The garden shed

The garden shed

By Will Kemble-Clarkson

Yesterday was the RSA’s FutureMaker Day: A gathering of organisations and individuals dedicated to getting the world making stuff again. Whether that’s fixing, adapting or making anew – it’s a celebration of jumping in and having a go.

The trestle tables, chaos and noise reminded me of youthful days spent mucking about in the old man’s garden shed.

Ahhh…the garden shed.  Walls lined with tools, some gleaming and oiled, others rust mottled and cobwebbed. Boxes and shelves overflowing with the paraphernalia of life.   A workbench, centre-stage, bearing the scars of years of service but faithful and solid as the day it was first bolted together.

These thoughts of halcyon shed days led me to thinking about start-ups stories that begin with a garage and ends with a tech park. And it struck me that in these stories the garage (do Americans have sheds? Let’s stick with ‘shed’) is reduced to a metaphor of rags to riches and miss the real point – the shed as hero.

Usually tucked away at the bottom of a garden, the garden shed is a refuge from order, cleanliness, schedules and judging ears and eyes – they make the perfect space for invention.  All you need to begin is an inkling of what you want you create and then the shed allows for experimentation.

Time in the shed helps skills evolve from smasher to crafter. It gives permission to get distracted when something interesting happens and bugger off on a tangent. You can try things over and over again until it works.

And every time something breaks, you learn that that’s not the way – so you’re improving your chances of eventual success.

Now imagine trying to do this stuff in a place where order reigns. Where there are schedules, hierarchy and implied rules of conduct.  No room for tools or banging around and making a mess – like a kitchen.

If the place that you’re trying to develop and get to market stuff that really excites customers feels more like a kitchen then shed then you’re probably going to end up with one of the 70% new products that fail.

How to create a garden shed for work:

A shed. Sheds are useful because they keep out interfering, though well intention, eyes and ears.  

When we set up a project with a client we ask for a guarantee that there will be space for the process to work away from the usual goings on of the business.  Why?  Because the usual goings on was good for innovation then Perlin Design wouldn’t be needed. You’ll obviously need the ok from someone who runs the garden, but other than that – go rogue.

Materials. Insights and stimulus – the more you have, the more you can experiment.

Not the insights that you’ve been putting at the front of the PowerPoint presentation for the last 3 months- it should feel different and dangerous.  At Perlin we call it Extreme Insights; find people who get really excited by your product – both negatively and positively. Go out and chat to them in their world, stand in their shoes and then bring it back to the shed and recreate it for the team.

Stimulus should be everywhere and come from different worlds, countries and categories to help you think of new ways to build.

Tools. How it’s going to get bashed it all together

These are the people that help you put everything together.  They create a process that helps the team keep tinkering with intent.  They’re a source of energy for the experimenting process and then switch to help filter and concentrate ideas from far-reaching experimentation to workable concepts.

The workbench. Where it gets assembled and experienced.

This is for making it real.  The brilliant thing about sheds is that prototypes don’t need to be polished for a committee of professional critics – they just need to be real enough to be experienced.   Illustrators, app builders, designers, and model makers – whatever it takes. The team could even physically build the concepts yourself in the fully kitted out workshop at the brilliant makespace.org.

Sheds as innovation centres have been with us for years. Bill Bryson notes there are ten times more vicars and clergymen leaving traces for posterity during the Industrial Age than scientists, physicists, economists and even inventors.  This includes the invention of the submarine and power loom.   They were prolific because they weren’t in labs, boardrooms and universities (kitchens) trying to prove how clever they were or how they could improve shareholder value – they were tinkering with the things that they were passionate about.

So if you want to create something that has a chance of joining the ranks of stuff people talk about for a long time to come stop talking, definitely stop PowerPointing and get your hands dirty in an innovation shed.

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