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‘World of Systems’ On Tour

So, I’ve managed to convince the fine humans of Software Acumen to let me run some workshops on systems thinking. They’ll be about 90 minutes long and will cover the origins of systems dynamics and systems thinking, lots of good stuff about cognitive biases, why we act so stupid in large organisations and some practical exercises to create your own systems pictures and overcome (a few) cognitive biases.

It’s mostly the kind of stuff I’ve been doing with this and this.

If you’re in product or service design and you’re interested in taking in new perspectives, this is for you.

Agile in the City Birmingham 2017 30–31st March 2017 at thestudio

UX in the City Manchester 2017 4-5th May 2017 at thestudio

Agile in the City London 2017 15–16th June 2017


Purpose isn’t easy

Giving work a sense of purpose isn’t compulsory. It actually rarely happens because, fundamentally it’s really quite difficult. But if you can narrow the purpose of a project down the rewards are huge.

There’s a classic HBR article from Theodore Levvit where he asks the question ‘What business are you really in?’.

For example, Starbucks isn’t in the coffee business, it’s in the customer service business. Their purpose is to delight customers. Achieving their purpose rewards them with feedback in the form of increased working capital i.e. manna, bread, money, which oils the engine of purpose even more.

Another example; ‘SaaS isn’t about Technology, it’s about making customers more awesome’.

More and more often, organisations recognise that they exist in order to create more customers. So, why is it still so difficult to understand the purpose of work within an organisation that many businesses still put themselves before the customer?

It’s because they don’t have to.

The capital they gained when they used to care about customers is still swishing around for most managers to swim around and relax in.

Many organisations talk about the importance of their customers but so often, organisations don’t act like they care about customers.

Many large and successful organisations act like self-serving, private members clubs, building things they think might impress their close friends and family.

I think it comes down to the fact that giving customer what they need is essentially a strategy for growth. It’s not a strategy leadership within organisations use for coping and enjoying work. This is possibly why it’s such an attractive idea to startups and disruptive technologies and models. Most successful organisations are built based on the vision of one or more pioneering, hard working, driven individual, H. J. Heinz, Steve Jobbs- not built for the purpose of profit but built for the purpose of changing their world. Then, when they die, or they sell or they move on for whatever reason, the finance department get hold of it and it’s then about maintaining dominance or the status quo, coping with reality and eventually the principles that founded the organisation slip away. They don’t get thrown out in one day, they gradually get forgotten while the focus is drawn more towards profit and away from the purpose.

There’s a study that shows that people in a position of financial strain have higher cognitive load than those not under strain.

And there’s another study that shows how people in positions of power are less able to empathise with others.

Poverty is debilitating, but so is power.

Monument Valley

I, along with what seems like the entire Internet (or maybe just Twitter?) have fallen in love with a little character in a pointy white hat called Ida. The world she exists in is inspired by MC Escher (apparently)- “every level is meant to be a work of art”.  ustwo, like Mint Digital seem to be able to create not only the kinds of side projects that make people want to work there but which are commercially successful.

After leaving college, I would play games like Metal Gear Solid and Tenchu on the PlayStation for 8-12 hours straight. In about 2002, after I graduated and moved to London, my first proper job was making cheap, disposable, sub-300Kb Flash games for MiniClip and MINIWORLDGames. Mission:Mars for example, has apparently been played “over 100m times”. I have no idea why, it’s deeply tedious and each level is more disappointing than the last. That particular one took less than a week. And it shows, most games took little longer than 5 weeks. But it was a huge buzz to have people enjoy playing games that you’d toiled over, especially if they became popular. After a while though, I started building games for brands- wine labels, washing powder, newspapers, and the really interesting bit of game development disappeared for me. I ended up building gambling games for Coral and Eurobet and the purpose of making games evaporated altogether, for me anyway.

Since then I haven’t played games much at all, until my kids got really into playing games on the iPod, Wii and Xbox. Recently the extent of my enjoyment of games has been limited to a few hours on Mincraft with the kids, Words with Friends on the iPhone and then yesterday for just an hour, with Monument Valley.

I think Monument Valley was created for people like me; people who either have fallen out of love with games or maybe haven’t discovered their love of games yet. The game itself is just gorgeous, controlling Ida through the scenery is akin to watching a kitten slide and climb over and Anish Kapoor sculpture. The open storyline leaves a lot to your imagination and the slightness of peril and the friendship with Totem gives it a relentless optimism and charm. It seems that the only slightly negative comments it’s getting currently are from more serious gamers that expect all games to take about 30 hours to complete. But I love how short the game is, like a novella or a short story that just leaves you with a pleasing glow. And for less than the cost of a pint!

The thing I like most is that it makes me want to make something, it’s made me want to pick up the side projects that I’ve left languishing (not neglecting!). You can just tell the tireless tinkering that has gone into the creation of this game, that people have really cared about it’s outcome. Not just cared about it but loved it. It’s clearly the product of a process that includes love as well as purpose.

Agile as a mindset, not methodology

It feels like there’s a huge backlash against Agile with a capital A recently, or more accurately Agile as methodology, as opposed to agile/agility as a mindset.

One example is the talk of #noestimates. Which could be summed up in this statement from Neil Killick on the topic;

“I believe teams ought to commit at the outset to building and delivering the best possible product by a given date and/or for a given amount of money”

In principle I like the idea. Estimation causes massive uncertainty and anxiety for everyone involved.

But I think, as ever, it depends on the context, whether you’re a team working within a large organisation, a well-funded startup, a bootstrapped startup or working with a client within an agency setting. In any situation where there’s a team delivering working software that’s intended to achieve a certain purpose, that team needs to get paid (excluding that pro-bono work you did for your aunt last summer). And in order to pay the team, there needs to be some capital raised in order to pay them. In order to raise capital, certain emotional concessions need to be made to those raising the capital (or providing the capital). The capital may come from re-investment of excess profit, a line of credit, angel investment, savings, whatever, it’s good if you can give some kind of indication of, given the information you have available right now, what that party might get in exchange for that.

Given that my context is usually to work for clients within an agency, my preference is to have the team make very loose estimates and to work hard to let the client know that they may get more of the stories they’ve want for or they may get less, depending on how it goes. When you say these stories are about x points, you’re creating an anchoring effect. Providing you are doing regular estimates (more flow, less stock), you can move up or down from your initial estimate, ensuring that the client is aware of the movement. This way, it’s not so painful, the client has a good way of understanding that their capital investment is worth something from the beginning and your estimates can move somewhere towards reality as you go.

It’s difficult to say with a straight face to a client “We’ll deliver the best we can in the time we’ve got” and, I find, the rare occasions when you can say that is when you’ve worked with them for years and they trust that you’ll create something that achieves their intended purpose in the time they’ve given you. After all, if you as a client are prepared to go without an estimate, you’re essentially getting somewhere between 4% and 10% extra working software because of the time you’re saving by not estimating.

So, I think the key to making #noestimates work may lie in being able to convince a client that ‘you’ll get what you get within the time you’ve given us’. If you can trust us, then you’ll get more value out of us.

I really don’t know whether #noestimates can work or not. I am keen to try it, but I just can’t get over the idea that someone somewhere has to get a rough idea of what they are actually going to get before they invest in the building of the thing before they invest.

Minute Cycles

Minute Cycles excited me, so much so that I actually pre-ordered #008. The bikes are really beautiful and small and light with little wheels and an unusual frame.

The method for selling the bikes is a brilliant idea and I really hope it catches on. I suppose they could easily have Kickstarted it but then they’d instantly be 10% down.

I don’t think this approach is for everyone but you could see it working for novel items where there’s significant capital outlay- unusual furniture, screen prints, artwork or very specific electronic devices.

Where big thinking gets us

The ancient town of Dresden was razed to the ground in horrific fashion during the closing weeks of the second world war. It was witnessed by Kurt Vonnegut and described in vivid detail in Slaughterhouse 5. Prior to the firebombing by Allied forces, Dresden was so culturally significant that the United Nations declared a great chunk of it a UNESCO World Heritage Site – giving it the same ‘protection’ as the Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal.

And after it was firebombed, over the following 50 years it was rebuilt- including the synagogue, the opera houses and the church that were destroyed.

Contrast this with Chinese ‘ghost cities’. These cities are the anti-Dresden.

The inhabitants of these cities haven’t been born yet. Chinese investors are playing the long game. But until the humans arrive, they are maintained by a skeleton staff of private police, cadres and caretakers who tidy up the confetti after the groups of bride and grooms who visit to have their pictures taken outside the British pub or the French Patisserie. Another example is the many abandoned amusement parks that are built but never visited, now only providing amusement to enthusiasts of pictures of abandoned places (porn).

So what’s a city without people? It’s just some drawings a few privileged individuals made and then some less privileged people were paid to build. Legacies of vanity. It’s happening right now in my own neighbourhoodOf course, it will be maintained there were ‘proper public consultation’. The planning notice was very clearly printed on A4 paper and glued to a lamppost nearby.

When a city evolves over a thousand years, it’s razed to the ground, it’s still a city. The city is the people.

Try to build a city in a couple of years and it’s desolate.

You see this pattern time and time again- systems built for big organisations like the NHS or the BBC. Gargantuan failures, without people, without usage, cast aside, ignored. Thousands, sometimes millions of hours of human endeavour expunged. Sure there are jobs created but what for? What’s the point of creating jobs without purpose?

That’s where big thinking gets us.


It’s self-assessment time again and I’ve never read so many people talking about tax.

After reading this I had a very brief sensation that even paying tax could almost be an enjoyable experience when it’s a big event that lots of people are involved in at the same time- a bit like the World Cup or Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure why HMRC don’t ever focus on making the payment of tax into a virtuous act where we’re all collaborating to boost the treasury to pay for education and hospitals.