Lessons from a Metricated Life

This year I planned to run a test of a measured life. With great enthusiasm I started journaling on 1 January using a bullet journal approach that others had recommended. Each month I created a table to record some key actions and events that i wanted to follow. My goal was to understand whether measurement would influence my habits or at least deliver insights.

The measurement lasted until Mid March when the pressures of work overwhelmed my meticulous recording. We are heading to late April and I haven’t rushed to restart so it is worth a pause to reassess.

Here is what I learned from the process:

  • Metrics are useful insights into less considered behaviours. There were items I tracked that I rarely consider such as how much water I drink. Having better visibility of these was useful and constructive in driving change
  • Easy habits were well reinforced by measurement. Going for a walk more often, catching up with friends and so on we’re more consistently practised under the pressure of ticking a daily or weekly box.
  • Things i usually deprioritise when pressure is on weee more frequent when i was recording them. I had one more conscious rationale to hold the line.
  • After an initial spike of enthusiasm, hard tasks like going to the gym more often, writing more often did not change in frequency.
  • A double page spread of daily measures was overkill. I would have been better tracking fewer metrics and stuck at them longer.
  • As I measured my daily mood, it was helpful to understand some simple correlations I can use. For example, days were better when i listened to music. This is correlation only (because it often related to other factors like spare time and how I travelled), but it is useful to note.
The Matrix

In summary, journaling metrics was useful to prompt mindfulness and better behaviour on low effort habits. I need a more systematic and purposeful approach to move the dial on more transformative changes. Overall the process was one I would try again for more learnings but I am unlikely to be a permanent convert.

The Shadow Side of the Hype Cycle

‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot’

For every hyped technology, there is a shadow. We can learn a lot by looking for that shadow and asking ourselves what it is worth to us. Maybe then we will avoid the Sisyphean work of pushing technology up a hill of adoption.

We are familiar with the hype cycle. We experience a rush of inflated expectations with new technology and then it crashes into disillusionment before recovery. Between the peak and the crash, the hype of technology can throw a long shadow. Decisions, especially investment decisions, made at the peak can surface negatives that highlight issues that need to be addressed for sustainable productivity. If we don’t address these shadows, the rock will keep crushing us in the trough.

Gartner Hype Cycle

Let’s recap recent hype cycles to understand the shadow:

  • Large Language Models: the shadow reminds us the question is more valuable than the answer
  • Blockchain: it turns out that trust matters and trust less technologies are subject to scams and abuse
  • Gig Economy: we can create new flexibility of work and services but platform economics can reduce the value to participants and have externalities in the viability of suppliers in the wider market for goods and services.
  • Social Media: We can bring the world together on platforms at scale previously unimaginable but now misinformation apace spreads powered by algorithms capable of manipulation.
  • Influencer marketing: When we overvalue audiences, we have a chance to realise that influence should be more about authority, quality and effectiveness.

As Joni Mitchell’s song highlights ‘you don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone’. These shadows help us see the value that lies behind the hype and paths to new and better ways of innovation.

Microsoft Co-pilot

This week Microsoft announced Co-pilot for Microsoft 365. The Large Language Model capabilities of AI that have been so widely hyped will now be available to everyone as a productivity assistant in the apps we use every day at work. Importantly, these tools will leverage the Microsoft Graph and the content of other Microsoft Apps to summarise, plan and draft.

This move is hardly a surprise. Microsoft has been discussing the potential power of data analytics in its suite of tools for almost a decade. Cortana is using graph data. Powerpoint Designer has been improving our powerpoint. With Microsoft’s investments in Large Language Models (& the hunger of those models for data) this move was inevitable.

Inevitability doesn’t guarantee success. However, the capabilities today are far more subtle than Clippy’s banal interruptions. Actually writing a first draft from other documents is much more useful than pointing out you might be writing a document.

So much of knowledge work is about the gathering, digestion and presentation of information. Harold Jarche talks of the importance of Seek, Sense and Share. These tools promise to streamline the Seeking proves. These tools and others like Microsoft Loop and the new role of Microsoft Viva reduce the costly context shifting inherent in pulling together information from multiple source documents, emails, excels, databases, online sources and more.

If Clippy was banal and often annoying, the danger of all this digital creation is that employees will forget that the critical elements of knowledge work is the insight of sensing and the discretion of sharing. LLMs are improvements on past tools but are hardly perfect. In a world where the volume of information means many people scan everything, we need to remain alert for the risks of the models false inferences or patterns gone awry.

In the history of aviation, it became apparent that pilot personal relationships are critical to avoiding dangerous incidents. Authoritarian cultures meant senior pilot mistakes went devastatingly unchallenged. We must remember the work is a collaboration of man and machine and employees must be prepared to change and improve on the mechanical co-pilot.

Knowing how and where to share our new digital creations depends on social intelligence that is often beyond these tools today. Social collaboration will become a differentiator in people’s work and bring new richness to the Microsoft Graph underneath their work. Microsoft Viva Engage and Microsoft Teams will be important powerhouses of differentiation for employees.

We are likely all to become prompt engineers in a world of competing large language models. This course is inevitable until some newer tool takes over from LLMs. Microsoft has made the transition remarkably easy by integrating these tools for us. We need to come to this ongoing transition with our intelligence, our social skills and our discretion.

Why Employee Experience?

How did I become an advocate for employee experience, ways of working and workplace technology? I started trying to improve customer experiences. Again and again in the work of making better customer experiences it became obvious that a major barrier was lack of attention to the experience of employees involved in delivering for customers. Poor employee experiences limit an organisations ability to align, learn, adapt and keep employees engaged in the right work at the right standard for customers.

Why Worry About Employee Experience?

For many service organisations, the cost of labour is the largest part of cost. For too long the focus has been reducing the cost of that labour or eliminating it rather than improving productivity. Often costly investments in innovation to eliminate labour mean swapping low cost labour for technology engineers and other specialists who manage and adapt the labour saving technology. The benefits of a focus on employee experience can actually become more obvious to organisations after automation.

We can’t hire perfect employees. Knowledge, talents, skills and experience is unevenly distributed and hiring processes can’t achieve perfect selection. Even if we could hire perfect employees they need to organise, learn and adapt. Even if your perfect employee could learn and grow as required they still need to work with others. Employee experience tools become the basis of an ongoing improvement in connecting employees, sharing information, solving problems and scaling learning and innovation.

Making Everyday Work More Valuable

Organisations often overlook the value of investment in the experiences of employees in everyday work. Big exciting projects like innovation management or product delivery get more focus on process and systems than the resources required to answer a customer call. The real benefits of employee experience focus is in the scale and impact of small changes in the latter work. Better aligned, better engaged, better informed and supported teams are happier, more productive and better performing. Focus on the everyday work and you will discover exponential step changes in business performance given the scale of these interactions and the direct connection to customer outcomes.

I have been advocating for over a dozen years that tools like Yammer can help employees connect, share, solve and learn more effectively in their work. Connecting individual employees into communities at enterprise scale makes this a performance superpower and an engine of customer success. Microsoft clearly agrees as they have announced on 14 February that Yammer will be fully renamed as Viva Engage become the enterprise communication and engagement layer of Microaoft’s Viva suite of employee experience solutions.

Yammer/Viva Engage is now plumbed deeply into Microsoft’s vision for the future of everyday work, adding value to hourly use tools like Microsoft Teams, Outlook and more. Excitingly this vision promises more investment into the roadmap of how to support better everyday work experiences for all employees.

Employee experience is not just a communication challenge. Great employee experiences focus on aligning and connecting employees, improving the flow of information through transparency, sharing of expertise and enhanced findability, improving systems and solving problems in process and systems across the enterprise that impact employees and their ability to deliver for customers. All of those capabilities are enabled today in Viva Engage in Microsoft Teams or on web. Backing that capability with the right community support & leadership will take you to the next level of performance.

If you want to better deliver for customers, more effectively deploy your employees and deliver better engagement, you need to be investing in your employee experience. If that is something new to your organisation, the best day to start is today. There are plenty of solutions and so many resources at hand to help.

The Better Angels of Purpose

Putting an intention out into the world

The purpose of poetry is to remind us

how difficult it is to remain one person,

for our house is open, there’s no keys in the doors,

and invisible guests come in and out at will.

Czeslaw Milosz, from Ars Poetica

We can’t choose all our work or projects. We can choose all our moods. What we can do is allow the best chance that ‘good spirits…choose us as their instrument.’ The vehicle for such luck is being conscious of purpose in our work and being prepared to prioritise the beneficial when it is possible.

My work leading a team transforming a healthcare fintech has been very demanding over the last year. The demands of that work and my many other roles in and outside of work is one reason why this blog has been a lot quieter than I would prefer.

Towards the end January, I was struggling with the return to the pace of work and the ramp up for the year ahead. On reflection, I realised I had begun to work for the work’s sake. There is so much to do and so many demands it is easy to turn up each day and be busy. To borrow Milosz’ idea, it can be easy to let ‘the invisible guests’ of our life’s demands move in and out at will without struggle.

I knew I needed to do better and needed to reconnect with my purpose in my current role. I asked myself a simple question ‘why did I choose to do this work?’ We all have choices. We can all choose at any time to do different, even if we can’t see that from time to time.

Reflecting deeply on that question helped me to reconnect with my purpose in the work:

  • to enable my team to realise its potential and to experience the success they deserve; and
  • to create for the team’s customers effective partnerships and solutions that improve and grow their businesses

From that simple statement of purpose, I was able to refresh my plan on the priority work that I needed to do with the team in 2023. I was able to start to reshape my time and how I worked to better align to this priority work.

I have changed my weeks since that realisation to focus more heavily on coaching and development of people across the team, an activity I love but I was losing in the pressures of doing. I have redoubled my efforts to encourage the team to take ownership of the culture that they want to see in our business. We have also been able to significantly increase our customer focus and the attention on priority issues for our customers. With all these changes it has become easier to see what I always knew. I can’t do it all. The success of a team depends on the contributions of the whole team and the systems they use. Focusing on adding value in these areas is much more valuable than what i can do individually.

Things still come and go changing plans but a clear set of priorities and a focus to my efforts gives me a chance to spend more of my time in the company of ‘good spirits’. Have a clear intention to work on more purposeful work has made me happier and more effective. Not surprisingly, it has also helped the team’s continued transformation.

What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,   

as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,   

under unbearable duress and only with the hope   

that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

Czeslaw Milosz, from Ars Poetica

The Fake-Industrial Complex

I started writing a message last night. Auto-correct changed fame to fake. I was left with the words ‘fake industrial complex’ and I had to admit it was right. We have moved right through a fame/attention industry out to having a problem with a fake industrial complex

Come hither, all ye empty things,

Ye bubbles raised by breath of kings;

Who float upon the tide of state,

Come hither, and behold your fate.

Jonathan Swift, A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General

Famous for Being Famous

When did ‘creator’ start to mean someone who created nothing but simply lived from the advertising revenue of being or having an opinion? When did we judge success on audience, followers or influence? When did existing or having an opinion become a licensing opportunity on a global scale? When did billionaires spend money to have others hang on their strange views? (Sadly, some questions are answered with always)

We have allowed fame to be so hollowed out and allocated attention so recklessly under the sway of the Algorithmic Bubble that there is no longer any requirement of any reality to underpin it. The Outrage Economy rewards factlessness, precisely because fakes draw fact checkers and conflict is good for business. ‘Asking hard questions of the unqualified’ takes the place of inquiry, even when the questions asked have known simple answers.

Turtles All The Way Down

As we enthusiastically embrace the hype of generative AI we ignore that the black box obscures its decision making. Generative AI can produce credible fake answers. The software at its heart is not presently concerned with facts. We must also remember in consuming the world’s content to power its engines, it is also consuming our vast and ever growling reservoirs of fact-free bias-laden platitude-rich pattern-heavy thought leadership.

When Eisenhower warned in his farewell speech about the dangers of what he called the ‘military-industrial complex’, he spoke of the need to guard against the influence of the complex in ‘the councils of government’. Eisenhower highlighted the need for ‘an alert and knowledgeable citizenry’.

The fake-industrial complex has already stormed the citadels of global government and been resident there for decades through talking points, spin, ‘fake news’, photo opportunities and propaganda. We need a citizenry willing to continue its challenges to populism, demagoguery and totalitarian leaders.

The choice we each have as citizens, employees and as consumers is where we put our attention. The fake-industrial complex depends on unconsidered attention. When we deprive the media sources, the untrustworthy algorithms, and the charlatans of our attention, remarkable things begin to happen. We can challenge the fakes with the ignominy of irrelevance and let their algorithms, coalitions, and economic models tear them apart.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   

or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   

but because it never forgot what it could do.

Naomi Shihab Nye, Famous

The Surprising Power of Work to Rule

Knowledge work is not a production line. Don’t expect linearity of time and output. Working flexibly can have surprising benefits for productivity.

Most people equate work time with progress. That’s not always the case

Rick Rubin, Tim Ferris Podcast

Through my career, I’ve found one extraordinary thing. When I apply ‘work to rule’, I am more productive. ‘Work to rule’ in this context isn’t the traditional union process of strict compliance and bureaucracy often for leverage and to point out the discretionary work. My version of ‘work to rule’ is focusing on only the absolute minimum demands of work and only the necessary meetings. It is strict compliance with performance outcomes and elimination of discretionary efforts. All the other time soaks and stress makers are ignored or deferred. Only the most essential work remains to be tackled in a surprisingly leisurely way.

The benefits of this version of ‘work to rule’ are many:

  • perspective: so often when I step away from stressed out busy work I find a better path to achieve my goals. I see things that I hadn’t when I was so tied up on the dance floor.
  • focus: choosing what matters most and what is necessary is an act of focus.
  • thinking time: creativity requires room to explore and iterate that can be lost in continuous work pressures
  • other influences: mixing influences can be powerful and provocative. You don’t get that in the same meetings with the same people all the time.
  • collaboration: deep collaboration needs time, space and the right mood. You need to get beyond transactional relationships and simple quid pro quo to be transformative.
  • risk taking: when our lives are full we play safe, after all surely all this work is enough. When we step away, we see bigger bets to make.
  • mood: ignoring the urgent but unimportant can feel cheeky, rude or even like wagging. Plus the space allows time for self-care. All act as little fillips to the mood every time.

Knowledge work is not a simple linear function of time. It involves complex interplays of relationships, information and inspiration. You need to foster a work pattern that allows for the space to benefit from those interplays. ‘Working to rule’ might just provide that space.

The Infinite Scroll

Everyone is busy all the time. We have made busyness performative, an impression of success and an entertainment for busy minds. Because our busy often involves others we have made busy virally engaging. We are trapped in an infinite scroll.

Scrolling for success

Infinite scroll has been a boon for engagement in social and other apps. Our desire for entertainment and activity is satisfied by an endless algorithm of content to consume and share. We can feel satisfied with our use of time even if nothing meaningful or even pleasurable happens. We are up to date. We are engaged.

Our workplaces are full of many similar infinite scrolls. Email is treated as work and email warriors spend hours battling towards inbox zero by turning each email into multiple more. Chat products now offer the same infinite scrolling options and lots of dopamine hits. You can consume hours pinging away in Microsoft Teams, Slack, Whatsapp and more.

This is a day when I covered no ground.

Just pushed and shuffled my papers around,

Margaret Fishback, Busy Day at the Office

Meeting calendars are another infinite scroll. I am busy if my day is full of meetings even if nothing is achieved in those meetings but more work and more emails. Seeing people doing their emails in meetings is the ultimate crossover. I’m so busy I don’t have time to do anything properly.

Conversations full of status updates are another infinite scroll. Look I am so busy I will tell you how good I am. We won’t actually interact, ask questions, solve problems, we will just report busyness. How many one-on-one meetings and team meetings are lost to the performance of busy.

As productive and as important as all this activity feels, like infinite scroll, it gets in the way of the real work and the real engagement. Customers are frustrated. So many people complain that the real work only happens when the meeting and emails stop in the evenings, at lunch or on weekends, taking away from valuable living time.

Turn off the email and the chat. Abandon inbox zero. Leave status to reports. Walk out of the meeting when the work is done. Pick up the phone and have a real conversation. Escape the infinite scroll.

To perform it repeatedly, to perform it each time

as if the first, to walk the dim corridor believing that

the conference it leads to might change everything,

to adhere to a possibility of reward, of betterment,

Timothy Donnelly, The Cloud Corporation

PS: I understand the irony of adding one more thing to your infinite scroll with this post. Now do the work.

Flooding the Landscape

The strategy for manipulation of media used to be simple ‘flood the information landscape’ with your message. Manipulate the news cycle and place your disinformation in the centre of the media conversation and you will shape opinion in your favour.

During 2022 there were hopeful signs that this model is starting to breakdown or at least be open to countering strategies. In various elections, in Ukraine, and in lots of clumsy government propaganda efforts, countering voices closer to the truth held up their end of the debate.

For corporate communication professionals there is a lesson in these failures. Many of the techniques of corporate communication have depended on their control of the information landscape. It was easy for corporate communicators to ‘flood the landscape’ and hard for other voices to compete, especially when combined with cultural pressures against speaking up. Put together a fancy video, email from leaders, post on the intranet and add in some posters and you will be no longer be fine.

What is changing to weaken the power of the flooding strategy?

  • Fragmentation and Distrust of Mainstream Media: the continuing collapse of media’s influence and its fragmentation weakens the ability to dominate discussion. Is there really a 24 hour media cycle to win now that much is online? Who believes an email or press release as a source of truth?
  • Manipulation savvy: We are more savvier to the more blatant efforts at manipulation, especially in younger generations who are the consumers of the media most susceptible to influence. We are learning to recognise and loathe spin. Even the real ‘fake news’ of false images and videos are now deconstructed quickly by online sources.
  • Countering Voices: The bar on producing countering voices is so low that any phone is a capable production video suite. Manipulative messaging can be easily undone with video, podcast discussion and other deconstruction.

The challenge for corporate communicators as these trends enter the corporate information landscape is to find new strategies to share messages and influence debate.

  • Conversation: No communication is once and done. Allow for and plan for discussion and conversation. Invite it as a learning exercise and foster the fact checking and understanding that will ensure that countering views are subject to the same scrutiny.
  • Avoid Explanation through Engagement: The old adage of ‘if you are explaining you are losing’ also comes from a model where solutions are presented complete. Co-design helps employees engage with the changes and the compromises in the process
  • Leverage all the tools: use social communication from a wide range of voices, use your social collaboration platform, use video in multiple ways, particularly to share the voice of your employees discussing the changes.
  • Be Genuine: Trust in 2023 is fragile. Be consistently genuine and real in your communications. Call out the weaknesses and trade offs.

Organisations want capable employees who can make the most of their information to do great work. No organisation wants drones who blindly follow propaganda. Take that into account in how you plan corporate communication and help your employees to learn.

Work For It

When generous, she gave a look that told a lesson,

taught me how to read the world in what goes unsaid.

Kyrsten Hill, A White Man in the Audience Said I Owed Him

The System doesn’t owe you anything. Odds are the system is actually working its hardest against you. So, do the work until you get what you want

We all have the feeling we are owed something from time to time. We have worked hard, struggled and put in the time. Maybe it feels like you have done the work. Maybe it feels like it is time. Maybe it feels like we are owed a reward for our efforts.

Sadly, life doesn’t work that way. Even if you have been explicitly told that you are owed, don’t count on it. Things change. Surprises happen. Entitlement hurts hopes.

Do the work to get what you want. Keep pushing and working to remind yourself and others that you deserve it. Success comes from your efforts or dumb luck. The best way to have luck is for it to ‘find you working’ to paraphrase.

It’s never time. Keep working.

   I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,

   and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.

Everyone silent, moving. . . . Take my hand. Speak to me.

Mariel Rukeyser, Effort at Speech Between Two People