Office Speak: T-Shaped People – I’m not sure I’m any shape?

The idea behind T-shaped people goes like this: The vertical axis is supposed to symbolize someone’s depth of skills in one particular area, whereas the horizontal demonstrates the breadth of their skills across different areas. Think about it like this, if you invest all your energy in training people on how to do their job you end up with I-shaped people who only have the skills to do one job. That might be fine in a world where people just do one job, but in the creative economy you need people to work across different disciplines, people who can work interdisciplinary. They don’t need to know every discipline in detail, they need a basic understanding. These people with a wide, shallow knowledge in many disciplines and a deep knowledge in their own disciple can be envisioned as a letter T, rather than an I.

Lay a set of T shaped people together and you get lots of areas of overlapping skills which make for great interdisciplinary teamwork.

While I understand the metaphor, it’s not very good, is it? I don’t use the term myself, it’s the kind of Office Speak that I dislike, let me explain why.

Let’s start with the beginning of the metaphor – the I-shaped person. Do you know anyone whose skills are truly I-shaped, absolutely linier? The only thing that this person brings to the business is their ability to do one role. Let’s pick an example, in my business that could be a coder who can only code – they can’t do even the smallest amount of design, product management, test, deployment, analytics or even user documentation. I’m sure there are people who are like that, but they are very few and you may want to employ them because they probably bring something special to the role that they do.

If most people aren’t I-shaped, what are they? Honestly, I don’t think that they are any shape. I’m not even sure that you can describe most skills in a way that would allow you to put them into a box and classify someone proficient. Even in the skills where you can clearly define proficiency there’s a huge variance. Take driving as an example, there’s a defined proficiency for it in most countries – the driving test resulting in the driving license. Yet, how many of us know someone who has a driving license, yet wont drive on the motorway, or in the dark, or into a city. Are these people proficient, or not?

Think about other skills, ones for which there isn’t a defined level of proficiency. How do you measure someone’s amiability, or their honesty, how about clarity of thinking, or adaptability, and a huge one for our current age their ability to learn? Where do these fit into the I or the T? How do you even measure these in such a way that would allow you to put them on any chart?

Most of us don’t just have our employment skills though, we have all sorts of other skills. These skills aren’t in a separate bucket that we leave outside our office when we start work each day, they are our skills. A few personal examples: I learnt map reading as a boy scout, I’m convinced that the way I understand technical diagrams is heavily influenced by that skill. I used to do youth work at the local church and that’s strengthened my listening abilities and my ability to command a room. Working with people in volunteer roles has taught me about motivation. I’ve read several books about neuroscience, a fascinating subject. Where do these skills fit in the T?

The final reason I don’t think that the metaphor is very good is that it’s been endlessly corrupted. Let me give you some examples.

There are the people who want to define the thickness of the T – “that’s a fat-T role” or “that’s a thin-T role”. I don’t think that this is a comment on someone’s stature, I think what they are trying to say, in the case of “fat-T” is that the role needs someone to be very general with only a small amount of specialty, whereas a “thin-T” person needs to be very highly specialized in one area, but not so much in the breadth areas.

Then there are the people who start applying other letters to different situations.

There’s the X-shaped Executive, which just confuses me, I can’t see how this fits with the metaphor at all. The best that I can understand is that the X is there to symbolize that someone has intersecting skills as a leader and as a subject-matter expert. In other words, Executives have more than one I and they overlap?

Where do the E-shaped people fit in? Well, it turns out that this is a different metaphor all together with E symbolizing the four attributes that happen, conveniently, to begin with an E – expertise, experience, execution and exploration. These are often depicted as the different strokes that make up the letter E.

We haven’t finished though, where do you think an M-shaped person fits in? Here we are back to the metaphor with the two vertical bars of the M representing people who have deep skills in multiple areas.

Then there’s Pi shaped people? From what I can understand they are just M shaped people with an attitude.

People without a specialty can be described as a dash or hyphen. I hope no-one ever uses this definition in real life to describe an actual person.

Then there’s the ultimate description, the one that blows the metaphor completely apart – the comb-shaped person. They have deep skills in many different areas spread across a breadth of knowledge. This, for me, would represent most people except I don’t believe that you can put people’s skills on two dimensions. None of us fit neatly into two dimensions in any way that is meaningful.

Things have various qualities and the soul various tendencies, for nothing presented to the soul is simple, and the soul never applies itself simply to any subject. That is why the same thing makes us laugh and cry.

Blaise Pascal

Header Image: This is the view from the White Beach on Iona looking north towards Staffa and Mull.

Office Speak: “on a Page”

Something like this has happened to me hundreds of times in my career.

I am working on a solution to a problem, and I have a set of diagrams that describe how we can get things fixed. I’ve even created a commentary for the diagrams to explain the contents of the diagrams.

The answer to the issue is complex and is going to require multiple steps. Each step will need to be completed before the next one starts making it a sequence involving several teams.

The need for different teams means that I need to set up meetings to talk through the resolution. I’d quite like to put together a short document that talks people through it, but this is an organization driven by email, reaction, and most of all distraction. I know that getting people to read and interact with a document is not going to give me the results that I need. There’s a chance that a meeting will help me make progress.

It’s then that someone points out that there’s already a meeting where this kind of thing can be discussed. I ask what it is I need to do to get on the agenda. I’m directed to the person who organizes the meeting schedule, they book me a slot on the meeting and send me the standard slide deck that I need to fill in.

I open the standard slide deck and my heart sinks as I read the title of each page:

  • Problem Definition on a Page
  • Solution on a Page
  • Plan on a Page
  • Costs on a Page
  • Sales on a Page
  • Risks and Issues on a Page
  • Actions on a Page
  • Stakeholders on a Page
  • Current State Analysis on a Page
  • Mode of Operations on a Page
  • Customers on a Page
  • Team on a Page
  • SWOT on a Page
  • Integrations on a Page
  • Coffee Order on a Page

What is meant here is that I have one page to say all that needs to be said on this topic, the use of animation is cheating. It’s really shorthand for: “keep it simple enough for us to understand, don’t embarrass us by making it overly complicated.”

Each of the standard slides looks fine, but when I come to edit them it it’s clear that this template has been put together by someone who really doesn’t know how to make something that someone else can use. I am conflicted by the desire to stick with the standard verses doing my own thing in half the time.

This is a complicated set of activities; how can I be expected to get your solution on a page? How do I do that? I could make the diagrams smaller so that the details fit on, I could also simplify the diagrams. The problem with both options is that neither is very helpful. The small diagrams, I know, will just make people’s eyes bleed, the simplified diagrams will give people a simplistic view of the situation. Unfortunately, the rules are the rules, and the solution has got to fit on a page. I ask how firm the rule about a single page is, the reply is “No you can’t have more pages, we struggle to get people to focus for one.”

There is, of course, a third option, and that’s to get a bigger page. Unfortunately, most people are reading the material on a screen so it’s a bit of an academic argument. The point isn’t really about fitting material to a page, the true message is about simplifying the story.

I have some sympathy for the on a page approach. I’ve been in so many situations where someone thinks that you care enough to go through their entire documentation to get an understanding of what it is they are doing. I’ve also sat in meetings where someone describes everything in intricate detail despite being told that all you want is the overview that will help you to formulate the questions. Conversely, I’ve also been in an on a page meeting where it’s clear that someone is trying to hide something in the simplification. Mandating a single page feels like a blunt instrument to use when really what is required is someone to set the scene correctly.

I attend the scheduled meeting. Everyone looks at my on a page deck, which has taken hours to create; the attendees of the meeting conclude that I need to have another meeting to talk through the details with their teams. In this meeting we talk through all the diagrams and agree it’s the correct answer.

Header Image: This is the Lismore Lighthouse, taken from the ferry from Oban to Mull.

Office Speak: “Double-Click” – “Can we double-click on that point?”

I’m sitting in a meeting, presenting graphically rich charts to some senior people when one of them says to me “Graham, can we double-click into what that means?” This was a term I’d heard hundreds of times before; I knew what was meant by the question, but this time it struck me as an odd thing to say – “double-click“?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this way of speaking let me explain.

What is being requested is that I go into more detail about something in the presentation – that I open-it-up.

For those of you who have grown up in a world of desktop computing, and in particular a Microsoft Windows world, this makes total sense because you double-click on a file to open it up.

What’s strange is that double-clinking isn’t something many of us do very often, anymore. Most of our modern-day technology interactions are about a single-click or a tap. You don’t double-click a link in a browser, no one double-clicks to open anything on a mobile or tablet device. The only double-click I can think of on my iPhone is when I double press the side button to open the wallet. On a mobile are tablet device you are much more likely to long-press something than double-click.

It’s really only within the Microsoft Windows File Explorer and the Apple macOS Finder that anyone double-clicks on anything to open it. Perhaps that says something about the context in which people use the phrase?

I suppose that “can we click into that point a little?” doesn’t have the same impact, and “can we tap into that point a little?” sounds very strange indeed given the multiple meanings of “tap” (in UK English at least).

As we’ve seen in other posts the reasons that certain Office Speak finds its way into an organisation is complex, and often without clearly defined logic.

Sometimes Office Speak is a shortcut way of saying something, which doesn’t appear to apply here, it’s easier to say “can you open up that point a little”, than to say “can we double-click into that point a little”.

Sometimes the phrase is associated with an individual, and it’s that association that makes use widespread. If that is the case, I’ve not been able to work out who that person is. In a TED Podcast from May of 2022 Adam Grant is talking with Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft and there’s this fascinating little phrase from Adam:

“Well, I’m a big fan of rethinking for obvious reasons. And I want to try to speak one of your languages. Can we double click on each of those themes that you just raised? Is double click the right lingo here is that we’re looking for. Okay, good.”

Satya Nadella is building the future (Transcript)

That’s interesting, Grant associates the phrase, the lingo, with Nadella, or perhaps with Microsoft, but I’ve heard it used in many more organisations than that. Although I must acknowledge the limitations of my own observations, I work in technology, and work a lot with people who also work in technology, so perhaps this lingo isn’t used as widely as I perceive it is.

It’s almost like there is a reverse taxonomy adoption going on here. The way it normally works is that we use the lingo of day-to-day life in the way we present technology to make it understandable. An example of this is files and folders, the storage on the computer isn’t creating files and folders, they are just shown that way to help us. With double-click the taxonomy is working back the other way, something we do in our technology interactions has escaped into the real world. I suppose there are plenty of examples of this – reboot, upload, download – to name a few.

Personally, I’m resisting the use of double-click, I much prefer to ask someone to “go into more detail”.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my little double-click into double-click 😉

Header Image: Sunrise on my morning walk. Autumn has arrived.

Office Speak: “Next Slide, Please”

Near to the start of my full-time employment I joined a department that was responsible for IT Training and also to look after certain technologies. This was an engineering organisation and the engineering departments had their own IT functions, we were the people who did everything else. This was at the end of the age of 8″ floppy disks and the beginning of the 5″ floppy disks short reign, in those days training included a half day course on how to use a mouse. We measured everything in kilobytes.

This was a time before video projectors were commonplace. One room did have a video projector in it, but it was very expensive, low quality and about the size of a washing machine. Most of the training rooms, however, made use of a technology that had then been around for over 100 years – the over-head-projector (OHP).

Each training course came with its own set of slides for the OHP. For those of you who have no comprehension of what I am talking about, slides for an OHP can best be imagined as A4 sized pieces of thick cellophane with a cardboard boarder. The cardboard border had a cut-out in one corner, this was essential to the safe operation of the slides. Slides could be put on to the OHP in eight different orientations, but only worked in one. Knowing which orientation was a skill and required organisation and preparation. The administration of the slides was a tightly controlled activity and anyone who didn’t put the slides back in the right order, in the right orientation, would be castigated. Animation was a physical activity with extra pieces of the cellophane taped onto a slide adding content as they were flipped into place.

There were other rooms where a slide projector was used. If you don’t know what a slide projector is, then I’m sorry for this lacking in your education, you’ve missed out. Most families, in those days, had an uncle, rarely and aunt, who would insist on treating their family to a Saturday night picture show of their latest exotic holiday adventure. Skegness projected onto a woodchip wall is a sight to behold. Anyway, I digress.

There were times when I would sit in on someone delivering training, on these occasions I may well be asked to operate the slides. I became skilled in the operation of both an OHP and a slide projector. The trainer would stand at the front and deliver the material, stopping occasionally to instruct me – “next slide, please.” It was an obvious thing to ask in a day when that was the nearest we got to remote control.

Technology changes were standing just outside the door though and we were about to make a significant change.

Up until this point the slides that went on top of the OHP had been created in one of two ways – they were hand drawn, or they were produced by a professional printer. My job was to start printing transparencies on a desktop LaserJet printer via an application on a PC, something I embraced with relish. This wasn’t a cheap option in those days, but it was the forefront of technology. Desktop LaserJet printers were a few thousand pounds, the PC and software gobbling up a few more thousand, even the specialist transparencies that would work in the LaserJet printer came at a premium and were closely guarded by my manager.

More change was on the way, it was only a small step to replace the LaserJet printer with another new technology – the video projector. Even then, though, I would sit at the computer in the training room and accept the instructions for “next slide, please.” Even then, only certain rooms would have such lavish equipment fitted.

We now regard access to a screen as standard for every meeting room. It would be very unusual indeed for us to walk into a room and for there to be no audio-video set-up. Latterly, the projector has been replaced by television screens in all but the largest room. Some of these being delivered as part of a video conferencing set-up including cameras and microphones.

In recent years, though, the desire to show slides has increasingly moved online, with screen sharing being part of millions of remote meetings every day. But what about those slides? We don’t seem to be able to live without them, even though very few of them will ever see an actual physical slide.

The other day I was sat in an online meeting, one of those all-hands type affairs. There were several people presenting and again came the refrain “next slide, please.” It seems that the material we were looking at was being operated by one person and that person had the role of human remote control for everyone else.

All this took me back to an age when creating slides was a job and “next slide, please” required significantly more skill than pressing a page-down key.

Header Image: This is one from a little trundle up Crinkle Crags in the Lake District.

Office Speak: Snowflake

Here’s a word that’s been used in so many different contexts that its primary meaning is in danger of becoming secondary. The characteristics of a physical snowflake – unique, delicate, brittle, intricate, etc. – have made it the go-to metaphoric label for all sorts of things many, probably mostly, negative.

Snowflake as office speak is highlighting those same characteristics but primarily focussed on uniqueness:

  • “This is going to end up as a snowflake server” = “that server is going to be a one-off”
  • “What they are designing is a snowflake solution” = “that solution is going to be a unique design”

Like it’s usage in other contexts the snowflake label isn’t, generally, a positive thing and is often used as a derogatory label. This is certainly true in my own work context of IT solutions.

(This post is not about snowflake the data platform, if that’s what you were expecting.)

The term snowflake was first used to describe IT servers in the book The Visible Ops Handbook which was published in 2005, so this isn’t a new idea. It’s also not the only metaphor that people have used for this phenomena, another popular one is the idea of cattle v pets. This is how Martin Fowler describes the idea:

it can be finicky business to keep a production server running. you have to ensure the operating system and any other dependent software is properly patched to keep it up to date. hosted applications need to be upgraded regularly. configuration changes are regularly needed to tweak the environment so that it runs efficiently and communicates properly with other systems. this requires some mix of command-line invocations, jumping between gui screens, and editing text files.

the result is a unique snowflake – good for a ski resort, bad for a data center.

Martin Fowler: Snowflake Servers – DZone DevOps

From this initial scope the label has moved beyond servers to all areas of technology. It’s become so ubiquitous that it’s reaching a point of concept entropy.

I work within a product focussed organisation and success, for us, is partially measured by people deploying and using our product as it was designed. What we do is quite complex, there are hundreds of ways of doing similar things, so we constrain what people do to reduce the complexity. What we don’t want are thousands of things that are similar, but different, snowflakes. From this standardisation mindset a snowflake is a problem, it requires extra work, and not just when it’s deployed, for the whole of its life it will be a special case. Operational teams want things to be in a “known good” state, they desire uniformity even if standardisation is suboptimal.

There was a time when people would just call something like this “non-standard”, or “unique”, but the snowflake label appears to have overtaken that.

In reality, though, difference is not only good, it’s essential. The trick is to have uniqueness where it adds value, and to standardise where it doesn’t. Standardisation is great at reducing cost, but it can also significantly reduce value if it’s incorrectly applied. The real value in standardisation, done well, is in removing the nugatory effort that is so prevalent in many organisations, releasing people to focus on the value adding uniqueness.

As a rule, I’m not a fan of labels. Labels have a habit of sticking around long beyond their usefulness. Even when they are removed they often leave behind a sticky residue. I see the same happening with the snowflake label.

I do regard it as a bit of a shame that we have chosen to use one of nature’s spectacularly intricate and beautiful phenomena and turn it into a negative label. Snowflakes are amazing, and not just at the ski resort.

Header Image: This is Buttermere looking back towards Buttermere village on one of those still autumnal days.

A Year in Review – 2021 on

There are several ways of doing a review for a year.

I suppose I could talk about the statistics, but that seems a bit dull, just because something is popular doesn’t mean that it was any good.

If I were to do a review by the visitor numbers, I would tell you that the top three posts this year are:

As these were all posts from previous years it may suggest that I haven’t been writing this year, which I have.

The other way of looking at the last year might be to look at the posts that I’ve written and to comment on those.

Perhaps I could talk about the distinct types of post. I’ve written a few “I’m reading…” pieces, but only three. This again might suggest that I’ve only read three books this year which wouldn’t be true (that’s only counting the new books, I’ve also reread some). I tend to write these review type posts when I have something personal to say. There are so many great reviewers around that these books don’t need another one, what I try to bring is my voice.

It was fun writing about these books:

There are also the “Office Speak” posts which make me smile and provoke some of the best reactions. I hope no-one takes them too seriously.

I suppose I could talk about the where I felt provoked to write something. I particularly liked these ones:

There is one post, though, that will stand out for many years to come and that’s because it marked the end of an era for me. I’ve had a goal for several years to complete a set of mountain walks and this year I did:

This post doesn’t describe all the significance of achieving the goal, or the changes it’s made in me along the way. What it does do is give me something to look back on and remind myself that “I did that”.

Thank you for being with me on the journey.

Header Image: I’m writing this on the shortest day of the year so thought it was fitting to have a sunrise picture from my local morning walk. I’ve taken this same picture for a few years now – #fromthefencepost – it’s amazing to see the different weather and changing seasons.

Office Speak: Single Source of Truth – Gold Source: Where do you go to find the correct information? What does Conway’s Law teach us?

Getting data is one thing, getting good information is another. Good information is vital to decision making but most organisations are riddled with bad information.

There is a whole myriad of ways in which information can be bad, it can be out-of-date, inaccessible or difficult to access, incomplete, duplicated or just wrong.

What people want is one place where they know the information is good – that is what a Gold Source is, also known as a Single Source of Truth.

(This is one of those phrases where people don’t seem to have settled on an acronym, thankfully. Perhaps it’s because the acronym is a bit of a mouthful, however you say it, S.S.O.T. or S. SOT, or even SSOT? Perhaps that’s why people also use Gold Source😀)

A Single Source of Truth should be simple enough to achieve, shouldn’t it? Surely? It’s what everyone wants after all? Not in my experience.

There is a common pattern in IT systems that goes something like this:

  • Team A creates a data store for something with the data they have in it.
  • Team B creates a data store for the same type of thing but with similar, but different data. They talked to Team A about adding the data to their store, but Team A would have taken too long to do what they needed so they created their own. 😃
  • Team C creates a data store for the same thing, again with similarities to the other two but using a different technology because the technology Team A used is far too expensive for what they need.
  • Corporate IT finds out about the three data stores, so sets up a project to create a Single Source of Truth for the information and does so by creating another data store using “enterprise class” technology and a data warehouse. This synchronises data from the other three systems. 🤦‍♂️
  • The Corporate IT system doesn’t do what Team D requires so they set up another data store using a different technology.
  • Team E takes a daily extract of the data from the Corporate IT system and load it into a spreadsheets and links it with an extract of the data from Team D’s data store. They use the workbook for reporting, except when Mary is on holiday because no-one else knows how to do what Mary does. 🤦‍♀️

I could continue but I think you’ve got the trajectory by now.

As technologists, the answer to this problem is, of course, more technology (and more acronyms). There are four common patterns for trying to resolve this problem (with Graham’s overly simple descriptions):

  • Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) – link the systems together via another system.
  • Master Data Management (MDM) – create a system for the data that links the other systems together.
  • Data Warehouse – put all of the data into a big bucket then sort it out.
  • Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) – build the systems in a way that allows other systems to use them.

What we as technologists miss is that the primary reasons for the creation of multiple data sources aren’t technology ones, they are organisational ones, or more specifically, they are communication ones.

Conway’s Law gives a great frame-working for understanding why this might be:

Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

Melvin E. Conway

Using our example to explain, different teams create separate system because their communication structures are different, and those separate systems have different data stores. Whether it knows it or not, the organisation is designed to preclude the creation of a Gold Source.

Fortunately, a Single Source of Truth isn’t always that the right answer anyway. Going back to our example, the approach taken by each team is the right answer from that team’s perspective, and their perspective may be right for the whole business. Each team has undertaken an approach that gives them a significant advantage – autonomy. The rate of change that can be implemented across the disparate systems is much higher than could be achieved by the one system being used by everyone. When systems are used by multiple teams they move at the pace of the slowest team (at best). Coordinating across teams requires a lot of effort and a lot of thinking. There is, however, duplication between the various systems, but perhaps that’s a price worth paying for the increased velocity that autonomy gives.

There are some things for which businesses need a Single Source of Truth, but they aren’t as many as people think.

Header Image: This is Alcock Tarn which sits above Grasmere in the Lake District. It’s a great place to sit and watch the weather go by.

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.

Office Speak: “Paradigm Shift”

Sometimes you think you know what something means, and then you look into it and you are no longer sure. You hear someone say something in a context and you are convinced of the meaning, but perhaps the meaning has been defined by the context.

Today’s Office Speak is a favourite term of a mythical group of people known as the Agents of Change (we’ll get to that one another day). These Agents roam the earth calling people to see beyond their day-to-day way of thinking and to make a Paradigm Shift.

a typical example or pattern of something; a pattern or model.
“society’s paradigm of the ‘ideal woman’”

We were gifted the term Paradigm Shift by Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) who was talking about changes in the basic fundamentals of scientific discipline driving a scientific revolution:

A scientific revolution occurs, according to Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. The paradigm, in Kuhn’s view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. This is based on features of landscape of knowledge that scientists can identify around them.


Our own world views have been impacted by these scientific revolutions. There was a time when people didn’t know that germs existed, imagine the change that they went through once it was understood. It’s not that long ago that DNA was discovered and we are all in the middle of the science revolution that this is enabling. That’s the level of a Paradigm Shift as described by Kuhn – a complete change of worldview.

You may have seen this diagram before, it was used by Kuhn to illustrate that a different perspective can change the meaning:


I’m going to assume that you can all see the two different creatures being shown here?

Let’s return to those Change Agents that patrol the typical office environment requesting a Paradigm Shift here and another one over there. What are they really calling for? Are they calling for a scientific revolution in our day-to-day office existence? Or, as I suspect, are they asking us to squint a bit and look at something in a slightly different way. This tendency to overstate is quite common in Office Speak.

Rather than saying:

“We need a paradigm shift here.”

Perhaps it would be better to say:

“Is there a different way of thinking about this?”

Or even:

“Perhaps we need to look at this a different way.”

It may be that I’m just being a bit too British about this, but it sometimes feel like we call all change a Paradigm Shift when all we’ve really done is moved from one desk to another, or changed from one colour scheme to another. These don’t quite compare to Einsteinian General Relativity do they? Perhaps the Agents of change or rewarded for the number of times that they use it? Or Perhaps it’s just become a lazy way of saying “we need to change what we are doing”?

Header Image: This is the view from Eagle Crag down Borrowdale an a cold but beautiful day in 2019.

%d bloggers like this: