Doctor's Note - Issue 9 - Malls and Avatars

We seem to be reliving the 90s and 00s in some kind of second life.

Welcome back to Doctor’s Note on the new Substack platform. I don’t know if you’ll notice much difference, but it’s a much nicer ride for me and I’m driving.

Send in the clones

Doctor's Note isn't intended to be solely about synthetic realities, but you reap what you sow. Since I've been writing and talking about the rise of synthetic media, deepfakes and avatars, I keep being sent interesting material and the field is moving very fast indeed.

Deepfakes are steadily becoming an artform in the right hands. Ctrl Shift Face's one of Bill Hader's Tom Cruise impression is so subtle, you really need to look for the eyebrows and teeth, which turn from normal guy teeth to Tom Cruise beamers.

Also impressive is the poem recital from impressionist Jim Meskimen that uses deepfakes to change his face into the person he's doing the impression of. What is much more impressive is the before and after VFX reel, because there you can see just how much he manages to look like different people by virtue of his impression alone.

Voice cloning is also progressing incredibly quickly. Earlier technologies like Lyrebird took quite a bit of training data input, but Corentin Jemine's toolbox can do it in realtime. This, combined with the likes of Descript's system of editing text to edit audio, will change audio production enormously (and Descript just acquired Lyrebird).

Text-based Editing of Talking-head Video

Then, just as I thought that was impressive, text-based editing of talking head video arrived on the scene. This does the same as Descript's tool does with audio, but it also generates the face and mouth movements to go with it. It's worth watching the progression of the video to the end, because you can see what happens as each of those technologies combine. If this is wrapped up in a decent user-interface, I think we'll soon see this kind of tool used in the editing suite very soon. And with it will come all the "what is real?" questions once again.

A second life for avatars?

Avatars have been part of the Internet for a very long time. I once had a book called Avatars! by Bruce Damer that documented many of the early attempts at virtual worlds. Alphaworld was one of the ones I regularly used because my brother was researching them at the time. We were flying around in blocky pixel renderings of avatars, but pretending it was really like Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. It certainly felt a step up from text-based MUDs and MOOs, until it got a little boring because we didn't know anyone else.

Then came Second Life, a virtual world bandwagon that many brands and educational institutions jumped upon as the future of online communities. At the time I was in academia and I saw an enormous amount of money pumped into Second Life "campuses". They all fell for the common illusion that face-to-face learning could be replicated online by creating 3D versions of lecture theatres and rooms.

Joe Veix's amusing 2018 article Exploring The Digital Ruins Of Second Life (on Digg, of all places, remember Digg?) is full of echoes of today:

It seemed to me that, like a lot of Silicon Valley creations, "Second Life" offered the promise of a revolution, but merely delivered a normative, if slightly recontextualized reality. Another transfer of wealth with good PR. Instead of U.S. dollars, we had Linden Dollars. In a world where everyone could fly, people still built stairs.

Later Veix makes a pointed comparison to abandoned shopping malls:

In both instances, this precarity is inextricably linked to commerce. Malls can serve as spaces for people to meet and hang out, but this is only incidental to their primary purpose, which is to generate wealth for their corporate owners.

This is troublesome, as these social spaces are incredibly fragile. They often fail under the strain caused by true public use. This manifests itself in different ways, some more alarming than others; like "no skateboarding" signs, or rules banning large gatherings (protests are bad for business, after all). The businesses can also suddenly fail — maybe their prices are undercut by a more convenient, monopolistic online retail company — taking the extraneous community spaces down with them. Not that we should weep for dying corporate chains or anything, but in lands of suburban sprawl, they at least offered places for people to go, however bleak.

I wonder if we can think about our digital social spaces in the same way. Many of those that were popular in the '90s and early '00s are now vaporware. The companies went bankrupt or were purchased and mismanaged to death. Users fled. Communities were destroyed. Data was liquidated. We should be concerned that a majority of our online spaces are owned by corporations who do not have our best interests in mind, despite fuzzy PR statements about "building communities." Our digital spaces can suddenly be destroyed or altered in disturbing ways without our consent. Why don't we have control over them? Why can't we? Always remember: Facebook and Instagram and Twitter are malls, not parks.

Yet Facebook announced Facebook Horizon recently, "an ever-expanding VR world where you can explore, play, and create in extraordinary ways. At Horizon, you’re not just discovering a new world, you are part of what makes it great."

Sound familiar?

The chipper Dory-like presenter tells us, "Horizon isn't about rules or limits. It's about getting out there and trying new things, making new friends." All the while their ignored partners are getting on with their lives in real life. It's quite a remarkable piece of media history amnesia absolutely worthy of Dory herself.

I imagine we might be looking in through the dusty windows of an abandoned WeWork space one day, reminiscing about all the people we used to know on The Facebook before it got shut down after its cryptocurrency made the world bankrupt again.

Thankfully the BBC, torch-bearer for publicly-funded media production, soldiers ever on. A documentary released today takes a dive into the world of 3D scanning to create avatars. The tech has moved from high-end visual-effects for film and the VR porn industry—always the early adopters—to companies like DNABlock who are creating them to licence out for fashion shoots, but initially for their blockchain game, Chain Clash.

I had a 3D scan done the other day by Doob. Unfortunately I appear to have dislocated all my limbs in the result.

Where is it all going to end? Well, that's what I've been spending my writing time on in the past weeks. Fjord's 2020 Trends are just around the corner, so you'll have to wait and see.

It's a kind of magic

In the meantime, here's a completely different kind of magic — check out the Chicago Magic Lounge, a place where close-up sleight of hand is being kept alive and well. Now I really need an excuse to visit the Windy City.

That's it for this issue of Doctor's Note. If you liked it, please consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague to sign-up. And you might also like my podcast, Power of Ten, which is all about design operating at different levels of "zoom," but mainly consists of me talking to people smarter than me.



Doctor's Note - Issue 8 - Design in the age of synthetic realities

Design in the age of synthetic realities

It's been a while since my last newsletter, mainly because I travelled to UX Australia to run a Storytelling & Pitching workshop and present my new talk, Design in the Age of Synthetic Realities, based on the Synthetic Realities Fjord Trend I wrote. In the past 18 months or so, I've been delving deep into the world of AI-generated media and am convinced we're about to see a creative explosion now that tools like Runway ML are getting into designers' hands. We are at the equivalent stage of Photoshop 1.0 or early 3D rendering as they emerged from computer science labs and quickly became part of our media culture.

I wanted to pull all this material together in one place, as well as make a different argument to the common "the death of truth as we know it" headlines. The shocking thing about synthetic realities is not how easily we might be fooled, but simply how quickly we'll get used to them, as we already have. So I wrote an essay called Design in the Age of Synthetic Realities, available to you lovely Doctor's Note subscribers via this Medium friends link.

I am still a believer in the long read and of unpacking an argument and tracing its historical roots. This will take some time to digest, especially if you watch all the embedded videos. But seeing it all together in one place gives you the moment of realisation that so much is about to change.

Please share far and wide and I would really love to hear some feedback from you.

Since that essay is so long, I think that's probably enough reading. So here are some quick updates:

Switching to Hugo is moving to a different platform, Hugo and Netlify. I still use a RSS feed reader for a lot of my reading, so I always assume everyone else does. They probably don't. However, if you do and you notice the feed doesn't update (the next update will be the Synthetic Realities essay also posted on my blog), then try pointing your reader at this URL:

Power of Ten

The most recent episode of my Power of Ten podcast is an interview with the fascinating Ariel Waldman talking about her work stimulating cross-disciplinary collaboration at NASA. She's got a pretty amazing gig.

There are a whole host of interesting guests coming up now that the summer break is over, so please subscribe in all the usual places you get podcasts. If you like it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes — you know as well as I do that it helps nudge those algorithms and other people to find the show.

That’s it for this issue. As always, I’m very happy to hear feedback and responses (positive and negative). The best place for that is Twitter. The second-best place is LinkedIn. Or you can mail me on

I’d love to grow the readership, so if you like Doctor’s Note, please forward it to people or post your feedback and the sign-up link. It really helps.



Doctor’s Note - Issue 7 - Collaboration

Learning from Ed Sheeran

I went to see Ed Sheeran live the other day. I can assure that’s not a sentence I thought I would be writing.

At the start of his meteoritic rise, I couldn’t hear Shape of You one more time. Then my daughter got into him, which meant pretty much having the Divide album on loop. The repetition made me appreciate the songwriting a bit more and led to watching a few performances on YouTube and that led to us treating our 10 year-old to her first big concert.

And big it was. Sheeran’s performance at the Hockenheimring in Germany was, according to him on the night, the biggest crowd he had ever played to at nearly 100,000 people. We booked late and were at seats about 12 miles away from the stage at the edge (children aren’t allowed in the standing area anyway), but that didn’t matter. His performance was remarkable — just him, his guitar and mic, and a Loop Station. He uses the Loop Station to record loops and build up the track live, accompanying himself. All for two hours.

Now, I’ve done some live performance with loops (really, don’t click that link) and I know full well how quickly that can go awry. You only have to get the timing a tiny bit off and you’ve got cross-beats and a musical mess. Gary Dunne, who taught Sheeran how to use loop pedals, explained and defended the art recently saying, ”I find it interesting that people can watch the gig and criticise the art and not understand the complexity and the vulnerability of what he’s doing.” The level of practice and musicianship is impressive, especially in the days of giant spectacle performances of the Lady Gaga ilk.

Newly impressed by Ed Sheeran, I watched the documentary about him called Songwriter, made by his cousin Murray Cummings. It documents the process of him writing the Divide album, from first glimpse of song ideas through to the finished album.

There are plenty of folks musicians in his circle who seem to be trying very hard to look like pop-stars, but Sheeran remains remarkably down-to-earth. What really struck me was the importance of a psychologically safe and focused environment for the process, and how portable digital audio recording tools have transformed it.

Now that design has been so democratised and the mantra of “everyone is a designer” underpins the rise (and fall?) of design thinking, the craft skill is often overlooked. This isn’t so with music (well, maybe with DJs who record their sets on USB and hit play on the night. Playing an instrument and songwriting are still viewed with the awe of, “I couldn’t do that” by many buying into the talent myth. This has allowed musicians to make a clearer argument for “special” ways of working to maintain the “magic.”

Sheeran writes and records in a variety of sessions, but one part of the documentary shows them at the house in the country of producer, Benny Blanco. This allows them immense focus, away from the record label suits and any other distractions. It also creates the psychologically safe space for the songs to emerge, fragile and half formed, and then evolve.

The documentary starts with Sheeran recording parts of new song ideas in the back of his tour bus with Benny. Benny is afraid of flying, so they cross the Atlantic on a cruise ship and there is a section where they’re recording and producing in a pop-up studio they’ve created in some back room of the ship. It’s quite remarkable that any of this is possible when you think of how much kit recording studios used to require. Non-linear digital editing also means he can record the bits of the song he’s happy with—a kind of musical MVP—and drop in lines later, once he has them until it’s complete.

Galway Girl, for example, starts with a few chords and a couple of lines (“She played the guitar with an Irish band, dancing slow with an Englishman…” - the final lyrics are different) and lots of humming for the bits that he hasn’t thought of words for yet. It’s rare to get a glimpse of such a well-known piece of culture emerging from the head of its creator in the moment.

After several contributions from others, he wanders off into the garden on his own to work it out and comes back with most of the song. It’s an excellent example of the ebb and flow of the individual seed of an idea, collaboration, and then individual focus again. The collaboration continues as the song arrangement takes shape and is recorded and produced by Benny. Finally ending in Sheeran on stage, alone once more.

Perfect takes a similar route, going from guitar to full orchestrated arrangement (by his brother, Matthew Sheeran) to eventually emerge as a pared back version on the album. It’s a highly effective, but very inefficient process. An entire orchestra for a day only to use a tiny bit of the recording. Always remember to kill your darlings.

One of the biggest struggles design teams have is space to focus and space to be vulnerable. The distractions of email, messaging apps and meetings in the increasingly large organisations they are embedded in creates so much noise that tuning into an emerging creative idea is difficult. The pressure to work faster, even in sprints that are intended to aid focus, isn’t always conducive to letting ideas emerge half-baked and then evolve, despite the MVP language of skateboard, scooter, bike, etc.. That language and mindset works when you’re fairly clear on what it is you’re trying to build – it’s not so useful when you’re not really sure what it is you are or should be making. I would argue that this is a key difference between design and engineering.

It’s also important to get the bad ideas out of the way. Natalie Goldberg famously talked about “letting yourself write junk” and Ernest Hemingway gave solace to all writers when he said, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

When Sheeran visits his old school and is talking to music students there, he makes the analogy of songwriting being like turning on a dirty tap in an old house. “You turn on the tap and it just spits out shit water for the first ten minutes”, then you start to get cleaner water with occasionally bits of girt, before the flow is clean water. When he started in earnest, he tried to write at least two-to-three songs a day, knowing that the first third of them were rubbish, but they were the necessary pathway to the good stuff. “Once all the bad songs have gone, the good songs started [sic] flowing.”

You can’t take shortcuts to the good stuff. It’s my favourite thing about writing. You can’t write a second draft without a first draft. If you try, you’ll write the first paragraph over and over for an hour and that’s not a draft. That’s just the deadly combination of perfectionist procrastination.

Who knew I would write so much about Ed Sheeran? Not me.

Studio Culture

This is HCD’s Gerry Scullion pointed me to a short documentary by the BBC UX&D team on Design Studio Culture, with interviews with AKQA, Co-op Digital, Google, and ustwo. It’s only 14 minutes and worth watching during a coffee break.

The need for different (let’s avoid using the word “special” — it’s so often used pejoratively for designers) rituals and environments comes up all the time. So does the struggle to balance the desire for collaborative critique with making the time and creating the culture for it.

Antirom was a flat-structured collective with two sets of siblings and a couple amongst its members. This familiarity gave it a very candid, albeit sometimes brutal, crit culture. Hard as it was sometimes, it was a crucial filtering mechanism for the work, along with sharing code, assets and ideas collectively. I’ve never managed to work the same since.

Finding the balance between creative dictatorship one the one side and blandness-inducing love-in on the other is tricky. It’s particularly tough if you’re in a larger organisation that puts other pressures on the teams, so it was interesting to hear from the Google and BBC folks and occasionally read between the lines in the interviews.

UX Australia 2019 coming soon

It’s now only about eight weeks until UX Australia 2019. Here’s the last plug on this newsletter for my talk on Design in the Age of Synthetic Realities and my workshop on Storytelling and Pitching for Designers. The workshop is very nearly sold out, so if you’re sitting on the fence, now’s the time to decide (for mine, obviously).

Latest Power of Ten episodes

My Power of Ten podcast with Invision’s Leah Buley & Aarron Walter about Design Better and the Design Maturity Model is available on the Power of Ten page and wherever you get your podcasts. They were both super smart interviewees and I particularly liked their take on remote working at the end of the podcast.

Coming up is a conversation with Gretchen Anderson about her book, Mastering Collaboration, and a whole list of interesting guests. Keep an eye on Twitter for new releases.

If you listen to and like Power of Ten, I’d be super grateful if you’d post a review on iTunes. It nudges the algorithms and helps others find it.

That’s it for this issue. As always, I’m very happy to hear feedback and responses (positive and negative). The best place for that is Twitter. The second-best place is LinkedIn. Or you can mail me on

I’d love to grow the readership, so if you like Doctor’s Note, please forward it to people or post your feedback and the sign-up link. It really helps.



Doctor's Note – Issue 6 – Innovation = Conversation + Doing

Doctor's Note – Issue 6 – Innovation = Conversation + Doing

Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash

It's been a few weeks since my last Doctor's Note—it called an irregular newsletter for a reason. So, first a few announcements...

New Power of Ten Episodes

Power of Ten Cover

I had a very inspiring and engaging conversation with The Ready's Aaron Dignan about his new book, Brave New Work, in the last episode of my podcast, Power of Ten. Coming up on Power of Ten is a conversation with Anne Galloway about speculative design and more (her one small thing suggestion at the end is an eye-opener). After that a three-way chat with InVision's Aaron Walter and Leah Buley about their Design Maturity Model report and more. If you like what's in Doctor's Note, you'll like Power of Ten.

If you like Power of Ten, please consider giving it a rating or review on iTunes. It massively helps us rise in the rankings and other people to discover the podcast.

UX Australia 2019

I'm heading to Australia in August for UX Australia 2019 where I'll be running a workshop on Storytelling & Pitching for Designers and giving a presentation on Design in the Age of Synthetic Realities, which is my take on what the rise of AI-generated media means for creators (much more than it means for consumers of that media, I believe).

First person on this list to mail me their registration for my workshop gets a signed copy of Service Design: From Insight to Implementation.

Changing Newsletter Platforms

I started this on TinyLetter because it's a bit of a simpler interface than Mailchimp (who now own TinyLetter anyway). At some point Mailchimp will integrate them, but I also have a bunch of subscribers on Mailchimp who receive the feed from my blog, Playpen. At some point I'll consolidate these either onto Mailchimp or maybe Substack, but I'll send out a one-off note about it so you know what to whitelist in your spam settings. I'd welcome any opinions about newsletter platforms, too. Drop me a line.

Weekend Reading

I've been doing a lot of work with clients building up their own design and innovation capabilities in the last couple of years. The following essay will be published on Medium and next week. You get it as a weekend read, you lucky people.

A simple question

“What should we be doing to be increase innovation?” It is a very common question from clients. It’s not unreasonable, since the chatter around innovation is that it is the magic bullet to success and growth. Innovation shares much of the same mystery as Dan Ariely’s quip about big data:

“Everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.”

But the more time I spend time digging into the underlying issues, the more it is clear that the fundamental premises of the question are wrong.

The first false premise is that innovation is an activity in and of itself. It’s not. There are no teams of people who sit around abstractly innovating. Teams of people work on tangible things, ideally with a clear sense of purpose, even if they frequently don’t have an entirely clear sense of how to get there. Innovation work also involves a certain amount of fumbling around in the dark. The tangible outcomes of that work are the innovations.

Innovation is better understood as a noun, not a verb.

The second false premise is the idea that you have to do more to innovate. “Do more” is a general feature of management culture and leadership KPIs. Preferably doing more faster, more agile, more efficiently, with less money, but more technology. This usually results in a new program, a new department, a new strategy, a new technology platform, new press releases.

New can be great, but it’s usually not much use when it simply gets plastered onto the existing substrate of process and procedure, what Dan Hill describes as the Dark Matter of organisations. That can easily become innovation theatre.

The four horseman of the bureaucratic apocalypse—HR, Procurement, IT, and Facilities—can stymie innovation and transformation programs in very banal ways. I’ve witnessed teams who are not allowed to use the latest tools, not allowed to stick work up on the walls, can’t hire the right people in the right way, can’t book spaces with the right furniture… the list is long. The result is stasis.

Transformation and change is too often additive instead of biasing towards being subtractive. If leadership are to do anything, it should be to strip back almost of the rules and procedures these departments put in place.

Doing less is often more difficult than doing more. It requires real focus and saying no to tempting possibilities. Many organisations reward the careers of those adding processes rather than simplifying them. While there are KPIs for efficiency savings through downsizing, downsizing isn’t simplification and sometimes makes things worse. It’s rare to see senior management KPIs for killing off programs. It’s often easier to get millions in funding for a new innovation hub than to find the courage and political will to strip back layers of organisational sediment and debt.

Reflective practice

There is a lot of complexity in organisations, not just because of organisational debt, but because humans are complex, irrational, and contradictory creatures. That’s what makes culture so rich and so difficult to deliberately create. Culture emerges from ecosystems. Tools like Fjord’s Vital Signs or The Ready’s OS Canvas help uncover the nuances of what is really going on in those ecosystems, but over the years I’ve been trying to whittle this down to a simple focus or mantra. I believe almost all of the issues that organisations face boil down to one question leadership and managers should ask:

“Are the right people able to have the right conversations with each other and enabled to work with each other in the right way?”

Organisations that struggle with innovation and transformation either don’t know the answer to this question or are unwilling to make the changes to enable it.

It is a useful one-liner because it gives rise to further questions. Who are the right people? What are the right conversations? What does it mean to enable them to work and what is the right way? Those are all very good questions to be asking, much better than, "Can you teach 300 of our staff design thinking?” If you enable the people who are affected by these questions to work out the answers and change the practices themselves, it will lead to real change.

This led me to a phrase I tweeted almost a year ago “innovation = conversation + doing” as a simplified formula.

Innovation = conversation + doing.

Get rid of everything that gets in the way of those two things. It's as simple as that. Post on this coming soon.

— Andy Polaine (@apolaine) July 9, 2018

That is, the conversations up front (loosely, design/strategic thinking) and then the conversations and reflection whilst doing (sense and respond) is what leads to innovative breakthroughs and improvement.

It behooves me at this point to explain what I mean by the word innovation, since it’s been so overused. I’m very much from the Steven Johnson camp that innovation is something new, that meets a sometimes unknown or unarticulated need, sparked by the collision of existing ideas and hunches. Usually these impact society in some way and they are not something that happens in a flash. Many people shortcut Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation to mean innovation in general, but that works for the scenarios I’m describing too.

So if “innovation = conversation + doing” doesn’t that contradict what I just argued about leadership doing less, not more? The doing less goes for leadership, since the ideal purpose of leadership is to set the purpose and then help the organisation get out of the way of hindering itself achieving it.

When it comes to creating something new, obviously people need to be doing something. It’s tempting in a world obsessed with speed to just go off sprinting and doing, but in what direction? That’s where conversation comes in.

Reflective practice, in the Donald Schön sense, is at the heart of designing and what is so often ignored when design thinking is discussed or taught. Designers do an awful lot of thinking whilst doing. Based on some kind of hypothesis (“a thing like this would help people do that”), they imagine a future “thing” and then start making it tangible in some way—sketches, prototypes, etc. Sometimes the doing is best separated from the planning and editing/reviewing (certainly something I learned about writing), but often there is a reflection on the making as you go along.

There is a balance to be struck. Too much conversation can be a sign of paralysis. Alex Jones (no, not that one), one of my colleagues at Fjord once said, “sometimes it’s quicker to build than to plan.” Ideas are platonic ideals, but once they are made tangible, there are frequently moments of realisation that some element that seemed such a great idea does not work in practice, or we’ve designed ourselves into a corner, or the three elements or features we thought were distinct can now be collapsed into one piece of elegant simplicity. We often talk about it in Fjord as “building to think”, and since we’re thinking, this isn’t the other extreme of too much doing, which can be a mindless cycle of deliver, deliver, deliver. It’s building with intention and reflection.

Reflecting practice requires craft skill and experience. You see it most obviously in physical crafts, such as carpentry, but also in activities requiring physical judgement or dexterity, such as flying a plane, making bread, or the Donald Schön example of tightrope walking. In carpentry, sometimes you’re following the grain, sometimes fighting the material. Sometimes you have to give in and sometimes bend it to your will. Knowing what to do when and carrying that experience into future situations is what makes a great craftsperson, baker or right-rope walker.

When thinking is disconnected from doing there are a thousand decisions that get made during the doing that can degrade the initial intent. This can happen when cross-functional teams don’t talk to each other and just sprint ahead. Conversation is, after all, the whole rationale of stand-ups and sprint retros. Good conversation is a game of tennis, batting ideas back and forth to discover their boundaries and shape. Poor conversation is simple reporting. There’s another word for that—a monologue.

For people to create new things effectively, they need to be able to talk to each other easily, openly and safely. Then they need to be able to make things they have been talking about as quickly and easily as possible. Even if the craft is difficult, the surrounding bureaucracy should not be making it more difficult. Critically, they need to be able to have conversations about what they are making while they are making. It’s an industrial factory legacy that the thinking is done by others and the making requires no more thought.

The informal conversations that happen between members of the team standing in front of an artefact—whether a wall of Post-Its during synthesis, a page full of sketches, or the design and code of a project—are the foundation of reflective practice:

– “Doing it like this is really difficult technically, can we do it differently?”
– “No, that’s an essential part to the experience. It was a key insight from the research.”
– “OK. How about doing it like this instead?”
– “That would work, but I’ll need to change these elements.”

And so it goes on. It’s a constant back and forth of action, reflection and discussion. I’d go so far as to say at least two thirds of the thinking in design is in the doing, not the up-front thinking.

Treat us like a start-up

If you examine the other common ask of, “We want to work like a start-up,” what does that really look like? Good start-ups generally have these attributes:

  • A clear purpose matched to an identified unmet need

  • A small group of people with little hierarchy and therefore a lot of individual autonomy

  • Very short communication paths as a result of being small (literally, a shout across the room)

  • The ability to make use of the latest tools and ways of working (shared Google docs, replacing e-mail with Slack, decent VC with Zoom, etc.)

  • The ability and autonomy to change direction, to pivot when they realise the thing they thought they should make should actually be something else

  • A limited runway of funding, which enforces focus

  • The ability to quickly purchase what they need and collaborate with who they want

  • A space they can use in whatever way works best for them

The right people can speak to each other and can work together in the right way.

You already know this

If you flip the “What must we do to be more innovative?” question around to, “Why aren’t we producing innovations spontaneously already?” most people already know the answers. They lack purpose and focus, their days are full of meetings, the organisational silos prevent them from communicating and working together, management KPIs are all wrong, processes and procedures slow them down, their tools and spaces are terrible.

Large organisations become microcosms, often leading to a myopia that getting through the next stage gate is the goal. But management and process are never the end goal. Making things is the goal. It’s only things in the world that are real. Numbers, targets, policies and procedures? It’s worth remembering they are all shared fictions, even though their effects can feel as permanent as gravity. But somebody made them up once. They can be reinvented.

We’ve reached an era of innovation fatigue, which is perhaps not a bad thing. The obsession with the new shiny thing became so normalised that it masked the real procrastination going on.

We all do it. Students do it when writing their theses, sitting with a pile of books on their desk and thinking, “I’ll get writing soon, but I just need one more reference book.” Musicians do it, obsessing over gear all the while not creating anything. Politicians commission white papers, consultants make PowerPoint decks, managers have more meetings and create action plans. Consumers stop using plastic straws while the planet burns. Designers get a few more sticky notes on the wall.

Transformation procrastination masked by innovation theatre can be deadly, since it gives the impression that something new is being done, when it isn’t. Leadership may well get their bonuses, share prices may rise, but one day they wake up and they’ve become Nokia.

Like an overgrown garden, there’s only one way to start and that’s to start clearing the weeds and briars. How much easier it is for new things to grow when they’re free to do so.

That's it for this issue. As always, I'm very happy to hear feedback and responses (positive and negative). The best place for that is Twitter. The second-best place is LinkedIn. Or you can mail me on

If you like it, please forward it to people and send them to this link to sign up. It really helps me grow the readership. This will be posted to my blog and Medium next week.

Doctor's Note — Issue 5 — Complex vs Complicated

Service Designers have earned a justifiable reputation for wanting to boil the ocean, sometimes to the frustration of clients and managers who want to break things down into simple chunks that can be easily solved and measured. One the key methods that service design uses, service blueprinting, actively does the opposite — its intent is to show how everything in an ecosystem is connected to everything else and make those connections visible.

The problem is that some things really are complex—climate change and the Circular Economy, society and culture, Brexit. Complex problems need to be tackled in their complexity, usually by zooming in and out of different levels of complexity. The industrial, Taylorist mindset of breaking complicated things down into discreet tasks so that unskilled workers can carry them out them fails to tackle complexity.

An excellent description of why this is came from an unexpected source recently — Jacob Lund Fisker's book, Early Retirement Extreme: A Philosophical and Practical Guide to Financial Independence (and, no, I probably won't retire early, but the systems thinking in the book is interesting, especially about having a diversity of skills under your belt and considering the future of work). Lund Fisker writes:

Nonlinearity is inherently much harder to deal with than linearity. In fact, a tremendous amount of effort goes into linearizing problems to make them understandable and solvable. There are several methods.

The first method is to reduce the degrees of freedom by reducing the number of objects and the number of connections between the objects, thus making the problem easier to understand. This simplifies the problem, but it runs the risk of eliminating degrees of freedom that are essential to the problem. The solution to the simplified problem is not necessarily the solution to the original problem. Furthermore, the simpler problem does not show the richness of solutions of the original problem.

Complex versus complicated

Complex are very different to complicated problems, as Rick Nason describes in the MIT Sloan Review excerpt from It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity for Business, but the two terms are used interchangeably, resulting in the wrong mindset being applied to the wrong problem.

The solutions to complicated problems don’t work as well with complex problems, however. Complex problems involve too many unknowns and too many interrelated factors to reduce to rules and processes. A technological disruption like blockchain is a complex problem. A competitor with an innovative business model — an Uber or an Airbnb — is a complex problem. There’s no algorithm that will tell you how to respond.

The question, "What do we need to do to increase our innovation in the face of disruption?" is often tacitly framed as, "What's the procedural rulebook for innovation?" Innovation playbooks and frameworks can be helpful, but they will fail if the organisational mindset doesn't embrace and make way for the complex.

Complex systems are nuanced and require a nuanced approach. The one thing that will not work is a rigid, rules-based, complicated approach. Taking the time to make an accurate judgment about the type of management problem at hand helps to avoid the arrogance of complicated thinking. Complicated thinking leads managers to think that they are doing something purposeful when in reality they are not, and in fact they are likely doing more harm than good.

It is this difference that service and strategic designers are usually trying to explain to clients and stakeholders new to design, often referring back to Horst Rittel's concept of Wicked Problems:

[A] social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems1.

The psychological challenge of design thinking

One of the biggest unspoken issues about the rise of design thinking in the corporate world is the psychological challenge it presents to those with a bias towards analytical and procedural mindsets. Most other new management techniques build upon those existing skills, but design thinking—or, more accurately, abductive reasoning coupled with creative ideation, selection and iteration—makes those people beginners again, since most people are not taught this in secondary school. (It's also one of the reasons most people still draw like 10 year-olds — it's about the age they stopped learning and practicing how to draw).

Being an expert exposed as a beginner is a challenge to the ego and psyche, especially if status in the organisation is pegged to expertise, as is most often the case. Nason again:

Unlike in a situation of total randomness or chaos, where any action of management is as good as any other, complexity implies that there is a level of control available; but it is not complete control, and the situation is not completely manageable. This mode of management can be quite stressful if the manager has a complicated mindset that abhors ambiguity and uncertainty.

Most of the resistance to design in all its forms that I've experience in enterprises is not methodological per se—this would be more of a technical misalignment. The resistance is the very personal, human anxiety that occurs when encountering the unknown and feeling out of control. I wish this was openly named more often and it's something that I try to do when I teach design in large organisations.

Learning also requires discomfort with the unknown, so it can be an excellent vehicle for discussing the issue. I realised that I've moved from design things for people to designing organisations back to a focus on people. It's always people and personalities that stymie creativity in organisations, most often unwittingly, since the blocking is rooted in a unrecognised fear reaction. It's often worse in organisations full of A-grader people, because there are plenty of ways of intellectualising the fear.

"Smart people," writes Nason, "— those who are very efficient in their knowledge of facts and very fast in applying that knowledge — do very well with complicated thinking. Complexity thinkers, however, think differently."

A complexity mindset is a creative mindset. It focuses on what can be, rather than what is. A complexity mindset is an imaginative mindset, as different from a complicated mindset as the difference between thinking and knowing. Thinking is a creative process, while knowing is an information-retrieval process.

This is why analytically and procedural biased people often ask what the "right" clusters are in an affinity map, for example, or how we know what the correct design idea is. Or why procurement departments impossibly ask for the outcomes and deliverables of each two-week sprint in a three-month project (this really happened). Being told that this is the wrong question to be asking either does not make sense to a complicated mindset or is very discomforting. Nobody wants to appear to be incompetent and it takes confidence to admit to being a novice or outside your comfort zone.

Cogito ergo sum est mendacium

The famous "I think therefore I am" statement by Descartes is a lie and the word thinking in "design thinking" is problematic. As phenomenologists argue, we experience the world through our bodies, of which the brain is an inseparable part. Even artificial intelligences are frequently aware of their environments and take them into account.

The thinking part of design thinkings suggests you can just do this piece of thinking up front and then proceed with the usual industrial process and innovation will ensue, but most of the thinking in design happens whilst design doing, through reflective practice. Reflective practice is a cadence of doing and thinking, often both together. (I'll write more on this soon).

Adapting versus improving

"To succeed with complexity, an organization must also be continually adapting," writes Nason, which is what Fjord would call a Living Business. The distinction between adapting versus improving is crucial and another pair of terms that are often conflated. Kodak continued to improve film technology, points out Nason, but did not adapt to digital, leading to its demise.

I'm not suggesting that complexity thinking is de facto better than complicated thinking and that the latter should be abolished. There will always be a need for people to apply complicated thinking. The point is that the last 150 years have biased companies and, more recently, public institutions towards complicated thinking. Design thinking bolted onto the front of procedural thinking is not complexity thinking.

You need both, especially in an age where most of the big problems are wicked, complexity problems or problems of "interdependence," as Dr Anne Galloway describes it. If we fail to tackle complexity with complex thinking, we're doomed to oversimplify and produce simplistic solutions that fail. In the case of climate change, that's not something we have time to do.

Power of Ten

Speaking of complexity and continuous learning, my new Power of Ten podcast on the This is HCD network launched. In the first episode, I talked with with Jeff Gothelf on the difficulties teams and organisations face in continuous development cycles. I hope you enjoy it.

That's it for this issue. As always, I'm very happy to hear feedback and responses (positive and negative). The best place for that is Twitter. The second-best place is LinkedIn. Or you can mail me on

If you like it, please forward it to people and send them to this link to sign up. It really helps me grow the readership. This will be posted to my blog next week, but you lucky people get it first for a few days.

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