Doing better things

Dyfrig Williams

I don't really believe in New Year's resolutions, but this year I'm aiming to be a better ally, particularly to the trans community. As a first step in educating myself, I bought Shon Faye's 'The Transgender Issue' after reading this excellent review of it from Terence Eden.

The cover of ‘The Transgender Issue’ by Shon Faye

Bodily autonomy

In one chapter, Faye examines how social conservatives look to restrict and control trans-women's bodies in a similar way to how they seek to control cis-women's bodies. At the end of this and other sections of the book, Faye calls for an alliance of movements. To begin with this felt like preaching to the converted, but then I realised that these brittle relationships are at the heart of current divisions between advocates of social justice for different sectors of society.

I then gave my perspective some more thought. There can't ever be a complete account of a community's experience, as each one is so varied and diverse. It is perfectly fair for this book to be left leaning and to aim to build bridges, and for other books to pick up alternative discussions where needed.

Nuance in online arguments

Once I started to think about arguments, I started to think about the pile-ons that I've witnessed on Twitter. It's been a long time since I've seen it used for a nuanced discussion. I'd see TERFs trending and feel the urge to click and see what the hell was happening this time. Usually JK Rowling had said something grim or there was a reaction to the development of Scotland's Gender Recognition Act. I'd read all these angry and provocative comments and feel guilty for clicking away from all the rage that I was conveniently able to ignore.

As a cis-man, I know that I am incredibly privileged when it comes to discussions around gender. I've never had to reflect on whether I was born in the right body, and I also haven't experienced the fear that so many women have experienced at the hands of men (my wife Kelly Williams wrote this excellent post on this).

Whilst on Twitter trans identities are often only seen in the context of marginalising women, the reality is that trans people have little institutional power. In previous work I have heard from people who have been repeatedly deadnamed in an attempt to undermine their identities when they came into contact with public services.

What does good allyship look like?

Last year we went through the process of going through our podcasts and ensuring that they were transcribed for accessibility. We shared the work around a few of us, and I found myself getting engrossed in some of the episodes that I was responsible for. Something that Dez Holmes said on a podcast on race, privilege and allyship has stuck with me. The comment was made in the context of race, but it made me reflect on my role as an ally more generally:

“I think I take a, kind of, multifaceted view on privilege, or white privilege, in that there's definitely an element of what you've said, about unleashing power. I think in some scenarios, it is important for allies to unleash their power, but I also appreciate, for those people who, perhaps, are self-conscious about their power, the thought of unleashing it could make, kind of, make them feel condescending, as you say, or feel ambivalent about doing that. But I just think different scenarios require different things from allies. And so, that's why it's important allies are educated in terms of the power that they hold, how that could be used in different situations and what that power actually is.”

Since reflecting on this I have been considering the power that I hold and what I do with it. Whilst I don't intend on wading into online arguments, there is something around making my position clear so that when I do get drawn into discussions, I am in a position to respond in a helpful and supportive way to the trans community. In the current culture war, it means having the courage of my convictions to put my own thoughts and ideas out there and to be more vocal when I see injustice.

If you live or work close to Newport, Stonewall are offering this learning programme for trans allies – looks fascinating!

It's been a couple of years since I last did a retrospective of the year. That's partly down to the pandemic and the subsequent changes to the way I live my life. My daily commute used to give me a tonne of reflection time to think about what I'd learnt and where things were at. Now that I'm predominantly working from home (which I prefer overall because of the tonnes of other positives), I no longer have that luxury.

Online changes

My blogging and reflection is a quarter of what it was in 2019. That year I wrote 24 posts, 11 in 2020, 6 in 2021, and this year I've managed to take things up a notch to 7, and that's only due to an end of year spike. Having said that, 2022 has felt like a new beginning for me in terms of how I work and reflect openly. For the first time in a while, I'm look forward to sharing what I'm doing and learning. I'd like to to get back to around a post a month if I can.

My relationship with Twitter hasn't been great for quite some time. At a previous workplace there was one eye on how staff used social media to ensure that we didn't post anything inappropriate. I'm treated like an adult at Research in Practice, but that unease has stayed with me.

In the pandemic, Twitter felt like something I needed to take a bit of a break from, and I've never quite reconnected with it. Elon Musk's takeover just seems to have exacerbated feelings that I already associated with the platform.

Since joining Mastodon, I've challenged myself to change my relationship with social media. As part of my nascent relationship with it, I've challenged myself to share a post a day if possible. These haven't been serious work posts, but posts about records I'm enjoying or a cheeky photo of the cat for #Caturday. It's been a long time since I did anything like that on Twitter. It no longer feels like a place where it's ok to post my random thoughts, partly because the algorithm ensures that low interaction posts disappear quickly, and partly because it's become such an adversarial space.

Gwenllian the cat sitting on a turntable

I've changed my blogging platform to Write.As as well (thanks to an excellent recommendation from David Clubb of Afallen) . It isn't a like for like replacement for Medium, but it's a much more streamlined experience with less friction around blogging. Posting there is a pleasure, but it does mean that I'm losing some functionality that I'm having to recreate elsewhere. The bookmark feature was really useful, so I've now started using Pocket instead. The tagging feature allows me to find articles easily and to save posts outside Medium's walled garden.

Feedly also feels like an upgrade on the follow function. Again, this was restricted to Medium, so I tended to use Twitter as a means of finding posts from people on other platforms. This was quite unreliable, so having a cross-platform rss feed has been really helpful.

What's this year felt like work wise?

I've moved from an operations role where I oversaw our National Programme events to a Head of Learning role, where I'm working to develop the learning opportunities that we offer our network.

This year it has felt like my role has moved from a theoretical idea into a facilitative role that has opened up opportunities for us to work differently. I've been supporting colleagues to use Liberating Structures in their work after an excellent learning session with Happy. I've also created guidance for using PowerPoint to help us to move away from a chalk and talk approach. The next step is to develop our guidance and processes for the co-creation of knowledge over information dissemination.

Family life

The big man is now a year old. All in all, it's been a whirlwind of a year. There certainly hasn't been enough sleep, that's for sure. My wife has been amazing, but it's not been easy for either of us. She has been very supportive, and I hope she feels likewise as she's gone back to work following the end of her maternity leave.

We're both now working four days a week, which has been a bit of a shift for me in particular. It's required some changes to how I work (more of that here), but Research in Practice have been very supportive. Working from home in particular has meant that I've been able to get much more of the emotional labour in the household done.

One thing that I've got much better at this year is finishing on time. Pre-pandemic, I would get the train to the office, so finishing on time was written in to my day. This came to an end when I stopped commuting. But it's been obvious that work and family life have been a bit out out of kilter, so I've put that right.

What do I want to do differently in 2023?

I'd like to be braver in 2023. This means backing myself and my ideas in spaces where I have previously opted too quickly for compromise. I feel like I've started to do this in 2022, but too often I tend to try to go slow to mitigate risk instead of cracking on to get things done.

There is of course a bit of a balance here. I've really pushed back in some of our conversations around quality measures to ensure that we avoid the pitfalls of targets and New Public Management. In some reflection with my line manager, we spoke about whether I was able to offer a helpful alternative to help us move beyond that approach. There's lots of useful info in Human Learning Systems about this (particularly from Lankelly Chase) and in pushing back so much I haven't been quick enough to reference it. My line management is changing this year, and I hope to have more of these challenging conversations as part of that relationship.

All in all, it's been a great year. As I keep reflecting on in various posts, life is complex, so I don't expect the coming year to be straightforward. I am excited about it though, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how things develop. Here's to 2023!

A couple of months ago I took part in a Productivity Blitz with Happy. It's a topic that I'm increasingly jaded by. Tech bros on Medium and work fetishists on LinkedIn write a tonne of posts every week on how you can make the most of every minute of your 100 hour working week + side hustle.

A squirrel panicking finding out there are 3502 unread email A squirrel dropping its food and panicking after realising it has 3502 unread emails

Having said that, this opportunity came along at the perfect time. With the support of Research in Practice, I've dropped down to a four day working week. Having a day a week of looking after my son is lush, but a day less of work has made me time poor. I know that I can work much more efficiently. Focusing on the right things and ensuring that the work I'm doing is adding value is something that I've found challenging.

What's worked

I've heard of The Pomodoro Technique before starting the week of Happy activities, but I hadn't really thought about what uninterrupted time looked like for me. Now that I'm working from home most of the time, I've realised that interruptions aren't just people chatting to me at my desk, they're the constant slew of interruptions from email and Teams.

The 5 minute break at the end of each 25 minutes of focused work has been just as valuable as the work itself. In the past I've crammed in 5 minutes of a podcast whilst making a cuppa, but switching off properly has helped me to relax, refocus and reflect between tasks. This shouldn't be news or surprising, but given that phones and associated platforms are designed to keep us engaged and hooked, it's been a bit of a revelation to me.

It was also helpful to amend the notification settings on various platforms. I turned off email notifications years ago, but Teams is a bit more of an issue, as it's also where we store files. I've now added Sharepoint bookmarks to my browser to avoid going into Teams, and turned off the badges on my toolbar so that I don't have the number of outstanding notifications displayed. This has helped me to close Teams completely between meetings.

Planning

Eat 4 Frogs was also useful. I have found it really helpful to plan my work the night before so that I can clarify what I really need to achieve the next day. Alongside this I'm also trying to go without looking at my emails til lunchtime for at least one day a week.

Happy have prompted me to think differently about email. Instead of using my inbox as a place to store jobs to be done, I've been creating appointments to deal with each one by setting up a rule and moved to a 3-2-1-Zero approach. I've long been sceptical of Inbox Zero since reading this brilliant piece by Oliver Burkeman, but allocating time to tasks has helped me to understand what is work to be done and what is information only.

Inspired by WhatsThePont's post on why the email ‘cc’ option undermines the very fabric of society, I've also created a separate folder in my emails where all the emails I'm cc'd into are automatically moved into and marked as read. This has helped to declutter my inbox immensely.

So everything's perfect now right?

I'm yet to get things down to a fine art, and I don't think I ever will. Communication is an inherently human activity, and that means my inbox will never be perfectly managed. But these tools have given me a very helpful starting point.

At the end of the day, things won't change until we consider it at a systemic level. I find it interesting that people slag off platforms like Slack and Teams as time wasters, but email is seen as a valid use of time. It's still talking about and around work without actually doing any. If we can get our heads around that, then we can start changing how we work so that we can better focus on how we improve services that support people to live better lives.

A pensive monkey A pensive monkey thinking and scratching his head via Creative Commons

My colleague Mairi-Anne MacDonald recently shared an interesting paper with me on “The Impact of Conceptualisations of Learning on Practice.” I can’t say that the title filled me with joy, but it was a really helpful piece that got me thinking about how we see learning within public services.

I’ve reflected before on traditional training as the status quo of learning. It places responsibility for learning in the hands of an expert trainer, and it sees participants as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. Not exactly strengths-based then. This paper describes this approach as a “transfer/acquisition metaphor, where knowledge is transferred from authoritative sources to those with gaps in their knowledge.”

What might a different approach look like?

The alternative metaphor strikes a somewhat different note:

“The construction metaphor of learning sees learning as the construction of meaning within learners’ individual minds, as well as collaborative and collective constructions.”

This strikes a chord with me because relationships are key to knowledge sharing. It’s so important when we’re looking to embed learning from research into practice (as outlined in this research and this Transforming Evidence piece), and also from learning events and opportunities too.

Complexity

I’m also really interested in how these two schools of thought fit around complexity. The paper suggests that “someone with a transfer/acquisition metaphor of learning would tend to also have a rationalist, scientist, objectivist*, and empiricist worldview.” This feels like a very binary way of seeing the world, that doesn’t fit with the reality of the nuance of people’s lives. Instead the exploration and critial analysis of the construction metaphor gives scope for learning both within the context of an event and beyond.

Is it useful to debate the meaning of a metaphor?

I think it is helpful to interrogate our use of language and our mental models. For example, I feel the need to critique training because it implies that people are tabula rasa waiting for knowledge to be imparted, which many people equate with learning in the sector. But I also feel that learning is central to good public services. If we’re not learning to understand what good lives look like to people, then we stand little chance of being able to support people effectively. Assuming absolute and authoritative positions of knowledge places us in an old-school position of patriarchal public service. To be fit for purpose, we need to recognise that we are working with and building on people’s strengths, knowledge and expertise.

*I read Ayn Rand so you don’t have to. I’d review that experience, but loads of people have critiqued her writing better than I could. This is a good start in case you’re interested!

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