Weeksnote – 6th April – Messy Progress

Muddy trainers and very muddy legs
Definitely wishing I’d worn the trail shoes instead. And trail legs.

After the sheepish eventual Threeknote a fortnight ago, I was determined to get back into a regular weekly cadence, but no such luck. I’d imagined the Easter weekend as a beacon of serenity where I’d read books, drink fine wine, create music, and pontificate gently. Instead I spent quite a lot of it either at sundry retail parks, in the car to said retail parks, or trying to wrest a truly enormous chicken from The Ginger Pig into submission. There was also a ton of work hangover stuff to get through, and so I wanted to make the most of time away from the computer. So two weeks-worth in one go it is.

This weekend similarly had potential to be jampacked with indulgence and creativity (I continue to live in hope), as the girls are away on a pampering trip to West Sussex for two nights, leaving me and the secondborn to tragically subsist on bacon and pizza. Unfortunately this morning I did something stupid to my right hip and knee at a very skiddy Parkrun, so I’m back in bed and about 90% ibuprofen. So weeknotes it is, in the hope I’m feeling better and more inspired later.

Enough backstory, Tom, how have work things been?

The squads have been getting their OKRs ready for Q4 – all tied back to business-level OKRs about things like member retention or simplification. I can’t deny that this was a pretty painful process last time, with there being a few weeks of review and discussion while we got things pinned down to a standard I was comfortable with, and this lasted well into the quarter. However, those difficult conversations (and the processes we put in place) have proved to be really valuable, as the proposals from the squads this time round were miles better than last time. Our CPTO described it as “a step change”, which is rather lovely.

We worked the other way round this time too, with folks creating things in a fairly structured googledoc covering:

  • The OKRs
  • The context and thinking around why you’ve chosen this, rather than something else – including user insight/metrics/financial analysis that lead to a value proposition
  • Any initiatives you’ve already got in mind for it
  • What data you’re going to need
  • Dependencies/collaboration with other squads
  • Key wins/learning from the work in the last quarter
  • What discovery you’re going to do this quarter to help improve your plans for next quarter

Work in this document started just over a fortnight ago, although it was often bringing together long-standing threads of conversation. There was lots of comment-wrangling as we all worked everything through, but that worked out ok as not everybody was ready at the same time so the document never got too horribly noisy.

The presentations this week were then a summary of what had gone into these decks. And most of them – I’m pretty happy to say – are good to go. There are a few underpinning workstreams where we’re struggling to find the right way to frame OKRs – our design system and our engineering experience squads are necessarily a bit “meta”…but it’s hard not to get caught up in jargon that makes the work sound like navelgazing. How do you explain the business value of improving Mean Time To Recovery without saying “look, please read ‘Accelerate’ and trust us”.

One of the other things that’s good about this improved maturity is that we’ve also already got our finance and analytics colleagues looking through the proposed work before it’s been presented outside our directorate…so we should be on a front foot around ROI and decent measures too.

Plus we’re getting clarity on how much squad capacity goes onto BAU, better visibility on patching and maintenance work, and that hopefully helps give leadership more understanding of where all the money is going, and a feeling of control.

I’m also really glad we’ve started talking about plans for the following quarter already as well – this is all part of getting a more evidence-informed roadmap that gets more certain over time. I’m planning to set aside a fortnight in early June where checkings can give an update on what they’ve found, so we can adapt as needed before committing too early to any large bits of work.

When I first joined, one of the LPMs led the session – but this was probably my first Big Meeting that I was running. Which meant I was also on the hook for some of our “high performance practices” – some of which take me a long way out of my comfort zone. Every meeting is supposed to start with a clear declaration of intent, and then there’s a section called “voice in the room” – basically an icebreaker to invite a range of people to speak up and make the session feel more like a group effort. Finally (in the rare occasion when meetings don’t run to the absolute wire) we do a “what was useful, what would make it more useful”.

“Voice in the room” always gives me a lot of worry, because I don’t want to just pick something trivial. All my interactive media/storytelling background kicks in, so I want to take people on a bit of a journey – make it something that feels a bit resonant and relevant. Where people fell like they’ve learned something. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on myself, and a lot to ask of my fading gameshow-format skillz. Plus we were doing the OKRs review across two sessions, so I needed MORE THAN ONE of these damn things.

In the end I went with “how long do you make your Easter Eggs last” for the first one, producing much disbelief from many about the people who can keep them going for over a month. The second was a light pun on OKRs, but I warned people about it, because I wanted to give them time to think: “what’s the most interesting or memorable key you have in your possession”. This produced some truly fascinating examples of people who still had one key from fascinating buildings they’d previously worked in (and should have given back about a decade ago), fond memories of first cars, and even devices that looked like keys but were actually something else.

I brought out this:

A single white key from a synthesiser keyboard

This is the low D from a Korg Wavestation EX, generously donated to me by one Robin Beanland, and which was part of my live rig when I was playing with the reformed Dubious Brothers. The synth itself didn’t need to produce any sound – it was just one of many things driving Mainstage. So in any given song it could have been a trumpet, a sound effect, a synth, a harp – sometimes even different things at different points. But it clearly took quite a battering, because on the morning of the gig – during my final run-through – the damn thing suddenly failed. It stopped springing back. There it was, just a low D, always on – and impossible to retrigger without lifting the key up by hand.

So, on the morning of this massive gig, playing at the Bush Hall in front of 3-400 people – I was trying to take apart a synth keyboard to find out why on earth it had failed and see if I could repair it…then checking every other key just in case too. All while Vicky started looking at which music shops were within driving distance if we needed to very suddenly buy a replacement.

A diversion, but that was my story on the day. It brought everyone together very nicely. Even if it meant I had to disassemble and reassemble a slightly elderly 90s synth for the sake of a 45 second gag.

A synthesiser in pieces.
Thankfully I did remember where all the screws went, and it’s now safely reinstalled.

Oh, and you can see me successfully playing a working Wavestation that very evening here:

Look it all made sense in the late 80s/early 90s – everyone’s just a lot older now.
DVDs are available. If anyone still has a way to play DVDs.

Where were we? Oh yes, work stuff.

Watched some actual users at last. Hurrah. As fascinating as ever, and I need to make more time for this.

I ran a product community session where we talked about ROI, and some of my heuristics for it. I always worry people overthink this, aiming for an accurate answer rather than one that is ‘good enough to compare’, so it was nice to give folks some stuff to think about. The gang then did a Troika Consulting round (yet another great Liberating Structures workshop format) – helping each other get fresh perspectives on their problems. This even worked pretty well remotely, with participants turning off their cameras while their issues were being discussed, as a proxy for turning their backs.

People seemed to think it was useful, so that was good. Next stop Opportunity Solution Trees, and I’m also starting to think about doing a Product Learning awayday one Tuesday in May or June.

Otherwise, I’ve realised it’s time to take a bit of time off for myself. I’ve got a lot of reading and thinking I want to do – and as a contractor I only get to do some of that in “office time”. It’s been a very full-on first three months, and it’s time to recharge the batteries: the people and the processes and short-term plans are starting to take shape, but where do I want us to be going?

Wider Producting

I joined Scott’s “Product Leaders for Good” remote meetup mid-week. Very odd being back on Microsoft Teams, I’m not sure I liked it. But it WAS lovely to see a bunch of old familiar faces and finally get to see what a bunch of other names I know from Twitter/Mailgroups actually look like. I felt like a bit of an outsider as I’m not really working with either local or central government, but they do want my continued help on the government product career framework. There’s a date in the diary for a long workshop on that in May, so I’m glad to see it’s still likely to go somewhere.

Given everything else that was going on, I was delighted that I didn’t also have to worry about the Mind the Product “Product Leadership” training – which was being expertly handled by Bea and others. Apparently my name was dropped a few times, some of my stories were re-told, and I’m somehow comparatively famous in certain niche corners of Nova Scotia!

Had some nice WhatsApp chats with a former GDS colleague who was agonising about a thorny stakeholder/business-context problem, and seemed to make things better. That was nice.

I’ve had a very flattering invitation, which I’m still getting my head around – more news on that soon, once my impostor syndrome has been given a stern talking to.

I also got to join a bitter-sweet gathering of a whole host of really lovely product luminaries – Dave, Bruce, Jock, Martina, Nam, Christian and more – all there to grab a few beers with the lovely Janna Bastow and James Mayes for the last time in 9 months. As anyone who’s been following James on LinkedIn, or pretty much any other social media, will know – he recently had surgery to remove a brain tumour. This was 90% successful, but he needs radio- and chemo-therapy to blast the last 10%, and is going to be pretty immunocompromised as a result. So this was their last trip to London for a while. But a total delight to see them both.

Janna Bastow and Tom Dolan
I think I’m slowly acquiring my dad’s habit of not being able to have a normal face in photos.
This involuntary larking around needs to stop, sharpish.

Janna and I talked about managing curly hair (she’s only recently surrendered to this) and tons of other IRL stuff, but also about roadmapping and quarterly cycles. I was fascinated (and rather validated) to hear that rather than extending their quarters to get more done, they’re actually shortening their cycles to review and adapt roadmaps faster. “If it hurts, do it more often”, as the devops saying goes. ProdPad are now working on 7 week cycles, with 6 weeks of build and 1 week of tidy-up/review. Sadly there wasn’t tons of time to ask about this more, but this was a very welcome thing to hear.

Real Life

I had to dash off from seeing these lovely product-folk to go and see Pye Corner Audio in Hackney Wick, with gigbuddy Steve. There was a very silly opening act called Kylie Monologue, which was just good electropop fun. The proper support was a modular artist called Polypores, who I’ve never been convinced by. He was clearly having fun, and there were some interesting sounds that changed over time, but it never really had any sense of form or composition. It’s the thing that stops me releasing any of my modular jams – I had fun creating them, but would anyone want to listen to them? Polypores has a prodigious output…and maybe needs to up the quality control. They seem like a nice person and everything, but I’m just not sure it was strictly music.

A man standing over synthesisers and sequencers in a nightclub

Pye Corner Audio, however, was definitely music. Some truly great tunes played that got the venerable crowd jigging along. He describes it as “John Carpenter meets Drexcya” which sums it up pretty well – there’s an 80s radiophonic vibe to a lot of it all, but also bloody huge and bold drums and basslines. He’s also doing some great stuff with Andy Bell, formerly of Ride on his latest album “Let’s Emerge” – and is the inspiration for some of the Ableton-trading between me and guitarist chum Pete. Anyway, the core ‘hauntology’ genre sounds a bit like this…

I briefly looked up the price of some of the Elektron gear he was using on stage, as I was sorely tempted, but thankfully it was too much for an impulse purchase. However, in consolation, I’m about to take temporary ownership of a bunch of surplus Eurorack modules from old musical chum Jem G, so I will have plenty of other stuff to keep tinkering with.

Jane Weaver’s new album “Love in Constant Spectacle” arrived in the post today (and on Bandcamp yesterday). I’m not 100% sure about the move towards more of a guitary spacerock sound. It’s clearly the album she wanted to make, but I’m missing the synths at the core of the songwriting. Maybe her wonderful “Fenella” projects are what scratches that particular itch now, and she wants to do something different. The title track is still wonderful though. In the meantime I’ll continue to admire the drumming and synthwork on her classic “The Architect”

Piano-wise, I’ve been starting some new pieces. The slow grind of learning. Gah. They’re lovely though, and I’m making some good progress. I’m particularly fond of Grieg’s “Arietta” from the lyric pieces collection. But, looking at the specific notation used, I’m wondering what precisely he was thinking about, when deciding to write this piece about her?

some suggestive pairs of "pause" marks on music manuscript

19th-century musical smut aside, what else has been going on?

The retail bit of last weekend led to me finally biting an unexpected bullet. As some folks will have observed, I pretty much only wear Levi 501s, until they wear out. For just over a decade these were 36″ waist, 34″ leg. But post-lockdown (and getting inspired to get a bit fitter) I’ve found I can now get into my old fancy Diesel 34″ jeans, and those 36″ waists definitely need a belt now, and are bunching up a bit. Which is a bit scratchy. So I’ve committed – the new jeans are 34″ waist, and I have to stay able to get into them.

This also drove the determination to get out to Parkrun today. Despite the stupid knee/hip injury, the 5K went pretty well and was a good change from trudging around the local streets on my own without any pace-setters. I must confessed I slightly overcooked the first km, thinking I could magically keep up with 26-minute people after such a long break, and really paid for it later – but glad I went along. The sub-25s will be back soon, I’m pretty sure.

On the book front, I’ve nearly finished Alistair Campbell’s “But What Can I Do – how politics has gone so wrong and what you can do to fix it” and I’m feeling pretty inspired to get out there and make some things happen. In my mythical spare time, obviously. Regardless, this is great progress. Being inside government for a long time, and not being able to speak about your own wishes and dreams, can numb you to certain things. I think I’d become a bit resigned and disengaged with the world, thinking that all I could do was try and fix the stuff I could get near from within. But I’m starting to remember it’s possible to imagine bigger and better.

He has a lovely quote that’s stuck with me – I think it was a Greta Thunberg, but I’m struggling to find the specific source as I thumb through it again, which I’ll leave you with now, while I test my hip and knee – by going downstairs and attempting to put a neighbour’s chickens to bed:

“Just because you can’t fix everything, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to fix something.”

Amen to that.

2 thoughts on “Weeksnote – 6th April – Messy Progress

  1. Pingback: Week notes: 1- 7 April 2024 | Neil Williams

  2. Eliot

    I quite like the idea of outlining assumed prior knowledge for the rationale behind an OKR, and that the assumed knowledge could be a book. 👍 ‘Showing your references is not dumbing down it’s opening up’ etc etc etc


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