Organizing to function well
What this last decade has taught me, and what the next may bring.
New Years is a good time to get organized, so the internet’s display of humanity would tell us. People seek to get organized so they can achieve their resolutions, or the resolution is simply: get organized.
Putting things in order to achieve something specific is different from organizing to optimize for anything, I have learned. And in this last decade, especially the last five years, understanding and practicing these different kinds of organization have unintentionally been undergirding my personal life and professional work.
I woke up at 3:25 or so on the first day of 2021, with a desire to get organized in all directions. The garden. My inbox. The kitchen cabinets (no… I checked that one off). The storage space. My thoughts.
So here I am, veiled by the hum of the refrigerator and mild darkness, exploring my philosophy of organizing to function well, before the family wakes to our daily sprint. A very meta retrospective.
Not quite 10 years ago
I had emerged from a previous decade of broad and deep learning (in my 20s, as we do). I had a solid career in my area of passion, a son about to move on from elementary school, an unfriendly ex-husband and related mental health and legal considerations, and a neglected but awakening social life.
My morning routine was solid. Candle, water, yoga, breathing. Prep the day, walk the boy to school, cycle to work.
The things crammed into my rental suite were generally minimal or packaged or placed to seem that way. The fallow, weed filled dirt outside my door was transforming into a vibrant, productive patch of edibles (partly due to the compost bin of soil and worms I “won” in the divorce).
My thoughts and attention were becoming distracted by an unexpected complexity though. Danton, a fellow I met through my endeavors to promote creative ways to solve environmental challenges, had seemingly upset my sense of grounding. I was starting to question my relative state of domestic homeostasis.
At some point within a year we realized that we were headed for tragic heart break, if we didn’t “get organized”. (We literally had a shared moment on the beautiful waterfront of Vancouver, after a lovely evening visiting a dear friend of Danton’s, where we both felt an unexpected dread. Startled, we looked at each other and became even more startled when we shared we had that same deep and sudden sense: run away? Or, run together?)
We were competent, well functioning single adults, challenging our individual status quo states with the potential merging of our lives. But did our futures align given the complexities of our internal desires? Could we stay on our “tracks” to health, harmony with family and friends, adventure, and self actualization? We just didn’t know.
In a moment of inspiration, with a sprinkling of facilitation practice and a desire to test his willingness to get creative with me, I plastered the wall with paper, and got out my son’s crayons. What might our futures look like?
We sat on the floor in my tiny hallway, with a glass of wine, and got to prototyping our individual futures on the same page. We had to be brave. We knew there was a chance that we might draw things that were not compatible. It was possible our future selves — as good as our early romantic moments or fanciful ideas seemed — were not aligned or feasible.
We were opening ourselves to challenging conversations. Marriage? More kids? This city? Music album investment? Government careers? Animals? Travel?
Not only did we find our mural inspirational and a relief of that unsettling dread, we generated a shared map. We discussed friction points, turning points, obstacles, and areas of unknowns we’d simply have to kindly test together. We agreed on almost everything, which included shifting perspective and opening to new things, without getting “off track.”
Organizing for our journey
Once we had that shared internal (and Crayola sketched) map, we took stock for what next. We both had practices of keeping our daily lives in enough order that it wasn’t hard to figure out where and how to pivot. Finances, things, and time were in some recognizable, consistent array that we each could come to understand. A simple orientation to each others’ checklists and procedures was enough.
The more complex parts of our lives needed a different kind of attention though.
The complex elements were the other people in our lives: family, friends, others. We knew we couldn’t set hard boundaries or expectations for what they would think of us becoming “us.” We had to explore and understand their expectations, and decide what to do at every turn, particularly for my son.
We took this approach because we agreed that we were part of a system, a community. Becoming an entity as a couple did not separate us from our other people (even if we were accused of being a ridiculous cliché of soul mates trapped in a bubble from time to time.)
The other major complexity was our individual creative ambitions. Danton had been a recording and performing musician for a decade. I sang in high school and had recently revisited my talents. We both wanted to do more, but together? I was novice. He had high expectations. We were talented at different things. Both opinionated on style (there’s no accounting for taste). No right or wrong, and both vulnerable to each other’s judgement at less than two years dating.
Without recounting all the trials of co-writing, funding, recording, and promoting our first shared creative endeavor, Decades After Paris, I’ll say this: it was one hell of a test.
It was kind of like testing our our new camping gear before heading into backcountry. The trail map (our mural) was only going to get us so far if the weather changed and we weren’t prepared to handle it together, physically or emotionally.
The rains have come at times. Sometimes flooding. But those early endeavors helped us develop patterns and behaviors that we like more or less, depending on the scenario we find ourselves in. And if completely unfamiliar territory emerges, we’re a real team now, so we have the best chance at figuring it out.
Organizing for our goals
Those that know us as a couple personally and professionally (since we work in related organizations now) marvel at how nerdy our mature romance is, seven years later. We joke about date nights with spreadsheets, priority matrices, and Miro boards (or, at least, people think we’re joking).
When we hear our friends with homes and children struggling to feel like they are keeping up, let alone getting ahead, we break out our tools to share.
We track, forecast, and discuss our finances, every two weeks on a spreadsheet. We discuss our needs for stability or resilience, and desires for new or different, and plot actions or things on a matrix of effort/cost and relative value. If someone buys something significant not on the matrix: a loving eye-brow raise of disapproval and some collaborative re-factoring of the spreadsheet follows.
When we have a new project in mind, we sketch and share our visions. Eventually they end up documented on a shared Miro board, with links to technical specs, real costs and references on “how-to.”
And, we insert fun and imagination as much as we can into the process. As creatives, we know we need that.
All of this has amounted to us reaching a state where that crayon mural is nearly complete reality. It’s almost like I’m Mary Poppins, frolicking around inside of one of Bert’s delightful drawings.
This romance as a metaphor
For those in my professional circles, or in similar disciplines of organizational development and service delivery, you might recognize language or metaphor that is related and familiar in my story.
Setting a vision, navigating complexity, respecting systems, measuring and managing things we can control, and building a team are all practices of organizing to function well. From my experience and growth personally and professionally, I have plenty to share about what, when, and how I think these practices can or should be applied.
Given the title, I could have written this blog about one of the Agile Digital Product teams I’ve had the privilege of supporting. Or, an alternate plotline related to organizations that haven’t yet found the same kind of relationship bliss. In fact, as my New Years reflections turn toward 2021 resolutions… I’m foreshadowing what is to come.
A soon to be realized character on our Mural
In Agile teams, we plan in the open as much as possible, so that others around us can provide insight or feedback or to get prepared for building a new product or feature. Some things are not always reasonable, valuable, or wise to share so openly, particularly where there real risk of personal impact.
When Danton and I sketched our potential future, deep conversations centered around the images of people… some of them small. Our decision to get married resolved when we had tested enough of our assumptions about what would work for us as a couple… alpha, beta, live.
After 4.5 years of continuously improving the “live version of us,” and trying to add a significant new feature, we’re ready for a new release. Maybe someday I’ll see value in sharing all the lessons learned in getting to this place… but for now, I’m just sharing the latest development: we’re getting ready to welcome a baby in May 2021.
As with the rest of humanity’s experience of trying to follow a trail map, we’re hopeful we’re prepared for unexpected encounters, and that any set-backs can be overcome. Please wish us well as we get ready to deploy this precious next feature.
In the months to come, I’m working with my team to prepare for their adaptation to a shift in the ecosystem. I’ll be doing my best to work through mapping it with them, and leaving breadcrumbs and landmarks behind to help them navigate in the wild. You’ll probably see a sketch or two turn up here.
All the best to you as you seek to function well in 2021.