What my empty room taught me about transformation

This post was originally published on my LinkedIn page

My empty room

Churchill once said that “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” This is true of many things. We shape our technologies and afterwards they shape us. We shape our habits and afterwards they shape us.

But when the time comes for transformation — digital, personal or otherwise — how can we break free from outdated practices and truly re-imagine our ways of working, rather than just tweak the status quo?

True to Churchill, one simple answer recently presented itself by way of a building: my own house. My eldest son had recently left for university, leaving behind a drum kit that hadn’t been used for years and took over the entire spare room. So my wife and I decided to sell it and clear out the room.

The spare room was now completely empty.

We were literally staring at emptiness in every sense of the word. A natural response would have been to quickly fill the room with something else, just to fill the void.

At first, we thought of turning it into a guest bedroom — until we remembered the sofa bed that is already gathering dust elsewhere in the house, perfectly adequate for all those friends that never visit.

We considered converting the room into a home office. But I’d always preferred working in the lounge, surrounded by bookcases and within range of the espresso machine next-door in the kitchen.

We kept wondering what else we could put in the room — a desk? a sofa? a wardrobe? — but without first knowing the room’s purpose it was a pointless question. Meanwhile, the room was left empty for weeks.

And a curious thing happened.

The longer the room was left empty, the more we used it.

I started using it to do my back exercises every morning — for a tall person like me there was nowhere better in the house to stretch out.

My wife began using it as a dressing room.

I’ve used it for feeble attempts at meditation.

My wife has used it to learn a new instrument.

I sometimes use it for stargazing, or simply for staring out of the window.

I’ve even begun using the room for work, when it catches the sun in the morning. Without furniture, I just sit or lie on the floor, reading or writing, balancing my laptop in the appropriate position. Is it comfortable? Not really. Is it productive? Absolutely. No time to waste on social media when you know leg cramp is just a few minutes away. And no chance of developing repetitive strain when you’re constantly moving body position. Win, win, win.

And so, while taking care to re-empty the room after every use, the wins have kept on piling up.

The empty room is now the most productive and versatile space in the house.

It is truly transformational. Even though the room is tiny, it now feels huge. And because the room is not primed for any particular purpose, it has begun to shape us in different ways — trying new things, forming new habits, exploring new possibilities.

The room is also easier to maintain. It now takes two minutes to clean, instead of twenty. Yep, another big win.

Of course, an empty room may seem like the ultimate luxury. Lucky are those who can afford a big enough house to have a spare, empty room. But I’m beginning to look at it differently. Would it be better to have a smaller house with a larger proportion of empty space? Do our houses look the way they do, simply because of old conventions that are no longer questioned?

Just as pre-configured rooms dictate and constrain how we use them, we are shaped by our work places, tools and habits.

As Churchill implied, we can fall prey to invisible and unnecessary limitations because they’ve become so ingrained — even if we created them in the first place.

Would our actions be more intentional if we had more ‘emptiness’ in our diaries and offices? Would our workflows improve if we had more ‘emptiness’ in our technologies? Once new realities reveal themselves, would we even keep pursuing the same goals?

So, before we set out to transform things and envision what’s next, sometimes it may be best to remove everything that’s currently there — physically or metaphorically — to let old assumptions or expectations fall away. We may be surprised by what comes to light.

In the meantime, I’ll get back to my empty room.

What else am I going to find in it today?

All photographs by the author.


How to revive your creativity at work

This post first appeared on my LinkedIn blog.


Everyone is born creative. Young children don’t question that fact. They just play, draw, imagine, tinker and mess about without hesitation. As we grow up, we lose some of that spontaneity. But we never lose the potential to be creative. We just forget about it.

Society expects us to grow into serious adults doing serious jobs: accountants, plumbers, scientists, nurses, engineers, and so on. From thousands of roles, only few are regarded as creative. And from those, only few are regarded as serious (“What, you want to become a painter? Go get a real job!”). It’s almost as if creativity has become the opposite of seriousness.

Thank heavens the robots are coming for our jobs. Automation will allow us (force us?) to play to our strengths. Creative work being harder to automate, one such strength is our innate creativity. It’s time to revive it.

You are creative – accept it

We can be creative in any job – no matter what. Creativity is not the exclusive domain of art, design or advertising. Who’s to say an accountant can’t be creative? Some tax avoidance schemes look like they will have required a huge amount of creativity. Not that this is a great example, but you get the point. You don’t need to be a Picasso or Bowie to be creative. Art and creativity are very different things.

I often start business workshops by reminding people of their own creativity. It’s an issue of self-confidence, not ability. For example, I might ask everyone to draw a picture. Which immediately draws gasps like: “But I can’t draw!”

Yes you can. What you meant to say was, “I can’t draw like Picasso.” Which is fair enough. Only Picasso could draw like Picasso. And only you can draw like you. That doesn’t mean you can’t draw – it means that, like everyone else, you have your own style.

Take these two pictures of a house, for example. On the left is a drawing done by a child, on the right a drawing by an artist. Now, which one is better?


The artist’s picture is certainly beautiful and well executed, using the right proportions, lighting and perspective. It would be suitable for a property brochure. The child’s drawing is more rudimentary. But it’s also more spontaneous and contains a greater variety of information. Unlike the artist’s impression, the child’s drawing provides some insights on who lives in the house, and what kind of lives they lead. Also, it’s a sketch that can be drawn quickly, and the stylised character makes it easy to read and understand. In other words, it would also be perfect for business workshops.

The point is, both pictures are valid forms of creative expression – they just serve different purposes. Not everybody can draw like an artist, and that’s okay. You don’t need to be an artist to be creative.

Defining creativity

Common dictionaries tend to describe creativity in linguistic terms that can be intimidating and unhelpful. They make creativity synonymous with things like imagination, originality, inventiveness, or even artistry. Although technically correct, this type of language won’t encourage people to get over their creative self-doubt.

Then there’s academic definitions of creativity, for example in the context of education. These introduce more useful concepts such as flexibility and resourcefulness, or the idea of using physical activities to stimulate problem solving.

A simpler way of looking at creativity is to take inspiration from pop culture: the ‘remix’. Creativity never starts from scratch. Even the most original people don’t generate their ideas from a blank page – they always take inspiration from something else. It’s the copy–transform–combine model of creativity:


This is the crux. People who don’t regard themselves as creative do so because they put the bar too high for themselves.

Being creative doesn’t mean that you must create something from nothing. Following the old adage “good artists copy, great artists steal”, being creative means that you take something that already exists and then change it, improve it, or add to it so it serves a new purpose. This new thing you have created can then be used by other people to build on as well – and so the cycle continues. This is how things have worked since the dawn of humanity, otherwise we’d still be living in caves.

For me, the key to creativity is having the curiosity to seek out lateral inspiration: stuff from adjacent fields that you can apply in your own setting. Presumably this is how pancakes came into being?


Looking for lateral inspiration

One the simplest ways of finding lateral inspiration is to follow different topics that interest you, and look for overlaps and connections between them.

For example, as a kid I wanted to become an architect. Although this is now a defunct dream, I’m still interested in architecture. So, in this post I’ll use some examples from architecture to illustrate my points. In recent years I asked myself, what could I learn from architects? What architectural principles or practices could I apply in a job unrelated to architecture? As it turns out, quite a lot:

  • Think like an architect:examine problems and solutions from every possible angle
  • See like an architect:notice the details, and ask why things are the way they are
  • Draw like an architect: do quick (ugly!) sketches to explore ideas
  • Play like an architect:build physical models to examine options

To illustrate some of these concepts, notice how the architect below took inspiration from nothing more than a crumpled piece of paper for a new building design. He then iterated on this design (on transparent overlays) until he came across something he could work with:


I’ve now incorporated many architectural ways of working into my daily life, and it feels great. This is, for example, how I ended up using LEGO for geoscience workshops or experimenting with toy train sets for information management. These things weren’t invented from scratch; I borrowed, adapted and remixed – just like the architect who started with a crumpled piece of paper.

Also, looking at how architects use physical models in their design process made me come across architects who used LEGO, which in turn made me stumble upon innovation consultants who used LEGO for business workshops. And they, in turn, were using LEGO based on principles borrowed from neuroscience. So now I find myself getting interested in neuroscience… you get the picture.

Learning to see sideways

If all you’d ever known were omelette and pasta, you’d be excited to discover pancakes with the same ingredients. The same might happen if you cross lessons from gardening, fashion or sport with business leadership. If you keep your mind open to making connections between different areas of interest, you’ll eventually find something that clicks.

Lateral inspiration is also about challenging assumptions. Why not use eggs, flour and milk all in one go? Why not use LEGO at work? Why not lead a team like a gardener looks after a garden?

Inspiration doesn’t have to be complicated. As recounted in Disegno, a design magazine, the team behind Lufthansa’s recent cabin revamp simply used a picture of a golden sunset to inspire the type of yellows used for the pillow stripes:


Or sometimes inspiration is right in front of you. In the late 1960s, an architect and a structural engineer were discussing ideas over lunch, struggling to come up with a design for a giant skyscraper that was both stable and stylish. Until suddenly they realised they had the solution right in their pockets: a packet of cigarettes. The result was the Sears Tower in Chicago, made up of individual towers stacked like a bunch of cigarettes:


There are countless instances like this… copy, transform, combine.

All it takes is to train yourself to notice similarities and make connections. The other day, for example, I noticed how Jupiter’s surface, as depicted by the latest spacecraft images, resembles the Starry Night painting by Vincent van Gogh:

jupiter van gogh

I’m not sure if this insight has any use for me right now, but the point is – it’s simply a way of seeing. You’ll find that once you get into the habit of looking sideways, you’ll keep finding opportunities to be creative – to copy, transform or combine existing things for new purposes.

Make it part of your daily routine

We are the product of our habits. To revive your creativity at work, it needs to become part of your daily routine. Here’s some things to get started.

Curate what you read. Don’t just mindlessly scroll through news or social media. Follow specific accounts or websites about multiple topics that interest you. Actively reading stuff that you find interesting is not just a better investment of time, it will also garner your attention in a way that is more likely to generate new insights.

Sit down with a physical paper, magazine or book, especially for longer reads. It’s proven to exercise your mind in different ways from reading stuff on a digital screen. It’s also more enjoyable – perfect for lunch breaks or at weekends, especially with a nice coffee.

Make yourself read stuff you’re not initially interested in. It’s harder work, but the rewards can be even greater. For example, I’m not very interested in cooking but ended up inspired by the story of a renowned chef who created an exquisite meal from an old carrot. The lesson can be applied almost anywhere.

Take every opportunity to visit exhibitions. There is something about the materiality of physical displays that is more inspiring than if you looked at the same things online. The other day I dropped into a Nordic toy exhibition in London and ended up taking away many lessons that could easily be applied to app development or workflow design. I found inspiration in Danish furniture that kids can build themselves without tools (doubling as a giant 3D puzzle) and an Icelandic fishbone model-making kit that challenged my idea of modular blocks needing to be rectangular.

toy exhibition

Embrace constraints. The story of the old carrot illustrates a known maxim: it’s easier to be creative when you’re faced with constraints. That’s why the blank page is so terrifying – it’s much easier to start with something. A constraint is one such thing, whether it’s physical, monetary, timebound, or otherwise. Don’t fight it, embrace it.

Reframe the problem. You can also create new ideas by changing the constraints that govern the problem. There’s a great article written by philosopher, Alain de Botton, on finding neighbouring problems and secret needs of customers. These often hide in plain sight and can be found by asking different questions. The effectiveness of problem reframing is also explained really well in this Harvard Business Review article, Are You Solving the Right Problems? Reframing often leads to simple yet creative solutions in the vein of “why didn’t I think of this before?”.

Draw for 2 minutes every day. As we have seen, everyone can draw. It doesn’t matter how you draw or what you draw; having the confidence to draw is an incredibly useful problem solving tool. Just draw something – on the back of an envelope, in a beautiful notebook, whatever. As your confidence builds you’ll soon find yourself drawing to work through real problems and ideas. Drawing (or writing) by hand has been proven to generate better thinking than staring at a computer.

Use the visual alphabet to help you get started with drawing. Based on the copy-transform-combine concept, you can use a standard set of squiggles to literally draw anything:


Keep a notebook of half-baked ideas. Whenever I have an idea I write it down immediately. If I have time I might sketch it out. Whatever the case, the key is in capturing things as soon as possible – otherwise they might be gone forever. Also capture interesting stuff you find online, and keep it with your notes. A collection of half-baked ideas and reference material is a great incubator, and you can refer back to it whenever looking for inspiration. It takes a bit of organisation (I keep my stuff in Evernote, including scans of sketches I do on paper), but it’s worth it. It’s a like having a personal Google search engine, meaning it’s much faster to find when you need it. It’s how I wrote this blog post from many different half-formed strands, for example.

Take a daily walk. Philosophers like Nietzsche and Rousseau used to walk to think, and a recent study showed that walking may indeed lead to creativity. It doesn’t matter when or where you walk, just make it part of your routine. Walking not only fosters creativity, it’s also good for body and soul. I don’t have a dog, but I go for a walk around the block at least twice a day. You can do it anywhere.

Take breaks. This should be self-evident. A fried brain is not a creative brain. Besides, working without breaks is bad for you. Just go for a walk…


Embrace mundane tasks. Cleaning, cooking, ironing, showering… these activities engender mild forms of boredom that will let your mind wander. This can trigger ideas or even a-ha moments. As long as you don’t multitask to distract yourself from these tasks. So, switch off the radio and see what happens. As famous ad man John Hegarty says, “I do my best thinking when I’m not thinking.

Work with your hands. Our hands are connected to about 80% of our brain cells; using them has been shown to unlock hidden knowledge. This is the principle behind workshop methods like LEGO Serious Play. It doesn’t have to be LEGO, though. You can generate similar effects in other ways, whether it’s gardening, fixing a motorbike, or more mundane tasks (see above).

Create a lifelong kindergarten. As author Mitchel Resnik wrote, kindergarten is becoming more like school when in fact school – and work – should become more like kindergarten. We should all ‘play’ more at work – tinker, experiment, collaborate. If you’re in a position of responsibility, you can do your bit by ensuring your team has the right environment to be creative. It needs to be safe, and allow people to work in a more flexible way that suits them. This can be achieved in several ways, too numerous to mention here. You could simply start with a workshop where you let your team decide for themselves what they want.

Insert tiny doses of creativity everywhere. Rather than ‘schedule time’ for creativity, make it part of the way you operate. Focus on small creative pleasures that you enjoy, like doodling during phone calls, sketching on whiteboards during meetings, or leafing through an inspiring book during breaks. Don’t just make it another item on your to-do list.

Change your environment. They say a change is as good as a rest. A change of scene can certainly be productive. Get away from your desk and break up the routine. Work in the office lobby, a coffee shop, or indeed at home. It’s not about distractions – they’re everywhere, if you let them – but simply being in a different place trigger new thought patterns.

Embrace serendipity. We don’t get new ideas by looking at the same stuff in the same old ways. Go out there, visit different places, talk to different people, watch different programs, read a new magazine, get off the bus at different stops. And once you get bored of your routine, break it. Who knows what you might find.


I hope this post has inspired you to go revive your creativity. Please don’t fall into the trap of believing that creativity is for other people. Accept and embrace the fact that you are creative. Follow the copy-transform-combine model… as I did for this post, which is nothing more than a collection of stuff I’ve collated from elsewhere. All I needed was the curiosity to go and find inspiration. Now go find yours – good luck!



Image credits:

Title image by Kevin Jarrett via Unsplash

House pictures via Google, sources unknown

Copy-Transform-Combine via brainpickings.org

Pancake Venn chart via Stephen Wildish

Architect sketches via YouTube

Lufthansa cabin, article by Disegno, enlarged sunset image by @HolidayDartmoor

Sears Tower, source unknown, via Bing Images

Cigarettes via istockphoto

Planet Jupiter via NASA

The Starry Night by Vicent van Gogh via Wikipedia

Century of the Child exhibition (V&A London), photos by the author

Visual alphabet via Medium and Scriberia

Walking by Amy Velazquez via Unsplash

Puzzle by Hans-Peter Gauster via Unsplash

What I learned running a LEGO Serious Play workshop

This post first appeared on my LinkedIn blog.


All photos by the author

Recently I ran a series of innovation and business development workshops for a group of geoscientists. Having previously experimented with toys to solve business problems, and seeing how well the group responded to the creative challenges I’d set to harness their collective wisdom and imagination, it was time to try something new: LEGO Serious Play. In this post I’d like to share with you how it went!

Why LEGO Serious Play?

LEGO Serious Play – or LSP for short – is a proven methodology based on insights from neuroscience, first developed in the early 2000s by LEGO’s Education division and IMD Business School (the method has since been open-sourced). Roughly 80% of our brain cells are supposedly connected to our hands, so the theory goes that we can unlock hidden knowledge and make new connections by using our hands to build LEGO models.

Playing with LEGO is fun, of course, but that alone won’t necessarily produce useful results. What is unique about LSP is that it uses a defined and facilitated process where LEGO models act as metaphors for storytelling. More than just playing with bricks and hoping for inspiration, it’s a bit like play therapy – enabling people to express themselves through the medium of LEGO. After all, even just six standard bricks can be combined in almost 1 billion different ways, so the potential for expression is infinite. Some people liken it to “3D printing your thoughts”.

Readers who know me simply as an information management consultant might be surprised to see this post. I’d been itching to try LEGO Serious Play in a professional setting for some time, and was glad to finally have the chance. Below I’m going to describe what we did, how it went, and provide some reflections that will hopefully inspire you. For further information check out the references at the end.

At this point I would also like to thank Patrizia Bertini of LegoViews who introduced me to LEGO Serious Play.

What we did and learned, step by step

This particular workshop session was about crafting a unique value proposition, and was scheduled to take up to 75 minutes.

First, I needed a volunteer team of 4-6 people willing to try Lego Serious Play whilst the rest of the 25-strong group would get on with more traditional gamestorm activities involving drawings, flip charts and mood boards. I shouldn’t have worried: all 25 hands went up, meaning we had to draw lots. Sadly, I didn’t have enough LEGO bricks for everyone, leaving a lot of people disappointed! Lesson 1: Everyone loves LEGO.

Next, I spent about 20 minutes with the LSP group on warm-up. In that time, I asked everyone to build a series of challenges designed to gradually acquaint participants with the method. At this stage we already discovered our first insight: everyone’s interpretation of simple instructions like “build a tower in 30 seconds” was very different and unique. Lesson 2: LEGO naturally extracts unique and original contributions from every participant.

Many people freak out when asked to do something “creative”, like drawing. In such cases you first have to do a few exercises to remind people that they can actually draw. Most adults don’t regard themselves as being creative, which is a shame (young children have no such qualms, presumably because they don’t measure themselves against Michelangelo). With LEGO, though, no freak-outs occurred. On the contrary: people were lapping it up and just went for it. Lesson 3: With LSP, participants do not need to think of themselves as “creative”, or have any special LEGO building skills.

In the warm-up we also introduced the concept of using LEGO models as metaphors, which is key to the LSP method. For example, I asked people to build a random model from 12 bricks and then, once they were built, made everyone explain how their model might be interpreted in terms of teamwork. Making it up as they went along, everyone was intrigued by what they discovered. In that sense, LSP shares some properties with a gamestorming technique called image-ination, which uses random images to trigger lateral ideas. Lesson 4: LEGO models can create meaning and insights that even their creators didn’t initially envisage.


Now it was time to start the proper exercise and focus on the team’s unique value proposition. I asked every person to build a LEGO model that expresses how they perceive their team’s strengths versus customer needs.

At this stage I was struck by how little explaining I had to do: everyone just start building straight away, without necessarily knowing where it was leading. For some reason, people were now comfortable launching themselves into the unknown, somehow trusting their hands to do the work. I was really surprised by this – a marked contrast to the other teams who, using traditional workshop methods, were initially staring at blank sheets of paper and took a while to get going. Lesson 5: A pile of LEGO bricks is less intimidating than a blank sheet of paper.

In any type of meeting or workshop it is very common for dominant participants to take the lead and steer conversations in their direction, thereby silencing less assertive voices. By contrast, and even though my facilitation was deliberately light-touch, the team using LEGO did not suffer from this problem at all. Everyone was equally engaged, leaning in over the table to grab bricks and build their own model to express their viewpoint. Lesson 6: LEGO Serious Play levels the playing field, enabling every participant to engage fully and equally.

Once people had finished building their models, we went around the table so everyone could explain the meaning of their creation to the rest of the group. Now I was really struck by how intently people were listening to each other – they were leaning in closer to inspect the model, their faces expressed sincere curiosity, there were many smiles, and even spontaneous applause. Also, while people were listening to the speaker they were instinctively looking at the model rather than the person, making introverted members of the group more comfortable opening up. Lesson 7: LSP creates a safe environment where everyone is listened to.

The next step was to combine the individual LEGO models into an overarching group model that represented the whole team’s perspective. The team didn’t have enough time to merge, tweak or reform the models in a major way, so this mostly ended up as a collection of individual models. But it was interesting to see how participants instinctively grabbed connecting pieces to join up ideas between models – without any prompting from me as facilitator. For example, they put a zipwire between two different models representing expertise and geographical reach, realising there might be specific opportunities in particular regions of the world. Lesson 8: LSP naturally and instinctively lends itself to making connections between ideas.

What was also remarkable is how good the models were at aiding memory. Even days later, looking back at the pictures, I still remembered what each of the LEGO models represented – even though, to an outside observer, they would have looked like a random and meaningless jumble of constructions. And even though, as facilitator, I wasn’t involved in the actual building of the models. Lesson 9: Physical models help you remember the stories they represent.

Results and reflections

The final LEGO model highlighted common strengths found in individual models, as well as unique contributions from each team member. For example, the prevailing theme was about being multidisciplinary, flexible, agile, and offering customer relationships with a personal touch. This was complemented by more unique contributions from individual team members, including services to improve customers’ skills and help them make sense of their data.

All of this, and more, was inherent in the final LEGO model. With more time we could have gone deeper but, having spent just over an hour, we were unanimously pleased with the result. From a vast array of possibilities and potential services it had clarified and crystallised the team’s understanding of what they’re really about.

Because everyone had contributed in equal measure, the LSP method gave us a high degree of confidence that the result was truly representative of the team’s collective understanding, built up from diverse viewpoints and personalities. In that sense, LSP seems ideal for minimising the risk of blind spots.

LEGO turned out to be a very intuitive medium because of its physical and very hands-on properties. And, of course, everyone remembers it from their childhood. There is no need to pre-think ideas: just start building. Also, it felt like LEGO’s additional dimension, in terms being 3D rather than 2D, afforded more – or at least different – opportunities for discovering insights and making lateral connections.


As with any method, there are pros and cons.

It feels to me like LEGO and the LSP method are best suited to high-level investigations to explore and sketch out initial ideas – things like:

  • Vision and strategy design
  • Scenario planning
  • Workflow design
  • Culture and value exploration
  • Brainstorming, ideation
  • Teambuilding
  • Conceptual architectures and systems
  • Human-centred design approaches to explore different stakeholder viewpoints and requirements, e.g. to clarify product requirements or produce early mock-ups

(I’d be keen to try it for information workflow design – any takers?)


Unless people have had prior experience with LSP, it’s probably not the best method if you quickly or spontaneously want to explore some thoughts. Warm-up is essential, otherwise people might just build literal representations of physical objects – which misses the point, as metaphors can convey much deeper meaning (I experienced this problem myself when I first started experimenting with LEGO to clarify my own thoughts).

Having said that, LSP warm-up could double up as an excellent icebreaker for any workshop, thereby recouping the initial time investment.

Finally, one thing to keep in mind is that you probably need at least a couple of hundred LEGO bricks per person, including a selection of mini-figures, a pile of standard bricks, and a good variety of more unusual bricks that lend themselves well to metaphors. You can buy special kits for LSP or make up your own (I used a combination of both). But if you’re going to facilitate a workshop for more than 10 people, you probably need a separate suitcase just for the LEGO!

And, last but not least, there were lots of smiles! The exercise left everyone energised and inspired. This aspect should not be underestimated. Staff motivation can be a huge driving force in company productivity and results. Even as facilitator I felt a real buzz – and that was without touching a single LEGO brick!

The verdict

LEGO Serious Play proved itself as a highly intuitive and accessible method, which made people comfortable with embracing the unknown. Or is it simply that, to embrace LEGO as a credible workshop methodology, you need an open mind in the first place? I hope not. When work feels like play, the results speak for themselves.

LSP has been successfully applied around the world, from small groups to major multinationals. Still, I can easily imagine “serious” business people feeling resistance to LEGO as a serious business tool. If you have read this far, I hope it will inspire you to try it for yourself.

It was remarkable to see how the process levelled the playing field, ensuring everyone was fully and equally engaged. We were all captivated by the results. And, seeing how everybody enjoyed themselves, it clearly felt good. After all, who doesn’t like working with their hands? From fixing a bike to making pottery or building a garden shed, using our hands to solve problems is instinctively satisfying – something we as digital knowledge workers sometimes forget.

The future of work?

Reflecting on this exercise, I feel that the experience has shown yet again that we have increasingly lost the human and physical touch in the modern workplace (as I previously commented on digital transformation). Technology has brought enormous benefits to society, but there is also an increasing realisation that we as humans need more than computer screens, emails and bland meetings to be happy and productive.

Playing seriously with LEGO can help reinstate some of those missing elements. And with reputable institutions like Cambridge University creating roles like Professor of Play – yep, it’s a real job! – we can only hope that playing at work might become a common practice in the future.

Let’s do this… who’s in?


If you’d like to try LEGO Serious Play drop me a line, I’m looking for volunteers to give it a go particularly in the domain of (geo) information management and workflow design. If you’re up for a bit of fun and experimentation, we could both learn something!

thierrygregorius@gmail.com | tgregorius@exprodat.com | +44 7796 132 416



LEGO Serious Play website

LEGO Serious Play community

Open source introduction to LEGO Serious Play

Book: Building a Better Business with the LEGO Serious Play method

Book: How to Facilitate Meetings & Workshops with the LEGO Serious Play Method

LSP facilitator training programs

Spark joy: Declutter your data


Picture credit: Visualnews.com

You may have heard of Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidying guru who helps people clear out their houses in pursuit of mindful happiness. Unloved clothes, unread books, stuff you keep “just in case”, even sentimental things – once they are gone, so her advice goes, your neatly organised home will “spark joy”. You will liberated to lead a more focused and meaningful life.

Sure, this may just be common sense dressed up as spiritual insight. I recently tried it on my bookshelf. After discarding about half my collection, leaving only books that I really care about, the result was remarkable. Now every time I look at my bookshelf it fills me with satisfaction, and I find myself picking up books for reference much more often.

Whatever you make of Marie Kondo’s approach, even the most hardened soul will probably concede that something like a garage clear-out feels good: it gives you the space to move again. You can easily find and reach your tools. Result: You are free to focus on the job at hand – like fixing your bike.

Everything in its place

It’s what French chefs call mise en place: everything in its place. This is essential to get things done. Without it, you’ll waste valuable time looking for tools or ingredients. Chefs can’t faff about hunting for a 5ml measuring spoon when there are ten tables waiting for their order.

So why don’t we apply the same to our digital work lives?

A mad world

People everywhere are struggling with information clutter. If we lived and worked in the physical world the way we do things digitally, our homes and offices would be the size of planets.

We’d have personal warehouses full of books, papers and boxes, vaguely labelled like “Clients” or “Archive”. We’d have lines of trucks delivering paperwork to our front doors all day long. We’d have to send out a search party to find our favourite shirt in a wardrobe as big as London. Our toothbrush would be hiding in a different country every day. And our wedding photos would be stored somewhere on a remote island, amongst pictures of cute cats sent to us by complete strangers. The world would be totally bonkers.

The tyranny of cheap storage

And yet this is what we have come to accept digitally. We don’t even see it anymore, it’s just become a habit.

Why? Because digital storage costs nothing, and leaving data sitting around takes less time than moving or deleting it.

But the cost to your productivity and wellbeing can be very high indeed. If your information workflows were as well organised as the kitchen of a French chef, you’d have all your time available to cook up the things you’re supposed to deliver in your job. But instead you waste half your days trying to find what you need – which, when you find it, turns out to be unfit for purpose. Your meetings are a waste of time because most people in it couldn’t find what they needed either. So you schedule another meeting. For which you need more stuff you can’t find…

Don’t put it off

Whatever your job, chances are that you treat information management a bit like a visit to the dentist. You do it only when you have to, and put it off for as long as possible. And worse, when you do get round to doing it, you’ll probably do it badly: by yourself. But even dentists can’t fix their own teeth.

This is why the world needs digital Marie Kondos.

You do know where to find us, don’t you?


This post appeared first on my LinkedIn blog on 6 April 2017


Digital transformation: But can you touch it?



Photo credit: Evernote.com


Over the past year you may have noticed two divergent trends.

First, the old buzzword ‘digital transformation’ has made a comeback.

Second, people are rediscovering their love of physical things. Sales of Moleskine notebooks have more than doubled while e-book readers are in decline. Print magazines, vinyl albums, and other retro things are in revival.

Recently I talked to an industry veteran with over 30 years’ experience in managing oil exploration permits. At some point I asked her whether digitisation had made life better compared to the paper-based approach that was common at the start of her career. Thinking about it for a second, she looked me straight in the eye and said… “No, actually.”

Apparently, digitisation had just replaced one set of issues with another, and subsequent IT upgrades had mostly become a case of two steps forward followed by one step back. Or two.

If you’ve read this far, don’t worry, this is not a post-mortem on why some digital programmes fail or succeed. That’s well documented and depends on many things (like, solving the right problems for starters).

There’s something else going on.

Physicality and tactility

It feels like people are still looking for better ways of doing things, but aren’t getting enough joy out of digital workflows alone. In digital transformation the keyword isn’t digital, it’s transformation. It implies radical change. But can this only be achieved through digital means?

People aren’t robots. We prefer each other’s company to conference calls (as brilliantly highlighted by this comedy sketch). We like touching real things rather than digital screens, like the grain of wood or the textured pages of a beautiful magazine. And, as every child knows, we love to create things with our hands.

But after years of staring at digital screens we had forgotten that fact – hence the backlash and revival of all things vintage.

Focus and simplicity

New products like the Punkt phone or Freewrite typewriter show that people crave workflows that are simple and focused, without distractions. A non-smart phone that can only make calls and send texts; a digital typewriter that lets you do no more than write down words and save them to the cloud. And these devices are built to last.

This may explain why some paper-based information management practices have survived the digital transformation age. Every emergency response room I’ve seen is still equipped with paper maps, alongside real-time data feeds. Architects still draw in sketchbooks and build physical models to develop visions and ideas, despite 3D modelling software. Air traffic controllers still fall back on paper strips to direct planes, together with radar and GPS.

The best of both worlds

Digital tools enable us to automate and monitor things. They make information searchable and shareable, so it can be found, integrated and analysed.

Physical tools enable us to focus on the task at hand, and derive joy from working.

The key, then, must lie in hybrid workflows that combine the best of both worlds. This is also evident in the trend of single-purpose apps. Rather than deploy clunky portals that tried to do everything, platforms now allow us to appify workflows one use case at a time.

So next time we talk about digital transformation, let’s not forget that people still like real things.

This post first appeared on my LinkedIn blog.



Managing geodetic risks in E&P

Just for completeness, here’s another blog post I wrote at Exprodat last year (I forgot to repost it here) – a recap on geodetic integrity and some simple steps that oil and gas companies can take to protect themselves from mispositioning their data. It actually had a really good response from within the industry.


managing geodetic risks blog picture

Happy reading!

(Photo: private collection)




Re-evaluating your GIS

I recently wrote a new post over at Exprodat, discussing the conundrum of how to deal with unlimited technical options:

“In a world where everything is possible, you must first consider your true needs”.

Link here.

An edited version of this piece, customised for the marine sector, has also appeared in the quarterly magazine of The Hydrographic Society UKSoundings (paywall).

Challenging Perceptions: Journeys in the Global Oil Industry

Working in the global petroleum industry I’ve had the privilege of travelling to places I would never have visited otherwise. These journeys often provided remarkable encounters that challenged my preconceptions of different countries and cultures – and of the petroleum industry itself. The world is a complex place, but what we read in the news headlines is often oversimplified or misrepresented.

Here are some stories that made me think different about the world, appreciating its diversity and its multi-layered, nuanced nature – from gender equality in Islam to the redefinition of tropical paradise, from Norwegian liberalism to what it means to work in oil and gas.

world map

Locations featuring in the stories below.


Houston, Texas

Houston, the world’s oil capital, is a sprawling concrete jungle with endless freeways and shopping malls. People wear cowboy boots and eat man-size steaks. The dress code in oil companies consists of slacks, polo shirts and gym-sculpted bicepses. The 61st Mayor of Houston (2010 to 2015) was an openly gay woman with a green liberal agenda; she was re-elected twice, totalling three terms.

Feel free to read that last sentence again.


Mirror cube in the Museum of Fine Arts Sculpture Garden, another surprising find in Houston. (2013)



Tripoli and Sahara Desert, Libya

I visited Libya during Gaddafi’s regime in the late 2000s, after the lifting of economic sanctions. Tripoli had become a thriving boomtown with good infrastructure; clean and safe to walk around. Out in the desert, however, we were faced by a silent danger imported from European shores: German landmines left behind from World War II. In many areas we had to rely on bomb disposal experts to clear the way for seismic survey crews.

Today, Gaddafi’s dictatorship has gone, and the country has imploded into civil war. But in some areas those landmines, lurking beneath the sands, still pose a greater danger than anything that is happening above the surface.


German landmines from WWII, somewhere in the Libyan desert. (2007)



Seria, Brunei
Jakarta, Indonesia
Oman, Muscat
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The gender equality I’ve come across in Islamic countries is often more evenly balanced than anything I’ve seen in the West. This is particularly remarkable for technical disciplines such as geomatics and IT.

In Brunei, for example, almost 50% of the 30-strong geomatics department I once audited were female. These women occupied mostly junior positions, but western oil companies can only dream of such ratios. Some years later, one of these women was posted to her parent company in Europe, climbed up the ranks and returned to the Far East to become Head of Geomatics for the whole Asia-Pacific region.

It was a similar story with a major Jakarta-based operator: both the GIS and IT managers I dealt with were Muslim women. And in Oman, the Head of GIS at a ministry I worked for was a local women with nearly 20 years of technical experience. Next door, at the national oil company, one third of board directors (5 out of 15) were Omani women.

Once, when a client opportunity came up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, we sent our people with the most relevant experience and expertise for this particular project. The fact that all three of them happened to be women did not raise any concerns, and the project was as successful as any other. It makes me proud to work with people who do the right thing regardless of any preconceptions other people might have.


The Sultan Qaboos Mosque at Muscat, Oman, is a marvel of modern Islamic architecture. (2014)



Perth, Australia

“Paradise is not some place you can look for… It’s how you feel for a moment.” – Alex Garland, The Beach.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Perth a few times on business. When schedules allowed I naturally headed for the beach. But Perth is also a windy place and, by evening, the sea was often too choppy to swim or surf. When I did get a swim in, it wasn’t always that pleasant. One day I got stung by a jellyfish. On another, a teenage surfer had a close encounter with a small shark (luckily it ended with just a few scratches). I had lived in Sydney many years ago, but this was not how I remembered paradise.

One day, though, I returned to Perth to find a major sculpture exhibition taking place on the beach. It was a stunning scene, with over a hundred artworks made of glass, metal and stone. The sun was just beginning to set and the sculptures reflected the vanishing daylight like giant amplifiers, magnifying the sense of occasion. The balmy night air filled with the sound of crickets and cockatoos, carried by the smells of dune grass and Norfolk pines. The full moon came up and, searching for the Southern Cross, I noticed that the Orion constellation was upside down – a reminder of how far away from home I was.

It was by now too late to go for a swim, but that didn’t matter. The unexpected sight of an art exhibition had erased my preconceptions of what I should be doing on a white sandy beach. It was perfect.

Later that night I went back to my city-centre hotel and badly missed my wife and children at the other side of the world. The moment was gone.


Sculpture exhibition at sunset on Cottesloe beach, Perth. (2015)



Port Harcourt, Nigeria

One of the joys of travelling to far flung places is to experience cultural differences. Like things I never knew were a problem:


Health & Safety concerns in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. (2005)



Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Astana, Kazakhstan

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Progress means different things to different people. In high-growth economies it tends to spawn tall buildings and shopping malls. The resulting familiarity of finding an Apple shop sandwiched between Starbucks and Louis Vuitton can be mind-numbing, like a geographic version of Groundhog Day. Add to that the packed schedule of a business trip, and there is often no time left to sample true local culture.

In Dubai, where I stayed for one night and ended up feeling I’d seen everything there is to see, my cultural highlight was the purchase of two duty-free bottles of Bombay Sapphire. To my great annoyance I left them behind on my flight home, maybe as a subconscious act of rebellion.

In Astana the architecture was positively bonkers, but at least it was in keeping with the local sense of humour. Apart from almonds and horsemeat, however, there was little else to differentiate Kazakhstan’s capital from any other global metropolis – which was probably the intention.

In KL I was repeatedly told “there is lots to see”.  But no matter how far I wandered around the city centre, it was impossible to escape the grip of luxury consumerism. When I enquired about what else there might be to do, someone suggested Times Square. I checked it out the next day: it was, of course, another shopping mall. And the best food I had all week was Japanese.

Vietnam, finally, provided a glimpse of how economic progress may retain a local vibe. Ho Chi Minh City was a curious blend of colonial history, communist capitalism, and distinctly Vietnamese street culture. Yes, there were western shops, a French cathedral, and even an Opera House playing Bach and Handel, but all of these were counter-balanced by busy streets filled with locals going about their daily business. Reassuringly, the city somehow retained its own madness, including millions of scooter riders that flowed through the streets like water – no traffic lights required.


Progress (clockwise from left): Astana, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City. (2013-2015)



San Diego, California

America is not renowned for being pedestrian-friendly. But America is also the country where everything is possible. And so, America is – of course – home to the only major city I know where everything, including the international airport, is within walking distance. There is a car park on top of the hill where you can almost touch the wheels of landing planes.

San Diego is one of my favourite destinations in the petroleum industry. Not just for its fabulous climate, but for the inspiration it provides as the host city of an important event: Esri’s annual GIS User Conference. During this time over 15,000 delegates from every conceivable industry sector converge from around the world to share their passion about maps and geography. It is literally a breath of fresh air. And not just because you can walk everywhere.


View of San Diego airport from a residential street. Photo by Eric Harmatz (2007) on Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.



Aberdeen, UK

I used to visit Aberdeen quite regularly. It never rained when I was there. I don’t dare go back now, in case I break the spell.


Heading into the Cairngorm mountains near Aberdeen, Scotland. (2009)



Cairo, Egypt

I remember the pyramids, and the grumpy camels. I remember the death-defying taxi ride to the airport, wondering whether it may be my last.

But I remember mostly Mohammed, our host. He wore trousers with braces and big, thick-framed glasses, and he had a wicked sense of humour.

Every time Cairo makes the news I can’t help but think of Mohammed.


Sunset over Cairo. Photo by Loic Lagarde (2009) on Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.




At Changi Airport I once missed a connecting flight. The only option of getting to Perth on time was to buy a new ticket with another airline. But the cost I was being quoted was preposterous, and the flight options limited. I tried another desk, where a friendly ticketing officer tipped me off about a travel agent that was quietly tucked away in a remote corner of the underground lobby. Indeed, this agent had seats on flights that only 10 minutes earlier I was told were full – and for much cheaper. But there was a catch: cash only.

So here I was in Singapore, one of the most advanced and connected cities on earth, securing my seat on an intercontinental flight like a dodgy dealer – with a massive pile of dollar bills.

In times of emergency, cash is still the most powerful currency. (And luckily the ATM didn’t eat my card.)


Departing Changi Airport on an intercontinental flight paid for, 3 hours earlier, entirely in cash. (2015)



Above China

I’ve never been to China, except for Hong Kong airport and a brief hike in the nearby mountains of Lantau Island between connecting flights. Perched on top of a mountain ridge, looking down at the South China Sea, was not very different to being in an aeroplane – except for the fresh air, of course. And, walking past a giant Buddha statue, I learned that Chinese people love selfie sticks.

But that’s my entire experience of China in a nutshell. Even though I’ve crossed its length by air a number of times, I basically don’t know anything first-hand about the most populous nation on Earth.

It’s the same story with many other countries in the world. I’ve seen Mount Fuji in Japan, or Mount Elbrus in Russia – but only through a protective layer of plexiglass.

If you fly over a country at 30,000 feet, or touch down at one its airports, or even decamp to one of its nearby hotels, have you actually been there? As a frequent business traveller I’ve visited many places, but how many of these were more than just a simple shift in spacetime coordinates?


Top: Full moon and mountains, somewhere above China. Bottom: View atop Lantau Island, near Hong Kong airport – note the giant Buddha on the ridge. (2014-2015)



Stavanger, Norway

Norwegians, like all Scandinavians, are renowned for their open and egalitarian attitudes. But on successive trips to Stavanger I found the limits of their liberalism in a graffiti depicting Mona Lisa in a pose deviating from da Vinci’s original masterpiece:


Graffiti depicting Mona Lisa in Stavanger, Norway. (April vs October 2013)



The Hague, Netherlands

Holland is where I started my career in the oil industry. I was first posted to regional operations in a northern town, followed by an assignment at global head offices in The Hague. This dashed some of my preconceptions of the industry.

As anywhere in the Netherlands, most staff commuted by bike or tram. Not only did they slightly dent their employer’s oil revenues in doing so, but many of the geoscientists I worked with were active outdoor enthusiasts with a natural affinity for the environment. One senior geologist I worked with was a proud member of Greenpeace; he went on to lead oil exploration teams in Africa and Russia.

Everyone was made to attend countless Health, Safety, and Environment briefings. People obsessed about healthy, ergonomic work places. Holding the handrail on the stairs was mandatory at all times. Environmental standards were such that often no expense was spared to get permission to drill, whether by wrapping an entire rig in a sound-absorbing cocoon or rerouting a pipeline to avoid whale breeding grounds.

As a group of GIS analysts we mapped oil and gas assets, but we also mapped environmental sensitivities and animal migration paths. In one project I helped locate a massive wind farm off the Dutch coast; the success of this project largely depended on offshore expertise derived from decades of oil and gas experience.

The energy industry is huge and complex, but mostly it’s an industry that is changing dramatically. These experiences have marked new beginnings in every sense of the word. Long may it continue.


Wind turbines in the Dutch North Sea, installed using expertise and investment from the offshore petroleum industry. (2007)


Text and photographs by the author, unless indicated otherwise.
World map made with ArcGIS Online, where this post originally appeared as a story map.

True or false? Norway upside-down would reach Africa

Map projections can play funny tricks on people. Recently, over a couple of beers, a Norwegian friend told me that the size of his native land is best imagined as follows: if you rotated Norway around its southernmost tip, it would reach Africa.

Fair enough, it’s a big country!

But a few days later, the geodesist in me felt compelled to check if it is true. Keen on any excuse to play around with maps and projections, I fired up GIS.

We all know that most people look at the world through the lens of the Mercator projection. And indeed, if we rotate Norway on the plane of this projection, it does reach into Africa:


So is it true?

We also know that Mercator famously exaggerates areas towards the pole. So could this make a bloated North swing too far south?

Let’s choose a map projection more suited to the purpose of this particular exercise, e.g. the orthographic projection (a.k.a. “the world from space”) which mimics a globe view.

If we centre this projection on the southern tip of Norway (the point of rotation for this experiment), the distances radiating from this point should remain comparable in any direction (albeit not true in an absolute sense).

And here’s the result:


Alas, Norway does not reach Africa – it only stretches to the French Riviera.

To verify, you can measure it on Google Earth or, even simpler, just look at it on a desk globe.

In other words, it’s yet another myth perpetuated by the Mercator projection. It distorts people’s world views and undermines geographic understanding.

To illustrate the point further, here are the comparisons on the orthographic projection (left) and Mercator projection (right), where the red areas are the Mercator-based  rotations of Norway, and the black areas the original and orthographic versions. The scale of the deception is especially apparent with Norway’s arctic islands of Svalbard bloated beyond all proportions:



Credits: Data from Natural Earth and ArcGIS Online. Maps produced with ArcGIS Pro.

Test your geomatics knowledge with this artwork

The intersection of art and science is known to be a fertile ground for creativity and innovation. If at first you can’t see much overlap between art and geomatics, I challenge you to draw a Venn diagram and think again. Cartography, visualisation, geodesign, architecture… the list goes on.

And then there is land art.

Land artists use nature as canvas and exhibition space for their artworks. From huge spirals in the desert to sun tunnels, land art is a kind of outdoor sculpture that often requires accurate positioning and alignment within the landscape – in other words, geospatial expertise.

There is one particular piece of land art that would make a perfect set of exam questions for geomatics students.

The Lightning Field is located in a remote area of New Mexico, and consists of 400 stainless-steel poles erected in a precise grid pattern covering an area of 1 mile x 1 kilometre. Designed and installed by land artist Walter de Maria, it’s been dubbed one of the most significant works of art of the late 20th century. The idea is that the poles attract lightning during thunderstorms, thereby inducing Mother Nature to put on its own show. But also without lightning, The Lightning Field is designed to convey a deep sense of space and isolation for those few people lucky enough to ever wander around it. (Yes, it’s on my bucket list.)

The Lightning Field (photo by thefriendlyuser, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Lightning Field (photo by thefriendlyuser, Flickr Creative Commons)

But anyway, here’s the geomatics bit.

The poles are not just arranged in a precise grid of 220 feet (67.06 metres) squares, but also their tips are aligned in a horizontal plane such that they support a perfectly flat, imaginary sheet of glass:


In other words, despite the natural undulations of the desert plateau, the tip of every pole is at exactly the same elevation above mean sea level. In fact, the height of the poles varies between 5 and 8 metres.

So here’s some exam questions:

  1. What geomatics techniques would you use, and how, to ensure that all poles – and their tips – end up exactly in the right position, horizontally and vertically, within a tolerance of say, 5 cm?
  2. How would you work out the length of each pole required, knowing they all need to be buried 30 centimetres deep into the ground?
  3. What techniques would you have used in 1977 when the Lightning Field was installed? (i.e. no personal computers, no GPS, no drones, no cheap 3D modelling software, no laser or electronic distance measurement tools)
  4. Geospatially speaking, if you wanted to realise the Lightning Field in the most (unnecessarily) creative way that somehow involves all major branches of geomatics (GIS, remote sensing, photogrammetry, geodesy & surveying), how would you do it?

With today’s plethora of geospatial technology on offer, there are many ways of doing it. But mind you, not all of them would be accurate enough.

Feel free to post your answers below… or maybe you can think of further questions to ask!

P.S.  I doubt you can google the answers; I couldn’t find an online reference to how the Lightning Field was originally surveyed in the 1970s. If you find one do let me know!

This post first appeared on my LinkedIn blog.