🎶 Just rediscovered this gem thirty years later. A perfect tune for Black Friday.

Here we go again
Here we go-go-go to the temple of consumption
Get your gear and start to spend
Here we go-go-go with a total dedication

Spotted in my town at lunchtime on Sunday. I feel as though this is asking to be a caption competition.

“Containers. Am I doing this right?”

Weeknotes #143 — Owls

There was a lot going on this week. I had too many late nights and early mornings, and must have had a lot on my mind as most mornings I kept waking up an hour before I needed to. By Friday evening I was frazzled, but I still managed to get my son and I up early on Saturday morning for the weekly cycling club ride.

At work my department has an agreement to go in together every Wednesday. This week I couldn’t make it as I had been asked to join a workshop starting at 7am and had to go to school for a meeting in the late afternoon. I topped and tailed the week with days in the office instead. It felt good to be there on Friday as I had a few physical things to get done in the office, taking delivery of some new equipment and getting it set up. It made a change from the days where I’ve felt I needed to be in the office just to reach a time quota.

Reading Ton Zijlstra’s weeknotes about COVID-19 entering his house in the Netherlands1 made me realise how different things are in different places. He has been prepping for a call from the track and trace team, a concept that I haven’t thought about for a while — is track and trace even still a thing in the UK given that close contacts of confirmed cases no longer need to isolate here? Mask wearing on public transport seemed to drop off a cliff this week; no more than half of the people I encountered on my commute were wearing them. In a coffee queue in London, someone used ‘air quotes’ when talking about COVID-19 as if it didn’t exist — it seems that while this is a marginal view, it is far less marginal than it used to be.

This was a week in which I:

  • Started the week with an unwelcome gift from the cats. Whoever told me that cats make great pets as they generally look after themselves must have been thinking of something else.
  • Had a number of very useful discussions in the team about how we go from being the IT infrastructure team to being able to add value ‘higher up the stack’. There is lots to be done. Reading A Seat at the Table was useful for thinking about this.
  • Picked up a new project relating to our organisation over the next few years that needs to be planned ‘from right to left’.
  • Participated in our quarterly IT architecture review forum and approved the proposal for some new software infrastructure at each of our sites.
  • Reviewed the current data for cost recovery to our part of the organisation for the big group programme.
  • Reviewed a draft standard for software and firmware updates.
  • Reviewed a subset of our team’s risk log relating to backups and restores.
  • Saw the team finish failover testing and complete their preparation for moving to Teams telephony at one of our sites, and prepare for some physical infrastructure work at another site. We still have a lot to get done in the closing weeks of this year.
  • Joined two town hall meetings on the same day, one with our Engineering/IT colleagues across the globe and another with everyone in our division of the company. The push to go back to the office is strong.
  • Abandoned the all-day workshop where I was a remote participant as it was too difficult to take part.
  • Took delivery of three Meeting Owl Pros and spent time setting them up. I used one for a meeting on Friday afternoon to good effect and plan to get colleagues outside of IT to use them next week. Our main goal is to try and make hybrid meetings less painful for remote staff, and from our limited experience they do seem to go some way to achieving it.
  • Retired my four-year-old iPad and got up and running with a new iPad Pro. The magic keyboard is a very cool piece of engineering, and I’m loving the new trackpad.
  • Watched a talk by one of my colleagues on the project to implement Aadhaar, a unique identity number in India which has vastly reduced costs for businesses that use it.
  • Had a superb one-on-one coaching session, the third of four. We covered a lot of ground. It is so useful to have someone independent to talk to about challenges at work and to reflect on things that I can do differently, and where I have already achieved some of my goals. I have the final session booked in for a couple of weeks from now.
  • Attended a Meetup on Use-Cases or User Stories… or Both?. The presence of Mike Cohn drew me in. Conclusion: both are useful in the right hands in the appropriate situations.
  • Joined a webinar to get an overview of Microsoft extended detection and response (XDR). It was a perfect length, with just enough information to get the gist of the toolset without all of the details.
  • Attended the school where I am a governor in order to hear from all of the subject leads to understand whether they have a knowledge and/or skills focus and why, what schemes are used and what the strengths and priorities are. It was an invaluable session. The distinction between knowledge and skills was particularly interesting — for science, for example, skills have been much harder to teach remotely and therefore there is more catching up to do. I wonder if this observation is equally applicable for adult remote working too?
  • Took part in a vision, mission and strategy session for the school with fellow governors. Every time I have been involved in this kind of work the definition of those terms has always been unclear; there seems to be a myriad of interpretations out there. Despite those challenges, we had a good conversation about how to reorganise the work done so far and how to take it forward.
  • Met with Joe McFadden and Olivia Partington of CarbonThirteen to discuss the Climate Emergency and how we are approaching it as a school.
  • Enjoyed a brilliant club ride with yet another wonderful group of people on Saturday morning.
  • Ran the line for two football matches in a row on Sunday. I love it when both of my son’s matches are local and the timings work out like that.
  • Watched the second and final part of Ed Balls’ documentary on social care. It’s a whole world that I didn’t know or think much about prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Spent time fixing broken YouTube embeds on this blog. Something changed in WordPress which meant that anything with a youtu.be URL didn’t render so these all needed updating to the equivalent youtube.com URLs.

Next week: A packed working week, more school governor meetings and a day off to meet the newest member of our family.

  1. Get well soon Ton! 

Enabling everyone in hybrid meetings

On Wednesday I attended a long workshop from home. A few of us were dialled in via BlueJeans, while the vast majority of attendees were physically present in the room. It struck me that being a remote participant must be a teeny tiny bit like having a disability; it was difficult to hear, difficult to see and I had to work extra hard to participate. We spent a significant amount of time staring at an empty lectern, hearing voices fade in and out but not seeing anyone on screen.

There’s a big push to ‘crack hybrid’. I know that the technology will inevitably improve to make these meetings better, reducing the friction between being in the room and out of it. But for now, if the meeting is a workshop, or just the kind where you want to democratise participation and involve everyone (as opposed to talking at them webinar or lecture style), then it makes sense to me to have everyone join in the same way.

Elizabeth Stokoe puts it better than me:

As we go back to our offices, the best meetings are going to be those where the organiser has put thought and energy into how they should be configured to meet their goals.

📚 A Seat at the Table

I picked up Mark Schwartz’s A Seat at the Table as I have recently been thinking about how we can move away from the perception of our IT team as the people who ‘turn up and fix the Wi-Fi’ to one where we are seen as true business partners. The book took me by surprise in being less of a self-help manual and more of a well-articulated argument as to why the old ways in which we did things no longer apply in the digital age. It is brilliant.

Schwartz has a way of encapsulating key concepts and arguments in short, smart prose. The book contains the best articulation of the case for Agile, Lean and DevOps that I have read. There is so much wisdom in a single sentence, for example:

What is the value of adhering to a plan that was made at the beginning of a project, when uncertainty was greatest?

One of the books referenced heavily in A Seat at the Table is Lean Enterprise by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky and Barry O’Reilly which I read some time ago. Lean Enterprise goes into more detail in terms of the concepts and mechanics used in modern software development such as continuous integration, automated testing etc. and brings them together into a coherent whole. Schwartz does not cover these topics in detail but gives just enough information to make his case as to why they are the sensible way forward for developing software.

A company may typically engage their IT department as if they are an external supplier. They haggle and negotiate, they fix scope and cost and they then the work starts. This approach does make some sense for working with a truly external vendor where they are taking on some of the financial risk of overrunning and you are able to specify exactly what you want in detail, for example where physical IT infrastructure is being delivered, installed and configured. It makes little sense when you are creating a new software system. It makes even less sense when the IT team are colleagues in the same organisation, trying to work out what investments will make the biggest impact on the company. We win and lose together.

First of all, we came to speak about “IT and the business” as two separate things, as if IT were an outside contractor. It had to be so: the business was us and IT was them. The arms-length contracting paradigm was amplified, in some companies, by the use of a chargeback model under which IT “charged” business units based on their consumption of IT services. Since it was essentially managing a contractor relationship, the business needed to specify its requirements perfectly and in detail so that it could hold IT to delivering on them, on schedule, completely, with high quality, and within budget. The contractor-control model led, inevitably, to the idea that IT should be delivering “customer service” to the enterprise—you’d certainly expect service with a smile if you were paying so much money to your contractors.

For readers who are familiar with why we use Agile software development methods, the arguments against the old ‘waterfall’ approach are well-known. What is more interesting is that Schwartz also points to issues that advocates of the Agile approach have exacerbated. Agile people can be suspicious of anyone that looks like a manager, and want them to get out of the way so that they can get on with the job. Schwartz argues that the role of managers and leadership is to remove impediments, many of which the Agile team cannot easily deal with on their own:

When the team cannot accomplish objectives, I am forced to conclude that they cannot do it within the given constraints. The team might need members with different skills. It might need permission to try an experiment. It might need the help of another part of the organization. It might need a policy to be waived. But if the task is possible and the team cannot achieve it, then there is a constraining factor. My job is to remove it.

What if someone on the team is really just not performing? Perhaps not putting in his or her share of effort, or being careless, or uncooperative? Well, then, dealing with the problem is simply another example of removing an impediment for the team.

The critical role of middle management, it would seem, is to give delivery teams the tools they need to do their jobs, to participate in problem-solving where the problems to be solved cross the boundaries of delivery teams, to support the delivery teams by making critical tactical decisions that the team is not empowered to make, and to help remove impediments on a day-to-day basis. The critical insight here, I think, is that middle management is a creative role, not a span-of-control role. Middle managers add value by contributing their creativity, skills, and authority to the community effort of delivering IT value.

He makes a clear case for getting rid of ‘project thinking’ completely. If you want a software delivery initiative to stay on budget, the only way to do that is through an agile project. The team will cost the organisation their run rate which is almost always known in advance. Work can be stopped at any time, preserving the developments and insights that have been created up to that point.

As a former PMO head, and with my current responsibilities of running a portfolio of change initiatives, it was interesting to see the approach to ‘business cases’ recommended in the book. Instead of signing off on a set of requirements for a particular cost by a certain date, you should be looking to assess the team on what they want to achieve and whether they have the skills, processes and discipline to give you confidence that they will:

  • be effective,
  • manage a robust process for determining the work they will do,
  • make good decisions,
  • seek feedback,
  • continually improve.

Schwartz gives a brilliant example of how difficult it is to articulate the value of something in the IT world, which gave me flashbacks to the hours I have spent wrestling with colleagues over their project business cases:

How much value does a new firewall have? Well … let’s see … the cost of a typical hacker event is X dollars, and it is Y% less likely if we have the firewall. Really? How do we know that it will be the firewall that will block the next intrusion rather than one of our other security controls? How do we know how likely it is that the hackers will be targeting us? For how long will the firewall protect us? Will the value of our assets—that is, the cost of the potential hack—remain steady over time? Or will we have more valuable assets later?

The word ‘requirements’ should go away, but so should the word ’needs’; if the organisation ‘requires’ or ‘needs’ something, what are the implications for right now when the organisation doesn’t have it? Instead of using these terms, we should be formulating hypotheses about things we can change which will help bring value to the organisation. Things that we can test and get fast feedback on.

Schwartz also argues against product as a metaphor, which was a surprise to me given how prevalent product management is within the industry today:

But the product metaphor, like many others in this book, has outlived its usefulness. We maintain a car to make it continue to function as if it were new. A piece of software, on the other hand, does not require lubrication—it continues to operate the way it always has even if we don’t “maintain” it. What we call maintenance is really making changes to keep up with changes in the business need or technology standards.

Senior IT leaders are ’stewards’ of three critical ‘assets’ in the organisation:

  1. The Enterprise Architecture asset  — the collection of capabilities that allows the organisation to function, polished and groomed by the IT team.
  2. The IT people asset — ensuring that the organisation has the right skills.
  3. The Data asset — the information contained in the company’s databases, and the company’s ability to use that information.

Much of the book comes back to these three assets to emphasise and elaborate on their meaning, and the work required to “polish and groom” them.

The author makes the case that CIOs should take their seat at the table with the rest of the CxOs through being confident, bold, and simply taking the seat in the same way that the others do. To talk of IT being ‘aligned’ to the business is to imply that IT can be ‘misaligned’, doing its own thing without giving any thought to the rest of the organisation. The CFO, CMO or any other CxO does not need to continually justify their existence and prove their worth to the business, and neither should the CIO. The CIO needs to have deep technology knowledge — deeper than the rest of the people around the table — and bring this knowledge to bear to deliver value for the organisation, owning the outcomes instead of just ‘delivering products’.

It follows that the CIO is the member of the senior leadership team—the team that oversees the entire enterprise—who contributes deep expertise in information technology. I do mean to say deep expertise. Increasingly, everyone in the enterprise knows a lot about technology; the CIO, then, is the person who knows more than everyone else. The CIO should be more technical, not less—that is how he or she contributes to enterprise value creation; otherwise, the role would not be needed.

The age of IT organizations hiding behind requirements—“just tell me what you need”— is gone. IT leaders must instead take ownership, responsibility, and accountability for accomplishing the business’s objectives. The IT leader must have the courage to own outcomes.

IT investments are so central to corporate initiatives that it is hard to make any other investment decisions without first making IT decisions. This last point is interesting, right? Perhaps it suggests that IT governance decisions should be made together with or in advance of other business governance decisions. Instead, in our traditional model, we think first about “business” decisions, and then try to “align” the IT decisions with them. But in our digital world—if we are truly committed to the idea that that’s the world we live in—IT should not follow business decisions but drive them.

CIOs and their staff have an excellent “end-to-end understanding of the business, a discipline and mindset of accomplishing goals, and an inclination toward innovation and change.” They bring a lot to the table.

Schwartz makes a case for the rest of the organisation becoming digitally literate and sophisticated in their use of technology. This may extend to people from all parts of the organisation being able to contribute to the codebase (or “Enterprise Architecture asset”) that is managed by IT. This should be no different to developers on an open source project making changes and submitting a ‘pull request’ to have those changes incorporated into the official codebase. We should embrace it, fostering and harnessing the enthusiasm of our colleagues. We should care less about who is doing the work and more about whether the company’s needs are met.

As much as I enjoyed the book, there were points where I disagreed. Schwartz argues strongly against purchasing off-the-shelf software — ever, it seems — and advocates building things in-house. He makes the point that software developed for the marketplace may not be a good fit for our business and may come with a lot of baggage. My view is that this completely depends on where the software sits in the stack and how commoditised it is. It makes no sense to implement our own TCP/IP stack, for example, nor does it make any sense to develop our own email client. (Nobody ever gained a new customer based on how good their email system was. Probably.) But I do agree that for software that is going to give us a competitive edge, we want to be developing this in-house. I think that something along the lines of a Wardley Map could be useful for thinking about this, where the further along the evolution curve a component is, the less Agile in-house development would be the preferred choice:

Overall this book is a fantastic read and will be one I come back to. It’s given me lots to think about as we start to make a case for new ways of working that go beyond the IT department.

Weeknotes #142 — Referee!

A really busy week where I felt I was juggling lots of things, but never to the point where it felt out of control. I spent Monday and Wednesday in the office and had one or two chance meetings which wouldn’t have otherwise happened, but there were very few people in on either day. The trains are getting busier with each passing week, but are still quite a way from being as full as they were pre-pandemic. People are getting on with things, which make notices about COVID-19 from my children’s school to say that they are re-introducing more safety protocols quite jarring to read.

I had to spend a few evenings catching up with small pieces of work that I had promised to complete by the next day, including prepping for more school governor meetings. My working week finished with two consecutive 7am meetings with teams in South Africa, the first of which that frustratingly got cancelled at 6:59am. Starting that early meant that I couldn’t go on my bike first thing, but I made up for it with a rare evening session on the turbo trainer.

Our Virgin Media Internet service has been very flaky in our street this week. Going to the office on Wednesday meant that I avoided a lot of the issues. Despite the frustration of dealing with their customer service processes, I was still reflecting on the fact that our IT is more resilient when we are dispersed. In our company, this outage impacted only one person, whereas an ISP failure to one of our offices may impact everyone working there.

This was a week in which I:

  • Ran a short review of our department’s delivery roadmap and checked how we are progressing with items scheduled for this quarter. We’ve made big strides this year with our ‘ways of working’ and I’m developing some views as to how we can improve it further as we head into 2022.
  • Ran two more meetings on our Teams recording proposal. We’re now at the point where we’ve agreed what we want to do and it is with me to write it up and circulate the draft.
  • Completed the business case for implementing Teams telephony in two of our locations. It will pay off in the long term even before we factor in the better user experience and decreased complexity of our environment.
  • Joined a meeting to discuss a data protection law in one of our locations.
  • Had a number of meetings relating to firewalls and routing on our network and agreed next steps both from a technical and a process perspective.
  • Was pleased to hear that the pitch we gave at the end of last week for our big group programme has been taken up by one of the senior leaders on the team. If we can get something up and running it could have a big benefit to all of our clients and internal teams.
  • Met with colleagues to discuss how we can add capacity to a delivery team that would be dedicated to us, without necessarily funding a whole person.
  • Continued reading A Seat At The Table by Mark Schwartz. Reading the book comes at a perfect time for me as I am looking at how we try to refocus the role of IT at our organisation and bring everyone else along on the journey.
  • Had an impromptu discussion with a colleague about a project we ran in London last year, and the gaps that remain in our other locations. The gaps present a good opportunity to leverage the ideas that IT is not a ‘contractor’ or ’order taker’, but can work collaboratively with people in other teams.
  • Was given a demo of a digital signage solution. We are looking at replacing what we have in our main office with a view to rolling out the solution to all of our offices globally. There seems to be a whole range of functionality and prices out there. We are in the process of purchasing a couple of Raspberry Pis with PoE HATs to experiment with.
  • Watched an interesting talk given by our CTO on The Importance of Core Infrastructure.
  • Had my work laptop migrated to Windows 11 in order to test it along with a number of other people in the team. It’s less of a jump than it seems from the screenshots in the media; at first glance it looks like Windows 10 with the task bar icons centred. The improvements are subtle, but seem good so far.
  • Joined a PlanView webinar on Agile Planning Across Disparate Teams and Tools. PlanView seem to lean in heavily on using TaskTop as an integration tool, which seems to do an excellent job.
  • Had a ‘random coffee’ with the newest member of our support team. It was good to spend some time with him.
  • Had a catch-up with the Headteacher and Chair of Governors at the school where I am a governor. I am always in awe of the work the school staff do and how undervalued their roles are. They are incredible.
  • Joined the rest of the school Governing Board for a meeting on prepping for Ofsted, collectively answering a number of questions that had been gathered together from various sources by our Chair.
  • Took part in a meeting to discuss the draft results of a Hertfordshire County Council Commissioned School Visit. This was a deep-dive into our management of our Pupil Premium allocation. It was a positive meeting; it was very useful to get outside scrutiny and feedback.
  • Completed the Modern Governor training module on the Pupil Premium.
  • Reviewed the draft terms of reference document for our planned school Curriculum Committee.
  • Reviewed the Governors Programme of Business for the year with the Chair.
  • Scheduled a school Pay Committee meeting.
  • Met with an online friend that I know from the WB-40 podcast Signal group and one of his colleagues to discuss environmental sustainability in schools.
  • Solved a problem with my Ubiquiti Unifi Protect cameras where they didn’t seem to be capturing events consistently. It looks as though they need to be set to ‘always record’ after a recent software update.
  • Took delivery of a new sofa that we ordered in July after we found that the previous one wouldn’t fit in the house. We weren’t expecting it until Christmas, so it’s a great result that it’s already here.
  • Spent some hours in the garden gathering up the mass of leaves that were already scattered across our back lawn. I’ll have to repeat the process in a couple of weeks once the rest are down.
  • Refereed a football match for the first time in years. There seems to be a shortage of qualified refs and we struggled to find one for Sunday’s Under 15 game. I put my hand up because I thought it would be better than one of the managers doing it. I was nervous, and spent an hour on Sunday morning watching YouTube videos to remind myself of some of the details. The match went really well and I ended up enjoying it.

  • Enjoyed a Saturday morning club ride. It was damp, and I ended up with my first puncture in many months on my way up one of the climbs. Despite needing to change the inner tube, we still made it back to the cafe for coffee and cake at the same time as everyone else.

  • Enjoyed Album Club #129. Not an album that I would ever pick up and listen to on my own, which made it a perfect choice.
  • Watched a few superb music programmes on iPlayer. I first finished off Soul America which I had started watching last year. When Nirvana Came To Britain was superb; it is shocking to see how small their window of fame was. The first two episodes of The 80s – Music’s Greatest Decade? with Dylan Jones have been enjoyably fresh, with lots of footage beyond the usual clips that get brought back for this kind of show. Trevor Horn at the BBC is an excellent tour through so many of the songs that he was involved in (although not all of them are my cup of tea and I did end up skipping a few.)
  • My wife and I have also been making good use of our Now TV subscription with Dexter: New Blood, Succession and Curb Your Enthusiasm all appearing on our screen throughout the week. It’s a novelty to have to wait for new episodes to be released each week again.

Next week: Another typically busy week, with more school governor meetings and a couple of days in the office.

Weeknotes #141 — Voyage to Mars

Clocks in the UK went back by an hour at the weekend, which means that mornings will be a little brighter for a few weeks. The downside is that it is already dark at five o’clock. I’ve always liked the winter months. The cooler temperatures have been great for walking from Euston to my office in the City of London without feeling too hot and bothered by the time I get there. Now that I’m no longer paying for a season ticket, it saves me a £2.40 tube fare every time I walk.

It felt like a big week work-wise, with some thoughts about how I need to spend my time differently to make a bigger impact on the organisation. I need to find some time in the coming weeks to articulate what’s in my head and see if it can be turned into something actionable.

This was a week in which I:

  • Put together a short pitch deck for how we want to change a fundamental experience for our clients, and presented it in a three-hour ‘reboot’ session at the end of the week. The work is part of the big group programme we are participating in. My colleague who would usually deliver the presentation was on holiday, so it fell to me. Unfortunately I had lost the notes I made last week and so had to put together the materials from memory. It went well, but it looks as though we are going to need to think more about how we can do the work ourselves instead of someone else taking the ball and running with it.
  • Attended a Design Authority meeting for the big group programme.
  • Had another detailed discussion on the prerequisites for moving to Teams telephony in two of our country offices. Agreed a long list of actions to follow up on ahead of the next meeting on Monday, and tried to close out on the ones that I own.
  • Reviewed the terms and conditions for a compliance audio recording vendor.
  • Agreed an approach for cutting over to Teams telephony in the office where we already have a project in progress.
  • Met with Internal Audit to discuss our approach to Cybersecurity and IT Risk.
  • Took part in a management team workshop as part of the CliftonStrengths programme that we are participating in.
  • Had another one-to-one coaching session. I’m enjoying the interactions and having the time to reflect.
  • Saw plans that the team have made to make our office guest Wi-Fi accessible through a QR code that will be shown on the desktop background on our staff laptops.
  • Attended an interesting internal presentation on IT Operations.
  • Watched a webinar on using the LeanKit advanced reporting API via PowerBI.
  • Caught up with almost all of my random paper notes accumulated through meetings in the past couple of weeks, and resolved yet again not to leave it too long before getting through them in the future.
  • Renewed my website hosting for another three years. It feels expensive to do it in one go, but given that this site has been around since 2004 I’m unlikely to give up the writing and posting habit just yet. SiteGround have been brilliant since I moved there three years ago. This time they gave me a referral link valid throughout this month for three months’ free hosting for anyone that uses it.
  • Got my MacBook Pro back from Apple after sending it away for a battery replacement. The laptop is four years old and the battery had started to complain and cause some erratic behaviour. £205 got me a new battery including pickup from my house by UPS, transport to the repair centre in the Czech Republic and delivery back to my house again. From a note I found in the box it looks as though they have also replaced the top part of the case that surrounds the keyboard. It feels like a new laptop and I’m very pleased.
  • Updated our school’s Pay Policy for 2021–2022 based on the new template and circulated the draft to the Governing Board.
  • Spent some time updating our draft Schedule of Financial Delegation for school. I hadn’t realised that an updated template existed for this until I stumbled across it. We’re broadly in-line, but will need to review a couple of key changes at our next meeting.
  • Plunged into sharing a couple of recent blog posts on LinkedIn. It’s been interesting; there is a much longer tail of interaction than when sharing on Twitter. I had been nervous as it felt as though I was making a link between my work and personal lives, but the experience was a positive one. It was lovely to have a couple of people that I could talk through the pros and cons with before trying it out.
  • Took a trip to Deco Audio with a friend who is in the market for a hi-fi. Sadly the budget didn’t quite stretch to the £26,000 Avantgarde Acoustic Uno XDs. There’s something special about going to a hi-fi shop that makes me feel like a kid again.

  • Had a lovely night out for dinner at Zaza in Berkhamsted with some old friends. I haven’t laughed so much in a long time.
  • After the washout of last weekend, got out and about again for a cycle club ride. A friend joined us for a trial ride and he’s keen to sign up so hopefully I’ll see lots more of him in the future.

  • Ran the line at my youngest boy’s football match. It was quite a big loss, but fun nonetheless.

  • Have been enjoying Munya’s new album Voyage to Mars which came out this week. Looking forward to getting a vinyl copy sometime next year.

  • Finished season 2 of Ted Lasso. The characters are so brilliant and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

Next week: Another busy one with two more days in the office, plenty of work meetings and a few governor sessions too. Plus Album Club #129.

Today I learned that Outlook doesn’t always save your draft emails. In not unrelated news, as of today I’m no longer using Outlook to take random meeting notes.

Weeknotes #140 — Prophesy

My youngest son finished his COVID-19 isolation on Tuesday, so I was back in the office on Wednesday and Thursday. The family enjoyed having time off of school and work due to half term. The week wiped me out, but the terrible weather meant that I got to have two lie-ins on Saturday and Sunday; I couldn’t face going out cycling in torrential rain on Saturday, and the kids’ football was cancelled on Sunday. I feel wonderfully rested ahead of another busy week.

The trains are getting much busier now, and the journey home during rush hour seemed like a return to normal passenger volume, with no seats available.

This was a week in which I:

  • Agreed with the internal and external teams that the latest iteration of our network topology will be the one we use for the final site in our programme, before going back and implementing this updated design on the sites we have already covered.
  • Reviewed a draft service agreement for monitoring and maintenance of our IT infrastructure in the latest office that we completed our build. Only one more to go, hopefully by the end of this year.
  • Met with a potential new vendor to help us with a physical door access project. Reviewed a draft proposal that they put together following our meeting.
  • Reviewed a draft project proposal for software to control our in-office TVs.
  • Reviewed a written proposal for implementing RADIUS controllers across our sites.
  • Collaborated on preparing for a presentation I need to give next Friday as part of our big group programme. I have all of the notes and now need to prioritise bringing a draft to life in the next couple of days.
  • Took part in one of the steering committees for the big group programme, as well as a regular funding meeting.
  • Joined a discussion with our Legal team on software to manage contracts and other legal documents.
  • Ran one of our bi-weekly change approval board meetings, stepping in due to absences in the team.
  • Took part in a monthly Kanban board review with our Governance and Control team.
  • Gave a talk to our internal team on various ‘typography tidbits’ that I have picked up over the years, such as the history behind certain characters and how to use interrobangs, en-dashes, em-dashes, non-breaking and zero-width spaces.
  • Joined an online ‘town hall’ at the start of the week to hear from three of our senior leaders.
  • Had another useful one-on-one session with an external coach. I’m wrestling with how I can ‘plant a flag’ when my interests are broad and general. I have no idea how to pitch myself or what I do, but it seems important to try and do this.
  • Spent time thinking and discussing how that we can plant our flag as a team. I have some ideas, but I don’t have the bandwidth to spend enough time on them right now. Started reading A Seat At The Table by Mark Schwartz to see if there is anything there that an help.
  • Enjoyed two Album Clubs in successive evenings. The first with three colleagues from work, listening to Prophesy by Nitin Sawhney. The second was our regular Club, revisiting Achtung Baby by U2. Sitting down and focusing on listening to music is so wonderful, and it’s great to have these dedicated, regular spaces to do it.

  • Enjoyed an impromptu Sunday lunch out with my family at Rosanna’s in Berkhamsted. Avocado chilli sourdough toast with poached eggs was just what the doctor ordered.

  • Had a ton of children come trick-or-treating to our door. My wife had perfectly judged the amount of sweets to buy, and we ended up with just a couple left.
  • Subscribed to NOW TV in order to watch series three of Succession. Our TV subscriptions have multiplied over recent weeks and we’ll need to cull them again once we’ve finished watching our current favourite shows. Ted Lasso and the 11th season of Curb Your Enthusiasm are keeping us busy.

Next week: Another hybrid week juggling a couple of days in the office with a need to get some work out of the door by Thursday.

Returning to the office, redux

Recently I wrote up my thoughts on returning to the office. Underpinning this was an assumption, which seems to be widely shared, of the need to get people together physically on a regular basis, with intuition telling us that this somehow creates a shared culture. This week I heard a very senior executive express that “we can’t build a culture while we’re all shut away in our homes”. Since I wrote my post, my view has been challenged on this and I am no longer sure that this ‘intuitive’ understanding is correct.

The ‘93% of communication is non-verbal’ myth

Matt Ballantine pointed me towards Liz Stokoe’s work as Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University. Her presentation on being Physically distanced, socially close from December 2020 is fascinating and well worth a watch.

The key points I took from her presentation are that:

  • The belief that ‘93% of communication is non-verbal’ is nonsense. If this were true, how could we successfully talk to each other on the phone, have conversations with blind people, or sustain romantic relationships via text message?
  • Being co-present doesn’t guarantee quality. From her research, people tend to be good or poor communicators regardless of modality. We’ve all been in terrible in-person meetings and excellent remote ones. Having a good chair can make all the difference in either case. Having people who get the chair’s attention either in-person or remotely (“Sarah has her hand up”) are also useful in both cases.1
  • Remote meetings can offer more than in-person meetings; the sidebar chat would be rude in-person but can offer another way for meeting participants to express their views and ‘get a word in’.

Stokoe explores this further in a blog post that questions whether in-person communication is really the ‘gold standard’:

…video-calling is said to involve “inevitable miscommunication” such as “those awkward nanoseconds of wondering who’s going to talk next, followed by four people saying “Oops, sorry — no, you — no, you go ahead” at the same time”. While such ‘miscommunication’ problems do occur in video calls, they also occur during in-person encounters — and are completely ordinary.

There is less of a difference between in-person and remote interaction than we may think.

The office is a place to build relationships, but at the cost of getting work done

There are many reasons to go into an office. Doing so in order to be more productive is probably not one of them. Having now been back a few days each week, I am concluding that being present in the office has a terrible impact on my productivity.

In a recent episode of the Postlight Podcast, co-founders Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Vicky Volvovski, Senior Director and Head of Product Management at their firm, who has worked remotely for a decade. The prompt for the episode was her push-back on how quickly Postlight were returning to the office. The episode was recorded during Volvovski’s business trip to their office in New York City from her home in Wisconsin. From the transcript (emphasis mine):

VV: … I’ve seen it done for 10 years, and I see how productive it can be. And for me personally, like, as I said, I think I’m an eighth as productive here as I am at home because I control my environment and my schedule and my time in a way that you just don’t do when you’re in an office.

It is really hard to tell your colleagues that you are busy on focused work when they interrupt you in person. If they try to get hold of you remotely, you can just not answer the call and get them back when you have finished what you were doing. In the years before the pandemic I have worked in offices where the odd person would have a physical sign to denote whether they could be interrupted or not. Even when you are not being interrupted directly, it is so difficult to ignore the myriad of conversations going on around you. Yes, I could put on my headphones like I occasionally used to do, but this now seems silly when I’ve made the effort to get to the office in the first place.

Matt Ballantine makes the point that we need a place within a modern office for working online. I can’t get over that this might look like a ’Dilbert cube’. I worked in one of these for a short time in 2001; they might have made some sense back when we the office was the only place where we had good, reliable computing and networking, but I am not sure about them now. Having single person booths in an activity-based workspace can help, but they are claustrophobic if you are spending most of your day in online calls.

Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd

Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd

You don’t need to be together physically to build your culture

If the driver of being in the office is to build culture across the organisation then I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason either. During lockdown I took part in the the process of interviewing, hiring, on-boarding and working with someone who is now a peer. In the months we have spent working remotely together, we’ve developed an cooperative, productive, trusting and psychologically safe relationship. We get stuff done. I have worked with some of my colleagues in the team for over two years without meeting them and we have great working relationships. My current organisation spans 23 countries, and I’ve recently been meeting remotely with people from most of those locations as part of a big group programme. From these encounters, I can say that we definitely have a recognisable company culture despite being remote from each other. Each office is slightly different, but in general the people working in each one understand what it means to be part of the greater whole.

The quality of our interactions are important, whether remote or in-person. A colleague of mine noticed that they had worked with someone else in the organisation for years but had never developed a relationship with them as most of the interactions were transactional. You definitely need to take the time to develop a relationship beyond the work at hand. This would probably be easier in person, but it can absolutely be done remotely. (Putting your camera on by default really helps, especially if you’re meeting someone to build your relationship, e.g. in a one-on-one.) From the Postlight Podcast again:

PF: Yeah, I’ll make a point here, which is that you [Rich Ziade] and myself as well, do not like relationship building remotely. We think it’s artificial and fake. And I hate it.

VV: But this is the first time you’re meeting me in person, I’d say we have a pretty good relationship. Like, it happened.

In another episode of the podcast, Ford and Ziade are talking to Tracey Zimmerman, President and CEO of rival firm Robots & Pencils. Ziade asks Zimmerman how they have made a success of remote working, given that they are a remote-first organisation.

TZ: I would say the number one thing is, you know, yes, Slack is our client, our partner, but like, first Slack solved our problem of working across all these different locations. Slack is Robots & Pencils’ headquarters. Absolutely. It’s where all the people are. It’s where we can work together on projects. It’s where we build culture. … But that is number one is actually starting with digital and distributed workforce first is like a mental model that I think then just removes a lot of problems.

They do get together, but it isn’t to work, per se:

TZ: We do conference every couple years that we call Robocon, where we take everyone from the entire company and fly them into one location. And we basically work learn and play together for a week. … And that’s, you know, you’re trying to create connection. But at the end of the day, we again, we’re trying to solve for the talent. So where the talent thinks they can do their best work is where they should work.

Back in May 2020 I introduced a weekly ‘random coffees’ initiative into my part of the company. We have around 75 out of 300 staff signed up across six cities, and have had over 2,500 coffees so far. I would argue that we are much more connected than we ever have been in the past, and this was achieved while we were all working remotely.

I’ve noticed that there is a danger of leaving some of the team behind as we talk about returning to our office in London. Globally, we are not all at the same phase of the pandemic. Our attempts at hybrid meetings have shown me what I knew beforehand in that this is the worst of all worlds, confirmed to me afterwards by those people who weren’t physically in the room. We have some Owl devices arriving soon and it will be interesting to see what difference they make.

Trusting staff to meet the needs of their clients

I have heard a lot of discussion about us being where the client wants us to be, and this is clearly important. In a lot of cases, where they want us to be may not be our office. The client may want us to come to them. But you would hope that if your staff are working with clients and are delivering excellent client service, they know exactly where they need to be and will act accordingly. Zimmerman again:

TZ: And I always say [to] the team, I’m like, look, 99% of the time, I’m going to give you so much flexibility you can’t even stand it. Every once in a while, I’m going to call you on a Sunday night, and ask you to get on a plane and be at a client’s office on Monday morning. I have never had a problem with somebody doing that. Because we try to be so accommodating to them. But from a delivery perspective, my clients, Paul, I couldn’t do that, if I didn’t screen for culture on the way in and hire people that could really lead themselves. They themselves will say to me, ‘Hey, I’m gonna fly in I decided Sunday night’ they’re telling me right? ‘Hey, FYI, I’m going to clients late on Monday morning, I booked my travel, you know, let me know if you want to talk’ or whatever, because they’re trying to solve the client’s problems, too.

What the future may look like if we dispel the myths

Back on the podcast with Vicky Volvovski, Paul Ford articulates a vision of the future:

PF: Five years from now, there is a group of people who just like to work together. There are certain projects that are more focused on in person interaction or [in] getting kicked off. And so people are in [the office] working on those. … And the office functions more as an event space and the organization does stuff like seminars, event[s], bringing clients in … And at that point, employees are expected to really be there and participate in those kind of interactions as a group in a structured way. … And then there is ‘headphones on’ design time and engineering time and product management time. We don’t care. You can do that on the space station.

…but we’ll get there slowly. It won’t switch to a utopian, fully optimised future state overnight:

PF: …what we’re doing is we’re waiting for other expectations to change that we can’t control right now. So there are expectations from our employees that we can’t control, there are expectations from our clients and expectations from the world about what an agency is, and what happens. Those are going to evolve. And I think they’re going to evolve in that direction. I’d be really surprised if they evolved into everyone back in the office all the time.

My view is that the best companies will end up in a situation where they:

  1. Hire the best people;
  2. Set some ground rules about what is expected, e.g. be where the client wants them to be, and to participate in-person on team-wide/company-wide event days;
  3. Have an understanding that being in an open-plan office is more about relationship building than getting work done;
  4. Provide a variety of activity-based workspaces in their offices;
  5. Let staff decide where the best place is to be productive on any given day.

Going into the office to work on your own, or to spend time online with your remote colleagues, makes no sense if you have a productive, healthy space to work in at home. Combine an office day with meeting people for lunch or dinner, or going to an event in the evening. Make the trip worth it.

It’ll take a while for us to get there, particularly while the myths persist that in-person working is the ’gold standard’ that we should all aspire to.

  1. It’s been interesting to observe that people are now putting their hands up in our in-person meetings, a change brought about by people getting used to the ‘raise hand’ function in Microsoft Teams.