Building a system for success, without the glitches

    Wise words from Seth Godin. It’s a twist on the advice to stop doing things that maybe used to work but don’t any more. The ‘glitch’ he’s talking about here isn’t just in terms of what might not be working for you or your organisation, but for society and humanity as a whole.

    An image showing moths being irresistibly attracted to a bright light in a dark environment. Some moths are joyfully flying towards the light, while others are caught in a bug trap near the light source. This represents the idea of being drawn to something that seems beneficial but is actually harmful, a metaphor for systemic glitches or cultural traps.

    Many moths are attracted to light. That works fine when it’s a bright moon and an open field, but not so well for the moths if the light was set up as a bug trap.

    Processionary caterpillars follow the one in front until their destination, even if they’re arranged in a circle, leading them to march until exhaustion.

    It might be that you have built a system for your success that works much of the time, but there’s a glitch in it that lets you down. Or it might be that we live in a culture that creates wealth and possibility, but glitches when it fails to provide opportunity to others or leaves a mess in our front yards.

    Source: Finding the glitch | Seth’s Blog

    Image: DALL-E 3

    Doing your job well does not entail attending more meetings

    There’s a lot of swearing in this blog post, but then that’s what makes it both amusing and bang on the money. As ever, there’s a difference between ‘agile’ as in “working with agility” and ‘Agile’ which seems to mean a series of expensive workshops and a semi-dysfunctional organisation.

    Just as I captured Jay’s observation that a reward is not more email, so doing your job well does not entail attending more meetings.

    Which absolute fucking maniac in this room decided that the most sensible thing to do in a culture where everyone has way too many meetings was schedule recurring meetings every day? Don't look away. Do you have no idea how terrible the average person is at running a meeting? Do you? How hard is it to just let people know what they should do and then let them do it. Do you really think that, if you hired someone incompetent enough that this isn't an option, that they will ever be able to handle something as complicated as software engineering?

    […]

    No one else finds this meeting useful. Let me repeat that again. No one else finds this meeting useful. We’re either going to do the work or we aren’t going to do the work, and in either case, I am going to pile-drive you from the top rope if you keep scheduling these.

    […]

    If your backlog is getting bigger, then work is going into it faster than it is going out. Why is that happening? Fuck if I know, but it is probably totally unrelated to not doing Agile well enough.

    […]

    High Output Management was the most highly-recommended management book I could find that wasn’t an outright textbook. Do you know what it says at the beginning? Probably not, because the kind of person that I am forced to choke out over their love of Agile typically can’t read anything that isn’t on LinkedIn. It says work must go out faster than it goes in, and all of these meetings obviously don’t do either of those things.

    […]

    The three best managers I’ve ever worked for, with the most productive teams (at large organizations, so don’t even start on the excuses about scale) just let the team work and were there if I needed advice or a discussion, and they afforded me the quiet dignity of not hiring clowns to work alongside me.

    Source: I Will Fucking Haymaker You If You Mention Agile Again | Ludicity

    Image: Unsplash

    Hierarchy is bad for business

    I think this is a great post for people who realise that there might be something wrong with the hierarchy-by-default way we run organisations and society. It’s hard not to come away from it feeling a little liberated.

    As someone who has spent the last few years in a co-op with consent-based decision-making and a flat structure, however, I don’t buy the ‘hierarchy is here to stay’ nihilism. Instead, although it’s not what we’ve been brought up to be used to, something like sociocratic circles can scale infinitely!

    Being an adult means not measuring yourself entirely on other people’s definition of success. Personal growth might come in the guise of a big promotion, but it also might look like a new job, a different role, a swing to management or back, becoming well-known as a subject matter expert, mentoring others, running an affinity group, picking up new skill sets, starting a company, trying your hand at consulting, speaking at conferences, taking a sabbatical, having a family, working part time, etc. No one gets to define that but you.

    […]

    Why do people climb the ladder? “Because it’s there.” And when they don’t have any other animating goals, the ladder fills a vacuum.

    But if you never make the leap from externally-motivated to intrinsically-motivated, this will eventually becomes a serious risk factor for your career. Without an inner compass (and a renewable source of joy), you will struggle to locate and connect with the work that gives your life meaning. You will risk burnout, apathy and a serious lack of fucks given..

    Source: The Hierarchy Is Bullshit (And Bad For Business) | charity.wtf

    Slack emboldens the meek

    This is a useful article which focuses on the lack of internal Codes of Conduct and community managers within organisations. Performativity in the workplace is a thing, and workplace chat tools can escalate those types of behaviours into new levels of toxicity.

    People act differently online, and tools like Slack, while not expressly built to hook users, still make work feel like social media. Emoji reactions and replies provide the same validation as likes and retweets. “I don’t post online anymore because I don’t like being so public, but if I have something fun going on in my life, I will put that into Slack,” said Rebecca Levin, a Program Manager at research startup Maze. And as Ellen Cushing noted in the Atlantic, like Twitter and Reddit, discussions in Slack feel “categorically different, somehow less real.”

    Online, everyone is engaged in a digitally-mediated performance. As Erving Goffman wrote, “We are all just actors trying to control and manage our public image.” And the pressure to maintain that image can quickly turn reasonable people into pundits. When news breaks, “there’s this feeling that if I don’t post about it on Twitter, I’m complicit,” said Charlie Warzel, co-author of Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home. “You end up weighing in as if you’re some sort of public figure, despite the fact that you’re not.”

    Slack emboldens the meek; compared to an all-hands, the ease of posting makes speaking up a lot easier. Anne Helen Petersen, Warzel’s partner and co-author, has found herself in that position, and sees it as a mixed blessing. The freedom is powerful, she said, “but it also opens a portal. It’s just more discourse, right?”

    [...]

    Leaders often treat Slack as just another tool. But as Godwin’s Law wryly observed, any extended online discussion is a Hitler comparison waiting to happen. “You’re creating a public room where people are empowered to talk back,” said Marketos. “If something starts to blow up in Slack, you need to have an amazing response that’s defensible if it’s screenshotted and shared with a reporter.” While few HR teams are experienced in rapid-response crisis communications, for community managers, “it comes naturally, and it’s very much an unsung part of their skillset.”

    Source: The Extremely Online Workplace | by Benjamin Jackson

    Artificial metrics are flying by instrument

    We had a conversation earlier this week about how we’re going to measure the progress of some community work we’re doing. In the end, we decided that there were no metrics that would make sense. It’s a vibe.

    This post says much the same thing. Sometimes there are no  objective measurements for things that matter. And that’s OK.

    Flight deck controls

    Artificial metrics are flying by instrument. They're individual "better/worse" dials that in amalgamation are supposed to tell you which way things are going, as long you are paying attention to the correct combination of them at the correct moment, and don't over-react to the feedback loops and crash the whole thing via a PIO. Instrument-only flight is harder than visual flight, it takes extensive practice, and the mistakes have worse repercussions.

    You can instead choose to just fly visually. It’s easier, it’s safer, and it’ll get you where you’re trying to go. The thing is, your entire industry thinks it’s impossible, and worse, they think it is irresponsible. They’re kinda right. You have to be good at the innate skill of flying, instead of the skill of navigating by instrument. Guess which one the “become a manager in tech” system produces. Bonus points: recognize how that is itself a PIO.

    Bonus Bonus Bonus points: Consider that if you’ve learned the skillset of visual flight poorly, and you don’t use the instruments to correct yourself, how will you ever know it’s going wrong in time?

    […]

    What matters for your team/org’s success is the fundamental human relationships, comradery, esprit de corps, support and space-curation, and especially, all of the prior while treating-em-like-adults. Those things make up the totality of why people want to work on your team and are excited about working with and supporting their peers. These are not invisible things. These are things you can pay attention to, structurally. These are not things you can quantify with numbers. You’re going to have to get comfortable with forming, expressing, and defending opinions based on things besides “data.” Not because you don’t have data, but because you don’t have quantifiable numbers that represent themselves, and our industry is poisoned into believing that only such things are data. We’ve got thousands of years of evolution helping us understand how group dynamics are flowing. Yes, using that is a skill set. That’s my point. Build and use that skill set. Learn how to read people’s reactions. Learn how to understand people’s motivations. Learn how to see how people work in groups and as individuals. Do the work.

    Source: How to build orgs that achieve your goals, by absolutely never doing that | Graham says wrong things

    Image: Jp Valery

    OKRs as institutional memory

    Rick Klau, formerly of Google Ventures, is a big fan of OKRs (or ‘Objectives and Key Results’). They’re different from KPIs (or ‘Key Performance Indicators’) for various reasons, including the fact that they’re transparent to everyone in the organisation, and build on one another towards organisational goals.

    In this post, Klau talks about OKRs as a form of organisational memory, which is why he’s not fond of changing them half-way through a cycle just because there’s new information available.

    Let’s not distract ourselves just because someone had a good idea on a Tuesday standup meeting; let’s finish the stuff we said we were going to do. We might not succeed at all of it. In fact, we probably won’t, but we’ll have learned more and more. You can encode that. That becomes part of the institutional memory at the organization. (link and emphasis mine)
    Source: OKRs as institutional memory | tins ::: Rick Klau's weblog

    Information is not knowledge (and knowledge is not wisdom)

    Some reflections by Nick Milton on why knowledge management within organisations is so poor. If I were him, I would have included the below illustration from gapingvoid as I think it illustrates his five points rather well.

    data, information, knowledge, insight, wisdom, impact

    Firstly much of the knowledge of the organisation is never codified as information.

    […]

    Secondly, a common problem (a corollary of the first) is that project knowledge may never have been recorded in project documents.

    […]

    Thirdly, and a corollary to the first two, the vast majority of project information is not knowledge anyway. If you are relying on project documents as a source of knowledge, you will be relying on a very diluted source - a lot of noise and not much signal.

    […]

    Fourthly, if there is codified knowledge in the project documents, it tends to be scattered across many documents and many projects.

    […]

    Finally, many of the knowledge problems are cultural. People are incentivised to rush on to the next job rather than to spend time reflecting on lessons, no matter how important.

    Source: Why you can’t solve knowledge problems with information tools alone | Knoco Stories

    Let's talk

    Wise words from Seth Godin:

    Universities and local schools are in crisis with testing in disarray and distant learning ineffective…

    [When can we talk about what school is for?]

    It’s comfortable to ignore the system, to assume it is as permanent as the water surrounding your goldfish. But the fact that we have these tactical problems is all the evidence we need to see that something is causing them, and that spending time on the underlying structure could make a difference.

    Seth Godin, When can we talk about our systems?

    It's not just education, or racism, or healthcare, or any of the other things he lists. Organisations are made up of people, and most people don't like conflict.

    As a result, we get a constant barrage of tactical responses to emergent situations, rather than focusing on strategies that would prevent them.

    The more time we spend on purposeful reflection, the less time we spend putting out fires.

    How you do anything is how you do everything

    So said Derek Sivers, although I suspect that, originally, it's probably a core principle of Zen Buddhism. In this article I want to talk about management and leadership. But also about emotional intelligence and integrity.


    I currently spend part of my working life as a Product Manager. At some organisations, this means that you're in charge of the budget, and pull in colleagues from different disciplines. For example, a designer you're working with on a particular project might report to the Head of UX. Matrix-style management and internal budgeting keeps track of everything.

    This approach can get complicated so, at other companies (like the one I'm working with), the Product Manager manages both people and product. It's a lot of work, as both can be complicated.

    I think I'm OK at managing people, and other people say I'm good at it, but it's not my favourite thing in the world to do.

    That's why, when hiring, I try to do so in one of three ways. Ideally, I want to hire people with whom at least one member of the existing team has already worked and can vouch for. If that doesn't work, then I'm looking for people vouched for my the networks of which the team are part. Failing that, I'm trying to find people who don't wait for direction, but know how to get on with things that need doing.

    It's an approach I've developed from the work of Laura Thomson. She's a former colleague at Mozilla, and an advocate of a chaordic style of management and self-organising ducks:

    Instead of having ‘all your ducks in a row’ the analogy in chaordic management is to have ‘self-organising ducks’. The idea is to give people enough autonomy, knowledge and skill to be able to do the management themselves.

    As I've said before, the default way of organising human beings is hierarchy. That doesn't mean it's the best way. Hierachy tends to lean on processes, paperwork and meetings to 'get things done' but even a cursory glance at Open Source projects shows that all of this isn't strictly necessary.


    Last week, a new-ish member of the team said that I can be "too nice". I'm still processing that and digging into what they meant, but I then ended up reading an article by Roddy Millar for Fast Company entitled Here’s why being likable may make you a less effective leader.

    It's a slightly oddly-framed article that quotes Prof. Karen Cates from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management :

    Leaders should not put likability above effectiveness. There are times when the humor and smiles need to go and a let’s-get-this-done approach is required. Cates goes further: “Even the ‘nasty boss approach’ can be really effective—but in short, small doses—to get everyone’s attention and say ‘Hey, we’ve got to make some changes around here.’ You can then create—with an earnest approach—that more likable persona as you move forward. Likability is a good thing to have in your leadership toolkit, but it shouldn’t be the biggest hammer in the box.”

    Roddy Millar

    I think there's a difference between 'trying to be likeable' and 'treating your colleagues with dignity and respect'.

    If you're being nice to be just to liked by your team, you're probably doing it wrong. It's a bit like, back when I was teaching, teachers who wanted to be liked by the kids they taught.

    The other approach is to simply treat the people around you with dignity and respect, realising that all of human life involves suffering, so let's not add to the burden through our everyday working lives.

    If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    The above is one of my favourite quotations. We don't need to crack the whip or wield some kind of totem of hierarchical power over other people. We just need to ensure people are in the right place (physically and emotoinally), with the right things (tools, skills, and information) to get things done.


    In managers are for caring, Harold Jarche points a finger at hierarchical organisations, stating that they are "what we get when we use the blunt stick of economic consequences with financial quid pro quo as the prime motivator".

    Jarche wonders instead what would happen if they were structured more like communities of practice?

    What would an organization look like with looser hierarchies and stronger networks? A lot more human, retrieving some of the intimacy and cooperation of tribal groups. We already have other ways of organizing work. Orchestras are not teams, and neither are jazz ensembles. There may be teamwork on a theatre production but the cast is not a team. It is more like a community of practice, with strong and weak social ties.

    Harold Jarche

    I think part of the problem, to be honest, is emotional intelligence, or rather the lack of it, in many organisations.

    Unfortunately, the way to earn more money in organisations is to start managing people. Which is fine for the subset of people who have the skills to be able to handle this. For others, it's a frustrating experience that takes them away from doing the work.


    For TED Ideas, organisational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic asks Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? And what can we do about it? He lists three reasons why we have so many incompetent (male) leaders:

    1. Our inability to distinguish between confidence and competence
    2. Our love of charasmatic individuals
    3. The allure of “people with grandiose visions that tap into our own narcissism”

    He suggests three ways to fix this. The other two are all well and good, but I just want to focus on the first solution he suggests:

    The first solution is to follow the signs and look for the qualities that actually make people better leaders. There is a pathological mismatch between the attributes that seduce us in a leader and those that are needed to be an effective leader. If we want to improve the performance of our leaders, we should focus on the right traits. Instead of falling for people who are confident, narcissistic and charismatic, we should promote people because of competence, humility and integrity. Incidentally, this would also lead to a higher proportion of female than male leaders — large-scale scientific studies show that women score higher than men on measures of competence, humility and integrity. But the point is that we would significantly improve the quality of our leaders.

    Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

    The best leaders I've worked for exhibited high levels of emotional intelligence. Most of them were women.

    Developing emotional intelligence is difficult and goodness knows I'm no expert. What I think we perhaps need to do is to remove our corporate dependency on hierarchy. In hierarchies, emotion and trust is removed as an impediment to action.

    However, in my experience, hierarchy is inherently patriarchal and competitive. It's not something that's necessarily useful in every industry in the 21st century. And hierarchies are not places that I, and people like me, particularly thrive.

    Instead, I think we require trust-based ways of organising — ways that emphasis human relationships. I think these are also more conducive to human flourishing.

    Right now, approaches such as sociocracy take a while to get our collective heads around as they're opposed to our "default operating system" of hierarchy. However, over time I think we'll see versions of this becoming the norm, as it becomes ever easier to co-ordinate people at a distance.


    To sum up, what it means to be an effective leader is changing. Returning to the article cited above by Harold Jarche, he writes:

    Hierarchical teams are what we get when we use the blunt stick of economic consequences with financial quid pro quo as the prime motivator. In a creative economy, the unity of hierarchical teams is counter-productive, as it shuts off opportunities for serendipity and innovation. In a complex and networked economy workers need more autonomy and managers should have less control.

    Harold Jarche

    Many people no longer live in a world of the 'permanent job' and 'career ladder'. What counts as success for them is not necessarily a steadily-increasing paycheck, but measures such as social justice or 'making a dent in the universe'. This is where hierarchy fails, and where emergent, emotionally-intelligent leaders with teams of self-organising ducks, thrive.

    Microcast #078 — Values-based organisations

    I've decided to post these microcasts, which I previously made available only through Patreon, here instead.

    Microcasts focus on what I've been up to and thinking about, and also provide a way to answer questions from supporters and other readers/listeners!

    This microcast covers ethics in decision-making for technology companies and (related!) some recent purchases I've made.

    Show notes

    Do not impose one's own standard on the work of others. Mutual moderation and cooperation will proffer better results.

    I think I must have come across the above saying from Hsing Yun via Mayel de Borniol. It captures some of what I want to discuss in this article which centres around decision-making within organisations.

    Let's start with a great article from Roman Imankulov from Doist. He looks to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)'s approach, as enshrined in a document from 2014, explaining their 'rough consensus' approach:

    Rough consensus isn’t majority rule. It’s okay to go ahead with a solution that may not look like the best choice for everyone or even the majority. "Not the best choice" means that you believe there is a better way to solve the problem, but you accept that this one will work too. That type of feedback should be welcomed, but it shouldn’t be allowed to slow down a decision.

    Roman Imankulov

    If they try hard enough, everyone can come up with a reason why an idea or approach won't work. My experience is that many middle-aged white men see it as their sworn duty to come up with as many of those reasons as possible 🙄

    What the IETF calls 'rough consensus' I think I'd probably call 'alignment'. You don't all have to agree that a proposal is without problems, but those problems should be surmountable. Within CoTech, a network of co-operatives to which We Are Open belongs, we use Loomio. It has a number of decision tools, including the 'proposal':

    Example of a 'proposal' from Loomio's documentation

    As you can see, there's the ability for anyone to 'Block' a proposal, meaning that it can't be passed in its current form. People can 'Abstain' if there's a conflict of interest, or if they don't feel like they've got enough experience or expertise. Note that it's entirely possible for someone to 'Disagree' and the motion to still go ahead.

    What I like about Loomio is a tool is that it focuses on decision-making. It's not about endless discussion and debate, but about having a bias towards action. You can separate the planning process from the implementation stage:

    Rough consensus doesn’t mean that we don’t aim for perfection in the actual implementation of the solution. When implementing, we should always aim for technical excellence. Commitment to the implementation is often what makes a solution the right one. (This is similar to Amazon’s "disagree and commitment" philosophy.)

    Roman Imankulov

    I can't, by my nature, stand hierarchy. Unfortunately, it's the default operating system of most organisations, and despite our best efforts, we haven't got a one-size-fits-all alternative to it. I think this is partly because nobody has to teach you how hierarchy works.

    Over the weekend, while we were walking in the Lake District, Tom Broughton and I were discussing sociocracy:

    Sociocracy, also known as dynamic governance, is a system of governance which seeks to achieve solutions that create harmonious social environments as well as productive organizations and businesses. It is distinguished by the use of consent rather than majority voting in decision-making, and decision-making after discussion by people who know each other.

    Wikipedia

    Tom's a Quaker and so used to consent-based decision-making. I explained that we'd asked Outlandish (a CoTech member) to run a sociocratic design sprint to kick off our work around MoodleNet. It was based on the Google design sprint approach, but — as Kayleigh from Outlandish points out — featured an important twist:

    We decided to remove the ‘decider’ role that a Google Sprint employs. We weren’t comfortable with the responsibility and authority of decisions sitting with one person, and having spent a few years practising sociocracy already, it just wouldn’t have felt right.

    [...]

    Martin, Moodle’s CEO and founder joined us for the duration of the sprint. While Martin naturally had the most expertise in the domain, the most ‘skin in the game’ and the had done the most background thinking sociocracy meant that he still needed to convince the rest of the sprint team as to why his ideas were best, and take on board other suggestions and compromises. We feel that it led to better outputs at each stage of the design sprint.

    Kayleigh Walsh

    It was the first time I'd seen a CEO give up their hierarchical power in the interests of ensuring that we designed something that could be the best it could possibly be. In fact, that week last May is probably one of the highlights of my career to date.

    Diagram of how Sociocracy works
    Diagram via Sociocracy for All

    That was one week into which was poured a lot of time, attention, and money. But what if you want to practise something like sociocracy on a day-to-day basis? You have to think about structure of organisations, as there's no such thing as 'structureless' group:

    Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness -- and that is not the nature of a human group.

    Jo Freeman

    It's only within the last year that I've discovered left-libertarianism as a coherent political and social philosophy that helps me reconcile two things that I've previously found difficult. On the one hand, I believe in a small state. On the other, I believe we have a duty to one another and should help out wherever possible.

    Left-libertarianism, also known as left-wing libertarianism, names several related yet distinct approaches to political and social theory which stress both individual freedom and social equality. In its classical usage, left-libertarianism is a synonym for anti-authoritarian varieties of left-wing politics such as libertarian socialism which includes anarchism and libertarian Marxism among others.

    [...]

    While maintaining full respect for personal property, left-libertarians are skeptical of or fully against private ownership of natural resources, arguing in contrast to right-libertarians that neither claiming nor mixing one's labor with natural resources is enough to generate full private property rights and maintain that natural resources (raw land, oil, gold, the electromagnetic spectrum, air-space and so on) should be held in an egalitarian manner, either unowned or owned collectively. Those left-libertarians who support private property do so under occupation and use property norms or under the condition that recompense is offered to the local or even global community.

    Wikipedia

    In other words, you don't have to be a Marxist, communist, or anarchist to be a left-libertarian. It means you can start from a basis of personal autonomy, but end with an egalitarian approach to the world where resources (especially natural resources) are collectively owned.

    To me, this is the position from which we should start when we think about decision-making within organisations. First of all, we should ask: who owns the organisation? Why? Second, we should consider how the organisation should be structured. Ten layers of management might be bad, but so is a completely flat structure for 700 people. And finally, we should think about appropriate mechanisms for decision-making.

    The usual criticisms of sociocracy and other consent-based decision-making systems is that they are too slow, that they don't work in practice. In my experience, by participating in the Outlandish/Moodle design sprint, witnessing a Mozilla Festival session in which participants quickly got up-to-speed on sociocracy, and through CoTech gatherings (both online and offline), I'd say sociocracy is a viable solution.

    The best decisions aren't ones where you have all of the information to hand. That's impossible. The best decisions are based on trust and consent.

    As I get older, I'm realising that the best way we can improve the world is to improve its governance. It's not that we haven't got extremely talented people in the world, it's that we don't always know how to make good decision. I'd like to change that.

    Friday frustrations

    I couldn't help but notice these things this week:

    • Don’t ask forgiveness, radiate intent (Elizabeth Ayer) ⁠— "I certainly don’t need a reputation as being underhanded or an organizational problem. Especially as a repeat behavior, signalling builds me a track record of openness and predictability, even as I take risks or push boundaries."
    • When will we have flying cars? Maybe sooner than you think. (MIT Technology Review) — "An automated air traffic management system in constant communication with every flying car could route them to prevent collisions, with human operators on the ground ready to take over by remote control in an emergency. Still, existing laws and public fears mean there’ll probably have to be pilots at least for a while, even if only as a backup to an autonomous system."
    • For Smart Animals, Octopuses Are Very Weird (The Atlantic) — "Unencumbered by a shell, cephalopods became flexible in both body and mind... They could move faster, expand into new habitats, insinuate their arms into crevices in search of prey."
    • Cannabidiol in Anxiety and Sleep: A Large Case Series. (PubMed) — "The final sample consisted of 72 adults presenting with primary concerns of anxiety (n = 47) or poor sleep (n = 25). Anxiety scores decreased within the first month in 57 patients (79.2%) and remained decreased during the study duration. Sleep scores improved within the first month in 48 patients (66.7%) but fluctuated over time. In this chart review, CBD was well tolerated in all but 3 patients."
    • 22 Lessons I'm Still Learning at 82 (Coach George Raveling) — "We must always fill ourselves with more questions than answers. You should never retire your mind. After you retire mentally, then you are just taking up residence in society. I do not ever just want to be a resident of society. I want to be a contributor to our communities."
    • How Boris Johnson's "model bus hobby" non sequitur manipulated the public discourse and his search results (BoingBoing) — "Remember, any time a politician deliberately acts like an idiot in public, there's a good chance that they're doing it deliberately, and even if they're not, public idiocy can be very useful indeed."
    • It’s not that we’ve failed to rein in Facebook and Google. We’ve not even tried. (The Guardian) — "Surveillance capitalism is not the same as digital technology. It is an economic logic that has hijacked the digital for its own purposes. The logic of surveillance capitalism begins with unilaterally claiming private human experience as free raw material for production and sales."
    • Choose Boring Technology (Dan McKinley) — "The nice thing about boringness (so constrained) is that the capabilities of these things are well understood. But more importantly, their failure modes are well understood."
    • What makes a good excuse? A Cambridge philosopher may have the answer (University of Cambridge) — "Intentions are plans for action. To say that your intention was morally adequate is to say that your plan for action was morally sound. So when you make an excuse, you plead that your plan for action was morally fine – it’s just that something went awry in putting it into practice."
    • Your Focus Is Priceless. Stop Giving It Away. (Forge) — "To virtually everyone who isn’t you, your focus is a commodity. It is being amassed, collected, repackaged and sold en masse. This makes your attention extremely valuable in aggregate. Collectively, audiences are worth a whole lot. But individually, your attention and my attention don’t mean anything to the eyeball aggregators. It’s a drop in their growing ocean. It’s essentially nothing."

    Image via @EffinBirds

    Culture eats strategy for breakfast

    The title of this post is a quotation from management consultant, educator, and author Peter Drucker. Having worked in a variety of organisations, I can attest to its truth.

    That's why, when someone shared this post by Grace Krause, which is basically a poem about work culture, I paid attention. Entitled Appropriate Channels, here's a flavour:

    We would like to remind you all
    That we care deeply
    About our staff and our students
    And in no way do we wish to silence criticism
    But please make use of the
    Appropriate Channels

    The Appropriate Channel is tears cried at home
    And not in the workplace
    Please refrain from crying at your desk
    As it might lower the productivity of your colleagues

    Organisational culture is difficult because of the patriarchy. I selected this part of the poem, as I've come to realise just how problematic it is to let people know (through words, actions, or policies) that it's not OK to cry at work. If we're to bring our full selves to work, then emotion is part of it.

    Any organisation has a culture, and that culture can be changed, for better or for worse. Restaurants are notoriously toxic places to work, which is why this article in Quartz, is interesting:

    Since four-time James Beard award winner Gabrielle Hamilton opened Prune’s doors in 1999, she, along with her co-chef Ashley Merriman, have established a set of principles that help guide employees at the restaurant. According to Hamilton and Merriman, the code has a kind of transformative power. It’s helped the kitchen avoid becoming a hierarchical, top-down fiefdom—a concentration of power that innumerable chefs have abused in the past. It can turn obnoxious, entitled patrons into polite diners who are delighted to have a seat at the table. And it’s created the kind of environment where Hamilton and Merriman, along with their staff, want to spend much of their day.

    The five core values of their restaurant, which I think you could apply to any organisation, are:

    1. Be thorough and excellent in everything that you do
    2. Be smart and funny
    3. Be disarmingly honest
    4. Work without division of any kind
    5. Practise servant leadership

    We live in the 'age of burnout', according to another article in Quartz, but there's no reason why we can't love the work we do. It's all about finding the meaning behind the stuff we get done on a daily basis:

    Our freedom to make meaning is both a blessing and a curse. To get somewhat existential about it, “work,” and the problems associated with it as an amorphous whole, do not exist: For the individual, only his or her work exists, and the individual is in control of that, with the very real power radically to change the situation. You could start the process of changing your job right now, today. Yes, arguments about the practicality of that choice well up fast and high. Yes, you would have to find another way to pay the bills. That doesn’t negate the fact that, fundamentally, you are free.

    It's important to remember this, that we choose to do the work we do, that we don't have to work for a single employer, and that we can tell a different story about ourselves at any point we choose. It might not be easy, but it's certainly doable.


    Also check out:

    Hierarchies and large organisations

    This 2008 post by Paul Graham, re-shared on Hacker News last week, struck a chord:

    What's so unnatural about working for a big company? The root of the problem is that humans weren't meant to work in such large groups.

    Another thing you notice when you see animals in the wild is that each species thrives in groups of a certain size. A herd of impalas might have 100 adults; baboons maybe 20; lions rarely 10. Humans also seem designed to work in groups, and what I’ve read about hunter-gatherers accords with research on organizations and my own experience to suggest roughly what the ideal size is: groups of 8 work well; by 20 they’re getting hard to manage; and a group of 50 is really unwieldy.

    I really enjoyed working at the Mozilla Foundation when it was around 25 people. By the time it got to 60? Not so much. It’s potentially different with every organisation, though, and how teams are set up.

    Graham goes on to talk about how, in large organisations, people are split into teams and put into a hierarchy. That means that groups of people are represented at a higher level by their boss:

    A group of 10 people within a large organization is a kind of fake tribe. The number of people you interact with is about right. But something is missing: individual initiative. Tribes of hunter-gatherers have much more freedom. The leaders have a little more power than other members of the tribe, but they don't generally tell them what to do and when the way a boss can.

    […]

    [W]orking in a group of 10 people within a large organization feels both right and wrong at the same time. On the surface it feels like the kind of group you’re meant to work in, but something major is missing. A job at a big company is like high fructose corn syrup: it has some of the qualities of things you’re meant to like, but is disastrously lacking in others.

    These words may come back to haunt me, but I have no desire to work in a huge organisation. I’ve seen what it does to people — and Graham seems to agree:

    The people who come to us from big companies often seem kind of conservative. It's hard to say how much is because big companies made them that way, and how much is the natural conservatism that made them work for the big companies in the first place. But certainly a large part of it is learned. I know because I've seen it burn off.
    Perhaps there's a happy medium? A four-day workweek gives scope to either work on a 'side hustle', volunteer, or do something that makes you happier. Maybe that's the way forward.

    Source: Paul Graham

    Implicit leverage

    Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution asks how well we understand the organisations we work with and for:

    Most (not all) organizations have forms of leverage which are built in and which do not show up as debt on the balance sheet.  Banks may have off-balance sheet risk through derivatives, companies may sell off their valuable assets, and NBA teams may tank their ability to keep draft picks and free agents in their future.
    In other words, every organisation has people, other organisations, or resources on which it is dependent. That can look like event organisers not alienating a sponsor, universities maintaining their brand overseas so they can continue to recruit lucrative overseas students, and organisations doing well because of a handful of individuals that win investors' trust.

    When it comes to politics, of course, ‘leverage’ is almost always something problematic. In fact, we usually use the phrase ‘in the pocket of’ instead to show our opprobrium when a politician has close financial ties to, say, a tobacco company or big business.

    In other words, understanding how leverage works in everyday life, business, and politics is probably something we should be teaching in schools.

    Source: Marginal Revolution


    Image by Mike Cohen used under a Creative Commons License

    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)

    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)

    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)

    Owners need to invest in employees to have them feel invested in their work

    Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, writes:

    As the nature of work changes, the factors keeping people invested in and motivated by that work are changing, too. What's clear is that our conventional strategies for cultivating engagement may no longer work. We need to rethink our approach.
    I think it's great that forward-thinking organisations are trying to find ways to make work more fulfilling, and be part of a more holistic approach to life.
    Current research suggests that extrinsic rewards (like bonuses or promotions) are great at motivating people to perform routine tasks—but are actually counterproductive when we use them to motivate creative problem-solving or innovation. That means that the value of intrinsic motivation is rising, which is why cultivating employee engagement is such an important topic right now.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that people no longer want to be paid for their work. But a paycheck alone is no longer enough to maintain engagement. As work becomes more difficult to specify and observe, managers have to ensure excellent performance via methods other than prescription, observation, and inspection. Micromanaging complex work is impossible.

    Whitehurst suggests that there are three things organisations can do. I’d support all of these:

    1. Connect to a mission and purpose
    2. Reconsider your view of failure
    3. Cultivate a sense of ownership
    However, what I think is startlingly missing from almost every vision from people 40+ is that they should be thinking about actual employee ownership — not just cultivating a 'sense' of it.

    Don’t get me wrong, forming a co-op doesn’t automatically guarantee worker satisfaction, but it’s a whole lot more motivating when you know you’re not just working to make someone else rich.

    Source: opensource.com

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