Workweek 03×02: Killing momentums

Workweek 03×02: Killing momentums

A busy week, moving fast. Not ha time to write up notes, so I’m pulling this from memories. Fortunately the gods have smiled, the family is away, I have some time to think. Step one was to write everything in my notebook. Pen = flow. The tide of recollection, strung together with inky arrows.

Halfway through the week, I was feeling apprehensive about this bit. Theme of the week, though, turns out to be RITUAL. Habit. I don’t know where the line is between that and culture, but I know practice is an ally. The internet gives us so many ideas. Practicing a single idea, developing a concept, turning it into What You Do. That’s the hard bit. Everyone wants to sell you a new ritual these days.

This week, my #weeknotes are my ritual, although I only found this out yesterday (Thursday). I’ve been doing this long enough, often enough. I can do a whole week from scratch because of this – I just have to have two things on me: the confidence to get on with it, and the apathy to not get it perfect. Or vice versa. Either way, it’s a trend that keeps popping up this week. Habitual practice to ensure Progress in the face of Chaos.

The other trend running through the week is Australia. The whole country has changed where its invisible lines are, and all the abstract symbols that refer to each set of lines along with it. We’re in the middle of adjusting our abstract semiotics to match theirs, which is sort of what computers are great at, but is never easy for the human mind. Abstract representations of abstract representations, cutting through time and space. It’s enough to make you go mad.

That and I had a whole bunch of other trips to make. So I had my invisible project management outfit on from Monday morning and organised tasks into boxes and people into tasks, before setting off for my first trip.

Laura and James from HACT came down to chat about our vision for [Hive Pixie]. We’d met once before and chatted via phone, but it was the first time they’d visited our humble office. Home turf. Comfortable chat. I’m struck how important a bit of a regular shake-up is – [Hive Pixie] needed it, and right now it’s got a fresh set of heads, eyes and minds on it. Sometimes momentum on a project can be good. Here, I think the momentum was a bit of a weight. How can you tell “good” momentum from “bad” momentum? Or when do you make the decision to let things keep going as they are, and when do you decide to wipe the slate clean?

I think, as with a lot of things, there’s a good “gut instinct” here. People aren’t happy, ideas have been thrown about, solutions have been suggested, even tried out. But if there’s no real sense of satisfaction from all of that? Then something’s wrong. The momentum needs killing. This is usually pretty obvious if you’re paying attention. it’s just a confidence thing, that decision to kill the momentum. People have invested money, time and reputation – it’s a hard plug to pull. An awkward conversation: “that thing we’re doing, it’s just not working”. But it needs doing.

Fresh starts. In miniature.

Wednesday was spent in our meeting room. Another fairly fresh pair (for me, at least) visiting this time, Phil and Stuart from Brighton Uni about a social care bid. Another good session, and maybe I am getting the hang of this… whatever it is. Transmitting. Using this weird set of thoughts and processes and pipes and cultures that we employ at OCSI, to connect and translate what other people want to do into what we want to do. Business development as a medium. Networking not to connect people. but ideas.

Then more forward thinking, only from a technical perspective this time. I’ve been wanting to run a development team check-in for a while. Holidays have made it hard, but we managed it – I really didn’t want to cancel it among the ongoing Australian work, because momentum. And personal aim number two to keep me on track – feeling like head of a tech team.

The meeting felt a bit ad-hoc – I hadn’t had much time to prepare myself or anyone else. But again managed to draw on our tools and frameworks over the last year – brainstorm, post-its, dot voting, check. We had an hour or so, and didn’t go into too much detail, but I think it probably worked better because of that, and it’s probably OK to define a meeting that ends at a high-level – so long as you have a plan to turn it into low-level somehow afterwards. We got some team goals for the next 9 months ahead in place, and I’m looking forward to giving some weight to this, and working out what can be done and how to get it done.

The day ended with a meeting of a different kind. It was hard to get structure to it for various reasons, so I suppose the positive side was more around understanding the position of the person I was talking to. Sometimes the agenda goes a different way altogether, and you have to change your expectations on the fly. Ah well. Sometimes you can share your own thought structures. Other times, you just have to keep them to yourself.

By Thursday we were all starting to feel the burn a bit, so to speak. A few issues had come up on the path of the Australian work, and while we had been trying our hardest to circumnavigate them, it certainly wasn’t coming together as much as we’d hoped, especially with a few key people away on holiday. A fairly lean team went through tasks for the next two weeks, and we did our best despite the ups and downs of the work outside the room. This was a really good example of our Ritual playing out. We’d been busy, we were scattered, but we still managed to set contexts in advance, line up potential work to look at, and get some good discussion out. I think the reality will play out slightly differently, but we can only plan as best we can, and run on hope. To be honest, the team have done a fantastic job over the last two weeks. The bar was set really high. I made sure I said that out loud.

In among the grind and bug fixing, I had a lovely Annual Review with Hon Mond, one of our developers. He has a great sense of stoic efficiency about him. We also always go out for coffee for Annual Reviews, so good to get out of that damned meeting room for once. We’ve been through a lot of structure for ARs, and this time round I felt like it was something internal – not a guide to follow of a set of rules, but a script I could improvise around as I wanted to. The note in my notebook, underlined, says: WE HAVE LEARNT SO MUCH.

I ended up staying late, looking at some server issues with Hon Mond and Lawrence, back down in the grimy SQL machine. I’m surprised “improve our debugging” didn’t get more votes at the dev meeting, but maybe it’s something I can push through via other avenues. I dashed off, trying to calm my blood flow as I half-jogged to a tai chi lesson. I haven’t been for years and was excited about seeing my old teacher again. Then a seagull shat on me. I stopped to clean myself up, arrived five minutes late. Nobody there. I sat by myself for 10 minutes, listening to nothing. It was lovely.

On Friday the office was quiet – only five of us in. There was plenty going on, but it felt like the calm before the storm – we have a bank holiday next week, and both a new person starting and a company picnic on the Tuesday. I wanted to tidy up a lot of things from earlier in the week, but ended up spending the morning with Australia. I killed the momentum, made the decision not to send it into the real world yet. The universe wasn’t right. it’s good to take pressure off people if you can. it meant I had to jump between project tracking and SQL hacking again, which is something I find pretty tiring, but there you go.

At lunch, got some news which will play out over the next few weeks. Found some awesome old magazines for £1 each:

Managed to round up the week quite neatly after that though, with lots of filing and emails and aborted WordPress efforts and user setup. Onwards and onwards…

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Workweek 03×01: Craft Vader

Workweek 03×01

Back from holiday. A tent that survived the wind, and dinosaurs that didn’t survive a planetary collision. Flying a kite over an ice age forest. Board games until midnight. A miniature steam train to a nuclear power station. All just memories now.

So much to tidy up before you go away. But returning, something of a blank slate, a chance to pick and choose.

Monday.

Back to headquarters, the weekly catchup takes on new heights when you’ve been away for a while – a reflection not on what you’ve been doing, but on how things have been when you leave a hole. Culture is what happens when you leave the room. We have a great culture, I think. How do you know though, if it’s what happens when you’re not there? Instinct? Or metrics? There’s a lot of talk of measurable success these days. But instinct still counts for what’s important.

No time to delve in too deeply though – I’m on a morning train to Worthing to catch up with a few people there. After so much physical travelling on holiday, it’s weird to get back to my ‘usual’ environment. Maybe a fresh train trip is in my blood at the moment. I’m hitting series 3 of these weeknotes, and the more I think about it, the more I want to run them as a travel journal instead of just as a work diary. I don’t need to list everything I see and do, just the interesting bits, the tourist parts, the things that make me think, that I want to remember. A scrapbook of insights yanked from navigating the workday tides. A soulful documentary, curated from the surprises that stream, steadily and naturally, from the fact that I work.

This will be series 3. A road trip. And I feel like I’m not even out the door yet, just planning the destination. One series, six episodes, a month and a half, end of September. Where will I be at the end of that?

Fortunately this isn’t an audience-grabbing blockbuster. I don’t need cliffhangers or celebrities (I think?) – I can lay out some script now, to try and stick to. Here’s what would be great to have happen by series end:

  1. We have direction for the company. Will this be feasible? Will it have buy-in from everyone? Will it be clear enough to be referenced and used practically? It’s something I’ve been trying to improve for over a year now – the last major attempt was last September, so the time feels right to address it properly again.
  2. I feel like the Head of the Tech Team again. My role has wandered since the start of the year and this has lost focus a bit. The team do an excellent job, but this is something I feel like is my forte, and where my experience lies. I can take on a mentoring role here, and feed directly in to what’s important to the company. I would like to spend more time back here again.
  3. I feel more… I’m not sure. Happier? Relaxed? Confident? There’s a way of life here, a Tao that I can’t describe yet. I’m not unhappy. I’m not super stressed. I just feel like I could be better at tying everything together a bit – whether that’s better ways of organising things, or better ways of coping with it, I’m not quite sure. I want to take my lead from great craftsmen – excellent techne, focused attention, calm performance, pride. Maybe “craft” is the right word here. And ideally, I’d like that to permeate into the rest of the company too.

There are other things I’d love, of course. Details, ambitions, projects, etc. But the above three feel like they underpin a lot of those. And they’re the things which affect me as a person. So I’m perhaps more likely to pay attention to them.

Anyway, here’s my stop.

I have a certain love for reception desks. The welcome that is so symbolic for everything else. The swift coming and going of meetings and handshakes and smiles. The security measures keeping track of personal signatures like a revolving for four celebrities. Like a train station concourse, or a temporary party.

Strange, calm anxiety after my meeting. I think it comes from it going quite well, and I’m still not used to just being able to talk about things on my own – like my expectations of myself are catching up with me. Less pressure due to the excuse of coming back from holiday? Or just… Am I getting used to just “saying stuff”? Is this what people mean by “imposter syndrome”? Anyway, it’s good to talk to people. This is the fun side of the hard work – actually making a difference and helping people to do what they want to do.

Wednesday.

Full on project takeover mode, with flow diagrams and everything. Everyone is in the thick of updating our Australian work to use new administrative geographies brought in recently. Everyone is also in and out on holiday. There’s lots of activity and it’s a great team effort, so my main role is to make sure everything is being caught up front, and everyone knows what’s going on. Kind of the counterbalance to Alex as scrum master – a mini, on the ground project admin on hand to answer questions and keep the direction focused. The challenge is to do it without getting too sucked into the detail, and without going mad because everything else is happening. Same as usual then. Remind me I said that halfway through tomorrow.

I don’t really know how people do anything without flow diagrams though. Lines run my life. It’s frustrating how bad computers are at drawing lines, generally, given that we now live in a networked age.

I get to see some technical work that Lawrence has been doing in his personal time. I’m a bit afraid I find across a bit harsh – I’ve grown to see “research” from a business perspective, and sometimes I get scared by new things, I totally admit. It’s true though, sometimes the river runs too quickly and houses are unnecessarily swept away without thinking about the people in them. Happens all the time in the tech world.

But I’m reminded that there are good ways to foster progress and take new things and give them a better life, like moving the fire from kindling to the logs. We have a city building things here, with infrastructure that focuses on excellence of all sorts – technical, but also business value, shared communications, etc. Innovation is about that route to join up things to infrastructures, to allow a seed to grow up in the forest. That’s a good thing to try to do. Same aim. Just not as harsh.

I take a good, solid lunch break. This is part of the “craftsmanship” thing I’m aiming for. Browsing through the remaining emails from holiday though, I realise I still need this sense of craft when it comes to balancing projects, and relating to clients. There are not enough hours in the day.

Thursday.

A morning itinerary session. We continue to punch holes between everyone’s holidays, so today is the most opportune time to gather our collective conscious for the road ahead over the next two weeks. There’s an ambience to our sprint planning planning meeting (meta-planning? Context setting?) that I find comfortable and refreshing – if it’s allowed to happen. Today feels like drums beating at the city gates though, with external pressures bringing themselves into the room like uncomfortable guests.

Everyone talks about agendas and aims for meetings. What if ambience was a thing? Something about the culture of a particular meeting?

One thing I’ve struggled with over the last few years is technology – hugely ironically, as Head of Technology. I find it difficult to get the balance right between things being developed in a decentralised, ad hoc kind of way, and setting some sort of overall agenda that helps direct this. It seems everyone thinks they know how to do “tech”. Build it, release it, things will be better. But I don’t see the world that way any more. It feels like what we need isn’t a tech strategy, but an innovation strategy – something that addresses how development is fostered, but then also framed and integrated. In theory I could spend the rest of my life on that. Maybe I need to find others to discuss this with?

I have to change path after that. I have some American development work to attend to now that I’m back from afar. It’s just me on it, so it feels like a strange trip to a place I’ve visited before, but that is off the beaten path for us now.

I create a new git repo, plan out some tasks, read up on specs, and assemble code from across the years. It’s surprising, but it comes together quickly and I have a nice new code layer on top of our existing database, running in my local VM. Good to know I still have it…

Friday.

Yawwwwwwn, missed out on two hours sleep last night. I’ll feel it later.

I’ve got a travelling companion today, as #son1 needs to be parentally supervised, and hey, he loves coming into work for some reason. (The A1 paper, I think.)

He seems happy to get in our morning catch up across most of the team to see what’s needed on our Australian work. We’ve got a fairly hard deadline and there are some risks and difficulties still around which I’m not very keen on. But three of us get stuck in, and we have a decent plan by 11 o’clock. #son1 is drawing a volcano.

Then a welcome change of scene and pace to have a 1:1 with Kim, which is always good. I’m reminded how far our (her, really) marketing work has come in the last year, and it’s pretty amazing (and a bit scary, when you’re not so used to knowing the subject matter as line manager).

#son1 is playing with bubbles when I get out. We go for lunch, and part ways when mum turns up.

In the afternoon, I return to my American work from the day before. It’s a bit of a slog this time – setting up new database tables, importing data, configuring my code – but the results are instantly accessible and so I’m satisfied with the progress.

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