Weeknotes #232

This week I did:

MVP

This week has been one of my most most fun weeks at work for a long time. The team was set the challenge of rethinking the product we’ve been working on and coming up with a minimal viable version that can be launched more quickly. We worked asynchronously in a single shared document and Miro board and it feels like we’ve made more progress in the last three days than the last three weeks. Of course we wouldn’t have been able to work so quickly without all that background work, but it’s good to experience what we can do as a team when we focus.

For me personally, it’s been interesting to move so quickly between what we need to do strategically to achieve objectives and what we need to do technically to build a solution that works now and gives us a foundation for the future. This what I mean when I talk about how good product management ‘integrates’. It connects the heights of strategy to the low details of how the software works, the past to the present to the future, and the different teams across the organisation to all work together. When I hear product managers say that they’re operating a strategic level like it’s some ego-trip or status-signalling I immediately see how ineffective they are being. Getting better at that ‘integration’ work is one of my professional development goals.

Met the neighbours

As a digital nomad I never thought I’d have neighbours. One of the places I’ve been parking seems to be a well-known spot for those living in vans so I did the neighbourly thing and said, ‘Hi’. One of my neighbours is living in a camper while he waits to be able to return to China to teach English. We talked about American politics, the nomadic lifestyle and other good places to park in the area.


And I thought about:

X-As-A-Lifestyle

With numerous X-As-A-Service business models, and the blurring of work and life from more people working at home, the natural evolution seems to be selling X-As-A-Lifestyle. Are you a ‘successful’ work-from-home parent? Write a newsletter about it, build an online following and monetize your experience. Did you suffer from stress and then learn how to cope? Create an online community and sell your wellbeing coaching services. In times of uncertainty people look to others even more for guidance, not just in how to do one thing but in how to live a new life.

Do charities need product management?

I’ve been thinking about product management in charities and what benefits that type of thinking brings to a charity. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal written about product management in charities but given that it’s a function that serves other organisations in other sectors well, and that charities are becoming more reliant on digital technology (not that product management is exclusively about tech) it seems something worth exploring. I’ll get around to turning my thoughts into a blog post one day.

Skill development models

You should specialise. No, you should be a generalist. No, you should be a T shaped person, or I or X shaped. No, you should be star-shaped. The diversity of sectors, careers and careers paths surely makes it impossible to say that a single model fits all situations, perhaps to the point of uselessness. Identifying what skills you should develop, especially given the world we live in today, seems like it should be a bottom-up exercise that is capable of changing quickly rather than one that fits a particular model or system.


And read:

No Meetings, No Deadlines, No Full-Time Employees

Sahil Lavingia writes about how work is organised at Gumroad. It is a glimpse at how one company has evolved to be completely remote, asynchronous, low overhead cost, and transparent about things like wages. Obviously the model fits a very particular type of organisation, and has reached this place through crisis rather than intelligent design from the outset. And the post has none of the, ‘This is how we succeeded and you should copy us’ tone that some organisations have when they write about their working culture and comes from a humble place of sharing how it worked for them. For those organisations trying to get back to the normal working of everyone in the same office at the same time it offers an interesting contrast.

Ideas That Changed My Life

Morgan Housel wrote about the ideas that changed his life. I was particularly interested in the parts on sustainable sources of competitive advantage and the quote by Historian Niall Ferguson who dais that “The dead outnumber the living 14 to 1, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril.”. One of the ideas that I’ve been thinking about and feel has changed my life is around the balance of benefit and cost, and how I think everything has more cost than benefit, which is right in that what is a cost to me is probably a benefit to someone else, and that’s how a complex society works, but also how continually incurred costs seems like another way to talk about entropy and the eventually consumption of all finite resources.

Remember the Chinese Bamboo Tree

Charles Burdett wrote, “When it feels like you’re not making progress, remember the Chinese Bamboo Tree.”, where the growth of bamboo is used as a metaphor for continuing to work towards success even when there is no visible growth at beginning. For me it illustrates that we all have mental models that don’t match the reality of how systems perform. We expect growth and success to be linear, but in fact it almost never is. Getting our understanding of the world closer to the realities of the world seems like a essential, albeit probably impossible, challenge.


And some people tweeted:

2 ways to teach.

Craig Burgess tweeted about two different relationship models for teaching, one where the teacher is seen as an authority passing on best practice from an existing body of knowledge and one where the teacher is exploring and learning at the same time as sharing their new knowledge. We had a short discussion on Twitter about whether one way is better than the other or could be used for different situations. Perhaps the first way of teaching works better for established bodies of knowledge where students need stability in what information will be transferred, and the second works better where the knowledge hasn’t been codified for transmission and is still emerging.

Building an online audience online is developing social capital

I tweeted a short essay about how the things people write nowadays about building an online audience are based upon thinking around developing social capital that is almost a hundred years old. In a way it relates to my chat with Craig about how established and emerging knowledge affect each other. How much do those who are creating emerging knowledge in a particular field, such as building an audience for an online business, build upon, knowingly or unknowingly, the body of existing knowledge? If there are no new ideas then is everyone wasting their time discovering their own emerging knowledge? I think not, because existing knowledge is codified as information and can only be turned into knowledge by someone else if they go through a learning process.

Personal blogs and RSS feeds

Terence Eden tweeted about reading blogs via his RSS feed setup and Luca Hammer tweeted his very cool tool for identifying the feeds of websites that people link to in the Twitter bios. I’ve been trying different ways of building a horizon-scanner using RSS for ages, and with tools like IFFTT and Tentacle having limits to the number of feeds I hadn’t got very far. Then I found out that Slack has an RSS app so I set up a channel to receive notifications from different websites across the charity sector. Now I get a notification when a new article is posted on any of those websites. I’ve never been a big fan of Slack, probably because of my leaning towards asynchronous communication and having never worked in an organisation where it had been allowed, but it actually has more uses for an individual than I previously thought. I’m starting to think of it as less of a communication tool and more of a stream of stuff going on that I’m interested in.

Week notes #214

I did:

The future is asynchronous

I presented some discovery work I’ve been doing for the next phase of our online learning environment. It has been centred around user needs of accessing the platform, booking on sessions, and asynchronous session delivery. Thinking about asynchronous delivery, all the different ways we can support young people to achieve outcomes, is really interesting. It opens up so many more opportunities not only anytime/anywhere, but more importantly about how young people develop a sense of agency around their professional development.

Some thoughts on the Charity Digital Code of Practice

What might a digital charity look like in fifty years? What kinds of thinking models might be needed between now and then to make digital every part of a charity? “Becoming a digital charity offers new modes of operating. It isn’t just digitising existing ways of working, but completely transforming the business model and how they achieve their purpose. But its all about steps in the right direction. The Charity Digital Code of Practice can help charities think about what those steps might look like.”

Launched The Fire Control Problem

I launched my SMS course after the team at Arist helped me with a technical issue of their system not accepting UK phone numbers. Its one of those virtual world meets the physical world problems.

Its interesting to me to be using the process that the course describes in figuring out what to do with the course.

Things I’ve learned so far:

  • SMS learning is for individuals. It seems obvious but I hadn’t really thought about it. There is no sense of other people learning the same stuff like you might get from a more open platform like Twitter.
  • SMS is very one way. It doesn’t allow users to question or debate the contents, they have to take it at face value.
  • The concept of achieving uncertain goals rather than the usual approach of defining them first is a bit of a hurdle to get over, and if the user doesn’t grasp the proposition from the start the rest of the lessons might be a bit confusing.
  • The concept might lend itself to an exploratory approach of ideas rather than purely as a means to achieve goals.

Year 2: The revenge

I picked the modules I’ll be studying for the second year of my MSc:

  • Innovation policy and management.
  • Digital creativity and new media management.
  • Blockchain technology and its impact on innovation, management and policy.
  • Research methods in management.
  • Dissertation.

It’s going to be a busy year.


I thought about:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Catchy statement, sounds like it might be true, but how might you test it? It seems to me that if you were to describe what makes ‘culture’ and ‘strategy’ opposite to each other you might describe culture as more subtle, amorphous, vague, driven by story-telling, and strategy as objective, defined, perhaps more scientific or numbers-based. So, based on this, if an organisation is driven by its narrative rather than by insights, then it could be true to say that it is led by its culture and not its strategy. Another question is whether that’s a good thing or not. (And just to add another thought; “Systems swallow culture and strategy whole”.)

Testing vs learning

When launching a product, testing is about confirming what you know, learning is about being open to finding out things you didn’t even know you didn’t know. Both are important but learning is the most difficult because it can only happen with real people using the product.

The fear of digital

What is the fear of digital about? Is it the fear of being replaced, the fear of the new, of the unknown?

Stigmergy

“Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, seemingly intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even direct communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even individual awareness of each other.” Maybe this is the opposite of strategy that I’ve been looking for.


And I read:

Remote work and the future of the high street

The high street is dying. Remote/home working as a result of COVID 19 is exacerbating this. But I think there’s an opportunity to do everything better.

Ross describes a town where, “Air quality is high. The local economy is booming. Social mobility is high and unemployment is low”, and essentially asks the question is it possible to have all of these things in the same place at the same time.

So, if I understand what he’s saying correctly, rather than office buildings being full of people from a single company there will be offices with people from lots of different organisations. These co-working spaces will bring people into town centres via environmentally sustainable transport and thus making town centres being convenient places for the kinds of tasks that you have to do in person, things like getting a haircut, banking, and frequenting a cafe or coffee shop.

But we have to ask, why do those things require lots of people to all travel to a location that is convenient for the hairdressers, banks and cafe owners, rather than the business travelling to convenient locations for their customers? The answer used to be obvious, because its more economically viable for the business and because consumer behaviour supported it. When people had no choice but to go to workplaces then businesses would open to provide for the needs of all those people in one place. Giving people a choice changes consumer behaviour. If everyone has a choice (and of course not everyone will) about whether to go to a town centre to work, will there be enough people to sustain that local economy? There will undoubtedly be fewer people, so what defines economic sustainability might be different to pre-COVID times, but will is be enough to drive cause low unemployment and high social mobility?

I think the nature of the problem, as with so many of the post-COVID-rebuild efforts, is one of tight or loose-coupling. In pre-COVID times town centres, and lots of other parts of the economy/society were tightly-couple. Tight-coupling is fragile and risky, it relies on stability throughout the system, it can’t accept too much drastic change. Tightly-coupled systems are like a house of cards, if one card shakes, those connected to it and connected to those that are connected to it feel the effects of that shaking. To create another tightly-coupled system of town centres, one where each part is reliant on all the others for its stability and success, would be to fail to learn from the shock our economy is going through. So perhaps Ross’ vision of town centres as nice places to work could be a reality, but depending on how it is built effects how long it lasts.

An example of the loose-coupling of town centres? Amazon is buying town centre warehousing space far more cheaply than it could of when high street property values were at pre-pandemic levels so that they can deliver across the surrounding town far more quickly than they could from warehouses farther away. Amazon know how to be loosely-coupled. Their warehouses don’t have any great reliance on the surrounding infrastructure and systems that make up a town. As long as Amazon can get vans in and out of the warehouse and have a steady supplier of workers (and if not they’ll bus them in from other towns), they are happy. Whatever happens in the local economy, Amazon can continue unaffected. That is loose-coupling.

The Hacker Ethic of Work

“In the hacker ethic of work, work has to be interesting and fun and, above all, must create value for the worker, the organization and for society as a whole. Workers also must have freedom to organize their work in a way that is more functional to reach their own goals and in the manner that best fits their needs and insights”.

Simone Cicero, who has written more recently about platforms and complex systems, wrote about the hacker ethic of work in 2015, describing it as in the quote above, as an approach to work that involves creativity and freedom. In our complex world, an organisation that is able to adopt the hacker ways of making things that are open and reusable, collaborative and co-created, agile and flow-based, and understand user’s needs can become market leaders.

For me, this article from 2015 and Ross’ article are connected by a thread that approaches work more from the side of the worker than the side of the organisation. Both seem to me to be asking for a change. They recognise a move away from the industrial concept of the worker as a tool to be used by the machines of business and towards the worker as a nodes in the complex systems that make up our economy, society, and environment.

Simone says, “as individuals living today we have a duty to face the future with the eagerness not just to see it happen but, rather, to choose to be part of it and give it a different shape”.

Industrialisation

Industry and its discontents“, a podcast by Seth Godin in which he talks about the system of industrialisation. He says industry craves productivity because cheaper wins but cheaper products require cheaper labour, which requires of people that they do morally questionable things to meet their short-term needs. This feels like one of the most important podcasts I’ve ever listened to and mentions many of the justification for moving away from the industrial mindset.

I see in all three of these the theme of society moving away from industrialisation and towards digitisation. The digitisation of society won’t provide some perfect utopia, it will be full of challenges, problems, inequalities, and unintended side-effects

It’s about legacy

“A “programme in which they repair stuff” shouldn’t be compelling viewing. It’s only made so because we hear people’s stories, and what the objects mean to them. And within each episode, we have the “will they be able to restore it? What will it look like?” arc of the chosen objects. We need to be clear that fundraising works best when we talk about individual stories, and what changes as a result of a donor’s support and our organisation’s intervention. This is how we make a connection.”

I’m fascinated by fundraising, as a discipline, a sector and a practice. I think, because it seems so unique. It only exists in the third sector. Things like HR and Marketing, as interesting as they are also, exist in every sector. So, Richards newsletter, and his post about The Repair Shop are like little peaks into the world of fundraising and the mind of a fundraiser.

Because of the way my brain works, I struggle to understand the things Richard talks about, things like love, legacy, restoration, and I guess the connections that storytelling creates. I can conceive of fundraising in a transactional way as a value exchange between three parties; the donor, the charity, and the beneficiary, and how is differs in nature from a commercial value exchange between two parties and adds to fundraising’s uniqueness, but how it actually works in practice is a mystery to me. Is it just marketing by another name? Is it sales, or should it be? Perhaps what I’d like to understand is more about the approaches fundraising uses to fit it into my mental models for the shift from industrial to digital.

Oh, and he mentioned my tweet about what a strategy needs to express in his email newsletter, which was a complete but nice surprise.


Some people tweeted:

Salaries in charity job adverts

There is a claim (I see it mostly on Twitter, from which you can draw you’re own conclusion) that putting the salary in job adverts helps to tackle the gender pay gap. I was interested in where the idea comes from, how robust it is in theory, and whether there is any research or evidence, so with a bit googling I tried to track it down.

There is a press release from the Young Women’s Trust that states, “Employers should stop asking job applicants how much they earn and include salary details in adverts to help close the gender pay gap”. The press release goes on to mention the salary history/wage equity laws that have been introduced in the United States that make asking a candidate about their current/previous salary illegal but doesn’t mention salaries in job adverts again.

I couldn’t find any research that concludes that including salary details in a job advert has any affect on the gender pay gap (I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t exist, just that I didn’t spend very long looking for it). There is some research that says following salary history bans employees received “increased pay for job changers by about 5%, with larger increases for women (8%) and African-Americans (13%). Salary histories appear to account for much of the persistence of residual wage gaps“. And I there is some research that shows that “when there is no explicit statement that wages are negotiable, men are more likely to negotiate for a higher wage, whereas women are more likely to signal their willingness to work for a lower wage. However, when we explicitly mention the possibility that wages are negotiable, these differences disappear completely.

Looking it at from a complexity point of view of course its impossible to know what action will have which result so we can’t say that having salaries in job ads won’t contribute to tackling the gender pay gap, but based solely on what I’ve seen, we can’t say that it will either. Perhaps it is better instead to focus on a wider commit to better hiring practices across the the charity sector.

Also, I’ve seen concerns expressed about how we go about making change happen. If naming and shaming charities on Twitter (and actually, organisations don’t tweet, real people probably with the words ‘social’, ‘media’ and ‘executive’ in their job title do) is the default means to get them to change their practices, then what does that say about the charity sector?

But, here’s the interesting question: in a world of misinformation and easily swayed opinions, if something feels like the morally right thing to do but is based on growing public opinion and not on firmly established research and viable hypothesis, is it still the right thing to do?

Architecting organizations by designing constraints

Simone Cicero tweeted “A new approach to organizing is slowly establishing itself. This new approach is essentially small-scale, emergent and outside in, and doesn’t aim at simplifying complexity but at rhyming with it. This approach is based on architecting organizations by designing constraints.”

This is intriguing to me because of my interest in modes of organising within the three spheres of society. If Simone is seeing a new mode in the market sphere, one that conforms to more modern, perhaps non-newtonian, concepts from complexity science, then I’d like to understand more about it.

Is the market unsympathetic?

Justin Jackson tweeted “The market is unsympathetic to your passion. You can build whatever you want, but ultimately you’re beholden to the market and what it wants. Without customer demand, you don’t have a business.”

Yes, in the most obvious way, as we understand markets as unthinking mechanisms of capitalism, they have no sympathy for what any individual puts their time and energy into. But the reverse doesn’t seem to be true. Markets do need people who are passionate and invested in what they build and how they build it because without that passion nothings gets built and the market has nothing to be unsympathetic about.

Fake Grimlock replied: “LEARN PASSION FOR THINGS PEOPLE WANT. IT THAT SIMPLE.”