Alex Taylor on research at the boundaries, moving from industry to academia, the labour of academia & the power of the collective

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Alex Taylor is a sociologist and a Reader in the Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design at City, University of London. Alex moved into academia in Sept 2017, having worked at Microsoft Research Cambridge prior to this for over a decade and as a post doc researcher at Surrey University before this. Alex talks about his work at the boundaries of disciplines where he doesn’t feel like he has a clear disciplinary home, and about his experiences working at Microsoft. He explains his very conscious decision to then move into an academic position. The trigger for this conversation was a twitter post where he commented on the many different skills that he had to draw on as an academic. He reflects on the labours of academia, and the need to prioritise and make choices. He also talks about generative resistance in the face of the demands of the academy, taking principled stands, saying no and offering alternatives. And he talks about doing this as a collective endeavour and the power of small everyday actions. In all he does Alex is deeply reflective and values-driven and asks How do we create the opportunities and the spaces to do the academy differently? He shows many of the practical ways we can all be part of this.

“I never felt I had a [disciplinary] home and that took a while to come to terms with. … maybe that’s just the kind of person I am, the work I thrive in.”

“We all have to make choices within our lives about what we prioritise. And I realised for me being a parent and partner were very important.”

“[Recognising] the sheer number of skills that were required of me in one day. … It’s a very clear indication of the labours involved in being an academic. And the recognition that you can’t be good at them all.“

“How do we create the opportunities and the spaces to do the academy differently?”

“Important for me in the Centre is how do collectively say no to that? … It’s not just about saying no, what other things might we offer up as a solution?”

Overview (times approximate)

02:07 Research background and dealing with the press/impact

13:49 How he decided to work at Microsoft & sticking to his guns

34:24 Consciously deciding to move from MSR to university

43:40 The labours involved in being an academic

57:42 Collective generative resistance

In more detail, he talks about…

Research background and dealing with the press/impact

02:07 Alex talks about working at University of Surrey and Xerox Europarc and then going to Microsoft Research. A sociologist with an interest in the sociology of technology and he did his PhD on teenagers and mobile phones, a long time ago when it was still a surprise to the industry because SMS was originally something to be used a back channel for engineers. Fortuitous in a way that he realized young people might be the thing to look at.

07:55 Alex reflecting on his use of words like fortuitous and luck. “It was just about meeting the right people at the right time. I fully recognize I’m in a privileged position.” And the topic was an important one at the time, how youth were using mobile phones and SMS at that time. Talks about being on the Radio 4 today program as a PhD student and wondering what he was doing there.

11:12 We discuss more on his experience engaging with the press over the years, especially having worked at Microsoft and their PR machine. Told throughout his career about the need to make his writing more accessible. Part of him as resisted/struggled with that, making it accessible to a public audience. He has written pieces for a journalism context and been on radio and TV but doesn’t find it easy. Attuned to the demands of UK’s academic impact from his years at Microsoft.

How he decided to work at Microsoft & sticking to his guns

13:49 We discuss his decision to go to Microsoft Research. At some point he recognized he was going to be in academic life and he did do a post-doc at Surrey straight after PhD. Then Microsoft approached him to work for a couple of years as a contractor, he asked for something ludicrous thinking they wouldn’t take it up. He was uneasy working for a big institution working for a profit. But they said yes. Then Richard and Abi set up this group together and he ended up swapping 6 months in into full-time employment.

17:57 So how did he reconcile working for a big corporate profit driven company? A very particular institution when he joined it – he understood it as driven by a philanthropic attitude to research and scholarship. There was scope to do what you wanted to do as an academic. “We’re hiring you to be a good researcher.” Didn’t believe it but gave it a shot. And for 8-10 years it was like that. Prior to starting at MSR he had already turned attention to studying the home. This was a point of departure for MSR but they encouraged it. So research and papers about how the home becomes the place it is. A mutual relationship where you are also aware of working for a company with particular concerns. So was able to justify this slightly uneasy relationship as work was about scholarship.

22:23 Was there too much freedom? Still not that different to writing grant proposals etc asking what you might like to do what was the context we are working in and how to scope our conversations there. Privileged – absolutely compared to the academy. “Many of us who believe in what we do and enjoy what we do don’t have a problem finding things that interest us.”

24:39 Alex discusses how he was always testing out the boundaries and came to realise that he sees himself as inhabiting the boundaries. Now it has become a conscious thing in his research. But it takes time and looking back to recognise the red threads of interest. “Played out in sense of uneasiness in the periphery and how to reconcile this space I’ve made for myself, along with colleagues, but it is peripheral to HCI, Computer Science, Sociology. I never felt I had a home and that took a while to come to terms with. … But in recognising that I thought that maybe that’s just the kind of person I am or the work I thrive in.”

26:43 We discuss the challenges then in communicating his work across these boundaries. The obvious challenge is that it is a work of translation. Feels that he stuck to his guns, that there were things that mattered to him, that he knew would get kicked back (proposals, papers, teaching specifications). All these things are where the tensions get played out. He tries to resist the formula and tries to encourage his students that they can do this too. Discusses how the CHI research community is now letting in other forms of scholarship, a gradual change, and that’s good.

29:55 Being reflective about sitting at the boundaries. Through his academic training, reflexivity is built in. Our thinking, the lived experiences we have both within academia and outside pervade everything. He doesn’t feel dissimilar in the way he lives his live, his family life in London as a peripheral mode of living. Pervasive identities. And always asking questions and putting oneself somewhere else occasionally.

32:44 Any costs to sticking to his guns? Has been lucky, working with the right people, and working in an organisation where it was ok to try things out. The choice to be in the periphery is a privileged position. Costs in that the work has been subject to criticisms of various kinds. But probably not more than others. Important for him that the work does make a difference.

Consciously deciding to move from MSR to university

34:24 We discuss his thinking then in moving from MSR to a university position. Microsoft was changing and MSR in the Cambridge Lab became much more business focused and product driven – topics and methods shaped by something else that made him feel uncomfortable. Doesn’t begrudge Microsoft making those decisions but it made those tensions in himself out of kilter and he didn’t want to work in the spaces that were being set. They weren’t meaningful to him. A profit driven approach to research.  Two years before he left he knew he was thinking in this way and that things need to change for him. Realised it didn’t feel right to him.

37:27 Talks about having a young family, two kids. At MSR, serious scholars but demands weren’t the same as in academia (though changing now). The changes aren’t detached from one another. So spoke to a few people, advised never to go into academia (by people who were in academia)! Points to the twitter discussion that triggered me talking to him. One comment that wasn’t framed in a positive way was ‘what right do you have to comment on the academy coming from industry’. Not meant spitefully but didn’t feel like it was part of the rest of the generative discussion of others. But an important question to ask. Didn’t feel outside of the academy in MSR. All colleagues/peers were in academic positions. Cared for them. Their concerns were my concerns. And shifts in MSR and the academy not accidental. Decision to come back to academia was an intentional effort to come back to a place he knew needed more people and recognising many people get worn out and coming to it fresh might just be one more way to make a difference. So a very conscious decision despite many warnings against it.

41:52 Saw a position at City. Met with people at the centre. Immediately felt like a generative place. Experience has told him that the people and place is worth more than anything. That outweighed anything. Geography mattered as well with a young family. Felt the centre was open not just to welcoming but change. “I had in my mind, could a place be made that felt different, that made an effort to resist many of the pressures we feel subject to.” An ongoing project.

The labours involved in being an academic

43:40 We discuss his experiences now having worked at City for a year and a half. Returns to the twitter discussion. The tweet he sent out commented on the sheer number of skills that had been required of him in one day, from working on a grant to prepping for a class to preparing for an exam script etc. And required to be good at them all. So not intended as a political statement but at the shock of recognition at the skills expected of us. Felt like he had a sense of it before but coming to work at it on a daily basis, moving between tasks, and trying to be good at them all, a clear indication of the labours involved in being an academic. And the recognition that you can’t be good at them all.

45:42 “That was another realisation I had, […] that we all have to make choices within our lives about what we prioritise. And I realised for me being a parent and partner were very important. And that was going to take away from academic life. And the people I aspire to in the academy I might not ever be able to live up to in my own practice.” According to what criteria? Recognition of one’s work and position within the fields. Who are the influential people in your field of practice? Why those names? And what choices have they made? And on a daily basis we are continually making choices and it’s not a simple equation.

48:42 We discuss negotiating those choices within a group and faculty context (and family context) in light of their pressures. What are the limits of the work he was willing to invest, stretched by moral and functional demands? Not willing to put some things in jeopardy e.g., picking kids up two days a week. Choices made on routine daily basis. “There’s a value system that’s important for me in the work that I do here in the Centre and I want to stick to that. The trouble is that it takes work.” If you say no, no comes with its costs too.

52:05 Alex talks through a specific example of saying no, and sticking to his values/ethical system. As a program director for a Masters course in HCI he was up against the pressure to increase numbers without extra resources. “A neoliberal project of extracting labour for the same or less.” He stood up for that. Said no. Something has to give, either the number you are giving us or the resources. They got resources! And now pressures for the next year. He made clear to his department head he is not in this to further the neoliberal project. Laying his cards on the table.

55:07 He is in a tenured position but it still means they can’t shut the department down. Standing up is important to him though, from his position of privilege. “I’m in this for a collective project of resistance and I use resistance carefully. […] Those no’s are not just for me.” Alex talks about how the Centre has engaged with this notion of resistance. “How do we create the opportunities and the spaces to do the academy differently?”

Collective generative resistance

57:42 Alex talks about listening to Ali Black’s podcast. “I think we forget that to resist is also its own project.” The easy answer is to maintain the status quo. How would be define generative? He points to books he has on the table (see below for names and links). Inspired by feminist forms of resistance and generativity. How do we make possible other ways of becoming? Links back to Ali Black’s work. And the power of small things like a writing group to lay the seeds for a critical reading of where we are and how we might be something else. A collective source of making a difference. It’s deeply structural. If you say no it goes to someone else. It’s a divide and conquer regime. “Important for me in the Centre is how do collectively say no to that? … It’s not just about saying no, what other things might we offer up as a solution?” An unending project. Reflects on what he enjoyed about the twitter discussion and having all types of scholars involved in the discussion. For early career researchers, advises finding the right people who won’t subject you to pressures. But of course a non-trivial recommendation.

01:04:56 Other key lessons moving into academia – no easy answers but the sense of having people with you and creating an environment where everyone can be the best they can be. And it gets done in small ways. Meetings that allow thinking to flourish. Writing group and new person setting a tone. A reading group to think about content and also introducing these layers of thinking and criticality. A research group run by Simone Stumpf. These things all take time. Not everyone comes. About giving a sense of the environment we’re in. Also thinking of writing retreats. Have a once/week seminar. All start to add up and set the conditions for what we’re in business about. All very collective.

01:10:16 So has this been a good move for him? He asks himself that on a regular basis! The sheer weight and demand of the academy on all of us upsets him. But he is determined to change something and make it better in the small ways any one person or collective can. Seeds for other things.

01:11:43 Final reflections. So much of thinking inspired by many different people. So many good people.

01:13:18 End

Related Links

Alex Taylor’s blog https://ast.io/about-alex-taylor/

Richard Harper https://www.rhrharper.com

Abi Sellen https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/people/asellen/

Simone Stumpf https://www.city.ac.uk/people/academics/simone-stumpf

Xerox EuroPARC https://wiki.cam.ac.uk/crucible/Xerox_EuroPARC

HCID Centre https://hcid.city

The Feb 25 2019 twitter post and following discussion https://twitter.com/alxndrt/status/1100110754248908801

Ali Black podcast - http://www.changingacademiclife.com/blog/2017/3/20/ali-black 

Books:

Donna Harroway, Staying with the trouble.

Sarah Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life

Isabelle Stengers et al, Women who make a fuss: The unfaithful daughters of Virginia Wolf

Jofish Kaye on industry research, having an impact, and values-driven decision making

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Jofish Kaye is a Principle Research Scientist at Mozilla, and before this he worked at Yahoo and Nokia. Jofish made a deliberate decision not to pursue an academic career after he finished his PhD and it’s interesting to hear how his decision-making criteria evolved from being primarily about the people he could work with to being more values-driven and being able to make an impact. A strong sense of values and having impact are threads in a lot of what he talks about. He also discusses his experiences more generally working in an industry context and also moving into more management/leadership roles.

“I think I’m the only person on the planet who likes job searches because you get to re-invent yourself.”

“I am concerned the way we treat publications as the way to make success in the world.”

“It’s so important and so incumbent upon research as a field to make clear and visible how valuable what it is we do.”

“We need to be taking seriously this call for public outreach.”

A full transcript is coming soon!

Overview:

Jofish discusses (approximate times):

01:38 Getting a PhD at Cornell and moving into an industry job at Nokia and being able to teach at Stanford

09:24 Why he didn’t want to apply for an academic position – the difficulty getting funding vs the freedom to do what he wants in industry, the current Mozilla grant process and research they have supported

19:16 Triggers for moving to different companies, looking at what he really enjoyed doing (CHI4Good), and seeking out a way to do that – the job search as a way to reinvent yourself

25:11 Moving from more of an industry research role to now also being concerned for shipping product to customers and having impact in the world in a different way

30:55 How his thinking about job searching has changed over time, from thinking about the people he would work with, to more values-driven decision making with some additional criteria

36:00 Broader accessibility for young people to universities, and the role of public universities,

38:40 His usual pattern of working now with kids/family; and experiences being in a management role, recruiting people, and the ‘Noah’s Ark’ theory about having people who share the same assumptions

42:00 Being a leader and manager – managing as administration, checking boxes, etc; leading as trying to build a strategic narrative and the difficulty of coordinating with people who have different epistemological assumptions and how you measure impact

50:45 Practical team strategies when people are distributed, combining in-person and online techniques, daily video ‘stand up’ meetings

57:18 Challenges around issues of diversity and inclusion across the industry and in particular how to improve diversity in an open source volunteer community

1:01.40 Challenges for academics moving into industry, getting to actionable insights quickly and how to communicate those in the slide deck (the coin of the realm)

1:07:38 End

Related Links

Phoebe Sengers - http://www.cs.cornell.edu/people/sengers/

Elizabeth Churchill - http://elizabethchurchill.com

Wendy Ju - http://www.wendyju.com

Pam Hinds - https://profiles.stanford.edu/pamela-hinds

Terry Winograd - https://hci.stanford.edu/winograd/

John Tang - https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/people/johntang/

Jed Brubaker - https://www.jedbrubaker.com

Allison Druin - https://www.pratt.edu/faculty_and_staff/bio/?id=adruin

Casey Fiesler - https://caseyfiesler.com

Anna Cox podcast - http://www.changingacademiclife.com/blog/2017/3/5/anna-cox

CSCW Medium posts - https://medium.com/acm-cscw

DeleteMe - https://abine.com/deleteme/

TallPoppy - https://tallpoppy.io/

Lindsay Oades on academic wellbeing, connecting to strengths, meaning and purpose, and not taking the system too seriously

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Lindsay Oades is a Professor at the University of Melbourne, where he is also the Director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.  He has co-edited the Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work. I caught up with Lindsay in Budapest at the 2018 European Positive Psychology Conference and was keen to talk to him because of his expertise in positive organisations and taking a systems perspective to promoting wellbeing at work. In this conversation we talk about his own experiences of changes in the academic sector, and his key learnings getting to full professor. We also talk about what positive psychology can contribute to academic work environments and wellbeing, covering issues around values, purpose and meaning, strengths, promotion processes, performance reviews, job crafting, and academic leadership. Listen out for his great terms like ‘academic feudalism’ and ‘justificationism’.

We got so caught up in the conversation that neither of us noticed that his microphone had dropped so there is about 5 mins towards the end when he is talking about job crafting. If his distant voice is too difficult to hear, stay on to the end of the podcast where I repeat what he said word for word. The verbatim text is also below for that section.

“Don’t take it too seriously, don’t get sucked into the rumination and the competitiveness that people go through, and the valuing of each other based on the academic gaze.”

“A lot of academics mistake seriousness with excellence.”

“I…coped through…humour, patience, relationships, being in good teams, being quite purposeful…about why I was doing it, so I didn’t have an instrumental view of academia of publications for publication sake, grants for grants sake.”

“Academics love autonomy. The best way to manage academics is to get out of their way.”

Overview:

01:30 Background

09:00 Changing challenges of academic life

16:45 Key learnings getting to full professor

25:30 Values, purpose, meaning and the promotion processes

32:40 Well-being and academia, and how considered academics create to absurd systems

41:00 What Positive Psychology is about, and how it impacts his management role

50:05 Taking a strengths-based developmental approach to performance reviews and job crafting

1:02:57 Final thoughts – towards the positive university

And in more detail, he talks about (times approximate) …

1:30 Lindsay talks about the different phases of his career, from clinical psychology, to doing an MBA and then moving to a business school, and now moving “from negative to positive, from individual to larger system”, an evolution in scale, and what systems thinking offers for him. From health to wellbeing to business to education.

Changing challenges of academic life

9:00 The changes he has seen in academic life over the course of his career – huge. Increased in student numbers, internationalization, reduced funding, more managerial/commercial style, contracting of competitive funding, freezing of PhD scholarship levels and students having to work much more. Quite a different place. What hasn’t changed is the undervalue that the Australian culture places on academics. Anti-intellectualism. Thinks intellectual life valued more in some parts of North America and Europe and popular media. Changes have led to fewer positions, skepticism about ability to develop careers, larger teaching loads, multiple people scrambling for small amounts of money (academic feudalism). “You see these so called good minds spending huge amounts of time to get access to $10K…relatively small amounts of money”. “A lot of academics are very detailed oriented people, what I’d call naive rationalists, they think they are going to get a solution through reasoning and then get frustrated when politics or economics knocks them around.”

13:30 Own experience? His academic vantage point quite different as professor and director of a centre. Reflects on when he was a lecturer, dealing with teaching load and applying for funding, but was doing more applied research so used consultancies as a way of generating funding to side-step the feudalism. A deliberate decision. Institution allowed him to have a slush fund. But not all academics or disciplines are able to do this. Still went for competitive grants but now with a base level source.

Key learnings getting to full professor

16:45 Key learnings getting to full professor? Patience. Not taking the system too seriously because academic life can be very disheartening. A lot of academics would say this, that they feel very undervalued by their own institution and most of the recognition they get is from people they don’t see, from overseas who recognize the quality of your work, yet in your own institution you are told you are not producing enough or teaching enough classes or whatever. So this weird local invalidation and validation from someone a long way away. So don’t seek validation in the wrong place. And remembering what a university is, this incredibly resilient organization. They’re 8 or 900 year old institutions. They do this partly through the slowness of themselves. A lot of academics mistake seriousness with excellence. The constant workload and multiple roles that academics have to cross between teaching, research, community engagement and administration, without a lot of understanding – most think of academics as a teacher. So no real understanding of what academics do. What he learnt was probably a light touch, non-grasping view of what it is, don’t take it too seriously, don’t get sucked into the rumination and the competitiveness that people go through, and the valuing of each other based on the academic gaze. Finds it comical at times. Valuing the absurdity.

21:45 Need to find good mentors, get into good teams. A lot his good research output is from being in good teams. And a healthy skepticism and sardonic humour. When he was younger, he felt academia was ageist. Couldn’t achieve criteria for professor unless you had time. “I’ll keep doing what I’m doing because I’ll get to professor anyway because age will take of it.” So somewhat of an ageism in the way it is structured, the system values declarative knowledge that comes with age. So he probably coped through a bit of humour, patience, relationships, being in good teams, being quite purposeful, “I’ve always had my own purpose about why I was doing it, so I didn’t have an instrumental view of academia of publications for publication sake, grants for grants sake.” So a non-instrumental approach. Care about it. Always been attracted to ideas and learning. Love of learning is one his number one strengths. Conceptually strong. Good with ideas. That comes naturally, easier for him than some other people. That combined with a value and purpose for why I’m doing it, that has buoyed him along.

Values, purpose, meaning and the promotion processes

25:30 In a team at Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, 17 people. A very values and purpose driven group of people. He has some very clear things he is working towards, helping other people, changing systems in service of well-being. So quite purpose, meanings-based initiatives. Keeps those close. And reminds himself. So no surprise he is attracted to ideas like impacts rather than h-indices and metrics of how we stack up against others. One of the frustrating things about that when going for promotion- it is very extrinsically focused. He didn’t like the psychological impact because it took him away from what he valued about what he was doing. But having to report on all the extrinsic things that don’t connect to love of learning or meaningful impact you are trying to have. [27:40]. Lower down the tree it was the external impacts. But now at professor it was about being able to get on committees, have an impact. He calls it rampant justifactionism.

29:07 His ideal promotion process? Prefers whole of career approach, more portfolio-based, less constrained of how you have to fit yourself into a box. Stories would provide more mechanism for people to tell their stories. Using other media to make the case in more variegated and meaningful ways. From a managerial point of view, one of the ways to exploit the workforce where people love their work. It’s a strength of the workforce but also makes it easier to exploit them. It’s a danger for people who love what they are doing.

Well-being and academia, and how considered academics create to absurd systems

32:40 Well-being impacts? Has been involved in surveys of academic and managerial staff. Academic experiences different to other sectors. Has seen in the data academics have high levels of workload and stress but reasonably high levels of job satisfaction. That says there is another variable accounting for that – some value they are getting through their work. Meaning, impact, connection. And not the place to go if money is your key driver. The triggers for the stress? A lot of factors – individual, institution, department. Which institution, which faculty? Different pressures. At the individual level, obsessiveness, narcissism, perfectionism – we see these in academics, we select for these qualities too. Overthinkers, good but if overused it is problematic. All these things play out. “One-on-one I find academics generally very nice people, easy to relate to, usually quite kind and considered people. Yet the systems we create and inherit can be kind of absurd.” And it is at the individual level, the considered academic is good. But put them in committees to make decisions and they can’t make a decision and they develop systems that provide justifications. So the systems they create are not that effective. The effect is that it slows everything down. So one-on-one good people, well-intentioned people, smart people, but not always smart in the sense that they understand organizational life. Some serious problems with that that need re-dressing.

What Positive Psychology is about, and how it impacts his management role.

41:00 Positive Psychology – science of optimal human functioning, taking a strengths-based approach in the service of wellbeing. Historically a re-dressing of a deficits-based focus of psychology.

42:55 Impact of PP on how he plays out his role? All understand the language, have the expertise. But rest of the uni don’t have that language. And still a knowledge-behaviour gap in how they manage their own wellbeing, purpose etc. Everyone in the team has a wellbeing coach, wellbeing in the context of the strategy of the centre. Some take more a physical health approach. Others trying to manage their own perfectionism, change their mental attitude about how much they have to work. Ever since he had kids, he doesn’t work weekends. When he told team members they were shocked because they had themselves in the habit of working weekends. Not a sustainable practice. The critical point for him was having kids.

48:05 Another example: they have 8 people here at the conference, an expense to the centre, his view is that there is a wellbeing component to it. “My problem with my staff is not do they work hard, but do they work too much.” So this is an opportunity for them to have time to get sustained, rejuvenated. Not about reductionist managerialism/ROI.

Taking a strengths-based developmental approach to performance reviews and job crafting

50:05 At performance reviews, ask people what are they really trying to do, where are they trying to go. Have authentic candid conversations about what do people really want to do. What’s in this for them. People are varied. How do we enable different career trajectories? About knowing the people you are working with, and appointing them to match the role you want them to play. A problem though in the way universities appoint. He hasn’t formally done strengths-based recruitment but they have done teams-based strengths assessments with VIA and Realise2. Get individual profiles. And also get a team-based profile. “Academics love autonomy. The best way to manage academics is to get out of their way. If you want to manage a wild beast, give it a large paddock. …Academics love autonomy but they also love a rationale.” What Self Determination Theory tells us about this.  Autonomy doesn’t mean anything goes. Have some external research income targets to hit. Not negotiable. How do we do it. Then let the smart people do it. Don’t tell them they have to have micro-managed parts. They’ll usually find a way.

55:50 [Lindsay’s microphone dropped down here so the audio is not so clear. Here is a word for word transcript as best I could hear]

56:23 You have to do this both individually and as a group and I’ve been trying to push this strategy document so people can see where they fit into where we want to go. And that takes time.

[Turning the lens back to academia?]

It sounds really trite but the evidence bears it out. Fundamentally people at work often feel undervalued, in general or by their immediate boss. So simple things about what do you actually value about your staff and have you told them and in what medium have you told them. So that is number one.  And number two would be the stuff we talked before about strengths. Have you actually had conversations with staff about their role and the job description and how it can be crafted so that they can use their strengths more than they currently are. And that might take time as well because there are organizational constraints, that you have to deliver this or get this class taught or we’ve got to generate that income or we’ve got to get that contract done. So while at this moment we can’t get you exactly fully there at least have that conversation so there is a plan of how it is going to migrate there and those conversations are really important. Because again with academics, if there is a rationale and there has been a conversation, they will probably accept it for a while if there is good intent. So there’s a couple of things there, enabling them to feel valued and enabling them to use their strengths and mould their work, job craft their work from a strengths base.

[Doing that for each other too?]

59:03 I think too if you look at the history of the universities as well, they’ve been gendered so you have rationalist males that might not see the value of some of the stuff I was just talking about.  And […] they might not have had the skills for how to do it. And I don’t mean that in a nasty way. People have different skills. If academic life was originally a very cognitive, individual endeavor, you go into your room and do your work. That was old academia for a lot of people. This new academia, looking after people, many many more women in the academic workforce, also culturally much more externally focused than it used to be, much more community engaged, more demands from students, I wouldn’t say more demands, students have been enabled to give more feedback and they do expect a higher level of teaching quality. So a whole range of things that are different to how they have been.

[Loved job crafting, same job, but control, choices] And by job crafting I don’t just mean offloading your teaching. [Specific example of job crafting?]

1:00:53 Yeah there are a few. In academic life there is obviously research and teaching but the …it may be changing the type of teaching you are doing at a subject level or also gradually doing more research led teaching or face-to-face teaching or particular type of teaching like workshop style, lecture style. Or gradually trying to move to more admin and leadership roles but doing in a way that uses my particular skills or strengths. [end of lost mic – shorter notes continue]

1:02 So there are different types job crafting might look like – tasks, relationships, So different forms of what job crafting can look like. So different ways. Enabling people to take charge of their work life, their career. Academics are sophisticated people. They think a lot and they are willing to work hard. So it’s about capturing that.

Final Thoughts

1:02:57 Currently trying to champion the idea of positive universities. People usually just think of student wellbeing. But it is broader than that – student wellbeing, staff wellbeing, positive organizational practices. How do we take science of wellbeing approaches and apply them to universities? A group of universities around the world currently thinking about it. A bigger picture way of looking at it. He has a paper called “towards positive universities” about how to do it at a tangible level. When people talk about wellbeing, they think it’s the positive experience, feeling happy, but don’t take the functioning bit. Wellbeing from a eudemonic perspective involves positive functioning, growth, virtue. Wellbeing includes good functioning, not just feeling good but functioning well and doing well. That’s where the meaning and purpose part plays a big role. Big changes coming. Universities resilient, they adapt. Not as simple as the commercial arrangement would suggest.

Student wellbeing programs still deficit focused. Working on wellbeing literacy. We don’t have a way to communicate about wellbeing. Positive attributes. More than the absence of anxiety and depression. Wellbeing in the broader sense –where students can communicate about what is self-regulation, what is using strengths, what is wellbeing, what is meaning, what is purpose, and communicate in a way that is meaningful for them. Having senior leaders able to see this relationship between wellbeing and performance and communicate this to staff and students explicitly and implicitly.

01:10:46 Repeat of the content where Lindsay’s microphone dropped

01:14:43 End

Related Links

Lindsay Oades: http://www.lindsayoades.com

Centre for Positive Psychology, Melbourne Graduate School of Education: https://education.unimelb.edu.au/cpp

9th European Conference on Positive Psychology 2018: https://ecpp2018.akcongress.com  

Barbara Frederickson’s Broaden and Build Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broaden-and-build

VIA character strengths: https://www.viacharacter.org

Strengths Profiler Realise2: http://www.ppquarterly.org/portfolio/realise2-next-generation-strengths-assessment/ Now Capp: the strengths experts https://www.capp.co/Home

Self Determination Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-determination_theory; http://selfdeterminationtheory.org

Job Crafting: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/job-crafting/

Book & Papers:

Oades, Steger, Delle Fave, Passmore (eds), “The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work”

https://www.wiley.com/en-gb/The+Wiley+Blackwell+Handbook+of+the+Psychology+of+Positivity+and+Strengths+Based+Approaches+at+Work-p-9781118977651

Oades, Robinson, Green & Spence, “Towards a Positive University”: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2011.634828?journalCode=rpos20

Oades & Johnston, “Wellbeing literacy: The necessary ingredient in positive education”. https://juniperpublishers.com/pbsij/pdf/PBSIJ.MS.ID.555621.pdf

Jan Gulliksen on middle management, leading autists, and building values and trust… with drama

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Jan Gulliksen is a Professor in Human Computer Interaction and Vice President for Digitalization at KTH in Stockholm Sweden, among various other national and international leadership roles. He was also Dean of school for 7 years and we talk here mostly about his experiences and thoughts on middle management and academic leadership. He shares his personal development as a leader as well as some practical strategies, many using techniques from his background in theatre and drama, for example, in how to read and interact with people, or in using improv theatre to create insight and shift values around PhD supervision.  We also touch on a range of other issues including the nature of academic freedom, building organisational values, the importance of 2-way trust, what makes good role models, the problems with meetings, the ‘too’ in working too much, and much more.

"You are building an organisation and you are actually building values. This is probably the single most important thing…around the values that you are bringing…and trust is then intimately connected to these values."

"Everybody should be able to play in the organisation on equal terms."

"I never say I work too much. It’s when people add that word ‘too’ that it becomes a problem…claiming [it’s] more than they want to [and] not in control of setting that. But...it is always our own choices how many tasks we take on."

"We have too many [meetings] that don’t contribute and don’t make efficient use of people’s time."

Overview: He talks about (times approximate) …

1:30 Jan introduces his background and current role.

3:27 He notes the values embedded in my question about his choice to do more strategic impact and management work. Discusses being in management roles for the last 10 years and motivation for doing this. Got a management role of 45 people as part of his package when he moved to KTH. Must have done well as he was then promoted to Dean two years after, which is not the obvious way to do this as usually appoint older people. A former colleague said “Jan are you going to be a dean? But you’re actually a good researcher!”. Fascinating because it showed the values that says doing leadership or management is not considered as prestigious or as good as other things. He finds this strange.

6:35 Strategic choice for management an option? But we don’t always do strategic choices. Discusses how we didn’t use to have metrics or Google Scholar and no-one was talking about citations etc then. So you can look at different people in the past who happened to make choices that benefit them now eg in high h-indexes but they were lucky to have made that choice. He believes that leadership roles should be valued much more. He didn’t do leadership as a prestigious thing but because he thinks he has something he can contribute and wants to be part of shaping how we do these things.

8:45 Formal training for leadership roles? Yes. He really likes these internal training programs. Started with pedagogical training courses because they were rewarding and he learnt new things. Inspiring and wanted more. What came next were different types of leadership courses. Every time you join a leadership course, half of it is about leadership, the other half is about personal development. So that was a way to use these courses to mature and reflect on how you. Joined every leadership course he did at Uppsala. And when he came to KTH, joined their leadership courses. Final step was that he went to INSEAD and did their advanced management program for a full month which is something that shapes you up a bit. He also joined as a mentor for others which is also a way of developing.

11:05 What were the personal qualities that made the role a good fit? Jan finds an enjoyment in seeing other people’s development. That’s why PhD supervision is the most fun and rewarding thing academics do. Similarly the thing he likes with management roles is not what people would think. Now that he has gone from dean to Vice President, he used to have staff responsibility for more than 400 people but as vice president has no staff responsibility. People say ‘lucky you’ but he thinks that is the most rewarding part, the between 4-eyes meeting with staff, mutually solving problems to help their development. Much more fun than working on strategic plans or management group meetings that you also need to do. Typically HR issues is the biggest part of leadership roles.

14:00 Practical skills he brought? One of his backgrounds that he uses a lot in his leadership role or any role is that he started out with theater and drama. Wanted to be an actor, director. Read a lot, did a lot. Learnt a lot. Uses that knowledge every day without being aware of it, reading people’s eyes, trying to watch what is happening from the outside as a director, shape what is happening there, simply by how you phrase things and speak you can control the stage there. Thinks drama should be one of the core subjects for schools. Can use that knowledge to control your voice, your body, how you pause, create awareness by being silent and being ready to be silent for a longer time than you do. Both reading, seeing, observing and then also turning it into something you do yourself. Classes on improvisation, and how they make the story line continue etc but clear rules on how you make an improvisation that you need to follow to develop the story. These happen in real life.

19:15 Subtle herding of cats, or leading clever people? Management book, writing about management from a conductor’s point of view (Esa-Pekka Salonen). Leading artists. Which is bit like herding cats. He felt that when he became Dean. Wants to do a follow up, leading autists, simply based on the experience of leadership in academia. Can seem like an insulting title but clearly have brilliant people, many of whom probably have some cognitive special skills, that makes you need to be more aware of your leadership skills. Another aspect of academia that should be debated much more, compared to leadership in business or public sector, and that is the concept of academic freedom. Academic freedom means nobody should influence you on what types of methods or research questions you use but many academics, particularly the higher you get up in the academic career, would want the concept of academic freedom to be read as “I don’t have a boss, nobody should tell me what to do” rather than it is about your research and the freedoms in relation to that. So management in that sense becomes very complicated because you are supposed to be a manger of people who are of course highly skilled, more skilled than you are in their particular topics but still there are things you can contribute to their development. This is something that probably will change in the future because he doesn’t think it is a sustainable solution to have universities run in the leaves of the organization and where the management roles don’t have any opportunity to steer or control how things are happening. He has heard something said about a president at a university that when they make a decision it is heard as a statement in an ongoing debate. This is bad as it means a president can’t make any decision and how can you develop and change a business if that is the perspective.

23:50 Business of academia? Discussion of different way that the term ‘business’ is used. In Swedish have the word ‘verksamhet’ which is best translated into English as business but it is a concept about ‘work activity’ but more than that. Wants English to inherit that word. So talking about teaching, management tasks.

27:20 Navigating boundary, encouraging people to participate in the business of academia? Usually go to a leadership course on individual management between two people to have difficult conversations, then courses on strategic management, but really not a course for middle management and middle management probably the most tricky side of management. He has had a manager above him and is managing people so has seen this tension in the middle management role. Also works fairly well in industry but there are things that need to be developed in academia for middle management. How do you contribute to delivering on the development plans of the manager above so decisions are channeled through. But he sees this autonomy makes a management meeting on the top a tricky issue, and need to come up with a decision. Middle manager may have been fighting for the opinions of their groups but may not have got their will through and how do you deal with that. He has seen many middle managers go back to their group and instead of saying “we had discussions, made tradeoffs and agreed on this that we have to deliver”. Instead they say “I really fought for you and these stupid managers above didn’t listen to what we said so now they are forcing us to do this.” But this is not in the management spirit. He would love to see a management course to help with the struggle of that role that has contradiction in terms, fighting for subordinates upwards and then have to communicate decisions down.

32:10 A better way of doing it? Role play or drama might help you think about these different roles. When you are middle manager, you should talk much more “we”, “we made a decision, we did this” and talk about the collective of management that made the decision. But he hears instead that “he made the decision” and distancing from the decision and keep on fighting that instead of being part of the collective making that decision. As a manager of a group, need to be the advocate for the joint decisions being made and even if you didn’t like the decision, your role is to make it happen than fight against it. Need to reflect on how to tell the story about why the decision was made. We are in the trust business. So need to build that trust so people can see that different views were considered. Then eventually decisions had to be made and different tradeoffs.

37:00 Trust also works both ways. Talking about needing to trust our managers, but managers also need to be able to trust staff to work in this fashion. You are building an organization and you are actually building values. This is probably the single most important thing to do, is around the values that you are bringing – so that people like we are moving in this direction because we share a set of values in this organization and trust is then intimately connected to these values. How to do this practically? Openness and transparency is a value but you can’t be open and transparent about everything as a manager, sometimes not even allowed to be. But if generally have the notion, openness needs to work in collaboration with trust, that if we appoint someone as a leader, we need to trust the leader to take the wisest choices. Delegating the management role.  Equity also important. Everyone’s point is important and valid. The more heterogenous the group is, the better choices you actually make. It is involving every staff, students, administrative staff in management team.

42:00 Next issue is a lack of respect between faculty and administrative staff. In Swedish, the word ‘administration’ is seen as not prestigious, for the lowest in the income scale etc. But still everybody should be able to play in the organization on equal terms. How to have these conversations? In groups, coming up with concepts you can stand by. In other situations, they come in organically. Busy academics can feel these types of discussions are beyond the limit of what they can do. So may need to trick that in to get discussion. Talks about some issues related to harassment based on what people are earning. How to work with these issues? 

47:12 Did a long project over a year and a half called a Sustainable Work Environment. Could see it was working in the annual work environment survey that harassment went down and trust in management went up. PhD students felt most pressure, to work long hours, not getting enough support from professors. These were also things to discuss. Got a theater company to come, interview PhD students and supervisors. Then gathered with all supervisors with theatre company re-enacted student views, then stopped and asked for what could be done differently that was then discussed. Then re-played with the new approach. Afterwards people could really see this was for real and how difficult it was to recover. So trying to come with these things that are fun, efficient, social, these are activities to help with development.

52:20 Did a lot of activities with PhD students. A lot of their problems is with time management. Didn’t do any relaxation. Tools to get more relaxed and work with own attitudes to work and lower self-expectations. And working with the supervisors about what is reasonable and to think about how expectations are communicated. Need to talk about it in a different way. Role models? Role models usually ‘stars’. Female role models to show what you can do/become. Didn’t work out as good as getting role models that were more ordinary that people could identify with and see this path as a great outcome. Role models shouldn’t be the top people in excellence.

55:25 Working hours role models? Talks about this freedom that we have … to choose where and when to do work is something that we really should treasure and treat with dignity. And trusting people to deal with their own time properly. Better to work with people’s way of managing their own time/work. It’s your own choice. That’s the important thing. Email is what people think is their biggest work environment problem. Interested in seeing what work will be like for the next generation that don’t do email. Talks about our digital environment, being able to take work with us everywhere we go.

1:02:45 How does Jan manage that flexibility? A lot is about how happy and satisfied you are with what you are doing. So not a big problem if working too much in periods. Other periods where you don’t work as much. Would never say he works too much. It’s when people add the word ‘too’ it becomes a problem, working more than they want to work, and perhaps not in control in setting that. As academics, our own choices how many tasks we take on. We need to set reasonable levels for what we are doing. Discusses his strategies for saying yes/no. Most of tasks are ones he has chosen because he can contribute something and add value. But we also go to too many meetings. Need to think through how we do meetings. Could have done better over the years having fewer meetings. The most rewarding meetings are between 2-3 people. Big meetings cost and we have too many that don’t contribute and don’t make efficient use of people’s time.

1:07:45 Discusses his own strategies as Dean for handling meetings, collecting them on one day, some you have to have. Could have prepared meetings better to have a more efficient meeting. But schedule became too crowded to do that. And maybe didn’t delegate enough. People also didn’t open agenda before they came to the meeting. Experimented with ways of making them more efficient eg Google doc that all could contribute to, removing need for a secretary. Good for losing time to translate notes to document but created less dynamics at the meeting with people distracted by their laptop in the meeting.

1:10:34 Final thoughts – for another discussion, about engaging with politics and think there is a lot we can do there. National and international politicians and their interests in wanting to contribute to society and their openness and curiosity to get knowledge from academia. An issue of them getting access and we’re not very good at communicating with them. Also brings in selection of research topics – do they contribute to our career development or to changing the world.

1:14:15 End

Related Links

Jan’s personal web page & blog: http://jangulliksen.com

Jan’s KTH web page: https://www.kth.se/profile/jangul/

INSEAD Advanced Management Programme:

The conductor Jan referred to is Esa-Pekka Salonen and he has given several talks and seminars on leadership in relations to the orchestra - how you see the individual and look at the whole picture at the same time. We’re unable to find the book but there are several articles in the newspaper media about it but not the exact quote, such as: https://www.metro.se/artikel/stjärndirigent-leder-chefer-xr. Or he talks about his leadership here: https://www.aktuellhallbarhet.se/esa-pekka-salonen-han-vagrar-att-lamna-havet-bakom-sig/

The word “verksamhet” is untranslatable as the following statement from the dictionary in Swedish explains: https://sv.wiktionary.org/wiki/verksamhet. A Google translate of the concept brings the following: https://translate.google.com/#sv/en/verksamhet. But Jan feels that the concept of  “Operation” clearly does not capture it.

Carman Neustaedter on research identity, work tracking surprises, and taking perspective

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Carman Neustaedter is an Associate Professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada and is also Director of the Connections Lab (cLab) research group. He talks about the importance for him of taking time to reconnect with his identity and values, and building in regular time for reflection, both on the bigger issues of where he is going and also on day to day work like writing challenges. He also discusses feeling overwhelmed and deciding to track his work time over a whole year, which led to surprising findings about how he actually spent his time and how he worked fewer hours than he thought he did. He also touches on issues around handling reviewer critique, managing his email inbox and how he structures time and prioritises family. A thread through a couple of stories is also the importance of being able to take on the perspective of others, whether these are the critical reviewers or colleagues.

“It’s really hard to figure out who you are because you’re often so focused…, you don’t stop to step back and say who am I and what is my path. But it’s so valuable to do.”

“It’s easy to slip into the habit of doing work at all sorts of hours. … It’s about choice and recognizing ahead of time what my priority is and making sure that priority is my family in the evening and at the weekend.”

“When I’m working, I’m really on and working really hard but then I purposely stop and say you know what it’s family time now, they deserve my time.”

“It’s really valuable for all walks of life just to empathise and understand others.”

He talks about (times approximate) …

2:09 Start

2:39 Current position, PhD from Calgary, experience working in Kodak Research Labs for three years before moving back to academia; how he got to the industry position as a post doc; finding it routine, and the decision to come back to academia and loving it.

5:02 Trigger for coming into academia – working with students, the agency and flexibility. Considered thinking to come back. Lucky to land something back in Canada, close to family. Obvious move back. Now in academia 8 years.

6:19 Experience of shifting back into academia – a struggle, paid far less, working way harder, so many things coming at him, hard to transition back into. Having the break allowed him to understand the situation a lot more, more reflection on own lifestyle and work-life balance. At Kodak, emails stopped coming in at 5pm on Fri and not much at weekend and as an academic getting emails from students at all hours. Had to adjust to it.

8:04 Other challenges in trying to set up as a new prof – establishing his identity and setting up a research group, what to focus on and how to present it to the world; critical to have a web page early; trying to establish identity and use that as framing for everything else he was trying to do. Finding the focus tricky but the job hunt helped as had to figure out ‘who are you, what’s your vision for the next few years’. “It’s an especially challenging task… it’s really hard to figure out who you are because you’re often so focused with your head down on your work, you don’t stop to step back and say who am I and what is my path. But it’s so valuable to do.”

9:54 How to do that practically? “It’s time. I can work on another paper or spend a half day thinking about what my identity is and how I want to project myself… it’s important to reassess that identity.” Example of using a hike or run on sabbatical last year to do this figuring out. Answer was realizing he had actually accomplished a lot and pretty proud of it and to continue on the same track, with tweaks. “Being happy with what I accomplished was really key.”; talking of being, purpose; “About what’s important and that thread weaves through the work we do, what we choose to do for [service, teaching, research] and weaves through how we balance work and family life and the personal endeavours we want.

12:09 Values as a researcher – being real, true to yourself and what you do. Talks about example of writing papers in a certain way, telling people what you did and why and not being afraid of the scrutiny. A tough profession when we have so many people critiquing us but it’s ok to show you and what you’re doing and stand up for it.

13:29 Handling the critiques – a long process but now tries to empathise with the reviewer and think about where they are coming from. Trying to connect with the reviewer, sees it as a conversation, understanding their perspective. More often than not getting critiqued rather than praised about the work we do. Probably not a lot of professions that get critiqued that much.

15:59 Other ways for helping handle this? Likes to go running, several times a week early morning, time to get out there and gives chance for reflection on what I’m doing, think up new ideas, and reconnect with myself”.

16:54 Other routines? Particular about when he works, tries hard not to work on evenings or weekends. Family and evening routines makes it easier to achieve. Weekends are family time with wife and kids. “When I’m working I’m really on and working really hard but then I purposely stop and say you know what it’s family time now, they deserve my time and so I’ll spend it with them.” Not like that before he had family. Notices he works more when he is away at conferences. “It’s easy to slip into the habit of doing work at all sorts of hours.”  “It’s about choice and recognizing ahead of time what my priority is and making sure that priority is my family in the evening and at the weekend.”

18:59 Hard when requests for stuff keep coming in.  Gives example of email on weekend with a request. Has a habit of inbox at zero 80% of the time. So if something comes in at the weekend it bothers him. Needs to handle it by getting it out of his inbox and onto a to-do then he can leave it for Monday. But if it sits in email he will think about it. Didn’t always do this but helps to keep his weekend to himself. Other email strategies – touching email only once;

21:49 Talks about tracking his work for a year. 2014, approaching tenure time, felt he was working tons of hours, feeling overwhelmed. Decided to figure out where he spent his time. Used a spreadsheet and recorded in 15 min time blocks. Tracked tasks, time of day, weekend. Tracked for a year. What time of day, who it was spent on, and how the numbers came out.

23:19 How tracking for a year was a pain but why he kept doing and the slivers of insight he got on the way.

26:00 Results surprising. Thought he did way more service and teaching than research but not the case. Research time was actually 67% over the year. Teaching was only 15% and only 18% was service. “So it was way different than what I thought. I was spending most of the doing the research stuff I really loved and not a lot time doing the teaching things that I thought was taking up a lot of my time.” On average worked about 39 hours a week. Felt over 50 hours. “It felt like I was completely overwhelmed and working all the time.” Didn’t realise how many hours he was actually working.

26:50 Flexible way of handling his day, on campus between 4-8 hours, will work from home when he can. Works early morning time. Helps kids. Finish up in the afternoon. Email in the evening. Some days only 4 hours. Flexibility of the job to let him do this lifestyle structure. Balances out with 10 hr day.

28:22 What contributes to it feeling so much more? Asked himself some tough questions about why feeling overwhelmed, exhausted. Maybe a lot of it comes down to choice.  So many demands on attention can be overwhelming, A lot of contact points. So many things coming at him overwhelming. The sense of responsibility and loving helping people. Feeling obligated and wanting to help.  Lack of getting to what he wants to do, don’t feel he has as much as choice as he wants to. Teaching feels a little more like work, less control over it. Loves teaching, reinvigorates but freedom of choice issue.

32:09 How does it feel now with requests? Looking through time makes it easy to recognize this is happening and use it to leverage different choices, and also figuring out when he works best and how to adjust his schedule. Talks about how he structures his work now. Also gives example of writing the discussion section that he finds hard, and timing it before a run or a break (drive into work) so he can then think back on what he just wrote and see if new insights come up.  Works well except for keeping notes. Wouldn’t have tracked that as work time. 34:54 “Work is on my brain a lot of the time. It’s hard to get it off my brain.” Think best ideas come when he is not working. Never know what you are going to see that is going to spawn a great idea. Fluid work and locations makes it even muddier. Even though ideas flow in non-work time, easy enough to separate them and not linger. Gets a note down and then get back to the personal stuff.

38:19 Not managed so well … when family visiting, guests, etc. But also forces you to engage with family and friends more.

39:09 Criteria for making choices, saying no? “Doing what I know I love to do”. Gives example of telepresence chair service role. “It’s stuff I love doing so it’s not really like work.”

40:34 Sabbatical experience. Three months recognized missed his normal job and couldn’t do research full on. Needed the breaks. Realised how much he valued them when gone. Feeling of guilt for not working. Tension of should and wants. Wanting to get away from the job but then realizing he really loved it. His choice to re-engage with some teaching and service while on sabbatical. Still mental turmoil, would he wish he stepped back more. But felt good at the end of the year. Accomplished more than planned. Happy with what he did because he was making choices, saying no and also saying yes to things he really loved.

44:54 “It was a turning point, and I realized moving forward - get back that choice. Really think about what I want to do and don’t be afraid to do that.”

45:29 Seeing career moving forward. Knows research direction, more admin work in department coming up, understanding internal politics. Talks about getting to know people more now and seeing where they are coming from. Tries hard to understand people from their perspective. Easiest way of getting policies through is understanding people’s perspectives and incorporating them. Talks a lot with people, prep work, understanding people. Came out of empathy training some years ago (in context of running a study) but “it’s really valuable for all walks of life just to empathise and understand others.”. Created less butting heads, faster to get on same page, accomplish more. But takes time/work.

50:51 Gives other examples of other situations where empathy helps, from family/kids to co-author/grad student and teasing out what is going on. Involves a lot of listening. Aim to get the best work, mutual goals.

52:59 Tries to foster a lab culture, about being dependent on each other, helping each other. Learnt from advisor Saul Greenberg. Shared responsibility in helping people out, a team, a family.

54:49 Final thoughts – “I think so much of our time is spent with our heads down and trying to get things done. I still really struggle with lifting my head up and getting that broader perspective. But I really think scheduling in even a little bit of time every once in a while to get that perspective back is super important.”. Advice from Joanna McGrenere – schedule time on sabbatical for personal reflection. Applicable beyond sabbatical. Schedule that time block eg for a run, walk, or silent drive. Making it a point of your regular routine is so incredibly invaluable. Recognise you are doing good stuff and how to keep that path going forward and how to have time for yourself.

57:35 My reflections on harmonious passion.

59:55 End

Related Links

Saul Greenberg podcast – on supervising, building a lab, creating good work life balance  

Sheelagh Carpendale - http://pages.cpsc.ucalgary.ca/~sheelagh/wiki/pmwiki.php

Joanna McGrenere - http://www.cs.ubc.ca/~joanna/

Jolanta Burke podcast – on burnout, harmonious passion, positive workplaces & helping others

Some articles on passion, obsessive passion and harmonious passion:

Michael Muller on principled engagements, value tensions, liking people & giving back

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Michael Muller is a researcher at IBM Research in Cambridge MA. We cover a lot in this conversation, Michael reflects on his long PhD process in cognitive science, long in part because of chronic diseases that he still deals with. He talks about the decision to move to industry and his experiences working in various industry positions since then, including interpreting participatory design methods for a North American industry context, finding out he wasn’t suited to management, and loving the work he is doing now. A theme across many of the stories is the tension arising from navigating organisational demands and his own deeply held values, and throughout you can hear his deep care for people.

Work in any organisation involves some kind compromise of principle at one time or another.”  

“I’m a white American boy, got all this honour and privilege, let’s do something constructive with it.”

“Mentoring very quickly becomes two ways.”

“I like the work I’m doing, I love the people I’m working with. And it’s work I can hold my head up about. It’s work that I’m thinking is making good kinds of changes. That’s a good life.”

“That’s the core spiritual practice… Take care of people… be in relationships in which we are exchanging affection and support.”

He talks about (times approximate) …

01:30 Introducing his cognitive psychology background and now working in a research organisation in industry (IBM), scored like academics, managed by objective and the processes in trying to get criteria for preferred publication venues changed; cushioning of researchers in the organisation

07:30 Discussing reasons for his 9 year PhD – two chronic diseases, costs money, working part-time, and moving across parts of Psychology Dept at Rutgers

09:15 Going to work in an industry organisation straight after, seeing academic psychologists not very happy, story of his role model Mark Altan (?) who was dedicated to teaching, received a teaching award which he was told was a ‘kiss of death’, told not going to get tenure, and went to work at Bell Labs. Michael lost his role model. A shearing between surface and deep values – “Didn’t fancy being in an academic environment in which each time I wanted to do something kind or considerate or useful for students I would be jeopardising myself”. Advisor told him “Michael you will have to learn to be a mediocre instructor like the rest of us” because he was being too dedicated to students. So he went into industry, thinking industry jobs were relatively stable compared to not getting tenure.

13:55 After finishing degree with 4 hours to spare, finished winter at uni as a research assistant then took his first job at IBM in Charlotte NC but was not the place then as it is now. Within months, the choice was stark, he could stay at IBM or stay married – he chose love and found some way to get them out. Spouse depressed at isolation. Then went to Bellcore for 8 years.

16:13 Sometime was in Seattle for a CHI conference, went to Participatory Design Conference nearby, first one in North America and “got religion”! A year later he began to think with two colleagues about how to adapt participatory design (PD) to the American context (though says Susanne Bodker still doesn’t think it was Scandinavian PD); became the existence proof this could work in industry. Industry attention span is brief so they shortened PD methods down to less than 60 mins and conducted a series of conversion experiments. Glory days. They were revelations to people. Showed it was fun, information rich. Local management in Bellcore got it. But then baby Bellcores started taking each other over.

20:30 He was doing something pioneering in North American industry context, had thought they were following the Scandinavian model, but with modifications for industry attention span and culturally had to make changes, mostly by intuition, mostly got it right. Said ‘workplace democracy’ over and over again but sometimes got push back and this probably delayed their promotions.

22:55 Eventually made the mistake of trying to get a promotion when at Microsoft and within 10 months Microsoft and manager explained what a bad mistake that was! He was given a performance improvement plan – could see it was designed to be non-survivable and the criteria for success were not well spelt out so he could be fired at any time without protections. Accepted that judgement and went away.

24:30 Had moved from New Jersey because of spouse at the time found her spiritual life in nature, and a job came up in US West Advanced Technologies in Boulder Colorado – called Terry Roberts (manager) about it, moved there. A different kind of job, interviewing telephone operators to help them lose their job but was also able to show they were doing important knowledge work. CHI 1995 presentation explaining this (link). But he was deemed by management to have helped the wrong side.

27:10 He talks of observing operators’ work in a bunch of places, their work being monitored by management, the tension of having sympathies with the workers but reporting to management. He reflects on having just listened to Mark Ackermann talk at ECSCW17 about the far right organising on the internet. He was helping management use technology to displace labour. Principles in a grey area. Lost sleep over it. “I’d say work in any organisation involves some kind compromise of principle at one time or another.” Making it an explicit topic of conversation.

30:55 Eventually his work supported using technology to reduce operators so not a clean story. “A politically pure person would have walked away from that job.” Tells Arnie Lund’s story when he worked in a ‘doomed organisation’ and was made to lay people off then lay himself off -because they knew he would hate it and knew he would do it with care for the people. That was their gift to the employees. “So I tried to do things with care […] but at the same time I was hopelessly compromised. That’s the life in an organisation.” Thinks it also happens in academia. “If we work in organisations, organisations have their own logic and it’s a little bit more reptilian, cold blooded, than the logic that most of us bring to each other.”

33:50 Continuing to work in industry contexts, for family reasons. Discusses options for moving to academia. Currently has an unpaid academic role at Wellesley College. Paying back white male privilege. If could find a way to increase work in academia without letting people down (the only social scientist now in his group) he would do it. Mentors students in internships.

37:45 Doing mentoring, “I’m a white American boy, got all this honour and privilege, let’s do something constructive with it.”, can open doors, and ongoing relationship with students/mentees. Has roughly same job title as started with 1984 because he tried the ‘manager thing’ at Microsoft and it didn’t work. Managing not his skill set but can mentor, also has friends who are female, LGBTQ, native American, etc, and can understand he has had a blessed life so helping to open doors for others. An ongoing mentoring relationship but also responsibility of person to walk through the door. But opening the door an important first step.

40:40 Discusses doctoral consortium and career development workshop mentoring experiences. “Our own failures are an important part of what we bring to those.” Some about careers. And it’s thinking together. “Mentoring very quickly becomes two ways.”. Gives example of Shion Guha. Reflects on internship mentoring and transitioning to peers/colleagues.

45:55 What is keeping him excited at work? Asked by IBM to work on employee engagement. Doing engagement surveys, find out if there are issues, do an intervention in Jan, but can be too late in next Nov to find out if it worked. So trying to use data from IBM’s thriving social media ecosystems (Bernard Geyers, David Millen’s work) but first attempts didn’t work; now fixed and can get monthly reports. So can describe, predict and now into fixing it by gathering ideas to increase engagement. Making the experience of work a better experience, and helps the organisation. It’s fulfilling.

52:56 Other part of job is to help IBM think about leadership position in AI and ethics. Collaboration with Vera Lia0, bringing qualitative methods. Returning to some participatory themes and design fictions and value sensitive design to explore.

54:56 Navigating long working hours. “Our work could expand to cover every waking moment that we have and then cause us to have more waking moments. We all have to work out work family balance.” Talks about current partner and “supporting each other as they both over work” and her passion for justice, where both are “trying to make positive change in the world, make up for the good stuff we’ve got”. And the work content is extremely interesting. “I like the work I’m doing, I love the people I’m working with. And it’s work I can hold my head up about. It’s work that I’m thinking is making good kinds of changes. That’s a good life.”

59:00 How he maintains his health and wellbeing? “I love people that’s a very healthy thing to do.” “That’s the core spiritual practice… Take care of people… It is to be in relationships in which we are exchanging affection and support.”

1:01:03 End

Related Links:

Michael Muller - http://researcher.watson.ibm.com/researcher/view.php?person=us-michael_muller

Wendy Kellogg - http://researcher.watson.ibm.com/researcher/view.php?person=us-wkellogg

Scott Robertson podcast - https://changingacademiclife.com/blog/2017/7/27/scott-robertson

Susanne Bødker - http://pure.au.dk/portal/en/persons/id(87d4fbb6-b38c-449e-b87d-59f693b7d6f0).html

Terry Roberts - http://terroberts.home.mindspring.com/IntDesUAPortfolio/index.html

Mark Ackermann - https://www.si.umich.edu/people/mark-ackerman

Arnie Lund - https://www.linkedin.com/in/arnielund

Shion Guha – https://www.shionguha.net

David Millen - http://researcher.watson.ibm.com/researcher/view.php?person=us-david_r_millen

Matt Davis - http://researcher.ibm.com/researcher/view.php?person=us-davismat

Vera Liao - http://qveraliao.com

Wellesley College - http://cs.wellesley.edu/~oshaer/index.html

CHI conference - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conference_on_Human_Factors_in_Computing_Systems

Participatory Design Conference - https://pdc2018.org/about-pdc/

Usability Professionals Association - https://uxpa.org

CHI95 paper: Telephone operators as knowledge workers: consultants who meet customer needs - https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=223904.223921

Human Computer Interaction Consortium - https://hcic.org/hcic2018/index.phtml

Value Sensitive Design - http://www.vsdesign.org