It’s Christmas day. I know. But as I grew up in a culture that does most of the celebration on Christmas Eve, today is just a lazy day. No turkey roast, just time to spend with the family, relax, reflect and write.
This week I had only three days of work. I took Thursday and Friday off to do some full-time first aid volunteering. This is my way of switching off before a couple weeks of leave. You know, do something different, something very absorbing.
It’s not the first time I have done it. However, it is the first time I have overcooked it. By 21:00 on Thursday, I was sitting at the side of a road, messaging ambulance control that I could not go to the next job they had assigned me as the previous three were still in my head. I wanted to go home, decompress, and get some sleep. But the Welsh Ambulance Service takes wellbeing seriously. So the next thing I knew, I was in an office with a cup of tea in my hand, chatting to somebody who’s been there before.
Before you ask, I’m fine. By Friday night, I was out again. But it made me reflect on things I do more than ever before, so this weeknote might be tinted by this experience. Now that I have warned you… Let’s do it.
Cross-cultural team collaboration
Talking is important. Not only for the wellbeing but also to build digitally enhanced services. After all, it is a team sport. Too often, we build teams of walled professionals who attend the same standups and work from the same backlog without collaboration. They just happen to work in parallel for the same master or manager.
Diversity is important too. We know it. We form diverse teams hoping to get the promised benefits. But do we get them in full?
It is the end of my fifteenth year working with digital technology in or from Wales. It has been a decade and a half since I uprooted myself and tried to continue my familiar career in a new context. New culture, new languages (both natural and programming), new norms, and new expectations. I thought it didn’t matter. But it does.
I still struggle to express myself as well as I would like to. Instead of gaining native fluency in Welsh and English, I have lost it in Polish. All three languages I use every day feel equally awkward. There are things like Christmas jumpers, bingo and crackers, which I lost any hope of understanding. At the same time, the traditions I grew up with appear more and more absurd. I am nowhere-native. But that’s OK. Instead, I have a reasonably good understanding of three perspectives and three languages to think in.
This is my personal model of how diverse, cross-functional teams work. It means giving up on excellence in any individual profession to benefit from a synergy of good enough understanding from many more perspectives. I know it requires daily effort to make it work. But I also know that it is worth it.
Digital natives and adopters
When talking about diversity, we often overlook one dimension. Digital natives and adopters. What it even means? I have just finished reading a book by Erica Dhawan – Digital Body Language. The book covers many challenges of modern, remote, asynchronous communication, but the generational differences are prominent. They are often framed as cultural differences between digital natives and adopters and how the technology we grow up with affects how we express ourselves and how we perceive communications of others.
The author proposes a test to determine if somebody is a native or an adopter, but it is not such a clear-cut for me. Communication technologies change so quickly that we might all be nowhere-natives in our “office” jobs, as I am nowhere-native geographically and linguistically.
It can be an opportunity, but as Erica Dhawan explains, this is a huge challenge and a problem if not managed.
Reflecting on the last week and the previous two years, we have missed a massive opportunity. We are now firmly in the post-CoVID-19 hybrid work world. It was an opportunity to intentionally structure our communications channels and interaction habits, which were already in chaos. We could have used information architecture and re-designed how we work. But we didn’t. Instead, we just assumed things would just somehow work out.
The autonomous team problem
We want to work in user-centric ways. We tend to agree that to achieve it, we have to be agile and Agile™ comes with the mantra of autonomous teams. Surely, given enough time and retrospectives, the teams will figure it out and optimise their work. And they might, although my experience is full of examples of teams optimising for the wrong things and settling in local minima. But even if they could do it well, the question that bothers me is whether they should.
A delivery team should focus on value delivery. A data engineering team should focus on building better data engineering platforms. They should spend only a little time thinking about in-team communications. The between-team communication is outside of their influence and scope. Organisations should provide better training and guidance on how to communicate, with whom and most importantly, when not to.
My thinking on the subject is heavily influenced by Team Topologies by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais. At least when it comes to inter-team collaboration. I also agree with Cal Newport when in Deep Work he makes a case for organisations to create constraints within which autonomous teams operate. It goes against the mantra that suggests that autonomous means completely independent. But organisational support is essential to help the teams focus on what is really their domain of expertise. They shouldn’t need to figure out how to communicate across generations nor invent how to incorporate diverse team members and reap the benefits.
Talking is important, and we should talk about it, and teach each other how to do it.
Things I wish I had time to write about
OK, that Cal Newport reference is not an obvious one. He writes mostly about individual productivity, but he mentions the need for organisational support. In fact, after finishing Deep Work last December I started a year-long experiment in my communication habits. I hope to have some time soon to write about it. And about maximising things not done, too!
Erica Dhawan, in her book, writes about high and low-context cultures and languages. It struck me that we live and collaborate in Engish – a very low-context environment, but we often write code in a high-context way. This can be the reason behind many common problems – a thought I would like to explore more.
Whenever I get a message starting with “I know you are very busy”, my stomach turns. Why do we do it? How many opportunities to collaborate do we miss because of that?
Have you ever noticed that some people turn job titles into industries? Why do they do it? How do we stop them and redirect that energy to where it is needed?
I keep thinking about continuous professional development and how little we do it. Weeknotes and TLIr (Today I Learnt) type posts help but are these enough? I bought the Cultivating Communities of Practice book to learn more about the subject.