Week 134

A look at how lessons from parent-teacher relationships at schools could be applied to community management and customer service.

Parent-teacher relationships and community management

Last week I met with a teacher at a primary school in our neighborhood in Mitte, both to get some input for our project on technology and autodidactic learning and to get some hints for my career pursuits. We discussed the nature of the school community and how to bring technology into the classroom – to the benefit of both the teacher and the students.

In terms of community management, parents of schoolchildren are a really interesting community to look at. The school is providing a service to the children as well as to their parents, who of course are deeply invested in seeing their children do well. My teacher acquaintance told me she has had plenty of colleagues who are afraid of parents, and who try to avoid them and their concerned questioning whenever possible. She has some interesting strategies for developing a good relationship with the parents and avoiding conflict, and these can be applied in many more areas of work than education. (If in search of business advice, for “parents,” read “customers.”)

Her philosophy when it comes to working with parents is complete transparency. She spends the first few months of the schoolyear concentrating on communicating with parents, as well as getting to know the kids. She makes sure parents know both how to contact her and that they are welcome to do so, and she takes time to answer their questions promptly and in detail. She mentioned that she uses Pinterest to collect her ideas about primary teaching and more specifically teaching math, both so that she can have a collection to refer back to and so she can quickly share links with parents about her teaching philosophy and methods. If they have any concerns or specific questions about her methods, she invites them into her classroom to watch class as it’s happening and see for themselves what it’s like. She said it’s especially from this gesture that she gets a lot of respect, since parents can then see how much patience and skill it takes to manage a 20-strong classroom of young children, and since they can understand more clearly why she goes about things the way she does.

This creates an atmosphere of trust and open discussion – she has nothing to hide from them, and there is no reason for parents to get upset if they know they can voice their concerns without hesitation. She is also able to feel more confident in her work, knowing that she and the parents are on the same page. They are also on same side – clearly working towards a common goal. This way she can make allies out of potential critics and opponents.

Transferring these ideas to business: this teacher, if she were a business, would be exemplary. In order to make her own work more effective, she gets her customers on her side, letting them in on the process and establishing trust.

Week 121: The Stories we tell ourselves

Johannes makes some observations about the stories we tell ourselves in our business. Also, new credentials.

The stories we tell ourselves

The stories we make up in our minds to better understand situations are fascinating to me. And especially how they can lead us away from what’s actually happening. Here’s a recent example from our work.

For the last years, we have been telling ourselves that in the month of December everybody is just finishing things up, has no more budget left and is not really thinking about the new year. Then at the beginning of January, everybody will be back at work with fresh money and a fresh mind to start new projects. So we were planning for a quieter December to be ready for the onslaught in January. Makes sense, right?

Funny thing, though. In December, we were super busy until the last day before Christmas. We were still getting urgent calls for last-minute project requests by the middle of the month. Then came the beginning of January and nothing happened. Most people were still skiing or visiting relatives, etc. It took until the middle of this month for the pace to pick up again.

The lesson that I’m taking away from this is to be careful about the stories I form in my head and that I turn into truisms by repeating them again and again. Whenever I think something is like this or like that, I can be almost sure that it will be different next time. Just like the next turn of the year will probably be different from the last one, with perhaps no projects at all in December. That won’t be a problem as long as I don’t try to press reality into my stories but keep an open mind.

Fresh credentials

We used the available time at the beginning of the year to freshen up our presentations a bit. There are new texts on our website and a new deck to introduce ourselves. Have a look. And if you know somebody who might be interested, please forward it on to them.

Here’s the German version.

Week 108

Maddie draws parallels between Third Wave’s work and occupational therapy.

Occupational therapy of a different sort

A couple weeks ago we had a mini-workshop for me on the ins and outs of client work. It occurred to me, while discussing the nature of the work we do and the services we provide, that there are interesting parallels between Third Wave and occupational therapy.

I recently finished up a batch of occupational therapy sessions, for a persistent hand-and-wrist problem. With the therapist, the process starts out with identifying where and how things hurt, palpating, massaging, stretching. She asks plenty of questions, whether it hurts more at a particular time of day or in a particular circumstance, whether the issue is dependent on temperature, how long it’s been going on, etc., but also makes ordinary small talk, asking about how things are going at work and what I do in my free time. From these conversations on indirectly related topics, details emerge that give her more insight into what might be contributing to the pain.

At first it seemed the problem was in my tendons, then my nerves, then my muscles. We concluded finally that the real problem was in my neck and my back, where the muscles had gotten themselves into knots and were really quite weak, and the hand could only be made better by exercising these other areas from which the problem stemmed, and keeping muscular reactions to stress under control. We made up an exercise regime that I need to carry out regularly.

It’s not only this advice, the part that tells you how to get better, that makes the process so valuable. It also causes you to be more aware of bad habits or poor posture that might be harmful in the long term. One key characteristic of the process is that the therapist doesn’t have the power to cure you, but you must be committed to working with her to find a solution to the problem. This commitment on both sides is what makes the process successful.

Similarly, in our line of work, we often take vague, hard-to-define problems and, after discussion both about the problem and about other things, we find unexpected kinks that were causing trouble. In order to come up with valuable suggestions that will improve a client’s efficiency, morale or productivity, we have to go through that process of identifying things we don’t know we don’t know about the client, which requires quite a bit of conversation. A lot of great insights are only stumbled upon because of chance conversation. And in our case as well as in the therapist’s, both sides have to be committed in order for the process to be successful. The continuous contact as well as commitment on both sides are the factors that determine whether the ideas generated come to fruition or not.

(As an aside, though: If you have a repetitive strain injury or something similar from typing and sitting all day, go see someone about it. Really. Ignoring it makes it a lot worse.)

Week 88

A peep into the newbie’s mind after her first full week at Third Wave.

Starting out at Third Wave

I started working at Third Wave officially last week, and am delighted to be here. I haven’t had much adapting to do so far, seeing as I worked here two days a week for the last six months. One aspect of working in a small shop as compared to a mid-sized agency stands out to me: here, in a small team that fits nicely into one reasonably sized room, it can’t help but be personal. We share values and common interests – this is how we came to work together. In a bigger team, it is unlikely for the organizational glue to be quite as strong. The glue helps to create a sense of mutual support, which in turn helps to get things done, and realize when things aren’t working. Also, the nature and size of the team combine to make it an open space for expressing thoughts, concerns, ideas, questions – largely as they come up, rather than saving them up for meetings. I’m uncertain as to whether this is possible in larger teams.

Challenges

Some adjustments have to be made gradually. Becoming familiar with some of the tasks that crop up regularly is one thing, being efficient at getting them done is another. Writing relevant and coherent texts in a foreign language takes practice, and I’m increasingly impressed by how my colleagues manage it so successfully. I have to say I really enjoy the bilingual aspect of work here, and hope that I’ll make more use of the opportunity to sneak German lessons in here and there throughout the day. Another gradual adjustment is taking the reins myself, coming up with plans and executing them (relatively) independently. There is a kind of fear associated with doing this, and this also takes a bit of practice to overcome.

Dorota is our new trainee for VCCP, and we’ll be introducing her shortly. I’m helping out with her training, and have now found myself on the lower end of a learning curve when it comes to guiding a person in her job, figuring out how to best answer her questions, how best to make the big picture and not just the details clear. This in turn exposes gaps in my own knowledge, which is helpful. It’s also an interesting, tricky process, learning how to function on a professional level with a close friend.

I’m also encountering some new, more structured approaches to research. Jasmine has filled a wall with post-its, outlining a business model, competition, and ideas for improvement or ‘white spaces’ into which the business could expand/evolve. She’s used the scheme from the Business Model Generation book to structure her findings. It’s helpful to see information from a business/design perspective, since these are both things I have much to learn about.

Approaches to research

Last week, we were doing some market research for a new project related to stationery and pens. It’s funny how we automatically begin to research these things on the internet, without considering, at first, the option of looking for the products in person, to get a better idea of how customers might see them. At the office supply store around the corner, I had a look at some products, looked for patterns and trends, tried to identify what features make a stationery product good or attractive. I talked to the saleswoman about what products she sells, what ones the customers particularly like, her thoughts about the brand we’re working on. This kind of research yields very quick results, and can nicely complement what we find on the internet to give us a more complete initial impression of what we’re working with.

Stationery is an interesting field for a digital strategist to work in. Perhaps, and I believe this has been said before, we gravitate towards things like nice notebooks and pens in order to balance out our typey-screeny lives with things that have a more concrete, haptic appeal. In any case, I am a massive fan of stationery, and this project should turn out to be really fun once it gets going.

Week 87: Market Segments

In this week note, we talk a little bit about market segments or the lack of them.

If you choose to operate outside a specified market, it often means that you have to define the market segments in which you want to operate and why people actually need you.

While nothing is ever completely new or unique, our decision early on was not to take on a specific market segment, but follow the things that interest us and build a business around that. While it is very satisfying, it is of course more challenging then operating in a pre-defined market. As a company that provides service, you not only have to be picked from a list of competitors, you actually have to make the client understand why he needs your service in the first place. While many are crying wolf here and blaming the client, I still remember Matt’s words: “If the client didn’t get it, you explained it wrong.” In most companies budgets are still redistributed according to very classic models. That results in the following scenarios:

  • You start a conversation with one department and don’t get picked, because the way you present yourself increases the risk for the department. They will be probably be very interested in the work you are doing, but unless they can assess the situation in a way that makes them feel safe to pick someone who reaches for the stars instead just for the budget, they will probably not pick you.
  • You are still having a conversation with one department, but now you found someone inside a company who is eager to try new things. Be that either because he’s “a true believer” or, to put it in Ton’s words, “the guy in the blue shirt”, Ton’s term for someone who evangelizes an idea inside the company. The other option is: This person sees an opportunity to make a career with the help of the work you are providing. Either way, this situation is good for you and opens up at least the possibility of starting a long-term relationship. Tread carefully here, though. You might end up compromising too much. You are still on the payroll of one department and unless you helped redefine the various goals of this department – which is hard, but not impossible – you will still have too help them match first those and then your long-term vision of where things should go.
  • You are hired by multiple departments inside of a company. This is the most interesting, but also the most challenging situation for you as a company. On the one hand, you are invited to get a unique look into a big corporation, get access to information that wouldn’t be accessible otherwise. It is also likely that you will get paid better, because there are different budgets to be accessed here. This, though, is also the downside of it. Working in that kind of constellation will require of you to be involved in a lot of politics, have private and semi-private conversations. It is a lot like playing chess. If you up for it, is a great game and you will enjoy a lot.

We have been in all three situations described above. There is no one solution, nor will there be every just one market segment in which we operate. This is hard at times, but it’s definitely not boring.

Meet us

Later this week, Peter is headed to the Silicon Valley for Tim O’Reilly’s Foo Camp. He’s going to be in San Francisco for a few days around the conference. If you want to meet up, ping him. Johannes will be at the Data Science Day Berlin on Wednesday and at DMY for the Open Innovation Forum on Thursday.

What we read this week (16 Mar)

Our articles of the week: one man’s account of leaving Google, PayPal’s digital wallet, libraries of the future, thoughts on the New Aesthetic and some impressive customer service.

Quotes of the week

You want to have a mind that’s open enough to accept radical new ideas, but not so open that your brains fall out.

Michael Shermer

‘Customers’ are a repeating pattern of behaviour that expresses itself in people.

Faris Yakob

Articles of the week

  • James Bridle: #sxaesthetic
    Great commentary on the New Aesthetic and human collaboration with technology, resulting from a panel discussion at SXSW. With cameo appearances by the Higgs Boson, Kafka and Wikileaks.
  • TechCrunch: PayPal’s New Digital Wallet
    PayPal is looking to “let consumers do things with their money that have never been possible before.” Will these new options prove more convenient, or more problematic?
  • Undercurrent: How Bergdorf Goodman is Killing it in Digital
    Derrick Bradley recounts “one of the most pleasant digital encounters with a brand.” Bergdorf Goodman’s customer service went a couple small steps further than one would expect, making a huge difference in Derrick’s experience.
  • James Whittaker: Why I Left Google
    James Whittaker explains how “sharing” became a bee in Google’s bonnet, and how the ensuing social-oriented projects eventually led him to leave the company.
  • Rachel Coldicutt: The Joys of Having Nothing to Read
    Rachel Coldicutt of Caper gave this talk last year as part of the London Word Festival. Here she tells us why the libraries of the future shouldn’t make it too easy for us to find what we’re after: in other words, why they should “offer you sprouts when what you want is ice cream.”

Week 72 + 73

Two in one. This week note comes with updates about week 72 and 73. And there are plenty of them.

Last week was the first week we didn’t publish a week note since we started writing them. Sorry about that. Nothing tragic happened, it was just a hectic, very output heavy week and the week note just fell through the cracks. We will try not to make it a habit.

Business

I actually started writing a week note last week, but never got to finish it. Mostly because those last weeks I focused on business development. We are always trying different things. That’s necessary for a company that works at the intersection of agency, consultancy and think tank. It’s easier to other companies who are trying to fit the already known formats. So we try to be as aware and helpful to our current and potential clients as we can.

This been a lot on my mind. We are finally at a point where we became profoundly secure about the message that we are communicating to the outside. In a few weeks, we will update a few of the descriptions on our website and the usual slides that you have seen from us to give you a better understanding of what I’m talking about right now. We laid our eyes on a designer who might be helpful to help us shape the message even better.

Events

There’s not just one, but three events coming up.

Next12 is getting really underway. The International Program Director Monique van Dusseldorp had to dial down her involvement in this year’s Next a bit. Monique and the Next team kindly asked us to step in for her. While the cause isn’t a good one, we’ll try to make the best out of the occasion and fill her proverbial big shoes – after all, Monique is easily one of the best curators out there and extremely experienced in what she’s doing. 

So as Peter takes over her role, finalizing the program for the big keynote stage falls largely to him, which is somewhat of a conference geek’s dream. While sorting through long shortlists (sorry, bad pun) and a stack of emails, this allows us to invite a wide range of excellent speakers. As you know, this is how we usually try to fill up conferences: We invite all those people who we’ve always wanted to see present, and get to know. Usually this method turned out pretty decent results.

So between Peter and me, and with plenty of indispensable input from Johannes, we curate three tracks at Next: the International Stage (aka keynote stage), Arena (best of the speaker proposals plus demo area) and Experience (hot emerging topics). It’s a lot of work, and great fun. Also, it’s amazing to see the input from a half-dozen curators and the Hamburg-based team come together from first brainstorming several months ago to a final program and speaker roster. 

We’re also in the final stages of organizing a Quantified Self event of some sort together with our friends over at Hybrid Plattform. Hybrid Plattform, for those of you who aren’t yet familiar with it, is a joint research center run by Berlin’s University of Arts (UdK) and Technical University (TU). While the details aren’t finalized, we already know it’s going to be two half-days, it’s non-commercial, size-wise intimate and it’s going to be good. There’s a little bit more information and a preliminary tell-us-if-you’re-interested form here.

Last but not least, together with our good friends Claudia and Yasmina we’re putting together another round of Ignite Berlin. This is largely a private endeavor, but since it might be interesting to you I’ll include a link to the little information we can already announce as of yet > here.

Our travel schedule this week

Johannes will be in London for an internal company talk. I will briefly swing by Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Monday/Tuesday. If you want to meet with one of us, ping us. On Wednesday, Peter and I will be off the grid for a workshop in Münster, Germany. The rest of the week we’re back in town.

Building connections for serendipity

The whole notion of serendipity is just marvelous. You cannot, by definition, plan for serendipity. We believe it’s possible to foster and embrace serendipity. This is core to our work. Also, we always ask ourselves how we can add value.

The whole notion of serendipity is just marvelous. You cannot, by definition, plan for serendipity. Yet, we believe it’s possible to foster and embrace serendipity. This is core to our work.

When asked what we offer to clients, that’s almost a loaded question as it asks primarily: What can we book you for? Which really means, What can you invoice us for? There’s another aspect to that question, though, that I think should be asked more often. How can you add value to what we do? There’s a world of difference between the two.

One aims at booking a certain skill for a certain task, with a clear expectation of what should be done and how. The other is much more open-ended, explorative. It operates on the assumption that if you put the right people in a room, something good will happen for everybody. We believe in that approach. It is centered around serendipity.

So when we get asked what services we offer, we say something along the lines of our about page:

We develop strategies and ideas for the digital world and are part think tank, part agency and part business consultancy. Our expertise comprises the fields of strategy development, innovation consulting, marketing & public relations and social media & social business.

This is true, and helps our potential clients fit us into a certain professional grid/model/raster.

What I believe is the answer to that second question, the open-ended, serendipity-embracing one, is this:

At the core of our our work is a holistic understanding and serendipitous thinking. This allows us to draw on expertise in various fields and apply it in many, often unexpected ways and contexts.

This is why sometimes we curate conferences, publish reports or forecasts, or work with startups to improve their products.

As you notice, this doesn’t really describe what we do, but how we do things. It’s our mental model, that we believe is solid and highly productive. The output, however, can take many different shapes or forms, depending on context and needs: It could be one of the professional services mentioned in the first answer. Or, and that’s what I’m aiming at here, it could be that we find a completely different way of adding value. Maybe we can help give your product a “social” overhaul, maybe we run a workshop or do some research for you, maybe we can provide you with some interesting sources or connect you with the right talent. To paraphrase Clinton’s classic election campaign slogan: It’s the context, stupid!

Instead of going very narrow and deep, a strong vertical, we look through a wide-angle lense and look at three things. Connections: Who and what should be involved? Implications: What will this mean for all players involved? And patterns: Is this part of some bigger trend?

It works for us. Maybe it works for you, too. Be that as it may – the next time you hire someone or are hired by someone, try it out. Just ask that other question. Ask how they, or you, can add value to whatever is going on right there. You won’t be disappointed.

So, in summary, here are three rules of thumb we try to follow in what we do:

  • Think in connections, patterns and implications!
  • Allow and seek a wide range of influences and inputs!
  • Foster and embrace serendipity!

What we read this week (3 Feb)

A taste of this week’s reading: Quora tackles the facts and figures in Facebook’s IPO application, the New York Times mulls over the growing pains in cyborg life, and the state of the future.

Quotes of the week

Maybe our desire to digitize and archive every little thing is not proof of a fear of forgetting. It’s a manifestation of our urge to remember how to remember.

Carina Chocano

What if you didn’t buy books so much as join them?

Megan Garber

Articles of the week

  • Quora: What are the most notable aspects of Facebook’s S-1?
    The Quora community expounds on Facebook’s IPO, providing a nice mix of editorial and factual content. The answers are dotted with interesting tidbits from the company’s IPO registration statement (S-1). The word ‘control’, for instance, is mentioned 131 times in the document, compared to 35 mentions of ‘privacy’.
  • Dan Pink: The Flip Manifesto
    Dan Pink offers 16 pieces of business advice that “[flip] conventional wisdom.” His points include “for Godsakes, talk like a human being” and “take as much vacation as you want.” He introduces his thinking with a case study of one of our best-known contemporary entrepreneurs: Bob the Builder. If you’re not feeling quite up to reading the whole thing, watch Dan’s 10-minute animated talk on motivation at the RSA.
  • Parker Higgins: Twitter’s best-in-class censorship reveals weaknesses in centralized corporate communication channels
    Our friend Parker Higgins, who recently moved to San Francisco to work for the EFF, with an on-point assertion about the implications of Twitter’s censorship acknowledgment.
  • New York Times: The Dilemma of Being a Cyborg
    Carina Chocano discusses what we experience when we lose our data, or “the constantly generated, centrally stored evidence of our existence.” A perceptive take on the interplay between human life and technology.
  • Imperica: The future of the future
    Leila Johnston and Chris Heathcote discuss the future of… the future, and of advertising. As our notion of the future has become very blurry compared to the 50s, their grasp of the current state of futurism is a must-read. Along the way we learn that advertising can stay relevant, particularly if it fulfills a need beyond just advertising a product.

Week 68

A reflection on our business, plus a digital and a non-digital tip in this week’s notes.

After having Igor and Peter cover for me in the last weeks, I’m finally back at writing a week note. The first weeks of the new year have been super busy. We’ve finished a big social media strategy handbook (180 pages) for a client and I helped out an agency with a strategy workshop. Good feedback all around keeps the motivation and the energy level high.

Reflections on our business

Nevertheless, I now have the time to take a moment and reflect a little on recent developments. As Peter and Igor described already, we’ve been upping our public content output throughout the last weeks and will continue to do so in the next weeks and months. Talking about the topics on our minds is proving to be the best source of new business development for us.
At the heart of our business, we’re a topic-driven consultancy – focussing on topics like networked cities, quantified self, social media business and strategy etc. – instead of method-based (as in workshop-formats, brainstorming-technics etc.). We’re producing our best work when we can immerse ourselves deeply into a topic that emerges at the fringes of our radars and help our clients grasp the meaning of it for their customers and consequently for their business.
If you’d ask me right now what Third Wave is, I’d answer that we’re a mixture of a think tank and a strategic consultancy. We explore topics and trends, publish content around that and then advise our clients on how to apply these insights to reach their companies’ goals.

Group-reading with Instapaper and Ifttt

Let’s get a bit more practical. A lot of you seem to enjoy Igor’s description of how we use Pinboard and special tags to collect content for our weekly reads etc.
Another thing I’ve really enjoyed is our setup to share interesting articles with each other automatically. Here’s what I’m talking about:
Instapaper is at the core of our reading system (with the Kindle as our favorite reading device for Instapaper). As Igor described, we save interesting articles in Pinboard with a special tag. We then use Ifttt to send all the interesting articles to our Instapaper accounts. Ifttt is an amazing service that lets you connect one service with another. You can create tasks that work with the format of ‘If this happens in this service then do that in that service’. In this case, we let Ifttt check the RSS feed for our special tag on Pinboard. Whenever there is a new item because on of us has saved an article, Ifttt sends the item to our Instapaper accounts. So, whenever I open Instapaper, I not only have the articles I’ve saved in my browser, I also have all the articles that Igor and Peter deemed interesting. So on the Kindle I basically get a new selection of all the articles Third Wave thinks are interesting every morning. Another manifestation of the personalized newspaper. So much for the digital hackery this time.

Shower notes

Here’s another non-digital tip as some of you like the magic paper we mentioned in another week note. You know how you always seem to come up with the best ideas in the shower? That’s not really surprising as the shower is one of the last really undisturbed places that is mostly distraction free. Our minds can run crazy for a little while. The only problem: it’s kinda difficult to capture ideas in the shower. Enter Aquanotes. A simple notepad that works while wet and even under water. And now they’re finally available in Germany. Yeah, yeah, make all the jokes you want. But being able to capture ideas wherever, whenever is a key advantage. Order them now and thank us later in your Cannes Lions acceptance speech.

Quantified Self update

Peter continued our work around Quantified Self last week with two German articles on Golem and a little scenario planning on how Quantified Self might look and feel like in a couple of years.

Next up

We’re looking forward to the transmediale festival here in Berlin next week. If you’re in town and like to have chat, please contact us. And as always, if you want to talk about anything I’ve mentioned here or if you think we can help you with something, let’s connect.