Weeknote – 14th April 2024 – Meaningful and pointless translations

A sundial on a patio, in front of a green lawn.

Blimey, I’m actually writing a weeknote during the week it happened. This is progress.

Work Stuff

Lots more discussion about OKRs at work this week. They remain one of the most misunderstood things in Product, for something so simple. But they’re also a mindset and culture, which makes them fragile. It’s far too easy for OKRs to become just “this is your to-do list from on high for the next three months”, and there are all sorts of organisational behaviours which can contribute to that. I’ve definitely seen in government and elsewhere the idea that OKRs are disempowering because it means you can’t have long-term plans…when the idea is that your long-term plans should be expressed through a sequence of OKRs. They allow for some delivery flexibility – around whether you want to keep going with the same objective for another quarter based on results to date, or move to the next objective in the queue – but they really shouldn’t be a framework for throwing everything up in the air each quarter and starting again.

Of course objectives aren’t a democratic decision, just like strategy sometimes involves hard and painful choices that not everyone will be in favour of, but it’s the responsibility of leaders to listen to potential new opportunities – and what end users are saying. Objectives are a leadership function, based on all their understanding of the organisational context, but they should be formed from a wide variety of inputs. Otherwise it’s just waterfall in disguise. SAFe but worse.

One of my interventions in this area, like I said last week, is to ask the squads what discovery they’re doing in Q4 to inform plans for Q1 (we work to a weird financial year that flips over June/July). I worry there’s a chance that it’ll get forgotten, or pushed aside by the day-to-day so I also made the slightly bold move of putting a reminder in the team calendar that I was hoping for an update on Q1 discovery during their checkins in late May. It’s one of those odd things where as a leader you’re trying to say “I did mean it, and this should help you remember, but it’ll be ok if it’s gone a bit wrong this time round – because we’re all trying to get onto a front foot”. I think there’ll be a little bit of panic this time, but hopefully that’ll lead to a smoother Q2 discovery during Q1. As I always used to say about service assessments “the best way to pass is to have done the right work the right way”.

When I first started in the new gig, I had to quite radically reshape how we handled OKRs within about a fortnight. It wasn’t a joyful experience for many of us (including me), but I realised I was going to be spending three months defending something I knew wasn’t right – and burning through political/social capital in the process. Or I could be a bit of an awkward sod, and start building trust in what the teams were doing from a solid base. It was a horrible decision, but I’d do it again.

I had a minor version of that earlier in the week, when I was looking at one squad’s KRs and realised two of them were basically the same:

  • Usage of thing will go up
  • People are using our new features to do with thing
  • [balancing metric]

Can you see the problem? If usage goes up, what else would you be doing to drive that other than the features you’re building? And of course you’ll be instrumenting the features anyway. So KR1 and 2 are isomorphic in practice. I nearly let it go, because I didn’t want to move goalposts – but then I remembered OKRs are a mindset. They exist to help you make choices about what to build and what not to build. The team needed a different guiding principle – and I didn’t know exactly what it was, but it needed them to think more deeply about why they were doing this work. What was “more usage of thing” a proxy for – to users and the organisation? Is it “more efficent goal-seeking” or “I’ll come back and do this again” or “more revenue” or what?

I saw them again at the squad’s first checkin after they’d been presented last week, and reluctantly decided not to sit on my hands. I’m glad I got to talk to the whole squad about my thinking – so designers and technologists and researchers and performance analysts got to hear the dilemma first-hand. I’m hoping they get to think about it critically and come back with something both measurable and useful.

I’ve also seen some of our other checkins get hugely better – although often the ones with the biggest improvements end up being the most poorly attended by those outside the squad, which is a huge shame. I need to work out how to encourage more people to come to these – so we can spread good practice.

Again this is all part of trying to bring things that have worked well elsewhere into the new job, but also knowing that some of the things I see genuinely are antipatterns…and where they lead.

Alongside longer-term planning, I’m also starting to talk to a few team members about building their strategic skills (and confidence in doing so). Sadly this is one of those practices where reading books really helps, but you can only truly learn by staring into the abyss – and feeling the discomfort. A lot of hand-holding is going to be needed.

I’m also starting to think about how we can make some of our ROI feel a bit more real and measurable. I’ve been thinking a lot about Josh Seiden’s fabulous “Outcomes over Outputs” where he says that businesses often confuse goals for strategy. Goals are great, but things like “get more customers” aren’t actually sufficiently tangible for teams to work on. “Retain members” is a big one for us – but is a hugely lagging metric, and driven by countless smaller behaviours and moments. I want to unpack some of these big metrics into acceptable shorter-term proxies – but where we measure the correlation on a slower basis to decide whether we want to keep them as our proxies for a future quarter.

Oh, and I’m back in the world of looking at Job Descriptions and career frameworks again. Deepjoy.

Work-adjacent stuff

Steve wrote a nice blogpost about the role of product management in reducing risk, and drew on parallels with the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This reminded me of one of my favourite Steven Johnson books, Farsighted, which is about good decision-making. He brings together Middlemarch, Darwin’s hunt for a wife, and the Bin Laden decision into one rather lovely volume. Can’t recommend it highly enough – I’ve given away at least one copy already.

David Gerard’s “Attack of the 50ft Blockchain” blog had a great article predicting the impending collapse of the GenAI bubble – because hallucinations are becoming an ever bigger problem, and the money is starting to run out. Ed Zitron is apparently saying we’ve got about three quarters left.

Had a really good coaching session with one of my clients this Friday. Slightly bittersweet that it’s the only time I’ll get to see them this month…because their diary is rammed with them putting stuff from previous chats into action.

Real Life

Finally, I’m looking forward to a day off next Friday. I’d been hoping to do some combination of sleeping, music-making, reading…but then realised it’s the day the new Taylor Swift album comes out, so it’ll be all about that I suspect.

The knee and hip have been pretty crap for most of the week, but they’re slowly improving. I can now go upstairs in alternating steps without needing to hold on to the banister. Going downstairs is still slightly one-step-at-a-time, but I’m making definite progress. As a result I may have been a big giddy committing to these new 34″-waist jeans, but let’s see.

I’ve been trying to stay mobile regardless – heading out for walks when I can. I was delighted to see this highly-specialist sign has been reinstated just round the corner from us on Blake Hall Road. Only in Wanstead, etc.

Sign talking about who to call for cattle-related emergencies.

I finished that lovely Alistair Campbell book, and was able to track down that quote I mentioned last week about “just because you can’t fix everything, it doesn’t mean you can’t fix something”. Not Greta, but actually Helen Clark – former PM of New Zealand. Still quite inspired by that – once I can walk reliably, obvs.

V and I had to head down to Brighton another time this weekend. There were a few more things we needed to retrieve from her late mum and late stepdad’s house – including the sundial photographed on our patio on London at the top of this article. We bought it for them when they got married, and it was a great place to gather in their garden, and rest a glass of wine.

Of course, moving a sundial from one place to another is a fairly pointless activity. It’s going to be oriented wrong for our garden. The analemma that helps you correct for the orientation of the earth will be a bit out – because it’s location-specific. But we’d still rather have it than not.

And retrieving it was a great excuse for a pub lunch in one of our favourite locations.

I’m trying not to think too much about the state of our lawn, which appears to be 90% moss and dandelions at the moment. Hopefully I can intervene before things run too badly amok – although it’s going to take quite a lot of kneeling to deal with the weeds, and that’s not something I’m sure I’m ready for just yet.

An overgrown lawn.
Perhaps I can get Finn the cat to help me.

I also had one of those parent-related disasters that only occur when you’re being cocky about something you once used to understand…and get your children to misspend quite large sums of pocket money on unusable technology. So I now own an extra 2TB hard disk that I can’t use, and have quietly bought all the cables and mounting parts, plus a replacement disk that’s THE RIGHT BLOODY SIZE FOR MOUNTING IN THESE MODERN DESKTOP COMPUTERS, and we shall speak no more of it. But no music-gear or theatre splurging for me as a result.

Onward to next week. By the time I’m next typing this, I’ll be able to gush about Tortured Poets…hopefully.

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