Because it’s Friday: “Life in Parallel Universe” by Backward Picnic

Backward Picnic spends his life in a parallel universe where strange things happen:

The reality is, Lithuanian filmmaker and musician Saulius Jegelevičius, has created this fabulous Youtube channel where strange things happen by learning to speak backwards.

What comes after 2020?

Over recent years organisations have been defining their medium-term and long-term planning with a target for delivery of the year 2020.

Some examples:

Some of these go back 10 years, others are more recent. The master of the 2020 target has to be Elon Musk who has made numerous promises along the lines of “by 2020” over the years.

Why 2020?

Decade years – 20, 30, 40, 50 – sound significant to us. They remind us that we are passing a milestone from the 20-10s to the 20-20s. There’s little point, in most contexts, to plan out 50 or even 25 years, but 10 years hence sounds like a period of time we can imagine and “long-term”.

Also 2020 has a particular resonance because of the link with eyesight testing and 20/20 being the definition of perfect eyesight. It’s interesting to see how many of the descriptions of 2020 strategies have included a play on this – “2020 vision”, “2020 in focus”, etc.

(It’s worth noting here that 20/20 doesn’t actually represent perfect eyesight, and is an American standard, in Europe optometrists use the 6/6 standard, but even in the UK that doesn’t have the same resonance in the public mindset 😊.)

For those of you only just getting used to it being 2019 already it’s probably not helpful of me to point out that 2020 is only 11.5 months away which doesn’t leave you much time to get your 2020 strategy implemented.

What are you planning for?

This is where I’m intrigued, now that 2020 is so close, where are you going to pitch your long and medium-term strategy now? Are you going to go large and aim for 2030, which seems like it’s a long, long way away. The year 2025 is a disappointing compromise even if it is the year has Elon Musk picked for humans on Mars (though they would have to leave in 2024 to get there in time). There doesn’t appear to be any benchmark year in this race. The year 2020 has been such a magnet for this kind of target that anything else beyond it feels like a pale imitation. What are you planning?

Header image: Today’s header image is of Formby Beach on an amazingly sunny and calm Christmas Eve 2018.

Office Speak: “laser-focused”

Where to start on this one? Perhaps context is the thing that’s required and perhaps an (fictitious?) example will start to give that context:

“As a team we are laser-focused on resolving your issue with our service.”

or:

“As an organisation we are laser-focused on delivering to the strategy that we outlined.”

The basic idea being portrayed is that a person or organisation is “focusing” their attention/talent/energy/etc. on a particular issue. The use of the world “laser” is meant to portray a number of sentiments like high-energy, straight, bright, intense and pointed.

If you search for the term laser focused you’ll see that most of the results are focused on maintaining attention:

  • 13 Ways to Develop Laser-Like Focus
  • How to Stay Laser-Focused on Your Goals
  • 3 Strategies That’ll Help You Laser-Focus on (Almost) Anything at Work
  • Why Laser Focus Leads to Success

Focus is clearly a common problem for which we all need 13 ways, 3 strategies, 7 tips and 4 daily rituals 😏, but I’m in danger of loosing focus, so must continue.

As a sentiment statement I kind of understand it, but I have a problem with the metaphor being portrayed – a pinpoint-narrow focus rarely solved anything

The reality is, if you are going to solve an issue it’s rare that a narrow focus is going to get you to an answer. Good answers tend to come from an open attitude. If you are trying to find something in a darkened room it’s more productive to fill the whole room with a small amount of light than to have a very bright light on a small dot.

Focus is what’s required to get anything done, the bit I struggle with is the laser-like-ness of the word picture.

I’ll leave you with a bit of a technical question: can you focus a laser?

Header Image: Today’s image at the top of this post is from the approach to Rossett Pike looking along the Mickleden and Great Langdale Valleys, with the Pike of Stickle to the left of the image.

Top 10 Posts for 2018

I normally round out each year with a post that summarises the most visited content for the year. This year a completely forgot about it until today, so here it is:

  1. Office Speak: “Sharpen Your Pencil”
  2. Add a Third Time-Zone to your Outlook Calendar
  3. The British, the Queue and the Tut
  4. Office Speak: Greenfielding
  5. Office Speak: “Can you please go on mute” – “PLEASE GO ON MUTE”
  6. Office Speak: One Throat to Choke
  7. Productive Workplace: Design Mindset Spaces
  8. Count Your Blessings #120 – Short Stories
  9. “If everyone has to think outside the box, maybe…
  10. The Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS)

As with previous years, the most popular posts are primarily historic with a continued growth in Office Speak. The exception to this is #2 on adding a third time-zone to Outlook calendars.

Header Image: Today’s header image is of Angle Tarn taken on a recent walk up and over Bowfell which is somewhere, not visible behind the clouds.

“Sir, what’s the most corrosive substance?” | A Lesson in Framing

I don’t remember much from chemistry lessons at secondary school, but there is one encounter that I regularly return to.

Let me paint a bit of the scene for you.

At the front is a chemistry teacher who is wearing a white lab coat that has clearly seen better days and now has holes in several places.

The chemistry teacher himself is also a bit frayed at the edges in that eccentric professor kind of a way. The jumper he is wearing under the lab coat has leather patches sown onto the elbows, he always wears this jumper.

We are also wearing white lab coats, but ours are a combination of almost new and somewhat worn depending on whether we had older siblings or not. This was the age when things were passed down from one child to another.

We are sat at high benches with heavy wooden worktops which are all in rows facing the front. The wooden stools that we are sat on are a bit wobbly and give the impression that they could collapse at any moment, our feet do not touch the floor.

In front of the teacher and also on our benches is an assortment of glassware containing clear chemicals. Today, many of these chemicals are no longer deemed safe enough to be handled by pupils – it was a more naive time.

One of those clear chemicals is Sulphuric Acid and we have all been told, in the strictest of terms, to be very careful and not to get any on ourselves or our clothes. I think we were wearing safety glasses, but like I say, more naive times.

Our subject for the day – corrosion:

Corrosion is a natural process, which converts a refined metal to a more chemically-stable form, such as its oxide, hydroxide, or sulfide. It is the gradual destruction of materials (usually metals) by chemical and/or electrochemical reaction with their environment.

We have been marvelling at the ability of various acids to dramatically corrode different materials, our favourites being the ones that smoked as they reacted. Then one of the boys (I’m pretty sure it was a boy, but it could have been a girl, this was a mixed school after all, I’m only saying a boy because that’s how I remember it) says:

“Sir, what’s the most corrosive substance that we know of?”

We were all expecting a fancy chemical that we’d never heard of and would never be allowed to handle. Certainly something with the word “acid” at the end of its name – “HydroChloroSulphoUber Acid” or something like that. We’d just seen how amazing these various chemicals could be and we’d not seen anything like it before. Surely the most corrosive substance on earth was something just like these?

Then “Sir” (I don’t remember his real name and I can’t use his nickname in polite society) looked up from his bench and gave this answer:

“I suppose it has to be H20.”

We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. What was he talking about? We drank water every day. How could it be the most corrosive thing on the planet?

He went on to explain:

“Look at the impact of water of the landscape. Think about all of the caves up in the Yorkshire Dales Limestone worn away by water. Look at all of the rust around you, all caused by water. Think about it, I’m sure you can come up with many more examples.”

We’d framed our expectations, the answer, by the situation in which we found ourselves. As someone with a bit more experience “Sir” looked outside the immediate situation and perceived the bigger picture. Sulphuric Acid may be more corrosive than water when placed onto my lab coat, but there isn’t that much of it about so it’s not going to corrode that many lab coats. Water, however, is everywhere and it’s impact is massive.

I’ve returned to this thought of framing many times. I see people making decisions that make no sense until I try to understand the frame in which they are making those choices, sometimes that changes my perception of their answer, sometimes it changes their answer. I see others framing questions in such a way as to get the answer that they needed, but not necessarily the right or the best answer. I’ve also witnessed some people re-framing their question and their answer in ways that created unexpectedly wonderful answers.

The answer doesn’t have to fit into your frame of the question, the best answers often don’t.

Navigating in the Mountains, Using the Right Technique for the Conditions – Testing an Agile Analogy

One of the joys and challenges of being human is that we communicate and understand differently. Some people prefer numbers and facts, others need a picture or a story. Art exists in many forms because it helps us to break through and communicate.

I’ve been trying out a new analogy recently and wanted to expose it to a broader community to see if it resonated. I’d love to hear your views.

One of the joys of my life is a day walking in the hills. There are various skills that that you need when you are out in the hills, perhaps the most important being navigation. I call navigation a skill because it isn’t a method, it’s a collection of tools and techniques that you need to apply in the right situation to get the right result. The tools and techniques that you use on one particular day, or even during a specific hour, are influenced by several factors, including:

  • Visibility – How far can you see?
  • Local knowledge – Do you know where you are going? Perhaps you’ve been there before?
  • Terrain – Is there a defined path? What are the hazards ahead, or to the left or right?

If visibility is good; if there’s a defined path and you are walking a route you’ve walked many times before you join the chosen path, look ahead and walk. Navigation is straightforward and doesn’t require you to spend all of your time looking down at a map. When things are really good you can even see places where the journey could be improved by taking a slightly different route or by taking a shortcut.

This approach is fine until the factors above change. Clouds roll in causing visibility to drop to a few metres and you arrive at a point where the defined path becomes less distinct and the terrain becomes indistinct. At this point the navigation techniques need to change, it’s time to get the map and the compass out.

For anyone who hasn’t used a map and compass in this situation what you need to do is to take a bearing. This video shows you how to do that:

Further details here.

The important point is right at the end of the video:

  • Take a bearing,
  • Pick a landmark that you can see,
  • Head to that landmark,
  • Take another bearing at the landmark,
  • Repeat until you get to the point where you are wanting to go.

Unless you are a very skilled navigator and there are lots of visible landmarks it’s not likely that this approach will get you directly from A-to-B, but it will get you there. Even if you could navigate on the direct route it’s likely that there will be obstacles in the way that will cause you to stop and adjust. Navigating this way is slower than when conditions are good, taking a bearing takes time and diversions cause extra work.

The key skill in this approach is to take bearings often enough to keep you focused on the end goal, but not so often that you are spending all of your time taking bearings. The length between bearings depends upon the amount of visibility and the available landmarks. If you can only see for 5 metres, then that’s as far as you can navigate. The last thing you want to do is to pick a landmark that is itself out of sight, that’s a recipe for disaster because you are likely to miss the landmark in the mist and plunge yourself into a situation where you don’t know where you are on the map. Relocating yourself on a map is another skill, slowing progress further.

Some days you start out on a walk where visibility is good and you have great local knowledge but that situation can change rapidly. That’s when the approach needs to change to match the conditions.

Projects, particularly IT projects, are journeys from one place to another. The methods that we use should be dependent upon the conditions, that’s where this analogy comes in. Agile is fabulous for those situations where it’s a bit foggy and the path isn’t clear. Take a bearing, pick a landmark and then sprint to it, then take another bearing. Lean isn’t great in the fog, but is the fastest way of making progress when conditions are good. Even in a Lean situation you may still want to define some interim goals to maintain motivation but you’re not changing the path or the destination just because you’ve reached an interim goal. Even if you think that the road ahead is clear and you can follow tried and tested routes doesn’t prevent the conditions changing and a different type of navigation being required.

Like all analogy this isn’t a perfect picture of the different approaches, but it’s helped most of the people I’ve described it to. Does it work for you?

My 2 Modes for Writing a Blog Post

I recently passed 2,000 blog posts so was pondering how they got written. Blog posts tend to get written in one of two modes, unfortunately I don’t know which one it’s going to be when I start, which I find highly frustrating.

Mode #1 – Easy: I sit I write, I review, I post

On most occasions a thought comes to me, or I read an article that sparks a thought, or someone says something and in that instant I know what it is that I want to say. I don’t always know the full content, but the outline of the story is there in my head, not just the concept.

The Office Speak posts are mostly great examples of this way of working. Someone says something that I think needs reflecting upon and off we go. One of the posts in this series is the all-time most visited post of this blog: Office Speak: “Sharpen Your Pencil”

Sometimes the inciting incident comes at an inconvenient time and I need to write it down before it gets lost, but generally I’m in a position to write something shortly after the idea arrives. Because of this the posts often need to be scheduled to be posted at a time when people are going to read it, but that’s normally the next day. So from idea to post is normally less than 24 hours.

I would like to have more posts like this, sadly there’s also Mode #2.

Mode #2 – Hard: I think, I sit, I start to write, I re-write…I post

Similar to the Mode #1 posts there’s normally an inciting incident of a thought, a conversation or something that I read which creates a spark of an idea.

“I should write something about the effects of technology on our mental health”

I think (as an example).

“Yes, but what’s the story?”

Is my immediate response.

“Well it could be…”

That’s where I move into the picture building business. I create a set of pieces, some of them collected from other people, others trying to portray an idea that I’ve had. There are snippets of personal encounters and stories that I’ve heard. There are also quotations that I’ve heard and longer form items that form the scaffolding of the idea. Sadly though, having the elements of the picture doesn’t mean that I have a narrative and I find that creating satisfactory rending can be incredibly hard.

Sometimes I try to just power through as if this was a Mode #1 post by sitting and writing, but it’s normally evident within a few minutes that the story needs more work than that. It feels a bit like riding a bike into a shallow river – it’s fine at the beginning but it’s quickly evident that you are going to grind to an abrupt halt and progress is going to require a different approach.

This may be the point in the article where you are saying to yourself “Give us your wisdom Graham, tell us how you overcome this conundrum.” Sadly, I have no wisdom for you. I don’t have a foolproof way of getting through the mire that is a Mode #2 post.

The only way that I know to get a Mode #2 post concluded is to wrestle it, sometimes I win the wrestle, but many times the wrestle defeats me. There have been numerous times when I have engaged in the struggle for far too long before concluding that it’s not worth it and regretting the time that I’ve spent trying to get to a winning position. I’m also sure that there are times when I gave up way too early and the results would have been amazing if only I’d persevered.

There’s no way of knowing which wrestling moves are going to work and which ones will just cause you pain. I find that creating a mind-map of the article ideas can be helpful, but that doesn’t always work. There are times when I write a set of paragraphs for each of the ideas and shuffle them around trying to find the narrative with limited success. At other times I pick a new beginning for the article and try to get Mode #1 going in a different direction which is fraught with frustration. Sometimes I rewrite the opening paragraph, then rewrite it, trying to find a different way out of it and into a whole new portrayal. The struggle is part of the joy of the endeavour, if you didn’t loose the joy in winning wouldn’t quite be the same, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

I console myself with the thought that there are few things in life that are worth doing that come easily, but that’s meagre consolation.

Thankfully this was a Mode #1 article.

Do you have any wisdom for me?