November 29, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The agile comms handbook by Giles Turnbull

Giles Turnbull is one of my go-to people when I want to explain how to write blog posts, or the comms style for MCQN Ltd. Recently he's written The agile comms handbook (on Open Library), which collects together a load of his thoughts, ideas and advice for how to communicate with other people.

It's a very readable book. I got plenty from it—despite having read Giles' blog for years—and it's great to have it pulled together into one document, it'll save me digging out assorted blog posts for new hires. (That's one of the good things about books, I reckon; writing a book forces you to set down "this is what I think about topic X, at this time", whereas blogs evolve over time with each post. I felt that with my book).

Here are the sections I highlighted during my reading, to give you a flavour of the book...

Page 16

It's communication that relates to humans, to busy people with many demands on their time and attention. It's communication that aims to tell the truth, share mistakes and successes alike, and do so in creative, accessible, human language. It's communication that aims to build relationships and trust over time.

Page 26

Good creative communication describes the work as it happens: the best way to do that is to let people doing the work, and people who do communication, sit alongside each other (literally and metaphorically) so that between them, they can come up with engaging, accurate ways of describing it.

Page 37

That's what agile comms means. It gives you storytelling superpowers, and helps build trust and relationships.

Page 53

The Internet-era approach is more open. We don't know who might be interested in this, so it's written for everyone. It makes a contribution to a wider conversation, because it links to other articles about other aspects of similar government [in this example] work. It's part of a longer story.

Page 58

It doesn't matter how many things you collect, and it doesn't matter if you don't use them all. In my experience you will probably end up using a small number of them many many times. But having the archive is what matters. It's good to know that it's there, and that it's a repository of memories that future versions of you—or future versions of your team, regardless of whether or not you're still in it—can use if and when they need to.

Page 85

Links are very important. As a general rule of thumb, I encourage teams to link outwards to everything on the Internet that they can link to. If you mention another organisation, link to it. If you mention a rival company, link to it. If you write about a place, link to its Wikipedia entry. If you write about events in the news, link to well-written reports about them. If it's possible to link to something, do so. This is simple, old-fashioned good web behaviour and it still matters.

Page 127

Maybe your first effort is so rough, it's just a list of bullet points. Or a few lines of text and a picture. It might be a sketch on a whiteboard, or some sticky notes on a wall. All of these things count as bad first drafts.

All of them give you something to start with. Something you can share with colleagues for their input and feedback.

Page 128

The very best blog posts are lively and creative and interesting to read, because they've been through this process within a team. They were written and edited by the team, not by distant comms function writing on the team's behalf.

Page 144

For years now, I've been telling the teams and organisations I work with to "use the words that humans use".

That means ditching the corpspeak and instead writing in plain everyday language. Writing the same way that people speak. If you do that, you will find your written communication is suddenly much more effective. People won't have to work hard to grasp your point, because your point will be crystal clear.

Page 147

The human voice is written as if spoken. It uses the words normal people would use. It's written for simplicity and clarity. It's what one person would say to another person, if the two of them were looking at one another, face to face.

Page 157

How would you explain it using just 10 slides? Or in a single page of prose? Once you've created something like this, share it with someone you trust. Does it make sense to them?

Page 165

Good comms describes how you did what you've done. Bad comms just says that you've done it.

Page 181

The [creative] team combines production, writing, editing, filmmaking, support, coaching and creative direction. It's a unit of creative production that you can delegate to.

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November 08, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: November 8th 2021 Edition

  • What Facebook Knew All Along. "But this much is clear: Facebook knew all along. Their own employees were desperately trying to get anyone inside the company to listen as their products radicalized their own friends and family members." Get an RSS reader and start building a newsfeed you control; come and hang-out with me and others on Mastodon—or Pixelfed if you're leaving Instagram and prefer the photo-friendly approach. That interoperates with Mastodon too. And leave Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp...
  • Managerial blah.
  • Does someone deserve to die for this?. "As Genevieve Gunther says, climate change isn't something we're doing, it's something we're being prevented from undoing. [...] In the UK, politicians held off on announcing a lockdown because they assumed that people wouldn't be willing to make that sacrifice. But it turns out we're willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect our community and each other. [...] I'm not an activist in any way, and I've never considered myself to be someone who'd risk my own comfort in order to save the world. But I have. All of us have. Now we know how far we're willing to go, and it's further than many of us imagined."
  • A Beginner's Guide to Social Media Verification. Good primer (and links to more) on detecting fake images online. As Laurie Anderson says, "get a good bullshit detector and learn how to use it."
  • COP26: Taking on the takes. COP26 won't solve all the problems but it will move us in the right direction.
  • High Streets for All? We need communities to own more of their buildings.
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October 25, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: October 25th 2021 Edition

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October 11, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: October 11th 2021 Edition

  • Catharsis. Good of Tim Bray to follow up on the story of Amazon firing people for speaking out about how it treats its warehouse staff, now that they've settled out of court, so "that particular firing spree was not only unethical and stupid, it was probably illegal."
  • The end of the world is over. Now the real work begins.. "Besides, it is realistic: things could be better. [...] Obviously there are complications, but these are just complications. They are not physical limitations we can’t overcome. So, granting the complications and difficulties, the task at hand is to imagine ways forward to that better place.
    Immediately many people will object that this is too hard, too implausible, contradictory to human nature, politically impossible, uneconomical, and so on. Yeah yeah. Here we see the shift from cruel optimism to stupid pessimism, or call it fashionable pessimism, or simply cynicism. It’s very easy to object to the utopian turn by invoking some poorly-defined but seemingly omnipresent reality principle. Well-off people do this all the time."
  • How to blog. If you can all just start blogging then I can stop posting these "you should be blogging" links every year or so...
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September 27, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: September 27th 2021 Edition

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August 30, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 30th 2021 Edition

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August 29, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman

Last year, in response to a blog post about scenius and groups, Matt Edgar recommended Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman.

It's taken a year to make it to the top of my reading pile, but it was an interesting read. Here are the sections I highlighted...

Page 5

A classic example is Michelangelo's masterpiece the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In our mind's eye, we see Michelangelo, looking remarkably like Charlton Heston, laboring alone on the scaffolding high above the chapel floor. In fact, thirteen people helped Michelangelo plan the work. Michelangelo was not only an artist, he was, as biographer William E. Wallace points out, the head of a good-sized entrepreneurial enterprise that collaboratively made art that bore his name [...]

Page 7

A Great Group can be a goad, a check, a sounding board, and a source of inspiration, support, and even love. Songwriter Jules Styne said he had to have a collaborator: "In the theater you need someone to talk to. You can't sit by yourself in a room and write."

Page 17

Curiosity fuels every Great Group. The members don't simply solve problems. They are engaged in a process of discovery that is its own reward.

Page 68

Recruitment was critical for several reasons. Taylor believed in the ARPA creed of choosing people over projects when funding research. Like George Pake, who headed both PARC as a whole and its science lab, Taylor believed that good science was done from the bottom up. You hired great people and turned them loose on projects that reflected their unique talents and passions. They told you what they needed to do. The more easily the individuals interacted, the less distracted from their mission they would be. Collaboration was formally encouraged. "You could spend 40 percent of your time working as 'hands' on somebody else's project," Kay says.

Page 71

Taylor knew better than to burden his gifted team with arbitrary rules. If some were arrogant, so be it. It was a small enough price to pay for talent (the attitude was pretty much "we don't care if they're prima donnas, as long as they can sing"). But the weekly meeting was mandatory. "There was only one rule not to be broken at PARC," Kay says. "There was one weekly meeting you had to go to, and you had to stay until the end."

Each week, participants grabbed a beanbag chair from the pile as they came into the meeting. At these often heated sessions, every member of the group was exposed to the ideas and fragmentary accomplishments of the others. Those "bits and pieces," as Taylor called them, were what everyone might have to build on in his or her own research. Thus the weekly meeting served as a simple but remarkably efficient structure for exposing everyone to information that might prove key somewhere down the line. The weekly meeting allowed information to be shared without resorting to time-consuming reports and memos. It also allowed tensions and disagreements to surface and be wrangled out on the spot. The meetings were a reflection of Taylor's understanding of the dynamics of extraordinary groups. "No organization works beyond the size you can get all the principals together in a room and thrash out the issues before you go home," Kay says.

Taylor was also sensitive to the critical importance of his group's having the right tools. Most often, that meant tools they created themselves. In the ARPA community, everyone was both a hardware and a software person. "You had this group that was able to roll its own," Kay says.

Page 78

Bob Potter, who headed the computer-engineering facility that Xerox established in Dallas during the PARC era, was one corporate decision maker who felt the sting of PARC's collective scorn. "[...] they were only interested in their own thing. They thought they were four feet above everybody else. What the PARC people never understood was that they were supposed to help the less fortunate, less intelligent rest of the world."

Page 97

Carville's rhetoric is a reminder of just how powerful the underappreciated art of persuasion continues to be in collective action of all kinds. People are not necessarily swayed by reason. "The head has never beaten the gut in a political argument yet, and I doubt if it ever will," Carville writes in All's Fair.

Page 127

In organizing his Skunk Works, Johnson paid no attention to how the quarters looked or how comfortable they were. One of the principles he held dearest was that designers and mechanics should work side by side, making suggestions and addressing problems as they went along, so the prototype could be modified on the spot.

Page 130

The Skunk Works, Disney Animation, and the Macintosh team were remarkably innovative, but they weren't think tanks—institutions whose real mission is the production of ideas. These Great Groups were places where products were being made, things that had to be delivered in a timely fashion to the world. One of Steve Jobs's mantras at Apple was "Real artists ship." Johnson, too, believed that a plane must be designed brilliantly but not so perfectly that it never gets off the drawing board. In Johnson's view, some things, notably safety, must never be compromised. He built triple redundancy into the Blackbird, for instance, so that a failure in any one system, or even two, would not mean the loss of a pilot. But, like Thomas Aquinas before him and Steve Jobs after, Johnson knew that something that exists is intrinsically better than something, however brilliantly conceived, that doesn't.

Page 141

[Ben Rich, successor to Johnson in running the Skunk Works,] believed, for instance, in the value of generalists "who are more open to nonconventional approaches than narrow specialists." (Both the Manhattan Project and Xerox PARC similarly benefited from the presence of people who were not narrow specialits, but deep generalists.)

Page 158

Although its mission was never as clear as that of groups involved in creating an actual thing, Black Mountain was a place that throbbed with the excitement of creating something new. All Great Groups are boundary busters, and Black Mountain, with its unusual curriculum and changing cast of fascinating characters, was no exception.

Page 181

The role of women in the Manhattan Project is troubling. From Madame Curie, the codiscoverer of polonium and radium, to Lisa Meitner, the grievously unsung physicist, who with her nephew, Otto Frisch, first explained how neutron capture could result in the release of enormous amounts of energy, women were crucial at every stage in the history of nuclear physics. But they were a decided minority among the players in the Tech Area. There were a few female physicists and other scientists, but, for the most part, women played supportive roles, doing tedious mathematical calculations, for example, and serving as secretaries.

Page 198

Great Groups give the lie to the remarkably persistent notion that successful institutions are the lengthened shadow of a great woman or man. It's not clear that life was ever so simple that individuals, acting alone, solved most significant problems. Our tendency to create heroes rarely jibes with the reality that most nontrivial problems require collective solutions.

Page 199

Every Great Group has a strong leader. This is one of the paradoxes of creative collaboration. Great Groups are made up of people with rare gifts working together as equals. Yet, in virtually every one there is one person who acts as maestro, organizing the genius of the others. He or she is a pragmatic dreamer, a person with an original but attainable vision. Ironically, the leader is able to realize his or her dream only if the others are free to do exceptional work. Typically, the leader is the one who recruits the others, by making the vision so palpable and seductive that they see it, ttoo, and eagerly sign up.

Page 202

The broader and more diverse the network, the greater the potential for a Great Group. The richer the mix of people, the more likely that new connections will be made, new ideas will emerge.

Page 214

Great Groups ship. Successful collaborations are dreams with deadlines. They are places of action, not think tanks or retreat centers devoted solely to the generation of ideas. Great Groups don't just talk about things (although they often do that at considerable length). They make things—amazing, original things, such as a plane that a bat can't find. Great Groups are hands-on. Think of Kistiakowsky, the great chemist, sitting with a dentist's drill correcting defects in castings because that was what the project needed.

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August 16, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 16th 2021 Edition

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August 09, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 9th 2021 Edition

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July 12, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: July 12th 2021 Edition

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