Stockholm, Scandic Grand Central
So, I’ve decided to write a book. Writing is hard and a lot of work, and I need to make my intentions known to people so that they can make it their business to give me a hard time if I don’t actually write. For me, when it comes to writing, peer-pressure is a good thing. This brief text explains why I want to write and does the job of making it known. Here goes:
I’m not trying to stir up trouble in your dwelling
I’m not trying to second guess the old tradition
But would you help me understand
What constitutes a man
‘cause I’m trying to live my life without contrition
Jake Kolesar – Ballad of Truth
This Friday I found myself at a spa in the Stockholm archipelago. The surroundings were breathtakingly beautiful. The place was basking in the glow of a gentle spring sun. May in Sweden is a magical thing.
I was not there solely to enjoy the serenity of nature. Friends from the consultant agency Crisp had been kind enough to invite me to their internal conference Crisp Slack Day, held here at the spa. I eagerly accepted the invitation as I jump on any opportunity to learn and grow.
It was a great day. I engaged in meaningful conversations on topics dear to me, and I enjoyed the feeling of shared understanding and fellowship. It felt good to be surrounded by people like myself.
I spoke briefly about our latest release and how we designed the work. My Crisp friends all agreed that it sounded like pure bliss. This made me happy. Yet, as I listened to stories about the challenges my Crisp friends meet out there in the industry, I was reminded that the gap between what we all know to be the better way, and the way things are, is still all too wide. Even though it seems that the future of work is already here, it’s certainly not evenly distributed yet, to paraphrase William Gibson.
The evening before my day with Crisp I hung out at a UX gathering. The theme was Agile and UX. Our UX Lead Magnus gave a presentation about how our work worked as we discovered and delivered our most recent larger release. The crowd seemed rather impressed. This made me happy.
I can honestly say that during my years in this craft I have never experienced a delivery quite as successful as the one that Magnus with team pushed out some days ago. Even though I tend to measure success a tad differently than most, this team met even my more weird success criteria. From process-, business- and people perspectives, this team more than rose to the challenge. And how they delivered.
As I sat there with my favorite kind of beer (the free kind) and enjoyed Magnus’ performance on the stage, a warm feeling of pride came over me. I felt proud of our accomplishments. Much more than that, I felt proud of our team. And as Magnus owned the stage like a pro, I felt proud to be Magnus’ colleague and friend. These feelings of fellowship, creativity, pride and joy, this intangible energy, it all radiates from the same source: a team of skilled craftsmen allowed to do what they do without interference.
We managed to build a truly empowered self-organizing team. A team that owned the dual aspects of “what” to build and ”how” to build it. The “what” was surrounded by some high level constraints – which is to be expected – but the “how” was entirely up for grabs. The key to the success of that way of designing work, I think, was a shift of perspective. A departure from blindly following activities and roles that are pre-defined in process frameworks. Things that you just do because they’re in the manual. To me, coaching excels when the mindset is to go beyond specifics and focus on heuristics and values.
So we questioned why these pre-defined activities and roles exist in the first place. The question became “which underlying needs are these activities intended to meet? Do these needs exist here? How can we as a team understand and meet these needs?”
In essence, exactly the kind of questions we strive to ask ourselves when working towards the “what” as we try to meet the needs of our users and stakeholders, were asked regarding the “how”.
And so the team took ownership of their own “how”, their own process. Their way of working took into consideration the nature of this particular task, group dynamics and the context in which they operated. And the team committed to continuously improving on both the “what” and the “how”. And dear me, it was as close to “work as it should be” as we’ve been so far.
Back to my day in the archipelago. The Crisp gang scattered as they all went to their various spa activities, and I found myself alone with time to reflect. As I was lying there on my back in the grass watching the sun set, the song “Ballad of Truth” started playing in my ears. I listened more intently to the words than I usually do, and I found how they began to resonate with me in a a new way.
would you help me understand what constitutes a man
‘cause I’m trying to live my life without contrition
This struck a powerful chord with me. The question “what constitutes a man” in relation to the idea that the insightful answer – an understanding – could dispel contrition, gave me pause.
We know that we don’t understand people as well as we could. We don’t understand people and their needs. Yet we pretend we do, or we simply don’t care.
Contrition, a feeling of crushing guilt, is a particularly popular idea in christianity. It follows by mere historical association that the notion is sown into the fabric of our western culture.
It saddens me that we – at a systemic level – fail to understand people. Furthermore, it irks me that we continue to design work based on these, our rather severe misunderstandings. The consequence is repeated and highly predictable failure. We see it time and time again. And so we mindlessly – perhaps even purposely – create a contrite creative digital class. We allow our finest people to live in an environment that crushes them with guilt. We can do better. We must do better.
This underlines something that I’ve sensed for quite some time. That the key to working effectively, joyously and creatively in this field is well beyond the grasp of “simple” process coaching. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.
As I lay there on my back enjoying the sunset, I ruminated over these tings. From nowhere an idea started taking shape in my head. A model that capture my thoughts, experiences and ideas regarding this journey of ours.
I realized then that I have a need to clarify these thoughts for my own sake. To clear my mind. To rekindle my spirit. To find serenity. There are still things I just somehow know to be “true”. Things that I cannot easily explain in words.
Suddenly, the way forward for me became crystal clear. Gone were obtrusive thoughts such as “who cares what you think?”. Because you know what? I care. This much I know. And starting with what you know is just about all anyone can ever hope to do.
And so as the sun disappeared beyond the tree tops. I decided to write a book.
There we have it.