Creating headroom for deep work

As I sit here, I realise that my mind wants to relax. More work is the last thing I need after 9-10 hours at it. But deeper work must be done.

Every day at my day job is a combination of:

  • talking with 50-60 people for minutes about deals, projects etc
  • informing strategy by reading/hearing intelligence on our space
  • putting out fires – new tasks, decisions, information every few minutes

Very little time to do any deep concentration work. Work where I’m focused for more than 15 minutes without minimal to no interruptions of any kind.

And then I wonder why, when it comes to doing deep work at night, like writing a simple primer on workflow optimisation, I just stare at the screen. All that daytime activity has its purpose for my role. But it takes my finite mental energy for processing words.

I need to carve out time for proper, deep work.

Deep work is important – it’s the strategy to my barrage of tactics. Obviously at the end of the day isn’t the working out for me. So how could I make it easier? Let me investigate some action points:

  1. Wake up 30 minutes earlier Waking up earlier doesn’t help me sleep early, it just makes me tired during the day! Plus I need my 8 hours.
  2. Meditate right after getting home Yup, right after dinner, watering the plants, catching up with people at home, snack… and oh, is it 9pm already?!
  3. Carve out solid daytime for deep work What happens when you hope someone doesn’t knock on your office door? They knock on your office door.
  4. Make in-roads for deep work earlier in the day

I didn’t cross out the last point. It might work for my situation. If I can carve out 10 minutes of downtime every 3-4 hours to contribute to my deep work.

So what would I have to do to make that oh-so-tiny-period effective?

  • Outline exactly what I need to accomplish in those 10 minutes. e.g. find and write 3-4 pieces of evidence to support the “Risk management” section of the primer
  • Set a timer and commit to no interruptions. Phone face down on the desk, landline off the hook, the door closed, people advised not to interrupt

It could work. I’ll hopefully be back to building on this site’s content at a good pace very soon. This is the kind of deep work that keeps me motivated for another day of attention-arresting day in the office.

Emergent processes: what does it mean

Since my last post, I’ve built on the glossary for modern teams and reflected on philosophies shared by Jeff Bezos and Henry Mintzberg. Both have their fair share of public critics, but they are still venerable individuals in the world of leadership.

Around the same time, I started reading up on organisational development practices – again. I find that it definitely informs my research on agile team dynamics. Once in a while, I’ll read something that makes me sit up and think.

The moment I read about emergent processes was one of those. At its core, an emergent process is a non-routine business process where the knowledge and methods for making it happen emerge as it happens.

It seems like something that may be possible when your team’s laid out for parallel workflows. Different parts of the team, as they progress, shaping team-mate’s or interdependent process’s ongoing activity, as well as the team’s overall output.

I had never heard of the concept before yesterday. A quick Google search shows that the term has made rounds in academia for just over a decade. I suppose it’s time for it to shine in the actual world of work.

Dealing with admin minutiae

The last 2 weeks have been unproductive for my thinking and writing. I can do the tougher think-and-do parts of my day job on autopilot.

It’s the administrative work that takes it out of me. Here are 3 events I found little joy in sorting out for my team:

  1. Repeatedly advising on how a process or technology has changed (instructional tools are already available)
  2. Filing paper after paper after getting a new company car and various work-tech – we don’t have fleet managers or other shared services doing this for us
  3. Getting fined while in another company car – administrator forgot to renew the car’s registration and police now have AI plate registration detectors!

It seems like we operate on a comparative fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants approach to administrivia that is not mission-critical work.

So how would I solve the above 3 issues:

  1. System of record for change management – haven’t found anything robust, easy to use and “this won’t require a part-timer to manage it” enough
  2. Structured asset log – need to search by what’s in documents and make sure I have all the right docs in the first place
  3. Document action tool – like what Outlook does for email, map out a journey for the document from first save to archiving of the tasks we need to make it alive

I suppose larger companies have departments dedicated to such things, but from what I’ve heard, it’s not all roses and chocolates there either.

OK, this was more rambling than team agility. I’ll get back on the horse for the next post.

Mapping team mechanics

I wrote about mapping team operations about a month ago. Lately, I’ve been thinking about it more concretely.

Audio excerpt from “Brave New Work” podcast 02/12/2019

Maybe it’s because I recently heard a real life use case (audio clip on the left), as told by an engineer from Slack – that oh-so-trendy work chat app that many tech people love to use.

It seems that a key aspect of creating adaptable teams is being explicit about the required output and how tools & processes play into making it happen.

I’m all for that idea.

The first step would be to map out the team’s structure and dependencies. I’d refer to these properties as the team mechanics.

What’s the point in doing this? So that we as team leaders and managers can visually identify change patterns and areas of risk.

Once we have the basic output structure – activities that must be done – we can link up tools and processes that will allow us to make it happen.

Example of activities that each output area requires (source: Organizational Physics)

When a tool changes and gets added to the mix, we should be able to see how it impacts the activity and subsequently the team’s output.

When a team member is lagging in their output, we can pinpoint activities where we think they have room for change (aka improvement).

Whether team leaders would care to know this, I don’t know. But it seems in the same spirit as being explicit about the work being done.

Different direction

I’ve been spending too much time thinking lately on the plight of nerds in corporations — of them not getting ahead.

That’s brought me to a sad conclusion: it doesn’t matter.

I don’t know many nerds who would self-identify as that. And if they do, they don’t think there’s a problem with how they act in the world.

Many live in a fantasy bubble of throwing a proverbial hail mary.

“If I get this project out, the boss will notice me.”

“One more degree under my belt. It will guarantee my career climb.”

It’s a difficult proposition for me to challenge this thinking. I’m not a person of authority in the nerd world. I’m not Batman!

But I am a person of authority in a complex business. Where my guidance has helped people deal with change, risks, volatility etc.

My career so far is pharmacy. At one point, it was IT. I’ve explained the work issues I’ve faced to scientists, lawyers, techies, other smart people.

Their minds get blown, so there must be something I’m doing right.

I’m going to give a shot to help people who are often already seeking help: managers knee deep in all of what I’ve succeeded at in the past.

If I were to give this new direction a simple tagline, it’d be: Helping managers prepare for the best and worst.

Previously, I wrote 25+ articles on hiring. No one read them. I even sent a PDF of them to a manager friend. He didn’t read them.

It’s obvious the basics of management are better covered by top influencers.

For little ol’ me, my time would be better spent on something others don’t readily write about, or would tell you to get an Exec MBA for.

Now, to me, it seems like every manager – from CEO down to line manager – has to deal with turbulence. It’s just at a different scale among hierarchies.

I’ll need to brush up on Elliot Jacques’ timespan theory as it applies to how valuation of time by different levels of hierarchy affect work planning.

CEO thinks about 5-10 years. Manager about 2 quarters. Supervisor for the month. Worker for the week ahead.

But I digress. I need to focus for now.

So I’ll need to think about the issues of frontline managers. If they like it, I might work my way up to org design.

I’m already seeing it in my work where government changes, new administrative requirements, new products and services – all these are overwhelming managers.

I see a high level of rigidity in the way managers approach challenges in the context of their team.

People are in deeply grooved patterns of title, authority and subsequently behaviour. Maybe that helps for predictable results in a predictable world.

But what happens when nothing’s as it seems? You need flexibility.

Managers need to:

  1. Develop a vision of their challenges now, weeks and months ahead
  2. Understand how to reshape their resources to meet said challenges
  3. Take courage to make the necessary moves a reality
  4. Be adaptable enough to steer as they learn more vs rigidly sit tight

The goal would be to enable managers to work so flexibly, teams can break apart, form again, technology comes and goes, but results persist.

Essentially, I want to explore the nuances of team dynamics.

And the entire organisation works as a network of these teams cooperating towards a common goal.

We’ll see.

This is harder than I thought

It’s easy to say “I’m going to do this”, but putting ideas together and onto paper is another story. Do you know that frustration?

I’ve been umming and aahing for a few days weeks now as to how I’m going to get the ball rolling.

Probably trying to coin words like STEMer to be like corporate book authors wasn’t a good move. Keep it simple, silly!

I’ll have a second go at this anyway. Maybe an action plan* will suffice for now. So this is what I think I should do next on this site:

  1. Make a menu listing the core areas – Home link, the 3 areas affecting nerd success at work, work design lab, Contact DONE
  2. Populate internal structure of 3 areas with topics even if they are blank pages e.g. Non-violent communication under INFLUENCE OTHERs Too hard to process – need to rework this
  3. Populate blank pages with fundamental questions of analysis like “What is x” “Pros vs Cons” “How does it apply at work” “Case studies” This will work once I know what I’m doing. So paste into new list
  4. Review substantial (500? 1000? 2500?) words everyday to start building notes on various sections Only possible if I have 100% clarity, which I don’t right now
  5. Power through research and add notes within the relevant sections rather than notecard system (as cool as it is, I’d find it hard) – digital can get messy and hard to track through

Update 2nd December – I’ve figured out where I’m getting unstuck. The why of this content is still weak. I think it’s best to focus on “easier” concepts like “Productive Thinking” then move onto tougher topics

* I suppose there’s also the planner’s curse – plan, but fail to do. Let’s hope not.

How STEMers can infiltrate corporate ranks

I previously wrote about how STEMers complain that too many “imbiciles” (I’m quoting certain colleagues) are in power in their workplaces.

As a matter of fact, I like most of these so-called imbeciles. It’s just that they would better positioned not controlling difficult people like us 😄

(We think and talk critically and get overzealous on “the right way” way too often)

My hypothesis is that STEM orgs may benefit from getting more input from people with technical ability than political finesse.

I said, well, it’s our own fault for not stepping up to the plate. We can and should work towards positions where we can have a say.

But we are often ineffective because we choose not to participate (shame) or we try but fail because we are winging it (thanks for trying).

Being socially well-adjusted is bare minimum.

My preliminary research shows that you need to work on 3 areas to start increasing your influence. They are:

  1. Interpersonal skills – not just friendliness and being an all-round nice person, but ability to relate to people at a level where you relate to their motivations, emotions
  2. Productivity enhancers – because I find that a lot of true STEMers get stuck into the problem in such engrossing ways that they don’t end up producing enough work product the way your employer would want
  3. Leader mindset – this isn’t being a leader, but thinking and acting like a leader when you are going about your work. Even if you don’t have a leadership title or authority. Mandatory for ALL workers in STEM.

Complex areas to share, but maybe there’s a digestible way.

Image result for thinking emoji

Will nerds rising threaten power structure?

I don’t think people high up in existing power structures have anything to worry about.

At times, it seems like there are not enough high performers to go around. We always need more A-players and leadership material.

If nerds rise up, their natural tendency would be to create new value rather than shuffle around existing value like others might.

I gave a simple example to a scientist friend of mine whose boss relies on government grants to fund his team’s salaries.

Let’s assume a few parameters here:

  • Government assigns $100 million in grants to scientific research
  • 100 influential scientists vie for the grants
  • They get equal payout (not reality, but bear with me)
  • $1 million per science team to do their research

If we are able to increase the efficacy of 100 more scientists within these teams, there are suddenly 100 new opportunities to explore.

In the early stages, there would be competition for that limited pie of $100 million. But the government would eventually realise something.

There’s a positive effect from a visibility perspective from having much more talent doing globally-significant research in its backyard.

The grant pool should increase at this point to factor in the increase in noticeably more high-end individual contributors and leaders.

I presume the same would go for a corporation that had an increase in technically-proficient and performance-oriented staff.

There would be a reduction in false positives – people who allude that they’re great at the work or leadership when they’re not.

A stronger talent pool would also open opportunities for exploring areas of new value creation.

Survival reflex hurts the STEM ecosystem

I previously brought up the inability of many STEMers to rise up in organisations they’d benefit.

I presume they are either apathetic (“people should value my work for what it is”) or have tried and failed at influencing others.

What I missed was the fear component in the equation.

A lot of us get into jobs that reflect our natural tendencies – we like science, technology etc. But some among us see the jobs as means to an end.

A form of survival – money to pay the bills, rent. And that survival mindset guides our actions at work – a survival reflex of sorts.

We don’t want to rock the boat, so we fly under the radar.

Whether that affects your long-term employability, I don’t know. What I do know is you’re risking getting left behind.

If you are a fly-under-the-radar, do my work and clock out type, you even risk being first to be let go when times get tough.

Influence up (towards management), across (to colleagues) and down (your subordinates) or lack thereof can affect this.

So in a way, your survival reflex for today might be counter-intuitive to getting by in the long run.

I don’t mind lawyers and MBAs but…

My aim isn’t to be someone flying the STEM people’s flag high by putting down other areas of industry.

Lawyers and MBAs can provide important perspectives to scientific, high tech and engineering organisations.

But there’s a problem when shots are called solely on the weight of their expertise and importance in wider society.

When legal risk factoring and NPV guesstimates take control of the narrative that drives work practices.

I’m hoping for a balanced approach.

Like what Apple (what a well-worn example) had in its early days:

  • Making sure people collaborated in the spirit of the culture
  • Driving phenomenal levels of productivity
  • Deputising everyone to look through a leader’s lens at the work

This is in stark contrast to the legally and economically locked down approach of competitors. It’s served Apple well right up to now.

I’m aiming for something more like increasing the prominence of natural STEMers through strong individual contribution and leadership.

You could see it as analogous to how campaigners are trying to increase the number of women in tech.