How do I have fascinating conversations? | Are You Listening?

Are you a good listener? I can be a good listener, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I suspect that most of us struggle a bit.

Every conversation is an exchange of ideas, with some exchanges being deeper than others. A conversation usually requires someone to be talking, but it’s not a conversation unless someone is listening. Even then, someone talking and someone listening isn’t a conversation that’s just a speech, to be a true conversation the role of talker and listener has to change. Most people don’t struggle with the talking side, the struggle is with the listening part.

In the book “Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age” Edward Hess describes it like this:

You may think that you’re already a good listener. I (Ed) thought I was, but after truly digging into what it means to listen “reflectively,” I realized that in fact I interrupted people frequently to finish their sentences or to put forth what I thought was the answer. I often was creating my response in my head while people were still talking. In fact, I was a very poor listener. I did everything wrong. I listened for cues as to whether I had an opening to make my point. I “read” people to accomplish my objectives. Most of my conversations had a personal objective. I was not into casual conversations that I considered idle chitchat. I looked at a conversation in most cases as a transaction—as a vehicle to accomplish something. My mind wandered a lot when I “listened.” I got bored, and if I didn’t actually interrupt, I fidgeted and lost eye contact with the speaker. Winning, looking smart, and telling what I “knew” to advance my cause were my only purposes in listening to others. Today it’s embarrassing to write that. I was a piece of work. I was an awful listener at home and at work.

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 116). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

In the book Hess goes on to describe the characteristics of “Reflective Listening” something that the book regards as a core skill for the future workforce:

To be a good listener you have to be totally focused on the speaker with an open mind. You have to listen in a nonjudgmental way, with the only goal being to try to understand what the other person is saying before you prepare and deliver your response. Good listeners ask questions to make sure that they understand before responding, or they paraphrase and repeat back what they believe that the person said and ask if they’ve understood correctly. Good listeners then reflect, and as Bourne explained to me, they “try on” the other person’s idea to see how it would feel if they believed that, too. Taking the time to slow down and try on a new idea and see how it feels is what we mean by Reflective Listening.

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 117). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Is this second description you? Or do you identify more with the first one?

Whether you call it Reflective Listening or not, I suspect that many of us can think of people who embody this kind of listening – but they aren’t the protagonists in our anti-patterns.

Listening and the Fascinating Conversation Anti-Patterns

Let’s take a look through the anti-patterns that I outlined last time and see what they have to tell us about listening.

The Soakers

For a fascinating conversation to occur it’s important that both of the people are playing their part, talking and listening.

The problem with The Soaker is that they only have one mode, talking. They respond to questions, but they aren’t in any sense, listening to the person asking the questions, nor are they asking reflective questions of the other members of the dialogue.

You through a ball against a wall and the wall bounces the ball back. It’s fun for a while, but it’s not a fascinating game of tennis.

There are times that no matter how hard you try as a listener, your correspondent isn’t going to make the grade required to turn the conversation into a fascinating exchange. The danger with that statement is that we give up too early on what could, given the right questions from us, become a fascinating conversation.

The Smart Bombers

These are the people who destroy the flow of a conversation by exploding a statement-bomb in the middle of it.

Smart Bombers are not listeners, they have something to say and they are going to say it even if it’s only barely connected to the conversation that’s already underway. The only thing that they are listening for is a gap into which they can make their statement, and they don’t always do that.

Listeners aren’t statement makers. Listeners ask questions.

The Agenda Enforcers

The Agenda Enforcers, those people who insist on a conversation following their set agenda, are sometimes good listeners, but more often than not they aren’t listening at all.

There are times when a conversation needs to follow an agenda to get to the required outcome or the needed interaction. In these instances, the Agenda Enforcer needs to be listening to the interaction and to keep it going in the required direction. These aren’t generally fascinating conversation, but sometimes they can be.

Where Agenda Enforcers generally fall down is in their need to control the dialogue too tightly. They often do this from the start. Many of us will recognise those situations where a discussion is taking place between members of a team about a subject only for the Agenda Enforcer to enter and say, “Right then, progress update.”

Everyone in the room is thinking “You mean the progress we were just talking about and the progress you’d understand if you’d only just sat and listened for 10 seconds.”

the Distracted Distractors

Many of us are so easily distracted that the slightest thing will drag us away from an interaction.

Listening isn’t a passive activity, it requires effort and focus – it requires attention. The Distracted Distractor’s lack of attention is still communicating, it’s communicating on many levels but probably the loudest thing it’s saying is “I don’t care about this conversation.”

Listening says “I care about this conversation.”

There are practical things that we can do to reduce our level of distraction, removing the primary distractions being the main one.

I, like many, get distracted by screens, so I try to remove them from the situation. When I get home in an evening, I place my iPhone in the study which, for me, is conveniently by the front door. The aim is for it to stay there all evening. This weekend we were at some friends for lunch and I wanted to be as engaged as I could in the conversation so as soon as I entered the house I placed my phone and keys in another room on a shelf and set to silent (the phone). When we do things like this it doesn’t take us long to forget that the screens are even there, we are just as easily distracted from our distractions.

the Non-Stop Talkers

I don’t think I need to say much here. Those people who won’t stop talking are only listening to one person and that’s themselves.

Listening in these situations isn’t easy and there are a couple of reasons for this. The first one is that the Non-Stop Talker is expecting far too much of our ability to retain information. If we are given too much information in one go we simply shut down. The other reason is, and it’s difficult to admit this, we get bored.

I’ve not, yet, found a good way of breaking into a monologue from the Non-Stop Talkers. Even when I have managed to interrupt it’s generally resulted in them returning to their monologue quite soon afterwards.

The Guessing Finishers

Let’s start with a positive statement for The Guessing Finishers – they are listening to the conversation; you need to listen to the beginning of a sentence if you are going to finish it for someone. The problem is that they are impatient listeners and that’s not good listening. Finishing someone’s sentence is not reflective listening. Great listening requires patience and time.

I have a friend who had a stroke some years ago this impacted her speech and her ability to recall words. Sometimes she does need help with a word, but she’ll ask if she does. Having a conversation with her can take a long time but what she has to say is always worth listening to.

When we are tempted to become a Guessing Finisher we need to slow down and to listen.

A New Anti-Pattern

Having reviewed our existing anti-patterns it occurs to me that we need a new one when we think about listening:

The Reflection Robots

I’ve done a couple of courses with the aim of building my listening skills. Each of these courses focused on a form of reflective listening based on a number of techniques. This anti-pattern comes out of a caricature of those sessions.

You are sat in a small room where there is some occasional furniture, but the most obvious furniture is two armchairs occupying the middle of the room. They are strategically placed at a 45-degree angle with a small coffee-table between them.

In one of the chairs is seated a person (you decide whether it’s a man or a woman, both are applicable) who is wearing safe casual clothes. Around their neck is a decorative scarf (I have no idea why these people like scarves so much). Their back is straight, their legs are bent with knees together and their hands are placed palm to palm with fingers intertwined resting on their lap.

They beckon you to sit down, which you do. You’re not quite sure how to sit and adjust your position a few times before accepting that you are now as comfortable as you are going to get. Without realising it you are now sat with your back straight…your legs bent and knees together…and your hands are, yes, palm to palm with fingers intertwined resting on your lap.

The person in the chair 45-degrees from you tilts their head to one side and asks in the softest voice you’ve ever heard “How can I help you?”

You then go on to explain that you’ve been feeling a bit glum recently.

They respond by saying in a voice that sounds like marshmallow “What I am hearing from you is that you are feeling a bit glum at present, is that correct?”

You reply that they understood correctly, and that the glumness had been continuing for some time.

They respond by stating in a cotton-wool tone of voice “What I am hearing from you is that your glumness has been continuing for some time, is that correct?”

You look at them and ponder whether Alexa would ask better questions, but you continue. You explain that you think the glumness started when you were recently upset by an incident with a close friend.

They respond, with their head still tilted at the same angle “What I am hearing from you is that your glumness started when an incident with a close friend occurred, is that correct?”

It’s then that you realise that you are paying for this.

This is not reflective listening, this is not a fascinating conversation, this is interacting with a robot.

How do I learn to listen?

There are some techniques to listening and some practical things that make listening better. There are a number of good articles and many good books available to help you understand these techniques. I’ve picked a few:

What you will understand from reading each of these articles is that there are techniques to help you become a good listener, but that truly great listening is a skill that requires practice. You’ll also notice that listening skills are linked to other of the so-called “soft skills”.

The great thing about developing the listening skill is that there are so many opportunities to practice. Imagine how far you could get if each conversation you had was just a little bit better than the one before.

I’m off now to find a scarf and to practice holding my head to one side.

How did that make you feel? 😉

I’m Reading… “A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility” by Mark Schwartz

In summary: IT leaders want to be regarded as real business leaders, to be invited to the top table, and they are told that they should act in a particular way to get that seat at the table. Mark Schwartz argues that that the traditional approach is completely the wrong way of going about it in a world that is changing rapidly.

I’ve read a number of book on the changing landscape of business and, in particular, the radically changing role of technology within businesses. You may call this change Digital Transformation (personally I think that we’ve passed the point of meaningless for that particular term).  This is a book for the people who are being expected to lead through that change:

A Seat at the Table

“I’ve read a number of books on IT leadership and how to be a good CIO. None of them mention the major change of the last two decades: the rise of Agile and Lean practices for IT delivery. I’ve read plenty of books on Agile and Lean practices for IT delivery. None of them explain the role of IT leadership in an Agile world. The two domains are evolving separately: the field of IT leadership continues to frame its problems in its same old ways, oblivious to the deep changes brought on by the Agile revolution, while the Agile world, ever suspicious of management, proceeds as if it can manage without the involvement of IT leaders.”

The most common thought I had while reading this book was: “Yes, that’s it! I’ve seen that.” This was particularly true throughout chapter 2 where Mark outlines the history that has resulted in the situation that many organisations find themselves in and the behaviours that continue to reinforce this situation. This is a situation in which IT is regarded as separate from the business and is handled by contractor-control methods that spawned the whole outsourcing market in which I have worked for many years:

Thus, a distinctive way of thinking about IT was born, and has determined the course of IT since. 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 armslength 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.

There are many challenges with this approach, not least the challenge that a contractor-control relationship requires a level of stability and certainty that IT is not and should not be in a position to predict. Don’t get me wrong here, there are facets of IT provision that should be contracted, that’s what the who cloud change has been about, but that’s not where the business value is and that’s where the IT leaders should be focusing. Rather than subscribing to the “IT and the business” contractor-control model, Mark Schwartz sets out a different approach based on Lean and Agile thinking. I’d be reproducing the book if I tried to summarise all of the different ways in which Mark sees this playing out and that’s not the point of a quick review.

Some key stand-out thoughts for me though:

Planned Approaches v Agile Approaches

Planned approaches may have given us a perception of control, but that control was just an illusion. There were always too many unknown factors to really have control. Using Agile approaches allows us to continuously correct the course as we discover things helping us to navigate the unknown.

Enterprise Architecture in an Agile World

There are many fascinating insights into the role of Enterprise Architecture in a world where Agile is the way to deliver.

I have said that we need to stop looking at IT delivery in terms of projects and products. With what, then, shall we replace them? I’d like to suggest that the enterprise architects have had it right all along. We manage an enterprise-wide asset with an “as-is” state and a “to-be” state. We groom this asset in perpetuity—as the company changes and develops—by adding, removing, and improving its capabilities. We try to build into it agility and options, risk mitigations, and usability. The totality of our IT capabilities is an economic asset that will be used to derive profits or accomplish mission, and we might as well just call this the Enterprise Architecture.

As architects we need to move quickly away from our roles as the occupiers of the “land of the template zombies” and step into our new role as members of the business community who manage the IT economic asset. I wonder whether the term “Enterprise Architecture” is already too closely aligned to the “template zombies” to be redeemed, but that’s just the title and it was never really about the title.

Risk

We need to think very differently about risk, risk logs have never worked. Our plans require us to accurately predict the future, and we’ve never managed to that either. The way that we control risk is to make changes as circumstances develop. Creating experiments to help us understand how to navigate the risks is going to be the new skill that we all need.

Build v Buy

Mark makes an argument that the cost of building used to be so high that at always made sense to buy. The problem with buying was that you never quite got what you needed; you either got more than you needed or you got something that was only an 80% fit for what you need. This has all changed as the cost of building has reduced because of capabilities like micro-services which allow us to build something that is a 100% fit for what we need by plugging together a number of preexisting elements from cloud capabilities.

My personal perception is that this change is already taking hold – I’m seeing a lot more building going on.

The Role of the Senior Leader

Within this framework of change Mark outlines a new role for the IT leader, a role that has changed from be an enforcer of the contractor-control model to one whose role is to create an environment where self-managing teams can thrive. Mark summarises this change in a number of new roles:

  • Driver of Outcomes – taking responsibility for business outcomes.
  • Manager of Uncertainty – dealing with uncertainty has always been a part of IT leadership.
  • Steward of Assets – three critical ones the Enterprise Architecture asset, the IT people asset and the data asset.
  • Contributor – by being technical.
  • Influencer and Salesperson – stepping up to the “Chief” role.
  • Orchestrator of Chaos – businesses are complex systems that require a level of orchestration to truly sing.
  • Enabler – enabling activities rather than controlling them.
  • Independent Remover – “The best thing that a manager can do is to help the team do what it knows how to do by removing impediments.”
  • Manager of Managers – helping to manage other managers into an Agile mindset.

Conclusions

There’s a lot of focus on IT teams becoming Agile, but that’s only going to make a small change in most business. The real challenge is how a business becomes Agile, and that’s going to require a different kind of IT leadership.

This is a book I’m going to be coming back to.

Header Image: This is Lindisfarne Castle from Lindisfarne Harbour which is looking great after a number of years being surrounded in scaffolding for a renovation. 

“The executive’s job is to take risks, not to…”

“The executive’s job is to take risks, not to avoid them.

A senior executive’s job is to manage risk. We often interpret this as reducing or mitigating risk. But really the executive’s job is to take risks, not to avoid them. Since all action directed toward the future is risky, the executive must decide which risky actions to take and how best to take them. Investing in the stock market is risky, but if you want to earn a return, you have to do it. You balance risks and returns, and choose investments.

The simple reason that the contractor-control model of IT breaks down is the presence of uncertainty. Plans are made with an eye toward the future, but the future is largely unknown. Thus, rigid adherence to a plan cannot be effective—at best, the plan is valid only as long as the assumptions it makes are valid. The seated CIO is the one who tries new foods—well, if they look edible.

The presence of uncertainty is the simple reason why Agile approaches work better than plan-driven approaches—it is also the reason why a good IT leader will often have to make “wrong” decisions. An IT leader adds business value by adopting an intelligent attitude toward risk.”

Mark Schwartz – A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility

How do I have fascinating conversations? | The anti-patterns

How good are you at conversations? I think I’m in the “OK, but not great” group of people. I know people who are brilliant at turning even the most mundane encounter into a fascinating interaction, I also know people who struggle with conversing and some who are conversation murderers.

I can have fascinating conversations, but I’m not great at it. I can also find myself in the conversation wilderness wondering where the best route out is.

Conversations are a skill which I believe can be developed and improved. I’m expecting this post to be the first of a series, I’ve not planned the series out (which is unusual) but I know that I have more to say than this single post, at least. Hopefully, we’ll learn some new skills along the journey.

The Fascinating conversation Anti-Patterns

Before we understand how we have fascinating conversations, let’s start with the opposite, the characteristics of terrible conversations. As I’ve been thinking about conversations in recent weeks and months I’ve come across a number of anti-patterns that interrupt an interaction and leave it flapping around with nowhere to go, I’m sure that there are plenty more and each of these is just a caricature, but sometimes those caricatures teach us something.

The Soakers

You are placed next to someone at a dinner who you don’t really know and you think that it might be fun to get to know them. You turn and say “Hi” or something equivalent.

They say “Hi” back and all appears to be good. They haven’t snarled at you which is always a bonus and they aren’t so shy that they can’t enter a conversation.

Having made the initial advance it’s time to get started and you reach for one of your semi-interesting opening questions: “What do you do?” or even “How long have you know {name of host}?” perhaps “Do you have family?” may be appropriate.

Whichever question you choose will be answered, but the answer will give little away. The respondee may talk for several minutes, but somehow what they say gives you no footing for a follow-on question about their answer.

You wait a second to see if they want to ask you a question, but that doesn’t appear to occur to them.

Your left with few options and decide to pick another question from the list while still hoping to gain an insight that opens up an avenue of insightful conversation.

Again it is answered, but still little is revealed.

You wait a few more seconds to see if they will ask you a question, again nothing. Your inner voice wonders why they don’t want to ask you a question.

The list of semi-interesting opening questions is starting to look a bit depleted, but you persevere.

Another answer, still no opening.

Still no question in response. Your inner-voice wants to shout at them “ASK ME A QUESTION!” but you are far too polite for that.

You return to your list of questions and decide that the next one on the list is just too boring to ask.

The conversations dies from lack of interest and you look around the rest of the table for someone, anyone, to talk to.

The Smart Bomber

You are stood with a group of people you know reasonably well and the conversation is OK, but not quite fascinating. You’re enjoying the interaction and everyone is contributing.

Then someone joins the conversation.

Within seconds they have contributed to the conversation.

The conversation is now dead.

Silence.

The flow of the conversation was stopped by the contribution of the newest member of the group.

Everyone looks at each other desperately seeking a way of restarting the movement of words but time is running out fast. The conversational heartbeat is flat-lining. Quick, someone, do something, but no rescue is coming and everyone stands there in a silence that gets ever more uncomfortable.

Eventually the silence becomes too painful and the group disperses or breaks own into factions that each start their own, new, flow.

What did the newcomer say? There’s no simple way to define what was wrong with their contribution other than to characterise it as smart. Like many English words smart has a positive and a negative meaning – I’m using the negative meaning in this context. I’m talking here about statements for which there is no reply other than to say “Pardon? (You Muppet)” Politeness precludes anyone from saying this, politeness also stops us ignoring the comment and returning to the state we were in a few seconds earlier.

Notice that I describe these contributions as statements, because they are very rarely questions.

The smarts bomb has exploded and we are all left picking up the pieces.

The Agenda Enforcer

You join a teleconference early and discover that a number of your colleagues are also on the call early and so you say “Hi” and ask a question “How is everyone today?”

One of your colleagues chooses to respond with an insight into some planned special events in their office where things are going particularly well, they’ve been working on this for weeks and are quite excited about the outcome. Another colleague comments in a similar way and asks others in the group about their experiences. Other excited responses follow.

This is when the Agenda Enforcer enters the conversations and says “Today we are going to go around the call and I want each of you to report on how you are getting on with the planned special events? Who wants to start?”

This agenda item is exactly the conversation that you have just been having but no no-one wants to start. No-one wants to give a report, you were happy to have a conversation, but the conversation has left the call.

In your mind you are wondering why the Agenda Enforcer didn’t just let the conversation carry on flowing while also bubbling with anger for the interaction that was needlessly lost. Why did they feel the need to be in control?

The Distracted Distractor

You are sat in a one-to-one conversation in a coffee shop and have found great seats next to the window. Outside is a busy high-street and it feels like most of the rest of the world is going past the plate-glass facade.

The conversation is going well, you’ve caught up on some things and moved a little beyond the semi-interesting opening questions that such occasions demand. You are in the process of asking the person opposite you another question when they look out of the window and say “Have you seen that?”

You look out of the window to see a car driving illegally down the middle of the pedestrianised area. Your companion comments about the daftness of the person who has got themselves in such a mess.

After a few more choice words they ask “Where were we?”

You restate your question and they reply, but part way through their reply they again point out of the window “Look at that, they’re coming back the other way now!”

Again they ask “Where were we?” and you remind them.

A little further through their answer their phone rings, they take it out of their pocket and answer it. After a short conversation they end the phone call but continue to interact with the apps on their phone. You sit waiting, patiently, waiting, in silence, waiting.

Eventually they look up and say “Where were we again?” At this you stare intently at their phone. You flick a switch in your pocket and laser beams blast from your eyes instantly turning the phone into ash. Or, you reach over, take the phone from their hands and drop it into their drink. Or, something like that, or perhaps that’s just me.

A conversation is a flow of ideas and information, without the flow there is no conversation. In general the flow only goes in one direction, forwards. Stop-start is uncomfortable and going backwards is painful.

The Non-Stop Talker

Do I need to describe this person? You know who they are straight away. I suspect that you can picture them without prompting, if you can’t then perhaps this person is you.

They are the person who only needs one question to set them out on a track that gets ever more detailed in its telling, ever more irrelevant in its recounting.

They are the person who is convinced that you care whether it was last Tuesday, or perhaps Wednesday, or no it was Monday.

They know that you know how important time is and whether it happened at 11:05, or 10:45, or no it must have been about 11:15 because it was after the bus had left for town, you know the one, the one that is supposed to leave as 10:58, but always leaves at 11:08.

They know that it’s important that the item cost £11.98, or was it £11.95.

In short, they are verbally hyperactive and you only EVER ask them one question. You simply don’t have enough time to ask them more than one.

The Guessing Finishers

You are sat across the table from a work colleague. You are in a conversation and colleague asks you a question.

You steadily formulate an answer to the question because it’s a wonderful open question that requires an open answer.

Part way through your response you breath and pause a little. In that moment your colleague decides that you need help with your answer and start guessing.

Their first guess is utterly wrong and has you wondering whether they’ve been in the same conversation. You answer with a simple “No”. Their second guess is even more random and your “No” has become a bolder “No”. Why would they think that you would mean that? The third answer doesn’t even make sense and your “No” has become “NO”.

You are now stuck into the loop that uses all of your cognitive energy to answer their guesses and there is little remaining energy to find and give the answer that you were looking for in the first place.

The two of you eventually, somehow, find the missing word without you having to stand up and shout out “NO!!!” There is sweat beading on your neck from the stress.

Your corespondent then asks you another question and your anxiety levels hit max. You pause, trying to construct a whole answer so that you avoid the guessing game, but your stress levels make this almost impossible to achieve.

A wonderful, fascinating, flowing conversation has been replaced by an internal war with stress. The flow has left and the conversation will soon die for lack of freedom.

Learning from the Anti-Patterns

Recognise any of these? Perhaps you are some of these? I suspect that each of us has done each of these things at some point in our life, the wise thing to do would be to learn from these mistakes.

I’m planning to look into the anti-patterns for fascinating conversations as a way of improving my own interactions.

Header Image: This picture was taken on a recent climb up Crinkle Crags in the March snow. The snow was fresh from overnight showers completely covering any visibility of paths – interesting

The Future Looks Very Bright at #ChorleyHack

We have a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) skills problem in the UK. Estimates vary on the impact, but it’s significant:

UK STEM businesses have warned of a growing skills shortage as they struggle to recruit qualified workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields.
According to new findings from STEM Learning, the largest provider of STEM education and careers support in the UK, the shortage is costing businesses £1.5 billion a year in recruitment, temporary staffing, inflated salaries and additional training costs.
The STEM Skills Indicator1 reveals that nine in 10 (89%) STEM businesses have found it difficult to hire staff with the required skills in the last 12 months, leading to a current shortfall of over 173,000 workers – an average of 10 unfilled roles per business.

Skills shortage costing STEM sector £1.5bn

This shortfall is particularly acute for women entering STEM careers where less than 20% of the workforce are women.

The number of graduates is a result of many years of education and the earlier that we can get young people interested in STEM the better that the results will be. We can’t expect schools to be the sole instigators of that change either, as an industry we need to step up and help to provide life change STEM opportunities to children and young people. That’s one of the reasons why I was delighted to be a mentor as #ChorleyHack which was organised by the town council in the area where my office is.

What a fabulous day with 25 teams of four children from 14 local schools coming together in the local town hall to spend a day coding together. The task was “create a game or animation that educates other young people about cyber bullying, online safety and social media safety.”

The levels of preparation and enthusiasm were an inspiration, the room was buzzing. The children and young people were so focused on the task that many of them returned early from their lunch to get their code as far along as possible, even though the task was not to get their code finished. The sophistication of their work was amazing with a significant depth of understanding of the challenge subject area. As mentors the conversations where inspiring, I particularly enjoyed an extended chat with one of the children who was very excited to explain to me how Scratch worked and about another project he was writing in Python.

Observe anything about the make up of the winning teams from the tweets below:

That’s right, a significant proportion of girls, something that was evident across the day, no 20% here. #ChorleyHack was a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that girls can indeed code and another nail in the coffin of the lie that IT is just for boys.

Thanks go to each of the teams leaders, mostly teachers, who had clearly invested a huge amount of time in getting the children and young people prepared for the event.

A particular thanks goes to Simon Charnock, Digital Transformation Officer, Chorley Council who did a fabulous job of facilitating the whole event.

If we can see this level of enthusiasm and passion continuing through the education system then we should be looking forward to a very bright future.

Office Speak: “Paradigm Shift”

Sometimes you think you know what something means, and then you look into it and you are no longer sure. You hear someone say something in a context and you are convinced of the meaning, but perhaps the meaning has been defined by the context.

Today’s Office Speak is a favourite term of a mythical group of people known as the Agents of Change (we’ll get to that one another day). These Agents roam the earth calling people to see beyond their day-to-day way of thinking and to make a Paradigm Shift.

paradigm 
noun
a typical example or pattern of something; a pattern or model.
“society’s paradigm of the ‘ideal woman’”

We were gifted the term Paradigm Shift by Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) who was talking about changes in the basic fundamentals of scientific discipline driving a scientific revolution:

A scientific revolution occurs, according to Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. The paradigm, in Kuhn’s view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. This is based on features of landscape of knowledge that scientists can identify around them.

Wikipedia

Our own world views have been impacted by these scientific revolutions. There was a time when people didn’t know that germs existed, imagine the change that they went through once it was understood. It’s not that long ago that DNA was discovered and we are all in the middle of the science revolution that this is enabling. That’s the level of a Paradigm Shift as described by Kuhn – a complete change of worldview.

You may have seen this diagram before, it was used by Kuhn to illustrate that a different perspective can change the meaning:

duck-rabbit_illusion

I’m going to assume that you can all see the two different creatures being shown here?

Let’s return to those Change Agents that patrol the typical office environment requesting a Paradigm Shift here and another one over there. What are they really calling for? Are they calling for a scientific revolution in our day-to-day office existence? Or, as I suspect, are they asking us to squint a bit and look at something in a slightly different way. This tendency to overstate is quite common in Office Speak.

Rather than saying:

“We need a paradigm shift here.”

Perhaps it would be better to say:

“Is there a different way of thinking about this?”

Or even:

“Perhaps we need to look at this a different way.”

It may be that I’m just being a bit too British about this, but it sometimes feel like we call all change a Paradigm Shift when all we’ve really done is moved from one desk to another, or changed from one colour scheme to another. These don’t quite compare to Einsteinian General Relativity do they? Perhaps the Agents of change or rewarded for the number of times that they use it? Or Perhaps it’s just become a lazy way of saying “we need to change what we are doing”?

Header Image: This is the view from Eagle Crag down Borrowdale an a cold but beautiful day in 2019.

Document Driven v Data Driven

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about forms. Why forms? Forms give us fascinating insights into that way that organisations work.

A Life of Forms

We are surrounded, some would say inundated, by forms:

  • Banking runs on forms.
  • Insurance wouldn’t survive without forms.
  • Most organisations have thousands of ad hoc forms for various diverse purposes.
  • One of the worst things to happen in some organisations is that a situation arises for which there is no form.
  • Visit a medical professional and somewhere within the dialogue a form will become necessary.
  • Subscribe to any service and forms will be used as part of the contracting process.
  • Start a new employment and you are likely to spend much of your first day completing forms.
  • Our birth and our death are accompanied by forms.
  • How many times a day do you complete a two-field form in order to gain access to some technology.
  • Interact with a government organisation and a form will be required.

Sometimes these forms are online, web page, or even forms on mobile devices. There are still, however, many situations where forms are completed with a pen. How many hours have you spent trying to complete a pseudo form that was sent to you as a Word or PDF document.

Document Driven Business

There are many PowerPoint decks, Excel spreadsheets and Word documents that are in essence forms. They are created from a template that sets the titles and contents of each slide/worksheet/section. The person completing them is expected to say certain things in certain ways, just like a form.

  • This first slide has the title on including the reference number, person presenting and target date.
  • The next slide has the required content on and only this content.
  • The following slide will explain what it is you are going to do.
  • The penultimate slide will outline the business case in the supplied table.
  • The final slide will contain the risk register, using the supplied table headings.
  • No other slides may be added.

It’s a form, isn’t it?

A Form to Transact

Each of these form-types exist to support a transaction:

“Once you have completed sections 1 to 5 and 8 of the loan application form we will proceed to the next phase of you application.”

“You are required to complete a tax return of which sections a to e are mandatory.”

“We’ll proceed with your project once you have provided the project initiation template document.”

The boundary of the transaction is defined by the form, without the form nothing moves forward, or backward.

This way of working produces a number of effects:

  • Over preparation – in order to make sure that a transaction can complete documents tend to be over-worked. Many hours are spent making sure that every detail in a form/document are correct to a level of detail that is not required to move onto the next phase, but everyone strives for perfection to avoid rework at all costs. A small amount of over-work is compounded as a process is worked end-to-end. Imagine how much work goes into producing a set of 40 document? Add a little bit of over-preparation to each of them and the amount of effort being expended is huge.
  • Over-stating – The over-preparation of documents often includes over-stating, where things that aren’t required in the document are stated in the document “just-in-case”. The problem with this superfluous information is that it becomes part of the record and is then used by people who make decisions despite its heritage and trustworthiness.
  • Point-in-time perspectives – The information in the form/document was mostly correct at a particular time on a particular day, but that’s all that can be said about it. Any perspective that is taken on that document is locked into the context at that time. The information in the document isn’t being refreshed, it was completed, a transaction took place and now everything within the document is, at best, history. Yet, people will continue to refer back to it as information way beyond the valid life of the data contained within it. The reality is, even before the document is concluded the data within it will be out of date.
  • Action blocking – A form/document represents the end of one activity and the start of another – a phase-shift. The next phase can’t start until it has received the information from the previous phase. Even if an element of the next phases has all that it needs to proceed it can’t until the transaction has been agreed. Consider how many actions are expected to be undertaken following the transaction of a 100 page document? How many of those actions could have safely been undertaken way before the transacting of the document?
  • Phases based on documents – The definition of a document as the point of transaction means that production of the document often becomes the definition of the phases/stages of an activity. This way of planning has little to do with the amount of effort involved, or the value being produced, it just represents a transaction. An activity that only exists to produce a document is a bad activity.

Data Drive Business

Let’s turn our attention to data-driven activities.

The document has been with us for thousands of years, but we no longer need to work at such a coarse level. The information that is placed into a form was not generated by the form. A form is just a place to consolidate information that already exists elsewhere. When you are asked about your date-of-birth in a form you are simply recording information that has existed, for some of us, for many years. So why not link the data directly with the intent for which it is needed. Why bother placing a date of birth on a piece of paper when one system could ask another system whether I’m older than 18 and get the correct answer back.

There are situations where data isn’t enough and a set of information may need to be brought together to tell a particular story. Imagine a design for a network topology, the design may be the first time that it’s been outlined. This isn’t to say that in this situation a document is required, it’s just to highlight that an intermediate step from current state to future state may be required to fill gaps in the data. Even in this network topology example a diagram with meta-data is probably sufficient to communicate the change being proposed and for people to agree to transact. Once the change has been implemented the diagram is no longer required because the current state information becomes the record.

Taking the network topology example even further, the need for a human-readable design demonstrates a gap in policy and understanding. If the change could be codified in a way that a policy mechanism could understand and assess, then the change could have taken place without the need for a diagram. If, as an example, an application needs to add more resources to the network, the network would respond on the basis of the data provided and the policy defined. Likewise, once those resources are no longer required the policy engine would turn the resources off. All of this would happen before someone has filled in half of the “necessary” paperwork.

Our job, as humans, should be to assess and define the required actions for the exception, for those situations where data and policy is not sufficient for a decision to be made.

Time for Transformation

For much of the life of IT may applications have been little more than form replacements and that has given us some productivity gains. In many ways we are only just at the beginning of a transformation from a world driven by documents to one driven by data  This will require a profound change in the way that we think and act.

Organisations that continue to rely upon forms (including apps that are replacing forms) will be overtaken by the machines.

Header Image: This is one from a recent morning walk along the lanes near my house. I’ve always loved the shapes of tree skeletons in the winter.