Monthly Archives: August 2023

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…