Monkey first

This is a real ramble and I’m not sure it makes sense even by my standards but better out than in (my head)

I was reading the article about Google X and their ‘moonshots’ in the latest Wired and when I wasn’t rolling my eyes at ‘Astro’ Teller and his roller blades and generally being a bit ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about the whole thing (seems to me that all the big leaps from Google came from elsewhere – either from their products teams or acquisitions – and that more often than not ‘innovation labs’ emerge after the innovation that funded them – except maybe Bell Labs) when I came upon this one passage that summed up something I have tried – and failed – to articulate a number of times in recent years.

“One of the foundational tenets at X is “monkey first”: to teach a monkey to stand on a pedestal and recite Shakespeare, you should resist starting with the simplest task (building the pedestal) and start with the hardest (teaching a monkey to speak).”

One of the things I worry about with ‘public service internet’ work is how often we focus on the idea of “low hanging fruit” and maybe we do that at the expense of actually solving bigger problems. I’m all for “fix the plumbing” but sometimes you have to rip out the pipes and replace them….but even when we are more ambitious with the ideas that emerge I worry that we too often start by building that pedestal before working out if we can even teach the monkey to talk….so we end up with a nice, well built, probably a bit ornate, pedestal but no Shakespeare spouting monkey or a poor substitute at best.

I think this is probably a symptom of the fact I am wrestling with the current Discovery/Alpha pattern again – I want something that moves quicker and tests the art of the possible with the technology as well as the user needs much earlier and in a manner that supports walking away from approaches and ideas much earlier.

To misquote the legend that is Dr Ian Malcolm maybe our teams have been too preoccupied with whether or not they should, they didn’t stop to think if they could.

Another Google X quote is;

“Maximising the rate of learning by minimising the time to try things.”

Maybe it is something closer to the ‘Riskiest Assumption Test‘ approach? Or this idea of ‘knowing when to run‘ that Richard Pope wrote about? Honestly I don’t know – I am totally sold on the power of user research and service design but also I’ve seen plenty evidence of ‘discoveritus’, ‘paralysis by analysis’ and ‘writing cheques your developers can’t cash’ all of which could have been avoided – I think – with a slightly different approach but one that currently there is no space for in the current (UK digital government framework).