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Scaling with project managers

The three problems that come with scale from Michael Lopp (aka Rands): 

Second, a rule: the addition of each new person on your team increases the cost of each of the following:

1. Communication. How much effort is required to get Idea A and make sure it travels to all the necessary people?
2. Decisions. How quickly can a group of people best choose Path A or Path B?
3. Error Correction. How long does it take to detect and fix when something is going wrong?

How does your organization solve these problems? Read his post on project managers for answers.

Seeing Scaffolding Everywhere

Nick Wynja on Hack / Make:

Taking a scaffold-like approach is about creating the right levels of structure around the work you do to let it properly flow. You neither want to constrain your creativity by following weighty methods nor do you want to become overwhelmed by the work you have to do by alleviating yourself from process.

I love Nick's analogy of construction scaffolding being like the systems and process that we use to get work – of any kind – done. It's subtle, elegant and worth your time to read.

For me, the beautiful thing about scaffolding is that it's re-usable. A crew can remove the scaffolding from a worksite, load it in a truck and take it to the next job. It doesn't require (much) modification to work again and again. In the same way, when you build scaffolding for your work, build with re-usability in mind.

All too often, I see others labour over a precise solution (technical or otherwise) to the problem they're trying to solve without considering how they might use what they create  in the future. This applies equally to a spreadsheet or an enterprise IT strategy.

Approach everything you build, make and do with a sense of the unknown so that when the next job comes along, your scaffolding is ready to use.

Team Virus

Something amazing happens when you bring a nascent, emerging idea to a high-functioning team – it becomes a virus. That doesn't sound so special, but stick with me for a moment. Just like a virus, the idea enters its hosts and immediately starts making copies of itself as each person's brain mulls the idea over, examining it from multiple angles. Each copy of the idea inside each team member’s brain is a tiny variation on the original idea, influenced by that person's individual perspective, knowledge and motives. Each member's brain races through this process within a few seconds and in a good team, the members start regurgitating the best variations of the idea back into the group. "What if we did it this way?", "How about this?”, “Did you consider [variable x]?”

This process feeds on itself and the cycle repeats over and over. Someone, usually the person who brought the idea forward, naturally keeps track of the variations. They continually rank and filter the variations and compare them to their original idea. The idea goes through a sped up form of evolution and natural selection. The best variations and tweaks on the original idea live and the duds die in place. Then, the surviving variations go through the process again. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam.

As anyone who has ever experienced this knows, the process happens automatically when certain elements are in place. The problem is that it takes a particular mix of people and, more importantly, of attitudes for this idea iteration process to work properly.

Without trust, respect and honesty in place amongst team members, this viral evolution-and-selection of ideas can't happen. If other members of the team don't have a strong relationship with the person who brought the idea forward, negative feelings get in the way of their brain going into the positive feedback loop that is required. When it works, it is the purest form of collaboration.

The job of a leader is to foster this process, above everything else. The leader must ruthlessly remove the obstacles – whether people, environment, processes or anything else – that threaten the ability of the team to collaborate. The set of environmental circumstances that foster this beautiful process could really be called “the culture” of an organization.

This leads to a tweet from “Christal” who was apparently listening to Jack Welch speak at a conference. Whatever your thoughts on Welsh’s opinions on leadership are (he sometimes takes things to extremes), this piece of advice stood out for me:

Candour is the key to change in workplace culture.

The only way to improve workplace culture and thereby make a team stronger is total honesty and transparency with each other. It’s easy to say and hard to do, but if each of us made a small effort to improve our team cultures, imagine what could happen.

Collaboration is one virus that you don't want to be vaccinated against.

Back me up here Seth

Innovation drives the connection economy, not low cost.

The decision about what to do next is even more important than the labor spent executing it. A modern productive worker is someone who does a great job in figuring out what to do next (emphasis his).

Wow, I wish I'd seen Seth's post before posting my last article. His point gets at the heart of what increased connectedness does – makes it easier and harder to figure out what to do next. That's the paradox and it requires tremendous filtering, time-management and self-discipline to be more productive and less distracted.

Making Meetings Better

Eddie Smith:

I think it’s better to spend the ten minutes or so after a meeting pocketing a few flecks of gold than surrendering it all to the current of time.

How many people actually do this? Do you take a few moments after a meeting to look over any notes you made and try and distill them into actions? If you're like me, you probably rush back to your office and try to make up for lost time.

Meetings (in general) may not be the most enjoyable, productive or useful things but they are sometimes a necessity. If you're going to invest time and attention into a meeting, why not take a few minutes afterwards to distill your time and attention into useful action?

Startup caught stealing code. Is this only the beginning?

Following news about Curebit getting busted stealing code from 37Signals I was thinking about how this event relates to cultural shifts in the way younger generations view copyright and intellectual property.

Generational shifts don’t excuse theft, but ask any teacher about the way current students view taking ideas from others and you quickly realize that something is changing.

Curebit’s responses to David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of 37Signals, seem nonplussed about the whole affair. This fits with other evidence that students today don’t seem to think that stealing intellectual property from others is a big deal.

I’m no fan of some parts of current copyright law, but open and transparent attribution is a cornerstone of productive discourse. We need to be on guard for further slips in the way we handle giving credit where credit is due. Our economic prosperity relies more and more on knowledge, ideas and execution. Protecting those from theft is paramount to future success.

Banning Email Isn't the Answer

Bill Wickett tweeted a link to a story from the Daily Mail on Atos banning email for internal communication. He asked what I thought, so here we are.

Considering that email is the primary method of getting work done for most, this is a pretty significant step and I think it’s the wrong move.

Don’t get me wrong, I hate email as much as the next guy. The problem is, email has something that IM, Facebook (at least in business), and Google chat don’t:

Traction

Email is the dominant method of communication for anyone trying to get work done. This doesn’t make it the best tool for the job, but it’s the one we’re stuck with for now. It has traction. It’s impossible to force a shift upon a large group of people through directives from the CEO. These things happen oganically, much like how we came to rely on email.

We use email for things that it was never intended for. Attachments are a great example. Sending files (large or small) is not something that email is great at. Each user ends up with multiple copies of attachments littered across their computers. Versions, changes and updates are a disaster. Are there better tools for sharing and collborating with files? Yes. Does anyone use them? No. At least not enough people use a single tool to give it any traction (see Google Wave).

Email is the de facto standard. All you need is another person’s email address and you can reach them. You don’t need an account or an app. That’s what keeps email on top.

It’s great that the CEO of Atos thinks he can force his entire company to stop using email internally, but at the end of the day, each and every employee still needs email to reach anyone outside of the company. Since they’ve still got their email address and workflow in place, it’s not going to be easy (short of a technical block) to stop internal email.

A better solution would be…

Education

Large firms love training the crap out of their employees. Workplace safety, accessibility, customer service, WHMIS…the list goes on and on. Employees might even get training on how to use the voicemail system. When it comes to email, most get an exchange account, Outlook and little else.

At first, the idea of teaching someone how to do email seems ridiculous, but stop and think about it for a minute. How many things about how other people use email annoy you? Background images? Images in signature blocks? Weird fonts? Those are the easy ones.

What about using CC too much? Unnecessary emails? “Thank you” emails? There are hundreds of examples. Beyond the basics, there are things like respecting others’ time and attention. Not enough people even consider things like thinking about how pressing send is going to affect the person on the receiving end.

For something that occupies so much of our time and is not on any job description, email gets very little attention.

I’m not suggesting that sticking employees in a room for a day and reviewing the do’s and don’t do’s of email will solve the problem of inbox overload. It’s a bigger issue. I am suggesting that creating an open discussion and culture around how a company communicates would make a massive difference. Let staff watch a Merlin Mann video on time and attention or Inbox Zero and go from there.

Even the most basic discussion would raise the level of…

Literacy

Success in anything is about literacy. I purposefully left of “technical” from in front of “literacy” because comfort and familiarity with technology is now on the same level as reading, writing and math. To thrive, you must know how to do stuff with computers.

Becoming literate requires time, focus and effort. It also requires context, understanding of the bigger picture and a healthy does of critical thought. All of these things are lacking in our use of digital communication and all suffer as a result.

Banning email isn’t the answer. More efficient digital communication will come from all of us taking the time to think about what we’re doing and how we do it.

How literate are you? How literate is your organization? What are you going to do about it?

Things That Shouldn't Be

This is me complaining.

I'm so tired of the following terms:

  • "Portal" (as in internal website). This isn't 1997. It's just the web. There's nothing special about it. It's not an excuse to treat it like an internal dump. Create a platform that is useful and doesn't suck. Your staff and internal audience will appreciate it.
  • "E-blast" Blasting anything to anyone isn't a good tactic. Ever. Try targeting well crafted emails to specific audiences.
  • "Microsite" Umm, you mean a website? WTF is a microsite? Don't fragment your web presence across a bunch of sites. Make your primary web platform awesome and keep everything in one place. Everyone will thank you, including those who manage content for your organization.

Please excise these from your vocabulary. Forever.

Content Has Power

From Mailchimp’s “internal” style guide, Voice and Tone:

Our content has power. The right tone of voice can turn someone’s confusion into trust, skepticism into optimism, boredom into curiosity. The wrong tone of voice can turn someone’s interest into annoyance, anticipation into disappointment, frustration into full-on anger. That’s a big responsibility, and the best way we can handle that responsibility is to be empathetic writers. That’s why this guide exists.

Wow.

Take a minute to check out Mailchimp’s internal style guide (which they’ve helpfully published for the world to see). It will blow you away. If you have any interest or passion for improving the experience for users of any kind, it will probably make you shake with excitement.

It’s awe-inspiring that they turned what is usually a nightmare of creative handcuffs into something that is actually fun to read. Rather than treating their employees as liabilities, they enable staff to be human when communicating with customers. Mailchimp understands that their voice is critical to the brand and that it needs to be curated and cultivated.

Mailchimp understands that the tone of their brand voice must change depending on the mood and emotion of their users. That’s really what this guide is for. It guides staff on the right tone to take in different contexts while keeping a consistent voice.

They’ve distilled the most important parts of traditional style guides and tossed out the rest. Let’s break it down with a screenshot:

  1. Audience
    • See the “Loyal users” in brackets? That’s key. Knowing how the audience probably feels about you before speaking is critical.
  2. Start with the user
    • They use an example of what the user might say while interacting with a particular channel.
    • They describe what the user is probably feeling. Mailchimp understands that writing to fit the user’s emotional state has way more impact.
  3. Tips
    • A few short tips to guide staff. Concise and easy to digest always wins.
    • A real world example. Many of these examples are clearly pulled from actual communications.

A final point. The way they’ve presented this guide is probably the most amazing part. It’s not a 60 page PDF document, or hosted on an internal portal. It’s a beautifully designed HTML site that everyone can access. It’s easy for staff to find guidelines for a particular channel or content type and quickly grasp the key points.

I’m off to figure out how to make something like this for the place I work. Wish me luck.