Mindful system and finding our hum

notebooks and wine

I went paperless about 9 years ago when I started my PHD and realised that I might actually end up being buried under mounds of articles if I didn’t take action. However I have never ever managed to crack my addition to stationary and you can tell when I feel things are getting a bit hectic because I still believe the perfect notebook will solve things. Clearly things hit a peak this week with 3 new notebooks and a glass of wine being needed.

We live in a state of constant busyness and my mindful diary posts are my way of thinking this through. But this week I have been thinking about systemic busyness and how we turn our shared sense of being overwhelmed with stuff into system change.

What do we need to do to create a mindful system where we are concentrating our efforts on the stuff that we know makes a difference?

mobiles strip showing continuous change

The networked society is always on

Because the work isn’t going away. One of the consequences of a networked and digital world is the fact that change is constant and nothing will ever really be finished again as we live in a world of continual improvement. We need to take our industrial mindset that tells us that work is an in-tray that we can get to the bottom on and turn it into a networked mindset that thinks of work is a constant flow where we chose what to focus on. We need to redesign the process and flow of work so that we can move things seamlessly from active development to more gradual maintenance and continuous improvement. We don’t often talk about focus, flow and resilience when we think about technology but I think these are the tools we need in order to shift our ways of working as we move our technology to be incremental and adaptive.

For technologists this is an acute problem. We stand between the rest of our organisations and the technological wonderland of the 21st century and as such we straddle the gap between old and new ways of working. Our first priority needs to be self-care and if you are a leader care for your people. And as a first step we have to make sure that we are sharing a mental model so we don’t have one group trying to finish things and other group continuously trying to change them.

Being ‘digital*’, having a ‘digital’ mindset brings this thinking implicitly – we think in backlogs and continuous reprioritisation but we need to stop and consider that for anyone who has not shifted their mental model to think of focus and flow instead of finishing things this world of continual improvement sounds overwhelming. We don’t often stop to think that if you are in a front line support role for example the constant stream of calls and tickets does feel relentless and you are unlikely to believe you can ever get ahead of this very different kind of user need to the one that UX research and designers shows us. These people are not resistant to change – they are trying to avoid going under as more agile methods turn finished products into things that we expect them not just to support as they are on day one but to continue to improve.

As a team and as a technology directorate we are spending a lot of time thinking about our operating model (how work flows through our system) and our governance framework (how and who decide what and how things get done). The third element of our work in this area is our design principles and I think this is where we need to focus. These are a very ‘digital’ set of design principles but have we spent to the time we need making sure that people have made the mental shift to this very different way of working?

I am not going to get less busy on my own – none of us will. We need to think about how we shift the system that we operate in to have more focus, flow and resilience. I often talk about this as a need to find our ‘hum’.

So back on the mindful diary – I am trying to move from having shorter meetings to longer deep dives with key groups of people with a focus on specific pieces of work. This is being combined with planning meetings (like sprint planning) where we review the backlog and work out where our focus needs to be. This seems to be working well. I am also going to build in more (shorter) firebreaks into my time so that I can actually think about things rather than just reacting. I am also going to think about things in terms of system capacity rather than my own capacity (this will be a struggle for me!). Finally, I am also going to up my own focus on making sure that all of the team understand that why behind those design principles.

Its a busy time of year and the world is only going to get busier. Finding our hum is the best defence we have against feeling overwhelmed but we can’t do it on our own. Who is helping you find your hum?

* the word digital is used with all the normal caveats about it being a broken word

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