Standard Operating Procedure, process, workflow… a couple of years ago I thought these were all by words for bloat and the antithesis of working quickly or making progress. It’s fair to say I’ve done a full turn on that one: I now run a process-driven company where how we do everything is built around process.
This post isn’t about that, though: this about how we use process to be a technology-driven service company.
Working with process in a business that relies on humans doing the work is nothing new. Using technology to add scale to those processes is a different and exciting way if doing things.
We work with technology companies, and a common viewpoint is that services don’t scale. Products are viewed as the superior option for their scale. One client even said to me once; “Alex you’re not stupid, so why don’t you make products?”
I see our processes as the product, and building technology around those services is how we scale. We do, of course, need to offer services led by humans and we’ll never dramatically scale beyond the number of hours the team works in a week. But, I suspect how we’ve scaled our processes and become a technology-driven company wasn’t possible even a couple of years ago. I also suspect others are massively under-utilising the methodology we use. This post aims to be insightful and enlightening.
I’ve written about Deep Work many times before, including how I do it in practice and how we do it at Ellipsis. I’ve been a dedicated Deep Worker since I read it in one sitting on a long haul flight 4 years ago, and the longevity of the idea is interesting. There are lots of productivity ideas, but few stick.
Both of my previous posts are now a little dated, so as it has stuck, I thought it’d be interesting to re-review how I’ve doubled down on Deep Work recently.
I haven’t written an annual review post for a couple of years and had no intention of changing that this year, but I’ve enjoyed reading other people’s, am pretty bad at writing about myself and want to change that, and want to write more this year. It seems like a good fit!
2020 is over, hooray! I can’t start this without talking about COVID-19. At the time of writing, in the UK hospitalisation rates are higher than ever, 1.9 million people have died worldwide, and whilst vaccinations are starting it seems plausible restrictions are still in place in 12 months’ time. I’ve been mostly at home, my wife works in medicine and has been doing dangerous work where a lot of people have died. It’s been terrible.
2020 was a good year to be working remotely already, though. It was also a good year to be working in an industry which helps people work online. For me personally, 2020 had things which were Very Bad, but day-to-day I had a good routine, got on with my work, and I made the most of it. Let’s thus look at a couple of areas.
This post is about the book’s really good core ideas, and then a brief section on where they were weaker. I originally wrote this a year ago when I first read the post, but I’ve sat on publishing it. It makes some good points, so I’m doing so!
I recently read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I was looking forward to this: Cal’s previous book Deep Work has had a huge influence on my professional life (as I’ve written about before) and I’m a keen subscriber to his blog posts.
The book was set up to be a home run, but it was simultaneously really good and a little disappointing. The core idea started very strongly and was packed with insight, but by the end it strayed too far from this core insight and was relyig on weaker secondary sources, ideas, and arguments.
I hope this is both a useful recap of the points which resonated most with me, and a useful intellectual critique of where the book went a little awry.
My to-read list is long, and books can wait years to get read. I select a mix of interests, and try to make sure my reading is well rounded. It’s thus fairly unusual that I read Lessons in Stoicism quickly after finding it. I find the subject matter (modern takes on Stoicism) interesting but it’s also pretty short and I find the cover design extremely pleasing. Even the fanciest systems are undermined by the simplest things.
My reaction when I finished reading the book was that it was okay, but nowhere near as good as A Guide To The Good Life (aff link), which was one of the first of the modern Stoicism trends and remains one of the best. A Guide To The Good Life explores how to live according to Stoic rules at a deeply practical level. It’s a popular book: it’s supported by the original Stoic text but it’s very much a fresh interpretation.
Lessons in Stoicism is similar, but it’s much more rooted in the original texts. Indeed, looking back at my notes, I didn’t note much but what I’ve got down here is very good.
The most interesting section for me is covering Seneca’s essay On The Shortness of Life. The author extensively interprets the essay for the 21st century and it’s very good. My notes are below.
The other particularly interesting thing here is the analysis that’s missing. Stoicism is a philosophy popular with wealthy white men. There are exceptions, but on the whole this is true. Two of the most well known Stoic authors: Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were exceptionally wealthy. Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor and literally the most powerful man in the world at the time.
We learn enough to get by in our day-to-day lives, but once we reach that point, we seldom push to go beyond good enough. We do very little that challenges our brains… for the most part, that’s okay. “Good enough” is generally good enough. [But with deliberate practice] If you wish to become significantly better at something, you can.
– Anders Ericsson, Peak
Recently I discussed how we can think about applying deliberate practice to knowledge work, looking at Professor Anders Ericsson’s book Peak and thesis of deliberate practice, a theory of skill development which focuses on performance and how to improve it, rather than just knowledge for its own sake.
The first post discusses some of the challenges in applying deliberate practice to “knowledge work”. Ericsson’s focus is on areas with objectively defined expert performers and well-established training methods; think chess or tennis, not “knowledge work” like development or marketing.
As the post explores, there are ways of taking the key tenets of deliberate practice and applying these. Here’s what you need to do:
Identify the expert performers in the field
Figure out what makes them so good
Come up with training techniques to replicate the experts
This is what the first post discussed. Doing this would be a good start, but you’d miss out on the related skills you need to use deliberate practice in practice with your day-to-day.
How do you develop your “training techniques”? How do you make sure you stick with it and don’t quit? How do you self-monitor your progress?
Answering these questions is essential to actually doing deliberate practice. That’s what this post is about: how to actually do deliberate practice, in practice.
On our recent trip to Morocco my Kindle tragically broke. It was a Kindle Keyboard 3G, and I’d had it since 2011. It featured a full sized keyboard and a 3G connection anywhere in the world, free! Unsurprisingly those features rarely came in useful, but it served me well. Sadly when I put the Kindle down when I sat down on the flight the screen broke. We were just taking off! The worst time to break a Kindle!
I had changed my mind about bringing any physical books at the last minute, so when we arrived at our Riad (hotel) one of the first things I did was download the Kindle app for my phone and find something to read. I settled on Peak by Anders Ericsson, a Professor at Florida State University.
The subtitle is Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, and the book is about Ericsson’s work in researching “deliberate practice”, a theory of skill development which argues the most efficient way of learning is solo practice on specifically honing a part of your skill. Racking up the hours in general (the “10,000 hour rule”) is rubbished; instead it’s racking up the hours focused on specifically improving your skill.
This got me thinking, a lot: deliberate practice is most easily applied to “traditional” skill areas like music or dance or chess. What would a program of deliberate practice for my field of marketing – and indeed my career – look like? This post explores the parameters and options.
This weekend was WordCamp London! By all accounts, it was a very successful event! People seemed to enjoy themselves, the talks were excellent, and everything ran smoothly. As mentioned last week I was on the organising team, and it was my first time doing so.
Nearly all of the team was new to organising, but fortunately with the same venue as last year we were able to build on the excellent work previous organisers have done. We focused on changing two things: content and sustainability.
Almost no one claims to get their best ideas at work. – Michael Gelb
I’ve recently been returning to ideas around Deep Work, and re-evaluating my workflow now that I’m fully settled into life and a new office in Oxford. The vast majority of my work energy goes into running Ellipsis, and I squarely think of this as a creative endeavour and myself as a creative person.
Allow for Serendipity: Move outside your normal realm of comfort and interest, explore far and wide, while stayng open and avoiding jumping to conclusions. Let yourself be surprised and discover new opportunities. Keep a notebook with you at all time and record ideas as they appear to you.
One of the highest-impact things I’ve started doing in the last year is appreciating how important ideas and then following-through with these ideas is in running a creative business.