Chaos Chairs at Clerkenwell Design Week

On Tuesday this week Adam Burtt-Jones, Steve Brewer and I ran a special little session hosted at Davison Highley as part of Clerkenwell Design Week 2016. The idea was to bring to life one of Burtt-Jones & Brewer’s core principals while allowing me to show off and confuse people. It was, in this way, a win-win.

When Adam, Steve and I podcasted together a few weeks back we briefly touched on the challenge of getting the client fully engaged with the design process. The problem is that many clients and designers seem to take a transactional view of the process – client poses question, designer delivers answer.

But as work becomes more complex, does this approach really work anymore? As far as we are concerned, the answer is a resounding no.

It really isn’t possible, in the space of a 45 minute session, to address this entire issue. But one thing we felt we could do was really open up the idea of complexity and let the participants extend their thought process. So we played a game I call Chaos Chairs.

The game is very simple. A group of people sit in chairs with one empty chair. The “Sitters” work as a team, moving between chairs to prevent the “Walker” from sitting in the one empty chair. Sitters can run and talk and shout and do whatever they please (as long as nobody blocks the walker). The only restriction is that once a Sitter has stood up they can’t sit back in the same chair again. The Walker cannot run. The round is over when the Walker sits in the empty chair.

What the game does, alongside increasing opportunities for personal injury law suites, is it brings to life the reality of complexity.

In round one people really don’t know what to make of it. On this occasion the round lasted about ten seconds. By about round three we begin to see strategies emerging and usually one or two players trying to put a cap on the chaos by proposing structures to keep to, rules to follow.

“What if we put our hands up before moving so the team know what’s happening?”

“How about only the person nearest to the empty chair is allowed to move to it?”

“If one person moves we all move with them.”

These are all good ideas and, pretty much every time, the outcome is not exactly as expected. Some players misunderstand the instruction, others have a different idea of when each rule applies, and the Walker responds to the way the team plays too! So everything the team does leads to unintended changes in the game.

What we see is that even in a very simple situation complexity can arise which makes it almost impossible for one person to predict and control the outcome. And because this is all happening now, for real, not as a purely mental exercise, everyone gets to see how they react to the situation.

Some commented that they felt a great deal of pressure. Some felt nervous, others were worried about letting the team down. And this was just a game. A simple game. Those emotional responses inform us both about an often hidden layer of the design process and about how we personally relate to the creative process.

This is a simple game which gives rise to complexity and the opportunity for deep insights. I encourage you to play it yourself. Just be careful. It can get rowdy.


You’re Not Talented and Neither are your Children

I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you. Actually, scratch that. I’m rather glad to be the one to break this to you. Because honestly it’s about time someone did and it’s really for your own good.

I’ll say it again…

You are not talented and neither are your children.

I hope that in some small way me telling you this will help you. It’s possible that it will but it’s far more likely that it will help your children. Here’s why:

When I was a small child I was frequently told how clever I was. I loved being told how clever I was. I was so often praised for my cleverness that, in my mind, being clever became what defined me and my self worth. It went like this:

  • Aran does something clever. Parent or other important person praises Aran for being so clever. Aran is affirmed in his meaningfulness. Aran feels good.

Cleverness is, in most minds, something innate. You’re either clever or you’re not. Certainly for most children cleverness is seen as something you either have or you don’t. It isn’t a choice. It’s what you might call a talent. I was, therefore, praised and loved for what I was, not for what I chose.

As I grew older I found praise harder to come by and cleverness harder to demonstrate. Life gets more complicated. We no longer find ourselves praised for doing little drawings or having a large vocabulary (one of my most reliable sources of “aren’t you clever?!” affirmation). And since I had grown to believe that what I was, not what I chose to be, was the source of my worth, I found my sense of self esteem relentlessly under attack with no positive way to respond.

My wife, on the other hand, was always praised for being hard working. She was a high achiever too, as a child. Maybe less ostentatious than me but she worked hard and succeeded at most of what you chose to do. The difference between us was that while I was praised for being talented, she was praised for putting in the effort. So, for my wife, what she chose to do rather than what she naturally was became her source of pride and self esteem.

Now, later in life, I find that my wife copes far better with setbacks than I do. For me a failure is first a judgement against me. I am not clever enough. I have to work hard to reframe it as information and direction, to assure myself that I can work harder and get better. For my wife a failure is simply an invitation to work harder. She feels directly in control of her fate while I have a deep seated feeling that I am what I am and if that isn’t good enough there’s nothing I can do.

So, let me remind you.

You are not talented and neither are your children.

Talent is bullshit. Telling a kid he or she is talented should be seen as a slap in the face. It’s the same as telling them that what is good about them is down to sheer luck, an accident of genetics and environment.

“Hey kid, that free kick you just took? Wow. You’re lucky you were born with the right parents, eh?”

What sort of arsehole would say that to a child? Yet so many of us do it with the word “talent” believing we are giving a complement. We are not.

I’m trying to remove that word from my vocabulary which is tricky considering so many of my clients work in talent management. Instead I want to talk about hard work, commitment, willingness to sacrifice, overcome fears and go beyond what you believe you can do.

My wife struggles far less with life’s setbacks than I do and I believe a huge part of that is down to the fact that she wasn’t praised as a child for being talented. She never learned that what she was was what mattered. She learned that what mattered was what she chose to do.

Sure, some people are born with genetic “gifts” but I prefer to think of them as gift vouchers. They’re only useful once you trade them in for something and that takes choices and effort no matter who you are.

So please, stop thinking of yourself as talented. It’s a word I use from time to time out of sheer habit and something I will remove from my vocabulary wherever possible because it disempowers and undermines what really matters: effort.

And double please, stop telling your kids they’re clever/talented/pretty or whatever word you use that really only means “lucky”. You think you’re being kind. You’re not.

The Power of the Delete Key

This post was a lot longer about thirty second ago. Then I deleted basically the whole thing to start over again. Why? Because I practice what I damn well preach!

So, let’s cut to the chase: sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards. Writing is a great way to learn this but the lesson is universal. If you’re stuck there’s a good chance the path lies behind you and you’ve taken a wrong turn.


I could go on about the sunk cost fallacy and the endowment effect but I won’t. For all you know I did but deleted it (love that delete key). Instead I’ll offer a template macro (in this context I mean macro as in a single instruction that expands into more instructions – a computing term that I like to deploy because it makes me sound smarter than I am).

Trigger: stuck

Action: retrace steps

If recent steps are questionable…

Go backwards until more options open up

Reward: unstuck!

Need fulfilled: the future is bright again, the birds are singing and the grass is very green.

Storytelling and The Real World

One of the techniques I use with my clients is storytelling. Often this is seen as a good way to understand a business model or come to terms with a team dynamic. But for me the most powerful use of this exercise aligns with one of my core principles.

Creativity Happens Now

Having a strong relationship with creativity means a lot of things. It means applying a playful curiosity to life, expressing an attitude of generosity and selflessness, rejecting blame and promoting an environment of safety and tolerance; tolerance for change, ambiguity and conflict.

But all of these elements fall apart if we lack the presence of mind to apply the right behaviours at the right times. The right response five minutes too late is an empty victory.

This is where storytelling comes in.

The meaning of life

We live in a complex world. Stories are how we make sense of it. That’s why we write literature and tell tales. Stories are the map we use to navigate reality. As we go through our days, stories help us decide what things mean.

Meaning is the point.

Actions are triggered by stimulus. This is how cause and effect works. But humans don’t just respond to stimulus directly in the way that an unconscious substance reacts to another. Humans take information and turn it into meaning and then we respond to that. That’s why the same stimulus creates a different response under different circumstances. A tender kiss on the cheek from a loved one makes us feel good. A tender kiss on the cheek by a stranger on the bus… Not so much.

Meaning is the difference. And since stories help us decide what things mean it follows that more powerful stories help us to discern meaning more rapidly and more accurately when the moment comes.

Tell a better story

By getting better at storytelling we can equip ourselves with a powerful tool for guiding our own attention. If you consistently tell yourself stories, build rich mental models of the world you are moving through, you are more likely to notice things that are out of the ordinary.

Out of the ordinary things are frequently creative opportunities waiting to happen.

Richer stories also prevent a narrowing of focus or what psychologists call Cognitive Tunnelling; when focus narrows and we are unable to see anything but the most obvious information.

Non-obvious information is often the answer to a creative challenge.

Train your own internal narrator

When I was a kid I loved narrators in films and TV. They always knew what was going on and got to make snarky quips while remaining aloof from it all. Come to think of it, that probably explains a lot of my problems! But on the upside it meant that I would frequently imagine myself narrating my own day, telling stories in my head about what I was doing and what I was going to do.

This habit has stayed with me. I often play through conversations I am about to have or build rich scenarios in my head about potential futures. This richness of mental model helps me to notice the unexpected.

So if you think that storytelling is only for marketers, infant school teachers and the mid term planning meeting then I have news for you: storytelling is a tool that you can use every day and that you should use every day.

At Sabre Tooth Panda I offer storytelling workshops as part of the Hard Not Complicated method. Not only does it help solve immediate problems but, as part of a Daily Practice for creativity, storytelling can help us be present in the real world.


This blog is about how, when I was stuck, stopping got me started.

For much of the last two weeks I’ve been working on the most important Field Guide I’ll ever write: the Hard Not Complicated Field Guide to Designing your first Daily Practice. This Field Guide will form the foundation for all the other Field Guides that follow it. And it has been hard going.

Writing Field Guides is so much harder than writing almost any other kind of material. I’ve written blog posts, interviews, scripts, instructions for games and exercises, and they all require a different sort of attention to detail. This sort of thing – the blog post – is the easiest of all for me. I can be relaxed in my language, fairly loose in my structure and all I really require is that the reader understands the general thrust of my argument.

Field Guides are different. The reader of one of my Field Guides needs to be able to walk away and feel ready to do something. Any ambiguity in the way I write, any missing elements, could lead to confusion and a failure to act. Go on too long and the reader may skip ahead, missing important information. Try to cut too much and I may leave out something vital.

Unlike the instructions for games that I play, which also require clarity and strong communication, I’m not going to be there to answer questions and to help out when someone reads my Field Guides. Once this is out the door, it has to be able to fly on its own.

And while a Field Guide should be fun to read, entertainment is the second level priority. Sometimes I write blogs that are mostly for fun! Field Guides are a little more hard working in that regard.

But sometimes it isn’t the challenge of the writing style but an issue of content that is the problem.

The Hard Not Complicated Field Guide to Designing your first Daily Practice Has three main parts:

  1. Authentic Insight – understanding your relationship with creativity
  2. Sustainable Action – turning your insights into knew habits
  3. Practical Expertise – applying your new habits to your life and work

Authentic Insight was easy for me to write. This is very much a coaching conversation at the basic level. I knocked that out pretty quickly.

Practical Expertise almost writes itself. In many ways it is a mirror image of Authentic Insight but rather than looking inside to how you relate to creativity this step looks at how you and creativity relate to your world.

But Sustainable Action had me stumped. It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say. In fact it was the opposite. I had too much and I didn’t know what to hang it on.

One piece of advice I give my clients when they come to me not knowing what to do is to listen to George Harrison’s Any Road. Not only are we treated to a very catchy pop song but we also learn that:

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take your there.

I’ve always taken this to mean that you should just start walking and eventually you’ll figure out where you’re going. But another way to think about this is that sometimes you need to stop and listen. That’s what happened to me.

While writing this Field Guide I’ve developed a deepened interest in the science of habit formation. Until just this week I hadn’t suspected that my increased interest in this area might have been more than coincidental. But when I came across the topic of how new routines become driven by a craving for a specific reward, more even than the reward itself, it clicked for me that my unconscious mind had been incubating all this time, quietly nudging me towards the information I needed.

At the centre of building Sustainable Action is the question of how and why some things become long term changes and others remain short term interests, it turns out, is to do with, among other things, how the mind responds to the anticipation of a reward. That is to say, once we begin to see the reward response in the brain before the reward has been received, what we’re seeing is a craving. Used well this craving can drive us towards any action we choose.

For instance, I enjoy yoga and I have come to anticipate and crave that post-yoga feeling of relaxed accomplishment. That moment when I feel at ease and physically rejuvenated. In many ways I think of yoga as meditation with movement because that’s the exact same reward that drives my meditation habit.

There’s lots more on this in the Field Guide itself but for now I want to focus back on how I came to find this little nugget that helped me finish off the chapter. It came about, not through hard work and focus but through stepping back and thinking, not hard, but softly.

Often when stuck we are habituated to pressing on, pushing through. Not only is this stressful it’s sometimes counterproductive. If you don’t know where you’re going, sticking to the one road that’s not working for you is maybe the worst choice. But how to choose a different road?

Before you can change direction you need to know that there are other directions to go in. When I let myself step back from my work and gave in to my desire to learn about habits, I realised that my unconscious mind had been calling me, trying to bring my attention to the answer that, on some level, I knew was there.

So that’s the lesson I’m sharing. It’s Hard Not Complicated, of course. Sometimes, when you’re stuck, when you don’t know what to do, it helps to stop and give yourself permission to do nothing. Letting the mind quieten down is the only way to hear the clues you might be missing. Being willing to become less focused lets you see what might be just outside of what you think you should be looking at.

As Yogi Berra once said:

You can observe a lot by just watching

Everything’s an (often strange) Offer

I did a skit this morning. It seems that, when I’ve just woken up, I do skits. This skit was funny but you probably had to be there. I recount bits of it here not to impress you with my early morning creative skills but to draw attention to the lesson this experience reinforced for me.

My wife and I, I don’t recall exactly why, started talking about babies. She and I have no children yet but we intend to do something about that in the not too distant future if the fates are on our side. For some reason that I cannot fathom, I went on to do an impression of a newborn child greeting the world but this child was an old Italian man called Gianfranco.

At this point something clearly had gone terribly wrong with the conversation if, of course, you believe in such things as “wrong” and “error” but I have no truck with that. Apart from when it comes to the incorrect personal pronoun. An offence I rank alongside pineapple on pizza and not having read The Hitchhickers’ Guide to the Galaxy – and no, the film doesn’t count.

I didn’t choose in any real sense what I did. It just came out of me. But since it tickled us, we continued the skit. We ended up advancing this strange story, including Gianfranco’s unfortunate decent into self destruction due to his mother rejecting him for being born an old Italian man instead of a baby. We even had a failed reconciliation attempt during a drug rehab therapy session in there for good measure. It was bizarre and hilarious, and probably offensive to old men, Italians, babies, drug addicts and my wife.

This was a lovely example of seeing everything as an offer, a central principal of improvisation – or action creativity as I like to call it when I feel like calling it a name nobody will understand.

By accepting my strange choice of old man Italian accent to represent the baby we ended up exploring a really funny scene. All we wanted was amusement and we found it through playing the ball where it lay.

If everything is an offer that means there is value in what we normally label mistakes and toss aside. How often do you do this both in your head and within group work? Something takes an odd turn and you decide to start over.

So on this Monday morning I maybe take a moment to prime yourself. This week, as you go about solving problems under conditions of uncertainty (being creative or, to put it another way, a living human being), remember that everything is an offer. Don’t throw away what looks wrong. Look closer and find out what’s right about it.


I’ve been teaching myself to draw. Not for recreation but as part of my own personal Daily Practice.

My relationship with creativity is fairly healthy. That said, I can find myself caught up in concepts, away in some land of theories and ideas and not focused enough in the moment. So I’ve adopted some Daily Practice elements which bring about a greater level of presence.

Every day I write in my work and personal journals to help me reflect on and be present in the day. I sit and meditate, even if I only have five minutes to spare before bed or at lunch time. And I draw something. Sometimes an object. Sometimes an idea. Because translating something from head language to visual language is a wonderful way to bring clarity and, as it turns out, figure out which elements really matter.

This morning I was drawing a badger. Shockingly I had to look up pictures of badgers to remember what they really looked liked. My first couple of attempts were awful! I ended up with something that looked like a chubby fox or a deformed cat.

Then I spent a little more time looking at one of the pictures and it hit me. I was trying too hard to draw a picture of a badger instead of visually representing a badger. What mattered wasn’t that the end result looked like a badger but that it signalled “badger” to the minds of anyone looking at it.

Consider common icons and images. Stick figures don’t look like humans but they signal “human”. Road signs communicate all sorts of things without actually looking like them (rocks falling, lanes narrowing).

With this new perspective I set off in a new direction. My job was to figure out what the essentially elements of a badger were and capture them. The daily obvious answer here is the stripes.

If I got the stripes right then everything else would be fine. I realise, focusing on the face, that the most important elements were one white stripe in the middle of the face, starting at the nose and ending between the ears, and two black stripes that started at the ears, covered the eyes and ended at the nose. Get those right and I’ve got a badger!

So this is what I did.

I’m not claiming these are amazing. But I’m pretty sure they look like badgers.

When I began my Daily Practice of drawing I did so because it would be a useful skill to develop and because drawing is a wonderfully meditative form of concentration. What I didn’t expect was the added bonus of making me better at abstracting information from noise. A vital creative skill.

The Hard Not Complicated Daily Practice methodology is a simple idea but it seems to hold layers of additional benefits. Like all powerful ideas, there’s a lot more under the surface.

It’s Showtime!

I have some news to share today that I’ve been waiting to tell you about for weeks and weeks! So here it is:

Sabre Tooth Panda has agreed a partnership deal with Trestle Theatre Company to provide training and workshops based on a range of theatre, performance and arts skills.

From their own website:

Trestle is a mask and physical theatre company, with a highly regarded arts education programme. As a charity, our mission is to engage children, young people and adults in creative activity, which aims to enhance the cultural quality of their experiences.

Trestle has been making innovative and inspirational physical theatre and participation projects since 1981. All of our work is influenced by full and half mask; however, over the past decade, collaborations with artists from India, Spain, Eastern Europe and Africa, along with our partners in the UK, have inspired the evolution of the work we create.

Trestle is one of the leading providers of school workshops, teacher training and participation programmes in the country. We run mask, half mask, physical theatre and bespoke workshops, projects and residencies nationally and internationally.

You can see why I so badly wanted to work with them; not only does their mission perfectly fit that of Sabre Tooth Panda – to make the world a more creative place – but the richness of their experience and skills offers my clients a huge range of new and exciting ways to apply the Hard Not Complicated approach to their own creative journeys.

Over the next few days I will be adding details of how this partnership will work to my website and offering some more information about exactly what sort of services we will be offering, but to get your imagination working, I offer the following…

As you know, the Hard Not Complicated approach is all about instant change, gradually. My clients build strong relationships with creativity by understanding what creativity really means to them in their world, identifying self limiting beliefs or unhelpful behaviours, and then working to change those through games, exercises, coaching and facilitated workshops.

Now consider how 35 years of theatre experience can help with that process.

How might improvisation and puppetry workshops break down the barriers to communication and self knowledge? What about clowning as a way to make playfulness a normal part of your process? Could the use of masks release you to adopt new personas and, thus, find new insights? Or might collaborative storytelling help your team finally understand what it is they are really here to achieve?

These concepts have always been at the heart of what Sabre Tooth Panda does. But now, with the help of my new friends at Trestle, I can take these ideas to the next level.

If you’re interested in learning more, now is the time to get in touch at

Little Thoughts

This evening I want to share with you just a little post about time.

I’ve often complained that I just don’t have the time to do what I want to do. And this is sometimes true. But I’ve found that more often than not I have plenty of time but, like the future, it’s not evenly distributed.

This evening, for instance, I was watching a show on TV with my wife. But I was restless. Distracted. If you recall in a prior post I argued that distraction is conflict. What was the conflict here? What was causing my distracted state?

As it turns out, on examining my feelings I realised that I was only watching the show to be polite. I didn’t really care for it and I had things I wanted to do. I wanted to listen to some music, update my journal, read my book.

I’d allocated time in the wrong place. My conflict was that I knew there were things I wanted to do, that my better self would wish that I would do, even in my state of evening tiredness. So I listened to that better self, made my excuses and sauntered off to the conservatory where I relaxed, noticing the distracted state of conflict devolve, and did what I really wanted to do.

Restlessness, distraction; these things can be excellent clues if we know how to read them.

So if you find yourself without the time to do what you want to do, don’t be frustrated. And if you find yourself restless, don’t see it as a personal failing. It isn’t. Just listen to yourself without judgement and without expectations. The answers are all there.

Free Mind, Free Workspace

In just a few weeks Adam Burtt-Jones, Steven Brewer and I will be offering the first public experience of what Free Range Workspace is all about. Today I’d like to share with you some of the thinking behind what Free Range Workspace means and how we’ll be using our event at Clerkenwell Design Week to help people to understand it.

Free Range Workspace begins with two related thoughts:

– Work and location are increasingly disconnected
– Task and environment are increasingly interconnected

People have been talking about the end of the traditional workspace for decades. Mobile working, virtual offices and so on are part of our everyday. But humans are still physical beings and until virtual environments can fully replicate the experience of being in a solid space made of brick, wood, metal and glass, real life places will still matter.

So rather than end the need for physical spaces, the disruption of virtualisation and mobile working has both reduced the need for some types of workspaces, and altered the nature of work itself. As a result the nature of the spaces that remain have shifted rapidly and unpredictably.

As lower value tasks, both professional and personal, become virtualised and lower order work is automated, physical spaces where humans still spend time move from being simple, utilitarian objects, designed to enable basic, repetitive interactions, to subtle spaces that support higher order, and far less predictable, human behaviours.

We have both decoupled work and location and increased the importance of environmental/task fit. As workspace designers you can no longer rely on your users to be in a given location, but when they are in that location, they are likely to be doing higher order tasks, so that location becomes even more involved, either as an enabler or a hindrance.

It’s a hard problem.

We believe that the answer to this challenge lies in a fundamental change of the way that design takes place and the role of both the designer and the client. A shift from a relationship between a trusted expert and a passive recipient to that of a facilitator of thinking, taking clients on a journey to uncover the invisible answers that can be made apparent only through collaboration and the application of doubt.

It’s hard for someone who knows a lot to adopt a position of doubt. Experts become shackled by their expertise. At Clerkenwell Design Week we will explore how letting go of certainty, increasing doubt and adopting a Beginner Mindset transforms the role of the designer and turns the relationship between designer and client into a unique opportunity for authentic insight.

We cannot hope to explore every aspect of this concept within a single, 45 minute workshop. What we hope is that just by experiencing the transformative power of purposeful uncertainty, you will feel more able to engage with a new and exciting concept of what it means to design.

# Descriptive

The Free Range Workspace event will be a focused, guided exercise designed to explore the power of Beginner Mind in the designer-client relationship. How can removing assumptions and questioning what we think we know alter the dynamic? What does it really feel like to be truly skeptical of your own experience and what skills, both practical and affective, do designers need to develop to take advantage of the power of uncertainty?

Aran will run the session with support and expert insight from Steve and Adam.