Interview: Giles Turnbull from the UK Government Digital Service on writing an “It’s Ok To” list

When we first saw this “It’s ok to” list floating around the internet, we were immediately fans. What a great way to tangibly codify an organization’s emotional culture! For our forthcoming book, we interviewed Giles Turnbull, the writer at the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) who wrote the list. Giles created the list to help new hires “absorb five years of culture quickly and easily, without having to find things out by accident.” Giles has since moved on from the GDS, but we interviewed him about his experience of creating the list.

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Q: Can you explain how you came up with the idea? What was the need within the organization?

A: It was more a need within my team. We were hiring new people, and the idea just popped into my head one day: wouldn’t it be good if those new people were able to absorb five years of culture quickly and easily, without having to find things out by accident?

Q: Who wrote the list? Was it based on phrases that were already commonly agreed upon within the organization?

A: I wrote the first draft and shared it with colleagues. A few of the lines were amended or added by them. None of the lines were based on anything that already existed; they were just the lines that felt right.

Q: What was the reaction internally when you put it up?

A: People loved it. They started tweeting about it almost immediately. Some people came and spoke to me about it. Management were very receptive.

Q: Where, physically, does it hang within the organization (e.g. on walls, on desks)?

A: Last time I was there it was still where Zara and I left it - up on the walls in various places. Interestingly, people did take photos of those posters and used those photos in presentations sometimes - so it started to have a life there, as well as on the walls.

Q: Was there any resistance to putting up the list or to including any of the listed items?

A: No. After we’d prepared the second draft, a designer called Sonia Turcotte turned it into a poster. Then another colleague, Zara Farrar, and I walked around the building and stuck up three or four copies at places where we thought they’d be noticed. This all happened late on one day, so most people had gone home. It got noticed the next morning when people returned to work.

Q: Which "it's okay..." do you personally find hardest to remember/follow?

A: The one I think is hardest is “challenge things you’re uncomfortable with,” because that can lead to confrontation and nobody likes confrontation. But it was important to include it on the list, because we wanted newcomers to know that they shouldn’t shy away from it.

Q: Which "it's okay..." does it seems like most people find hardest to remember/follow?

A: That’s hard for me to say. I think a lot of people struggle with the not checking email thing. And lots of people have views (in both ways) about messy desks/tidy desks

Q: You mention "This poster isn't exhaustive. It doesn’t say everything that needs to be said." What didn't make it on the list and why?

A: I’m still finding out. I said that in the blog post because I knew that one day, someone (not necessarily me) would think of better ways of saying that stuff. I didn’t want it to be set in stone forever.

Q: Do you know of any other workplaces that put up the list or amended it and then used it? Any particularly surprising examples (e.g. a Goldman Sachs type place)?

A: Yes, loads. I have heard that it has appeared on the walls at Spotify, Renault, Songkick, Salesforce, The Co-operative Group, and, um, Goldman Sachs. Also in many government/public sector offices in the UK, USA, Australia and France. I say I’ve *heard* of those, but I can’t be *100% certain* that it is on the walls of any of them. The reaction on LinkedIn was very positive, so I suspect it might have gone even further.

Q: How has it changed internal culture?

A: The aim was to *reflect* internal culture. It didn’t say anything that didn’t exist already. But for newcomers, it was hard to know these things, or hard to learn them quickly. Instead, they were things that people grasped over a period of time. I just wanted to speed that time up. I think we succeeded in that respect - various newcomers told me that they had found the posters useful. Several people said they’d applied for jobs at GDS as a direct result of seeing the blog post about the posters, or of seeing images of them on social media. That, to me, was a sign that the posters were a good thing - they reflected existing culture back at the team, but also outwards. One photo of one poster became a powerful recruitment asset.

Thanks, Giles! Find Giles at gilest.org and on Twitter @gilest

Readers, we’d love to know: what would be on your organization’s “It’s ok to” list?

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Our Process: Writing A First Draft

Inspired by Chris Yeh’s blog post, “Lessons on Writing a Book,” we decided to write about the differences between how we each approach first drafts. When we begin a new chapter, one of us writes an outline, then we switch and the other writes the first draft, and we continue switching for the subsequent rounds of edits.

We each have very different approaches to writing the first draft of a chapter. Here are Mollie’s routines and tips for what makes her most effective

Mollie: My overall tendency towards writing is to #justdoit. I find flow in writing, so it’s something I look forward to. That being said, the moment of starting a new chapter is always overwhelming. I approach it like ripping off a bandaid-- I tell myself that if I can just get the first few paragraphs written, I’ll get the satisfaction of being immersed in the page.

1) Devote several months before starting the draft in research mode

Before writing a chapter draft, I like to spend months building a research document in google docs. Liz and I started our research document when we first began our book proposal and it’s now 50 pages long, with sub-sections for every chapter. For each chapter, I try to skim through at least 5-10 books on the subject (I check out library books on my Kindle and highlight sections and quotes, which I can then download directly to the research doc through the Kindle website). I subscribe to several academic journals, as well as HBR, FastCo, Quartz. Everytime I see a related article, I dump it in the research doc. I also get a lot of material from podcasts and people’s personal blogs and newsletters. I’ll continue to do research when I’m writing the chapter, but it’s infinitely easier to start a draft when you already have a few pages of research to start with.

2) Spend time on the outline-- but not too much time

When I’m ready to start a chapter, I copy over all the material from the research doc into a new document. I make a rough outline of how to organize the chapter. When I feel like I’ve gotten everything from the research doc slotted in, I move on to writing. I know that the outline will change at least two or three times during the writing and editing process, so there’s no sense in fussing with it too much before I start. I often have major questions about whether certain parts of the outline will work-- but I know that the only way to answer those questions is to write the chapter.

3) Write early in the morning, before the critical voice in your brain turns on

When I’m writing a first draft, I get up around 6 or 6:30 to write. I need to give myself at least an hour of uninterrupted time. When I’m editing, I can do it in chunks of 15 or 30 minutes, but for writing, I need longer chunks of time-- otherwise by the time I’ve gotten into the flow, it’s time to do something else. Writing in the morning is also important, because I’m still slightly in a daze from sleep, and I edit myself less.

4) Write alone or in transit

I get my best writing done when I’m alone in my apartment (or if my husband is home, in our bedroom with the door closed. I can’t write when someone I know is looking at me. ybe that is a weird introvert thing?). I’ve created a little writing nook for myself with a screen divider, a comfy chair, and a bookcase. I am also incredibly productive writing on a train or airplane. The wifi is usually non-existent or slow, so I’m less likely to get distracted, and there is nothing to do except keep my butt in a seat and write. Writing on long journeys keeps me from getting bored.

5) Edit for word choice as you go along

There are people who write first and edit later, and people who edit as they go along. I tend to edit as I go along-- but I only edit with the lens of clarity. I’ll rephrase certain words or rewrite sections of sentences. But I don’t allow myself to think, “Do I even need this sentence?” Otherwise I’d end up deleting everything! As soon as I’ve re-read a section once or twice, I move on to the next section.

6) Let your co-author (or editor) question everything

One thing that I’m not good at is editing in a big picture way. For example, if I’m writing a section in a chapter, it’s hard for me to ask the question, “Do we even need this section?” I feel like I owe it to myself (and to Liz) to stick to the plan and finish writing it (even if it makes no sense to keep writing it-- I have a compulsion to finish it). I think this is because of my upholder tendencies (read more about Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies here). As an upholder, I like to meet inner and outer expectations. Liz is a questioner, which means she questions all expectations; she’ll meet an expectation if she thinks it makes sense. She helps pull me out from the weeds and reassess the book at large. While it’s sometimes painful to have her ask, “Do we even need this entire chapter?” I know that her perspective makes the book better. If you don’t have a co-author, ask an editor to play this role.

Behind the Book: Writing the Proposal

In this blog post series, first-time authors Mollie and Liz take readers through the emotional ups and downs of pitching and writing their forthcoming book. Each post will cover a different part of the process in chronological order. We’ll provide the behind-the-scenes details, like emails from our agent and editor, and we’ll get real about our own feelings regarding contracts, deadlines, and collaborative writing.

After Lisa, our agent, said she was interested in the concept of our book, we started working on the proposal (see our last post: Finding an agent). Over the course of about two months, we wrote a draft proposal that was 30 pages long, and sent it over to Lisa, hoping for immediate applause and a book contract. WRONG! :) How little we knew at the time.

We got feedback from Lisa’s assistant, Nora:

In other words: we had to actually write a sample chapter, not just talk about writing a sample chapter!

A few weeks later, we sent in our sample chapter. When Liz was visiting New York, we met with Lisa and her assistant, Nora. Lisa and Nora gently explained that while we’d made progress, we still needed to do a lot more work on the proposal. Lisa said she was going to hold us to a high standard, because we’d only get one shot with publishers. But she said she was eager to work with us, and she could see a kernel of a good idea in the mess that was our proposal. So, we signed an agency agreement with her, which means that we agreed not to work with other agents.

Editing the proposal:

We took another two months to finish the proposal, which ended up being 84 pages long! Even Lisa admitted that this was long for a proposal (most non-fiction proposals are around 50 pages), but we had a lot of illustrations taking up space, so Lisa told us not to worry about the length.

We spent another two months editing it with the help of Lisa and Nora. Mainly it was tweaking small things, like getting a stronger hook. Here’s more feedback from Nora:

Finalizing the details:

As we were getting ready to send the proposal out (six months after we’d first started writing it), there were a few more details to decide on:

  • Title: Our initial title was So Many Feels, but we decided that wasn’t a great fit. We came up with about 30 ideas (Other ideas: Emotions at Work, You’re not Alone, Free to Feel, Unbottled, etc.) and worked with Lisa to narrow it down. We decided on No Hard Feelings. However, we know that this title may change, since our editors get to weigh in as well.

  • Subtitle: You think the work is done when you’ve found a title, but nope-- you have to find a subtitle. Our current subtitle is So Many Feels: Emotions at Work and How They Help Us Succeed. (Other ideas: No Hard Feelings: Emotion at Work in the Soft Skills Economy, No Hard Feelings: Making a Living without Losing Your Mind, No Hard Feelings: How To Be Happy While Finding Your Calling)

  • Foreword and blurbs: Lisa encouraged us to think about who could write our foreword, and put that in the proposal as a selling point. We both know Susan Cain from our writing for Quiet Rev, and we emailed her. She said that she wanted to help support the book, and she’d be happy to help with promotion at pub date time, but that she’d have to say no to writing a foreword since she has to focus on her next book.

In our next post, we’ll talk about sending it out to publishers.

Finding an Agent

In this series, first-time authors Mollie and Liz take readers through the emotional ups and downs of pitching and writing their forthcoming book. Each post will cover a different part of the process in chronological order. We’ll provide the behind-the-scenes details, like emails from our agent and editor, and we’ll get real about our own feelings regarding contracts, deadlines, and collaborative writing.

I’ve always loved the intersection of math and art. In 2012, I began creating “qualitative data visualization” projects in which I tried to model topics that are often considered unquantifiable (e.g. love and feelings). One of my projects, 14 Ways an Economist Says I Love You, which reimagines economic concepts as love notes (e.g. “The marginal returns of spending time with you will never diminish” and an accompanying chart) went viral that year and was featured on the Freakonomics blog, on the front page of the Economist.com, and by the Financial Times.

As I found out later, Lisa DiMona, a literary agent at Writer’s House, saw the piece, began following my subsequent work, and two years (!) later, liked a tweet in which I linked to one of my illustrated stories.

I must have been feeling particularly narcissistic or needy that day, so I decided to look at the profile page of everyone who liked my tweet. I saw in Lisa’s bio that she was a literary agent and thought, “Oh sh!t, I would love to write a book. Maybe I should email her?” I finally did write her a note (subject line: “You liked my tweet a while ago - follow up!”), though it took me two months to work up the courage to hit send. Lisa and I hit it off, met in person, and in the fall of 2014, I signed a contract with Writer’s House and Lisa became my literary agent. Life was magical and I thought I had sailed over the hardest hurdle. Now all I had to do was write a book.

How wrong I was. Writing a book is a grueling and lonely process. I spent the next year putting a few ideas together but nothing seemed catchy or ambitious enough to fill an entire book. I was also set on writing something dense and intelligent that combined, well, everything (illustrations, charts, research, empirical evidence). My dream was to create an utterly charming but rigorous argument in favor of… I didn’t know.

Enter Mollie! In 2015, Mollie and I began writing articles on how it feels to be an introvert in a workplace designed for extroverts. Our skills, personalities, and writing&illustrating processes were complementary, so working together not only felt like a very natural progression of our friendship but also was easy.

After an article we wrote for Quiet Revolution, 6 Illustrations That Show What It’s Like in an Introvert’s Head, went viral with 1.5 million views (it was republished on several other websites including Huffington Post, where it had more than 80,000 views), two things became clear. First, an illustrated and affectionate look at how X why feelings matter at work seemed to strike a chord with readers. And second, Mollie and I worked together so well that I began to think we should write a book together. Mollie had obviously been thinking the same thing, because one afternoon as we joked about writing something more extensive together, the conversation quickly turned into a serious discussion. It was something like, “Hey wouldn’t it be funny if we wrote a book expanding on this article together?” “Haha yes! …. maybe … we should actually do it?” “Oh snap, we totally should.”

In July 2016 I wrote an email to Lisa. Here are a few snippets:

Hi Lisa,

Hope you are well! I will get straight to the point.... so obviously my book writing has been moving at an unfortunately glacial pace. What do you think of me writing/designing/illustrating a book with a friend of mine?

I'm happy to talk more/provide more info on Mollie but would love to hear your initial thoughts. I've found the idea of writing/working on such a massive project with a partner, especially someone who balances me out so well exciting and less daunting. Our book would focus on feelings about/at work and how they influence productivity/creativity/performance etc. We'd like to weave in our own narrative either through informal blurbs or conversation sections at the end of each chapter (though obviously we'd be open to whatever).

A few days later, Mollie met with Lisa in New York. They instantly liked each other and the rest is history! Mollie and I signed a joint agreement with Lisa and Writer’s House in August 2016. Life was magical and we thought we had sailed over the hardest hurdle….

How wrong we were!!

Mollie: Looking back, I realize that I completely lucked out by having Liz already snag an agent. I know that normally it takes time to find a good agent who is interested in your book idea. Liz’s hard work (and tweeting) had paid off, and we’ve loved working with Lisa ever since. She’s the ideal balance of cheerleader and demanding-teacher-who-you-want-to-please.

Next up: the proposal. :D

Q&A: Working with an introvert

QUESTION: 

I am an extrovert working with an introvert who barely contributes in meetings. When she does, she is very thoughtful and insightful. I am getting frustrated with her because I want her to feel confident enough to contribute, and I am frustrated with myself because I always start pushing the work forward without her contribution. What are some better strategies I can use in meetings that I am running (it's an issue outside of meetings too, but I'm thinking about this one area) that will slow me down and make space for her ideas?

ANSWER:

First, it’s great that you recognize that you have different work styles. (Here is an article we wrote on what it feels like to be an introvert). Try having an honest conversation with her about these differences. Say something like, “I’ve noticed that our work styles are pretty different. I know that I am an intense extrovert, and I think it will be helpful for me to share my preferences with you, and hear yours as well.”

You can then ask her what her ideal workday and workflow look like. Specifically:

  • How do you like to set deadlines?
  • How do you like to prepare for meetings?
  • How do you like to share your ideas with others?
  • How can I help make you be successful?
  • How can we bring out the best in each other?

If she doesn’t know or admit that she’s an introvert, you can suggest that she read Susan Cain’s book Quiet. Your coworker may be feeling insecure about being an introvert, or feel like you want her to be more extroverted. You can tell her that the ideal team has both introverts and extroverts (research backs this up), so you’re happy to be working with her.

A few more ideas: Instead of asking her to contribute ideas in big meetings, could you ask her to meet with you one on one and share her thoughts then? Or, could you flip the dynamics, and instead of running the meetings and giving her assignments, could you ask her to run a meeting or come to you with an agenda? This might help her get into high gear. :)