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Toy snakes, intent, and patchwork theory: jamming with The Difference

A couple of weeks back a few of us from Atlassian paid a visit to the lofty colourful environs of The Difference, a wholly-owned division of PWC. The aim was to share ideas and tactics about how to be creative at scale. Or at least that’s where we kind of started.

The Difference are like a creative agency within a big corporate (PWC). But rather than take a brief on a pre-defined thing, then present concepts, and then work an approved concept through to completion, they involve their clients at every step along the way. And this doesn’t just mean lots of feedback meetings; they help form the very team of stakeholders from a client that are going to be involved with a project, and together work on the problem to be solved first, before even talking about what thing it’s going to be that will solve that problem.

It’s design thinking all the way. It’s highly collaborative, exploratory and creative. It’s focused on bringing out the latent ideas in the team, helping them to see those ideas take shape, and communicate those ideas to their broader organisation.

Design at Atlassian works in a similar way. We too, want to start with the problem, ensure we’re focusing on the right problem at the right time, and work as a team to – as The Difference put – unlock ‘group genius’ and reduce the time it takes to explore a problem space, gain insight and ship inspiring stuff.

Workplace wonderland

So first up, the workspace at The Difference is fantastic. Everything is purpose built to reflect their philosophy and the way they engage with clients. Visually, it’s invigorating and lively: pieces of creative client work share space on colourful shelves with a giant soft snake toy and this LEGO model of the Opera House. Desks are arranged in pods in an airy open plan space, with huge curved whiteboard walls on wheels.

Their space and the way they work (using loads of creative workshops and so on) brought back great memories of the way I used to work with clients at Digital Eskimo, so I was like the proverbial kid in a candy shop.

Photo of 2 people discussing work

The workplace at The Difference

Comparing sausage factories

And so to business. We started off just comparing notes about how we work, ways of working in teams that we like, and what we avoid. We talked about how we want to ensure every team has the confidence that they’re shipping the right things in the right way. We described the way we let teams ship in the ways that work for them, but staying accountable to 8 key areas that are the same for any project going on in the business. We talked about issues of scale: how do we keep this spirit of empowering teams to do things their way, yet not become fragmented?

Lawrence Goldstone and his team talked about how they help create safe constructive spaces for their clients to form, storm, and ultimately come up with unifying problem statements, stories and visions. What comes next is not only a workable solution, but ways to communicate and roll out that solution. So much of what they do seems to be about sparking and carrying out change, rather than a ‘traditional’ consultant ‘imagineer, veneer then disappear‘ approach. They bring clients to realisations like “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” by getting them to do workshop activities where they experience these lessons for themselves.

Lawrence Goldstone, Partner at The Difference, at the whiteboard

Lawrence visually explaining the flow of activities they carry out with clients

The Difference also implant their tools and processes into their clients’ teams and spaces as well, as ‘hubs’ for others to use. Actually getting this up and running is written into their project plans, rather than it being an afterthought.

An a-HA moment: don’t skip the intent and insight

And here’s where I got a big insight out of our conversation. At a high level, what we (Atlassian) tend to do is envision it (i.e. (re)define the problem, research, conceive and prototype solutions, come up with a vision) and then head into make it (design, build and release) … BUT see the arrow Lawrence has drawn from VISION to DESIGN (ENGINEER) in the photo below? Sometimes we can skim over how we can absorb insights we already have from research and intuition into the idea we want to push ahead with. Maybe we need to spend time and effort on the intent and insight of the thing we’re envisioning. Or:

  • What’s the positive impact of this to customers’ teams and work?
  • What’s the positive impact of this to our business goals?
  • Is this idea the only/best way to achieve the outcome we want to achieve?
  • Will this improve our own dynamics and processes internally, or cause hassle and grief?
  • Is that a necessary short-term thing? Where are we willing to trade off our own pain or customer pain?
Close-up of Lawrence drawing the process he follows with clients

Don’t skip the intent and insight

Metrics and so on at the beginning help us answer questions like “How will we know this is successful?” but things aren’t always that binary. I wonder, do we need to spend time exploring what it would mean for customers beyond making a certain feature more efficient?

Example: improving speed/performance of Cloud instances of our products is good. Yes. But what else would that mean for customers? Will more speed mean more engagement? How?

How do we deal with change? How do our customers deal with change?

At the root of this is the way we deal with change. We tend to approach problems (and therefore change) from 3 perspectives: rationalemotional and political. This pattern comes in very handy for change management and selling a vision to others, and it got me thinking about how it applies internally as think about – and solve – product-related problems. From a design/build perspective, our natural habitat is the rational: what needle are we trying to move… map it out… solve a pain point… improve performance… ship. Bam. But I wonder what further insight we would gain if we sat in the emotional and political perspectives for a while. Take the customer view, for example:

  • Emotional - What does [this product change] mean for me, and my responsibilities? Can I still trust this?
  • Political - Who will win out of [this product change]? Who will lose, or be set back in some way? Will those relying on me still trust me?
Diagram showing how rational political emotional perspectives overlap

The overlapping rational / political / emotional perspectives

I wonder if we have some more crucial conversations about these perspectives earlier on, if it would save some hassles down the road to implementation. How do we trigger that, and help that? I think telling stories about how [this product change] works in customers’ contexts, and visualising with storyboards and mocks is a great start. And I’m sure The Difference has some other ideas on that too.

Getting conceptual

We talked about how communication and shared understanding can get tricky as organisations scale. Mat described a multiple ‘hub-and-spoke’ model that we often use internally, drawing out his model on the table. The thinking is that we scale by clustering small teams together around core groups. Each team needs specific key roles, and communication needs to happen where groups overlap or intersect.

Discussing communication models and patchwork theory

Discussing communication models and patchwork theory

This triggered a conversation about ‘Patchwork Theory’, which as Alex (from The Difference) was describing, is similar to what we have come up with. We (teams) operate in patches, and within each patch are nodes (that’s you), much like bacteria thingies sprout and spread in a petri dish. Some nodes can transmit with more connection points than others.

Seeing teams in this way can help us to understand what is an optimum level of collaboration, involvement, decision-making, information broadcasting… and where things start to break down. What’s important is that good information is not only broadcast and received well, but retained and used well. This kind of ‘patch’/small team set-up also only works super-well when given autonomy. Because of this autonomy, it’s really important that each patch works on its own health.

Bottom line? Loads of small teams (patches), where nodes have the freedom to make and maintain connections with several other nodes and patches for each others’ mutual benefit. What this looks like in practice are these 3 neat lines which I really like:




There’s more to this patchwork theory and team dynamics, which we plan on unpacking next time we get together…


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Creativity activity: letterscouting

Here’s a simple, fun and effective activity to try if you’re after a quick way to stimulate creativity: letterscouting. You can try this by yourself or in a team, and the results can be really surprising.

All you need is a camera phone. OK, you could use any type of camera, but there’s something about the quick convenience of a camera phone that lends itself to this sort of activity. The point of this activity is not to produce perfect photos but to stimulate creative observation of the world around us and looking/thinking at/of familiar things in new ways.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Set yourself – or your team – a time limit. 5 minutes is plenty.
  2. Roam around and take a photo of something that looks like each letter of your name. So if your name is Ben (like mine), you should end up with 3 photos – one that looks like a B, one that looks like an E, and one an N. Of course you can take photos of letters in signage, graffiti, and so on, but you get extra points (read creative satisfaction) if you can find letters in real-world objects and their placement.
  3. Come back together again and share the results.

You might want to then compile them and put them somewhere to share. They look really cool put together as your name, and even cooler as a group of names. And unless you happen to have a really long name, you may need more than 5 minutes… but the idea is to not look for the perfect photo, just anything that looks reasonably like letters.

I did this activity with my team at Digital Eskimo, at the end of our team meeting, and it was pretty fun. Here’s mine:

A set of photos of real-world objects that go together to make my name, Ben

… and here’s a couple more:

Photos of real-world objects that string together to look like the name STEPHEN

Photos of real-world objects that string together to look like the name YVONNE

So try it! Who knows, maybe we should start a Tumblr blog or Pinterest board for this sort of thing. If you know of one, or want to start one, please let me know.

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iSad… iSalute… iRespect… how about iDonate?

Something’s been bothering me since the tragic passing of Steve Jobs, and today I put my finger on it. And I think there is an amazing unique opportunity before Apple to do something really worthwhile. Something maybe Steve’s family would really appreciate. And something we can all be a part of.

Odes, quotes and dress-ups?

There’s been terabits of memorial pieces — and comments on those pieces — written about Steve Jobs, and the Twitters have been groaning under the weight of sorrowful, pithy and wise statements about his passing. And of course Facebook probably has to buy another server farm to house the memorial groups in his honour; there were over 100 pages dedicated to him that I counted before getting sick of clicking that See more results link.

And people are suggesting things like wearing black polo neck sweaters and jeans in homage to Mr Jobs. But what really got me was reading news articles like this one that claim “Apple fans are paying their respects to Steve Jobs by snapping up the iPhone 4S in record numbers”.

Dear Apple: please donate $1 for every new iPhone sold to pancreatic cancer research

Is playing dress-ups and consumerism the best we can do? I hope – no, I know – we can do better than that. We can donate our money or volunteer our time and energies to those organisations who are raising awareness and funds for earlier detection of pancreatic cancer, as well as treatment and cure, and care for victims and loved ones.

But we can also do something together as a much larger group: we can ask Apple to support those organisations. What if Apple saw this is a unique and timely opportunity to do that? Wouldn’t it be awesome if Steve Jobs’ legacy of ‘Think Different’ was applied to raising funds for detecting and curing pancreatic cancer?

The Donate Different campaign

Apple are inviting anyone and everyone to email in their thoughts, memories, and condolences for the loss of Steve Jobs. So let’s ask Apple to donate $1 for every new iPhone sold worldwide, to nominated charities in each country or region.

If that’s something you’d like to do:

What would Steve Jobs have come up with next, were it not for pancreatic cancer?

As Steve Jobs wrote when he announced his decision to step down as CEO: “I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it”. I think corporate sponsorship and support for this cause would be an amazing step in the continued successful journey of Apple. What a tremendous example that would set for other companies. What a lasting tribute that would be to Steve Jobs and his family.


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Collaboration: forget the hallelujahs, let’s talk about the information design

A lot of the projects I work on involve generating ideas and user interfaces for systems to get collaboration happening for organisations. Many business decision makers are all too aware of collaboration’s benefits, but struggle to make their systems realise these benefits. One of the reasons could be a lack of a rational model underlying the system changes needed.

I find collaboration is a lot like religion: most people already think they know what collaboration is, could talk about it a bit, but probably haven’t really fully experienced it. It’s something other people do. A big reason for this is the language we use: we tend to talk about it in terms of its outworkings, motherhood statements, and end products. Do these sound familiar:

  • Collaboration will deliver more innovation
  • Collaboration will make us more efficient and more profitable
  • Collaboration will strengthen brand loyalty
  • Collaboration will enable more effective management
  • Collaboration will reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Collaboration will end war and bring about world peace

…OK, you get the point. We can’t help but think about collaboration in grandiose hyperbole. What business decision makers are often left with is a big chasm between collaboration’s great promises, and the right systems and interfaces to actually get it happening. I think we need to speak more in terms of information models, and start with the patterns and habits that people are already used to. I think we can speak more in terms of good old stock-in-trade for Information Arhictects: finding, organising and sharing information.

Finding information: moving beyond keywords

Search is big. I mean, really big. Google has spawned not only its own verb, but new approaches to searching and sifting through information that others are adding innovative thinking and features to all the time (like Clusty and Vivisimo).

Search is crucial for collaboration because we’re always going to approach information in terms of what we want more than what we can give. It’s time that the various comprehensive search features out there were made more available inside organisations’ systems. Searching for information has to be integrated (searching several systems at once), contextual (offering more relevant results related to your tasks) and predictive (offering avenues that you might not have anticipated).

When predictive search works together with integrated and contextual search, organisations can better anticipate what issues lie over the horizon, giving them an edge over their competition.

Organising information: moving beyond folders

Information is traditionally organised into files, folders and business areas. Think of your average office intranet, and the way your files are arranged on your server; everything is probably arranged by the organisation chart. The server probably has a big folder called ‘Clients’, with hundreds of folders for specific projects inside. This type of thinking arises from the more traditional metaphors we’re used to, like filing cabinets, rolodexes and business cards. It works up to a point, but it relies more and more on keeping that mental model of the structure in your head.

This creates issues when new uninitiated staff arrive, when the organisation restructures, and so on. This approach can also limit scalability, place too much reliance on technology and hold back organisations’ potential.

A more useful model puts the person at the centre of the information, and organises everything by connections. Connection-based categorisation adds a new dimension of relevance to information management, and allows a more flexible, agile and future-proof way of finding and working with information.

For example, every document on your server probably belongs to some sort of project, case or other discrete unit. It has one or more authors, one or more versions, and so on. Every author has a relationship to that project (a role to play, duration they’re on the project), relationships to the other authors, and other similar projects that they have worked on. And each of those projects has its own relationships.

Get the idea? Mapping this sort of metadata reveals connections that users may not be aware of, and aid in searching, browsing and adding richer meaning to that document. One example of this in action is the way LinkedIn displays connections to other people that you’re linked to. It does this to give greater context to connections, and reveal other people you may not have known about, or may not know that your connection is connected to.

Here’s a table comparing the ways organising information by connections can help:

file management
Organising by files and folders
Knowledge management
Organising by common topics
Connection management
Organising by people
Information is organised by whatever makes sense at the time

Is an induction manual filed under HR? Or Policies and procedures? Or Training?

Information is organised by more real-world terms and business rules

Such as by subject or topic, or by roles and tasks

Information is organised by people and their experience

So it has more associations than just by topic or business rule

Rigid and static structure

Information can only be stored and referred to in one place

Flexible but static structure

Information can be referenced from many locations, but can lose relevance over time

Relational agile structure

Information is referenced from many locations, and new connections are made all the time

Not as intuitive

Finding information usually requires induction and memorising locations

More intuitive

Finding information is associated with terms people already understand

Very intuitive

Finding information is associated with people and their experience, as well as familiar terms


But you have to know what words to search with, or work by trial and error

Very searchable

Grouping information by familiar topics improves searchability
Highly searchable

Searches are expanded to include people’s experience and expertise

Not much collaboration

The system doesn’t help people to learn from each other

Some collaboration

The system passively allows people to learn from each other

More collaboration

The system actively encourages people to learn from each other

This approach doesn’t necessarily mean replacing existing organisation practices and technology. It means adding the connection management layer to make your existing organisation more effective.

Sharing information: moving beyond email

Sharing information is actually an oxymoron to a lot of people; there are many people who have got to where they are precisely because they don’t share information, and perhaps are specifically required not to. But for the rest of us who aren’t spies or lawyers, there can still be a culture of only sharing information when we have the time and when we’ll profit from it.

But let’s assume we are sharing information. It typically means relying on technology that is simply not purposed for collaboration. It typically means using email messages to do the sharing, and the inbox to do the collecting, which presents all sorts of limitations in terms of file versions, decentralisation and difficulty in finding information. Collaboration can instead be fostered with the following factors:

  • Openness – the more people are present and able to contribute in a collaborative space, the more useful it is. A knowledge management system open to only a few authors won’t be used as much as a more multi-author (or wiki) based system.
  • Trust – information has to have credibility and authority to be relied upon.
  • Convenience – the easier it is to seek and contribute information, the more the system will be used.
  • Context – people have more incentive to use collaborative tools when they are seamlessly available as a part of the work they are already doing.
  • Personalisation – offering features that let people customise the system to the way they work increases use and usefulness.

Start with the information design

Effective collaboration systems should start with a clear articulation of the information model, and the way that an organisation’s people are to use that model. Getting used to talking about the information design rather than the high-falutin’ benefits will help these sorts of projects actually succeed.

It will also help in resolving sticky issues like governance in systems that express the points of openness (above). It will help to strike the right balance between ‘top-down’ governance, corporate-regulated roles, permissions and information management, and ‘bottom-up’ open contribution and sharing.

It will help change a system people have to use to a system people will rely on. Amen to that!


10 reasons why online collaboration won’t work

I’ve recently been on some client projects involving online collaboration, or at least trying to get online collaboration happening. There are many reasons why online collaboration won’t work, and here’s 10 of them… and what we can do about it.

To set the scene a bit, these responses are geared to be read by ‘the client’, to educate and persuade them to embrace online collaboration. The scenarios can be applied to online applications like forums, wikis, and other internal groupware applications.

1. We already collaborate offline, so we don’t need to do it online

That’s great if you’re already collaborating. If you and your organisation’s staff already have a culture of sharing learnings and information, committing spontaneous acts of assistance and feedback, then online collaboration tools should actually help you do more of the same. Realistically, all the collaboration applications around should support existing activities like these, not replace them.

2. No-one wants to be seen to not know the answer

A lot of online collaboration models rely on the assumption that everyone will be free to ask questions and have them answered. That’s fine if it’s part of a forum website with global reach (like Yahoo Answers), and with anonymous askers/answerers…but inside your own organisation? Who wants to look naive by asking ‘who looks after the Government client accounts’?

Solution? Give people the option to ask anonymously. This option could be set either at the user account level to apply to all questions, or at the point where the question is being entered. And if there are any instances where it’s possible to view all questions by a particular user account, it just wouldn’t show the ones tagged to be anonymous.

3. I – and my staff – won’t trust the content/answers/comments being posted

Ah yes, the issue of authenticity. People can often be suspicious of the validity of online content, since it’s well known that anyone can put anything online and call themselves an expert. Sometimes people need to be reminded that for closed systems such as staff intranets and internal applications, there are checks and balances in place. You already know who the people are in your own organisation. You will know who creates and edits what. There is accountability.

Using Issue #2 above, although you could make asking questions anonymous, any responses posted would always include the identity of the poster.

4. It’s a time waster/my staff should be working, not playing around on a forum/blog/wiki

Everyone has a story about how the company they work for — or a friend’s company — has prohibited and prevented access to sites like Facebook. But there’s plenty of evidence around now that online collaboration enhances teamwork, solves problems faster, boosts morale, and actually promotes the same healthy work practices that corporate leadership would have everyone doing anyway.

There are two issues here. The first issue is the word ‘social’ in social media and social networking. The word ‘social’ is kryptonite to the ears of managers, and is best avoided. Using words like ‘knowledge management, ‘knowledge captial’ and ‘intellectual capital’ is much better.

Secondly, there may be misconceptions about exactly what actions constitute online collaboration. Business applications can use the sorts of tools we find in (ahem) social media websites for employees to contribute work-related content. I would post photos of my pet dog on Facebook, but not at work; at work I would post photos of the new office in Melbourne for the Sydney employees to see.

5. My staff won’t share information, no matter what

This is more common in some domains than others, such as legal and accounting. After all, in a culture where advice has a hefty price tag attached, and accountability is paramount, why risk giving out opinions and factoids willy nilly? Often when asked to collaborate, some staff and teams immediately think of the big things, rather than the small things.

Usually collaboration isn’t so much about giving a thesis on competition law in New Zealand from 1994-1999… it’s about things like: ‘whose turn is it to buy the coffee?’ ‘Has anyone worked with the version of XYZ software?’ ‘The café downstairs has a special offer on banana bread’… and so on.

6. No time

This is fair enough, and true. Online collaboration tools should save time, not be an extra thing that employees have to find time for. There may be cases where employees have had systems thrust upon them with a mandate to use them, where it then takes longer to do certain tasks.

The right online collaboration system(s) should of course save time. Not often by replacing another system, but by exposing more of the information already captured in ways that are relevant to people right when they need it.

7. Confidentiality

Some organisations may think that the risk of sharing the wrong sort of information is too great. Like Issue #3, there would be checks and balances in place to safeguard such confidentiality breaches.

It should be said that email is probably the biggest culprit of confidential information leakage of all time. Moving employees away from email (for work-related communication such as projects, cases, and business processes) and more towards using a centralised collaboration system like Basecamp — where all communications are around specific project assets — would actually be more secure.

8. Some people may not actually be qualified to give appropriate answers

This also relates to Issue #3. Risks of erroneous information publishing can be mitigated by using corporate-set expertise tags against employees’ user accounts, so that they can only ‘see’ and reply to questions and issues for areas in which they have a reasonable degree of skill and expertise.

9. Haven’t we already got an intranet?

The main problem with intranets since their inception is that they are designed ‘top-down’ and too corporate-lead, rather than placing each individual user at the centre of the online experience, which is why they’re infamous for not being used. Successful collaboration tools place the user and their work/role at the centre, solving their problems, not giving them new ones.

If your intranet already does that, great! But if you’re part of the other 99.9% of employees out there, it’s time you were using a new collaborative intranet.

10. It’s too expensive

Many organisations have been scarred by experiences dealing with Enterprise This and Enterprise That. It seems that putting the word ‘Enterprise’ in front of any software or web application automatically adds a couple of zeros to the licencing fees. Please avoid these at all costs. Break free from your hulking legacy systems and start light. Look at applications like Basecamp for project asset collaboration and sharing, Huddle, Google Apps and Confluence for groupware, Ning and the like for networking…the list is endless.

Fight the good fight

If you’re like me and often trying to sell the idea of online collaboration and its benefits, I hope this raises some interesting issues for you. It helps me to remember this great quote by Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down peopl’s throats.”

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Turn your website inside out!

I have the privilege of sitting next to some smart gents this Saturday as part of the Arriving and staying on the web panel session at the Create Conference 08, and one of the ideas I’d like to throw out there is the idea of turning your website inside out.

What I mean is this: say you were after a copy of the Rolling Stones’ Flowers album (hey, it’s got Ruby Tuesday on it, what a great song). Where would you go to get it? These days you might shop at iTunes, or Amazon, or countless other online avenues. Or you might scour some second-hand music stores. No doubt you would go to where music is available for sale.

Now say you had a copy of that album to sell. Would you keep it on the shelf and hope someone will knock on the door and ask to buy it? Unless your house is a famous music museum, you’re probably going to take out an ad somewhere where you know people will read ads for music to buy. Or maybe you’ll take it to the second-hand music store to sell. The point is: you would go to where people are who would want to buy it, to tell them about it.

Obvious? In my line of work, I often find that people build websites assuming that others will knock on their door to buy that album, then (understandably) get discouraged when it doesn’t sell.

Go to where people are

We should be taking the content of our websites to where people are already congregating, not just ads to try to get people to leave what they’re doing and visit our websites. There are so many websites around these days that thrive on communities sharing their content with each other. Whether it’s for fun, like photos and videos on facebook, MySpace and flickr, or to make a coin, like on Etsy or Threadless.

There are loads of opportunities for creative thinking to take our websites’ content ‘out of the house’ and into the street to where people can see it, engage with it, share it, have a conversation about it — be it to promote events, news, topical articles, relevant services and products — whatever you and your business have a passion for.