Ticket to ride winning strategies – weekend engineering works

This week’s Weekend Engineering Works post is about Ticket to Ride winning strategies. The game involves racing against other players to build a network of railway lines across different counties and continents. What I find exciting about the game is the recreation of an age of bold and adventurous engineering: the railway era. I particular enjoy building routes that I have travelled down in real life. But what I enjoy most is dreaming up winning strategies, and then testing them out.

In this post I describe my few of my more successful Ticket to Ride wining strategies. Alongside, as you might expect from this blog, I’ve also provided some wider musings on their philosophical implications.

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Creative surplus and how to get some

Creative surplus is what you invest in order to create new ideas. Like operating surplus – or profit – it is what is left over when an organisation or individual’s basic operating needs are met, which is available to invest in growth of the next project. Rather than pounds and resources, creative surplus is the mental space and energy available to you to think creatively. Unlike profit, I see that creative surplus is something that most organisations spend little time thinking about.

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Start building daily creative habits today

You are a world class performer at living your typical day. No one else has practised the precise set of habits, in the same precise sequence that makes up your typical day and with same ease as you. From how you wake up to, to how you speak to family or friends, to the first thing you think when you arrive at work to what you do in the evenings.

Our experience of life is what we do every day. Habit, developed over time, adds terrific momentum to our routines until they become a hard-to-stop force in our lives (I might need to do a dimensional analysis on that statement).

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Working notes: building a questionnaire to characterise design

I struggled to find an image to go with this post. When I typed design into my image database, this came up. It is rather fine, isn’t it?

Today at Think Up I am writing a set of questions that can be used as a diagnostic tool to characterise different stages in the design process. The questions will go into an online questionnaire through which we will be trying to establish a link between different types of design problem, the design process they require and techniques and tools that designers use. The aim is to help students understnad what might be suitable approaches to use in response to different design problems.

I am fortunate to be working with my colleague Bengt Counsins-Jenvey who knows a huge amount about design thinking in a range of different contexts. He is working on the other part of the questionnaire that is characterising the design problems.

Here’s some reflections and notes from today’s working:

  • Reducing long-form answer questions on questionnaires. They are easier to write but I’ve learn the hard way on other projects recently that long-form answer questions take so long to analyse it is really worth taking the time to come up with good numeric-scale or mutltiple-choice questions. Having done an initial round of interviews is helping me determine the right language to use.
  • How succint can I get the questions? I am trying to weigh up writing questions that everyone can understand and keeping the questions short. Again, having done some initial interviews helps me know what language people are likely to use.
  • I’ve realised my design world view was initially shaped by ‘blank-piece-of-paper’ designers. My interviews on this project have shown me how few design contexts require blank paper. I hope this process gives me greater understanding of design contexts where the operating context is much more complex.
  • What number scale to use? I’ve gone for 1-4. I don’t want people to think about their answers for too long and I don’t want them to sit on the fence. It will be interesting to see the impact of this choice.
  • I have been daunted by putting this questionnaire together, so last night I just set myself a simple target of writing three questions for each of the main stages in the design process. This much less daunting task was easy to do – the questions almost wrote themselves – and then I was easily able to supplement them. Later Greg Downing explained to me that this process is what he calls skeltoning: you quickly put in place the outline and everything else follows.

For more info on this piece of research see this post on the Think Up website.

The Happy Grid: prioritise your action list in a more fulfilling way

The Happy Grid is a technique I devised a few months ago to help me use short and long-term happiness as a guide for daily decision making. Since I’ve been using it, it has had a hugely positive impact on me: I am better at prioritising work that makes me more fulfilled, and hopefully the people I collaborate with get more out of working with me.

In this post I’ll explain how to set up your own Happy Grid. I’ll also go through the four different task types that make up the grid, and what these can tell you about the pressures that influence how you use your time. It’s a long post, but stick with it as I think there’s a lot of useful stuff here.


The story begins at the end of a busy week. I had ticked off all the most important actions on all my major projects. I should have been feeling happy, but I felt quite depressed and that depression extended into the weekend. It was confusing because this was supposed to feel good – to have not sucumbed to distraction and to have done the things on which other people were depending on me.  Yet I didn’t feel any payback for getting to the end of the list.

A few weeks before I had been on holiday. One of the things that I do when I have some time away is write two lists in my journal: the first, a list of goals for the year ahead; the second a list of things I feel happy doing – a list of things that bring happiness in the moment.

I decided to map my ‘done’ list against my lists of goals and things I enjoy doing. The result was very revealing.

The Happy Grid Diagnostic Test

To help you get the most out of reading this post, I suggest you do the following quick diagnostic test right now. Do it quickly on a piece of paper. You can always go back and do it more thoroughly. I am going to ask you to write down four lists.

Current goals

First, write down a list of your current goals. Think of goals on a say a 3- to 6-month horizon. Include in your list the sort of state you want to find yourself in. So for instance one of my goals was to spend more time doing face-to-face teaching. Another is to spend time with people who positively influence my thinking. Neither of these goals are to do with attaining some kind of status. Think broadly. Do you want to spend more time inside or out? Are there things you want to learn?


The second list of of things you don’t want to achieve. Think of these as anti goals. For instance I don’t want to spend more time in front of a computer screen. I don’t really want to get involved with teaching projects where I don’t have influence over the content. I don’t really want to get involved in building a new knowledge management system for the business, even though this is something I’ve done before. Knowing what you don’t want to do is as important as what you do, but is sometimes harder to elucidate.

Enjoy doing

The third list to write down is a list of things you enjoy doing.. Think of things that make you go into a state of ‘flow’ when you do them, when time just flies by because you are enjoying yourself, but equally which keep you challenged. Think of things that you get a buzz out of because you enjoy doing them. My list includes things like teaching and coaching, writing new teaching material. But it also includes travelling by train, cycling, spending time with family and friends, spending time outside.

Drag list

The fourth list to write down is things that you don’t enjoy. These are things that feel like a drag. For me that list includes small-scale management of projects. This is something that I don’t enjoy and recognise that there are other people who do this much better than me. It also includes the opposites to the things I enjoy doing – so I don’t enjoy being inside all the time, I don’t enjoy being alone for too long.
You are now ready to create your own Happy Grid.

The four types of tasks

I reasoned that the tasks on my to-do list fitted into one of four categories, which I labelled and described as follows:

  • Type-1 tasks – Tasks that are goal-aligned and enjoyable. These are things we should prioritise because they feel good to do, and because they are contributing to a goal.
  • Type-2 tasks – Tasks that are not goal aligned, but nevertheless enjoyable. It feels good to do them but it doesn’t help us reach one of our goals.
  • Type-3 tasks – Tasks that are goal-aligned but unenjoyable. We generally need to do them for long-term happiness but doing so doesn’t feel good.
  • Type-4 tasks – Tasks that are neither goal-aligned nor enjoyable. Doing these doesn’t feel good in the short- nor the long-term.

Creating your Happy Grid

Create a 2×2 grid and label the four quadrants as follows.
Type 1     Type 2
Type 3     Type 4

Now, go through each entry in your current to-do list, and write it down in the quadrant of the grid to which it corresponds.

When I categorised and wrote down my list of completed tasks for the previous week, I found that the majority of what I had got done were Type 4 tasks: tasks that are neither enjoyable nor contribute towards longer-term aims, with a smattering of Type 3s and Type 2s. Revealingly I didn’t have anything written down in the Type 1 quadrant, the one that feel good to do and contribute towards some positive goal.

I felt I had landed upon a key prioritisation tool for the week ahead.

Understanding the four tasks categories

Clearly we don’t have the luxury of only doing Type-1 things. But categorising things in this way can at least help us be more aware of the nature of the list of tasks before us, and can help us make more fulfilling choices about what we do. And beyond being simply aware, we can actively make decisions to help us spend more time doing things that we enjoy.

Let’s explore each of these categories in turn.

Type-1 tasks – goal-aligned, enjoyable tasks

In an ideal world, we’d spend the majority of our time doing these sorts of tasks. Half the trouble is simply knowing what these goal-aligned, enjoyable tasks are. The aim of the happy grid is to help us identify the sorts of things we enjoy doing and that are goal-aligned, and to make sure we are spending at least some of everyday doing things that are likely to make us happy.

By regularly repeating the diagnostic exercise described at the start of this post, you can start to recognise  Type-1 tasks. Identifying and writing down type-1 tasks is the first step to making sure you spend more time doing what makes you happy. The second step is managing and steadily reducing the time you spend doing Type-2, Type-3 and Type-4 tasks.

Type-2 tasks – non-goal-aligned, enjoyable tasks

Type-2 tasks are enjoyable in the moment but don’t necessarily contribute to what you want to achieve long-term. The worst Type-2s are tasks that you enjoy doing but that lead you towards anti-goals, the things you really don’t want to be achieving.

Browsing the web, flicking through social media and sharpening your pot of colouring pencils generally fall into this category. Another word for this type of Type-2 task is procrastination. For procrastination Type-2s, you would be better off doing something from your Type-1 list. If you set up your Type-1 list appropriately, you will always have something more enjoyable to do. But also falling into this category without being procrastination are Type-2 tasks that you might enjoy doing in their own right, but that doing too often will steer you off course from the goals you do want to be aiming towards.

To give a personal example, I enjoy developing concepts for online learning tools, but it would be a non-goal to build a career in which I end up having to spend more time in front of a computer. On the contrary, my goal is to spend more time doing more face-to-face teaching and to minimise screen time, and so spending time developing proposals for online learning tools, while enjoyable in the moment, is not necessarily getting me any closer to where I want to be.

This is a very common scenario in the workplace. The organisations that we work for tend to reward us for doing things that help the organisation meet its aims. Less enlightened organisations do it by fiduciary means; more enlightened organisations might try to align individual goals with organisational goals, but in practice this is hard, and in reality tasks get allocated on the basis of best person for the job, rather than best job for the person.

As Peter Drucker points out in his book, ‘How to manage oneself’, it is up to us as individuals to tell managers what work we do well and how we do it best, and not up to our managers to guess.

By definition, Type-2 tasks are enjoyable, and so on any particular day, doing lots of Type-2 tasks isn’t a problem. But over time, time spent on Type-2s is at the expense of time on Type-1 tasks. So how should we reduce the Type 2s?

Minimising the Type-2 tasks

For the procrastination Type-2s there are lots of options for reducing distraction, which I will cover in another post. As for the more structured work-based Type-2 tasks you can:
• Avoid taking them on in the first place. Before you take on a new task, look at where it will go on your Happy Grid. If it’s a type 2, consider politely turning it down.
• Try delegating – after all, just because a task doesn’t align to one of your goals, it might align to someone else’s.
• Try to find a way to recast the task so that it does align to one of your goals.

Type-3 tasks – goal-aligned, unenjoyable tasks

If you don’t get Type-3 tasks done then you won’t meet your goals. But the chances are you are unlikely to do Type-3 tasks because, by definition, you don’t enjoy doing them.

Here you have two options: either delegate the task, or set up a regular routine that ensures you get them done reliably and in as short a time as possible in order to liberate your time for Type-1 tasks. A personal example of such a routine is that time I set aside each week to deal with expenses. I don’t enjoy it, I need to do it, and I do it the same time on Wednesdays without fail. Then the rest of the week I don’t have to think about it.

It is important to be disciplined about carrying out the routine so that you be confident the rest of the time that these Type-3 tasks can wait until the next time you carry out your routine.

Type-4 tasks – non-goal-aligned, unenjoyable tasks

These are the tasks that we want to minimise. We don’t enjoy doing them and they aren’t getting us any closer to any of our goals. As I discovered, a week full of Type-4 tasks is an unhappy week.

As well as not making us feel good, Type-4 tasks come with an opportunity cost: they are preventing us doing any of the other 3 types of task, all of which would make us happier, not least of all, Type-1 tasks. We should make it our business to try and reduce as far as possible the Type-4 tasks on our list.

Minimising the Type-4 tasks

We can start the Type-4 purge using the techniques we used for Type-3s and Type-2, in decreasing order of preference:

  • Avoid taking them on in the first place – once we know what counts as Type-4, we can spot it before we say yes.
  • Try delegating – as above, there may be someone else for whom the task is more enjoyable or for whom the task is more goal-aligned.
  • Set up a strict routine for getting this type of task done quickly. See the notes above for Type-3 tasks. If you take this approach, experiment with running the routine as infrequently as possible so you don’t let the time spent doing it creep up too much.
  • Just don’t do the task and see what happens. It is very easy to think that a task is important when we are caught up in the moment, but given some distance and time, some tasks can just go away. Either someone else does them, or, because it isn’t done, alternative options open up. You may well end up being thought of as unreliable, but better that than being reliable at doing something you don’t want to.

If having worked through the above options, and you decide you can’t’ simply not do the task, then it is time to start asking some serious questions about the sort of activities that you do. But saying that is not so gloomy as this process gives you a constructive way to talk about what it is you do want to do.

Prioritisation using the Happy Grid

Setting up your first Happy Grid should be revealing in itself. But it is also meant to be a decision-making tool. Having distributed your tasks into the grid, what should you do first?

For grown-ups, I don’t think the get-your-homework-done-before-you-go-out-to-play approach counts any more because there are so many factors influencing us to get things done to meet other people’s aims. You need to start prioritising your own goals. So I would recommend starting the day with either a Type-1 or Type-3 task. Let the happiness that you derive from getting that thing done first then set the tone for the day ahead.

Reflective use of the Happy Grid

I am finding that the more times I use the grid, the better I am getting at understanding my own motivations and goals, and the more adept I am becoming at making sure I am not getting lumbered with things that I don’t enjoy doing.

I believe being more aware of these things is better for everyone. As Peter Drucker says, we are much more likely to perform well doing work that we enjoy and that we are motivated to do. More philosophically, Seneca said ‘Life is long if you know how to use it’. It is up to us to positively decide how to use our time in a way that will make us happy.

Hazel vs. Hornbeam (the fate of best-laid plans)


Cutting back the Brambles at Hazel Hill Woods

A recent weekend of conservation work Hazel Hill Woods has revealed to me another woodland analogy for the struggles of daily life, and how we might overcome them. I am calling the analogy, Hazel vs. Hornbeam (the Fate of Best-laid plans).

It emerged when a team of us at the woods were cutting back an area of regenerating hornbeam trees in a clearing. In this patch the hornbeam had shot up to a dense crowd of 6ft-tall finger-thick stems, knitted together with a head-height mat of bramble. Our conservation aim had been to cut these back to chest height to stop them from encroaching on an important butterfly corridor through the woods.

As we slowly cut our way into the dense thicket we started to discover small trees in protective tubes that were being crowded out by the hornbeam and strangled by the bramble. As we uncovered more hidden trees in tubes, we realised that there was a whole array of them that had once been planted. We found hazel, oak, ash, holy and blackthorn struggling to grow in their protective tubes. They had been planted on another conservation weekend years ago but had been forgotten about, and were now being smothered by the naturally regenerating growth.

The woodland context

There is a hundred-year plan at Hazel Hill to transform the forest ecosystem from that of a commercial wood, in which just a few species grow, into a much more biodiverse environment, which is much more likely to be resilient to changes in climate. The area in which we were working had previously been occupied by sycamore trees. This undesirable species had been cleared with a grant from the forestry commission, and in the clearing created, a range of broadleaf species had been planted (the hazel, oak and ash), along with shrubs (the holly and the blackthorn) to create ground-level growth, which had been absent in the commercial forest.

Left to its own devices however, naturally regenerating hornbeam and bramble had quickly grown up and overtaken the planted trees. The former were on the way to winning, the battle for light, already killing some of the latter , and leaving the others struggling. In the short-run there is nothing wrong with hornbeam and bramble, but their short-term success was putting at risk the long-term resilience of the wood by preventing the development of a diverse tree species.

Best laid plans

For me, those broadleaf trees in their little tubes represent best laid plans that were being left unattended because of short-term factors. There are competing conservation priorities in the woods, and these planted trees had been left unattended. Our attention is the light that enables our best-laid plans to flourish. But too often we are forced to direct our attention towards short-term priorities: the deadlines that need to be met, the clothes that need to be folded, the colleagues that need to be briefed, the clients that need to be satisfied.

In the short-term these more immediate matters flourish as they benefit from our attention, but they don’t necessarily lead us to where we want to be. As you wade into the thicket of regrowth, all is lush and green at the top, benefiting as it does from the light of the forest clearing, but underneath, all is brown – there is no diversity. Down there is where our best-laid plans languish.

The feeling of being surrounded

At one point, four of us were working simultaneously and in close proximity in the same thicket. Though we were probably only a few metres apart we couldn’t see each other for all the hornbeam branches and briars that surrounded us. At times, our repeated cuts didn’t seem to be making a difference. I’d turn around and the path that I had driven would have closed in behind me.

This is what it can be like when we feel overwhelmed with matters competing for our attention. After some struggling, my strategy became to just to keep going in one direction. After a sustained, focused effort the lattice of branches and brambles would suddenly give way. A sense of being surrounded turned into a sense of direction; of liberation: I felt freer, able to pause and choose where to go next.

Cutting back our brambles

As I type, I still have some small scratches on my arms from cutting back the brambles. Clearing away some of the things which grab our attention can hurt. There is the pain of letting someone down, or the fear of getting into trouble. But what I noticed as I cut through barbed branches was that they fell away to nothing; untangled and trampled they lost all of their strength, freeing a way through to the trees in tubes.

Personal conservation strategies

Conservation work gives you time to think, and so I set my mind to thinking up strategies for protecting our best-laid plans.

Log what you planted

It sounds simple, but creating a map of what trees we planted where might help us to remember to tend to them every so often. During conservation weekends in which we are planting trees, getting the trees in the ground is a big achievement. It seems unnecessary to create a map of where we planted them. Surely we won’t forget? Inevitably we do. Simply noting down our plans gives us a fighting chance of remembering what we intended.

Regular tending

Once we know what we planted, one strategy is to make time to regularly tend our saplings. It would only take a small amount of systematic attention to keep the hornbeam and brambles in these area in check.

Occasional clearouts

Sometimes though, we don’t have the luxury of being able to provide these things with regular attention. The alternative is to do what we did this weekend – every so often, go in there and cut back all the distractions and bathe our best laid plans with the totality of our attention. In daily life this might amount to a digital detox. Or, for a more substantial clear out, we might consider taking what Daniel Pink calls ‘Sagmeisters’ – regular sabbaticals interspersed in our working lives.

Get real

Our aim wasn’t to clear out all the hornbeam and bramble. Hornbeam regeneration is a natural part of the woodland ecosystem, as are the brambles that weave their way amongst them. We just need to create a bit of space for those slower-growing but ultimately very beneficial species to establish themselves. Similarly, short-term matters are part of the humdrum of daily life – we just need to carve out enough time to give our long-term plans the attention they deserve.

Get things established

Ocourse, the aim of all this cutting back is to enable the hazel, ash, oak, holly and blackthorn to establish themselves. As they start to mature they can look after themselves, and the hornbeam and brambles will subside. This is the point that Steven Covey makes in his book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People’ when he talks about what happens when we prioritise the important over the urgent. If we make time for the important things, we should see the number of urgent things we need to deal with reduce.


One day, decades after the scratches on my arms have healed, we’ll be able to sit under the shade of these broadleaf trees and know that our efforts to tend to them were worth it.