Category: Better ways of working (page 1 of 8)

So you think you’re organised?

This lengthy blog post from Stephen Wolfram, founder and CEO of Wolfram Research is not only incredible in its detail, but reveals the author’s sheer tenacity.

I’m a person who’s only satisfied if I feel I’m being productive. I like figuring things out. I like making things. And I want to do as much of that as I can. And part of being able to do that is to have the best personal infrastructure I can. Over the years I’ve been steadily accumulating and implementing “personal infrastructure hacks” for myself. Some of them are, yes, quite nerdy. But they certainly help me be productive. And maybe in time more and more of them will become mainstream, as a few already have.

Wolfram talks about how, as a “hands-on remote CEO” of an 800-person company, he prides himself on automating and streamlining as much as possible.

At an intellectual level, the key to building this infrastructure is to structure, streamline and automate everything as much as possible—while recognizing both what’s realistic with current technology, and what fits with me personally. In many ways, it’s a good, practical exercise in computational thinking, and, yes, it’s a good application of some of the tools and ideas that I’ve spent so long building. Much of it can probably be helpful to lots of other people too; some of it is pretty specific to my personality, my situation and my patterns of activity.

Wolfram has stuck with various versions of his productivity system for over 30 years. He can search across all of his emails and 100,000(!) notebooks in a single place. It’s all quite impressive, really.

What’s even more impressive, though, is that he experiments with new technologies and sees if they provide an upgrade based on his organisational principles. It reminds me a bit of Clay Shirky’s response to the question of a ‘dream setup’ being that “current optimization is long-term anachronism”.

I’ve described—in arguably quite nerdy detail—how some of my personal technology infrastructure is set up. It’s always changing, and I’m always trying to update it—and for example I seem to end up with lots of bins of things I’m not using any more (yes, I get almost every “interesting” new device or gadget that I find out about).

But although things like devices change, I’ve found that the organizational principles for my infrastructure have remained surprisingly constant, just gradually getting more and more polished. And—at least when they’re based on our very stable Wolfram Language system—I’ve found that the same is true for the software systems I’ve had built to implement them.

Well worth a read. I dare you not to be impressed.

Source: Stephen Wolfram

At the end of the day, everything in life is a ‘group project’

Everything is a group project

I like to surround myself with doers, people who are happy, like me, to roll their sleeves up and get stuff done. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of people in life who seem to busy themselves with putting up roadblocks and finding ways why their participation isn’t possible.

Source: Indexed

Make art, tell a story

As detailed here, our co-op decided last week to lift our sights, expand our vision, and represent ourselves more holistically.

So when I stumbled upon Paul Jarvis’ post on the importance of making art, it really chimed with me:

What makes the content you create awesome is that it’s a story told through your unique lens. It’s you, telling a story. It’s you not giving a fuck about anything but telling that story. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post about banking software or a video on how to make nut milk, the content will be better if you let your real personality shine.

He gives some specific tips in the short post, which is definitely worth your time.

From my point of view with Thought Shrapnel, I don’t track open rates, etc. because it means I can focus on what I’m interested in, rather than whatever I can get people to click on.

Source: Paul Jarvis

Surfacing popular Google Sheets to create simple web apps

I was struck by the huge potential impact of this idea from Marcel van Remmerden:

Here is a simple but efficient way to spot Enterprise Software ideas — just look at what Excel sheets are being circulated over emails inside any organization. Every single Excel sheet is a billion-dollar enterprise software business waiting to happen.

I searched “google sheet” education and “google sheet” learning on Twitter just now and, within about 30 seconds found:

Google Sheet example 1

…and:

Google Sheet example 2

…and:

Google Sheet example 3

These are all examples of things that could (and perhaps should) be simple web apps.In the article, van Remmerden explains how he created a website based on someone else’s Google Sheet (with full attribution) and started generating revenue.

It’s a little-known fact outside the world of developers that Google Sheets can serve as a very simple database for web applications. So if you’ve got an awkward web-based spreadsheet that’s being used by lots of people in your organisation, maybe it’s time to productise it?

Source: Marcel van Remmerden

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

Forging better habits

I’m very much looking forward to reading James Clear’s new book Atomic Habits. On his (very popular) blog, Clear shares a chapter in which he talks about the importance of using a ‘habit tracker’.

In that chapter, he states:

Habit formation is a long race. It often takes time for the desired results to appear. And while you are waiting for the long-term rewards of your efforts to accumulate, you need a reason to stick with it in the short-term. You need some immediate feedback that shows you are on the right path.

At the start of the year I started re-using a very simple app called Loop Habit Tracker. It’s Android-only and available via F-Droid and Google Play, and I’m sure there’s similar apps for iOS.

You can see a screenshot of what I’m tracking at the top of this post. You simply enter what you want to track, how often you want to do it, and tick off when you’ve achieved it. Not only can the app prompt you, should you wish, but you can also check out your ‘streak’.

Clear lists three ways that a habit tracker can help:

  1. It reminds you to act
  2. It motivates you to continue
  3. It provides immediate satisfaction

I find using a habit tracker a particularly effective way of upping my game. I’m realistic: I’ve given myself a day off every week on top of two sessions each of running, swimming, and going to the gym.

If you’re struggling to make a new habit ‘stick’, I agree with Clear that doing something like this for six weeks is a particularly effective way to kickstart your new regime!

Source: James Clear

Unpopular opinions on personal productivity

Before Christmas, I stumbled upon an interesting Twitter thread. It was started by Andrew Chen, General Partner at a16z, who asked:

What is your least popular but deeply held opinion on personal productivity?

He replied to his own tweet to get things started, commenting:

Being super organized is a bad thing. Means there’s no room for serendipity, deep thought, can make you overly passive on other peoples’ use of your time, as opposed to being focused on outbound. (Sorry to all my super Type A friends)

I’d definitely agree with that. Some of the others in the thread that I agree with are:

  • 9hour workdays are a byproduct of the industrial age. Personal productivity takes a deep fall after grinding on work for 5hours. Office hours kill personal time and productivity (@lpuchii)
  • Going on a run in the middle of the workday (@envarli)
  • Use pen and paper for scribbling notes (@uneeb123)
  • No one else has my job nor are they me, so I can’t simply follow the prescriptions of others. To be more productive, I need to look for new ideas and test. What works for someone else may be antithetical to my work. (@bguenther)
  • Great ideas rarely come from brainstorming sessions. It comes from pondering over a problem for a significant amount of time and coupling it with lots of experiments (@rajathkedi)

As ever, about half-way down the lengthy thread, it devolves into general productivity advice rather than ‘unpopular opinions’. Still worth a browse!

Source: Andrew Chen (Twitter)

The problem with Business schools

This article is from April 2018, but was brought to my attention via Harold Jarche’s excellent end-of-year roundup.

Business schools have huge influence, yet they are also widely regarded to be intellectually fraudulent places, fostering a culture of short-termism and greed. (There is a whole genre of jokes about what MBA – Master of Business Administration – really stands for: “Mediocre But Arrogant”, “Management by Accident”, “More Bad Advice”, “Master Bullshit Artist” and so on.) Critics of business schools come in many shapes and sizes: employers complain that graduates lack practical skills, conservative voices scorn the arriviste MBA, Europeans moan about Americanisation, radicals wail about the concentration of power in the hands of the running dogs of capital. Since 2008, many commentators have also suggested that business schools were complicit in producing the crash.

When I finished my Ed.D. my Dad jokingly (but not-jokingly) said that I should next aim for an MBA. At the time, eight years ago, I didn’t have the words to explain why I had no desire to do so. Now however, understanding a little bit more about economics, and a lot more about co-operatives, I can see that the default operating system of organisations is fundamentally flawed.

If we educate our graduates in the inevitability of tooth-and-claw capitalism, it is hardly surprising that we end up with justifications for massive salary payments to people who take huge risks with other people’s money. If we teach that there is nothing else below the bottom line, then ideas about sustainability, diversity, responsibility and so on become mere decoration. The message that management research and teaching often provides is that capitalism is inevitable, and that the financial and legal techniques for running capitalism are a form of science. This combination of ideology and technocracy is what has made the business school into such an effective, and dangerous, institution.

I’m pretty sure that forming a co-op isn’t on the curriculum of 99% of business schools. As Martin Parker, the author of this long article points out, after teaching in ‘B-schools’ for 20 years, ethical practices are covered almost reluctantly.

The problem is that business ethics and corporate social responsibility are subjects used as window dressing in the marketing of the business school, and as a fig leaf to cover the conscience of B-school deans – as if talking about ethics and responsibility were the same as doing something about it. They almost never systematically address the simple idea that since current social and economic relations produce the problems that ethics and corporate social responsibility courses treat as subjects to be studied, it is those social and economic relations that need to be changed.

So my advice to someone who’s thinking of doing an MBA? Don’t bother. You’re not going to be learning things that make the world a better place. Save your money and do something more worthwhile. If you want to study something useful, try researching different ways of structuring organistions — perhaps starting by using this page as a portal to a Wikipedia rabbithole?

Source: The Guardian (via Harold Jarche)

Working and leading remotely

As MoodleNet Lead, I’m part of a remote team. If you look at the org chart, I’m nominally the manager of the other three members of my team, but it doesn’t feel like that (at least to me). We’re all working on our areas of expertise and mine happens to be strategy, making sure the team’s OK, and interfacing with the rest of the organisation.

I’m always looking to get better at what I do, so a ‘crash course’ for managing remote teams by Andreas Klinger piqued my interest. There’s a lot of overlap with John O’Duinn’s book on distributed teams, especially in his emphasis of the difference between various types of remote working:

There is a bunch of different setups people call “remote teams”.

  • Satellite teams
    • 2 or more teams are in different offices.
  • Remote employees
    • most of the team is in an office, but a few single employees are remote
  • Fully distributed teams
    • everybody is remote
  • Remote first teams
    • which are “basically” fully distributed
    • but have a non-critical-mass office
    • they focus on remote-friendly communication

When i speak of remote teams, i mean fully distributed teams and, if done right, remote-first teams. I consider all the other one’s hybrid setups.

Using these terms, the Open Badges team at Mozilla was ‘Remote first’, and when I joined Moodle I was a ‘Remote employee’, and now the MoodleNet team is ‘Fully distributed’.

Some things are easier when you work remotely, and some things are harder. One thing that’s definitely more difficult is running effective meetings:

Everybody loves meetings… right? But especially for remote teams, they are expensive, take effort and are – frankly – exhausting.

If you are 5 people, remote team:

  • You need to announce meetings upfront
  • You need to take notes b/c not everyone needs to join
  • Be on time
  • Have a meeting agenda
  • Make sure it’s not overtime
  • Communicate further related information in slack
  • etc

[…]

And this is not only about meetings. Meetings are just a straightforward example here. It’s true for any aspect of communication or teamwork. Remote teams need 5x the process.

I’m a big believer in working openly and documenting all the things. It saves hassle, it makes community contributions easier, and it builds trust. When everything’s out in the open, there’s nowhere to hide.

Working remotely is difficult because you have to be emotionally mature to do it effectively. You’re dealing with people who aren’t physically co-present, meaning you have to over-communicate intention, provide empathy at a distance, and not over-react by reading something into a communication that wasn’t intended. This takes time and practice.

Ideally, as remote team lead, you want what Laura Thomson at Mozilla calls Minimum Viable Bureaucracy, meaning that you don’t just get your ducks in a row, you have self-organising ducks. As Klinger points out:

In remote teams, you need to set up in a way people can be as autonomously as they need. Autonomously doesn’t mean “left alone” it means “be able to run alone” (when needed).

Think of people as “fast decision maker units” and team communication as “slow input/output”. Both are needed to function efficiently, but you want to avoid the slow part when it’s not essential.

At the basis of remote work is trust. There’s no way I can see what my colleagues are doing 99% of the time while they’re working on the same project as me. The same goes for me. Some people talk about having to ‘earn’ trust, but once you’ve taken someone through the hiring process, it’s better just to give them your trust until they act in a way which makes you question it.

Source: Klinger.io (via Dense Discovery)

What are ‘internet-era ways of working’?

Tom Loosemore, formerly of the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) and Co-op Digital has founded a new organisation that advises governments large public organisations.

That organisation, Public.digital, has defined ‘internet era ways of working’ which, as you’d expect, are fascinating:

  1. Design for user needs, not organisational convenience
  2. Test your riskiest assumptions with actual users
  3. The unit of delivery is the empowered, multidisciplinary team
  4. Do the hard work to make things simple
  5. Staying secure means building for resilience
  6. Recognise the duty of care you have to users, and to the data you hold about them
  7. Start small and optimise for iteration. Iterate, increment and repeat
  8. Make things open; it makes things better
  9. Fund product teams, not projects
  10. Display a bias towards small pieces of technology, loosely joined
  11. Treat data as infrastructure
  12. Digital is not just the online channel

There’s a wealth of information underneath each of these, but I feel like just these top-level points should be put on a good-looking poster in (home) offices everywhere!

The only things I’d add from work smaller, but similar work I’ve done around this are:

  • Make your teams and organisation as diverse as possible
  • Ensure that your data is legible by both humans and machines

But I’m nitpicking. This is great stuff.

Source: Public.digital