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Weeknote 41/2020

Traffic cones in a large puddle

This week has been much like last week — busy, somewhat fraught, and involving lots of thinking about the future. It’s been typical autumn weather, with bright sunshine one moment and a torrential downpour the next!


I applied for a role at the Wikimedia Foundation entitled Director of Product, Anti-Disinformation after a few people I know and respect said that they thought I’d be a good fit:

The Wikimedia Foundation is looking for a Director of Product Management to design and implement our anti-disinformation program.  This unique position will have a global impact on preventing Disinformation through Wikipedia and our other Wikimedia projects.  You will gain a deep understanding of the ways in which our communities have fought disinformation for the last two decades and how this content is used globally.  You will work cross-functionality with Legal, Security, Research and other teams at the Foundation and imagine and design solutions that enable our communities to achieve our Vision: a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.

As a result, I ended up writing about my issues with Twitter’s attempts at anti-disinformation in the run-up to the US Presidential election.

On Friday evening, a recruiter for a different global product director role got in touch seemingly slightly baffled that I’d applied for it, given my career history and credentials. I suppose it’s easy to undervalue yourself when various people chip away at your self worth over a period of months during a pandemic.


I’m very much enjoying working with Outlandish at the moment. It’s particularly nice to work alongside people who not only work openly and co-operatively, but are genuinely interested in improving communication, trust, and empathy within their organisation.

During October, due to my commitment to a four week Catalyst-funded discovery programme with nine charities, I’m only working with Outlandish the equivalent of one day per week. However, from November to January, I’ll be spending half of my week (2.5 days) divided between two things:

  1. Helping them productise existing projects, and training/supporting new ‘product managers’ (although that role will look slightly different initially)
  2. Working on helping them expand their ‘Building OUT’ programme which stands for Openness, Understanding, and Trust.

One of Outlandish’s values is that they are ‘doers’, meaning that the space between verbally proposing something, gaining the consent of colleagues, and getting on with it is really short. It’s so refreshing, and meant that on Friday I was able to publish the MVP of a playbook using existing Building OUT-related resources.


On Thought Shrapnel this week I published:

Here, I published:


Other than the above, I’ve been making final preparations for a milestone birthday for my wife, Hannah, next week. I’ll reach the same age as her in a couple of months’ time, so at the start of 2020 we’d begun to draw up plans to celebrate both birthdays. Those plans went out of the window due to COVID-19, so I’m trying to make the day as nice as possible, with an eye on a belated celebration later.


Image of traffic cones in large puddle at Morpeth, UK.

NVC and FONT

This week, for various reasons, I’ve been finding out more about Nonviolent Communication, or ‘NVC’ for short:

NVC theory supposes that all human behavior stems from attempts to meet universal human needs, and that these needs are never in conflict; rather, conflict arises when strategies for meeting needs clash. NVC proposes that people should identify shared needs, which are revealed by the thoughts and feelings surrounding these needs, and then they should collaborate to develop strategies and make requests of each other to meet each other’s needs. The goal is interpersonal harmony and learning for future cooperation.

Wikipedia

It’s a difficult thing to search for given, well, fonts, but yesterday Abi Handley gave me an overview of the FONT approach that Outlandish have taken from NVC, which stands for:

  • Feelings
  • Observations
  • Needs
  • Thoughts

Despite the order of this acronym, the aim is to acknowledge your own feelings, observations, and thoughts, and get to the needs you have in any given situation.

I don’t have much knowledge or experience with NVC, but found FONT very useful yesterday when it was important for me to push past what I was feeling to get to a solution/resolution. I simply opened my notes app, and wrote some bullet points under feelings, observations, and thoughts, before getting to needs.

I’m not sure how well it scales to really deep-seated issues we may face in life, but for nipping things in the bud that could escalate, I found FONT useful this week.


This post is Day 48 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Weeknote 36/2020

Trees and path at Thrunton Woods

This week I got into a new rhythm with Thought Shrapnel, restoring it to something approaching its strapline – i.e. a stream of things going in and out of my brain. I’m pleased with the result, although it will evolve and change as I do.

As a result of that focus, I only wrote a couple of posts here, which both happened to be framed as questions: What’s the purpose of Philosophy? and What do we mean by ‘the economy’? They’re part of my ongoing contribution to the #100DaysToOffload challenge, and I’ve been enjoying reading contributions by other writers. There’s an RSS feed if you choose your reading (rather than have it served up algorithmically by social networks) 😉

This week featured a Bank Holiday in the UK, so it was a four-day working week. Team Belshaw spent Monday in Thrunton Woods, which we’ve never been to, despite only being 25 minutes away from where we live. Of course, we decided to do the red walking route, despite the fact that our two children were on their mountain bikes. Cue me and our son having to carry bikes up a very steep section, broken up with tree roots. Still, it was fun, and we went out for lunch afterwards.

Despite the four day working week, I managed to fit in the same number of hours of paid work as usual. I ended up doing four half-day for Outlandish, continuing to help them with productisation and in particular developing what they offer to help teams work more effectively. There’s only a couple of places left on their upcoming Sociocracy 101 workshop.

For my home co-op, We Are Open, I’ve been mainly focusing on business development, submitting three funding bids on Friday. We’ve got some things to work through internally as the co-op expands and grows. That can lead to difficult conversations, some of which we’ve been having this week.

Those connecting with me via video conference in the last few days would have seen something new behind me in my home office: a full-size dgital piano, and a tiny Korg NTS-1 synth. Inspired by Mentat (aka Oliver Quinlan) I decided that it’s been too long since I tried making my own music. 25 years, in fact.

The piano was my parents’ and was at our house while my two children had piano lessons. Given our eldest gave up a few years ago and our youngest decided she no longer wanted to play during lockdown, it’s been sitting in our dining room gathering dust. I noticed it has MIDI ports to the rear, so I’ve hooked it up to the Korg synth and experimenting with the noises I can make. And they are definitely ‘noises’ at the moment…

This weekend, my wonderful wife and I celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary. We’re pretty much middle-aged now, so celebrating it by going for a child-free long walk and having coffee and cake. Our children will be at my parents’. It’s a shame we can’t really go away, but on the plus side the pandemic has meant we’ve explored many more places locally than we have previously!

Talking of children, they were back to school this week, both starting new schools. They seem to be really enjoying it, especially being back among their friends rather than mainly connecting with them via Fortnite.

Next week I’ll be working a couple of days for Outlandish and getting started on a new piece of work for Greenpeace through We Are Open. Other than that, I’m still looking for a bit more work, so hit me up if you see anything Doug-shaped!


Image shows path through trees at Thrunton Woods

3 advantages of consent-based decision making

Note: this builds on my earlier post about consent.

I’ve worked for a number of organisations over the years, in various different industries and sectors. Looking into an organisation as a consultant, though, is interesting because you begin to notice things that you’d perhaps miss if you’re trying to fit in and be there for the long-haul.

One of the things I notice is that there’s a direct correlation between how good an organisation is at making decisions, and how effective it is in achieving its goals. Organisations that have structures and processes for making good, timely decisions thrive. Others stutter and fail.

Many organisations default to hierarchical decision making: whoever is most senior in any given situation makes the final call. That can work, and it’s absolutely the quickest way of getting things done in an emergency. However, the downside is that it breeds resentment: do what you’re told or get out.

The opposite of the hierarchical approach is consensus-based decision making. This is usually seen as the ideal approach if your group has got time to mull things over and get everyone on board. It’s difficult to do well when you’ve got more than 10 people, though, and it’s easy for one or two people to derail the process.

In Sociocracy, groups (‘circles’) are encouraged to instead use consent as an approach to decision-making instead of the hierarchical or consensus-based approaches. In Many Voices, One Song, a book I’ve been reading recently, the authors explain why:

If we ask for unanimous decisions, we ask “do you agree?”, this question tends to focus people on their personal preferences. In consent, we ask “do you object?” and this question includes both the range of tolerance and the personal preference.

We don’t see consent as a watered-down version of consensus. In our experience, consent shifts the energy towards doing, instead of convincing others of our own viewpoint. To focus on the range of tolerance instead of personal preferences means to acknowledge that people’s experiences and perspectives are different and might remain different. With consent, we can still operate together, guided by a shared aim. (p.138)

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.138

The ‘range of tolerance’ is something which the authors explain as the difference between someone having a personal preference versus them objecting to something.

For example, let’s say there’s a vegetarian who doesn’t particularly like Brussels sprouts, so she never cooks them at home. However, she would eat them if served at a friend’s house for dinner. She has a personal preference rather than an objection.

Of course, business decisions tend to be bit more high-stakes than this, so let’s look at three advantages to consent-based decision making that the authors of Many Voices, One Song outline in their book:

1. Consent balances groups and individuals

With consent, individuals will not have as much power as they have in decisions requiring unanimity. On the other hand, with consent, a majority will not have power over a minority.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.134

2. Consent allows for forward motion

It is easier to find common ground when working with the overlap of our ranges of tolerance. Once we have made a decision, we can carry out our plans and evaluate whether the changes bring improvement. Since we learn with every decision made (and we do not learn from decisions not made), every decision made gives us more options to learn and adapt to outside and inside changes. We use the slogan “good enough for now” to encourage groups to innovate and prototype quickly.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.134

3. Consent is safe

Like a safety net, consent makes sure that no one can be ignored. If someone objects to a proposal, that person will be heard and the objection addressed. Thus, consent secures equivalence. The slogan here is “safe enough to try” which emphasizes that we only move when it seems safe – but then we don’t hold back.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.135

I’m finding this approach increasingly valuable, and would encourage anyone interested in finding out more to come along to an introductory workshop run by Outlandish. They run them regularly, and beginners are very welcome!


This post is Day 38 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Weeknote 34/2020

This week has been another good week. Let’s start with last night’s wild camping in Northumberland National Park: it was windy.

My son and I, after walking a couple of hours from where we parked the car, and carrying everything in our backs, got soaked through by the rain and wind coming at us down the valley.

Mercifully, it stopped raining when we got to the place we’d decided to pitch, but the wind continued to howl. In the end, we we erected the tent behind a cow barn and then moved it into place carefully, being very careful not to become a human kite.

The wind howled all night, but we’d brought our headphones and each put on different variations of ‘sleep’ music to get some rest. I decided to sit in the entrance of our tent from 05:30 to watch the sun rise, which was pretty magical.

After some slightly disappointing tea and toast, we packed up the tent and walked back to the car. On the way, we stopped to have a look at a memorial to the servicemen killed in the planes that came down over the Cheviots during the Second World War.

I like mini-adventures, especially given we were back home by 10:00 on Saturday, giving us most of the weekend to spend with the rest of the family!

On the work front, it was again split between the work I’m doing with Outlandish, and that which I’m involved with as part of a team for the Social Mobility Commission and Catalyst. The latter is wrapping up now and looking great now that we’ve applied the official style guide.

For Outlandish, I led a ‘Theory of Change’ session for the new Products circle. We used Miro, including for the video conferencing aspect, which worked well! I’m hoping to stick around beyond my initial engagement with them to the end of September, and indeed have drafted OKRs taking me to Christmas.

Our children were at athletics camp for three days this week, which is unremarkable in and of itself. What made a huge difference is that it was the first time since March that my wife and I have been in together by ourselves during the day. It was nice to be able to have lunch together and do the crossword as we used to.

Next week, I’m going to be writing a couple of bids for funding from Catalyst and the Ford Foundation. It’s the final week of the Social Mobility Commission work, and I’ll be continuing with my productisation activities at Outlandish.

It’s also the children’s last week before they start school a week on Wednesday. Due to the three-tier system in Northumberland, they’re both starting new schools, so I may work slightly less so I’m around for them.


Image of our tent in Northumberland National Park.

Weeknote 33/2020

For the first time in many months, I can honestly say that was an enjoyable working week. I split my time between work for We Are Open Co-op and Outlandish.

For We Are Open I was working on an introductory email-based course around ‘open’, and then a survey, framework, and toolkit for social mobility organisations moving their programmes online.

With Outlandish, I’m continuing to help with a new push to productise their offerings. This has two strands: a community portal product, and products and services related to Sociocracy. I was pleased that my proposal to create a new top-level ‘Products’ circle with two sub-circles was passed this week!


A quotation shared in an article by Ryan Holiday this week really resonated with me. It’s from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, he of “you cannot step into the same river twice” fame.

Dogs bark at what they cannot understand.

Heraclitus

The reason I paid particular attention to this, I think, is that it’s only recently that I’ve come to realise that I don’t have to live what I’d call a ‘reproducible’ life. That is to say, people don’t have to be easily be able to follow in my footsteps.

I think it’s the educator in me who feels the need to constantly justify and explain myself. However, that’s becoming less of an issue due to a combination of moving away from the world of formal education, therapy sessions, and being very aware of turning 40 at the end of the year.

There are many people who don’t get what I do, or why I do it. Sometimes I don’t really understand either. What I don’t need to spend time doing is wasting my life interacting with random bad faith actors — i.e. the ‘dogs’ barking at things they don’t understand.


This week I continued to be on hiatus from Thought Shrapnel but wrote a few posts here:

Next week, I’ve got more of the same, which is good. I’m on the lookout for a couple of days of extra work at the moment from September onwards, so if you see anything Doug-shaped, please get in touch!


Image: photo of an oak tree that I encountered on a morning run this week, processed using the Roy Lichtenstein filter in Retroboy.

Giving consent

At the moment I’m working two days for Outlandish, a fellow member of CoTech. They’re big believers in, and practitioners of, Sociocracy.

When I wrote about Sociocracy in a previous post I neglected to use the word ‘consent’, but I’ve come to realise (partly through reading Many Voices One Song) just how fundamental it is to a harmonious workplace culture.

Consent is the default decision-making method in sociocracy.

[…]

By consent, a group can decide to do anything. We often jokingly say, you want a dictator for your organization? We can decide that by consent. (We recommend that the dictator role have a term end, however!) Groups can decide by consent to vote. Groups decide what their governance system looks like at all times. The only thing one cannot do is ignore reasoned objections.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices One Song, p.25-26

Many of the problems I’ve encountered in my career have been directly related the abuses of power that come with the ‘default operating system’ of hierarchy thoughtlessly adopted by most organisations.

Rather than the politics of the playground, Sociocracy is an grown-up approach to organisational power-sharing based on consent.

The assumption of sociocracy is that sharing power requires a plan. Power is everywhere all the time, and it does not appear or disappear – someone will be holding it. We have to be intentional about how we want to distribute it. Power is like water: it will go somewhere and it tends to accumulate in clusters: the more power a group has, the more resources they will have to aggregate more power. The only way to counterbalance the concentration of power is intentionality and thoughtful implementation.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices One Song, p.17

The authors recognise the limits of the water metaphor, but continue with it to help make their point:

One can think of a sociocratic organization as a complicated irrigation system, empowering each team to have the agency and resources they need to flourish and contribute toward the organization’s mission. We avoid large clusters of power, and we make sure there is flow. Water that is allowed to flow will stay fresh and will reach all the places in the garden, nourishing each plant to flourish. Sociocratic organizations nourish and empower each team to have the agency to flourish and contribute toward the organization’s mission.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices One Song, p.17

Consent is a great place to start without having to commit to overhauling your entire organisation overnight. It will improve decision-making and make your workplace environment more harmonious. You can simple as using the following structure in your next meeting:

  1. Someone makes a proposal
  2. Whoever’s chairing/facilitating the meeting gasks for any clarifying questions (which are then answered by the proposer)
  3. The facilitator asks for a show of thumbs (up, down, sideways). If it’s all thumbs up, the proposal is passed, if not…
  4. Participants are asked by the facilitator for ‘critical concerns’ (i.e. not just preferences). These are noted down.
  5. The group address the critical concerns by trying to find a way that the proposal would be agreeable.
  6. A new proposal is made (and the process is repeated through several ’rounds’) until the proposal is accepted, or you run out of time to discuss it.

I will, of course, have simultaneously over-simplified this and made it sound more complex than it is in practice. For that, I apologise. However, it’s definitely worth thinking about consent within the context of your team and organisation.

I’m helping Outlandish with the productisation of their offerings around Sociocracy at the moment, so am probably biased, but you might want to check out their upcoming workshops to find out more if any of this interests you


This post is Day 29 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Opinions and preferences

If there’s one thing that my family and friends can rely on me for, it’s an opinion.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines an opinion as:

A view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.

But is everything that we have a view on actually opinions? Are some things mere preferences?

The OED defines a preference as:

A greater liking for one alternative over another or others.

Recently, I’ve been doing some introspection about my preferences. This is, in part, due to the work that I’m doing while on loan to Outlandish from my home co-op.

Diagram showing 'preference' circle inside larger 'range of tolerance' circle

Outlandish use Sociocracy to make decisions, and the above diagram was part of my induction.

Sociocracy, also called dynamic governance, is a system of governance which seeks to create harmonious social environments and productive organizations. It is distinguished by the use of consent, rather than majority voting, in decision-making, and of discussion by people who know each other.

Wikipedia

What I like about Sociocracy is that it gives everyone a voice through the use of ’rounds’, recognises that emotion is an important part of decision-making, and (crucially) tackles preferences head-on.

This was particularly useful to me recently with some decisions we had to make about the colour scheme part of We Are Open’s rebrand. I realised that, while I’ll happily express an opinion on anything, these are usually based on mere preferences.

This realisation was more liberating than I expected it to be. As a result, I’ve resolved to check whether I’m expressing an opinion or simply a preference when interacting with others. I have a feeling that, most of the time, it will be the latter.


This post is Day 19 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Weeknote 30/2020

I’ve written quite a bit this week as part of my #100DaysToOffload challenge:

Over and above what’s detailed in these posts, I’ve been splitting my time between working on projects for We Are Open and Outlandish this week. For the former, my ‘home’ co-op in the CoTech network, I’ve been mainly focusing on work for Catalyst and the Social Mobility Commission. We’re working with Erica Neve and Pedram Parasmand on three contracts, helping charities who are rapidly undergoing digital transformation. We had a really successful retrospective on Friday with UpRising, who we’ve been helping in more depth.

With Outlandish, I’m helping with some productisation of similar projects they’ve worked on for a range of clients. I find this really interesting as it’s simultaneously about meeting user needs and about organisational development. I’m also advising around ways in which they can develop the workshops they offer.

I’m fortunate to work with organisations which are so emotionally intelligent, and which go out of their way to be so. One of the reasons for working with Outlandish is to give them some short-term help with project management while they’re a bit stretched. But another reason is to learn from their processes and procedures; although they’ve only been a co-op for as long as us (four years), they’ve been together and honing things for a decade.

When I was at Jisc, one thing that always impressed me was their internal knowledgebase. They used PBworks for that, while Outlandish uses a WordPress installation with a theme called KnowAll. I’ve been wanting to experiment with wiki.js and so this week Laura Hilliger and I set up an instance at wiki.weareopen.coop and copied over existing pages from our GitHub wiki. I’ve set user permissions so that only logged-in members can edit the wiki, and indeed see any pages that are ‘internal’ only.

We finally got sign-off from Greenpeace for one of the best things I think I’ve written for a while: HOWTO: Create an Architecture of Participation for your Open Source project. As Stephen Downes mentioned when mentioning it in OLDaily it’s perhaps applicable to wider contexts than just open source projects.

Other than that, I’ve just been reviewing a document Laura put together for some work we’re doing with Red Hat, doing a small amount of work for our ongoing work with Greenpeace, and contributing to a ‘playback’ of some recent work we did for Catalyst.

Next week, I’m tying up work for We Are Open on Monday, and for Outlandish on Tuesday, before turning everything off and going on a family holiday for 10 days. As my therapist said in our meeting on Friday, as I’m a bit of a perfectionist, there’s no guarantee that I will actually relax during my holiday just because I’m away from home. So I’m actively trying to cut myself some slack. I deliberately went for a slow run this morning and I even had an afternoon nap yesterday. Small steps.


Header image is a selfie I took on a family walk in the Northumbrian hills last Sunday. Inspired by Low-tech magazine’s solar powered website, I loosely followed this guide to create the ‘stippled’ effect. This reduced the size of an 8.6MB image to a mere 36.6KB.

Sociocratic design sprints

Update: Check out Kayleigh’s more comprehensive post on this at the Outlandish blog!


I wanted to take a moment to record a great twist that Outlandish made to the now-classic Google Ventures design sprint.

The week-long process, as documented in The Sprint Book, requires a ‘decision-maker’ with authority to sign things off. The reasoning?

Without a Decider, decisions won’t stick. If your Decider can’t join the entire sprint, have her appoint a delegate who can

On the very first day of the recent MoodleNet design sprint, Outlandish introduced us to a way of making decisions without recourse to a single person. That process is sociocracy (or ‘dynamic governance’) and something that, as a co-operative, Outlandish uses on a daily basis.

Sociocracy process

Here’s how it works:

  1. Appoint a Chair and Note-taker
  2. Agree time boundary
  3. Invite proposal
  4. Clarifying round
  5. Initial reactions
  6. Test for consent
  7. Draw out concerns
  8. Group concerns
  9. Resolve one group at a time
  10. Test for consent on each resolution
  11. Repeat until consent is gained

In practice, over the week-long design sprint, it was more like:

  1. Invite proposal (e.g. “MoodleNet should use the same colour scheme as Moodle core”)
  2. Clarifying round (e.g. “Do you mean the exact same colour orange?”)
  3. Draw out concerns (e.g. “I’m concerned that people will get confused between our products”)
  4. Test for consent (e.g. “I don’t have any critical concerns”)
  5. Invite new proposal (e.g. “MoodleNet should use similar brand guidelines to Moodle core”)
  6. (repeat)

There are several benefits to this process, which becomes quicker and more natural the more times you do it:

  • The group gets used to giving consent despite having small concerns
  • ‘Critical’ concerns from individuals can lead to modified (and improved) proposals
  • The group can quickly move forward without getting stuck on opinions

I’ve read quite a bit about sociocracy in theory, but it was so good to see the approach working in practice. Not only did it make the week more democractic, but it actually accelerated things! The Outlandish team got us testing on Thursday instead of Friday, which meant we spent a day iterating and focusing on next steps.

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