I’m Reading… “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” by Daniel H. Pink

Why do you do what you do, when you do it? That is the fundamental question threaded throughout this book. The reality is, for many of us, we have unconsciously walked into a When of life that has little to do with productivity, performance or even well-being.

When - Daniel H. PinkWe have a tendency to treat all of our awake time as equal, we schedule our days around the priority of an activity and little else. We sit in afternoon meetings conscious of things going a bit slow, but choose to power through. We visit our doctor and expect the best performance from them whenever we go. We remember sitting in afternoon exams wondering why it was so hard. Yet, we all know instinctively that we have certain times of the day where different things are more enjoyable, and times when we are better at doing certain things.

In When, Daniel H. Pink, gives a framework for understanding ourselves, and those around us. As with many human conditions we all sit somewhere on a spectrum and not rigidly into any neatly defined box, but having the boxes helps us to understand ourselves and others. In When the boxes are:

Lark Third Bird Owl
Analytic Tasks Early morning Early to mid-morning Late afternoon and evening
Insight Tasks Late afternoon/early evening Late afternoon/early evening Morning
Making an Impression Morning Morning Morning (sorry owls)
Making an Decision Early morning Early to mid-morning Late afternoon and evening)

Most of us are third-birds – we’re neither extremely larkish or blatantly owly.

If you look through this table you may notice that the mid-afternoon isn’t a great time for anyone or anything and that’s because it isn’t. That post-lunch slump affects most of us and isn’t a great time to progress anything, which is why it’s the ideal time to take a break. Some cultures have breaks built-in with extended lunches and early afternoon naps. This was perhaps the case in the UK some years ago, but it’s certainly isn’t now. Most people have their lunch at their desk while covering their keyboard with crumbs. That, it turns out, is a massive mistake, we would be far more productive if we took a proper break and had a nap.

When is full of advice on how to take good breaks: micro-breaks, moving-breaks, nature breaks, social breaks, even mental gear-shift breaks. Pink’s exhortation is for us to get serious about breaks, to schedule them in and to stick to the schedule.

The mid-point slump, doesn’t just apply to our daily routines though, the same pattern applies to most things – we start and finish with enthusiasm, but struggle in the middle. Pink devotes a number of sections to this phenomenon and in his usual style mixes scientific research with concise practical advice for handling these situations whether that’s a mid-point in a career, in a project or even in a relationship.

I’m not going to cover all of the sections in When here, because there is a lot that I liked about this book and much to apply and the post would be too long if I did. The one remaining section I will touch on though, is the one on synchronising. Getting together with others and performing a task has a powerful impact on our mental and emotional well-being. Having sung in groups most of my life I recognise the power of it in that situation, but I’m predominantly an introvert and wouldn’t go out of my way to join synchronisation opportunities, that’s a challenge. I think that my first step on that one is to join a yoga class, I currently use an app on my iPhone to do my practice, but I recognise that this is robbing me of the synchronisation high that comes from being in a group.

There are certain books that you read and wish that you had read them earlier, this is one of those books. Although, as I reflect upon it, as someone who in many ways is in the middle of things, perhaps it’s best that I read it now, when I need it.

“it’s not enough to get the design right, you’ve got to…

“it’s not enough to get the design right, you’ve got to design the right thing”

Bill Buxton – Designing the future with the help of the past with Bill Buxton

More complete quote:

Problem-setting is basically, it’s not enough to get the design right, you’ve got to design the right thing. And so, if you just leap in and start building something where you’ve got a solution, you have no idea if that’s the best option. There might have been a better way and you didn’t take time because you are already behind schedule. But here’s the crazy thing. At the beginning of the product cycle, you have a small team just getting going. Your burn rate, in terms of what it’s costing you per week in terms of the project and that, is very, very low. So, what you then should be doing is thoroughly exploring a range of different alternatives. Problem-setting, part of that process is this notion of, you cannot give me one idea. You have to learn how to work quickly and give me multiples. That’s a technique for this whole issue of, how do you deal with the problem-setting? And by exploring the space first… oh, that’s the real problem… Put it this way. You have a bunch of people that talk about user-centered design. And they’ll say, you know, go talk to your users and they will tell you what to do. Okay. Would you go to a doctor where you walked in, and the doctor said, okay what’s wrong with you, what operation do you need and what drugs should I give you under what dose, right? And that’s how some people naively interpret user-centered design, is “listen to users.” And, no. I’m going to ask you all kinds of questions. But I’m going to take all of those as part of the information that helps me make a diagnosis. And so, where do we collect the symptoms to find out where the real problems are? You’re telling me this. I understand the situation. Now, I have to know enough about your industry to ask pertinent questions. And for me, that’s what the problem-setting is. The designer, the main equipment is to have that meta-knowledge. And that’s where the diverse interests come in, so how do you get that knowledge? But if you don’t even know that’s the kind of knowledge you need to get, you’re not even going to go looking for it.

Is it me? What is “an unusually high volume of calls”?

If you’ve not heard these exact words, you’ve heard something very similar to them:

We are currently experiencing an unusually high volume of calls, please hold and a member of our team will be with you as soon as one becomes available.

You are then tortured by some music that is completely inappropriate for the narrow frequency response capabilities of a phone until there’s a short pause, just long enough for you to think “ah, a person”, and then you are again greeted with:

We are currently experiencing an unusually high volume of calls, please hold and a member of our team will be with you as soon as one becomes available.

You continue this experience until your ears are number and your brain is craving to do something more intellectually taxing – like watching daytime TV.

As is often the case, the person that you eventually get to talk to sounds plausible, and makes you believe that they have resolved your problem, so eventually you hang-up. You say to yourself, again, that there’s another hour of your life that you aren’t going to get back, but there at the back of your mind is a question, what constitutes “an unusually high volume of calls”?

You leave it a few days before you check on the progress of the thing you wanted sorted only to discover that it hasn’t and submit yourself to the inevitable second phone call to the service centre. It’s a completely different time of day, it’s a completely different day, and yet, there it is, ready to greet you like the smell of a dog that has been playing in a stagnant pond:

We are currently experiencing an unusually high volume of calls, please hold and a member of our team will be with you as soon as one becomes available.

Another hour later you still have that question, what constitutes “an unusually high volume of calls”?

What is the measure? Is this statement made on the basis of the average across a day? Or a week? Is it based on a model that factors in seasonal and regional differences? Has some significant national or global event happened that I haven’t been aware of meant that everyone needs to phone right now? Or, as I suspect it is, the definition of “unusually high” is one more than the number of service personnel that the organisation decided to roster for that time, on that day, and that the staff scheduling has little do with customer demand. The volume of service staff is almost certainly governed by the finance team with little relevance to the poor individual wanting to get a refund on their overcharged insurance bill. (Anyone guess what’s happened in my house today?)

I have wondered about setting up a web site where people can see the times and days when an organisation is normally experiencing “an unusually high volume of calls” based on crowd sourced input from people. My hope would be that people could then phone in during the non-unusual times with a high probability of speaking to an actual person, but I suspect that for some organisations there are no non-unusual times. And there is my problem, if there are no non-unusual times then sitting waiting for a service person is normal and that shows utter contempt for customers and we should all leave such organisations. Who’s with me?

(No, we won’t be using that insurance company again).

Unintended Consequences and Perverse Outcomes

There’s a management saying:

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

It’s often attributed to Peter Drucker, but according to the Drucker Institute, he never said it. Sounds sensible though?

Another management saying is:

“You’ll get what you measure.”

Which sounds axiomatic, I think?

Eliyahu M. Goldratt said:

“Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave”

Measurement and behaviour are closely linked, but that’s not always in a good way.

We are surrounded by situations where measurements and targets result in illogical behaviour, unintended consequences and perverse outcomes.

Give manufacturers an environmental test to pass and they will pass it, but may do so by changing the way the product works in the test conditions.

Give hospital administrators a target for certain diseases and that target will be met, but also, the care of other diseases will decrease.

Give teachers a set of measures that need to be met and tohse measures will be met, but teaching as a whole will be narrowed.

Give financial advisors a bonus for selling certain products and they will sell that product, even if it’s not appropriate for the person buying it.

Give policymakers a target to build houses and they will build houses, wherever they can, even if they aren’t needed where they are built.

Implement a policy of closely monitoring people’s working hours and they will work the hours that they are expected to work, but they won’t work any more than those hours.

Give policymakers a target for reducing the amount of household waste that goes to landfill and restrictions on access to landfill will meet the target, but also, the amount of flytipping will increase.

The list goes on and there are many specific examples in the Wikipedia article on unintended consequences. My favourite is this one:

The British government, concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi, offered a bounty for every dead cobra. This was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward.

Eventually, enterprising people began breeding cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, they scrapped the reward program, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free.

As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse, becoming known as the Cobra effect.

We have to be very careful when we are setting a target that the reverse of that target is desirable. Sometimes that’s why the counter-intuitive response is the most effective. Sometimes not measuring something is the best approach.

Related: I’m Reading: “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” by Cathy O’Neil

Because it’s Friday: “Rainbow Paint on a Speaker – 12,500fps” by The Slow Mo Guys

Having been paid to do a fancy show with a big crewe and a budget The Slow Mo Guys return to their roots in the garden messing about with paint and a speaker.

The Slow Mo Guys are at their best when it’s wonderfully Heath Robinson (apart from the top of the range Hassleblad and Vision research cameras that they’ve been loaned).

Office Speak: “Agile with a capital ‘A'” and “agile with a small ‘a'”

We have a way of co-opting words into office speak. The latest for many people in the technology arena is agile.

The word agile means:

able to move quickly and easily.

Something that many organisations aspire to do. They want to move more quickly and without it being so hard to do. In our office speak this has become known as “agile with a small ‘a'”.

This word has then been co-opted by a methodology that was birthed in the software development arena, but is becoming more widely used outside that arena. In our office speak this has become known as “Agile with a capital ‘A'”.

We need to differentiate as we speak so that we know which meaning is being used. It’s easy in written text, but as we speak we have no way of differentiating and sentences can have a very different meaning depending on which is being used:

“My customer wants to be more agile.”

Meaning: customer want to be able to move more quickly and stop taking so long to do anything.

“My customer wants to be more Agile.”

Meaning: customer wants to do a better job of adopting the principle of the Agile Manifesto.

This is where it gets fun, because one of the ways a customer may become more agile is by adopting Agile. Which is easy to understand written down, but when you are speaking you need to say:

one of the ways a customer may become more agile with a small ‘a’  is by adopting Agile with a capital ‘A’.

That’s clear isn’t it?

But it doesn’t stop there. There’s also lean and Lean and sometimes Lean and Agile are used together to help organisations to become more lean and agile 🙂

There’s more, don’t forget about safe and SAFe, waterfall and Waterfall, word and Word, workplace and Workplace, need I go on?

I’m off now to write a few words into a Word document for an organisation that has a nice workplace next to a waterfall about how they may communicate using Workplace as they move away from Waterfall toward Lean and Agile, because they aspire to become more lean and agile 🙂

I’m Reading: Everest 1953: The Epic Story of the First Ascent by Mick Conefrey

Despite all I have seen and experienced, I still get the same simple thrill out of glimpsing a tiny patch of snow in a high mountain gully and feel the same urge to climb towards it.

Edmund Hillary

To travel, to experience and learn: that is to live.

Tenzing Norgay

The ascent of Everest was not the work of one day, nor even of those few unforgettable weeks in which we climbed… It is, in fact, a tale of sustained and tenacious endeavour by many, over a long period of time.

Sir John Hunt

Thank goodness. Now we can get on with some proper climbing.

Eric Shipton

History has a way of picking heroes and of either building them up, or pushing them down, they tend to stand and fall as individuals. The two names I knew from the ascent of Everest were Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing (Tenzing Norgay). These two individuals did a remarkable thing, they were the first people to stand on top of the world but I knew little about the events that got them there.

My schoolboy knowledge of the events of 1953 had overlooked the tremendous efforts of John Hunt, the leader of the expedition. John Hunt was just as famous as the Tenzing and Hilary at the time but I was born 15 years after 1953 and he no longer featured in the story I was told.

Names like Charles Evans, Tom Bourdillon, Griffith Pugh, George Band, George Lowe, Michael Westmacott and all the others were just as unknown by me, until now. The larger than life character of Eric Shipton was also a new one to me. Yet, each of these individuals played a significant part in the events that lead to two people standing higher than anyone else had ever stood.

The world has changed a huge amount since 1953, something that this book makes evident as a parallel story to the main event. We are so used to world where a couple of hundred people climb to the summit each year in organised groups that include everyday people. We are used to people flying into Nepal and travelling around by helicopter. We are used to modern breathing apparatus and mountain equipment making these endeavours reasonably safe. We expect communications to be instantaneous.

It wasn’t anything like that in 1953.

The journey to the roof of the world took an expedition with military planning and relied mostly on manpower to get the ten thousand pounds of equipment in place. Even with extensive planning the ultimate ascent relied on “tenacious endeavours” to overcome the unforeseen challenges, freak events, illness and unique weather conditions. In almost every situation the margin for error was tiny, a single decision made by Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans was the difference between their names being the ones written into the history books and those of Tenzing and Hilary.

Everest 1953: The Epic Story of the First Ascent by Mick Conefrey is a wonderful telling of the events and characters that accomplished this tremendous feat. I really enjoyed it’s wonderful story telling and engaging details but most of all I was struck by people’s ability to keep going when there’s a goal that they need to achieve.

The book also describes the events following the ascent which serves as a warning about the two sides of fame. Success did not lead to happiness for everyone involved.

Disclaimer: I didn’t read this book, I listened to it on Audible.