Fifty years ago Alvin Toffler and Adelaide Farrell wrote a book called Future Shock. They defined the term “future shock” as a psychological state where individuals and entire societies experience “too much change in too short a period of time”. They could have been writing about 2020.
Our world suddenly became one of health catastrophe, economic collapse, post-truth populist politics, post-geographic post-industrial work, isolation, loneliness and unpredictable change.
The challenge of life became one of adapting to change, for the entire world, and for me.
What didn’t go so well
Let’s get the things that didn’t go so well out of the way first.
Exercise & physical health
I started studying Krav Maga, which I really got a lot out of. Pandemics, not enough time, and not being in one place made it impossible to continue.
Indie maker side projects
I started lots of side projects, didn’t finish any of them. Mostly that’s ok though as the projects were more about learning about the indie maker community and approaches to side projects. The side project I worked most on was the Ultimate Digital Tools List. There are lots small lists on nocode products and the like but I wanted to create as a comprehensive a list as possible with the idea that it could be used by indie makers to figure out the best tech stack for their business.
I joined Visualise Value, a paid community of indie makers, but never gave it enough time to get the most out it.
I wanted to read books. Actual books. But I never had the time. Any time I could of spent reading I choose to spend studying. Rightly so, because it’s more of a priority but it meant all those books remain unread.
What went well
I’m grateful that so many things went well this year.
I started a new role at the Prince’s Trust in January. And I’ve really enjoyed it. It hasn’t been without its challenges, but that’s where the fun is, in figuring out how to navigate the things that get in the way. I’m lucky to have a manager who is clear about what he wants to achieve and what he wants me to achieve. I’m even luckier to be part of a team that wants to learn how to build things that help young people achieve.
I continued to be a trustee of a small mental health charity. For some time I’ve wondered whether I should resign, whether I have anything of value to add. Then, one day one comment from one person and I realised what I bring. I’m the only one on the board who works in the charity sector, so although I don’t have experience in investing or property management I can offer some perspective on what I see happening across the sector and how these might be relevant to our charity and work.
I finished the first year of my masters and started the second year. I’ve really benefited from the change its had on my thinking. It has made me be more critical, connect things into the history of ideas that helps us understand them, and given me a sold foundation for my thinking in the future. It has taken more time than I thought it would but been less intellectually demanding.
For the past seven years I’ve been a carer for a family member with serious mental illness. It was the most difficult challenge I’ve ever faced and most stressful experience of my life. But we made it. All that hard work paid off. By the middle of this year she was well enough to not need me as a carer anymore. Even though I hardly ever talked about it, or how it affected me, being a carer was a big part of my identity, and not being a carer is a big change. But a positive one. It opens up opportunities for me. I feel proud of her, of all that she has achieved, and all that she will in the future.
I’m grateful that old friends could turn to me when they needed help. I may not be the kind of friend that stays in touch and grabs a coffee every week but I’ll never turn away from someone asking for help.
I continued to write Weeknotes every week (230 in a row by the end of this year). I find them a really useful way of reflecting on the things I’ve been doing, thinking about and reading.
I wrote quite a few blog posts, mostly about digital charity and innovation. I completely get that they aren’t the kinds of blog posts most people want to read. Most of them are more like badly written essays that have been poorly researched and sprinkled with a few of my random ideas than they are blog posts that might be useful to someone.
I finished walking the Ridgeway. My brothers and I had been gradually (very gradually, it’s taken us years) walking the full length from Ivinghoe to Avebury and we finally finished it. The Ridgeway is considered one the oldest roads in Europe, which makes it a bit more special than just any national path or long walk.
I tried to be more a part of the digital charity community on Twitter. I met and chatted with some fantastic people, got mentioned in the 3rd sector newsletter, did a buddy chat video, took part in Charity Hour conversations about innovation, tried to start a fundraising campaign, and did some product advisor work.
Inputs & processes
I tired to improve my inputs, so rather than just randomly scrolling through Twitter I read newsletters, set up daily search term alerts, and increased my note-taking.
I became a digital nomad, living and working in my car, and started an email newsletter about it.
So much happened this year. Part of me hopes that next year will be calmer, but I don’t expect that it will.
The most important thing I learned in 2020: Let it go
What am I going to work on next year?
Same goals, more work. Do good work at work to help direct the products we build to meet the needs of the people we want to help. Finish my masters. Contribute more to the digital charity community. Carrying on being a digital nomad. Improve my inputs and optimise how I process them. I have more detailed goals for 2021, but the ultimate goal is always to be more resilient to the changes that will inevitably occur.
“The only difference between you and the victim is the attitude with which you enter the water.”― USCG AST Manual
This week I did:
I reworked our service blueprint to take account of a new programme design. I’ve been thinking about where our knowledge and information resides. How do we effectively develop shared understanding of user needs and business requirements across scope definition documents, service blueprints, user stories, etc., and how do we help each other understand how they all fit together. One of the interesting stances we’ve taken is the the user journey within the service blueprint is our single source of truth about what to build. It shifts the focus away from business requirements and what stakeholders want to what experience the user has and how all the parts fit coherently together.
Some thoughts on digital project management
Inspired by Be More Digital‘s post on Simple project management I wrote some of my own far less useful thoughts on managing digital projects, including why digital project management is different from non-digital project management, what is actually managed by project management, and why prioritisation leads to uncertainty.
The Ultimate Digital Tools List
I put my Digital Tools List on Gumroad. I expect the list to be up to a thousand products and tools over the next few weeks. I haven’t made any sales but that’s not surprising because I haven’t promoted (and I have no intention of becoming ‘the digital tools guy’ on Twitter), but the process of writing a product description helped me figure out the usefulness of the list. The Digital Tools List can be used to create a unique tech stack for an indie business. So, for each side-project or maker business someone decides to set up, they can either do it the way everyone else is doing it, or they can think more strategically about what tools to use to help make Twitter be an effective main promo channel, or to stream their video to multiple platforms at the same time. Productising this process was the idea behind Build Better Systems. It would help makers figure out their business model.
Why charities tackle wicked problems
I wrote up some of my ideas on why charities choose to tackle wicked problems rather than tame, solvable problems. The post veered off from what I intended it to be and went on more about my idea of the three spheres of societal life and how they can or can’t respond to wicked problems. My intention was to write about how charities are actually pretty well equipped for tackling wicked problems but maybe that’ll be another post.
I started writing my goals for next year, which are mostly continuing with what I was working on this year (doubling-down, as they say). As part of ‘Know What You Bring’, one of my side projects, I was working on a method for identifying things like that are you interested in, how those areas of interest intersect, how you develop expertise at that intersection, how you communicate that expertise, and who will find it useful. The process lead me to conclude that I want to spend more time on the intersection of charity, digital and innovation than I do on indie maker side-projects, so I want to try to spend more time writing blog posts about digital charity and innovation than I do working on side-projects.
I also updated my Now page. It’s still a mess but I like the idea and want to try to find a way to make better use of it.
I read A Summary of Growth and Fixed Mindsets and I assume I’m below average, both of which deal with having a learning attitude. Derek Sivers says, “To assume you’re below average is to admit you’re still learning.” and Carol Dweck says “There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”
A foray into Online Film Clubs – a peek into the future of community building
I read Paulina Stachnik’s article talking about how “digital leaders, we have a unique opportunity to create this sense of community for our supporters.” Digital communities isn’t something I know very much about, but as Paulina says, they are more important now than they ever have been. What the article shows is that things that could be done without considering community can also be done with community in mind. That’s really interesting and opens up lots of possibilities. It basically says that anything and everything can be a community-building activity.
Why should community building be important? Well, there is some research that says that it’s intrinsic goals (like feeling a sense of belonging to a community) that improve our well-being, so how we create things that help people achieve intrinsic goals (being part of a community) whilst achieving extrinsic goals (watching a film) matters.
Moving Beyond Command And Control
I read Moving beyond command and control* by Paul Taylor. He talks about different assumptions and perspectives people hold on centralised control and localised communities, and how both are needed in national crisis situations like a pandemic. He goes on to talk about the different narratives around communities and how they shifted from celebrating the ingenuity of communities when they seemed to be abiding by the wants of centralised control to criticising communities for breaking the rules when they seemed to take too much of their own power. He ends with, “In 2021 we all need to get off the fence and state which one we truly believe in, and make that world a reality.” Do we believe that communities can hold their own power and make their own decisions, or do we believe that should not have power communities and so need central command and control in order to make decisions.
Out of context, but it made me think about loosely-coupled systems again. The issue I see with the either/or approach to where the power lies is that it is built on hierarchical structures from previous centuries. If we were building something new today with modern information networks (and what we’ve learned from how a global pandemic disrupted tightly-coupled systems) the available options might look quite different.
Learning from the past
The problem with learning from the past is that it assumes we’re facing the same problem in the present. Often it’s easier to assume we’re facing the same problem, and ignore the differences as inconsequential. Sometimes, saying that we’re learning from the past is a shortcut to conclusions even if the context is different. I don’t know how to resolve this, to tell the difference between when learning from the past is a good idea and when it isn’t. The only sense that I get is that the level of abstraction matters for the relevance of the learning. Too detailed and the differences between the past and the now means there is nothing to learn, too generalised and the lesson becomes so vague as to be useless.
There’s lots written about how to write User Stories, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about how to interpret user stories. Do designers think of user stories differently to developers? How are user stories useful for stakeholders, and for testers? User stories have a form and function, and a language of their own. Without a shared understanding of those how can we expect to understand user stories?
I’ve been thinking about writing a blogpost about how charities might work differently in a posthuman society. If we “reject both human exceptionalism (the idea that humans are unique creatures) and human instrumentalism (that humans have a right to control the natural world)” then how might we think about charities and for-good organisations that have their thinking rooted in humanist ideals?
Fake it till you make it
James Heywood tweeted, “Another problem with “fake it until your make it” is that you know you’ve faked it. That can trigger anxiety even as you succeed.” It made me think about how the phrase can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Faking it could be seen negatively as hiding inadequacies or incompetencies. Or it could be seen more positively as demonstrating a growth mindset and courage to go outside your comfort zone. It could be seen in different ways by different people, leading to confusion about how well-equipped a person is and where they might have development needs. I guess that’s the things about short phrases like this, they are purposely ambiguous, which can be a good thing when it leads to conversations to uncover and improve understanding.
Strategy for information products
David Vassallo tweeted, “A reliable info product strategy:
- Find something you know very well.
- Share what you know on the internet.
- Wait until people start asking for more.
- Do a brain dump of everything you know about the topic.
- Edit for high info density.
It implies the idea that well communicated expertise can be part of overcoming the information product paradox, where customers don’t buy because the don’t know what they’ll be getting, but if they are given two much of the information then they don’t buy because they already have most of the value. Expertise signals value. If you’re known to be an expert in a topic then there is the expectation that what you produce will be valuable even without knowing what you’ll be getting.
Select who to serve first
Natalie Furness tweeted, “How to assess product market fit, while generating traction without spending money. A thread based on my experiences on scrappy startup go-to-market strategy.” She goes to offer lots of advice to indie makers including, “Product Market Fit : Select who you want to serve first. Try and make your test audience as narrow as you can to start with. Remember, this can change as your product develops.” The idea that indie makers start by building an audience around their area of interest before they even know what product they’ll be building is opposite to the usual approach of a business where they develop a product that fits their capabilities and then go looking for an audience. Its interesting to see these difference as the majority of business business models have grown out of industrial thinking whilst indie maker business models have grown out of internet-era thinking. I’ve said before that the maker movement will come of age when a single maker disrupts an established incumbent business, but perhaps another measure of success for the maker movement will be when businesses begin adopting their strategies (like they did with startups and software development).
*I don’t normally tag my links, just this once for fun.
Charities and other for-good organisations choose to tackle the wicked problems of our world because no one else can. Wicked problems are complex and interconnected social problems that defy a predefined solution. They are problems that require continual development of solutions that behave like Public Goods, which means they are not viable to be provided by the market. And they are problems that mostly affect the marginalised people in our society, which means the state does not tackle them as they do not affect the median voter. Charities tackle wicked problems through offering services that alleviate some the consequences of the problems and through affecting changes in the systems that cause wicked problems.
What are wicked problems
Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber were urban planners at the University of Berkley in California in the 1973 when they wrote an article called: “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”. In it they introduced what they called ‘wicked problems’; problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. Rittel and Webber said that wicked problems have 10 important characteristics:
- They do not have a definitive formulation.
- They do not have a “stopping rule.” In other words, these problems lack an inherent logic that signals when they are solved.
- Their solutions are not true or false, only good or bad.
- There is no way to test the solution to a wicked problem.
- They cannot be studied through trial and error. Their solutions are irreversible so, as Rittel and Webber put it, “every trial counts.”
- There is no end to the number of solutions or approaches to a wicked problem.
- All wicked problems are essentially unique.
- Wicked problems can always be described as the symptom of other problems.
- The way a wicked problem is described determines its possible solutions.
- Planners, that is those who present solutions to these problems, have no right to be wrong. Unlike mathematicians, “planners are liable for the consequences of the solutions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to the people who are touched by those actions.”
Why should an almost fifty year old idea about urban planning be relevant to charities and the causes and problems they tackle? Well, the idea didn’t stay with urban planning.
Wicked and messy
By 2007, ‘wicked problems’ had more proponents and a different name. Robert Horn, an American political scientist, called the phenomenon a “Social Mess” and described it as a “set of interrelated problems and other messes. Complexity—systems of systems—is among the factors that makes Social Messes so resistant to analysis and, more importantly, to resolution.” According to Horn, the defining characteristics of a social mess are:
- No unique “correct” view of the problem;
- Different views of the problem and contradictory solutions;
- Most problems are connected to other problems;
- Data are often uncertain or missing;
- Multiple value conflicts;
- Ideological and cultural constraints;
- Political constraints;
- Economic constraints;
- Often a-logical or illogical or multi-valued thinking;
- Numerous possible intervention points;
- Consequences difficult to imagine;
- Considerable uncertainty, ambiguity;
- Great resistance to change; and,
- Problem solver(s) out of contact with the problems and potential solutions.
Over the decades, the idea has been adopted by designers, software developers, statisticians, economists, and policy makers. And the introduction of the term ‘Super wicked problem”, with additional characteristics of ‘Time is running out, no central authority, those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it, and policies discount the future irrationally’ helped to encapsulate the biggest problem we face as a species; global climate change.
That’s what a wicked problem is. And there are plenty of them.
Why wicked problems aren’t tackled by the market or state
The social contract (the individual’s relationship with the collective) is enacted by three modes of organising in our modern society; the state, the market and the civil space. Each of these use different methods to get people to deliver their part of the social contract. When a government makes a law, it is with the intention of organising people to adhere to a way of behaving (don’t drink and drive). When a business has a hierarchical structure that sends instructions from higher up to lower down, it is with the intention of organising people to maintain authority, responsibility and accountability (do the work you’ve been told to do). When the actions of one man walking around his garden are leveraged to raise money for charities, it is with the intention of organising people to support other people (financially through donations and socially through ‘cheering’).
Tame problems make for easy value exchange
Businesses use market modes of organising which only really allow for choosing easy (or ‘tame’ in Rittel and Webber speak) problems with knowable solutions. If you have neck ache the market can offer a wide range of potential solutions from pain killers to heated neck pillows to posture correcting chairs to a massage. And it’s up to you to know which solution fits your problem. In the eyes of the market the problem is solved when there has been a value exchange. You got what you wanted (something to help with your neck ache) and the business got what they wanted (your money).
Businesses don’t tackle wicked problems because even if they could offer solution they wouldn’t have a customer who was willing to pay a market-rate for that solution. Imagine a tech startup that could actually solve homelessness (stop laughing). What would the business model be? They couldn’t charge homeless people, they don’t have any money. Perhaps they could they sell their serve to local government, but once they’ve solved the problem for all their customers they put themselves out of business.
So, the market can’t solve wicked problems.
Limited resources make for easy spending decisions
Governments use state modes of organising which have some capacity for dealing with the wicked problems that arise from complex society. Running a country with all of it’s interrelated systems of health, education, economy, etc., etc., is a very wicked problem but laws, regulations, policy spending decisions, etc., allow governments to choose which problems to tackle and how much focus to give them.
Burton Weisbrod, an American economist who wrote about nonprofits, education, welfare and poverty, suggested that the nonprofit sector existed (at least in part) because of the failure of governments to provide sufficiently for all members of society. Every government has limited resources and will always direct spending at things that satisfy their median voter to try to ensure they are kept in power. These two thing; limited resources and pleasing the median voter, mean no Government ever spends enough on the marginalised people in society.
Weisbrod said that government spending decisions cause a market failure which nonprofit organisations then attempt to resolve. For example; the government chooses how much to to pay nurses (state spending decision). Nurses find their pay insufficient to feed their family (market failure). Charities operate food banks to help nurses feed their family (nonprofit sector response). If the government was to resolve the problem they would do so by paying nurses more, because that’s an instrument available to them within the state mode of organising, but it wouldn’t set up food banks because they are within the civic modes of organising.
So, the state can’t solve wicked problems.
Why charities choose wicked problems
Charities use civic modes of organising which often means they find ways to get people together over something they care about. Food banks only work within the civic modes of organising because it takes a one group of people (those that operate the food bank) to organise another group of people (those making donations to the food bank) in order for another group of people (those using the food bank) for the benefit.
Causes make for narrow solutions
Charities are cause-focused. The cause, is the primary concern of all charities and for-good organisations. Charities have a charitable purpose to tackle their chosen cause because the Charity Commission (and UK charity law) says they have to be (there are twelve charitable purposes to choose from and an ‘other’ category). Choosing a cause and charitable purpose is one of the first steps in registering as a charity. This makes sense if having regulations in place to ensure that only those organisations that are actually doing some good in the world are to benefit from charity status is what is most important, but it makes less if you actually want organisations that can tackle wicked problems. When a charity talks about their cause, they are referring to the wicked problem they are tackling but the problem with being so cause-focused is that it sometimes leads charities to approach the solution in very narrow ways. (I think cause-agnostic charities would be better equipped to contribute towards tackling wicked problems but that’s an aside). Charities have to tackle a wicked problem because it’s legally a part of what it is to be a charity in the UK, but it also limits what they can achieve.
Impacts make for poor measures
Charities are a response to the market failure of governments. choosing not to spend sufficiently on public goods . If a government was able to solve homelessness through providing enough suitable housing, support for addiction, mental health problems, etc., and all those other things that contribute to homelessness, then there would be no need for charities (or tech startups) to tackle that particular wicked problem. But tackling wicked problems is costly, however it is approached. And reducing the impact wicked problems have on people is almost impossible to measure in order to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of the charity’s work. Charities have to tackle wicked problems because government spending choices don’t tackle them, but its expensive and almost impossible to measure the impact.
Can charities solve wicked problems?
In an increasingly connected and complex society wicked problems become even more intertwined and impossible to predict what changes will have what outcome. This must be recognised and accepted if charities and for-good organisations are going to have any hope of affecting change. Systems thinking and systems change work offers some chance to positively affect the wicked problems in the direction we might want, but figure out how to truly tackle wicked problems is a wicked problem in itself.
So, can charities solve wicked problems?
Why is digital project management different from non-digital project management?
Because the Internet changed everything. It changed almost every aspect of our lives, it changed how organisations run, and it changed the way we think. Internet-era ways of working from Public Digital and the Digital Design Principles from CAST have lots in common (including a move away from project-orientated thinking, but more of that below). A few of the principles that change how we approach project management from a digital mindset are:
- User first – Digital projects should ‘start with user needs, and keep them involved’, ‘design for user needs, not organisational convenience’, ’embed user research’, and understand how ’emerging technology may alter or create behaviours’.
- Test and learn – Digital projects should ‘Start small and optimise for iteration’, ‘Take small steps and learn as you go’, and ‘Make things open; it makes things better’.
- Safe, secure, private, accessible and sustainable – Digital projects need to understand the opportunities, and risks that being online brings. This includes, ‘Be inclusive’, ‘think about privacy and security’, ‘build for sustainability’, and ‘Recognise the duty of care you have to users, and to the data you hold about them’,
Whether the project work is digital, such as building a new website, or not, the project can and should be managed using these kinds of modern principles and practices. It achieves better things for the people that use what the project delivers.
Does it need to be a project?
Is the work you intend to undertake really a project or is it just what you do packaged as a project?
- Will it have a deadline for completion that is external to the work? – Not just a date that senior management teams want it finished by but a date where something else is going to happen that will fail is the project isn’t completed on time.
- Will this work have a separate budget from other work? – Not just a line on an internal budget sheet but actually a specific and dedicated budget, perhaps from a funder who expects this project to be delivered using the funds.
- Will it have people dedicated to working on it (maybe even, if you’re lucky, as their only priority)? – Not people doing this work as part of their usual day job but either this is all they work on or it is very clearly recognised that they are working on this in addition to their day jobs.
If you’ve got three No’s it probably means the work you want to do either isn’t a project or is a project in name only. Three Yes’s means you should probably be approaching the work as a project. Why does it matter? Because, even though all work is fundamentally about these three things: time, money and people’s knowledge and efforts, a project ties them together more tightly and has extra pressure on all three.
What are you managing?
There is a universal law of projects; there is always too much to do in too little time. And there are really only three ways to deal with it:
- Reduce what work you do to fit it to the time available,
- Increase the time available to fit the work you want to do, or
- Increase the capacity and capability of people working on the project.
Actually, in reality, a flexible shifting of all three is most likely to help a project be successful. It might be seventy or so years old, but the iron triangle of project management represents these three things as Scope, Time and Cost. It says that:
- The quality of work is constrained by the project’s budget, deadlines and scope.
- The project manager can trade between constraints.
- Changes in one constraint necessitate changes in others to compensate or quality will suffer.
‘Quality’ is at the centre of the triangle. A project that is delivered on time, on budget and scope, is considered of high quality. A project that is late, over budget, or doesn’t deliver what it should is considered of lower quality. Project management is about managing the quality of the project. It is done through managing the scope of the work, the available budget and the time and skills people have, but project management is much more then just task management.
Managing the work
How do you prioritise project work?
You shouldn’t. All of the work that needs to be delivered in a project is the work that need to be delivered. Using Must, Should, Could (MoSCoW), for example, as a means of prioritising the bits of work introduces more uncertainty than it brings clarity. “What do you mean by we ‘should’ do this piece of work? Are we doing it or not?”. There shouldn’t be any uncertainty about the deliverables.
Prioritisation is often used as a proxy to avoid having the difficult conversation about scope, time and people, but all it does is cloud the issues and take focus away from delivering the project. Keep it simple. The project work is all of the work, and all of it is important (if it isn’t important why is it even part of the project). If you can’t deliver it all, for whatever reason, have the conversations that lead to solutions.
Working in phases
Phasing project work is sometimes seen as a means of deprioritising some work. “We’ll do it in phase 2” sometimes means some non-specific future that may or may not occur. If that’s the case, let it go and focus on delivering the current project. If the project is actually broken into phases then you need a means of deciding which work to do in each phase. Assuming that each phase corresponds to work being released to users, then the work should be sliced by what will be most valuable to the people who are going to be using it. One thing finished and delivered in a phase is better than two half finished things over two phases.
Is the project on schedule?
All project schedules are a guess. Some guesses are better than others, and having some sense of when the project will finish is important (as I said above, what usually makes projects different from other work is the added pressure which often isn’t sustainable for long uncertain periods). Sometimes the ‘is the project on schedule?’ question is more often a reporting problem-to-solve than it is a scheduling problem. Because no one ever really knows whether a project is on schedule at any point in time until it’s delivered, this question is really asking how confident are we that it will be delivered on time. How that confidence is communicated is more fundamental than answering schedule questions.
Do the people have the right capabilities and capacity?
For a project manager, managing people isn’t about telling people what to do, it’s about ensuring the project team have the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to be able to do the work required in the project, and that the team has enough time to do all the things. This is often the hardest part of project management, which is why the easier parts of managing scope and schedule are often focused on instead. The people involved in a project are the greatest factor in the quality of the project being delivered, give them the consideration they need.
Good digital project management not only puts users first, it also puts the people on the project team ahead of scope and schedule. (Tweet this)