Office Speak: Cottage Industry – good or bad?

I have to admit that I use this one quite a bit myself, and generally as a negative term, but is that fair?

Dictionary definitions don’t always match a specific context:

Cottage Industry: a business or manufacturing activity carried on in people’s homes.

It’s worth us getting into a bit of history here.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution nearly all industrial activity was carried out in the context of the house. Cloth was produced on a loom at home. Sword manufacture was done by the Blacksmith in a workshop at home. Cartwrights created wheels in a building at their cottage. Even the Miller was was working from home, it just so happened that their cottage was a windmill, or watermill.

One of the primary reasons that the Industrial Revolution changed all of this was the size, and cost, of the machines. When a loom grew to twenty metres wide, required a huge watermill to work and ten people could operate six of them in huge hall the factory was born. This wasn’t the birth of industry, it was the birth of the factory.

We now have factories that are run by robots and produce goods to a specification that could have only been dreamt of by the local Silversmith in there workshop.

That’s the comparison that is being made when we use cottage industry in the office context – high quality factory manufactured goods versus hand-crafted goods produced by an individual, or small team. The inference being that factory manufactured is good and hand-crafted is not so good. But is that comparison helpful, or even fair?

The cottage industries may have shrunk in size, but they haven’t died out, in some areas they are thriving. Why would that be if factory produced items are so much better than those produced in cottages? One of the reasons is that better is a difficult thing to pin down, it depends on the context, and who is measuring. While items produced in factories may be of a high specification that the cottage industry item, the factory process introduces limitations. Factory produced items can be difficult to service – when was the last time you saw someone change a part in a TV? There are limited ways that you can modify a factory produced item, and you normally can’t purchase part of them if that’s all you want. Cottage industries are far more flexible and adaptable. You get to know the person who created it, so have confidence that they can fix/change/modify it if that’s what you want. You can be specific with a hand-crafted item. A factory may be the best way to get 1,000 wheels that are all the same, but it’s not the best way of creating the wheels for a Mars Rover.

There’s also a comparison on scale – the inference is that a cottage industry can only scale so far. Again, is that comparison helpful, or fair? In some ways it is, factories have been able to produce huge volumes of goods at remarkable prices. But it’s also remarkable what a collection of cottage industries can create, much of the Open Source software that we rely upon each day, without knowing it, is produced by small teams of people who are little more than cottage industries. Wikipedia is similar, thousands of individual contributors working away on their corner of knowledge. Imagine a factory trying to produce all of the content Wikipedia? In the right context the cottage industry can scale a very long way.

There’s also a comparison of cost – like value and scale, cost also depends on context. Setting up a factory to produce millions of identical things makes a lot of sense, but you aren’t going to set up a factory to produce a single item, that’s where you go to a cottage industry.

Back to the office and all of the cottage industry projects that are running within most large organisations – good or bad? I think, as we’ve seen, it depends. There are many cottage industries in organisations that should be fostered and encouraged. They are providing value in a way that no factory approach could. Likewise, though, there are many cottage industry projects that are simply duplicates of other cottage industry projects and together they are creating commodity outcomes that a factory would be far better at producing. Where I’ve seen most organisation struggle is that they have no knowledge of the projects being undertaken and no way of assessing the most appropriate response – whether to continue with a cottage industry approach or whether it’s time to bring things together into a factory. Simon Wardley has some things to say about that.

Is it time to stop using the term cottage industry as a negative and to celebrate them a bit more? I think so.

Header Image: The spring flowers in the local woods are blooming.

Office Speak: “Copying In…”

The other week I was writing about how we describe things in a way that is no longer relevant to what actually happens – like being Out-of-Office.

This is another one a bit like that. Do you know why you cc someone in email? Or, even bcc?

  • cc: Carbon Copy
  • bcc: Blind Carbon Copy

Both of which being from the days of paper when you quite literally sent someone a copy of an original created on a carbon copier. It was convention to put the names of the individuals at the bottom of the front page with the letters cc so that everyone knew who had a copy. No one has to go to the effort of finding a carbon copier anymore, we have email for that and adding people to a distribution list is as easy as hitting reply (or forward) and adding in a few extra names. There’s still plenty of carbon involved, but the carbon copier has become redundant.

This post isn’t just about mechanics and names though, it’s also about office practices.

Here’s the scenario:

You send an email to a colleague asking them a question.

The recipient replies to your email and puts at the bottom – or somewhere else in the email, or sometimes it’s the only content of the email – copying in… followed by a few names.

Then, if it’s really not your day, one of the people who have been copied in sends a reply and again states copying in…

Then some time later you get another reply that says copying in…list of name…for information.

(I could go on, but you get the point. The worst case of this I can remember went through eight iterations of copying in… Imagine how many people that was.)

You still haven’t got the answer to the question you asked at the beginning, you have a list of names, but you’re not any nearer knowing whether any of the people who have received a copy can furnish you with an answer.

Actually, you don’t have a list of names, you have several lists of names. Lists that, over time, become so complicated that people start copying in people who have already been copied in.

There are many times when I’m on the receiving end of a copying in… I’m often completely unaware of what I’ve been copied in to. Looking down the chain of the email doesn’t help my understanding of the question being asked or the issue needing consideration.

The very words copying in… provoke a negative emotional response in me. I’m not sure that I fully understand why, but there’s an odour of dread to every copying in…, a scent of collaboration gone wrong and email overload.

As the people involved escalates there’s also a feeling of guilt at the time being wasted as people church through noisy email chains that mostly says copying in

There’s a point at which I want to say: Stop. But I never do, it’s futile, copying in… has taken on a life of its own. Perhaps it’s my issue and I’m trying to control the conversation too much. I should know better, by now, than to use email for such communication, but old habits and all that.

I know people are just trying to be helpful, but I’d rather they weren’t. If they don’t know the answer that’s fine, I have other ways of finding the answer.

Header image: Sunset above the fields near to where I live. We are still in a lockdown that requires us to stay local.

Office Speak: Out-of-Office (OOO) – is it time for a new name?

One of the things that fascinates me is the etymology of words and phrases – where they have come from. Often the current meaning has little connection with the original meaning. Why do we talk about being in the wheelhouse as an example? In technology we also have a kind of visual etymology where we co-opt visual representations from the real world into the screen world. Why do we talk about files, folders and saving as an example? Below the visual representation that’s not really what’s happening. Ever heard the term skeuomorphism?

One of the phrases that we use is out of office. There was a time when this meant what it says, being out of the office. People would phone your office, speak to someone who would say, “I’m sorry but Mr Chastney is out of the office today, can I leave him a message or find someone else to help you.”

That’s no longer what is happening for most of us. We no longer have an office to be out of, so that part doesn’t make sense. Even when we are away from the place where we normally do work, our office, work isn’t stopping just because our physical location has changed. We talk about setting an out-of-office in our email so that people know that we aren’t in work, although, for many, that’s not what they mean either.

The term is no longer really serving it’s purpose, which is to tell people that you aren’t there for them in quite the same way you normally are. I think we need a new set of terms that say what we really mean. How does these sound, I’ve tried to keep it really simple?

  • Unavailable – unavailable.
    • “Don’t bother contacting me I won’t receive it and you aren’t going to get a response.”
    • “I’ve gone on holiday with my family, or friends. I’m confident enough that while I am away things will be fine.”
  • Limited Availability – I’m not as available as normal.
    • “I am in workshops and focused on that. I’ll contact you in a break if I think it’s important.”
    • “I’m travelling so won’t be my screens at all times, and definitely won’t be looking while I’m driving. I’ll get back to you once I have access to my screen.”
    • “I’ve gone on holiday with my family, or friends, but I don’t believe that the world can survive without me.”

It’s a lot simpler than out-of-office or even OOO, don’t you think?

Header image: I decided to go out of the office to get some fresh air and found these snowdrops in the local wood.

The Messy Art of Communication

We are creatures of communication, we do it so naturally that many of us barely think about it, in most situations, or so it seems.

True communication is a two way activity, it requires transmission and receipt sadly something that we regularly forget. We all know the person who uses 1,000 words to say nothing at all. Likewise I suspect that we all know a person who is a lean communicator who uses very few words, but every word is golden.

We flick between communication modes throughout our days – words and pictures, vocalised and written, fact and fiction, formal and informal, emotional and intellectual, simple and complex. We are communication omnivores.

The reason that we communicate is normally for a purpose – we want to induce a reaction, a response, an action.

In my head, communication is a simple process. I have an expectation of how things work that regularly leads to frustration and I don’t think I’m the only one with this expectation. Let me illustrate from the perspective of written communications in a work context but I think it also applies in other contexts.

How I imagine we communicate

In my simple process something is created, people read and understand it. They provide feedback in a sensible way and then they act upon the contents. In six simple steps we have communicated in a way that results in action.

Anyone reading this who’s ever produced anything in a work context will recognise that this isn’t generally the reality. We don’t communicate like computers, we communicate like humans and that’s a far more fluid thing.

How we really communicate – this is also a fiction

While my simple process had a single entry point, the reality is that there are many entry points, people are joining the conversation from a vast array of perspectives and desired outcomes.

Just because I’ve started by writing something doesn’t mean that I have created what’s needed; it’s likely that people don’t know what they need to be created and that creating it is part of gaining understanding.

Meetings provide mechanisms for responding and reacting, but they also provide opportunities to debate and reconsider. They also provide opportunities for people to divert and disrupt, sometime deliberately but more often not. Meetings also create a fertile ground in which to spin off other meetings, discussions and actions.

Information gets created, rehashed and recut many times to help people gain a comprehension of what can be complicated subjects. The words that I use are likely to be different to the words that they use. The analogies and metaphors that I use speak to some and not to others. A single question can be asked in a thousand different ways and each one can elicit a different answering. We need to help people cross the chasm of understanding and that can take many, many words, diagrams, analogies, metaphors, graphs and numbers. The inevitable duplication that this brings should be both celebrated and cautioned against.

In many organisations there is still the culture of the template straightjacket; outlines of content that needs to be completed before a phase or activity can be regarded as completed. This leads to high levels of content duplication making version control an impossible task. Duplicated content would be far better as referenced content, but that requires people to think outside the template-document-mindset. The template-document-mindset being that way of thinking that transacts at the document level and hence requires all of the content to be in the document for the transaction to take place. I once deliberately putting an error in a glossary of terms to see whether anyone read it, they didn’t, years later I read a document that had a familiar looking glossary of terms in the back – yes, including the deliberate error. I hate to think how many trees had died to create that useless glossary.

Let’s spend a bit of time thinking about content and the questions people ask. How many times have you said the words “It’s in the document” or “It’s in the pages” only to give up once you’ve realised that people aren’t going to the content? I have done this many times and I still do it although now I have a new way of doing it. As most meetings are online I now point people to content by sending them the link in the meeting chat. It’s no more successful than telling people that there’s content available, but it feels less frustrating.

Once content has been created I love to see it evolve as people review and contribute to it but this is such a rare experience. In far too many situations people want to play at editing and contributing. It’s helpful to know that I’ve got the wrong their, they’re or there but it’s far more helpful if you tell me that I’ve overcomplicated something that could be done in a far better way. I’m not arrogant enough to expect my ideas to always be correct, but the number of times that people have fundamentally changed something that I have written are very rare – that’s not a good thing.

If communication is a science then it’s a complex one with many aspects, I prefer to think of it as a messy artistic endeavour that we all get to play our part in.

Header Image: This is Dunham Massey which is a local National Trust house with gardens to visit, and a deer park. I’ve never been in the house, the deer park is always wonderful.

Productivity Anti-Patterns: Video as Meeting Notes

Sometimes you need to see a poor way of doing something to see a better way – that’s the point of an anti-pattern. The purpose is to teach us how not to do something.

We sometime forget that productivity is a shared responsibility and a collective value. There’s no point in one person being hyper-productive if their practices cause significant pain to others. So much of what I see as productivity practices are precisely that – people optimising for the one and causing significant problems for the many.

In recent years recording meetings has become effectively free. All of the major video conferencing/collaboration platforms include the capability and most of them also include free storage for meeting recordings. In many circles, it has become standard practice to record almost every meeting.

Why wouldn’t you? It’s free and gives a full record of the meeting.

There’s more: some of the collaboration tools now include, as standard, an automated transcript of the meeting. Brilliant? You don’t have to trawl the whole video to find what you are looking for, you can search the transcript for the relevant part. Everyone who was invited to the meeting has all of the information available whether they were able to attend or not.

This is where the productivity anti-pattern starts

If we have a video of the meeting and a transcript of it then we don’t need to take notes or minutes for the meeting? We have all of the information automatically, why burden the secretary (remember them?) of the meeting with typing something up and distributing it? Wrong.

Summarising a meeting in notes and minutes is a skill with immense value to the reader, and also to the producer. Here’s a list of just a few:

  • The summary is far easier to reference than the transcript. In a transcript you have to make sure that you understand the full context, this often requires reading the whole transcript. You can’t read, or watch, just a few minutes because you can’t be confident that a subject was revisited later in the meeting.
  • Minutes, including actions, allowing people to understand what is expected of them quickly and easily. The act of writing the action out helps with understanding the action.
  • A summary can be revisited at the start of a meeting to get people up to speed a transcript never can.
  • A summary allows people to take a meeting out of their head, where it is using up useful cycles, and put it to one side until the next time it is needed. A video or transcript doesn’t do this in the same way, for me at least.
  • Notes of a meeting outline the conclusions of the meeting, not all of the working-out. Often the working out is of no value to the people responsible for taking actions from the meeting. Sometimes the working-out has value, but that’s normally as people progress the actions trying to understand context.
  • Producing notes and minutes are an opportunity for the meeting secretary to be review whether the meeting fulfilled its objective. It’s so easy to finish a meeting thinking that everything has been covered only to discover that something vital was missed.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t video and transcribe meetings, but I am saying that using these as a replacement for good meeting practices including notes and minutes is a productivity anti-pattern.

One aspect that I haven’t covered is the psychological impact of videoing a meeting. There are many occasions where this isn’t an issue, but there are still many where people feel constrained by the thought that there words are going to be available for everyone to listen to. Video is great for the active vocal participants, it’s not good for the quiet contemplative.

Using the video of a meeting as the minutes may optimise the world of the meeting organiser (who is the de-facto secretary), it significantly decreases the productivity of everyone else in the meeting.

As a footnote: I’m not sure that continuing to optimise the organisation of meetings is a good thing. It leads to more poorly organised meetings – it’s experiencing the washing machine effect (more on that another time).

Header image: Sitting out for a pub meal on the Kirkstone pass.

Process and Technology “Hefting” – What will it take for you to change?

In response to my last blog which revisited the theme of Password Expiry Chris Swan tweeted this:

This got me rethinking about the idea of “hefting”. Let me explain by returning to some words I wrote a little while ago (2016):

I love to walk in the hills of the English Lake District. This area of the country is famous for a particular variety of sheep, the Herdwick, which have been indigenous in this area for over 1,000 years. Almost anywhere you go you’ll encounter sheep – they occupy vast areas of moorland. Have you ever wondered how the farmers know where their sheep are so that they can retrieve them from the hills for winter, for lambing and shearing? The answer to the question is hefting – also known as heafing in this part of the country, but known as many other things across the UK.

I’m no expert on hefting but the way I understand it to work, from a friend who does know, is that when shepherds want to establish a new flock, they take the sheep up onto the moorland where they want them to graze and they constrain them on that land. This is sometimes done with fencing, but is also done by physical shepherding. The flock gets to know where it can, and can’t, go because of the constraints. Eventually the shepherd removes the constraint, but the sheep don’t drift off. They stay where they have been hefted. They’ve learnt to live within their current constraints.

Once a flock has been established within its heft, the shepherd can add new sheep to the flock and they will take on the heft of the rest of the sheep, as long as too many fresh ideas aren’t introduced. The hefting is passed from generation to generation without the need for the constraints to be put back in place. That’s how strong the constraints are in the minds of the rest of the flock.

We’re not dissimilar to sheep. We pick a way of doing things, or a technology, based on what our tribe is doing. Having chosen a technology, we stay with it, we invest in it, and we live within its constraints. We become comfortable in our place of pasture. There used to be a saying:

“No one ever got fired for buying IBM.”

Over time that got replaced with:

“No one ever got fired for buying Microsoft.”

We are rapidly moving to the era of:

“No one ever got fired for buying Amazon Web Services.”

These transitions don’t happen overnight. They take a long time and, for some, they are still being played out. IBM still makes good revenue from mainframe, and Microsoft is still a pretty safe bet. Looking at what they are doing in cloud, they are likely to remain so – but it’s not certain. People become hefted to the technology they and their flock know, both the good parts and the constraints. Technology moves on, but people stay with the flock. Alternative technologies become available, but people stay hefted to what they know. When it comes to technology, though, that’s often a dangerous place to be.

There’s another tradition in English moorland communities – shepherd meets. These are the times when the shepherds from the community get together to trade sheep, show off their best ones and get to have a good time. There’s another reason for these meets, though. This is the time when the shepherds return their neighbour’s sheep. That’s because some sheep are mavericks. They aren’t happy with the place they’ve been hefted and wander off exploring, looking for somewhere better. I’ve certainly been through a number of technology changes in my career. I’ve made the move from one flock to another. Sometimes I saw that the flock I was in was not going well. But I have to admit, at other times, I’ve been pushed. I’ve also, at times, chosen to follow the maverick and found myself in a better place. I’ve also watched some businesses stay too long with their current technology, eventually getting caught out by a change in their market. Where’s your technology hefting? Is it still relevant? Do you know your mavericks? Are they going to a better place? Perhaps you should follow them.

These words were written from the perspective of technical hefting, but process hefting, or process debt, is just as prevalent and is more difficult to move out of. Once you’ve changed technology it’s changed, processes don’t change in the same way because of their human operators. Even for the simplest of processes humans really struggle to switch from one way of doing something to another. Organisations amass thousands of processes, some official, others more ad-hoc, these combine together into a spider’s web of function that define the organisation. The impact of many of these processes is unknown, they are followed because that’s the way things have always been done. As a piece of machinery within the overall mesh of business capability few organisation know which pieces are working well and which pieces need replacing. People have become hefted to their process and moving them out of it is a difficult thing to do.

Header Image: The Herdwick sheep in her environment.


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.