Weeknote 17th Feb – Go East

So I started at GDS. It’s been lovely to be made so very welcome by so many people – lots of old friends and a growing number of new ones.

Carly Rae Jepsen in a bright pink leotard and jacket
Carly Rae Jepsen performing at Alexandra Palace this week. She was ace.

There’s a lot that’s changed here in the last four years. The new Digital Identity programme is delivering a lot of stuff very quickly. GOV.UK obviously went through supporting Brexit in the COVID era…and had to do that while also supporting the COVID era. Basically, quite a lot of “it just has to be done”, for quite a long time. There have been lots of changes of leadership. And “Government as a Platform” has evolved into a new third directorate. Plus, of course, CDDO split off from GDS.

It turns out that the Head of Profession role had drifted away a bit while I was gone. It may have even been on the way out when I left, but I was probably too busy to notice.

As a result it now looks like most of the staff/craft development has been happening within the individual programmes, or on an ad-hoc basis through informal communities, for quite a while. Each programme has its own Head of Product, looking after their own team’s needs, which was probably a decent option when everyone was heads-down. (They also seem to have been doing pretty well under the circumstances.)

The return of Heads of Professions is therefor a bit of a working hypothesis – that coordination between these programmes and shared leadership is for the greater good – but we are all having to prove our actual value. Which is no bad thing, to be honest. It’s also something of a relief to be more in “Pioneer” or even better “Settler” mode – because I get a bit twitchy if I’m in “Town Planner” mode for too long.

One of they key things I’m being asked to look at is a shared roadmap for GDS. The teams have been making good progress on creating this – but I know that I’ve fallen into this trap before, and we probably need to be focusing more on articulating the principles behind our product strategy, and getting consensus around those.

There are a lot more PMs to consider than I first thought – the number I was given when onboarding was just civil servants, not contractors or suppliers. So the job’s potentially about 50% bigger than expected. But I don’t have to tackle everything at once. In fact, a lot of the week has involved me reminding myself “it’s only day four”.

One of the things I was relieved to be able to do by the end of the week was start pulling my notebook scribbles into some kind of structure. When you start, you’ve got no idea which things are important, or a theme – every potential person to see or thing to do feels the same size. For probably fifteen years I’ve been advocating “only have one to-do list” to people (although I split home and work contexts into different apps – home stuff is completely in ToDoist so I’m not accidentally getting work panics at the garden centre). However there’s nuance to that, because some things are bigger than tasks, they’re goals – and you need to keep being reminded of those. A to-do list that just smashes all those together is no use. So, for the last year or so, I’ve always wandered around with a bit of A3 set out like this:

Tom's A3 layout for goal and task management, which gets explained in the following paragraphs.
It rarely looks as tidy as this.

Top left are the main goals, the things I’m really trying to achieve. But there are other things creating mental noise, and sometimes that only goes away if you say “yeah, subconscious thanks for the reminder, that’s not important this week, but I’ll write it down to make sure you feel heard” so occasionally there will be wider goals just as handy reminders.

Then I have a column that’s for small tasks – everything I have to do that emerges through the week. And as you go from meeting to meeting you just add more tasks as they occur. But having them in the context of the goals can help you make sure you’re ticking off the right things.

I usually have a small list of the meetings that day, and clearly work out how much Actual Time To Get Things Done that leaves – so I know I’m choosing the most important things for my 90 minutes of Real Work.

And the rest of the A3 sheet is for other scribbles.

And at the start of each week I rewrite it completely. This re-processing reminds me of what the goals are, if I’ve not ticked them off. It allows me to filter the tasks from the previous week, because some of them might turn out to be new goals – or actually not that relevant after all. And I pull any important notes into a document.

Let me know if that sounds like it might work for you? Or you can see ways to improve it?

Anyway, it was a huge relief to get to the point where I felt I could start building that picture of “what’s important, and what are the next most urgent steps to get there…and what is Just Admin”. Thanks to everyone who gave their time so generously in the first week while I was flailing around – the Heads of Product, the other Heads of Professions – particularly Nick, and my new boss Neil.

I’ve also been rebuilding workflow habits around GSuite, after two years in Microsoft-land. I don’t have to use Teams any more, and the laptop is an M1 Macbook, so everything feels really fast – but email threading works differently, I’m switching between tabs or windows rather than applications, there aren’t the same sort of conversation-specific shared drives. I’m sure it’ll feel normal really quickly, but it’s definitely extra cognitive load right now. (And astute observers will notice that a bit of my leaving present from DIT has joined me here in GDS towers).

James Darling will be pleased to know that – due to the demise of GDS Milk Club during lockdown – I’m still carrying on his cultural intervention from 2014.

Large carton of milk with "for all" written on the side.
Shared milk. Let’s see how this goes.

Anyway, I’m definitely “tired, but not exhausted” which is a good thing. Going into the office for all five days was qute tiring – particularly after six weeks at home – but I’m really glad I got to meet so many people face to face, and build that sense of belonging in the new office. I’ll even have a pass by next Friday!


The Carly Rae Jepsen gig was just delightful. It’s the first time in ages I’ve driven to and from a gig, but it was lovely to be home so quickly and I managed to cope with not having all the pints better than I thought I would. It was a lovely kind crowd too, with very little elbowing or shoving in front of, or being aggressively danced at. The set list wasn’t what I’d have expected – big singles like Call me Maybe, Really Really Like You, In My Room all happened pretty early on – but I think she judged it right that this particular audience were all hanging on to hear “Boy Problems” etc.

Carly Rae Jepsen in outfit two

Then on Friday I got to see Hannah Peel perform her wonderful Delia-Derbyshire-based album “Fir Wave” at Kings Place, with my new gig-buddy Victor. She was incredible, as was fellow musician Hazel Mills (often to be found with Goldfrapp). I’ll listen to the album in a whole new way now I’ve seen the additional vocal, violin and piano layers I’d never spotted before, thanks to seeing them played live. The encore included her performing ‘Sugar Hiccup’ on a custom music box with lots of live processing, and I definitely had something in my eye at that point.

Hazel Mills (left) and Hannah Peel (right) behind synthesisers and with pink bars of light illuminating them spookily.

Next week brings Emma Corrin in Orlando, and a lot less commuting thankfully. Some tickets to see They Might Be Giants at the Roundhouse were acquired, and I’m probably getting some for Orbital and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith as well. I’m taking things a lot more gently for a bit, while I get into the new rhythm – but so far it’s all looking really good.

3 thoughts on “Weeknote 17th Feb – Go East

  1. Andrea Hewins

    I really like that A3 idea. I’ve been trying to organise notes in One note (had the opposite from you a few months ago moving from G suite to MS). I find there’s never a good way to organise notebooks and tabs and keep notes in the right place. Doing one of these A3 pages for each day will help😍. After a few weeks of pretty much nothing but meetings and collaboration sessions today is quiet so time to get a bit more organised.

  2. Pingback: Weeknote 4th March - LeaningForward Blog

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