Grounded & Steadfast

est. 2008

Some articles open with a whimper, some with a bang. This one is in the latter camp:

Busy, distracted, inattentive? Everybody has been since at least 1710 and here are the philosophers to prove it

It’s an interesting read, where the author, Frank Furedi, is looking at the past in an attempt to address the concerns of the present. Concerns regarding attention, or the lack thereof. And he claims we’re not dealing with anything new, but with an issue that has been around for 300 years.

Those who suffer this debilitating condition have a particular name for the state of their feelings: ‘they have the fidgets’

What I find interesting is how he associates the problem of inattention with morality. And has plenty of sources who do the same. But is this truly a moral issue? Or an issue of inability?

One might argue that it’s not an issue at all, that a state of (nearly) permanent distraction is just a reality of the times and not a problem. Regular readers of this newsletter will know where I fall on this matter; our best work, of any type, is accomplished with focus. But is it an issue of morality or inability? Perhaps a mixture of both. I know one thing: the less you say “no” to yourself, the harder it is to achieve discipline.

How can one choose in any given moment to do the more important thing when new stimulus presents itself if we never practice self-discipline? And living in an age and culture where giving in to your desires is promoted around every corner, it’s no wonder we’re all struggling with the small, daily choices to cultivate good habits.

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Is Email the Problem?

Readers here are no doubt aware of my enjoyment of Cal Newport’s writing. I’ve certainly talked about his latest book and linked to his blog enough times. I’m doing so once more, but this time to voice my disagreement.

Cal’s on a war against email.He’s written a short series of posts on his own site. He was also featured in the Harvard Business Review with a piece titled A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email. It’s obvious that I appreciate Cal’s focus on the important, the deep work. And while I understand his approach to social media in the book (quit it, don’t use it), I think he’s going too far with email itself.

Communication channels always bear the brunt of our complaints

Teams must communicate. This is especially true today with the dispersed nature of our teams. An asynchronous option like email seems best able to allow focus. Where as tools like Slack result in a sense of chaos, distraction, and immediacy, email allows you to get back to people on your time.

Now, in his piece for HBR, Cal summarizes the problem with email:

This unstructured workflow arose from the core properties of email technology — namely, the standard practice of associating addresses with individuals (and not, say, teams, or request type, or project), and the low marginal cost of sending a message. It spread for the simple reason that it’s easier in the moment. It takes significantly less effort to shoot off quick messages, for example, than it is to more carefully plan your work day, figuring out in advance what you need, from whom, and by when.

Agreed. But is eliminating email altogether the best answer to the problem above? I would strongly advocate the approach Cal takes in his book, (and repeats on his blog) that we write longer, more purposeful emails. Write what he calls process-centric emails. Here’s his description:

When sending or replying to an email, identify the goal this emerging email thread is trying to achieve. For example, perhaps its goal is to synchronize a plan for an upcoming meeting with a collaborator or to agree on a time to grab coffee. Next, come up with a process that gets you and your correspondent to this goal while minimizing the number of back and forth messages required. Explain this process in the email so that you and your recipient are on the same page.

If we all took this level of effort, email would be far less of a problem.

Email is a box to check. It does require discipline to not allow this box to be something you flit back to at the first moment of waiting for a web page to load or a thought to form when you're writing. However, I find it far less disturbing than other “tools” like social media or team chat.

Perhaps in academia, eliminating email is more feasible. For most of us, I find it to be a great method of communication. Especially when used well.

Communication channels always bear the brunt of our disgruntlement, but it's our habits that are the true problem, along with our work culture.

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I’m currently 40,000 feet in the air as I write this. There’s nothing quite like 6 hours on a plane with no connectivity to allow one to meditate on and process the results of a 7 day team retreat. It also leads a long task list in one’s notebook!

What I found myself meditating this time around was the people. How we’re all so varied, so unique, and yet with striking similarities repeated across a group of individuals. After spending 7 full days in the same house with 22 other people, I’ve realized two things.

First, the topic of introversion vs. extroversion so quickly becomes silly and unproductive. It’s a spectrum, plain and simple. A broad one. We all fall somewhere on the line, with different characteristics displaying where we live along that spectrum. What may classify one person as introverted may be completely different for the next.

Second, in her article titled The Outgoing Introvert, Jenn Granneman poses the idea that some introverts are social and not shy, enjoying the spotlight on occasion and not fearful of meeting others. Yet, when the battery gets depleted, these people need time alone in order to recharge and be ready for the next event.

This is exactly how I found myself. The past week drove that home once more. I love the chance to have some face to face time with my teammates. Getting in front of the team to speak is fun, not intimidating. Voicing my opinions in a healthy team debate is not a problem. And I cherish spending time with the newer teammate I’ve met for the first time, getting to know them a little better (or a lot). The concept of a team retreat for remote workers is critical to my job satisfaction.

It’s also exhausting!

Our last night was a great illustration. As we finished our last dinner together, the topic turned to what we’d do for the rest of the night. When someone mentioned watching a movie, one of my colleagues leaned over and said, “How about talking? To people? That’s what we’re here for.” And he was right.

But after 7 days of being in the company of others from morning to night, as enjoyable as it was, talking was the last thing I wanted to do. My teammate clearly is energized by the interactions. I had nothing left and wanted to just shut down. Neither is wrong; it’s just how we work.

As I looked around my other overtly introverted teammates, I could see the same thing on their faces. And so I enjoyed a good movie with a couple of other folks. Once again, I came away feeling blessed for working on a team that values diversity and allows us to be ourselves. We push each other to do our best, but all while respecting and embracing our differences.

I like that.

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How I Use Day One

Day One is one of those applications where I’ve always known I was underutilizing it. For one, I’ve never had a consistent journalling habit. And secondly, it has a lot of functionality that I simply never put to use.

This has been true from day one (sorry, not sorry), but became even more pronounced with the launch of Day One 2. This version brought multiple journals, better support for images, and many other small touches. And to follow that up, they recently announced support for IFTTT. That option opens up a world of automated journal entries.

Now, automated journal entries sounds like a phrase that is ripe for misuse. One can picture a pipe of content that is never viewed or revisited, meeting no purpose. However, with some careful thought, I think this can be put to good use.

How I’m using Day One today

I’ve slowly been increasing my usage of this powerful app since Paul invited me to the beta of version 2. Here’s how …

A work journal

My first step was creating a second journal titled Wildbit. Every day where I’m working on long term initiatives, I open an entry and keep the app on the side of my screen (using Moom for precise widths and spacing, natch).

Tracking what I do each day

As I go through my day, I jot down what I’ve done and why certain decisions were made. This helps me for a couple of reasons. For one, your future self is always questioning why you took a certain approach. As will my team. So it’s nice to have a trail to review and recall why something was done.

Second, our teams shares monthly reports to the entire company. It’s a lot nicer writing those reports when I don’t have to scour through email, Slack, and Paper.

Good writing

Another way I’ve been using Day One of late is a reading journal. Although it’s possible to archive bookmarks here, I already do that in Pinboard. So I do not feel the need for that type of thing in Day One.

However, I have not had a good place to store all the highlights found in my reading. And so I created a Reading journal, hooked up the Day One IFTTT channel, and created some recipes. Now, any time I highlight text in Instapaper, the words and the details of the quote are stored in a Day One entry.

Tracking quotes

The last thing I did here was create a recipe to have article tagged with “like” in Pinboard to be added to a new entry in Day One. Sadly, news just arrived that IFTTT is removing Pinboard from their list of supported channels (here is Maciej’s response).

Beers

Last, one nice addition to my journaling habit has been recording all the great beers I’ve tried. Since I love the care put into the labels as well as each brew, Day One’s support of photos is helpful. Every time I try a new option, I take a picture of the bottle and tag the entry “brews”.

Mmmmm, beer

The nice touch here is that my wife doesn’t really care to see beer bottles mixed into the family pictures. And so I can choose to not have photos taken on my phone in the Day One app added to my Camera Roll.

98% of the photos taken on my phone are done so in the Camera app. And if I ever want to add a certain photo of a child or event, I can add it to Day One. But being able to take a photo directly in the app is helpful in that I can keep my iCloud Photos library in a more clean state.


That sums up my current usage. Have any great use cases yourself? I’d love to hear it!

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Are product managers a burden to productive teams?

The fine folks at Help Scout asked that question. And co-founder Nick Francis seems to indicate that the answer is yes. I quite enjoy the Help Scout blog, specifically the writing of Gregory Ciotti. But this particular piece didn’t sit well.

It starts with a somewhat inflammatory opening statement. The one in big bold text:

To build a great product, you need design and you need engineering. Somewhere along the way, and especially as companies grow, another mysterious role enters the fray: the Product Manager.

Take the work that someone does and add a drop of condescension and you're suddenly ruffling some feathers. Knowing the Help Scout team, this was not likely the intended purpose. But it does read a bit smug.

Again, I appreciate this team (we use their product, which I like a lot). And I appreciate Nick's overall point. But it's not well made and includes some generalizing statements. If he had taken the approach of explaining "this is what works best for our team", one could appreciate the insight and move on.

But he instead took the approach of attacking a role in our community.

But the Product Manager role introduces a couple disadvantages. It takes ownership away from the people doing the work. Designers and engineers become cogs executing a plan when they should be empowered to solve customer pain. Product Managers also add significant overhead to every project, albeit unintentionally.

To the point of designers and engineers being treated as cogs, it sounds like Nick has experience with bad product managers.

But his main point is that having no product managers is good for several reasons. It keeps the primary creators closer to the customer, is a more efficient process, and distributes some key functions to multiple people instead of just one. As he states:

A magical thing happens when there’s no Product Manager. All of the project planning and ancillary tasks become “everyone’s job.” Designers and engineers have to work together to understand customer pain and come up with a delightful solution.

And:

These “chores” become empowering, rather than a burden, because they give people a sense of ownership and responsibility that didn’t previously exist.

There’s truth here. It can be beneficial for designers and engineers to do these tasks. And it’s good to have people with those skillsets close to the front lines hearing directly from customers. The only issue is that when they’re doing these tasks, they’re not doing their primary tasks. Instead of designing and developing, they’re product managing.

But Nick is making the case that this is more efficient.

As a company grows, product development gets slower, takes more people and requires more effort. We often misunderstand those challenges and insert Product Managers to babysit and make the process more efficient … I’d argue that this role exacerbates the problem instead of solving it.

His entire point of reduced efficiency and increased overhead seems misguided. If a PM adds bloat to the overall process that gets a team to successful implementation, how does taking the important functions s/he performs and having designers and engineers do them make the overall process faster?

It doesn’t.

Every hour a designer spends doing user research is one hour they're not designing. Whether that is low fidelity idea generation or high fidelity iterations of the final solution, the designer is researching instead. The same is true for the developer.

There are certain functions that are vital to successful products. Who performs those functions isn’t terribly important in and of itself. If a team prefers to have designers and developers do user research, write technical specifications, and manage the overall development process, that process can work.

But so too does having one person own the responsibility of those functions. Someone whose sole purpose is to gather all the necessary information, get it into the hands of the creators, and manage communication as smoothly as possible. And most important, someone who spends their time ensuring the goals of the business are aligned with the needs of the customer.

Suggesting that you can take all of that and just add it to the role of designers and engineers is a fallacy. I'd tend to believe this approach often results in a mediocre end solution as people are wearing too many hats to be truly proficient at their primary craft.

An experienced, proficient product manager is an expert on those functions because it's all s/he does, every day. Having an expert in this area frees up designers and developers to do what they do best, as well as empowers them with the right information and focus.

Last, I wonder how the customer success/support staff at Help Scout feel about this statement:

At Help Scout designers always have the final say because they are closest to the customer.

​Really?

Update: Nick proves he's a class act. He's updated the post based on some feedback he's had with several folks, including yours truly with what you see above.

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You may have come across this article from last fall at some point. It’s a long, well thought out piece by Kim Stanley Robinson exploring the actual potential for humans to be able to live on a planet other than this one. His prognosis? Not good!

As someone who spends a lot of time lamenting what we’re doing to this planet, I appreciate a science fiction writer taking the time to add a dose of reality to our consciousness. As he starts out, he reminds us that interplanetary travel is an idea that has been around for not all that long:

Humanity traveling to the stars is an ancient dream, and a late nineteenth and early twentieth century project, proposed quickly after the first developments in rocketry. The idea spread through world culture, mainly by way of science fiction

Since then, due to the explosion in popularity of science fiction, this idea has become a rather integral part of our culture. Not to simply travel to another planet (getting to Mars is obviously feasible), but to find one that could support human life and then begin to colonize it. It’s to the point where most of us believe it’s just a matter of time. Robinson basically takes a detailed approach to say, “Maybe not.”

If you spend much time at all reading about climate change, you may be concerned about timelines. On the one hand, the time it will take us to find and colonize a inhabitable planet has not shrunk much at all (perhaps it’s even expanded). On the other, the timeline where the earth’s environment becomes uninhabitable seems to shrink every time you read about it. We would appear to be running out of time.

Let’s hope a lot of the new science fiction is focused on renewing the state of this planet. It seems to be a far more likely chance of success. Personally, I try not to fret too much, for I have another hope. But I do want to make choices that reflect reality, not fiction!

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