Monthly Archives: November 2023

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.

Show your decision points – added 4th December

I touched on this in the session last week, but forgot to include it in this post. We tend to act as though a given team or initiative can just trundle along, working through the quarters – but sometimes we need to call out a point where we take stock and make some hard choices. Everyone needs to know that’s happening, so they’re ready. In traditional GDS-style life-cycle this would be “has your alpha proven you should do a beta” (or – even better – “has your alpha disproven the hypothesis that a beta isn’t worth it”). But it might also be when you decide whether getting from 20% to 50% on a metric is worth the effort.

I tend to put these in the “context” – and yes on a quarter-based roadmap that’ll be a clear timeline, but in a now-next-later roadmap it needs to be somewhere that everybody knows about and which is discussed regularly. A slide that appears in every checkin/huddle/show&tell, as appropriate.

The reason we should make this very visible is because the team need to be ready for that decision to be the best one possible. And they need to talk about it to the decision-makers early on. “Dear Senior Civil Servant, what will make you think that this service/app/portal is delivering OK, but ultimately is a great/terrible idea – so we can get you the evidence for a good decision”. It’s a constraint that helps people prioritise the most important learning to get to the next good decision. And it helps prioritise discussions with wider stakeholders about what matters when: “I know you want us to look at feature x, but is this going to help us make sure we’re ready for that big meeting in July, or is the team going to look unfocused and then put onto something else?”

But dependencies, Tom? (Take 2) – added 4th December

OK, so I slightly got distracted by the above rant about High Integrity Commitments. And yes, I was also tired and just wanted to press ‘publish’. So here’s a better answer. But it’s probably not the one anybody is looking for.

People worry about how you use roadmaps to track dependencies between things. Rightly. But the problem in this is a twofold one of forgetting:

  • Even in old-style project management, dependencies were a total pain to manage, and often a lie. Yes, there’s a bar in MS Project saying that something’s going to finish at point x and then a different bar can start work. But in practice, this was a mess of handoffs and delays and horsetrading and miniature scope-creep/disappointments. That little dependency tool is a fractal mess. So please don’t put the blame on roadmaps for this being hard.
  • Many folks haven’t done tons of this in more traditional environments, so it takes them by surprise – we have forgotten how to have these conversations as a practice.
  • Within the world of empowered agile teams, we see anything that stops every given developer running at 100 miles an hour as an impediment to be reduced – rather than The Actual Work Itself. And that leads too easily to power imbalances – that this is ideally someone else’s problem. We’ve forgotten how to collaborate in an authentic fashion.

So there are a few techniques to apply, and they’re not really even “roadmapping”.

Firstly, as Marty Cagan says in “Empowered”, make sure the teams working on the same things have the same OKRs. Someone’s side-project or favour can’t derail a whole quarter’s work.

Think about the layers of dependency.

  • sensibleness – should we do this
  • feasibilty – can we do this
  • approach – how will we do this
  • confidence – how much it’s likely to change
  • delivery – when will it be ready

Some of those you may be able to put into a team’s OKRs. Team A: by the end of the quarter, you need to have shown this has value and can be done, and have a draft approach you and Team B are 70% sure they can work with. Team B: you need to be 70% sure you can adopt the thing they’re talking about, and it’s going to be valuable for you too.

Perhaps the delivery date is the key thing – in which case you’re in the world of scope management and making sure everyone knows the minimum feature set across both areas – and this is all anyone talks about. You’re storing up risk for the teams further down, but hey.

But the detail of how those five factors unfold and mesh together over time is not something you can just leave to chance on a roadmap – just like you couldn’t on project plan. Making it happen is the real work. And doing in such a way that anyone in any team can pull the (conceptual) andon cord because after user research or tech spikes they’re not convinced this is a good idea any more – rather than just delivering blindly and hoping – that’s the real hard work. But we have to do it if SAFe and its false certainties aren’t going to somehow take over.

Update (24th March): Be disciplined about “later”

I’ve been meaning to add this for a while. I remember an old designer chum talking about the reason why apps and websites have “hamburger menus”. You know, the three horizontal line that reveal a whole host of features and other bits that don’t quite fit anywhere else. He described it as “the place you put your stakeholder debt”, by which he meant the features a team know will clutter up the core user journey and distract people – but represent an idea they can’t persuade someone senior to abandon. You grudgingly build it, and put it in the hamburger menu, so honour is satisfied – but the users are none the wiser.

The same can be true for a lot of the tail-end of roadmaps. They’re far too often a pretty unstructured mess of random “things the team and stakeholders think we ought to look at, at some point”.

I was chatting to Janna Bastow – inventor of the Now/Next/Later format – about this before Christmas. In particular I was saying that, in practice, I don’t think it’s as good at managing expectations and plans as people think it is. “Later” ends up doing a lot of jobs, in my experience, and most of them pretty badly. I was also saying how much I liked the “candidates” feature of her software Prodpad – which is used for things that might go into the roadmap at some stage, but where a team don’t yet have the information to know where and when.

I was suprised to hear her say that she never intended “Later” to be used in this way. She’d always used it for things that had still been sufficiently validated with users, plus there was some technical discovery, and the team had a rough idea how big it was. Maybe they didn’t know in fine detail – things are still agile – but that item had earned its place in the roadmap, and the team were pretty sure it would already wash its face as an area to explore at a price they could afford.

So yes: don’t chuck just anything into the “later” section of your roadmap. It’s not the hamburger menu. A “later” you never get to will just disappoint people.

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.

Miscellany

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?

ow
  • 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.