Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Saw handles

While going for my lunchtime walk the other day, I noticed a stack of bric-a-brac piled out the front of someone's house with a large 'FREE' sign on it.

Making the assumption that 'FREE' referred to the stuff, and not the sign, I picked up 2 old Disston handsaws.

If you've ever spent money on a handsaw from any hardware shop these days, one thing you'll notice straight away is how blocky the handle is.

Henry Disston - quite apart from being a fascinating bloke to read about - made great saws. And a key part of a great saw is a great handle. Almost all the old saws have them.

The two saws I picked up both have apple handles. Apple wood (yes, from apple trees) makes great handles. The oldest saw of these two, which I date somewhere between 1878-88, is both comfortable and elegant.

As Disston's descendants carried the business on, the handles slowly lost their elegance and their comfort.

It is a lovely thing to be able to pick up a saw - even a rough one - 120 years after its birth, and feel a bond with it. A good saw feels like an extension of your arm.

I'm looking forward to restoring this one, cutting new teeth, and pressing it into service.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tools to build a new tomorrow

The world is full of designers. People who get paid to engage their brains and hearts to take concepts, understand their parameters, imagine possibilities, and translate them from mind to paper or screen.

Design is part of the basic package of what we, as human beings, do. It's a key part of how we make stuff happen in the world. From music, to buildings, to cars, to kitchenware, to urban planning, to making a sandwich, it's what we do.

Except when we don't.

Probably around 1/3 of the clients I currently work with are paid to design. I love walking into the workspaces of designers. It causes you to ponder about the measure of the people who create stuff there.

One observation I've made in the last 4 years is that many of the people we work with excel at making 'hard stuff' - landscapes etc. But a qualification in design doesn't necessarily mean you design strong processes - or as I heard one designer call 'the soft infrastructure'.

My contention - and I've said it often in recent times - is that what a lot of designers don't design well are conversations that help us achieve outcomes. A friend who is an industrial designer insists otherwise. He says design tools are the designer's working tools, so of course they bring design processes to their exchanges; they cannot do otherwise.

With the greatest respect, I cannot agree. My contention is not universally true - we get to work with some wonderful exceptions - but the trend is plain enough.

Yes, they know the language of project management. Yes, they can navigate council through the D.A and C.C. phases. But this is different to designing the conversations requisite to good outcomes that preserve intent, and utilise the best of each party for the good of the project's end users and owners.

Our passion is in finding the right questions that would help to drive the process forward while keeping the voice of intent alive.

Most often these are the exchanges that don't make the official register. They are the 'between the gaps' conversations, the links between silos.

We need to harness those gaps for the good of the project. And to do that we need a set of good conversational tools to carry us forward. This is a key part of a toolkit for tomorrow.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Small decisions

Motivational speakers.

There -- I just polarised my readers.

I'm leary of motivational speakers. They make life's problems sound so predictable, and easy to solve. Just follow these 12 steps ...

My boss left something on my desk recently; an audio book titled 'The Slight Edge' by Jeff Olson.

The slick presentation style was nearly enough to result in an early 'bust off'. The sweeping generalisations made me cranky. The simplistic and formulaic approach of 'Do this, and these things will follow' annoyed me.

But I pushed through. I'm glad I did.

What Olson 'sells' here is the 'slow way to success'. It was his basic premise that kept me listening: that achievement in life was not about 'lucky breaks' or windfalls, but about discipline in making small decisions well.

Decisions like, "Will I eat the cheeseburger or the salad? Will I get up early or sleep in? Will I walk for 20 minutes today, or will I drink a beer and chat on the phone? Will I read a good book or watch television?"

At some points he feels way too dismissive of the choices of others, too ready to make value judgements. But his big idea has stuck with me, and has impacted on my decisions.

Failure in life does not occur in one bad decision but in 10,000 small decisions. So it is with those who build lives that we applaud. It's an exponential curve thing.

Olson has observed a pattern here. The book is the result of watching 'how it is' in the world. Small decisions, deliberate decisions, each day. Moving steadily in an upwards direction, no matter where you're starting from.

The packaging did not appeal -- nor did quite a few of the ideas. But the core idea stuck. And it's been worth the listen for that.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


For the past year I've had the privilege of serving on our local school's P&C.

They are a very committed bunch of people, and are responsible for so much of the good that happens in our school community.

Meaningful actions have been driven by caring and considerate thought or concern. It's been great to be a part of.

We have a wonderful, dedicated principal whose actions demonstrate that he cares about his staff and teachers very deeply. We have staff who turn up day-after-day, often dealing with the complaints of ungrateful parents, and still faithfully carrying forward the job of educating kids.

And then there are the other parents in P&C who dig deep to get other things over the line. School banking. Uniform shop. End-of-year concert. Building repairs.

The savour for me this year in P&C has been the way we have been thinking about the question of engagement. It's been exciting to watch the conversation unfold. To have the P&C wrestling hard with such questions is a rich space to be in.

There is much to be grateful for. We get to have a say in the shape of the future. We get to form something, to think, talk, create something for the kids. We get to work alongside amazing, dedicated staff to do this. I am grateful.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Consider it [visually] noted

Last week was my first attempt at sketchnoting a conference. It was an ideal conference to try my hand at sketchnoting as the content of the sessions provided plenty of scope for pictures and mental play. This was always likely to be the case, given it was the annual conference for Green Roofs Australasia.

I'm happy with my first attempts at sketchnoting, but I see a lot of room for growth. That's okay -- there's plenty of time for learning and improving.

It would be really nice to be as good as these guys one day (I think Eva-Lotta Lamm's notes are especially awesome), but in truth, I am the only person these notes need to matter to.

(It has largely been the impact of a 27-year-old book that has led me down this road.)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Q.A. as a living process

There's a good chance that the car sitting in your driveway owes a lot to W. Edwards Deming. Deming was an American statistician largely responsible for the overhaul of Japanese industry from 1950 onwards. He helped to shift the perception that the Japanese were only capable of producing rubbish to the realisation of American car manufacturers that Japan had stolen the limelight from Detroit.

I've travelled in several American / Australian cars in recent times, and while it is probably inflammatory and a broad generalisation, my experiences lead me to the perception that Americans and Aussies are very capable of producing crap. Once I got onto Japanese cars, I never looked back.

Deming came to represent a whole philosophy of manufacturing. One element I note today is his belief that Q.A. is best offered as a living process. That is, instead of pouring resources into paying for exhaustive inspections at the end of a production process (with a range of acceptable tolerances), build in continuous improvement ('kaizen') into each process and verify quality improvements through statistical sampling.

Deming believed that while cost of manufacturing went down, quality and production could go up. How? Very simple: careful observation of what happens in planning and production, coupled with a culture of 'every participant is a designer', allows the sources of problems to be identified and corrected early in the process. When your only means of catching non-performance is the factory loading dock, then correcting mistakes becomes costly.

Most processes surrounding quality could be put right if people were given the space to resolve them. Deming saw the biggest problem here as management, not the people doing the actual work of manufacturing. These were cultural problems that needed to be resolved through a fresh approach to managing people, their willingness to work well, and their ability to do so. If you got the question of 'people' sorted out, then the 'quality' question had the space it needed to resolve.

Companies like Toyota have inculturated Deming's whole approach. (He was emphatic that for his thinking to work, his whole system had to be adopted, as it is a package.) And as a result we have better cars, microwaves, televisions.

While Deming was widely known and respected in Japan, he did not come into prominence in his home country until he was in his 80's. Once Americans realised what he had done for Japan, he quickly became flavour of the month, and began running 4-day workshops all over America and the world. He wrote books, he consulted to large companies, he supervised post-graduate students.

He continued to do this until his death at age 93. Interestingly, he never felt that his philosophy was embraced in his home country to the extent it had been in Japan. People wanted to 'cherry pick' his methods.

And that is why I can tell within 20 seconds of the driving experience that a car is a Chrysler and not a Subaru. When a door lining falls off (true story) then it is confirmed.

For an overview of Deming's life and his thinking, you'll probably enjoy this paper.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Life's a beach

David Jones, thank you for sending across the wonderful gift that is this video of Theo Jansen discussing his Strandbeeste.

There is something both elegant and clumsy about Theo's creatures -- on his home site he has a short clip involving one teetering and then falling over -- but there is such drive behind the inventions.

We like the notion of 'living on' after we're gone. We have discovered many different ways of achieving this. What is nice about Theo's creations is that they will continue to scuttle about through the sand dunes of Dutch beaches after he is gone.

They will not simply follow predictable patterns of motion. Theo, through his 'living' designs, will continue to playfully (and surprisingly) impact the lives of others.

Monday, October 17, 2011


You'd like to think it's not every other day that you find yourself an unwilling disciple of children's play equipment.

But twice in this last week I have been humbled by kids' stuff -- first, by a bicycle and then by a scooter. And I am contrite.

I used to work with someone who would say, "Experience is a tough teacher: she gives you the test first, and then she gives you the lesson." So damn true.

Test one: The handlebars on my eldest son's bike were loose. I decided to tighten up the headset, but then realised I didn't have a spanner large enough to tighten up the large nut on the collar.

This is embarrassing to admit, but I dug around through what I had and came up with a pair of multi-grips and ... a whopping big set of Stilsons.

You probably think it is impressive that I have Stilsons in my toolshed. You probably think it is less-than-impressive that I chose to use them to loosen off the locking collar. But I was desperate. It wasn't pretty.

It only took a few weeks for us to realise that the handlebars were still loose. This time I knew better: I asked my boss if he had a large shifter in his workshop. He did.

I tackled the headset with a combination of large shifter and multi-grips. The shifter held. The multi-grips slipped under pressure. I bent back a thumbnail and swore. Finally, I got it all loosened up, and then tightened it to a tension I was happy with.

The handlebars still moved. More swearing. Then I noticed the little nut on top of the stem at the base of the handlebars. I grabbed a little socket out of my box. Ten seconds of tightening, and the problem was fixed.

I felt like an idiot. The fix was there right under my nose all along. All the fooling about, and big tools and damaged paint was needless. A small socket was the answer.

Test two: I noticed that our scooter had two plastic screw covers that weren't sitting down properly. A quick inspection caused me to believe that the person who fitted the nuts-and-bolts had put them in the wrong way.

I pulled them out (fiddly), turned them around, and retightened. And the covers still did not fit. Then I realised that the fix was a lot simpler than I assumed: the covers simply needed to be spun around (hard to explain, even with a photo). The nuts-and-bolts were right the first time around. So I had to undo them and turn them back around again.

In both cases my poor diagnostic work forced me to rush to a solution that was no solution at all. In both cases a lot more time and energy was wasted than was necessary.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A taxing read

"We have long had death and taxes as the two standards of inevitability. But there are those who believe that death is the preferable of the two. 'At least,' as one man said, 'there's one advantage about death: it doesn't get worse every time Congress meets. -- Erwin N. Griswold, 34th United States Solicitor General

I have just finished reading a paper delivered by some of the crew at Second Road on how they worked with the ATO to help the organisation rethink its relationship to law, politics, and its clientele: Aussie taxpayers.

It makes for an interesting read, and is a fascinating test case for what can happen in the most analysis-driven of organisations when a design approach to problem-solving and future-casting is adopted not for a one-off workshop, but as the persistent model of thinking.

If accountants and taxation lawyers can work this way (in a culture of co-design), anyone can. It fits with what Lietdka and Ogilvie have posited about the 'discipline of design'. Quoting Larry Keeley of Doblin: "Creating new concepts depends a lot more on discipline than on creativity. You take the ten most creative people you can find anywhere. Give me a squad of ten marines and the right protocols, and I promise we'll out-innovate you."

If you live in Australia and pay taxes (the two seem to be mutually exclusive for some people), then the paper is well worth the read -- if nothing else, it builds your empathy for those on the other end of the tax form / BAS.

If you work in an organisation where you think, "There is no way a design thinking approach could have anything to offer us or our clients", the paper is worth a read.

The story offers a nice interplay between the role of individuals (both outside and inside the ATO), the value of persistence, and the importance of good ethnographic work mated to a strong design process.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Edges of Opportunity

"If design were simply a matter of solving problems, much of design activity could be eliminated and along with it would go much of the value of design.

David Pye has brilliantly debunked the notion of 'purely functional' design. He illustrates the presence of the human touch in all design including that which is supposed to be very objective such as structural design.

We also observe that design problems are not static; they change with time and are changed by the way we perceive them; a client may come to an architect with the problem of adding a room to the back of his house but the architect may expand the client's understanding of the problem to include energy consumption in the entire house or the impact of an addition upon the use of backyard space.

The designer looks for opportunities while working with problems; he seeks not only the application of known solutions but the invention of new solutions which extend human experience and delight.

One of the keys to inventing is the ability to see analogies between design problems and design solutions."

-- Norman Crowe & Paul Laseau, Visual Notes for Architects and Designers, (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1984), p.32

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A personality but no name

We have just returned from 4 days of hangin' with friends in the northern Victorian town on Wangaratta.

Monday provided an opportunity (what fantastic weather!) to make our way over to Beechworth, a half-hour drive away.

We spent the best part of the day lugging around strollers and provisions for 5 kids (it looked like a sort of amateur Andean caravan, without the llamas).

Beechworth wears its history loud and proud. From Lake Sambell's nod to the town's history in gold (this spot is a true picture of beauty from ashes), to the remaining lock-up in the Police Paddock and the old courthouse (where Ned Kelly was committed to stand trial for the murder of Thomas Lonigan), its present-day 'face to the world' is distinctive because of its history.

There are things that can be said about Beechworth that cannot be said of any old town. The town's history (well-researched, recorded and published by the local people) have become a foundation for its positioning into the future.

If you have ever spent any time looking at the mission and vision statements of companies or public entities (local councils come to mind for me), you will notice how many of these statements about 'Who we are' / 'What we do' are generic and abstract. You could engineer a simple template with a series of positive assertions, and 'Just add your organisation's name in place of X'.

The following comes randomly from a particular local government website:

"Council is committed to overseeing the continued growth of the City and ensuring high quality of life for residents and visitors. This role is guided by Council's Vision and Mission Statements.

OUR VISION: A vibrant city of lifestyle and opportunity.

OUR MISSION: To manage and promote X’s diversity, lifestyle and opportunity through innovation and excellence."

Such statements tell us next-to-nothing. It's when you start to dig around in the organisation's policy and strategy documents -- particularly those that have been formulated well around good demographic work, and not simply focus groups -- that you begin to uncover the unique personality of the organisation and its challenges and hopes ... and how it would measure 'success'.

But many organisations struggle to express this in any meaningful way in their most public statements. It seems instead that many of us resort to picking up The Big Book of Mission and Vision Statements and labour hard and long (often with extended argumentation and consultation) to develop a series of statements that sounds like ... everyone else's.

We find it hard to say what is uniquely 'us' and what this offers the world. But we do know that if a vision statement is going to pass muster it should contain words like 'excellence', 'hard-working', 'innovative', 'honesty', 'integrity', 'world leader'.

I wonder what would happen if you got a group of politicians and business people together and asked them to craft a vision statement for Beechworth? Would the story of the place (its personality) come through, or would 'Vision Statement' mode kick in? I wonder ...

Friday, September 30, 2011

Looking backwards into an uncertain future

It's budget time in our business; time to look to an open future and dare to put some numbers up against it.

When it comes to prognosticating about tomorrow's joys or woes, our society's mainstream media seems to have an obsession with two social sciences: psychology and economics. It is the psychologists with their analysis of human behaviour, and the economists with their analysis of financial trends that become the prophets.

We seem to draw comfort from putting numbers on the future -- especially when faced with great uncertainty. Those numbers seem to have additional value to us if they are accompanied by either $ or %.

One of the ways that we do this is to look to the past. We examine past trends. And then we play with some 'But what if?' market scenarios, and offer our picture of the future.

A future that is bequeathed to us from analysis of the past fails dismally to serve us well. A public educator captured the heart of it when he said to me in an email last week: "It always amazes me ... that we turn to economists to help us determine what tomorrow's world will be like (if they really knew then why are they so wrong so often?)"

Analysis is most useful for telling us something about where we are, or have been. But looking backwards is a very limited tool for moving us forward. I'm not talking about being attuned to the ebb-and-flow of history -- even economic history -- but I am wrestling with the idea the economists aren't particularly good prophets, and that if their vision of the future becomes our vision of the future it is quite an impoverished (pun intended) picture to be carried forward by.

We started going through our numbers yesterday. You can see how stimulating it was for one team member who was already feeling a bit under the weather:

When you sit down to forecast budgets for the coming year, it is important to look back at past customers ('The best source of new business is old business') and buying trends. But there is a profound feeling of helplessness about casting numbers into the future.

It is one reason that it has been so good to be part of a business that has chosen to not reduce its picture of the future simply into a set of numbers. That would be crushing.

The future is more than a set of backwards-oriented numbers -- though they have a place in the dialogue (and so we have our budgets for 2012).

The conversation around budgets works smarter when we are having conversations about the possibilities for the future (and not simply about $$$), what our clients are aspiring to, and what sort of future they are imagining. Then we become engaged as 'authors', not simply as 'readers' of past numbers and trends.

We can speak to an open future with more intelligence (and hope) if we reframe our conversations around 'design' questions (complemented by a rich anthropology and some good, road-tested business sense). This then provides a context for good economic commentary, instead of having economics as the frame, and the supposed 'all-seeing eye'.

And before I sign off this morning: TB, we'll miss you. You have been a valued team player. DJ was right when he said last night that you have 'honed your craft'. You are a craftsman, mate. We cannot speak of the strengths of our business without talking about what you have given to it. We'll miss you. A lot. Go well, and with our blessing.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Designing a future

When have you been part of designing a future?

We can't sit down together and design the past. It's spoken for. Our opportunity lies before us.

We could leave the future to analysts or dreamers.

We could leave it to haphazard use of tools like brainstorming or kinesthetic modelling or sketchboarding. (All useful tools, by the way.)

Or we could engage it as a design exercise ... we engage it as designers. We rise to the task of looking at and speaking to the future through the disciplined use of the tools of design.

When designers become slaves to their tools, we're in trouble.

When we end up in a storm of wonderful creative activity, but lack the discipline to harness it, sort it, test it, change it, use it, we run the very real risk of ending up disillusioned and even cynical.

But the future is too pregnant with possibility to give up on. Designers need hope. We need to know that out of the chaos can come order.

Occasionally, it happens serendipitously. For the most part it reflects intent and discipline. (And probably spends a fair measure of its time 'tacking' back-and-forward across those trajectories, constantly shifting and correcting, working with the wind and flow, working the tools.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

A home among the gum trees ...

On Mondays and Fridays (and occasionally other days) I work from our office in the Blue Mountains.

Lunchtimes provide the opportunity to get out for a walk, which I usually tend to do. My walk normally takes me through a short patch (several hundred metres) of fairly isolated bush track.

Walking through there the other week, I was enjoying the solitude, and the company, of the tall eucalypts and bunched up turpentines. I've walked this track many times, but as I trudged along this day, I noticed something about 30 metres downhill off the side of the track: the form of a tree house. I've got no idea how long it had been there.

The structure is fairly basic, and almost invisible, but there it is. Some people would decry this sort of construction, but I rejoice: a kid is learning to build, and he / she is doing that utilising natural forms.

Yes, the trees will suffer a bit. Some groundcovers or shrubs will probably be trampled to death, and an ant or two will likely die. And it will all look a bit messy. If kids are like other builders, there will probably be some detritis strewn around the site after the job is done.

But so much will be gained! Richard Louv offers a fairly exhaustive breakdown on pp. 80-83 of his book, Last Child in the Woods on what the exercise of tree-house building offers a child. And much of the learning is in trial-and-error.

This 'home among the gum trees', 6 metres up, is a piece of grounded learning. Once a place of noisy construction, it becomes a place of solace among the treetops. But it only becomes that through intent, thoughts about design, bent nails, pieces of wood cut too short, problem-solving, ant bites, and sweat (and probably some tears).

How sad that we see so few tree houses these days. What have we done to our kids?

Monday, June 20, 2011

If your work were a house ...

Recently I've been working back through Dick Bolles' What color is your parachute? This has become a fairly precious book to me. Though it purports to be a guide 'for job hunters and career changers' to me it is much more: it is a tool of deep value to help you know yourself, and to map the contours which are your life story, and your life passion.

In other words, it's the sort of book that people either snort at and walk away from, or it is a book that 'runs deep' with you.

I don't agree with Bolles' every premise. (I find his splitting of life into 'spiritual' and 'secular' especially aggravating, and at odds with his overall direction.)

What Dick Bolles does exceptionally well is ask good questions. Provocative writers do this, even if their prose contains no question marks. They make you look deep, look fresh, stand back, stand close, listen, puzzle over.

The power of Bolles' questions is not in analysis. His best questions are connected to emotions, to stories, to longings, to feelings. His is less a wisdom of lecturing than it is of pondering, of wondering.

If you are crazy enough to pick up a pen (or in my case, pencil) and a notebook, and give some space to musing with Bolles, I don't think you'll ever look at life the same way. (Certainly, at the very least, you could never look at your work the same way again.)

There are some big questions here that deserve long, slow consideration. What I am choosing to do with them is answer them in various ways: some with written answers, others with pictures or maps or physical creations.

I took his question, “What is the one thing, more than anything else in the world, that I would love to do?” and recast it as “What do I yearn to build – to build into, to build with?”

I then flicked through my copy of Beaver's Another 100 of the world's best houses and marked up the houses that I felt had a resonance with my response to this question. I decided to treat my work as a space that is built for others, a place for friends, a haven for the weary or the world-worn or down-trodden. I remembered my naming of several years ago as 'one who rejoices in the laughter of friends'.

I was looking (subconsiously) for places that could make people feel 'big' on the inside, and yet warm and secure. Places where conversation would flow as easily as silence. Places that were a shelter from the pounding elements, and yet in harmony with the wildness, having deep resonance with their surrounds whether the eye is looking from the outside in, or from a window outward.