“Look after the water” – reflections 1 year into my work at NHS Digital

Other people’s jobs are endlessly fascinating. At a birthday celebration a couple of years ago I got talking to Johnny, a family friend who works as an aquarium curator. He told me a surprising thing about his work: how little of his time he spends actually looking after the fish. Johnny’s job is to look after the water. “Look after the water,” he said, “and the fish will take care of themselves.”

So it is with design leadership. Our designers have different specialisms – service, interaction and graphic design. They’re embedded across a wide range of endeavours, both public and professional facing. They’re the ones who see users in research, and stakeholders in show and tells. My role is not to tell them how to design; it’s to create the safe and supported conditions in which they can do their best work, individually and collectively. When those conditions come together, it’s a wonderful thing.

This week it’s one year since I joined NHS Digital to lead the design team. I’ve been thinking about what has changed, and what we have yet to achieve. As ever, views all my own.

Growing a team

Our third whole design team event took place a couple of weeks ago in Leeds. We ran two rounds of rapid fire show and tells: 14 designers showing their work in the space of 90 minutes. I was massively impressed that every designer who presented was so good at telling their story, under time pressure, to a room of 35 people.

We’re lucky to have two excellent lead designers. Tero heads our growing service design practice, while Dean has taken on interaction and graphic design for the NHS website. Design-minded product managers Emma, Ian, and Sophie join us in our fortnightly design leadership meetings. Stephen, who left a couple of months ago, was always insightful, knew his way around the organisation, and took on the unglamorous task of writing job descriptions. I miss our Friday morning coffees.

Hiring for designers in both London and Leeds has been a long journey but rewarding in the end. Over the past few months, it has been great to see the new seniors settling in. I believe we now have talent at every level, and a good foundation for design leadership here in the future. If my bike went under a bus on Chapeltown Road tomorrow, weekly design huddles would still happen in Leeds and London. I count that as a win. Having designers who talk to and trust each other is the foundation of a coherent experience for our users. The designers and I are rewarded on the same pay scales as nurses, doctors, and other NHS professionals. That’s a sobering reminder of the value each new recruit to the team is expected to add.

A year of recruitment in numbers:

  • Just over 50% of the design team are now newer than me to NHS Digital
  • Of the permanent staff, 11 are still here from the team when I arrived, 8 are new recruits, and 3 have left
  • Among contractors, it’s 1 still here, 7 new, and 3 left
  • On top of that are a dozen or so supplier staff with whom we work closely as members of our extended team
  • Permanent team, contractors and supplier staff alike, 100% of them want to do their best for users and the health service.

Designers work best as part of multi-disciplinary teams. After a year here, I’ve had the privilege to see a few of those teams go through the delivery cycle from discovery, through alphas and on to release private and public beta versions. It hasn’t always been straightforward. Some teams have got stuck. Some things have stopped when we realised they would not achieve the outcomes we hoped for. But it does feel that teams are getting slicker at this – learning about user needs, and learning how to work together as true multidisciplinary teams. I’m fortunate to be part of a senior leadership team with brilliant product, delivery, technology and content leaders too.

As a design team, we have access to two larger communities of practice. NHS Digital’s Digital Service Delivery profession includes design along with user research, product management, delivery management and content design. We’re also part of the amazing cross-government user-centred design community, giving us access to Government Digital Service (GDS) training and community events. I especially appreciate my meetings with Lou Downe and the other government heads of design.

Here are some things I’ve learned…

Power is a big theme in health and care.

My focus has been with teams designing and delivering for patients, carers, and families – users who don’t work for the NHS or social care. There’s good evidence that people in control of their own health and care have better health outcomes. But I can see from our research how people’s power is diminished – by illness or disability, by social circumstances, and (though we don’t mean to disempower) by us, in the way we design and deliver health and care services.

Digital information and service have the potential to make people more powerful again. This can only happen when people can get them, trust them, understand them, decide with them, and act on them. For people to take power in the NHS, we need to work across the whole system, a partnership of patients, families, professionals, and service providers.

Sometimes we need to diverge before we can converge.

A healthy tension between divergent and convergent working should be part and parcel of any design approach.

Soon after I arrived a year ago, I worried that, in some areas, we were trying to converge prematurely on solutions that had not been tested against a wide enough range of user needs and contexts of use. To reach the required quality, we had to go through a phase of divergence in which teams went off to solve their own problems, while sharing their work and looking out for common patterns. (Patterns, by the way, are never designed; they can only emerge when teams are empowered to work independently, but transparently.)

Now, we’re back to a phase of convergence around design for the NHS website, led by teams explicitly tasked with redesign and standards creation. I have greater confidence that we’re building on firmer foundations this time, because we’ve tried more things, and understood more user needs.

I’m a design system sceptic (but we’ll probably end up with a design system anyway).

Everyone seems to be talking about design systems right now. I caution that explicit efforts to create a system can easily tend towards design for its own sake, disconnected from validated user needs and contexts of use. I hope we can keep ours rooted in reality by rotating designers through the overall redesign and standards teams, in and out of squads working on specific health condition categories and services. Nothing should get into the design system without being researched with users in multiple need states and contexts.

Rather than all swarming on the same problems, we need to conserve our energy and focus. Like birds flying in formation, each team can take a turn to lead on a design challenge, before falling back to let others fly ahead for the next stage.

Critical optimism is the order of the day.

When I wrote my 6-month update, the always-perceptive Stefan Czerniawski noted:

There is a sweet spot in any job, or more generally in understanding any organisation, when you still retain a sense of surprise that anything could quite work that way, but have acquired an understanding of why it does, and of the local application of the general rule that all organisations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.

Since then I’ve tried to bottle that feeling. Healthcare certainly proves Dr Deming right: that the same system can at once be brilliant at some things and terrible at others. There can be world class care, medical and technological innovation side by side with the shocking failure waste that comes from poorly designed service. Being a permanent member of staff, I feel a responsibility to work with the grain of the system, while retaining a sense of urgency to make things better.

One of my objectives is to grow the whole organisation’s commitment to human-centred design. This definitely feels like a multi-year commitment, but I’m confident that we have director-and-above-level support for improving the quality, consistency and accessibility of digital services for NHS patients and professionals. Our head of profession Amanda has been the definition of an empowering manager. Our portfolio director Alan has an exceptionally user-centred vision for someone in a such high-profile delivery role.

Update on some things I committed to do at the 6-month point:

  • Develop my own capability – I am investigating leadership courses that might be right for me. Ideally, I’ll do something that brings me into contact with a more diverse range of health and care leaders, not just the ones focused on digital.
  • Reflect and plan – I started by block booking Friday afternoons as a meeting-free zone in my diary. Clearing emails and weekly reporting always swallowed them up. Now I’ve blocked out the whole day. I don’t always keep to it, but it’s a good reminder of the value of meeting-free time.
  • Listen better – There’s a bit almost at the end of David Marquet’s ‘Turn the Ship Around‘ video, in which he says you will fail repeatedly at giving control to your team, but get up and go again. That’s where I feel I am with my coaching practice right now. After some conversations, I come away kicking myself. When it goes right though, it’s so much more rewarding to hear a colleague solve their own problem than to hear myself offering my solution. Ultimately this is the only way that a design capability is going to scale.
  • Influence more – Lots more to do here. There are so many opportunities for improvement that our small team will never be able to address them all. By sharing standards and setting clear expectations of good practice, we can multiply our impact and give power to the many other people across the health and care system who want to make a difference with design.
  • Say no to more things – One of the adjustments in moving from a micro-business to a biggish organisation was appreciating that lots of things get done even if I don’t do them. Every week or so, I look through my to-do list for the things I really ought to delegate, and the things I’m just never going to do. Adding a “Not Going To Do” column in Trello has done wonders for my sense of productivity.
  • Say yes to more things – I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to some brilliant events and conversations. A recent highlight was working with Victoria Betton and Lenny Naar to deliver a hands-on user-centred design session at HIMSS e-Health week. In October, I’ll be speaking at Interact London, and the conference theme is “Intelligence in Design”. Fingers crossed I’ll have something intelligent to say.
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Put down all behaviour hurtful to informality!

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Among my favourite times working at Orange – and there were many – was the chance to lead the UK organisation’s design and usability team, doing user-centred design across the mobile and broadband business units.

At the start of the assignment I talked with heads of all the teams whose services we worked on, to understand what was going well and what, not so well. Two divergent patterns emerged.

Managers whose services were performing highly praised our responsiveness. They liked how designers could blend into their teams without the bureaucracy that bedevilled some other parts of the organisation. These were also the services where Design and Usability made the biggest difference. We were involved early, consulted often, and tuned in to their priorities.

The not-so-happy on the other hand, expected our work to be more transactional. They would involve design late, with precise requirements and arbitrary timelines. Their instinctive reaction when things were going wrong was to impose an even tighter rein.

And therein lay the problem: far from making things better, all the added controls would drag us even further away from the conditions that correlated most highly with success.

What high-performing teams had found – and struggling ones were missing – was a magical quality I’ve come to understand as “productive informality” – spontaneous, personal, and collaborating as equals.

I wrote about this a while ago in my post about digital transformation. In productive informality we see less forward planning, more ambient awareness, and the levelling effect of information abundance.

This post is an attempt to unpack that quality, to explain to myself as much as to you, dear reader, why those two words belong together. But first I need to define what I have in mind by productivity, and how we can think about it in a service-dominant world.

Productivity

When we talk about “productivity” in a general economic sense we mean the rate of output per unit of input. Dictionary example: “workers have boosted productivity by 30 per cent.”

You probably picture productivity as identical widgets rolling smoothly off some some sort of production line, so dominant is the manufacturing metaphor in our economy. But most of what we do at work isn’t like that at all: it’s service.

Productivity in service is infinitely variable. This means that optimising for repeatable, well-known processes with narrow tolerance is actually the fastest way to leave value lying on the table.

Instead we have to tune in to the needs of customers, no two of whom are alike. Only through continuous, informal communication can we discern and meet the full, diverse, messy, constantly shifting range of customer needs. Great service demands tolerance and curiosity.

Listen to the words of Jos de Blok, of home care organisation Buurtzorg Nederland, a poster child for people-centred health and care:

“I believe in client-centered care, with nursing that is independent and collaborative. The community-based nurse should have a central role – after all they know best how they can support specific circumstances for the client.”

Recently, applying for a place on a government framework contract, we were asked to affirm that we “ensure consistent delivery of quality to our customers”. So now Stick People has a quality policy. It goes like this:

We’re a service business. We understand quality as a moving target, defined and re-defined by our customers’ changing expectations, perceptions and experiences. To succeed we’ll have to consistently question and improve the way we work:

  • focusing and framing a better understanding of customers’ capabilities and needs
  • translating that understanding into clear agreements to work with them
  • keeping our promises and earning their trust
  • making work visible and inspecting progress
  • adopting and inventing better ways of working
  • closing every engagement to our own and our customers’ satisfaction.

As someone once said, the strategy is delivery. Only when we start to deliver, do we earn the trust that enables us to deliver more.

Informality

Like the butterfly at the top of this post, informality is impossible to pin down without fatal consequences. But this much we know: informality grows from trust.

Informality has, of course, always greased the wheels of business – and more so at the highest levels – the camaraderie of the boardroom, of the golf course, of Tony Blair’s “sofa government”.

Neither is it a novel insight that great groups operate informally. Take Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman in ‘Organising Genius‘:

Great Groups tend to be less bureaucratic than ordinary ones. Terribly talented people often have little tolerance for less talented middle managers. Great Groups tend to be structured, not according to title, but according to role. The person who is best able to do some essential task does it.

No matter how much we benefit from it inside an organisation, sometimes it’s scary to allow informality into the open. Exhibit this Alphagov Github commit:

Removed para about using cuddly toys and fruit as props in meetings.
Removed this para as it deviates from the authoritative tone. Some users may not find this puts GDS in a suitable light: 

To stop your meetings from becoming repetitive, have an object that you (gently) throw to someone to signify they should speak next. Pick people at random - it keeps people on their toes and lets the person speaking to choose the person they wish to hear from next. At GDS we use cuddly toys or a piece of fruit. It’s a bit of fun. You don’t have to this - it’s just something to experiment with.

The pattern

I believe productive informality is more than nice to have: it forms a virtuous circle that we can turn to our advantage:

  • Service productivity builds trust
  • Trust engenders informality
  • Informality is the route to richer, faster learning
  • Continual learning is essential for any service to be productive

New Mockup 1.png

In this, we can see echoes of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development.  These are more than just cultural preferences, they are pre-conditions for productivity:

Screenshot 2016-02-04 14.41.23.png

Boldness and humanity

The longer this katamari of a blog post has sat in my drafts folder, the more it has accumulated examples and tangents and one-more-things:

Janet Hughes on boldness:

I’ve always been drawn to boldness. I find boldness in others inspiring, infectious, empowering, creative and meaningful. I want to spend time around bold, honest, open people. I want to be inspired and empowered to boldness myself. I know I am at my best when I can feel the weird whoosh of terror and relief that comes from real, heartfelt boldness. And I don’t think you can lead a great team, or transform organisations or services without a healthy amount of boldness.

Leanne Buchan’s new approach to a new Leeds Culture Strategy:

One thing that is already different is that what you are reading, hopefully, doesn’t feel like a council document for consultation. It is written in the voice of a person not an organisation and not just the foreword. This voice is the voice of Leanne Buchan: Council worker; Human with ideas and opinions; Sometimes gets it right, sometimes gets it wrong.

You’ll hear bold, human voices like these wherever good work is going on. People working at pace, making good progress, don’t need to dress up their words with technical jargon or commercial buzzwords. They have no fear of a burning platform. The way they talk about their work in their own natural voice is a sign of intrinsic pleasure from doing good work.

The anti-pattern

I reckon we should always stand our ground on cuddly toys and fruit lest the virtuous circle turns into a vicious one:

  • Increased formality dulls and slows our ability to understand customer needs
  • As a result we end up further away from doing good work
  • Poor performance leads to demands for tighter formal control. And so on…

New Mockup 1 copy.png

Start down this road and before we know it the good principles of the Agile Manifesto will be smothered in the cakewreck of so-called “best practice” (the very presumption of claiming that this is as good as it gets!) …

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Call to arms

Productive informality might just be a critical dividing line for our time.

There’s a growing impatience and disillusionment with the old ways of working. We are fed up with convoluted contracts. We reject processes structured around organisations not users. We are less enamoured of the arcane ways of parliament and political parties.

Many of the issues that anger people today seem to me to come down to unfair distribution of access to informality. Uber is criticised when it treats drivers with a harshness inconsistent with its brand for riders. Small businesses demand that HMRC cut them the same slack that it appears to offer to Google, Vodafone and Starbucks.

We are at a crossroads where digital technology can be used to enhance or extinguish informal ways of working – to promote spontaneity or enforce process conformance. As makers with that technology, whose side are we on?

In the industrial England of the 1810s, the Luddites destroyed machines that threatened their way of work and life. Contrary to popular belief, they were not against all machines. Their complaints were more nuanced, understanding all too well the relationship between technology and social change. In the words of their fictional figurehead Ned Ludd:

“We will never lay down our Arms… [until] the House of Commons passes an Act to put down all Machinery hurtful to Commonality,”

And so 200 years later, this is our demand: put down all behaviour hurtful to informality!

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Annual Report Number Two

Discovery Centre

A couple of Fridays ago, 14 of my favourite people gathered down at the Leeds Museums Discovery Centre for a bit of a get-together. Besides being responsible for some pretty amazing projects of their own, they’d all been involved in some way in my first two years of independent service design and innovation consulting. I wanted them to help me celebrate and do some un-conference-style thinking about what might come next.

After a quick canter round the museum service’s stash of more than a million undisplayed objects, my group of customers, collaborators and confidantes shared the stuff they’d like to talk about – stuff like “the connected city”, “digital leadership”, “does Leeds have a value proposition (or do we need one?)”, “fun”, “curiosity”, “finding the right projects” and “what does open mean anyway?”

We left with more questions than answers, but they were good questions, we enjoyed lunch together, and we agreed to meet again.

***

When I wrote my Annual Report Number One I was just starting out with the Government Digital Service, scoping what became the alpha, then the beta, then the live version of the Service Manager Induction and Development Programme.

A year later I’m still privileged to be involved with GDS, with the small team that has sprung up around the service manager programme, and with the smart, committed civil servants who come on the programme from departments and agencies.

GDS people really mean it when they say “Trust. Users. Delivery.” They’ve achieved so much in such a short space of time, yet it feels as if the transformation of Britain’s digital public services has only just begun.

***

While working with service the size of a G8 nation, it’s also nice to do something at neighbourhood scale.

Last summer I was funded by a Technology Strategy Board innovation voucher to review how actionable open data, delivered in the right way at the right time, could help residents in sustainable homes save energy, water and money.

I’m now part of a small team developing the resulting insights as Actuate, a digital service for homeowners and tenants to control and monitor their homes. We’re building the internet of things one neighbourhood at a time, and delighting in the way situated software delivers for users by the dozens not the millions.

Actuated Futures, the partnership behind this project, is also setting up the ODI-Node for Leeds, which promises to be a fantastic resource for open data-related projects in our city region.

***

As co-organisers of Service Design Leeds, Kathryn Grace and I had all but decided we wouldn’t have time to put on a fourth Leeds Service Jam this year. But with new volunteers on board we relented and were delighted to be able to link up with Rewired State’s National Hack the Government event that happened over the same weekend.

Inspired by this, we’ve put our hands up to make Leeds part of Global GovJam in June. Say hello to @LeedsGovJam if you’d like to be part of it.

In other news, I joined a panel of “game changers” for a top brand and innovation firm, got Leeds Met students designing services disguised as robots, ran a walkshop, and indulged my love of Leeds’ industrial heritage in a lightning talk on the Importance of Failure. Please keep asking me to do those kind of things. I’ll always say yes if I can.

***

So I find myself at the end of a two-year plan.

My gamble when I left Orange was that if it took me a few months to bring in the first consulting work I could make it back to cash positive by the end of the second year. I modelled the best and worst that could happen, plus something in the middle. (The three scenarios are named after coffee cup sizes; testing mobile contactless payments involved buying a lot of Americanos.) The blue line is what happened.

Chart

The variability is a function of the fluctuating consultancy income, overlaid with the uneven way we’ve drawn down money  to live on as a family – smooth it out and the gradient pretty much follows my “medio” estimate.

But the bottom line after my two-year experiment is that this is sustainable and there’s no going back. From here on it’s about fine-tuning the financials, teaming up with associates to work on bigger projects, and staying valuable to my clients.

Thanks to the many people who have made this possible.

***

One of my ambitions for the next 12 months is to spend less time on the train. Back of an envelope, I lived a full nine days of the last 365 on the East Coast Mainline.

I love working in London (and thanks to my mother-in-law for putting me up there on numerous overnight stays) but as a place to build a service design practice Leeds has never felt more alive with possibilities. Six out of seven workers here are in the service industries: they care for the sick and elderly, raise and teach the next generation, perform in the arts, clean the streets, drive the buses, staff the checkouts, and help customers online and over the phone.

I sense a real will among the people in charge of those services to be more agile and user-driven, and to do so at a human scale. I believe our fellow citizens should participate in, and benefit from, a stream of radical service improvements and innovations; and I want Leeds to earn a unique reputation as city of ever-changing, people-centred, service know-how.

Want to be part of year three? I’m at http://mattedgar.com

Annual Report Number One

work in progress

Exactly 365 days ago I set out on my independent consulting adventure, complete with the de rigueur intent to document my progress in weeknotes.

Week one was an intense blur of 5am flights, meetings and bratwurst; it went un-noted. Weeks two and three likewise. For a while, I told myself there’d be “monthnotes” instead. By the end of month three, this clearly was not happening either.

They’d have been pretty opaque anyway: “Planned research interviews for $undisclosed-client$; Updated the sales pipeline I made for myself in Trello; Word of the week is ‘vestibule’” – stuff like that.

So consider this a yearnote, my annual report to anyone who is interested. This is what I’ve learned so far.

The need for service design

A year ago, I believed the time was right for my particular flavour of people-centred service design. 12 months on, even more so.

Organisations of all sizes are looking to go beyond web and mobile marketing to offer genuinely useful multi-touchpoint services. They are hungry for new ways to understand what customers want, to reinvent the way we do everyday things, and to free frontline staff to do their best work.

This expresses itself differently according to context:

  • In our homes, shops and offices it’s often about people with computers in their hands that are more powerful and better connected than all the fixed infrastructure that weighs around them.
  • In our towns and cities, it’s about optimising for the cacophony of people’s aspirations and everyday objectives, not imposing a blinkered view of efficiency from above.
  • In our public life, it’s about reinventing simpler, clearer, faster services with citizens at the centre.

Thanks to my wonderful customers

Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to work with some great teams. There have been projects for a multi-national sportswear brand and a UK supermarket chain. I’m excited to be kicking off a thing right now with the Government Digital Service.

The lovely people at Made by Many have put some fascinating projects my way and are always a joy to work with.

Working direct for large organisations takes more time to line up, but has also proved to be time well spent. It helps me learn what customers really need and where my practice can add the greatest value.

I’m keen to keep that balance between different ways of engaging.

How long is a piece of string?

I’ve hit my targets for the year by doing fewer, larger engagements than I imagined.

Looking back, this is a good thing. I’ve finished every job feeling I delivered something of significant value to the client. I think they feel the same.

While I pride myself on being quick on the uptake, I reckon I add most value when a project gets down to a certain level of detail in terms of customer research and service design. Small, unexpected insights make a big difference, and those don’t always show themselves in the first few days.

Collaboration

Working with associates was always part of the plan. I had the chance to bring in a very talented service designer to work alongside me on one project, and pitched, ultimately unsuccessfully, with associates for another. Despite that miss, I believe this model is the future.

For the next year, I want to partner more with agencies and associates to tackle some big, worthwhile service challenges that none of us would be able to take on alone.

After experiencing the serendipity of co-working at Duke Studios, I wonder why anyone would be so dumb as to fill a big office block with people who all work for a single company.

Time to hear myself think

I promised myself that I’d make the time to keep thinking, blogging and speaking.

On this blog and in a series of talks, I’ve continued to circle around topics from service design to smart cities, with the odd diversion into local history. I gave lightning talks at Next Service Design in Berlin and Bettakultcha Leeds.

I’ve indulged myself with trips to London for The Story, Brighton for dConstruct and Manchester for Future Everything.

My search for a New Idea of the North remains a work in progress. And I’ve spent a little bit of time experimenting with print again, bundling some blog posts about places into a series of booklets over on Bookleteer.

You may notice this blog’s template is looking a bit long in the tooth – cobblers, children, shoes, etc..

Feeding the family

Those close to me at the time will know just how long I spent working up to the point where I could resign from my secure, well paid job at Orange to go it alone – so long in fact that by the time the moment came it didn’t feel scary at all.

I had some money put by to be sure that the kids wouldn’t starve if I went a few months without work. A year later, most of that money is still there, which is nice to know. Having that buffer allows me to smooth out the peaks and troughs that seem to be an inevitable feature of freelancing.

There’s a pleasing directness in the relationship between working and earning. But then I’ve been lucky that all my customers are prompt payers. Long may they continue to be so.

Xero makes wrangling receipts, invoices and VAT returns so much fun that I sometimes have to check myself from tumbling down a rabbit-hole of financial over-analysis and fantasy budgeting. I feel it’s important to keep this stuff simple and focus on doing good work.

Enduring values

Alongside my business plan, I wrote a manifesto. “Changeful” was the codename I used for my consulting practice and is now the name of my registered company.

At the time I wasn’t sure if these really were enduring values. They could so easily have been temporary hobby-horses born of my context at the time. But this evening I looked back over the list and thought, yeah, they’re enduring, so far.

I publish them here unaltered:

Changeful will be exciting and distinctive to work with because of some basic principles.

  1. It’s more profitable to make stuff that people already want than to make them want stuff that’s already made. That’s why Changeful will follow a user-centred design process. It will never put lipstick on a pig.

  2. Great products and services are grounded in a sense of place, and for Changeful that place is Leeds. It will work for clients and users all over the world, but where possible it will start with its fellow citizens.

  3. Changeful aims to be part of an open network of suppliers and customers where the presumption is in favour of sharing skills, knowledge and tasks. The most natural habitat for this behaviour is the Web.

  4. Sometimes Changeful’s work will be challenging, in order to be more rewarding – like John Ruskin’s six qualities of great Gothic stone-masonry: “Savageness, Changefulness, Naturalism, Grotesqueness, Rigidity and Redundance.”

  5. Wherever possible Changeful will use freely available tools and materials that are open to anyone. People should be able to look at Changeful’s offer, be inspired, and say, “I could do that too”.

  6. Changeful must enjoy keeping up stuff that already exists as much as making from scratch. Some days nobody will notice the difference Changeful makes, but we’ll all reap the benefits in the long run.

  7. Changeful will stay focused on the things that will make the biggest difference to customers and clients. When we see a bottle that says “drink me” we will check the label on the back and most likely leave well alone.

So that was year one. Thanks to all the people – too numerous to name – who have helped me on the way.

Want to be part of year two? I’m at http://mattedgar.com

Who can draw?

“Think about this: walk into a class of primary school children and – with the teacher’s permission, of course – ask the six-year-olds how many can draw. Every hand will go up. Now ask how many can read: perhaps two little hands will go up. Now walk into a secondary school and ask the 16-year-olds the same two questions. How many can draw? Maybe three hands. How many can read? Every hand.”

Dan Roam explains why drawing can be such a powerful work tool.

The unsung office hero

Working for a company in a rapidly changing industry, it’s easy to overlook the contributions of the team members who deliver the goods day-in day-out. It’s important that these unsung heroes are recognised, and their milestones marked.

So when my coworkers spotted that the office coffee machine was approaching its 100,000th drink they decided it was worth a party. The good folks at Flavia obliged with supplies of chocolate to go with the centemillennial celebrations.

As the number on the LCD crept up, about 20 of us crowded into the narrow corridor where the coffee machine lives, ready to cheer its achievement.

Some people were hoping for some kind of crazy embedded software Easter egg, but the machine modestly just did its thing, exactly as it had for the other 99,999 drinks. The honoured recipient of the beige plastic cupful of “Smooth Roast” reported that it tasted “lovely”.

Here’s the machine quietly communicating the moment…

100,000 drinks

In their fascinating work, The Media Equation, Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass demonstrate how people instinctively relate to machines as if they were human, even if they have no outwardly human attributes. Their work focuses on individual interactions with computers and how we treat them with politeness and respect, not wanting to hurt their feelings.

The Flavia party takes this a step further. Not only is the coffee machine treated as sentient each time it dispenses a drink, but over the years (five, maybe?) it has become part of the team. It has certainly out-done many human employees in length of service.

Interestingly it was the count of “Total Drinks” that increased our emotional connection with the coffee machine. The counter feature was doubtless included as an aid to maintenance and service rather than for public consumption, yet it made us think differently about the machine’s role in the epic narrative of our corporate life. If we can get through that many hot beverages together, then we too must be heroes of a sort.

When its time finally comes to be “upgraded” or whatever indignity awaits, I hope we will treat the coffee machine with the deference accorded by Icelandic civil servants to their IBM 1401, as recorded here.

Oh, and the chocolate was lovely too.