Growing Out, Not Growing Up

john v willshire
Aug 4, 2016 · 6 min read

Five years of Smithery, making big changes in small steps, and the story of the desk plant I bought when I first started work.

In February of the year 2000, my friend Emma and I went to Marks & Spencer down by Moorgate to buy plants for our desks. We’d not long started our graduate jobs at BJM, a long-since forgotten market research agency who were subsequently bought by someone who were bought by someone who were bought by someone who were eventually bought by WPP.

We had actual desks. Of our own. Upon which we could put what we liked, within some sort of unspoken workplace etiquette of course. So we bought plants. I chose a dracaena marginata, or ‘Dragon Tree’. It was hardly a Harry-Potter-gets-his-wand moment; I just liked it. It was cheap enough for a graduate’s salary, and the instructions on the label reassured me that not even I could kill it easily.

It would have looked a bit like this, perhaps; under a foot tall, three stalks, spiky leaves shooting skyward from each one:

Anyway, the reason I remember this plant so well is because it still keeps me company, in my office at home. It’s been something I’ve kept looking after, to the best of my moderate abilities, since I’ve been working, and as such it seems eternally tied to what one might refer to as my ‘career’. You can spot it here on the right of the picture, back in February this year. Exactly sixteen years later, as it happens:

In that picture, it’s doing what a dracaena marginata will do if left to it’s own devices; grow upwards. The older leaves it used when young drop off, as more leaves emerge at the top, and so after years you get very tall, ungainly looking plants. All height, no interesting growth. They also get very tall; there’s no room in the house to grow into, so they tend to awkwardly dominate a room, until they’re moved somewhere else.

This spring, I decided to do something about it.

After a quick half hour’s read on the internet, I headed to the shed, and returned with a pair of secateurs…

It’s amazing how constructive destruction can feel in that first moment. The act of doing something is thrilling. But then, of course, comes the cold realisation of what you’re left with…

Now it seems like a terrible idea. Was half an hour really enough research? Had I just killed this precious plant because, basically I read a couple of blog posts from people I don’t even know? Was this not even the same species of plant, or did the soil need changing, or was the room too hot, or…

At this point, there was nothing I could do but wait inside my own decision.

Weeks passed, slowly.

And then…

The sproutings began from each stalk at roughly the same time. New growth, fighting its way through the toughened bark of the old stalks. And not just three this time, but four.

On one of the stalks, two new sprouts burst through, like antlers on a deer. Cutting away the old growth meant that the plant had the energy to do more, to spread out in new directions. And so, some months later, it has…

As I looked at the plant last week, I recognised in the regrowth through the spring and summer some of the emotions of setting up and running Smithery over the last five years; the rush of starting, the fear of quiet periods, the joyous discovery of new growth and direction, the satisfaction of a plan come good. Highs and lows, and thankfully many more of the former than the latter.

More than anything, it’s been about growing out, not up.

Some people are happy being dedicated to reaching as high as they can in a given company or industry, and that’s to be admired. But if it isn’t your thing, and it wasn’t really mine, then perhaps you should be thinking about how to grow outwards.

I started close to where I’d come from, as Chief Innovation Officer at PHD Media in London, and then with every passing year moved a bit further away.

Year one was close to home; culture change around agencies, planning with agencies, work with media owners, media startups and so on. Then in year two, some broader work with media companies, into some product design, some service design. After that, larger corporate change work, strategic work with multi-national innovations teams, prototyping with museums, teaching at design schools, then…

Everything we do at Smithery might still be ‘innovation’, but it’s such a broad meaningless word now (which I talked about here).

We now work to a framework which directs us into four broad types of work; strategy, culture, design and prototyping (more on that here):

But it’s not been one mighty leap. It’s an iterative process, seeing what the most appropriate form of work is for a given client, what I’m capable of and interested in which would meet expectations, and then working out how to assemble a team to deliver that.

From what I see now, from a client perspective it’s becoming a much more desirable approach; assemble the right people to find and deliver a solution, rather than sitting on a stack of 60 people with a certain skill-set you then have to find a certain sort of work for. And from a personal perspective, it’s a whole lot more fulfilling. You get to grow out into new areas as they emerge, rather than being stuck in a current capability stack.

And it might work for you too, if you’re that way inclined. How could you build yourself a vehicle around the things you want to discover, to try, to change. That might be inside a company, or outside it, or some mix of the two.

How will you grow out, and not just up?

One more thing…

In amongst the various gardening blog recommendations on pruning a dracaena marginal, there was a throwaway suggestion; don’t just bin those old stalks, as there’s still the potential to grow somewhere inside them.

So I chopped down two foot-long sticks, and set them up in a couple of vases, with a bit of water and a few rocks in the bottom.

Now, both our kids have one of these in their rooms…

Who knows what Smithery will become in the next five years, ten years, twenty even. Maybe it’s a family business? Maybe it’s employee owned, or a cooperative? Maybe it’s just me when I’m seventy, tinkering with whatever in the world comes my way and needs attending to.

What’s pretty certain is that I don’t want to build something that can be bought by someone who’s bought by someone who’s bought by someone who’s bought by WPP.

Life seems a bit too short for that.


Writings from Smithery, a Strategic Design Unit in London.


Writings from Smithery, a Strategic Design Unit in London. We think, talk and work on strategy, design, prototyping, culture and innovation. More at

john v willshire

Written by

Runs Smithery. Makes Artefact Cards. Said 'Make Things People Want' > 'Make People Want Things'.


Writings from Smithery, a Strategic Design Unit in London. We think, talk and work on strategy, design, prototyping, culture and innovation. More at

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