Eastbourne, UK

We just spent a few days in Eastbourne for a short break. It’s by the beach, close to the local cliffs, has good restaurants and is more laid back than Brighton.

There was an unfortunate situation with the hotel, where they re-assigned us to another hotel but in a smaller room so instead of staying together, our family of 3 had to split up into two separate rooms. Nonetheless, Eastbourne is still a worthy local trip.

It costs half compared to going abroad, and is less complicated than flying and PCR tests. There’s enough to do for a 4 day stay.

Eastbourne pier
Eastbourne pier

Lighthouse at Beachy Head
Lighthouse at Beachy Head

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Beachy Head cliffs

Keralan fish curry
Keralan fish curry from Malayalam

Love birds at Drusillas Park
Love birds at Drusillas Park

Unwinding skills

I’m learning to apply the not-immediately-obvious skill of unwinding.

I’ve gotten really good at winding myself up for one reason or another, sometimes for very good reasons, but winding up needs to be unlearnt.

It’s better than calling it mindfulness or meditation, I think. Unlearning winding up gets to the heart of the problem… that I wind myself up in the first place!

It also helps to call my brain, body and feelings out as the 3rd person. It objectifies the things, and gives me a way of dealing with distracting signals inside me. So much unnecessary drama is better dealt with that way.

I also get to distract the things by taking deep breaths—it pushes them back and helps them settle down.

It’s effort, this unwinding thing… a lot more than living in autopilot. But it’s worth this than dealing with being wound up all the time.

The Dodos

I spent yesterday afternoon binge watching music videos from one my favourite bands: the Dodos, Meric Long and Logan Kroeber’s West Coast duo.

I somehow missed their amazing collaborations with Stargaze orchestra.

The orchestra brings gorgeous depth to “Transformer” from their 2013 album, Carrier. They performed two other tracks, “Relief” and “Death” and are a joy to watch.

For comparison, this is what the original video for Transformer looks and sounds like (the animated short is a bit dark):

The first time I came across The Dodos was from also from a music video—“Fools” from 2008’s Visiter—choreographed to Danny MacAskill’s run through Gran Canaria in the Canaries. I could watch this all day:https://www.youtube.com/embed/GL0rbxB9Lqg

I got addicted to the band’s sound. When this happens, I go through phases where I listen to tracks or bands in loops, and this “Fools” was on heavy rotation for a few weeks, which then led to rotating albums for months, putting extra weight on Spotify’s recommendations.

One of my favourite music videos is this one.

Apparently it took Logan and Meric three months to train for this. There’s a part in their performance with Seattle’s KEXP where they share some comments behind the video’s creation with Cheryl Waters (at 12:52).

I love that KEXP makes such high production studio recordings of music available for free to watch… it just brings a level of intimacy and personality to the music you don’t get with album tracks.

It’s fun to stumble upon band stories through these studio videos. In this performance with Audiotree, Logan talked about the SW3 music video (below) coming about after asking a colleague if his daughter would perform martial arts for the video, which turned out exceedingly well.

I’m already looking forward to their new album, “Grizzly Peak”, coming out 12 Nov. They’ve already released a few tracks as Lyric videos on YouTube, like this reworked track from the EP “The Surface”.

When it comes to complexity, show works better than tell

The sketchnote collection article I posted yesterday seemed to attract a lot of kudos from friends and contacts far and wide, equally reminding them of good past memories we all cherished. It seemed like this post was long overdue, but it’s nice to give it a new lease of life out on active channels.

It’s been awhile since I’ve shared or posted anything related to Systems Thinking (on any channel, let alone this one).

Today, I came across a fantastic case study article from Philippe Vandenbroeck about his work with Koen Vandyck regarding their analysis of state funded orchestras in Belgium, informed by and constituted through a large causal loop diagram (CLD).

causal loop diagram of orchestra ecosystem

The author speaks practically about how to read the CLD map, which provides a starting point for casual, new readers.

How to read this map? The map consists of factors that are causally linked. An upstream factor drives downstream factors. All the factors included in the map have been conceptualised as ‘variables’. That means that they can go up or down, and by doing so will have an effect on the downstream variables. The blue arrows indicate that an increase of a tail variable (say, ‘ticket sale income’) will lead to an increase of the head variable (‘revenue’; vice versa in case of a decrease). The red arrows indicate that the relationship is the reverse, meaning that an increase of tail variable will lead to a decrease of the head variable and vice versa (an increase in ‘ticket price’ leads to a decrease in the ‘attractiveness of live concert experience’).

Then, he starts to unpack the main insights from his analysis, the various “gravities” of systems phenomena, narrating the various “shapes” of the system through his systems literacy — e.g. upstream and downstream forces — while explaining the broader story, one critical systems loop after another, in an attempt to help the reader relate systems phenomena back to the challenges and significance in reality.

The central variable is ‘artistic quality’. There is a broad consensus that this determines the viability and fundability of any artistic project. It reflects the level at which an individual artist, project or organisation excels in its genre, organisational form or function.

The system map underlines that as far as an orchestra is concerned artistic quality is not the only determinant of success. It is a crucial element, but cannot be seen separately from at least four other key factors:

  • the public’s interest in attending concerts,
  • the societal support for classical music,
  • the orchestra musicians’ job satisfaction, and
  • the quality of the artistic and business management.

As a whole, the system map is therefore built around five key factors — artistic quality supplemented by the four factors just mentioned.

CLDs are seldom self-evident – especially the larger ones. CLD maps are there to reveal, through its formal structure and syntax, the underlying patterns of causal loops in an abstract way—it’s then left to people who have the tacit and deep knowledge of the real-world to translate that systems understanding to the real-world significance behind what these patterns mean.

CLDs are not like some other, more accessible frameworks like service blueprints and business model canvases, which contain in their formal syntax, elements that map directly to the assumed elements of the real world — i.e. users, front office, back office, activities, customer relationships, partners…

CLDs have NONE of those things — it is agnostic to real-world elements. Instead, it focuses on expressing the nature of causal feedback loops, and work alongside system feedback axioms (also known as system archetypes) which, almost like physics, map to patterns of behaviour over time.

systems archetypes from thesystemsthinker.com

These patterns act as heuristics for systems practitioners to understand how things might potentially unfold over time given certain causal assumptions and relationships between inter-related things happening in reality.

Despite the strategic value that causal loop diagrams offer practitioners, it remains somewhat of an underutilised tool in the strategy space. One one hand, it’s one of the more accessible and common tools that systems practitioners use to do strategic systems work… but the rest of the world doesn’t really pay much attention to it.

I suspect it has less traction compared to tools like, I’m probably making this up, complex user journeys, service ecosystem maps or blueprints, theory of change models,… perhaps even Wardley maps and the Cynefin framework? And it’s probably because CLDs don’t have that mapping to elements in the real world. It requires someone to be literate in basic systems syntax and language to read and understand a CLD.

This is why I wish there were more practical, applied case studies like this one using systems thinking approaches. More of this and not just talk about the value of systems thinking. Show, don’t tell.

This way, more people can cross the proverbial bridge between systems and the real world, and realise that in the end that the world of systems and reality itself have never actually been disconnected from each other in the first place… only just in our conception and understanding of it.

Interestingly, the author lamented on the reluctance of orchestras themselves to engage in meaningful conversations after the report was released and socialised, despite very positive feedback from the project sponsors and subject matter experts.

Reactions to our study were mixed. Our government sponsor was very pleased and hailed the report as a landmark study. We also received kudos from insiders who know the sector well. However, the orchestras themselves campaigned vigorously against the insights from our report. They refused to enter into nuanced debate about it. For Koen and myself, both staunch supporters of the institution, this was a disappointment. The reaction seemed to betray a false sense of entitlement and union-led intransigence. As far as we are concerned, the gravest threat to a viable future for the symphony orchestra is not a changing world, but the strategic myopia of what risks to become a cultural dinosaur.

The designer in me made me think the “people-centered practice” part is where systems thinking efforts can sometimes fail despite well intentions, although I’m not suggesting that this was what happened to Philippe and Koen.

For things to change at a large scale, lots of different people need to be involved, and people within the system need to have appropriate ownership and involvement in the change process for that whole organic process to move forward in a meaningful way. The profound understanding and insights that systems practice only represents a small portion of the actual thing that needs to change—people. Lots and lots of people.

But this is what excites me about the work I get to do, drawing from the profound practices and progressive communities of practitioners out there trying to make long-lasting impact and contribution in the world. There’s so much opportunity ahead of us to mix and blend our different tools and domains together, cross each other’s bridges, and learn from each other’s expertise. And work with each other to change ourselves, and the world, one step at a time.

My sketchnote collection from over the years

A short one today, because the long one is over on Medium…. yaah, I sort of cheated on the 100 day writing challenge.

Anyway, the article that I posted live on Medium showcases a collection of sketchnotes I’ve produced over the years since 2010.

If you’re into that sort of thing, head over to the article here:

https://boonych.medium.com/my-sketchnote-collection-from-all-the-years-2ace40559df3

A proper weekend

It’s Monday and I’ve already lapsed 2 days on my 100 day writing challenge.

Boo.

Anyway, it was a good, busy weekend — I went up to Tower Bridge for the first time, and got to look down the glass floor to see the bridge open up from above.

It was surprisingly uncrowded for a public attraction, and we had our lunch there with views overlooking East towards Canary Wharf.

Eastward view from Tower Bridge
View of the West Tower

Then on Sunday, I cooked curry fish head for my uncles and aunts from my mum’s side of the family and that was pretty much Sunday done.

It was my first time gutting and cleaning the head of a hake. Which was a bit like preparing and cooking lobster for the first time.

There’s a first time for everything. Who knows what I’ll cook next that’ll be a first.

Hake head
Fish head curry

Getting comfortable about work that drags on forever

This has been a busy, tiring week. My diary doesn’t look crazy, there are no big deadlines… but I’ve been labouring over a competitor review document in the last few weeks, which sounds like such a silly thing to labour over.

The last minute rush to set up the Miro boards for this month’s internal guild discussion session added more intensity to my Thursday. And I was ambitious when I signed up for one too many sessions on mental health, which were running as part of an internal initiative. I’ll have to go back through the recordings once I have a bit of breathing space… some of them are really good.

I have been reluctant to produce standard UX documents for non-UX stakeholders. After years of producing so many of them, they end up being such a waste of time because they lack the rigour, substantiation, care and preparation they deserve to elevate insights to a point it makes any difference. You get out what you put in and all that.

Now a few weeks since starting on the deck, I wasn’t expecting to spend as much effort and time as I have just to produce the documented insights. I feel I should know this by now, but my ballpark figures never seems to match what actually happens.

I might as well go back to my old software development heuristic of doubling or tripling initial estimates — a shorthand I used whenever I was asked to say when a piece of software would be done. It worked surprisingly well for many years.

This just goes to show “years of experience” feels like an inappropriate justification for anything, really. 10 years of experience – wireframes, JSON, agile, Microsoft Word, competitor reviews.

I think my gripes come from the discomfort that the work I do seems to drag on forever. And it’s sort of the nature of the beast…. quite a bit of it is messy, thinking work.

I might as well get over it and get comfortable embracing the “dragginess” of strategic work.

Content Strateg…ic?

I run a monthly-ish internal discussion forum for strategic UX topics at my workplace, building on things I’ve learnt from running IxDA London and other communities.

Today, we covered the topic of copy and content, which came about when my colleague Olga, a technical writer, pinged me on Slack about something she thought might be a good fit for one of our monthly discussions. The initial thing wasn’t copy or content-related but to cut the long-story short, we decided to host a discussion around the strategic value of copy and content.

The title is a bit of a funny one. The core of the conversation was actually about content operations, rather than strategy. The words “strategic” or “strategy” sometimes acts as a trojan horse that gets people excited, for right reasons, I think… but in this discussion, we actually didn’t really discuss much about strategy.

I think it’s easy to get confused over something that’s “strategic” vs. actual “strategy“.

To make myself clear, what I mean by “strategy” is really about what is the “thing” that enables us to gain an advantage over… well, something else… for some meaningful purpose / goal / direction / outcome / etc.

Strategic ≠ strategy

The word “strategic”, well, could mean anything, really. It’s more about the intention and effort of doing something in a way that improves our chances for desired outcomes, rather than the approach itself. Being strategic doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with strategy.

I could’ve just called the session, “content strategy”… or “operationalising copy and content at scale”, which would’ve been more accurate to what was being discussed, and those titles would also sound “strategic”… but somehow using the word “strategic” in the title makes it sound more tight and punchy.

Also — on one hand, it’s not like people wake up one day and decide “I’m not strategic” (ok, ok… maybe they do). But then, to say you are strategic sounds like it requires a bit more thought and intent to make it work. So, it helps to use the word to, I don’t know, drive that intention home.

So, I suppose one elephant-in-the-room question might be… can a piece of work within an org / product / team / etc. be “strategic” and yet also be completely disconnected from an organisation’s / product’s / team’s / etc.’s strategy?

I think so.

The way I’m thinking of it is that the word “strategic” is a synonym for “better operationalisation” or “better ways to get things done”.

I’ve just Google’d this:

“strategic”

  1. relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them.
  2. relating to the gaining of overall or long-term military advantage.

and

“strategy”

  1. a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.
  2. the art of planning and directing overall military operations and movements in a war or battle.

(source: Oxford Languages)

So, “strategic” is actually more of a verb-like thing rather than a noun-like thing. A “doing” rather than a “what”. Activity vs. Approach…. i.e.

  • “the identification…”
  • “the gaining…”

Which sort of makes sense.

And the word, “strategic”, is not the same as “strategy”, which is more about approach, plans or means — from which people can use to make decisions with towards a more desirable direction.

Activity instead of Approach.

Is it pointless to be strategic if you already have a strategy?

To play devil’s advocate (sorry for the overused phrase), if you can indeed be doing things strategically despite that not being related to a / the strategy at all, isn’t that like a stupid thing to do?

Maybe.

But maybe the focus here isn’t so much about whether being strategic has to link up to strategy or not… but whether being strategic has advantages to… well, not being strategic. Whatever that means.

And “not strategic” can only be known, I think, when you have a way of determining:

  • intent / purpose
  • ability or a way of saying how one can or cannot do something
  • some kind of “bullshit” test or meter — i.e. a way of knowing if it’s going to work or not

Which is a kind of similar in structure to what a strategy needs to contain:

  • intent / purpose
  • an approach or way to succeed
  • some way of knowing if it’s worth it and confidence that it’s going to succeed

(not too far off from Rumelt’s definition of a good strategy)

The difference is that strategy can sort of stand alone on its own, but being “strategic” needs people and the work playing out in actuality.

Muscle > Means

I prefer to think of being strategic as sometimes more valuable than an actual, working strategy. This is because strategies can change, for all sorts of reasons, and they should change if it’s clear those strategies are not going to work. The way you would know if it needs to change is actually a people and intent thing — i.e. being strategic in the way you go about things… even if being strategic may not necessary be linked to a / the strategy at all.

So, I said the thing earlier about Activity instead of Approach, but I actually like to think of it in terms of “Muscle” versus “Means”. Often times, what you really want is a strategic muscle… especially in today’s environment where things are complex and constantly changing. You’ll acknowledge that the “means” of strategy will have to bend and flex and adapt with conditions.

So, anyway — this is me trying to rationalise why I didn’t call the session “Content Strategy”.

Designers, don’t underestimate failure at work

Experiencing and observing failure at work is highly undervalued skill for a designer to have. It’s priceless to have gained hard-earned professional insight, and almost all expertise and maturity depends on how to manage the risk of failure of all shapes and sizes.

Consider what your response might be to the following situations:

  • A development team that’s so focused on project delivery it ignores fundamental errors informed by user testing that requires additional effort to fix
  • A massive disconnect between what consumers and providers want, with your product providing value for both audience groups.
  • A misalignment between your product and technology leads about priorities and overall objectives for the project
  • One’s professional inability to deliver critical design solutions that meet both business and customer needs

You might argue that these are all different things, but they share a common trait of being treated as failures.

It’s easy to dismiss these things as inconveniences, externalities, or problems outside our immediate scope of influence, or dismiss oneself as an outcast or impostor, but I think designers have a unique vantage point from which they can help to unlock value for themselves, as well as with and for others.

However, if a designer to cannot understand the underlying nature of failures, how does one assist in designing solutions for it – across multiple levels? This is why reframing one’s orientation towards failure can help tip the scales towards favourable outcomes.

The key lies in the following things:

  • Understanding multiple perspectives and stories behind failure situations
  • Embracing curiousity and introspection to tease out opportunities hidden behind failures
  • Facilitating solutions that unlock value informed by learning

A mature designer is one who understands the value and means for recovering fast and finding ways to unlock opportunities behind those failures (My inspiration from this comes from John Maeda’s Interaction19 talk, where he talks not about failing fast, but recovering fast).

Also, designers are well placed to observe and experience failure in a multitude of ways. These are several situations why this is so:

  • Designers often have unique sensitivity into observing and uncovering mismatched vectors existing within situations, perspectives, effort and goals.
  • Designers, in an attempt to solve problems, need to cross chasms involving people and systems in different contexts, requiring much trial and error as well.
  • Working with people is hard, and with designers often being ‘temporary or situational experts and learners’, huge mistakes will be made to bridge that gap to work effectively with their colleagues, customers or users.
  • Sometimes, an over-emphasis on craft vs. solving actual problems presents huge opportunities for failure, misunderstanding and re-education.

Many of us want to contribute towards something resulting in positive outcomes, but how? It’s much easier to play the less-messy role of observing and being a critic or informant from the sidelines. However, it also doesn’t work to meddle in complex issues from the outside, or to attempt solving all problems in one go.

Instead of complaining, it’s perhaps better to look at the bigger picture, and seek help to understand multiple realities shaping everyone’s behaviour and interests. Tools like soft-systems methodology (Peter Checkland) or systems mapping can help with this. Incidentally, this has not often been in the formal realm of design practice, but it’s something we can get better at – if merely to inform ourselves about these worldviews.

Sometimes, design work can act as a Trojan horse to displace or reframe complex problems and situations between different groups of people, to help refocus everyone’s attention on what’s worth solving. Circular, heated debates can sometimes be diffused by evidencing complexities and disagreements with experiments, prototypes or stories – and the level of designer social savvy can tip the scales between a violent disagreement and broad acceptance of a new norm.

With proper care and tact, even process improvements can help unlock tangled, disconnected or imbalanced ways of working or situations. For example, we can opt to solve things across different time scales, re-scope things to yield the right-sized solutions, or be flexible to model new behaviours and leading by example.

Then, finally, being honest with oneself, and realising that sometimes, we ourselves are the cause of the problem. Understanding how to recover quickly and healthily from this, then re-addressing the situation in a positive new light, can add years to a designer’s maturity level.

One might ask — shouldn’t this apply to non-designers too? Well, yes. But I think the unique blend of designers’ sensitivity and ability to work across the spectrum from social to systems does provoke an a more optimistic way of working despite its challenges, that’s worthy of our investment and too important not to ignore.

One last trick, I sense, is to give ourselves the space and time to do so.


Thanks to Kim Lenox, Fabien Marry and Martina Hodges-Schell for listening to me during my recent struggles with failure and giving me sage work advice.

Reflecting on reflective practice

I attended a fringe event of the User Research London conference on Friday this week, thanks to the lovely team at STBY.

It was an intimate evening of discussions and camaraderie, as I took the opportunity to briefly rekindle with Jo Wong and Dan Szuc from Apogee HK, as well as other friends I haven’t met in years. But there were many new faces I got to know that evening, and we were sharing and debating and, well, reflecting on the idea of reflective practice.

The woke designer

Reflective practice, or more appropriately — a reflective practitioner — is someone who actively integrates aspects of learning, awareness, and savvy intrinsically to their design practice. Kind of like a designer who’s woke.

So, the idea of reflecting on reflective practice, while sounds very meta, is actually just a part and parcel of being a reflective practitioner — it’s not abstract at all.

Geke van Dijk from STBY opened us up by framing our discussions around highlights, tips, and challenges, which surfaced several things like:

  • The importance giving ourselves and our colleagues space to reflect on our work (e.g. retrospectives, blocking out specific times in our calendar),
  • Not having enough time (general busyness, increased obsession and preoccupation with speed which is a dangerous thing)
  • Embodying reflectiveness in our own lives (you can’t really switch it on or off, and that there are sometimes identity issues when reflectiveness changes you as a person so much)
  • Impact or influence of culture (team, organisation, discipline, upbringing; appropriateness of practice in different parts of the world)
  • Gratitude / thankfulness / lightness of practice (of people close to us, friends in the industry, likemindness, intentfulness)
  • Frameworks, tools, resources and methods (Nobl.io’s organisational design resources, Johari windowDIY toolkit)

The metaphor of scaffolds

Some of this really resonated with something I’ve been developing over the last few months in the form of a talk, which is the metaphor of scaffolds in relation to approaches for facilitating work within teams and organisations.

I think of scaffolds whenever I think of things like the double diamond, experience maps, UX principles and diagrams, and even definitions of strategy and vision. These often emerge from or is applied to some understanding of a problem space, and typically is expressed in words and/or visuals, to help people solve problems and do work.

I like thinking of them as scaffolds, because:

  • They’re often transitional and facilitative, “erected” to support the development of an end solution or outcome.
  • Someone typically has to take the lead to guide others to navigate the “path of the scaffold” — it isn’t always obvious just by looking at it.
  • The structure of the scaffold suggests how work can be done, so that groups of people can achieve a shared outcome better.
  • Sometimes, scaffolds can become permanent (for better or worse) — they become part of actual solution that teams are working towards.

The double diamond is a good scaffold — useful for communicating the structure of design work, acting as a bridge between disciplines and teams across organisations

The idea of scaffolds within the context of reflective practice is meaningful to me, because it suggests a long-term adoption by groups of people towards a shared direction. The success of a scaffold is when it’s meaningfully used by diverse groups of people without you being there.

Reflective, forever

Reflective practice isn’t without drawbacks. It takes more effort and time. It requires observation, understanding, action and risk-taking. Sometimes it means people getting uncomfortable, when they see things from a different point of view (of others’, particularly), and when it nudges them to act wisely on behalf of the larger context. Sometimes people misinterpret systems and subvert them in the wrong way.

And although reflection isn’t the only way, it’s a preferred way. And it’s by being more reflective, our craft and discipline becomes strengthened as a force for the long term, both for ourselves and for the world around us.

We just need to keep spreading the love.