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Author: Doug Belshaw

Weeknote 48/2020

Sunrise in the distance, fields in middle ground, tree stump in foreground.

This week has been better than last week, although I did have issues on Monday and Thursday with irregular sleep patterns. Thankfully, I figured out the culprit: whisky. I tend to have a couple of doubles on a Sunday night while playing PS4 with Adam and Sean, and, well, another double on what my wife and I have come to call ‘Whisky Wednesday’.

I started off November with intermittent fasting and swearing off refined sugar and alcohol for the month. The alcohol abstinence lasted a week, and I kept off sugar a week longer. I’ve been better with the intermittent fasting, most days consuming my calories between 10:00 and 18:00.

As I pointed out in a post entitled What’s your favourite month? I kind of collapse like a flan in a cupboard during the second half of November. Thankfully, I have almost complete control over my working patterns, so this is somewhat manageable. I’d love to just completely sack off the year from mid-November and return in January, to be fair.

Other things I wrote here this week:

…and on Thought Shrapnel:


I’m reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden at the moment. I’m (very) late to Steinbeck’s work, having never read him at school, but this year have read Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. He really was an amazing writer, and I’d put East of Eden in the same bracket as The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. Recommended!

Other things I’ve enjoyed this week include a Q&A session by Jocelyn K. Glei on the topic of what she calls Tender Discipline. I’ve been listening to a Spotify playlist called Jazz in the Background a lot, although I’m still most productive when using Brain.fm.

Prompted by buying and then deciding to cancel the order on a Fairphone 3+ I’ve been deleting a bunch of apps that I don’t really use that much. In addition, I’ve deleted the Amazon shopping and YouTube apps from my phone. When I treat these things as websites instead of apps, I find I have a different relationship with them.


I’ve split my work this week between Outlandish, business development for Dynamic Skillset, and a little bit of Greenpeace work for We Are Open Co-op. I’ve been trying, mostly successfully, to wrangle collaboration across CoTech for collaborations around Catalyst Open Project briefs. I’ve also been working on a couple of proposals for the Mozilla Festival.

Next week, more Catalyst briefs are coming out, and I’ve got to finish off the ones we’ve already started. That will take up much of my time, along with other Outlandish work.


Photo taken during a run during sunrise on Tuesday morning near Morpeth, England.

The self-cannibalisation of ideas and experience

An etching of a wyvern (a dragon-like creature) eating its own tail, by 
Lucas Jennis  (1590–1630)

When something dies and is reborn, the usual symbol for this in Western literature is the phoenix. As a result, everything from football teams to companies are named after this mythical bird rising from the flames.

My favourite example of death and rebirth, though, is the Ouroboros:

The ouroboros… is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. Originating in ancient Egyptian iconography, the ouroboros entered western tradition via Greek magical tradition and was adopted as a symbol in Gnosticism and Hermeticism and most notably in alchemy…. The ouroboros is often interpreted as a symbol for eternal cyclic renewal or a cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The skin-sloughing process of snakes symbolizes the transmigration of souls, the snake biting its own tail is a fertility symbol.

Wikipedia

What I like about using the ouroboros as a metaphor is that it explicitly recognises individual or organisational self-cannibalisation as a positive thing. Just as the snake needs to shed its skin to remain agile, so we need to renew ourselves, often through ‘digesting’ our ideas and experience and then taking them in new directions.


This post is Day 68 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Give and you shall receive

Ryan Holiday has a monthly newsletter where he shares what he’s reading. It’s got tens of thousands of subscribers. Seth Godin has a daily blog where he shares short thoughts. Hundreds of thousands of people read it. Tim Ferriss records a podcast listened to by millions of people.

When these three authors write books, they go straight to the top of the bestseller lists. Why? Because they’ve proactively built a community of people interested in work they’re giving away for free. Their audience is, for want of a better word, ‘primed’ to reciprocate when there’s something available to buy.

Most of us aren’t working on things that millions of people would pay attention to. But almost everyone is working on something that 100 people would pay attention to, or 1,000. And, at various times, we all have ‘asks’, things that we’d like other people to do. It could be buy a thing, but also test or give feedback on an idea.

Too often, I see people ask for help and get no reply. We could chalk that down to a lack of kindness, or no-one caring. Or we could stop a moment and ponder… Have I been generous? Have I given without any thought of receiving? Have I primed anyone (or any group of people) to respond?


This post is Day 67 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Define your audience or your product will (probably) fail

In the past few weeks there have been a couple of occasions where the ‘why’ has been missing from some of the work in which I’ve been asked to be involved.

I’m not talking about the ‘why’ from the supply side, from the organisation that wants to provide the thing; I’m talking about the ‘why’ from the demand side, from the people who might want the thing.

This is not new to me. It was one of the major reasons it was so difficult to get systems of digital credentials based on the Open Badges standard off the ground in the early days: they made sense for the badge issuers, but not necessarily to the badge earners!


During the Catalyst Discovery work I led for We Are Open Co-op last month, we kept returning to one central theme with the nine charities that were involved in the programme. It’s summed-up in this excellent illustration from Bryan Mathers:

Person enthusiastically showing a complicated diagram and saying "What do you think of my cool idea?" to someone looking rather bemused.
Image: CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

In other words, if you show people who you already know something that you’ve made and ask them their opinion of it, they will say things to please you. “What do you think of my cool idea?” is not a fair question to ask people with whom you’re in a relationship. It’s the equivalent of asking your partner “does my bum look big in this?”

Instead, you have to do the hard work of audience definition and then user research. If this were an easy thing to do, then every workshop would have a waiting list, every newsletter would have millions of subscribers, and every product would have made its inventors rich.

It sounds obvious, but if you don’t know who your audience is, then you can only be successful: (i) by accident, (ii) by designing for yourself (as part of the audience group), or (iii) by copying other people. These are not long-term strategies for success.


Once you have defined your audience, congratulations! You now need to find out as much about them as possible. You can do this in passive ways, through reading other people’s research and sifting through data. That’s valuable, but nothing beats being active and going out of your way to actually talk to people about their pains, gains, and jobs to be done.

I tend to use Strategyzer’s Value Proposition Design (VPD) approach for this. I used it when designing MoodleNet, and I use it with clients. In its simplest form, you boil down the thing you create to a series of ad-libs which define your audience, product, and how it helps them:

Our ______ helps ______ who want to ______ by ______  and_____  (unlike  ______).

I see too much what I would term ‘magical thinking’ in the world of product design and development. It’s equivalent to the fallacy of build it and they will come which plagues us all from time to time.

If your idea is worth putting into the world, and the main audience is someone other than yourself, then it’s worth talking in advance to the people who you want to buy, read, or use your product.


This post is Day 66 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Convenience, UX, and ethics

Old TV displaying the phrase "the convenience you demanded is now mandatory" with each word in the design of a big tech company (e.g. Amazon/Netflix)

At about this time of year (Frimaire, for those paying attention) I get a little more introspective. I tend to reconsider my relationship with technology more generally, and apps/platforms in particular.

This is because decisions I make about my relationship with tech are a proxy for my wider views about the world, including philosophy, politics, and society.

The meme at the top of this post went by my Mastodon timeline recently (thanks to Ali for re-finding it!) and perfectly encapsulated the relationship many of us have with tech. In a nutshell, convenience and good user experience (UX) trumps ethics and thoughtful decision-making every time.

It’s all very well wringing our hands and promising to use Amazon less, but we’re living in a world where regulators need to step in and ensure more competition.

In the meantime, there are small decisions we can all make which won’t inconvenience us too much. For me, that means having goals in mind about consumption, ethical principles, and the tools I use to communicate.


This post is Day 65 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

(A)synchronous project updates within organisations

As a consultant, I find that there are, broadly speaking, three types of teams and organisations when it comes to project updates:

  1. Synchronous updates (only)
  2. Aynchronous updates (only)
  3. Asynchronous and synchronous updates

The purpose of this post is to explain why the third of these is by far the better option.

1. Synchronous updates (only)

The most popular (the default, even!) are those only doing synchronous project updates. This means that the team, group, or other unit of organisation finds out the whole picture of what’s going on in the weekly team meeting.

Advantages: every project update can come with full context and, if someone doesn’t understand, or has a question, this can be addressed immediately. If the project team is meeting face-to-face or via video then facial expressions and body language can convey additional information.

Disadvantages: if the project team is only receiving updates on the day of the meeting, then the information they have can be up to six days out of date at any given time. Also, anyone who misses the meeting has to rely on the notes.

2. Asynchronous updates (only)

Other teams, groups, or other units of organisation only do asynchronous project updates. This means that meetings are rare, and the main way to find out what’s going on is to check the place where updates are made.

Advantages: anyone with the necessary permissions can get involved, which is why this approach is common to Open Source Software projects. What you see is what you get, and combined code repositories and issue trackers (e.g. GitHub) provide a decent workflow to get things done.

Disadvantages: with the human element removed, it’s difficult for the full context (including relative importance) of an update to be conveyed, and for serendipitous links to be made between projects.

3. Asynchronous and synchronous updates

The best teams I’ve come across do a combination of asynchronous and synchronous project updates. They meet regularly face-to-face or by video and provide updates in a dedicated space between meetings.

Advantages: everyone on the project gets full context around an update, either in the dedicated space or by asking a question about it in the meeting. There is now more time in meetings for forward planning and innovation.

Disadvantages: none that I can think of!


N.B. Workplace chat solutions such as Slack are great for many things. Given the potentially low signal/noise ratio, project updates are not necessarily one of them. Instead, I recommend using a dedicated space — e.g. Trello or Nextcloud Deck.


This post is Day 64 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

What’s your favourite month?

I reckon my favourite month is probably Prairial, and my least favourite the one we’re entering right about now ⁠— Frimaire.

For those scratching their heads, I’m referring to the French Revolutionary Calendar (also called the ‘Republican’ calendar) which divided the year up in the following way:

The Republican calendar year began the day the autumnal equinox occurred in Paris, and had twelve months of 30 days each, which were given new names based on nature, principally having to do with the prevailing weather in and around Paris. The extra five or six days in the year were not given a month designation, but considered Sansculottides or Complementary Days.

Wikipedia

When you think about it, although it’s useful to have everyone in the world using the same calendar, doing so is almost an act of cultural violence.

I live in the North East of England, a place that historically has been known as Northumbria. What would a Northumbrian calendar look like? I don’t think it would be so different to the French Revolutionary one, except we’d probably use month names like ‘Clarty‘:

  • Autumn:
    • Vendémiaire (from French vendange, derived from Latin vindemia, “vintage”), starting 22, 23, or 24 September
    • Brumaire (from French brume, “mist”), starting 22, 23, or 24 October
    • Frimaire (From French frimas, “frost”), starting 21, 22, or 23 November
  • Winter:
    • Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, “snowy”), starting 21, 22, or 23 December
    • Pluviôse (from French pluvieux, derived from Latin pluvius, “rainy”), starting 20, 21, or 22 January
    • Ventôse (from French venteux, derived from Latin ventosus, “windy”), starting 19, 20, or 21 February
  • Spring:
    • Germinal (from French germination), starting 20 or 21 March
    • Floréal (from French fleur, derived from Latin flos, “flower”), starting 20 or 21 April
    • Prairial (from French prairie, “meadow”), starting 20 or 21 May
  • Summer:
    • Messidor (from Latin messis, “harvest”), starting 19 or 20 June
    • Thermidor (or Fervidor*) (from Greek thermon, “summer heat”), starting 19 or 20 July
    • Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”), starting 18 or 19 August

This post is Day 63 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Weeknote 47/2020

This week’s been a bit rubbish, mainly on the health front (migraines, erratic sleep patterns). So I don’t really want to go back through it, other than say that I published the following here, and on Thought Shrapnel:

Next week I’m working on Catalyst bids on behalf of CoTech and Dynamic Skillset, as well as continuing my work with Outlandish.

Spatial video conferencing with self-organised breakout rooms

Last week, I came across a new platform called Wonder which allows for participants to self-organise into video chat groups.

Screenshot of Wonder

As an early product, it’s not without its quirks, but this kind of thing is gold for facilitators interested in more democratic and participatory workshops.

Here’s why I like it:

  • Participants can leave a group and join or form a new one at any time
  • Everyone entering the room can be asked an icebreaker question, the answer to which is displayed when you hover over their avatar
  • When you’re outside a group (like me in the screenshot above) you can see who’s talking in a group
  • It’s got all of the usual screensharing functionality you’d expect
  • Admins/facilitators can ‘broadcast’ to all groups (without having to recall them)

This is much better than Zoom rooms, which have to be set up by the facilitator, and which perpetuates a hierarchical power relationship.

It did take me back to a decade ago, wandering around a classroom when I ‘dropped in’ to groups. People stopped talking for a moment. But that’s always the case when someone joins a group that’s already having a conversation.

So long as the pricing doesn’t end up being ridiculous, I’m planning to use Wonder for any meetings where I need breakout rooms. Although Zoom has superior video quality (and backgrounds!) I’m very impressed with what Wonder offers me as a facilitator.


This post is Day 62 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Weeknote 46/2020

This quotation from Marcus Aurelius really stuck with me this week:

Reflect often upon the rapidity with which all existing things, or things coming into existence, sweep past us and are carried away. The great river of Being flows on without pause; its actions for ever changing, its causes shifting endlessly, hardly a single thing standing still; while ever at hand looms infinity stretching behind and before – the abyss in which all things are lost to sight. In such conditions, surely a man were foolish to gasp and fume and fret, as though the time of his troubling could ever be of long continuance.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Book Five)

This has been, all things considered, a good week. On Wednesday, my therapist effectively discharged me — although I’ll be doing some maintenance sessions every so often. I’m much better equipped to deal with things both professionally and personally than before I started last September.

I originally sought therapy after the death of a good friend which threw up all sorts of things that I didn’t feel capable of dealing with adequately. Now, over a year later, although I’d much rather have Dai with us, for me the growth I’ve undergone has been a small silver lining to that tragic event.


This week I published three posts here:

…and on Thought Shrapnel:


The bulk of my work this week was carried out with and for Outlandish. I ran a short workshop on productisation, did some work on their Building OUT strand, and otherwise talked to people about how to get the organisations ready to be more product-focused.

On Friday, I travelled to the Peak District to meet my good friend Bryan Mathers. As I’ve pointed out in previous weeknotes, of late things within the co-op could be better, so we decided to have a chat to figure out what that meant for our relationship. Virtual meetings are great 95% of the time, but sometimes you need to in the same place as someone, going for a walk and an extended discussion.

I’ve decided not to do any further work through We Are Open, and instead put my energies into new ventures. For now, that means I’ve been spending time updating the website of Dynamic Skillset, my consultancy business. More on that soon, no doubt.


Next week I’ve got some conversations lined up, more work with Outlandish, and planning to put together a consortium to bid for some Catalyst funding they’re announcing on Monday.


Image looking south from Higger Tor in the Peak District, England.

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