What is the R value in your organisation?

Over recent months many of us have become accustomed to politicians and scientists telling us about the R value for COVID-19.

A thought occurred to me today, what if we defined the R value for various aspects of business life.

What would the R value for email in you place of work tell you?

How about an R value for meetings? Imagine an R value of greater than 1 for meetings, would that be a good thing?

Would the overall R value for interactions during project start-up be helpful? Would a low R value indicate that your start-up has a problem?

What would an overall R value of less than 1 for interactions tell you about employee engagement?

What if an enterprise-social-media platform displayed the R value for a thread? Would you avoid threads with a high R value?

Does the same question apply to our use of technology in our personal lives? What would your R value be for Facebook comments?

Just pondering.

Header Image: Taking in the view after a late summer swim at Loughrigg Tarn.

The Four Ages of Solution Constraint

Solution Architecture is fundamentally the management of constraints. The ultimate constraints are the ones faced by all projects – time and money. Within the sphere of business technology these constraints have manifest themselves in different ways over the years. As each constraint gets solved the need to manage a particular constraint recedes into the background and other constraints comes forward. Managing a constraint that no longer needs management is not only wasteful, but it also takes our attention away from controlling the new opportunity.

Looking back, I think I’ve lived through four major ages of solution constraint, most organisations have moved from one to the next, but there are many pockets of organisations where people are still managing the constraints of an age long passed.

Age 1: The Hardware Constrained Age

Early in my career I helped a team of people who provided personal computing devices. This service was only offered to a select group who had excessively big budgets. I remember debating with a colleague why anyone would need 20 Megabyte of storage, no one had a budget big enough to buy a Gigabyte of anything, and even if they could there weren’t any systems capable of making that amount of storage available.

I remember being amazed by the capabilities of the very first Macintosh that I saw which I suspect was a 128 Kilobyte version, there weren’t many people that could afford the 512 Kilobyte model.

Where I worked people were doing serious engineering work on MicroVAX 3100 models which had a mind blowing 32MB of memory in them with teams sharing processors that sped along at 25MHz.

Hardware was so expensive that everything had to be built to fit into the footprint that could be afforded.

Solution design was quite straightforward, pick the right hardware for the task at hand, optimise things as much as you could and hopefully, you’d get something that would do the required work in a night. There wasn’t any point in designing too much into the systems because there wasn’t enough hardware available to do anything fancy. Most hardware had one job to do, because that’s all it could do.

Picking the right hardware wasn’t as simple as it might sound today, there was a lot of different hardware to choose from, each UNIX variant was built for specific hardware, each vendor had their own proprietary hardware and operating system. You tended to purchase all the hardware from the same vendor because if you didn’t the integration was your job, and that was a risky business strategy. Evaluating the performance of several types of hardware was serious work that required detailed technical skills.

Age 2: The Connectivity Constrained Age

One of my colleagues in the early days was called Paul and he was famous for the contents of a large wallet that he carried with him everywhere. Inside the contents of this wallet where the entirety of the organisation’s software library. The first version of this folder contained 5″ floppy disks; the wallet evolved through 3.5″ floppy disks and eventually ended up with CDs.

For those of you with a shorter memory than my own, this may seem like a crazy thing to do, why would someone carry a folder of CDs around? Because there was no other way of moving data around. The networks that we use every day, the Internet, home Wi-Fi, 3G/4G/5G cellular networks, didn’t exist. There were a few connections between different computers, but they were slow, and mostly constrained within an organisation. Each of the hardware vendors had their own idea of how a network should work, anyone remember DECLink and token-ring?

Later, organisations created connections between various locations within their organisation, but these were even slower than what you could do within a location. These wide-area networks were supplied by the local telco who were in many locations monopolies that saw this growing trend as a way to make a lot of money.

Teams sprang up whose job it was to make sure that the links between locations were optimised because getting it wrong could be an awfully expensive business. Overcommitting the network pipe between two production locations could have devastating consequences for the production organisation. Much of the time it was still quicker to put the data on a disk and mail it to the other location.

Systems needed to be designed to keep the network connectivity requirements to a minimum. Using devices within the local network was more cost effective than reading the same data across the network multiple times. When I first started working with email systems people regularly deployed small servers all over the network to try and avoid the wide area network costs, these were the days before email was a universally deployed tool.

Small data centres grew up in each location to accommodate the need for local resources.

This was, of course, all changed by the Internet. The availability of a connectivity utility changed things for everyone. The connectivity constraint diminished, and all those local servers disappeared – didn’t they? And all those teams managing the scarce wide-area network capability went on to do more interesting things – didn’t they?

Age 3: The Software License Constrained Age

With the cost of hardware plummeting, and the ability to connect services blossoming we walked into a new constraint – the software license. As the value derived by technology skyrocketed the people providing that technology decided that they needed to get their fair cut from the investments that they were making. How did they protect these investments? Through page-and-pages of license agreements written in legal terms requiring armies of people just to understand them and another army of people to advise people on how to get the best out of the license that they had purchased. We didn’t finish there; we still needed another army to count the number of licences that we were using and to stop the organisation from buying any more.

People designing solutions needed to consider the rules of each individual license to make the best use of the licenses that already existed or minimise the burden of new licenses. Many organisations created central database services just to minimise the license footprint from one database vendor, while at the same time locking themselves into using that vendor for a long time. Other organisations created reporting portals for systems to minimise the people who need a license to use the ERP system.

License vendors created mechanisms to stop customers moving to alternate solutions by signing long-term agreements with significant discounts for those willing to commit.

Some vendors became embedded within the psyche of organisations where significant intellectual capital was invested in a particular technology. Supplanting that technology with a cheaper, better solution was a demanding thing to do and many have failed in their quest.

Although at the latter end of it, we are still in this age. The armies managing licenses still exist, the technology to count the use of the licenses is still being deployed, the vendors are still making good money from the licenses. We still make design decisions on the basis that it constrains the license footprint.

Open source is steadily changing the world of licencing, but it’s going to take a long while for the third age to be completely overtaken by the next one.

Age 4: The Subscription Constrained Age

We used to buy a DVD and keep it forever; we owned the DVD even though we only watched the film once. We don’t do that anymore, we have moved to a subscription model – NetFlix, Disney+, AppleTV+ and on it goes.

The same has happened with technology, you may know it as “The Cloud”. The licensing age was characterised by one-off purchasing decisions, the subscription age is characterised by continuous adjustment of the blend of services being used. Organisations have a growing portfolio of applications and infrastructure they pay for as they use it.

This is where the parallels with media subscriptions gives us some insights into managing this constraint.

Does a single subscription to, say, Netflix give us more content than we could ever consume? Absolutely. So why do we also have a subscription to Disney+? Because we like a show that’s only available on Disney+. Does Netflix have a show that is like the one we like on Disney+? Sure, but it’s not the one on Disney+ and let’s face it the cost of a Disney+ subscription isn’t that big. Is it? But there’s also that new show on AppleTV+ that everyone is talking about.

Most subscription services don’t allow you to just buy the thing you want to buy, and if they can they’ll incentivise over-use of their service. Amazon is the master at this approach with both Amazon Prime and, from a technology perspective with AWS. In the case of Prime it’s all the additional services that you come to depend upon, in the case of AWS it’s the vast array of services blended with the data egress charges creating a huge disincentive to taking data out of AWS.

If subscriptions aren’t going to get out of hand solution designs need to manage the constraints. As a daft example, the best solution for a service may be for the database to be in AWS, the business intelligence to be in Azure, the business logic to be in a SaaS tool like Workday or Salesforce, the search to come from Google and the logging back in AWS. The problem is this service would be expensive and difficult to maintain. Whilst taking all the capabilities from AWS or Google or Azure may be a compromise for each of the individual services, managing this constraint, in this way, will provide a service that is easier to maintain and cheaper. But taking every service from a single cloud provider brings its own problems.

The armies of people managing software licensing in the previous age are rapidly being supplanted by an even larger army of people managing their way through subscriptions.

I used to joke that the best protected asset within software vendors was the licensing algorithm, I now joke that this role has transitioned to the team who create the subscription rules.

It’s Just Evolution

Having written this post, I was struck by parallels with the Wardley Mapping phases of evolution. In each age the constraint is moving up the stack as the elements lower down the stack move into the background as solved problems. The technologies in those lower levels aren’t going anywhere, they’ve just moved out of focus as they shift towards being utilities.

Focussing at the Right Level

I’ve highlighted throughout this post some of the places where people’s legacy practice needs to evolve to keep up with the new age. Teams that are still placing elevated levels of management on hardware in datacentres are likely missing the huge expenditure already taking place with the subscription providers of AWS, Azure and GCP.

Organisations who managed the internal WAN as the primary constraint have, hopefully, realised over the last 18 months how connectivity has moved beyond them.

The software license vendors are busy running around their customers seeking to secure their future revenue. In so doing they are seeking to slow the progress of the subscription providers. Many designs will be constrained by the need to consume these licenses beyond the point where they should have moved into a subscription service.

The subscription providers will continue to evolve at pace, this is the place where we need to be managing our constraints, delivering the best value to our customers for the right price. The model for how to do that is still evolving, but many organisations have already figured most of it out.

I’m not wise enough to know what the next age of design constraint is going to be, but I suspect we are heading into a world where the robots are doing more work and we will need to create systems that work well with the robots. I can also see all sorts of other constraints becoming primary: data sovereignty, privacy, security, cybernetics, skills, emissions. Testing is often a significant constraint on a design. I am glad that my job doesn’t involve predicting the future, many of us still have a hard time staying in the current age.

Header Image: This is a beach in the Outer Hebrides. The Queen used to park the royal yacht in the strait and have the crew row the family over for the day. The locals know it as Queen’s Bay. We also had it to ourselves the day we went.

Workplace Collaboration Advice for Introverts (Revisited)

I wrote most of these words in 2017 and I’m revisiting them now, given the significant change in the workplace in that time.

You walk into a restaurant on your own and see that there are two choices for where to sit.

To your left there’s a bar with a few people sitting around talking, the barman looks chatty and you recognize one of the group as an acquaintance.

To your right there’s an alcove with a table and a couple of chairs.

Which do you choose? 

If you thought that going left sounded great it’s likely that you are an extrovert. The opportunity to go and chat with a group of people sounds interesting, exciting even. You get your energy from interacting with other people. 

If you thought that going right sounded wonderful, it’s likely that you are an introvert. The opportunity to spend some time on your own, and perhaps get that book out of your bag, sounds like just what you need. You can make your own energy. 

Given the choice above, I would choose to sit on my own in the restaurant and I’d probably have a book with me. I’m a bit of an introvert but nowhere near the extremes. In fact, 70% of people are somewhere in the middle. I might choose to join the group at the bar depending on whom the person I recognized was. 

You’ll notice that I haven’t correlated being an introvert with being shy, because they aren’t always the same thing. 

Many of us spend our days in a work context that prefers the extrovert.

Meetings, for example, generally favor the extroverts. They are dominated by the loud and the interactive, even if the loud and the interactive don’t always deliver the most. 

Open-plan offices favor the extroverts as well. Being thrust into a group of people with limited barriers to interaction is an extrovert’s view of heaven, but an introvert’s view of hell. One of the stated benefits for open-plan offices is the ability to interact fluidly, which is only helpful if you are an extrovert. 

Our collaboration tools tend to favor the extrovert. The constant interruptions and interactions give them energy to feed off, but draining the introvert.

In a world of complex problems and complex solutions we need to interact and we need to collaborate, all of us, introverts and extroverts alike. 

How do we build a world where the introvert brings their best value in collaboration with a team?

Here are some techniques and tools that I have observed. I also asked several colleagues – via a couple of social collaboration tools – how they collaborated as introverts which provided some really helpful insights.

Understand the Difference Between Synchronous and Asynchronous

If you have a few hours and want to start an interesting conversation, ask a group of people what their favorite collaboration tool is. People can be quite passionate about which collaboration tools work and which don’t. There are many reasons why people like one tool over another. Some of that has to do with their view on how collaboration happens and some of that is influenced by whether they are an introverted or an extroverted themselves. Extroverts, in general, aren’t fans of collaboration tools because they “just want to speak to someone.” When they do use a tool, though, they prefer ones that provide feedback immediately – synchronous tools. A phone is a synchronous collaboration tool, as is a web conferencing system. Zoom is a dream for extroverts. 

Introverts are different, as they prefer to consider before they respond. Therefore, they are likely to prefer collaboration tools that allow them to respond in their own time – asynchronous tools. Enterprise social networks like Microsoft Yammer and Facebook Workplace are asynchronous collaboration tools. Chat based tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams are asynchronous tools as well but they blur the line between synchronous and asynchronous. These messaging apps are really asynchronous tools, but we expect people to respond synchronously. The grandparent of asynchronous collaboration is, of course, email but even here some cultures expect an immediate response.

Maximize the Asynchronous Mechanisms and Tools

As an introvert, asynchronous collaboration tools are your friend. They allow you to respond in a considered way, as you don’t need to respond immediately.

Try not to get sucked into cultures that expect you to respond immediately. Remember that your power is in your ability to consider and then respond. You still need to respond, just not immediately. Unfortunately, you can’t assume that the extroverts have considered your response in the asynchronous tool, they’re too busy on conference calls to read anything.

Minimize or Ignore the Synchronous Mechanisms and Tools

Meetings are inevitable, and they’re not going away any time soon. I live in the hope that the world will move beyond the current teleconference-dominated work cultures.

As an introvert, you probably view meetings as things that get in the way of doing work. If you are working with a team of extroverts they probably have a different viewpoint.  You’re only real option is to try and minimize your involvement in meetings. The ways of doing that will depend on the team that you are a part of and your place in that team.  You should also turn down all of the notifications on the tools so that you aren’t being constantly interrupted.

Work in the Open

Sometimes as introverts we want to go off into our little corner to formulate our response and only return when we’ve got the full answer. We don’t really want to show people our work, and we definitely don’t want people asking how we are getting on.

Modern document collaboration platforms like GitHub, Google Docs and Office 365 allow us to work on our thing in the open so that others can see in without having to interrupt. We may not like people rummaging around in our workings, but it’s better than sending regular email updates, or responding to endless instant message requests. 

Stay Visible Working from Home

Having said all of the above, in our working from home world, there is a danger that you might become invisible to the extraverts. You do need to have some visibility, even if it’s detracting you from being productive. This is a balancing act, I tend to keep myself signed in to one of the collaboration tools and also choose to attend certain meetings partially because it means I remain visible. There are also certain people, extraverts, who I choose to take a call from, again because it’s important to be visible to them.

Collaboration isn’t a tool, or even a process, it’s a culture. Part of what makes up that culture are our various personality types. Use the tools and techniques that enhance your contributions whilst recognizing that others need to use different tools and techniques to draw out their contribution. The magic happens in the meeting of these different facets. 

Header Image: This is the view from Tongue Pot, a great place for a swim.

Axiom: We are drawn to the Novel and the Negative

A quick reminder before we start, because it’s been a while, an axiom – “a statement or proposition which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true”.

Normally, in these axiom posts, I would go off and link to articles that give evidence for, or against, the hypothesis, but I’m struggling this time around.

To be absolutely honest, I’ve no idea where this statement came from, and I’ve really struggled to find anything similar to this phrase anywhere else. I do, however, have lots of evidence to support the proposition, where I’m struggling, a bit, is in the joining of them together in a single statement.

Let me illustrate and you can decide whether I’ve stepped from proposition into fantasy by taking the parts of this axiom separately to start with.

The second part of this axiom highlights our attraction to the negative. I’m not sure I need to describe this given what we’ve been through over the last year. How many of us have found ourselves hanging on for the daily negative news as the pandemic continued? We know it’s not doing us any good, but for some reason we keep watching. This is where our old friend bias comes in – in this case Negativity Bias.

Negativity Bias defines our tendency to focus on the negative things, over positive things. This is our brain trying to protect us, keeping us alert to the danger around us, looking out for those scary beasts lurking in those hidden places. Not many of us are expecting a fearsome man-eating cat as part of our normal day, but our brain doesn’t know that.

Moving on to the second part. One of our super-powers as humans is our ability to pattern-match, we see patterns everywhere, even when they aren’t there. If we see a series of numbers, we instinctively continue the pattern – trying reading 1234 without thinking 5. On the reverse of this ability, we are fascinated by the things that don’t match the pattern, the novel things. Why are we so fascinated by Pi? It’s partly because it’s uniquely novel, we think, it doesn’t fit any pattern. People who are perfect spellers (not me) struggle to read something with spelling mistakes. This is not because they can’t understand the meaning of what is written, but because the mismatch from the pattern is so distracting. Where I struggle with reading is in the use of double spacing 😉.

Put these two things together and you have a fertile recipe for all sorts of behaviours.

Why do people buy into conspiracy theories? Do they fit the pattern of novel and negative? So, so many times.

Why does certain gossip travel faster and wider than other pieces of information? Is it the news about someone’s unexpected downfall or failure? Absolutely novel and negative.

Working, as I do, in technology, you’ll find that people love to talk about all the technical difficulties on a project. They particularly like to discuss the high profile and the unexpected issues – novel and negative. These difficulties often dominate the energy of the team way beyond their significance to the overall outcome. The attention that the novel and negative demands saps the team from other activities.

Why does clickbait work? So often it’s because the title is constructed to suggest something novel and negative: “ABC Returns from Holiday, Neighbour Does This.” Accompany this with a negative picture and you have a winning formula.

Why are there so many news sources, and why are so many of them so awful. It’s a constant stream of novel and negative and we are hooked.

Look at any list of best-sellers and you’ll see them covered in the negative-and-novel – crime, biography, thriller, horror.

You’ll see these negative-and-novel responses everywhere once you start looking for them, but what are we to do about it? I return to a quote I’ve used before on this site:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor E. Frankl

If we recognise the stimuli in our lives, and the likely background to them, we are, in my experience, more likely to recognise where the gap is and use our power to choose our response. If we are looking out for that tricky novel-and-negative stimuli there is an increased chance we will treat it for what it is.

I’ve not delved into the impact that these stimuli have on us, but I have some anecdotal evidence that it’s not good. Like many people I went on an enforced news fast for a period to create a separation between myself and the stimuli, I felt so much better. In my work context I’ve tried to look at issues from the perspective of their overall impact and not to get sucked into worrying about the latest panic. I’m finding that doing this helps me to focus on the important things.

Just because our brain thinks it’s important doesn’t mean that we have to pay attention to it, and in this case it’s probably better that we learn to filter out the novel and the negative.

Header Image: This is Bassenthwaite Lake just before a lovely evening swim.

Office Speak: Industrialize

I recently joined a meeting and we were talking about how to get something done. There are a group of specialists on the call and each of them knows how to do a part of getting the thing done, but no-one knows the whole – hence the meeting.

At the end of the meeting someone says: “Are we going to need to do this more than once?”

The general agreement is that we are, to which someone else replies: “We need to work out how to industrialize it then.”

(I’ve used the “ize” spelling because that appears to be the popular spelling, but as a British person “ise” feels more natural. The OED has both 😉 )

The basic idea here is that a process that needs to be repeated ought to be able to be defined in a way that is repeatable – like an production line, flowing from one end to another without interruption, turned into an industry, industrialized.

Like other Office Speak the meaning of the term to those using it is not necessarily as clear cut as the term itself may suggest. To the cohort of individuals I was meeting with the meaning of industrialization sits across the full width of several spectra; in my experience at least.

In some situations it’s appropriate for an activity to become fully industrialized, it’s going to occur very frequently and there’s value in defining, optimising and automating it. There are many more situations where there’s little value beyond a simple definition or checklist. If all you do is create a document that describes what you did so that the next person doesn’t have to go through all of the learning, is that really industrialization? It isn’t really, but that’s sufficient criteria for many in industrialisation Office Speak land.

My thinking on the maturity of activities aligns to the Wardley Mapping phases: genesis, customer built, product, commodity. Industrialized activities only really apply to the product and commodity phases. It’s a lot to expect that something that’s only recently been defined, genesis or even customer built, should become part of a product or commodity the next day. There needs to be forces pulling and pushing for activities to move through the phases. One of those forces is scale, you have to be repeating something a lot for the expense of full industrialization to be worthwhile. One meeting does not make it product; one document does not make it a utility, but these are appropriate responses in many situations.

That’s the fun of the English language, we get to create words, define them, adjust the definition, repurpose them and redefine them altogether if that’s what we collectively decide to do. The power of the word is in the understanding that those communicating have of that word. In my meeting we all knew what we meant by industrializing and it wasn’t very much as it happened. We will undertake this activity on a few occasions, it’ll become something a bit more like a Cottage Industry and that will be completely appropriate to our situation.

Header Image: This is Malham Cove on a very hot day with Peregrine Falcons screeching around.

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.