This week I did
How information flows
We moved onto a new platform for delivering virtual courses this week, so I’ve spent a lot of time supporting the teams that will be using it and the teams that will be supporting them. There’s lots of new stuff for everyone to learn and I’m keen to spread and embed the knowledge as much as possible. A task or job role might need specific skills and a dedicated owner, but information and knowledge doesn’t work that way. Lots of people can have the same information, regardless of their role. Understanding why the whole system works the way it does, what some of the underlying assumptions are, what tasks others in the team perform, how processes work, etc., . Knowledge shouldn’t be on a need-to-know only basis. The idea that someone only knows what they need to know to do their job will always create gaps in knowledge. I’ve been thinking a bit about how we understand work as flows of information rather than as discrete tasks to be completed., partly from a digital transformation point of view about moving away from a factory mindset of work being about progressing widgets along a production conveyor belt, and partly from reading Galbraith on how the more uncertainty there is about a project, the more information has to be processed in order to complete a task.
It’s been a week of tech ethics. I went to a Social Tech Meetup hosted by Rachel Coldicutt and Anna Dent and this week’s lecture was on the ethics of emerging technology.
Tech ethics is a problem of pace. Different things move at different speeds. Implementing laws take time. Ethics progresses faster than laws. But new technologies and the data collection that enables them happens faster than the ethical discussions and positioning. This is why we see things like bias in algorithms, because the tech races ahead of the checks and balances catching up. Although we are more aware of the bias in what is being built, it has also been there. Crash test dummies are based on the male body which meant that for many years cars were designed to protect men better than women. That’s decades old tech ethics, but it’s still the same problem. Different things move at different speeds.
Interface, Integrate, Iterate
I’ve been writing up some of my ideas about how product management creates an interface between customer and organisation, integrates strategy with tactics and teams with the work, and iterates on everything to drive continuous improvement into a short email series. It’s part of some of my ideas about helping more charities understand and use product management thinking to improve their service proposition and delivery.
And I thought about:
What does it mean to deliver?
What does it mean to deliver something, to achieve, to complete something? Its surely more than just completing tasks. Delivering a project should enable the continued realisation of value, it creates something of ongoing usefulness, facilitates other accomplishments. It should be more than the sum of it’s parts. If you deliver enough deliverables, and even the right deliverables, does that mean they’ll add up to create something good? Are good outcomes assumed to be a natural result of a well delivered project? Or is there more to do to connect those outputs and deliverables, fit them into relationships, create flows of information? Does delivering mean delivering an output, an outcome, a project, a change?
Defining hybrid working
I thought a bit more about how to define and understand hybrid working, and how it’s less about location and more about the numbers of people in the same or different locations, and so the relationship dynamics that creates. One person in the office and nine in other locations doesn’t really bring hybrid working dynamics into play. But two in the office and eight in other locations starts to introduce different dynamics because now the two in the office are dealing with one type of interaction between themselves and a different type of interaction with those in other locations. But those in the other locations aren’t involved it the relationship between those in the office. It seems to me that its the dealing with the different forms of interaction that is the underlying problem-to-solve for hybrid working.
Digital transformation is everywhere
An hours walk from the nearest plug socket, even a notice board with tide times is going on a digital transformation journey. QR codes are a start to connecting the physical and digital worlds, maybe in the future every beach will have IoT sensors measure tide height, water quality, etc., and broadcast that information to your phone as you walk into the area. Everything in our world is undergoing digital transformation, some things are further ahead than others, but nothing will be left behind (except, maybe, hopefully, stiles).
I listen to the new podcast about 100 moments the rocked computer science by professors Sue Black OBE and Gordon Love. This episode talked about search engines and organising information on the internet, and included an interview with Alan Emtage, the inventor of Archie, the first search engine, and some mind-blowing stats about the amount of data we’re creating. With all this data, search, as a concept, becomes about making all that data interpretable and readable by humans, rather than just being about finding things other humans have written on the internet. So search moves upstream in creating value from data and information.
The Hacker Way
The hacker way, “believes that a good solution today is better than a great solution tomorrow. It does not believe that done is better than perfect so much as it believes that being done sooner is the best path to eventual perfection, though it is also skeptical that perfection exists.”. This mindset underpins so much of modern digital and agile thinking (and anarchy beneath that, but I won’t get into that now). Understanding the hacker mindset, and how it informs the ideas a practices of digital people and teams, might help us understand the difficulties and conflicts that occur within organisations as they go through their digital transformation. Maybe there is a fundamental difference in worldview between the digital people and the (for want of a better term) corporate people. Both struggle to understand how the other sees the world, and neither would be willing to adopt the other’s worldview.
Ditch the Solution-First Mindset and Start by Defining the Problem
“Both in life and at work, we tend to come up with solutions before defining the problem they solve.” If I had a pound for every time I’ve gone on about understanding the problem…
This week I did
Our new organisational strategy was released this week. I’m keen to spend some time soon reading it more deeply and thinking about how to interpret it for the work we’re doing. I’ve noticed a few strategic mis-alignments recently between the work our programme design team is doing and the direction I thought the product team was heading, so now is the time to bring together the different perspectives and course correct before we get into the next phase of work.
I also spent a bit of time working on product strategy to develop some guiding principles. One of those is about the ensuring that the speed we introduce change is matched to the speed at which the changes can be adopted. Just going as fast as we can seems like the wrong thing to do, as counter as it is to lots of product development thinking and my personal beliefs, because it’ll cause bottlenecks and futureshock.
Delivered training on using some of the new systems we’re putting in place. As part of the thinking for what to include in the training I was imagining the ‘system of systems’ we have. There are lots of distinct systems that have certain data and perform certain processes, and then there are linking processes, automated and manual, that move that data between the systems, and then the human nodes in the system that contain information about how the system works but are very much part of the system. Maybe I should just stick to delivering the training.
I wrote out my delivery plan (still a work in progress but mostly there) to help me track what I’ve done throughout the year towards the goals on my roadmap and to get into the habit of monthly planning. As part of my monthly planning cycle I did a retro of the things I’d learned in May that had affected my ability to deliver on my goals. I don’t really have a format that works for me yet but it started me thinking about methods for retrospectives and what they should aim to achieve. I think looking back is useful but really retros should be about increasing agency and ownership in order to change the approach which then improves everything you do in the future rather than just individual process improvements.
I visited Stonehenge and found a large community of vanlifers. I wanted to hand out my flyers to ask them to do the survey but it felt really uncomfortable intruding into their community as an outsider. There’s a different between vanlifers who live in semi-permanent communities together and those who live more solitary, transient lifestyles. Some outsiders and more outsiders than others.
Blockchain and social good
This week’s lecture was about how blockchain and distributed ledger technologies are being used for social good, and posed the question, ‘should more technological development be focused on making the world a better place?’ The answer is clearly and obviously, yes. The case study was how blockchain was being used to manage commons resources and some of the resources included a sector-specific study from Stanford University and looking at Blockchain for Humanity, which is a not-for-profit foundation with the mission to drive the adoption of emerging technologies that can offer a positive social impact. There is so much possibility.
And thought about:
I had my first hybrid meeting, with some of us in the room and some joining via video. It started me thinking about the pros and cons of hybrid meetings so I collected my thoughts into a blog post. Although I’m certain that remote, virtual, asynchronous work works best for me, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something interesting to try to figure out about hybrid working, especially if it’s likely that we’ll be working with others who do have hybrid ways of working.
Dealing with unknown unknowns
The common wisdom for dealing with unknown unknowns seems to be to adding them to a matrix with the known knowns, unknown knowns and known unknowns so you can (hopefully) identify by contrast the unknown unknowns. This way assumes that all domains of knowledge exist within that matrix, so I wondered about switch it around and putting a matrix within each domain of knowledge. Galbraith talks about how organisations deal with uncertainty and unknowns by processing more information between decision-makers as the way forward is figured out than is processed where decisions can be pre-planned. If unknowns are broken down into smaller and smaller domains of knowledge then perhaps the unknown unknowns become smaller and more specific, which might make them easier to imagine. Dealing with uncertainty and adapting to change is a capability every organisation is going to have to figure out how to build and I’m not sure there is a lot best practice in how to do that yet.
Ukrainian aviators love me
One of my most popular (I mean popular in my terms, which isn’t very popular by most people’s terms) blog posts is Schmenner’s Service Process Matrix – but for charities. It seems to show in Google searches for Schmenner, and weirdly, the Ukrainian National Aviation University link to it in one of their papers about applying the service process matrix to logistics. This amuses me.
And read this:
Maintaining Radical Focus and Staying on Strategy with OKRs
The One Knight In Product podcast episode with Christina Wodtke was really good. It seemed like a really authentic talk about when and how to use OKRs effectively rather just a sales pitch for a book. The best thing I took away was ‘Cadence is everything!’
What is digital ethics?
“No framework can possibly be complete, so it is important for employees in any organisation to examine the digital ethics dimension in any digital project they undertake.” Ethics isn’t about big dramatic decisions. Every single little decision is an ethical decision.
A thread of product management frameworks
Another thread from Shreyas Doshi, this one about product management frameworks.
I had my first hybrid meeting today. Six people in the same room and four in different locations. Being able to offer the meeting as a hybrid physical/virtual rather than only virtual had its advantages and it was interesting to begin thinking and learning about how to make hybrid working great.
Personally, I’m hundred percent behind work being virtual, remote and asynchronous, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something interesting to explore around hybrid ways of working. A hybrid meeting specifically, and a hybrid way of working more generally, seems to be usually defined as some people in the office and some working from home. I think we can do better than that. I think we can have a more inspiring vision of what hybrid working could be. Hybrid should be able to offer the best of both physical and virtual.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how to make hybrid working effective and inspiring, but I have some random ideas…
Some axes for thinking about hybrid work
More physical/more virtual: (Where people are when they are interacting) – This is the main thing people think about when they talk about hybrid. I wonder if location is a bit of red herring and really we should be thinking about the numbers of people in the locations. How many people are in the same space and how many are in different places. The split of these numbers must surely affect the dynamics of the meeting. Nine in the room and one virtual will give a different experience of the meeting than if its two in the room and eight virtual. So knowing the numbers and choosing how to run the meeting accordingly
Synchronous/asynchronous (When people interact) – Synchronous means everyone is involved at the same time. Arguably, asynchronous isn’t actually a meeting, but if the purpose of a meeting is to discuss a topic, make a decision, etc., then those things can be achieved asynchronously. If part of figuring what good hybrid working looks like is to make better use of asynchronous communication so that the synchronous parts serve a more specific and perhaps high value then
Codifiable/non-codifiable knowledge (How information is understood) – Knowledge that can be codifable into written information and explained is different to non-codifiable knowledge. Think about the difference between teaching someone how to fix a bike (codifiable) and ride a bike (non-codifiable, must be experienced). Meetings mostly deal with knowledge that has been previously codified in order for it to be shared with others. However, meeting are also social gatherings with all kinds of interaction dynamics between the people involved, and that is non-codifiable. How much social interaction, hierarchy, relationships, etc., affect what goes on in a meeting should be a consciously designed choice.
Ignore the stats
A Boston Consulting Group study of 2,000 UK employees revealed that 67% of those working remotely since COVID-19 want to be able to split their time between the physical workplace and home working in the future. So? That doesn’t tell you how the people you work with want to work. There are far more options than just ‘in the office’ or ‘at home’. We should be capable of considering work in far more flexible ways (including measuring work by the value it provides not the hours it takes, but that’s for another time).
A hybrid meeting where all the virtual attendees are on the same small laptop screen is likely to be difficult for everyone. At the other end of the scale, a well-designed room with a large monitor, multiple microphones, cameras that ensure everyone can be seen, etc., could completely change the experience. All that video screen meeting fatigue could quickly become immersive audio-visual experience fatigue for the people in the room, but help those in different locations know what it going on in the room.
Lots of companies are developing technology for hybrid working and are betting on it becoming the dominant working model, so they don’t really offer a balanced view of the pros and cons, but an interesting thing to consider is how all the focus is on what can be done in the meeting room for the supposed benefit of those not in the room. It’s quite an assumption that those in different places want to be more aware of what’s going on in the room. Perhaps one of benefits for those virtual attendees is the reduced cognitive load of not having to be aware of who’s sitting where, who’s replying to emails, who keeps fidgeting (usually me).
Involvement isn’t dependent on format
Are the virtual attendees at a disadvantage to the physical attendees when it comes to being recognised and taken notice of? Well, making people feel included depends on the cultural norms and social skills of those in the meeting. It should be a part of all good meetings, whether hybrid, virtual or physical. If people are being excluded from the conversation, blaming the technology abdicates our responsibility for finding ways to help people be included in the ways that work for them. In physical meetings its things like seating arrangements that create those barriers, but do we blame the seats?
The language we use
How we refer to the meeting as taking place in the room, with those not in the room ‘dialing in to the meeting’ affects how different groups of people are perceived. Considering the language we use, in fact probably coming up with new language, will be an important part of how/if/when hybrid working gets accepted and adopted in organisations.
Make everyone be virtual, even if some of them are in the same place.
I can see how this seems like it’s equalising the experience for everyone by making it a virtual meeting, but if we want to explore how to make good hybrid meetings then we’re going to have to hold meetings where some people are in the same room and others aren’t, and find different patterns of interacting that work for everyone. The way meetings were/are traditionally structured, with a chairperson controlling the agenda, is a demonstration of power that worked primarily for that person, and should be challenged in every modern organisation along with all the other power dynamics.
If the discussion about hybrid working does only one thing, let it be that we get better at consciously designing effective interaction patterns at work.
Why retro? To spot patterns in behaviour and activities and create feedback loops to improve the patterns.
Some things I’ve learned this month:
Vanlife-lockdown-survey hasn’t had many responses. Mostly because I haven’t done very much to find vanlifers. I messaged a few on Instagram and handed out a few flyers. The idea might be slightly flawed as people who are likely to become vanlifers aren’t the sort who like to fill in surveys, and I’m not great at striking up conversations with random people in order to get them to do the survey. The lesson here is not to pick projects that have a really small total addressable market and where the people in that market get no value from what you’re doing, and that rely on me interacting with people. Such is the nature of random projects I do just for my own interest but it’s something I’ll need change if I want to do projects that help towards my goal of contributing to the digital transformation of the charity sector.
Go-live is a phase, not a date. Making it a date might give something to work towards but it can mean that once the date has passed people lose focus and spend less time on the things that make a launch successful.
I set up innovat100n.com to begin collecting email subscibers. The idea is to send a series of one hundred emails, each with a short lecture on an innovation idea. Then I worked out that if I can write one lecture a week, it will take me five years to create all the emails. I hadn’t intended to start working on it until September so I don’t need to make an immediate decision about it, and although it make vaguely fit with acheiving my goals it still serves as a warning about jumping into setting up projects without thinking through the implications.
Communicating something that doesn’t fit an existing mindset is tough. Mindsets make it too easy apply known and comfortable mental models to problems and so too easy to leap to solutions. I think I might try more talking about the problems-to-solve and being more considered about the language I use, perhaps introducing unfamiliar phrases as a way to prompt a different understanding.
New/different decisions that change a previous/existing decision looks too much like failure. Actually, it’s learning new information, responding to change, and being flexible about finding the right solution, but it just doesn’t look like that.
A strategy has pre-requisites. And they aren’t always obvious, but once they become known it can feel like hey need a strategy of their own to get them in place to enable the actual strategy.
This week I did:
I had some time to begin to think about the work our team will be undertaking over the next few quarters. Second to ‘what’ work we do is ‘how’ we do it. The upsteam and downstream coordination is an interesting challenge to ensure that change is introduced at the pace it can be adopted. I have a sense this is going to feel like slowing down from how we’ve been working over the past year but global optimisation is almost always better than local optimisation.
There have been a few conversations and situations this week where the underlying theme seemed to be about the stability and change experienced by a group of people. It seems paradoxical but at the same time completely obvious, to say that stability enables change to be accepted and adopted. Too much change, in these cases, in the membership of teams prevents effective and efficient progress. It stops ownership, accountability and responsibility in it’s tracks. I wonder if the need for the stability of teams changes with the number of teams that make up an organisation, so, can an organisation achieve its strategic goals if it has some stable and some unstable teams, and where is the threshold? How much instability can an organisation absorb?
I’ve been working on my assignment about what role blockchain might play in the future of work, and the one of the conclusions I’ve reached is that blockchain will have a far greater affect where it converges with other emerging technology such as artificial intelligence and Internet of things devices. This feels like a bit of a revelation to me. I see lots of talk about how AI is going to affect is in the future, what self-driving vehicles might do to transportation, etc., but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about the effects of all these different technologies when they are put together.
Business processes and social structures at work
On one hand, business processes are meant to codify and formalise the way things like decision-making work, to reduce variability and ensure predictability and perhaps even fairness. And on the other hand, social structures are built around influencing people, encouraging cooperation and collaboration to get the right decisions made. How do these two things intersect? Are they both necessary? Do they conflict? I’ve previously thought that hierarchies are good for authority and networks good for information flow, but what structures facilitate decisions?
I read a bit of this student guide to teamwork. It has some useful references and definitions such as Hughes and Jones (2011) defining “what makes a team something different from any other group of people” as sharing some defining characteristics: a shared collective identity, common goals, interdependence in terms of assigned tasks or outcomes, and distinctive roles within the team. I wonder if work place culture is sometimes anti-intellectual and that we get ideas about things like how teams work from something someone read on a blog post about a book that was based on one person’s experience rather than our understanding being based on research and expertise, so having easy references like this book help my thinking.
I’ve started reading Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. In it Wilson describes the outsider through the works of Kakfa, Camus, Hemmingway and others, as someone alienated from society by their own indifference, as a anti-hero who rejects civilised standards and his duty to society in pursuit of some kind of existential freedom. He says, “freedom is not simply being allowed to do what you like; it is intensity of will, and it appears under any circumstances that limit man and arose his will to live”.
I’m interested in the idea of the outsider in modern digital times. If Wilson was writing today would he still be looking at literature for descriptions of the experience of the outsider or would it be hacker culture, anti-establishment peer-to-peer networks, and social media? How does existential alienation from mainstream culture take place in an always-on inter-connected world? Does it manifest as self-imposed exile to the worlds of games, or absorption in tech-startup fantasies of utopia? So much to think about.