Week 142 – Working in Times of Strangeness

It’s an essential part of building a business for the 21st century to deal with the “strangeness” of our times.

We featured this quote in some of our presentations:

You can’t help but realize, that the next 10-to-40 years are going to be really strange. Totally strange. And… that rate of strangeness seems is going to get exponentially more strange. And the problem we have right now is the people that are in charge of this stuff don’t understand a) how strange it’s going to be, or b) the form of the strangeness itself.

Ben Hammersley

And then we have days like yesterday that are best summed up this way:

Twitter today reads like a @GreatDismal novel in realtime, and reality unfolds like a Jason Bourne plot in realspace #EdwardSnowden

– Juha van ‘t Zelfde (@juhavantzelfde) June 23, 2013

I find myself going back and forth between different layers in my everyday life these days. As we mentioned in previous weeks, work is plenty. Currently, our greatest challenge is how to get all those projects done. Then I open my Twitter app and a completely different world opens up in which our worst apprehensions are coming true. The US and UK governments have found ways to track and collect our complete digital communications and are chasing the guy who told us around the world.

So there are tons of work and tons of things to think about and I’m asking myself how to behave in a situation like this. Do I just close all input channels, put on some music and drown myself in work to wait and see what will come of it all? Do I immerse myself in every little news item that emerges, join and start endless conversation about what this means and where it will take us? Should I move all our company data away from any of those US platforms that are involved in PRISM or would that make our work impossible? What role should privacy and data security play in my consulting work? This is but a fraction of the questions lingering at the fringes of our minds at the moment.

There are no easy answers these days and we embrace that. It’s an essential part of building a business for the 21st century to deal with the “strangeness” of our times. To immerse and retract, to drown and zoom out, to adapt and resist. We move back and forth to keep the balance and to avoid the two extremes we fear the most: lethargy and panic. Practically, this means that we prepare a workshop or develop a strategy deck in the morning and write an essay on the problem of the commercialization of technology in the afternoon.

What we’re finding right now to be most important for us is to organize ourselves even more then before. With so much work, input and conversations going on, we need fixed points to regroup and re-plan. Inspired by the agile development system, we’ve started doing quick stand-up meetings in the morning and the afternoon to quickly discuss what each one of us is working on in the next hours. This also helps our minds to keep on track and to feel more accountable for how we spend our days. It’s just one very practical tool to keep organized.

I don’t know exactly why this is like that, but somehow all the “strangeness” happening around us is invigorating. Everything is uncertain, nothing is determined. I feel extremely privileged to be in a position where this is a blessing, not a curse. How dare I not make a move.

So, how do you adapt your work in times of strangeness?

What we read this week (17 May)

Skepticism about Big Data, the hiccups that come with replacing employees with robots, “social lasers of cruelty,” Google’s new cutting-edge toy and the bizarre story of a con man and government collaborator.

Quote of the week

Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Articles of the week

  • Foreign Policy: Think Again: Big Data
    Kate Crawford, prinicipal researcher at Microsoft, makes the case for curbing our enthusiasm when it comes to Big Data and instead employing more caution and forethought. Most of the concerns she highlights here stem from the fact that data out of context can be misconstrued, and can therefore be a liability.
  • Caixin Online: Why Foxconn’s Switch to Robots Hasn’t Been Automatic
    Johannes’ recent talk at re:publica discussed what happens when machines replace us at work. Foxconn is an interesting example of a company in the midst of just such a transition, and demonstrates many of the social and logistic difficulties that come with the territory.
  • Smithsonian Magazine: What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web?
    Jaron Lanier is another voice advocating caution to the techno-utopians – a group he used to belong to. He’s especially critical of the notion of the “wisdom of the crowd”: “This is the thing that continues to scare me. You see in history the capacity of people to congeal—like social lasers of cruelty. That capacity is constant.”
  • New York Times Bits Blog: Google Buys a Quantum Computer
    The D-Wave quantum computer that was in the news a while back has been bought by Google and NASA, who are collaborating to work on AI and machine learning. Take note of the other companies and organizations mentioned in this article – it’s an interesting crew.
  • Wired Threat Level: Drugstore Cowboy
    A long read and a crazy story about a con man who cooperated with the US government to nab Google for supporting illegal drug sales through AdWords.

Week 122: Optimizing Workflows

In recent months, we started quite a few experiments that are aimed at optimizing established work flows, as well as finding new ones.

As I am writing this, there is a still unanswered memo from Johannes that I have to address about a potential new experiment of ours.

In recent months, we started quite a few experiments that are aimed at optimizing established workflows, as well as finding new ones. We switched to a 4-day output, 1-day input model. We established that new ideas can only be presented at meetings if the originator took the time to write a memo – not bullet points – to structure it before. Our constant documentation of these ideas in week notes also helped us understand ourselves better and make our thinking tangible and accessible to people outside of the company.

Not only that, we have been recently asked to speak about the way we work. diffferent invited us to an event they call “Meet the fffriends.” Basically, they asked us to talk about ourselves, and Maddie and I got to sit in comfortable chairs, talk about what is close to our hearts and, in between things, pet a dog while everybody else was listening to us. It was fun and if they should ever ask you to take part in that series of talks, make sure that you do.

Only recently we re-introduced ourselves to the idea that we need to spend more time thinking about the way work is being done. A friend of ours told us something over lunch that triggered a line of thought, or to be more precise, made us see a pattern. Everything that we do, be that when approaching communication strategy or reshaping a large corporation’s business model, starts with the way people inside those organizations will bring our strategy and insights into a daily work routine.

Expect to see us write and speak about this more over the coming month.

What we read this week (25 Jan)

A couple looks at Facebook’s Graph Search, what the real problem with Google Now is, why “functional stupidity” is important, what should worry us about the future, and why “obscurity” can be a more helpful term than “privacy” when it comes to data.

Quote of the week

The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people.

Pope Benedict XVI

Articles of the week

Week 120

Refining our learning project and focusing on technology’s impact on how people teach themselves, and helpful articles from Aaron Swartz’s blog.

Refining our project on learning

We’re still at work on building a repository of information and discussions on the impact technology is currently having on learning, or rather autodidactic learning as we decided recently. Guiding question: How is today’s technology changing the way people teach themselves things? While this topic encompasses quite a lot of what we were previously trying to tackle, it focuses on an area that currently abounds with particularly heated discussion. If you would like to talk to us on this topic, please get in touch – we appreciate as much perspective as we can get.

A thought on narrowing scope

Embracing fuzziness is something we like to do here – but it’s important to acknowledge when the fuzziness is simply too fuzzy to handle. In trying to do justice to the immensity of our learning topic, we initially thought that we would simply take samples from a broad range of fields. After a bit of discussion, though, it seemed a better idea to rein in the scope just a little bit, so that we have just one major lens to look through. This unified perspective then makes it easier to know where to start with each subtopic. The volume of possibilities becomes a more countable (or at least less uncountable) infinity, if you will, which is particularly helpful for the detail-oriented amongst us.

More reads from Aaron Swartz

I wasn’t familiar with any of Aaron Swartz’s writing until last week. I came across his series of blogposts called Raw Nerve, subtitled “a series on getting better at life” – and it really struck a chord with me.

In his introductory post, he touches on a problem that is so universally experienced that it can become almost invisible.

If someone was annoying me, I’d choose to avoid them. If something was bugging me, I’d choose to stop thinking about it. I mostly kept my eyes on what was in front of me.

His observations in this series hold just as well for individuals as they do for companies, and he goes into a great amount of detail as to why we behave like this, and what we can do to avoid this mentality. I encourage anyone, whether in search of advice for improving their business, their own work or themselves, to have a look at these pieces.

Interview with Conor Delahunty

Third in a series of interviews with people whose work we admire: designer Conor Delahunty. Conor tells us what pop songs have to do with service design, how the state of the recruitment industry is like Gotham City, and gives us a peek at what he’s working on at Somewhere.

Conor (@conordelahunty) is a designer working at Somewhere. Recently arrived in Berlin, he previously worked for Made by Many in London. He likes the internet a lot.

Conor Delahunty

What are you working on?
Right now I work for a new company called Somewhere. Somewhere is looking at the (pretty massive) problem that is how people find work that matters to them. We like to say we’re designing a service for humans, not human resources. That means we focus on people and the way that they talk to each other, not technology. But if we are to tackle this problem properly, that also means we have to build brand new tools and infrastructure! Catch-22, but I think we’re figuring out the balance. We were running a beta for a while and have just rolled out our first product. Baby steps right now but hopefully the next release will be a much bigger one.

How do you see the current state of affairs in the employment market?
I think it’s like in Batman Begins, you know! Ra’s al Ghul thinks Gotham is beyond saving, and that it must be allowed to die. I feel the same way about the recruitment industry. It’s a massively inefficient, deeply impersonal, cripplingly expensive, broken system. We know that people’s relationship to their work, their ambitions, their mobility, etc. is changing drastically. It needs a fresh start, a whole new way of thinking about the problem and what people really want out of it. I’m inclined to think we should just ignore the industry rather than save or change it! To quote Clay Shirky (I know, I know!), “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”.

What do you want to change about that through your work?
Studs Terkel has said about work, “It’s about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash.” If we can design a thoughtful, humane service that helps people with that search I’ll be very happy. We want people to find the people that they should be working with.

What other topics have become interesting to you lately, and why?

Pop Songs
I do lots of service ecology mapping and user journeys and all these other dry-sounding exercises to try and make sense of what we should be doing. When I’m making them though, I keep thinking about pop songs. I think a great service is like a great pop song. Introduce a catchy idea, keep it bubbling along, hit people with an irresistible chorus every now and again, keep it brief enough that it leaves people wanting more, etc. etc. So I’ve decided to just write pop songs instead making flow diagrams! It’s way more fun.

How do you design and build little gaps and broken spaces into things that encourage people to do something unexpected with the product/service you have created? Twitter and MySpace were full of these little gaps and that why I think they did well. When people are moulding the experience to their needs you get a much stronger sense of ownership. I like the fact that you don’t even really have a choice now either. IFTTT allows you to pull services apart and only use the bits that interest you.

3D Printing
I’m not really interested in the printing side of things right now but more so the impact it could have on our mindset. If people get used to being an integral part of the entire lifecycle of a product (i.e. creation, distribution, consumption, etc.), what does that do to a generation? What will they then want from products and service or even institutions? How will people approach boring things like banking or mobile phone contracts when they think or even know that they should be allowed to have a huge impact on how the system works, or that they should be allowed to just take the small bit that they see as valuable?

Architecture of home icons
I’d love to do an architectural review of home icons from popular sites and apps. I want to know what types of houses these companies are building for people and what that might say about what these companies think of their users.

Diversions 1994-1996 by Lee Gamble
I’m getting a bit lost inside this record. It makes me nostalgic for a time I was neither a part of nor had any real interest in! He took a load of samples off of his old Jungle mixtapes and made these hazy ambient memories out of them. Reminds me of “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore.”

Mariachi Connecticut Serenades a Beluga Whale
It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen on the internet. I can’t stop watching it. Bizarre, tender and beautiful.

What does your media diet currently consist of?
It’s pretty standard I guess. Twitter is the backbone; I’m always on it and it’s where I discover 80-90% of everything these days. My favourite account right now is @SeinfeldToday. For example: “Jerry breaks up with a beautiful woman because she favorites every one of his tweets. Kramer and Newman start a podcast.” Perfect. I also love Tumblr and I listen to tons of podcasts.

Oh yeah, I use Reading.am all the time. It’s just a big list of what people are reading right now. I always find a few gems in there every day. I urge you all to sign up. It’s really lovely. I don’t really buy too many magazines anymore, usually only when I’m flying. Stuart Eccles (@stueccles) once told me that he thinks the 20 minutes after take-off and before landing when you’re not allowed to use an electronic device will be the last dying breath of the magazine industry!

Interviews in this series:

  1. Caroline Drucker
  2. Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino
  3. Conor Delahunty