S07E11: Multi-lingual

This week I attended two talks in two languages that are not my mother tongue and they were very good. I’ve also given my strategy a shove, my organisation’s strategic capability a shove, and still not gone to the gym.

If you notice fewer typos and grammatical errors, it’s because Maria has very kindly proofed this ❤️

Strategic thinking is my bread and butter, in that it’s extremely boring and yet I absolutely love it. This week I’ve been writing a cross-government policy and circulating it with immediate decision-makers. Soon I’ll be able to take it to a wider group of people, hopefully moving everyone further down a path that I currently think is the best. The actions I think we should take are informed as much as possible, but the best thing about speaking to people early is that you can revise and change direction – while being aware of the barriers, biases, and inertia that everyone brings to the situation. Including me! I’ve often got to fight an instinct to act for the sake of acting, instead of sitting still and waiting for a situation to resolve itself.

I’ve been consciously slower and easier on myself this week, saying no to things, forcing open some slack. I have a lot of privilege in being able to say no and feel comfortable in it. I know I had a mental block on it for ages, and as a white cis man I get more leeway than most. I’m also really lucky in having colleagues who accept it and also themselves say no. We are carving out a niche, and I think that means being really strict with ourselves about what we do and don’t do. Even when it’s incredibly exciting and the monkey brain leaps up and down with enthusiasm.

I’ve also seen the two distinct ends of management in my organisation, and I’m struggling because I think they’re both good and both bad. I want to see if I can work out if there’s a place for both, and if so where, because the skills these people have are incredible. There’s got to be a way to channel it.

Extreme 1 is the ultimate generalist. They understand how to manage a team really effectively, and have done a bit of everything in the organisation. They’re the ultimate T-shaped people, but might have moved away from their original ‘deep knowledge’ area. At best, they’re amazing at drawing people together, sharing a vision, and navigating the bureaucracy. At worst, they’re out of their depth, unable to communicate with the people doing the work, and quickly losing the respect of those above and below them.

Extreme 2 is the senior specialist. They understand the domain as well as any expert, and they understand what their team of specialists want from their work and careers. They can pitch in and plug gaps where needed – writing code, carrying out analysis, negotiating a particularly tricky contract. At best, they’re the person everyone turns to with a puzzle and they have a team who’d follow them anywhere. At worst, they’re actively blocking work, getting stuck on item 3 of a 22-point agenda as they dive into a tricky implementation question.

I don’t work with either of these people, because they’re obviously caricatures. But I orbit around people who resemble these extremes, and I think they’re amazing and frustrating in equal measure. I find working for them equally challenging: with extreme 1, I find myself frustrated as I explain (what I think of as) basic concepts to senior staff. With extreme 2, I struggle to find the space to research or investigate things myself.

Are they even different types? Is 1 just the same as 2, but with a different technical skillset? Probably. Management is hard, and pretending it’s a thing you magically receive on promotion might be why extreme 2 is struggling to give out tasks effectively. Equally, I worry that there’s a certain expectation in my organisation that everything is learnable in 6 months. Speaking as someone who’s written code for 5 years and been learning Russian for 2, that attitude is simply wrong for most people. Even with two years, learning enough to be competent is hard.

This problem is a million times worse in tech, where what I learned 5 years ago (Python 2) now resembles, but is not the same as, Python 3 – which is what’s in use today. print "Hello world!" literally doesn’t work any more.

Has anyone seen these extremes working? Or do we have to accept that above a certain level senior people don’t know anything useful other than how things used to work – and in which case, what role should they play in deciding what we do next?

I’ve finally done what I’ve been meaning to do and organised three workshops for my organisation on Wardley Mapping. Getting this skill more widely understood will give me more brains to bounce off when I need to, and will hopefully start spreading it further than I can by myself. It seems to have been really well-received, and if the sessions themselves go well I’m going to be opening it up further. Watch this space. If you’re in my organisation. Though if you are in my organisation, maybe you should just email me.

Writing is a total joy at the moment. I convinced a senior person to put their trust in me and delegate drafting a response to a letter. As always it’s a pleasure to sink into the words and make them somebody else’s. I put together a good first draft and sent it round to a group of people who are extremely busy and solely empowered to approve it –

– I feel like a theme of this post is how peculiarly backwards the current system is, with its pairing of high-availability/low-influence and low-availability/high-influence people, seems to me –

– and then I shall receive it back and make changes. And again, writing things in my organisation is a joy because everyone thinks about their contributions before they make them. I love it. Long live writing. Long live consideration.

Oh shit, I’m extreme 2 when it comes to writing. I don’t think I’ve ever delegated writing anything.

My mentee is still doing really well. It always feels like a bit of a humblebrag, but she is genuinely awesome and is genuinely doing really well. She’s stepped up to a tech lead role, which I’m doing my best to support her on, but the organisation she’s working for is way understaffed. I’m glad she’s doing the role, because it’ll develop her, but it’s a lot to put on someone who’s fundamentally still a junior.

This is one of those times when I look at her organisation, see it’s hiring senior devs, and immediately feel the urge to go over there. Just for six months. Just long enough to sort it out. Then I can just pick up what I’m doing here again, no problem at all. But I don’t know if that’s true, or if it is true, whether it’s actually what I should do. I can’t just abandon my current team and throw away my current, very stretching opportunity to indulge my desire to Batman in and save the day.

The worst thing about choices is that nobody can stop you making them except you. Running away from something challenging is totally doable, and nobody would think twice. Heck, nobody thinks about me all that often as it is. (Not in a pity-me way, just that even if you follow me on twitter and are regularly exposed to my ramblings I’d worry if you thought about me all that often. Because that would be unusual, I think.)

Anyway. I’m struck that this is a feeling I often get as a white man: that my role is to leap in and save the day, preferably with a damsel. And, what’s more, is that it should be easy. Not easy like a computer game, which is boring, but not hard enough that it’s not fun. So opportunities like these, where I can just leap in and save the day with my magic writing/coding/leading skills are a huge temptation.

I don’t think that’s going to help my mentee learn, and I feel that Batman never grew much as a person either.

So I guess for now I’ll stick with what I’m not good at.

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