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Boosting Creativity

2014-08-23 09.12.41-2I work from home which has a lot of advantages so I don’t begrudge it, but sitting alone in a room is a sure way to kill every ounce of creativity that I have.  Not one to be easily beaten though I’ve experimented with ways to boost creativity and it’s been surprisingly easy, although not immediately obvious, this blog contains the lessons that I’ve learnt so far.  The approaches are all personal, I’m not attempting to address ways to boost a groups creativity although I do like to use idea generation using post-it-notes for that purpose.  Some of these ideas would work for groups just as well though.  Of the many techniques that I’ve tried these are the ones that have worked the best, they all fall into the following broad categories that I will expand on later.  Move about, start with a blank sheet, draw, distract myself, stimulate the brain.

First up, and the most powerful technique is to move.  For me this means walking or cycling in environments that require a little concentration on the act of moving safely, but not too much.  Leave the mind alone for a while and the ideas start to tumble.  The challenge then is how to record those ideas and for that, a voice recorder is my gadget of choice.  Sometimes while I’m moving I can listen and still have the ideas spring forth, this rarely happens with podcasts because there’s too much going on, but listening to books works well.  Audio books are usually less demanding than podcasts after the first hour, there’s only a single familiar voice, the pace of change is generally slower, the mind is more relaxed and passive.  When an idea starts to form you need to stop the audio book and let the idea build while walking and then stop and jot it down or record a voice message and then move on without restarting the book, often many more ideas will follow.

Sometimes being passive and waiting for the ideas to come while moving isn’t an option.  In those cases it’s best to lay out a sheet of A3 paper and start.  The best way to start to write, make a list, sketch and the ideas will start to come.  A poor substitute for this is mind mapping on a PC, mind mapping is much more constraining than sketching.

Drawing is a powerful tool for generating ideas.  It’s particularly useful to lay out what you already know about a topic in some sort of structure first.  I like to draw what I already know from first principles, building up a representation of my knowledge in this way starts my brain’s pattern recognition engine and that seems to lead to it finding new connections, related and sometimes new ideas.  It’s a good idea to do this rapidly drawing lots of different structural representations of what you know.  This is also a great way to storyboard a presentation, all on rapidly generated sheets of paper which you can mix up until you get a story that works.

It seems strange but a level of distraction seems key for creativity.  Distraction might come from people you are with, the background noise of a cafe, trying to keep upright on your bike, listening to a book, driving.  Regardless of the source, this low level of background distraction seems to ‘loosen up the brain’ making it easier for new ideas to flow.

Finally I like to stimulate the brain.  I will do this by scanning hundreds of articles a day and reading a few dozen.  I highlight passages that I particularly like or add posts that inspire to folders like ‘action’ , ‘blog’ or ‘strategy’.  Sometimes the ideas flow directly from the reading, but more often they provide my brain with the raw materials that the ideas are built using the techniques I described earlier.  When I’m looking for inspiration though browsing through all the passages that I’ve highlighted is particularly useful. 

When I’m doing a big project I also like to cover my office walls with sheets of paper that represent the current state of the project solution, so that I’m always soaking this up and looking for issues or opportunities for improvement.  I write these directly on the paper on the walls.  Some might call this a ‘war room’ which is often more associated with status tracking, I’m using the same technique for solution visualisation.

I wrote this post in the lovely Beach Terrace Cafe, where I often have breakfast.  The inspiration for this post came from scanning my list of blog post ideas which are stored in an Instapaper folder.  The photo is my view from the cafe window on a particularly cloudy day.

Living Offline

2014-08-19 17.25.29Debbie and I have been staying at a holiday village called ‘The Bay’ just to the south of Filey on the east coast and a short walk away from a superb beach.  It’s an idyllic spot, designed to look just like a traditional ‘cottage style’ village but with all mod-cons, it’s very well done.  Except for one big issue, no internet access in any form, in fact not even a mobile phone signal most of the time.  The village pub does offer Wi-Fi so there’s an option for the desperate (but it’s busy and noisy) and Filey itself has a reasonable 3G signal, but it’s been an interesting experience coping without pervasive coverage the last 5 days.

As is my normal habit, even when I’m on holiday I like to do 2-3 hours of work a day to stay on top of the tech news, keep my email under control, keep my research ideas chugging along and write this blog.  But even if I didn’t need to work I would still struggle though. Pervasive internet access has insinuated itself deeply into my working practices in such a way that I’ve been constantly caught out.  I’ve been stumbling through the week trying to plan my way from one location to the next and from one device to another:

Hmm, I’ll do the jobs that require a laptop at the pub, then I’ll take my iPad with me to the Country Park cafe and scan my RSS feeds to read offline later, oops I forgot to download my next book onto my Kindle and I can only do that over Wi-Fi, and on it goes.

Having all these devices that are designed to stay in sync works great when everything can work in the background all the time.  Moving all my data to the cloud works great when those cloud connected apps can get to it.  But with one or two hours internet access a day and no planning in advance this is what the week has felt like:

  1. It’s exam results week and so we had to drive into Scarborough to be confident of being able to talk to Tess on the phone at home and Anna in Italy over Skype (both worked and the kids did great)
  2. I finished the third book in the series of nine that I’m reading in the evening on my Kindle, but couldn’t download the next one on my Kindle 3G (which amazingly has 2G access) because I’d set downloads to only work over Wi-Fi and I couldn’t change the setting via the Amazon web site because the internet access was too slow
  3. I lost my place on another book because my page position didn’t sync from another device I’d left at home
  4. I’d written a whole load of notes up in SimpleNote but I couldn’t get access to them.  The same thing happened to documents that I’d carefully filed away in Evernote, but not stored in notebooks I’d marked as offline on my iPad
  5. I like to keep a photo diary in Instagram, but it only allows me to post new pics when it’s got a connection.
  6. One of my daughters was in China and coming home this week, Instagram is one of the few apps that China allows, so we have been following her progress and chatting with her that way.   Unfortunately we had to wait many hours to know she was home safe.

I could go on for another page with lots of little annoyances, stupid ‘first world problems’.  It’s not the problems so much though, it’s the fact that over the last 5 years I’ve gone from being very confident in my ability to work offline, to ‘crippled’,  goodness knows what would happen to the world if we lost connectivity, for real, for a few days. 

All was not lost though, some apps worked flawlessly, in particular Instapaper and Email that both worked completely seamlessly regardless of whether an internet connection was present or not, syncing quietly in the background.  Instapaper works the way all apps should aspire to whether it’s synching new items to read, updated folder contents, articles saved to Evernote or tweeted, everything just works buffers up offline and then happens automatically when online.

I’ve learnt a few lessons worth noting down:

  1. Having an offline client on my PC for SimpleNote is a really good idea, I’d previously been pretty smug about the fact that I only used the web client.
  2. Making sure that my reading positions are all synced on the Kindle apps that I take with me
  3. Checking that I have the Evernote notebooks offline and synced
  4. Making sure that I don’t update the same notes in Evernote and SimpleNote on multiple devices while both are offline,  oops lost a few changes there!
  5. Making sure that I have books queued up on my Kindle and Kindle Apps
  6. Putting a bit of music on my laptop in case Spotify’s not available is a good idea
  7. Keeping an SD card full of TV shows with me, just in case I can’t get to Netflix or Plex, saves on DVD costs or the need to watch TV adverts (oh my, was that a terrible experience)

There are some short term thing’s I’d like to fix as well, in particular Twitter and Instagram clients that support offline posting and then background sync. 

Of course all these problems are transitionary in nature, having always on access to everything has made me lazy.  I’m sure I could adjust to working practices that worked with very intermittent internet access just fine.  In fact given a few weeks and no need to work I could adjust to no internet access and no computers and just enjoy these beautiful surroundings and a good selection of books from the library.  After all that’s all I had when I first fell in love with Filey 20 years ago.

The photo is of the apartment we stayed in at Filey Bay holiday village, it’s hard to believe that they designed it without community Wi-Fi and have no plans to add it.

Thinking About Holiday Options In Retirement

Steve’s _IMG_4533Although I live in a seaside resort, I’ve long dreamt about owning my own holiday home, to provide some variety in retirement.  I’m particularly attracted to the idea of taking holiday breaks off-season and renting my holiday home during the summer weeks.  I’m happy to stay at home in St Annes during the best weather weeks of the year, to maximise rental incomes.  That way I’d get to enjoy a holiday home during the winter, early spring and autumn providing some variety.  My favourite place would be Filey, which would provide me with amazing walks along the beach and cliffs even in bad weather provide I wrap up well.

My plan was to buy this holiday home with some of my tax free lump sum when I retire.  This year I’ve started to look into this seriously and I’ve had discussions with a few places so far.  Caravans seemed the obvious choice but after considering the the site costs and depreciation the numbers don’t appear to work for me.  I’ve also considered buying a cottage at Filey Bay or a studio apartment and these numbers seem much more attractive because whereas a caravan is a rapidly depreciating asset a cottage or apartment is typically an appreciating asset.  Given my preference for renting the late spring and early summer months it might work.

However after a long discussion with Debbie it seems clear that there’s no such thing as a free lunch in holiday’s.  If there was the big holiday companies would be making the capital investment themselves and there wouldn’t be a market for individual caravan or holiday home ownership.  It comes down to a lifestyle choice.  Some people spend crazy money on cars, some people buy caravans, some people buy mobile homes or boats.  None of these choices makes much sense in purely financial terms.   Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately that’s not how my brain works, I’m very attuned to investments with optimal cost benefit.

All things considered then, Debbie and I have made the preliminary conclusion that our best options are as follows, in order:

  1. Do house swaps, we live in a pretty desirable location so it shouldn’t be hard to find people who want to come to visit Lytham St Annes and it seems that there are good reputable organisations now that orchestrate the swap
  2. Rent off-season modest holiday homes
  3. Purchase a modest ‘bricks and mortar’ holiday home with good prime season rental potential, but also good off season walking potential
  4. Purchase a nice second hand caravan on a site with few facilities, and a location that many will find inconvenient, but we would like and hence only pay low site charges and low depreciation

I’ve enjoyed working through these options with Debbie this week, speculating about the future on a long walk is quite good fun, much better than talking to stupid caravan salesmen anyway!

The photo shows just how glorious a October morning walk can be on Filey beach, even better when there are seal pups to watch!

Breaking My 264 Day ‘Buying Fast’ With A Surface Pro 3

imagesIt’s been 264 days since I last bought anything new, not because I don’t have the money, but because I decided that I had enough stuff in my life.  Well that ‘buying fast’ came to an end today with the purchase of a Surface Pro 3.  I’ve owned a first generation Surface RT and Surface Pro in the past, both of which were quickly sold for a profit because they didn’t mesh well with my needs, but I’m hoping the Surface Pro 3 is different.  The key things that made the SP3 the ideal device whereas the previous versions failed that test include a fabulous screen, a form factor that’s close to A4, lower cost, light weight and all-day battery life and design for laptop use. This post complements my first thoughts on the SP3 that I wrote on the day that it launched.

Let’s step back a bit though.  I already have a great x230 laptop, an iPhone 4S and an iPad Mini with Retina display, so I’m pretty spoilt, by what I consider to be the best light weight hard use laptop money can buy and the best mini tablet.  The iPhone 4S is getting a bit old now, but it meets by needs for now.  Unfortunately I know that something’s missing from my device line up because I’ve owned tablet PCs in the past, in fact I owned the best tablet PC that money could buy 10 years ago the classic TC1100 which until now has never been bettered.  Using the TC1100 taught me that there’s more to a tablet than the iPad can give.  The iPad is without doubt the best research and reading device I’ve ever used and it has the best apps, but for key use cases it’s lacking.

Here’s what I’m looking for in a Tablet that the iPad doesn’t deliver:

  1. A first class review/mark-up experience for PDF and Office documents.  This is hugely important to me, it’s one of the activities that I do best and I do a lot of it
  2. The ability to read large Word and PDFs, typically A4 size.  This is another key part of my job and whilst in theory I can do it on my laptop, I rarely do because many text books, magazines, product brochures, whitepapers and analyst reports are just too much of a struggle to read, my iPad mini with retina display in theory has good enough resolution but it’s just too small. 
  3. The ability to do free form sketches, I love to sketch out ideas and a SP3 with a stylus should be amazing for this.  I fell in love with this way of working when I had the TC1100 10 years ago and have missed it for the last 7 years.  The integration between the stylus and OneNote is especially impressive
  4. The ability to sketch on the screen when I’m hosting a video conference, I use Zoomit for this.  I’d love to bind the pen button to Zoomit draw mode.
  5. The ability to run Calibre which is the application I use to catalogue all of my books, manuals, analyst reports and magazines.  Calibre is simply brilliant, but it only runs on Windows
  6. I sometimes need to access work email via a browser and that only works well in internet explorer
  7. I prefer the speed and power of the windows desktop Evernote interface, and Evernote is central to my personal knowledge management system
  8. I need true multi-tasking and a fast way to switch between apps
  9. I’d like to carry all of my files with me and sync them between my desktop, laptop and tablet in the background.  I’m settling on BitTorrent Sync for this as the fastest and most secure option I can find
  10. A great remote desktop experience for accessing my Windows PCs at home, including access to my home server which is critical when travelling
  11. I want the ability to search across all of my files and I’ve settled on the amazing Everything search app for this

After several weeks thinking through my options I’ve decided that even if an iPad pro turns up in the next 6 months, it’s not going to fix these issues and so I need a Windows tablet.  If I need a Windows tablet there really is no other option that meets my needs, so it has to be a SP3.

So having made that decision I then needed to decide which model to buy and I opted for the cheapest model possible the i3 with 64GB of memory.  My rationale for this decision was as follows:

  1. The i3 is substantially faster than the iPad Air and the iPad mini and these seem fine for most tasks
  2. The i3 is also faster than the laptop that I had prior to the one I’m currently using and I was happy with that performance for all but a few tasks
  3. The i5 is only 20-30% faster than the i3 and that delta will rarely be noticed for most tasks based on my past experience.  The price difference however is substantial and although I would get a larger SSD I can buy a fast 64GB SD card for a fraction of the price difference
  4. The i7 is way out of my league, unless I were to replace my laptop and just have a single device

2014-08-15 12.17.07Which brings me to the next decision, do I replace my laptop with the SP3.  I’ve decided not to, for the following reasons:

  1. I hate depending on a single device for work.  I much prefer to have two devices kept in synch with each other.  This gives me the confidence that I can continue just fine if a device breaks and provides resilience against data loss
  2. For my primary work device I prefer a device that’s provided by work and similarly for my personal knowledge management and entertainment device I prefer one that I’ve purchased myself
  3. If I only had a single device I would probably have felt the need to invest in the i7 which is crazy expensive
  4. I like the flexibility of using the laptop and tablet as complementary devices.  I do this a lot with my iPad today.  For example I will be scanning my RSS feeds while attending a web conference.

Which brings me to my next big decision, do I buy just the tablet on it’s own or add the keyboard as well.  I decided to buy the keyboard.  My rationale for this decision was as follows:

  1. I’ve purchased Logitech keyboards for my original iPad 3 and for my iPad Mini and found in both cases that it added substantially to the flexibility
  2. Windows is meant to be used with a keyboard, and although I know that just using my TC1100 with a stylus was fine, the keyboard definitely reduced frustrations at times
  3. The keyboard protects the screen
  4. I might find that the SP3 replaces my laptop after all, I definitely won’t be able to verify that without using the keyboard for a few weeks
  5. Adding the keyboard will make it practical to leave my laptop at home if I want to travel light

Fortunately I can now restart my buying fast because I already have a nice bag that I purchased when I was trialling the original Surface Pro which should work fine.  I’m still going to be keeping my iPad as it’s much more portable and it also acts as the mobile 4G hotspot for my laptop and soon the SP3.

For other posts relating to me and my Surface Pro 3 you can check out this link

The first photo in this blog post is of the Surface Pro 3 pen, because in deciding to buy the SP3 the experience of using the pen was the key tipping point. It’s my custom though to provide a photo of some nice scenery with each blog post, so today I chose the view north along Blackpool prom, almost exactly at the spot where I made the decision to buy the SP3 today.

Experiencing The Simple Life

2014-08-09 09.21.49Over the last two weeks I’ve been off work, but for most of that time I’ve continued my usual pattern of daily activities, which means every minute of the day filled with something useful, whether it’s exercise, stretching, meditation, reading, writing, shopping etc.  In fact it’s difficult for me to think back to a time when I’ve not been doing stuff all day.  This week though after several weeks in a flare and suffering the exhaustion that comes with travel my body was sending clear “slow down” messages.  This coincided with a rare quiet time at home with Debbie, Jennie and Steph all being away and depending on the day Tess or Ann also being away.  Bottom line I found myself at home, enjoying mostly good weather, but too tired to exercise much and with only one child for occasional company.

It was an incredibly and surprisingly relaxing experience, in fact I found myself more relaxed than I’ve ever been.  The house was quiet, clean and tidy.  I had nothing that needed to be done, but could potter around doing rewarding odd jobs. I had the time to do jobs slowly and consciously and found that even boring jobs done in that way were very enjoyable.  I was living a simple, mindful, life for a few days and it was glorious in a way that the odd moments of mindful living I normally enjoy couldn’t possibly match.  Any thoughts of boredom were quickly banished as I discovered that jobs done carefully, mindfully and well, take a lot more time than the usual rushed way that I normally work.  Here are a few examples of those simple, enjoyable jobs:

  1. Cleaning a paintbrush after painting the garage door
  2. Backing bread for dinner
  3. Washing up
  4. Making my daily green smoothie

I’ve done all of these jobs many times in the past, but they took on a new dimension of enjoyment when they were done with no time pressure or distractions and the quality of the completed product was more rewarding than usual, trivial though the jobs were.

I also noticed that even though I was eating less (because I was exercising less) I rarely snacked between meals, I had no temptation to comfort eat at all.

I realised that maybe this is what many people think of as a holiday, a type of holiday I’ve never experienced before.  A type of holiday that’s I never had as an energetic child and has never been possible with 4 kids and a wife who always likes to be doing something.  Unfortunately this didn’t really count as a holiday for me as I’m still battling significant body pain and daily migraines but it was an experience to treasure and one that I’m looking forward to enjoying even more when I’m feeling better.

Maybe living by the beach means I’m destined to enjoy the classical beach holiday more often in my future and I feel more confident about filling my time in retirement as a result.

The photo today is from one of the few stormy days this week, which provided a glorious view of the clouds.

Revisiting The Goal

2014-08-04 16.39.15I finished reading the highly recommended book The Phoenix Project this morning while chilling out in Lincoln Caffe Nero, which is nicely nestled inside the Waterstones bookshop.  As soon as I saw the premise of the book it reminded me of the classic novel about manufacturing The Goal and it turns out that in fact it’s essentially the same book, applying the lessons that The Goal taught about manufacturing but this time to the world of IT. 

The book seems to be very popular with Amazon reviewers and others at work and I enjoyed it myself, but having read The Goal nearly 30 years ago and having applied it’s lessons throughout my manufacturing and IT careers it didn’t have the same impact on me.  I liked though because I both recognised the problems the novel described AND was somewhat familiar with the solutions, I also liked the way the book described IT in manufacturing terms. It had a similar impact on me to reading The Mythical Man Month and Peopleware many years ago.

I spent the first 13 years of my working life in manufacturing and design and the subsequent 17 in IT so I’m probably the perfect target audience.   I suppose I also liked the fact that the integrated dev-ops operating model that is at the heart of the book has also been at the heart of my career, although I’ve never used that term. 

In my early years I worked in and led small teams where dev-ops integration was mandatory, but the scalability disciplines were rarely applied, I got to apply my manufacturing knowledge to those teams and enjoyed much greater reliability as a result.   Then I did my masters thesis on concurrent engineering and applied those principles of organisational design (multi-disciplinary teams) several times, before also introducing continuous integration principles into several of my software development projects.  In the last few years I’ve observed many of the problems that the book describes and seen my own organisation struggle to re-discover the lessons that I’ve never forgotten.

That said the book is an excellent refresher and it describes principles in a much crisper way than I’m able to do even after reading the book.  It’s also nice to read a book that contains lessons that aren’t obvious in hindsight even to someone who’s already familiar with the basics.

For other readers of the book it’s important to not think it has all the answers, the techniques described in the book all gradually coalesce into success in a way that’s not all that realistic:

  1. A company in crisis that is forced to consider desperate non-obvious solutions
  2. A highly influential sponsor, who also happens to be a guru
  3. An IT management team who seem to be running an organisation in crisis but also seem to have endless time and energy for process improvement
  4. A very obvious bottleneck resource, who is supportive of the changes imposed on him
  5. The steps described in the book are also simplistic and incomplete

That said it’s the most approachable and clear description of the subject matter that I’ve read.  I recommend it, but keep reading and don’t expect the lessons to be as easy to apply or as successful if you try to apply them.  It is a novel after all!

The photo today is of a path through the gravel pits which were my playground as a youngster, they have now been converted into a wonderful collection of public fishing lakes after about 30 years as a private ones hidden behind 12’ rolled barbed wire fencing.  A perfect photo for a post about memories.