Andy: Hello, and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels, zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organisational transformation and onto changes in society in the world. My name is Andy Polaine, I’m a designer, educator, and writer.
My guest today is Ewan McIntosh, where we met, I think about 13 years ago in Glasgow. He’s the founder and the CEO of No Tosh, and author of the brilliantly titled book: How to Come Up with Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen. Ewan has had a long career working education and industry, he’s worked as a high school teacher, and was later a national advisor on learning and technology futures for the Scottish government. In 2008, he took a different turn and joined Channel 4 as their digital commissioner. Fascinated by the strategies and tactics his creative colleagues use to create imaginative and truly engaging digital services for young people, he wondered if he could use these insights in an educational setting, which is how No Tosh came about. Ewan, welcome to Power of Ten.
Ewan: Thank you for the welcome. What a build-up.
Andy: Well, it’s your career. We did meet I think it was 13 years ago, or in my opinion, longer, mid-00s, 2004/2006, something like that. we were in Glasgow at the lighthouse there, actually. Was that at the time when you were the advisor on learning and technology or futures, or was that before?
Ewan: That’s right, I’d just come out of the classroom. I remember the lighthouse series of events and I remember going along to – there were a couple, there was yourself, there was Pat Kane who I knew better for 1980s songs that I sang along to as a child. What’s interesting is that in those days, really, so few people were publishing their thinking online that you could meet in a room. I’ve kept in touch somehow, light touch informally, with almost everyone that I met during those lighthouse sessions in Mitchel Lane in Glasgow.
Andy: That’s right. They were very nice sessions and it was nice to really talk about where the future of learning was going. I had a strange crossover with Pat Kane too because my PhD was about play and playfulness and he wrote this book called: The Play Ethic. Then Ken Robinson came along and gazumped us all with his writing. You were thinking about learning and thinking and education for a very long time, I want to take it a little bit back because you’ve worked in high school, right, so you were teaching languages, weren’t you, in high school?
Ewan: I was the world’s worst German teacher; I was a very different teacher.
Andy: I’ll speak German to you later and see how you go.
Ewan: I pre-empted that knowing where you live, so no, please don’t.
Andy: We’re just going to do the whole podcast in German now for our German listeners. What I’m interested, though, when you speak to anyone who’s been a high school teacher, it’s an experience that seems to leave very deep marks on them, positive and negative sometimes. I’m really interested to know what you learned being a teacher back then in high school, because you’re really right at the heart of teaching young people, right, to the beginning of the educational journey?
Ewan: A couple of schools at the time were tough, they were tough in lots of regards. They were truly comprehensive, so you had kids who were going off the Oxford and Cambridge and incredibly smart young people. You had incredibly smart young people throwing it all away. You had all the drugs and alcohol abuse of their parents and sometimes of the teachers themselves. Yes, it marks you, it leaves some grooves. Like you say, some of these grooves, as you grow up, produce good music, they turn you into whoever you become. I was very young as a teacher and compared to most of the teachers I’m lucky enough to work with today, I spent relatively little time in the classroom.
Thought at universities in France, had to come home as the profession really came into its own in Scotland, changes in the law, changes in the professionalism of the job, and taught for just a few years really in some tougher environments before being plucked out of the environment. Be it when I was a classroom teacher, the number one thing for me was I have to get these kids engaged, none of them really wanted to learn French or German, for that matter. The starting point was pretty low in some ways that they didn’t want to come in through the door, let alone get involved in speaking French. Everything I did was around how to first of all, help these young people feel that they had achieved something.
I think that a lot of talk about learning focuses on the E-word, engagement, when actually, helping people feel that they’ve achieved something quite early on is the key to then feeling that you’re engaged in it. Of course, most people, when they talk about foreign languages, what do most adults say? “I can’t speak anything, I’m terrible at languages.” They say the same thing about maths, actually, as well. One of the reasons for that, I’m sure, is because they didn’t really have positive experience, that sense of achievement really early on and without that, you’re on a hiding to nothing.
Andy: They say the same about design, too, and drawing and art and things, I’m convinced that most people draw like ten-year olds because that’s when they last learnt or were told to draw. I had a woman in a workshop once, in a telco actually it was, and I said, okay, now we’re going to do some drawing because we were going to do some storyboarding, like a design workshop on new ways of working. She was quaking with fear at the idea that I was going to make her draw. I had a nice exercise where everyone draws a storyboard board based on stuff they’re seeing, very quickly on screen. What’s very interesting about doing it really fast is that everyone is equally good or bad. Even illustrators and graphic designers are just as bad as everyone else. This moment for her of accomplishment there, she was almost in tears in the other director for it. I can completely see that. What are the key insights you took from that and actually from your colleagues at Channel 4 that fed into your work now, how have those threaded together?
Ewan: I think from the classroom, that’s the sense that you’ve got to help people feel that they’ve achieved something early on. It’s so important. We often, when you’re asked to go and help someone, design anything, so we would maybe be looking at designing strategy or the next day, it’s designing a physical learning environment, or the day after that, it’s helping teachers re-design units of work and projects that they want children to do. All of these are big unwieldy things, if you really want to make a difference and change how it’s been before. The traditional way of working is that you hire McKinsey or whatever, you pay them a shedload of money and they come in and they do the work for you.
It’s very high-quality work and it’s beautifully done, but you have zero ownership over it, and you don’t know how to reproduce it yourself. Our whole mantra, my team today, really comes from the classroom, which is if you know how to think differently, then you can change the way you choose to work. You don’t have to be in the beck and call of the boss or the policy people, whatever someone told you need to do it this way. Actually, you’re your own boss and you’re likely to have a high level of success in the end, a high level of achievement in the end because you know how to think for yourself. I think one lesson from the classroom that sticks with me for life indelibly, is that if people can’t think differently for themselves early on, then you’re never going to achieve what they or you hope you would achieve together.
I think Channel 4 has spent years working in the government which two of them were fantastic because I was working with teachers and learners and creating some real change in a relatively small geography. The final year was disastrous in some ways because the old guard got there, they spotted something they liked, and they got hold of it and tried to turn it into policy. Let’s just say it didn’t work very well. But in that time, I was so fed up with the policy people in education that I thought stuff this, I’m going to go and try something different. It was serendipity that ended up landing me this position at Channel 4, for which I was wholly unqualified, but I was happy to take it on. I made a decision; I chose to go into a completely different industry. Do you know what? You see the same thing there, that there is a still a tension, even in the most creative parts of these organisations, there’s still a tension between doing what you’re told and doing what others expect of you. Actually, thinking differently and rubbing up against it.
Everyone has a boss. I had a few and there was no agreement between them on whether you should follow the line and do what you’re told, particularly in the digital side, expectations around what good is in digital back in, when was it? 2008, where curious to say the least, everyone had this vast confidence that they had that right answer, when actually they didn’t have a clue. Then you had people like me and one of my other bosses, who I sat opposite three days a week in Glasgow and both of us were saying, none of these guys know what is happening.
All you can do is play. That means placing lots of small bets and having fun. I learned so much from that experience about placing bets, having fun, not getting bogged down in everything, having to work straight way, but get bogged down in worry instead about finding quality people who can think for themselves and surprise you with their ideas. That was the part of that work I enjoyed the most, which was not dissimilar to what you enjoy most in the classroom, when a kid can think for themselves and surprise you with what they’re able to pull off.
Andy: That’s interesting, that there’s a tension there, you’ve mentioned it twice, which is this structural part of what’s going on, there was a structure that you’re in and then the emotional and the learning part. If I think back to, if I think in the corporate environment and what you were just talking about, that people are their own bosses, they can think for themselves, this is true, but they’re often then frustrated by the structures they’re in which often the bigger the company, the more rules and processes and procedures and policies there are, the more it actually can prevent people thinking for themselves.
In fact, it creates that sort of learned helplessness. The same is kind of true in school, right, when you’re learning that there are lots of rules and stuff at school and there’s a tension there that has to be… not resolved, but there’s a tension there that I want you to learn and do something and learn to learn most of all and break the boundaries. At the same time, schools are heavily bound by process and procedure and achievement tables and all of that sort of stuff.
Ewan: The tension is there in school. It’s definitely at the workplace. I think I’m very lucky because most of the work I’ve done for the last ten years, even the job at Channel 4 was an inbound, I didn’t go looking for it. Inbounds are great because you’ve basically found the person who thinks a bit differently already, you don’t have to work too hard to spot them in the corporation. Can you remember when you were at school as a kid, it seemed that there were kids that did really well at school, they were seen as good students because they did everything they should do. They followed the rules, they did what they were told. Actually, as a teacher, you recognise them sitting at the middle of the class. You look over the them whole time. Sitting in the middle of the class metaphorically, I should add.
Then there were the kids who were mavericks, and in universities, it was always the anthropology students never seemed to do any work, but all got first. I used to think, how on earth does that happen? I worked my backside off and I scrape a 2.1, these guys are getting firsts and they didn’t do anything. It’s because they kind of thought for themselves and they did things in the way that worked for them. They worked out what worked for them early on, they knew the game that they were trying to play. I think a lot of people in the corporate world haven’t worked out yet their own game. They’re busy trying to play somebody else’s game.
Andy: Yes, I was going to say that, with know the game, because I wondered whether a sort of counter argument to that is that they worked something out for themselves, which is they worked out how to get a first or they worked out how to get the grades, but that’s different than working out how to learn.
Ewan: Totally different. The thing is that these anthropology students, I think they probably all ended up working for Goldman Sachs, or something like that. There’s a chameleon like quality to being able to think for yourself. Yes, short-term, maybe they worked out the game to get better grades. Longer-term, they probably are capable of working out how to play lots of other games, as well. The cynic in me maybe thinks there are times in life when you have to fit in, frankly, and there are times in life where you have to learn how you’re going to stand out. You actually need to be able to do both. No way can you run a successful design firm if you don’t know how to do both because not doing both means that you would accept every brief that you got given, and do crap work as well as good work, but being able to negotiate a brief, being able to take on a tender and still faithfully go about things the way you would go about them, that’s a craft, I don’t think I’ve learned how to do that one yet.
Andy: No, that’s tough, that’s the thing we face all the time.
Ewan: Yes, we hate tenders for that very reason because it’s asking you to learn the game, to pass the exam in some way, and the worst thing is that if you think that you can play the game to pass the exam, and then change the game once you get a gig, you end up the creek, you have to follow that through. That’s why as designers you have to make decisions, I think sometimes about whether you do tender or don’t, or whether you’re going to produce work that you are proud to sign off with your name. As James Victor puts it, there is some work you sign your name on, and there is other work you rub it off, because it’s paying the bills. You have to be prepared to do both I think, to be pragmatic.
Andy: Yes, that’s true. I’m interested in your work now, No Tosh, obviously because it’s very similar to the work I do and Gerry Scullion, he runs This is HCD that Power of Ten is part of it, he does too. There’s a bit, though, that you say, which is how we learn is as important of what we learn. Just going back to the conversation about tenders, when RFPs come out, it’s all about the what, it’s like, we need to learn this, we need to learn this one, learn how to do X, Y, Z, and then you kind of basically reply and say, well, we can teach you X, Y, and Z. I frequently have the conversation about the how part and it quite often falls on deaf ears or they can maybe know it, but it’s something that’s not part of the tender, or whether it is, it’s not part of it, but would you say that how we learn is more important as what we learn? You said just as important, what is the balance between those for you?
Ewan: I think the customer’s perception, so the person who’s potentially thinking about doing something differently and wanting some help to do it, they’re coming from a place where what you do, or what you learn is important, and that’s the reality. There’s an overemphasis for some of what we learn, and other people belief that’s exactly where the emphasis should be. That what you learn is important. To deny it is stupidity. I actually have very few opinions on that. I think that when you work with international schools with an American bias, they learn so much about American history that I know nothing about, but they also know nothing about British history or Scottish history, which is incredibly important to me. What you choose to learn is contextually what’s important to you.
I think when people know how to work that out for themselves, they will make good choices about what to learn or what to do. I just said it, when they work out how to do that, so how you learn is just as important as what we learn, but the bias that people will always have is, what it is you’re learning. We acknowledge that, but we also say, you know, you have to learn how to go about things. The way that we go about our work, for example, if someone comes to us saying, “We want to develop a new physical learning environment and we’ve got the architect lined up and it’s going to be a learning environment for our youngest children, from three year olds to seven year olds. We’d like you to help facilitate something. We’d like you to do something.” That’s often how precise the brief is.
We’d like you to do something to help make sure the space is good. They’ve already decided what it is they’re going to do. They’re going to build a space, so there’s a heck of a lot of assumptions there. One assumption is, we’ll change the space, teaching will change, that’s not true, there’s plenty of research to show that’s not true. It’s not an if this, then that. You can change the space and teaching remains exactly the same. The same in workspaces, actually. You can move from cubicles to Starbucks-like environments and nothing will change in people’s work environments. People will not magically start talking to each other, they’ll just wear more headphones to avoid talking to their neighbour.
They will get coffee as quickly as they can from the coffee machine rather than lingering. Physical environment alone would change how people work, or how people learn. Something else needs to happen. Our question, of course, then, is well, how do you do what you do today? How do you teach? How do kids learn? They’ve often not actually stopped to consider that and to take a snapshot. Observing how people learn today is just as important as what it is the intent to do. It is maybe more important at the beginning, eventually, it becomes less important because you’ve got to get the job done. You’ve got to create the change that you’re looking for. That involves lots of whats. It involves what you’re going to do, what kind of space you’re going to design, it involves who is going to do it with all of the biases that they have, so if you get a school designer whose prior experience is designing hospitals and offices, then I can guarantee what kind of school you’ll end up with.
It doesn’t matter what you do before, but if you are wanting to concentrate on – we’ve realised that actually, everything we do is through play. Everything we do is through play. On a good day. We want to do more play; we want to look at the things where play is not the way of doing things and see if we can make it the way of doing things. Suddenly, are you building a school again, is that what you’re going to do? Probably not, you’re going to build something else. Then you need an architect and a designer who understands how to go about spaces that are playful.
Straight away, you’re thinking, actually, we don’t need a school’s architect, we need an architect who does playgrounds, we need an architect who does outdoor landscaping because being outdoors is going to be super important for us. We need an architect who understands restaurants perhaps because food and making food together is going to be an important part of what we do. Until you look at how you learn, you can’t work out what it is you’re going to do and what it is you’re going to learn. Yes, it’s probably more important at the beginning and then less important as you gain confidence in what you should be doing and why.
Andy: I should wind back a little bit and ask you a bit more about what you actually do now. Is that a large part of your work, those kinds of learning environments and spaces?
Ewan: Yes, it’s a fair part of it. I think 40 percent of our work is all on strategy and helping people work out where they want to head, how they want to get there, and later, what they might do to do that. I think about 30 percent is on learning environment and what you do in that learning environment. A mixture of how people teach, how people learn, how they would do it differently if they could. Getting them to teach differently and to learn differently and then helping design a better brief for the designer to take on and to create the kind of space they’re looking for. Then we’ve got about 30 percent of other stuff, so a lot of change management. A lot of people trying to understand how to think differently through design thinking or through learning how to think differently about the problems or the challenges they’re facing. Those are the three main platforms that we operate on.
Andy: This is all about learning environments, basically, in one way or another.
Ewan: It always seems to touch on it. Interestingly, it touches on it when you’re in a bad learning environment. Even when you’re doing a conference session, the lowest of the low, for us, we’re not great fans at turning up at conferences because you never know the impact that your time, your hour, or your day had. They’re some of the work learning environments that you can ever end up in.
Andy: A hotel conference room.
Ewan: The beige hotel, with the vomit carpet, the vomit-proof carpet, and the lighting that’s so low. Most lighting in hotels that we go to sits at about 40 or 50 lux, you need 400/500 to be able to concentrate for any length of time. Funnily enough, learning environment, working environment is hugely important, even if it’s only tangential in some of the work that we’re doing. I think my favourite job over the years has been working with engineers at a German firm because we didn’t use their offices. We went to funky spaces like Beta House in Berlin and we went up to the shipyards in Kiel, the industrial shipyards, there’s nothing like it because you’re surrounded by machinery and oil and dirt. It’s the most un-corporate environment you would imagine. I think that we got some of the best thinking out of those engineers that they’ve ever had.
We certainly helped them generate new products that they could have ever hoped for, I think, but the environment was so important, and it was. But it wasn’t as important as the structure that we built around their thinking. It all come back to how we learn. We spent a significant amount of our preparation time just looking hour, to hour, to hour through the time that we spent with these engineers. How are they going to learn something new? We were not asking, how are they going to design a great product, we were asking, how are they going to open up their minds to see things differently? It’s harder actually when they’re PhDs and MScs and really good at their jobs, it’s actually easier when you’ve got a teenager who assumes they know nothing.
Andy: They’re more open.
Ewan: Yes, exactly. Much more open to new experiences.
Andy: Yes, I’ve had a similar experience teaching bachelor’s and master’s students. There was a time a design student has come into a master’s and I’m trying to teach them something new, as particularly when I was teaching that a few years ago when service design wasn’t really something people had studied in their undergraduate. Teaching bachelor students was kind of easy because they were just like a sponge. Just tell me anything. Whereas, by the time they had got into a master’s and they might have worked a year or two in between, their professional identity was already fairly solid. It was much harder to unpick that.
Ewan: It’s the same with teachers, actually, 25/26-year-old teachers tend to be the hardest nuts to crack in terms of teaching in a different way because it’s not that long ago that they were taught a totally different way as being good. Then you show up and you’re saying, actually, do you know what? If you want kids to think for themselves, you’re going to have to try this. Try doing things a bit differently. They really struggle to believe. It’s actually a believability gap. They struggle to believe that that could be true.
Andy: Yes, and they’re not yet at the level of self-confidence that they can let go again.
Ewan: No, that’s it.
Andy: It’s interesting. On the one hand, you’re saying, in learning how to learn is really important in the space, then it follows that. On the other hand, space also can really detract from it, as you were talking about when you take people out of their regular space, or we were talking about hotels and stuff like that, and how that can be quite a negative or really hinder learning experiences. I think there are two things that happen with people taking people out of this space, or their normal space, one is the psychological and physiological response of how they act in a certain space. We all know, you walk into a cathedral and you act differently to when you walk into a boardroom, or if you walk somewhere where people are dressed all incredibly smartly. You react, you respond in a certain way. Even when, you’ll know this, when you go back to your old school, how you meet your old teacher, you start to feel like you’re a schoolkid again.
Ewan: Yes, the smell of the school.
Andy: Yes, there’s definitely a thing. This is part of the science around addiction, too, but your body responds and therefore, you respond. As soon as you’re in your usual environment, you respond in a certain way. One of the things about play is what Huizinga called The Magic Circle, which is this idea that in this circle, different rules apply. You know, it’s a football pitch, or it’s on a tennis court, or a boxing ring. You can punch someone in the face in the boxing ring, you don’t do it outside. That’s in sports in particular, but obviously in other games and stuff, you can’t use your hands when you’re playing football, soccer for the Americans, but you can outside and so forth.
I think one of the things that happens when you take people out of their normal context is, you’re also saying, in this realm, different rules apply from the rules that you’re normally in. That’s one thing, I think. The second part is time. I think one of the biggest problems is, when they’re in their regular work environment, they still feel umbilically connected to it. Obviously, with devices these days, it’s very hard to fully break, but to give people time because playfulness also requires time. Again, play has defined times. Like you say, we’ve got an hour to play this game here, and those kinds of boundaries are quite often really unknown, but I think that’s a lot of what’s going on.
Ewan: There’s a great little piece of research that popped up in September and it was from the Harvard education review, I want to say, I’m going to look it up and confirm. It was talking about the comparison of people who learn through lectures and then people who learn in a more active, playful learning style. They asked them questions around their perception about how well they’d been learning and the quality of the lecturer after having had a couple of months just learning through just lectures and just having active learning. What was interesting was that the people who had just been in lectures, when they had the perception of the final lectures they were having, they said, “A very high-quality lecturer. I felt I learnt a lot. I felt it was a quality learning experience.”
The people who had active learning for the couple of months prior and then had this lecture, this final lecture felt a bit dumb. Felt that they had learnt quite a lot, maybe more than they had learned in their active learning experience, that they wished they had more lectures because they felt very well-informed. Then they did a test on the knowledge that both groups had been taught over this time in very different ways. The active learning group who were under the impression they hadn’t learnt as well and they had maybe been a little less productive, way outperformed the group who had lectures. The group who had lectured, of course, perceived themselves as having had a more quality learning experience, much more enjoyable, but they performed less well.
That’s the challenge that we wrestle with every day. Our work is, and the work of any designer worth their salt, I think, is messy. It feels slightly on the edge of chaos. It feels like, what value is this really offering? It’s quite expensive for the client, are they getting what they want out of it? At the end, of course, you have to have the confidence that the way we’re going about this will lead to a better result in the end. There’s always this dip in the project where people feel that, maybe we should just do it the old way we’ve always done it. A lot of my time is spent, I think, wrestling people out of that ditch and getting them to the point where they see the impact of the work what they’ve been doing and the work that we’ve been coaxing them through.
Andy: Yes, I’ve found over and over again, that in the project that we do and in the commercial projects we do, quite apart from the learning and teaching stuff, is that the hard part is always the people bit. It’s not really the actual design part. There are not many design problems where you really get stuck, I really just don’t know what to do here. There’s a lot of wrangling around the fear and around – that exact thing of, why don’t we just go back to the way we’ve done it before. Even though you’ve been brought on to work differently, right, and that’s the whole point of your presence there.
Ewan: There’s actually a really serious question, particularly around service design or designing non-stuff. Do you think you can trademark that? Non-stuff design.
Andy: Yes, non-stuff. You could start another company called: No Stuff.
Ewan: No Stuff, exactly, but when you’re designing non-stuff, non-things, it can feel, it can even feel to you sometimes are we barking up the wrong tree? Is this a real thing? What do you tell your mother you do for a job? Does it really matter?
Andy: I work in computers. That’s what I tell my mum.
Ewan: Yes, exactly. I’m a spy. With one of the projects that we had undertaken, it was down in the Southwest Australia, and we had this problem that we were actually convinced that there wasn’t progress being made, they wanted to build a really expensive new physical environment, but the teaching and learning felt quite far from the type of environment they thought they wanted. When we were working with some of the teachers and talking to them about what they might do, I noticed a few things that looked like they were small but big impacts. Small changes, but big impact. One of them changing the lighting. The math classroom went from 20 lux, I kid you not, it’s like working in…
Andy: That’s like a cave.
Ewan: In a cave, yes. We said to them, look, change the lightbulbs to get some white light, open the blinds, get rid of the blinds, actually, remove the blinds from the classroom, and empty out the furniture. They had an assumption that every child needs a desk and chair, which is in maths often true, but not always true, but there was actually furniture beyond what even they needed. We said, chuck out what you don’t need. They got rid of high-level blinds, they changed the wall colours, a lick of paint just to be a more reflective light, rather than that yellow paint that institutions tend to be painted in. Removed cupboards that were just full of stuff that they hadn’t use in a year. I think if you’ve not used a resource in a year and a half, you should probably get rid of it.
Getting rid of the cupboards opened up more floor area. They got different types of desks with little wheels on, which allowed them to move the desk quicker to the formation that would work well with the students. That took three weeks to do. The results are, students are happier in math lesson, they’re more engaged, they’re more vocal, so it’s actually a loud classroom, which is sometimes frowned upon when it’s a very loud classroom, but it’s brilliant, it’s that buzz of students engaged in what they’re doing. Students move around so much more.
They’ve got whiteboards all around the classroom. Students are actually doing their thinking on the wall, so errors can be picked out more quickly, they’re stood up, which, if you’re a teenage boy is actually quite important because being stuck behind a desk is just the last place you want to be. Students how maybe felt they were at the back of the room, realise that they actually do have good voices and have good things to say. The teacher is no longer at the front because there’s no real front, there are three focal points in the classroom. No one can hide, if you like.
Andy: Right, so it’s much more of a side-by-side thing rather than front.
Ewan: Much more. That’s an example of how you had John, this Liverpudlian math teacher who finds himself in rural Southwest Australia keen to make a change but not sure how. Thinks the space is never going to allow him to teach in the way he wanted to teach anyway, so he went for the path of least resistance, which is don’t do anything differently, just plug on. With some minor changes that were costly almost to make, or three figures, not four, it’s transformed his classroom into the kind of place that he’s always wanted. As he says, it’s a nice place to be, I’m having fun on the job.
Andy: Which will have a massive effect on the students, too, in his teaching.
Ewan: Well, as he says, he feels like he’s doing maths in the open air now, rather than cooped up in a cave. I think that tells you everything. If you want open minds, that’s a good starting point.
Andy: Exactly. It’s interesting as a whole expression of a cluttered space, cluttered mind, and all of that. I was about to make the quip that you’re the Manikonda of educational spaces, but it was kind of a bit like that, that a makeover will make a big difference. There’s a nice metaphor here that brings me onto the thing that I was going to say before, which is, what you’re doing in the physical space is unlearning in the physical space, so there’s been quite a lot of talk about the importance of unlearning and we tend to think of learning almost as an addictive things. Or I need to learn new ways to do this, I need to learn new methods and so on and so forth.
Unlearning, letting go of some of those old structures and in your case, that you were just talking about, it’s physically, but with that, then comes unlearning the habits of everyone sitting behind desks and so forth and in the corporate environment, there’s an awful lot of unlearning that has to happen. Partly to make space I think, just mental space, but partly, if you don’t unlearn, it will just block the new stuff you’re trying to learn and you’ll fall back into those habits that we talked about before of, why don’t we just do it the way we’ve done it before. Whereas, what you really want is, I’ve forgotten the way we did it before, so have to go with the new way.
Ewan: Yes, the challenge of just the verb, to unlearn something and this idea of unlearning being a thing makes it feel like an event. I think in corporate world, people still think learning is an event. You go along to a training day and you learn, or you go along to the HR people and you learn something. For most people, that’s what learning means. They associate it with some of these old tools of learning. Going to a training centre. Unlearning, it doesn’t really improve on that, it makes it feel that you have to go, and you have to have the chip changes, a bit like…
Andy: Men in Black thing, or the Matrix.
Ewan: Yes, or like Black Mirror style, go and get your chip changed and then you’ll have unlearned it all and you’ll be able to start afresh. I don’t believe in starting fresh. I think int goes back to your point on teaching, it leaves grooves, all of these experiences leave grooves. To be under the impression that you can unlearn the things, these grooves that have made you who you are is unrealistic, but what you can do is, say, wow, that was really awful and here’s why it was awful. To know the answer to why something wasn’t working, means you had to think about it.
I think the biggest barrier I see in all levels of organisations, including the at the very top is a lack of thinking and lack of taking time just to think. People are so busy doing and making things that we don’t sometimes step back just to think. You need to slow down to be able to do that. you need to have the tools to reflect and sometimes, you need someone stood by you making you do it. I think that’s why there will always be a role for people doing the kind of work that we do as designers because we design thinking. That’s the whole thing, we help people design their thinking, where they’ve maybe not taken the time to do it before.
Andy: As opposed to design thinking.
Ewan: Yes, exactly.
Andy: Which is designing thinking.
Ewan: Designing thinking is what design thinking should have been all along, but it got taken over by people who made stuff. When you deal in non-stuff, the only thing you can do is designing your thinking.
Andy: You wrote this book and I’m interested, How to Come Up with Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen. That sounds like an itch that needed scratching because those two together, to your point about thinking and doing, as well, that how to come up with great ideas, there are probably 100s of books on those, how to make stuff happen, there are probably hundreds of books on those, but the connection between the two is quite important. Do you want to just tell us how that came about and what it’s about?
Ewan: You’re right that it came from a frustration. It was the whole reason for starting No Tosh, as well. Tosh is the Scots word for nonsense. The name came from around the kitchen table when my wife summed up what I was trying to do, which was cut through all the nonsense I saw about people creating policies. You’ve got to remember; this is the time of the first financial crisis. By the time this comes out, we may have another one. The among of nonsense that was thought because there were people predicting endlessly what was going to happen next. It was a lot of nonsense. I wanted to cut through it. I thought the only way you cut through it is by helping people think for themselves and not listen to the pundits. In fact, we are seeing the same through the media today, lots of people guessing every other minute what’s going to happen next.
Getting it wrong, then having another think, and another program. What I would hope is that there’s this beautiful spot between coming up with an idea, and actually taking the first step to make it happen. It’s the glue between those two moments that’s the magic point. in the book, there’s a mixture of stories of people who’ve been there and done it successfully, with an idea of how they might have gone about doing it. There’s a whole bunch of tools that I have found faithful companions over the years to make those connections. The tools make it sound like it’s a mechanical process and it’s really not. It’s a little bit more felt sometimes. The other thing is, it’s about practice.
Coming up with great ideas needs lots of practice. Making ideas happen, you need to have lots of skills. Sometimes you don’t have the skills, but you can generally buy them in, if you’re convinced your idea is good enough. Really, the important bit is the glue between the two, where you join up and you say, here’s the idea and here’s how I’m going to convince a couple of other people to join me in making it happen because I don’t believe you can make great things happen alone. That’s why I’m not a freelancer. That’s why I went through, I’m still going through the pain of creating an organisation because the big stuff needs bodies to make it happen. It needs different perspectives and challenger perspectives and it needs tools to make it happen.
Andy: We’re coming up to time. I ask all of my guests what one small thing has an outsized influence on the world, that is either really well designed or needs to be redesigned, perhaps it’s something that’s often overlooked.
Ewan: I only decided this based on what you just said, we’re coming up against time, which is a lie. It’s not true. We have time. What’s the worst that could happen if we took a little more time? Time is actually the number one post-it that I will see on a wall on any project. Sometimes it’s not enough time, the wrong kind of time, outlook for some unknown reason has defined that everything we do must take an hour. Currently, it’s taken us 58 minutes to get this far, that’s why you think we’re up against time. This is not true. When we are thinking about projects, one of the first things we do is, we don’t have meetings about it. If we’re going to take about something, we generally put half an hour in the diary because most things in life can be achieved in half an hour.
If you need more time, take it. I think that time is the element that stops people from being able to think differently, as well. If I tell you that we’re up against time, we have to stop thinking, then you will stop thinking, but if I say to you, I want you to think differently about this and come back to me when you’ve got a different way about going about doing it, then I can give you a loose deadline and say, I’ll see you in a couple of weeks. I’ll look forward to hearing it. But you’ve got to take time to do things. I think, for me, the element that we mustn’t overlook is our own time and how we choose to use it.
Set aside desk time every week in your diary, so that everyone in your organisation can see it uninterruptable, precious time, where you can do what you like at your desk. You can pick up that book that you’ve sat staring at all week but not had a chance to read. You can pick up the podcast tool and do a radio show with a very old connection and think differently about something without even realising that you would have done that. You can play lemmings on your phone and get lost in it for half an hour and see if a good idea comes to it at the end of it, but that precious uninterrupted time is probably one of the best first steps that people can take to think differently and start changing the way they choose to work.
Andy: Yes, that’s very good advice. One of my favourite books is Make Time, actually, as well, by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky.
Ewan: Well, we can’t make time. That’s physically impossible.
Andy: Well, their point is that we leak time a lot, that we’ll watch TV for four hours a day, or we’ll dick around on our phones and stuff.
Ewan: Do you know what? There’s nothing like watching TV for four hours.
Andy: Says the ex-Channel 4 guy. Yes.
Ewan: Exactly. I’m a TV addict, I love TV. Nothing beats it. Nothing beats getting lost in a book, but you can’t do either of those if you think you’ve got stuff you’ve got to get on with doing, which means you’ve got to have precious time that’s just for doing whatever you like. I’m a firm believer in that. My Jewish colleague Jeremy has Shabbat, and I want to have a non-Jewish Shabbat and I’ve taken it. Friday afternoons, generally, or at some other point in the week, I will try to take a mini-Shabbat where I can just be and do what I feel I have to do. Guilt-free.
Andy: Yes, I think that’s really important. It’s incredibly important. Well, let’s hope that people listening to this, we say, just take the next hour to do something for yourself and just be, or not do something at all. Just sit somewhere. We can find you on Twitter, Ewan McIntosh. You’re McIntosh. We were just talking before about it.
Ewan: Yes, that’s right.
Andy: You are at: Notosh.com, so N-O-T-O-S-H.com. Where else can people find you online?
Ewan: On Instagram. We have: Team No Tosh and my personal account, which has workshops, food, views of home, and family is: Ewan No Tosh. All the usual places, LinkedIn. On Medium, we have a No Tosh magazine where we post some of our thinking and also some really good stuff that you can steal to work with on your team. Yes, Medium.com/notosh.
Andy: Great. Well, we’ll put all of those links in the show notes. Ewan, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for taking the time to be my guest on Power of Ten.
Ewan: Thanks so much for the invitation on. It’s been great fun.
Andy: You can find the transcript of Power of Ten on: Thisishcd.com, where you’ll also find the other podcasts on the network. My name is Andy Polaine. You’ll find me online as: @apolaine on Twitter and most other places and also: polaine.com. Thanks for listening and see you next time.