups has already proved itself to be useful on numerous occasions since writing about Designing Flow Engines just this week.

The set-up becomes almost effortless. Take one Indicator Event which suggests there are larger factors at work that make them happen, then create a process with three steps, using the three flow triggers of High Consequences, Rich Environment and Embodiment. These three triggers are rotated round each of the three steps (as primary secondary or tertiary triggers for a step), so are continually reinforced in the work people are doing.

It also considers the use of space in everything around what people are doing, which means that you’ve a much greater chance of getting people working well, and working quickly, even in unfamiliar or testing scenarios.

Funnily enough, thinking back to a lot of the working situations I have created in the last three years (and before), it’s easy to spot where I was using these triggers anyway… but not always as consistently as I could have. The approach of reinforcing each step in the other two feels reassuringly strong and simple.


Together, these three outputs from the last thirty days feel like they’ve strengthened my own understanding of what I do (or in some cases why I do things in the way I do). It’s also shown me where I need to sharpen and refine more, and where more fresh input and learning is needed.

Tomorrow, then, I’ll wrap up by thinking about where this is going to take me in the next three years…



PREVIOUSLY – 3.29 – How It Ends?

NOW READ – 3.31 – Smithery At Scale



3.29 – How it ends?

We’re in the final straight now. It occurred to me as I sat down tonight that I just didn’t have time this month (not nearly enough) to chase down all the things I was going to cover, the people to speak to, the things to read and reflect upon. With every little thing I discovered, it seemed to bring with it another three things that became part of the puzzle too. That, though, is to be expected, when dealing with the entirety of PEOPLE and SPACE.

What I have seen though is that all through the process of writing these daily posts, I more often than not would end up trying to make a thing that would not just describe what was going on in the system, but could actually be used in some way to change a system. I didn’t set out to do that, but maybe it’s the way that you have to deal with such big, complex mazes. You can’t talk your way out of them, you can only make your way out of them.

With two posts lefts, Saturday and Sunday, I’m going to scrap everything else up to this point (apologies if you’re waiting for something I said I’d return to… future posts will appear on these, no doubt), and concentrate on two distinct things, for each of the days:

i) Saturday will be about the things I’ve made as part of the project. The Culture Matrix, the Flow Engine Design, The Question Engine and so on. I’ll think about how they’re useful moving forwards, who they might be useful for, and what else they may become.

ii) Sunday will be about Smithery itself; after three years, and an intensive month-long reflection, what does all this suggest for the future direction of what I do next, and who I do it with.



PREVIOUSLY – 3.28 – Question Engine

NOW READ – 3.30 – Map Making



3.28 – Question Engine

Ok, so I was quite taken with the whole Flow Engine thing. Engines are useful things, after all. So I’ve made a Question Engine.

Why? Well, good question…

Yesterday morning in the post I received my paper copy of Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary“. It’s something that I have as an ebook, in my Kindle app on iPad mini, but I realised that it hadn’t made it into either the Book Matrix when I built it, or indeed specifically in my thinking around the Culture Matrix this far. Well, consciously at any rate. And yet one of the pages Dan showed in the new printed version featured two very familiar models; the civilisation and building layers from Stewart Brand’s Clock Of The Long Now and How Buildings Learn:

28 - strategic design 2

I wonder if I’d seen them before Rob and Alex separately told me about both this summer?

If so, it’s another great example about the importance of context; perhaps I’d seen these models before but the time and surroundings weren’t right to make them notable. Fast forward a year or two, and suddenly they help unlock a bigger puzzle.

I saw Dan talk earlier this summer, as it happens, at one of James Bridle’s Right To Flight events in a Peckham Car Park. As part of the talk, he reiterated the importance of asking the right question, which leafing to the end of the book now I can see again, so I’d like to quickly quote:

“As opposed to engineering, with its focus on problem solving, strategic design is focussed on questioning the question, reframing if necessary…”

– Dan Hill, Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

Given my focus in these last few blog posts of the project on making useful things, I thought I’d use this inspiration to tackle the “questions for Indicator Events” idea. What sort of other questions (beyond the simple four yesterday) might you use to tackle things that you come across inside a working culture?

Now, I’ve been back through a fair few different posts and versions of things I’ve made this month, and realised just how many questions I’ve actually framed and asked; it’d make a terribly dry and dull list. So instead, with a little help from a WordPress widget called mg Quotes I’ve built a Question Engine.

It sounds grand. It’s basically a webpage. But what it does do is rotate, at random, a reworked form of every question I’ve asked as part of the Culture Matrix project, and serve them up three at a time for you as little provocations for you. Then just refresh the page, and get three more:

28 - Question Engine

It means you can use it on phones, tablets, computers… anything you like, fairly easily. It also means, because it’s not an app, that I can keep adding things in there, as a resource of questions for myself when working on projects.

I’d love to hear from you, if you give it a wee try. Let me know how you get on.


PREVIOUSLY – 3.27 – Simple Starters

NOW READ – 3.29 – How it ends?


3.27 – Simple Starters

A brief tangent; I’ve been making bread today. Sourdough bread, to be precise. Oooo, how very hipster. Yes, well, possibly. But the thing is; it isn’t as hard as you’d think. You need a starter, which is basically just mixing some flour and water together, over a few days, until it starts to ferment. Then you knead that with some more flour and water, a pinch of salt, and ta-da, bread.

Now, there are ways to make it harder. To be more precise, to test and learn, to vary conditions, quantities and so on. You can go to town on the complexity, or you can just find something that works for you.

One side benefit to making tasty bread is that you can work away in the kitchen as the bread is baking… it’s a little bit like the pomodoro technique, which is a great way to chunk time into small, distinct units to get things done. And you get the benefits of a standing desk as well, and additionally the creative advantages of shifting work into another space.

Anyway… what’s this got to do with what I’ve been working on?

The first of the four tasks I gave myself to do (as we head towards the conclusion) was to make a simple, easy to start version of the Culture Matrix. The equivalent of a sourdough starter; it’s just bit of flour and a bit of water.

I’ve been playing tonight with a format tonight that’s simply about helping you use your peripheral vision to look at culture; rather than looking at something directly, you think about four questions around that event.

27 - simple starters

You start by looking at the task at hand; “What is our work here?”. On the edges of the task as it presents itself, though, there are peripheral questions which prove useful. The first two questions are about PEOPLE, or ‘our work’. The second two are about SPACE, or “…here”. All four have some extra fleshing out below them, so you can imagine where the conversations may take you.

– What is it trying to build upon?

Why is this thing next? What does it do for our customers? What came before it which made this the next step? Who was responsible for that? Where are they? Do they still believe in it? What can they tell us?

– What is it trying to get people to do?

Why do we want it to happen? If we do this, what do we expect to change? Who will this help? What are their ambitions? Do they want this? Have we asked them about it? Have we shared what we’ve got planned? Have they helped us steer it?

– What will it create today?

What artefacts will we make as part of this? What will exist today that didn’t yesterday? How will the existence of new stuff affect our ecosystem? What will change in the environment for teams, or for individuals? What will cease to exist because this replaces it?

– What will it leave behind for tomorrow?

How will it affect us in the long-term? What will it change in the spaces between us all? When people find this in three years, what will they think? How will we talk about it in retrospect? Where will it live in our culture?

They’re not perfect yet, but it does create a simple version on top of the Culture Matrix that invites people in to play; the equivalent of the learning level in a game, perhaps, or the first time you make bread.



PREVIOUSLY – 3.26 – Designing Flow Engines

NOW READ – 3.28 – Question Engine


3.26 – Designing Flow Engines

Over the next few days, I’ll be looking at four things; a first exercise to start the process of the Culture Matrix; a list of questions that help frame Indicator Events; a go-to technique for introducing the Customer into the centre; and finally a series of advanced exercises based on the Matrix.

I’ve been running something today (with Mark, James & Fraser) that made me write an instructional piece for workshop design about Flow Engines, the concept I explained yesterday. Making it less conceptual is probably a good idea, so I thought I’d turn my quickly whittled explanation into today’s post. I think it will help me design those four steps I referred to at the top, so in the name of open process, you might as well see how I get there…




This technique is for creating Flow Engines, focussed working templates for either individual or group work. The purpose of a Flow Engine is to focus creative energy as much as possible in order to turn it into productive forward motion.

It was initially based on the three environmental flow triggers by Stephen Kostler’ High Consequences, Rich Environment and Embodiment. Subsequently, it has expanded to incorporate functions of the other triggers plus factors drawn from both work with Smithery and Artefact Cards.

Using each of these three triggers in rotation as a primary, secondary and tertiary priorities throughout a three-step process allows constant reinforcement of the conditions within a design.

The three (modified) triggers can be summarised up as follows:

Consequences: People have a clear idea what is expected of them, how it challenges them, and the consequences if they don’t deliver.

Environment: They are being asked to work within a context where they have access to either new, unpredictable or complex information.

Embodiment: They are asked to work with their whole bodies – moving or creating in physical space, with methods and materials that fully occupy them.



1: Scene Setting

The key outcome when scene setting is for everyone to have a clear and focussed idea of what the problem to be solved is; what it is we have to do, by when, and to what fidelity and resolution.

Primary Trigger – Consequences

You should identify for people why this is hard, important, and skirts along the edge of their abilities (yet not too far beyond). Of course, it doesn’t just have to be something ‘difficult’. Time can be a great way to focus the mind; something you know you can do, but in half the time you might normally have. Alternatively, ask people to work with an unfamiliar method in doing a familiar task.

Secondary Trigger – Environment

Find a way to create a new world around people. For example, ‘pretending’ (creating a scenario in which people can quickly lose themselves) allows participants to drop the objections they might normally come up with, and concentrate on a purer version of the problem at hand. In order to do this most effectively, introduce new threats, unknown information, analogous comparison or anything else that makes it clear this is no longer ‘the routine day’.

Tertiary Trigger – Embodiment

Finally, creating a commonly agreed version of the problem people will work on is important (especially for group work). Having everyone write down a version of the task as they understand it gives people something to work against, gives the facilitator a view of the team’s goal, and uses the physicality of having ‘something to point to’ a way to advance their ideas moving forwards. Having everyone write it down can be key here; not only does it reinforce the understanding for the individuals, but it means that any differences between interpretations can be explored.


2: Exploring

During the exploration period of working, the aim is to supply people with a rich, diverse source of inspiration from which to pull. This should introduce novelty, unpredictability, or complexity, in any combination you wish. The more people have to play with, the more they will create unique, interesting solutions

Primary Trigger – Environment

Novelty should be centred on bringing something to the table that either hasn’t been seen before, or isn’t associated with the task at hand. Use of metaphor and analogy helps here. Unpredictability may be the things you expose people to, or the way you run the group; reveal the next task as people go, to maintain an edge in the atmosphere. Complexity is used to give people a large amount of information (plus that which they bring themselves) and encourage the understanding that things are the less binary and more dialogic; people must bear in mind that more than one thing is true.

Secondary Trigger – Embodiment

If all this material is delivered conceptually, or digitally, people will struggle more to see what it is they are working on. By creating physical manifestations of all information to work ‘within’, individuals or group can quickly and adeptly begin to spot patterns; the peripheral vision that exists when staring at a table or wall of ideas becomes massively important, as people make the links between the seemingly unconnected.

Tertiary Trigger – Consequences

At this stage, the urgency of the problem itself takes a little bit of a back seat; if people are too anxious, they won’t let their minds loosen up enough to explore effectively. To help them deal with this, you can use the initial problem statement to generate questions to use when interrogating the other information e.g. ‘What other sectors does this look like?’, ‘Who else has this problem?’, ‘Where might we find this sort of customer?’.


3: Creating

As you move towards conclusion, you want people to quickly turn their creative energy as quickly and as efficiently as possible into something that creates productive forward motion. It could be a proposal, a pitch, a prototype, or most usefully perhaps a combination of all three. What is it, what does it do for people, how can we make it happen… seek to create something that demands resolution on it’s future existence.

Primary Trigger – Embodiment

By getting either the individual or team wholly concentrated on the creative process, you can very quickly build a version of what it is you’d propose to others. Getting people to do this in a physical way means that all hands, eyes and minds are engaged in the process of synthesising the necessary information into material forms that others can see. You bring something new, physical and tangible into the world. This method of working has an additional benefit; by refraining from burning excess energy in non-essentially work (e.g. making PowerPoint pretty) you can maximise efficiency of the working process.

Secondary Trigger – Consequences

During this period of working, you should continually refer back to the problem as identified in scene-setting; how does what we are making answer the question? Anything that doesn’t directly go to addressing the question should be treated in one of two ways; is it either extraneous, and should be removed, or it tells us something important about the initial question, might could suggest a reframing of the problem itself.

Tertiary Trigger – Environment

Finally, you will find that the individual or group will start to filter out the distractions themselves, and peel away the parts of the rich environment they created in order to just use the pieces that really matter. You shouldn’t worry too much about this, but if there are things from the rich environment that were previously considered fundamental in the journey, but now have been left by the wayside, perhaps look back and question why they dropped away.



PREVIOUSLY – 3.25 – Flow Engines

NOW READ – 3.27 – Simple Starters


3.25 – Flow Engines

“You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow

At Laptops & Looms, quite a few folks alluded to the sensation of flow that we can get when working. It’s the feeling you get when you become so involved in the task at hand that you just keep operating to the very limit of your abilities (if not beyond).

Whilst I was looking around, I wondered if a flow state is something that can be quickly accessed if you have something that occupies both your hands and eyes.

I’d taken some test versions of the new Artefact Cards up, just to watch people using them and see what they did with them. Some folk (myself included) took notes of interesting things from the talks, some people used them for quickly constructed talks, and some people used them as a device to aid listening by drawing as they did it… as an example, here’s one of Alice’s cards:


(Interesting aside – doodling has been show to actually aid recall of what people are listening to – read this article from Time here – basically it works because “when you doodle, you don’t daydream“.)

Anyway, all these uses I observed suggested a focussed mindset in the people I saw using them, and twinned with the recurring flow mentions, made me quickly write down an idea – “Flow Engines – Anything That Occupies Both Hands And The Eyes“.

Now that I’m back in the real world, I can dig a little more into what helps trigger flow, and perhaps set some guidelines for designing a Flow Engine, which I might describe for now as ‘something that can turn creative energy into useful motion‘, an explanation I’ve nicked from the Wikipedia description for ‘engine’.

I found an interesting series of links through to Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman: Decoding The Science of Ultimate Human Performance. There is something questionable about the choice of title, I think. It’s a bit creepy. However, reading around the reviews, explanations, slide decks and so on, the book looks at how top athletes in more alternative sports (surfing, snowboarding, skateboarding) access a state of mind that allows them to ride the biggest waves and so on.

Kotler presents 17 Flow Triggers (yep, seventeen) that athletes can regularly produce around themselves in order to get into the flow state; 3 Environmental, 4 Psycholological, 9 Social and 1 Creative.

The ‘Social’ ones are about creating more group flow, and I’m going to leave that for now. And the ‘Creativity’ one seems to imply… well, I don’t know, that some people are better at linking ideas and taking risks than others or something. It seems a bit of an add-on. However the Environmental and Psychological ones are really useful for exploring how you might make a Flow Engine.

For the purposes of today, I’m just exploring the three Environmental triggers:

1. High ConsequencesHelps us focus on the important task looming

We don’t need to concentrate extra hard in order to get motivated; there are some external factors making us divert all of our creative energy to the task. In workshops, for instance, I think it helps to just play with time as a consequence – “you’ve got thirty minutes to do this, then you’ll present it to everyone else”. So you set up a scenario for a Flow Engine based on High Consequences; a combination of the task to be done, the space to do it in, and the time people have.

2. Rich EnvironmentFeatures novelty, unpredictability, complexity

By giving people something new, something unexpected, or something that requires their own interpretation of it, you’re much less likely to get people going through the motions of something they know how to do. They’ll either have to incorporate and design a reaction to new information, or stretch themselves to connect across the unexpected twists, or just raise their own game when it comes to seeing through the complexity. In hindsight, it’s probably why the card games for workshops approach works, because it does all three things at once. The particular inputs are as important as the scenario you set for the Flow Engine.

3. Deep EmbodimentTotal physical awareness of being ‘in’ the task

This is the one I might have observed with the Artefact Cards – that sense of something demanding more than just your brain, or fingers on glass. In a post over here, Kotler quotes professional kayaker Doug Ammons – “Action and adventure sports demand deep embodiment… Big rivers accelerate you in every direction at once. This puts the vestibular system into overdrive. This isn’t just your mind paying more attention—suddenly your entire body is paying attention.” What might be most important for a Flow Engine is way you get someone’s whole body paying attention to the task, especially when it comes to them laying aside devices which may distract from the task.

This approach for designing a Flow Engine is something I’ll try out over the next few days when designing the exercises around the Culture Matrix. It occurs to me that they will be useful for using in the Matrix, and more broadly for setting up things to do in the wider organisation as you diagnose issues.



PREVIOUSLY – 3.24 – Reflect & React

NOW READ – 3.26 – Designing Flow Engines












PREVIOUSLY – 3.24 – Reflect & React




3.24 – Reflect & React

Prologue: Sunday evening; time to reflect and react.

I’ve just finished reading back through every post and comment so far of the twenty-three posts preceding this one. I’ve a good feeling now for what I think I’m doing, which to be honest is a surprise given where I was two hours ago (tired, lost, etc). I now have a stockpile of Artefact Cards which I’m shuffling around, thinking about a structure…

If I had to react instantly, to talk about it to someone right now, this is what I’d say…


The Culture Matrix is a way of describing, then changing, the environment in which an organisation makes things people want. The purpose of the matrix is to start with people, and the things you do for them, rather than starting with the spaces in which you currently operate. By leading with the customer, rather than the space, you can Make Things People Want rather than Making People Want Things.

As an approach, the Culture Matrix is a series of sequential exercises, simple at first, then advancing through a range of different provocations, to draw out a physical map of the organisation. It starts by interrogating both the work your people do, and the spaces in which they do it, in order to deliver for your customers or users.

From this, we can create a series of key Indicator Events, stories that have wider implications for the way the business is currently orientated. By testing these against customers, then identifying, designing and making changes that can benefit both business and customer alike, you can quickly change how you work in a way that works for everyone.


It’s just typed out off some of the cards, really, but it’s starting to become a good frame for what MTPW>MPWT means in practice, I think.

24 - cards

It’s also starting to get me thinking about some of the crunchier things I should hope to finish off by next Sunday (eeek, one week to go).

As of now, I’d like to get to:

i) a first exercise to start the process
ii) a list of questions that help frame Indicator Events
iii) a go-to technique for introducing the Customer into the Matrix
iv) a series of advanced exercises (including a large-scale run-around-a-room version which I’ll talk about soon)

I’d also like to design all of this with this idea that’s been rattling around in my head since Laptops and Looms about Flow Engines – ways in which you can get people into flow states as quickly as possible.

“Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

That’s one to expand on tomorrow, though…


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NOW READ – 3.25 – Flow Engines