Tom’s Roadmap Heuristics – a work in progress

I’ve previously trailed a massive blogpost-that-might-be-a-book about roadmapping, but I suspect it’ll never get finished enough. However, earlier this week I was at a chat about the future of Product Craft within government, and mid-discussion spontaneously reeled off a list of my top reckons on the subject. Given that I had managed to do it on the fly without much thought, I decided to have another go – using largely the same scrappy approach.

A kind of roadmap of sorts – this early one got thrown away almost immediately.

Caveats: 1) this is ‘perpetual draft’; 2) unlike a lot of product writing it’s aimed at larger organisations where technology/digital is seen as a supporting function to “the business”; 3) these are in no particular order of priority; 4) these comments are aimed at no particular team I’ve ever worked with.

Roadmapping is more important than an actual roadmap. Too often we do a massive one-off exercise and then never look at the damn thing again. We need to get good at these discussions. And at turning them into an artefact that’s up to date.

External milestones can go in, delivery dates can’t come out. If something needs to be delivered by a particular date because something else essential is happening, like a transmission date or an event launch, then that’s essential context for the team. Not telling teams that context is pretty negligent on the part of leadership. But…beware external forces loading extra fake external milestones to try and make projects go faster.

(In the image above, you’ll see the pink postits at the top. This is another aspect of capturing context – me saying to the team “what I think will be happening in the organisation at this point”)

Now/next/later may be your friend – it isn’t everyone else’s. Too often I see “later” being used as a catch-all for everything we’ve ever thought about ever – a place to put stakeholder promises we’d rather forget. The new “icebox”. But this leads to two problems. Firstly that teams haven’t truly thought about which parts of “later” are the most important – they don’t know the critical path to getting “the most likely thing” to happen. Secondly, because they don’t know much much “later” there is to be done, they don’t know how quickly to declare their “now” done so they can move onto “next” and get to that important pile of “later” before funding or patience runs out. Which leads to…

Roadmaps aren’t delivery plans. But you should regularly have a go at trying to create one. The process of trying to turn that pile of ideas into a delivery plan is – in itself – an important activity. It flushes out truly critical unknowns – what’s it going to take to know whether that crucial item will be one month or six? How soon is it sensible to investigate that?

Include discovery activities in your roadmaps – what are you trying to find out? You really don’t want to be taken by surprise when starting something new, and you also need to focus the minds of your stakeholders on any decisions that they need to have made, or the most important things they need you to find out, if those precious developers are going to keep on working on the most important things. Don’t have the team hanging around for two weeks while you wait for something to be signed off!

Changing your roadmap based on new information is important – but is part of your governance. Too often changes to roadmaps or changes in scope happen quietly in the corners. We had all those caveats on the slide saying “this may change at any time”, right? And hey, we don’t want to worry people, do we? Sadly, this means that we end up hiding important knowledge from those who most need to know it. What have you found out that means the plan is wrong? How might it affect the overall strategy? The biggest danger is that your leadership are still out there proudly defending a plan that you know is wrong, and they don’t. They’re doubling down on bets to give you air cover, that you know they should be backing away from. Projects used to run late, but the decisions about why led to inspection and improvement. Just because we’re agile, it doesn’t mean we should let ourselves off the hook on this important process.

Know how to safely change your roadmap. Find out who needs to know, and when. Make sure they’ve always got easy access to the latest version, and know what’s changed. Showing a senior leader a roadmap, but then saying they’re not allowed to show it to anyone (because you’re worried it might change) helps nobody. Like planning, you need to learn from devops or incident management. If it hurts, do it more.

The best roadmaps are made of problems to solve, with value attached. I love outcome-based roadmaps. Ideally there’s a supporting document that expresses them as a set of candidate/possible OKRs (depending on how far out they are). OKRs are harder than they look, particularly if done as a process or culture not an artefact i.e. properly, but the thinking behind them is really important. And hard. Which is why people try to get out of doing it. HOWEVER, if a team doesn’t have a sense of how much value is going to be released by looking at a particular problem – and there’s not a business stakeholder on the hook for getting that change to happen in the real world – then there’s no way of knowing how long to spend on that particular problem. So people over-research, or gold-plate features. Know how many weeks of effort would be break-even, at the very least.

Sometimes it’s ok for the roadmap to have nouns in, if that’s the best way to create alignment. Don’t be synthetic and bury the lede. Sometimes the end result really is “replace legacy system x before the contract runs out”. Don’t dress it up as an outcome and confuse the teams.

Everything on the roadmap should have lots of context, that’s easy to find. Sometimes we’ve talked about possible ideas that could release the value, which might not be terrible as starting points. We waste time getting teams to think about it from scratch. Sometimes there have been lengthy discussions about why this thing needed to be on the roadmap. The team shouldn’t be five weeks into the quarter when someone finally digs out a deck containing critical information from their inboxes. “I thought you’d seen this” is a way of offloading the lack of preparation onto the teams. Lead with context, or it’s your own fault. Have a folder/confluence page for every big outcome, as soon as it’s on the roadmap.

Make sure the roadmap is tied to something based in the real world that shows why this is the roadmap. As Janna Bastow says, your roadmap is a prototype for your product strategy. Explain your product strategy that led to you making the roadmapping decisions. Make it easy to understand and easy to find. What are the even/over statements or principles you use to prioritise; what’s your understanding of the business context that led to you making these calls? Transparency here is critical. Radiate intent, so that if one of those principles turns out to be false, people can help you alter your roadmap to deliver the right value sooner. It also shows you understand your organisation. Which leads to another point…

A roadmap is a strategic alignment tool for building trust. The way you use your roadmap, the way you explain the decisions behind it in ways that have empathy for those that depend on you, the way you show your thinking…it’s all part of a two-way conversation. You need to use it for user research and to build understanding, not just for telling people why you’re right. You want people to know you’re acting in the organisation’s best interests, with integrity.

There will always be someone who wants to use it as a delivery plan. To defend against this, make sure that you have the air cover about these ways of working, and is prepared to back this at a senior level. (Which means giving your leadership something useful to work with – they need some of the raw material, and the behaviours, above). If you’re behaving responsibly and sharing bad news appropriately, the organisation should be able to say that they were foolish for taking it as something concrete, rather than being able to “hold you to account” for a document they clearly misinterpreted.

But dependencies, Tom?

I’d also say that sometimes you do have to commit to a date. Marty Cagan talks about these as “high integrity commitments” where the team is given the time to do the investigation to work out how long something is likely to take. But I’d say you can only have one high integrity commitment at a time – because there will be unknowns and other stuff is going to have to flex. (Remember, the BBC adopted agile methodologies on the Wimbledon set-top-box application because it kept missing deadlines, and agile was what let them ship something in time.)

However I must admit I worry about this phrase. It should be the team making the high integrity commitment. But, like “Minimum Viable Product”, I think there’s a risk of it being devalued when leaders think it’s their job to make the high integrity commitments – that it’s their integrity that matters – and the teams are just there to deliver against that spent political/social capital. I hope I’m wrong. But let’s see.

Weeknote 26th Nov – the unexpected uptick

Hello again. Well, it’s lovely to say that some combination of covid receding, some milestones out of the way, plus a bit more exercise mean that things are slowly starting to look up a bit. It’s been a week of getting things done, taking up space, and looking at the long game. The last from a perspective I really wasn’t expecting.

Meeting impressive people at scale

Things kicked off on Tuesday, when I dashed straight from running the Mind the Product ‘Product Leadership’ course, onto a train, and then into the world of the Government Transformation Summit. As previously trailed, I was hosting a “discussion table” on the Wednesday, and there was a speaker’s dinner the night before – a chance to meet some people we’d only chatted to on Teams/Hangouts in person…and so we actually looked like a bit of collective wisdom rather than some random people who’d been randomly tagged to talk about “joined up services”. I’d been through about two other tables before I ended up on this one, as the organisers juggled various folks last-minute availability, but thankfully I have no shortage of opinions on most things.

As it turned out, there was no shortage of interpretations of the subject of “joined up services” either – everything from user-centred design in local government, through to setting up an office for your business in (heavily federated) Australia, through to “why do I have to use Google Drive *and* Office365”. But I think the four of us were lightly helpful. I got to talk to some nice people from IBM about how you build understanding of AI in non-specialists (to avoid the current dichotomy of either ‘magical thinking’ or ‘technology in search of a problem’ around a lot of data science). I don’t think we had any magical answers to that one – but I did decide it was time for me to book a few days off and properly start to have a play with it all/do some reading.

The star of the show, at both the speaker’s dinner and during the main conference, was Gulsanna Mamediieva. She’s now working at the Georgetown University “Better Government Lab”, but until recently she was Director General at the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation.

Over fifteen jaw-dropping minutes she took on Ukraine’s firehose-like adoption of digital technologies. Until recently they were in the same sorry state as many other governments – with no interaction between state registers, authorities providing services according to different standards, complex non-joined up procedures with many offline visits even for the digitial services – and then often an official making a very human decisions about the result from imperfect information, with the associated high risks of corruption.

But this has all gone. Everything’s digital, accelerated by the Russian invasion. They created a state super-app called Diia. It has an ID wallet, functions as a digital signature, allows for e-democracy and more. But it’s become absolutely essential as other parts of infrastructure have fallen. It’s possible to get a document that functions as a recognised identity in Poland; you can sign up for benefits if you’re unemployed (because your workplace has been hit by the war); you can register your house as being destroyed during the war; you can buy state bonds to pay for the defence costs. Given that Russia attacked the TV masts, it’s even replaced TV – allowing citizens to want (and vote in) Eurovision.

Alongside that, they’re doing some major investment in building digital skills. The aim is to have all services online, and have over 10M Ukrainians with the digital skills needed to create and maintain a new digital economy. Bold stuff – and hugely inspiring.

Other takeaways I bothered to write down:

  • “Why do you talk about digital transformation? In Estonia, everything is already digital – it’s just ‘transformation'” – Marten Kaevets
  • “Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets” – Kevin Plank, Under Armour (cited by one of the speakers)

I also had some lovely chats with old friends like Jeremy, Sally, Anais and Erica. I made some new fledgling friends at DVSA, DfT, Kin&Carta, CQC and more – who I look forward to bumping into in the future around government. Sadly there were a bunch of people who couldn’t make it due to “Real Life Things” that I’d have loved to catch up with. Liz, Sian and the rest of you – next time!

I’ll finish off this segment with the highly impressive wallpaper from the venue for the speaker’s dinner. There’s no way I’d be allowed this in the house, but could I put it in the studio?

Looking up

Reflecting on the day, I realised that there’s a bit of me I need to kickstart again. I used to have crazy-big dreams. Things about changing the nature of media. But somehow I’ve got caught up in improving process. I’ve become an amazingly good “settler” – fixing the over-ambitious projects others probably shouldn’t have started – but it’s not where I started. And perhaps it’s time to invest in some different types of curiosity and move back into “pioneer” mode.

I think I’ve become disillusioned with quite a few things over the last few years, and lost my near-endless optimism. I remember someone saying that cynicism is caused by the inability or unwillingness to imagine a better future.

It’s time to start playing more. As fellow Head of Profession Natalie says, we need to follow the spirit of “How Tom Beat Captain Najork” and do more ‘fooling around’.

Filling Out

On Thursday we had the GDS Learning day. Well, afternoon. Across all the professions (and some of the other non-Digital bits of GDS) we had three hours of learning interventions for staff – with permission to step away from the day job and just think alongside those colleagues you hardly ever get a chance to chat to.

Of course finding meeting rooms to have that many sessions simultaneously became a nightmare, but we got away with it.

For the APMs/PMs/SPMs we had a 3h workshop on roadmapping. And how roadmapping the process can lead to many different artefacts called roadmaps – depending on your audience. It seemed to go well, but it’s really hard to tell. My own Product Manager (stroke lightweight User Researcher) skills kicked in when I found myself asking people “was that good” and “was that useful”…to which the only answer can be “yes”. So there’s a more neutral survey going out – but early vibes seem pretty positive.

I also made the decision to treat our Leads and Heads as a different group. This was slightly controversial as loads of them really wanted to go to the roadmapping session, but I’ve seen (and occasionally been part of) how very senior people in mixed groups can accidentally upset the learning dynamics. Because we spend so much time looking at the big picture or thinking in the abstract, in can actually lead to groups skipping over the fundamentals that many of the other people in the room *haven’t* yet come across before. They still need to work through our “obvious”.

So instead they had sessions on leadership skills. Firstly on how to improve team checkins (when you’re caught in the middle between teams and senior civil servants) which was kindly based around a chat with lovely Sian Thomas, Chief Data Officer and my first partner-in-crime at DIT. She was just great, and very thought-provoking. Then two other DDs from GDS ran ‘chatham house’ style sessions about their own journey into leadership from Individual Contributor roles. I can’t say a lot about these – but they were very powerful, and very generous. I suspect we’ll do more.

We also had to say goodbye to Neil Hayes, a Lead Product Manager on GOV.UK – but also one of the first people I line managed at GDS about six years ago and the last time I was there. He’s off to go and do contracting things in the South West, which I hope go extremely well for him.

Two other observations from Learning Day:

  1. It happened less than a week after the ministerial direction that civil servants must return to the office 60% of the time (plans on how, to follow). I know a lot of people are still very worried about how they’re going to adapt to that, but I must say that having the office fairly full of people did give the place a real buzz. It felt quite exciting to be there.
  2. Odd bits of supply chain will break as a result of these changes. I’ve hypothesised to people that an immovable bottleneck on ‘return to office’ may be how quickly after-school clubs can grow to meet new demand. But on a more prosaic note – after a day of full occupancy the GDS kitchen ran out of blue mopping-stuff up paper, and then out of hand towels.

Leading Through…oh, some actual influence?

Product Managers are used to the idea that they’re not “in charge of the team”. The good ones anyway. They have a particular perspective and skillset, but use that to try and shape the team’s work – as a collective – to be on the most valuable things possible. But amigos/trios/quads should be the normal way of doing things.

Of course, once you start getting into more senior roles, things change a bit. Senior PMs may be more ‘in charge’ of junior PMs – even if they’re working as a collective with their Senior peers. Leads are slightly more ‘in charge of’ again – although a key skill is how to do work collaboratively with the team. Heads have the same thing with Leads – they’re in charge, but if they blindly use the “in chargeness” too often then something’s possibly a bit wrong. (If they never use it, that can also cause trouble – but that’s another story).

However, as a Head of Profession, absolutely nobody works for me. Influence is all I have. It’s been really quite tough trying to build a product community under those circumstances, and sometimes it’s been really draining – feeling that if I wasn’t there trying to will stuff into happening, then everything would just wither, but having to keep turning up every week bringing the jazzhands.

But early last week, a weird thing happened. I was chatting to a Senior PM about one of our community learning resources – a list of articles/books product folks should read, and how I thought it could be made more useful. And at the end of it they said “ok, I’ll do that then”. And I was left not quite knowing what had happened. I’m not going to have to chase it up. They know what to do. They can do all the organising, and it’ll be great. It felt utterly unnatural after nearly a year, but I’d accidentally delegated something – and the kind person I’d been chatting to was happy to just run with it.

I think I might now have just enough trust and social capital that I can start to do this a little more – but let’s see.

Blaster from the Past

As some of you will know, Doctor Who is finally back on our screens, ready for the 60th Anniversary. BBC Studios were proudly talking about it on LinkedIn, including the excellent news that excellent chum James Goss is making the official podcast. And then I started getting notifications. Down in the comments thread, someone had mentioned that this was something to do with me, when Fictionlab – the little corner of the BBC that I worked in for a few years – had made the animated version of Douglas Adams’ unreleased episode “Scream of the Shalka”. Which yes, did lead to the TV series coming back.

Now, my memory of this time is that I was a lightly-benign force offering sympathy and tea and hope, while Martin Trickey et al did all the actual work – but to those who were there apparently I did more than I thought. It’s not the first time I’ve belatedly discovered I left a bigger mark on things or people than I knew at the time, but it’s nice to be in such esteemed company.

And yes, Martin Trickey et al definitely did do the bulk of the work. Although I do make a good cup of tea.

Endings and Startings

We went down to Brighton to visit Vicky’s stepdad at the weekend – one of the reasons this didn’t go out on Sunday. He’s in the final stages of cancer, has lost lots of weight, and is living in a bed in his living room. It’s quite strange to see someone who was such a big person and big personality be so physically small and constrained – but he is unexpectedly very serene about the whole thing. He seems at ease, reconciled, and that life makes sense.

I was expecting it to be a truly difficult visit – and it was pretty hard going at times – but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite inspiring.

Why wait until the end to be reconciled to it all? Why not get on with it now? There’s so much more to be got on with!

I’m reminded of what I was writing at the start of all this about cynicism being a failure to imagine a better future. There’s no point waiting for the conditions to be right. It’s time to start making things happen now, imperfect as the world is.


I finished Tom Standage’s “A Brief History of Motion” which is just fab. Some top takeaways:

  • The wheel was briefly in vogue when chariots were the latest thing, but apart from that flurry, it took the best part of 3,000 years to catch on as part of human transport. For lots of that time, if you were a real man, you rode a horse. Not least because Roman roads fell into disrepair and there weren’t any decent surfaces to use your wheels on.
  • SUVs were invented to get around emissions and fuel economy restrictions, because they counted as light trucks.
  • There was a period when electric cars were outselling petrol cars in the early 1900s, and looked like they could have won
  • Pompeii had a one-way system, because it was built before carts were a thing
  • When public transport in cities became a thing, subsidies were also invented – so that people in the centre taking short frequent journeys helped pay for those out in the sticks taking longer ones. These were called “commuted fares” which is where “commuter” comes from.

Picked up a copy of “The Lean Product Playbook” following a recommendation from Steve as I’m considering a list of ‘set texts’ for the team at work. But bloody hell, the reading backlog has got huge. I need to start booking in long afternoons at the pub with a notebook to start getting through everything. Nacho Bassino, the new Melissa Perri, Itamar Gilad’s “Evidence Guided” etc etc. With MtP’s course out of the way, I’m hoping I’ll have a bit of time for things like that again.

Piano is going really well, but winding back even further. A few weeks ago I was struggling to take in a Bach Partita, and thinking this wasn’t fun any more. Admittedly I was going down with Covid at the time, but the piano was definitely feeling more like Another Job, and no longer the charming distraction from work troubles it had been when I started again back last summer. But now I’m doing Schumann children’s pieces, and Satie’s Gymnopedies, and rinsing every last bit of joy and expression I can get from them.

And I also fired up the modular system for the first time in weeks. And just noodled. Poked around to see where it took me. I even pressed record. There might have been some singing. I had Actual Fun.

And yes, I also spent slightly more than I should have done on music plugin upgrades on Black Friday – some things never change.

And I was delighted to see that Baby Queen made it to number 5 in the charts. You should really buy her album, you really should. For either the brilliant production or the brutally funny and scathing lyrics.

Coming up?

  • The last MtP leadership session
  • A chat over at Deloitte about product management in government, with a ton of lovely people like Scott and Maxine and Priya and…
  • Vicky’s Christmas choir concert up in Chingford
  • Putting up the tree, with the kids home, and then the “glow up” of our road, where everyone puts their lights on on Sunday night and we have an outdoor concert, mulled wine etc. It’s the street whatsapp group but with actual humans talking
  • Trying to make progress on the DIY modules I bought a few months ago, but haven’t had the patience to sit down with a soldering iron until now

Weeknote 19th November – Keeping Going, Somehow

John Crace, being interviewed by Jessica Elgot at Wanstead Library

Hello. Another late night weeknote. A sensible person who cared about their brand would have these ready to go on Friday lunchtime or Monday morning…but I do really write these for myself as a way to reflect. And also for a very old friend with an RSS reader who lives just outside Malibu (waves).

This week has been much better than last, thanks the very welcome return of a few more working braincells and a slightly lightening mood.

On the former I’d been continually feeling like I’d got way too many tabs open in my brain, with only limited ability to make coherent progress. I was definitely still getting useful stuff to happen, but it was quite reactive and slightly random. And therefore quite hard to feel a sense of accomplishment. But on Wednesday I caught myself writing a Slack message saying “so here are the current list of open issues, and what I think we need to do about each of them”. It was a wonderful moment of “oh, I can see the whole again, like I used to be able to”.

On the latter – I’ve heard on the grapevine from therapist friends that they think the current variant is making people feel a bit lower. So if you’ve picked it up and are finding it hard to get going again, take a small amount of comfort that it’s more likely to be the bug than you. Hang on in there – and if I’m someone you want to compare notes with, you know where I am. It’s nice to be feeling a bit more optimistic once more, and it’ll happen to you too.

Randy Silver, just getting going.

On Thursday, we had the delightful Randy Silver come in to GDS to give a talk as part of our monthly “Show&Tell/Speaker Series”. Two teams gave lovely talks at the start. Firstly there was a chat about the recent utterly epic ‘Design System Day’ – and how to make events like that go well. Then there was a very moving talk about lived experience of neurodiversity and disability, from one of our own staff. A tough act to follow, but Randy did brilliantly. Inspiring, funny, and practical – hopefully for everyone, not just Product managers. You can read a little about what he said in this LinkedIn Post about it – from where I stole the photo above.

We’ve finished the first complete round of interviews using the new processes I brought in, which feels great. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to recruitment and HR colleagues about how to make this process as simple and fair as possible, but also tighten up some loose ends – everything from how we ask questions to how we store files. Some of this has been an extension of work I did at DIT, but other bits have been going back even deeper. Like, “what is a job description actually for”.

I’ve also been writing a lot of interview scripts, and tweaking the script documents and sift sheets to make them a bit more usable “in the thick of it”. I’m hoping I’ll be able to share a little of that once it’s been road-tested.

It’s still a longer process than I’d like, but it’s tricky when sometimes you’re robustly assessing “do candidates pass the bar” and at other times “how much breadth do they have”. As I finally get time to start looking at updating the government Product Manager DDaT framework again, in the back of my mind I have the notion that ideally I’d like to be able to hire using just that. I can still see the value of the civil service behaviours list, but I think I can make the two align in a more useful way if I squint. Let’s see. But hey, I’ve also got a lot of people across governement to chat to about this. And my brain’s still getting to the point where it can handle this sort of 12-dimensional chess.

Learning Day plans are coming together. We’re doing an experiment with creating a separate strand for our Grade 6 Product Leads/Heads – more news on that if it becomes a thing. I also spent some time with Phil and Justin from “Talking Roadmaps” chatting about the best way to make their session with APM/PM/SPMs go well. Oddly the trickiest part of it all looks like it’s going to be to do with Mural permissions. I’ll post about that once we’ve come up with a cunning plan!

It’s also the day where we are hoping to launch our MVP learning offer – something that reduces the friction for Associate to Senior PMs in knowing what courses would be useful for building the skills needed to settle into their roles, as well as progressing to the next stage. This will build on loads of great work from Jonathan Forman, and hopefully embed it a little more. We’re also trying to be more strategic about how we use the central learning budget to get a bigger bang for our buck, and let staff/line managers concentrate more on the day job – rather than beauracracy. Of course, as a product person, the biggest part of that document is going to be about “and how we make the plan better”, but hopefully it’ll still sound like a step forward.

Next week I’m co-hosting a discussion table at the Government Transformation Summit. I’d originally been asked to sit in on a chat about Government Efficiency, which I’ve got a good few opinions on, but as they tweaked the various attendees I found myself being asked if I’d mind joining a chat about “joined up services”, which was higher up my list of preferred topics – so I’m happy about that. My fellow hosts have got a nice broad range of perspectives, so we should get some nice discussion going. If you’re going, there are four 30 minute sessions you can join us for. I suspect between the hosts we could fill the time ourselves if we had to, but fingers crossed we will have some really good questions and viewpoints being shared by other attendees – and might help inspire people to keep doing the right thing. (I’m also hugely looking forward to seeing a pile of old friends in the margins – Liz, it’s been too long!)

I’m looking forward to week 3 of teaching Mind the Product’s “Product Leadership” course. The group are starting to gel more, as always happens. Cris Valerio was wonderful as a co-trainer for the first two weeks, and we’re going to carry on chatting long after this. For the last two weeks I’m joined by Dharmesh Raithatha – which will be fab.

Sadly I didn’t get to chat to the new coaching client because of delays getting contracts sorted. You know that thing where you dig out the flatbed scanner, install the drivers to get it working again, finally create a digital version of the signed document…then forget to attach it to the email and nobody notices for a few days? Yeah, that. But it’ll happen soon.

What’s been happening in Real Life?

Vicky and I got to see John Crace chatting about his new book at a Wanstead Tap/Newham Bookshop event (photo at the top). He was very very funny, but also talked very poignantly about the toll that writing a daily politics sketch – given the turbulent last few years – have taken on his mental health. He definitely ended on an optimistic note though, and I felt quite inspired given my own slightly rubbish few weeks.

Got to see Penguin Café playing live at the Union Chapel, with lovely percussionist friend Steve. So many truly beautiful moments – “Galahad” in particular. Some tears were shed.

Baby Queen on stage

On Wednesday I made it along to the Forum to see my ‘artist of 2022’ playing live again. Sadly Daisy couldn’t make it down from Norwich to join me, due to commitments with a play she’s producing/in, but I wasn’t going to miss this for anything. Bella was on truly excellent form, and clearly having the time of her life. I dialed Daisy in by phone for “Dover Beach” and the encores, and it was lovely to have her almost-there. A lovely new layer of memories.

I was so pleased that her new album “Quarter-life Crisis” debuted in the charts at Number 5 as well. It’s a great record.

Finally managed to feel well enough to get out for a run today too. Could feel myself becoming more sluggish and I wasn’t liking turning back into a potato. Just under 6K, just over 31 minutes, which isn’t bad after five weeks away and A Disease.

What else?

  • Good piano lesson that was more talking about the nature of emotion in music than hamming through any particular piece
  • We’ve been decorating the spare room – that corpse-green wall colour turns out to have been a terrible idea, and it’s feeling a lot warmer now
  • Some lovely long evening chats with Vicky over dinner
  • Didn’t go and see “The Witches” when offered a spare ticket as I was just too tired after everything else
  • Ordered the Christmas tree!

Right, that’s enough for now. Bedtime. I hope you all have a lovely week. All probably-one of you.

Weeknote – 12th Nov 2023

As ever, getting my excuses in early, and the weeknote in late. It’s going to be another short one.

Covid is still hanging on, sadly. Oxygen levels are fine, but I still get pretty tired very quickly – and a bit breathless going up too many stairs. Managed nearly a full work week this time, which is huge progress. I’d originally aimed to finish at lunchtime on Friday, but a few things dragged on – as they do – and so it was only a ‘get away early’.

I made it into the office on Wednesday, which was quite a exhausting thing to do, but a) the Heads of Profession gang had a team planning session, b) I’d got a much-postponed chat with a Product person at DfE in the diary at the end of the day, c) I hoped it might be a way of kickstarting a few sluggish bits of my brain. I think I might have been a bit right on the last one, but there’s still a long way to go. On the upside, it meant I was lucky enough to be in Aldgate when I got the call to say that the legendary Liz Sarginson happened to be in her favourite haunt ‘The Bell’, just up the road. She’s doing well, and hopefully she’ll get the all-clear from her next set of tests. Watch out world!

It’s a testament to my affection for these two people that I’m including this picture even though I look awful.

It was a delight to see her, as ever, even if my own light feebleness meant I wasn’t able to hang around for as long as I’d have liked. But I’m looking forward to the next one.

I started the next round of Product Leadership training for MtP, with new partner-in-crime Cris Valerio. She’s been at Uber, Instacart, IDEO and all sorts, and brought new things out of the material that I’d not spotted in there before. Just as the participants did. Week one is always slightly uneven, because it’s about creating a baseline understanding, and the social bonds that we’ll use to shape the next three weeks, but it went pretty well I think. Back into the fray again on Tuesday.

Other than that, there was a lot of recruitment stuff, mixed with frantic planning for the forthcoming ‘Learning Day’ at GDS. I’d been too ill to pick up the latter, but obviously the clock hadn’t stopped ticking. I’ve got someone coming in to help our APMs/PMs/SPMs think about planning and roadmapping, and some slightly-more-coaching sessions for our Leads and Heads. Thanks to Natalie Baron for tons of logistics while I was off, and to DD colleagues current and previous for being so generous with their time to help our G6 folk. Phil Hornby of “Talking Roadmaps” has also been a brick for taking so much of government procurement on trust. I hope neither of us regret it!

Had a quick run through of Randy Silver’s forthcoming chat for the GDS Speaker Series – I think it’s going to be funny and inspiring. A bit different from Matt Edgar’s recent excellent talk, but complementary I think.

I’m looking forward to being one of the table co-hosts at the Government Transformation Summit in just under a fortnight. It’s looking like great chance to talk to colleagues here and overseas about doing things better. I’m probably leading discussion about improving Transformation Strategies, which is something close to my heart, but there are a bunch of topics I can also cover and I’m leaving it in the hands of the organisers. Registrations are still open, so if you want to be part of chats about everything from service design to data to personalisation to people, do feel free to sign up – it’ll be lovely to see you. (There’ll be beautiful promotional images for this up on LinkedIn soon…but for some reason the widgets that create them are just not working on my account at the moment.)

That’s enough work stuff. What else has been going on?

  • It’s winter. That means putting the garden furniture away. And every year I forget that the dining table is almost exactly the same width as the gap between our house and the neighbour’s. So I should get it the right way round before I go into the narrow bit. Anyway, I only got one hand on the brickwork, and I’m sure it’ll grow back.
  • Had a really good piano lesson. Quite slow and deep. Tackling two pieces from Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” at the moment, and Seb caught me doing quite a lot of things right. We also spent a bit of time unpacking some of the twiddly-twiddly rhythms of a Bach Sarabande that I didn’t have the brain for two weeks ago. On the back of that, I’ve been reading the two part inventions silently to myself just to practice parsing various quaver/semiquaver/demisemiquaver groupings. Which is more fun than it sounds, honestly.
  • Went to see the Taylor Swift Eras film again – this time with Vicky. Wasn’t quite as weepy as last time, thankfully.
  • That led, in turn, to a lovely evening down in the studio together, listening to records, drinking champagne and toasting the first anniversary of her mum’s funeral. Sharing memories, that sort of thing.
  • Lovely big walk through the woods this morning, with coffee at the end.
  • Some new trail shoes arrived, but I’m still not quite up to running with them. Maybe a very gentle parkrun this Saturday?
  • And – of course – the new Baby Queen album came out on Friday. A truly worthy successor to ‘The Yearbook’ which was pretty much my soundtrack to 2022. There’s a nice profile of her on the BBC News site, if you’ve not come across her before. A sort of very-messed-up Taylor Swift, with a lot more grit. I absolutely love loads of the tracks – the impeccable production, the brilliant wordplay and rhyme schemes, the scathing attitude and irony. Current favourite is “kid genius”, which even has snark about people not using punctuation or upper case. Plus of course, she’s rinsing the ‘Heartstopper’ connections with some really beautiful Alice Oseman artwork on the special edition. Her London gig is on Wednesday. Daisy’s going to be with me again, and I can’t wait.
Go Bella!

That’ll do for now. Have a good week ahead, everyone.

Minimal weeknote – 5th Nov – dragging on, and dragging myself back

A covid test showing only one bar.
Allegedly better

So, this has been an almost anti-week. On Monday evening I finally did a covid test that came back negative. This was a bit of a relief in terms of family contact, as I was going a bit mad staying largely on my own in our bedroom, or flitting masked through the kitchen down to the studio at the bottom of the garden.

I’ve had no energy to do anything beyond the absolutely essential really. Physical or emotional.

  • Kept some important and time-sensitive bits of recruitment moving along.
  • Managed to get a slot at a conference signed off, after a month chasing a cloud of internal vague bureaucracy.
  • Spoke to my new co-trainers for the forthcoming Mind the Product Leadership cohort.
  • Arranged the first f2f slot with my new coaching client.
  • Booked in the annual ‘BBC Fictionlab Execs Xmas Lunch’.
  • Bought some Terrifyingly Expensive car insurance, now Daisy’s passed her test. Turns out we’re in a high-risk area for theft. Rats.
  • Made a few dinners.
  • Got to see some daylight occasionally.
  • Finally hung a lovely picture I got for Vicky when we were up in Hexham in the summer

But that’s about it really.

  • I had to bail on going to see Baby Queen in Norwich with Daisy, which I was absolutely gutted about.
  • I abandoned trying to learn a movement of one of the Bach Partitas, as my brain wasn’t up to it (but I am making good progress on something much simpler).
  • I bought a fancy new gaming/data-science PC, but have been too tired to really do anything other than say “ooooh” at a few games. I’ve not even managed to turn off/down the garish RGB fans that came pre-installed. It does keep the living room quite warm though.
  • Tidied the studio, and set up all the modular gear just the way I like it. Have been too tired to turn it on.
  • Still can’t smell particularly, so all these nice dinners I’ve cooked are a bit moot. Only Penhaligon’s “Much Ado About the Duke” manages to cut through . Pah.
  • Can’t do any exercise really, to shake off any of the post-viral low moods. Returning to work tomorrow doesn’t fill me with delight, but I suspect I need to get back into it now if I’m going to at all.

I’ve not really managed to make any progress on sorting out the ‘Learning Day’ content for my profession. Had a few ideas before I got ill, but they’ve stagnated a bit, and I know that at least one has fallen through. I’m determined not to do the teaching myself – particularly as I’ve got things like the DDaT Product Management Career Framework to worry about – but time is now not on my side. Still have a few cunning thoughts though, so let’s see how the start of the week plays out.

Meanwhile, I’ve realised I’m suffering quite badly from a lack of any meaningful feedback or management interest at work, and am stagnating a bit. I’m considering how best to get some coaching of my own – particularly as the end of the current contract hoves into view. It’s a weird one though, as I’ve got lots of friends who are coaches – but would that be Just A Bit Weird? I feel I need someone I don’t actually know, but also knows enough about my work they can help me professionally. And that’s going to be a bit tricky in this small world.

So, on and up. But after a huge great sleep.

Weeknote – 29th October – it got me, and I didn’t listen

So earlier this week, I opened up wordpress and wrote the following…

It finally got me. After years of managing to somehow dodge COVID, I finally tested positive first thing on Monday. I’d assumed it was just a really crappy cold on top of some epically overcommitted times (of which more shortly), but no. So I’m finally going through the whole “oh, no sense of smell” and “oh, brain fog” business that nearly everyone else had years ago and is Not Remotely News. So I’m not going to talk about that, but I am going to use this time where I’m trapped in the bedroom on my own to try and lightly catch up on the Weeknotes That Weren’t. Because the last blogpost was all the way back in late August, and it’s been quite full-on here since then. In both personal and work life.

And then the post just sat in draft form, as a vast list of bullet points I planned to expand, while I completely failed to be in a fit state to do anything about finishing it.

It’s possibly the fault of this:

Des Burkinshaw on bass and Olly Betts on drums, plus a load of my midi master keyboards in the foreground.
Des on bass and ‘Olly from Duke Spirit’ on drums – probably doing one of the Beatles numbers, as I’m not playing and had time to take this photo.

About three months ago, Des approached me asking if I’d be in a band for his brother’s wedding. “Just a few covers”. I didn’t really notice the exact timing, and also didn’t pay a ton of attention to what we were covering, but it became something of a personal car-crash, with rehearsals needing to be squeezed in the night before I was training for Mind the Product – that sort of thing. The songs also turned out to be pretty epic – “Sledgehammer”, “Livin’ Thing” etc. I had a LOT of learning, and TONS of programming to do – which I had to fit in around trips to Norwich to see Daisy in plays etc. I was running on fumes for a good few weeks trying to make everything happen. Anyway, somewhere in among rehearsing, training, and conferencing COVID finally tapped me on the shoulder. And then punched me hard in the face during the final performance on Saturday. I got home safely from Suffolk, and then just collapsed into bed for all of Sunday and Monday.

More musicians and keyboards
Peter, Simon and Tim – and I think the laptop is getting ready for that ELO moment

Ever the optimist, I had incredible hopes for all the things I was going to do with this new-found recovery time. And yes, I finally finished the dense and weighty “Push Turn Move – Interface Design in Electronic Music”. Yes, I started to understand the (Arturia emulation of an) Buchla Easel synth a bit better. But mainly I was caught between “being too exhausted to do anything” and “being too stressed about work to be able to sit back and relax”.

It’s always an odd leadership challenge, when there’s too much going on and you’re Actually Quite Ill. You want to show the behaviour you’d expect in others – to take the time to look after yourself. But you also know that doing this will basically leave everyone else doing any time-bound work you can’t do. And in some cases that won’t be “a development opportunity”, it’ll just be a big pile of “being dumped on”. So I had to walk the line of “mucking in when I felt able” and “actually getting better”. Being freelance adds even more spice to this mix.

A lot of the big pile did get cleared, yay. Sadly one thing that only I could do has definitely ended up in the “gift to my future self” category, and I know it won’t be anywhere near as good as if I’d been able to make the time. But…I also know that I absolutely overdid it. A week on, I’m not truly better, and I’m going to have to work much harder at not working harder over the next few days. It runs against everything in my being to not just try and push on through, but I have to remember this is a rare occasion this wouldn’t be wise. I’m not one of these young people that can just get it countless times and bounce back after a few days – this could have repercussions. Boo.

So I didn’t get to write the long blogpost. I didn’t read the large pile of books I accidentally ordered (as displacement activity from ordering music gear while feeling bored). I didn’t get out for walks. I didn’t practice the piano.

Because I was too tired.

I also didn’t sleep as much as should have. Because I was too stupid.

And you know what? Next week I’m planning on doing less work, and still not doing these things – so I can actually get better this time.

Four books on product management and agile teamworking.
A small subset of the books and magazines that built up by the bed this week.

So a gentler next week beckons. Where also I’m not going to have all the downside of having to be isolated from my family. That was a properly miserable aspect.

Some other notable things from the last fortnight-ish:

  • I’ve got a new coaching client. Waiting for the terms of the NDA to see if I can talk about that.
  • Should be leading some good discussions at in an interesting governmenty conference in late November – just waiting for final sign-off from the powers that be.
  • Training for Mind the Product was an absolute delight, despite having an absolutely raw throat after seven hours of talking. One of the participants said that the communications and alignment course “had given them hope”. Which makes all the prep worthwhile. Alongside Westrum Typologies and the usual favourites, a few unexpected references made onto the wall, based on converations in the room – Steven Johnson’s “Farsighted” and Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat”. Another reason I love teaching this stuff – I always find something new.
  • I didn’t make it to the MtP Leadership Forum (because I was training), but I did get invited to the drinks afterwards (because I was training). As ever, a delightful chance to catch up with many old friends, as well as making new ones – one of my favourite meetings of the year. A few people I’d hoped to see weren’t there – but hopefully we’ll catch up another way.
  • The conference was great. Slightly poignant, as last year it was where I heard that my mother-in-law had passed away. Lovely talks from Randy Silver, Tim Harford, Keji Adegeji, Nilan Peiris and others – going to write them up at some point.
  • Hugely enjoying Tom Standage’s book “a brief history of motion” – that’s possibly also going to be at least one blog post in its own right. Chapter one, on how much we get wrong about the 5000-year history of the wheel, has already given me so much to think about.
  • Going back about a fortnight, we drove up to Norwich to see Daisy acting in a play at UEA – Char D’Angelo’s “Disco Dick”. She was just fabulous – utterly committed to quite a physical role, incredibly natural and very funny.
  • Yesterday we were back at UEA again for Minotaur Theatre’s “Shorts festival’ – to see Daisy a) in Todd Bell’s 25-minute “The Conspiracy”, where she was *completely* different but again extremely funny, b) directing a play of her own – “The Devil Wears Sensible Shoes”, set in the underworld and with staggeringly good demonic makeup.
  • And, as if that wasn’t enough time spent on the M11/A11, I also managed to sneak up to Norwich last Saturday – while the happy couple were getting married – to see Taylor Swift’s “Eras Tour” film with Daisy. It was bloody amazing, we both wept buckets, and I’m going to see it again soon if I can. Songs like “the 1” totally came into their own when performed live – I’d always liked it, but wow.
  • And of course – 1989 (Taylor’s Version) came out. And I absolutely love it. Almost exactly the same, but everywhere subtly bigger and better.
Sneaky evidence that Daisy and I made it. Note the “fire exit” sign bottom left.

What else is coming up?

  • MtP Leadership kicks off in two weeks time
  • Off to Norwich (again) to see the wonderful Baby Queen at the Riverside with Daisy. I’m also seeing her in London two weeks later – with a spare ticket if anyone wants it?
  • Penguin Cafe at the Union Chapel, with lovely Steve H.

…But I’m mainly going to try and stop for a bit – concentrate on getting better. Look after yourselves too. And maybe I’ll talk about some of the amazing other things that happened in September and October when I get a chance.

Kinda-weeknote 27th August – killer heirloom

It’s the Sunday of the August bank holiday, so of course I’m writing this while waiting for a barbecue to heat up, drinking a glass of rough-ish red, and wishing I was no longer wearing shorts. Hope yours is going as well.

It’s the slight end-of-an-era-beginning-of-a-new-one in music-land this week. I finally had to admit defeat on trying to rescue my very very old 88-note piano-style master keyboard, which had stopped sending MIDI notes despite various proddings. My writing approach rather depends on being able to make more than one sound at once – and only having the Prophet as an input device wasn’t really working – lovely-sounding as it is. So the mid-90s SL880 has been whipped out, to be replaced by an inherited early-90s Ensoniq synth that’s built like a tank and is somehow still going. That’s it, in the photo above.

Now, while it’s not up there with “the ‘Penny Lane’ piano” as a musical treasure, it’s a fairly noteworthy piece of hardware if you’re a video games person, as it’s the very actual instrument used on the theme for the Rare arcade classic ‘Killer Instinct’. You can hear it playing the lead line here:

Weirdly this changeover is part of a general feeling of renewal and revitalisation that’s going on. There’s a ton of stuff I’ve been turning over for a while, and I’m finally making real progress. It feels like I’ve actually got a lot more brain cells available – particularly compared to last autumn which was just rubbish. I had relatives and godparents dying, kids heading off to university, and a very rapid cadence of changes at work, etc etc. The studio – originally intended as a place to get away from it all – still had memories of being “the place where I did Brexit” or “led that difficult prioritisation round” or… well, everything really. And I just think I’d never really come to terms with all the fallout from lockdown – I was too busy holding it together for everyone else. I just felt a bit – numb.

My January of alleged-music-writing didn’t really work out because of loads of this. I was trying to have ideas in the same rooms as those tricky things had happened, when I wasn’t actually sure I even wanted to think about them. I didn’t want to write music about all that, but there wasn’t mental space for much that was new either. I certainly didn’t want to embed those difficult memories in my little sanctuary even more deeply, let alone be labouring over layered vocals ready for uploading to Soundcloud. (Obviously there are 23-year-olds who write amazing albums under far worse circumstances, and with far less fancy gear…but they may not have to also turn on Professional Highly-paid Jazzhands every day.)

BUT, it’s rather lovely that there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s fallen into place recently. A load of stuff is making a lot more sense and I’ve been slightly more at ease. I feel I’m not carrying quite so much stuff around with me in the same way – like it’s some burden that’s a part of me. I think I’m ready to start writing again, and about things that I wouldn’t mind singing about or living with long-term. I can genuinely see things a little more clearly – I’m noticing stuff more. Even small details like the designs of the faceplates of bits of synth, or the colours in a particular book cover. I’m able to concentrate a bit more. I’m holding onto thoughts for longer.

[BBQ update: there’s a slug slowly crawling across the patio, directly along the route between my chair and the food. This is adding an air of jeopardy every time I turn the sausages.]

This also means I’m planning on changing how I use the blog. I’d ended up trying to wrap massive articles into individual weeknotes, and then somehow ended up doing neither. The massive articles would get stuck in ‘perfect is enemy of done’. Any bits short enough to get finished would then get lost in the middle of a weeknote. So expect lots more half-thoughts and work in progress. Stuff around roadmaps, governance, creativity, planning, empowering teams – plus a smattering modular synthesisers and highly produced pop, of course. But a lot less waiting for perfection and having all the answers.

I’m using social media a lot less too, which is proving quite good for the brain. Catherine Price’s book “How to Break up with your Phone” is full of delightful recipes for disrupting the dopamine habits. Plus I’m reading more fiction and less Improving Work Books. In particular I’ve been devouring Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea” trilogy – having only read the first book when I was younger. What a romp they are – but with a lot of depth too. I keep finding it’s accidentally past midnight, rather than losing interest in Techniques after four pages. Hopefully I’ll continue to break the distraction habit.

I’m going to be teaching for MtP a little bit more, which is great. I had some rather heart-warming feedback from the last Product Leadership course – we genuinely made a difference to the attendees. Foundations looms in about a fortnight, then an in-person Communications & Alignment session the day before the main conference. And another Leadership in November. Which should all be very rewarding.

At work I’ve been involved in some good coaching chats – but am also starting to hear about things that I suggested in previous weeks finally paying off. I made it into Steve’s blog as having been lightly useful, even if I couldn’t remember why at first. This is very welcome, given that the bulk of the day-job is currently about the important-but-dull world of “better recruitment artefacts”. There was a good community session on Team Health Metrics, in an OKR style, where people got to try creating them as groupwork. Loads of people who’d never met each other got to chat and compare notes, which was wonderful. When you hear the words “our projects have more in common than we realised” that’s a moment to hang on to. Similarly there was a lovely gathering of the Heads of Product where they spent most of the time chatting to each other. It’s reassuring to see that some of these things are becoming a little bit more self-sustaining – even if the community’s taking quite a lot more energy and enthusiasm than I’d like. We’ll get there though.

[BBQ update 2: the slug is getting closer. If I don’t make it, please send my best to the family. And can I have “Approximate Mood Swing No. 2” by Art of Noise played at my funeral please?]

I’ve also been taking the collective “Heads of Profession” through an OKR-setting cycle in a series of workshops. These got postponed from last week because I realised that there was a conceptual issue I needed to think through. Anything I came up with as a prototype just wasn’t making sense. Essentially it’s because the *collective* Professions have certain shared things they need to achieve, and we’ve got some shared tasks we need to do to collectively achieve that. However, because each profession is such a different shape, scale and level of maturity we have hugely differing tasks for how to adopt any shared patterns or data. Or timescales on which things would be realised. there were basically several one-to-many joins buried in the middle of what I was trying to summarise in our OKRs, breaking everything. To extend Teresa Torres’ “you’re not comparing apples and oranges, you’re comparing apples and fruit”, we’re comparing apples, oranges, pips and the promise of a series of orchards.

But having the realisation that we were creating a set of interlocking plans, all running at different paces, but with some shared core enablers, has enabled us to make quite a lot of progress in terms of how we talk about our goals. It’s also made clear the breadth of the organisational friction and BAU that make our individual progress so tricky. However, we’re getting much better at sharing knowledge and processes as a result of this clarity. For example I had a long chat on Friday morning about the semantics of Job Descriptions vs Objectives…so nobody else had to. Kara, our head of profession for design, went off in search of some data we need. And so on…

It’s still not the strategy work I was promised the job would involve, but I guess it’s valuable in the meantime.

I had a wonderful and…extensive…night out with Randy Silver on Wednesday, planning a talk he might give for us, and putting the world to rights. Anything that started like this couldn’t be bad:

[BBQ update 3: phew. Food is cooked. I’m heading indoors now to eat. Will pick this up later. Unless it’s an incredible house-eating slug.]

[Update 4: It wasn’t, but watching more “Good Omens 2” with Daisy was far more tempting than resuming this.]

That’s enough wittering on about work.

I had a stupid splurge on bandcamp the other day. Bought a lot more Cate Brooks, which is proving to be lovely working music – Maritime in particular – although so far nothing’s quite as lovely as the album ‘Easel Studies’ that I wrote about last time. Caterina Barbieri’s Myuthafoo is quite spiky and cerebral, but still fun. And I’m loving the deep streak of Imogen Heap lurking under the surface of Caroline Polachek’s “Desire, I want to turn into you“. I kept thinking “what is it this reminds me of?” on every listen. “It’s not PCMusic. Or Jack Antonoff.” In hindsight, as ever, defaulting to male influences was a foolish lazy move.

The running’s ticking along nicely. 11.5km in 1’05” yesterday. A 25-minute parkrun last weekend. And the first time out on the bike in months – 28km in just over an hour, which I’m very pleased with. Trying not to think about the 40-mile sportive that’s coming up.

I also bought some eye-watering tickets to see Cabaret in January on the back of the ensuing bit of news, and that’s before I found out Jake Shears is going to be playing the Emcee. I really can’t wait:

I’ve also bought two sets of tickets to see Baby Queen in November. Initially I got a pair for London, and then I realised Daisy will be in Norwich at the time, so I bought two there as well. So if anyone fancies accompanying me to a gig in Kentish Town where I will embarrasingly know far too many of the words and occasionally be a little tearful, do please shout!

Next week I’m looking forward to catching up properly over a pint with Will Myddleton, having a nice remote chat with Stephen Culligan, and perhaps learning some ELO string parts for this gig in late October. Plus piano lessons restart quite soon…eek.

So let’s leave it there, but with a small farewell to a friend that’s seen me through over 25 years. Hopefully I’ll swap some capacitors and you’ll be back? Won’t you???

Weeknote – 6th August 2023 – taking steps

I’m on holiday, so it’s going to be a shorter-than-usual blogpost today. We’re up in Northumberland, in a rather lovely house with an amazing internet connection, a beautiful view over the Tyne Valley (barring some mysterious smoke that hints at the UK’s largest chipboard factory) and a lot of history on our doorstep.

It’s been a really busy week, on the back of a weekend of cold so horrible it also knocked me out of work on Monday.

Tuesday afternoon brought the final Mind the Product ‘Product Leadership’ session for this cohort. The last of the four weeks is a bit of an anxiety rollercoaster, because after three weeks of Really Dense Content, it’s “and now just ask us about everything else you had on your mind”. Two hours of Lean Coffee, but for a group of people with words like “VP” and “Director” in their job titles. You totally have to bring your A-game. However it was a hugely successful session, with lots of sharing between group members and some practical advice from co-trainer Stephen Culligan and myself. I genuinely felt like we’d given our participants a good mixture of hope, tactics, mindset and motivation at the end of it all. But blimey I needed a BIG glass of wine at 7pm.

I’ve also spent a lot of the rest of this week doing coaching with various teams and team members – often through the medium of roadmap reviews. This is a bit of the job I genuinely love. Helping teams fix their storytelling, realise that slightly wrong things have been clustered together, merging ideas into one outcome or splitting ideas apart to improve clarity, adding focus where they’re trying to do too much at once, and asking (very kindly) “yes, but what does that get us” many, many times.

It’s also been great to bring in the perspective of what it’s like to be at the top of all this, something teams often don’t consider. One of my favourite conversations this week was talking about longer term plans for a particular (highly adept but slightly abstract) team. These are necessarily a bit vague, and there’s some big foundational discovery work to be done – which is set out earlier in the roadmap – but the optics just didn’t feel right. I eventually managed to explain it as “yes, but you are asking [senior leader] to spend several hundred thousand pounds per quarter on your team – and I know you’re all really competent – but at the moment it doesn’t sound like you’re taking that responsibility to them seriously enough, in either how you frame the discovery nor your current assumptions about the potential work that might follow”. This turned out to be quite a useful lens, and it’s to the huge credit of those involved that they rose to that challenge in improving how the look at their plans.

These conversations can often be a bit challenging, particularly for people going through it for the first time – so if you’re doing this type of work with your own teams I do recommend that you remember to check in with team members at the end of the day. Make sure the pros of the experience genuinely outweighted the cons!

Elsewhere I’ve been chipping away at the highly entangled work of improving recruitment processes, the DDaT framework, and L&D plans. I was pleased to finally work through which of the civil service behaviours I think it’s worth interviewing on, and where the DDaT skills are better indicators of suitability for a given role. That stuff has been in my head for ages – but never written down for anyone else to look at. There’s also an epic spreadsheet in progress that’s comparing different options for future versions of our capability framework – but I’m trying to remember the key point from “storytelling with data“, that there’s a messy exploratory spreadsheet where you work it out for yourself, and then there’s the simpler one you use to tell the compelling story. They aren’t the same thing.

I’d hoped to tick off a first pass at some new cross-GDS Job Descriptions before I left, but at 6:30pm on Friday I sadly had to finally admit defeat and prioritise looking at suitcases.

Packing was an exercise in minimalism, at least for me. Very little music gear has come along on the trip. There’s only a few books. No bike.

It was a wrench to leave the modular system at home, but I think it just adds more pressure that I ought to be doing things. The laptop with Ableton Live is here, but my only input devices are a Push 2 and an ageing SM58 microphone. I can create things if I feel the urge (indeed, today I was just mucking around with one of the built-in synths), but it won’t feel like a waste if that’s all that comes of this week musically.

The reason for this stripping-back is to try and make the time to be a bit still, and re-centre myself to remember my own priorities. I need to make a plan for the rest of the year that’s a bit less reactive and has more solid underlying principles – ones which have come from me. No biggy.

Other bits of IRL stuff:

  • Starting to run a tiny bit again, after a few weeks of being too ill. I’m rubbish once more, and keep coughing like mad, but at least I’m going again
  • Nice trip into Hexham today – buying walking boots, accidental books and too much sparkling wine
  • Did a teency bit of visiting Hadrian’s Wall
  • Cate Brooks’ “Easel Studies” remains a delightful album and great to work to. Thanks Hazel Mills for the recommendation
  • Also bought the rest of the back catalogue of “A Winged Victory for the Sullen” as I’ve hugely enjoyed “Invisible Cities”. Fans of Marina Hyde might be amused by their most popular track on Spotify
  • Making good progress on reading “Sense and Sensibility”. To my shame, while I’ve watched a lot of film adaptatioons, I’ve never actually read any Jane Austen. Blimey I’ve been missing out. She can capture in just a few sentences what must have been an excruciating couple of hours of enforced social fun. Soooooo bitchy, which was totally unexpected. The book is also divided into several volumes and the first ends with this Utterly Magnificent Sentence about smiling sweetly through heartbreak:

After sitting with them a few minutes, the Miss Steeles returned to the Park, and Elinor was then at liberty to think and be wretched.

Taylor Swift is good and all that, but…

Weeknote 29th July – a gentle return

Hello again. Yes, it’s another attempt at getting weeknotes going once more. There’s so much going on in my brain at the moment that everything feels far too trivial/early to write up, or is so vast I’m never going to finish it (that blog post about roadmaps). So it’s been a few weeks, accidentally.

The big work-related thing this week was probably going to Marty Cagan’s “Transformed” workshop. I’ve written up my takeaways from that as their own blogpost. Absolutely tons to think about there.

I also ran week three of the Mind the Product “Product Leadership” course, with Stephen Culligan as my co-trainer. Only one more to go, and then we start it all again in November. Oh, which you can sign up for, if you’d like me to help you! (I’m also teaching “Communications and Alignment” virtually on September 6th-7th and in-person in October the day before the MTP conference).

This week I’ve been doing some really fulfilling work with the product teams in one of our directorates, just helping them with the storytelling and value propositions in their roadmaps. It’s been so interesting hearing about the problems they’re trying to solve, and the feature ideas they’ve got, but also fascinating to see how hard it is to not get lost in the team-level detail when telling the story more widely. I’ve been gently asking “and why” repeatedly, and often finding the real reason for doing something is mentioned in an almost throwaway fashion – some enormous piece of value that’s being unlocked or preserved, or a huge risk being mitigated. Often in the tens of millions of pounds. But to the teams that’s just become so normal that they forget to communicate it upwards – so it’s been wonderfully rewarding helping them with that.

My role at GDS was originally supposed to involve creating a shared roadmap and product strategy, but it turns out things aren’t quite set up in a way that makes this particularly easy. I’m hoping that this kind of activity might be a way to start shaping a little more of that – because it’s the sort of thing that gives the other necessary work around L&D/recruitment etc a sense of purpose.

One other thing I’m taking the reins on over the next few weeks is starting to reshape the cross-government Product Management capability framework. There are a few small bugfixes I’ve got going in ASAP for associate product managers, and I’m hoping to publish some draft guidance about how we assess capability levels that span grades (I often refer to this as “‘Expert’ is never ‘done'”) more widely pretty shortly. But the big bit of work is making this framework reflect how the craft of Product Management has evolved since it was first created. There’s very little about experiments, or different types of discovery, or strategic user research, or assumptions testing. Hopefully we can get a draft together by late September that can be sent out for feedback across government, and which can give some teams a little more permission to do the right thing. I’ve got a vast group of contributors, and I’m borrowing from some great prior work done by Jon Foreman and Scott Colfer, so hopefully that timeframe won’t break me.

Real life

With MTP Training in the air, there’s not been a ton of time for other things, but…

Went to see “Dear England” at the National Theatre with Daisy. That’s the set before kickoff in the picture above, but there’s a fabulous gallery on the NT’s own page. Joseph Fiennes was just brilliant as Gareth Southgate, and Gina McKee was as wonderful as ever – playing the psychologist he brings in and then pushes away. I’m not a massive football fan, but I absolutely loved it and bawled my eyes out at various points. Behind the main characters, there’s a wonderful transition journey for Harry Kane, and even Jordan Pickford changes from this wiry ball of aggression into someone much wiser. It’s open for a little longer, and much recommended. It might have too much commercial music in it to ever make it onto NT At Home or NT Live, but let’s see.

‘Barbie’ was bloody brilliant. I can’t wait to see it again. A deeper and richer film than I’d imagined, and while the plot isn’t *vast* there’s a lot to be got from it. This is a movie that can do stupid dog-poo jokes in one moment, then pivot to a vast Wes-Anderson-style formal piece a moment later. And it’s a film that talks about invisible privilege in the patriarchy, through the medium of an allegedly perfect matriarchy. Bravo Greta and Margot!

Music-wise: this week saw the release of the new Georgia and Carly Rae Jepsen albums. Neither was quite as amazing as I’d hoped. Georgia feels like she’s got a bit swamped by the Vampire Weekend bloke’s production, and it just sounds like any other female singer-songwriter rather than distinctively her. CRJ’s is the traditional “and all the other bits” album to accompany the magnificent “The Loneliest Time”. There are some great tracks on “The Loveliest Time” but definitely not quite up with its predecessor.

Of course, I’ve not been posting for a while, so there are also amazing records like Alison Goldfrapp’s “The Love Invention” and Matthew Herbert’s “The Horse” and Jake Shears’ “Last Man Dancing” still in heavy rotation.

And we said goodbye to Sinead O’Connor. Still trying to get my head around that.

I’ve not written a ton of music of my own, but I’m still settling into the piano keys more confidently, and re-learning some old pieces through the lens of my new left-hand technique. I’m also starting to do a bit of DIY modular stuff – bought a Music Thing Turing Machine to make for myself, and the Voltages expander. Hopefully that’ll also help me work out why the one I bought off eBay is playing up? But yes, a lot of remembering how to solder over the next week.

Previous Weeks

I’ve been busy and a bit ill, but a few other highlights:

  • Managed to get under 24 minutes at Parkrun. Never thought that would be a thing.
  • Went to see “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” again – really really good, and it still fills the bigger venue.
  • Likewise “Guys and Dolls” at the Bridge Theatre. Truly spectacular bit of immersive theatre. Can’t wait to go and see it again but stand in the pit this time!


Marty Cagan’s “Transformed” workshop – some key takeaways

So last Monday I spent a fascinating day with about 50 other senior product folk, being taken throught the first version of a new workshop/book “Transformed” from Silicon Valley Product Group. It was the first time Marty Cagan had run this workshop, and there was definitely more to fit in than there was time for – but it was still all really great stuff.

The inspiration for the book seems to have come from a pretty universal mental rollercoaster after attending the “Empowered” workshop. It turns out former-boss Miranda and I were not remotely the only people to get on a video call with Marty afterwards to say “that all sounded great, and we’re a big organisation who are definitely doing ok at becoming more agile and product-centric, but we’re still miles away from that! How and where do we start?”

“Transformed” is not the complete answer, but it’s definitely enough to give hope. And, like so many of these events, being in a room full of other people going through the same new challenges and sharing their own practice gave me enormous heart. I definitely felt like I was no longer alone.

I don’t want to basically blab the whole day, but here are a few notes I’ve made and shared with internal folks at GDS.

The premise

Fundamentally he talks about changing how you build (move to continous delivery), how you solve problems (continuous discovery) and how you decide which problems to solve (product strategy). This needs organisations to make sure they’ve got competencies in product management (NOT product ownership the Scrum role), product design, product engineering, and some other supporting roles. It also means building proper product leadership to enable the teams through coaching, staffing and making sure the right strategic context is in place for teams to be truly empowered (but also have the right guardrails in place). He also talked quite a lot about creating Product culture and principles. The latter part of the day was “and now…how do you assess your current organisation, create a plan for getting where you want to be, and overcome the objections along the way”.

Interestingly he also said it was important to focus on principles, and not fall into a temptation he sees across Europe of turning those principles into a process – which can become an end in itself. He was quite anti telling us any process at all, in fact. So that’s us well and truly told!

For practitioners

(The latter part of this list contains familiar points from “Inspired” or “Empowered”, but they’re still worth repeating)

  • Probably don’t describe where you want to get to as “product-led”. That’s sounding like we know best and we’re here to take over – Marty prefers “the product operating model”
  • Lots of product writing is from the startup perspective, when you have little to lose. Enterprise organisations have lots to lose – be sensitive to this
  • Marty was really explicit about separating out mission and vision, when a lot of literature blurs them together. He used Trainline as an example: their mission was something like “enable people to make greener travel choices”. Their vision was a four-minute video showing the sort of experience they were hoping to create that would get them there. It didn’t get into specific features, but every team member who saw it would know the sort of thing they were headed for to realise that mission
  • Marty’s observed that remote working seems to be OK for delivery, but isn’t working so well for discovery – he thinks teams that get together f2f are more successful
  • Spotify say that 100% predictability means 0% innovation
  • There’s a HBR study that says that only 10-15% of our original ideas have the benefits we expected (i.e. “work”) so discovery to validate them is important
  • Every company has more opportunities and risks than they can fully address – it’s all about choosing. Spreading your teams super-thinly and trying to lightly please everyone is unlikely to have the impact you’d hope for
  • PMs have to show they know the customer, the data and the industry in order to be trusted by the organisation – it would be negligent for leaders to let you have free rein until you can show that. Do you?
  • Empowered software engineers are the most important thing you can get – your job is to give them all the context they need to be empowered.

For leaders

  • You need to change how you deliver software, how you solve problems and how you decide which problems get solved.
    • The first – continuous delivery – is probably easiest because it’s largely within the control of the technology organisation.
    • Changing the “how we solve problems” through continuous discovery is hard, but thinking about “time to money” rather than “time to market” is a good starting point. It’s not just about shipping that idea, but shipping an idea that’s valuable.
    • Creating better evidence-led product strategies, that contain their own work to validate assumptions and become smarter, is harder still.
  • CEO backing is the biggest factor in whether a move to product operating model will succeed
  • Keep coming back to the principles, don’t let process take over – relationships with finance and any PMO will change lots and their work will need to change lots as well, be transparent about that and don’t let process settle in before those changes have happened
  • Remember Steve Jobs’ takedown of John Sculley’s Apple – “the disease was thinking that having a good idea was the hard part, and the rest was just execution”. How will you share the evolution of ideas and the learning that shapes that?
  • You are only as good as your weakest PMs, so remember to keep coaching
  • Don’t tie performance management to OKRs, otherwise nobody will be prepared to work on anything risky or hard
  • He talked about the impact of generative AI, and thinks it will make prototyping – where risks can be managed – easier and faster, but production code will take a lot longer. He’s written an article called “preparing for the future” that goes into this in more depth.
  • This new culture and way of working is a product in itself – start small with pilot teams, learn and iterate, but keep telling the story of what’s working
  • The product operating model is fragile. A new senior manager who doesn’t buy the idea of empowered teams working on problems, and wants to be specific about what they’re going to get, can destroy years-worth of work on culture in just a few months. Finding ways to make this resilient and ensuring the story is easily told is hard. It’s also emergent practice, and the last chapter in the book.

What am I going to do next?

So what are my own next steps?

  • I’m working on a survey of my PM community anyway, and I’m going to ask them about trust, but also how they understand their responsibilities to leadership
  • I’m going to think about other ways to regularly temperature-check “trust” and “empowerment”.
  • I’m also going to ask about whether they feel they truly know the users, data and policy context – triangulation points on the trust and empowerment ideas
  • I’m also going to ask where people are on the missionaries/mercenaries scale and think about leading indicators of teams becoming more like the former
  • I want to delve into the collective responsibilities of trios and how well that’s working
  • I’m going to pick 2-3 teams I think I can helpfully influence them and their leadership without risking delivery, and where there’s going to be a story to tell, and see if we can build trust in this model
  • I might also borrow some of the ideas Which? use to support this – rotating engineers through the discovery part, and rotating who presents at the team checkin
  • I’m going to get myself copies of Anne Duke’s “Thinking in Bets” and Tony Fadell’s “Build” which are both long overdue. I need to reopen my old Steve Blank books and read up on him talking about principles over process.
  • Marty’s kindly shared a few other bits with me that I’ll be thinking about too.

All of which will keep me very busy.

Further reading/social whirl

So that’s my own personal take. There are also other good summary posts on LinkedIn from:

  • Nick Jemetta – ex-Argos, now a Product Coach
  • Paulo Gaudencio – Product Ops lead at Cofidis
  • Tobias Freundenrich – ex-Xing, now also a Product Coach, who knows a couple of people from my Cimex days
  • Marty himself – where you can see a lovely photo of the back of my and Rico’s head, captured beautifully by either Chris Jones or Jonathon Moore.

I got to meet some fabulous other people too – Monica Viggars, some lovely long-suffering folks from MOD that I’ve met before, and the Crisp gang (Mattias Skarin, Marcus Castenfors, Matthias Holmgren, Jan Grape). I’d never heard of Crisp before, but they were product coaches to Spotify! Marcus also co-wrote a book called “Holistic Product Discovery” that looks worth a read.

Nick Jemetta also put me onto Graham Reed who runs an interesting-looking community called “Product Mind“, looking at the mental health of our practitioners. We do a stressful job, and often feel quite isolated or caught between impossible choices, so anything I can do to help people as part of that feels like a good thing.

All in all, a brilliant day. Different from what I expected, but definitely one that opened a new chapter in what I do.