Monday, 30 August 2021

What should I read?

I've been asked many times for book recommendations, especially by technologists who are moving into more senior management positions. It has come up a lot recently and since I usually trot out the same five core titles as starters, I thought it worth posting my thoughts including the reasons.

Opening disclaimer - I am not sponsored by or affiliated with any of the authors or publishers, or with Amazon - other book vendors are available. However if you'd like me to read your book for money, then do get in touch...

My favoured books tend away from direct "this is how you do…" books and towards those which give new viewpoints and (different?) frameworks for thinking. With that in mind, five books I recommend coming up.

Two good starters

The first two are great foundation books. They cover some core management and strategy concepts, while being very readable.

Leadership: Plain and Simple

Amazon link

This is a short book, describing the simple but easy to overlook steps involved in successfully making change happen in an organisation - have a vision, then get people on board, then look to deliver it. It is framed around "Future, Engage, Deliver" and describes  load of examples and pitfalls. I actually read the first edition of this (I think this is the second?) but I assume it still covers the same ground.

The underlying points are great foundational thinking, and the detail is so easily forgotten when things get difficult, deadlines hit or we get lost in the weeds. It's a short read and well worth cementing in one's memory.

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters

Amazon link

A much longer book about what makes good strategy, what makes bad strategy, and why "bad" is distinctly different from just "no strategy". The author, Richard Rumelt, is a huge name in the academic strategy world and can name-drop in a frankly ridiculous way. Again, this is very easy and enjoyable to read. For me, it solidified a lot of vague notions in my mind and it was highly liberating to see some of the things that seemed wrong by my own observation pilloried by someone with the expertise, experience and vocabulary to describe them properly.

The killer line for me was describing a particular form of poorly thought out bad strategy as like a team captain starting a game by telling the team "our strategy is to win".

I do warn people that reading this book will start to turn you into a strategy snob, similar to people who get snooty about coffee or audio when they start to learn about it properly, but personally I take that as a sign of a good book rather than a bad thing. It opens eyes and the number of "oh of course" moments are measured per page, not per chapter. In particular it has made me much more careful about using the word "strategy" in its more colloquial form (i.e. meaning "anything coming up").

My favourite book

The Five Laws to Foresee the Future. 12 Paradigm Shifts That Will Happen in the Future of Human Society

Amazon link

This is probably my favourite "management" book, but be warned it is REALLY tiring to read. To my inexpert eye, it reads like poetry written in a foreign language, translated to English more or less directly without any of the rewording to embrace language idioms you might expect. The author is a Japanese businessman and philosopher so I might not be too far from correct.

However. It is a brilliant, eye-opening view of using dialectic thinking to understand patterns in business, market and societal change. Taking it to the next step, the thinking can be used to consider what might be coming next which makes it invaluable if one is in a role where one needs to anticipate future trends and directions. I am a mathematician, so I like to analyse patterns in the world around us and this provides an excellent framework for doing that. More than anything, it helped me think differently about what I was seeing and that is always worth the price of admission.

This is the book I return to more than any other in this field, and the one that keeps granting new insights as I read it differently. Definitely a book to read in small chunks, with lots of reflection time in between.

Understanding people

Three management / leadership books are enough to be getting on with. The other two are about understanding people and yourself - a too-often overlooked aspect of leadership.

Depressive Illness: The Curse Of The Strong

Amazon link

If you are responsible for people, just as you're going to come across someone with a physical ailment (whether it's a common cold or something much worse), you are going to come across someone with some kind mental health issue. It is essential as a manager that you have some idea what this means, and what you can do about it. It is also important to understand how your actions can create an environment which negatively impacts your colleagues and reports.

This book focuses on clinical depression, which is depression as a physical ailment. It is written by a leading consultant psychiatrist, and highly recommended by folk in the mental health professions (not just me). There is a lot here which helps better understand depression and is well worth reflecting on both for the self, and for what it means for our behaviour to those for whom we have responsibility. If it helps a manager spot one person who is heading in a bad direction and take action, it's worth it.

The Enchiridion

Amazon link

Finally, we have The Enchiridion. Where the previous book was mostly about understanding others, this is more about self-reflection. It is a classical Greek text written about Stoicism and is a great read to understand different ways of thinking - especially when it comes to how people can draw satisfaction out of the world around them. This is very important for technologists stepping away from tech into leadership as we all go through the same slump where we wonder what on earth we're doing and whether we'll ever be happy at work again. "Where do I get my energy from?" is a very difficult question to answer and one I've written about many times over the years. This book gives one way of finding an answer.

It is not the easiest read, but potentially a different way of thinking and definitely easier than the third book.

Bonus article

Picking the Right Transition Strategy

HBR link

As a bonus, there is this (free) Harvard Business Review article which is about assessing a business environment and choosing the right leadership strategy. It is another model for focusing thinking, and is worth having in the back of one's mind both for moving to a new role and for assessing the state of the current working environment.

And that is it. Now I have a blog post next time someone is looking for a recommended reading list. Hopefully there is something useful here.

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Can we design a department to promote mental wellbeing?

Important - this is a brain dump of thoughts and ideas, and I am in no way a doctor or any other kind of medical professional.

I wrote last month about feeling extremely rough. I downplayed my experiences for the sake of a more readable post, but eagle-eyed readers of that post will have noticed that they are symptoms of clinical depression. Over the last month I've added a few (sleeplessness being an exciting new dimension) and I've started reading a rather good book on the subject by Dr Tim Cantopher. In this, Dr Cantopher talks about the current (published 2012) medical understanding of clinical depression, how it is a physical illness and what that means, and various treatment and preventative approaches.

The model he describes is the limbic system, responsible for a whole variety of functions including emotions, acts as a kind of fuse and like any fuse it is designed to blow when put under undue stress. This can cause all manner of conditions, one of which is depression. The reason it blows is usually cumulative and the actual trigger may be quite innocuous but when one reaches that point, it's game over for a while and proper rest and recovery is needed to reset the fuse.

Now, my lived experiences resonate strongly with this description. The book goes into a load of different pathways to this point, many of which are quite heartbreaking. I'm not going into any details here as (highlighting again) I'm not an expert and I don't think anyone would thank me for attempting to rewrite someone else's book. But it did get me thinking, and that at long last brings us to the point of this post.

The foundations for depressive illness are often laid in childhood, but there are plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong in adult life. Things which can be significantly unhelpful include unreasonable expectations thrust upon us, little to know praise, learning helplessness from erratic responses from authority figures, general erosion of one's sense of self-worth and value... The list goes on but many of these look to me like things that come up in any good management training. 

So where does this thinking go? Clearly, management has a huge role to play in the welfare of their staff. This is hardly insightful. But this responsibility cannot be discharged via a checklist of task. Performance development plan? Check. Conversation about the future? Check. Asked how they are? Check. Useful things to do, but without the empathy that should be driving them they are worthless.

A good manager can, in the work context, with very little effort provide for the psychological welfare of their reports. Or at the very least, they can avoid the pitfalls. Stepping back, a positive workplace culture can create an environment where people can perform without being put under stress and have the safety to take a step back when they need to. This is all common knowledge and hard enough to get right. But can we go further? 

When designing an organisation structure and layout, one looks at the needs of the organisation and optimises accordingly, weighing against the inevitable compromises. If the important thing is the processing of payments, then that part of the org design is optimised and that improvement may come at the cost of, say, making recruitment slightly harder. To do this, one can look at the way information and tasks flow around the department and where the bottlenecks and other pain points are. Now, what would a department which is optimised for psychological welfare look like? Or even, an org which is designed with staff welfare as one of several priorities? If the department itself is designed to promote a positive experience, eliminating uncertainty and providing ingrained ways for the staff to be empowered (note, not just FEEL empowered), what difference would that make - especially when a strong culture and individual management practice is layered on top?

My answer for the moment is that I don't know, but I want to find out. Staff welfare and staff satisfaction are particularly hot topics at the moment and with everyone feeling the burn of the last eighteen months that is right and proper. The NHS and other experts have been concerned for a time that the next public health crisis will be around mental health as a result of COVID. It would be nice to not be part of the cause of that. It seems to me that there is a something to explore, which could vastly improve the work experience for the people senior leaders are supposed to represent, support and (in some ways) protect. If I get the chance, I would one day like to see what is possible here.

If you're interested in the book, it can be found on Amazon here.

Monday, 28 June 2021

After ... erm ... 65 weeks?

Another month has gone, and I have nothing to say. This is just a collection of thoughts to capture how I'm feeling for myself and on the off-chance someone else relates and finds it useful. And partly because I've written a monthly post since Jan 2016 and I'll be damned if this is where it ends.

The wheels finally came off this month. After 65 weeks of trying to stay positive, push ahead, work through the problems, yadda yada, I think I've reached the point where I just don't care any more. The sun has come out, but it has rapidly become so hot I don't want to go outside. I have no interest in the day to day. I haven't really even taken any photographs this month. Weirdly, I think I feel worse now things are starting to open up than when everything was locked away as I should be excited about X and Y, but I don't know what those things are. I don't actually want to go outside, or see people now that I'm able to do so and I'm in a loop of waiting for lockdown to end, but also questioning why and what is on the other side. I feel deeply hollow and without purpose and I'm showing a lot of symptoms of burnout (not to mention depression). But this whole process is about maintaining optimism, so I need to think about what I am going to do, instead of focusing on the holes in my life.

There are some positives. After a block of time off, I've started writing again - both code and tabletop games. Having the energy, ideas and general interest to put pen to paper is quite a thing these days. I haven't written much as yet, but I take some solace that I'm writing at all - it's a good sign that I'm starting to spiral in a better direction.

At work, I've got things in place to re-energise myself. I've found a small project that can easily be delivered and will have a significant impact, so if I can get that out the door the small sense of accomplishment should help. I also need to kick-start some learning so I've bought a couple of books about strategy to read, which I hope will get the brain working again.

Exercise is slowly coming together too. I can return to the badminton court and, while it will be horrendous the first few times, that competitive element will really help me run around and supplement the HiiT class (which is starting to become two classes). I can already feel some benefit from the increased exercise, both with fitness and improved recovery times, and hopefully this will now accelerate.

I'm also cooking a lot more. My diet has radically improved over the last six months, and I'm recovering my skill in the kitchen (which has atrophied for much longer than COVID, sadly). Now I need to tweak it again to make it healthier, while also maintaining the interest. I think I'm going to game my calorie intake with MyFitnessPal again and see what I can achieve in July. Maybe I'll write about this next month?

Is that enough? I am not sure. It doesn't seem like a fulfilling life, but on the other hand it is much better than nothing. There are gaps I really need to fill, but there are lots of big changes in the works and these really need to play out to reset the framework of what I'm doing before I start putting new things around it. This is part of the current problem - the being stuck in limbo.

Not sure any of this helps me, but having written it down I can at least identify one of the core problems - impatience. It's not that nothing is happening, everything is awful, oh woe. It is that the changes are taking time and I am much better at dealing with problems than waiting for them to resolve themselves. Recognising that definitely helps me face it.

So - objectives this month: 

  • Improve diet and track calories again
  • Take more photos
  • Do something worth writing about




This post is from a series of shorter posts, written roughly once a week while the country is on lockdown to capture my feelings and reactions as we go. They are all tagged with coronavirus.

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Why I'm now on Spotify

Here's an important question. If you like music but don't listen to much radio how on earth do you find new music? Or even remember old music that isn't your favourite band?

I am old enough to remember (and really miss) swapping mix tapes with friends. There was also Pandora. Remember that? You'd give it a song and it would generate a playlist of music with the same characteristics as the seeding song - a fantastic way to find new music which was shut down presumably because someone had to pay some license fees somewhere.

I used to spend a lot of time in music shops and have a large CD collection. Remember when digital media came in circles? Anyway. For me, the best time for buying music was back when I was a student and a glorious music shop called Fopp opened in town. They had a sensible pricing policy (none of this £4.99 nonsense), a huge collection of decent music, and they actually played music you could buy in store. Seriously; the number of times I'd be in HMV and would like the music playing and nobody in-store could tell me what it was. In Fopp, it was being played by the staff themselves and the CD would be by the till - wouldn't even need to talk to anyone.

Happy days.

I was also working in a student radio station during this period and between the two I discovered and bought a lot of music. But then Fopp over-extended and imploded, and the adult world happened and it all went horribly wrong.

Like most, I've been listening to music via streaming services for some years but despite its obvious popularity I've managed to avoid having a Spotify account. I've had a Google Play account for ages, which also strips the ads from YouTube (a huge benefit to me) and because I got an Amazon Prime account I also got their music service bundled in. Between these two that really seemed like enough music to be going on with - they both have large collections, and while there is the occasional notable hole it kept me more than happy enough to avoid yet another streaming service.

However, since I've been working from home I've been able to listen to a lot more music (when I'm not in a damned meeting...) and I've notice that an alarming amount of the time, I'm just hitting "go" on my repeating playlist. So, despite having pretty much all of music from all time available to me I'm actually listening to about 15 songs on repeat because it means I don't have to think about finding something new.

That brings me back to the opening question - how do I find more music? Spotify has a "radio" feature which is remarkably like the fondly remembered Pandora service. You give it a seed song, start the "radio" and it plays a load of stuff that is kinda like it. It's a bit hit and miss (nowhere near as good as my memories of Pandora) but it's more than usable and it is also exposed through the Sonos interface if you know where to look. As far as I can see, neither of Google Play (or YouTube Music as it is now) nor Amazon Music has this feature, and certainly not through Sonos.

So at the cost of another monthly subscription, I've finally got a music discovery service. I think I have listened to more new music in the last two months than I have in the last five years so it is definitely working for me. Next up, I need to look at the Spotify playlist features and see if this can be used to resurrect the old world of mix tapes...

Saturday, 24 April 2021

A return to filters

While everyone else has been learning to speak Esperanto and discover their inner sourdough, I've been working on my photography. I have been taking #nofilter pics for a long time, focusing on the details of composition and playing with light however I've been looking at at the pictures taken by a friend of mine and she uses a lot of editing and filters to make colours pop in a way that has left me somewhat envious. She was kind enough to give me a tutorial in her techniques and, while I certainly haven't mastered them, I have had a go and managed to create some interesting effects.

I've created a few images and here is a gallery of the before / after shorts. They are arranged newest to oldest and I think even over these nine images there is a notable improvement. As I uploaded them to Flickr, I tried to explain why I added the filters to each picture and the most important improvement is with the intent behind the edits. Earlier on (the later pics in the gallery), the picture have been edited because I was just pushing buttons to get the technique in my head. Later on (the first three pics in particular), the filters were applied with a specific intent for the end results and I think the results are a big step forward.

I think my favourite is the sunset - it is certainly the best example of why I wanted to learn how to do this. Behold:

Filter comparisons

Now, for some technical talk. I take the majority of my photographs on my phone (a Huawei P10 plus) and all the editing here was done on the phone using the (free) Snapseed application. To get these effects, there are a few base steps (and again - credit to my friend for this!). 

  1. Apply the Accenture style to make the colours richer.
  2. Switch to the Tools tab and in the Details tool pull the Structure up to nearly max. This highlights the details by enriching the colours saturation and darkening the edges (apologies to anyone who knows their stuff - I'm sure I'm mangling the terminology). 
  3. Then in the "Tune image" tool, pull the Ambiance up to about 60% to bring the lighter shades back in. 
  4. At this point go to HDR-scape and apply whichever filter looks best. 
  5. Finally go back to "Tune image" and play with the Warmth, warm or cool depending on the effect you want.

I find these steps give a good base - creating a rich, slightly unreal image with lots of potential for further tweaks to create the specific effect you want. The thing to watch through these steps is the imaging graining. These steps seem to work best highlighting texture, and on big blocks of colour (eg a cloudless sky) they can add their own, breaking down the imagine.

Moving forward, I play with other options in the Tools menu. Drama creates some interesting effects but mostly I stick with the other options on the top row (Tune, Details, Curves, White balance). I can't say I understand them well enough to know what I'm doing yet - at this stage I fiddle and hope!

To finish, a Vignette can bring focus to a particular part of the image and smooth over some graining around the edges.

I really like this technique. It's a relatively simple way to create very different looking pictures. While I will be primarily sticking to my own style, it has been fun challenging myself to create something different from my usual output and I'm very pleased with the results. I will keep playing with it, because she gets some amazing colours out of her work!

Friday, 26 March 2021

After 52 weeks - the perils of lockdown come home

This week, the 52nd week of pandemic restrictions, the isolation hit me hard. I took a trip to the supermarket, looking for supplies I can't buy at the shop at the end of my street. Shuffling around the long aisles I encountered many strange, moving forms. Forms that I believed only existed in two dimensions on my screen. But no - here they were, moving in the real world. How had this happened? These "people" were out there, making sounds like speech and I was confused. But not as confused as when I realised I couldn't find the talcum powder. I searched the shelves, yet nothing.

Seeing my difficulties, one of the "people" wearing the logo of the place (so "staff"? Kinda like an online chat bot, but walking and exhibiting intelligence and not completely useless) came over and asked if they could help. They stood at a pandemic-respectful distance and looked at me like they wanted something. A response, that was it. My brain lurched and jumped. How to communicate? What to do? Finally, my brain kicked to life after what seemed like an eternity of standing there.

I raised my hand; pointed at the shelf and just barked "talc". Then "talc?" Look of confusion from me.

"Talc".

Not my finest moment.

Anyway, he was cool. I eventually found the power of Words to Peoples and apologised for being inarticulate and then together we failed to find the talc. It was amusing, but on reflection also weird and troubling. I have spoken to maybe five people in person in about a year and actually holding a conversation in person is surprisingly difficult. We were both masked and distanced, so I wasn't concerned about COVID (beyond the ongoing background concern of course) and I've certainly talked a LOT to people over Zoom and equivalents, but in person is different.

It made me think about what returning to normal is actually going to be about. Not the common stuff about whether we work in offices again, or when the pubs will open, but the smaller everyday changes. I remember walking around shops in thick crowds. I remember people standing like lemons in the middle of the street because they didn't see the need to consider where the people were around them. I remember people - oh that's it, I'm remembering people. Over the last year, there have been far fewer folk out and about, and those that have have by and large been aware of their fellow humans and taken them into account. I really hope this is something we can keep moving forwards.

I'm curious what else is going to come up as I look around? I imagine the first time I get on a train again will be a weird experience.




This post is from a series of shorter posts, written roughly once a week while the country is on lockdown to capture my feelings and reactions as we go. They are all tagged with coronavirus.

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Bots - a triumph of automation

I'm a bit lost on a website - they've been selling a particular bouquet of flowers for years and years and I'd like to reorder it. But it's not there! Maybe it's a pandemic thing, who knows. Still, at least there is a live chat function so I can ask this question. Live chat is a great way to get customer service, but unfortunately can be costly. Still, it looks like they’ve made the effort here.

Me: Hi there. I’m looking for a particular item <with sufficient description> that used to be on sale but I can't find it. Has it gone?

Ellie the Helper: Hi! Can I take your name please?

Sigh. It’s a bot isn't it? Can you imagine if this played out in an actual store.

Me: <repeats question>

Ellie the "Helper": Are you still there? 

Me: Yes…

Ellie the Definitely Human Helper: Hi! Can I take your name please?

Hhgggnnn… 

I hate bots. I see a lot of them as a user, and also see a lot of requests for them as someone whose job is on the web. They are seen as a nice, positive way of finding information on a website without the user having to find things. Or, to put it another way, without the site owner having to spend money on a decent user interface, information architecture, design, etc etc. Then they can cheap out on customer service too by making it look like there is a real human while trying to fool the user.

The technology does not work that well.

Me: Bob

Ellie the Script Executing HelperBot: Hi Bob! Here is a close alternative! <link>

And I'm presented with a bouquet of flowers. On a flower delivery website. Literally the only thing in common with what I was looking for is "contains flowers". On a flower delivery website.

No attempt to answer the actual question, of course. Just "here is another thing you can buy". It's ok though - automation saved the day and provided another seamless bot experience!