SoCraTes BE 2019

Floréal La Roche

I’ve spent the last few days at the SoCraTes BE Unconference. Here is a brief report.

SoCraTes takes place at a holiday camp in a socialist realist château among the sheer wooded slopes of a Belgian Ardennes.

It’s an unconference, which means that rather than having a predetermined schedule, the participants apply the Open Space Principles to create each day’s schedule.

Here are some of the sessions I attended:

A group exercise creating a Wardley Map of a fictional shop. I’ve heard lots of people talking about Wardley Maps, but this was the first time I got to try them out.

A workshop practising a couple of Liberating Structures. I didn’t think I was familiar with Liberating Structures, but it turns out I’ve been using a few of them for a while! I particularly liked the Troika Consulting structure, and the problem we encountered enabled me to talk through a few techniques I’ve recently learnt from Goldratt’s Thinking Processes.

A nice group discussion on What makes a good stand-up? It turns out lots of us have encountered similar problems and found similar solutions. Hurray!

Talk like Sandi. We watched Sandi’s talk, Get a Whiff of This, and then had a group discussion about what makes her such a compelling speaker.

Code Smells quiz show. This was based on an activity I recently ran with my team, and as luck would have it, my friend Pedro, who wrote the source code for the exercise, was also at SoCraTes, so we ran this session together. It was really popular, and definitely worth repeating.

The Transport Tycoon exercise: modelling a delivery network. This gave us a good chance to compare Classic TDD and Domain Modelling techniques to understand this problem.

Making illegal state transitions impossible. A fairly involved look at modelling state machines in functional languages. We spent rather too long struggling with the language, but it was good to discuss the basic concepts.

Powerpoint Karaoke with each other’s presentations. This is always an entertaining evening activity. It’s usually played with random slide decks from the internet, but this time we challenged each other to improvise talks to presentations that other members of the group had once given.

I had a casual discussion with my friend Pedro Santos about how often personal and professional development is accompanied by pain (an idea that goes back to Aristotle: μετὰ λύπης γὰρ ἡ μάθησις), and whether we can find ways to teach and coach that break this dynamic. The use of games seems to be one approach, as they can offer a safe context for failure.

An introduction to Aikido, out by the river under the hornbeams as the sun went down.

Bring your Shadow to Work

Handrail and shadow

There‘s an idea in certain circles that we should be able to bring our whole selves to work.

There are aspects of this notion that I find unproblematically wonderful. For those of us who are invisible members of minority groups, the ability to drop the mask and be open about our identities can help us find a level of safety and inclusion at work.

There are areas that I find problematic, particularly questions about how permeable the work/life barrier should be. These are questions for another day.

The point I’m thinking about today is that there are aspects of all of us that are unpleasant. We think dark thoughts and entertain transgressive fantasies. These are parts of our whole self, but do we really want to bring them to work?

Carl Jung characterises this aspect of us as our Shadow, and sees our encounters with our Shadow as part of the way we Individuate ourselves. Repression and denial of the Shadow can lead to dysfunction: we can become overwhelmed by it and start Acting Out our fantasies, rather than enjoying them in the privacy of our mind.

So I find a tension here: being a psychologically healthy person requires us to have a healthy relationship with the dark areas of our minds, to admit these areas into our whole selves. But if we are to bring our whole selves to work, then we need to bring these dark areas to work as well.

This question becomes more pressing if we accept that there is a close relationship between our Shadow and our creativity. If we hope to do creative work, then we need to be able to dip our bucket into this dark well.

In this context, I read something interesting in an interview with Phoebe Waller-Bridge:

More than anything, she says, as a writer she wants to show women indulging their appetites and venting their grievances. “We sexualise women all the time in drama and TV. They are objectified. But an exploration of one woman’s creative desire is really exciting. She can be a nice person, but the darker corners of her mind are unusual and fucked up, because everyone’s are.” Has she always been able to say the unsayable? “Yes. As long as it feels truthful, as long as it’s pointing at the elephant, it is always exciting.” [Emphasis mine]

And this got me thinking again: Waller-Bridge is making quite a name for herself by bringing the darker corners of the mind, the Shadow, into her work. As a screenwriter this may be rather more straightforward than for a software developer, for example. But is there a way we can openly and honestly bring these aspects of ourselves to work? Is a truly psychologically safe workplace one where we can invite our Shadows?

Team Depression: a recipe for first aid

An interesting parallel occurred to me the other day during a conversation at work: the mood of a team is subject to changes, just as that of an individual, and sometimes depression can set in. So, just as we can learn techniques to fight of depression in ourselves, maybe we can do the same within our teams.

It became clear to me a few weeks ago that my team was in the doldrums: we had come to the end of several significant pieces of work, but had released this work with very little fanfare, which led to a feeling of deflation; furthermore, our future workload was both daunting in size and vague in scope, with few clear short-term goals, which gave us a sense of listlessness; in the past few months, several really talented team members had left us, and we hadn’t yet managed to to find a new dynamic for the team, so we had lost the buzz that comes when collaboration becomes second nature; finally, a raft of factors beyond our control meant that we kept finding our work blocked, which just added another layer of frustration.

I had recently taken on the role of team lead, which meant not only that these issues became a particular problem for me, but also that I had an opportunity as primus inter pares to do something about this. In working to find a way out of this morass, I came to a realisation: I had been here before, and I already knew how to deal with it.

A rich seam of depression runs through my family, and it has been part of my life since childhood. In the past few years I have pushed it into remission, and it rarely raises its head now. However, from time to time I do catch the onset of a spell of depression, and I have identified a set of first-aid techniques that I can use to stop it developing further. Many of these techniques—regular exercise and fresh air, early nights, cutting down on alcohol, making time to read and relax—seem simple and obvious, but these are just the habits that can get sidelined when depression sets in, so I have to treat them as a strict regime and push myself to follow them. The result of this is incredibly effectively for me.

Here are my key actions in fighting the signs of depression:

  • I have identified and look out for the early warning signs, so I know when I need to take action
  • When I spot these signs, I acknowledge that the situation warrants special behaviour, even if this means putting other priorities on hold
  • I have identified specific behaviours that I know help me recover
  • I stick with these behaviours until I am back on an even keel

This brings me back to my team’s situation. Of course, the ideal is to develop good everyday habits that keep depression at bay, but while we work on that, we may well find ourselves slipping into the doldrums occasionally. It seems to me that all four of these actions can apply to a team just as readily as to an individual.

I would be interested to hear other people’s experiences of dealing with lapses in team mood, as well as thoughts on how these ideas fit with various codified working patterns. Please share your ideas!