Open Thinkering


Month: January 2021

Weeknote 04/2021

This week confirmed two things:

  • Emotional labour is work
  • I’m paid to have awkward conversations

It’s not that the interactions that proved to be awkward were that awkward, it’s just that I wasn’t expecting to have them. So it was a bit like when you’re in a car and there’s a dip in the road. When you’re prepared for it, no drama; when you’re not, your stomach lurches into your mouth.

I’m currently project managing a Catalyst-funded sector challenge project which you can read about here. The aim is to remove barriers for the 25% of people who are eligible for Universal Credit, but who, for various reasons, don’t claim it. There have been some comings-and-goings with organisations (and individuals representing those organisations) in the first few weeks of the project. So it’s all fun and games. We’ll get there.

As I mentioned last week, Laura is project managing another Catalyst-funded project for We Are Open Co-op which kicks off soon. I’m also on the team. That one involves 11 different organisations (as opposed to the three with the sector challenge one I’ve got) and you can read an introductory blog post about it here.

It’s been mostly Catalyst work this week, although I’ve done some internal co-op work with Laura, and all of us attended a Sociocracy 101 workshop with Outlandish. Unusually, not only is that my second time doing the workshop, but I’ve also been helping the team at Outlandish develop new events and resources under the banner of Building OUT (Openness, Understanding, and Trust). More about that on the playbook page I started for them.

Last October, when the (now resolved) co-op drama was in full swing, I applied for a couple of jobs. One I went for didn’t sound that interesting, so I withdrew. The other, with the Wikimedia Foundation as Director of Product for Anti-Disinformation, I didn’t hear back from before Christmas.

Earlier this month, however, they got in touch inviting me to interview. I was surprised, and somewhat conflicted, giving I’d re-committed myself to the co-op. However, it seemed, as one of my friends put it, a “once in a decade opportunity”. So I went for it.

Long story short: I got to the fourth stage (of six) before they decided not to progress my application further. I’m not disappointed given that I’ve talked previously about remaining unmanaged. I realised this morning that I haven’t actually applied for and got a job for over a decade: my Mozilla and Moodle roles were offered to me, and the rest has been co-op and consultancy.

On a completely different note, I made a small amount of money this week with cryptocurrencies, after paying attention to the GameStop debacle. I won’t go into what happened, other than to say how delighted I was to see that a group of people became self-aware enough to realise they could stick it to the 1%.

What I noticed on Thursday evening, however, was that there was pent-up energy at a time when places to buy and sell stocks had suspended trading. Some people had started putting their money into Dogecoin, a fun way to tip content creators that never really want mainstream.

Converting most of my crypto stash to buy thousands of Dogecoin proved to be a smart move, as the ‘GameStop energy’ meant that it went up ~350% overnight. We live in a world where internet culture is just culture, with all of the real-world ramifications that entails.

I didn’t get rich, sadly, but we did have a nice takeaway on Friday night 🙂

Next week, it’s more Catalyst stuff, along with planning and Open Badges workshop (I haven’t done that for a while!) and recording a podcast episode with Laura.

Photo of the top of our car from last Sunday.

Solving for complexity

If there’s one thing I’m called upon to do time and again in my work, it’s to untangle complexity. The result of this is not simple but instead a distillation that nevertheless includes simplification and prioritisation of complex issues.

One way of doing this is to use a framing popularised by Donald Rumsfeld in a press briefing back in 2002:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Donald Rumsfeld

As the philosopher Slavoj Žižek pointed out a couple of years later, there are also ‘unknown knowns’, the things we’re unaware that we (or our community/organisation) know.

2x2 grid with iceberg in the centre and 'Known knowns', 'known unknowns' at the top, while 'unknown knowns' and 'unknown unknowns' are at the bottom

Let’s use the example of software vulnerabilities. There are those that your team knows about and needs to fix. These are your known knowns. In addition, there are vulnerabilities that you are aware must exist (it’s software!) but you don’t known about them yet. These are your known unknowns.

Both known knowns and known unknowns can be thought of as being the ‘tip of the iceberg’, the bit that you can see and understand. Beneath the surface, however, lurk things of which you’re unaware. These take concerted effort to get to.

Continuing the software analogy, there are attack vectors that are known within the communities and networks of which your team and organisation are part. There is a latent knowledge, some unknown knowns that need surfacing in order to become known knowns.

Beyond that, looking at the bottom-right of the grid, there are unknown unknowns, perhaps new (or rediscovered) techniques which could be used, but need much research and synthesis to discover.

Most organisations I work with are aware of the top of the iceberg. They know what they know, and they are aware of the things that perhaps they don’t know. What they need help with are the things that are beyond that.

So how do we prioritise this work around the unknown when everyone’s busy with their day job? The answer is to include all of it in strategic planning, to explicitly move from unknown unknowns through to known knowns in a systematic way.

This can sound quite abstract so let’s once again use a more tangible example. Let’s say that you’re an NGO and trying to make a difference in the area of climate change.

👍 Known knowns — these are things that the NGO knows make a difference either in terms of accelerating or slowing down the rate of climate change. This is the core of their activism and campaigning.

🤔 Known unknowns — these are the areas that the NGO is unsure about and perhaps needs to do some more research. They know how to do this, and so just need to raise money to do the research and move this towards being a known known.

🕸️ Unknown knowns — these are the things that are known by the NGO as a whole, or by the network or community around it. New staff members might not be aware of this latent knowledge, so the best thing an organisation can do to surface these is documentation. Wikis are particularly useful in this regard.

🕵️ Unknown unknowns — these are things outside of the knowledge, experience, and understanding of the NGO and the network and community around it. Historically, these have often been technological, so for example solutions to problems, or new problems that may be caused by inventions/developments.

This last area, unknown unknowns is the reason that organisations need to employ generalists as well as specialists: people who are interested in lots of things as well as people who spend their time on just one thing.

Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Fox and the Hedgehog is a useful way of unpicking the difference between the two. In a nutshell, hedgehogs are those who try and fit everything into one unifying view of the world, whereas foxes are happy to know many different kinds of things in many different ways. Every organisation needs ‘foxes’ that are aligned with the mission, giving them time to explore and discover things from unusual places that might be beneficial in surfacing unknown unknowns.

None of the above is easy, and it can feel like it’s outside of the scope of the everyday running of an organisation. At this point in the conversation with clients, friends, and anyone who will listen, I refer to Charles Hand’s sigmoid curve, which is shown below.

Sigmoid curve showing point A (where the intervention should be made) and point B (where the initiative or organisation is already in decline)

Without effective horizon-scanning for both unknown knowns and unknown unknowns, organisations wait until it’s too late (point B) to make changes which will put them back on the path of growth.

As shown by the diagram, it is at point A, during a period of growth, that new knowledge, experience, and understanding should be added to the mix. This allows for the next cycle of growth to happen, but also means a period of time where there is uncertainty and doubt. This is indicated by the shaded area.

To conclude, this kind of work can seem quite disconnected from the core business of organisations. When we’re busy trying to make better widgets, solve world hunger, or sell more stuff, this kind of work feels like a ‘nice to have’ rather than core to organisational success.

However, I would say that the opposite is true: anyone can create an organisation that can secure some funding and last a few years. The history of both Silicon Valley and your local high street is testament to that. What organisations that have been around a while know, however, is that it’s precisely this kind of work that leads to long-term growth and sustainbility.

Need some of this? You can hire me! Get in touch

This post is Day 85 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at

Weeknote 03/2021

Long shadow on the beach at Druridge Bay, Northumberland

Wherever in the world you happen to be, I think we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief now that Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th President of the USA.

Here in the UK, we’ve still got the clown-car government that my fellow countrymen and women inexplicably voted in immediately before the pandemic. They’re doing about as well as can be expected given their glaring incompetence, which has been compounded by the economic self-harm of Brexit.

Closer to home, though, everything is going well. The Catalyst project I’m leading through Dynamic Skillset had its kick-off meeting, and we found out that our co-op was successful in another funding bid. Laura and I recorded the pilot for a new podcast which led to us presenting a proposal for a series of six episodes to fellow co-op members. That proposal was passed, so look out for the first ‘proper’ episode in the next few weeks, and then monthly afterwards.

This week has included my son’s birthday; another teenage year which makes me feel even older than I did turning 40 last month. Another thing that made me feel ancient was attending an online workshop facilitated and attended by people a decade (or more) younger than me. I had to leave half-way through as, although I’m sure everyone else was getting a lot out of it, the format didn’t work for me.

I can definitely see how people get set in their ways as they get older. When you’re younger and you’re not quite sure what you like or how things work, it’s easy to throw caution to the wind and just try things. As you get older, with a bit less energy but many more responsibilities, it’s always easier to lean towards things you know have worked well before. Note to self: I need to fight against that tendency, at least some of the time.

Being back on Twitter is mostly great, although it means less time for blogging. I haven’t published anything here, and on Thought Shrapnel this week I’ve only managed to put out two link posts:

Another website-related thing I did do this week, though, was to create a new thesis page and redirect a couple of legacy domains to it. One of those domains was, which used a version of MediaWiki which I don’t think I ever really upgraded. It finally fell over just shy of its millionth visit, which is incredible really.

I’ve also removed my ebook about digital literacies from Gumroad and made it freely-downloadable from the thesis page. Self-publishing works: in addition to the ~£800 I made pre-v1.0, I also made $3,587.46 in sales via Gumroad over the last few years!

Next week is mainly Catalyst work, although I’m trying to keep my hand in with Outlandish and do some business development for the co-op. I’m just thankful that I’m able to find decent-paying, meaningful work during a pandemic and keep my family relatively happy.

Photo taken on Thursday morning during a run on the beach at Druridge Bay, Northumberland.