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Raining ideas! My sketchnotes from Link Festival 2016

Imagine getting to hang out with the brainiest, zaniest, most purpose-driven bunch of cool people just busting to get to know you, while having your mind expanded in new and unexpected ways with everything from new scientific miracles to timeless quiet reflection. Pshaw, you scoff? It’s all true.

This was my life for 2 – oh so short – 2 days, as part of Link Festival 2016, a conference (ha, the mere word doesn’t come close!) melding design, technology and social change, held by Engineers Without Borders and the ever-perfect Wildwon last week in Melbourne. Plenaries were hosted in the beautiful kaleidoscopic people-cage of Deakin Edge, with various break-out sessions, workshops and panels in the surrounding complex, in which to have your brain and heart amicably and expertly ruffled.

And through it all, I sketchnoted as much as I could, sharing an art wall with the amazing and talented Devon Bunce from Digital Storytellers.

Day 1

The first day kicked off with a lovely light romp through modern tech advances that signal the potential for various future trends, by all-round Nice Guy and Very Bright Sci-Preneur Dr Jordan Nguyen.  Top fun to sketch this stuff. For me there was a lot of familiar topics, given I’ve just come off a vision project where I spent time looking at future trends, but the point about demystifying the role of robots and robotics struck a chord: robots will not take over the world, but they will take over our kitchens. :)

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Eager for more insights into what design could be in the future, I headed over to listen to the panel speak on Design the Materials of the Future. OK, mind blown so much I forgot to sketch. I was rapt. Ferrofluids (brought to us by Leah Heiss) are intriguing, but the practical potential of porous metal structures (by Dr Aaron Thornton) was gobsmacking.

The biggest insight for me from the ensuing panel discussion was that the designers and makers of these fantastic substances are just not the most qualified to know how best to apply them to the real world. Humility and prescience in action. Sure, they have a bunch of awesome ideas, but as I saw echoed several times throughout the 2 days, it’s about matching people with problems with others that have the nascent solutions.

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After a hearty veggo lunch (all catering was by Lentil as Anything again), I headed to a panel discussion for a personal favourite topic of mine: bringing the arts into STEM domains, or The Value of Steam. This one was a bit too much show-n-tell by each of the speakers, but I get that we all had to immerse ourselves in the various worlds of the arts, science, invention and education, for us to then be fully primed for the discussion afterward.

There’s something a bit creepy about a large artwork made out of the cancer cells of a deceased patient… it feels like that sort of thing should belong in everyone’s darling gallery, the MONA. The big a-HA moment for me in the very brilliant discussion was that historically we have been trained to keep science and art separate, but both domains are creative in different and complementary ways; both set out to solve different sorts of problems, and both learn from each other.

It’s a long road ahead when the very educational structures we have are passively keeping this divide. BUT there is hope; I had a top chat with Vicki Sowry (apols for misspelling your name in my sketchnote!), and it turns out more and more universities are pioneering cross-faculty – er – faculties? that combine the good stuff from all disciplines, like the d.school (Institute of Design at Stanford).

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And so Day 1 drew to a feisty close with Misfits And Unreasonable People, brought to us by Kyra Maya Phillips and the frightfully candid Pamela Hartigan. My, how we all squirmed! at her cantankerous take on “giving back” and doing Masters in social entrepreneurship. Brilliant.

As you can see, I took to the misfit stick-it-to-the-man theme of this session, and ended up graffiti-ing all over my own sketchnote. Take THAT. Er. Yeah.

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Day 2

Yours truly gave a workshop session on sketching to explore, explain and envision. Around 60 people sketched along with me, as I went through some familiar material, as well as some new stuff looking at conceptual illustration. It was a delight and a privilege!

 

Back in Deakin Edge, Michael Bones, Simone O’Connor, Koky Saly and Lucy Thomas took us up to lunch with their experiences on pushing for change in their chosen domains. This sketchnote isn’t my finest hour — I was pretty exhausted and distracted after giving my session.

Biggest truth bomb for me: we have to stop assuming that big worthy ideas only come from Educated Grown-ups. Given the free-wheeling nature of kids, and given that more and more digital tools are accessible to more and more younger folk, we can and should expect more robust ideas and prototypes from people who haven’t even finished primary school yet. Be scared. But embrace it.

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The next session I sketchnoted was titled Emergent-Edge Technologies, where I’ll forever cherish and save the best little Impressive Fact to come out with at the next meetup I go to: did you know that 3D printing has been around since 1984? I know, right? I personally think that when 3D printing goes mainstream we’ll have even more landfill on our hands as thousands of people from Wangaratta to Woolloomooloo print their own shoes, stormtrooper helmets and whatnot, thinking it’s oh-so-groovy, only to find that the plastic is kind of icky and dull. And not that durable, either.

BUT hearing the dulcet, smooth and very knowledgeable tones of Oli Weidlich from Mobile Experience brought gravitas to the room, and warmth to my bitter jaded designer heart.

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And so, the moment that I’d all been waiting for came upon me: hearing Dr Jason Fox. Yes, Dr Jason Fox, author of The Game Changer and How To Lead A Quest. Author of the best e-newsletters — yes you read that right — of all time. The Thinking Man’s Motivational Speaker. A true titan in the realm of creativity, business canny, and sartorial grace. And I got to just sit there, listen, immerse, and draw. Honestly, the sheer amount of amazing wisdom and whimsy that flowed forth was just completely unfair, but oh we all revelled in it!

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A big meaty a-HA for me was that collaboration at work is an infinite game. It can’t be thought of as having an end point — that’s an illusion — and as such it should be designed like every other infinite game: with goals, rules and feedback along the way. These mirror Dan Pink’s principles of purpose, mastery and autonomy respectively.

Of course this sketchnote doesn’t come anywhere NEAR doing his plenary justice; I used up so much room just capturing golden nuggets from the banter with Nathan Scolaro from Dumbo Feather before things really got underway. If nothing else, I hope this sketchnote leaves you — as Dr Fox left me — merely hungry for more!

Wildwon’s write-ups of Link Festival 2016:

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Leading design with intent: Design Thinking meetup, Sydney

It’s one of us design professionals’ great ironies in our working lives that we spend so much attention on the design of whatever it is we’re designing, but little on our own working habits.

That was the big take-away I got from a great talk by Anthony Quinn (of Value Machine) called the Design Leader’s Playbook. There were two other talks (Conversion Design by Ben Marr and Designing Solutions Using Gam—–tion* by Lie Ming Tang), but Anthony’s really resonated with me the most.

Anthony packed in some nice meaty insights and tips about design leadership, including:

Make sure we design leaders/managers turn insights that we communicate into real action. Unless we make this clear and obvious to stakeholders/clients/etc, we’re short-changing the value of the insights and therefore our own work.

Give our sponsors ways to sell our solution. This is a huge one that keeps coming back to me time and time again. Making something clear and relevant to a sponsor is only the first step (that’s exhausting just thinking about it… by anyway!); the real effect is helping that sponsor take the message, the story, the direction, and actions to the people for whom the direction and actions are really intended for. No mean feat, whether you’re in-house or external. Which leads to…

Inspire others to re-tell your stories. Wrapping insights and actions in stories is what it’s all about. We can ‘design’ what we say so that each story takes on a life of its own that others will want to tell to others. Anthony shared a neat little tip: that first 5 minutes of a meeting when everyone’s waiting for that late guy to turn up before starting? That’s when you can share a story or two, to embed those ideas in people’s heads.

Do design thinking on your own reactions and behaviours, to get better consequences. Anthony shared some great (and disarming) stories about what it’s like to be intimidated by CEOs, left feeling like you’re an impostor, and getting into less-than-ideal behaviours as a result of those sorts of reactions…

As design(ers/leaders/managers) we can control this! He laid out a nifty Trigger > Behaviour > Consequence model as a way to do metacognition on your own thinking and working practices. Great stuff.

All of these for me pointed to how we can work smarter at designing the way we think and work. I used to think that design was 50% craft and 50% communication. I’ll have to re-work that equation to fit in cognition now!

My sketchnotes:

Sketchnote - Design leadership, Sydney Design Thinking meetup

Sketchnote 2 - Design leadership, Sydney Design Thinking meetup

* Call me a pedant, but I have a real aversion to that word starting with “Gami…” and ending in “ation”. It just shouldn’t be a word. It’s down there with that other word that starts with “Monet” and ends with “ise”, and rhymes with – well – no other word.

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Want better ideas? Go to Crazytown

I first published this post over on Medium, but I wanted to include it here too, for my own convenience, really. :)

The internet is tipping over with listicles about creativity, but they don’t really help that much in the busy, noisy, constrain-y environs of business and start-ups. Sometimes you just have to be brave, get a bit stupid, and go to Crazytown.

Oh joy! Brainstorming time…

There’s nothing like the word ‘brainstorming’ to bring on such feels of hope and promise in some people, and fear and loathing in others. It’s the word that makes introverts want to run and hide, and extroverts want to — well — go all extroverted on everyone. We want, nay crave, to reach that promised land of great ideas, but are often so confused about the path to get there.

I run a lot of workshops. Some are fairly serious affairs, like product strategy workshops. Others delve into customer empathy and insight using techniques like journey mapping and storytelling. Still others are just good clean fun, with activities like storyboarding, prototyping and role play.

They all typically involve some degree of ideation: brainstorming, going broad, blue-sky out-of-the-box thinking, that sort of thing. I’ve never met anyone who is happy with one or two lame ideas; everyone wants as many ideas as possible, and of course we’re all after that absolute disruptive cracker.

But time and time again I notice that people either seem satisfied with just having those one or two lame ideas, or they’re disappointed at the low yield, but aren’t willing to call it out. They’re not sure how to build their creativity muscle. Or they push a mediocre idea through, polishing the absolute snot out of it, hoping it’ll be okay.

Why is this?

No creativity with anxiety

Firstly, people often don’t actually want amazing ideas. They want feasibleideas. There’s a well-known triad of outcomes I’m fond of where you can think of any product, service or experience as being desirable (people will love it and recommend it), viable (you will make or save money from it) and feasible (you can build and service it). Most of the time we trap ourselves in the Feasibility Corner, fill our minds with Viability Language, and it weighs us down so that the desirable is beyond reach.

Getting a room of people to try to come up with ideas, or reach a break-through solution, with this sort of thinking is incredibly anxiety-inducing. And it’s hard to find a better way to squash creativity than anxiety.

It’s about stepping stones, not bridges

Secondly, I think people have a really narrow concept of what an idea even is, especially in the corporate “let’s make things for people to buy and use” context. There’s an unspoken expectation that a great idea will just birth itself out of someone’s mouth or whiteboard marker, fully-formed, resplendent in all its commercial world-changing power. I know, I’ve been guilty of this.

But it doesn’t happen that way. It just doesn’t. I could fill this post with loads of quotes about creativity and inspiration and hard work and so on, but I won’t. I’m sure you know a few of those already. Ideas happen as a fluid collection of connections, sparks, meanderings and questions. Ideas aren’t big bridges to cross a river, they’re a series of big and small stones to hop across.

So, the thing here is to change your approach to coming up with ideas in the first place. But how? Glad you asked. Here’s a couple of things that work for me.

Call out your constraints

The first thing I’d like you to do is to finish this sentence:

We need amazing ideas for our [insert product/service/campaign/experience] BUT…

Start by calling out what is silently hobbling your thinking. Is it a time limit? Is it something to do with resources and capabilities? A cranky stakeholder? What?

Do it as a team, even, and bring out all those silent anxieties, pre-conditions and constraints into the open.

Now take a good long hard look at those constraints, and think about whether they are indeed constraints, the scale of those constraints, and how you can come up with ideas to solve those things first. See it as a game where you get to knock down each of these pegs first, and probably come up with ideas for the main thing on the way. There now, didn’t that feel better already?

Can we go to Crazytown now?

Another thing I often do in creative workshops is to draw something that looks like this:

On the left is you and where you are now. A bit further along is where most of your ideas tend to be. Safe. Normal. Expected. Further along still is where things get bold and people start scratching their heads, wondering if it’s even possible. And then on the far right is Crazytown.

I love Crazytown! Crazytown is Willy Wonka territory, it’s where Unikitty lives, it’s where fish ride bicycles, where ice cream is wasabi flavour, where tattoos are animated, where a computer can fit on your wrist, where random connections are made, where dreams live.

Can you see it in your head? It’s a truly wonderful place.

But you don’t live there. You just visit.

You buy a return ticket, you get on that train, and you get off at Crazytown. You take in deep lungfuls of the air that smells vaguely of bubble-gum and western red cedar, you play their weird dancing-around-with-buckets-on-your-head dance, you joke with the locals, take photos.

And you see amazingly stupid ways of working with whatever problem or need that you actually want ideas for. Quick! Write those down, draw them, whatever. But capture those amazingly stupid things.

And then you get back on the train, and you come back invigorated, refreshed, and with a head and sketch-pad full of those amazingly stupid things.

Now, no-one would ever expect you or your team to present those ideas, let alone actually make and release them. But here’s the magic: you mine those ideas for what you could use. Break each one down, apply your business rules, user research insights, understanding and all the other serious grown-up things to those ideas.

Because what you’ve brought back from Crazytown is a whole host of new idea territories. You’ve stepped out of your regular environment, your regular thinking.

But how, Ben?

If you want to try this in a group, draw this diagram, and tell them this story. Make sure they know that whether they’re there to solve a problem, or there to come up with some cool innovative campaign, Crazytown still helps. Youcan solve boring problems with crazy ideas.

Show the way to Crazytown

Mark on the line where people tend to want ideas to be, and where they end up being. Show them that going all the way to Crazytown doesn’t mean just stopping with the Crazytown ideas, but using them as raw material. It helps lift the overall level and range of ideas. And make sure you’ve created a safe space where people will feel free to be a bit braver than they normally are.

Frame the challenge as a question

Next, frame whatever it is that you need ideas for as a question that people can get their teeth into. For example:

  • “How might we improve this [product/feature/etc] for our customers?”
  • “What would make [target market consumers] want to buy our [product/service/etc]?”

Welcome to Crazytown, population: you!

Now, here comes the fun part. Blow open that question by taking it toextremes. Pick an aspect of your question and ask it as if a Crazytown resident asked it. Take a ho-hum question and imagine you’re at the pub with Billy ConnollyRon Burgundy and Yoda, and play out the conversation. Turn it into a ‘What if…?” of a “How about…?” To wit:

  • “What would make people break in and steal our [product/service/etc] because it’s so good?”
  • “How could our service actually turn Sauron into a nice guy?”
  • “We need to speed up the journey of shopping at our supermarket. What if we just shot the food into bags for them?”
  • “Our product has 4 drawers. Why not 40? or 400? or 1 with a carousel inside it?”

Make sure you’re writing down and/or sketching all the random things that come up. As soon as you make those things visible, you’ll be amazed at how that triggers even more random things and connections.

I hear you. It’s crazy and stupid, even irrelevant. But that’s the point. Do it just so that you have some weird out-there ideas that you can then stealfrom, in ways that are relevant for your particular problem.

Get back on that train

Then get back on the train, go back to Ho-Hum Normaltown, and pick apart what you’ve generated. You should have some new idea territories to extend in more — ahem — rational ways. Examples:

  • “Well, obviously we wouldn’t have a space portal inside our wardrobe product… but mirrors inside it might make it appear larger. We should try prototyping that.”
  • “We can’t actually fit an entire espresso machine in a mobile phone…. but what if we partnered with a commercial espresso machine maker to include a feature where the machine can receive texts for what customers want?”

Go get a ticket to Crazytown

So give it a go, I’d be interested to hear if and how this approach works for you. And say hi to Unikitty for me.

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Making is as valuable as what is made: design thinking at Link Festival 2015

If ever there was a conference that was my happy place, Link Festival is it. In spades. Link Festival is organised by Engineers Without Borders, and this year by Wildwon as well. Earlier this year, over 450 of Australia’s current and emerging leaders came together to work on applying design and technology to social change. See? Three pet topics, right there!

I was fortunate enough to speak on bringing out your inner design thinker: crafting your own tools for change (over on Slideshare), followed by a highly animated workshop.

Let me give you a quick rundown.

We’re not making anymore. This is a problem.

Here’s the thing: as knowledge workers, I think we’ve been conned. Over the eons, we’ve gradually outsourced the making of everything to others. No matter whether you’re in software, finance, health… any domain at all, other people now do the making for us. This sounds acceptable; I mean, we should be paid to think and not do the drudgy menial manufacturing work, right?

But what this has done is, it’s gradually removed one of the greatest means of solving complex problems we have in our toolkit: using our hands to make things — prototypes, real working things — and make things together. And we need to get it back.

Design thinking engages the head, heart and hands

See, I believe people change when they’re engaged in all 3 areas: the head (facts and figures), the heart (the feels, the stories), and the hands (doing and making things, not just talking). Design thinking as a way of solving problems in teams employs all three areas.

So what this means is that if you give people ways of making stuff together, it expands the language that they can use, it helps them to come with more ideas (and riff off each others’ ideas), and to iterate and improve on those ideas. Something else happens too: people experience this making together, and share of themselves more for mutual benefit, in ways that they never would if they just sat around talking and pontificating.

In other words: making is as valuable as what is made.

Solving the ‘blank tool’ problem

Many people will give a nod to this, but often they get stuck in going from principle to practice. It’s easy to read articles online about brainstorming and the like…. but how to start? And what makes for better brainstorming?

Here’s where I find some templated design tools can help people kick-start their problem-solving:

  1. Canvases
  2. Scorecards
  3. Posters
  4. Playing cards

My talk goes into detail about each of these 4. We also did a workshop straight after the talk, so that people got to open a pre-fab prototyping kit and make their choice of one of these problem-solving templates.


 


 


 


 

Here’s a great write-up of the 2 days as well, by Wildwon’s Sally Hill. Can’t wait for Link Festival 2016!

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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:

SHIP WHAT YOU LEARN

USE WHAT YOU GET

OPTIMISE THE PATCH

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

 

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.

Arthur Schopenhauer (philosopher and author: “The World as Will and Representation”)

Sketchnote - 10 steps to thinking like a designerThis is a sketchnote I did while attending one of the bootcamp sessions we regularly have at Atlassian. It’s important that everyone at Atlassian not only understands the design process we go through, but is equipped to use it themselves in their own projects.

This is based on the d.school design thinking methodology, and is open enough that we can fit it to all sorts of contexts. And it’s not just for designers, it’s for everyone: developers, product managers, tech writers, everyone!