An era of technological and ethical unknowns

Taken from an article on TechCrunch, regarding the ethics when designing new technologies:

Consumers would prefer to minimize the number of overall casualties in a car accident, yet are unwilling to purchase a self-driving car if it is not self-protective. Of course, the ideal option is for companies to develop algorithms that bypass this possibility entirely, but this may not always be an option. What is clear, however, is that such ethical quandaries must be reconciled before any consumer hands over their keys to dark-holed algorithms.

As technologies accelerate the pace of change, that same momentum is pushing us into an era of ethical unknowns.

Learning to Lead

Up until some time in October 2014, Octane was the figurative and literal one-man-band — fighting the good fight, but nurturing an ambition to grow. Then, over the course of the following November, I was an employer for the first time.

I had intended taking on a single employee to help me with a nascent internal project, the Under Cloud, but given it was — for the most part — both a new experience and a complete leap into the dark, I took on two employees, both acquired via (and from) the University of Sheffield.

How not to be a boss!

Perhaps more important to me at that time — at that moment of becoming an employer — was to avoid becoming the boss I had so long ago.

I had a terrible experience as an employee, and at the time of that acrimonious departure, I made a promise to myself that I would never become like the person I worked for. But it was a learning process, one that taught me that in spite of the terrible experience, we had followed a similar path.

What separated us was the application of those experiences and the value we derived from them.

In the end, it was a choice: choose to be broken by those experiences; or break the cycle and turn those experiences into a blueprint for something positive.

I chose the latter option.

Lessons in leadership

A trick I use is to step outside of myself and look beyond the bubble of ownership and management, because sometimes the passion I have translates as frustration when things aren’t moving fast enough, or despair when those I engage with lack the same zeal as me.

So it’s about remaining human, humane, grounded, real, focused, trusted — a windswept, rugged island of calm in the teeth of a raging storm. I know, that last part is a bit dramatic, but it’s apt, because while I have several decades of experience to draw upon, those who work for me do not, and I must be that singular point of calm to their storm.

Personal experience aside, I am a relative newcomer to this employer thing! Yes, I have mentors to turn to, such as the wonderful Karen Guile, the owner of Tobook Limited, a client of Octane’s. But in the end, it’s a path I — and anyone else in my position — has to walk alone.

I get it, don’t allow employees to become too familiar. I see the argument and I understand the logic, but it’s not me, and it’s not how I was as an employee, either, because I questioned (and continue to question) almost everything.

Questions are good!

I’d rather be the target of a barrage of pointed, reasoned, logical questions, than a participant in an awkward silence emerging from a lack of action, resulting in a poor performance.

Projects live and die by three things:

  1. Planning;
  2. Communication;
  3. Execution.

While we keep doing those 3 things, we won’t often go far wrong.

Which brings me to performance, and it also ties in with the lack of (but fast-growing) experience I (don’t) have when it comes to employing people.

Role reversal

Now, for some of you reading this article, imagining yourself as an employee shouldn’t be too difficult because that’s what you are!

But think for a moment:

  • Those things you do which you wish you didn’t have to.
  • Or those things that get foisted onto you when a little sharing would have been a big help.
  • Then there are those who get nudged out of position, a bit like Wayne Rooney playing out on the left wing; why squander the striking talent of the lad when he was born for the forward position? Play people to their strengths!

You get the idea.

I don’t want — or need — to be that boss who hands down from on high things with an avuncular scowl of pre-emptive disappointment.

However, at the same time, I need to know what else an employee is capable of doing. Stress is a revealing environment, which might forge a metallic edge to a person, or make them shrink like a flower in the shadows. I got florid again, didn’t I?

So it’s a balancing act: place them in a stressful environment, or under pressure (not quite the same thing), but be there for them. In either instance, I ask if it’s something they want to do.

Failure isn’t such a bad thing until we stop learning from it, or we become afraid of it.

Leading by example

We know from personal experience that finding enjoyment in what we do is vital. But not everything we do is a rib-tickling festival of mirth and merriment.

So how do I mitigate this?

I share the entire strategies I have with the team, which is sometimes overwhelming, but at least the journey is known.

It’s rare that I might withhold something (perhaps financial), because I believe that censorship of information is often (but not always) more harmful than sharing.

Then we talk about activities, and I ask questions such as:

  • “Do you want to do this?”
  • “Does this make sense to you?”
  • “Here’s how I do things, but what would be best for you?”
  • “Would it help if I gave you a hand?”

Sometimes, it’s about maintaining momentum, understanding the terrain, and knowing when to lead by example.

In short, I sometimes get stuck in and do the horrible things, freeing the team up to do the things I’m paying them to do.

Then I’ll do something which some might find unusual — I conduct a reverse performance review by asking: “How am I doing?”

I don’t often make demands, but I demand an honest answer to that question, and I make a point of teasing out the observations and drilling down to the specifics. Sometimes, it’s about them, but then sometimes it’s about me, and if I agree and it makes sense, I fix that.

Everyone has to be engaged, and feel part of the journey and not an incidental passenger, or a mere cog in a machine.

Look, I make no claim to be the perfect boss, nor am I aspiring to be that (perfection is impossible, but that’s for another time). Instead, first and foremost, I’m attempting to be boss that I’d work for and then build from there.

7 Steps to Workflow Nirvana

Ideas often come in interesting packages — a multitude of shapes and sizes.

I work with people to improve their business processes, moving them from analogue (paper) to digital (bits), helping to reduce data loss, error, and duplication. I have a knack for solving intractable problems.

Over the next few paragraphs I’ll provide you with some ideas to help you tame the worst business processes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

While at an event in Sheffield, I introduced myself to a fellow attendee, and after explaining a bit about what I do she began to regale me with the tale of a fascinating and somewhat alarming problem she once had while working for a major high street retail chain.

Understanding the process

As I understood things, during the summer months, certain parts of the store had a strict dress code, and signage was required to make a polite request (no vests or shorts).

However, before anything could be printed, a couple of bureaucratic stages had to be navigated:

  1. there was a minimum budget requirement of £8;
  2. 5 signatures were required (signature 1 was needed before signature 2, and so on and so forth).

As you might imagine, this process of gathering signatures was glacial, somewhat difficult to orchestrate, and — as the woman explained — prone to failure as the paperwork, because of the flimsiness of the stock, often got blown from a desk by the merest breeze.

So that would be the loss part of what Octane works to reduce, along with duplication and error, a point I made to the woman, which earned a sardonic chuckle.

I’m guessing the minimum spend was intended to reduce costs and avoid needless activities, but after a quick calculation, things didn’t quite add up.

So imagine a scenario where this 5-level sign-off process is performed 5 times a week per store for various activities across 100 stores. Each time the process is performed, there’s an average loss of 48-72 hours (a figure gleaned from the discussion with the woman).

Defining the ideal business process

Now, let’s imagine a simple secure piece of software with a sign-in for the stakeholders: managerial signatories; and floor managers. After an initial investment of 5-8 hours of basic training it’s up and running.

A sequence of ‘signatures’ is required, and after the stakeholder signs into the application, he or she does nothing more than read the request before clicking either an “Approve” or “Reject” button:

  • If approved, an automated request is sent to the next person in the chain.
  • If rejected, the person who sent the request could then ask for further clarification, a process captured by a messaging component within the application.

Running the numbers

Let’s assume our ideal business process shaves a modest 12 hours from a number of workflows bound by the same rules. So that’s 12 hours, multiplied by 5 times each week, multiplied by 100 stores.

Our little application would have saved them 6,000 hours.

Imagine what would happen if we applied the same streamlining to mission-critical processes that are vital to operations?

I know, it’s that commingling of terrifying and amazing!


Optimising a workflow

So now you understand how structured processes might lose time, let’s explore some ideas on how we might fix that.

  1. Reduce the number of stages. If you have 7-10 stages, that’s at least 7 different places for something to go wrong, and then you or someone else has to figure out where and then how to fix it. So examine the workflow with a mindset of simplification, liaise with the stakeholders, be on the look out for loss, duplication, and error and bring them down (elimination is the goal, but not often feasible — we are human).
  2. Keep the processes small and manageable. If your workflow must consist of 7 stages, keep them compact and understandable. Some other idiot (you, I’m guessing) has to read over the documentation in 6 months’ time and make sense of it.
  3. Document everything. Use something like Google Docs and share the documentation amongst the team. Use the ‘Track Changes’ feature, to follow who wrote what, why, and when.
  4. Automation. If feasible, automate your workflow. Don’t be afraid of a hybrid analogue-digital series of processes (paper and bytes), so long as you’ve documented everything and each analogue stage has a person responsible for it. Whatever shape the workflow takes, make sure the data it creates is in digital and not analogue format (at some point, you might need to analyse the data).
  5. Limit the number of people involved. I often have to explain to clients that design is not a democratic process. So unless you’re a multinational corporation, you won’t need to vote each time someone proposes a change. An ambassadorial approach is often required to deal with those protecting the borders to their fiefdoms, and then there’s the oft cited refrain: “But, we’ve always done it like this!” In each case, take the big-picture approach and be brave!
  6. Restrict the number of signatories. The fewer the number of chiefs, the more time the indians have to — you know — do the hard work. However, build in an audit trail (via the documentation in point 3), so the decision-makers know what happened and when.
  7. For goodness sake, communicate! If you suspect there’s a flaw in the process, speak up. If someone has a suggestion, listen. Neither of these two things should be a major problem (or another time vampire) if you’ve followed point 5. While this might sound obvious, engage with the people executing the processes because they’re the ones doing the hard work, so they know better than anyone.

Perhaps now you understand why I’m passionate about ideas because it’s often those in the smallest packages that are the greatest of gifts.

First published on LinkedIn.

If work ethic had a colour, what would it be?

I suppose the good news is, if someone like Trump could be President, there’s hope for everyone.

As a kid, I was a paperboy, working for Dali, the Asian owner of the corner shop — I know, a cliché, but it’s true.

So the first “job” I had came to me from someone of foreign extraction.

Since then — swatting aside accusations of being an entrepreneur with Trump-esque glee and defiance — I’ve been working on a not-so-secret project:

Under Cloud is the place to store, share, and link excellent ideas.

Capture ideas. Create knowledge.

I mention this because in 2014 I realised that I had taken the Under Cloud as far as I could alone. So I took a leap and … (cut to the end) … as of October 2014 I had not one but two employees.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I had placed a recruitment advert with the University of Sheffield and received 3 applications from: an Italian; an Iranian; and a Nigerian.

Not a White Caucasian in sight, or a female, either — but that’s another subject for another time, perhaps.

Now, this isn’t a left-leaning plea for us to embrace each other while a young church volunteer strums along to a cheerful rendition of kumbaya.

Bad people come in all colours — some orange, for example. So I suppose the point is, I am here as a businessman on LinkedIn because of a multicultural Britain, not in spite of it.

First published on LinkedIn.

How to respond to failure. Or, after the problem came the procedure.

Encountering problems and making mistakes is a consequence of life, business, and everything else — and unavoidable. But the value is in how you respond to them.

As I said on Twitter this past week:

I’ve found that the best lessons in life — by far — are those where you learn how NOT to do something.

But still, as good as vicarious experiences are, they only get you so far.

In the beginning, there was the mistake…

By gum, was it a doozy! I’ll spare you the gory details (because they are — for the most part — irrelevant) but it was less a bug and more an infestation in the code. In the grand scheme of things, it has caused problems for our schedule, but the Under Cloud remains on course.

Stripping the whole problem down and tracing it to its source, it was — as these things often are — a failure to communicate, which resulted in team members and myself labouring under the assumption that something was when it wasn’t.

And then came the procedure…

So how did I respond?

We’re using a number of things to manage what we do. As a team of 3, we don’t need a lot, but we find that Slack and Trello are enough to keep things together, although we often find things said and done become lost inside the whirring cogs of the communication machine!

I created a list in Trello and added a card entitled: “Deprecated”, within which I wrote the following description:

“Here are all of the parts, components, and libraries of the application that have been deprecated, and what they’ve been superseded with.

Please update this card as and when required, but also refer to it, too!”

Some might argue it’s just a patching of holes, while some might claim it’s only of any use if people follow the procedure, but I would counter by saying that’s life, business, and everything else…