open practice

Virtual Team outtakes: tools, superstructures and keep asking ‘why’?!

I really appreciate following the work of Alice Keeler (@alicekeeler) on Twitter. I learn something new from her every week and find the tips and ideas being shared extremely accessible and easy to use. So when I saw this tweet recenlyt, proclaiming “I WANT my tech tools to become OBSOLETE” I sat back and paused – because I was just in the process of spending a few hours making one of the tools I use at work obsolete and it felt like a good point to remind myself why that is a good thing.

When we wrote about cpd and digital well being for our series on leading virtual teams, Martin Hawksey and I talked about how important it is to revisit our relationship with technology as personal habits change and professional practice develops. And I mentioned some of the more frustrating aspects of constant iteration, of ‘agile’ approaches to developing software and hardware. What we didn’t get around to talking about is what Alice’s post picks up on, the opportunity to start from scratch, with a blank slate, to improve, to re-imagine – rather than to simply edit or update. Alice’s post reminded me that it’s sometimes good when platforms or tools change because we are then forced to take a fresh look at what we are doing and why. But some processes that I work on are so fundamental, so much part of the fabric of my working world, that there’s rarely an external prompt to start from scratch.

The structures that shape workflows, processes, thinking… usually they are either complex and technologically challenging, in which case I need others to actually do the re-imagining with and for me, or they are very simple and tend to disappear into the foundation. This second category is rarely rocked by obsolescence. As tools go, spreadsheets and documents, in one form or another, don’t often change dramatically enough to really make you take a fresh look at things. So this time I am going to not focus on the ‘how’ but the ‘why’. What do I need this to do? Why is it being produced? Why is it being read? Why is it important to know? Or is it?

It’s a good thing to do, to take a fresh look at something and consider how it could do better. How it could be more efficient. Or more engaging. More transparent. More impactful. How it could be cheaper or more expensive. How it could be more fun, more enjoyable, more rewarding. And whether you need it in the first place. Does it still serve a purpose?

I am not a great fan of doing things because they have been done before. Or of doing things in a certain way simply because that’s how it was done before. That’s not a good enough reason. I always want to know why. Why, why, WHY???

There are some problems with this approach: you don’t have the comfort of accepting things as they are (and that is not to be underestimated), you can waste time and effort on something that is not worth it, you need to make sure you don’t change things for the sake of it and it’s a lot more work to constantly trying to improve everything than to simply repeat it.

There are much bigger upsides (for me): it’s not boring. You develop judgement. You can achieve more (I think). It’s fun learning new things all the time. You get to re-invent the structures that determine the shape of your work.

When I was a research student, I worked part-time in my department’s archive. A small collection of materials that students could borrow from a room filled with book cases and filing cabinets. I worked there for two years and left a new cataloguing system, the first complete catalogue, a new lending process and loans up by 100% when I left. A few hours a week sitting in a small, boring office where activity was not at all incentivised presented an opportunity for me to reinvent things from the ground up. Given time, space and a particular problem, I had enough freedom to… make things change. It never occurred to me to ask for permission.

And that’s why I liked that post from Alice and her thinking about changes in tools and platforms as opportunities to ask ‘why’? Any catalyst that get’s us to ask that question, to reflect on our work and our aims and the underlying systems, the assumptions is to be welcomed. Not ‘just’ for teachers, but for each of us.

If you have missed it, go back and read the most recent post on leading a virtual team.