Doctor’s Note – Issue 22 – Time Sink

In this issue: Your time is precious / Higher Education in trouble / Navigating the Leadership Dip talk / Power of Ten / Never Not International Women’s Day / The Linkhole / Book Corner

Welcome to all the new subscribers since the previous issue. I truly appreciate you spending the team reading my writing. I’ve been taking the irregular part of “an irregular newsletter” a little too literally recently. There just seems to be so little time…

Your time is a non-renewable resource

Which is a smug segue into the topic of time and work. I wrote a thought on LinkedIn a few weeks ago that turned out to be one of my most popular posts ever. 

Much like the relationship between customers and service providers, the relationship people have with their employer is often very asymmetric.

The thought arose during conversations with two of my coachees. One was going through a hiring process moving into a new job and the HR experience was awful. Another was feeling overly indebted to her employer and heading into burnout. 

I wrote that common HR hiring practices are tinged with arrogance and condescension (“we require this” or “this are the standard terms, sign here”), making it seem like you should be honoured to be paid by the organisation. Or leadership perennially make their employees feel guilty that they’re not working hard enough, usually by constantly shifting the goalposts. It can leave people in work situations that bear all the hallmarks of gaslighting and abusive relationships (I don’t use this term lightly – the wellbeing effects can be severe). 

Today is the one year anniversary of coronavirus lockdown measures here in Germany. 80% productivity is the new 100%, which means a lot of people are running on fumes. Those being pressured to do more might consider this, I suggested:

Yes, you get paid for your work, but money is a renewable resource for the business. In fact, your job is to return far more of it to them that they will ever give to you. 

You, on the other hand, pay your employer with your time. A resource that is absolutely finite and non-renewable. You will never get the hours, days or years back that you spend at work. Worse, you never know when your time is going to run out.

Make sure the organisation you work for deserves your most precious resource.

Every time I write about workplace misery there’s an enormous response. Yet there seems to be a collective shrug and eye-rolling, as if we all tacitly agree that this is just what work is, in the same way that water is wet.

In the 19th Century factory workers suffered under extremely dangerous conditions. The chances of being mutilated by one of the new industrial machines or harmed by dangerous chemicals were high, but this was culturally acceptable for some time. The Victorians thought it was fine to send children up chimneys and down coalmines, after all.

It led me to pose the question of whether the bullying, dysfunction and structural injustices in contemporary workplaces make them as psychologically dangerous as 19th factories were physically. 

This, too, seemed to poke the hornet’s nest. There appears to be shared lie that everybody is aware of, but nobody wants to admit to. Miserable work cultures in many, many organisations have been normalised. To complain is to be work shy or anti-capitalist (un-American, communist) as if work is the paramount reason to exist. The Victorian Children website I linked to above puts things pretty matter-of-factly: 

The thought of using children for working the coal mines was very attractive to mining companies. Children were much smaller, enabling them to maneuver in tight spaces and they demanded a lot less pay.

A few weeks later I read Stowe Boyd’s excellent Work Futures newsletter in which he made the case for a new work culture:

We need to seek fluidarity, a more agile version of the solidarity that unions were based on. Where we don’t have to agree on everything, we only need to agree on a few core principles, like an end to precarity, fair pay for work, fair access to work, fair redress for grievances, and a larger voice in the governance of companies where we work.

We need a new work culture that relies on the primal drive for autonomy and mastery in our work, the sense of belonging that comes from sharing goals and meeting them, and the impulse to gain the respect of those we respect.

Just as we no longer allow companies to exploit child labor, or to do whatever they like with the land that they own — which led to pollution, overuse of resources leading to ecological decline, and the subsequent degrading of adjacent land, as well — just so we should not allow companies to be managed however the owners want, or whatever they can get away with. 

And there it was again. We all know the way work is at the moment is not right. That’s why observational comedies like The Office work as humour. Our grandchildren are not only going ask “why didn’t you do anything about climate change?” They’re also going to ask why we allowed toxic work cultures to thrive when we knew it was causing so much damage.


Higher eduction is not in a good place

Home schooling has been tough, but I also really feel for my MA students. Having started an 18-month MA Service Design in September 2019, most of them will give final presentations in January 2022. About 70% of that time will have been remote learning forced by the pandemic. It’s not the ideal university experience.

This has led to several articles about higher education institutions struggling for relevance. Why would students bother to pay thousands in fees (not here in Germany, thankfully) to grand institutions if they’re just sitting at home?

I’ve long thought of degree qualification as being like currency. They’re a promise on a piece of paper of a certain set of agreed and perceived values. We like to think that people who went to Ivy League institutions are super smart, but that’s not always true (c.f. Ted Cruz) and it’s certainly not true that people who didn’t go to one aren’t just as bright. But the piece of paper makes the promise that Ivy League alumni had a certain kind of exposure to a particular culture and teaching. The reality behind that piece of paper differs wildly. 

The danger during a pandemic is that it exposes the reality of education and threatens to crash the value of that currency. After all, what’s the difference between watching recordings of your lectures from Harvard and watching someone brilliant on YouTube teach you the same thing?

Back in 2006 I wrote a piece called Re-Imagining Higher Education in response to the do-more-with-less, run-higher-ed-like-a-businesses mentality that was already plaguing universities back then. I imagined that the longtail might work for educational institutions if they could think beyond physical presence. I didn’t imagine the pandemic, of course, but reading it now seems eerily prescient:

Taking a look at the shifting mediascape it is not hard to see where universities might be left in ten years’ time (or less). They may end up with a whole load of (usually ugly and environmentally unsound) buildings and no students on campus. Universities in their present models are audience aggregators, just like broadcast networks. If you can get enough people in front of the content (usually the lectures and tutorials) and it becomes economically ‘efficient’ to run the class. As long as the student is viewed as a unit of product that brings in funds this way of thinking is an unsustainable view of education. What it leads to is the equivalent of Hollywood re-makes and top-twenty chart music - a culture of popular hits rather than educational diversity because the ‘audience’ under financial pressure to find value-for-money go for the safe options, the hits, as does the institution.

Power of Ten

The latest two episodes of my Power of Ten podcast are up. You should have a listen:

Navigating the design leadership dip

I gave a talk for Le Laptop whose name still makes me smile like my schoolboy self first learning of “le weekend.” The talk was on Navigating the Design Leadership Dip about my personal journey into design leadership, the lessons I learned about the leadership dip and reflections from my coaching practice.

You can watch the recorded livestream, but you have to sign up (for free) to access it. Don’t panic about the initial introduction in French from Pauline. I presented in English – my schoolboy French never got that far.

Never Not International Women’s Day

“So why don’t we have an international men’s day, eh, eh?” is often the puffed up, deliberately provocative response to International Women’s Day from men who look like me – white, middle-aged, middle-class. 

Like many of those responses to social justice and equality, the men saying it don’t really believe in their own rhetoric. Because, of course, the answer to their question is “every single day.”

Recognising this Prue Jones, Vanessa Dewey and Andy Wright created a platform - Never Not International Women’s Day - for women (and men) to talk about their experiences and what needs to change in the creative industries. Please take a look at the excellent speakers (and me) sharing their thoughts, stories and wisdom.

The Linkhole

“I’ve spent way too much time over the years trying to convince feature teams, product owners and agile coaches (and I’ve also had the pleasure of working with the best of breed of all those as well) that delivering the wrong thing really quickly and with the greatest flow or highest quality or yaddiyadiya really doesn’t matter much if it’s still the wrong thing…”

Book Corner

The length of The Linkhole has an inverse relationship to the length of the Book Corner list. Here are the few I’ve been reading:

  • Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream by Jamie K McCallum. A rather depressing indictment of work culture, especially in the USA. Lots of data, heaps of quotable passages, such as: “Of course, it makes sense to make the most of our days, but saving money for our bosses isn’t the same thing as enjoying the time we have to the fullest.” Quite.

  • Dungeons & Dragons. I kid you not. I revisited the role-playing game I enjoyed as a kid and discovered it’s had an enormous re-birth in the past 6–7 years, in no small part thanks to the success of the Twitch-streaming cast of Critical Role. It’s even cool now. Really. And there’s a whole world of insights to be drawn upon for leadership, storytelling and facilitation. More on this soon.

  • Speaking of fantasy, Namina Forna explained how it felt to discover most fantasy literature of the Tolkien and C.S.Lewis era had no major or positive characters that looked like her – a black women. So she wrote her own: The Gilded Ones.

  • I feel sure I’ve listed this before, but Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? should be required reading for all those managers who will, sadly, never read it because they think they don’t have to.

  • A Culture Of Safety: Building An Environment For People To Think, Experiment, And Innovate by Alla Weinberg is about exactly what the title says it is. Soon to be a Power of Ten guest.

  • If you enjoyed the TV adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the prequel The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage is a fine read. And I love that we live in an age in which a dad-joke Twitter exchange with a famous author is possible.

  • I once again recommended Dave Gray’s excellent Liminal Thinking in a coaching session recently. The six principles and nine practices are worth revisiting regularly. The first practice? “Assume that you are not objective.”

That’s it for this issue. It’s obviously far too long. As Mark Twain didn’t actually say "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

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Photo by Saad Chaudhry on Unsplash