Threeknote – 24th March 2024 – Juggling

A paper sign showing Daisy as a baby on Dick'n'Dom
We’ll get to this later

Hello there. Gosh, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? For me, as well as any passing folks that might read this nonsense. Sadly I’ve been suffering from what one might call “an abundance of Real Life” over the last few weeks, and so the 60-90 minutes it takes to pull one of these together has repeatedly been squished out of my weekends and evenings. Hence only getting to this now.

It’s not done me much good either – lots of ideas have stayed feeling really half-formed in my head as a result of not writing the weeks up. There’s a whole host of stuff swirling around, and this ritual’s always helped me shape things – even the points I then decide not to include in a public blogpost. But this also means that, right now, I’ve got no idea if this post is going to be vast as I plough through everything in my head, or super high-level as I’ve forgotten tons of what’s been going on.

(Incidentally, I’d always ascribed the idea of “I don’t know what I think about something until I write it down” to Marina Hyde, but it turns out the quote was from Joan Didion. Marina’s jokes are probably better, though.)

Let’s start with the work stuff, as is traditional, before we get into “the random stuff that would have been on Twitter, back in the days when it wasn’t a hellhole”.

Three Weeks in Product Leading

Last time I posted, I’d only just found out that loads of my old work on the government product capability framework was still ticking along, and so I was inspired to join Scott’s Whatsapp group of Product Leaders for Good after all – to provide tea and sympathy for old public sector chums, but also to be part of the nudging.

There were a ton of familiar faces in there, of course – but it was also a lovely chance to reconnect with folks who’d dropped off the radar over the past ten-ish years, and to see some ‘mutual orbit’ people I’d never previously spoken to. The groups has quietened down a little bit after the initial flurry of hellos, but we’re looking forward to our first collective lunchtime chat after Easter…even if it’s on Teams – ugh.

We’re sharing useful resources in a group, so I’ve finally added another key point to my “Roadmap heuristics – a work in progress” blogpost: be disciplined about what goes into ‘Later’. It’s an overdue amendment that’s been making me feel guilty for ages, so it’s super-handy to have a catalyst for getting the words out of my head.

About a fortnight ago I went out for a lovely evening in Soho with Randy Silver, Jason Knight, Jock, Keji, Kirk-who-was-over-from-the-US and many more. We were even joined at the start by most of the original “Mind the Product” folks too – Martin, Emily, Chris. It was wonderful to catch up with so many delightful and wise people – comparing perspectives, patting each other on the back about the continued ‘hard yards’ of proper digital transformation, and alternately celebrating/moaning about our various neurodiversities. I left before things got too messy, and thankfully there’s no photographic evidence. But I did manage to get Martin Eriksson to say that he’d come and chat to the product community at my new job – which was very kind of him.

Back at work, I’ve been lightly trying to make our various product ceremonies a little bit more valuable to the community members. We have a weekly ‘standup’ meeting on Mondays, and I’m trying to bring in a bit more structure to the conversation – not to push out the social side, but to make sure folks don’t miss dependencies and we’re celebrating the right things. Basically I want the session to have enough of a point that other things won’t get scheduled over the top of it.

People who’ve worked with me over the years will remember classics such as:

  • What have you learned that everyone else needs to know?
  • What help do you need?
  • What metrics have you moved?
  • etc

The first refreshed one of these seemed to go pretty well, and it led to some interesting new discussion – and a few things being celebrated that would have fallen through the net with the previous structure. Let’s see if it sticks – not because of me demanding it, but because the team members keep iterating it to make it even more valuable.

I also ran an hour-long workshop with the wider product community about what they *need* the community to do for them. I sent out a pretty long questionnaire beforehand – asking about everything from skills to trust to context – and we went through the high level findings from that as a group. I found it a hugely useful session, because it helped me think about a roadmap for what the community can do for each other, what I can do for them (in particular around creating more space to play), and what help I can potentially bring in from the outside. I think it may have given folks a bit of hope that I’m here to help, not just to endlessly say “these OKRs aren’t quite good enough yet, have you thought about thinking about [yet another new lens]”.

(I do feel a bit bad that it took me two months to get round to doing this particular session, but I baaaaadly needed to breathe out after putting so much emotional energy into getting the GDS Product Community up and running. I’d have also just been going through the motions, and not had any working hypotheses about where W? was different.)

I’ve been getting further into the “governance operations” side of things too. How do we set things up so that squads have the context to make sensible decisions at the micro level – but we have enough visibility that the right work is being done at a more general level, and there are no unhealthy pressures for squads to absorb. There’s been a bit of talk about how honest we are about “30% time” – the proportion of our capacity set aside for non-OKR-driven maintenance, patching etc…and whether it’s enough. So I’ve been drawing charts like this for folks:

I’ve also been talking about the strategic process of creating “hypothetical budgets”, and using team confidence scores to iterate and get more confidence in longer-term plans. I’ve realised this might be slightly-new-thinking, now I’m in a new world, so I think it is going to end up as the first standalone blogpost in ages. As and when I finish it – ha.

I’ve been in some more really interesting strategy workshops, thinking about where the organisation might be in 2030.

I got to spend 40 minutes with Jon Moore of SVPG, who we’re lucky enough to have on our board, talking through what I was seeing/thinking/worrying about. He gave me a few really interesting perspectives from his own experience, a few areas of kind-but-definitely-clear challenge, and a ton of energy and backing. Really looking forward to the next one of these chats.

We’ve also started the process of getting our next quarter’s OKRs going, and I’m seeing some really good approaches coming in already from the first teams to put their heads above the parapet. Of course, being me, there’s now a ton of “yes and…” in the documents – even down to sharing potential visualisations that would make progress easier for our stakeholders to understand.

Our colleagues from Finance also want to get more involved this quarter – trying to get a better handle of modelling ROI for each aspect our planned work. This is probably going to lead to a few difficult questions about how we prove and bank success – but I think they’re actually incredibly useful conversations to have. It’s chipping away at improving the context for the teams and empowering them – how do we get them connected to metrics we can genuinely measure and that are genuinely valuable. Alternatively, if we can’t, can senior people please commit to some proxies for them? As Josh Seiden would say “what are the specific changes in user behaviour that we think are going to drive business results”? Some of this is going to be on me, of course, but it’s worthwhile work.

Of course these conversations are always happening at different levels, because my role is to look at OKR-setting and reporting as part of a system. How can we create a context for the teams where they’ve got meaningful measures, that can be reported on sufficiently frequently that they know what’s working? And how can squads know what the longer-term things are that matter, so they can make plans to continually improve towards these – rather than have completely new objectives each quarter. This has also tied into to discussions about how we do our own business planning and organisational roadmapping around organisational OKRs.

When I write all this down, no wonder I’m feeling Just A Bit Tired At Times.

But my biggest victory of the last three weeks was that I managed to get agreement that we were going to stop working on something.

I’m really glad we’re freeing up a squad to start working on something more valuable – and that we got to a sensible evidence-based decision about it, rather than ploughing on by default. Saying “no” is not something anyone likes to do, but I hope leadership (including me) managed to do it kindly for everyone.

Product Miscellany

  • John Cutler wrote a nice piece on “the power of first-hand experience”. I often talk about becoming an agilist/product manager because I was fed up with projects running late, or with fairly-flawlessly-executing projects that it turns out nobody needed, so it’s nice to have a list of “why we all do this” in one place.
  • Scott Colfer writing up his experience of using the WhatsApp Community thing. Full disclosure: I was one of the people moaning about things not working. Sorry Scott.
  • Stephen McCarthy, my design counterpart, talks about the power of learning by breaking things – even the things you love.
  • Good coaching-client session last Friday morning. Nothing I can share from that yet. But apparently I helped. That’s nice.
  • Bought a whole bunch of new books: Marty et al’s new “Transformed”, of course. But also (finally) Alison Coward’s “Workshop Culture”. And at least one other that’s slipped my mind.
  • Please don’t ask me how many books I’ve finished, kthxbai.

Real Life

Yes, finally, it’s “the stuff that would have been posts on Twitter”.

Did a quick sprint up to Norwich the weekend before last – which turned out to take waaaaaay longer than originally planned as the M11 was closed. But, as a result of the diversion, I did get to see that Broxbourne Zoo (from my childhood), which was later rebranded Paradise Wildlife Park, is now called Hertfordshire Zoo. I think something terrible happened there a few years ago, but it’s odd to see that tragedy manifesting itself years later in a shiny new road sign.

Road sign in Cheshunt saying "Hertfordshire Zoo".
Yes, the car was very stationary at this point in time.

I got there eventually, took the daughter out to the supermarket and Wagamamas, before dropping her back at university to watch a play featuring her friends. On the way back to the car, even though it was nighttime, I still got to see the UEA rabbits. Awwww, etc.

Three rabbits, lit by streetlight.

Daisy also had a weird loop-closing experience. At her final club-night of the term, the special guests were former kids TV superstars Dick’n’Dom, who came on stage at 12:30pm to play hardcore drum’n’bass. Yes really.

Anyway, she brought a poster with her, featuring the last time she met the two of them – in “the baby race” nineteen years ago. That’s it at the very top of this post. Dick’n’Dom were very excited to see it, and waved it around to the whole crowd – even having it on the front of their DJ booth for a chunk of the set. But Daisy also spotted there was a certain grim realisation from the pair of them – that the baby race was now sufficiently long ago that even the babies are now adults at university.

Her poster was somehow retrieved in the crush of the crowd, and will now be ornately framed in her student house. A fitting end.

One of the curses of working at Which? is that you meet interesting people who are experts on {all sorts of things}. And you get chatting to them, and realise that perhaps it’s really really time you replaced your own {very old one of those things}. So thanks to the lovely Lisa who runs our mattress testing unit, Vicky and I are now considerably poorer but sleeping tons better.

The mattress turned up from Emma INSANELY vacuum packed, and a very strong man carried it all the way up into our loft room.

a mattress curled up in a spiral, inside a suprisingly tiny box.
The box is 18″ per side, and as tall as a single bed is wide.

You get this snail-like monster out of the box, unfold it, roll it out flat, carefully clear everything nearby out of the way, then cut the plastic on the side to let the air in. Within fifteen minutes it looked like this:

a nearly-expanded king sized mattress, now sitting on a bed perfectly normally.

It was pretty good that night, and continued to get better and better over the next week. Loads of my back and neck problems are already improving, and I’m sleeping for longer – while overheating less. Also, I can move in the night without waking up Vicky. Can’t recommend highly enough, and wish we’d changed it over earlier.

The Amaryllis continued to be glorious, and is now fading fast. Pah.

Large red flowers on an Amaryllis plant in full bloom.
One half of the amaryllis flowers now look terrible, and the other half is starting to get a bit shrivelled too.

Elsewhere in ‘Nature Corner’, we had two ducks briefly move into our garden pond. The cats were absolutely fascinated – and sensibly realised that they’d almost certainly lose the fight if they started anything. And get sodden in the process.

Two ducks by a pond.
A cat looking sadly out of his catflap
Finn watches ‘frustrating tv’.
Another cat that's really not going to have any luck, sitting by the pond, watching ducks.
Loki wouldn’t have much luck either, great chonk that he is.

What else?

  • Dear God, the Westfield parking app is terrible
  • I love this picture of an Owl who’s Just Had Enough
  • One evening, I spotted this lovely cute frog nestling in one of the holes in the plastic grid that runs down the lawn to the studio…and when getting ready to upload realised it was a wee bit ruder than I first thought.
  • I’ve been wondering: if ghosts have problems interacting with the physical world, how can they hear?

Music Bits

Upgraded to Ableton Live 12. Ran out of disk space to install any extra packs – but then I probably don’t need any more string/brass libraries on top of the Native Instruments ones.

Inspired by some of the GLOK/Pye Corner Audio stuff I’ve been listening to, featuring Ride’s Andy Bell, I’ve started trading Ableton sets with former GDS TechArch partner-in-crime Pete Chamberlin. He’s a mean guitarist, as folks who came to my 50th birthday party will know, and has shared a few little noodles for me to add things to. I’ve sent him the stems of one of my stagnating works-in-progress. But he’s also come up with an interesting constraint:

Neither of us is allowed to add more than two things, or work on a piece for more than two hours without sending it back to the other.

This is a fascinating idea, and much more like a jam. We have to keep bouncing things off each other, to see where it goes next.

I’m making good progress on lots of the piano pieces – getting much deeper into Kabalesky’s miniature “Novelette”, for example. I’m starting to look at some Grieg pieces that were suggested to me by Adam at work, and there’s even some (easier) Liszt on the horizon. But occasionally the old Rock habits kick in:

music manuscript

This particular stretch of Skempton’s “Well well, Cornelius” keeps turning into “Slipping Through My Fingers” and requires constant vigilance. Dammit.

Two years ago, I absolutely loved the Rachel K Collier online course where she taught us/Mary Spender how to use Ableton Live – I picked up so much inspiration from that – so I’ve also succumbed to the early bird discount on the pair’s songwriting course. I just need TIME, now, of course.

Still waiting for the new Jane Weaver album to come out – this profile was nice in the meantime. Otherwise I haven’t bought that much more music to listen to – instead I’ve been delving into the archives a lot. I’d forgotten what a brilliant, but deeply unusual, album Self Esteem’s “Prioritise Pleasure” is – after playing it to death in early 2022. I’m also rediscovering Daphne & Celeste, Ulrich Schnauss and falling in love with “This Woman’s Work” all over again. Plus I had a pretty good run while rediscovering Everything but the Girl’s “Walking Wounded” – which remains as heartbreakingly poignant as ever.

That’ll do for now. See you in definitely-just-a-week’s-time.

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