Process design: a manifesto

Here in Bologna with my fellow members of The Value Web board, I have taken this first cut at crafting a manifesto of sorts for our group…more to come, but for now:

Complexity; it is a product of a riot of influences coming together, each representing  – on their own – a web of interconnections in themselves. As we see a steadily rising global population, accumulating environmental impacts and pervasive political and economic misalignment across the world, the many forces that drive, and are driven by, complexity collide across borders, across industries and across political, economic and ideological boundaries.

Parallel to this explosion in complexity is an intensification of impact for both action and inaction by decision-makers who attempt to plot a course for themselves, for their organizations and their countries. Decisions made by one group has an unexpected impact on others, or combine with the decisions of connected but independent actors to create counterproductive or unpredictable results; or no results at all, where, perhaps, urgent action is needed.

In this context – where climate change requires global coordination across nations and industries, where demand for food, energy and water collides, where one country’s policy can trigger another’s economic disaster – we see the staggering deficiency of the decision processes used by today’s leaders. They are linear, where issues are organic and non-linear. They are isolated and discrete, where impacts are connected and reinforcing. In short, they represent a social technology which is a result of an age of simplification, repetition and industrialization.

We are not in a crisis of technology, of environment or of conflict. We are increasingly the victims of crises triggered by failures of decision-making; failures to create dialogue and understanding, failures of holistic consideration of interconnections and influences, and failures of decisiveness – taking action where and when it is needed on emergent truths and evident threats.

We believe, therefore, that what the world needs is an urgent redesign of its decision-making processes. Our vision is to inject new tools and social technologies, which reflect the need for understanding and cooperation, into the world’s decision-making gatherings in order to transform decision-making processes through collaboration.

We believe that the tools and methods we have used to facilitate productive dialogue across stakeholders who share an urgent need for change can and must be used in fora where decisions about our shared future are made, casting aside the stultified, ossified and increasingly anachronistic customs and processes that prevent effective, coordinated action on the issues of our age.

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Defining Social Strategies for Gatherings

version 0 of the model in my head...

More dissection of the SXSW conference and its social/cultural reverberations has helped me crystallize some thinking on sharing in the context of large gatherings.

Conferences, as a confluence of intellectual inputs and people, represent huge potential for learning and knowledge creation, but also represent an equal amount of lost opportunity and knowledge dissipation. The perennial question is; how do we capture both the ideas and the energy that people feel at these gatherings and sustain them?

I’ve been looking into this question for some time, both with regards to ongoing projects that I’ve been doing, but also in relation to upcoming projects which will require a scaling of attention and engagement on a much larger scale.

I have a model emerging in my head about this, which I think contextualizes some of the thoughts I had on the scattershot sharing from SXSW last week, but also much of the work that we’ve done at Davos.

The first axis I imagine is between inclusiveness and exclusivity. Inclusive gatherings are open to all, but also have no secrets, and thus can open the knowledge created to the world. Exclusive events can either be exclusive on the basis of attendance (only certain individuals may attend) or content (the knowledge being shared is private), or both.

All gatherings are, to some degree, implicitly exclusive; there are those who have attended, and those who haven’t. Others are explicitly exclusive; you’re not there because you weren’t invited.

Taking Davos as an example, it is explicitly exclusive, as attendees are by invitation only, and must fall within certain criteria to be invited. SXSW, on the other hand, is largely inclusive, with only implicit exclusivity; those who could make it, and those who could not.

Sharing takes a different tone in the two cases. For Davos, there is both a public and a private program, with predictable limitations on what information can be shared attached to each. But from a broader perspective, sharing at Davos is more a question of transparency than of knowledge creation; the outside world is concerned that issues of importance are being discussed there by the many public figures who attend, and thus there is a need to have some sense of what goes on within the conference.

In the case of SXSW, sharing can be as open as the registration process; there are no secrets and anyone is free to share any of the information or insights gleaned from the conference.

An interesting hybrid of the two is TED; the conferences are explicitly exclusive, as only a curated set of members may attend. The knowledge shared at the conference, however, is shared widely, and, indeed, the conference acts as a platform for sharing great ideas.

This brings me to the sharing itself. To me, the strategy for sharing and engagement must be driven by 1.) the type of information being shared, 2.) the value of sharing, and 3.) the intent of sharing.

1.) Information Type: Is it an idea? A concept? A business model? A story? Or is it the experience itself? While Davos might have press conferences, TED releases “TED Talks”, videos of profession-leading speakers expressing their ideas in succinct, well produced talks. Much of this is a matter of defining what format would help give meaning to the experience for those who were not there. At SXSW last week, keynote speeches were visually captured and the notes were assembled on a microsite for sharing by graphic facilitation group ImageThink, giving a chance for the outside world to get a flavor for what was happening at the conference.

2.) Value: Why even share? What value does the shared element hold for people receiving it? I personally love the TED tagline “Ideas Worth Spreading”; it’s an acknowledgment of the inherent value of good ideas to humanity. But also shrewdly built into their strategy is that the openness of their content sharing (coupled with its legendary quality) helps to fuel the sense of exclusivity; the cachet of their brand and therefore, of attendance, is only increased by their openness with their information.

3.) Intent: A nuance, perhaps, but an important one; what do you want to get out of sharing? Is it to build community? To have others build on the ideas? To contribute to collective knowledge? To drive more conference attendance?

All of this, to my mind, is the foundation of thinking about what and how to share through social channels in a conference setting. Awareness of the balance between the elements, and most of all, the intent and purpose. Many were miffed at the social sharing coming out of SXSW last week because it appealed only to the implicit exclusivity of being there, as opposed to some broader purpose (as evidenced by the tweet “and…i’m eating a taco next to danny devito”). The ImageThink strategy was a refreshing reprieve from that; content focused summaries on their site actually fueled inclusiveness, instead of exclusivity.

At Davos, the tension is often between wanting to share emergent ideas that are of interest, balanced with the need for privacy that makes many of the conversations that happen there possible. As a platform for facilitating dialogue between stakeholders that can’t happen elsewhere, the need to create a “safe space” can often be undermined by a sense of exposure.

A challenge that I’m currently working on is to use a series of conferences as a platform for collective knowledge creation to be built on and shared over time by a much broader community. While visualization and social media will be central to the effort, the challenge of driving inclusiveness will, I think be the most interesting part. I’d welcome examples of conferences that have truly driven broader participation beyond the immediate attendees.

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SXSW, Social Media and the Death of Authenticity

from miss_rogue on flickr

Every once and a while you read an article that fully articulates a thought that was half-formed in your head; last week, the NYTimes had just such an article. Waxing about the “Enough Already!” response of many Twitter users subjected to the torrent of updates gushing out of the SXSW gathering, the article put a finger on the frustration of many who were subjected to a week of online posturing and bragging by those who attended.

I found myself, through the week, getting increasingly frustrated with the disproportionate number of irrelevant updates flooding my various social feeds, many of the “guess where I am?” variety. In the midst of a busy week doing other things, and a wrenching anxiety about the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan which punctuated my attention, I found these constant broadcasts a sudden deluge that did little to share what was so interesting about the experience people were having; they focused only on the fact that an interesting experience was being had. Scrolling through the posts had more commentary on the parties and the food than it did on the content…so why the urgent need to share?

The trouble is, we all do this. I’ve many times sent off an update saying “Look at me, I’m on a plane to…” But this is a trend towards something beyond sharing, I think.

For those who use Twitter and other social media channels to share information and extend engagement beyond immediate, physical gatherings, this was a moment that should be noted down; the “social media” revolution has turned on itself, and we have become what we meant to replace.

The great promise of social media, by those who choose to evangelize it, is that it forces organizations to truly engage, to communicate and to be authentic. Gone will be the old TV spots telling us what to buy. Gone will be the passive consumer. Those companies that refuse to listen will wither and die in the face of others that listen to their customers, engage them and create brand experiences that are authentic and compelling.

What I saw last week was not that people and social media had remade companies, but that companies and social media had remade people. All of the hallmarks of what made this generation cynical and tired of the canned messaging of the corporate world have now manifest themselves on an personal level, as individuals relentlessly curate their own “personal brands”. Worst of all, it doesn’t feel very authentic.

I have, for some time, been somewhat cynical about the rhetoric around social media. I think it is neither as complex, nor as astounding as many make it out to be; it is a technological augmentation of patterns which are intrinsically human. True, it is in the application that interesting possibilities arise. But last week, to me, has shown that social media is neither new, nor revolutionary, but is instead another means for old patterns to repeat themselves.

Remember what made Google Adwords so revolutionary? It was contextual. It was relevant. It wasn’t somebody trying to tell you how good their car is when you’re looking for a toothbrush.

Listening, from the outside, last week made me think about how I use social channels. Does the information I share add value somehow to others? Is it relevant? Or is it simple, blatant, self promotion? Am I Coke, Pepsi, or a person who has an idea to share? I have a new lens for thinking about this, but for those who don’t heed; if I have to hear about your ‘new formula’, ‘new look’ or why you’re ‘new and improved’, I’m going to unfollow you.

For me, I’ll watch what I tweet. I’ve been as guilty as anyone, but seeing it in the context of a trend towards the commercialization of the self, I’d rather find something new to talk about.

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The rights of the question

“For the partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question, but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his own assertions.”

– Plato, Phaedo

Too often in problem solving, we become fixated on the answer, and in the single-minded pursuit of that answer – that one, singular solution – we seek out those who we think might possess it. They are the experts, the specialists, the consultants; we know that when we have a problem, a question, then what matters most is to find a person with the answer.

But to have an answer is to ignore the question – to come in with an “expert point of view” is to assume a kind of intellectual partisanship in the problem-solving process. Far more powerful is to give due time and attention to the process of questioning.

I recently heard “killer questions” defined as questions that can’t be answered directly – these questions, and the exploration necessary to follow them through, can help unpack assumptions and gain new perspectives – but more importantly, can allow answers to emerge.

This is important in the typical consulting process. Clients typically ask a question or present a problem. The consultants go off and undertake their process of discovery, then return to present their answers. Sure, there may be a menu of answers to choose from, but they are answers nonetheless.

The great loss to the organization is that it did not go through the process of questioning, which in the end, is far more valuable than the answer it produces.

Why? Because questioning creates understanding. Because deep questioning is a creative process. Because going through a process of questioning together helps us to believe in our answers…and because going through the process keeps our answers from being stagnant and fixed – answers become as fluid and emergent as the questions that lead us to them.

So while it is helpful to have experts involved in the process of problem-solving, they are better involved as an input to the process, rather than as an output; their particular ideas and points of view should be swept into a process, instead of speaking for it.

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The Design of Games, Innovation and Collaboration

Another excellent post on the Knowledge Games blog by Dave Gray working to answer the question, “What is a Knowledge Game?” The post is a wonderful exploration of the nature of knowledge games, but begs the question of how to go about designing these interactions. This is something I started to write about here, but to really get into it requires a little more explanation.

I set out before that in stringing knowledge games together, the designer needs to consider three dimensions progress; the tactical, emotional and conceptual. In thinking through the idea again, I tried to relate my own design process to each of these dimensions, and came to a few realizations. The most common design models I use are the Scan-Focus-Act model and the Creative Process Model, both from the MGTaylor method of designing collaboration. I’m not sure about other MGTaylor practitioners, but here’s what I realized about my design process when I thought about it in terms of these dimensions:

  1. I tend to design for information, first. At its most basic, the Scan-Focus-Act model is a model of information distribution. Scan: Bring in disparate data sources, ensure a common understanding of information across the target group of individuals. Focus: Allow for the reconfiguration of information and prototyping by the group. Act: The best ideas are developed more fully from the prototypes to bring together a working model. In designing this process, I often focus on the development of this information through the lifecycle of the interactions.
  2. While I consider the other dimensions as design considerations, I don’t specifically design them. I think a lot about what the individuals going through the process will experience, and use that as a consideration in the design of the information flow, but I don’t directly design the experience with the same calculated rigor that I apply to the tactical dimension. The emotional dimension is something I’ve thought of as an element you need to make space for, but which is a by-product of other factors and processes. The conceptual dimension I have treated mostly as emergent.

This leads me to the following questions. First, can you design emotional experience? Clearly a great number of artists, writers and filmmakers would argue that you can. But where does that fit within the realm of collaboration design? What models inform the designing of emotional experience?

Secondly, as the conceptual dimension is critical to the ideas that come from collaborative interaction, how do you design for emergence?

To answer some of these questions, I’m going to be writing a couple of pieces both here and on the Knowledge Games blog. First up will be Designing for Emotion, followed by Designing for Emergence. I’ll give shorter treatment to Tactical Game Design, since there’s lots more out there on that, and then I’ll reexamine an approach to bringing the three together. In the interim, ideas and input on any of these questions would be appreciated!

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On the Fuzziness of Goals

It’s hard to stay out of interesting conversations, and Dave Gray has a great one going on his Knowledge Games blog. The question is on fuzzy goals, how they relate to knowledge work, how to navigate towards them, and just how fuzzy goals can be in creative work.

There’s an extra image on Dave’s flickr stream here which equates the journey towards a fuzzy goal as a journey. Going picture for picture, here’s a few thoughts.

First, when I think of how fuzzy a goal can be, I come back to the idea of tiered goals, or layers.

Goal fuzziness as it relates to layers.

Goal fuzziness as it relates to layers.

When I think of how fuzzy a goal can be, the first question is this: fuzzy to whom? Assuming we are talking about the people who are in the process, as opposed to those who are managing the process, I think the model here applies.

Collaborators need to be very clear on the goals of the task at hand; the need to know what they are doing now.

What can be a little more fuzzy is what comes next. In fact, too much focus or too much supposed clarity on what’s next can be a distraction from the task at hand, and can lead to rigidity. If you always know what’s next, it’s harder to change based on evidence on the ground.

Fuzzier still are the results, both of the immediate task and the tasks that follow. On the outer edge of fuzziness is “where is this all going?” This is the bigger picture, which in knowledge work is only created through iteration and, as I am now convinced by Dave, progression. Progression toward something broader, which becomes iteratively more clear as each “experience” builds on the last.

To put this into the context of Dave’s drawing of the ship on a journey of discovery, I think we end up with not only the levels of fuzziness, but also the roles in knowledge work.

The core of knowledge work is the experiential process itself and the emergent concepts which result from interactions of people, thoughts and influences. But what differentiates knowledge work from just knowledge or unguided thought is the process.

The roles in knowledge work as we move towards fuzzy goals

The roles in knowledge work as we move towards fuzzy goals

Taking the same labels from the last diagram, we have a person (group of people) focusing on what is being done now, living in the moment and tackling something defined.

To allow these people to truly focus on the immediate task, we have another who can, based on progress, guide them towards “what’s next.” The interplay between what’s happening and what’s next is mediated by someone who guides the process based on the results, and it all comes together as we plot our map, or bigger picture, of where it’s all going. I imagine that this person is a map maker as well as a navigator; they chart based on the knowledge we have, but add as they explore new territory.

So when I look at Dave’s picture, that’s what springs to mind.

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Knowledge Games: Threading Games Together

My scratchy brainstorming notes

My scratchy brainstorming notes

Now having had more time to reflect on Dave Gray’s talk on what he’s calling “Knowledge Games”, I’ve put together a few thoughts that were niggling in the back of my head. I think that, for those of us working in the collaboration space, the concept of knowledge games is a great way of encapsulating and explaining the complex “play” that we enable to help people solve difficult problems.

Part of Dave’s concept, as I’ve understood it, is that in knowledge work – as opposed to process driven industrial-type work – structure, teams and motivation need to be modeled differently. Instead of process, then, there is play; essentially, resources need to be “managed for unpredictable results,” as opposed to the traditional, industrial model of managing for consistency and predictability…which is a split which I’ve been exploring here.

I liked the idea of framing these ways of working as games, but for my purposes, I’m going to take it down a level from game, and call it a designed interaction; which is how I think of them when thinking through a collaborative design.

I think that the three or four people who actually read this blog are already bought into the idea of play as work (anyone who designs/delivers DesignShops), so there’s no need to dive into that, but I’m excited by the idea of play as work getting more mainstream attention, because it gives a better framework for the core question of collaborative design; if games are used to work, how do you align multiple games to your goals as a group or organization?

Three main models came to my mind in thinking this through; one from Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building, the other from Michael Anton Dila, who drew it on a whiteboard in this video, and the other which I came up with while trying to make sense of it all. Horrible sketches of all three models are in my notes, below.


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Atheist Strategy

Blue Ocean? SWOT? I found myself in an interesting conversation this weekend about what tools are best for developing strategies, and in classic fashion, I am living up to the saying “Repartee is what you think of on the way home.”

Picking a tool for strategy development is, to me, an exercise in doctrine and dogma, and can easily miss out on something which I very firmly believe; the most elegant and beautifully conceived strategies can fail completely if they do not connect – in a deep and meaningful way – with the people who make up an organization.

So what I’m saying is that, in the end, I don’t really care which strategy tool is used, because I think that strategy – and especially a really clever strategy – can be held up as a false god, giving comfort to leaders and a vague sense of meaning to their teams.

And if strategy is a false god, then consultants are their prophets; we are incredibly good at creating and selling strategies which then are passed off to organizations with varying degrees of success. We ask that organizations and teams take it on faith that the development of a strategy is critical to their survival in a dog-eat-dog world; that by tricks and clever machinations we can devise “the plan” to guide them through troubled waters.

But for the sake of argument, what if I were to play the part of the strategic atheist – to say that I didn’t believe in strategy? What if I asserted that using this tool or that tool to create something which – by my eyes – does not exist would not help me?

What would I be left with? How could I steer my organization?

What I think I would be left with is my people. To mix metaphors a little, I would suddenly see that the boat is moving not because of the destination, but because of the people rowing it. I would see that it is not that we have a strategy that is important, it is actually more important that we believe in and are motivated by something common. The atheist view of strategy, then, would assert that it is the tactics of cohesion which drive success. Central to that is the “fit”; whether or not the aspiration and the group are compatible.

In that sense, then, I would say that the strategy itself could be considered secondary to the process of creation. Do people feel a sense of connection with the strategy? Did they help to create it? Is it an expression of their shared understanding and world view? Do they feel capable of being a part of it? What is more important; beliefs or belief itself?

It is not the god of strategy that gives me value, but my ritual of worship and observance. As my zen teacher once told me, “I’m not telling you to worship the Buddha. I’m just teaching you how to sit.”

Which is all to say, I don’t really know which method I prefer…I just care about the process.

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Dave Gray: Knowledge Games

My notes from tonight’s talk by Dave Gray on the subject of his upcoming book, Knowledge Games.

Notes on Dave Gray's lecture on Knowledge GamesKey takeaways from the talk, for me, was a reaffirmation of the importance of environment in support of knowledge-working teams. I don’t know how many times Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” popped into my head during this part of Dave’s talk…especially the parts regarding interconnected workshops.

Second, I’m anxious to get my hands on a copy of the book to see just what exactly is laid out regarding the use of “knowledge games” to spur groups into co-creation of products.

Using “play” as a way of solving complex problems is, of course, central to a lot of creative work processes, but I know from my experience as a process designer that the sequence is critical in bringing the best out of a group. Which is all to say that I agreed rather violently with everything Dave laid out tonight, but with the open question being this: if serious work in the knowledge economy looks like play, and is carried out in these “knowledge games”, how does he envision the role of the game designer?

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Visualizing Business Architecture

The original sketch

The original sketch

I clipped out a few slides from a recent presentation on enterprise business architecture. The original concept was from a sketch I came up with when trying to think through the “process of change” in a government setting…I then got stuck with the sketch, as it seemed to capture what we were trying to say.

This was an interesting lesson for me in the visualization process…to me, visuals resonate most when they’ve been collaboratively created with clients. The trouble is, unless the client has specifically come to you for visualizations, and thus knows what to expect, it’s hard to say “we should create a visual of this” without being met with blanks stares. My solution to avoid puzzlement was to present a sketch…”we could present it like this”. Well, wouldn’t you know, then I got stuck with the sketch.

What I did really like about it – as primitive as it was – is that it enabled a bit of storytelling in the presentation. This was one of those unfortunate “documents” that gets presented on a screen and distributed as a document, and so ends up with heaps of text and extras. But with the pictures, we could at least walk through the illustration to tell the story of change as it trickles through the organization. The fun addition we made to the illustration was the business architecture representation, which connects in with, well, lasers. If I can get lasers in there, I’m happy.

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