Category Archives: Ways Of Working

Working upside-down

When is the boss not the boss?

One recent morning I passed a newly-erected whiteboard on which a diligent member of the HR alliance had created an org chart. Three levels of seniority, from top down: overall boss, then managers, then team.

An hour later I passed the same whiteboard and it seemed that a revolution was underway. The main body of the team now captained the ship, the managers were in the lower-middle, and the overall boss was now the underall boss — moved right to the bottom. The org chart had been turned upside-down.

A passing revolutionary explained: “The boss’s role is to support and enable the team. The team does most of the work. The boss can guide them in what to do, but the team chooses how they do it, because they know a lot more than the boss does about most topics.“

I just googled ‘Swedish revolution’. The top result is ‘a Christian Dance/Dubstep/Worship album’ on Soundcloud. So Google could not help. And Vladimir Ilich turned in his glassy grave.

But this workplace revolution really is happening, even if it has so far escaped the Eye of Silicon Sauron.

Empowering teams, devolving authority, and supporting individual ownership are all common themes here — and not just in a handbook or a fast-forgotten training course, but every day in the real world. The ‘how’ is taken very seriously in Sweden. About 70% of discussions are on what to do; the other 30% are on how best to work together to do it.

At first I was surprised. There has not been a revolution in England for almost 400 years.

But this collectively conscious way of working is a huge improvement on the traditional top-down approach, and it suits me very well.

Assuming that I am not first against the wall, I shall report back soon. Viva la revolución!

/Todd

Apophenia

Big Data tempts some researchers to believe that they can see everything at a 30,000-foot view. It is the kind of data that encourages the practice of apophenia: seeing patterns where none actually exist, simply because massive quantities of data can offer connections that radiate off in all directions. 

  
Apophenia is everywhere. 

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Quote: boyd & Crawford (2011), Six Provocations For Big Data

Toast: NBC News

A Lex Icon

Wikipedia tells all the best stories.

The Oxford English Dictionary was started in 1879, and predicted to be finished in ten years.

Five year later, in 1884, the editors had only reached ‘ant’.

In 1928, it was finally finished… but by then it was so outdated, they had to start all over again.

Imagine being James Murray, the gentleman pictured at the top: editor of a book that would take 50 years to finish. A project that would stretch beyond his lifetime. Running a crowdsourced team that, unknown to him, included a gifted madman imprisoned for murder. And building a book which he must have known was already outdated, and would have to be renewed.

There’s only one word for that: remarkable (adj.).

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Title from Anu Garg. The Wikipedia article is here.

Get more lexographical lunacy via @toddmgreen on Twitter.

Darling, You Are One In 107 Billion

Congratulations! You are the 107,000,000,000th human born on Earth!

Click here to redeem your prize*

* Your prize is the BBC article from which I got this estimate.

Konked out

An Amazon review of Konk, a double album by The Kooks:

They shouldn’t have made the 2-disc edition. You don’t have to release every sh*t you ever recorded.

Sounds familiar? Less is more. Quality over quantity. Etc. 

But it’s more complex than that. Sometimes quantity is better. The Mail Online has >100 journalists pumping out celebrity gossip stories, because those drive the pageviews which in turn bring the ad revenue. For the Mail, maybe adding quantity is smarter than adding quality. 

I’m very interested in these grey areas. Blanket statements hide the nuances.

I just finished a book called Turn The Ship Around!. A US Navy commander writes about introducing a ‘leader-leader’ model (instead of the traditional ‘leader-follower’ model) on his submarine. It’s a good book, all very empowering and life-affirming – but there is not a lot of grey.

When should you hold back from empowering staff?

How do you manage accountability when responsibility is so thoroughly delegated?

In what circumstances are the staff, not the system, seen to be the problem?

We rate pretty highly in leader-leader coverage in the teams I have worked in. But I find it very hard to believe that I have all the solutions already latent inside of me, or that if something goes wrong, all that’s needed is a little more empowerment. It sounds like the supposed disaster emerging at Zappos under holacracy. And very little consideration of these grey areas appears in the book. 

Next time you hear one of these truisms – less is more, quality over quantity – just stop for a minute. Is it really true?

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For more untruisms, find me on Twitter.

The Shipping Forecast: One post per day in December

Emma was asking me how I write blog posts. As you can see, I like to dress up smart.

But once I’m ready, I’ll write a draft as quick as I can. Rough and ready – get to the end as soon as possible.

Quick drafting makes it easier to make the post coherent, and reduces the risk of being disturbed when you’re in the moment. 

But it’s a style thing too. My best posts are the ones that ebb and flow – shifting from stream of consciousness to stop/consider and back again. So doing the first draft fast helps.

But now I’ve got out of the habit of actually shipping these posts. So here’s a challenge: one post per day in December. 

This is day one. 

Expect a mixture of posts: short and long, observation and reflection… good and bad. Stay tuned via @toddmgreen on Twitter.

Cheers! ~ Todd

The Secret World of Taxi Drivers

I learnt a lot on a late-night taxi ride last week.

The UCG – United Cabbies Group – has a protected Twitter feed through which they share tips on hot-spots for good fares in London.

When a big venue turns out, the words goes out: ‘Albert Hall on the burst’ = lots of fares suddenly available.

There is also a taxi driver dialect derived from Cockney rhyming slang:

  • Septics – Yanks – Americans (septic tanks)
  • Sweaties – Jocks – Scots (jock straps)
  • Leatherarses – cabbies who do a huge number of hours
  • Butterboys – newbies who work all hours when they realise the more they work, the more they earn

Taxi drivers are not required by law to wear  a seatbelt. They may urinate in the street if shielded by the cape of a member of the Metropolitan police force. And until 2005, there was a theoretical 6-mile limit on all journeys – the distance that could be expected of a horse after eating one bale of hay.

I read something by Caitlin Moran in which she wrote this to her daughter:

Even if you’re [sat] next to a man who collects pre-Seventies screws and bolts, you will probably never have another opportunity to find out so much about pre-Seventies screws and bolts.

Everyone is an expert in something. 

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I only deal in post-Seventies screws and bolts. To find out more, follow @toddmgreen on Twitter or sign up for emails.

Cheers ~ Todd

BBC

My first job was as a Runner at the BBC World Service. Amazing and inspiring – Bush House corridors lined with UN Sec-Gens telling stories about how their lifeline, their connection to the world, was the WS.

I vox-popped members of other services to get an international view on stories for Outlook (which in the late 90s was a live, daily, 1hr magazine show) – and ruined the tapes by saying ‘Hmm’ and ‘Oh, right’ in the background instead of leaving the vox pop recordings clean.

I opened the post for Steve Wright’s show and read about a Ugandan factory worker who was 5 mins late every day because he couldn’t miss the end of the show – and when his boss finally challenged him about it and he confessed the reason, the whole company got free breakfast if they came in early to listen to the show on the canteen tannoy.

This all was an inspiration. But most of the people I worked with then are gone – cut. The craft has gone with them. But for me, still at school yet able to go back 4 summers in a row, it was the start. That was the experience that got me into FremantleMedia (worked on The X Factor, Got Talent, etc), and now I’m in Stockholm working in games, running Candy Crush Saga.

I really doubt this would have happened without that experience at the BBC – it gave me a feeling and a love for how something can be made from nothing and can mean so much to so many people around the world.

From our hands, to their minds.

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For more musings on why the BBC World Service is so great (well, maybe – I’ve never actually written about that before), follow @toddmgreen on Twitter and sign up for emails.

Laters ~ Todd

Incentives

When Arthur Evans excavated the Minoan civilisation at Knossos, he created a competition: a prize for the first man to dig down to the Minoan layer. A strong incentive!

The result: much of the Roman layer was destroyed.

Incentives work… sometimes, a little too well.

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Links: Arthur Evans, In Our Time on The Minoan Civilisation.

For more pseudo-historical odds and sods like this, follow @toddmgreen on Twitter or join the mailing list.

Primitive car safety testing

Another story from the Robert McNamara archives.

Before becoming Secretary of State, he worked at Ford on car safety. He described their testing programme in The Fog Of War.

I said, “What about accidents? I hear a lot about accidents.”

“Oh yes, we’ll get you some data on that.” There were about forty odd thousand deaths per year from automobile accidents, and about a million, or a million two injuries.

I said, “Well, what causes it?”

“Well,” he said, “it’s obvious. It’s human error and mechanical failure.”

I said, “Hell, if it’s mechanical failure, we might be involved. Let’s dig into this.” I want to know, if it’s mechanical error, I want to stop it.

“Well”, they said, “There’s really very few statistics available.”

I said, “Dammit, find out what can we learn.”

They said, “Well, the only place we can find that knows anything about it is Cornell Aeronautical Labs.”

[Cornell] said, “The major problem is packaging.” They said, “You buy eggs and you know how eggs come in a carton?”

I said, “No, I don’t buy eggs. I never have — my wife does it.”

Well, they said, “You talk to her and ask her: when she puts that carton down on the drain board when she gets home, do the eggs break?”

And so I asked Marg and she said “No.”

So Cornell said, “They don’t break because they’re packaged properly. Now if we packaged people in cars the same way, we could reduce the breakage.”

We lacked lab facilities, so we dropped the human skulls in different packages down the stairwells of the dormitories at Cornell. Well, that sounds absurd, but that guy was absolutely right. It was packaging which could make the difference.

Testing and iteration by dropping skulls down stairs. Smashing!

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More McNamara here (my post on the terrible odds for WWII US pilots). Full interview transcript here (I made a few edits for clarity’s sake). Image by pegasus22 on Etsy.

If you’d like more McNamara-related posts, follow @toddmgreen on Twitter or join the mailing list.