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I may not be predicting the future, I might actually be affecting it
Hello there :)
Welcome to issue nineteen of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
This newsletter is free to receive, but if you’d like to support me in this in this odd little endeavour you can buy me a coffee :)
Speaking of coffee, grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
Part I: Some thoughts on influence
Next month I’ll be speaking at The Business of Content, a virtual conference.
I’ll be doing a talk called: Creative Differences (thoughts on how to manage creative teams, even if you've zero creative experience). It’s based on my experiences of being managed by people with creative backgrounds, and by those without; in addition to managing a creative team of more than 40 people myself.
In preparation for this talk I’ve been messaging a bunch of people that I previously managed (many of whom have now gone on to manage others) to get their thoughts on this stuff.
One of the recurring themes of these various conversations is the unintended, (and often unwitting) influence I’ve had as a manager, and the things that have happened as a result.
I think that one of the trickiest things about being a manager is that your thoughts, feelings, and opinions on various things are often absorbed by others.
This can be problematic because they’re not always absorbed as thoughts, feelings, and opinions - somewhere along the way they become “facts”.
Here’s an example of this:
Anyone who’s worked with me will tell you: “Hannah hates brainstorming sessions”.
Dear reader, it’s true. I find them pressurised, painful, and just not useful. As a result, I don’t do them.
What I didn’t realise however, was the extent to which my own feelings about these sessions influenced pretty much everyone else on the team.
Here’s an excerpt from a conversation with one of the people I used to work with:
“I was a little turned off group brainstorming while you were manager, and I think most of us at that point preferred to go away and do some research alone before reviewing each other’s work at the latter stages of the ideation process…”
He says he was “a little turned off group brainstorming’…
Ugh. That’s me. That’s my influence.
Because I personally don’t get anything of value out of those sessions, other people on the team likely concluded that they weren’t valuable, and that they shouldn’t do them.
That was not my intention. I know that lots of people do find those sorts of sessions valuable; in fact, many people can’t ideate alone - they need other people to bounce off.
I intended to communicate: I don’t personally find those sessions valuable.
But I actually communicated: There is no value in brainstorming sessions.
It doesn’t really matter what I intended to communicate, what I actually communicated is all that counts.
What’s worse, is on reflection: I knew this was happening at the time. Group brainstorming sessions did happen occasionally, but they were pretty few and far between.
But I didn’t act. I didn’t try to change anything.
If I could transport myself back in time I would do things differently. I would be endeavour to be clearer in terms of my communication. I might even host a few of those brainstorming sessions. If I’d done that, possibly people would have felt more comfortable doing sessions like that themselves if they found them valuable.
As noted above, sometimes my influence as a manager has caused my thoughts, feelings, and opinions - to become “facts”.
At other times, my influence as a manager has had other consequences.
Writing this, I’m reminded of a talk I gave in October 2018 at SearchLove called: Creativity, Crystal Balls & Eating Ground Glass.
It was a bit different to the talks that I usually give, in that it was largely based on a thought experiment. At that point I’d been responsible for creating content which generates coverage and links from journalists for several years.
Towards the end of 2017 someone asked me:
How good are you at predicting the success (or otherwise) of a piece?
I realised I didn’t have a great answer, (I thought I was good, but I had no evidence to support that thinking), and so, in 2018 I resolved to make a prediction about how each piece would perform ahead of launch.
You can find a full write up of this talk here, and there’s an excerpt below which highlights how I think my own biases or beliefs affected the outcome of a piece:
I may not be predicting the future, I might actually be affecting it
This is Demolishing Modernism (sadly no longer live), a tribute to the buildings we’ve lost to the wrecking ball:
We secured linked coverage from over 200 sites with this piece, and I accurately predicted the scoring band (yay me!). But that’s not why I’m sharing this. I’m sharing it because how we got there is interesting (I think), and perhaps a little scary.
Two months post-launch, we were at just 1,000 LinkScore* points.
*LinkScore is a proprietary metric created and used by Verve. My original predictions were based solely on LinkScore, but to give you sense of what that means, I think at this point in time we’d secured around 6-8 pieces of linked coverage.
On the 17th May, I had a line manager meeting with Matt, who was working on the campaign. In the meeting notes, I made this comment:
Keep going with Demolishing Modernism to see if we can get a little more coverage.
Look what happened in June:
I don’t think I did this deliberately in order to make my predictions correct. But I can’t help but feel like my own belief or bias affected the outcome here.
What if my prediction was different? If I’d predicted around 1,000 LinkScore points would I have been happy stopping work on this piece in May?
I deliberately did not share my predictions with the team (they didn’t even know that I was making predictions), but I can’t help but wonder if I was unconsciously influencing them nevertheless.
Now of course this doesn’t just apply to creative pieces – it’s entirely possible that the unconscious thoughts or beliefs we have about any type of work we do could be affecting (either positively or negatively) the results we achieve.
Obviously this might be problematic.
But it becomes even more problematic when your own thoughts, beliefs, feelings, etc; are influencing not just you, but your whole team, and ultimately, the results you achieve together.
I guess I was right about Demolishing Modernism - but what about the other campaigns that I was wrong about?
Particularly when you consider this excerpt from another conversation with someone I previously worked with:
“I've heard people say that they only pitch the ideas they know their managers will like.”
Again, on reflection, it’s obvious why stuff like this happens. I, like many other managers set objectives for team members around getting ideas pitched to clients, produced for clients, and the results those campaigns achieved.
But what am I really asking them to do?
In order to get your idea pitched to a client, it needs to get past me first.
Therefore it makes sense that people would err towards pitching an idea they think I’d like; as opposed to focusing on whether or not they believe it will actually deliver results. It’s entirely conceivable that they have other ideas which they don’t tell me about because they figure I won’t like them, and therefore they won’t get produced.
So how might we solve for this?
I don’t have a great answer I’m afraid.
I’m definitely more careful about how I say the things I say, in order to try to make sure my thoughts, feelings, and opinions - are not viewed as “facts”.
I also try to remember this:
I am frequently wrong, and I know a lot less than I think.
Looking back there have been countless times that members of teams that I’ve managed have tried things out that I was certain wouldn’t work.
Sometimes they were big things, campaigns like On Location which I thought would get less than 10 links, but actually generated over 390. Sometimes those things were smaller, like an outreach angle or a different way of approaching a journalist.
But I let them try out those things anyway. And I’m really glad that I did. Stopping them from doing those things would have been a huge error, because a whole bunch of those things worked out just great.
It occurs to me that we all know a lot less than we think, and all of us make pretty bad judgement calls more often than we think.
This might sound like a potentially fatal flaw, but I suspect that this only becomes truly problematic when we fail to acknowledge that this is the case.
Got thoughts on this? I’d love to hear them hit reply to this email or hit the button below to leave a comment :)
In this article, Juliana Castro explores the etymological root of tenderness and its connections with attention, and it is glorious.
Dear reader, did you know that “attention” is a relatively new word?
The word “attention” was rare in English before the 1700s and in the mid-1700s meant “consideration, observant care” and “civility, courtesy.”
A bit over a century later it was defined as “power of mental concentration.”
Or that the action verbs associated with attention differ from language to language?
“Historically, attention has been a courtesy. Something you offer as a gift, as a caring act. But today, it’s a commodity, an asset distributed to the highest bidder in our daily lives. Ensnared in the cycle of having our attention hijacked, we’re losing the agency of the offer.
Maybe, if we borrow from other languages and treat attention as a gift or an action—rather than a payment or a loan—we might be able to better communicate what we need and care for what others offer. Besides, at the heart of the word is its legacy: to tend to someone or something. Perhaps this is a rare instance where the past can be our guide on how to move forward, with a little more gentleness and care.”
Here Matt Webb explores the things dollhouses got right but modern technology, so far, has not. In addition to being objects of art, and playthings, historically, dollhouses were also used as learning tools:
Beginning in the 17th century, “Nuremberg kitchens” might contain a hearth, cooking pots, a straw broom. These all-metal houses were designed without ornament, for purely utilitarian purposes. Used as teaching tools for girls, Nuremberg kitchens allowed mothers to show daughters how to set up and control a house.
Webb notes how useful simulation modes in technology might be, and laments their lack of existence:
What would a “Nuremberg kitchen” version of Twitter look like?
What if every social network also had a single-player “learn how this works” mode. All the accounts would be deepfakes with machine-made faces, all the posts procedurally generated. When you posted, you would get realistic responses. It could teach you, by use and example, how to identify fake news or pile-ons or toxic content. You could experiment yourself in a safe sandbox where everything is thrown away at the end of the session and invisible to the outside world.
By letting you act out and take things to extremes, would you develop a better intuition about what’s worth taking seriously on Twitter… and what’s not?
He also takes this idea further:
I’d like a button on Google Sheets that put my work into a mode where I could experiment wildly and without fear that any of my saves might be overwritten.
I’d like a button, when I get a new hire car, that lets me play with the steering wheel and all the buttons and sticks, and lets me get a feel of the weight of the pedals and the heft of the gears, but without it ever moving anywhere.
I’d like an iPhone mode where I can show somebody how to change settings and sort photos and send messages, and let them play around with all the switches to see what they do, reassured that when the mode closes, no changes will be retained, and nothing actually sent.
Nimako’s ongoing series, Building Black, includes masks inspired by West African tradition, mythological characters that draw on folklore and proverbs, and an Afrofuturistic reimagining of medieval Sub-Saharan Africa .
“We are all living proof of our ancestors, all their joy, love, knowledge, and pain. They live in our DNA,” the Ghanaian-Canadian artist says. “Aesthetically, I enjoy taking elements from bygone eras and creating futuristic landscapes, particularly of African utopias to imagine a liberated existence for us all.”
MA Sieghart commissioned Nielsen Book Research to find out exactly who was reading what. Sieghart wanted to know whether female authors were not just deemed less authoritative than men, but whether they were being read by men in the first place.
Apparently, women are prepared to read books by men, but many fewer men are prepared to read books by women:
“For the top 10 bestselling female authors (who include Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, as well as Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19% of their readers are men and 81%, women. But for the top 10 bestselling male authors (who include Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the split is much more even: 55% men and 45% women.”
“Margaret Atwood has a readership that is only 21% male. Male fellow Booker prize winners Julian Barnes and Yann Martel have nearly twice as many (39% and 40%).”
This is particularly strange when you consider that the men who do read books by women seem to marginally prefer them:
The average rating men give to books by women on Goodreads is 3.9 out of 5; for books by men, it’s 3.8.
During a Tonight Show appearance in 1978, Johnny Carson asked Carl Sagan about his thoughts on Star Wars:
“Everybody in charge of the galaxy seemed to look like us…”
An anonymous buyer has paid $1.56 million for a 25-year-old copy of Super Mario 64 in its original packaging, a record price for a video game.
Don’t expect an unboxing video from the buyer :)
For new subscribers who might not understand this reference, I wrote a bunch of stuff about mushrooms here.
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
This fortnight I read Elizabeth McCracken's latest short story collection The Souvenir Museum. It’s a collection about families, and each story provides a glimpse into those private, weird little worlds we build together.
A recent widower and his adult son ferry to a craggy Scottish island in search of puffins; a mother desperately searches vintage shops for the “Baby Alive” doll she refused to buy her daughter (who is now grown, and pregnant); and a bereaved mother gorges on loaves of bread as substitutes for her children: “She’d had to turn herself into a monster in order to be seen.”
It’s also about the things we hold on to, and the things we leave behind: in the title story, a souvenir is described as “a memory you could plan to keep instead of the rubble of what happened”. It’s an absolute delight.
Recommendation of the fortnight goes to What We’re Told Not to Talk About by Nimko Ali. My friend Areej recommended that I read this, (thank you Beej!) and it’s ace.
Nimko Ali is a Somali activist who has campaigned against FGM; and was awarded an OBE for her work. In her book, Ali interviews women from around the world encouraging them to talk openly about sex, periods and childbirth. My only criticism would be that while her interview subjects are culturally diverse, all her speakers appear to be heterosexual, cis women.
Nevertheless, these are powerful stories: we meet Becky, who is homeless - male rough sleepers, she says, “don’t know the fear of finally having enough money to buy something to eat but worrying about dripping blood on the floor while you wait in line for a bag of chips”. We are introduced to Ayaan, who suffered extreme tearing during childbirth which led to a fistula, causing her family to shun her, and Amina, who struggles to face up to the realities of menopause.
Given that a 2015 UK study found two-thirds of women were still embarrassed about saying the word ‘vagina’, we definitely need to be having more conversations like these.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
Rather than watching Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy week by week, I instead elected to wait for them all to be released, and binge them in one sitting.
Turned out to be an excellent move - having found myself feeling a little under the weather post my second COVID vaccine (but nevertheless incredibly grateful to be double vaxxed - yay!) a six hour trashy movie marathon was exactly what the doctor ordered.
The trilogy that hops backwards and forwards through time (from the mid-’90s to the late ’70s to the 17th century) is loosely based on the bestselling series from young adult horror writer R.L. Stine.
For me, Parts I and II were the strongest. Part III struggles a little; many of the actors from Parts I and II return in new, 17th-century roles sporting colonial rags and period speech that nobody quite pulls off. Nevertheless, overall it’s a lot of fun.
The trilogy is essentially “Scream” meets “Stranger Things” - if you liked either or both, I think you’ll enjoy this.
Part IV: Things I’m Doing
Making an Art
Dear reader, in the last issue I said that I would try to make more things. I’m pleased to say that I have been making various things, albeit with mixed results.
Anyways, I promised you an art, and here it is: a blackout poem entitled Dong-Shaped, created in honour of the billionaire space bros out there. You’re welcome :)
On the 26th August I’ll be speaking at The Business of Content, a virtual conference.
The line up looks ace, and includes Alice Chandrasekaran, Nick Eubanks, Rand Fishkin, Kameron Jenkins, Joel Klettke, Daisy-ree Quaker, & more.
The first 1,000 tickets are free - register here to attend.
That’s all from me for now :)
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PS Wanna find out more about me and my work? Head over to Worderist.com