This month’s lesson: good relationships are just as important for doing good work as good thinking (that’s not a new lesson but this month has shown me how important it is again).
Contributing to the digital transformation of the charity sector
Happy with the work I did on Identity Verification. It has some solid thinking behind it based on the Gov standards, achieves a good balance between the needs of the organisation and what will work for young people, and involved some good stakeholder engagement that has been built up over the last year.
The solution design I’ve been working on this month is in really good shape and is on schedule. I’ve been refining our product discovery, definition and design process using a deductive approach where we start with big things and break them down into smaller things. I’m not yet at the smallest user story level yet, that’s for next month, but it has proved a reliable way to show the causal rationale from the goals to how we’ll achieve them, which makes it easier to bring people along on such a complex project.
Learning about innovation, technology, product and design
My testing of interest in innovat100n.com started with using Tweet100. After 8 out of 100 tweets it has achieved nothing. I’ll let it continue until the end of the year and see if it picks up any subscribers but so far the project isn’t looking like one to be investing time in.
Adjacencies is the other project I was supposed to be testing this month but haven’t done much on. I’ve received some weak signals about how discipline-specific individual silos could be a problem in cross-functional teams, but nothing about whether learning about other disciplines would help to resolve the problems.
I started a Foundations on Humane Technology, which wasn’t on the plan but I’ve found really engaging. It’s got me interested in doing courses regularly so I’m going to try to ensure I’ve always got one on my delivery plan.
I continued to write weeknotes on schedule every week.
Leading an intentional life
I’m still living as a digital nomad and enjoying it everyday. I’ve been thinking a little about how I feel comfortable talking about my weird lifestyle at work. I wonder if it’s a combination of the lifestyle making me care less about things like what impact it might have on my working relationships (I’d certainly have been aware of that in other places) and the team environment I work in feeling safe enough to be open about it.
Digital safeguarding is an important part of my work. I’ve been working on creating an accessible identity verification system recently, will be doing more on the Age Appropriate Design Code soon, and am thinking about how we might turn the principles behind the Online Harms Bill into products and procedures that keep people safe online. As part of this work and interest I watched an online safety tech event that described the emerging SafetyTech sector and how gaming companies are leading the development of safety technology in virtual spaces because it’s clearly demonstrated that people don’t want to spend their time in virtual spaces where they feel threatened, so safety drives engagement, which is good for business. As is always the case for emerging trends, there is a lot of interplay between the technology, people (both creators and users), regulation and policy, and commercial and market mechanisms, which make it a fascinating part of my work.
My first NFT
I received my first Non-Fungible Token. Of all the dates from 1/1/1 AD to now, I own my date of birthday. It’s part of learning more about NFTs and figuring out whether I want to turn stiles.style into NFTs. To me, with my interest in how the physical and digital worlds meet, stiles (each of which is unique and handmade) would make great collectible digital assets But as collecting and owning NFTs depends so much on hype, I’m not sure anyone else will see why they would want a stile.
I’ve been using nested kanban boards in Notion for a while and found it to be a really good way to manage tasks at any level and be able to focus on work within a project (including for Fractal task manager). So, to see if anyone else might find it useful I set up a Notion template that anyone can duplicate and use. I don’t know if anyone has started using it but I’ve had some feedback that it’s an interesting idea.
Do I need a writing habit?
I decided I wanted to try to write more often. So I set myself a target of writing a blog post for each day of October, so 31 blog posts (I’ll just check the maths on that… yes that’s right). What I learned wasn’t how to build a writing habit but that writing random things in order to hit that target distracted me from working on other things. So, I’ve written and scheduled ten short and mostly pointless blog posts and I’m going to stop there.
What I thought about:
I was thinking about how the ‘lessons’ we really should learn at school are the bigger ones that continue to apply throughout our life, so I did a little Twitter thread of my thoughts. Imagine if education was clearer about levels of lessons to be learned. Imagine if teachers said, ‘Today we’re learning about this poem, but really we’re learning about how to communicate ideas, and the poem is just the vehicle for that bigger lesson.’ And imagine if education attainment was measured against those bigger lessons.
I’m a big believer in feedback loops. I think they are fundamental to a digital mindset. But I also worry that every diagram of a feedback loop shows it going back to where it started rather than moving on improved. And I wonder if this creates a lack of understanding about how feedback loops are supposed to work.
There are two ways to compare a number of things. You can compare them against an external measure (absolute), or you can compare them against each other (relative). And then those comparisons can be approached in qualitative or quantitative ways. And that’s before you even get into designing the actual evaluation. So there is a lot of underpinning work to have in place for evaluating anything robustly. But one aspect that appeared this week was how any system that uses competition as a mechanism for choosing one thing over another will always include sub-systems that conflict with each other. I have an image of gears that don’t fit together being forced to mesh and resulting in some spinning faster than they should, others tearing apart, and some generating heat and other inefficient byproducts.
And what I read/listened to this week:
Foundations of Humane Technology
This Foundations of Humane Technology course looks really great. I haven’t started it yet but I’m signed-up and looking forward to it.
Seth Godin’s podcast is always good, but the episode on project debt was particularly good. More work requires more coordination. Knowing this and reducing the linear growth of debt against the increase of work is important for . This comes from saying no.
Human Development Index
The Human Development Index is based on the idea that GDP isn’t the best way to assess and measure a country. Apart from the reports being really interesting themselves, the reason I read some of this is because I have an idea about how charities should measure their impact through a Theory of Change model that has globally agreed essentials for achieving quality of life (for all living things, not just humans) at the top which charities feed their work into. So, for example, if financial stability was one of those essentials, then a debt charity and a employment advice charity could both show how they contribute. I’ll write up the idea properly one day.
Growth area for this week:
I’ve been trying to be more succinct in answers I give to questions whilst also providing relevant context and what the opportunities, consequences or actions might be. It’s kind of a past, present, future for every answer. I don’t really know if that does make my communication clearer, and there’s nothing to test it against but if it at least stops me from rambling then that will be a good thing.
I spent some time this week learning and interpreting the ICO’s Age Appropriate Design Code, which is essentially GDPR for children. It’s raising lots of questions and making us think more rigorously about the solution design decisions we make, which of course is very much the point.
I’ve started some data analysis of one of the processes that makes up part of one of our services. I have a hypothesis that the process isn’t working very well for two reasons and the analysis should prove it. I realise that technically that hypothesis is backwards and I should be trying to disprove it, but it’s much harder to talk to other people about it that way round. It’s interesting how what is often the right way to do things isn’t the intuitive way to do things, and when working with others you have to do the translation work between the two.
I set-up ready for the Tweet100 Challenge. I want to use it to tweet specifically about innovation from a slightly more academic perspective than most innovation tweets, blog posts, podcasts, etc., are based upon. Each tweet will include a link to innovat100n so I can try testing whether there is any interest in innovation from this perspective before I write the one hundred email mini-lectures that I’ve been thinking about. I’ve written the one hundred tweets and scheduled them for the last one hundred days of the year, which means they start on the 23rd Sept.
And thought about:
A system for everything
I realised that I can’t just do something, anything in fact. I have to have a system for it before I start. Write a document? No, I’ll create a template and check with the intended audience that it has what they’ll need. Sign-up for a hundred tweet challenge? No, I’ll use it to test interest in a build and audience for innovat100n. Go to the shop to buy Diet Coke? No, I’ll buy four because I’ve already measured how many cans I drink a day and estimated when I’ll next be able to get to another shop.
How to teach a digital mindset has been on my mind this week. There’s the Essential Digital Skills Framework, which might provide a basis for developing on but is very functional. I’m more interested in how you could teach a digital mindset that appreciates why each of those essential skills matters and understands some of the context around it. So, for example the framework says someone should be able to search for information but there’s nothing about how to critically evaluate the information and test it for bias or falsehood, because to be able to do that requires a deeper understand about the nature of information on the internet, the business model of search engines, and how we are affected by things like confirmation bias. How to even go about listing what should be part of a digital mindset feels disorganised and too amorphous to get a grip of.
I started using my notion roadmap more this week to organise the work I want to do on various projects, and it has made me think a bit about how we group tasks and what view of that work we want to see. My roadmap uses kanban boards within kanban boards. It means each piece of work operates to the same way, regardless of it’s level within the roadmap/project and that there is no overall big picture view of all the work that is in progress. I’m testing out this way of working for a few months to try to understand how useful that big picture actually is. How much coordination does there need to be between projects? Does the system need awareness of all the in-progress work? Or is being only able to see one project better for focus? But then, if you can’t compare one project to another, how do you prioritise one piece of work over another. Hopefully I can get to some answers as I try out this fractal task management approach.
I heard about proximal learning on the Farnam Street podcast so looked into it a little bit more. It’s the idea that every person has a zone of what they know, and a zone of stuff that they could know if only they had some help to learn it. In some ways it goes against the idea of self-learning and makes education a far more social endeavour. This makes some sense to me when we think about knowledge transfer and how only that which can be codified into information can be transmitted. So, without someone to learn from, a person would be limited in what they could learn. This applies in a micro-sense within organisations. Most learning is expected to be done through online video course platforms because that makes the learning ‘scalable’, but it limits hat can be learned to what can be codified. So, how do we create ways to learn the uncodifable things at work?
The Difference between Engineering and Design Thinking
This is useful in helping to explain a design thinking approach by contrast the engineering thinking approach.
Don’t Build It. A Guide for Practitioners in Civic Tech
If you can avoiding building it, don’t; if you have to build it,
hire a chief technology officer (CTO),
ship early, and mature long; and if you can’t do that (or even if you can),
draw on a trusted crew,
build lean and fast, and
get close to and build with your users as fast as possible.
Sounds like good advice.
A Constellation of Possible Futures
“The working hypothesis is that the Observatory will gather weak signals from across civil society to create a Foresight Commons, bringing to life civil-society foresight and creating a shared evidence base that helps: Funders fund different futures Civil society organisations anticipate and adapt more quickly” This looks like an amazing piece of work.
And my growth area this week was:
I wanted to try connecting more people and more work together this week. I found a few opportunities but I didn’t really feel like the connections achieved much.
Neuroscience tells us that what makes human minds special is our sense of narrative and being able to sequence events. It’s what allowed us grasp complex cause and effect relationships which are the foundation for science and rational logic. Telling stories and using metaphors to explain concepts is a useful and well-accepted method of communication, but perhaps less so within organisations. My writing is usually quite technical and concrete, but this is changing as I explore other ways to help people understand my work, and make better decisions from it.
I’ve been working on ways of making identity verification better. It has quite a bit of complexity to it, with the user experience of having to provide documents with personal information, the technicalities of managing the systems that store the document files and record progress as they are check and verified, and the processes that collect, validate and verify a person’s identity. So, to communicate the different ways we could approach identity verification I used the metaphors of a gateway and a ladder. The gateway is the same for everyone, once their identity is verified they can pass through. The ladder has different steps that someone can be on if their identity is verified to different degrees. Hopefully the metaphor can be used as shortcuts to discuss both options.
Designing for privacy and protection
I’ve been working on how we might implement the Age Appropriate Design Code. It requires some quite critical questioning of the code and our systems and processes. As we progress with this work I’m keen that rather than designing for the most likely and usual, and then designing other processes that deal with the deviations, we take the approach of designing ways that work for everyone. Those product managers who spend their time trying to push the needle on user retention don’t know they’re born. Charity product management is where it’s at. It’s the extreme sport of product management.
Breaking down hierarchies
I went to a really good virtual meetup about hierarchies and networks by the Barnardo’s Innovation Team. Apart from being a really good idea to get people together to share ideas it also opened my eyes to different ways of thinking about hierarchies and networks.
Work together better by knowing more about how others work
I have a hypothesis that multi-disciplinary and cross-functional teams aren’t as effective as they could be because thy create mini silos of specialisms within the team. I think if every role had some understanding of each of the adjacent roles, the team would have better shared language, more effective conversations and make more considered decisions. In an attempt to do something about this I’m trying out the idea of users guides for digital roles for those who aren’t specialists in those roles, which I’m calling Adjacencies.
Thought about this week:
A colleague set me a link to a video about ‘transitional safeguarding‘, a phrase used to describe the problem of thinking in binary ways about childhood and adulthood and the gap it creates in the way young people receive support as they transition from childhood to adulthood. This made me think about two things; 1) how I’m really interesting in digital safeguarding as a foundation for all online interactions but that it’s really broad and complicated area to understand, and 2) that thinking about how people interact with digital services as in-flux transitions rather than beginning or ending fixed states opens more possibilities to meet people where they are but is also really complicated. Our language doesn’t lend itself to describing things that are changing, so then how do we even talk about it, let alone develop the mental models to understand transitions deeply. Every user interface shows the fixed states between the transitions (however temporary they may be). I don’t even know how to start thinking about this.
Creating a writing habit
I write quite a lot. I write documents at work, weeknotes every week, and occasional blog posts. These are quite formalised, so I wanted to try to create more of a habit of writing more freely and spontaneously. So I decided I’m going to try to write a blog post every day throughout October. Of course, in my usual way I started planning what I would write about each day, collecting research, making notes, and completely missing the point of building a habit of writing spontaneously. Anyway, we’ll see how it goes.
And read about:
I’ve reading through the Liberating Structures menu to think more about how virtual meetings might be better, if they can’t be done asynchronously, of course.
I was asked to give feedback for a colleague. I thought about it for a couple of days, I looked at this, and thought more about number ten: understanding what they value, and then wrote my feedback. I couldn’t provide feedback that helps them improve in their discipline. I could only help them apply their discipline towards making a better product. But this is my objective. It might not be theirs, but they didn’t tell me what there’s is. I’m left thinking that my feedback is less than useful because I don’t have any context in which to provide it. So, my growth area this week is to try to understand what the point of providing feedback is, what is it suppose to achieve.
I went to the Barnardo’s Social Innovation Lab breakfast meetup on the topic of breaking down hierarchies.
It was interesting to hear other people talking about the hierarchies of authority and how we can build networks that provide different ways for different people to hold power. My way of thinking immediately conceives of hierarchies and networks from a systems interaction point of view, so it’s good for me to get a more people orientated perspective.
One of the ideas we talked about was how hierarchies create spaces, and how access to those spaces is controlled. There are spaces that certain people aren’t invited too, or are given limited and temporary access but then excluded from. And there are people who gain access to those kinds of space through informal means such as being focused on a mission, rather than through formal means such as their role. Perhaps it is only by accessing those guarded spaces that those outside the hierarchy can influence it. Different environments create different conversations and so it’s important for those higher up in the hierarchy to stay connected to others in other positions to be able to make empathetic decisions.
When it comes to doing good in the world charities aren’t the only show in town. Social movements such as gender equality and black lives matter, and ethical & socially responsible businesses such as Patagonia and Warby Parker demonstrate that positive impact can be achieved without being a nonprofit organisation. So, where does this leaves charities? If social impact can be achieved by organisations that are financially self-sustaining and without the need for an organisation at all, then it leaves charities stuck in the ‘squeezed middle’ between the two, justifying their place in the for-good landscape.
In pushing out of that middle, charities need to be able to demonstrate their impact, to be accountable to funders for how they spend money, to the public (and perhaps the press although not justifiably so) to ward off questions about the need for their existence, and also for themselves to know that they are doing a good job and making a difference. It’s this accountability that makes charities different to social movements and for-profit businesses. Not just accountability for spending money, but accountable for achieving impact. But impact is a difficult thing to define and even more difficult to measure, especially across the wide range of different charities that make up the charity sector.
There is an argument for charities to measure impact against their mission. This approach suggests each charity be clear about it’s mission and measure it’s impact accordingly without the need for defining measures that work consistently for all charities or adhering to externally applied regulations. If a charity’s mission is, for example, to prevent a particular species from extinction then it’s impact in achieving that mission can be considered simply by asking if that species is nearer or farther away from extinction following the charities work. A simple, single measure that applies whatever the charity. But simple, single measures only ever provide a small part of the picture. To go down the route of measuring impact narrowly against each charity’s mission is to fall into the trap of businesses measuring their performance by their bottom line. It provides a limited understanding, which risks being used to make the wrong decisions.
But there is another approach to consider. Rather than focus on the measurement of mission, charities could seek to demonstrate the wider benefit they bring to society. They could demonstrate the positive sentiment they create, the good vibes people get from supporting charities. And the benefits volunteering brings to people, not to mention the state in reducing social care needs and the commercial sector in giving people work experience. And sense of pride and achievement felt but those who work in and for charities to make a difference. And the security that people in need get from knowing that charities are there to help, even if they don’t need them right now. Charities do so much more good in the world than just in achieving their missions. This is their impact, and we should celebrate the widest possible definition of the impact charities have on the world we live in.
I have a hypothesis: the more you understand other disciplines the better you can collaborate with people from those disciplines. Working in multidisciplinary teams assumes the team has all the skills it needs to get the job, but by creating silos of skills within the team. If everyone on the team had some skills from all the disciplines they work with there would bean overlap effect that help everyone understand each other better. Shared knowledge creates shared understanding and a more effective team.
So I want to test this hypothesis in a vary unscientific way by doing courses in adjacent skill sets to mine, writing a guide about that jobs skill set, and try to get people to read them and learn a how bunch of adjacent skills to see if it does help work better with their colleagues.
Since it’s an area I know, I’ll start with digital jobs:
User Interface/Interaction Designer
First, because I’ve already done the course, is Service Design. I need to write some kind of guide to service design for non service designers, including the history of the discipline, tools and techniques, methods, applications and limitations.
I don’t know how long this is going to take me, but maybe once I’ve done all of these I can think about even more adjacent jobs and expand outwards.
We’ve been doing quite a bit of work on a service blueprint and it’s made us consider the things that shouldn’t happen but probably will. These are the undesigned paths, the things users might do that takes them away from our designed paths. It would be impossible for us the think of all the different things users could do as they try to accomplish a task, and we can’t always prevent them from taking these paths, but we can try to make it as easy as possible to get back on to the designed path.
If your name’s not down
Identity verification is complicated thing. I’ve been working on a framework for reaching levels of confidence that a person is who they say they are. It’s a really interesting problem to solve because there are so many different real life scenarios that we need to cater for, but we also need have a means of codifying and recording that a person’s identity has been verified. Personally, I love this kind of complex problem solving that connects messy real life to digital systems, and professionally I hope it helps contribute to a workable solution. It’s part of what I love about being a product manager in a charity.
From good ideas to social good
I finished my dissertation about innovation processes in charities, which means I’ve finished my masters. It felt good to move it from the Now column on my roadmap, where it’s been for two years, to the Done column. But what next? What am I going to do with all the time I’ll have?
Another new month, another retro to look back at what I’ve been doing to achieve my goals. My two big lessons were that focusing on fewer things makes it easier to achieve them on schedule (like dissertations) and that adding things to my delivery plan that don’t actually require any effort to achieve is kind of pointless.
I’ve been thinking, and want to write about, using visual communication more effectively for asynchronous working. It’s much harder to get right than written communication because it doesn’t have such a well established language. Most of us don’t implicitly understand things like the difference between a diagram and map (a map has spatial relationships whereas a diagram doesn’t), and being limited to two-dimensions can limit and constrain complex thing. I’m not even sure how to approach figuring this out other than starting by uncovering the problems with visual communication and see where it takes me.
Digital gardens and networked thoughts
I’ve been thinking about digital gardens and their use in creating a network of thoughts to evolve ideas over time. The usual approach to this seems to be to use a digital note-taking system where if an idea that has previously been added in mentioned again that it has a hyperlink to the original. I think it’s meant to help show how the same idea gets reused in different posts but all the examples I’ve seen look too neat and clean to be in any real use. My notes are all over the place, including sketched onto a window, in a notebook, added to Notion, shared onto my website, dropped onto Miro, added to my weeknotes, and all without being able to connect them other than through memory, which is against the point of using a digital garden.
The other issue I struggle to understand with networking thoughts and ideas in this way is that as a conceptual model, networks don’t show time. So, if the point of a digital garden is to be able to help thought evolving over time, how does having connecting relationships between thoughts help achieve this? I wonder if it’s try to show ideas on a kind of evolution diagrams that shows the point-in-time state of an idea at multiple intervals, like how primates came from fish, and that’s just got the visual wrong, or whether the fundamental concept is flawed.
Either way, I’ll continue to explore note-taking as a thinking tool even if it’s just to help me understand the problem better, which I don’t really have a good grasp on yet.
I was chatting to someone about job skills and it made me think about how expanding our professional skill sets into adjacent fields would have lots of benefits. For me, my adjacencies might be service design, user experience, business analysis, maybe even a bit programming, and I think it should create better understanding across the team as there would be a more common language, mean that different team members can fill gaps and work together more effectively.
A charity’s purpose
I’m still reading Sarah Mitchell’s Charity Management, and this passage caught my attention, “the aim of a charity is to fulfill their mission”. Sarah is writing abut how charities might benefit from having more focus on doing only the things that contribute to achieving their mission and stopping doing things that don’t. In general, I agree that focus is a good thing, but I also wonder if too much focus negates the possibility of the positive second and third order effects that charities have. Charities provide so much more value to society that just that which comes from serving their beneficiaries to achieve their mission. Having volunteers doesn’t just benefit the charity, the volunteers also get lots of good from it too. If it’s a charity that supports children with learning difficulties, for example, then the families of those children also get benefits. If the charity forms relationships and partnerships with other organisations then the network that results can share knowledge and create improvements. The good charities have in the world extends much further than just in achieving their mission.
Maybe it’s a similar question to the idea that if a charity achieves its purpose it should shut down. I say no, because that is such a waste of all the expertise, infrastructure, systems and relationships that have been built over time and could be directed at other social issues. The problem isn’t that the charity that has achieved mission isn’t needed anymore, the problem is that a charity can only work on a narrowly defined mission.
And my growth area this week:
I’m not a natural communicator. As an introvert who gets easily obsessed with analysing things I usually forget to take people with me when I’m thinking through a problem. I try really hard to communicate clearly, but it doesn’t come easily. This week I received some nice feedback from a colleague who said that I did really well in getting their thoughts onto paper (or Miro) and helping them understand things. But I feel like there is still lots to improve in how I communicate, so this week I’ve been more conscious in considering what the audience might want or need to know, what existing knowledge they do or don’t have, how the visuals, written words and spoken words are all telling the same story. The test will be next week when I’m presenting on a complicated topic. Hopefully I’ll get some sense of whether the slides are pitched at the right level and whether I can explain the topic clearly enough to get to the answers we want.
This month’s lessons: focusing on fewer things makes it much easier to to stay on schedule (who knew) and having things on a delivery plan that just happen without any focus is kind of missing the point.
Contributing to the digital transformation of the charity sector
I got where I needed to with product requirements for two of the three projects. The third project has a more extended timeline and a slower pace, so will come in time. Also did a little bit of strategy work using Wardley mapping, which has got me thinking.
Learning about innovation, technology, product and design
Finished my dissertation. Which means I’ve finished my masters. It feels weird. Partly because it’s been a big part of my life for two years and now all that pressure is suddenly gone. It’s going to leave a big gap. And partly because I can’t do anything more about the final grade I get. It’s out of my hands now. A lesson I need to take into whatever I choose to spend my time doing next is that in order to get me to focus, that thing needs to have some external commitment (for my masters that was the money I’d paid) and some future benefit to achieve (which is getting the masters). Other projects I’ve started before haven’t had either of those and I quickly lose interest when I have a new idea.
Wrote weeknotes on schedule every week. I’ve been mixing them up a bit by adding a photo of the week, things I’m grateful for, and what my growth area for the week has been. They continue to be a really good prompt to looking back over the week.
I completely smashed my purposely low target for stiles. I have 348 on stiles.style whereas my target for this month was 315.
I achieved the increase in runway I was aiming for.
All three of these targets are starting to feel out of place on my delivery plan. They just happen without me needing to give them any focus so I think I might drop them and think about whether I should add something else. I still think of them as being part of the goal of leading an intentional life so they should be on my roadmap, but not on the delivery plan.
If we want a sustainable future we have to build things that can be built on top of
‘The old A30’ is now a nature reverse where kids ride bikes, old couples go for walks on Sundays, and the occasional adder suns itself. Before this old road was replaced by the new A30 it was one of the busiest roads in Cornwall, notorious for traffic jams and accidents. But before it was a metaled road for the modern motorcar it was a coaching route for horse-drawn coaches traveling between Bodmin and Indian Queens. And long before that it may have been used by the Roman army marching between the east and west sides of Cornwall. And even longer before that it might have a prehistoric trackway. It’s had quite a history.
What makes that history fascinating, when looking back from our point in history, is how the road was built upon over time. The same road, taking more or less the same route, serving the same purpose, for thousands of years. Until now. Now it’s no longer a road. It was replaced, not build upon as it had been generation after generation, but replaced with something completely new.
Replacing things rather than repairing and upgrading them can’t be a purely 20th/21st century idea, but it isn’t hard to see how the technological innovation, capitalism, free market and competition, consumerism, advertising, and a thousand other things of the last few hundred years have formed the psyche of the modern world that leads us to think that building new things to replace old things is better than building upon old things.
Maybe what we can build upon and what we must replace depends on the nature of the thing. Are physical things different to immaterial things? Perhaps the first communication network people ever build was signal fires on beacon hills to warn settlements in the valleys below of invading clans. Millennia later, legend has it that once there was a time where there was nowhere a person could stand in England and not hear church bells ringing out to call worshipers from the fields and villages. The churches formed a different communications network, with a different purpose and using different technology, than the signal fires. They did not build upon or replace the physical infrastructure of the signal fires, but perhaps they took similar ideas about mass communication and built upon them.
New technologies brought new communication networks. Radio and television didn’t replace or build upon the churches and bell ringing, anymore than they did so with the signal fires, but the idea of broadcasting the same message to the masses from a central location was built upon and taken to further with refined messages available all day everyday. And then came the internet and the world wide web. Building upon those mass communication ideas and upon the telecommunications infrastructure, replacing old wires with new, and enabling more people to send a receive even more refined messages, the internet can trace it’s origins back to those signal fires that stood ready to warn our ancestors of danger.
How much of what we build today is built with a future in mind that includes being built upon? Our modern business thinking conditions us to believe that being disrupted and replaced as a bad thing, unless we’re the ones doing the replacing, beating the competition by achieving the competitive advantage that comes from customer lock-in and network effects. Where collaboration is mentioned in business plans and strategic text books it is as a means of partnering with other organisations to achieve even greater competitive advantage. Never is any thought given to collaborating with future organisations, in as yet un-imagined ways by building things that can be built upon.
If we want to create a sustainable future we must consider whether to replace or to build upon, what to take from before or to create new, and when to be competitive or truly collaborative. When we build things we should have an eye on the possible future of what could be built upon our thing and make that it a reality. We can give the builders of the future more choices if we make the right decisions now.