Weeknote 26th Feb – Collecting, and future-gazing

So a very belated weeknote, featuring thoughts on senior stakeholder ideas, governance, community building, phat basslines, meta-theatre and much more.

The set for "Orlando"
Set for Orlando. Not quite the “back wall of the theatre” it first appears.

Technically all this “being visible” stuff is 100% part of the new job, but it still feels a little odd taking working-hours time out from what I tend to think of as “the day job” to write everything up. Particularly as a contractor. I’ve probably been over-trained on the “Daily Mail test”, but hopefully it’ll settle down. Anyway, the upshot is I leave writing these to the weekend, and then much-more-important-real-life happens…so here I am on Sunday evening doing this.

The upside is that there’s a little more time to reflect on the various excitments and wry asides of the last week.

My big piece of work this week was drawing together an overall vision for GDS’s group of “Heads of Profession”. It’s slightly odd to be leading this as the most recent joiner – but I have the advantage of having a) come from a place where some of this was maturing, b) loads more free time in the diary than many of my peers. Anyway, I’m two weeks in and tomorrow I’ll be presenting it twice – to the GDS People Board, and also a gathering of all our DDs. We’re sharing it very much as a prototype, alongside “these are what we think are your problems” to try and get feedback on it as a whole. We want to try and improve the intent, rather than any given adjective. Let’s see how that plays out.

It’s been quite challenging doing this when I barely know many of my partners in crime, but my main takeaway has been that they’re all lovely. Yes, there have been places where we’ve needed to nudge a few of my first ideas, but it’s all been hugely in the spirit of making it better, nobody is precious or dogmatic, and everyone’s been really vocal about appreciating my work bringing together the thing for us to change. I really think we’re a good group, and I’m looking forward to working with everyone. It’s been quite a big thing to take on within the first fortnight, but very rewarding.

I’ve also been asked to start getting involved with gathering benchmarking pay data for the profession. David, who leads software engineering, has created some fascinating spreadsheets that mine websites – and I’m wondering whether it’s going to take less time to understand his code or to find my own approach. If anyone’s recently done an exercise like this, do please let me know – I’ll find a way to get you back!

Alongside this, it was nice to start reaching out to the wider GDS product profession a lot more.

I’ve had really good chats with all three Heads of Product (there’s one for each of GOV.UK, Digital Services Platform and Digital Identity) and we’ve said that we’re going to work together to set up two communities within Product. The first will be about building our product leadership, and the other will be about practice within teams. The reason for creating focussed sessions for the “grade 6” community isn’t to exclude anyone else, but because lots of the conversation we’ll be having will be too abstract for your average PM/APM. (I’ve watched too much ‘glazing over’ at events that tried to cater to a very broad audience, from either end of the spectrum, and it’s not happening on my watch.) I hope to make this group a bit more permeable over time, but let’s see. Anyway, I want to help the leadership group build their skills at understanding where everyone else is at, and designing how we’ll shape community sessions/L&D interventions to make sure people are getting the most useful skills for our current context.

I had my first “PMs, meet Tom” session, which was pretty well attended for a Friday afternoon. I talked a bit about how I’d got to this point in my career, some stuff around strengths and weaknesses, and what I valued in product craft. There were some really good questions too, and of course I ended up recommending some books.

One of the emerging themes that came out of that discussion, including the slack chats that happened afterwards, was how important it is to think about why you’re doing user research – particularly when dealing with big stakeholder ideas.

As longstanding twitter followers and many folks at DIT will know, I’m a big fan of Teresa Torres’ “Opportunity Solution Trees” and how she talks about the importance of choosing between ideas. It’s way too easy (and I’ve 100% been guilty of this) to end up doing research into “do they like the idea or not” rather than devising experiments that are focused on checking the assumptions that’ll help you choose between idea A, B and C. Which often will be a completely different prototype from anything you’ll really be building. Otherwise all you’re finding out is whether the team is competent at interaction and content design – and that’s the “colouring in” you can do once you know you’ve got a valuable problem to solve and folks are likely to care. So my personal take is that research – when done well and you have the time to think about it to this level of abstraction – should be about validating choices or getting the insight you need to take your next step.

But this also plays into the idea of working stakeholder ideas. If you’re someone senior, you are on the hook for a general goal around revenue or growth or cost or efficiency – and you might have a few ideas about ways to do that. Perhaps, with your experience, you’ll latch onto something you feel is promising – and you’ll suggest the team look into that. Now, the team may not be 100% convinced about the idea – but the danger is they’ll fall into researching to prove it’s wrong. Actually we need better ideas, more things to choose between. Saying the idea is bad doesn’t make the target go away. Only coming up with a better way of hitting the target will allow everyone to move forward. So our research/prototyping/spikes should be focused on that – because this is how we show we’re empowering teams. They’re closer to the users and closer to what’s possible right now, but they also need time to think, and have the responsibility to use that wisely to come up with improved approaches.

Anyway, hopefully I can get some more of that to happen.

I’ve also been involved in a few discussions about roadmapping and governance, and was mildly amused to find that an old talk of mine from 5-6 years ago about OKRs (as a process) was still doing the rounds at GDS. Annoyingly though, the version that’s in circulation (because an enterprising DM copied it to their personal drive) is v1.0 and doesn’t contain any of the later stuff I added about better key results and metrics hierarchies. So I’ve had to sheepishly email the old boss and say “hello, as you now own my old google drive at DIT, might you search for the words ‘Nicole Forsgren’?” in the hope there’s a copy of v2.0 anywhere.

Information Management, clearly still a thing. Sigh.

It’s nice to see that one of the fridges at work is now becoming the “this is for everyone” milkfridge.

Lots of milk, put there for sharing.

I really hope this continues. The fear that someone might be freeloading almost certainly isn’t worth the costs of trying to ensure it’s 100% auditably fair.

So that’s all the work nonsense.

On Wednesday I got to see the amazing production of ‘Orlando’ starring Emma Corrin – my only sneaky photo is at the top of this post. I’d really enjoyed reading the book in preparation for this, but was only about halfway through by the time we saw it. I am totally in awe of Virginia Woolf’s writing, and am sad it’s taken to this stupid age to get to it. (Also, weirdly, despite my aphantasia, I find I can see an enormous amount of what she’s writing about in my head, which is a hugely strange feeling. This must be what everyone else has, all the time! Who knows how that will play out – is it possible it’s a skill I can start to build?) Anyway, it was as “meta” a play as the book is a “meta” biography. There was a truly incredible (and not 100% binary) cast, who acted as a chorus of Virginia Woolfs when they weren’t playing other roles, commentating on the action. And it was unexpectedly hugely moving when Orlando moved past 1941 – the sad end of Woolf’s own life – and the chorus said they couldn’t write Orlando’s story any more. Sorry, that’s probably a spoiler. Anyway, go if you still can.

Segment from the Wine Society's 2021 Burgundy 'in bond' brochure, saying "small quantities of pretty, aromatic wines".
“It’s a trap”

The Wine Society sent me a brochure about 2021 Burgundy ‘En Primeur’. This is where you buy it while it’s still outside the UK, and often from producers who can’t supply at the scale supermarkets need – so it’s a good way to get interesting wines early, if you can afford to buy 6-12 bottles at a time. However there is a euphemism printed on the outside of the envelope it came in. “Small quantities”. Burgundy growers know people will pay regardless, so I suspected – as I opened the envelope – that this meant “really bloody expensive”. And I was right. So just Rhone for me this year then.

My friend Des was getting rid of his Behringer Model D – basically a modern clone of a Minimoog. This is the synth used by Stevie Wonder for all those amazing funk basslines, Gary Numan on “Cars”, Rick Wakeman on blistering solos etc etc. I spent an hour or two with it earlier and the (appallingly mixed, clichéd and shonky) thing above gives a sense of what a monster it is. Just incredible bass sounds. Really looking forward to getting to know it better, and treating it with a bit more taste and respect.

What else to note?

  • I got the film BAFTAs wrong, as I always do. Virtually none of my choices won awards. Hey ho. I mean, I genuinely love Cate Blanchett, but was her performance really as innovatively vast as Emma Thompson or Michell Yeoh’s?
  • I’m managing to keep active despite being back at work – two runs this week, and walking to the station every day I went in, despite the temptation to collapse onto the bus.
  • Someone at GDS kindly referred to me in their own weeknote, and linked to the homepage of this site – a page I’d not looked at for years. Dear me! Anyway, I managed to find an FTP client, and remembered how to use vi to edit the raw html…
  • And I’ve booked tickets to see Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith at King’s Place, and Orbital at the Cambridge Corn Exchange – both of which I’m hugely looking forward to.

Right, bring on week three!

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