Teaspoons: Lessons of a Failed Experiment

Some weeks ago a wrote about the teaspoon situation in the office where I work. I had a theory that the presence, or lack, of teaspoons in the kitchen was an example of scarcity theory. Having provided new teaspoons most of them stayed in the kitchen for a while and then disappeared quite quickly. In that article I set out several resolutions to the challenge of disappearing spoons, one of these, was to buy some more spoons and see what happened.

My expectation was that these teaspoons would also, over time, be removed from the shared facility, it happened once the most likely outcome is that it will happen again. If the last set of tea-making cutlery vanished in just a few weeks, then surely the same would happen to another set. I’m giving the plot away far to early, but I can tell you that I was wrong, so far at least the majority of the spoons are still in the kitchen.

This is what happened – with the generosity of Christmas in my mind I decided that I would replenish the supply of stirrers the brew facilities in late December. This resulted in me adding four dozen (48) new teaspoons into the kitchen in the week prior to the Christmas break.

My expectation was that I would be able, within a couple of weeks, to write an article stating that yet again all of the spoons had vanished and that a nice chart would show a rapid drop off once numbers became scarce. To prove this we decided that we should take regular audits of the number of spoons by a manual count.

I didn’t get to write that article because this is what has happened:

The Teaspoon Experiment – Round 2

That’s right the number of spoons did drop off reasonably quickly, but then it stopped and has stayed steady for a couple of weeks now.

Why should that be?

This experiment has left me with more questions than answers, although I do have to admit that some of the questions are caused by my own tinkering.

The normal rule of experimentation is that you only change one thing at a time so you can understand the impact of that change, I ignored that rule and have made things confused in the process.

Could it be Posher Spoons?

When buying the second set of spoons I wondered whether people would treat better spoons any differently to cheap ones. Someone commented to me that they had broken at least one of the first set and I couldn’t be sure that others hadn’t met the same fate. I also wondered whether people might be more inclined to look after a posher teaspoon.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not talking about the difference between a cheap spoon and a silver spoon; the difference was between a cheap teaspoon and a very cheap teaspoon.

Anyway, the smarter stirrers have lasted longer than the cheap ones, but I can’t say whether that’s causation or just correlation.

Have we reached saturation?

Another theory is that we’ve reached the peak of people who regard removal of an item from a shared utility as an acceptable thing to do. This is partially evidenced by the fact that some of the cheaper spoons have returned, these being people who want their own teaspoon, but also want it to be the best spoon.

We definitely haven’t provided everyone in the building with a spoon, that would take significantly more spoons to achieve and quite frankly I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far for a bit of fun.

Will it change over time?

Perhaps this chart reflects people’s New Year’s resolution to be better people and to be kinder to their fellow human beings. Or, maybe not.

Perhaps the cause is people’s desire to drink more water as part of their January health kick resulting in lower usage of teaspoons. Or, maybe not.

Is it because the kitchen has changed?

Some of you will have read: The Suboptimal Kitchen – The 10 Steps to Getting a Cup of Tea

Since publishing that post someone decided that sub-optimal wasn’t good enough and we needed to make the place super-sub-optimal. The change in the kitchen is deserving of another post at some point, but for now you know all that you need to know, there has been a change. This change has meant that for many people getting access to a teaspoon has become something of a challenge causing many to abandon their use.

Are people messing about?

Another, less likely, theory is that people read my previous post and have decided to mess with my experiment. I’d like to think that this was true, but my ego isn’t so big as to think that many of the people in my office have even read the post.

Concluding

The scientific method is there for a reason, the implications of messing with it were obvious in this case. I will keep an eye on teaspoon numbers to see if anything changes, but perhaps it’s time to move on to something else.

Doing experiments with people is always fraught with unexpected complexity.

At least now there are plenty of spoons available in the kitchen again.

Header Image: These are Rydal Caves where we decided to hide for a while whilst the rain descended.

Walking in Conversation – Talking Side-by-Side

I was out for a walk with a friend the other day; as we walked and talked my friend said something along the lines of:

“The conversation always flows much better when you are on a walk.”

I agreed wholeheartedly.

There’s a phrase that I use, which is a quote from someone but I don’t know who:

“Women talk face-to-face; men talk side-by-side.”

This isn’t a rule, but more of an axiom that I see playing out regularly. What better way to be side-by-side than to go for a walk.

I’ve led all sorts of walking groups, sometimes the groups are just men. When it’s an exclusively male group they will fall into line two-by-two and the conversation will be contained within the pairings for almost the entirety of the walk. There’s something in this arrangement that men find safe and helps the conversation to flow. I’ve also led groups that are exclusively women (except myself, of course) and they interact in a very different way, but still the conversation flows.

From time to time someone will ask me if they can have a chat about something, whenever this occurs I try to make our meeting include a walk. This is how the meeting normally goes, we meet at a cafe and have a drink during which time we’ll chat, but the conversation won’t go very deep. Once we have finished our drink we’ll start off walking, almost instantaneously the level of conversation will go deeper. The further we walk the deeper the conversation goes.

I’ve been in situations at work where things were getting tense in a meeting room. When I’ve had the opportunity I’ve arranged for a break in the proceedings and encouraged everyone to go out for a walk. The change in conversation as people walk and talk is remarkable. The change of posture dissipates the tension almost immediately, the fresh air lightens the mood considerably, and it all flows together to make for a much better outcome for everyone. There was a time a few years ago when walking meetings were the latest management “thing”. Walking meetings may not be a “thing” anymore, but that doesn’t stop them being a very valuable tool. If you’ve never tried it, you should.

Some of my fondest memories are of conversations that I have had whilst out for a walk with friends and family. There are more of these memories than there are of conversations over meals or sat in a coffee shop somewhere.

“The conversation always flows much better when you are on a walk.”

Steve

Walking to be Present – Being Here and Now

How much of our lives do we spend in the future or the past?

I’m someone who can chew on regrets for days. If I make a mistake, or embarrass myself, that can become the burden of my thoughts and feelings for far too long. I know that I’m overthinking each of these situations but that doesn’t stop me living in the past. Interestingly my temperament is such that positive experiences rarely have the same impact, I let delight slip from my thought far too easily and hold onto the negative far too quickly.

Worrying about the future is another pastime that has been a prevalent companion. I have an expert level certification in imaging catastrophe, not surprisingly most of these imagined disasters have never happened. I’m living in a future that doesn’t exist and will never exist quite how I imagined it.

Neither chewing on the past nor worrying about the future are worth anything like the amount of time that I spend on them.

There are times, though, when my time travelling starts to feel like it’s getting out of control and that is when I need to make a conscious effort to return to the present.

The best way I know of returning to the here and now is to go for a walk.

I’ve written previously about starting a walk at a high pace and how it takes a while for me to drop into my rhythm. My mental presence follows a similar cycle.

When I start out on a walk my head can be in all sorts of places depending upon the events that happens just before setting out. Sometimes my thoughts race between something that’s just happened and a worry about the future, like a tiger in a cage pacing backwards and forwards. I’ll then switch inexplicably to another concern and a different worry, but still bouncing from one to another, backwards and forwards in time. After a few minutes, having visited the various corners of the cage the tiger starts to calm down and move to a place of rest. This phase doesn’t, normally, take more than a few minutes before peace starts to build.

On one of my regular walks there’s a gate just a few minutes from my house, reaching the gate is often the symbol for me to step out of the cage and into the present. There are times when the steps before the gate are a blur as all of my attention has been soaked up mentally pacing the cage.

Stepping through the gate and into the present I start to notice everything around me. This morning I’d hardly noticed how misty it was until I stepped through the wooden kissing gate. It’s in the present that I start to put things into perspective and set aside my worries and concerns. It’s in the present that I start to see hidden things. It’s in the present that delight arrives. It’s in the present that in a strange way I step out of the present and into a daydream.

You are a success when you have made friends with your past, are focused on the present, and are optimistic about your future

Zig Ziglar

Header Image: A sunset on one of my morning walks. It’s taken a little way through the gate.

Why do we congregate in doorways and corridors?

You’ve just finished one meeting. You have just enough time to go and make a drink before your next meeting. The drink making facilities are just across the open plan office, down a corridor in another room. As you traverse the office you have to pass in-between two people chatting in the middle of the walkway that you are using. As you turn into the small corridor you notice there are three people who’ve already got their brew (as a hot drink is known in these parts) stood blocking the corridor, again your progress is slowed as it takes a little while to notice you. You politely ask the people to move to one side, which they do, with a surprised look that questions why someone else would want to use this same space. Once you move past them you are conscious that they have moved back to their original position, returning the corridor to the blocked state. They must know that that you will soon return and again politely ask them to move.

I suspect that there is an almost universal frustration that comes from the inability to reach your destination because people are stood, often talking, in doorways and corridors.

Doorways seem to have a particular attraction for people; doorways on corridors are a magnet.

Why have they chosen these places to stop, why couldn’t they move to somewhere more convenient (for you)?

What is so attractive about corridors and pinch-points?

Why do people stand in corridors and doorways more than anywhere else?

The reality is that we’ve all done it, we’ve stood at a pinch-point, blocking access and been completely unaware of other’s need to traverse a space.

I started the research for this post expected there to be a really good, simple, easily found, universally understood answer to these questions, but it hasn’t proved to be easy to find any information.

If I search for something like “why do people chat in corridors” I’m introduced to a myriad of newspaper articles about a school where they’ve banned talking in corridors. I didn’t realise that it was such a big issue 😏.

If I search for something like “why do people block corridors” I get a different issue – the blocking of corridors by residents, predominantly in flats. People leaving objects in corridors for others to fall over seem to be problem that’s experienced across the globe 🙄.

During my journey of discover I’ve discovered that corridors are, themselves, a modern construction in English speaking countries dating back only as far as back as the 1700’s. While this is interesting it doesn’t answer my query.

I did find a couple of articles where I thought I might get to an answer but all they were doing was moaning about the problem, followed by hundreds of comments from people raging against people who stood in such places. I haven’t linked to these articles because most of the comments weren’t worth viewing and many were offensive 😣.

My quest for answers will continue, but for now I’ve decided on a different approach. In order to research some more I think I need some hypotheses, perhaps you have some other ones to add to my understanding?

Standing in Corridors Hypotheses

Why do people stand and chat in corridors and doorways more than anywhere else?

Likelihood of meeting

Corridors and doorways are places of transit. The likelihood of meeting someone in one of these locations is higher than in other places because there’s a concentration of interactions.

People aren’t normally scheduling a meeting in a corridor it’s just the place where they met someone.

Meetings are difficult to move

Once you’ve met someone it’s difficult to move that discussion elsewhere. I’ve tried it a few times and the meeting is more likely to end, in my experience.

“Shall we continue our chat on the comfy seats”

“Actually I’ve got a meeting I need to be getting to. Bye.” (or similar)

It’s a perception issue

Actually people don’t prefer to chat in corridors or doorways, we notice these interactions because people are in the way. If two people in an office, on adjacent desks, are chatting it’s barely visible, if those two people were stood in front of a water cooler it would be noticed by everyone trying to get some refreshment.

Cave mentality

A corridor represents the cave of old where we used to converse. We feel comfy and cosy here, it’s a natural place to chat, we are safe here. A doorway represents the edge of safety with an easy retreat. Chatting in a large open plan office is a strange place to chat, out in the open, vulnerable to predators.

People are annoying

People stand in corridor just to annoy you. I don’t believe this is true, I include it here because it’s what I’m thinking when I try to get past people.

What other reasons come to mind?

Do meeting cancellations make you grumpy? A not so scientific study.

I work in a role where it’s possible that a meeting can happen anywhere in the 24 hour of a day. In general people work together to respect people’s working day, but there are times when a meeting at an anti-social time is unavoidable, that’s accepted. What makes me grumpy, though, is when these meetings are cancelled or postponed, particularly at short notice.

Yesterday evening I finished my normal working day with the expectation of joining a teleconference at 8:00pm. When I had started my break at 6:00pm I had already attended a preparation meeting with the full expectation that the later meeting would go ahead. Still expecting that the meeting would go ahead I retreated into my small study at 7:55pm ready to connect, but in the 1 hour 55 minutes I had been offline the meeting had been reschedule to a later date. I was a bit grumpy, I wasn’t a lot grumpy, because I had some expectation that this would happen. Why was I grumpy?

This experience got me thinking; if the notice of this postponement had come to 6:00pm I would have been delighted. The timing of the cancellation/reschedule made all the difference to my response.

I wondered whether I could create a model, or an equation, to understand this phenomenon, something that would help us to empathise with others in different time zones attending a meeting.

First step, create a chart of grumpiness/delight for a typical meeting cancellation based on time of the meeting and notice period given:


How grumpy/delighted am I if a meeting is cancelled, based on how much notice I was given?

The first observation is that most of the points on this chart are actually ranges that depend upon the type of meeting and the importance of the meeting that is being cancelled or postponed. If a meeting is at an anti-social time, but I don’t think it’s important, I’m not likely to attend anyway. If the meeting at an anti-social time is critically important to progress another activity and is postponed I’m likely to still be a bit grumpy even if I get good notice of the move. Imagine that this charge represents a moderately important meeting that doesn’t represent anything that is time critical.

There are some interesting aspects to this chart:

Good notice can bring delight

If you give me good notice of a cancellation for a meeting at an anti-social time I will be delighted that it’s been cancelled. The reverse is also true, give me poor notice and I’ll be especially glum. If I know before the end of my normal working day that I don’t need to interrupt my evening with a work commitment I’ll be very happy, thank you. If I interrupt my evening, or even my sleep, to attend something that I then find out that I didn’t need to attend will make me sad.

The later it gets the more notice you need to give

There are degrees of anti-socialness, evenings are different to very early mornings but for each of them you need to consider how much notice you might need to give. The danger here is that the more anti-social it is the more notice you need to give; giving 2 hours of notice for a 2:00am meeting isn’t helping anyone.

12-hours notice may not even be enough

Even with a 12 hour notice there is still a window for grumpiness. Assuming that I finish my working day at 6:00pm and don’t check in the evening, the postponement of a meeting scheduled for 7:00am the next day will still make me a but grumpy. I’m normally awake about that time, but attending a meeting at this time will be outside my normal routine, which I’m happy to do as long as there is some value in doing it. Interrupting the normal routine and having nothing to show for it it frustrating.

Zero notice is nearly always going to make me grumpy.

While it’s not always possible to give people notice of a cancellation giving zero notice is always likely to lead to a level of umbrage. If you have some notice you have a chance of re-planning your day, zero notice takes away that possibility.

Lunch is a special condition

Cancellations for meetings that happen around lunchtime are a special condition in the model. Meetings at mealtimes are themselves anti-social, there’s a less marked impact, for me anyway, for breakfast and dinner, but messing about with lunchtime makes me grumpy. Treat that meeting at 12:00pm to 12:30pm with special care.

The end of the normal day boost.

The end of the normal working day is another special case. This is the one time I’m likely to a little peak of delight that a meeting is cancelled with zero notice. Strangely I feel more delighted about a meeting cancelled at the end of the working day than one postponed in the evening.

Having looked at the chart I concluded that there probably wasn’t a formula for this. I also concluded that there were several other factors that influence my response to a meeting postponement or cancellation:

  • Day of the week – a Monday looks different to a Friday.
  • Time sensitivity – how do I feel if the results of a meeting are needed for a time critical activity.
  • Social impact – what I am doing outside of the normal working day makes a huge difference, especially if I have chosen to forego a personal commitment in favour of a work commitment that then doesn’t happen.
  • Reasons for meeting timing – there are very good reasons for some meetings happening at anti-social times, the reasons are not as clear for other meetings.
  • Expectation of postponement – there are some meetings that give me, for various reasons, I have a high expectation of change. My response to these meetings differs.
  • Overall meeting-load – there are regularly situations where I need to choose one meeting over another. Getting short notice of cancellation of the chosen meeting can lead to high levels of frustration.
  • Family and cultural routines – some people’s chart for the anti-social hours would be very different to mine and that signifies their family and cultural routines. I tend to regard early evenings as easier than late evenings, people with younger children probably see this the other way around.

In short, there isn’t a simple formula to work out what my, or someone else’s, response to a reschedule will be, but giving people as much notice as possible is an excellent working practice. Avoiding zero-notice cancellations should be very high on meeting organisers objectives, especially at anti-social times.

Walking for Physical Self Care – Learning from the Bus Conductors

Two of the books that I’ve read in the last 6 month have referred to the same study by a team lead by Jeremy Morris in 1949 to 1952.

Morris was interested in the connection between cardiovascular disease and physical activity. The link between exercise had been a long-held popular view, but there was little data to support it. On his daily commute in post war Britain, where money for research was scarce, Morris noticed a perfect sample for an experiment in the two people who operated the famous London double-decker buses on which he travelled – the driver and the conductor.

The driver with a mostly sedentary working life, the conductor on their feet most of the day, up and down stairs and from front to back. The difference in cardiovascular disease between the two cohorts was significant with drivers twice as likely to experience a heart-attack as the conductors. Neither of these roles required breathless physical exertion, the difference was between sitting all day and walking about all day.

Since the 1940’s the population in the west has moved from active jobs to sedentary ones. We may not be driving buses, our vehicles are apps, our steering wheels are screens, mice and keyboards.

Sitting all day is killing us, and it’s not just our cardiovascular system that is suffering, extended sitting is linked to a whole cluster of conditions. The recommended counter measure to these issues is exercise, in particular, walking.

Speaking personally, I can’t say that I can directly attribute any particular aspect of my physical well-being to regular walking, but I do feel the difference between active days and sedentary days. On active days I am less stiff, my brain is more alert, I sleep better, I feel less stressed, my posture is better, I am more creative, I am more motivated, my mood is better, I breathe better, in short I feel better.

One thing I’m not doing is walking to burn calories. While walking gives a reasonably good return on energy burnt, I’m more interested in the broader benefit to my overall well-being.

There’s still some debate about how much walking is enough walking, but for me I’m not sure that’s the right question. It appears that the 10,000 steps movement was created as a marketing event in Japan with no scientific research to support it. For me the question that I’m asking myself is how I build in as much activity as possible; can this meeting be done as a walking meeting? Can I take this call while I go for a walk? Even if I need to be near a screen for this discussion can I stand? Can I park my car away from the office door to make me walk in? I find it interesting that as a society we still regard these approaches as a bit weird.

Another question I ponder is which type of walking is best for me? In this regard it appears that we have to walk in a way that increases our breathing and heart rate. A number of people reference that phrase “you can still talk, but you can’t sing”. I rarely amble anywhere, but I don’t speed walk either. Perhaps I should be a bit more exerting as I walk, or perhaps I should just do more walking.

My morning walking routine has made a significant different to the amount of walking that I do, sadly it doesn’t stop me from sitting at a desk for 10 hours at a time occasionally. Most of the time this is broken by a lunchtime walk, whilst this walk does do something for me physically I find that it’s primary benefit is to my mind, perhaps that’s a subject for another day.

Header Image: Seathwaite Valley on the way back to the car after a fabulous day walking.