Category: Better ways of working (page 1 of 3)

Every easy thing is hard again

Although he isn’t aware, it was Frank Chimero who came up with the name Thought Shrapnel in a throwaway comment he made on his blog a while back. I immediately registered the domain name.

In this article, a write-up of a talk he’s been giving recently, Chimero talks about getting back into web design after a few years away founding a company.

This past summer, I gave a lecture at a web conference and afterward got into a fascinating conversation with a young digital design student. It was fun to compare where we were in our careers. I had fifteen years of experience designing for web clients, she had one year, and yet some how, we were in the same situation: we enjoyed the work, but were utterly confused and overwhelmed by the rapidly increasing complexity of it all. What the hell happened? (That’s a rhetorical question, of course.)

Look at the image at the top of this post, one that Chimero uses in his talk. He explains:

There are similar examples of the cycle in other parts of how websites get designed and made. Nothing stays settled, so of course a person with one year of experience and one with fifteen years of experience can both be confused. Things are so often only understood by those who are well-positioned in the middle of the current wave of thought. If you’re before the sweet spot in the wave, your inexperience means you know nothing. If you are after, you will know lots of things that aren’t applicable to that particular way of doing things. I don’t bring this up to imply that the young are dumb or that the inexperienced are inept—of course they’re not. But remember: if you stick around in the industry long enough, you’ll get to feel all three situations.

The current way of working, he suggests, may be powerful, but it’s overly-complex for most of his work

It was easy to back away from most of this new stuff when I realized I have alternate ways of managing complexity. Instead of changing my tools or workflow, I change my design. It’s like designing a house so it’s easy to build, instead of setting up cranes typically used for skyscrapers.

Chimero makes an important point about the ‘legibility’ of web projects, a word I’ve also been using recently about my own work. I want to make it as understandable as possible:

Illegibility comes from complexity without clarity. I believe that the legibility of the source is one of the most important properties of the web. It’s the main thing that keeps the door open to independent, unmediated contributions to the network. If you can write markup, you don’t need Medium or Twitter or Instagram (though they’re nice to have). And the best way to help someone write markup is to make sure they can read markup.

He includes a great video showing a real life race between a tortoise and a hare. He points out that the tortoise wins because the hare becomes distracted:

He finishes with some powerful words:

As someone who has decades of experience on the web, I hate to compare myself to the tortoise, but hey, if it fits, it fits. Let’s be more like that tortoise: diligent, direct, and purposeful. The web needs pockets of slowness and thoughtfulness as its reach and power continues to increase. What we depend upon must be properly built and intelligently formed. We need to create space for complexity’s important sibling: nuance. Spaces without nuance tend to gravitate towards stupidity. And as an American, I can tell you, there are no limits to the amount of damage that can be inflicted by that dangerous cocktail of fast-moving-stupid.

Source: Frank Chimero

Culture is the behaviour you reward and punish

This is an interesting read on team and organisational culture in practice. Interesting choice of image, too (I’ve used a different one).

Compensation helps very little when it comes to aligning culture, because it’s private. Public rewards are much more influential. Who gets promoted, or hangs out socially with the founders? Who gets the plum project, or a shout-out at the company all-hands? Who gets marginalized on low-value projects, or worse, fired? What earns or derails the job offer when interview panels debrief? These are powerful signals to our teammates, and they’re imprinting on every bit of it.

In my mind, organisational culture is a lot like family dynamics, especially the parenting part. After all, kids follow what you do rather than what you say.

When role models are consistent, everyone gets the message, and they align towards that expectation even if it wasn’t a significant part of their values system before joining the company. That’s how culture gets reproduced, and how we assimilate new co-workers who don’t already possess our values.

People stop taking values seriously when the public rewards (and consequences) don’t match up. We can say that our culture requires treating each other with respect, but all too often, the openly rude high performer is privately disciplined, but keeps getting more and better projects. It doesn’t matter if you docked his bonus or yelled at him in private. When your team sees unkind people get ahead, they understand that the real culture is not one of kindness.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, yet most organisations I’ve worked with and for don’t spend nearly enough time on it.

Culture is powerful. It makes teams highly functional and gives meaning to our work. It’s essential for organizational scale because culture enables people to make good decisions without a lot of oversight. But ironically, culture is particularly vulnerable when you are growing quickly. If newcomers get guidance from teammates and leaders who aren’t assimilated themselves, your company norms don’t have a chance to reproduce. If rewards like stretch projects and promotions are handed out through battlefield triage, there’s no consistency to your value system.

When you strip away everything else, all you’ve got are your principles and values. I think most organisations (and people) would do well to remember that.

Source: Jocelyn Goldfein (via Offscreen Magazine)

The Project Design Tetrahedron

I had reason this week to revisit Dorian Taylor’s interview on Uses This. I fell into a rabbithole of his work, and came across a lengthy post he wrote back in 2014.

I’ve given considerable thought throughout my career to the problem of resource management as it pertains to the development of software, and I believe my conclusions are generalizable to all forms of work which is dominated by the gathering, concentration, and representation of information, rather than the transportation and arrangement of physical stuff. This includes creative work like writing a novel, painting a picture, or crafting a brand or marketing message. Work like this is heavy on design or problem-solving, with negligible physical implementation overhead. Stuff-based work, by contrast, has copious examples in mature industries like construction, manufacturing, resource extraction and logistics.

As you can see in the image above, he argues that the traditional engineering approach of having things either:

  • Fast and Good
  • Cheap and Fast
  • Good and Cheap

…is wrong, given a lean and iterative design process. You can actually make things that are immediately useful (i.e. ‘Good‘), relatively Cheap, and do so Fast. The thing you sacrifice in those situations, and hence the ‘tetrahedron’ is Predictable Results.

If you can reduce a process to an algorithm, then you can make extremely accurate predictions about the performance of that algorithm. Considerably more difficult, however, is defining an algorithm for defining algorithms. Sure, every real-world process has well-defined parts, and those can indeed be subjected to this kind of treatment. There is still, however, that unknown factor that makes problem-solving processes unpredictable.

In other words, we live in an unpredictable world, but we can still do awesome stuff. Nassim Nicholas Taleb would be proud.

Source: Dorian Taylor

Irony doesn’t scale

Paul Ford is venerated in Silicon Valley and, based on what I’ve read of his, for good reason. He describes himself as a ‘reluctant capitalist’.

In this post from last year, he discusses building a positive organisational culture:

A lot of businesses, especially agencies, are sick systems. They make a cult of their “visionary” founders. And they keep going but never seem to thrive — they always need just one more lucky break before things improve. Payments are late. Projects are late. The phone rings all weekend. That’s not what we wanted to build. We wanted to thrive.

He sets out characteristics of a ‘well system’:

  • Hire people who like to work hard and who have something to prove.
  • Encourage people to own and manage large blocks of their own time, and give people time to think and make thinking part of the job—not extra.
  • Let people rest. Encourage them to go home at sensible times. If they work late give them time off to make up for it.
  • Aim for consistency. Set emotional boundaries and expectations, be clear about rewards, and protect people where possible from crises so they can plan their time.
  • Make their success their own and credit them for it.
  • Don’t promise happiness. Promise fair pay and good work.

Ford makes the important point that leaders need to be seen to do and say the right things:

I’m not a robot by any means. But I’ve learned to watch what I say. If there’s one rule that applies everywhere, it’s that Irony Doesn’t Scale. Jokes and asides can be taken out of context; witty complaints can be read as lack of enthusiasm. People are watching closely for clues to their future. Your dry little bon mot can be read as “He’s joking but maybe we are doomed!” You are always just one hilarious joke away from a sick system.

It’s a useful post, particuarly for anyone in a leadership position.

Source: Track Changes (via Offscreen newsletter /48)

So, what do you do?

Say what you want about teaching, it makes it extremely easy to answer the above question.

But that question might not be the best way to build rapport with someone else. In fact, it may be best to avoid talking about work entirely.

It’s better, apparently, to find shared ground about common goals and interests:

Research findings from the world of network science and psychology suggests that we tend to prefer and seek out relationships where there is more than one context for connecting with the other person. Sociologists refer to these as multiplex ties, connections where there is an overlap of roles or affiliations from a different social context. If a colleague at work sits on the same nonprofit board as you, or sits next to you in spin class at the local gym, then you two share a multiplex tie. We may prefer relationships with multiplex ties because research suggests that relationships built on multiplex ties tend to be richer, more trusting, and longer lasting

The author of this article suggests you can ask the following questions instead:

  • What excites you right now?
  • What are you looking forward to?
  • What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?
  • Where did you grow up?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • Who is your favorite superhero?
  • Is there a charitable cause you support?
  • What’s the most important thing I should know about you?

Unfortunately, unlike the ubiquitous, “So, do you do?” none of these are useful as conversation-starters. And then, after I’ve corrected for Britishness, there’s exactly zero I’d use in the course of serious adult conversation…

Source: Harvard Business Review

Product managers as knowledge centralisers

If you asked me what I do for a living, I’d probably respond that I work for Moodle, am co-founder of a co-op, and also do some consultancy. What I probably wouldn’t say, although it would be true, is that I’m a product manager.

I’m not particularly focused on ‘commercial success’ but the following section of this article certainly resonates:

When I think of what a great product manager’s qualities should be, I find myself considering where the presence of this role is felt the most. When successful, the outside world perceives commercial success but internally, over the course of building the product, a team would gain a sense of confidence, rooted in a better understanding of the problem being addressed, a higher level of focus and an overall higher level of aptitude. If I were to summarize what I feel a great product manager’s qualities are, it would be the constant dedication to centralizing knowledge for a team in all aspects of the role — the UX, the technology and the strategy.

We haven’t got all of the resourcing in place for Project MoodleNet yet, so I’m spending my time making sure the project is set up for success. Things like sorting out the process of how we communicate, signal that things are blocked/finished/need checking, that the project will be GDPR-compliant, that the risk register is complete, that we log decisions.

Product management has been popularized as a role that unified the business, technology and UX/Design demands of a software team. Many of the more established product managers have often noted that they “stumbled” into the role without knowing what their sandbox was and more often than not, they did not even hold the title itself.

Being a product manager is an interdisciplinary role, and I should imagine that most have had varied careers to date. I certainly have.

There is a lot of thinking done around what the ideal product manager should have the power to do and it often hinges around locking down a vision and seeing it through to it’s execution and data collection. However, this portrayal of a product manager as an island of synergy, knowledge and the perfect intersection of business, tech and design is not where the meaty value of the role lies.

[…]

A sense of discipline in the daily tasks such as sprint planning and retrospectives, collecting feedback from users, stand up meetings and such can be seen as something that is not just done for the purpose of order and structure, but as a way of reinforcing and democratizing the institutional knowledge between members of a team. The ability for a team to pivot, the ability to reach consensus, is a byproduct of common, centralized knowledge that is built up from daily actions and maintained and kept alive by the product manager. In the rush of a delivery and of creative chaos , this sense of structure and order has to be lovingly maintained by someone in order for a team to really internally benefit from the fruits of their labour over time.

It’s a great article, and well worth a read.

Source: We Seek

Listening to video game soundtracks can improve your productivity

I can attest to the power of this, particularly the Halo soundtrack:

As I write these words, a triumphant horn is erupting in my ear over the rhythmic bowing of violins. In fact, as you read, I would encourage you to listen along—just search “Battlefield One.” I bet you’ll focus just a bit better with it playing in the background. After all, as a video game soundtrack it’s designed to have exactly that effect.

This is, by far, the best Life Pro Tip I’ve ever gotten or given: Listen to music from video games when you need to focus. It’s a whole genre designed to simultaneously stimulate your senses and blend into the background of your brain, because that’s the point of the soundtrack. It has to engage you, the player, in a task without distracting from it. In fact, the best music would actually direct the listener to the task.

These days I prefer to listen to Brain.fm after I got a lifetime deal via AppSumo a year or so ago. I enjoy music as an art form, but I also appreciate it for the effect it can have on my brain.

Source: Popular Science

 

Technology to connect and communicate

People going to work in factories and offices is a relatively recent invention. For most of human history, people have worked from, or very near to, their home.

But working from home these days is qualitatively different, because we have the internet, as Sarah Jaffe points out in a recent newsletter:

Freelancing is a strange way to work, not because self-supervised labor in the home doesn’t have a long history that well predates leaving your house to go to a workplace, but because it relies so much on communication with the outside. I’m waiting on emails from editors and so I am writing to you, my virtual water-cooler companions.

[…]

The internet, then, serves to make work less isolated. I have chats going a lot of the day, unless I’m in super drill-down writing mode, which is less of my job than many people probably expect. My friends have helped me figure out thorny issues in a piece I’m writing and helped me figure out what to write in an email to an editor who’s dropped off the face of the earth and advised me on how much money to ask for. It’s funny, there are so many stories about the way the internet is making us lonely and isolated, and it is sometimes my only human contact. My voice creaked when I answered the phone this morning because I hadn’t yet used it today.

The problem is that capitalism forces us into a situation where we’re competing with others rather than collaborating with them:

How do we use technology to connect and communicate rather than compete? How do we have conversations that further our understandings of things?

I don’t actually think it’s solely a technology problem, although every technology has inbuilt biases. It’s also a problem to be solved at the societal ‘operating system’ level through, for example, co-owning the organisation for which you work.

Source: Sarah Jaffe

Are conferences a vestige of a bygone era?

I’m certainly attending fewer conferences than I used to, but I thought that was just the changing nature of my work and ways of making a living.

Marco Arment makes some important points in this post about how conferences are just kind of outdated as a concept:

  • Cost: With flights, lodging, and the ticket adding up to thousands of dollars per conference, most people are priced out. The vast majority of attendees’ money isn’t even going to the conference organizers or speakers — it’s going to venues, hotels, and airlines.
  • Size: There’s no good size for a conference. Small conferences exclude too many people; big conferences impede socialization and logistics.
  • Logistics: Planning and executing a conference takes such a toll on the organizers that few of them have ever lasted more than a few years.
  • Format: Preparing formal talks with slide decks is a massively inefficient use of the speakers’ time compared to other modern methods of communicating ideas, and sitting there listening to blocks of talks for long stretches while you’re trying to stay awake after lunch is a pretty inefficient way to hear ideas.

This has always been the case, of course. It’s just that technology-mediated ways of connecting, both synchronously and asynchronously, have improved:

Podcasts are a vastly more time-efficient way for people to communicate ideas than writing conference talks, and people who prefer crafting their message as a produced piece or with multimedia can do the same thing (and more) on YouTube. Both are much easier and more versatile for people to consume than conference talks, and they can reach and benefit far more people.

Conferences are by their very nature exclusive and take up a lot of people’s time. There’s still space for them, but I think time is up for the low-quality, just-for-the-sake-of-it conference.

Source: Marco.org

A world without work

I’m not sure that just because you look at a screen all day means you’ve got a ‘bullshit job’, but this article nevertheless makes some good points:

Whether you look at a screen all day, or sell other underpaid people goods they can’t afford, more and more work feels pointless or even socially damaging – what the American anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” in a famous 2013 article. Among others, Graeber condemned “private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers … telemarketers, bailiffs”, and the “ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone is spending so much of their time working”.

The best non-fiction book I read last year was Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. This is cited in the article, along with the left’s preoccupation with the politics of organised work.

A large part of the left has always organised itself around work. Union activists have fought to preserve it, by opposing redundancies, and sometimes to extend it, by securing overtime agreements. “With the Labour party, the clue is in the name,” says Chuka Umunna, the centre-left Labour MP and former shadow business secretary, who has become a prominent critic of post-work thinking as it has spread beyond academia. The New Labour governments were also responding, Umunna says, to the failure of their Conservative predecessors to actually live up to their pro-work rhetoric: “There had been such high levels of unemployment under the Tories, our focus was always going to be pro-job.”

Instead, say those who advocate a ‘post-work’ future, we should be thinking beyond the way our physical and psychological environment is structured.

Town and city centres today are arranged for work and consumption – work’s co-conspirator – and very little else; this is one of the reasons a post-work world is so hard to imagine. Adapting office blocks and other workplaces for other purposes would be a huge task, which the post-workists have only just begun to think about. One common proposal is for a new type of public building, usually envisaged as a well-equipped combination of library, leisure centre and artists’ studios. “It could have social and care spaces, equipment for programming, for making videos and music, record decks,” says Stronge. “It would be way beyond a community centre, which can be quite … depressing.”

We get the future we deserve. So if we keep on doing the same old, same old when it comes to the way we organise work, we’ll end up with the same kind of structures around it.

Source: The Guardian