Repurpose

All manner of physical and virtual assets exist around us, and are ripe for being repurposed to serve new ends.

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Audio

Many years ago I once read a magazine article about some children living in a very poor village. They didn’t have the luxurious plush-toys or the sophisticated talking birds that we had in the West. What they did have was old metal coat-hangers. So they would bend and mould the coathangers into various new shapes and designs, for example, a toy car.

This got me thinking about how many items in our everyday life can be repurposed – altered a drastically (or just slightly) to serve a different purpose than what they were originally intended for.

You could take a television that you watch passively, attach a processor of some kind (say, an Atari), and attach an input device (say, a joystick) and, all of a sudden, it has become an interactive gaming experience.

Repurposing can also occur in the intangible, “digital” space. You can dig into your email history, find something that was sent by a colleague or coworker or friend or someone else you know, and that message, which was meant for one purpose, could be re-purposed to serve a totally new purpose. There’s nothing stopping you from taking that entire email, perhaps tweaking a few words in the body and changing the subject line, and sending it to someone else, for a totally new purpose.

We have incredibly sophistocated tools now, enabling us to repurpose practically any kind of digital asset. We can use graphics editors to manipulate bitmap images, vector graphics editors to manipulate drawings, video editors to manipulate video, specialised content editing tools to manipulate pieces of text, all the way through to sophistocated algorithmic modelling tools that can manipulate mathematical matrices.

Repurposing is much easier with digital items, and we can think of the assets we own and/or have access to (e.g. email, chat and text histories, social media profiles, documents, audio/video footage, online resources, even physical items such as advertising/marketing you see in the space around you) as fields and fields of space, containing potential gold or diamonds buried underneath.

If you happen to encounter some asset or artifact that serves its purpose very well in one context, consider how you might repurpose it to serve well in a totally different context.

Credits

The ideas presented in this article draw some inspiration from Silicon Valley, such as the history of Slack as recounted by Steward Butterfield.

Spaces

Spaces can be chosen carefully, to better match the kind of activity you’re doing, and make you more effective.

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When you got out of bed this morning, what sort of space did you see around you? What colour was your ceiling and how high? What kind of furniture and furnishings did you see around you? What colour were your bedsheets?

And when you got up and went for a walk, perhaps went to get breakfast from the kitchen or grab a coffee, what kind of surroundings were you in? And then when you went to work or to meet someone, what kind of space was that? Did you go up flights of stairs or catch an elevator? What kind of space was that? What colour were the pieces of furniture around the office – the walls, the dividers, the desks, etc? What sorts of colours and shapes did you see around you?

It’s been common knowledge for some time that spaces can affect how we think and feel. Companies will spend millions of dollars on quality spaces. If they were only trying to cut costs, perhaps we would all work in sheds or warehouses. But no, it’s often considered important to invest in a good, suitable office space for workers. And it’s not only companies that do this, but also government institutions, universities, schools, etc. We are surrounded by various kinds of buildings and outdoor and indoor spaces.

Because these spaces can affect how we think and feel, perhaps there are ways we actively choose and how and when to use them, to our advantage.

If you’re putting in a lot of hard work on some project or other, your efforts may be helped by a space that motivates you. A space that makes you feel empowered or inspired. Perhaps a buzzing cafe, or a vibrant co-working space, or a university campus.

Or if you’re working on something stressful or complicated, perhaps you need a space that’s quiet, calm and plain, to put your mind at ease. Perhaps a park, a library, a museum or your bedroom.

Why not go over the list of spaces you occupy throughout a typical week? You could even grab a pen and paper and write them out as a list.

And then think about those spaces and see if there are some small tweaks you could make, so that certain activities can be done in a more suitable space.

If you’re trying to start your own company on Mondays, and feeling a bit lonely or de-motivated, try moving your work from that quiet living room in your house to that buzzing cafe next door. You might even transfigure the setting, imagining that those other people are also part of your venture and are working with you!

If you’re trying to solve a tricky machine-learning problem on Wednesday, and need as much mental space, concentration and focus as possible, try doing it in the serenity of a park, or the quiet, calm monumentality of a large museum.

Also have a think about what spaces are available to you. There are the usual work areas, such a cafes, libraries, etc. but there are other spaces that don’t always come to mind right away. For example, a local community hall could be leased for a night, cheaply or for free. You could use it to practice public speaking, or to work with a small team on a startup.

Select your spaces wisely and make them work for you.

Integrate

Connecting new information to old can help you to learn, understand, recall and apply your knowledge.

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Have you ever had a hard time learning about some subject? Perhaps it’s a course you’re studying, perhaps it’s someone at work trying to teach you something.

And they’re talking and talking, and you’re hearing mountains of words and language, and you feel like you’re “drinking from a hosepipe” – i.e. receiving lots of information, but not understanding it, or forgetting it, or getting confused about what it means.

The funny thing is, there are so many things in life that we don’t seem to have any difficulty remembering. Think about the route you take to work or school. You probably don’t have too much difficulty remembering that. You can call to mind the way to the front-door of the house where you live, perhaps the street it’s on, the bus stop you go to and the bus that you take. Or take your circle of friends. You probably recall their names, facts about them, even how you met them (if you weren’t too young to remember).

We are able to remember some kinds of knowledge, and yet we seem to struggle immensely with others.

I would like to share one technique I’ve found useful, when a subject seems difficult to learn. I refer to it as “integration”, but there are probably other names for it already.

When I’m hearing some new piece of information and I really want to understand it, I try to connect it to something that I already know. And, especially (if possible) I try to connect it directly to myself, in a way that means something to me.

So, say I’m learning a new fact about how climate works in one particular part of the world, I’ll try to connect that fact to something I already know about climate, or about the world. And I try to discern how that fact is relevant to me, personally.

Often, (at least, initially), I don’t see a connection. It feel like a piece of floating, arbitrary data. And this is where, if possible, I ask questions to try and find that connection. So, if someone’s telling me about a climate phenomenon, I might ask them a question such as: well I thought climate was about ‘X’ or ‘Y’. But this fact you’re telling me about, how does it relate to that? How does the temperature in this place relate to the fact that it’s more humid in the tropics, near the middle of the equator? (A “fact”, or at least, an item of information, that I already grasp.)

By asking such questions, I’m testing the things I’m hearing and discovering connections between the new information and the information I already recall. And if something I already knew turns out to have been a flawed understanding (at least from one perspective) then I’ll correct that, and, in doing so, build a nice “bridge” or “transition” between the old knowledge and the new knowledge.

Another kind of question I’ll ask is why this thing is being taught to me, or why it exists. So, say someone is informing me about a particular design technique. I’ll ask the question: why does this technique exist in the first place? Why not just do something simpler like ‘X’ or ‘Y’? By asking that question, the other person is called upon to explain to me further why that technique exists, what problem it solves, and in the process of doing so, I get a much stronger link between my previous understanding, and the new understanding. Rather than taking it as a given that this new technique happens to exist, I can form an understanding of why it exists and where it fits in to the “network” of other techniques.

One benefit to this “integration” technique is that it become easier to remember things. Just as when you go out your front door, you transition onto the street, and then to the bus stop, then onto the bus, etc., in a sequence or chain of knowledge, I find that I can remember things I’ve learned by following the connections I’ve made. Say I’ve learned a new design technique. If I find myself in a situation, which calls to mind some piece of knowledge I already have about design, and I connected that knowledge to a new technique, then I’ll recall that new technique at the right time, and perhaps apply it to the situation. I’ve got that information encoded mentally in such a way that it comes to me at the right time.

And that leads me to another benefit: recalling material at the right time. When you learn something new, which you worry about storing in your memory, you might also feel concerned about retrieving it at the right time and right context. I find that I’m much more likely to remember something, say a solution to a problem, at the right time, if I’ve integrated or connected it to the knowledge I currently draw upon, to solve that problem.

This technique isn’t guaranteed to work in every situation. I have found that there are times when the information is flowing much too fast. In those cases I’ll often try to quickly write down words and phrases for use later, perhaps to research later. Or I’ll try to get the information in a written format, which I can read at leisure.

I’m also sure that there are kinds of knowledge that can’t be connected to what one already knows. In areas like that, there are probably other techniques to look at using, for learning. Or perhaps there are some things that cannot be learned, at least, not in a conceptual manner.

But, for what it’s worth, I’ve found integrating to be highly useful in a wide range of learning scenarios.

Credits

The ideas presented in this article draw some inspiration from the learning theories and tools (such as concept mapping) of Joseph D. Novak, expressed in books such as Learning How to Learn (1984).

Transfigure

Your job sucks. Or does it? “Transfiguring” your work can make it more fun, comfortable and enjoyable.

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Remember being a child and playing dress-up games with your friends/siblings? You might have pretended to be a fireman, a doctor, a policeman, or play some other kind of role.

What a lot of fun it was! You’d dress the part, you’d talk the part, you’d act the part. And you would imagine yourself in that role.

And then a few years go by, and you find yourself in a different profession, one which you wouldn’t have dreamed about as a child. Perhaps you’re being an executive, or you’re writing code, or you’re designing something, or you’re selling to people.

Not all jobs seem to be fun up-front, and perhaps that’s why we get paid to work. We’re being paid to do activities we probably wouldn’t normally do, by default, without prompting.

But I have observed that that the way you imagine yourself, while doing a job, can affect the way you feel about that job, and perhaps how motivated and productive you are at that job.

So what if you were to re-imagine your job?

Depending on your work environment and what it is that you do, there are various kinds of challenges you may or may not face. But there are also various ways of “imagining” that work, which could make it more enjoyable.

  • You are often called into difficult people situations. You find yourself in meetings where there is a lot of conflict, disagreement, difficulty understanding people or knowing what they want, different people making different demands of you. That can be stressful. In this situation, you might imagine yourself as: “Negotiator for the U.N.”. So those conflicts and tensions that seem to be a bummer can actually feel like a lot of fun, when you imagine yourself as someone working for the U.N., in a challenging but important role, that will have big consequences for the future of nations or countries. Your real job mightn’t be as big or epic as that! But that doesn’t mean you can’t imagine yourself as that, and get into a really fun, comfortable zone that way.
  • You are not really doing much. Work is slow/boring. There’s lots of downtime. You could imagine yourself as a secret agent working for the FBI/CIA/MI9. You have intelligence and multifarious capabilities and have been sought out by the government. They don’t quite know what to put you on right now, but they just need you to be there, ready and waiting, to act and jump when the time comes. To find a critical piece of information, at the right time, and act on it fast. And your action can save the country! If you could imagine yourself as that person in that role, it’s no longer a boring/dead-end job, but rather, something critical, exciting and fun.
  • You have to do lots of reading and research to do. It’s tedious. There’s a large quantity of documentation. Pages, paragraphs, sentences, all have to be read and scoured. Perhaps you could imagine yourself as a judge in court. You’re going through the details of the case, prior to a hearing, and you have to analyse the arguments of all sides, being careful, unbiased, impartial. You have to think critically and come to the most fair, just understanding of the case, and help to deliver the most just outcome for those involved. So your tedious, long-winded job suddenly feels important, crucial, and perhaps even prestigious.
  • You’re in a busy, fast, loud, noisy environment. There’s lots of action, words, movement. People are coming at you from all sides. You are constantly having to react. This might seem stressful. But you could imagine yourself as one of the top traders on wall street! You’re yelling at other traders, getting the latest news and prices. It’s a high-impact, high-energy job. You’re suiting up daily, going onto the trading floor and doing big deals, racking up millions of dollars in profit. It can feel fun, exciting and energising, rather than draining.
  • You’re training and mentoring one or more people. Most of your time is spend troubleshooting other people’s issues or difficulties or teaching them how to resolve these themselves. You could imagine yourself as a doctor or physician of some kind. You have a large body of knowledge and experience, people are coming to you with chronic pains and conditions, and you’re applying that expertise to helping and healing them. Calmly, carefully, methodically, you diagnose the patient’s issue, while comforting them and telling them they’re going to be OK. It’s a job that requires a lot of expertise, and by practicing it, you are giving others crucially needed help and healing. It’s a job of profound importance.
  • You’re giving a lot of counselling and advice to one very important individual, perhaps an executive. You might imagine yourself as a therapist. Your client comes to you with lots of anxiety, stress, difficult emotions, perhaps pressure from lots of others around them. And they’re offering up these problems to you. And as a therapist, you’re someone who’s able to help, but who first needs to understand them, to patiently hear them out and listen to their problems, and then to give them the right kind of influence, to help them help themselves and move forward.

The above are just a handful of job “types” and fantasies that you could apply to them. And imagining is just the start. You could (maybe!) take things even further and physically dress the part! Try wearing a suit, if you find yourself in that “busy, fast, loud” stock-trading-style environment. Or perhaps try using props. Perhaps putting pictures or posters on your desk that put you in the mood of the “imaginary” role you’re playing.

A closing point I’d like to make is that the job you’re actually doing and the job you imagine yourself doing may not be worlds apart. The job where you need to be patient, critical, unbiased, may not be all that different from the job of a judge. The judge’s work can affect the course of people’s live. So might your work too, if you consider the impacts, down the line, of what you’re doing. Think of the lives of the customers you serve, or the others within the organisation. The quality of your work may determine whether the company stays afloat and continues to employ people, or whether it goes down and has to lay people off. Likewise for the other “styles” of work. You may not know how others out there are benefiting from your work.

So try “transfiguring” your work. Wear a different hat, literally or mentally, and see if you can have a bit more fun at what you do!

Ship

Life doesn’t always go to plan. How might we think about plans in a way that keeps us motivated and moving forward?

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Have you ever had one of those “face-palm” moments in life, where it suddenly hit you that you had made a less-than-optimal decision? If you had known more, you might have made a different decision, or no decision at all!

The frustrating thing is, now you do know! Now you can see that X and Y are necessary, in order to achieve Z. But at the time you made the decision, you weren’t aware of this.

The problem is, at the time, you didn’t have the information or awareness to know what the problem with your decision was going to be, whereas now you do know. And I think this reveals something about how work gets done and things get achieved in time, which is: not everything happens in the order that we think it will happen.

We may have a model of the world in our minds, which is sequential and tied to certain dates and times, kind of like a flowchart. For example:

InYourMind

A leads to B leads to C and D, D leads to E and F, and E and F lead to G.

The way things actually work out, often is quite different. For example:

InReality

A leads to B. B seems like it will lead to C, but actually ends up leading all the way to Z. And it’s only when we get to Z that we then see the whole alphabet, and that the process involves all 26 letters, not just the 6 or 7 we started out with!

We can’t really change the fact that reality often doesn’t go to plan. However, we can offer ourselves some mental consolation and self-forgivenness.

We can remember how much we didn’t know at the time. Give that memory space. And give ourselves “permission in retrospect” to have not known everything. “I didn’t know, we didn’t know”. And because that time has already passed, we can’t go back in a time-machine and make it any different (at least, not until Elon Musk gets round to time-travel!)

So, in a sense, there wasn’t necessarily ever a problem. The project did go “according to plan”, but it was just a different plan than we had originally understood! Perhaps a larger plan, perhaps smaller. But it is a plan, and there is a structure to it. We simply need to maintain our awareness of the change, adapt to it and move with it.

As you go through this kind of change many times, over the course of a career, you develop mental processes and tools for working in this way. Rather than our plans becoming like a large structure, say a tower made of stones, which can’t bend or move, our plans become more like a ship, which can be steered in one direction, then steered in another, moored and unmoored, or taken to a warehouse, dis-assembled and re-assembled.

So a change in plan isn’t a catastrophe. It’s valuable information that we can use to steer the “ship” of our work and make new discoveries along the way!

Orgchart

Organisational charts aren’t always up-to-date, or most useful to you. So why not draw your own?

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Does your organisation have an organisational chart? A diagram of the reporting relationships, in a hierarchical structure, is fairly common in companies, government departments, etc. These charts often exist on an Intranet, Wiki page, etc.

You may work in a smaller organisation, perhaps a startup or a small project team within a larger organisation. Perhaps in this situation, there is no formal, defined organisational chart.

Organisational charts aren’t always directly helpful. They may be out of date, and their intended audience may not be you, and so they may not be particularly applicable to you. They may be used for any number of purposes that you may or may not be aware of, and thus, they may not be the most useful document for you to refer to, in understanding the interpersonal relationships within the company.

So an idea I would like to share is: creating your own “personal organisational chart”.

You start with a blank sheet of paper (real paper, or perhaps virtual, if you’re using a tablet and stylus). Draw a stick figure in the middle of the page, representing yourself – you’re starting somewhere close to home, with you!

you

Then you think about the people who you communicate with directly, either day-to-day or periodically. People you are in meetings with, or report to, or otherwise interact with. Write their names around your “you” stick figure with spokes coming out from you to them. (You may want to draw those you are in more frequent contact with, or who are more crucial to your role, at a closer distance than others.)

2nd-degree

Then think of the people who these people interact with. Which people they talk to, refer to in meetings, etc. Draw them as spokes coming off the people you’re connected to. Keep working your way outward until you end up with kind of “web” or “network” of how the organisation fits together.

3rd-degree

The beauty of this kind of organisational chart is that its more relevant to you, because it starts with you in the middle! So it can enable you to visualise relationships in a way that informs you of where you sit, who you’re influencing, who’s seeing output of, or giving input to, your work. This is information that you can act on. It can help you to acheive your goals – doing a better job, engaging more effectively with the organisation, delivering work that’s more tailored to the needs of the organisation, etc. It can also help you to be selective about how you represent yourself, how you work with people, how you steer your role and even your career, with that organisation, going into the future.

Even long after you’ve left that organisation, when you revisit the experience, this org chart can serve as a memory aid, helping you to call to mind how that job was, what you did, what you learned, etc.

So there you have it – the “personal org chart”. Give it try!

Critique

How can developing trust between team members help to foster critique and critical thinking?

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Many “creative” professions involve critical thinking. And critical thinking can mean peer-reviews / critiques. That is, individuals on a team look at eachothers work and point out potential problems, flaws, etc., either with the piece of work, or the process, or something else. Software developers might have “code reviews”, designers might have “design crit(ique)s”, entire teams might have “retrospectives”, etc.

We may not immediately think of “trust” in the same context as critique, but, in my experience, the two are strongly linked.

Imagine that you’re receiving some critique on your work. And perhaps a colleague has pointed out something that they consider wrong, or in need of change. How does this make you feel? There are different ways that you might take the critique. You might feel a bit put on the spot or even attacked, and this might, in turn, cause you to feel defensive. I’m sure most of us have experienced this. It’s good to acknowledge how we feel after this happens. And then, to ask ourselves, how might we engage with critique in a way that doesn’t bring up so much unpleasant emotion?

Now imagine the reverse. You’ve observed something in your colleague’s work, that you consider wrong or that needs to change. You may hesitate to offer the critique, because you are concerned that they won’t take it well, or that it’s not a valid criticism. You may anticipate that your colleague will feel put on the spot, shown up, attacked, and perhaps defensive. Perhaps they are in a position of power in the organisation, and thus, you don’t feel comfortable taking the risk of sharing your critique with them. So you might hold back in giving your criticism.

Can we create a space in our teams, in which:

  1. a person can receive another’s honest opinions and critique, without feeling threatened or unhappy?
  2. a person can give their honest opinions and critique, without feeling that they’re threatening the other, making them feel unhappy, or putting anyone at risk?

By now you may be able to see where trust comes in.

When you receive critique from a colleague, but you trust that their intentions are common to yours (e.g. to do good work, to achieve good results for the client, customer, user, to make the world a better place) then you will likely be happier about hearing the critique. Rather than seeing it as something aimed at yourself, you’ll see both yourself and the critic aiming at a common, shared goal.

And likewise, if you give critique to a colleague, and you trust that they also share that common goal with you, then you will likely feel more comfortable sharing that critique with them, knowing that it’s less likely to be taken as a personal attack or threat, and more likely to be taken as an effort towards achieving the common goal.

So, being able to trust your colleagues’ intentions and motivations, within a framework of shared goals, can create an emotional environment in which critique feels safe on both sides.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that power structures have to be removed or drastically altered. This can be difficult or impossible to do, in some organisations. But it does mean that, wherever people sit within the structure, they feel enough trust to be able to express honest opinions and critique about the team’s work. And that they can separate honest opinions and critique about the work from from themselves and their personal feelings. Or, perhaps even better, they can emotionally engage with opinions and critique with feelings of positivity, from the shared goal of doing great work, building a great product and improving people’s lives.