100 projects


Old construction gloves

This week I realised that in my active career I will do approximately 100 different projects. Fifty working years, six months for a decent project, two projects per year. Presentations don’t count, nor do blogposts and most of my portfolio; they’re not substantial enough. 100 real projects. It’s an estimate, but it must be close.

Currently I’m at project #25: Developing a toolkit and approach for consumer-centric innovation at a large multinational. Of the previous projects, I remember some better than others:

#5: Advising a village in rural Sudan on its agriculture (fictional but fun).
#11: Organising a study and sports trip to Tanzania.
#15: The National Vending Machine.

Project #25. Only seventy-five left, 100 projects is not a lot. The number pales in comparison with the 3,000 books I expect to read in my life. It’s my firm belief that one of these projects will make me a millionaire. If not, I will never be able to finance projects like #41: Learn to speak Arabic, preferably in the region. Seventy-five shots left.

The number 100 is arbitrary. I just happen to be an easily enthused person with a wide range of interests. Other people do one or two projects all their life and do them well: build a company or liberate a country. Others again do thousands of smaller projects, each of them valuable.

100 projects, give or take. It kind of makes me want to do the next bunch. And, considering the first batch brought me to over twenty different countries and took me from teaching English to learning about big data and a whole range of different topics, I’m also looking forward to the journey ahead.

Free space


Free space

What is the value of free space, the space to experiment and pursue curiosity? And what is it worth? 

Free space is costly.
A square metre in the heart of London easily sets you back 15k. One hour of brainstorming with your team probably somewhere around 500 euros (or much, much more). A company like Intel spends over 10 billion dollars per year on R&D, which is comparable with the GDP of a country like Nicaragua. (And I wonder which of these two has more free space.)

Free space is valuable.
Imagine you’d have unlimited of physical free space, to grow your own vegetables in the heart of a city. Or financial free space, to spend weeks on getting a proposal just right. Intellectual free space, to read a book or do a MOOC entirely unrelated to your day-to-day. And free space in your schedule, to pursue a project or experiment into the unknown.

Last year, Jim and I used some free space (summer) to write a book. Free space well spent! This weekend, however, I lost 245 minutes of free space playing A Dark Room (don’t click the link!). It’s easy to waste free space, or use it to make ends meet rather than make an impact.

Many of the best projects I’ve worked on happened in the free space between meetings, tight budgets and strict regulations. The book, but also the National Vending Machine, Van Gogh in 3D, last year’s workshops in the Balkans. De gulle ekster – the art and design subscription startup I’m involved in – too. They wouldn’t have happened, well… without the space to experiment and pursue curiosity.

Bottom-line: When spent well, the value of free space is significant, and it’s worth everything. Work on creating free space, and if you have it, grasp it.

Empress Dowager Cixi and the launch of modern China


Empress Dowager Cixi

Jung Chang’s new book about Empress Dowager Cixi challenges the view that China’s first lady in the late 19th and early 20th century was a autocratic despot. The book portrays the (once) concubine as an empathic political master mind who through wit and charm brings modernisation to the ancient empire. It’s a highly insightful book for anyone working on innovation in institutions and larger organisation.

In the 19th century the need for China to modernise is urgent. The country needs the revenue of international trade and the strength of an up-to-date army to face both internal and external military threats. Cixi’s challenge was to turn around a thousands-years-old highly bureaucratic empire with hundreds of millions of subjects who’s primary objective is to maintain traditional values. The country and its leadership are deeply conservative and most of Cixi’s initiatives face powerful opposition. If you’re a change agent or innovator, this may sound familiar.

Cixi’s approach and attitude and the scale of her modernisation efforts are inspirational to all of us. Chang’s writing style brings her reign and a very interesting time in world history to life and makes it accessible to all of us. Rather than summarising the lessons we can learn from Cixi (respect conservative forces, be just, appoint the right people, pick your battles, …) I recommend you pick up the book and go through it yourself. I promise it’s worth your time!

The problem with dinosaurs



The problem with dinosaurs is that they have been pretty much the same for many million years, give or take a few feathers. That’s a problem, because as a result there is no urgency to them. Dinosaurs are super exciting, but they will still be so next year.

(Of course, you grow up, but at the age you like dinosaurs best there’s no urgency in that either.)

In the digital age, to make content stand out it needs to answer two questions, immediately: why and why now? Why is this relevant to me, why should I care? And why is it relevant now, should I care now?

I like to tell students and workshop participants they have 2 seconds to answer both, but the truth is you might have a bit longer (the average attention span is now 8 seconds).

It is relatively easy to make people care about dinosaurs. It is much harder to make them care about dinosaurs now, for instance because you want them to visit you before they’ve waited too long, have grown up, and stopped caring about dinosaurs.

In a Digital Engagement Framework workshop earlier this week in Stockholm, we talked about making dinosaurs relevant now. One trick could be to give the dinosaur a digital identity and de-extinct it (digitally, unless you want to live through a 90s movie), another to bring the activities around the dinosaur (preservation etc.) to life, yet another to turn the focus on people working with, caring about and enjoying the dinosaur.

When you think about it, it’s not the dinosaur that is exciting but what we do with it (in our imagination or if we’re lucky in our work). The dinosaur may be extinct, but to us it is not. Dinosaurs are like zombies, but (even) more real. Treating them as such is the solution to the problem with dinosaurs.

Photo by Tony & Wayne.

Radical change starts with small actions



I’m just back from Germany where I did a workshop on social institutions for a group of international fellows working in German cultural institutions. They were some months into an 18-month placement and over dinner the conversation turned to making change happen. How much can a (junior) staff member change an organisation in a limited time?

Very much, I believe, if you put your focus right.

Some years ago a good friend became the Dutch youth representative to the United Nations. One of the main issues with the United Nations is the unequal structure of the Security Council. However, instead of using her time in New York to lobby an almost impossible change, my friend rallied for the much smaller (yet very significant) issue of girls’ and women’s rights. By focusing on a topic she understood well and that was manageable, she succeeded in influencing policy and contributing positively to a better United Nations. The Security Council may not have changed, but with enough people like my friend, one day it will.

Likewise New York didn’t become a safer city in the past decade by starting with the crime families and corrupt officials, but by initiatives such as quality-of-life policing where a vision of a better city was enforced through countless small initiatives. When there’s no more graffiti on the subway, life really looks different.

To change an organisation, no matter how junior your position and how limited your time, start with a bold vision and then find the most tangible, smallest improvement towards that goal that actually impacts people. A good place to start is to talk with the people at the the front desk, customer support, security or housekeeping. They have the best eyes and ears for small nuisances that may not be noticed in the board room or staff offices. Find an improvement. Then improve it. Then celebrate. (Read more »)

Dealing with the different dynamics of a webinar: 6 tips and tricks


NHL 5 - digital learning

I’ve been doing quite a few webinars lately, which is a fun and affordable way to work on strategy with geographically dispersed teams or do capacity building with organisations halfway across the globe. Apart from the benefits, there is obviously a different dynamic when working with teams remotely over an (at times tricky) internet connection. There’s less non-verbal interaction, more distraction, discussions have a different pace, etc.

As I’m a firm believer in interactive and participatory workshops that acknowledge the many possible levels of learning when I’m physically in front of a group, in my webinars I’ve been experimenting with replicating such experiences online. As MOOCs and other innovations show, there’s a great future for working together and learning digitally and I’m happy to share six of my tips and tricks about dealing with the different dynamics of a webinar:

  1. Digitise the coffee break
    In sessions, the coffee break is a moment where participants can ask individual questions and those who got behind can be brought up to speed for the next part. In my experience, coffee breaks are essential to keep a group together all throughout a process. Short breaks in a webinar, understandably, are used to check email, so the digital coffee break is the time between two webinars. I use this time to chat individually with participants (using Skype, phone or email) to make sure everybody speaks the same language at the beginning of the next webinar.
  2. Provide for the social experience of workshops
    Coffee breaks also strengthen the social ties between participants, as do drinks at the end of the day, a remote location, etc. A great workshop is first and foremost a social event. Every session has team building as an objective. In front of a screen some of this social experience might be lost, but in the age of social networking it doesn’t have to. I make sure I engage participants in conversation on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and wherever else they are active so webinars are social experiences too. (Read more »)