Saturday, July 31, 2010
Satellite mapping can be really useful for helping you identify the exact location you're trying to get to. I use it a lot - normally either Google Maps or NearMap (if you want extra detail in suburban areas).
Satellite maps are also useful work tools. If you're an urban planner or an engineer or an architect (or, presumably, a Feng Shui consultant), you're going to find satellite maps a real asset.
Except when they become a liability. This seems to happen when people become overly dependent on them for information, and discard other useful, more traditional, resources.
Like topographical maps, or site visits.
We are working with some clients on tree planting work in greater Sydney area. I was onsite with the contractor last week. From above, the site looks like this:
The problem occurs at point 'X'. This is where several axes converge. There is a lot of grade across this site, and it all slopes down to this spot.
On a heavy clay site, you suddenly have planting holes that fill with water. Not so good for most trees (some will cope with it, but the species planted only has moderate tolerance for this).
The designer of the planting is friendly and accessible, which is a plus. Unfortunately, they didn't get out on site much. I asked the site supervisor on what basis they had planned out the streets. His answer: they used satellite maps. (I can only take his word for it.)
Perhaps even using a feature like 'Street View' (Google Maps) would have helped here, and given an appreciation of the slope on the street.
Sadly, an above view did not tell the whole story in this case, or even enough of it to be truly helpful.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
When a clump of sodic soil (a clay material) is placed in a beaker of water and stirred, the colloids disperse and discolour the water. If you've ever owned a chlorinated swimming pool you'll also be familiar with the milky cloudiness that can become more prominent over time.
The addition of gypsum to sodic soils causes the dispersed particles to clump together, and so it is possible to have structure emerge where 'slumping' has been the trend beforehand.
Last week, our business re-explored its approach to 'strategic conversation'. With the expert assistance of one of the our former associate directors (also one of the most gifted strategic conversationalists around), we began to dig deep into the stories of people within our business in the creation of new meaning, and directed action informed by those acts.
Strategic conversation allows us to walk into confusing and complex situations, to look at what is going on, to look at where we are at (and want to be), and to see crystallisation emerge out of cloudiness, meaning emerge out of apparent noise. I put it to Dave that his toolkit functions in many ways as a 'conversational flocculant'.
Dave's art is not to tell people the solution: his art is to help them see what is already there, to look it at it in fresh ways, and to hypothesise ways forward as they work together, reading their surrounds with wisdom, patience, love and resolve.
Saturday, July 10, 2010
(David Jones, Mark Strom and Jim Ireland will all realise in this post their own influence on my thinking, the fruit of conversations and reading. With all of its simplistic shortcomings, I offer it with a grateful 'nod' to each of you. I would welcome your critique of the ideas, either in comment here, or via another medium.
My admiration for each of you grows daily as I realise the complex and confusing situations that you have learned to navigate -- and even thrive in. Each of you has influenced our own personal journey through some pretty 'hairy' space! Thanks, guys, for all that you give. A lot of people are grateful for your companionship through the 'trail-blazing'!)
In a recent post I talked about what we have been observing in how our four-year-old, Caelan, solves jigsaw puzzles. He has continued with his new 500-piece puzzle, working with the same methodology.
At the same time as he has been problem-solving a fairly vast territory for a four-year-old, his old man has been trying to solve a puzzle of a different kind.
Without going into too much detail, there has been a business situation which has been both fun and perplexing to navigate. There are multiple parties involved -- many of whom have been unknown -- and a lot of information hidden (or at least unseen). It also involves the interface of several levels of government, the not-for-profit sector, and the business community. Without question, it is the most complex and confusing project I have yet had to navigate.
Caelan's 'puzzling' has become a window on working in a situation fraught with complexity and confusion.
I note his ability to quickly scope for a solution. When there is a lot of material to get acquainted with, and a vast territory to cover, it is important to identify the major features of the landscape first. Grabbing at random pieces which lack 'chunky' detail provides no context, and attempting to create a boundary (edge pieces) tells you very little of the conversation / features going on within the edges (or beyond). The picture is a lot more than the edges or random noise.
Those in our business who have been puzzling through this situation have had to locate the major features of the puzzle in a fairly short time frame (the scale of the project, the intent, the timing, the places, the specifications; the designers, the clients, the contractors, the project managers, the suppliers). For the benefit of the business, and the benefit of our clients, we have worked to find the right questions and tease out the main connecting features. This gives context to our actions, and intent to our conversations.
Caelan does not get bogged down in secondary detail. Complex and confusing situations can disorient us, and cause us to lose sight of the most important questions and objectives. There are many secondary issues to distract us, and prevent us from seeing what there is to be seen. These secondary issues can also stifle our capacity to scope quickly if we insist on using secondary (or tertiary) information as a means of bridging between the main features of problems and solutions. We can end up dying of thirst trying to reach the next oasis by insisting on counting the grains of sand as we go.
A ‘map’ (i.e. the lid of the box) is a useful thing to have, but that does not mean it should be followed slavishly. Sometimes you cover more territory more quickly by working with gut instincts and an eye for patterns. Working from someone else's pre-determined pattern (painting by numbers) also leaves you more inclined to fill in masses of secondary detail simply because you can. Our attempt to scope quickly can thus be stymied. Working instinctively may also lead us along a different, potentially wiser, knowledge pathway to that which is determined when the path is laid out before us in a dogmatic fashion. There is also the benefit of seeing with a fresh set of eyes.
When you’re small, you sometimes need to get up and walk around the puzzle to ‘see’ what you’re looking for. Not every piece of a conundrum makes sense from one standpoint; things can be hard to locate. Sometimes you need to get up and move, see the whole puzzle from another perspective, view the dislocated pieces from the opposite angle, and with a different play of light. It’s also helpful to stand back occasionally and quickly move your eyes over the whole -- it serves to verify and critique the 'scoping' you undertook / are undertaking. Perhaps (for example) you identifed and pieced together a major puzzle 'fractal', but wrongly located its place in the whole.
An eye for fine detail can be a blessing. Two shades of black might look the same to one set of eyes, but another set of eyes notes a subtle but important difference (i.e. things that appear to be of similar nature may not be, and they may belong in vastly different sectors of the problem / solution).
The challenge and the solution are both broadly fractal in nature. But not everything we encounter in this project is. The secondary and tertiary ‘noise’ seems to function less as something that can be completely known and named in itself. The puzzle could still be something meaningful (albeit diminished)without the 'stuffing' between the major features, but it would be much less meaningful if all we had was secondary noise and no features / anchors / bases.
Caelan will sometimes begin a puzzle he has done before in a different place, and will ‘build’ it around different features. A sameness of approach to every situation is no virtue. Even having a couple of different heads working over the same problem, probing together for worthy questions, will unearth different points of entry and different knowledge paths to get us to a solution. This is not a linear process, and there is more than one way to scope and navigate successfully. Sometimes there is even redemption in what appears to be a poorly-chosen path, and fresh possibilities are opened to us as we leave the highways and hit the bush tracks.
We persevere because of a conviction about the worthiness of the enterprise. There is a reason why we do not and cannot rest content with a mountain of scrambled pieces when there is intelligence and beauty lying latent and ready to reward our efforts. There is creating work to be done, and it is good!
Lastly, when you can’t find a piece, it’s okay to ask for help. Problem-solving in a worthy enterprise isn’t about preserving the sanctity / glory of any one ‘problem-solver’. We work together as we see the different parts, and getting to a working vision -- a way forward -- leaves little room for ego.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
(Undercurrents of noise may be found among genuinely discontented people within such organisations, whose discontent may be the fruit of caring and longing for things to be different.)
With the exception of people who seek out our business because of a result they want to achieve, it is not unusual for us to deal with client organisations that are contentedly discontent. We have pursued them with a view to generating potential business (among other things), and they have fallen squarely within our aim.
Just the other day I started to 'map out' a bit of how such an engagement might look. I learned a couple of things doing this exercise, and offer you one such partial window of the map below.
Firstly, using Microsoft Paint as a mapping tool is a poor decision. (Recommendations for a PC-based program, anyone?)
Secondly, when you actually start to map out conversations which centre around what people value and what it would look like for an organisation to move to 'a better place', you realise these conversational processes are not linear (you're not dealing with a software development-type 'waterfall model').
Even when the complexity and reality of the to-and-fro, cut-and-thrust, hypothesis-and-testing of a conversation is realised, the dimension is never simply '2D' -- it is 'history' / 'story' and organisational tiering that calls for something more 'topographic' in nature in our mapping. Perhaps the creation of multiple intersecting maps would assist? ( David -- looking forward to what you have to offer in this space.)
Thirdly, trying to trace the lines of such an engagement made me realise how little I understand of the client's world, and how dialogue, discontent-and-content, agitate in their own space. Their own conversation is largely invisible to us. However ...
Fourthly, our engagement throughout the course of attempting to build business with them tells me that the urgency which we bring to the situation is not theirs -- and we are talking about contentedly discontent organisations here. While the first dialogue with a client will likely provoke a conversation in our own business, followed by the creation of a fresh hypothesis, and the applying of that hypothesis in the next conversation, there is often the perception that the same process of analysing and creating has not taken place within the client's world.
While we may be 'sounding for life, and pushing for movement', the [potential] client organisation may just as open to inaction as to action (though talking about action may be perceived as having almost as much value as action, or may itself be judged to be 'action').
The realisation came to me as I looked at my poxy, 2-dimensional map. One thing it tells me is that the dialogue between an agitator, and a contentedly discontent organisation is heavily weighted to one side (unless the 'passive' organisation perceives a real threat to its passivity from the agitator organisation, and animates its own dialogue to shut the conversation down -- self-preservation can be a powerful motivator).
I'm still not quite sure what can be entirely deduced from this heavily top-weighted map. Is this the nature of agitator organisations engaging with contentedly discontent organisations? There is no question that locating a caring, genuinely discontented person in the organisation could make the process look quite different (as least as I perceive it, rightly or wrongly).
An agitator organisation persists with a pointless exercise if the contentedly discontent organisation perceives it to be nothing more than a noise-making irritation, and a disruption to the status quo.
This may, in the end, be as much an indictment on the foolishness of insensitive agitators as it is on the laziness and care-less-ness of passive organisations.
Saturday, July 3, 2010
balance it on the top of your head as a brilliant disguise.
but what's this? Unless I'm much mistaken, a hammer and a
how the breakout went, and a small little tiny miniature trumpet
in case, during your escape, you have to win favour with a
the insane and the peculiarly plausible. As Blackadder unpacks
the remainder of the kit, the 'logic' of Baldrick is further
but makes perfect sense to Baldrick ("I put in a French peasant's
outfit first, but then I thought, 'What if you arrive in a French
peasants' village and they're in the middle of a fancy dress
plan. The obvious tools for a prison breakout won't be found
child'? What if he did turn up in a French peasants' village
and they were in the middle of a fancy dress party?
-solve. There is often a laziness to our problem-solving, an
'A or B' / '0 or 1' / 'On / Off' approach. The capacity to be flexible
problem-solvers, to walk around a situation and view it from
many different angles, to realise that if we can only come up
with one way out of a problem then we probably aren't working
that smart, leaves space for the Baldricks of our world.
our escape kit, but difficult children are not charmed by Swiss
that is not to say there is no logic to it. Sometimes wisdom
appears in the garb of foolishness (and, yes, sometimes
foolishness appears in the garb of foolishness).
wooden duck that delivers the goods.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
I don't cope well feeling surrounded by chaos. Life is a bit chaotic at the moment. We've had nearly two months of non-stop sickness in the house, and life gets a little furry around the edges.
The front garden has been a saving grace, even in small doses. Most days, that means taking 30 seconds to pull out any little weeds or grass shoots.
When we started living here 2 1/2 years ago, it looked like this:
Now, with a couple of removals (mostly agapanthus and kikuyu!), and some new additions (Grevillea, Kangaroo Paw, Paroo Lily, Gazanias, Dianellas, Emu Bush) over the last few years, it's headed in a fresh direction:
Whenever I head outside to take out the garbage or recycling, I seize the opportunity to soak it up. It's a nice little piece of sanity!
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Most people do jigsaw puzzles the 'normal' way.
Not our four-year-old.
Most of us pour the pieces out, look at the lid of the box, sort the pieces into little piles (edges and distinct colours / patterns), look at the lid of the box, and assemble the puzzle -- constantly referencing the picture on the lid of the box.
He doesn't seem to believe in the value of an absolute image to aid the assembly process. He will start the puzzle with some concept of what he is aiming for (a world map, a forest scene, a truck), spread the pieces out, and then just start assembling them based around colour / pattern (from what we can tell). All this time, the lid of the box is lying idly who-knows-where.
He is also guided by shape. Once he has mastered a puzzle (that is, can assemble it competently picture-side up), one of his little tricks is to reassemble it upside-down -- and he doesn't do this by looking at the pictures on the obverse, but by the shape of the pieces. (This gets a little harder when the puzzles get up past 100 pieces.)
It is an intriguing process to watch, and he is generally able to assemble puzzles quite quickly (he has just started the same process again with a new 200-piece puzzle this morning). Where as most of us are essentially using a tightly (slavishly?) self-referenced replication process, he is using an interesting combination of creative and interpretive skills.
For him, if the visual cue is right, the next key is shape and fit. If the fit is wrong, then he hunts for another piece.
As a friend has expressed it (from within the world of strategic conversations), he appears to be using less a process of building from a set of specifications (though in the end, the whole thing can only go together one way), and more a process of building from within available parameters and intent (aiming for the creation of a tree or a whale or a car).
The process is fractal (thanks again, David), as Caelan seeks to solve the puzzle by turning it into a series of mini-puzzles (he will work on a section, find some level of resolution in it, and then begin work on another section, until eventually the completed sections butt into each other).
It will be interesting to watch how this way of dealing with puzzling situations is applied in other life circumstances where there is more than one way for a final solution to 'lock together' ...
Sunday, June 20, 2010
The significance of some friendships is the fruit of many miles on a long road. The significance of other friendships lies in one crossing of a rampaging river in a howling storm.
There is a small coterie of clients who forged a friendship with my boss many years ago through some tough circumstances (that I know almost nothing about). If my boss finds out I'm off to see one of them, he will say, "Say to Barry, '[Insert boss' name] says "Don't mention the war."'"
I always try to pass those kinds of greetings on. They are simple words that testify to the significance of a friendship forged long ago. The hearer of the words inevitably smiles, and the friendship is, in some odd way, rekindled - however many years it has been since the two friendly parties have actually spoken. And even if it only 6.30am on a frosty morning standing on the 17th tee.
It's been about 2 1/2 years since Cara and I embarked on, what seemed to us at the time, a terrifying and bold new direction. The process of coming to the point of making that decision saw new people arrive into the unsettled terrain of our lives. They were, some of them, people we had to learn to trust quickly as we co-navigated unfamiliar space. We did not have many miles on the road with them, but we quickly had a friendship forged through a river crossing. There were also others there through that crossing who had been there all along (you know who you are), and their friendship has meant the more for it.
Perhaps some of them would estimate the value of our friendship differently to how we see theirs. All I know is: 3 years since meeting some of these folks, I will still drop them a friendly line every now an again when I'm out-and-about with some time to kill. And I would go to the wall for these people.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Has a lot happened in the intervening period between the last post in January and this one?
Perhaps. But when you don't sit down and consider life in retrospect it has a way of passing you by very quickly.
The blog was, in the past, a good discipline, but more than that: it was a window. It was a way of looking afresh at what was around to see the patterns, to have an eye for the design evident in everyday living, and even to bear witness to the chaos.
Exercise keeps us from becoming flabby. This blog has, in the past, exercised my heart and mind, kept me looking for the patterns, often making me aware of shortcomings of my own through paying attention to what is to be seen and heard (Proverbs 8:1-5). It was a reflective mirror, and a lens.
The discipline of keeping the blog daily back in 2008 was good for my heart and mind, but probably not so good for my family. In this season of life, brimming with the presence of three young boys and one industrious wife, there would have been an ironic foolishness in keeping a blog on design while failing to invest time in my family. So the blog embarked on a long slide into slumber.
Other things have been dusted off or newly discovered, particularly the enjoyment of playing music and singing with the boys. And climbing into our ceiling to install insulation (DON'T ASK!).
And in all of the joy of daily life with our boys in our little neighbourhood, in a rewarding job / industry and in the grace-imbued company of our house church gathering, I miss my blog. Blogging on design is good exercise. It makes me more attendant to life's patterns.
This isn't about a new resolution, or even a statement of intent. It's just to note 'what is': to detect both the flabbiness and the longing. (Sighs and smiles, with a small sense of achievement.)
Thursday, January 21, 2010
This is in a public organisation. Every time I talk with him, I know he means business in dealing with childish behaviour in his organisation, helping people to grow up and mature. He is passionate about the capabilities of his operations team.
His goal in managing his staff is apparent: if his team is able to 'live into' operating 'above the line' then the work of managing becomes less about firefighting and more about identifying brilliance and creativity and persistence and finding ways of setting them free.
I'd like to think my current workplace has a pretty strong 'above the line' culture. There's pretty limited tolerance for B.S., a healthy respecting of opinions, and the ability for fresh ideas to rise above rank.
Of course, patches of 'below the line' behaviour occur. But if you've lived long enough in an 'above the line' culture you know how miserable a place it is to let your organisation live for too long in the choking, 'victimised' environment that is 'below the line'.
Perhaps you've been in organisations that have moved from 'laying blame' and 'justifying' to 'taking responsibility' and 'exercising accountability'. If so, enlighten us: what were the tipping points? And what did you notice about the organisation's output before and after?
Saturday, January 9, 2010
The art of sculpting is about removing just enough material to 'reveal' the finished form. Any act of taking a 'blank' and chipping something new out of it leaves behind traces of what once was - and the deeper the artisan carves, the less the original piece looks like the original piece: unless he is simply creating a miniature version of the original!
In one of my first posts on this blog, I spoke about my dad's buckets of bibs-and-bobs, buckets of leftover pieces that rest patiently waiting for the glorious moment when they will be revealed as the successful ingredients of a solution.
The pieces in these buckets all began life as raw materials before being fashioned into something humanly useful, before being consigned to life as 'odds-and-ends', waiting to become useful again, but probably not in the same vein as their original application.
There are some materials, however, that end up on altogether different trajectory, moving from being humanly 'useless' as raw materials straight through to becoming landfill.
If you've ever undertaken any form of construction (be it a house or a bookshelf or a quilt or a sock puppet), you know that trimmings and leftovers are par for the course.
I guess their usefulness, if any, is in serving the construction of something new.
One of my birthday presents as a young kid was a plastic model of a fighter jet. Opening the rather plain cardboard box, I was greeted with several 'slabs' of parts moulded out of plastic, waiting to be snapped out of their frame and glued into place. I took special pleasure in getting to work snapping all the pieces out of the frames - and it was quite a few pieces.
Only at assembly time, and under my father's watch, did I learn that these pieces of framing plastic formed a reference point for construction, now made all the more interesting without their presence. Though they were always destined to be left out of the final product, they were nevertheless included by the manufacturers, and were to aid the construction process.
Following the completion of the job, they were designed to be discarded. These are the sorts of pieces that would never have found a place in my dad's buckets, unless he had a hunch there was something potentially useful about them.
One of our clients is is the process of building a rigorously eco-friendly home. He tells me that when he was in the building game, most new house projects finished up with 16-24m3 of waste.
His ecohome, nearing completion, has no more than 2m3 of waste. That's because all those pieces of timber and tile and gyprock which are so readily discarded on building sites, he kept. And sorted. And stacked. So when the builders needed a short piece of timber for some framing, instead of chopping into a new length of lumber, they would go to to the offcuts stack, and usually find what they were after (and often with a lot less trouble than sawing into a full new length).
Where timber or brick or gyprock became too small to be useful, it was chipped and used as aggregate or backfill etc. In the end, very little has been wasted.
It seems to me that every construction, indeed, every conversation, has its share of detritus that remains at the end -- or is it the end? Perhaps the germ of a thought that did not pass muster to move us forward this time will be just the piece we need for next time.
Perhaps not. Perhaps it will pass beyond memory or text or photo and be lost. Perhaps it will serve as 'framing' now and 'structure' later, or 'structure' now, and 'framing' later. Or 'structure' now and aggregate later!
Perhaps what we have created is, in some sense, truly something new. Or perhaps that pile of shavings on the ground around us is the trimming down of 'yesterday's big (old) idea' making way for 'yesterday's big (old) idea, trimmed for fat and rebadged as today's idea and downsized, but still yesterday's model nonetheless - with a little tweaking'.
There is a place for all this. I just find myself pondering occasionally what became of all those shavings or biscuit crumbs scattered along the way of our 'creating'.
Sometimes when I look at what I have made today, I find myself staring into a likeness of an image of yesteryear's conjuring. And sometimes it makes me weep. And occasionally, it makes me smile. Debris has found a new home, and is no longer debris. Its place in the odds-and-ends bucket may (or may not) now be occupied by yesterday's now-disassembled structure.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
My brain attempts to move into gear ... squeak, squeak, crrrunchh!
Things are a little dusty around here, I must say. This is what happens when you leave the house locked up over a long break.
The grass grows, the spiders move in, windows gets stuck, the electricity gets disconnected ...
So maybe, just for tonight, I will sleep on the blog porch. Perhaps tomorrow, the blog lounge.
But hey. I did get a cool guitar for Christmas. Sorry, we got a cool guitar for Christmas.
The boys have been showing some interest in music lately. They have a little toy guitar, and in recent weeks Elisha has fallen very much in love with this tiny red, four-stringed monstrosity.
Whenever I have been dragging out my guitar to play some songs with the kids, or with the church family bunch, 'Sha goes for 'Old Red', and joins in the action, strumming and singing along (if mantra-like repetition of the word 'La' counts as singing).
I think he must have been watching some videos of live performances of The Who because he takes to the instrument quite physically, swinging it about. He also seems to like 'kissing' other guitars with it. And these are not gentle kisses either. He will sneak up on you while you're playing and smack 'Old Red' into your vintage Maton.
Which he has been doing. I finally decided enough was enough. It was time to grab another guitar that (a) could get a little beat around without anyone caring too much and (b) would be small enough for the boys to learn on, if that's how they are inclined.
After cramming several decades' worth of reading time on various fora into a few short weeks, I came up with the instrument of choice: the Art & Lutherie Ami. This is what they call a 'parlour guitar', and it's the sort of thing that's right at home with a rocking chair, a shotgun, a wife named Bobby Jean, some missing teeth, and a porch in Mississippi. It's a rockin' little blues acoustic guitar.
Dang sweet lil thing too. When it arrived from America, I was itching to get into it - boy, was I excited! What I saw blew me away. Hand made in French Canada, solid Western red cedar top, cherry sides and back, silver leaf maple neck, rosewood fingerboard, lifetime warranty. Sweeeeet. And extra sweet when it was only $350 delivered to the door.
Maton is enjoying some recovery time in his case behind the lounge. Ami is a friend (pun intended) who happily tags along wherever the ride is headed, and whoever the company is (even if it's our own little Pete Townshend with his red terror).
I guess maybe one day the boys will get to play this guitar. It was, after all, bought for them. But I'd like just ten more minutes alone with Ami. Just ten. I promise. On the porch.