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This one time I screwed up leadership and communication

When I was 18, I lead a team of young people into a 12 hour sailing race.
I was relying on the support of a bunch of their parents, but because we’d all done it before the previous year without a hitch, I assumed I didn’t need to communicate directly with these key team members. Primarily as a result of lack of communication, they pulled their support at last minute, leaving 50% of the team at the venue, with no boat or support team.
There’s a happy ending in a sense – that the remaining 50% of the team and I, were able to join with another struggling team, and gain the best race position in the club’s history [which was intensely pleasing].
However, it’s soured with the realisation that I failed to take any responsibility for the communication and organisational failures that lead to the key team members withdrawal.
I should have made sure to have conversations with them, to make sure it was still on their agenda and then, when it went pear-shaped, accepted more readily that [whilst I felt frustrated with the people] there was more I could and should have done.
Has there ever been times you’ve messed up and learnt from it? Let me know in the comments below.
This is where we are, this is where we're going
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Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication”

This is a tough one to blog about, because anecdotes, by definition – no matter what the nature of the relationship, is always going to be very personal – between me and them. It’s kind of a shame, because anecdotes about open communication are often some of the best, but I’m struggling to think of any I want to write about online!

Great communication isn’t just about making sure everything you just said is understood, but about making sure you understand the other person’s position, and making sure you’re both working towards the same goal.

It’s not too complicated really though; the best relationships – working, personal, families, friendships – whatever the context, are ones that involve being honest, and clear, and proactively communicating things. Often it can be that you’re fearful of how someone might respond to something, and actually the fear is completely unjustified.


I guess a good example my be in the context of a mountaineering expedition. There’s two of you, presumably friends, in a remote place seeking to climb a thing.

Communication is the key – if you need a rest, you need to explain you need a rest (as opposed to just sitting down), if your partner needs a rest, giving them an opportunity to tell you that (because you’re walking next to them, rather than 500m in front) will work best.

If your partner feels that you’re taking too many rests, or is concerned about the progress you’re making a team, they can make things better by saying so. Often the most difficult things to say are things like this: “I feel we’re not making enough progress. Is there anything I can do to make things easier for you? Can I carry something perhaps?”

This is where we are, this is where we're going

This is where we are, this is where we’re going

You might be in situations where one person can speak a local language, and the other cannot, and so in a conversation where the linguist was negotiating a meal, he might choose the appropriate moment to relay that on to his friend, to give his friend confidence in the situation. After a while, they might trust each other enough to know that the linguist would do the talking, whilst the other person did something else – but only once they’d built up some trust between them.


Learning to communicate, under pressure, in a non-confrontational, problem-solving way like that is a fantastic skill.

Often, if you communicate clearly about how you’re finding things, and what your thoughts are – particularly when it comes to fears, worries, nerves, frustration – then as a team you can work on them to solve them. Often the things that seem like a big deal, once communicated openly, are actually nonissues.

Sometimes there are issues, but communicating well (and in some cases over communicating – reiterating and saying things that may not be necessary, just in case they are) can make things much easier – because you’ll both respect the others ease of communication, and honesty and frankness.

Often other people aren’t as good at communication as you, so you can help them, and help your relationship with them by offering them lots of opportunities to tell you their thoughts. In a mountaineering context, you might ask your slow walking friend how they were finding it, or where they were looking forward to reaching.


Communication is the key to all social units of people. Learn about communicating, and how you can do it, and you’ll get good at building relationships surprisingly quickly.

Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.
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Listen First, Then Listen More

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Listen First, Then Listen More”

Everyday we hear things, TV, people talking to us, but how much do we listen?

Sometimes, it’s quite easy to talk – if someone tells you about their recent holiday, sometimes it’s tempting to talk to them about your recent holiday the moment you get a chance. But that’s not always what you should do.

Lots of people, starved of good listeners, find actually actively being listened to a very powerful thing. You can gain respect, make friends,  simply by listening to people.


When I tried to do politics, and stood in the 2010 general election for the Pirate Party, we learnt this the hard way.

If you ever get involved in a political campaign in the UK, you’ll find that the best way of engaging with voters, is knocking on their door. This is kind of scary the first 2-300 times, but to some degree the fear subsides.

What we came to learn was that it was much easier, and much more effective to knock on people’s door and ask them what problems they had in the neighbourhood, than knock on the door and try and get them to vote Pirate.

A couple of weeks ago, I read How to Win Friends and Influence People which pretty much codifies, and expands upon what we learnt on the streets: people like being listened to.

During a council election campaign, there was this one council house that we knocked on, and asked if they had any problems with the council. At first they said “nope, we have no problems here”, and then “well there is just one thing” and showed us an uncollected recycling bin, and then “oh well there is one more thing”, and showed a half-smashed window, and another bit where the council hadn’t made a correct modification to accommodate one disabled resident, and a string of other things. When we got back to our base, we had huge wad of issues we knew we could help them with, and we knew their life stories.

In contrast, I remember a lovely lady, I once tried to persuade to vote for me. She’d lived in the area for ~30 years, and I’d lived there for ~2, and in the nicest possible way, she batted questions at me to try and get me to justify myself. I suspect I talked myself out of her vote, simply by answering honestly. It was around then, that I decided that trying to influence politics was less enjoyable than I’d hoped, even at the best of times.


My girlfriend once described me as an extroverted introvert, and I sort of agree:

When you first meet new people, sparing using your words, and encouraging them to do the talking can help you to understand where they’re coming from and how to help them relate to you.

It’s easier this way too – you don’t have to say much, and can get a feel for what they’re interested in, and how best to respond to them.

It can even help over email.


One theoretical problem I’ve often thought about is, “if you meet someone very well known, who you respect the work of, but have little to say to, what should you say?”  What should you say if you met Tom Cruise, or Katy Perry or David Beckham or someone?

It’s complicated, but, my feeling is that relying on pieces of wisdom like these can help:

“Wise men speak because they have something to say. Fools speak because they have to say something.”

-Plato

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

-Abraham Lincoln


When it comes to customers, and business, encouraging customers to talk about things that they care about can make a great deal of difference. I like rock climbing, and I was looking over this customer’s website, and I noticed the person I was talking to was also a climber, so I asked them where they’d been recently. It was as if I’d opened a floodgate – suddenly they were recommending me places to go to develop my climbing, and suddenly it felt like we were communicating on a friend-to-friend basis, rather than a business-to-business.

Another memorable moment is once when I went to a customer site to work out how we could help them. Talking about the tech they were building, where they were, where they were going, what their challenges were made a real impression on them. I thought I was just sort of gathering information, somehow, by being interested and asking them questions about how they planned to do things, they were delighted to have someone to explain it to. They took me through these details, those plans – and by the time we left, I understood a great deal about their system. The customer was so happy, they broadcasted on social media about it, and still remembered it a few years afterwards.

I think it’s also relevant if someone has some criticism aimed at you, or something you’re in control of. Going and giving them your full attention, and saying “you’re absolutely right, this does sound serious – thanks for bringing it to my attention – I’d like you to tell me all about it”, can make someone feel a lot more valued, and pacified. Do that with enough passion, and it’s completely possible to turn their relationship with your business from frustration to love.


Listening is more difficult than it sounds, but you can learn to do it, and it makes people happy. :)

Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.

Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.

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Phone hacking was a big deal. Is Internet interception ok?

A private investigator hacked a schoolgirl and a few celebs’ voicemails, and it caused a public inquiry, it brought a media mogul (previously considered “untouchable”) to be summoned to parliament and forced a historic Sunday newspaper to shutdown.

Tempora: snooping anyone with an internet connection

Tempora: snooping anyone with an internet connection

All because of a few private investigators listening to a few voicemails.

We’ve learned since then, that GCHQ has, (partly sponsored by the NSA) has been intercepting any internet traffic, conversations, phone calls that leave/return the UK via submarine cables (Level3, BT, Vodafone & others have helped facilitate this) as part of a programme called Tempora.

As even a Facebook conversation with my girlfriend will probably go via Sweden, An email via Gmail will go via Irland, and a good deal of other communications will cross borders, we can assume that details of most people’s daily communications are being captured.

The response from the UK Government has been for William Hague to call for the public to have “confidence” in GCHQ and to state that “law-biding members of the public had ‘nothing to fear’“.

They also released a D-notice (effectively about Tempora) which, though voluntary, means that many UK news outlets won’t report on the Tempora. The Guardian clearly is the main exception.

Interestingly, as lots of EU traffic flows through the UK on the way to the US, a lot of European countries, Germany in particular, are less than pleased about their citizens being snooped on - Germany recently nuked a cold war era collaboration pact with the US in protest.

The Federal Commissioner for Data Protection in Germany has called for the former U.S. intelligence employee Edward Snowden to be given asylum in Germany so he can assist with ongoing investigations.. Imagine if the Information Commissioner of the UK said that?!

The striking thing about the story is not the revelations, or the implications, or the speculation of what these tools could/are being used for, the striking thing about the story is how little the public seem engaged in it.

Since the phone hacking scandal caused a public inquiry, and took down a historic newspaper, why is mass interception of everyone’s email, not an issue?

The story needs to be communicated better to the public and we need to work out how we can make people relate to it.

How can we communicate what Tempora means to the masses?

A few of my thoughts:

  • Can the Tempora story be personified? Who has it been used to snoop on? What has it been used for?
  • What is it used for? Who has access to it? Who chooses targets?
  • Can stunts be deployed as a medium of raising the profile of the system? Can airtime and media attention be ‘bought’ by peaceful and legal activist actions?
  • Would street protests help start a movement and help people supporters meet and rally each other on?
  • Would a coalition of NGO’s signing a public letter with several demands or questions help get the media try to answer those questions?
  • How can we make people feel like something can and must be done to stop this?
How can we communicate what Tempora means to the masses?

How can we communicate what Tempora means to the masses?

 

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The problem with the Tempora and GCHQ story – How do we communicate it?

We know we’re being watched by GCHQ.

We’ve found out, via a whistleblower, that in the past few years, mass surveillance, for the purposes of later analysis, has been turned into reality, in the US and in the UK.

The thing is, the general public is largely unphased. It’s barely scraped public opinion. The average person who doesn’t watch the news, might be aware that there was a guy called Snowdon, but would not be aware that the UK government knew who they’d phoned, who they’d emailed, and what the subject lines of those emails were.

Would you be happy to be filmed by faceless figures wherever you went?

Would you be happy to be filmed by faceless figures wherever you went?

The thing is, if I’d suggested this 6 months ago, it’d have sounded like a crazy conspiracy. Even today, it’s only information, pieced together – various sources correlating stories and confirming points, that give me the confidence to say it exists.

But the public doesn’t care, and apart from The Guardian, the UK media isn’t bothered in the surveillance story (perhaps due to this D-notice?) or more probably, due to various bias’s inherent to their organisations.

The problem is: we’ve not communicated it well enough.

We’ve so far not communicated how this means that the Government knows about you. How talking to your girlfriend via Facebook is a lot less private than you might think and that actually, your phone shares a lot more information about you than you think it does.

We have a system so far reaching, that a German ex-Stasi lieutenant said:
“You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,”

What we need to do now is to work out:

How can we communicate this to people?

How do we communicate Tempora to the people?

How do we communicate Tempora to the people?

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How can the free software movement improve its communication?

One thing that is challenging the free software movement is communication.

Communication skills are quite a “known skill” – persuading people is not really cutting edge – people have been persuading other people about $stuff since forever.

Communication?

Communication?

The question is, therefore, how we can be better at communicating free software, given we know how things, historically, have worked for others?

Example 1: The Open Data Movement.
The open data movement is not the same as the free software movement, but *is* much younger.The open data movement has had considerable success in various fields, and considering that in 2008, barely anyone had heard of it, has had a meteoric rise to popularity.

Why is that? What has it done that we can copy and emulate?

Example 2: Wikimedia Foundation.
Wikipedia is not, in essence, a free software project (it’s a free knowledge project) but it communicates better than the free software movement.

Find someway you’re happy with to watch their videos and tell me they don’t manage to communicate in powerful ways::

Pink Floyd, Baking and Whitewater Kayaking – The Impact of Wikipedia

The Impact of Wikipedia

Children in Peru write their own history on Wikipedia

Children in Peru write their own history on Wikipedia
The free software movement has code that powers millions of servers, that runs in space, that has connected millions of people, that has underlined millions of businesses… but we don’t talk about it.

Perhaps we could start doing? How?

Example 3: Coding as standard for schools.
In the UK we’ve seen massive boosts in young people coding – there’s a massive push to get young people not just to be passive consumers but to be creators. This is the proverbial, “everyone plays games, but only a few people know how to make them” or “everyone uses apps on their phone, but how can you personally make one?”. With the rPi and all that that brings, we have free software, for the first time ever, being pushed into the hands of school children.

This is tremendous news – and a massive opportunity. How can we communicate better about this?
Find someway you’re happy to watch this:

What Most Schools Don't Teach

Mark Zuckerberg on helping others learn to code

(How the above got 9 million views this year)

It’s 2013. From that video, go back and look at how many people in that video, work for organisations that aren’t businesses primarily based around free software infrastructure. I count, two, arguably soon, one?

In 2013, to have a job, how can you afford for it not to be free software? how can we communicate that if you’re looking for work in today’s world, employers are crying out for experience with free software systems? I mean, really, seriously, ASP.net isn’t a threat, it’s a joke. How can we get that across to people?

Basically, I think better things could be done, and the people who do those things, are the ones that will choose which way the future goes.

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The free software movement’s dilemma

The free software movement’s aims are noble and I’m happy to say I support them.

However, there are largely two ways of furthering the movement:

  1. Communication of the message
  2. Contributing to a software project

Largely, the ideological “free software advocates” are focused on the first point, with people who are doing the second point falling into a much larger and vaguer group of people who happen to find various things convenient.

The problem is that nothing remotely interesting has developed in the field of free software advocacy (point 1) in a long time – probably since the release of GPLv3. There have been no new approaches, no reaches out to the public, and no answers to the question of what happens next. Things just stagnated.

The Ubuntu project has done a good job of communication in the past, but it has never communicated the free software movement’s aims, and the free software movement has always stropped like a angsty child, or a peed off record company association.  Make no mistake, Ubuntu has problems, but simply shouting “Ubuntu isn’t free” isn’t a clear and effective way to communicate the free software movement’s aims.

The problem, of course, is it is an activist movement of techies: outward communication is not a skill that comes naturally.

But outward communication *must* be the skill the movement is best at.

Communication and promotion of the free software movement has to be the primary skill of activists, and researching how to develop those skills must be the highest priority.

When I campaigned around Manchester for my political campaigns, we ran training workshops for activists, we helped everyone practice, we released videos and put them in places where people would see them, we picked up timely press issues and offered comment on them.

Not sure what you should do, or where to start? Read a book. There are loads on this sort of thing, and the advice within can make a really big difference.

In essence, I think the free software movement can do better. A lot better. And you, the person reading this, should be apart of the start.

Think this: how better can you communicate the free software movement’s message?

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Can you inspire people to find their own inspiration?

One thing I’ve noticed recently is that there’s a power in story. People love telling stories and explaining what they learnt from their own experiences.

Lot’s of motivational speakers and bloggers draw heavily from their own experiences, and lots of successful people have stories of “this one time when something happened and I overcame the difficulties”.

The problem is that by drawing on one’s own experiences, you’re betting that the audience relates quite deeply to you.

Let me give an example.

There are deeply inspiring sysadmin stories – stories of where persistent sysadmins have solved a mystery problem to the point where most people would have just shrugged, given up or something. Wearing my sysadmin hat, I them really impressive, and inspire me to be a better problem solver.

To the average person, they’re not anecdotes that one could relate to. If you’re a sysadmin, or in an occupation that requires creative thinking to solve problems, they may ring much closer to home and remind you of your own experiences.

Here lies the crux:

  • Things that inspire you, are most likely to inspire people like you.
  • Not everyone is just like you, and you probably think people are more like you than they are. (The bubble effect)
  • What inspires people most, is their own experiences.

and the last point is the most important.

Climbing Ben MacDui: Would someone who didn't like hiking find this photo inspirational?

Climbing Ben MacDui: Would someone who didn't like hiking find this photo inspirational?

It’s worth remembering that what inspires people about your anecdotes, is not that you climbed a high mountain, but is that you, as an equal human being, who tried, did something that they also could do. The emphasis is not on the mountain, but on the trying, and the what they could do.

If you could instead of inspiring people by telling anecdotes, if you used clever story telling, to get them to think about a similar experience in their life, then tie in suggestions about how it could have been handled, then you’d have a very powerfully inspiring tool.

Lots of people have done inspiring things: have had near death experiences, lost a loved one, run a marathon, and yet many people look away from themselves for inspiration. What if you could persuade people to learn from their own stories and own experiences?

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Trying to communicate: the best part of your story.

Frequently, people avoid travelling away from tourist focused locations because they’re worried about whether they will be understood, I’d suggest that means they miss out of the best part of the experience.

msadvn recently said on reddit:

The stories of trying to communicate (and hopefully succeeding) might be some of the best parts of your adventure.

Here’s my story:

Kosovo has a very divided population. Due to Stuff and Wars and Sad Things, there are people that speak Albanian and people that speak Serbian. They probably understand and speak the other language as well, but for political reasons they do not, and will not understand.

Anyway, 90% is Albanian speaking so I took an Albanian phrasebook and went travelling to a remote southern village (Brod), high in the mountains!

After walking round the village several times, sticking out like a sore sore thumb, I walk into one of the cafés and attempted an Albanian “Meridita” (“hello/good afternoon!”).

Instantly “nie Albanish. Serbish.” was growled back.

“Shit.” I thought.

“Well, no point using the phrasebook”.

I then tried English. No one spoke English. I tried French. No one spoke French. I tried the bits of Swedish know, unsurprisingly, no Swedish. I tried bits of Russian, and hum, had a lukewarm response – Serbian and Russian are somewhat mutually intelligible and share vocabulary.

Then the guy behind the counter whipped out his laptop, plugged it into this crumbling wall socket and connected to google translate.. and via google translate, we communicated, I explained where I was from, and I was able to organise somewhere to sleep that night, and a guide to take me walking the next day!

I had a great time, and that experience of walking into that café will stay with me for a long time! :)


Linguistics fact: Brod is inhabited by the Gorani people who actually speak the Gorani language/dialect every day.

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No news is always good news

For a while when I was younger, whenever I went away without my parents, I was confused. All my classmates and peers would always be in constant contact with their family, whilst my parents would cheerily wave goodbye and then eagerly listen to the second by second story upon my return.

It took me a while to realise that this approach was actually a bit different.

When ever someone went away, or travelled somewhere there was no expectation of being called, no excess worrying or thought given to what terrible things could possibly have happened to them – if they needed something, they’d be in touch.

I remember arriving at my French exchange partner’s house and one of the first things I was asked was whether I wanted to call home.

“But why?” I kept thinking – it’d been less than 12 hours since I’d last seen them anyway – they certainly wouldn’t be thinking of phoning me – and what would I have have said anyway?

“Oh hai, I’ve arrived in France, as you can hear, I’m not dead, yet, and the exchange family seem OK, but I’ve only spoken to them for 5 minutes, and in my experience, mass murderers don’t introduce themselves as such. Oh and pat the dog for me. Bye.”

It occurs to me that this mentality – assuming that no news means all is well, and not requiring constant status updates to confirm that, probably pre-dates modern communication technology – if communication is actually excessively laggy (like letters) or expensive (like international telephone communication in the not too distant past), then actually, it’s really the best approach to adopt, as there are very few other options.

Therefore, when I went to Sweden earlier this year, I went completely offline and offgrid for the longest time in many many years – I can’t actually remember the previous time I spent over 7 consecutive days without internet access (or any phone signal!) – my family were somewhat prepared to not recieve instant updates from me. If I needed to be in contact, I’d find someway of doing it.

I talk to my family all the time, but if I don’t hear from people for months at a time, I’ll just assume everything is good and they’re doing they’re own thing – if they have something to say, they’ll get in touch, as I would if I had anything to say.

I think it’s easier this way, don’t you?

Hiking in Sweden

Hiking in Sweden