Why are we STILL expiring passwords?

Back in 2018 I wrote this:

Picture the scene: You’ve just been on a wonderful vacation it’s been a great time to relax and do something you love, but now you are walking into your place of work. Waiting for you is a mountain of emails and you want to get right to it. You take out your iPad, Android tablet or open up your laptop and turn it on. Then it hits you, those words you dread: “Your password has expired”. Today is the last day you want to be changing your password. You’ve got enough to think about, but you have little choice. You wonder whether you should have reset your password before you went on vacation but you’re not sure that would have made any difference.

After fighting with the complicated set of rules that define what your password can be, you eventually pick a new one. For the rest of the day, and the next few, you try to remember to type the new password rather than the old one. I characterise this as The Four Ages of Remembering a New Password. Recently, the UK governments IT security advisor, the CESG, reiterated and gave further explanation for advice it gave in September 2015:

Regular password expiry is a common requirement in many security policies. However, in CESG’s Password Guidance published in 2015, we explicitly advised against it. (Read more: The problems with forcing regular password expiry)

Scheduled password expiry has been a dogma of enterprise IT security for many decades. It’s so embedded into the fabric of the IT landscape that it sounds scandalous for an organization as esteemed as the CESG to challenge it, but challenge it they have. The argument that they make, in summary, is that the “usability costs” of regular password changes makes people adopt mechanisms to cope with the changes that themselves lead to other security vulnerabilities:

It’s one of those counter-intuitive security scenarios; the more often users are forced to change passwords, the greater the overall vulnerability to attack. What appeared to be a perfectly sensible, long-established piece of advice doesn’t, it turns out, stand up to a rigorous, whole-system analysis.

The CESG isn’t recommending that organizations don’t worry about password vulnerabilities; they are recommending that organizations use other measures that do not involve scheduled password expiry and have a lower “usability cost.” They are proposing measures that they believe match better to the modern vulnerabilities that passwords experience.

I concluded with these words:

Whilst the approach of regular password expiry is embedded in corporate IT, it isn’t in places where you might expect it to be if it were such a good approach. My bank doesn’t ask me to change my password regularly; it makes sure that I have a complicated password that I can understand by making me use a password and a pin. For sensitive transactions, it makes me use two-factor authentication. Amazon doesn’t make me change my password regularly. When I log on to twitter from a new device, it sends me a message to let me know and to confirm that it’s really me. All of these approaches have a far lower “usability cost” than the regular password change, and it’s those approaches that the CESG is advising UK government organisations to adopt. It really is time to stop regular password expiry.

In the two years since I wrote my post, and the 5 years since the initial advice was given, little has changed in most corporate security environments. Challenging the dogma of password expiry is a short walk to a frustrating day. Many organisations now sanction password stores to alleviate the problem of multiple passwords and to ease the pain of password expiry, this doesn’t fix the problem it just makes it a little easier. Ironically, few of these password stores require the individual user to change their password.

In these days of increased home working many organisations have seen their password and security management challenged by the need to keep their people working. Perhaps this is another area where a crisis precipitates a change that seemed far too difficult in normal times.

It’s worth noting here that the CESG no longer exists and has since been replaced by the NCSC is the UK, but the advice hasn’t changed, although I did have to update the links in the above.

Other organisations have given the same and similar advice:

and for balance someone who’s standard still says every 90 days:

I am hoping for the days when we look back on passwords as a strange thing from our past, a bit like flared jeans, but I suspect that I’m not going to see it in my lifetime 😉.

Header Image: This is the view from Martindale towards Ulswater.

Product Management and the Kitchen Analogy

These are some words I first wrote in 2016 which I thought I had lost, but a bit of searching sometimes pays off. I have made a few edits.

I’ve used this analogy a few times recently so thought I would write it out and see if it resonated with anyone else.

A few years ago whilst on vacation we visited a fascinating house called Cragside near Rothbury, Northumberland.

This house was, at one time, owned by the enterprising Richard Norman Shaw who created all sorts of ingenious devices including the world’s first hydro-electric power station.

One of the most interesting places in the house is the kitchen part of which is shown in the title image of this post. This place is packed full of gadgets many of them designed and crafted at Cragside.
 
For me this picture represents the way that we have traditionally implemented IT services for customers. There are specific gadgets everywhere, each of the built for a purpose. The cabinets are all custom built to fit the space available or free-standing. There’s very little that was manufactured, it was nearly all crafted.

This wasn’t unusual for kitchens of it’s time but this situation had started to change in the 1920s and following World War II a new type of kitchen became popular – the fitted kitchen. The fitted kitchen is what most of us have in our houses across Europe and the USA today.

There are a number of interesting characteristics to the fitted kitchen that are analogous with the shift that we need to take in the way that we deliver solutions.

The Building Block is the Cabinet

The basis of the fitted kitchen is the cabinet. There are only a few standard sizes for cabinets (using the UK numbers):

Floor standing cabinets are 600mm deep.
Wall mounted cabinets are 300mm deep.
Cabinets are 900mm tall.
Cabinets are available in multiples of 100mm and 150mm wide – 300mm, 400mm, 450mm, 500mm and 600mm.
Most floor standing cabinets are 600mm wide.

This limited set of building blocks are what is used in the vast majority of situations. People could still have custom built kitchens but they don’t because this choice of building blocks is good enough and the most cost effective.

A lot of the building blocks of solution could be standardised, there is no business advantage, for the developer or the customers, to building something outside of the building blocks. 

We do, however, need to understand from the market what the “cabinet” is that defines the standard in each of the areas where we want to develop solutions. Standardising on the wrong thing is as costly as continuing to custom build.

Everything Else Aligns to the Standard

The standard size for a washing machine in the UK is 540mm deep, 595mm wide and 850mm high. This size fits perfectly inside a standard cabinet space (the reason the washing machine is 540mm deep rather than 600mm is to allow room for pipes at the rear).

Are these dimensions the ideal size for a washing machine? I have no idea, but it is the ideal size for a kitchen into which it is being fitted.

What’s true of washing machines is also true of tumble driers and under-cabinet fridges and freezers.

There are appliances on the market that are 500mm wide, but the choices are limited.

The appliance manufacturers have aligned to the cabinet standard, they aren’t expecting the cabinet standard to change because it isn’t ideal for them.

There are Edges and Constraints

If you are fitting a kitchen into a room that was built before the war (we have quite a lot of those in the UK) it’s highly likely that the room won’t ideally fit the standard cabinets. It’s not even certain that the walls will be straight. 

There will be gaps at the end.

When a kitchen is being refitted there are also constraints created by the location of the doors, windows and plumbing.

That’s where a great kitchen designer and fitter come in.

They’ll handle the gaps at the end and make the most of the constraints. They’ll take a length of worktop and make it fit into the space in a way that makes it look like it’s was meant to be there.

The same is true for many IT solution, we are fitting them into customer environments that haven’t been custom built to take them. Experienced designers and fitters make them work in the space provided provided by the customer.

It’s worth noting here that houses in the UK are now build with rooms that are a multiple of 600mm wide and deep. There are no longer any edges because they’ve been built knowing what the standard is.

There is Room for Flexibility

Not only is there a need to fill the gaps, but there is also a lot of flexibility in the building block approach. If a customer already has an oven then there’s no need to mandate the use of our oven, if their oven adheres to the standard it will fit right in.

There are only a few choices for standard cabinet design but there are more choices of doors than I care to count. The door design has a limited impact on the effectiveness of the kitchen and no impact on its running costs, but the design of the door has a massive impact on how a customer perceives the kitchen.

There are numerous configurations for what goes inside the standard cabinet – drawers of various sizes, shelves of various sizes, combinations of the two.

This flexibility has been built in from the start. The impact on the cost of the standard building block is minimal. Most cabinets come with holes in them to allow shelves to be fitted at various heights and to be changed at any time. People don’t have to drill holes to make adjustments, the flexibility is built in.

The Overall Result is Unique

The use of standard building blocks which allow flexibility and the empowering of skilled designers and fitters to fill the edges and work around the constraints means that every kitchen is unique. This is particularly true for kitchen refits into older housing.

Sometimes the uniqueness is just in the shelf configuration, sometimes it’s more significant, but it’s all built from a standard cabinet baseline.

Customers deserve something unique that fits there needs, but that doesn’t mean that it all has to be unique.

The Service is What Sells

Most kitchen fitting companies offer free home measurement and design, at least in the UK anyway. Why do they do that? I suspect it’s because they know that it’s really service that sells. 

The cost of a medium specification standard sized cabinet must be benchmarked and cost pretty much the same to every one of the kitchen fitting companies. There’s little differentiation to be had in making cheaper cabinets. Likewise, I suspect that people aren’t going to be willing to pay much more for a cabinet with “additional features”, but the difference in the cost of doors is huge.

Where the differentiation occurs is in the service:

Can I trust this company with my installation?
Is the price reasonable?
Are they flexible?
Do they understand my “special” requirement?
Do they understand what I like?

Summarising

It’s just an analogy, but I find analogies helpful because they help me to see something from different angle and then to see if that different viewpoint also applies to the thing I’m trying to understand.

Header Image: This is the kitchen at Cragside, or more specifically, this is a very small section of the kitchen at Cragside.

Why do acronyms bug me? And what has that got to do with Zip files?

I have a love-hate relationship with acronyms. Much of my working day is spent using them.

I work in an industry that has created acronyms that have become part of the common language – PC for instance.

** A quick aside, it’s worth me clarifying a couple of things before someone else does. Technically speaking PC isn’t an acronym it’s an initialism, the difference is in how you say them – NATO is an acronym because it’s said as a word, PC is an initialism because it’s said “P”, “C”. There’s also abbreviations, and sometimes it’s not easy to work out the difference. I’m going to use the term acronym as shorthand for all of these in this post. Also I’m not going to put a full-stop between the letters of any of the acronyms, or initialisms, because honestly, life is too short and there doesn’t appear to be any clear consensus on the correct punctuation. Back to the main topic of post.

Acronyms are everywhere.

Some words that we use we no longer even recognize as acronyms – Radar is probably the best known if these.

Most organisations have an internal language littered with them – in my organisation a NOD is a Notice of Decision.

Yet, despite their prevalence, I’m not a fan. The truth is, they bug me.

The other day I asked this question on twitter:

I’ll let you read the comments, which were all helpful. No one chimed in to say that they were a fan, and there were several reasons why people thought that we used them. I was hoping that if I could find a fan they might be able to help me understand a little of why I feel this sense of dread every time I come across a piece of TLA (Three Letter Acronym) laden writing.

While I was pondering this, an analogy occurred to me which has really helped me understand the mechanics behind my frustration. It’s a bit technical, but I think most people will relate to it.

Acronyms are the Zip files of writing

Zip files aren’t as widely used as they used to be, but they are still used, it’s just that there use is a bit more hidden these days.

Imagine this. You are sat at one of your many screens and for once you haven’t been distracted by WhatsApp or by gazing blankly at a group of people who would rather be anywhere than on another Zoom call. You are, however, distracted by a notification informing you of a new email. The notification takes you to an email from a friend inviting you to a party (remember those). You look up and down the email a couple of times but can’t find any details. At this point you realise that your friend has attached a file to the invite. You select the file and it opens up in another window/app showing that this is a Zip file containing a PDF of the clipart heavy invitation.

As someone to whom the announcement of a party is new information you had to go through three steps to get to the information you needed. If you had already known the details of the party you would have only needed to go through one of those steps. It would have been far more efficient, for you the reader, if the author had put the information in the text of the email, but if they had done this you wouldn’t have enjoyed seeing their clipart skills.

The other day an insurance company sent me a renewal notice for my car insurance. The details were in a Zip file, but this file required a few more steps because it was a password protected Zip file. The text of the email told me how to unlock the file using my data of birth. The problem was, these instructions were hidden is several hundred other words and it took me a while to find the answer I was looking for.

Acronyms do the same thing, they compress together units of information that in many cases we need to uncompress to understand. That process of uncompressing takes extra time, extra effort, additional steps and interrupts the flow of reading. Sometimes it doesn’t have that impact because we know what the compressed item contains, but there are far more times when our flow of reading is interrupted by our need to uncompress what we are reading.

Acronyms still bug me, but I think I now understand a bit better why – TTFN 😉

Header Image: Today’s picture encapsulates the sunset at a local beach as Sue and I watched and waited.

Detail v Understanding

Q: “Graham, can you please give me some more detail on that.”

GC: “Sure. The line that you see there on the diagram, well that really represents three different lines bundled together to create a single integration.”

Q: “Thanks, can you give me details please?”

GC: “Each of the three lines within the one line are a combination of different technologies, some operating synchronously and others working asynchronously depending upon the data being transmitted. Each of the lines is traversing the firewall boundary between public and private using an encrypted connection.”

Q: “But I still don’t understand, can you give me some more detail.”

Do you see what I did there? I launched into an answer to the question based on the words used in the question. I often make this mistake and it frustrates me how often it happens. I put lots of effort into providing correct responses only to discover that correct doesn’t mean helpful.

My understanding of the word detail leads me to answer by taking a component of the thing being described and add further information to the information already provided. For me, detail is the specifics behind the generality of what’s outlined; a request to for further detail means that you want a deeper level of specificity.

The Collins Dictionary describes detail as: “its individual features or elements.” or “a minor point or aspect of something, as opposed to the central ones.”

Detail doesn’t, generally, bring understanding, in many cases it brings further confusion. It’s much more common that understanding is gained by providing a different perspective and less detail.

I also try to be precise in the questions that I ask, but regularly receive answers that show that I didn’t communicate my need in a way that the person answering understood. Again, the answers are correct, but not necessarily helpful.

Next time someone asks me for more detail, I will try to remember that they are probably not asking for what they need, it’s more likely that they are asking me to help them understand.

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.

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.

Teaspoons: A Story of Abundance and Scarcity

Earlier this year a colleague was bemoaning the availability of teaspoons in our office’s shared refreshment making facility. This had become a regular gripe, but not one that I regarded as critical or one that I should resolve.

This is the same facility that I wrote about some months ago in The Sub-optimal Kitchen – The 10 Steps to Getting a Cup of Tea where making a cup of tea is a challenge at the best of times.

One evening, however, a thought came to me: “I wonder how many spoons I can buy cheaply to resolve this situation for good, and perhaps I can have a bit of a laugh while I’m at it?”

Spurred on by this though I reached for my iPhone and discovered that I could purchase 48 teaspoons for the princely sum of £7. At 14.5p per spoon I decided that it was worth a giggle. I purchased the spoons and arranged to have them anonymously delivered directly to my colleague at the office. The delivery nicely aligned with a week of vacation and hence I wasn’t around when the cutlery arrived which extended the period of mystery. Returning from holiday I, of course, chose to stay silent on the matter which had clearly become a subject of discussion while I had been away.

What happened to the teaspoons?

Initially the teaspoons were retained by my colleague, but eventually a large proportion of them were placed in our Sub-optimal Kitchen for everyone to use.

For several weeks the spoons stayed where they were, in the Sub-optimal Kitchen, being used collectively as a shared asset. We didn’t monitor the number of spoons closely because they were just there. A few went missing, but mostly they resided where they had been placed. People weren’t great at washing them, but that was fine, a few of us undertook the duty of washing all of them from time-to-time. The teaspoons had become a shared utility which was being used as a shared asset for the benefit of all.

In recent weeks that situation has gone through a dramatic change and today there were just 6 teaspoons left in the Suboptimal Kitchen. Within the space of just a few days the abundance of cutlery has been transformed into an asset of scarcity. The occasional washing duty has been turned into a requirement to wash a spoon every time you want to use one. We have returned to bemoaning the lack of teaspoons.

Why the change?

I don’t know what happened to the teaspoons, for sure, but I have some theories.

Theory #1: I suspect that most of the teaspoons are now on people’s desks and they are taking them with them every time they make a cup of tea. They were initially comfortable to leave the spoons in the Suboptimal Kitchen because they were abundant. The abundance meant that they didn’t need to worry about whether a clean spoon would be available so they didn’t need to have their spoon – they had an Abundance Mindset. At some point the volume of spoons reduced to the point where people regarded them as scarce and their mindset shift to a Scarcity Mindset. This scarcity triggered a concern that there might not be a clean spoon available, and worse than that, there might not be a spoon available at all. Once this mindset shift had occurred in a few people it precipitated a rapid depletion of the shared asset as people sought to secure their own access to the facility for the long term and, in so doing, further depleted the asset.

Theory #2: Someone is a teaspoon hoarder.

Theory #3: Someone has taken the teaspoons home to give them an extra-special clean and forgotten to bring them back.

Theory #4: The cleaner has decided to throw them all away.

What are you going to do about it?

There are a few approaches available to resolve this situation:

Resolution #1: I could send an email to everyone in the office pinpointing everyone’s inconsiderateness and asking them to return the spoons. This would be a perfectly legitimate response to an obvious breach of office etiquette, but perhaps this is a little petty. This will be highly embarrassing if someone has taken the teaspoons home for an extra-special clean.

Resolution #2: I could spend another £7 and return the Sub-optimal Kitchen to a status of teaspoon abundance and reestablishing the shared asset. If my abundance mindset theory is correct this will enable the Sub-optimal Kitchen to function a little less sub-optimally for another period of time. If, however, we have a teaspoon hoarder, this approach will give someone the joy of extending their collection. If it’s because someone took them home to wash them, then we will have an over-abundance, but I doubt that will be a problem.

Resolution #3: Forget all about it and leave the Sub-optimal Kitchen in teaspoon scarcity.

What do you think I should do?