Fortnote – 27th May

Hello there. Bloody hell, what a fortnight! And even then I’m cheating by posting this on the Bank Holiday.

The day job

Lots of recruitment going on at the moment. Thank you to everyone who applied for my recent Lead Product Manager role. Last Sunday was spent painstakingly going through 104 CVs to pick our lead candidates – just a staggering response. We’re taking a handful of really promising people through the interview stage now, plus there are a few more people sitting on the back burner (so huge apologies if you’ve in the tiny group who’ve not yet heard a “no” back from me just yet).

Looking through that many applications is fascinating, particularly when stepping outside the government slight-bubble, because you really do get to see the diversity of career paths people have been on – and in some cases, completely different understanding of Product. You spot echoes of previous employments, and somtimes different career paths you could have been on if things had turned out differently.

Anyway, I’ve been back doing interview question design – which is the closest I get to doing my own user research these days. So far, they’re showing us the things we need to know, which is good news. Best of luck to everyone who’s in the shortlist.

The Leadership Team unveiled the 2030 Vision for Which?, and us folks in ELT have been in various workshops thinking through how to ‘make that real’ for staff…at a few different time horizons. I’m in a working group for our innovation/new business-model strand – setting the annual organisational OKR when there’s so much still to find out, before we then try to work out how we should explain it to teams in terms of objectives for the next quarter.

I had a slightly interesting moment in this session, where I was getting increasingly uncomfortable about the repeated focus on this word ‘delivery’. I’d planned on sitting on my hands (after all I’m still pretty new), but both the CEO and another Director spotted my utter lack of poker-face about this and I was asked to explain why I looked quite so uneasy.

I had to say that I have a bit of an allergic reaction to this term ‘delivery’. Not because I don’t think we shouldn’t be having an impact, and not because I don’t think we could be shipping and learning faster.

My problem is that it’s too easily used either as a cover for reverting to stakeholder/feature-team behaviours at the middle management layer (“our idea was great, but technology didn’t deliver”) or to brush aside the important work needed to make sure that a senior person’s idea doesn’t quite have product-market fit and needs iteration. (Or, occasionally, may be just terrible). I don’t want “a focus on delivery” being used to basically mean “shut up and do what you’re told” because I’ve seen too many great teams become disempowered, passive, and actually deliver less as a result of these good intentions once they’re stripped of nuance. Or are actually being told to stop asking questions. So yes: go fast, learn fast, ship value one tiny increment at a time – but please don’t lose the nuance in converations about “delivery”, and thereby turn hawks into handsaws.

For our Product Managers the new strategy is going to mean a huge emphasis on creating/improving Discovery skills, so we’re better placed to deliver (ha!) on all this. As part of testing the water on how we might do this, I’ve impulsively signed up for Teresa Torres’ “Assumptions Testing” course, which is going to keep me busy every Thursday evening for the next five weeks. And some of the evenings in between as there’s also homework – ugh. Hopefully the mixture of learning and doing will be a good way to embed the skills, beyond just reading “Continuous Discovery Habits” a third time. At the end, I’ll hopefully know if it’s worth putting staff (and even members of the ‘extended squad’ such as Marketing or Analytics folks) through the same process.

I’ve shared my draft ‘game board’ for the next year (a sort of skeleton roadmap/capacity plan) with the Product Managers and Engineering Leadership – and a few of the Directors – which hopefully gives us enough shape to be able to plan what we need to DO, and also what we need to FIND OUT, between now and Christmas.

I still feel like I’m not seeing enough users myself though. I know that, as a leader, I have to mainly deal with abstracted and summarised information, but I definitely feel I still need to sit in on at least three sessions a month so I’ve got reference points to hang all this abstraction from. Particularly for a new audience. I worry that I’ll be secretly developing vision and strategy based on my own experience plus a biased reading of slide decks…when I need to be regularly reminded that I’m probably partly wrong, users are more diverse than I imagine, and things are definitely more messy than I hope. Because ideas that survive that are the ones worth keeping.

Of course, my advice to a jobbing product manager going through this worry would be: take the time to work out what questions you’re truly trying to answer, in order to make which choices. So I need to book in some time to do that.

Next week also brings another Product Community session. Have a few ideas for that at the moment – and I may end up doing two different topics in the hour, to balance the emergent needs and the top-down skillbuilding. We’ll see.

We also have a Product Strategy awayday looming, and I need to get down to the fine details of logistics for that. The room has a hard stop at 5pm, so there’s no time for messing around. But I’m hugely delighted (and honoured) that the amazing brain of Matt Webb is going to be help inspire folks in the later part of the afternoon.

So, er, plenty to be getting on with.

[I notice that in the notes for the-weeknote-that-would-have-been last weekend, I have written “closed all the tabs”. Yeah, that didn’t last long. On and up.]

Wider Producting 1: Return to Sender

Photo courtesy of Scott Colfer.
Pretty obviously, as he’s the person far closer to the phone taking the picture.

I took a half-day off last Wednesday to dive back into my former Government world. It was a fabulous chance to see a whole bunch of old friends and colleagues, largely precipitated by my late December “mic-drop” rewriting of the government capability framework for product management, capturing all the worries and concerns I’d built up in the previous three years.

As I said at the start of the meeting “I think this gathering is my fault”.

We spent a good few hours going through my draft job descriptions and updated skills. We talked about whether there were more things we could lose. We agonised over whether the word “value” appeared enough. All the things you’d expect.

I got to talk a bit about the thinking behind the changes – the gaps I’d seen where I thought Product had got a bit lost and detached over last years, and how I saw the framework as a way of encouraging the activities that would rebuild trust and support product folk in doing the right thing the right way.

All kudos to the amazing Debbie Blanchard for working with CDDO colleagues to make it happen, and finding a room big enough for all those braincells and all that discussion.

Three unexpected delights:

  • I got to meet “the new new me” at DBT, who’s lovely. We’re probably going to catch up again to compare notes. And apparently I’m very much not forgotten, which is nice.
  • I discovered my work is already being used as the de facto framework in even more extra corners of government I didn’t know about, and others were firmly heading towards “can we just agree this document and crack on”. Which makes me feel even more vindicated about that fighting for “that bit of work GDS weren’t sure they even wanted to pay for”.
  • Former GDS user researcher Jodie Keens is now the Product Manager on the wider framework! We’d had a few Slack chats about her desire to head in this direction about a year ago, and she joined some of the Product sessions at GDS Learning Days, so it’s lovely to see new people, with new skills, crossing over into product-and.

I suspect I’m not going to be involved in many more of the meetings (it’s their baby now, and they don’t need me lurking in the background being protective) but I think it’s in good hands, and excellent things will happen. Plus I’m still on the other end of a phone if they have “what on earth were you thinking when you wrote this” moments.

Good luck everyone involved in taking it forward!

Wider Producting 2: unProduct

Matt Jukes wrote a response to my blogpost about negative space, where he says he’s finding himself increasingly put off by certain approaches within the Product world and feeling ever more an “unProduct person“.

It’s worth a read. I don’t agree with all of it, and in particular his (cited) take on OKRs as a complex framework – personally I think they’re super simple and a great way to express intent as a valuable constraint for teams to make decisions…but the thinking to decide strategy (and therefore a sequence of objectives) is hard, and OKRs are brutal on the lack of thinking. Teams shouldn’t be feeling that pain – Leadership should.

Neil Williams wrote a good response in his weeknote (scroll to “An aside on OKR advocacy”) which is worth a read – but I’d add my own layers. Matt advocates for understanding other practices, getting things to happen etc, which I’d 100% agree with – but I believe Product practices to be a huge “yes and” rather than a “no but” to all this long-standing practice.

One of the things I was trying to address when creating a new draft of the government Product capability framework (as mentioned above) was the need to plan better, involve stakeholders and other disciplines more, identify assumptions and test them through doing – rather than dogma or endless generative research.

I’ve also been similarly worried that Product people were coming up through the ranks too quickly by ticking some boxes and looking plausible, without sufficient experience of putting these skills into practice and learning through the messy process of failure/rescue/reflection.

I became a product person because my project and editorial skills were still leading me to brilliantly ship too many things that shouldn’t have shipped at all.

The getting things wrong is essential.

Particularly if you’re then going to be responsible for supporting others in that uncomfortable mess as a line manager.

Wider Producting 3: The Network

“But wait”, you are saying, “who is that person with the greying curly hair and colourful shirt?”

I also did two big bits of “getting out of the building” over the last fortnight.

The first was joining Scott’s “Product Leaders for Good” f2f meetup. Sadly quite a few people had to cancel at the last minute, for reasons ranging from work emergencies to hospital appointments, but a small gang still managed to compare challenges across the range of government contexts. I won’t name names, in case anyone was there by stealth, but it was sooo lovely to see you all.

We ranged from Director-level through to Lead, so there were a lot of different perspectives on problems – and also different types of support needed.

I’ve decided that there are a few good opportunities for just being mutual support-animals, and I’m now setting up coffees with folks I should have been nattering to more often ages ago, comparing perspectives on leadership and politics and all the rest. Perhaps more will come of that in future posts.

I also went to Numicon3: The Reckoning Part 2, organised by the lovely Mark Long (photo above). This was a follow-up to an event a few months ago where folks were first discussing the changes in airBnB (plus wider industry layoffs and responses to rising interest rates). I got to introduce a whole bunch of lovely people to each other, which was nice – and it was great to see Emily, Dave, Martin, Jock, and so many others.

Countless people approached me to say “I saw you speaking at the ‘Mind the Product’ event” which is clearly a thing I’m going to need to get used to.

Mark posted a really good summary of the key points afterwards, to which I’ve got nothing to add.

Probably should have gone easier on the free wine though. Getting up the following morning was HARD. I was glad I only had to make it to Bishopsgate first thing.

Wider Producting 4: Miscellany

  • Nice blogpost from Kai Hellstrom on working things through with stakeholders: Doing the Wrong Thing the Right Way. Reminds me of Steve Messer saying it’s ok to start with solutions, as long as you do it mindfully. Love this bit:
    The smaller the thing we build, the less we think we’ll have wasted. ‘Ok, we’ll do this, but we’re going to do 30% of what you asked, release, ‘measure and learn’, and then carrying on building it’. Hopefully here we have the opportunity to shelve the remaining 70%, when the next shiny thing comes along, priorities shift, or the person driving the solution gets the promotion that they thought the solution would bring them earlier than expected…
  • Lovely quote from Jean Cocteau in Amy Duke’s “Thinking in Bets”: “We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like?”
  • Transcript of a good talk from Eliot Fineberg on the future of courts, and the problems with middle management in the justice system.
  • I was sad to hear that my spidey senses were sadly true and GDS is winding down “Heads of Profession”. There are some truly fabulous experts in Agile Delivery, User Research, Content and Design doing these roles – so you should try and hire them.

Elsewhere

Dear goodness, the Sonos app is sooooo broken right now. I hear they’re having to rebuild it from the ground up, but this really shouldn’t have been released yet. Search only works on streaming services like Spotify, but if you’ve got a music library on a computer or NAS then you can only browse it manually…which is less than ideal when it contains something like 450 artists. The search autocomplete also prioritises the service you’re searching from in search results without showing that it’s done it – so Bandcamp purchases (or new releases you don’t yet own) randomly come and go for reasons you don’t 100% understand. The integration with BBC Sounds it so broken that I don’t know which episode of “Night Tracks” I’m listening to, nor how to get to the next one. And in the midst of this chaos they announce “the product everyone has been asking for” – Sonos Headphones. I’ve never even remotely thought I needed these for a moment – my phone does that thanks. Poor show.

Dandelion leaves, in a lawn
My nemesis

It’s summer, and so that means dandelions are back, messing up the lawn.

I used to be largely oblivious to this, but during lockdown I just became increasingly aware of how many we have. And because I didn’t have much else to spend money on at the time and you could only shop at garden centres, invested in countless specialist tools for managing them.

a kneeler mat, and two hand gardening tools
A semi-successful extraction

After work, I’m often spending 20 minutes just calming down by getting a few more of the damn things pulled out. The goal being the “perfect lift” where the whole tap root comes out in one go – hopefully meaning it’ll never be back.

An extracted weed.

I really can’t begin to tell you how satisfying this is. Honestly.

I also had one of those “wow, hasn’t materials technology come a long way” moments, when I swapped over the wiper blades on the car. When I got them out of the box I thought something must be wrong because there were none of the bridge-like fittings I’d expect to hold a wiper blade straight.

Two windscreen wiper blades on a car bonnet.

But no, in 2024 (or – more accurately – since at least 2017 when the car was made), wiper blades have enough kevlar or whatever in them that they can stay straight of their own accord. Science!!!

I have an amazing Eurorack filter module called “Three Sisters” which comes with an utterly incomprehensible and woo manual. It sounds lovely, but the manual is just too full of metaphors to be truly useful and that’s always grated a bit. It wasn’t cheap, and I knew I wasn’t getting everything I should out of it. So I was delighted to find that they have considerably better documentation on Github that says exactly what’s really going on.

Meanwhile, I remain utterly bemused by the marketing from “Furniture Village”. We bought our fabulous new mattress from there a few months ago…but we seem to be getting email newsletters as though everyone regularly buys completely new furniture all the time. You’re not in FMCG, folks!

Culture Corner

A man standing in front of a screen on a stage, by a lectern.

I really enjoyed Russell Davies’ Interesting 2024 semi-conference. Lots of random 10-minute talks (mainly from designers) about things that are just…interesting.

Loved Ben Terrett’s talk about the decline of Taps due to capitalism and ‘no touch’. His saying “wherever you see an A4 sign, design has failed” will stick with me. Sonia’s talk on compost was good too, althought I can’t have been alone in thinking “what, with your bare hands?????” Neil had a good writeup further down the weeknote that responded to Jukesie’s OKRs thing, which I mentioned further up, so I’ll re-point you to that.

Got to see lots of lovely old friends afterwards. Sadly these days with a bit more emphasis on the “old”. What’s become of us all?

Talking of which, I also went to see Gary Numan live at the Roundhouse.

He was playing his two seminal albums “Replicas” and “The Pleasure Principle” in full. The ones with “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric” on. And “M.E.” which you’ll know as “the evil bassline in Basement Jaxx’s Where’s Your Head At“.

The catch is that the hits are the only really good songs on these seminal albums – and he wasn’t playing them in the album order – so it was a horrendously dull two hours of waiting for the few songs that mattered.

Victor, Tom and Steve say “Thank goodness we never ever have to see Gary Numan live again”

The only other downside of the evening was getting a nearly full glass of red wine knocked out of my hand, straight onto the converse I wear to work.

Most of the mauve has now gone. Although the laces might take a little longer. It was clearly some pretty cheap Merlot.

On and up for the week ahead, everyone!

3 thoughts on “Fortnote – 27th May

  1. Neil Williams

    Thanks for the mentions! I do love these callbacks, like the old web again. I’m jealous of your dandelion digging machine. Although I think my lawn may be too far gone now, it’s more dandelion than not.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Week notes: 27 May – 2 June 2024 | Neil Williams

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