Weeknotes 08×04: Tumbleweed strategy

A boat on a pond
From the Flickr stream

Woo. Arg. Woo. Arg. What a week. And it was only a three-dayer too. I feel like I’m six different people. All of them need beer. It’s funny, we don’t celebrate the times that we learn the most. We celebrate releases and deadlines and things leaving our field of vision forever, but the other times that we put everything in and find ourselves challenged? Water under the bridge, mate. A personal memory, lost in time.

ONE. This week was a sprint week, which meant the usual lining up of work, and a few hours to go through it and decide what to get done. Not easy when everyone’s off at times over the next month – time, especially shared time is a precious commodity during the summer holidays. I’m surprised businesses don’t just shut down fully, like a cafe.

Still, the most important thing is to keep reminding people of the fact that there will shortly be no people to remind.

Tumbleweeds on a dusty road

Next sprint meeting

Personally I can’t believe #son1 is finishing up Key Stage 1 today. WHERE HAS MY LIFE GONE? Oh right, databases and whisky. Fair do.

TWO. This lack-of-people-for-the-next-month combined with a push-to-get-actual-strategies-together in time for September (our financial year start – get you, synchronicity) has meant we need to review and decide our KEY OBJECTIVES right about a month ago. Sadly, that means now, but with less time. The scene running through my head this week is the bit in Space Balls where the priest wants to get the heroes married, but they keep getting interrupted. “Right, we’re gonna do the short, SHORT version. Do you? Great. Do you? Great. You’ve got a strategy. Kiss!”

(Note – don’t kiss your colleagues at this point in real life. Makes for spurious headlines and bad lawsuits.)

Fellow management team member Kim has been great at pushing this forwards, and is well on the case with getting a structured, meaningful output. Somehow I’ve managed to take on the task of arranging and agreeing our shared aims for the year, probably because I’ve had a go at it before and failed, but nobody else knows how to do it either???

So the short, SHORT version has had to be compiled on the fly, with some rather reactive planning sessions and some hesitant moments. Which is actually pretty knackering, it turns out.

One of our challenges is that, as a four-headed management team, we need a way to decide how to make a decision – I really felt the lack of a single startegy owner here, and spent a lot of time working out what was effectively a stakeholder input process. In my head, there are three potential approaches to getting a shared vision when no-one is really in charge:

  • Assign one person to decide it. But how do you choose how to assign the person?
  • Gather input, prioritise democratically, and keep everything ‘strictly algorithmic’. But deciding a fair algorithm is hard!
  • Gather input, but use it to form a summary and proposal, as a ‘playback’ or mirror of what it sounds like the input says. Kind of a curation/suggestion process.

I started off with #2, but after a couple of days off, I realised I’d already applied the third approach as part of the tech strategy plan a few months ago, and that we didn’t have the time to come up with complicated democratic process. So I wrote up a “suggested” strategy, but as a summary of what had been discussed so far (as much as I could keep my own biases out). This was then presented, or ‘played back’ to the team, being sure to ask:

  • Is this a fair summary of what we discussed? followed by
  • What changes would you make?, and finally
  • Does this give you enough to get on with our agreed next steps, or what you would like to do?

This, for me, gets a good coverage of 1) agreed, common ground (I was keen to keep it only to common goals at this point too), 2) opportunity for further, iterative feedback, and 3) a practical focus.

I hope this is a gif from highlander

“COMMON GROUND, HIGHLANDER!”

By writing this up as a weeknote, I’m reminded that the other value here is that there are people out there I can discuss this stuff with, and that’s also invaluable.

THREE. I went to my first meeting for a Steering Group! One way or another, I’d been put in touch with a local charity looking to run a short term project to look at local charities (whoa, meta). We had a really good chat last week, and I was pleased and/or impressed that I could say some useful and helpful things. It was great to get out of the office a bit again, and the conversation tied nicely into various bits of work that we do or have done.

FOUR. All of which has left me feeling a bit all over the place. I’m reminded of how many different roles I play and how much context switching I do, and I still don’t know if that’s healthy, or necessary, or fun, or what. A bit of me wishes life was simpler, but that’s where things are at – line managing and directoring and parenting and still my own code from years back is running.

Anyway, I sort of just want to sit down and drink a beer and play a game and watch a film and do the crossword. I think maybe that’s just my mind, perhaps. This, that and the other.

Going to get some gifs and close the keyboard. Oh hey wait, those gifs are tiny! Oh well, have a good week!

Weeknotes 08×03: In a year’s time, kids love place-based Google Forms

Last week feels like a long weekend away. Looking back, it was a good one. I’m noticing a little bit that I enjoy weeks more now that I’m blocking work in and planning time out more. But the enjoyment doesn’t (just) come from the organisation – it’s actually the ability to get into the detail, and detach from everything else more, that I think I really enjoy.

Paul Graham’s old post on Makers’ schedules is still in my head – I’m much closer to a Maker than a “Boss” (if you equate “Boss” with “lots of meetings and overviews”). Way back in series 3, I was trying to apply the idea of “craft” to my job – I don’t see Management fundamentally as a routine, or a set of responsibilities. These all exist, but as an artifact. The underlying motivation, instead, is to make something – or some things: make a team, that makes a codebase, that makes a product, that makes a company, that makes a difference.

People talk about coders needing head space for “flow”. Actually I’m doing the same thing, but with resources, diaries, skills, directions. It’s great fun when you can get into it. And frustrating when you can’t.

A painter rolling about a room with paint going everywhere

Painting with strategy

What else happened?

1. Thinking ahead by a year is actually pretty easy once you get used to it

Turned down some work. Would have been an amazing project. But we decided we don’t have the short term capacity. But raised the notion of what I would like to work on, and when.

Perhaps relatedly, had a longer 1-1 with Luke (for me) than expected on Monday – I can jabber on a bit. Took in company strategy, team building, process, and everything. And I pasted in my 6-week aims from my weeknotes, which was nice.

I still can’t decide if things sometimes happen in the company because I get a bit frustrated, and talk about it and project it, or if I just pick up on others’ frustrations, and they do something about it anyway. Probably a bit of both.

Anyway, I was bit down before. I’m feeling more productive after a bit of a break, and back to planning next year.

2. It turns out kids love place-based statistics after all

Day off, but did a talk for sixty 6-7 year olds at school as part of their “Maths Week”. I went in to chat about how we use maths in our job. Or “Government stats for kids” – not something I’ve seen anyone else do, so challenge accepted!

I was a bit dubious. Numbers and charts can be a bit of a dry subject, as one of the teachers remarked beforehand…

It went brilliantly! Turns out guessing populations of English towns and cities can be as raucous as a showing of Jack and the Beanstalk. The kids asked some great questions (“what inspired you to do your job?”, “is it hard to use maths for what you do?”) and the teachers even got interested, especially when the maps came up.

I’ve put my slides online here in case they’re useful for anyone, but broadly speaking, the aims were:

  1. Link complicated Census-type datasets back to the basics of measuring things in the world, eg like height, weight, goals scored, etc.
  2. Give the kids an idea of their local area by asking them to guess the population of their local town. This also introduced them to slightly larger numbers such as 25,000 – most kids think either in hundreds (5,000 is “big” to them) or abstracts (“millions” are the same as “bazillions”. One kid had heard of a Google plex.)
  3. Make it easy to compare big numbers – we looked at the populations of Seaford, Eastbourne and Brighton & Hove (and England!) by adding each in turn to a bar chart. Everyone got the visualisation, I think, much more than the absolute numbers.
  4. Show them that once you have the numbers, you can show them in different ways, so we had a quick pie chart, a map, and some tables. They’d done all of this in class already, thankfully.

A strange made up maths formula probably from the simpsons

Job done

3. Adventures in time, priorities, and Google Forms to decide the years ahead

Board Meeting. Then played a game of Go with Hon Mond. I keep losing, but I’m hoping that’s just learning fast. It’s great to chat through tactics and “what-ifs”, feels like you get to really know how someone thinks by how they play.

Started looking at how we split our time across products. I’d agreed to have a think about how to come up with a way of deciding this, and it’s something that’s been bugging me for a lonnnnng time.

I have a personal problem with TIME though – maker time isn’t solid and reliable, but flexible and reactive. How you fill your time is more important thanhow much you have. And to decide how to spend it, you need to know what’s important to start with.

I started out thinking about stakeholders and needs, but by Friday I’d decided that was too much work. Instead, I put together a Google Form which looked at a number of conflicts – in other words, where did I think we’re making constant decisions about how to prioritise work, across the company?

This could be at individual level, team level, or anywhere in between. it comes up everywhere, in different guises – prioritising work in backlogs, dot-voting in retros, casual conversation, etc.

By the end of the week, I’d sent the form to the four of us in the Management Team, and will spend the next week waiting for feedback, and working out what to do with the answers. Probably standardise the answers, combine them, and highlight the results, with an important focus on where we think alike, and where we don’t. This will form the basis of conversation and, later on, metrics.

I should probably write this up as a separate blog post too. Who’s got all the time though?

Culturewatch

As I’ve been fairly ‘outwards’ the last few weeks, I’ve been reclaiming my introvert brain by playing some games in the evening. I finally finished Portal (yeah, I’m not fussed about novelty value), and recommend it as a brain-walloping platform-puzzle tangler.

As a result, I haven’t read or listened to much otherwise. My copy of Radical Focus by Christina Wodtke turned up, but I’m planning to read The Manager’s Path first.

A couple of Telegram zines from schoolformaps also turned up.

Pondwatch

The new ‘secret’ beach (some fresh pebbles) is still there, although the grass underneath is breaking through, like some counter-culture situationist parable. There is a good selection of cute baby birds at the moment, with 2 ducklings and 2 moorhen chicks pecking around.

There seem to be a lot of missing pet posters around at the moment?