How Do We Avoid “Diversity” Becoming a Business Thing?

(Disclaimer: Thinking out loud, as with all my blogposts. Do feel free to agree/critique/argue, and I reserve the right to change my(/your) mind and progress my thinking as part of this process.)

Catherine Howe’s weeknotes/fieldnotes on “multidisciplinary-working” delves into something I keep passively returning to: the value of diversity as a first-and-foremost value. We stand at a point where we need to establish diversity as a conscious act if we want to allow it to exist against a tide of anti-diversity in the world. As Catherine notes, this requires:

a decision to create a shared endeavour of a blended practice that is built on diversity because you believe the outcome will be better because of that diversity of experience and mindset

This is something I’ve come to realise more formally and faithfully in the last few years. When going through an exercise to establish “shared values” within a team, how can we not begin with an understanding that we are establishing a common set because we are already inherently different?

However, I have a love/hate relationship with this view that diversity = a better outcome. I love it because, in one sense, I am an outcome. So many different people have influenced me in my life, and it would be impossible to draw a distinction between myself and that crowd of opinions, backgrounds, knowledge and love.

And yet, a bit of me worries about turning diversity into a proposition for “better business”. Which is always a worry in capitalist society. And which is not to say I think Catherine or myself are purely adopting a “diversity is great for profit” perspective. More that, if we’re not careful, that is how such well-intended social value modelling can quickly go.

Thinking out loud, can we break the value-of-diversity into three slightly-distinct forms?

  1. Diversity as impacts the individual (the self) in order to gather a wide range of experience into one single mind.

  2. Diversity as impacts business effectiveness, ie heterogeneity either produces more sustainable or effective ways of producing business value, purely through less groupthink, or it helps a business to link into wider external needs, such as a larger market.

  3. Diversity as impacts our democratic sustainability as a society, and hence our more general sustainability as a species. Without diversity and integration, the risk is not that we become ineffective like a business, but that we become hostile and warmongering.

Of these, #1 and #3 are potentially likely to be pushed out by #2. It seems to be a sad truth that we’re moving towards a world in which humans and experience are valued primarily for their economic value. Perhaps this is the desperate, dying efforts of a society hooked on the growth of capital, and the need to generate database numbers from anything easily and virtually1 exploitable. An endless supply of get-rich-quick subjects.

Personal experience counts for little these days – not unless you can blog it and get sponsored. It remains to be seen if democracy and non-war have any particular foothold in this century.

1 By “virtually”, I mean anything that can be modelled into numbers, and hence have generic algorithms run against it.

Weeknotes TEN:4 – Flappy

How do I feel?

It’s Friday, and I would say that I feel “flappy”. This week has been a rather mad buzz of ideas and different strands of work. I’ve been quite heavily involved in most of it, so it’s largely been good, if tiring. I haven’t had much time to prepare for each thing and – ironically after my ukgovcamp session on making time to think* – have often just been jumping context without a break.

I’m not sure if that’s life, or if I’m at a particular point in projects, between all the different worlds going on. It feels quite fragmented, like everyone has the confidence to have their own pet project, and I’m not quite sure if my attempts to get some focus through a planning spreadsheet are working or not, and causing me stress or not. I know I like having it there as a checklist, either way. And I suspect there will come a time when it all comes in use across the whole team. Just not yet…

* Still planning to write this up. Wow, when do you other people get time to write more than just weeknotes?

What was I proud of?

  • Finally running a quarterly update for the management team on what the Tech Team have been up to (see below). This is something I’ve learned from marketing head Kim over the last few years – presenting your work isn’t just a status update for others, but a way to show and prove the value that is important to you – to highlight what you’re bringing to the table. At a higher and vaguer level of work, or when your area is not so easily understood, communicating that value to others really helps to clarify it.

  • Trying out some User Story Mapping techniques in our UX session for a new data dashboard. I’ve read the User Story Mapping book and loved it, and caught the end of @Darwin‘s USM session at ukgovcamp at the weekend. Back in the meeting office, we plotted out major steps and used it to break down user needs, raise questions, and locate ideas. Between three of us, we had very little experience with doing this, but we managed to cobble something together, and what we did do really helped us to work out what was the important stuff.

A photo of our dashboard story mapping session.

What could I have done better?

  • Mostly, going to bed earlier. Ukgovcamp on Saturday left me pretty exhausted, as did going to bed later than hoped (11pm rather than 10pm), and being woken up in the night by #son2. Been running on coffee and that notion of momentum mostly. Fortunately the work has all been constructive, ‘comfortable’ work and there’s not been much need to ‘cover up’ or pretend to be too serious, etc.

  • Chasing up little admin-type things which are starting to build up. I feel like I’ve been letting this happen a bit this month, and suspect it’ll overwhelm me in a week or two.

  • Writing things down. I had a question to ask the week noters crowd, and I’ve totally forgotten it.

Monday

A photo of the frozen pond outside the house.

  • The week began with a total lunar eclipse and the first frozen pond of the year. Jogging through the frost of the morning was a good way to wake up after sleeping badly. #son2 is getting quick on his scooter.

  • Spent the morning diving in to hotfix a live bug. Useful test of a git merging script I’d put together before. And kickstarted a hotfix review process – we haven’t done this before IIRC, but now is a good time. Web dev John started a handy document for people to chip thoughts in. Sometimes that’s all it takes – when something fails, I think it’s good for people to have somewhere to write down thoughts for later. Maybe error review process is similar to the therapy aspect of week-noting?

  • Two good meetings in the afternoon, delving into story definitions and interface design. I think I did a good job in the first of staying at the “Why” level – pulling people away from the detail when the conversation started to go that way.

Wednesday

  • Chatted with Alex (developer) to go through his process for merging and releasing code at the end of a sprint. We broke the steps up into stages, and by type of task, and compared this to the script we already have for hotfixes. (No, autocorrect, not “bodice”.) A few clear, distinct scripts emerged from this, which along with understanding Alex’s brain more, made it fairly easy to write up a much clearer spec for what we should do next.

A photo of Alex's process and notes.

  • Spent a good, solid chunk of time writing up slides for presenting tech team progress to the rest of the management team. This felt good because two reasons:
  1. I’ve come to realise the value of telling people what I do, in order to avoid feeling/being taken for granted. Sometimes you can’t just sit back and wait for people to appreciate your own work.

  2. I got to put a bunch of gifs in of animals and typewriters

A monkey typing on a laptop.

  • Found out Mary, our recently-new researcher, researched blockchain use in international aid at Uni, which means I have someone I can waffle on to about blockchains when I get really drunk?

Thursday

  • Caught the management team up with what happened last quarter in the Tech team, what we learnt, and what’s coming up next. That middle one, “what we learnt”, felt like the most valuable section. We’re all learning, but it can often be that we only realise we’re learning that we turn out into “experience”.

Friday

  • Trying to focus on my sprint work while trying to make sure some incoming work got the planning it needed. As I mentioned right at the top, we seem to have a lot going on and kicking up, and there’s a good chance that we’ll end up very fragmented, chaotic, disrupted and frustrated in about 2-3 weeks. I’m trying hard to navigate a route through, between doing the work I’ve lined up, and responding to work coming in.

  • Idea to self: Get some time to work out where my skills are needed in all the work going on, as it doesn’t look like anyone else is going to sort out the work planning side of things.

  • I still love unit testing. I wonder how it could be applied to non-coding things, like politics and communication. Test-driven democracy, anyone?

Random stuff

(Unhappily for everybody, a utopia, as a perfected human condition, is a static society, and static societies are dystopias)

Weeknotes TEN:3 – Twisty and Strange

Can you believe it’s Monday already? Last week feels like eons ago, as I jumped on a train Friday night, and then UkGovCamp 2019 happened. I want to write that up separately, but just wanted to say that the weeknotes session organised by Lizzi and Jenny was great. It was amazing to see all the people in the room who had started, or were thinking of it – almost as amazing as seeing Jukesie seem to wonder and tremble at what he hath created. 😯

This week we went for a truly eatable lunch to celebrate Joel leaving and Mary and John having birthdays, at Chilli Pickle where the ceiling was stars and a green pepper wiped me out for a good 5 minutes.

Photo of decorative stars hanging from a restaurant ceiling.

1. The path of a manager is twisty and strange

I finished reading The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier this week. I can’t remember who recommended this originally but I think it was one of the weeknoters. If it was you, then thank you!

It’s a very readable book, and comes across with the air of a gentle, experienced mentor. There isn’t lots of detail or huge practical exercises to try. What it did do was confirm that I am on the right path – as far as I can tell. There was enough advice in the book that made sense, and fitted with I already do. Up until now, without a particular mentor (but some management training courtesy of Martin Johnson), I feel like I’ve been running off instinct and personal values (or “making it up”).

So that’s a nice boost. There’s also some really good advice on structure and cultural strategy in the final chapter, and I’d love for others in the company to read it. I’ve suggested it, but I still struggle to hook people into the things I find interesting. Maybe it’s just their loss. Maybe I’m not persuasive enough?

Here are my takeaways from the last chapter anyway:

p. 192 looks at what kind of teams a structure-light setup works well in – namely, task-oriented, small and homogenous, lots of communication, and low skill specialisation. That’s basically my team, and it’s fascinating to think which bits have been consciously guided vs unconsciously guided, vs by accident. (And yes, the point on homogeneity has very important implications for diversity, values and process.)

Quotes on the interplay between failure and structure, which reassures me that it’s not “One Right Answer” but all about context and learning:

  • “there comes a time for adding structure, and that time is usually when things are falling”
  • “… failure is the best place to investigate and identify where your structure needs to change.”
  • “Using failure to guide evolution lets you apply structure at the right level.”

And something I really want to remember from p. 183: “If you want a team that feels comfortable taking risks and making mistakes, one of the core requirements is a sense of belonging and safety.” I think this ties in with my own sense that I don’t know anything and nor should I. Isn’t it better to find out quickly, rather than assume slowly?

There are also some good thoughts on creating culture, but I want to come back to them separately, one day.

2. The endless cycle between actions and values

Apparently this week is one of the most depressing weeks of the year, but I don’t know. I’ve been feeling pretty good this week – I’ve got a bit of mojo on as various plans develop and emerge. I’ve started using Daylio on my phone as a mood tracker recently, and last week’s chart is reassuring:

Screenshot of a line chart of daily moods, generally pretty good moods too.

My wife described me as “sort of arrogant” some time ago. I think she was being kind? I’m not sure if/where arrogance blurs with confidence, and at the and time I’m not sure I’d describe myself as either 🙂 But perhaps there’s something else, something that treads that fine line.

Personally, I try to be neither arrogant nor overly-confident. I find it’s easier and more effective to concentrate on practical things, and the adjectives come out by themselves – Do, don’t Be. The things I try to do (or avoid) are pretty simple really. Something like:

  1. Don’t panic
  2. Don’t jump to conclusions quickly
  3. Do think things through based on previous experience

Or, even simpler: assess a situation, then think about what will happen.

3. Walk the work, re-walk to work it out

Craigmod’s newsletter* on walking, lines, and re-walking tied in with my re-visiting of my tech strategy at the moment, in particular:

Rewalking grounds the walker, allows the walker more noticing.

There is a joy of exploration when walking – that you simply cannot get to the endpoint quickly, that slowing progress down is key. You observe change, you enter into a much richer world, full of feedback and ideas-that-move-even-slower. The landscape adjusts, but in a way you can think of and reflect on. Walking is thought-movement.

Is strategic planning and review like this? “Making a strategy document” is not a case of just writing a bunch of words. How long do you need to create such a thing? How much time should you spend “re-walking” your original plan, and comparing it to what has really happened, and is continuing to happen now?

I’ve ended up making copies of my original documents, and going through the process of re-writing it, as if the “Final” version from September was nothing but an unkempt draft, a scratchpad. The themes are still there, but this re-writing is my own re-walking. An opportunity to think faster than the words are changing.

* Worth a subscribe if you like walking. And Japan.

4. Thursday day notes

  • Calendar Tetris. Lots of team meetings to think through upcoming work, which is great. But it takes a while to then organise – knowing who’s involved in each is essential, as is shared calendars. Maybe I need to give Jeni Tennison‘s new calendar tool a go. Should I be worried about her hacking my calendar though?
  • I deliberately added 15 minutes to these meetings with a specific agenda time to write up notes. I can’t remember who suggested this originally either. 🤔 (Extra Monday note: This didn’t work.)
  • Hence Discovery tag” is my new motto to stop people thinking about detail at the wrong time. But I’ll stop saying it, because mottoes get annoying really quickly.
  • Writing up meeting notes is one of those things that gets easier with practice.
  • We started our new sprint naming scheme. Sprint Zubat hands over to Sprint Ab Fab, to kick off our favourite TV shows. Sprint 141, can you believe that shizzle?

A gif from Absolutely Fabulous, in which, um, Patsy is pretending to have nipple tassles?

Note to self: Totally do an Ab Fab weeknotes gif special.

We were also visited by Luke’s two daughters, who brought us an extra yummy gingerbread house.

Photo of a Gingerbread house that is sadly now in tattered, half-eaten pieces.

And I changed my Slack icon to the face of Totoro, which led to a rather disturbing Totoro murder conspiracy article (spoiiiiler alert) and this photo of some Brighton street art.

Photo of street art in Brighton showing the cat bus from the film Totoro.

And surely there’s no better way of ending a weeknote than with a cat bus picture.

Weeknotes TEN:2

Hello readers. Here we are, caught between Gregorian cycles and a super blood wolf moon eclipse. I have a beer, and I’ve just noticed the back of my work notebook has “Daddy’s Big Book Of Stuff” scrawled on it by an 8-year-old. Here are some things that interested me this week.

(Note: More than three things interested me this week.)

1. Cost of context switching is not just for coders

Monday morning: I flick through my calendar and prep for the week, like anyone with socks and a brain. This week is blocked-out; maybe I’ve “made it” as a manager or something, as it’s all annual review this, 6-month review that, strategy here and steering group there. Which, to be fair, is what I’ve come to love. Can’t complain.

There are pockets of non-blocks in there too, the rests between agendas. It’s so tempting to check the to-do list and mentally cram everything else into that space. Some code I’ve wanted to do for a while. Some personal research. Some write-ups. Some blogposts. It’s what I’d usually do.

But it’s still the start of the year. There’s a long way to go in 2019 yet. And experience and weeknoting tell me that, like new weeknoter Giuseppe, meetings and conversation – deep conversation about people’s lives and year-long focuses – takes a lot out of me. The blocks are big enough and the train travel is long enough that I should be fairly tired by Friday.

And switching context from “people” to the more heads-down, isolated, introverted work will turn that “tired” into “shattered”. And when I’m shattered, I get pretty grumpy.

Grumpy me attacking the world

And I’m trying to avoid that this year.

So the decision, right at the start of the week (subconsciously, probably the weekend before) is to avoid switching mindset/context as much as possible. If I need to be talkative, I’ll stay in external, talkative mood all week, and try not to get bogged down in detailed work, if possible.

4 days on, writing this on Friday: my mood is good. I got woken up at 5.20am today, but I feel (relatively) fresh. Fresh enough to write weeknotes, at least. The rest of the house has collapsed.

2. The megatropolis bubble effect

On Thursday I travelled up to the Big Smoke. London welcomed me with its gift-wrapped buildings, growing inside silver sheets like alien pupae. I got 50p off coffee for having my own mug, and men with guns stood protecting the Underground’s escalators.

I had a clear head and navigated the tube, noticing how at home the signposting was. The stark lines, clear fonts and bold colours of the system stand out against the melody of adverts, and I’m always amazed at how quickly I can pick out where I need to go. Great design.

As I get back toward home, and the train slides through a broad, pale sky drifting over barrow tumuli, I can’t help noticing the effect of entering a city. Everything it needs is there in abundance, like the world has been rebuilt in localisable miniature. There’s no need for the things I’m returning to now, like pheasants and out-of-town supermarkets, because cities are, effectively (in both senses) self-sufficient.

I don’t know why this is weird to me today. Brexit, perhaps. Thinking about viewpoints. How do you explain out-of-city living to people contained in that bubble? I lived in Brighton for years, but hardly ever went out into the nearby countryside, and never ever visited small towns for their charity shops and playing fields. That’s my world now though, so far away.

What some sort of dancing anime bear maybe

I don’t really know why I’m mentioning this, except to perhaps savour the difference that our environment makes on how we think. Does a frantic ambience speed us up, distract us from slower thought? Can a sense of open space lead to more open ideas?

3. More than I know

I think I am maybe now am “expert” in social value. Not in the “traditional” sense. More like I now know enough about it to be utterly confused by it. Which, I think, is the sign of an expert? Not that you know how to do something, but that you know how not to do something, and what not to do, probably to the point where nothing ever gets done. If you can explain that to other people, you’re a consultant.

Seriously though, I had two conversations delving into social value this week, and I think I have my head wrapped round it pretty well. It’s an area that brings together data, policy and society, plus I’m adding my own technical backing into the mix, having been working on a social value tool for, uh, 5 years? 6?

It’s not an area that fits well into one discipline or another – applying metrics to social bonds is tricky for a few key reasons (see above note about explaining it well). Without some research training, it’s hard to get what it is/isn’t – much harder, I think, than explaining what “Pure” data is (like counting road cones or something). I think maybe it’s one of a whole field of ‘weird data’ – ie efforts in society where we so desperately want to turn it into a database, and yet there are huge practical and emotional reasons why it doesn’t fit our current scientific approach.

Anyway, no details here or I’ll be off on one. But it feels nice to note that this is an area I’ve stumbled into, and accidentally seem to have a fair bit of knowledge on. I have no idea if that’s good for future plans or not. Should I make something more of it? Is it what I’m interested in?

Knowing about social value is like being a small wide-eyed creature, apparently

Anyway, it’s a topic I’m vaguely happy to chat on if anyone needs 😉

What else is in my head?

A 2018/2019 round-up

An image taken from the year-long 'Blatchington Pond' project

I just posted a fuller version of this post on my main blog but thought I’d keep track of the professional parts over here in my weeknotes blog too. Apologies if you read this twice and get confused, but thanks for stalking me.

[Written in] These dying days of 2018. Another year of memories, stacked up like scrolls. Not a particular time for reflection, among the scrapings of wrapping paper, other than I have a few days – hours even – to stop doing anything, and the self-assessment comes naturally.

Looking back

The year has been busy – time of life maybe, but also unsustainable and unsatisfying in dappled patches. Parts have been productive and eye-opening, but more to set the stage for the show ahead, rather than anything in their own right.

In a slightly random order, I…

  • Pushed through on some big deadlines at work, to different levels of celebration
  • Iterated through another year of setting strategy and supporting my team, enjoying both aspects – see my ongoing weeknotes
  • Ran a session at UKGovCamp in January on distribution of data skills, then failed miserably to do anything concrete about it 🙁
  • Gave out a fair number of small Dalai Lama books under the new Taopunk Paper Goat umbrella (and in fact a whole new website), and discovered a lovely stream of reciprocity
  • Gave a talk at Sussex University’s Humanities Lab’s event on Democratising Big Data, on “Trust and Ethics in the Data Supply Chain” (slides here)
  • Gave a talk at #son1’s primary school [on census and geographic data], which was hilarious, and probably scarier than giving a talk to academics… (slides here)
  • Ran my phone and digital watch off solar power only for 7 months, and started a blog about it
  • Took a lot of photos of Blatchington Pond as part of a year-long series, which now need some follow-up action (along with a few other longer-term photo projects)
  • Started running Linux on my new personal laptop again, which still carries a strange sense of pride after all these years

Looking Forward

I have some vague plans for the year ahead, although because I’m turning 40, they’re probably less vague than most of my plans. I’m expecting things to evolve a bit, but I’m still thinking and talking this through a bit. I feel very ‘involved’ in what happens around me, and also hate to leave people in difficult positions, so I tend to approach change with a fair amount of “diplomacy”. Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few months on how to give up less-valued responsibilities, to do things I care about more. Hopefully this will bear fruit in the next six months.

Going into January, I’m also highly aware of that annual festive build-up of books, magazines, and general good-reads in my RSS feeds from the year. There’s a lot of material that I’d like to re-focus some attention on right now, and I’m at a point where that depth of engagement seems very timely.

(Broadly speaking – tao, tech, democracy and climate change are of high interest right now.)

In general, I think the solar power exercise mentioned above has been of huge impact. I’m much more aware of ‘casual’ and ‘disposable’ use of energy (both mine and my battery’s) on smartphones. I’ve come round even more to the idea that the convenience of smartphones is really just a way to cram more stuff badly, into less time and space. The whole setup – that we should do everything through a bad interface – just feels so unsustainable now.

So alongside getting into content into more depth again (like my Uni days), I want to get back into my interfaces in more ‘depth’ again. I love keyboards – there I’ve said it. There’s a mechanical feedback there which makes me feel part of the machine, and I miss that in touch-screens. I feel so separated.

(Personal goals skipped – you can see them in the original post though.)

Here are my professional goals this year:

  • Find a way to be ruthless about email
  • Spend personal time at work to relax and read
  • Spend more time thinking and observing – strategy and support
  • Clear up cruft in processes
  • Be more open internally about my own work and the team’s work
  • Be calmer about asking for things and negotiating change
  • Bring together the people that should talk more

Let’s see how it goes. Come on 2019, I’m feeling good about this one!