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The Struggle To Find The Up-cycle

IMG_9026I’m in one of those vicious cycles of decline, no clear idea of what triggered it and no clear way out of it.  It’s the complexity of decline that makes doctors run for the door and leaves me one my own struggling forward.  As is my habit I often like to try and figure out what’s happening to me by writing and this rambling post is the result.   I say I don’t know what started this cycle of decline, but I can see its roots in the gradual slackening off of good habits over time, then a series of trigger events at work that tipped me right over the edge of a cliff and now I’m sliding down.  The scramble back up is likely to be long and painful.  Let’s take a look at where I am now:

  1. I’ve had three acute flares this year which means I’m now back on auto-immune suppressants, but those acute flares are nothing compared to the daily grind of chronic symptoms
  2. My neck muscles are painful and tight meaning that I’m having migraines every day, I’d like to take pain killers, but it’s pain killer over use that’s contributing to the migraines.  So I resist popping pills during the day but often have to give in at night because I need my sleep
  3. Pain levels are such that sleep is very difficult without sleep aids, so after weaning myself off them last year, I’m taking them again and that means I can’t stop without weeks of very badly disrupted sleep.  I’m stuck on them for now
  4. The sleep aids make me extremely drowsy in the mornings, making it essentially impossible to keep on top of my work research, my reading backlog grows every day even with constant pruning
  5. Body pain levels have gone through the roof, particularly my feet, lower legs, arms and shoulders.  This means I’m walking less (walking feels like I have stones in my shoes) and it’s a rare day that I can motivate myself to go through the pain of swimming
  6. The resulting lack of exercise makes everything (pain, sleep, mood) worse
  7. Brain fog is particularly debilitating, everything takes twice as long as it usually does
  8. My energy levels are greatly reduced, I can do 1/2 to 1/3 the number of press-ups that I can normally do with double the pain levels doing them, it’s hard to motivate myself to even try
  9. Fatigue levels are greatly increased, leaving me wiped out by lunchtime most days
  10. Depression is creeping in, it used to be with me for a day a month, now it’s probably every 3 or 4 days
  11. Motivation levels have gone through the floor, which means keeping to my special diet and other healthy habits much harder
  12. I’m getting ever further behind at work, feeling disengaged and unable to maintain and grow the network of contacts that I need to succeed. 
  13. My diet is suffering, I’ve not had a green smoothie for two weeks, I’ve not met my target for veg and fruit on a single day this month. 
  14. I finished by allocation of pain killers for the month after the first 2 weeks, so I’ve crashed through that target

The way back from here is going to involve lots of ‘one step forward, two steps back’, I’m going to need to try and live the best days that I can, trying to take small steps in the right direction:

  1. Somehow I’m going to have to survive for days on end without pain killers, which will mean many very grim days
  2. I’m going to have to reduce my sleep aid use by 50% which means lots of nights struggling to sleep
  3. I’m going to have to walk through the pain in my feet every day, which means 10,000 steps onto painful feet
  4. I need to clean up my diet, which means finding the motivation to prepare 3 meals from scratch each day using the best fresh ingredients (daily shopping)
  5. No matter how much effort I put in I’m going to have lots of setbacks, I’m going to need the mental resilience to push on
  6. I’m going to have to do all this whilst feeling weak, exhausted and depressed, like I have the flu
  7. This is going to be a long hard struggle
  8. I try to remember the good days that I’ve enjoyed in the past to motivate me, but already it’s hard to recall
  9. I feel a bit like crying

As I sit here writing this I’m bathed in pain, my neck in particular is really bad.  My feet are now ok, because I walked 12,000 steps in pain at 2 miles an hour for most of the morning, but my arms paid the price.  I’ve a deepening pain behind my left eye which is already bad enough for pain killers, but I can’t take them.  All I want to do is curl up and sleep.

I took today’s photo half way through my walk, looking towards the North Dunes of St Annes.  I’d already spent a couple of hours in Caffe Nero trying to catch up on work and making a little progress.  I did the second half of the walk with Chris, a friend from work, which made for a much more enjoyable time than listening to podcasts for work. 

Is The PC Dead? Is A Strange Question To Ask

IMG_8853CSC hosts a regular series of Town Hall discussions which are streamed and available on demand, they are well worth watching (although the quality of Google hangouts leaves something to be desired).  The latest of these discussions sought to answer the question “Is the PC dead?” which had a further subtitle “With the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and mobile technologies, the very future of the PC has been questioned. Is there a place for PCs in the enterprise?”.  The question must be important, because lots of people are asking it, but it’s also a strange question to ask as no one ever seems to define what they mean by a PC, or what they mean by ‘Dead’.  This discussion is no different, it touches on a lot of interesting topics, new purchasing models, new user interface paradigms, new form factors and ways of co-creating value, but unfortunately it doesn’t go anywhere near answering the question.  It was frustrating and as is often the case when I get frustrated I write a blog post. 

This blog post is my long winded attempt at working towards an answer to the question:

No, the PC isn’t dead or at any risk of dying.

First we need to decide on some definitions and I will start with asking the question what do we mean by a PC.  Well the broad definition of a PC is of course a “personal computer” and everything we use today including the smartphone, tablet, hybrid, notebook, desktop and workstation are all personal computers, this meaning of PC clearly isn’t dead.

So we need to de-scope the definition to something that might conceivably be considered to be of at least declining importance.  So we might say by PC we mean a device running the Microsoft Windows (Windows from now on) operating system, but if we use this definition then it’s clearly not dead.  Devices running the Windows operating system still power almost all general knowledge work, and a good share of science, engineering, graphics design and other media production.  Whilst it’s true that competition is increasing from Apple OSX and to a lesser extent IOS/Android, Windows is still clearly king at work, far from dead. Windows is an operating system designed for the mouse, keyboard, true multi-tasking and multiple screens, all essential for real creative work.  Other UI technologies are all complements to these foundations, not replacements.

So we need to de-scope further, perhaps we mean a device running the Windows operating system that sits on a desk and is used for routine office work, a Desktop PC, hmm not dead.  Desktop PCs are still widely in use today and where they are being replaced it’s with thin clients that connect to virtual windows desktops running remotely.  The physical device might be of declining importance, but from a users perspective they are still using a Windows operating system, running Windows applications, sitting at a desk, the PC has changed form factor but it’s not dead!

De-scoping further, do we mean mobile windows devices (notebooks, tablets), hardly, Windows notebooks, especially Ultrabooks are still the most important personal computing devices in the enterprise when it comes to getting real work done, I’m using one now.

We’ve run out of options, there’s no definition of personal computer that used to be ‘alive’ that is now at risk of ‘death’ that I can find expect the already dead Windows Tablet, so lets look at that.  Well the Windows tablet used to be alive an well a decade ago, but a combination of cost, neglect and poor applications support meant that it became a small and declining, but still important niche.  Now though with Windows 8 and soon Windows 10 and the market creating Microsoft Surface hardware line Windows tablets are on the up, alive and well, far from dead.

So why do people keep asking, or asserting, that the PC is dead, I don’t really know, but I suspect that most people are assuming incorrectly that the massive growth of non-Windows personal computers at home, leads to a correspondingly massive decline in existing Windows personal computers at work and home, not really.

I offer up these additional thoughts:

  1. Personal computers are everywhere, they are in every form factor running many operating systems, they have never been more relevant
  2. The ‘state’ of a personal computer, i.e. the applications installed on it, their configuration and data is increasingly stored in the cloud and can be restored to a new personal computer easily.  From that perspective a personal computer is just as personal, but that ‘personality’ is no longer associated only with the physical device, resides up in the ‘cloud’.
  3. Personal computers running Windows are just as important as they ever were, they power businesses of every type, but they are being complemented by cloud services and devices that don’t run windows as well. 
  4. The cloud is increasingly the integration point for applications rather than the Windows PC.
  5. Windows as am application platform is of declining importance, but because of the huge legacy of Windows business critical applications it’s still important.  Microsoft are working hard to halt that decline through open sourcing .NET and porting it to OSX and Linux servers
  6. Windows (compared to IOS/Android) is still the best operating system for the keyboard and mouse and these are still the best tools for getting work done while sitting (or at a standing/treadmill desk)
  7. There are some use cases that were massively over-served by the power and flexibility of a Windows personal computer, for example primary education. Devices like Chrome books are being adopted for these.
  8. There are some use cases that are best served by handheld touch enabled devices, augmented reality and virtual reality headsets, these were never served by Windows PCs, they are on the rise but are mostly supplementing Windows PCs.
  9. There are many home use cases that were badly served by Windows desktop and notebook PCs, tablets and smartphones are now meeting those needs, many consumers are finding that they don’t need anything else and so Windows PCs are declining there.  Their users are finding their personal tablets and smartphones useful for some enterprise use cases, but they are mostly supplemental
  10. Windows as an operating system is being optimised for many form factors from the phone to the Xbox, although traditional Windows applications only execute on a subset of these, but Windows is unlikely to ever dominate any of the new form factors.
  11. The PC is not dying in any form factor or operating system, but desktop devices are declining on the desk and in the home.

It’s worth mentioning that some people push the boundaries of what’s possible on a tablet like an iPad to do even high end knowledge work all day long.  These people are the exception, they are either particularly talented or prepared to suffer a significant drop in effectiveness for a slightly lighter bag.

In summary:

  • the number of personal computers is dramatically increasing
  • the share of these devices running Windows is declining but Windows is still king for most creative, task and knowledge work
  • new form factors are emerging and mostly supplementing existing notebooks, desktops and workstations
  • at work physical desktops are being replaced by portable devices and/or thin clients accessing remote virtual desktops, the PC is evolving not dying
  • at home desktops are being replaced by notebooks and tablets, often both

If you want to watch the discussion that promoted this rambling blog post, it’s linked below:

Is the PC Dead?

I wrote this post on my traditional Thinkpad X230 laptop, I’ve tried so many modern alternatives but keep coming back to the trusty X230, still the best laptop for getting work done that I’ve ever used.  I’ve chosen a picture of a sunset on the beach at the end of my street, which I thought was ironic given what I consider to be the hype around the decline (setting sun) of the PC and it’s subsequent resurgence (sunrise)

Investing My Time

IMG_8855I’m not one to drift through life without a plan of action, even at school and university I was always focused on doing just enough work to succeed, but not too much as to curtail the rest of my life.  So one of the first things that I did when I started working was to segment my time to reflect the balance that I wanted.  I thought of my time and energy as investments that I wanted to make, investments in my work, my children, my relationships, my health.  I’ve continued to ‘rebalance my investment portfolio’ every 6 months or so for probably 20 years and it’s worked out pretty well.  When I look at my portfolio now it’s changed a lot over the 20 years,  some periods required intensive investment in work, others in family.  I make my biggest investment in my physical and mental health, with my work and family getting most of the rest.  Take a look deeper into any area and things get a little bit more interesting:

  1. My main investments in work are focused on finding areas that others are neglecting, picking important not urgent work that no one else is focused on 
  2. My investments in health are on mental resilience and activities that keep my body moving but also allow me to do research into health, work or relationships at the same time, by listening to podcasts or watching videos on my exercise bike
  3. My main investments in family are in supporting Debbie while she’s back at university and taking most of the burden of running the house and looking after it and the garden; strengthening my relationship with her as the kids gradually fly the nest and keeping a role in the kids lives as they become independent

In simple terms you can see this segmentation strategy at work in how I carve up my time.  For example early in my career I decided that I wouldn’t work after 7pm and at weekends.  Now my focus on health means I have a highly segmented life:

  1. Two weeks a month I focus on work:
    1. I spend my mornings doing research, curation and knowledge sharing
    2. Two afternoons a week meeting people face to face for coaching or focused group discussions
    3. Two afternoons doing scalable creative work, writing, video presentations and reviews.
  2. One week a month I take a holiday, 4 weeks with my family and 8 weeks on my own, hiking, cycling or in meditation retreat.  During my holidays I still spend a lot of time doing research, but I also read and listen to a lot of fiction.
  3. One week a month I dedicate to a ‘think week’ a time for relaxed refection and research

At work I’m always looking to design organisations and systems that are well balanced and where that balance doesn’t come naturally, I force it by segmenting our investments.  For example I might carve up an organisation to make sure we have w% invested in operation, x% in optimisation, y% in differentiation and z% in imperatives.  It’s all too easy to invest in operation or imperatives and neglect the rest.

My commitment to this approach was recently further inspired when I read ‘How Will You Measure Your Life’ by Clay Christensen, a leader in the field of disruptive innovation.  Clay points out how seductive focusing all of your investments of time and energy on work can be:

Our careers provide immediate evidence of achievement. Every day you can put your hands on your hips and look at something that you accomplished. But in raising family, on a day-to-day basis, the relationships with our spouses and relationships with our children don’t provide any immediate achievement. It takes 20 years to raise a child. It’s a very long investment.

He then goes on to describe his personal approach to finding balance:

And so people with a high need for achievement systematically under-invest in their families and overinvest in their careers. And the way that my wife, Christine, and I — the way we wrestled with that problem — we decided that Clay is an incorrigible driver of achievement, and he’s never going to change. And so let’s put a boundary around that. So we decided I would never work on Saturday. That’s for the family — and Sunday for God. And I wouldn’t work past 6 p.m. Those were kind of the rules that we made a commitment for. Then, when I worked for BCG, about a month after I started, the leader of my team came to me and said, “Clay, we’re going to meet on Sunday at 2 p.m. because we’ve got a big presentation on Monday, and this is what you’ve got to be ready for. So we’re going to do a dress rehearsal.” And I told Mike, “I can’t do this on Sunday,” and explained why.

And he just went bonkers, and he said, “Everybody works on Sunday.” And I said, “I just can’t. We made a commitment to spend that day for God.” And so he blustered away really mad. And he came back, and he said, “Look, I talked to the rest of the team. Let’s meet Saturday at 2 p.m.” And I said, “I can’t do that either. I’m sorry.” And, boy, he was mad at me. So then he came back, and he said, “Do you happen to work on Fridays?”

And it was a very important decision for me to make because the logic is just this once, in this particular extenuating circumstance, it’s OK if I do this. The problem with that logic is that your life is filled with an unending stream of extenuating circumstances. And that was just a little decision in a life of tens of thousands of moments of decisions like that. But if I had given in that once, then the next time it comes up it’ll be easier for me to get in again “just this once” until just this once isn’t once. And I decided that if you set a standard it easier to keep the standard 100% of the time than it is 98% of the time.

Most mornings I like to read and write in Caffe Nero, which is a short walk from home. Instead of taking the direct route though, when I’m well enough, I will take the long route along the sea front and I get to enjoy the magnificent views.  I took the photo adorning this post today and it’s particularly striking.

Office Space Density vs. Productivity

IMG_8754I’ve been helping out with office designs at work over the last few weeks and it’s interesting to watch the challenges raised when I make suggestions that compromise density in the service of increasing productivity. This is a common theme, every time I’ve done an office design the facilities manager has proudly dropped a plan on the desk with the maximum number of desks squeezed into every nook and cranny, with a few token conference rooms thrown in. 

By contrast I like to start by designing the zones that I want to create in an office, zones being regions of the office that are to be associated with different types of work.  Zones might include a library space for people to sit quietly surrounded by books and magazines, comfy chairs where people can take a break from their desks for unscheduled chats, collaboration spaces focused on a variety of types of meetings, sound insulated spaces for conference calls.

A person might occupy space in multiple zones throughout the day.  They might occupy a desk all day, spend 5% of their time in comfy seating, 10% in the library and 20% in meetings spaces (highly simplified analysis).  Once you know how everyone will split their time up based on different types of work you know how big each zone needs to be and therefore what density you can achieve.

The basic message of this post is the density that can be achieved starts with an analysis of the types of work that the office needs to support, not the number of desks that can be squeezed into the space. People are a lot more expensive than floor space in most of our offices!

Interestingly my eldest daughter happens to be very interested in cities and in particular how to optimise the trade-off between density of housing and quality of life through good design.  This seems to be incredibly important given the growth of cities and the huge impact on welfare of we get it wrong.  It’s a shame we don’t see as much focus on our offices.  We’ve had lot of interesting conversations about the similarity between offices and cities and she’s a keen observer of the office designs she’s been exposed to so far.

I wrote this post in Caffe Nero after a misty walk along the sea front.  I’m sitting in the window seat watching the clouds break and the sun start to peak through which should make for a good walk later.  The photo I’ve chosen to decorate this post came from yesterday morning’s walk and shows what remains of St Annes’ original pier which was destroyed by fire in 1974.

The Case For Less

IMG_8760I was up early this morning, excited to get in 30 minutes on my exercise bike watching TED talks before walking on the beach and enjoying the amazing sunrise.  I like to pick TED talks pretty much at random and be ‘pleasantly surprised’.  It’s ironic then that today I got to enjoy one of my all time favourite, thought provoking, talks; The Paradox Of Choice, which summarises the book by the same name. A book that I’ve also read and highly recommend.  The basic thesis for the talk is that we have too much choice in modern life and that choice paralyses us, results in post purchase regret, raises our expectations and when, ultimately, we are disappointed we blame ourselves.  It’s a powerful critique of modern life and one that resonates so powerfully with me.

As so often happens in life I’d popped round to a friends house last night to return a huge stack of walking books he’d lent me, and as I was unpacking them onto his dining room table we were talking about the very same issue.  He asked me whether I’d read and then done any of the thousands of walks or “were you overwhelmed”, and I was embarrassed to say that while I’d flicked through some of the books, they’d largely remained on the bookshelf.  Too many books, too many walks, too much guilt about not reading them and walking them.

I am conscious of this paradox of too much choice though, I have pared down my life and I do walk every day, but I only have about 20 walks in my life, just like I only have basically 5 outfits to wear and 5 places that I holiday each year.  I can’t say that I really live the simple life, because I have way too much stuff, but I do live a tidy life, a life with limits, but within those limits I try to live life to the full.  Without limits living life to the full is a terrifying prospect.

I wrote this post in Caffe Nero, enjoying one of the 7 morning routines that I choose from when I’m at home.  The photo was taken using just my iPhone on the beach where I was in the company of two real photographer, burdened with rucksacks full of gear, tripods and huge lenses.  I think I got the better deal.

I Don’t Want A Standing Desk, I Prefer My Exercise Bike

2014-10-24 15.52.05-1There’s endless talk on the blogs about the dangers of sitting often linked to the benefits of a standing desk.  I agree completely with the former, but the idea of standing still for long stretches of the day fills me with horror.  In my experience there’s nothing worse for me than standing still, humans aren’t designed for standing, we are designed for walking.  Unfortunately you don’t see any where near as much attention to walking desks for good reason, it takes a special kind of concentration and dexterity to be able to walk and use a keyboard at the same time and if you look up the prices of walking desks a special kind of budget! Not my kind of budget that’s for sure!

Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I pay a ridiculous amount of attention to moving, it’s critical to controlling my daily pain levels and keeping flares at bay,  I need moderate exercise like others need food, 3-4 times a day, but I need to avoid intense exercise too.  I’ve got an old exercise bike that’s been stored in my office for many years gathering dust.  After reading about the dangers of sitting in the book Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It it’s presence started to loom ever larger.  Eventually I pulled it out of it’s neglected corner and tried riding it for a few days but was frustrated by the wasted time,  I could use my remote and watch some videos on the office big screen, but all too often I had to stop to use my laptop as something popped into my head, or I wanted to look something up, take notes or respond to a message. 

2014-08-15 14.55.58Then I realised that if I folded the handlebars down horizontal I could balance a kitchen tray on them and put my laptop or iPad there, better! but precarious.  So a month or so ago I took the plunge and fitted a permanent ‘table’  to the bars and I’ve not looked back. 

This is how I have things setup now:

  1. I still store the bike off in a corner out of the way
  2. When I want to use it I carry it (good strength exercise) across the room so it’s facing my big 27” desktop screen
  3. I pop my laptop on the non slip surface of the table, which is cable tied to the handle bars locked in horizontal position
  4. I use Mouse Without Borders (a fantastic app) which allows my laptop to easily control my desktop with it’s big screen.  I can stop and start videos, find new videos, anything I want basically
  5. So I sit on the bike watching company briefings, tech conferences, training videos, entertainment videos, participating in conference calls, watch TV, all on the big screen
  6. My laptop is right in front of me and using Mouse Without Borders I can toggle the keyboard between both computers instantly.  That means on my laptop I can take notes, look things up, scan my email, read my RSS news feeds.  I have my phone and iPad mini on the bike’s table too.
  7. Sometimes I don’t want the distraction of the laptop on the table so I will just sit back and use my iPad or pop the desktop’s Thinkpad Bluetooth keyboard on the table and control things with it’s built in mouse and media keys

It’s been a revelation, I’m moving almost twice as much as I used to on working days, getting natural pain relief, burning more calories which allows me too eat more food.  Eating more food is especially important because I follow The Wahls Protocol, a high nutrient diet, for health reasons and I just can’t get enough nutrients if I’m sitting around all day.

Over the last couple of months I’ve gradually moved closer to a system that works pretty well for me when working from home:

  1. Swim first thing in the morning for 10-15 minutes, this works mostly the upper body joints and the knees
  2. Stretch two or three times a day, mostly focussed on my shoulders, hamstrings and achilles tendons
  3. 5-10,000 steps of walking before lunch listening to podcasts
  4. Then I will sit for an hour or so
  5. Seated Vipassana meditation mid-day, by this time I’m hurting all over so I can really focus on the pain and embrace it
  6. 60+ minutes on the exercise bike during the afternoon
  7. More sitting
  8. The rest of the steps I need to get to 10,000 in the afternoon or early evening
  9. More sitting
  10. Lots of pottering around the house and garden throughout the day while taking breaks from sitting
  11. Sometimes another 30+ minutes on the exercise bike during the evening
  12. More sitting
  13. Floating in the bath
  14. Bed

When I’m sitting I try to change chair types and change position every 45 minutes or so, so that I keep my back moving and challenged.  Of course I still gets flares and when those happen everything has to be scaled back a lot, but I still try to move.

I wrote this post sitting in Caffe Nero after a lovely cycle ride against the wind to Lytham (hence the picture) followed by a quick swim.  My legs are close to perfect today, my arms are horrible, hence the emphasis on ‘quick’ swim

The Power Of Qualitative Team Health Metrics

2014-03-07-14.18.59_thumbI’m seeing a lot more burnout at work for many reasons, all of them very disturbing.  It’s bad for the employer because people become disengaged, productivity suffers, stress increases all around, sickness levels increase and retention suffers.  It’s clearly bad for the individuals and their families and it’s also bad for the team as a whole, burnout spreads.

I’m a strong believer in team working, a good team makes work a joy, but unfortunately many teams fail to achieve their potential mostly because people confuse teams with people who sit together, or do the same type of work, work on the same project, or talk on the phone one a week in a team call.  Even when a team is real it’s often not given the right tools to help spot, manage and prevent the early signs of problems and then to go way beyond problem solving to create a healthy environment where all team members are flourishing.  There are dozens of things that contribute to a great team, but for this blog post I’m just going to pick one, qualitative team health metrics.

I think it’s a great idea for a team to get together and design a set of qualitative metrics that they think are important to helping them flourish as individuals and as a team. In a company with many teams it’s best to start out with a template, and then let individual teams innovate from there.

So lets get started with considering what might be included in a template, keeping it simple we might ask all team members to score how they feel week each week in a number of areas on a scale of 1-5 :

  1. How stressed are you feeling?
  2. How is your health?
  3. How frustrated are you?
  4. How over worked are you?
  5. How under worked are you?
  6. Is work improving?
  7. Do others in the team support you?
  8. Do you know what’s expected of you?
  9. Do you need more skills/training?
  10. Are you happy with your working environment?
  11. Are you happy with your IT/phone equipment?
  12. Are you unhappy with quality of the service you are able to provide to your customers?

It’s important that the team takes ownership of this list, it’s the things they feel are important for them to thrive and the team to succeed.  When I’ve instigated reporting on similar areas weekly the individuals have generally found it very useful and leaders even more so.  You can make the reports actionable by saying:

  1. A score of 3 or less can be managed by the individual/team or during routine reviews
  2. A score of 4 needs proactive in the next few weeks 
  3. A score of 5 needs action this week

This sort of reporting starts to get incredibly valuable when it’s aggregated into a spread sheet so that you can see everyone’s results at a glance and see trends.  You can then see issues developing in the team long before you see them reflected in other metrics or being surfaced in discussions.  For example:

  1. At the start of a project you might expect to see low scores for question 8 but if this persists for more than a few weeks, or worse increases then you have a project with poor requirements, architecture or design
  2. If you see high scores for question 7 then your culture needs work 
  3. If you see stress levels and frustration increasing then watch out

Managers often claim that they know their teams, unfortunately they often miss the soft issues and people don’t like talking about them.  Providing them with a quick and simple way of quantifying their satisfaction and providing them with a way to cry for help makes a difference.

image_thumbAlso important is the insight that senior leaders can get with a single glance into the ‘health’ of a function or project, using the people as a lens.  They can see a project manager putting a team under too much pressure, they can see a team start to worry that quality is slipping, they can see one team progressing at the expense of another.

In all the big teams I’ve run have tacked these indicators onto the end of a traditional weekly highlight report, everyone in the team sends a copy to their peers and to their team leader.  Team leaders send aggregated reports to other team leads.  A business administrator updates the master spread sheet each week, the results get pinned to the wall.  Of course a web site might be more efficient, but regardless of the way the metrics are captured they take less than a couple of minutes a week.

Depending on the culture aggregated reports might need to be anonymised.  The spread sheet for a team within a project going off the rails would look like this, something is very wrong in Team A.

I wrote the first version of this post in Caffe Nero in Kendal, the picture at the top right is of the bridge over the river Kent.  I took the picture from my bike as I was returning from a week long break in the North Lake District and reminiscing about how to manage big teams well.  This is a new version of the post, updated and refocused a little so that it’s relevant to all types of teams, not just project teams.

Another Way To Look At Individual Performance Metrics

2013-02-21 14.44.25Unfortunately most of us have come across metrics that are used to measure individual performance, to provide a quantified ‘stick’ with which to beat the under-performing individual, I hate them with a passion.  Whilst they might have some validity in an assembly line, they have no place where I work, with knowledge workers.

There’s another way to think about metrics though, as a way for people to understand the work they are doing better to provide insights into how they are doing it, so that they can take ownership of and improve, their own performance.  Managers then have a very different discussion with their staff, it’s no longer do more, it understand more.  Once the focus switches to knowledge about work and how work gets done, improvement flows naturally.

By refocusing metrics in this way we help people understand why some jobs take a long time, while others are quicker.  Provide the team with insights into why some people do the same job faster than others, without the assumption that speed is always better.

Metrics need to become more like the fitbit that I wear on my belt, my wife doesn’t check up on my daily step count and use that to decide whether I get dinner or not, instead it’s a tool to help me improve my fitness, one of many inputs that provide me with more understanding of how I move each day, to give me with insights, to encourage me to move more.  It’s a tool for self improvement.

Let’s take the example of a service desk environment where people are traditionally managed based on their ability to meet or exceed a target number of tickets.  Throughput is easy to measure, but difficult to correlate with good performance:

  1. Tickets associated with one service might be more complex than tickets for another
  2. One person might more reliably diagnose the problem than another, he gets less tickets done, but the customer is much happier with the result
  3. Another might document the resolution better, so he’s slower too, but the next person trying to solve the same problem will be quicker
  4. Another might solve a problem in a way that takes a few minutes longer, but minimises the disruption for the customer
  5. Yet another might capture more useful meta-data resulting in more accurate reports and improved analysis of trends
  6. The last example might be the person who calms down the frantic, angry customer and turns them into a fan

These additional dimensions of good performance are lost when throughput if the primary criteria.  Of course defocussing on throughput and re-focussing on a broader definition of quality might result in less throughput in the short term, or more variability, but variability is inherent in most systems anyway.  The way to deal with that is by building slack into a system.  Instead of dividing 1000 tickets a day by 10 tickets per person and so having 100 staff, you have 105.  This might seem crazy at first sight but take a read of the book Slack and you will seen see that companies with slack consistently outperform companies that don’t.  Queues don’t build up, teams have the ability to cope with unexpected peaks, staff don’t burn out, sickness levels reduce, innovation increases, improvements can be sustained and customers are happier.

I’m no expert in service desk in particular, but here are a few random ideas that might be better than the throughput stick:

  1. Group people into teams of 4-8 and give the team a target ticket volume.  Encourage the team to discuss how to tackle the challenge together.  Maybe 5 people will cover the sixth person while she does some cross training.  Maybe 2 of the people are better at complex tickets than the others.  Maybe one member of the team seems consistently slower and the team can work together to figure out why and provide some coaching.
  2. Provide the team with more insightful metrics, metrics that really help them do their job better.  Make it possible for them to compare throughput when solving different types of tickets (problems, requests, how do I questions).  Let them see whether their throughput is affected by the time of day, because the team’s not managing their energy well.  The possibilities are endless.
  3. Set-up competitions between teams, to see who can clear the most tickets each week and then get the winning team to share as many hints and tips as they can think of as to how they did it.  For each tip they provide give the team £10

The point of this list isn’t to provide really good ideas, it’s to change the mindset away from measuring individual performance in a crude way and then using it as a stick, instead use metrics to help individuals, or even better teams, take ownership of improving their own performance.

Critically assume people want to do a good job, but to be motivated to do a good job your need to find ways to give them autonomy over the way that they do it and some control over what ‘good’ means to them.  They want to improve their performance, not simply their throughput, they want to become craftsmen/masters of their trade.  They want to understand and engage with a higher purpose than clearing 10 tickets a day:

  1. giving the customer a good first impression
  2. reliably diagnosing the customers problem
  3. fixing that problem quickly
  4. minimising disruption to the customer
  5. minimising the chance of the same problem happening again
  6. explaining to the customer how to help themselves
  7. capturing information that can be used to analyse and spot trends
  8. capturing knowledge so that if the same problem happens again others will be able to do everything better
  9. leaving the customer calm, confident and happy
  10. keeping their energy levels high so they do a great job all day
  11. not getting burnt out to the point where they go off sick
  12. enjoying their work and their team so much that they want to stay
  13. making sure they do the follow up research that arises from some incidents
  14. helping out a team member who who didn’t get much sleep because of a sick child

You can’t easily measure all of these things in a quantified way, but you can in a subjective way, but that’s the subject of another post.

I wrote this post with my legs up on the sofa in my conservatory office.  I don’t normally work on a Friday but I started discussing this topic with a friend of mine on the phone this morning and I wanted to clear my mind of the resulting swirling thoughts.  I’ve one more blog post to write and then I’m off to walk on the sea front, so this post’s picture is to remind me of what I’m missing.

More On Waking Up And The Humanist Community

2014-10-22 09.37.23A few days ago I read the book Waking Up after also reading about a new kind of Christianity.  Both books started me on a journey of self discovery.  I’ve always been an atheist, so hearing others describe atheism is interesting but not mind expanding.  What’s really interesting is discovering how atheists can also experience spirituality (Waking Up) also live a good life based on a rational moral code (Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe) and that inquiring Christians are really struggling to make sense of their faith (A New Kind of Christian).  I also read the excellent 10% happier that made it abundantly clear that secular spirituality is just as hard work as religion would be (for me).

My atheist life though has always been lonely, I’ve mostly grown up surrounded by Christians, most social gatherings I attend are Christian, the school my kids went to was a church school and they all attended Christian clubs.  The self discovery though is that there are others like me, a billion apparently, maybe intellectually I already knew this, but until I actually discovered the Humanist movement it never seemed real. 

All of a sudden I’ve discovered groups all over who think like me.  People who want to do good in the world, who want to improve themselves, but don’t expect God to help out, it’s liberating.

I strongly recommend this 100 minute video that explores many of the topics I’ve touched on in this post, it’s really excellent.

Sam Harris and Greg Epstein

The photo today is what I woke up to.  I have almost no ability to recall memories from my childhood now, but as I drifted out of sleep this morning I remembered my very laid back high school RE teacher telling me “you’re a humanist Steve”, it’s taken me nearly 40 years to understand what he was talking about!

Just One Of Those Days

2013-01-27 10.31.38Yesterday was one of those so very rare days, when everything in the world seems to line up and progress becomes effortless.  I woke up mostly free of pain, dodged the showers on my walk to Caffe Nero, had a great time reading before heading home just before 10am.  The plumber arrived on time to fit the new fire in the living room, which is rare enough, but he was a great guy jovial and full of stories.  While he worked I worked, energised by his example to fix a half dozen nagging jobs around the house that had been waiting for months.

In the afternoon, glowing from all these accomplishments and well fed with smoothies I spent the afternoon writing a strategy paper for work and then jumped on the exercise bike to catch up on my Instapaper ‘videos to watch’ queue.

The day finished off with a family dinner and TV around our new glowing fire.  Perfect.

Progress is so hard at work now days that I sometimes forget how wonderful it feels, especially when it’s framed by good food, good company, relaxation and meditation.  Of course it didn’t last, today has been a trial.  I’ve had a migraine most of the day which I’ve tried to battle, with only limited success, in order to let me finish the document that started with so much promise yesterday.  Still there’s always tomorrow.

the photo today is of the bleak windy sand dunes that decorated this mornings walk, as I was trying to listen to a podcast by the overpowering Tony Robbins who I’m sure has important things to say, but he’s an extroverted extrovert and too much for my introverts ears to cope with.