The importance of writing

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The three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic.

As the tenet of basic education, children spend years learning how to input, manipulate and output information. It forms the foundations that allow more complex subjects to be taught such as science and literature.

However, some can often regard writing as an old skill, or a lost discipline that isn’t as important with the prevalence of communication via technology. Yet, I would argue that being able to write with clarity, skill and artistry is one of the most impactful skills that you can wield as a leader. It can elevate your presence and increase your impact dramatically.

Yes, you should write

Popular tropes of leadership in mainstream media have been loud and brash. Consider how the “big boss” character is portrayed in fiction, and how Alan Sugar or Donald Trump bounce around and deliver offensive quips on The Apprentice. Yet, this leadership is shallow. One needs only to observe the current term of the 45th President of the United States to see that leadership by brazen personality can only get you so far.

A resurgence of the academic leader is here.

Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett. Leaders who can communicate succinctly, leaders who can write. Leaders who are embracing one of the oldest skills that humans have had at their disposal, but are doing so at a time where distribution of written information globally is as easy as the click of a button.

Let’s enunciate further on Bezos. His annual Amazon shareholder letters are extremely well written. The 2017 incarnation explores ways to implement high standards, and whether they are intrinsic or teachable, universal or domain specific. That is far beyond just a table of profit and loss numbers, which is equally impressive, regardless. In fact, Bezos is a true champion of the written form. Recent information has shown that his executive meetings take the form of reading written memos as a way of making sure that a context is created for constructive debate and discussion. I have tried this out myself in recent important meetings. It works very well.

Why writing is so impactful

I am a firm believer in the power of good writing at work. I am also acutely aware that the time available to write well feels like it is increasingly diminishing: there is generally an expectation for lightning fast responses over precise communication, especially with the increase in popularity of chat software and direct messages when compared to email. However, I still find the time to write properly in my communication, and I will continue to do so.

Writing is a normalizing medium. No matter what you look like, how old you are, how you speak, or how confident you are, you can sit on your own and formulate your thoughts, draft and re-edit, and when you’re done, they can be presented in the same standard form as Bezos, Hemingway or Dickens: words on the page; a pure transfer of ideas from one brain to another with no judgement or discrimination based on creed, color, age or gender. An impactful message is an impactful message.

In an increasingly distributed world, where a senior member of an organization will rarely have all of their staff in the same physical location, the written word provides everybody with equal access to their leader, no matter whether they are sitting ten meters away from them, or whether they are oceans apart. Regular, frequent and considered communication unites. It aligns minds globally. It is a leveling platform.

In addition to communicating widely and equally, writing effectively is a differentiator. A considered written piece will almost always be able to persuade better, and to deliver a message better than a spoken argument given without preparation. I have had many experiences where retracting my vocal argument and committing my thoughts to paper has worked in my favor. A written argument can be constructed over many hours, even if it is only a few paragraphs long, ensuring maximum clarity and impact. You can take the space to ensure you represent your best self.

One of the reasons that I opted to begin writing regularly – and believe it or not – I have published an article every week for over a year now, is that it is a fantastic way of crystallizing one’s own thoughts. These articles are only a portion of the writing that I do each day. I write to others at work. I write to myself, privately. Continued focus on writing has improved the way that I think about problems and construct arguments. It helps me clarify the algorithmic paths of concepts in my brain, because it forces me to walk those lines slowly and to articulate them as I go along.

Writing as a leader

There are a number of ways in which you can use writing to improve your leadership ability, whether or not you have explicit control over a team, department or organization. Quality written communication is engaging and ensures that others will listen to your viewpoint, regardless of your place in the org chart.

Here’s a few ways in which you can practice being more impactful at work through your writing:

  • Consciously step back and think before sending messages. This shift in mindset is one of the easiest yet most effective things you can do. When you write a message to someone, resist the urge for it to be throwaway. Stop. Read it again. What would you think if you received this message from someone else? Could you make it better in order to portray exactly what you want? Does it represent the best communication that you can produce?
  • Journal your day to yourself. Even if you have no designated output for your writing, you can write for an audience of one: yourself. Start by briefly summarizing what you’ve done each day in a journal or private document. Or perhaps you’d like to take time each morning to describe how you’d really like the present day to play out. Either way, you can use this opportunity to plan or reflect and to improve your writing ability whilst doing so.
  • Think through problems by writing them out. Using whiteboards is an effective way of collaboratively thinking through problems, but the best way that I have found to help myself think through problems is to write them down, explain to myself how I feel about them, and to propose solutions to myself. The benefit of doing this is that once you’re happy with your written exploration, you can share the document with others for their feedback.
  • Write your thoughts for the subject of meetings ahead of time. Not only does this crystallize your thinking and allows you to come prepared and better able to convince others of your viewpoint, you can also share it with the attendees beforehand to help center the discussion.
  • Publish regular newsletters on your progress. Despite the belief that we all receive way too much email, from experience I have found that regular newsletters that people only have to read rather than issue a response to are well-received. People like updates! Get into the flow of writing regular written updates to your manager, team, stakeholders, or department.

And how do you get better at writing?

Many people who have read articles that I have written have asked me for my opinion on how to get better at writing. Let me take this opportunity to say that I still have a lot to improve before I would call myself a good writer. As such, I have no recommended course or educational materials to share, other than two extremely basic pieces of advice.

Firstly, the best way to get better at writing is just to write as much as you possibly can. I have found it similar to learning a sport, or an instrument, or a programming language: you simply need to practice, practice, practice. With time your speed will increase and you will find your voice. You will notice how you spend more time writing and less time editing. There will come a day that your stream of consciousness becomes almost exactly what you write, and what a liberating feeling that is! Try and capitalize on any opportunity to make your writing better. Every direct message, every email, every comment on a pull request. Take that bit of extra time to read and review. Use a thesaurus and learn a new word. Try to find opportunities to use semi-colons. Portray the feeling pictured in an emoji in your words, instead.

The only other piece of advice I can muster on how to improve your writing is to read. A lot. But don’t limit yourself to reading work-related materials. Read short stories on Medium. Raid the charity shop for that stack of Penguin classics and throw yourself into Orwell or Shelley. Work out how Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro pace their writing. How does that compare to Iain Banks? Consider the journalistic storytelling style of Steve Levy. Read a self-help book and study how the author makes their message so compelling, even if it may be tautological. Just read.

Writing is so powerful. Wield that power for your benefit.

The Eye of Sauron

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Oh dear…

“One moment only it stared out, but as from some great window immeasurably high there stabbed northward a flame of red, the flicker of a piercing Eye; and then the shadows were furled again and the terrible vision was removed.”

– The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King

If you’ve been in the industry for some time, you’ll recall the moments that you were under intense pressure to deliver.

Sometimes this pressure can come from anticipation: your team just happens to be responsible for delivering the most important new feature for the company this year. Pressure to deliver can also come from catastrophe: parts of your infrastructure may not have scaled as expected and are continually on fire, and unless a new solution is developed, customers will start dropping away.

In these moments, you’ll have felt what I like to describe as the gaze of the Eye of Sauron: whichever way you turn, the entire business is looking toward you. It’s uncomfortable. You can feel the heat. There are emails, Slack messages, JIRA nudges, interruptions in person, you name it – it’s constant and stressful.

Depending on your mindset, you can turn these tough situations into a challenging but rewarding experience for your team, or conversely, you can totally fumble. Handled correctly, you’ll be looking at career growth. Handled poorly, and you may find the next high stakes project goes to another team instead.

The Eye glances at you…

But first, how do you know that the Eye has turned its gaze on to your team? There are a number of cues that begin to become more frequent and intense:

  • Increased interest in your project from stakeholders. You’ll have to bat them away, rather than ask repeatedly for them to turn up.
  • Senior members of the business beginning to probe into the status of your project, such as when you’re grabbing a coffee in the kitchen, or walking down the hallway. You may have never spoken to these people before. Why are they talking to you now?
  • Your boss, or bosses’ boss, being more direct and intense with the progress of your work. Why do they care more than usual?
  • Noticing how your upcoming feature is being hyped internally and externally. It may now be perceived as the headline launch of the year, even though that was not apparent when you started the project. Why is the business sending out teaser tweets when the UI isn’t even designed yet?
  • Or, quite simply, everything is on fire and the platform won’t work unless your team digs their way out of this hole. The support ticket queue is getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger…

Regardless of how the situation has unfolded, it’s important to increase your vigilance and take extra effort to manage you and your team’s way through this period of heightened pressure. Handled deftly, you’ll fully own the tough situation and have something to celebrate once you deliver. You’ll also earn the team some much needed breathing room afterwards.

Under the Eye

Are you feeling the heat?

Although the increased pressure will make your daily activities harder, there are some principles that can help you through these periods. Try to ensure that you are applying them daily, through your discussions, meetings and decisions.

  • Team alignment: When you’re under the Eye, your team will probably know. But if they don’t, or if you’re purposely shielding them from knowing, then that’s a bad idea. Utilize the pressure in a positive way: align the team around what they need to achieve, make sure everyone understands how to succeed, and then push them forwards towards the goal.
  • Communication: At times of immense pressure, you’ll want to increase the visibility of what the team are working on. Consider writing a weekly (or more frequent) update to stakeholders. Depending on the size of your company, a weekly newsletter to the wider organization might be suitable too. Either way, you’ll want to make it absolutely clear what you’re working on, how you’re progressing, and any key decisions that you’ve had to make. Always invite responses and feedback: it prevents frustration if you open up a channel of communication for others to reply.
  • Release frequently: Since your cadence is of utmost importance, ensure that you’re releasing frequently so that your stakeholders can follow along with your latest builds. The more time that you have for feedback in stressful situations, the better. Don’t keep code held back until the deadline; it just makes the event more stressful and the resulting mega-merge might cause all sorts of bugs. Use feature toggles and keep shipping to production.
  • Pragmatism: As dates loom nearer, or as the system continues to ignite, you’ll need to make pragmatic calls on speed of development, quality of the code, and creation of technical debt. As much as it can be painful for idealists in your team, you’ll likely end up shipping some shonky code in order to get the work over the line. However, make note of every hack you put in so that you can tidy up and refactor later.
  • Work hard: As a leader, you need to set the example for the rest of the team. Put in the work. The hardest projects can become career-defining moments. Own them and be there.

A successful high-stakes project is fantastic for your visibility.

Though the graft will be tough, you will succeed. When you’re done, what’s next?

Gaze averted

The pain has passed and you are now in the aftermath of the marketing launch for your new feature. Retweets are pinging off everywhere, the company blog posts are churning out, and you can hear the ringing of the virtual cash register.

However, what you do next is very important for the morale of your team.

  • Celebrate: This is one of the most critical things. The team has worked extra hard and they’ve met their commitment. Take them out for lunch, or drinks, get some cakes shipped out to the office, put on a gaming night – whatever makes them happy. Make sure that you say thank you for what they’ve done.
  • Tidy up and clear down technical debt: As the deadline approached, a whole bunch of little shortcuts may have been taken: a hack here, a missed unit test there. Put aside the next sprint to refactor and tidy up at a more leisurely pace, whilst fixing any production bugs if they arise.
  • Self-guided project time: Time can also be put aside in the coming weeks for some self-directed learning. Allow the team time to experiment and to learn something new. This change of pace and direction puts some mental space between the last project and the next one.
  • Reflect: Arrange a project retrospective meeting. It’s a focussed way of reflecting on the whole process and discussing what could be handled better next time. Even if the project was run perfectly, the project retrospective is an opportunity to mentally close the current book before opening up the new one.
  • Plan and regroup: Take some time to think about what’s next. Are there any initial explorations that can be picked up? Is it time for a design sprint? It’s time to start the discussion, to think about some initial planning, and to get excited about the future.

Protection from the Eye

It’s safe to say that – like any period of “crunch” – intense periods of work are not sustainable. If a team finds themselves under the Eye too often, it will cause burnout and attrition.

This may be unavoidable at a start-up, but that’s an exceptional circumstance: those that are there are fully committed to the ride. However, at a larger company, it is important to consider how projects and expectations can be managed to allow different teams to feel the heat of the Eye in an alternating sequence as time progresses, allowing the other teams to temporarily shift down a gear and regroup.

For example, it is advantageous for your marketing department to space out product launches to maintain a steady flow throughout the year. Why not take advantage of this? Your product organization and your engineers can balance these intense periods of contraction with periods of release and recuperation.

As a leader, you should also actively fight for after-project space for your teams if the business does not give them the opportunity by default. When a big project is over, push back on demands to create the room for the rejuvenating activities in the previous section.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, after all.

Competitive sitting and leaving loudly

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Oh, well, this person isn’t working very hard, are they?

No, you first

Does your office suffer from a competitive sitting problem?

If you’ve not heard of the phrase before, unfortunately it doesn’t have anything to do with a game of musical chairs, or rolling across the office and jousting each other with broom handles.

It’s likely that you may have experienced it yourself.

Have you ever been sat next to your manager, or your team, and have felt anxiety about going home first at the end of the day, based on what they might think of you if you were the first to leave?

Likewise, have you felt that bubbling stress when traveling into work, making you walk that extra bit faster, so that you can be the first person in your team to arrive? Have you felt that being there first signals that you work harder than everyone else?

That is competitive sitting.

It is a cultural phenomenon where employees believe they are being monitored for how long they spend at their desk, regardless of their output. It can create a workplace where an employee may not go home until their manager goes home, who in turn may not leave until their own manager leaves. Everyone feels like they need to put in more hours because they think that others are putting in more hours.

Clearly this isn’t about the actual work that an individual is doing, but more about the appearance of doing said work.

In culture

The subject of competitive sitting was brought to my attention by an Instagram post by Anna Whitehouse (via my colleague Toby), who campaigns for better treatment of those that happen to be parents.

Check out her post.

Please leave loudly. Tell people, “I’m just off to pick up baby Ian”. (Noone called their baby Ian last year so trying to revive it). Tell people, “I’m heading off for a beer-and-a-burger down Wetherspoons”. Or simply tell people, “I’m heading home now”. Today I wrote a feature for @telegraph about being human at work in a bid to stop ‘competitive sitting’ – seeing who can remain strapped to their slab of MDF the longest. We’re not talking about a monologue on baby Ian’s weaning journey or an insight into nit comb research. But why hide our lives from work? When did it become OK for a woman to sit at her desk miscarrying for fear of telling anyone because they might know she is ‘trying’? When did life become something to sweep under the carpet with hole punch offcuts and rogue staples? When is that good for business? Every day, Robbert Rietbroek asks his executive team to “leave loudly”. For the chief executive of @pepsi Australia and New Zealand, it’s about sending a message to the entire company. "'Leaders Leaving Loudly’ is something we created to ensure that when team leaders leave, they feel comfortable doing so but also to declare it to the broader team,” he said. "So for instance, if I go at 4pm to pick up my daughters, I will make sure I tell the people around me, ‘I’m going to pick up my children.’ Because if it’s okay for the boss, then it’s okay for middle management and new hires.” Rietbroek said the goal is to reduce “presenteeism” and boost team morale because if you are “younger or more junior, you need to be able to see your leaders go home, to be comfortable to leave”. Since joining @pepsi, the father of two has been championing family-friendly, flexible work policies, as well as attempting to boost the number of women in senior management roles — currently at about 40 per cent. But he wants to challenge the perception that flexible working arrangements are “off limits” for men and non-parents. The head of procurement is an avid surfer, and is given flexibility to take time off when the surf conditions are good. "His entire team knows when he’s not in the office he’s catching waves 🌊.” #flexappeal

A post shared by Anna Whitehouse (@mother_pukka) on

The post references a workplace initiative from Pepsi Australia and New Zealand called “Leaders Leaving Loudly”. When team leaders go home early, they are encouraged to publicly announce why they are doing so. Perhaps they need to go and pick up their children. Perhaps their partner is sick and needs some help at home. Perhaps they’ve worked really hard this week and need a couple of extra hours to decompress. But, regardless of the reason, they announce it openly to their team before leaving the office.

The idea, as explained by CEO Robbert Rietbroek, is to reduce “presenteeism”, because employees that are younger or more junior will see their leaders going home for work-life balance reasons and will therefore also feel comfortable to leave when they need to. Leaving loudly drives a culture of working smartly and efficiently whilst being mindful of other commitments in our lives. It says that we aren’t primarily in the office to simply clock in and clock out, we’re here to get meaningful and impactful work done and then go get on with other equally important things.

Over the years, there have been a number of articles on the subject of presenteeism in Japanese culture. In fact, Japanese firms have been under scrutiny for the expectation of long hours as opposed efficient work. An unwritten code of how many hours one should be visibly sitting at their desk can create a culture of sleeping in the office, sinecure activities, and an unhealthy, stressed and unproductive workforce. At worst, it can lead to serious harm and death. There is the Japanese term karoshi, which means death from overwork. There are a shockingly high number of reports of this occurring.

Work is a large, meaningful part of life, but the best work is done when suitably rested and refreshed. And, like art and food, the greatest satisfaction is gained through contrast with other opposites: the rich diversity of the other facets of life. A day filled with productive work, fun family time, a walk, some exercise and a good night’s sleep is far more satisfying than 18 hours of unproductive graft due to tiredness, a silent takeaway dinner where both parties are on their phones while eating, and falling asleep on the sofa.

How can we move towards a healthy balance?

Virtue signalling

The oft-used term virtue signaling means the conspicuous expression of moral values. In recent years, its use has become loaded with negative connotation and has been used to highlight certain behavior on social media, where people partake in particular activities in order to appear virtuous. Such activity can be seen in changing a profile picture to support a cause, retweeting content from charities or politicians, and offering “thoughts and prayers” for any world crisis or notable figure passing away. Changing your profile picture is not the same as actually raising money for a charity.

Competitive sitting is a form of virtue signaling. It says “Look at me! I’m still here and I’m here until the end! I am the best employee!” But – and I don’t know about you – I’d much rather work with people who come in, get stuff done, then go and spend time with their friends and family so that they come back the next day refreshed and ready to do it all over again.

You don’t want employees sitting around in the office until 7:30PM – despite doing nothing particularly of use – to be congratulated as examples of people that are working hard. Instead, we need to ensure that people are held in high regard for their actual output, rather than their perceived output.

Setting an example

We need to consider the behavior and examples that we set to others in the company. This is why it is important for managers and leaders to make sure that they are sending the right message through their actions.

Think about your team, or your company. What is the culture like with regards to working hours and presence in the office? Do you think that your actions match your expectations for your staff, or is that something for them and not you?

Are you expecting your team to do 60 hour weeks, yet you regularly go home at 4PM? What message does that send? Conversely, do you want for your team to feel like they have the flexibility to come and go as they choose as long as they are getting their work done, but regardless, you’re there at your desk from 7:30AM to 7:30PM every day? How do you think that might make them feel, knowing that their manager is always there before them in the morning and after they go home at night?

Check whether your own actions align with the workplace that you wish to see around you. Ensure you are acting congruently with what you want to see. It’s unfair to expect the same from others otherwise.