Weeknotes S06E16: agitating

This week I’m thinking about playfulness/flow; moving on; and setting up

I saw a very good presentation recently on playfulness. The presenter’s definition was interesting, because it expanded beyond the play I don’t like – the best examples are organised fun, which is awful, down to Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tests, which is quackery dressed up as science and then re-dressed up as fun.

Instead, the presenter said, consider playfulness a shared moment of humanity. Playfulness with words isn’t necessarily a pun, but it is those times when you get into a perfect syncopated rhythm with someone; when you feel your thoughts and theirs are in sync and you can create a shared reality together. A moment that’s real, but not quite. Some people might call this flirting. Some people might call it love, even, but that’s because we’re so starved of playfulness that we sometimes can’t quite tell the difference.

I recognised that sense of playfulness, because I feel it with an audience or a piece of writing. There is a sense of resonance to playfulness: that there are patterns in the universe that cannot be understood but that we sometimes stumble upon and seek ever-after. Playfulness, in the context of work, is tricky. It requires a shared context, and like romance, you can often end up favouring people like you.

Anyway: she gave a few interesting parting thoughts and I’d like to share them here with you.

  1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed. I feel this in my bones: organised fun, where you can’t self-direct or self-organise, gives me an itchy feeling under my skin.
  2. Journey over destination. The point of play is to play. The most-awarded sand sculpture will never hold a candle to a child holding its breath as they gingerly raise the bucket away from a perfect sandcastle.
  3. Play has rules. Within a shared space, there is an understanding amongst all the players of the rules for the space. They likely arise organically, and there are dynamics that shape that. I notice this most strongly now that we’ve moved to remote working and more colleagues are logging onto Slack: there are spaces that are playful but have a shared cultural understanding of the rules of engagement, and without social cues new entrants can fall foul of them.
  4. Play is imaginative. We use real props and our real selves, but the space that is created is not physically here. It is like a dream that we can share – it’s inception, basically, because you get to take the experience that you gain there with you. If you play at being brave, you can get to the edge of where the dream-space and the real-space meet. Things can cross over, and so you can experience the shadow of the real-space terror in dream-space. You can live it in smaller doses, until you find quite suddenly that you’re really brave after all. The boundary is…membrous.
  5. Play involves an active, alert, non-stressed frame of mind. This is the flow. This is the space where my brain seems to skip through the raindrops; where the words seem to be handed to me by something from the Outside; where you and I are in such confident rhythm that we can see a second in the future. Stormzy and Freddie Mercury have the same energy. They’re not stressed. They’re active, they’re alert, and yet they seem so at ease. I don’t know if that’s true for them, but I know it’s true for me, when the words come from the Outside.

Playfulness as a concept seems tightly bound to who can make the rules, and as I’ve reflected on this talk in the last week it seems to have become more and more prescient. Because, you know. What you can imagine, you can become. So if you can influence what people imagine you can influence what they’ll become.

An advert for my job has gone out, and so if you are a Grade 7 –

(- you know, just for kicks, I’m going to tell you about Civil Service grades, because it’s a gigantic mess. A total disaster.

In the very old days, things were very simple. At the top, you had the Cabinet Secretary. Then one Permanent Under Secretary per department. Then a few Deputy Under Secretaries, a handful of Assistant Under Secretaries, quite a few Under Secretaries, and numerous Assistant Secretaries.

None of them, as the joke goes, could type.

Below these were Deputy Directors, Assistant Directors, and Deputy Assistant Directors.

Then Senior Officers, Higher Officers, and Officers. They were supported by Higher Clerical Officers, Clerical Officers, and Clerical Assistants, which is where all the typing got done.

After 1971, the grades were unified into a single structure, which has been changed since and is implemented differently in different departments. Permanent Under Secretaries were given a grade of “1”, and each grade below got the next number down to 7. Middle managers – mere Officers – kept their titles, although Higher Clerical Officers and regular Clerical Officers were merged into a single “Administrative Officer” band, and consequently Clerical Assistants, who no longer reported to anyone who did clerical things, followed suit and became “Administrative Assistants”.

The difference between clerical and administrative work is one, I fear, for God.

Immediately upon noticing that we had a unified position that mixed numerical grades and wordy titles, we did the only sensible thing and gave the Cabinet Secretary a mix of both: he became a “Grade 1A”.

I can say “he” with confidence because, on this day 2020-07-07, there has never been a woman in the post of Cabinet Secretary.

So: we have numerical grades for the first division, and titles for the…other division. The only sensible thing to do was further muddy the waters, and of course in 1996 we did precisely that. We smushed together Grades 4 and 5, and labelled it as “Deputy Directors, but also like…Programme Directors, because they’re complicated, though I should stress that a director of a programme is not the same as a real director”. This was obviously a mouthful, so we called that “Senior Civil Service (SCS) Payband 1”, which had the advantage of reversing the old numbering scheme so that you started low and got higher, thereby confusing the heck out of everyone.

Grade 3 – Assistant Under Secretary – became SCS Payband 2 and had the label Director slapped on it, while Grade 2 – that lovely Deputy Under Secretary title – became SCS Payband 3, Director General. All Permanent Under Secretaries and the Cabinet Secretary were merged into the 4th SCS payband, cunningly called SCS Payband 4, but kept their titles.

Almost everyone else stayed the same, except Senior Officers, who gobbled up Deputy Assistant Directors. All of this is why if you join the Civil Service at the lowest rung you will follow this path:

AO –> EO –> HEO –> SEO –> Grade 7 –> Grade 6 –> SCS1 –> SCS2 –> SCS3 –> SCS4

…although this differs by department, and may already be out of date by the time you read this.)

– or an SEO looking for a stretching new assignment, please think about applying for my job. It is very difficult. The problems are enormous and so important to solve. You will need to be by turns resilient, vulnerable, generous, firm, and ruthless with your time and energy. It’s been the best job I’ve done so far. It has been a job that has very nearly burned me out twice.

My point is that private secretarying is tough, and not for everyone, but if you’ve wondered about it when I’ve written about it and want to try your luck and you are from an under-represented group in tech, I would love to see you apply for this. Being close to the centre in technology is the best way to make certain changes, and this is that chance.

I put together a quasi-prototype-cum-pitch-deck on my passion project, matching Fast Streamers to roles, because I know how to have a good time, alright? I have sent it off to someone who might find it useful, and I can only cross my fingers and hope it goes somewhere. If not, it’s still one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever made. In fact, just for giggles, see if you can beat it: solve this grid such that each role has one candidate assigned to it, and that nobody gets worse than – let’s say – their 4th best match. This is obviously quite a simple example, but if you haven’t time to solve it or you’re just curious do click on the button and wait for the computer to do its magic.

Sending something to someone that you’ve worked on is nerve-wracking, so doing it when you’ve only written some very quick content and the minimum amount of code feels so much better. I know that some of this is just experience: knowing what “good enough” is has been a hard journey for me. I know I’ve swung both ways: said the first thing that came into my head and then tried to style it out when people called me on it, but also laboured for months on making code as perfect as it could be before I showed anyone and being way over-invested in it.

(Yes, admittedly this has been my pet project for half a decade, but I’m honestly starting to get some distance. It doesn’t bother me so much any more. Honest.)

As I share it around, I wonder if the approach I’m taking – bottom up, users-first – can be seen as improper. By sharing this with people who’ll use it, I’m definitely running a risk of upsetting a dynamic: if junior staff want to use something but seniors say you can’t – even for perfectly valid reasons – I will have forced a difficult issue.

On the other hand this is still mostly the germ of an idea. I’ve sorted the core part, but there’s so much more to do because what I’m pitching is a full service. The people closest to where this would transform are the people whose expertise I need. Selling something to seniors that’s shiny but useless doesn’t meet user needs in the slightest.

Do I need to ask the managers of users for permission?

I honestly don’t know. And I think that’s an aspect of people that I need to learn better. There’s a power dynamic that I don’t understand and I think I’m ignoring to my detriment.

And of course all power dynamics are made up and rest on people who hold the advantage in that dynamic making decisions, sometimes big, sometimes small, all the time. If you feel like your power is threatened it can be scary, but you have such an exciting choice in front of you because you can choose what that means. And nobody else can.

If you are in power, and you feel threatened, ask yourself why.

One thought on “Weeknotes S06E16: agitating

  1. On grading. When I joined the Civil Service in 2001 it was even more fragmented. At Customs & Excise most of the traditional grades had been split into two, where odd numbers were mostly generalists and evens mostly specialists.

    1/2 = AA
    3/4 = AO
    5/6 = EO
    7/8 = HEO
    9/10 = SEO
    11 = G7
    12 = G6

    At some point in history, 1&2 were merged into a single Band 2. But before this, a 7 had been referred to as a Principal Officer, and a 6 was a Senior Principal.

    When C&E merged with the Revenue, they went to the AA/AO etc., grading scheme – but got rid of the “Executive” bit, and so it was Assistant Officer, Officer, Higher Officer, Senior Officer. No idea if HMRC still refers to O, HO, SO.


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