Creating Space for People to Be Awesome: Highland Fling Sessions

Today I was in Edinburgh speaking at Highland Fling: Sessions. It was a very enjoyable day, with a theme of “in the trenches”, i.e. how we get things done day-by-day.

My talk centred around people management and inclusion, on what people need to get & stay motivated in their work, and how to make our spaces more inclusive. The slides are embedded here or can be viewed directly on Slideshare.

Books Mentioned in This Talk

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Rejecting the Soft Skills Fairy

A couple of months later, the Dare Conference still swirls into my head at least once per day. Great experiences are like that — they don’t just affect you on the particular day, but for months and years afterwards. Kathy Sierra recently wrote a brilliant piece about how great talks are a user experience (and so the speaker is really just the UI).

Dare Conf was one hell of a user experience.

I still can’t really articulate everything I learnt. Everything I heard. Everything we experienced as a group. Dare felt like early SxSWi. Like you were connecting with people who just got it. Who were simultaneously so different and so like you. Who were taking the time to learn some pretty hard shit, together as colleagues rather than as combatants. Who were deliberately opening themselves up to the scary change, the frightening ideas, the things that might just change the world.

[I appreciate that if you went to much more recent SxSWi you are probably wondering what I’m smoking: read this excellent post by Anil Dash on the web we lost.]

I know I’m doing things differently. Whether it’s realising when my amygdala is hijacking me, remembering to “get in the car” as my friend Neil exhorted, or using Dave Gray’s culture map to illustrate to an organisation why the delta between what they SAY they believe in and what they ACTUALLY believe in is hurting them.

The thing I most want to share with you today about Dare though, is one of the slides from Karen McGrane‘s excellent opening keynote:

Karen was highlighting that in our industry we have (and highly prize) technical skills, but to be really effective we need the others too — we need to be able to work with others (External skills, as she puts it), and we have to have to be able to work with ourselves (Internal skills).

I’ve been managing people for a number of years now. I repeatedly see this play out: someone who is technically brilliant slowly becomes incredibly frustrated that they don’t have the impact they want to have. If they’re lucky, someone helps them to realise that they need to not only be clever and technically brilliant, but they also need to have the soft skills (External) to get other people involved and they need the self-compassion (Internal) to manage their internal frustration at this not being as easy as the stuff they’re already good at.

The only difference between those who managed to develop those skills and those who don’t? Belief in the Soft Skills Fairy.

The Soft Skills Fairy has a wand, and if you were touched with it at birth then you have soft skills. If you weren’t you don’t and can never develop them.

Sounds silly, right? Seriously though, people seem to believe this. The people who believe that anyone can be taught to code, that design skills can be learnt, honed, developed, these same people believe in the Soft Skills fucking Fairy.

The truth is much harder to face: everyone can develop these skills. But it is hard, it takes work, and no one has a magic wand to wave over you to make it happen overnight.

Do yourself a favour: reject the Soft Skills Fairy. Invest in yourself. Make time for learning some of those soft skills in between the technical skills; they are both essential to being awesome at your job. Find people who are good at this stuff and ask them how they learned. Find ways to practise, outside and inside of work. Find people who will tell you the truth about whether you’re getting better and then ask them.

It’ll be hard. It’ll be worth it.

If you want a ready-made safe environment to learn some of these things, come to Dare Conf Mini in January in London. There’s still a £100 discount if you grab an early bird ticket by Monday 18 November. [UPDATE: You can now get a significant discount by using code MERI at checkout too — thanks to the organisers!]

As you’ll see from the line-up, I’m speaking (and running a full day workshop on Practical People Skills) but honestly, I’m hugely excited about what I’ll learn from the other folks speaking and attending. I imagine Dare Mini is going to be another incredible experience and I’ll walk away doing things differently. Better. And I’ll continue to utterly reject the goddamn Soft Skills Fairy.

A Sabbatical and a New Chapter

One of the best bits of career advice I ever received was from one of my first Directors, who said she actively decided each year whether to recommit to the role and the company. I’ve done the same ever since — evaluating whether it’s the right job and organisation each year and either actively signing up for another year, or choosing to make a change. As a way of ensuring your own engagement in what you’re doing, it’s an effective tactic. Working at GDS has been a very exciting journey and a team that I adore, but I came to the conclusion back in November that staying was not the right career move for me and so gave early notice that I’d be leaving.

Though looking after the Delivery team (70 civil servants and an additional 70 contractors at times) was very rewarding (they are a group of vibrant & brilliant people), I missed being directly involved in products & programmes & strategy work a bit too much. I love managing people and improving processes to make workplaces a better place to be (and I think doing those things right is an incredibly important thing for any organisation), but found that doing PURELY that felt like the wrong balance – I’m a leader of technology organisations, not an HR specialist after all. I’m eagerly anticipating getting my teeth back into projects & programmes, operations & strategy again, in addition to growing a world class team.

Those who know me won’t be surprised to hear that I also found the opacity & pace of the Civil Service something of a culture shock, coming from a very efficiency- and delivery-focused corporate background. Frankly, I know many of my old colleagues at P&G are amazed I lasted this long 😉 I will say that I think things are changing and getting better, but the starting point is so fundamentally different that I admire the progress that has been made all the more.

Tynemouth Beach - headland with ruins of castle overlooking sandy beach and blue sea

So what next?

I’m in the lucky position of having rather a lot of holiday saved up, so I’m taking a six month sabbatical – both to travel and to write another book (didn’t know about the first one? Here it is: The Principles of Project Management, also on Kindle and available from Amazon). I’ll be visiting Austin, San Francisco, Amsterdam, various cities in the UK (home in Newcastle for a bit, London and likely Brighton) and then spending a month in Portugal, after which I’ll be going home to South Africa for a while too as my cousin is getting married.

If you’re in one of those cities, we should hang out! Drop me an email / DM and I’ll let you know when I’ll be in town (or the details are on Dopplr if we’re connected there). During this sabbatical time I also have some limited availability for short engagement work – so if you’d like to work with me, let me know.

I’ll announce what comes after that in due time. I have to say I’ve been impressed at how flexible the organisations I’m talking with have been willing to be – it’s been a very pleasant surprise to see companies ranging in size willing to accommodate time off to travel before starting a new role.

People Management in an Agile Setting

This was first published on the Cabinet Office website.

After speaking at AgileTeaCamp, I thought I would share how people management has evolved in the GDS Delivery Team.

What you get for free with agile

Agile product teams are self-managing. With the users’ needs in mind, the product manager defines what needs to be done and the team itself decides how to achieve it. This is instantly a more motivating approach. You’re trusting people to design the best solution to meet the need, rather than handing down a ‘solved problem’ to be implemented. You’re also making the most of the smart, talented people you’ve worked so hard to find.

The approach we’ve taken at GDS is to create high-performing multi-disciplinary teams.  These teams consist of designers, developers, user researchers, content designers, technical architects, delivery managers, product managers and experts in customer insight, web operations and product analytics. These people all work together to build digital products and services. Managers are no longer expected to tell people what to do and how to do it.

So what do the people managers do and do we still need them?

How the role of ‘manager’ has evolved

The role of the manager now focuses on:

  • looking after people (what used to be called ‘pastoral care’)
  • matching people to challenging, engaging work (ie understanding what someone’s skills and interests are and then matching them to an appropriate team and opportunity)
  • personal development and training (discussing with folks whether they want to deepen their specialism or widen their skill set, and helping them plan how to make that happen)
  • career guidance (coaching, mentoring and helping people find out what the opportunities are)

Communities of practice

Most of our managers are specialists in their own right and they’re extraordinarily good at what they do. They act as head of the specialism and they line manage the specialists in their area. They arrange training and regular meet-ups, and they create opportunities for work to be shared across the different product teams.

At GDS, these communities are at various stages of maturity. One of the best examples is our design team. Ben Terrett, head of design, holds regular ‘design crits’ in which designers share their work and receive feedback from other designers. The design team visit relevant exhibitions and attend design-related events.

The advantage of this approach is that most people can learn from their line manager, who is a specialist in their field. People also have the opportunity to work with colleagues with different skills and viewpoints. This diverse mix generates excellent solutions to challenging problems.

The future

We will of course continue to evolve our approach. We’re eager to hear about other people’s experiences of agile and their views on how traditional people management is changing. What needs to be preserved and what is no longer necessary?

Joining the Revolution

I’m delighted to share that I’ll imminently be joining the Government Digital Service as the manager for their most excellent Delivery Team. I’m hugely excited about working with this astonishingly talented group of people, some of whom I already know and others I am keen to meet, as they work on transforming the UK government’s digital presence & offerings. After Martha Lane Fox called for “revolution not evolution” in government’s digital services, this new department has been growing quickly and delivering in spades, with an approach more akin to a start-up than the traditional image of government IT.

It was not an easy decision to leave Procter & Gamble, where I have been an Information Decision Solutions manager for the last 10 years. It’s a brilliant company (recently named #1 for leadership development by Chief Executive magazine) that afforded me wonderful opportunities to develop as a professional and an individual, as well as granting many lasting friendships with colleagues I both like and respect.

I started at P&G whilst I was still at university and worked up through a variety of roles, from Systems Analyst to Product Manager, then Project & Programme Manager and more recently Engineering Manager type roles in various business domains. I also had the privilege to get involved in a number of organisational development activities, founding the company’s LGBT employee network in the UK which was recognised as a Star Performer Network Group by Stonewall in recent years, leading recruitment in the South West and redesigning our internal management “colleges” to be exciting experiences rather than “death by PowerPoint”.

For a long time I managed to maintain both my corporate and geek/web interests and activities in parallel, participating in BarCamps, Refreshes & SxSWi when I could and even writing a book on geek project management for SitePoint. In recent years my travel schedule at P&G has meant this became harder & harder and frankly I missed the digital side of things.

The prospect of being able to marry both worlds together in the same job really is geek manager heaven. I can’t wait to start!

Important vs Urgent

In any job, it’s easy to get caught up in urgent day-to-day matters — “fire fighting” as many describe it. One of the most useful tools I’ve found for breaking the cycle of always working on what is most urgent rather than most important is this prioritization grid.

Grid used for prioritization of tasks & deliverables, plotting by importance and urgency
Grid used for prioritization of tasks & deliverables, plotting by importance and urgency

The grid helps you divide your tasks & deliverables into four categories:

  1. Urgent & Important (fire fighting) — these are the everyday priorities, things that have either come up urgently or important things that you didn’t get to until they became urgent.
  2. Urgent & Not Important (distraction) — these are the easiest things to move on to once the fire fighting is done, but hardly the most productive. Everyone has their tasks that fall into this category. For me, it’s checking my email or voicemail rather than making a choice to work on something more important.
  3. Not Urgent But Important (quality time — aka fire prevention) — the things that are important. Part of your strategic vision. The kind of things that mean you have left a positive mark on a place after working there. Shouldn’t you be investing more time here?
  4. Not Urgent, Not Important (time wasting) — ever noticed the guy in your office who seems to spend time arranging his desk rather than doing any work? Or putting new colour labels on files that were already perfectly workable? My best friend avoided revision for our final exams in school by deciding he simply HAD to learn Linux right then in that fortnight when revising should have been top priority… 😉

The point isn’t to never do tasks in certain categories, just to become much more conscious of the choices you’re making. I’ve been using this grid for years now and I can certainly not claim that I never do tasks that are not urgent & not important — but now I make a conscious decision about whether to take on the next big important thing, or whether to spend the 5 mins before lunch sorting through my expense reports.

Try it for a week and see if it makes a difference for you!

Performance, Image, Exposure

One of the most interesting concepts I came across when I was just starting out in my corporate career was the PIE model – Performance, Image, Exposure. Typically this is represented by a pyramid diagram or a pie chart, depending on how pun-driven the explainer’s sense of humour is.

In terms of an individual’s career, the 3 segments represent the following:

  • Performance: The actual work you do, the results you deliver.
  • Image: The impression that others have of you (obviously this can differ from person to person).
  • Exposure: The people who get to know about a) your results and b) your image.

At first, it was a concept that really didn’t sit well with me. It didn’t seem FAIR. Surely one’s career should really just depend on the results that you deliver? If you’re good at your job, you should do well, right?

If I’m honest, that feeling stayed for quite a long while. I resisted the concept that you needed to care about your image, about your exposure. I believed that I could just do my job and that the results I delivered would be what mattered. I wouldn’t need to care about image or about getting known by the decision-makers.

All that changed because I was asked to write some feedback for someone. The person in question was someone I actually hadn’t worked with as directly as others for whom I had written performance evaluations in the past. I realised that since I hadn’t been working directly with them, I didn’t really KNOW about their real work and their real results. Strangely, though, I still had definite opinions, both of what they were doing well and what they could improve on.

This is what made me realise that image and exposure are both important — and factors that you should ignore at your peril.

Whether you like it or not, only a limited number of people will get to work with you directly. Even those that do will get a fairly narrow view of the real results that you deliver. On the other hand, many many more people will form an image in their minds of what you’re like — perhaps that you’re a safe pair of hands, maybe that you’re very smart or very ambitious. Some may form a very negative image — that you’re a bullshitter or unreliable or untrustworthy. The combination of that image that people have of you (Image) and the groups of people that share that view of you (Exposure) can make or break your career.

The big light bulb moment for me was when I accepted that Image and Exposure were going to matter whether I cared about them or not. Of course Performance is also important and always will be — I firmly believe that folks who try to make it all about the image and the exposure are playing a dangerous game of smoke and mirrors and will eventually be caught out. But the difference between two colleagues with comparative performance, one of whom cultivates the type of image they want and makes an effort to get the right exposure and the other who ignores these facets completely … well, it can be very significant.