Product Space and Workshops

I ran a workshop this week for a different bit of the organisation. It’s a bit like holding a party. People expect to enjoy themselves (and this is an important part of the process). But workshops also have to have outcomes and goals and the rest of it. And there’s no booze to help things along.

I always come out of them feeling a bit deflated. Even if others found them enjoyable and useful, the general stress of organising and the responsibility of it all mean that I don’t, plus I have to co-opt colleagues into quite complicated and full-on roles as facilitators, so they can’t really enjoy the process either.

This time we were trying to think more creatively about future work. There are various things niggling me about it, and I want to think about how to improve things next time, while it’s still fresh in my mind.

One of the goals was – in the terms I’ve been thinking of – to explore the space in which products could exist, more thoroughly. Excellent articles by Richard Pope and Francis Irving have got me thinking in this direction, and I’d been touching lightly on some related ideas for Radiodan, thinking about a ‘Cambrian Explosion‘ of radios.


Richard and Francis’ posts have got me thinking about it more specifically as a multi-dimensional space of possibilities, and the notion that you can very easily get stuck exploring a little part of it.

Imagine a bit of that space. You start somewhere. Social networks. Sharing. Someone picks this idea up and runs with it and everyone flips to that aspect and starts exploring it. Sharing while watching the TV. Chatting. Twitter for companies. IRC for business. Each step is quite incremental, each idea came from somewhere, and ideas tend to oscillate in a little ecosystem. Each idea changes peoples’ views a little, but not very much, and the same ideas go round and round, reinforcing each other.

So there are parts of product space you just never get to, and are unlikely to get to. It’s almost like the “equilibrium” that we used to get taught about in economics, or maybe a little force-directed connected graph stuck in a single place.

A analogous structure holds in production bits of large organisations, I think. It’s very difficult to think beyond the next few months, because your head is full of today, so the potential changes you can think of are incremental, and again, similar ideas bounce round in the group of people you talk to, the meetings you go to.

Maybe there’s two things going on here. One is the inability to even imagine a different part of the space. The other is this bubble of ideas that become more convincing as you discuss and think about them over and over again with the same people. So not only are you not getting into different bits of the space, you’re becoming more and more convinced of the rightness of your initial ideas. I think this happens to me, us, everyone all the time.

Does it matter? I think as Richard and Francis were hinting at, it matters if you’re not exploring parts of the space that are important to people who you are trying to reach. I think it’s also probably important to your organisation, whatever it is. Bluntly, organisations need to make these big moves this to advance, change and compete. The question is, how.

Let’s take an example of how they might. A friend of mine has a disability. I want to include him in an event. The location of the event doesn’t have easy access. He won’t feel comfortable and he won’t want to come. He’ll miss something fun because no-one thought about the venue from his point of view.

Ok, so in that case maybe it’s just tough on him, and it often is. But the rather heartless secondary point is that if someone had had those thoughts it could get them thinking about a whole set of problems they hadn’t considered. This thinking could move them to a different part of the product space, if they let it, and then they could start incrementally exploring that new bit in the usual way. It could be a bishop’s chess move diagonally to a completely different bit of the board. It could also help my friend and others with similar requirements.

To get back to my workshop. I try something new whenever I do these events, even though it makes them more risky, because we learn more, and it can make them more enjoyable (though people can’t relax as much, of which more below).

This time I asked a few people from different bits of R&D to talk about their work, and then used those as starting off points for group-based brainstorming sessions. My research suggested that people needed a jolt to get out of their usual pattern of thoughts, and this was supposed to be the jolt. I also read that Alex Osborn, inventor of the process and term ‘brainstorming’, thought that unless you were outrageous, embarrassing, illogical, and unpredictable when brainstorming, you weren’t doing it right, so I put this in my instructions to facilitators. (One thing I have learned from previous workshops is that all the processes and accompanying instructions must be very clear for these kinds of events, and written down, too).

I went through all of the Gamestorming book looking for ideas for structures we could use in the breakout sessions. I couldn’t find anything suitable, so I made one up.

Here I the instructions I gave the facilitators:


0. You have 20 minutes total for each session, of which the last 5 should be a brief discussion about your results

1. Gather everyone together, try and create a comfortable, friendly, fun, atmosphere

2. Near the top of one sheet of flipboard paper, write down the name of the first prototype on the list below from the previous talk, in a circle, for example

"Binaural sound"
"Infinite music"

A list of them all is included below. The ordering is important - the aim is that each group tackles a different one first.

3. Write down the challenge statement at the very top.

4. Ask the group members to come up with ideas that occur to them when applying the challenge statement to the prototypes we've just heard about. Write them on the paper, on stalks from the starting point. Tell them to be outrageous, startling and surprising. If their idea is related to another, draw a line between them

5. If you get stuck, pick up a strategies card and make an honest effort to apply what it says to the problem

6. If you are still stuck, move on to the next prototype and start again

7. Spend the last 5 minutes discussing the results - what are you most interested in, what has the most potential?

8. Come back for the next talk

The strategies cards I was talking about were a mixture of Giles Turnball’s “Strategies for creatives” (not all the cards) and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards.

Being of a experimental mindset, I tested the instructions with the other facilitators. In that context it seemed to work very well. We came up with a lot of strange ideas in a few minutes, and had fun bouncing the ideas off each other.

In the eventual workshop groups, the ideas people came up with were interesting and sometimes built on others’ ideas, but at least in the group I was facilitating, the rate of idea generation and novelty dropped off a cliff after the first session.

So this is one thing I need to think about. Is it something to do with the composition of the group? or is it about better-constructed sessions or more assertive facilitation? I certainly was getting tired after around an hour, and so was less enthusiastic, less likely to pursue the “outrageous, embarrassing, illogical, and unpredictable”. Group dynamics are difficult to manage, and you can’t just tell people to be outrageous, apparently.

Perhaps the ideas that were generated were much more novel when they had a starting point that people had not seen before and that was quite different to their existing work, as happened to be the case in the arbitrary ordering of the talks. If so, this has some implications for what we should and what we should present in these circumstances. Maybe it also has implications for what we should be doing more generally.

Probably the biggest problem was that the day was much too long and tiring. People quickly get tired. Thinking new thoughts is hard. Talking with and listening to people is hard. It was very noticeable how comfortable people were when they were able to get back to their laptops during a break.

My final instruction was this:


0. You have 20 minutes, and the brief is "if you wanted to do something with this in the next 5-10 years" what could we make?

1. Survey your work so far. Ask the group which ideas jump out at them, which do they think are interesting and exciting

2. Pick one or two and draw them / write them up as scenarios that you can present to the whole group.

People need a consolidation exercise, something to round off the day with. I do think it’s important. You put a lot of effort in – but where’s it going? what’s it for?

Scenarios are a very useful way of filling out an idea into something a bit more developed, while looking at it from the perspective of the end user. What would someone using this thing do with it? how would they use it? why?

For various reasons we ran out of time for this part, and so it was rushed. I was really impressed with what people came up with, but with insufficient time, the jump from a potential idea to a fully-formed scenario was probably too big. The rush and the desire for consolidation tended to prioritise the ideas that people had already thought through at least somewhat, so not the really novel things or the things that had their genesis with more than one person.


Going back to the product-space exploration, I think something that’s both slower and shorter may work better. In any given period of time maybe we only have to make the big jump once, and then we can explore the area around there, developing ideas into scenarios thoughtfully and carefully.

As I review this post, what leaps out at me is my assertion early on that talking to different people about their wants and needs can help us make this initial jump. This is something that has come out of our work on Radiodan postcards and similar work creating physical, three-dimensional representations of our ideas. When you ask people the right question, they can often give you a very interesting answer based on their own experiences, that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself (for a glimpse of this, see our wrong radio postcard collection). I didn’t apply this here and I’m not sure how to, but it’s worth thinking about.

Trying to cram in too much meant that we missed some obvious possible routes to interestingness. Prototypes (of which we have many) are more inspiring than presentations, and to include more demonstrations – of things we already have but that people hadn’t already seen– might have been a better way of getting people excited.

Personally I find these kinds of events quite … well disturbing’s too strong a word for it – but it often feels like there’s an assumption that squeezing ideas out of people is as easy as getting toothpaste out of a tube. It’s also manipulating people into being ‘creative’, and there’s something suspect about that. I’m not sure if there’s a way to getting similar or better results without these techniques, or whether I’m just over-thinking it.

One thought on “Product Space and Workshops

  1. dpawson

    Addition to your brainstorming. Objective to make ‘left field’ ideas acceptable. Every fourth (whatever) idea has to be ludicrous/unrelated etc. The end game being to get out of the stream you’re following.

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