Collecting things
Doing future-you a favour

One of my collections (photos while working at Defra)

This is a tip for people who find themselves in charge of communicating over time on behalf of a team, an organisation, or a piece of work: collect things.

Collect things that future-you will find useful.

Of course you don’t know which things they’ll be, because you’re not future-you yet. So it’s a good idea to collect all sorts of things that might be useful for future-you, just in case.

Future-you is someone who has a better sense of change-over-time than you have. Future-you is removed from the pressure to deliver things soon, and has the luxury of hindsight plus time to think. Future-you is incredibly lucky.

At the same time, future-you is going to need evidence to back up or illustrate the stories they can tell. (Different stories from the ones you’re telling now, because of all that hindsight and thinking time.) Rather than simply re-using the material that now-you is already using to tell your stories and show the thing, future-you might want different material.

Future-you might, after all, want to tell slightly different stories, and show slightly different things.

It’s in your interest now to collect things now that might/will be useful for future-you one day.

Things to collect

Collect photos. Take photos all the time, even of things that don’t seem to be very important. Just take lots of photos, and put them somewhere. Encourage the rest of the team to join in.

Collect quotes. Sometimes I keep them in Slack channels, sometimes I just bung them into Notes on my phone, or a text file on my Mac. It doesn’t matter where or how, just listen out for relevant, insightful, amusing or clever things that people on the team say, and keep a note of them. Remember to record who said each thing, and perhaps (if you think it’s useful), add a line of text that gives future-you a bit of context about what was being discussed.

Collect links. Your team members probably share links among themselves. Some of them might be very relevant to the work, and others might be more frivolous and silly. Whatever: collect them all. Perhaps something in one of the frivolous links might throw new light on the situation from future-you’s point of view. So collect all the links.

Collect ideas, even the ones that don’t make it beyond someone saying “What if we..?” in a meeting. The ideas that didn’t become anything tell just as good a story about your work as the ideas that did.

Collect the things you think but never say. (This is what I call the “back pocket” strategy, after something I learned from Russell Davies back in the GDS days.) Sometimes, there are things your team or organisation would like to say, but for various reasons (practical, political, pppppp) it cannot. Rather than just let those things fester somewhere then get forgotten, write them up as if they were being published. Put those things in a safe place. One day, even if they still cannot publish them, future-you might appreciate the memories they contain.

Collect ephemera. If you have a cupboard or a drawer or somewhere like that, keep some of the stuff that gets created while you’re team’s working, but usually thrown away. Collect sticky notes, jottings, scribblings, diagrams, old posters and out-of-date noticeboard notices. If necessary, add an extra sticky note of metadata to help you remember what each thing was about. Like all ephemera, these things will seem ridiculous collectibles at first. Their true value will only appear over time.

Collect audio and video. This one’s fairly niche, but if it applies to your organisation, it’s important: if audio and video are things people on your team make, collect them and get them transcribed now, not later. You need the transcriptions to make them searchable (and therefore useful) later on.

There will be other things to collect, no doubt, but I can’t think of any more right now.

Be a sensible archivist

All this is a long-winded way of saying: be an archivist. Capture the things your people are thinking about and talking about, as well as the things they’re doing and delivering. The two are intertwined. They shape one another.

Of course if you do spend all this effort collecting all this stuff, you will end up with a huge archive. It might be hard to navigate and hard to maintain. It will create more work. The benefit of having loads of archive material is that, as you get to know it better, you’ll be able to identify the most useful bits. Future-you might end up only telling a tiny handful of stories about what now-you’s team is doing, but they’ll be the best stories, illustrated with the best archive material.

That said, make collecting things sustainable. Be sensible about it. Collect as much as you can without making collecting a blocker for doing other things. Most of the time, future-you will be over the moon with happiness at anything now-you provides.

Future-you, of course, might not be you at all. They might be someone you hire, or someone who replaces you in your role, or someone who replaces your boss in their role.

Whatever the circumstances, collecting things is a useful thing for now-you can do for the benefit of future-you. Even if future-you isn’t you at all.

Contact: giles (at) this domain
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13 Mar 2018