Small groups and consultancy and coffee mornings

12.05, Wednesday 7 Oct 2015

There’s something in my head about small groups, and consultancy, and coffee mornings. It’s a hypothesis I’m running with to shape my own practice, and I’m darned if I can get it on paper. What’s in my head isn’t an essay, it’s more like a mini Wikipedia of articles and associations. I chat with friends about this hunch I’ve got, and the experiments I’m doing. And the person I’m talking to says: You should write that down.

Anyway. I’ve not been able to. So I’m just going to keep typing until it’s all there, and not worry about whether it’s well structured or original.

Or readable.


From the introduction to Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut:

Whatever the reason, [the author] wrote this book in pencil on everything from brown wrapping paper to the backs of business cards. The unconventional lines separating passages within chapters indicate where one scrap ended and the next began. The shorter the passage, the smaller the scrap.

The story is disjointed. It appears only while you’re in motion, giving you the sensation that the story world exists not on the page but in your head – and you’ve done the work to put it together, so it’s more real for that. Like reading Markson.

So I wonder whether it’s possible to use that process in reverse: Write the scraps in whatever order, squint, and see what kind of logical pattern emerges. If any.


A recurring pattern in the consultancy at BERG was product invention workshops: get a good understanding of the material, the business, and the customers, all in a room together, and work through sketches. See what happens in three days.

Workshops had other benefits. They were a simple and relatively low-cost way to see whether the studio and the client got on. We could trial a hundred ideas and surface hidden desires and obstructions quickly. The workshop could demonstrate that design was work, not ivory tower thinking. All of this process faster because it was face to face.

Absolutely exhausting, but useful. Jack and I developed our workshop patterns in 2007, and they were 10x’d by Matt Jones when he joined in 2009.


One permanent pattern in our workshop culture:

Best design consultancy tip I know: Don’t criticise without offering something better. Called the Ahtisaari Manoeuvre after an early client

Always have something on the table.

Another: Always use fat pens.

Another: It’s important to have the right people in the room – representing knowledge of technical possibilities, business needs, and market insights. But at the same time, the ideal number of people to have in the room is five or six. Any more than that, you can’t continue a single conversation without it turning into a presentation.

Another: The one who understands the client’s business best is the client.


I’m not at BERG now - not for a year - and the consultancy as a regular component of the business ended probably a year before that. Here’s a poem about it going into hibernation.

So one of the things I’ve been doing is letting my own individual practice emerge. To see, without steering, what it is I want to do and how I prefer to work. It’s different to what I did at BERG, naturally, and the same in some places.

I don’t really want to build a new consultancy business, and I’ve got enough to keep myself fed and watered between the various other gigs going on. So I can afford to experiment.


Author Steven Johnson on his writing process (2009).

The first stage, which is crucial, is a completely disorganized capture of every little snippet of text that seems vaguely interesting. I grab paragraphs from web pages, from digital books, and transcribe pages from printed text – and each little snippet I just drop into Devonthink with no organization other than a citation of where it came from. This goes on for months and months; I read in a completely unplanned and exploratory way

And then:

And so in the last stage before I actually start writing, I create a little folder in Devonthink for each of the chapters. And then I sit down and read through every single little snippet that I’ve uncovered over the past year or so of research. And as I’m reading them on the screen, I just drag them into the chapter folder where I think they will be most useful. … They feel like pieces of a puzzle that’s coming together, instead of hints or hunches.




There are a couple of things I’m investigating:

  1. That a small group is a powerful way of thinking, and of creating action. That repetition matters, and informality.
  2. It might be possible to help with strategy without providing original thought or even active facilitation: To consult without consulting. The answers and even ways of working are inherent in the group itself.

My hunch is this: To answer a business’s strategic questions, which will intrinsically involve changing that business, a more permanent solution than a visiting consultant might be to convene a small group, and spend time with it, chatting informally.


A couple of years ago I went on a weekend course to learn about group processes, run by the Institute of Group Analysis here in London. They take a psychotherapeutic approach and, well, the best way to communicate experience is through experience, so it’s done experientially.

We were ushered into a room and sat in a circle, ten of us. A table in the middle, door closed. And then… nothing. I felt like people were looking at me to say something, probably because earlier - when I’d arrived and gone into the main space which was half full and deathly silent - I’d said, Hey, This feels like a dentist’s waiting room or something. That had broken the ice.

This time I wanted to bathe in the sensation of feeling like the group needed me to speak, so I didn’t say anything. Someone else did, introducing themselves. Then a pause, then the person to their left. Then the person to their left. Now the group saw a pattern it recognised, and clung to it.

The next person kind of shrugged and smiled. So they were skipped and I’m not sure what happened then. Confusion. So then, the next two hours.

In the absence of any driving force, in the absence of anything to discuss or even decide what should be discussed or what would be the purpose of that discussion – what happens?

The convener (it turns out there was one, it was the person who shrugged) takes the role of a participant-observer. Following Bion, she declines any effort of the group to grant her leadership.

Thus isolated:

The endogenous processes of the group amplify. From within the group, they become seen and felt.

There were a bunch of small and large group sessions over the next two days. I felt like I’d grown a new pair of eyes, new legs.

I don’t have a new language for groups because of this experience, but I did come away with a gut confirmation that the group transcends its individual members. And I’m a little more tuned in, than I would be otherwise, to the internal group negotiations about purpose and norms. And more curious. Mainly more curious.


Group Psychotherapy: The Psychoanalytic Approach, Foulkes and Anthony:

the whole is more elementary than the parts.


Co-evolution of neocortex size, group size and language in humans by Robin Dunbar (1993).

This paper blew my mind when I first read it, the source of an expanding wavefront rewriting and recomplexifying everything I thought about.

The unexpectedly large group size that humans can maintain (150, more or less) is allowed by the fact we’ve replaced picking fleas by speech, which is many-to-many instead of one-to-one. And also a consequence of:

the intensity with which a small number of key “friendships” (the primary network) is serviced rather than to the total number of individuals in the group … groups are built up by welding together sets of smaller primary networks

The primary network is composed of approx five individuals. A psycho-physical link:

a nose-to-nose distance of 1.7m was the upper limit for comfortable conversation in dyadic groups; this would yield a maximum conversation group size of five individuals with a shoulder-to-shoulder spacing of 0.5m between adjacent individuals standing around the circumference of a circle.


Then Experiences in Groups by Wilfred Bion, which gave me a way to understand that - just as individuals fall into familiar behavioural patterns like “giddy joy” or “awe” or “mothering” - groups have their own familiar patterns they want to fall into. Perhaps as a way to avoid finding purpose, or to avoid work.

Bion calls these familiar patterns the basic assumptions, and there are three: dependency, pairing and fight-flight.

You know – maybe, maybe not. But the insight that a group has habits, or strange attractors, or gravities, or desires certain patterns… that the manifold of group behaviours is textured… that insight is sound, I think.


From a summary of Experience in Groups.

Quite a lot of what happens in a Bionian group is strange, quite a lot (for the outside observer) is funny. It may begin with a long silence. Something is expected of the leader or of someone. This finally gets said, and the leader may say, ‘It appears that something is expected of me’ and revert to a silence which sorely tries the patience of the group members. A member may offer a hypothesis about what is supposed to happen, and this is likely to be contradicted by another. People who have not spoken are challenged and do or don’t speak. Some speak too soon and too often. There is often a search for something, something believed to be hidden and meant to be discovered. Members seek the approval of the leader, others seek alliances, some have strong feelings of love or hate or comradeship; others get cross or cry. Occasionally someone leaves, usually to return, sometimes not. Someone bids for the role of leader and gets sniped at. And so it goes:


That’s what happened at that weekend course. Hilarious.


The first keynote I ever did, there were 700 people there, I got up there and I tried to see how long I could stand in silence, just grinning at the audience. Not long. But it felt like being charged at by a bear.


Moravec describes the conversion of the cosmos into computronium, pure thinking matter:

a vigorous physical affair, a wavefront that converts raw inanimate matter into mechanisms for further expansion. It will leave in its ever-growing wake a more subtle world, with less action and more thought.

As the cyberspace becomes more potent, its advantage over physical bodies will overwhelm even on the raw expansion frontier. The Ex wavefront of coarse physical transformation will be overtaken by a faster wave of cyberspace conversion, the whole becoming finally a bubble of Mind expanding at near lightspeed.





Sort of coffee mornings, sort of teaching. But neither.

Durrell Bishop is teaching at the Royal College of Art: Running a product design platform at RCA this term. Hope it will be a functional exploration of form, behaviour, systems, language & skills.

Durrell demonstrated the Marble Answer Machine in 1992, it’s hard to think of many physicalisations of information and behaviour earlier than that date. The group he’s running at the RCA, last term and this year too, is “Object Mediated Interactions.”

So Durrell asked me whether I’d like to help out, in some kind of capacity, and I said: Why don’t we do coffee mornings? And now we’ve been doing this for a term, and we’ve just started the new one.

Once a week we get together – a half dozen students, often Durrell, whoever is teaching the course with him which was Stuart before and Oscar now, plus a special guest.

It’s just for coffee somewhere or other, on Friday mornings, and we chat. It’s super casual, sharing ideas and references, talking about the brief and design in general.

I’m curious about informality.

The lunchtimes at BERG, everyone around the table with such a broad range of skills and interests… and after Friday Demos - part of the weekly rhythm - the sparked conversations and the on-topic but off-topic sharing… this is where ideas happen too. Between projects but not outside them.

And I think informality as part of the design process is under-communicated, at least where I’ve been listening. So much work is done like that. The students are great at speaking about their work, sure. But mainly I’m interesting in how we induct someone into a worldview, quickly; how we explain ideas and then listen carefully for feedback, accepting ideas back – all conversationally, without (and this is the purpose of the special guest) it turning into a seminar or a crit.

I think the best way to communicate this “lunch table” work informality is to rehearse it, to experience it. Which is what the coffee mornings are about.

I try to make sure everyone speaks, and I ask questions to see if I can encourage the removal of lazy abstraction – words that get in the way of thinking about what’s really going on. I’m a participant-observer.

Tbh I’m not sure what to call this. Visiting convener? It’s not an official role.

I think (I hope!) everyone is getting something out of the experience, and everyone is becoming more their own kind of designer because of it, and meanwhile I get to explore and experience a small group. A roughly consistent membership, a roughly regular meeting time, an absence of purpose, or rather a purpose that the group is allowed to negotiate at a place within itself.


These RCA coffee mornings grew out of my experiment with hardware-ish coffee mornings, a semi-irregular meetup in London having a vague “making things” skew… Internet of Things, hardware startups, knitting, the future of manufacturing and distribution, a morning off work. That sort of thing. People chat, people bring prototypes. There’s no single conversation, and only rarely do we do introductions. This invite to a meet in January also lists my principles:

  • Space beats structure
  • Informality wins
  • Convening not chairing
  • Bonfires not fireworks

I’ve been trying to build a street corner, a place to cultivate serendipity and thoughts. Not an event with speakers, there are already several really good ones.

It’s been a while since the last hardware-ish coffee morning. I’ll do another one soon. Join the email announce list if you’re interested.


And the hardware-ish coffee mornings were shamelessly copied WHOLESALE from Russell Davies and his coffee mornings in 2007. Thank you Russell!


Matt Jones introduced me to Brian Eno’s term scenius.

scenius is the intelligence of a whole… operation or group of people. And I think that’s a more useful way to think about culture, actually. I think that - let’s forget the idea of “genius” for a little while, let’s think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.


I’ve tried this small group approach commercially. A friend of mine asked me to have a look at a design problem. He’s the CEO of a London startup of about 20 people, the problem seemed simple, a way of organising a single screen on their app.


To me the fact this problem was a problem was the interesting part – why isn’t the organisation capable of thinking its way through this decision with confidence?

I offered to act as a Visiting Strategist and convene a small group to meet a number of times, ostensibly to discuss this issue, but really I wanted to see what this group wanted to do.

It didn’t want to discuss the issue.


My setup was that I believed the answer to the issue would come from the group, that they knew more about their business than me.

Which was true. But I also observed that the purpose of the business had recently changed, and while it could be seen by the CEO that the current approach to this design problem wasn’t satisfying, there was no way for the group to come together to think about it, and answer it together. Previously they had represented different strands of development within the startup. Now the company was moving to having a new, singular, measurable goal.

So I started seeing the convened discussions as rehearsing a new constellation of the team members and how they used one-another for thinking, and conscious and unconscious decision making. The group meetings would incubate a new way to think together. Do it enough, point out what works, and habits might form.


Consulting without consulting.


I don’t know whether the small group I convened as Visiting Strategist ended up working or not. I ended up participating a little more than I had hoped – I wanted never to hold the whiteboard pen. But maybe to be a good participant-observer you have to participate just as much - not more, not less - as the others. And I think the group needed more time, more repetitions.

In particular I felt a psychic pressure in response to trying to maintain the group as un-led.

But it felt like we were getting somewhere.

I don’t think strategy can be outsourced, I think it has to emerge from a company’s nature. So when strategy evolves, there has to be organisational change. When an organisation looks outside itself (for answers that should be derived from strategy) that says to me that it’s not thinking straight, that the organisation isn’t put together quite right yet. An organisation has these informal components, and cross-team small group meetings feel like a good way to weave them in.

And the CEO seemed happy.


One of the double binds of selling anything - a product, consultancy - is that word of mouth only works when the value it provides is easy to talk about. You can’t just provide value, you have to provide noticeable, simple-to-point-at value.

No bad thing.




I’m not entirely sure where to take these experiments. I’m learning a lot from various coffee mornings, so I’ll carry on with those.

I had some conversations earlier in the year about whether it would be possible to act as a creative director, only via regular breakfast conversations, and helping the group self-direct. Dunno. Or maybe there’s a way to build a new division in a company. Maybe what I’m actually talking about is board meetings – I’ve been a trustee to Startup Weekend Europe for a couple of years, and the quarterly meetings are light touch. But they don’t have this small group aspect, it might be that they haven’t been as effective as they could be.

There might be something with the street corners and serendipity pattern… When I was doing that three month gig with the government earlier this year, it felt like the people in the civil service - as a whole - had all the knowledge and skills to take advantage of Internet of Things technologies, to deliver services faster and better. But often the knowledge and opportunities weren’t meeting up. Maybe an in-person, regular space could help with that.

At a minimum, if I’m learning how to help companies and friends with startups in a useful way that doesn’t involve delivering more darn Powerpoint for the meat grinder: Job done.

But perhaps what’s happening is I’m teaching myself how to do something else entirely, and I haven’t figured out what that is yet.


Some art. Some software.


A write-only language is

a programming language with syntax (or semantics) sufficiently dense and bizarre that any routine of significant size is too difficult to understand by other programmers and cannot be safely edited. Likewise, write-only code is source code so arcane, complex, or ill-structured that it cannot be reliably modified or even comprehended by anyone with the possible exception of the author.

That’s three thousand words of a write-only blog post. Still, it’s all out of my head now. I’d like to use what I’m learning about small groups in some way. This should help me think about what to do.

Follow-up posts: