June 02, 2016

MONO Decision-making: Minimum Oblique Non-Obvious

When you want someone to do something, you tell them so. In companies and schools alike, we've found a polite way to tell people what to do by writing visions, missions and all sorts of other PDFs that languish on the C-drive, bound polypocketed books that sit deep in the cupboard under your teacher desk.

Education is filled with jargon and we-speak that means nothing to the people who hear it every day. Teachers, students and parents are as much in the dark about the "transformational leverage" being "curated" within their "organization" (or, in other words: we really want you to change the way you do stuff).

I spend a fair amount of time working with copywriters, advertising and marketing geeks on language: how do we say what we mean, and mean what we say? Getting more direct and killing the jargon is a great start to changing the way you do stuff in the long term. It helps involve more people in the change, too, because they can actually grasp what they're meant to do to make that change happen.

But in this talk from the marvellous Rory Sutherland, there was that other mechanism to create change, and one of which we are might fond in NoTosh. In fact, the first book every new employee gets is Smile In The Mind, a tome full of visual puns that say so much without saying it. Sutherland calls is MONO decision-making: Minimum Oblique Non-Obvious decision-making:

It’s sometimes easier to do the wrong thing than the right thing.

Most people do the wrong thing because they’re not aware of a choice.

But give them a choice, no matter how rubbish it is, they then make a choice that they didn’t know they even had.

When London wanted to get people using a new train line, it doesn’t require a large investment (a new tram-  or trainline), or much tunnel-building, but rather a revealing of choice in the right place and time. The 'new' Crossrail is in fact a bunch of train lines that they've connected together on a map, more than connecting them together on the ground. That map - the Underground map - traditionally showed North London as being the most connected place, and thereby thrust up housing prices. It's not true - it's just that in South London you use a warren of train lines that cannot be seen on the underground. 

He expresses it in all its clarity, with other examples, at about 10"50 into this clip

May 21, 2016

Ten years on from the very first unconference for educators: TeachMeet is 10


This Tuesday, I want you to join me in the pub. It’s your homework. There will be a test.

My old tutor from teacher training college, David Muir, giggles as he types up some gems being shared over a beer between two other men: John Johnston, a primary teacher from Glasgow, and Will Richardson, an international keynoter whose formal talk earlier in the day had left us asking what they did in New Jersey that was, actually, any different from what we did in Scotland. Bob Hill from Dundee and Andrew Brown, a local authority (or school district) geek-in-residence listen in, priming the anecdotes they’ll respond with shortly. Behind me, at a different table, are a few others, snuggled around a table listening to the gems coming from an old uni pal who’s just started teaching, Grant Fraser.

152573117_26c660774b_oIt doesn’t seem like much, but this informal gathering, arranged in fewer than 24 hours, was the first unconference for teachers, anywhere in the world. As we organised it through IRC, for lack of a Twitter quorate, and blogs, we called it the ScotEduBlogger Meetup, but that very night we decided that this might be a tad limiting, given we talked about more than just blogs. We also realised that if we wanted any women to make it along, we’d have to break free from what was, at that time, the mostly blokeish pastime of blogging.


TeachMeet was born. And it was a full four years ahead of its American cousin, EdCamp. The parents of TeachMeet were, from the start, against it becoming monied, sponsored or financially supported beyond what was necessary to make it work, commercialised in any way, or becoming too formal by requiring a board, or trustees, or organisers. The lack of politics with a small ‘p’ was refreshing for teachers who mostly inhabit a world full of it. The lack of cash? Well, we’re teachers. That’s considered normal. I don’t know what I’d do with$2m, but I doubt it’d help make TeachMeet any more popular than it is today. Over the past ten years, it’s been a challenge to maintain that attitude in the heads of everyone who’s involved, but it’s managed to remain a very different beast to its EdCamp cousin as a result. It’s a difference I love.


More than just a random bunch of teachers heading out for a midweek pint, this was planned, intentionally, to be the antidote to the Edinburgh City Technologies Conference, which had left us all a bit deflated. In our classrooms, we were doing more interesting stuff, frankly, than that talked about by the experts and commercial outfits vying for business back at the conference centre.

I remember a discussion on IRC, about whether we should even invite Will along, given he was the keynote speaker that day, and somewhat occupying the podium that we were wanting to rebuke. A few of us knew Will well enough, though, through his blog posts, and thought he’d get into the ‘real’ goodies over a pint, more readily than in front of a few hundred folk in a beige convention centre.

The evening also had an unwritten rulebook, formed through the conventions of this rather twee little pub on Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile:
1. Don’t speak over someone who’s speaking;
2. Don’t hog the conversation, or someone will speak over you;
3. If you need to leave to get a pint, leave;
4. Don’t get too many laptops out: if you can tell your story without one, just do it. We’re in an Edinburgh drinkers’ pub, after all;
5. If you do need to show something, for goodness’ sake, don’t do a PowerPoint (see Point 4, above).

The most unwritten of all the ‘rules’ is maybe that of the Master of Ceremonies. In the pub setting, there’s always an MC. Sometimes they’re a total pain the neck. The loud chap in the corner, probably in a double-breasted suit, prophesying at his loudest and brashest to anyone who’ll listen, berating those who speak during his wife’s karaoke attempts, or who disagree with his political persuasion.

The more successful MC is almost invisible through their prowess. Any good pub has one. Sat, not stood, in a central position of the bar. He keeps an eye on the action, and subtly moves the pieces around like a chess master. A small utterance now and then turns potential discord between patrons into uniting harmony. His own stories normally get saved to last, until the after-hours lock-in, where a few lucky souls will get the résumé of the evening that no-one else was able to see.

From that night, we’ve written down most the rules, sighed when we’ve seen them forgotten. We’ve run some bigger TeachMeets, snagged some amazing venues, spent a lot of businesses’ cash on free beer and pizza. We’ve seen other countries adopt TeachMeet as their own, a few claim credit for starting it. We’ve seen TeachMeets sizzle when they offer something different for the teachers who come, and we’ve seen them stumble, stutter and stoater out as hosts forget how to really make those segues shine the spotlight on the teacher (and not the MC). We’ve kept the chaotic wiki where people organise, sign up and talk about their events. It’s got the look, feel and usability of your aged granny’s family anecdotes, but it’s for that reason that we keep it and love it (it is down as I try to link to it…).

This Tuesday, 10 years on to the night it all started, I’m going back to the Jolly Judge Pub in Edinburgh. I’d love you to join me if you can. In an age of Facebook Live, Twitter, Medium and Instagram, maybe you’re expecting to join in virtually. The point is, I’m going to be in an Edinburgh pub. What do you think I’m going to do?


March 25, 2016

Don't be scared. Ne sois pas effrayé

Ne sois pas effrayé
Twitter's biggest contribution to the world might be the art of synthesis. There's a lot of talk about how Twitter is on its last legs, how the bubble will burst. As a business (or lack of one) that might be true, but what the format has done is promote a new form of writing.
I've spent the last two weeks in Québec, learning alongside some amazing practitioners. In fact, my own teaching vision was largely moulded by an early experience in Francophone New Brunswick, and so it follows that I enjoy working alongside Francophone Canadian educators - there's a shared vision of what can be. One of my favourite chums there is Jean Yves Fréchette, a retired teacher (if you ever can be retired) who has pioneered educational technology since the 70s. If he lived in America and worked in English you'd all have heard of him and he'd be relaxing in his condo on the Florida coast. He's amazing. I'm going to share a few finds I discovered thanks to him over the weeks to come.
Much of his work has been in Twitter this past decade, heading up the #Twittérature movement in Québec and beyond, and carving out beautiful Twitter haikus.
Having seen some stunning photography - the photographer's daughters choosing their own settings, poses and camera angles, before he shot the images - he collaborated to produce 140 character poetry to go with it. The results are now in a book, a preview of which you can view online.
Stunning. Simple. Stunningly Simple.
Don't be scared. Ne sois pas effrayé.

December 28, 2015

2015 Travel: Han Solo could do it in 878 milliseconds


A confession: I quietly love flying. This year, I've done 163,581 miles of it.

I love that when you fly a lot, the airport social media staff say 'hello' on Twitter when you arrive and the cabin crew on your home route (or even on the Brisbane-Dubai non-stop route) recognise you from last time. I like getting great service, and see so many things about systems-thinking that work well in airlines, that I'm happy to forgive small indiscrepancies when they occur. All that said, flying strangles our planet as much as eating too much red meat, and for many, many reasons, I've wanted to stop flying quite so much, while not restricting the spread and growth of the ideas from our firm, NoTosh

I'm quite sure that nobody reading this blog really cares about how much I travel, but keeping an annual count on it has become a new year habit. When I started working at Channel 4, and then continuing when I created NoTosh, I wanted to keep track of what seemed like an interminable number of miles on the road and in the air. By 2012, 2013 and last year, I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever be able to get the number of miles down when they seemed to represent even more trips to the moon and back each and every year.

When you run a company based in Edinburgh with a great team living in Melbourne, you could easily spend your life on a plane - one flying to Melbourne feels better than two or more flying to Edinburgh. Indeed, in 2012, 2013 and 2014 it felt like I really did spend my life on a plane, as I went to the moon and back in my annual travel, with anything up to seven trips a year to Australia.

But last year, I began to find it a real mental and physical challenge to deal with the length of my trips, the nights away from home and, above all, the crazy distances. I made a decision at the dinner table of my friend and client Laurie, in Nanjing, China, while on a phone call to Peter Ford, my erstwhile colleague: in 2015, I'd reduce my miles as much as I could and still keep the company growing best I could.

I've started that journey with a third fewer miles in 2015 compared to 2014 or 2012, working towards getting to 2011 levels once more. It's still a silly number of miles in the air and on the road, but I'm happy to have achieved this without sacrificing the goal of our firm, to put learning at the heart of everything we do, and keep growing that learning mindset around the world.

And here's the thing: the whole team has travelled less than in, say, 2012 or 2013, and we've lost two of our staff - one to university study and the other to an 'offer he couldn't refuse' ;-). But in spite of all that, we have grown our turnover and, with traveling less, look likely to increase our profits later next year, something we can reinvest in developing our team, communications, books and so on. 

Our biggest challenge remains one behind the reason for all this travel in the first place: people still expect human contact, and think that this, rather than anything else, is "what we're paying for". I'm not convinced that's the right reason to get any consultancy firm involved with your school or company. "Having us over" is a luxury our planet can't always afford, and one that we don't always need to create stellar work. The same brains work via web conference as in a room in your school, and online learning and collaboration allows us to work in more flexible just-in-time ways, when the time is right for a busy teacher or executive. The times when I have really felt the benefit of being in the same room as people has been when we are codesigning a new programme, curriculum or learning environment, when being with each other for an extended period of time, in front of the inevitable whiteboard and post-it notes, helps make connections that we hadn't made online until that point. But for diagnostics, leading a PD session, doing a shorter length keynote talk - online still works really well for an audience that plans to actually do something with their learning (and an audience that plans to do nothing with their learning might well be less entertained, perhaps, by an online talk or workshop, but why would we want to take out days on travel for them, anyway?). 

Over the past year, that is the kind of work I've been concentrating on developing with NoTosh, and I think we'll see some great new programmes in 2016 as a result of the work my whole team has been doing to save our airmiles, save the planet and save some money for our clients. 

2007: 51,281 miles

2008: 81,887 miles

2009: 41,902 miles

2010: 106,372 miles

2011: 128,555 miles

2012: 242,266 miles

2013: 207,837 miles

2014: 237,195 miles

2015: 163,581 miles


November 24, 2015

It's high time for designers to get out of the way of design thinking

Design at IBM

A prospective client sent me a link to this in-depth article on IBM's design thinking revolution, where Phil Gilbert, IBM's General Manager of Design, has hired over 1000 designers into the firm, and pushed for over 8000 of its managers and staff to get 'trained' in design thinking. They have even created specific design centres across the firm, with design offices in most of its key locations, such as the one above. The goal is nothing short of beginning IBM's next phase of transformation, one of many in its 100+ year history.

However, all is not rosy. Despite achieving a monumental success relative to the status quo, 8000 'recognised' design thinkers in a corporation of over 370,000 souls is barely a dent in terms of changing practice. If NoTosh were to effect change in only 2% of the teachers with whom we work, we'd have packed up our bags long ago.

I'm not sure hiring 1000 designers in and of itself is the answer to any organisation trying to instil a different way of viewing the world. Here's why.

Since design thinking really began to be a thing, back in the early 60s, the designer him or herself has consistently been at the centre of the design process. Even though we talk of 'user-centred design', the actual ideation and production of a solution, and in many cases the synthesis and definition of the problem to be solve, too, are all tasks undertaken by skilled 'designers', rather than the people in the organisation who have the scope, brand, or 'permission' to play in that space. Once the designers leave the project, so does the design thinking. 

There is a reason d.school sees its executive courses filled with repeat customers and firms like IDEO continue to thrive - they are resolving challenges in specific examples of services or products, but not necessarily transforming the firms and organisations who had the budget and desire to solve a problem in that specific area. Solving a problem costs money. Solving a problem and teaching the client how to do it again and again costs more than just money. That might be the greatest challenge of all.

It's not just a gut feel or my word for it either. There is ample research showing this phenomenon of 'designer at centre' of the process, and the negative effects it has on finished products and services (Brown & Katz, 2011; Leifer, Plattner & Meinel, 2013).

Where the IBM story gets interesting is the number of times the word 'study' is used: four times. Those who want to think differently have to work hard at it, and look out of their existing ecosystem to see how. But the words 'teach' or 'show' or 'share'...? 0 appearances in this article, and many like it.

As long as organisations 'buy in' design expertise, it is in the designers' interest not to teach or to show. After all, where will the next gig come from? And are all designers clear on how they can work and teach their craft to the client? In our firm, we're not only well-practiced at thinking differently, both creatively and critically, but we're also beautifully amateur in so many of the industrial domains in which we choose to play. We are not experts in automotives, fashion, television or web startups. But we are expert teachers. And, with that, we are inherently sharers and showers.

It is that nuance that will help design move from the ranks of bearded, checked-shirt, boating shoe cool kids, and into any organisation that wants to effect perpetual and significant change in the way it views the world around it. If you want to outthink the limits of what's possible, the first step might be to put learning at the heart of everything you do

Brown, T., & Katz, B. (2011). Change by design. Journal Of Product Innovation Management, 28(3), 381-383.
Leifer, L., Plattner, H., & Meinel, C. (2013). Design thinking research: Building innovation eco-systems.


October 12, 2015

The psychological effect of the internet...

Network Effect

NetworkEffect.io. My friend Lauren puts it this way: 'an ethernet cable into your brain'. I agree. What did it do for you?

September 30, 2015

Teachers make meaningful, pragmatic strategy for learning

So much school strategy is thunder and lightning, no rain. Teachers don't know how to use it at 9am on Monday morning, students never see it, let alone know how to take their part in making the strategy happen for real.

Not in our latest workshop in Sweden. 

We've been working with our Swedish partners Lin Education​, with colleague Bonnie Stewart over from Canada, to provide a group of Malmö teachers and leaders with some deep, but brief, provocations on how media, identity, our networks and our approach to students owning more of their learning can be more likely to succeed.

They have spent the afternoon synthesising all of this to work out what the key headache they have might actually be, before defining an objective they'd like to meet to resolve that pain. Then, we've helped them work out the three or four key strategic projects they need to work through in order to get to the objective, reach their summit.

Here, the youngest teacher in each team is pitching their fifth prototype of the strategy, having received feedback all afternoon from different groups. In this session they only get the questions and feedback of colleagues, and are not allowed to reply. THAT is the serious work they'll do in the weeks to come - answering the questions and queries of colleagues to make the objective more concrete.

It's a brief, light version of what we've been doing with schools over a year or longer, tackling challenges in individual classrooms, perhaps, more than whole school ones. But the impact on these teachers is already fascinating - they're walking away having learned something, with a plan of their next actions, and the means to persuade the colleagues to join them.

The techniques we've used are described in my book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen.

August 31, 2015

What it means to be visionary

I'm working on a project where we're trying to inspire engineers to think beyond improving the existing objects and services in our world, and invent what we don't even know we don't even know yet. We're getting them to bump into their own unknown unknowns

This Steve Jobs video, above, is from 1997, where he describes in anecdote how he has created, over the seven prior years, what we know today as cloud computing. And yet, even today, there are plenty of institutions that struggle with the notion of putting everything "up there", where it is faster to access and safe(r) from loss. 

So the question is this: do you want to be a visionary, or follow one for an exciting ride, or be around nearly twenty years later questioning the vision of those who went off and did it? 

July 26, 2015

The weakness of the network to nurture curiosity


While search technology made the process of seeking the answers to our questions easier and quicker, social technology and our networks have had a paradoxical effort. Has the ease of 'asking' numbed our curiosity to investigate unknown knowns for ourselves?

There’s a strange paradox at work here. We live in an era where information is more freely available and easily accessible than ever before. Learning has, broadly speaking, evolved in three stages. First, knowledge resided in books or was held by experts. Students had to “knock” – to go looking – to find the answers. Then came Google, and with it students learned to “seek” because it was right there at their fingertips.

With the advent of Facebook and other social networks, we’ve entered the era of “ask”. Knowledge resides in the minds of the network, so students can just throw out a question on their Facebook page: “Hey guys, how would you answer this question that our professor set?”...

Students don’t read lengthy documents – like academic papers – any longer. They don’t go hunting for answers. They just put a question out to their network, sit back and wait for the answers to come their way.

Craig Blewitt. Thanks to Matt Esterman for the initial hat-tip to this.

It's not just our students who have become this Generation Ask - their teachers, in droves, sit on Twitter asking questions to the network, whose answers are waiting there to be found. The technology of our networks risks turning us into lazy researchers, for one.

But more worryingly, not doing our own homework, our own research, and relying instead on what others perceive to be 'right', means that we don't accidentally rub up against the interesting tangents that always come with one's own, personal, more time-consuming research.

The unknown unknowns remain untouched in this age of the network, and each individual's 'filter bubble' merely narrows down those chances further. The more our networks act as a magnifying glass on the loudest voices, the less likely we are to see the bigger picture, the whole context, and gain the depth of understanding we would ideally seek.

Pic by Kate Ter Haar

July 19, 2015

The unknown unknowns - test out your ideas

Unknown Unknowns

Not knowing what you don't know is one of the most troublesome concepts of living in an information rich time poor world. And for educators, who have been used to knowing a lot about some stuff for the past century, it proves an elusive concept in my Masters programme and in workshops that I lead around the world.

I've just kicked off teaching my second year of Charles Sturt University's subject on Designing Spaces for Learning (you can follow the course hashtag to see what we're up to 16 weeks). Without any exceptions, this concept of unknown unknowns is one of the toughest for people to get, especially when they get their heads into the research behind it, such as C-K Theory

Designing the unknown | C-K Theory Presentation from CGS Mines ParisTech on Vimeo.

While it's vital that my Masters students read the research, to really "do their homework" I set the first week's assignment in the real world. Every student must make an actual change to their learning environment within 10 days of starting the subject, and note the impact that the change has had. Sometimes, folk lack some inspiration. Here are two great things any educator could try in their learning spaces when they get back to school, or to their office, or their library. From Inc. Magazine, these two ideas encapsulate what it means to get out those unknown unknowns:

Play Anthropologist

How do you choose the environment that's best for your team? Forget asking them and try watching them instead, suggests Kuske:

"The problem with asking is, if people don't know it's an option, they're not going to give it to you as an answer. But when you watch their behaviors, you see no one ever uses those four spots over there but the couches are always busy. Or hey, why do you leave every other day? That would give [a small business owner] a lot of clues to what's right for their particular company."

Forget One Person Equals One Desk

Think you need one desk per team member? Think again. Kuske says mobile technology has rendered this idea obsolete, which is good news for cash-strapped small-business owners--it frees up money for more creative space design.

"Part of the cost structure everyone has is they make this assumption of a desk per person, but with mobile work, when you walk into most places, how many of those desks are actually used at any given moment? Not many," he says.

In Turnstone's experience often up to 60% of desks can go.

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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