Interesting companies / ways of working

A friend is working with a charity, doing a little consultancy, to help them explore ways of working more efficiently, or less bureaucratically, or just differently. Betterly. It’s a familiar story, especially with charities, and while I feel like I’ve pointed people to ‘cool’ companies in the past, and that I know a little bit about what it takes to innovate and do things differently, successfully, in writing my email to her, I began to wonder if there’s actually any value in what I’m saying.

To be clear, I’m just looking to give examples of different ways of working that she can use to confidently inspire a charity. But in writing to someone outside of my familiar digital/design sector about companies that are familiar to me, and retelling a few stories that I feel I know well, I’ve become aware of possible gospel and rumour that I can’t truly and confidently source. 

In short, I wrote this email in what I thought was an accessible and inspiring way as possible, but after sending feared that it was as valid and accurate as fake news or an uninformed opinion piece. 

With fear of publicly revealing holes in my knowledge and my stupid Man Facts, I’m sharing the email here with expectation of being corrected. In fact, perhaps it’s appropriate to preface a disclaimer that should feature on all news and articles: 

The following is pretty much just opinion. Received and whispered stories, links to companies I’ve never worked with, featuring few people I even know, and even those I do, I could be misquoting. So, correct me where you can dear reader. See your social responsibility to correct what you know to be wrong, and not just read on with expectation of accuracy elsewhere. 

[Remember, this was an email to a friend that got a little distracted…]

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Hello

Been trying to think more about companies like we talked about. ‘Cool’ in a sense, but basically innovative and open to testing and trying alternate operating methods.

Not many more have come to mind I’m afraid, but here are the ones I can remember and I think are of note.

The obvious one perhaps is x.company from Google / Alphabet (as their parent company us now called). They’re set up to innovate and take moon shots. People are rewarded if their moon shot fails. Nothing new is going to be found in conventional ways, so taking moon shots is the only way, which will often mean learning what doesn’t work. That’s as valuable lesson as any other (goes the ethos).

In this sense I’m reminded of the original version of this in the form of Bell Labs which Bell set up to innovate and try things (same ethos). Later Xerox copied the format and achieved great developments, but a little too late after resting on photocopier sales for too long while the home computer revolution happened around them.

A modern version of labs comes from pivotal.io who I mentioned. Their pivotal.io/labs makes great work along side the more commercial company. A safe place to take risks, but the company on whole has many innovative methods also.

This is reminding me of the book Adapt in which the author talks clearly about the benefit of these labs or skunkworks and how they helped to win the war for us! 

Much of this method and these companies follow the idea of iterative development. Like the ‘failing fast idea’ of Facebook. In this respect they’ll talk a lot about Agile with a capital A, but in a lowercase sense it basically means not following a waterfall method which takes too long, allows mistakes to fester and actively prevents learning, discovery and chances to make corrections along the way.

In the face of waterfall methods costing the UK Government so much money in the mid 2000s – as contractors learned how to milk the bureaucracy and charge millions for simple websites that didn’t even work very well – Martha Lane Fox wrote a revolutionary repot which resulted in the formation of Government Digital Services (GDS).

GDS is pretty awesome in the way it works and for the money it’s save. I wrote a little about the way they work a while back and the methods and successes they achieved.

The core team that set that up has now moved on to help at the Co-op where once again they are looking to transform a company from within, putting ‘users’ (customers) first.

Talking of Facebook, I met an old colleague there recently and he told me their hierarchy is very flat and that it makes working there better than anywhere else he’s worked. No strategy director, or senior designer, or principle marketing person, or senior exec, or anyone else is solely in charge of each project. All disciplines have a manager and all managers work together, and everyone takes note of what everyone else says. They are in charge of their product and have 6 monthly plans that they work toward in an agile manner. They they put it in front of Mark and have to justify what’s happened. If it fails, for a good reason, then OK, ‘what can we do to learn from that?’ If not, then he want’s to know what they’re planning next. They, meaning the whole team.

Last one I remembered is where an old friend works: valvesoftware.com, which might look boring if you’re not a gamer, but a while back their employee handbook was talked about as a funny and irreverent artefact, but when talking to my friend, he confirmed that it’s for real. Valve are very very flat and everyone innovates and takes responsibility. Here’s the handbook. Have a read and think that this is for real, in a company that turns over billions!

In fact, I can’t think of a modern company in any new market that get’s away with old business methods and practices. From an evolutionary point of view, with a long view, the early 2000′s are the time to change or risk dying out.

OK, went a bit off topic there!

Hope there are some useful links or examples in there… 

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Browser Tabs Amnesty Day

As per my post the other day, about browser tabs being used as sort of ‘to do’ or ‘come back to later’ lists, I’ve decided to actually go back through mine and properly free up the space and do some filing. I’m calling a Browser Tabs Amnesty Day. 

It’s a chance to exorcise all those tabbed intentions and actually make notes and actions where needed. Here’s what I’ve got (that was actually relevant when I went back through all 33, in chronological order from the top / oldest), minus a few that were no longer really relevant, and some others that were a bit private:

1. Curiosity Depends on What You Already Know. This was ‘read later’ for sure but I can’t remember now how I came across it. I do sometimes leave a tab open rather than sending to Evernote with a ‘read later’ tab as I know I’m even worse with getting back to those things than tabs. Maybe the reason for leaving tabs open is to deliberately annoy ourselves, like writing on the back of a hand. 

2. Benefit Management. I left this Google Search open as I was intending again to read more after wondering if the term was a thing (when thinking how risk management feels a tad short sighted and pessimistic to be focusing on alone). Turned out that benefit management is indeed a thing, that I wanted to read more about.

3. The case for free Money. I wanted to reference this in relation to an old idea we played with at With Associates. Also out of genuine interest in the pending reality of there needing to be a universal basic income. Saved for later. 

4. Geert Hofstede and how values in the workplace are influenced by culture. Interested here just in his research into cultural difference in the way we think and see the world. This in relevance to calling myself an ‘interaction designer’ with awareness that I only ever really design for the ways that I think and perceive. I’m interested to see if it’s possible to make something truly universally understood. I think that finding this came along the same time as wondering about the old “You can’t please all the people all the time” saying, and thinking if the more truthful thing to realise is just that “You can’t please all the people.” Pick and group and please it. 

5. The More You Know, public service announcements. These sounding interesting and I wanted to know more! Sounds along the lines of the ‘inform’ part of the BBC’s mission. Makes me think too of the public safety adverts that they used to have on British TV in the 80s. I remember a cartoon about a man and his wife eating and swimming. A kid retrieving his Frisbee from a power station and in the Westcountry we had the Tufty Club and a jazzy 

6. How breakfast became a thing. One for read later and for point people to when they say I’m odd for not really doing breakfast. It’s just a made up meal!

7. Professor A C Grayling’s letter to all 650 MPs urging Parliament not to support a motion to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. I had hight hopes about all this a while back. Clearly this tab was left open for wishful thinking. 

8. Tim Harford the Undercover Economist. I just meant to read more of his writings after quite enjoying his books and radio work. Actually I think I planned to subscribe to his RSS. 

9. Romney Hythe and Dymchurch railway. Was planning to find out more about this and take my kids. So good when you can enjoy and are keen to indulge their interests!

8. Michael Crichton: Why Speculate? Odd source of a transcript from a talk he gave in 2005 that mentions the ‘Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect’ of which I’m so fond. Kept open to read on holiday. 

9. The National Autistic Society’s position on the MMR vaccine. Interested to see their take on it. Nice to see it so clear. 

10. List of Dyslexic Achievers: Andy Warhol. I saw some his old work on holiday and was struck by some familiar looking spelling mistakes, wondering if he was dyslexic I found this, suggesting that he was. Another one for the team. Dyslexics Untie! 

11. The Dyslexic and Creative Mind. After reading about Andy I meant to read more and come back to the subject again. I’ve not researched it for a few years and wondered if there were any new takes of theories about it all. 

12. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Researching researching techniques while looking for more ways to assess the quality of research (again, see point 9 above and know that there is a lot of “research” that still thinks otherwise. 

13. The Basics – How To Write A Science Experiment, Chemistry or Biology Report. More on point 12. 

14. SWT Fence Post – 3.6m 100mm x 100mm (12ft 4×4). Planning to build something in the garden for the kids. These looked big and sturdy.

15. Infrared camera conversion. Been looking into UV camera conversions.  

16. Auto Bottle Opener Safety Seat Belt Buckle Clip Insert Alarm Clasp Stopper. Take a while to read that and take in what it means. People are making and selling a device that is designed to stop seatbelt alarms going off, so that people don’t have to wear a seatbelt, and it doubles as a bottle opener, for beer presumably… The existence of this is one of the single saddest things I’ve seen in a while.

17. Winchester 12ft x 8ft (3.65m x 2.50m) Large Garden Room. Been looking at sheds for my Mum.

18. Steven Novella. Learned about him and the skeptical movement and wanted to read more. 

19. Understanding Health Research. A tool for making sense of health studies. Back again to points 9, 12, 13 and 18. There is a lot in science reporting and understanding, and understanding in general that I’m intrigued by at the moment and this new tool looks perfectly placed to help what looks like an epidemic of people not understanding the things that researchers are researching. Re-reading Bad Science has been a big part of this thinking also. 

20. The Man in Seat Sixty-One … Heard about this before but forgot to check it out. 

21. More bad science in the service of the discredited idea that vaccines cause autism. One last one of them.

22. Ben Goldacre made this Radio 4 documentary on randomised trials on government policy. And I’ve been meaning to listen to the end. 

This felt quite good. Think I’ll try and do it again, or at least find a way to better document pages and what I’m interested about in them. Feels like it could be an ‘easy’ Evernote thing but that’s too bloated as it is.

I did also give Mail to Self a try as recommend by teaim after the Browser Tabs post but it didn’t seem to forfill my need to make notes about the links. Also it just moved the multiple tabs problem into my inbox, where I have a whole other issue with to do list organisation.

Well, if Inbox Zero isn’t going to happen, at least tonight I managed Tabs to Zero. 

Comment, discuss or reply on Twitter / @mathewwilson

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Social responsibility

I’ve dabbled with Foursquare and Swarm for a while, but only recently experienced first hand, what I consider to be one of the biggest flaws in the idea of social ratings and reviews. 

It’s far from drastic. Not a privacy issue or a scam or anything even very important perhaps, but it’s a big enough nudge to make me question my future use of Foursquare or any online review system. Basically, a place that I liked and left a good review for (Anatolia Ocakbasi) had slowly become very crappy. 

I was ignoring the fact for weeks, excusing their rudeness, slow service, and frequent order errors because perhaps I looked rude wearing headphones, or maybe because I smelt a bit after going to the gym. But when they burned my shish recently to the point of it tasting like the charcoal it was cooked over I realised they were just bad, and that their food hadn’t tasted good for months.  

As I say, it’s not the end of the world, it’s no big deal, it’s just a review and there’s another Ocakbasi up the road. Except, it is a big deal when you consider the collective effect of this surely being the case across the board of online reviews. People leave good ones, then a place changes, but the reviews remain. As if fake reviews weren’t enough, now I realise that even the real ones become worthless pretty quickly.

It’s reminding me again of the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect (a term and idea that I’m still surprised isn’t more popularly known or ‘officially’ studied). 

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

^ Written by Michael Crichton for the International Leadership Forum, La Jolla, California, April 26, 2002. And thankfully still accessible due the Wayback Machine.

In this case the media is the review, and while we may know some are fake, and that we know that some places change and quality varies, we all still read reviews and forget what we know. Mass-social-amnesia. Or some sort of shared hallucination. 

Anyway, on my own social responsibility, after realising the change to Anatolia had nagged at me for a couple of weeks, last night I finally dug into Foursquare and deleted my positive review. I wrote a bad one in exchange. But now I realise this could damn the establishment if they ever do turn things around. 

What social responsibility is expected of us online in this sense? Should we all be going back and correcting our mistakes or at least annotating them? Issuing Tweet retractions, updating blog posts, retracting reviews, unliking likes? Like with the sponsors now dropping Lochte. Should we want and need to distance ourselves once we have new information or when we realise a change or mistake? Or just carry on aimlessly and safe in the herd effect? 

Furthermore, could the likes of Foursquare add methods to combat this? I’m frequently asked to review new places in the app, but I don’t remember being asked to review myself and my pass comments. 

Maybe we need an enforced admin day every month or two, where every social service shuts down their core functionality, so that no one can add to their social content. Regular functionality is then switched for interfaces that make us review ourselves. Every post, comment, retweet, like and endorsement, re-presented (represented?) like a lawyer slowly repeating our own words to ensure we’re thinking and aware of our actions. 

Who reviews the reviews?