Interpreting chains of thought

I do most of my writing in Ulysses app. It’s a delightful writing environment that syncs really well across desktop and mobile, meaning it’s effortless to make notes, list ideas, or edit posts whenever I have time or inclination. It’s so easy however, that I keep finding notes from old streams of consciousness that make very little sense on reflection. Here’s a recent list that I’m intrigued by. Wondering if I can rejoin the dots and reinterpret what I was working toward.

  1. Johari Window. Interpretation: Understanding what only you know about yourself, vs. what you and everyone else knows about you, vs. what what others know about you that you don’t know yourself, vs. what no one, including yourself, knows about you. Click the link. Seeing it in the window helps it make more sense.

  2. Gattaca. Interpretation: As per Personal Parable #2, one of my take aways from the film (which is 20 years old now!) is the bit where Anton finds out that Vincent would rather die than lose the race. That’s the extreme level of not knowing what someone else knows about themselves. The utmost sign of communication having failed and that you’re not on the same page as someone else.

  3. Service Design. Interpretation: Whatever you think or know (or don’t know) about the discipline, it’s safe to agree (or interpret) that it’s a profession that needs you to think about more than yourself. Designing any service or system that involves multiple parties and other types of people is more akin to being a detective or a therapist than any sort of ‘designer’ that the word usually conjures in our heads (like, black polo neck and black rim glasses, or beard, checked shirt and Vitsœ on walls at home).

  4. Culture Clash. Interpretation: You may have a great idea. You may be right about something. Your plan might be the smartest one on offer. You may even have the holy grail of solutions. But if you rub people up the wrong way or come across as arrogant or overbearing or unconfined or inexperienced or unprofessional, then you may be unable to convince ‘the other side’ of anything.

  5. Motive. Interpretation: You have yours. Your client has theirs. Their audience has theirs. Their employees have theirs. Their bank manages have theirs. Their bosses have theirs. Motives are held by everyone and nestled like Russian dolls. To achieve any you have to be aware and compassionate toward them all.

  6. Conventions / Shortcuts. Interpretation: I’ve read a lot about how our brains are geared toward developing heuristics and finding shortcuts. From a pop evolutionary biology point of view this makes a fair bit of sense (short cuts save energy and time on repetitive tasks that have proven successful, aka, that don’t cause you to die). The idea that such methods become hard wired in us makes sense when you consider how hard it is to change established behaviours, especially when what we’re doing, which we’ve always done, is still not actually killing us. Why take a risk and change such a thing? Change could mean danger. Danger is not good. Convention is safe.

  7. Allegorical language from Star Trek. Interpretation: I’ve trepidatiously used this example a number of times in the past, but trust me, it’s a good one. Imagine that it’s just an old fable or a kids story perhaps, not an episode of a 90s TV sci-fi. In it, there are some people that can’t be understood. They seem to talk in riddles. Repeating the same story fragments, like jargon that you’ve not been educated in. They just keep repeating themselves, over and over, treating you as though you’re the idiot, for not knowing their references and what they know. What frustrates everyone on both sides is that the words in the language are the same. It nearly makes sense. If only both parties could recognise the lack of shared understanding of the references and focus on their goals rather than barriers.

  8. Idea to split WA in to three companies. Interpretation: This was an idea from 2015 when we were thinking about how With Associates needed to evolve in order to remain relevant. We had long identified that we did more than build websites with design agencies. Our services had expanded enormously during our first decade, but inline with the expansion came a difficulty to explain what we did exactly. 

Old friends and associates knew us a the website building partner company, later friends as a design, build and support agency, latter still, as the digital consultancy that could help with scope and strategy as much as anything else. Saying WA alone did it all was proving too ‘Jack of all trades’ as well as contrary to what our older friends understood. We needed either to cut some strings from our bow or find some way of re-housing them in their own independent instrument.

To illustrate the latter, and test how people reacted to the idea of WA splitting apart into three separate companies, I created two new fictional companies that would bookend With Associates and provide more succinct lists of services.

Making Things Matter. Services: Project scoping, Business Analysis, Audience Research, Prototyping, User testing, Accessibility requirements, Content strategy, Social media strategy.  Matter as in worth while, as much as real. This agency wouldn’t do graphics, UI, development or engineering (other than for prototypes and such), but it would help plot and plan such things from a business and audience perspective. Revealing and recognising opportunities. It would have taken over the upfront ’consultancy’ part of With Associates and helped make more sense to clients on the occasions that we concluded that WA wasn’t the best fit for the next phases of a project, or indeed, when we suggested that a project wasn’t really recommended at all. MTM would have been led by myself. It would have talked and help clients think clearly about digital goals and possibilities, before committing to clear briefs and budget brackets.

With Associates. Services: Responsive web design, User experience design, Brand guardianship, Frontend web development, Backend web development, SEO consultancy.  This would have been a focused return to the original With Associates goal of helping people get online, but rather than making all the tools as we had to in 2004, WA would have recommended a mostly cloud hosted product stack, alongside very structured ways of working (more along the lines of the service for services that I wrote about the other day). WordPress (on WPengine) and WordPress.com, Squarespace, Tilda, Shopify, Campaign Monitor, Intercom, Google Apps, even Slack and Trello and other workflow products. Basically, a best of practice website / digital service that ensured every client was left in control of their own stack. Jenifer would have run this one. Her focus on standards and accessibility would have made it solid and consistent. No messing. Just delivery.

Accompany. Services: Digital Product and Services, Scoping, Roadmaping, Design, Development, Support, Set up, Team building, Hand over.  For clients of MTM that needed a large scale solution, or associates of WA that needed to take things to the next level, or simply for new business start ups or products or behemoth like corporates! Accompany would have been a partial partner, meaning that it’s contracts would be designed to expire and end with clients standing on their own feet. Kind of like a kick starter partner. Never in endless, cash cow support style relationships. Erin would have headed Accompany, with a crew more akin to the A-Team than anything else (meaning, a crack developer unit that was servicing a support contract on which they were scared to deploy or commit, and who promptly escaped from a maximum security NDA into the East London Overground, were they survived as engineers of fortune, helping those who no one else could help). Seriously though, could you imagine the A-Team in a support contract?

On reflection, I’m still not totally sure what I was thinking about with the original 8 line list, but the first seven themes do seem to lead to that idea of splitting WA into three, more distinct and easier to understand entities. It was just an idea at the time, a thought to how it would feel if they were named as three different companies, as opposed to just three headings under our final ‘what we do’ section (Explore, Create, Deliver).

Or perhaps I’m still mulling over a lot of what we did, and could have done, at With Associates. It’s just over a year now that we announced the closure. Maybe I’m getting antsy and want to start something new? Or day dreaming with the benefit of hindsight about how I’ll make things clearer and more succinct in the future.

Whatever the exact motive was with the list, the recurring point of multiple parties understanding and empathising with each other seems clear. That’s the thing which intrigues me most in every interaction each day. And having so many new and altered experiences over the past year has highlighted this even more clearly. Going from doing much the same thing for 12 years, to being a primary child carer, having kids starting at school, spending more time teaching and within the educational system, and experiencing a few interviews from the other side (for the first time in more than 15 years), are unfamiliar but exciting lenses through which to be viewing the future.