Category: Better ways of working (page 1 of 6)

Introverts, collaboration, and creativity

I work, for the most part, in my home office. Physically-speaking it’s a solitary existence as my office is separate to my house. However, I’m constantly talking to people via Telegram, Slack, and Mastodon. It doesn’t feel lonely at all.

So this article about collaboration, which I discovered via Stowe Boyd, is an interesting one:

If you’re looking to be brave and do something entirely new, involving more people at the wrong time could kill your idea.

Work at MIT found that collaboration—where a bunch of people put their heads together to try to come up with innovative solutions—generally “reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones.”

I’m leading a project at the moment which is scheduled to launch in January 2019. It’s potentially going to be used by hundreds of people in the MVP, and then thousands (and maybe hundreds of thousands) after that.

Yet, when I was asked recently whether I’d like more resources, I said “after the summer”. Why? Because every time you add someone new, it temporarily slows down your project. The same can be true when you’re coming up with ideas. You can go faster alone, but further together.

Many people are at their most creative during solitary activities like walking, relaxing or bathing, not when stuck in a room with people shouting at them from a whiteboard.

Indeed a study found that “solitude can facilitate creativity–first, by stimulating imaginative involvement in multiple realities and, second, by ‘trying on’ alternative identities, leading, perhaps, to self-transformation.”

Essentially just being around other people can keep creative people from thinking new thoughts.

I think this article goes a little too far in discounting the value of collaboration. For example, here’s three types of facilitated thinking that I have experience with that work well for both introverts and extroverts:

  1. Thinkathons
  2. Note and vote
  3. Crazy eights

That being said, I do agree with the author when he says:

Once you’ve unearthed radical ideas from people, they need nurturing. They need protecting from group-think meetings and committees who largely express speculated unevidenced opinions based on current preferences from past experiences.

Design thinking has a bias towards action: it resists talking yourself out of trying something radical. Creating prototypes helps you to think about your idea in a concrete manner, and get it to test before it gets dumbed down.

Chances are, that crazy idea you had will get toned down if you let too many people look at it. Protect the radical and push it hard!

Source: Paul Taylor (via Stowe Boyd)

Busyness and value creation

I subscribe to both Seth Godin’s blog and his podcast, Akimbo. The man’s a genius as far as I’m concerned.

One of his most recent posts is about productivity:

Now, more than ever, you’re likely to be running a team, managing a project or deciding on your own agenda as a free agent. Time is just about all you’ve got to spend.

And yet, we hardly talk about productivity.

Productivity is the amount of useful output created for every hour of work we do.

You can measure that output in money if you want to (it makes the math easier) but in fact, it’s everything from lives changed to knowledge shared. What matters is the answer to a simple question: did I spend my day producing enough benefit for all the time invested?

So far, standard stuff. What I like is the way he applies it to our current situation in 2018:

The internet has opened the door for more people to organize and plan their day than ever before. And we’re bad at it.

Because we associate busyness with business with productivity.

In my twenties, when I worked in schools, I worked 12+ hours every day. Now I work half that. Why? Because I work from home and can manage my own time. I’m rarely just waiting around or kicking my heels:

Imagine two buildings under construction. Both have 25 well-trained, well-paid, hard-working construction workers. One building, though, was built in half the time of the other. What happened? It turns out that construction almost always slows down because people are waiting. Waiting for the waterproofing to get done (while they wait for the specialist) or waiting for parts or waiting for another part of the project. The internet is the home of the connection economy, which means that this challenge is multiplied by 100. What are you waiting for? When you’re waiting, what are you doing to create value?

It’s a useful read, particularly if you feel that you’re at a crossroads in your career. You should always go towards that which gives you more agency. That way, you get more of a say in how productive you can be in any given day.

Busy is not your job. Busy doesn’t get you what you seek. Busy isn’t the point. Value creation is.

Source: Seth Godin

LinkedIn: the game?

Just like Facebook, I’ve deleted my LinkedIn account a couple of times. The difference is that I keep coming back to LinkedIn for some reason, while I’m a very happy non-user of Facebook.

This article imagines LinkedIn as a ‘game’ that you can win or lose. The framing is both hilarious and insightful, with the subtitle reading, “A strategy guide for using a semi-pointless social network in all the wrong ways.”

For those unfamiliar, LinkedIn is a 2D, turn-based MMORPG that sets itself apart from its competitors by placing players not in a fantasy world of orcs and goblins, but in the treacherous world of business. Players can choose from dozens of character classes (e.g., Entrepreneurs, Social Media Mavens, Finance Wizards) each with their own skill sets and special moves (Power Lunch; Signal Boost; Invoice Dodge). They gain “experience” by networking, obtaining endorsements from other users, and posting inspirational quotes from Elon Musk.

The general goal of LinkedIn (the game) is to find and connect with as many people on LinkedIn (the website) as possible, in order to secure vaguely defined social capital and potentially further one’s career, which allows the player to purchase consumer goods of gradually increasing quality. Like many games, it has dubious real-life utility. The site’s popularity and success, like that of many social networks, depends heavily on obfuscating this fact. This illusion of importance creates a sense of naive trust among its users. This makes it easy to exploit.

Yep, LinkedIn makes its money in a similar way to Facebook: allow users to create contacts on a platform completely owned by one company (which is now Microsoft). Then, charge them to beat the algorithm you created.

Some people I know pay for LinkedIn Premium. I’ve never understood why when it’s effectively the front end for an address book. Instead, I pay for FullContact, which is a much better deal, long-term.

Nevertheless, if you’re playing the LinkedIn game, here’s what to do:

Spend a few hours each day connecting with people. Start by searching for employees at powerful corporations like Google and Facebook. As users within various spheres of influence accept your connection requests, you will begin to gain legitimacy. At first a few people might decline your request, but eventually, once your network grows, important people will see that others they know are already connected with you, and accept your invitation without suspicion. Work your way through the corporate food chain like an intestinal parasite at a gratis conference buffet.

As the author notes with a wink and a nod, there are multiple ways of gaming the system, including:

Because there’s no limit to the number of jobs one can have simultaneously, it’s incredibly easy to spam people with superfluous work anniversaries. All you have to do is create 12 active jobs, each with a different starting month. (As far as I can tell, LinkedIn only sends one work anniversary email per user per month, so it’s not worth the trouble to input more than 12.)

I honestly don’t know why I continue to use LinkedIn. People message me on their occasionally, and I send (some of) my blog posts there. Other than that, it seems like people farming, just like a business version of Facebook.

Source: The Outline

On ‘unique’ organisational cultures

This article on Recode, which accompanies one of their podcast episodes, features some thoughts from Adam Grant, psychologist and management expert. A couple of things he says chime with my experience of going into a lot of organisations as a consultant, too:

“Almost every company I’ve gone into, what I hear is, ‘Our culture is unique!’” Grant said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “And then I ask, ‘How is it unique?’ and the answers are all the same.”

Exactly. There’s only so many ways you can slice and dice hierarchy, so people do exercises around corporate values and mission statements.

“I hear, ‘People really believe in our values and they think that we’re a cause, so we’re so passionate about the mission!’” he added. “Great. So is pretty much every other company. I hear, ‘We give employees unusual flexibility,’ ‘We have all sorts of benefits that no other company offers,’ and ‘We live with integrity in ways that no other company does.’ It’s just the same platitudes over and over.”

If organisations really want to be innovative, they should empower their employees in ways beyond mere words. Perhaps by allowing them to be co-owners of the business, or by devolving power (and budget) to smaller, cross-functional teams?

Another thing that Grant complains about is the idea of ‘cultural fit’. I can see why organisations do this as, after all, you do have to get on and work with the people you’re hiring. However, as he explains, it’s a self-defeating approach:

Startups with a disruptive idea can use “culture fit” to hire a lot of people who all feel passionately about the mission of these potentially world-changing companies, Grant said. But then those people hire even more people who are like them.

“You end up attracting the same kinds of people because culture fit is a proxy for, ‘Are you similar to me? Do I want to hang out with you?’” he said. “So you end up with this nice, homogeneous group of people who fall into groupthink and then it’s easier for them to get disrupted from the outside, and they have trouble innovating and changing.”

I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but the short article is solid stuff.

Recode (via Stowe Boyd)

Reduce your costs, retain your focus

The older I get, the less important I realise things are that I deemed earlier in life. For example, the main thing in life seems to be to find something you can find interesting to work on for a long period of time. That’s unlikely to be a ‘job’ but more like a problem to be solved values to exemplify and share.

Jason Fried writes on his company’s blog about the journey that they’ve taken over the last 19 years. Everyone knows Basecamp because it’s been around for as long as you’ve been on the web.

2018 will be our 19th year in business. That means we’ve survived a couple of major downturns — 2001, and 2008, specifically. I’ve been asked how. It’s simple: It didn’t cost us much to stay in business. In 2001 we had 4 employees. We were competing against companies that had 40, 400, even 4000. We had 4. We made it through, many did not. In 2008 we had around 20. We had millions in revenue coming in, but we still didn’t spend money on marketing, and we still sublet a corner of someone else’s office. Business was amazing, but we continued to keep our costs low. Keeping a handle on your costs must be a habit, not an occasion. Diets don’t work, eating responsibly does.

What is true in business is true in your personal life. I’m writing this out in the garden of our terraced property. It’s approximately the size of a postage stamp. No matter, it’s big enough for what we need, and living here means my wife doesn’t have to work (unless she wants to) and I’m not under pressure to earn some huge salary.

So keep your costs as low as possible. And it’s likely that true number is even lower than you think possible. That’s how you last through the leanest times. The leanest times are often the earliest times, when you don’t have customers yet, when you don’t have revenue yet. Why would you tank your odds of survival by spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need? Beats me, but people do it all the time. ALL THE TIME. Dreaming of all the amazing things you’ll do in year three doesn’t matter if you can’t get past year two.

These days we have huge expectations of what life should give us. The funny thing is that, if you stand back a moment and ask what you actually need, there’s never been a time in history when the baseline that society provides has been so high.

We rush around the place trying to be like other people and organisations, when we need to think about what who and what we’re trying to be. The way to ‘win’ at life and business is to still be doing what you enjoy and deem important when everyone else has crashed and burned.

Source: Signal v. Noise

Rethinking hierarchy

This study featured on the blog of the Stanford Graduate School of Business talks about the difference between hierarchical and non-hierarchical structures. It cites work by Lisanne van Bunderen from University of Amsterdam, who found that egalitarianism seemed to lead to better performance:

“The egalitarian teams were more focused on the group because they felt like ‘we’re in the same boat, we have a common fate,’” says van Bunderen. “They were able to work together, while the hierarchical team members felt a need to fend for themselves, likely at the expense of others.”

Context, of course, is vital. One place where hierarchy and a command-and-control approach seems impotant is in high stakes situations such as the battlefield or hospital operating theatres during delicate operations. Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, nevertheless believes that, even in these situations, the amount of hierarchy can be reduced:

In some cases, hierarchy is an unavoidable part of the work. Greer is currently studying the interaction between surgeons and nurses, and surgeons lead by necessity. “If you took the surgeon out of the operating room, you would have some issues,” she says. But surgeons’ dominance in the operating room can also be problematic, creating dysfunctional power dynamics. To help solve this problem, Greer believes that the expression of hierarchy can be moderated. That is, surgeons can learn to behave in a way that’s less hierarchical.

While hierarchy is necessary in some situations, what we need is a more fluid approach to organising, as I’ve written about recently. The article gives the very practical example of Navy SEALs:

Navy SEALS exemplify this idea. Strict hierarchy dominates out in the field: When a leader says go left, they go left. But when the team returns for debrief, “they literally leave their stripes at the door,” says Greer. The hierarchy disappears; nobody is a leader, nobody a follower. “They fluidly shift out of these hierarchical structures,” she says. “It would be great if business leaders could do this too: Shift from top-down command to a position in which everyone has a say.” Importantly, she reiterated, this kind of change is not only about keeping employees happy, but also about enhancing performance and benefiting the bottom line.

Like the article’s author, I’m still looking for something that’s going to gain more traction than Holacracy. Perhaps the sociocratic approach could work well, but does require people to be inducted into it. After all, hierarchy and capitalism is what we’re born into these days. It feels ‘natural’ to people.

Source: Stanford Graduate School of Business (via Stowe Boyd)

Crawling before you walk

Alberto Corado, Moodle’s UX Lead, sent me an article by Rebecca Guthrie entitled Crawl, Walk, Run. It’s contains good, concise, advice in three parts:

Crawl. Do things that don’t scale at the beginning. Talk to 50 potential customers, listen, discover pain points, and then begin to form a product to solve that pain. Use this feedback to develop your MVP. Don’t fall in love with your solution. Fall in love with their problem. I’ve mentioned this before, read Lean Startup.

This is what we’ve been doing so far with the MoodleNet project. I must have spoken to around 50 people all told, running the idea past them, getting their feedback, and iterating towards the prototype we came up with during the design sprint. I’d link to the records I have of those conversations, but I had to take down my notes on the wiki, along with community call stuff, due to GDPR.

Walk. Create mock-ups. Start to develop your product. Go back to your early potential customers and ask them if your MVP (or mockups) solve their problem. Pre-sell it. If you really are solving a problem, they will pay you for the software. Don’t give it away for free, but do give them an incentive to participate. If you can’t get one person to buy before it is ready, do not move onto the next stage with building your product. Or, you will launch to crickets. Go back to your mock-ups and keep going until you create something at least one person wants to buy. The one person should not be a family member or acquaintance. Once you have the pre-sale(s), conduct a Beta round where those paying users test out what you’ve built. Stay in Beta until you can leverage testimonials from your users. Leverage this time to plan for what comes next, an influx of customers based of your client’s testimonials.

I’m not sure this completely applies to what we’re doing with MoodleNet. It’s effectively a version of what Tim Ferriss outlines in The 4-Hour Work Week when he suggests creating a page for a product that doesn’t exist and taking sign-ups after someone presses the ‘Buy’ button.

What I think we can do is create clickable prototypes using something like Adobe XD, which allows users to give feedback on specific features. We can use this UX feedback to create an approach ready for when the technical architecture is built.

Run. Once your Beta is proven, RUN! Run as fast as you can and get Sales. The founder (or one of the founders) must be willing to hustle for sales. I recommend downloading the startup course from Close.io. Steli gives amazing advice.

While MoodleNet needs to be sustainable, this isn’t about huge sales growth but about serving educators. We do want as many people to use the platform as possible, and we want to grow in a way where there’s a feedback loop. So we may end up doing something like giving our initial cohort a certain number of invites to encourage their friends/colleagues to join.

Food for thought, certainly.

Source: Rebecca Guthrie

Systems change

Over the last 15 years that I’ve been in the workplace, I’ve worked in a variety of organisations. One thing I’ve found is that those that are poor at change management are sub-standard in other ways. That makes sense, of course, because life = change.

There’s a whole host of ways to understand change within organisations. Some people seem to think that applying the same template everywhere leads to good outcomes. They’re often management consultants. Others think that every context is so different that you just have to go with your gut.

I’m of the opinion that there are heuristics we can use to make our lives easier. Yes, every situation and every organisation is different, but that doesn’t mean we can’t apply some rules of thumb. That’s why I like this ‘Managing Complex Change Model’ from Lippitt (1987), which I discovered by going down a rabbithole on a blog post from Tom Critchlow to a blog called ‘Intense Minimalism’.

The diagram, included above is commented upon by

  • Confusion → lack of Vision: note that this can be a proper lack of vision, or the lack of understanding of that vision, often due to poor communication and syncrhonization [sic] of the people involved.
  • Anxiety → lack of Skills: this means that the people involved need to have the ability to do the transformation itself and even more importantly to be skilled enough to thrive once the transformation is completed.
  • Resistance → lack of Incentives: incentives are important as people tend to have a big inertia to change, not just for fear generated by the unknown, but also because changing takes energy and as such there needs to be a way to offset that effort.
  • Frustration → lack of Resources: sometimes change requires very little in terms of practical resources, but a lot in terms of time of the individuals involved (i.e. to learn a new way to do things), lacking resources will make progress very slow and it’s very frustrating to see that everything is aligned and ready, but doesn’t progress.
  • False Starts → lack of Action Plan: action plans don’t have to be too complicated, as small transformative changes can be done with little structure, yet, structure has to be there. For example it’s very useful to have one person to lead the charge, and everyone else agreeing they are the right person to make things happen.

I’d perhaps use different words, as anxiety can be cause by a lot more than not having the skills within your team. But, otherwise, I think it’s a solid overview and good reminder of the fundamental building blocks to system change.

Source: Intense Minimalism (via Tom Critchlow)

The best teams are cognitively diverse and psychologically safe

I’ve written about this before, but this HBR article explains that successful teams require both psychological safety and cognitive diversity. Psychological safety is particularly important, I think, for remote workers:

Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a dynamic, emergent property of interaction and can be destroyed in an instant with an ill-timed sigh. Without behaviors that create and maintain a level of psychological safety in a group, people do not fully contribute — and when they don’t, the power of cognitive diversity is left unrealized. Furthermore, anxiety rises and defensive behavior prevails.

If you look at the various quadrants in the header image, taken from the HBR article, then it’s clear that we should be aiming for less hierarchy and more diversity.

We choose our behavior. We need to be more curious, inquiring, experimental and nurturing. We need to stop being hierarchical, directive, controlling, and conforming. It is not just the presence of the positive behaviors in the Generative quadrant that count, it is the corresponding absence of the negative behaviors.

When you’re in a leadership position, you have a massive impact on the cognitive diversity of your team (through hiring decisions) and its psychological safety (by the way you model behaviours).

How people choose to behave determines the quality of interaction and the emergent culture. Leaders need to consider not only how they will act, but as importantly, how they will not act. They need to disturb and disrupt unhelpful patterns of behavior and commit to establishing new routines. To lay the ground for successful execution everyone needs to strengthen and sustain psychological safety through continuous gestures and responses. People cannot express their cognitive difference if it is unsafe to do so. If leaders focus on enhancing the quality of interaction in their teams, business performance and wellbeing will follow.

Everyone, of course, will see themselves as being in the ‘Generative’ quadrant but perhaps the trick is to get feedback (perhaps anonymous) as to whether that’s how other people see you.

Source: Harvard Business Review

First tea, then revolution

I’m working with Outlandish this week, as part of a MoodleNet design sprint. One of their co-founders, Harry Robbins, is quoted in the latest issue of WIRED about the CoTech network of which Outlandish (and We Are Open), are part.

CoTech is just one example of how cooperatively-owned tech businesses look poised to proliferate in the UK. Their network boasts 32 member-businesses across the country. They’re boosted, too, by the recent launch of startup accelerator Unfound, the UK’s first accelerator for tech co-ops, which announced its first successful candidates last week. If they succeed, they will be following the lead of countries like Spain and Italy, where cooperative enterprise has flourished for decades. Their proponents see business structures as driving radical change: getting the fruits of innovation shared more fairly and providing better social responsibility. Funding troubles have often stunted co-ops’ growth though – but, with tentative links to blockchain technology and a newfound spirit of collaboration, that’s something that could now change.

It takes a while to get collaboration between different organisations off the ground, and CoTech has been no different. I really enjoyed the CoTech gathering at Wortley Hall (a worker-owned stately home) last year, but we’ve more work to do.

CoTech’s 32 member-businesses have around 300 workers between them, with trades that range from web development to broadband infrastructure and augmented reality. The three biggest, among them Outlandish, boast turnovers of between £1 and £2 million. They’re yet to implement the equal pay suggested at their first meet-up, but they have made progress in efforts at collaboration. They now hold inter-coop training, monthly meet-ups to hold discussions and share skills, and run internal crowdfunding using the Cobudget tool (developed by New Zealand social enterprise network Enspiral).

It’s only when you set up a co-op or something other than a straight-up limited company that you see the default ‘operating system’ of 21st society: capitalism. And not just warm fuzzy capitalism, but rapacious, neoliberal capitalism that sets out to deprive normal, everyday people of money, rights, and dignity.

Robbins argues that being a co-op creates a different set of incentives: with no shareholders demanding dividends, generating profit isn’t the primary goal. And with it not being a quick or easy way to get rich, they’re more likely to be founded with a purpose that’s socially- or ethically-minded.

He sees big openings for CoTech to grow in both their member businesses and their respective staff – and thinks a lot of the UK’s small businesses are already effectively operating as co-ops. In an overheated market for developers, he believes that a big proportion of them want to work for companies that are socially responsible, but don’t want to do the repetitive web maintenance on offer at many charities.

It’s great to see CoTech continue to get mainstream press. Interestingly, and as you can see from the photo of the Rochdale pioneers that accompany both this post and the WIRED article, traditional co-ops weren’t necessarily any more diverse than their mainstream counterparts. That’s something that modern co-ops are actually really quite good at: diversity and democratic processes.

Source: WIRED