The Productivity of Inactivity

Inactive – that message we get when we look at profiles on Slack, Skype and other apps – ‘so and so has been inactive for x hours/days’. In most cases it’s a bit misleading – our friends have most likely been very active in other ways, and perhaps on other apps.

Are any of us really inactive? Even when we are asleep, our blood is circulating and our cells repairing – just like the fact that there are no true closed systems, there is also no true inactivity.

Let’s define inactivity. For the purpose of this post, inactivity is that quiet time – when we sit and contemplate – or go for a walk to ‘think’. These times are often productive – we can pull together a few thoughts that have been floating around in our minds, and create new ideas. Knowledge work requires this kind of effort – for both analysis and synthesis – for example identifying possible root causes of issues or finding a new use for an old tool respectively. Yet, how many of us make the time to do inactivity? Do we put a blank card on our Kanban walls? Do we sneak it in while we are digesting our lunch?

More likely that we check our emails, feeds, or messages on the aforementioned apps, filling up our inactivity with busyness. With our minds so full, it is very tricky to find new connections. We need to start making more time for inactivity – put up a blank card on the Kanban wall (time-box it). Put a blank post-it note into the Lean Coffee set – a few minutes of silence for everyone to contemplate, muse and relax. Block out some time in your calendar – let’s see if making time for inactivity can make us more productive.

Unintended or invisible consequences

Have you ever tried to do a nice thing that went completely pear shaped ? 

Have you ever said something that was taken out of context ?

These are the unforeseen consequences, that surround us every day of our lives. The basic fact is that every interaction is open to misinterpretation. Sounds absurd but I propose it’s painfully true. The fact no one can read your mind or understand precisely what you mean is founded in the variety of life experiences we all have. We all have a “mental rule book” that we inherit/adapt/devise as we live our lives, moulded by our experiences and more importantly, our interpretation and responses to them.

Management and the unintended and invisible consequences

We are a modern culture of goal driven and result focused beings, rushing towards completion. The result is that there is entry level and management and the erosion of the middle.

The loss of the middle
The rush to completion culture, that is modern life, results in an erosion of the middle. Think about it, there is a devaluing and almost loss reflected by the middle layers of our work place and lives. This doesn’t mean that the middle layers don’t exist anymore because they do and if anything there are more of them. What has happened is the middle has expanded all while an erosion of its substance/quality has occurred. The middle has become a waiting room with no intrinsic value, just a place on the way to somewhere else. We are all trying to be/get somewhere else and therefore are focused forward and not in the present. It’s like people who are so busy, thinking of the next thing say, that they actually aren’t listening. They are actually, just frantically scanning /searching for the next sound bite to hang their comments upon. This type of hollowness is symptomatic of the erosion of the middle. This layer has become what I call “fluff” taking up a lot of room but with no real substance. The term busy work, tends to be made for this middle layer. So why has this happened?

Apprentice easy to learn hard to master

I remember buying a backgammon set when I was very young which had an instruction booklet with it. The instructions/rules were rather simple but it ended with this statement “easy to learn but hard to master” this line always resonated with me because I was a moratore’s son and knew that most things are easy to learn but really hard to master. The mastery of a skilled task takes time, time to encounter all possibilities and time to develop responses and reactions to them.

How many of us have learnt things, passed the exams and only years later, does the penny, actualy drop? Only then do we see for the first time what the concepts heart or the true nature of the knowledge was. Maths is littered with these sort of realisations, trigonometry is one.

Trig Wiki
I remember being told by a professor at university, when I was demonstrating and discussing with him how we learn and teach. He replied you only really learn something when you have to teach it, when you first learn anything, it is really just a getting to know you exercise, like a first date. This introduction allows you to pass an examine but really only superficially introduces you to the concepts involved. This initial exposure familiarises you with specific terms and basic concepts, so when you actually need to know and teach that lesson you can find the solution more easily and make it part of you.

The act of learning is greatly enhanced by teaching, why? The answer is simplicity itself. Everyone sees and exists in the world differently, these differences mean that when you learn something and try to understand it, you frame it in familiar and logical steps, for you anyway. When others try to learn and understand the same lesson they will also try to make sense of it according to their life view and understandings. So it’s obvious that when teaching you will find a continuum of how others perceive and try to understand the lesson. Some will think very much like yourself, others slightly differently and still others will need vastly different points of reference to come to terms with and understand the lesson. Good teachers must and can rephrase and explain things in a variety of ways, this necessity is what makes teaching the best way to learn because it stretches us to examine what we “know” from other perspectives and points of view.

The unforeseen consequence of teaching is you learn much more completely. This takes time and understanding.

So why do we rush to “completion” ?
Our modern culture is densely populated with 5 year plans, strategies, expectations, milestones and the list goes on and on. Every minute of every day in our lives is under constant scrutiny both internally and externally. We must develop and attain certain milestones within culturally expected time frames or we seem to be ineffectual or below the curve.

There is no room or time for mastery, we learn and we move on. The modern view is that “the now” is only a stepping stone to a future goal. The worth of the journey seems lost to us and only the allure of promotion and success is our goal. We have become tradesmen, with no patience or will to develop into master craftsmen. Society accepts the passable, to feed instant gratification and speed. The respect and value of craftsmanship and quality has become subservient to efficiency and greed. The attention span of the modern world is framed by sound bites and popularity poles.

Bread and Circus rule the day, with distractions and being seen as cutting edge, objectives in themselves.

Think about your workplace, how many times do we heard “they’ve been in that dead end job for years”, “they have no ambition” these statements maybe true but only partially so. The fact maybe that the worker derives get pleasure and satisfaction in developing their skills beyond acceptable and into the realm of mastery. Yet we don’t acknowledge this, we only see the same person in the same role, and evaluate this as “what is wrong with them?”

The absolute irony I noted while I was working IT, no matter how expert and skilled the programers were they were never “appreciated” as much as management. In fact it was sad to watch true masters of coding, having to become management so they could earn more money and get some appreciation. The actual engine which kept the company in business was devalued because they were content applying their craft. The ironic topper to this observation, was that graduates who had studied coding, just used coding to get a foot into a company, so they could quickly move into the management streams. Does the saying “too many Chiefs and not enough Indians”, spring to mind.

Words of wisdom from my father an old muratore “It takes hardly any extra effort to do a good job than a bad one.” This is very true, when you actually think about it, how much time, effort and money has been flushed down the toilet by bad projects with little or nothing to show for it?

The unforeseen consequence of our modern society is we rush to our goals and loose sight of the reasons and real benefits why we started in the first place.

There seems to be a disconnect between the limbs and the governing body, the brain. The “new talent” needs mentors to help and aid learning of best practises, while the “wiser” and older ones need the vitality of youth to physically accomplish the task and encourage new exploration into possibilities.

Companies are run like the military, chain of command, need to know and follow orders. They should be run as a biological system or organism, where there are feedback systems with more than one way to elicit change, the nervous system for rapid responses (management) and the endocrine system for slower invasive moderation (cultural).

Management techniques from the great beyond……..some useful and some not.

Cookie cutters and crazy quilts.

Well most of us know or can guess what a cookie cutter is, they are those shaped pieces of plastic or metal used to stamp out shapes from a sheet of rolled dough.

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The process allows for a rapid and consistent, production of visually identical outcomes and minimises the variables, to only the thickness of dough being used.

Of course the cutter shape can be almost anything but once decided upon, can not be changed. This gives us what we want or think we want, with little to no variation; rapidly and consistently. Cookie cutters are great management tools as well, especially for simple repetitive tasks and also for highly complex tasks involving many precise sub tasks. Cookie cutter management fails to give us options, once we decide what we need, we stamp out said desire from the dough at hand. This simplistic and “efficient” management style often fools us into a false sense of certainty and control.

Strangely enough if we focus upon ever reducing fragments of a chaotic system, we increasingly begin to see commonalities which we often read as order. This is one philosophical perspective of chaos based upon chaos is only based upon our lack of understanding of the complex. That’s another topic for another day.

 

Crazy quilt or a Muratore’s view.

Crazy quilting is often used to refer to the textile art of crazy patchwork and is sometimes used interchangeably with that term. Crazy quilting is not technically quilting per say but a specific kind of patchwork, lacking repeating motifs and with the seams and patches heavily embellished. A crazy quilt rarely has the internal layer of batting that is part of what defines quilting as a textile technique.

Crazy quilts also differ from “regular” quilts in other ways. In a crazy quilt, the careful geometric design of a quilt block is much less important, this frees the quilters to employ much smaller and more irregularly shaped pieces of fabric. This found freedom empowers crazy quilters to use far more exotic pieces of fabric, such as velvet, satin, tulle, or silk, and embellishments such as buttons, lace, ribbons, beads, or embroidery, when compared to regular quilting. Crazy quilting is extremely creative and free-flowing by nature, and crazy quilters will often learn as much about specific embellishments as they will about crazy quilting itself.

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English: Tamar Horton Harris North. “Quilt (or decorative throw), Crazy pattern”.
15th July 1877. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So what’s the problem, why don’t more of us do quilting this way ?
Crazy quilts are extremely labor intensive. A Harper’s Bazaar article from 1884 estimated that a full-size crazy quilt could take 1,500 hours to complete. This means that with the increased freedom and creativity allowed there is a bottle neck for many, unless you have a Muratore mindset.
Muratore is an Italian term for a mason/bricklayer, it actually means someone who makes walls, which traditionally were of stone and later bricks. So why didn’t I just say bricklayer or mason. A bricklayer is a bit like a mason using a cookie cutter for speed and efficiency and the term mason can bring other distracting extraneous baggage. So I used the term Muratore because it caries little to no baggage to the english speaking readers and my father was one of the best Muratore.
So what makes a master Muratore, the ability to mentally visualise and order the materials at hand, on the fly and find a place for every piece; all while attaining your goal of a plumb, straight and solid wall, it’s like being good at playing Tetras with irregular shapes instead of blocks.

It is this type of organic and fluid management that, I believe we should all strive towards. It is this Muratore mindset that has given us the master piece sculpture by Michelangelo called David.

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All the other sculptors rejected the piece of marble, that became the statue of David. In fact it was twice rejected. Agostino di Duccio gave up on a project using the flawed marble block, after which it sat untouched for 10 years. At that point, Antonio Rossellino took a crack at the block but decided it was too difficult to work with. The most famous statue ever carved was carved from a marble of poor quality filled with microscopic holes. So since Michelangelo could see what others could not we have this masterpiece. Michelangelo looked inside the marble and saw David. Michelangelo said that all that he had to do was chip away all of the parts that weren’t David to reveal him.

The interesting thing to take away from Michelangelo and the statue of David, is that he didn’t fight against the nature of the flawed block of marble or the fact a previous artist had already begun to block out the lower half of the block in 1464. In fact, he worked with what had come before and incorporated the flaws into the final design. It’s documented that on Sept 9, 1501, he apparently knocked off a “certain knot” that had been on the David’s chest. We believe this “knot” to be the flaw.

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Sometimes people ask me “How did you come up with that ?” I have often responded “Step back, look, listen and it will tell you how it should be done.”

So which management style do you fall into most often ?

Polar binary paralysis, the current social condition.

So what the hell does that mean?

Well in our modern society and culture we tend to see things in Black and White. There has to be a winner and a looser. We tend to see things in absolutes, all or nothing, off or on always binary. Now if you acknowledge this basic fact about our society then you are closer to seeing the issue.

While a binary view of the world is helpful in decision making and rapid responses, which makes us feel more efficient and therefore superior, it also is a very unnatural state. The world is not binary, yes you can define parts of it that way but when looking at the entire system it is more complex and interlaced. There is rarely a binary condition, physic has understood this and made a branch called Quantum mechanic.

So what is the problem with our binary view?

When we lived isolated and disconnected lives a binary view was easy and extremely helpful but as society becomes homogenised, the binary differences become grey and complex. We enter a Quantum state where there can be complex states, off and on at the same time.

I have always explained that most of us when faced with a decision, consider there are only two option positive or negative (Yes or No) but in reality there is always a third option. The third option is actually what I call a Zero state, so instead of positive or negative we also have a Zero. This zero state can range for “wait and see” to do nothing, yet its very passive nature makes us consider this not an option.

We have been trained to polarise in one direction or another. What this means is that in our modern society there has to be a winner and a looser.

We have all seen it recently with Brexit and the US presidential election. There must be a result therefore one side wins with only a fraction of a percent more than the opposition. The winner seems also to state that they have won with a mandate from the electorate. So our desire to have a winner means we end up splitting hairs to find a winner, Polar Binary Paralysis.

There is no middle ground or balanced view only polar opposites which are often shadows and reflections of the other.

When in Rome…

romeThere was an article about the ‘Tube Chat’ badges that caused controversy in London recently. The article explained that the cultural ‘norm’ on the London Tube is to not speak with strangers. In fact, that speaking with strangers on any train until well outside London is not normal.

So I probably should not have started that long conversation with an American until we had left London and were well on our way to Edinburgh last month – oh well, lesson learned.

How do we discover the cultural ‘norms’ when we join a new group? These ‘norms’ are not something that can easily be explained – except for the extreme ones like dress codes. So we need to observe and deduce what the ‘norms’ might be. Do people have lunch at their desk? Do they go out of the office for coffee? …and so on.

Some are better at observation than others. Is there a way we can compensate for this diversity in observational skills? And why is this topic important?

It is important because the cultural ‘norms’ are what makes relationships easier – they remove friction and provide a level of certainty about how people will behave in various circumstances. If we want to shift behaviour to support improved ways of working, then we need to understand the current cultural ‘norms’. Then we need to work through how these cultural ‘norms’ are enabling or restricting good outcomes.

When we find a ‘norm’ that is restricting, it is tempting to call it out and just tell everyone to do something different.

I tried this a couple of weeks ago on my morning commute. There was a person sitting opposite me watching a soccer game on his phone without headphones. The sound was turned down, but I could clearly hear the ‘….and he scores blah blah blah…..the crowd goes wild….’ whistles blowing etc. It was really annoying. I assumed that he had blue-tooth earphones under his hood and that they might be faulty – he wouldn’t know – so I had better let him know. Because the cultural ‘norm’ on our trains is to keep your sound to yourself. I got his attention and said that I thought his earphones might be faulty because I could hear the sound. He barely looked at me and shook his head and then went on watching the game – he did turn the sound down a little.

I was a bit upset because he ignored me and did not seem to understand that others think it’s impolite not to use earphones.

A young lady then got on the train and sat in the seat next to him – doing her make-up in the selfie camera of her phone.

Years ago, etiquette guides were published to let people know what was socially acceptable. It was also common for people to let others know when they ‘crossed the line’ outside of the cultural ‘norm’ – but recently that is not acceptable. So the cultural ‘norm’ is to not say anything which means that we no longer have a consistent cultural ‘norm’ in society.

If this is true, then shifting behaviours in the workplace by direct methods is going to be almost impossible. Perhaps it is better to focus on more concrete things like processes and policies. These things are acceptable to make explicit and the cultural ‘norms’ will adapt around them. We should still monitor the cultural ‘norms’ in case they are leading to bad outcomes in our processes – but we should not try to change them directly.

Discovery and Re-discovery

We’ve been discussing the concepts of ideation and the workshop activities that we do to generate ideas. These activities use the intent behind ‘brainstorming’ – not that I am recommending the common form, let me explain why.

The method that springs to mind when we mention ‘brainstorming’ is for a facilitator to capture ideas onto a whiteboard while people call them out. There are many issues with using the method in this way related to good old human nature such as our tendencies to focus on the first theme mentioned or our tendency to defer to people in positions of perceived higher status.

No BrainstormingThere are many better ways to generate ideas from design thinking and other facilitation approaches such as

  • Silent brainstorming
  • Rapid sketching
  • Surfacing assumptions and generating hypotheses

What if we are working on a big, important goal? There are many questions that we overlook because it’s easy to make the assumption that once was enough and doing a process of discovery again might generate more work than we desire.

  • Should we facilitate only one of these idea-generation sessions with one group of people?
  • How can we know if we have looked at the goal from enough angles?
  • If we should do it more than once, then how many times and how much time between the sessions?

Perhaps this is the original intent behind governance processes. We know that humans are very creative and are likely to learn much at the beginning of a piece of work that leads to more interesting ideas as we proceed. In an idealistic world, the process of governance is a way of checking in with a bunch of smart people to help us identify key decisions and make those decisions in a timely manner.

Those same smart people can also assist with identification of the needs to re-discover – perhaps they have learned something useful from elsewhere that could help us to reach our goal sooner or obtain better outcomes. This new information might be a reason to facilitate another ideation session – but how many of us would want to set that up? It seems much easier to take the new information and simply work it into our current set of tasks.

How can you tell and why should you revisit old ground?

Things change, information is not static and the believed facts can also change with time as a better understanding is developed.

So if we acknowledge this reality then the attitude that we should only plan, then act, denies the fact of change. Imagine a set and forget toy on a table, the inevitable outcome is that it will eventually fall off. This is the very reason why biology, engineering, mechanics and programming are full of feed back loops and reiterations, so monitoring and corrections can be made. It is naive to think our projects are somehow exempt from change.

The size, complexity, number of inter-dependencies all increase the requirements for re-discovery, so we should always be asking ourselves if it makes sense to continue, or to pause and do some form of re-discovery at regular intervals.

“Biological flow” and the implications upon work-flow and enjoyment.

The concept of biorhythms is an ancient one founded upon the observations of the seasons, tides and even life itself. The validity of biorhythms is debatable, yet we all have fun reading our horoscopes which are based upon astrology and biorhythms.

The word biorhythm is a composite of the two Greek words, bios and rhythmos, which mean life and a constant or periodic beat. The theory of biorhythms defines and measures three basic and important life cycles in humans: the physical, emotional, and intellectual.

The key thing here I wish to expand upon is the idea of cycles and rhythms. The idea that we all have a natural rhythm and cycle is the basis of the idea of biological flow.

Biological flow is defined here as the natural flow that exists in every individual. The basic premise of biological flow can be seen in the length of your stride when walking or running, this is the result of many factors unique to you and as such is natural to you. Now consider you have to walk using a taller persons stride. The distance covered by each stride would be larger and feel awkward to you, so much so, you may actually stumble and fall. The basic fact is that the longer stride of a tall person is not suited to your biological parameters such as length of leg, muscle mass etc. Now the same would be true if a tall person was forced to walk or run using the stride length of a shorter person, the end result would be unease and a lack of comfort and even failure such as stumbling or falling. This is easily observed when a child is trying to match the stride of their parent, they often loose step and run to catch up.

Now I propose that we all have a natural metre and rhythm when performing any task. When singing, the number of words a vocalist can sing is determined by factors such as lung capacity, the way they usually phrase their words when speaking, if they are a smoker etc. Now most of us have tried to sing along and at some time have just run out of breath in the process. This is partly due to technique, not taking a big enough breath at the right time but it is also due to our natural and unique biological flow, shaped by our lung capacity, phrasing etc.

The concept of biological flow owes its framework to musical theory in particular musical metre and musical rhythm.

When we look at musical theory, musical metre and musical rhythm often become confused and meld into one. The actual fact is that music is all about beats, timing and sound patterns. A metre is a regular pattern of beats indicated by a time signature. A rhythm is the way different lengths of sound are combined to produce patterns in time.

The following terms are used to describe and preform music :

  • pulse

  • simple and compound time

  • regular, irregular and free rhythms

  • augmentation, diminution, hemiola, cross-rhythm

  • dotted rhythms, triplets, syncopation

  • tempo, rubato

  • polyrhythm, bi-rhythm

  • drum fill

The field of musical theory is vast and out of scope for this discussion, yet the same idea for biological metre and biological rhythm can be observed. We all have a natural and unique biological metre, the speed at which we walk, run, perform tasks etc.; we also have a tendency to have a set pattern of doing things, the rhythm to which we tend to perform tasks for example. There is even a set metre, the time signature per se, of when we naturally perform these patterns of work and life. Some of us work at a steady pace, others are more like sprinters, while others still are marathon runners and on top of this there is the metre of when our energies are expelled. The same could be said for the way we go about performing our daily tasks and even lives. This methodology or rhythm that we gravitate to, often is the reason why we find some people hard to work with and others easier to collaborate with. There is no one answer because we all process and respond differently to the stimuli of work and life but what is clear upon reflection is that the way we are wired definitely impacts our work-flow and enjoyment of work/life.

Our natural biological flow when performing tasks is also affected by where we are in the day; Are you a morning person or a night owl?

Do you need a coffee in the morning before you start?

Do you become so absorbed and consumed by a task you loose track of time?

Do you like to jump in and try things?

Do you like to have tasks defined and quantified?

Are the others you work with wired similarly?

So next time you’re working with others try to keep biological flows in mind, and accept the fact that these different work flows require awareness, understanding and communication and only then will we feel and attain collaboration rather than WORK.

The nirvana of collaboration can be obtained from the oppression of work when aware of the biological flows involved.

Planning and Focus

Plans are great!

  • They help us focus and align to a goal
  • They demonstrate that we know what we are doing
  • They help us to break up work into manageable chunks so that we can deliver in stages or divide the work up between teams

But…

What if the goal is to achieve innovation or find new ideas?

Let’s take the 3 points above and see how they might be detrimental when we are dealing with complexity as defined in the Cynefin Framework.

Focus and alignment

When we focus we can miss things. Try staring at something nearby now – focus on its attributes and why it is there. Notice that while you are focussed, other things become less noticeable in our peripheral vision, hearing and other senses.

In an ordered environment, where things are knowable and there is a high amount of certainty, focus is a wonderful thing.

In an unordered environment of complexity or chaos it can destroy us in the worst case – and in the best case it will limit our ability to find new ideas and interesting things. We still need to have an idea of what we are looking for, setting some constraints or boundaries – but it is not a laser-like focus.

We know what we are doing

People who use traditional planning methods in complex environments do not know what they are doing. The planning needed in complexity is how to manage constraints, how to identify ‘good’ and ‘bad’ patterns and how to amplify or dampen them respectively. Risk and opportunity management methods are much more appropriate in complex environments and traditional planning is great in ordered domains.

PlanningPlanning

A person who knows what they are doing will use both types of planning/management, mixing and matching as they go.

Unfortunately, people are traditionally rewarded for showing how they executed to a plan and achieved an outcome. In this light, the outcomes achieved in a complex environment can only be described after they have happened. So it can look like random luck and is not generally well rewarded unless the outcome was an astonishing breakthrough or innovation of some sort. In these cases we will backfill the story in a retrospectively coherent way so that it seems the achievement was planned that way all along.

Retrospective CoherenceRetrospective Coherence

Divide up the work

Absolutely the best way to do something in the ordered domains. Break it up, build each part and then assemble it at the end.

When we try to do this in a complex environment we spend a lot of effort trying to get certainty. We also highly constrain the outcome to only that which we imagine is possible at that point in time.

So not only do we spend too much, we also sub-optimise our opportunities.

The better option is to explore the needs using test and learn approaches. Techniques for exploring the ‘fuzzy front end’ from design thinking work well as does prototyping, experimentation, articulation of assumptions and then validation or invalidation of them.

This is where we say that failure is good – let me explain that because many people have issues with such a statement.

When we are in a complex environment we do not know and cannot predict what will happen when we do action ‘XYZ’ and there are many actions that we could do. In order to find out what works and where the boundaries might be, we conduct experiments to see if there are stable and repeatable patterns. The experiments that work are what we are seeking and the ones that fail are outside of what we are seeking. Only by conducting experiments that fail can we be confident that we have found the edges of the space that we are exploring. If we don’t get failures, then we have not gone far enough and have missed opportunities for new ideas that might work.

BoundariesSo safe-to-fail experiments are important and the above helps to explain why we should be designing experiments that we expect to succeed and ones that we expect to fail – when do this we are guessing where the boundaries exist and the experiments confirm those boundaries.

Summary

These 3 examples demonstrate that our traditional planning and focus methods are really only suited to the ordered domains in the Cynefin Framework and that seemingly ‘opposite’ approaches are more effective in the complex domain.

We need more innovation and new ideas – we will not get them using standard planning and focus methods.

Plans are great – when we have certainty and predictability (and not when we want new ideas).

Business Serendipity

Innovation is the current silver bullet to fix flagging businesses and help grow new ones – it’s leading to a lot of interest in ideas like Design Thinking.

Design Thinking starts with observing Customers and identifying their needs – rather than asking Customers what they want (or how they respond to key marketing phrases). Doing this well involves lots of research, taking copious notes and then combining these notes in many different ways to gain insights. It is from these insights that ideas such as the pedestals for front-load washing machines came about at Whirlpool – the video is a great one to watch to see Design Thinking principles in action.

Done well, the research generates hundreds or thousands of notes – these might be stuck on a long wall and grouped together. It is key that different people do the groupings and that individuals walk away from the material for a while and then come back to it later. By doing this, the material is viewed in many different ways and the chances of finding novel ideas are increased.

How does this relate to serendipity in the workplace?

How many of us come into work at the same time each day, visit the same coffee place during our break and speak to the same people over lunch? With such regular habits, the chances of new ideas emerging are greatly reduced. It would be like one person taking all the observations from Customer research, classifying them and leaving it at that. The great ideas come from stepping away and then looking again with fresh eyes. Some of my favourite moments at work have occurred seemingly by chance – resulting in time saved for a project or a better way to design a solution.

The entire premise of serendipity is that it is unlooked for good fortune – so we really shouldn’t try and force it to happen. We can enable it to happen more often by changing our routine, mixing with different people and speaking about different topics with the people we normally work with.

Try something different today…it might lead to a new idea.

More Than Two Options

Innovation – the catch-cry of our current times. To create new things, we obviously need to have ideas and the more ideas we have, the more likely we will find great ones.

One of the things stopping us from having more ideas could be the morphology of our human bodies.

If we look at how our bodies are set out, we have two sides, two hands, eyes etc. – perhaps this is constraining us and making it more difficult to imagine many more ideas.

As a thought experiment – what if our bodies were shaped like an octopus – with eight tentacles instead of two hands? I wonder if our natural constraint would then become eight. We could call this way of thinking ‘octopus mode’ so that we are making a deliberate effort to generate many ideas.

Octopus and humanImagine the way our conversations might change

From….. ‘I think we should do X, but on the other hand, we could do Y’

To….. ‘We could do A, or on tentacle 2 we could try B, or on tentacle 3 we could explore C, and then on tentacle 4 we should really do D’……and so on

Taking the thought experiment a bit further, in octopus mode, I might be writing this post and wondering about our constraint of eight, imagining what it would be like to be a centipede.

OK – it’s getting a bit silly now. The main point of this post was to highlight awareness of a physical constraint that we deal with every day and might be influencing our ability to think of many more ideas.

In summary

  1. Next time you are thinking about options or generating ideas, try octopus mode and come up with at least eight
  2. It does not matter if some of the ideas are a bit odd, these ones could lead to the innovation we want to find
  3. Now that I’ve done two points, of course I am going to write eight, just to see what happens
  4. One way might be to draw up eight boxes on a sheet of paper and keep generating ideas until all the boxes are completed
  5. It could be considered a waste of time if the ideas or options that we are looking at are obvious and limited by other constraints (for example, choosing a product to buy when there are only three types available), so suggest not using octopus mode for these ones
  6. Problem-solving is a great place to use this mode – we often want to jump straight to solution. Looking at the problem in eight different ways will open up new options
  7. It’s really very difficult to think of eight things – but at least this point creates number seven in the list and I only need one more
  8. Once eight gets easy, perhaps try for centipede mode – one hundred ideas or ways of looking at a situation/problem

Thanks again to Tobbe Gyllebring and Steve for the conversations that have inspired this post – of course, any inaccuracies are all mine.