Weeknote+VAT – 6th May 2024 – Getting Going

Foot, in a runningtrainer, on the pavement
Bravery begins here. Albeit with an Albanian songstress for moral support.

This last week’s been an odd one. Obviously there was the bank holiday – hence this being a day late while I did some approximation to leisure – but it has been pretty full-on. Mainly in a good way, but quite stretching at times.

I’ve been starting to think a lot more about the metrics of our work, and how – when looking at retaining users – sometimes we should focus more on the absence of something, rather than the things we can more easily measure. The ‘negative space’ of user behaviour. Why have users stopped looking at product reviews, for example. There’s something bigger in here, but it’s not yet fully formed.

This mindset was incredibly handy for another chat later in the week, when I was more alert to “the real story is in the bits we aren’t talking about”. So much so that it’s become its own dedicated blogpost.

We also had the 4-weekly product community session on Thursday, which I based around Teresa Torres “Opportunity Solution Trees”. I love this as a technique, but it’s quite high-risk in a group of external stakeholders, because you will uncover gnarly problems en-route. As a facilitator, you need to trust that the technique is right and the situation is the problem. My brief to the community was “this is your chance to be rubbish at this, among friends”.

Our next step is to do it more thoroughly, in wider groups, for longer – to help inform the blocks that could be in our strategy – based on the problems the squads see working with users and operational stakeholders. There’ll be bits of our product strategy that are necessarily top-down (as I said to folks in the room, “I’m afraid strategy is not a democracy”) but it’s always important to know what you’re comparing leadership’s ideas against – and what less-visible-but-still-valuable bottom-up work you might want to make a case for.

I’d done this as a similar kickoff exercise back at DIT, about 3 years ago, but with a distributed workforce using Miro because we were still just post-pandemic. That session was good, but I must say that the energy from doing it together f2f in one room (because Which? gets all digital folks in on Thursdays) was incredibly different. The level of cross-fertilisation was just wonderful. The room was LOUD. People were finding out that someone else in another squad already had the answer to their intractable problem. It was actually quite hard to get people to leave for their next meeting. So I consider that a roaring success.

In just under four weeks, our Product folks will be doing the same thing – with a bit more structure and more multidisciplinary groups from across the Product&Technology organisation. I’ve got photos of the whiteboards they created in the run-through, and there are definitely a few…nudges…that I’d suggest. Areas where I suspect people went too business-problem rather than user-problem – that sort of thing. But it’s so hard when you weren’t actually there for the actual conversation – you’re looking at an artefact, not an understanding. I’ll find a way.

One thing I’ll definitely introduce as a rule for the bigger session though: every opportunity, feature and assumption has to be on post-its, and the whiteboard is just for interconnecting lines. Otherwise there’s too much sunk cost in the first opportunity-structure you thought of. It’s too hard to redraw the whole thing, given group dynamics.

What else has been going on in the day-job?

  • I sat in on some interview panels for an adjacent business area, which was fascinating.
  • I finished the JD for the new Lead Product Manager role we’ll be advertising soon. It’s a bit different to the current roles, so I’m also sharing it with all the incumbents so they can see “the inside of Tom’s head”. Nothing that isn’t a slightly-more-commercial extension of the Role Descriptions (and maybe skills) that I created when revisiting the Government Product Career Framework. But it’s best to be doing as much of this in the internal-open as possible.
  • I gave a short talk to our People Team about Product Mindset. The original brief was around how people get allocated to initiatives, and how OKRs get chosen – but I realised I wanted to talk about some more fundamental stuff than that. Like “why do you people insist we use this word ‘Product’ rather than ‘Project'”, which always bears repeating. Lots of Jon Lewin-style jokes buried in the slide deck, and there was a lot of laughter (plus a few chunky questions) from the group – so hopefully that was a success. Of course the “where the work comes from” meant talking about the messy dance between top-down strategy, bottom-up insight, and the annual tides of our organisation – but at least one person afterwards said that they now understood why it was such a complicated job.
  • I’ve been lightly playing with Google Gemini, like many of our leadership. Most of the big features we need aren’t coming until June, but it’s been good to start getting my hands dirty. Of course, with “origination work”, you often spend sooo much time engineering a prompt to get the answer you want that it would actually have been quicker to just write the damn thing in full yourself. (Which may be a valuable lesson to many with high hopes for AI). But I have found it pretty useful for summarising text in several different styles to spot patterns or potential viewpoints I had missed.

Elsewhere in Product

On Wednesday I really enjoyed Matt LeMay’s fireside chat with Janna Bastow about ROI for Product Teams. Partly because he was saying almost exactly the same things as I was saying to our product community about a month previously, but also because he gave some lovely extra nuance. Will link to this in a future blogpost once it’s published again.

This came the day after a WomenInProduct/CPOTrack session with Melissa Perri about Product Operations. As you’d expect, absolutely rammed with insights, including:

  • Spotify’s culture started off as “teams can choose anything they like” but then ended up with 45 different release systems, duplicate features, and no ability for leadership to make critical decisions. So it’s important to say what *is* standardised, and what’s not.
  • You need to make it super easy for product teams to get the data needed to make critical product decisions.
  • “Spraying and praying” as an (unsuccessful) approach to user research
  • Sometimes strategy is bad, but it’s easy to blame the PMs
  • Sometimes UX designers are picking up the slack for poor product management
  • When we had to scale to bring in tens of thousands of new Product Owners into the industry, some stuff was going to go wrong along the way
  • Beware ‘peanut buttering’ teams – spreading them thinly across ever more problems
  • As a leader, how can you remove the barriers to executing on great strategy?

So yes, I’ve got loads to think about, and I really ought to read the new book. And probably “The Build Trap” again.

I’ve also signed up for a Teresa Torres course – but that won’t play out until June, so more news then.

I had also largely given up on buying Product books not from Amazon, which I largely do through gritted teeth. Elsewhere it’s Foyles all the way, but in Product literature there’s soooo much stuff that’s only available as Amazon print-on-demand. Teresa, Melissa, Itamar, Dave. So it was rather lovely to have Amy Dunne’s “Thinking in Bets” turn up and be reminded what normal books feel like – none of that already-starting-to-curl cover business. Wish I’d checked before I’d ordered it, and got it from elsewhere!

And Real Life…

The knee has still been playing up horribly after the parkrun injury about a month ago, including a weird click when going down stairs. But I remembered the commitment to 34″ waist jeans and decided that It Was Time to go out for a very short and slow run – perhaps 2km. Was delighted to still be going at 5k, and in ~29 minutes, but decided not to push it any further and just walked home. Overjoyed that this little phase might be behind me.

Of course, it was helped that I was powered by the new Dua Lipa album – which is bloody wonderful. The soundtrack to my lockdown was largely Kylie’s “Disco”, Jessie Ware’s “What’s Your Pleasure?” and Dua’s “Future Nostaliga” – so the pressure on her follow-up was always going to be high. Yes, it’s definitely More Of The Same…but that “the same” is just as gorgeous as ever. It’s particularly welcome after the bleakness of the Taylor Swift album. Far more ‘prosecco and espresso martinis to party away the pain’ than ‘dark rum and red Marlboro to wallow’. And it’s also SHORT. 45 minutes, if that. The production is just outstanding, and Kevin Parker’s brought just enough sprinkling of Tame Impala to the party – but not drowned the essential Dua. Favourites currently include “These Walls” and “Happy for You”.

Go on, press play. You won’t regret it.

Piano’s been interesting – going back to some older pieces, although Seb has told me quite sternly “the reason we are going back to them is so you can apply all you’ve learned in the last six months, not just play them like you used to”. So I’m now doing the crappy thing of unlearning. Gah.

Spent an hour playing with the modular system, in the opposite way to usual – just trying to get the most interesting combinations out of a tiny number of things. This time: Ochd, Tides, Beads. Nothing worth sharing, but good fun – and ended up being something to meditate to!

Caught up with a few old friends this week – some going back as far as BBC era. We may have had Some Wine.

But I also got to hear from someone who’d been on a “Smart Motorways” course because they’d been caught going over the speed limit – and they had a ton of fascinating facts I thought it was worth sharing:

  • Most people on the course didn’t know why they were there, because they didn’t know how Smart Motorways work.
  • Smart motorways have sensors under the road, so looking for the Big Yellow Camera isn’t so much of a thing
  • The speed limits kick in *at* the gantry, so you have to be down to 50 by then, not starting to slow down
  • It’s still a bit flaky, so you can’t assume the speed limit has gone back up if you go under a gantry without signage.
    And my favourite:
  • The weirdest thing about smart motorways is that they’ll impose a speed limit seemingly for no reason. You’re used to thinking there’s a traffic jam or accident and keeping an eye out for it – just ‘being on alert’. But actually the speed limit is because something has gone wrong further ahead, and by dropping your speed to 50 or 60 it will allow that traffic clumping to disperse by the time you get there…and you’ll actually get there faster.

Lots of being in the garden this weekend, which also means digging out the Merlin app to work out which birds I’m hearing. One of the very best apps there is.

We all got to hear the word “drubbing” being used a lot, because of this:

Had to drive up to Norwich on Saturday to collect the daughter, which meant that on the return journey someone was available to (safely) capture one of my favourite pieces of graffiti. It’s not going to get Jukesie excited as street art, but it always makes me smile.

On which note, it’s time for bed. Have a good one.

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