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!

Weeknotes TEN:1

IT’S 2019eeeeeeeeeeeeeen. I’m feeling so old that the numbers of a year don’t mean anything to me any more, and could easily be replaced with random-character codes, like airports. Welcome to the year EIGTBD.

It was only a two-day week. My aims were:

  • Come back to work feeling relaxed and focused, not diving straight back into the thick of things.
  • Pick up reviewing tech (team) strategy from where I’d left off.

Reviewing our tech (team) strategy

I started by getting my head back into things. I wrote up the white cards from our dev session at the end of last year, which had our proposed quarterly focuses scribbled carefully on them. This was the first ‘proper’ dev meet I’ve run in a while, which came out of chats with the developers. It’s too easy to get sucked into sprint work and deliverables, and forget to (or – more realistically – avoid) making time for technology as a whole. Which runs the very real risk of leaving us blindsided.

Tech notes from last year on lots of cards
Deliberately dark and fuzzy, because, ummmm, GDPR?

I really like cards for this process – even more than post-its. Cards don’t bend and curl, or pretend to be sticky then fall off the wall, or inversely get stuck in the wrong place. Cards force you to get a table or a floor and look down from above. Their nature inherently inspires that helicopter view that you need when trying to make out clusters and correlations. With cards, I survey everything. I become as God?

I wrote up a summary set of notes and passed this round the meeting attendees to check accuracy, before sending round the whole team.

But I was still dissatisfied – there were a bunch of suggestions and changes here – all good, all fairly focused – but how did they compare against my intended Roadmap, and my identified objectives? CUE MATRIX SPREADSHEET.

Note 1*: Strategy is all about navigation, through SPACE and TIME. That’s why we talk about “Roadmaps” so much, but really any OS map will do. Except for business strategy, SPACE is the “what”, and time is (still) the “when”. Both are important to get a single, coherent route through the problem-space ahead of you.

  1. SPACE. Where does the work fit in against overall aims and objectives? Does it map to somewhere important or necessary? If not, is the work extraneous, or is the strategy lacking something important?

  2. TIME. Where does the work for in against timescales? Is it late, early, or on time? If it’s on time, that’s probably a good sign that everyone’s in the right place at the right time. If it’s late or early, is this because something has changed externally requiring a shift in time, or should the work be clamped down (if late) or delayed (if early)?

* Technically, the only note.

So my spreadsheet tried to compare our proposed and roadmapped focuses against objectives. But which objectives? I had so many – or at least, enough to make the spreadsheet HORIZONTALLY UNWIELDY. Which is basically structural death.

Confused, I resorted to thinking via Blog Post. I want to use this approach more this year, as I’m generally doing more thinking out loud, and maybe inspired by Steph Gray’s post on blogging too. I think a lot of what I do is still fairly obscure, so I’m going to try just spitting more stuff out there, and if anyone gets something from it, great. #OPENBYDEFAULT

The post didn’t get finished, not yet. Maybe longer-term blogposts are a thing?

Feeling relaxed and focused

Getting everyone back into work at the same time feels like the end of ‘Inception’ when everyone wakes up and finds themselves in a strange place, and everyone’s trying to remember where and who they were at the start of the film. The first few days back are a good time to adjust slowly. We kicked our sprint planning meeting back to the afternoon so that we could spend the morning re-orienting ourselves. The prep work done last year for lining up tasks in the meeting worked well though.

Tip to self: Always leave something in an unfinished, yet easy to pick up state when going away, to help make re-entry easier.

Looking at the calendar ahead, next week could be busy, so it’s important to keep that in mind as the plans for the immediate future are set up. I didn’t give myself anything too onerous in the sprint, and will be on more of a support and PO role than a dev one.

So far, pretty good. But then, it’s easy to say that after only 2 days…

15 Tips for Running a UKGovCamp Session

UKGovCamp logo

With only 2 weeks to go until UKGovCamp 2019, I thought I’d carry on in the spirit of open work and open thought by writing up my own approach to getting ready for the day.

As it’s an unconference, and therefore participant-driven, and as so much amazing work goes into organising it, I like to get some plans together to bring some sort of idea along, even if it’s vague to start with.

Full disclaimer. I’m really not confident at public speaking to say the least (although usually enjoy it once it’s done), but over the years I’ve attended, UKGC has been a real opportunity to push myself, and is often my only real annual chance to stand up and blabber in front of 200+ people. The 15 tips below reflect the prep work I’ve gradually evolved as my confidence and familiarity with the event has grown.

And of course, it’s still changing. Further tips very welcome, of course.

  1. Ahead of time (usually just after the Christmas booze has just run out), think of a vague idea that interests you – maybe something you’re working on, been working on, or would like to work on.

  2. Turn it into a question, eg “what can we do to improve X?

  3. Turn into a provocative or catchy question, like “X is rubbish. What would X look like in a John Woo film?”. This is your title. “If John Woo did agile procurement.”

  4. Come up with 3 or 4 questions you have about the idea – ones that you are generally curious about. Keep these at the back of your mind, they will help guide things if you need to move the session on or get it back on track at all.

  5. Decide 1 or 2 things you would really like to get out of a discussion – this might be something you want to do as a result, or something you want to write up, or some sort of networking after the day, for example. Again, this is useful for pushing things forward if needed.

  6. Pitch. On the morning, stand up, get in line, and pitch. Personally, this is the scariest bit. Do it anyway. Be succinct and clear about your idea, using your provocative title, above.

  7. Run your session – get there on time (ie. before more than 3 other people) so you can get a good position, so that attendees know that it’s you hosting it, and so they and you have a chance to swap introductions and ideas while things are still quiet in the room.

  8. Set the scene. Use your provocative title and rough questions and outcomes as a way to introduce the session. It’s OK to be less provocative and a bit more boring at this stage.

  9. Don’t worry if things go in a different direction to what you had planned or expected – so long as people (including yourself) are finding it interesting, then there’s value to the discussion.

  10. Also don’t worry if conversation seems to get stuck or lose its way – you can refer back to your questions and ideal outcomes to get you back on track.

  11. Only take notes for things that are vital to you – it’s better to stay “in the conversation” and write notes up after, or use the “official” govcamp notes. You can always ask the note-taker to specifically jot something down, rather than write it yourself.

  12. Keep track of time, as it’s helpful to then…

  13. Attempt to draw things to a close by summarising what you’ve (personally) learnt, and what any next steps might be. And be sure to thank everyone for coming along.

  14. Chat to anyone that wants to chat afterwards, or get contact details if you really have to rush off. Remember, spin-off/corridor conversations are also just as valuable (and encouraged) as heading off to attend another session.

  15. Take a big breath and let it sink in before moving on.

Hope that’s useful to someone one there. Look forward to seeing everyone on the 19th!