Author Archives: tom

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!

Weeknote 12th May – Looking up

Hello again. A shorter weeknote this time round, not least because I last posted on Bank Holiday Monday, and there’s only some much that can happen in six days…

Flagrant Come-hithering

First up, if you’ve not seen elsewhere, I’m hiring for a Lead Product Manager here at Which?, to work on our new Data Strategy. Thank you to everyone who’s shared the role on LinkedIn or in newsletters. I’m genuinely quite touched by the people who’ve passed it on, and (being honest) slightly humbled by some of the people who’ve expressed an interest via back-channels. If you’re wavering/honing, do please crack on with your application, as the sift numbers are already looking lightly daunting!

There’s a bit of “full disclosure” that needs to be included here, which is that I am the *interim* Head of Product at Which?. I suspect I’ll be here for a while still, but also: I wouldn’t be recommending this role if I didn’t think it was an interesting place to do meaningful work. And, who knows, there are worse places to go perm…

More general work stuff

  • Lots of discussion about how to make squad health metrics more valuable. Had to do the important “and this is not about comparing between teams” statement at a big checkin where the first version of the cross-squad metrics were unveiled. Getting in on that particular worry early! One of the nice touches is that we’ve moved from RAG ratings for health into shades of pink…because the BARRY framework is now called BARBIE. It means that there’s less stigma to things needing improvement – every squad is in a different place, with countless factors affecting how they’re doing. Another important “publicly doing leadership” moment was reminding everyone that the metrics aren’t an end in themselves; if you don’t have sensible conversations about how to use your error budget, it’s just pointless data capture.
  • Connected to the new job mentioned above, we’re in an interesting transition between a) “the Project of creating a Data Strategy”, b) the Product work (starting in a few months) that’s all about making the tools exist/work/be valuable for the wider organisation, and c) the messy middle phase we’re in now. My head’s therefore full of Cynefin and Wardley Maps, trying to work out which of our current activities are project tasks in themselves, which are product-style agile working, and which are slightly-vague but very-time-bound bits of work that are about setting the forthcoming new product teams up for empowered success (without prescribing the outputs) by the time they arrive. Trying to create this clarity when both Project and Product practices are looking at me slightly like I’m mad is an interesting place to be…and I wish I had more time to explore it and show my workings to make others smarter. (Plus it might help folks stop me from making stupid mistakes of my own).
  • There’s a big strategy session coming up next week, that came with homework for everyone in the ELT (extended leadership team – all the “Heads of”). Our bosses have sent us a list of links to Interesting Stuff to reflect on in advance of the session. There’s loads in there, but I’m very slightly daunted that one of the links we’ve been sent may have come from this blog. Er, hello, dear very-senior reader!
  • Had a really good chat about simplifying our analytics estate. There’s a not-unreasonable view that “we’ve got too many tools, and should just get rid of some”, but the devil is in the detail – or more specifically the ROI. When we look at the work needed to recreate all the dashboards, it’s pretty unclear whether we’d break even on the migration in year 1, or even 2. And there are opportunity costs – what else could those people be working on that could be creating even more value? And how might we cheaply get more confidence on where any of these lines cross? I love this space betwen product and commercial, and a chance to improve the conversations we have.
  • Had a bit of an ‘argh’ moment when the venue for my forthcoming awayday fell through, but thankfully it looks like Plan B is going to work.

Work Adjacent

Good god. It’s that anniversary again. Series 3 of BBC2 Arts strand ‘The Works’ started transmitting on this weekend back in 1997, and with it my very first paid website went live. I’ve now been doing this “new media” stuff for 27 years. Jeez. Thank you, yet again, to Andrea Miller for taking a chance on me, and Danny O’Brien for being too bloody busy to do it himself.

I’ve also been surprised and delighted just how much people have enjoyed and reshared the blog post I wrote last week about showing the mistaken-but-plausible ideas that product craft has helped us avoid. It’s made me think I should probably write more posts focused on individual issues, rather than these non-specific textural rambles. But then again, I often don’t know the full story myself until later. It’s quite rare that you get that sort of specific Moment of Clarity. Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try, or perhaps look back and synthesise the patterns more often. Maybe on that mythical day when I have “spare time”?

Real Life

  • Loved the “Imagine” about the Pet Shop Boys. Really wasn’t expecting Chris Lowe to be as funny (and good at bursting bubbles of Tennant pomposity) as he is, nor to come away realising how much of the soundscape was down to him. Utterly changed my perception of how the band works.
  • It also brought back some other moments of BBC resonance: a) The person that commissioned the documentary also used to work on The Works, two desks along from me, all those years ago; b) the *sound* of Alan Yentob walking through the corridors of Television Centre, in suits more expensive than any of us could dream of; c) his incredibly awkward drinks receptions for promising talent, which his COO had made him have, but was the last thing he was interested in – so would just spend his time pouring endless drinks so he didn’t have to talk in any depth. Dear god, the hangovers!
  • The documentary also featured lots of contributions from Miranda Sawyer, who once winked at 22-year-old me from her open-topped sports car in Soho. Oddly, I still remember this brief moment very clearly.
  • To put that moment of youthful promise into perspective, my right knee’s been utterly crap again this week. Went out for a run this morning, and I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the end of the road. Pah. Somehow limped round 5K in the boiling sun, and I’m not telling anyone how long it took./
  • But we have had the Northern Lights, which have been a bit hard to see with the naked eye, but come out very well on an iPhone 14.

It’s also Skylark nesting season on Wanstead Flats, so (thanks to the Merlin app) we get to spot and hear their song – which is just delightful.

Music Corner

Piano’s going well, although Seb the piano teacher’s words “we aren’t going back to those old pieces so you can play them like you used to, we’re going back to them to apply everything we’ve been working on in the last six months” are causing a LOT of friction. Good friction, but it’s really hard not to just settle back into hacking my way through stuff, with all the old bad habits.

Not much time spent in the studio sadly, although I’ve had occasional moments of fun trying to get the big fat lush Prophet 12 to deliberately sound like anything else.

My Threads feed has been full of fallout from Taylor Swift’s paris concerts – and it feels a shame not to repost this amazing picture from Kevin Mazur:

I’ve spent slightly more time on Stubhub looking at the UK shows than is healthy, but have always managed to back away, given the stupid prices. So far.

But the discussion has also led me to discover a little gem from her back catalogue – the Reputation-era video to “Delicate”, which was clearly a bit of a counter to “she can’t dance” and shows that she had put in a TON of work – as you can see in the preview image. But also just shows how truly fabulous she is at physical comedy. If ever she decided not to be a billionaire pop star, there are countless romcoms crying out for her…

Have a good week, all.

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.

A plea for Product craft: shout about your ‘negative space’

An empty EV charging point.
I often wonder about this EV charging poing nearby. It’s often empty. Is that because there aren’t enough EVs? Because EV drivers are more socially minded and make space for the next driver? Or because they can’t wait to get out in their lovely EV? Anyway – it’s negative space with a story, so read on…

Like many folks loosely grouped under the label “Product Leader”, I’ve been increasingly worried by the light crisis-of-confidence that’s been brewing around the role of a Product Manager over the last while – ranging from Brian Chesky’s restructuring of how he uses the role at AirBnB through to work kicking off in government with ever-shrinking Product involvement.

Some people in wider industry have described this focus away from PMs as “the reckoning”, which I think is a little unfair. Product Management is still an important role, but it’s been a bumpy ride with a few scaling problems. Many of the people doing it at the very start had tons of prior experience and knew what “product” was building on top of, but could have shown our workings more; there was a lot of propaganda early on (to escape the false certainty of the project mindset around public-facing work), which made it sound easy (and exactly the sort of thing someone young, confident and ambitous would get into); plus there was a resultant need across the whole industry to create large numbers of these people FAST.

So yes, we’ve got gaps we need to fill in – places where we grew too quickly and stretched the expertise slightly too thin. Places where we had managers who didn’t fully know the craft themselves, and couldn’t grow the new generation the right way. Work that happened too fast, so people were rewarded by certainty or salesmanship, rather than making the right sort of mistakes that would help them understand how to do this well. Situations where we didn’t help people understand enough of the value of other organisational viewpoints because we were in that hurry to transform – so we ended up looking a bit arrogant. I wouldn’t go as far as one CPO who said “and we have brought this upon ourselves”; this was a response to a shift in the industry mindset that spotted a new shiny and thought it was a way they could genuinely have faster, better, more and cheaper.

So I do think it’s time for us to fill in those gaps. Fast. And I spotted a gap that I think is worth calling out, for everyone’s sake. An easy one. Particularly if you’re doing proper Product. But bear with me, because it’ll require drawing a few threads together.

Full disclosure: I only noticed this late last week, when getting a playback of the findings from one of our squad’s recent work. I was watching them present, thinking “this is great, but it’s hard to see why we’ve spent all this time and money”. This seemed even weirder because the people in question are super-smart, very thoughtful, and I know they’d been doing the right work the right way. But why did the “findings” deck feel like we’d just gone round in circles? (And why did I have the sinking feeling that I’d seen this type of result before?)

Then, somehow, the penny dropped. Several pennies.

Thankfully I’d a) been abusing the concept of “negative space” when talking about metrics to some of our Product Managers earlier in the week, b) been teaching our squads about Teresa Torres’ “Opportunity Solution Trees” and made them all watch her brilliant talk from 2017’s Mind the Product conference. Watch it, it’s great.

So luckily I had these ideas already in my head:

  • Negative Space – what’s the story in what you’re not talking about
  • People fall in love with their ideas
  • People see a problem and want to solve it

And then I remembered something I first started to say in corridors/meetings about a decade ago. I think I came up with it in the early days of government, but it 1000% might have been something I inherited/stole from Talke or Kat when we worked together at Cimex(RIP). Or maybe James Darling, just like the milk-intervention thing.

Anyway, it’s this:

Almost all user research is obvious in hindsight.

And this is the combination of traps this set of highly capable and smart people had fallen into in their findings deck – that summarised them doing all the right work. And I realised I’d seen this pattern far, far, too often without spotting it and calling it out.

We do Product Management in order to reduce the risks around all the wrong things we expensively could have built…but we nearly always only talk about the exciting things we’re going to build. Some of which were on stakeholder’s lists at the start. This – understandably – comes across as time-wasting navel-gazing.

Ironically, this was a thing that government Service Assessments used to explicitly test for. When I was a lead assessor I used to love this gotcha. At Alpha, we’d be looking for evidence you’d thrown away at least one big idea at the prototyping stage – otherwise you’d not been critical or ambitious enough in how you solved the problem given to you by Policy. At Beta, we’d be looking for UX dead ends – where users simply didn’t have quite the problem that Policy hoped they would, and a different flow would have to be found. You’d have to show you’d thrown something away.

Because this is why we do user-centred design. It’s not for art’s sake. It’s to manage risk. To stop us building expensive things that nobody will use.

I heard of one bit of design-by-senior-committee where some very senior people agonised about features they thought would help staff, picked their favourite , instructed that it be built, several months of development effort were invested, it was launched by the very very seniorest person from the group in an all-staff email…and was used less than a hundred times. WITH ALL THE VERY BEST INTENTIONS.

My feedback to this squad was to go back and add in slides about all the other brilliant stakeholder ideas that we were no longer doing. Because that was most of the value of the research and prototyping – not the ideas we were taking forward.

So my plea to Product Managers everywhere is as follows.

Talk about what you are building. Be excited about that. 100%.

But also please never stop talking about the potential cost of the entirely-plausible things you’ve proved you shouldn’t be building. The dead ends you didn’t take the organisation down, that were also just as “obvious”. The expensive mistakes you have saved your team from making. The user value risks you successfully managed – where people simply didn’t care enough, and so the business value leadership hoped for was entirely fictional. The money that was actually never there to be made.

In short, talk about the ideas you threw away, in commercial language.

How expensive they might have been. How cheaply you were able to save the organisation from spending that money. Plus – of course – how cool and valuable the options you are pursuing will be.

Do let me know how you get on.

Weeknote 28th April – Expansion and Contraction

A cat stretched out asleep, very long, on my lap in bed.
Finn shows the way forward.

A big week, all things considered. But also one that’s led me to think that a few things need to change.

The Day Job

It’s been a very busy week in the office. I’ve formally joined the Project Board for our new Data Strategy, so I’m now a pig rather than a chicken. I’m discovering a whole bunch of loose ends – documents people thought I’d seen, or thought someone else was checking with me. So an absolute ton of new paperwork to take on – and at least one uncomfortable surprise in there so far. There’s a lot to sort out pretty quickly. But we’ll get there. There are also some bits of the work done so far which are a huge relief – things that clever folk have already thought through, or lashed together using free accounts of the SaaS we’ll be using, so some of my biggest worries are thankfully unfounded.

We’re about to enter two layers of “Proof of Concept” with our chosen platforms, which means having to be really clear about what we’re trying to actually prove. Layers of technical feasibility, business value, culture change, and basic ‘ability to deliver something tangible’ are all vying with each other inside my head. Most often at about 4am. When I’m lightly wishing I’d had more time to read more of the stuff I’ve been sent – because the diary hasn’t yet adapted to all the new meetings I’ve got to crowbar in.

We’re probably going to be able to recruite a new Lead Product Manager to look after this too, and I was very proud of myself to have written a new job description for the role. It’s much closer to the LPM roles I’m used to back in government – a big emphasis on deep stakeholder engagement and partnership, creating longer-term plans, and thinking about strategic risks and priorities across a range of journeys. I shared it joyously with my People Business Partner – only to be told “this is the wrong template, Tom”.

Sadly it got worse after that, because it turns out that the new template is actually based on a completely different mental model – so I had a ton of rewriting and rethinking to do on top of everything else. Sigh.

However I had a really good session between the product managers and our analytics colleagues, where we’ve all started to think through useful proxies for retention – the latter being too hard to measure in the timescales needed for teams to experiment quickly. It’s looking quite promising, and the PMs are continuing the chat without me next week (because I’m double-booked).

I’ve had quite a lot of you-have-half-an-hour-to-shape-a-thing sessions this week too. Even the odd fifteen-minutes-to-shape-a-thing. A lot of context switching. But it’s made me realise a few important things:

  • I’ve been running at contractor short-term-gig pace for nearly four months now, with only one day off for holiday and another off sick.
  • There’s more people wanting me involved in their stuff than I have mental capacity for. It’s flattering, but the problem is demand, not supply.
  • I can’t keep up with the admin, as a result.
  • I’ve not been able to take any time for my own development really.
  • I’m running on fumes.
  • All of my self-maintenance practices have fallen by the wayside as a result.

So this weekend I decided I was going to be resolute about looking after myself. Which also meant stepping away from the family today to stare into the abyss of my inbox and browser tab count.

It took most of the day, but I’m now over 400 emails better off, and have about sixty fewer browser tabs open. I have only one to-do list. And only about 30 worrying emails yet to open. The LPM job description is also rewritten through the new lens (yay!), so hopefully we’ll be advertising for that straight after the bank holiday.

I’ve shared quite a few of my favourite classic blog posts with people this week, so I might as well put them here too.

Elsewhere in Producting

A conference panel discussion, with Tom on the right-hand side.
The fancy top-floor cafe/bar at Waterstone’s Piccadilly. Which here somehow looks like a church hall in Luton. Photo courtesy of Rico Surridge.

So the big thing was that I was part of a panel discussion as part of Mind the Product’s “Leadership Forum” strand, talking with Debbie Widjaja and Sally Crimes about working with/influencing senior leaders. It was one of those great panels where we were all slightly in awe of what each other had done, and so it was a really supportive and collaborative discussion. We talked about all sorts of things, expertly shepherded by Randy Silver. This included the all-too-common gap between corporate and product strategy, so I got to mention dad’s tale from the early 80s where he was asked to write the IT Strategy for his organisation, to which he said “OK, can you tell me the business strategy?” “You don’t need to worry about that,” his leaders said, “just write one anyway.” This disconnect is not a new problem.

Lots of people said that they’d found it useful, and I’d said practical things. My own CPTO was in the audience and seemed pretty pleased with how it had gone. The adrenalin crash afterwards was pretty epic, though.

Any second now, I get to hit the free wine…

What else?

  • Steve Messer has retrieved a link to the excellent Cross-government Product Learning list googlesheet and a few other resources many other Product folk would benefit from browsing. (Via Jukesie)
  • I’m back reading too many books at once. Added Donna Lichaw to the pile. And Bob Mortimer.
  • I’m considering getting a coach of my own, to help support me in rebuilding some of my good practices. I love the peer support of sessions like Product in the Aether, but there are some topics I don’t feel I want to share that publicly. Or would just be Plain Boring. I’ll pay my own good money to bore someone else, on purpose.
  • I’ve cleared some half-days for my own reading and development, and booked most of a week off in June. I’m looking forward to that.

Real Life

I’m trying to get more exercise again after the knee injury a few weeks ago. I can now get down a flight of stairs roughly like a normal human being, thankfully, but it’s going to be a few more weeks before I’m ready to go running. Instead I’m contriving excuses to walk up to the high street.

My posture’s gone downhill as a result of being exhausted, and I’d stopped doing anywhere near as much meditation. So, in the interests of efficiency, I’ve been combining lying on a foam cylinder and listening to Headspace. My back and neck are slowly improving. Although sometimes it’s hard to truly get the meditation bit to work as Finn keeps wanting to help.

This was after fifteen minutes of being meowed at, and nuzzled, and having my hair chewed. The rascal.

Mum came to stay this weekend, and had a great time at the Tate’s Sargent and Fashion exhibition. I’m definitely going to have to pop along to that. In fact, I just need to get out a bit more generally – there’s not a lot of culture booked in at the moment.

I’m probably also finally giving up on Asics as my lounging trainers, which is a tragedy. There aren’t many other brands that work as well when you’ve got really narrow feet like me – but they’ve got had this design trend over the last few seasons which means my big toe always cuts through the top of the shoe within about 8 weeks. I don’t know why they make them out of a fabric that’s so feeble, but they don’t appear to be going back. Pah.

Music Corner

Piano’s going well. Quite philosophical, but well. A combination of Grieg and Debussy looms for the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, I’ve had to take a break from Taylor Swift. The album was growing on me hugely, but it’s just soooooo sad. So I’ve headed in opposite directions for contrast:

The new Justice album Hyperdrama is just as wonderfully pompously a slice of French EDM as you’d hope, and their songwriting’s continuing to get even better.

Meanwhile, I’m also loving Kelly Moran’s layered piano work on “Moves in the Field”. She uses a disklavier to capture one performance, and then plays additional layers live over the top. It’s really rather beautiful.

That’ll do for this week. Have a good one.

Weeknote – 21st April – Mainly Taylor

Paper sticky label saying "Defective when received"
I mean, we’ve all felt this, right? I don’t need it from the people doing the ironing too.

Hello again. So it seems this blog is now popular enough to start getting spam, and the inbox has had a whole new layer of noise this week as a result. Not exactly sure why, but hello to our new bot overlords. And any new readers, of course – although I can only apologise in advance.

One of the biggest new areas for improbable promotional linkbuilding was an article from July last year about my day at Marty Cagan’s “Transformed” workshop. It’s also been getting quite a lot of traffic from the US. So if you’ve not read it yet, perhaps it’s worth a look?

Anyway, what’s been going on?

Work Stuff

Lots of thinking about our Data Strategy this week. We’re about to commit to some big SaaS purchases (plus some people to start making it real), but that also means trying to work out what our first moves would be in practice. Out of all the possible options that everyone’s talked about ever. And all the possible risks we need to tackle.

It’s a classic Product Management challenge – we want to prove/show that it’s a valuable area for continued investment – but the simplest first moves to keep senior stakeholders excited/bought in involve sidestepping a few of the biggest technical challenges. Is that a smart decision, or creating false confidence? How do we proactively radiate the remaining uncertainty, while also showing complete competence? (e.g. should our testing include zero-party data and consent around it? Registered users rather than cookies? The transition between the two?) Lots to pick through as a group.

One of the fascinating upsides of the gatherings around this was the discovery of an unspoken conceptual gap between the product teams and marketing in how all of this work was going to be applied. During a workshop I spotted a workstream taking an unexpected direction in a Miro board, but decided to sit on my hands to see where my colleagues took it, and found we’re both thinking about “member retention” utterly differently. It’s odd realising that we’re both in the world of “when all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail”. Yes, they were making some slightly partial-world-view suggestions, but also the thing I’d assumed the workshop would coalesce on was similarly incomplete. It’s turned into an interesting opportunity to learn a lot more about each other’s perspectives – and we’ve got some meetings next week to kick things about further. A reminder: if in doubt, listen more and say less. If not in doubt, why not?

Elsewhere the product team’s increased transparency about our work is showing some good results, but also throwing up the right sorts of interesting questions. We’ve made our ongoing security maintenance work a lot less intangible, to show the value of where “30% maintenance time” goes. On the other thand our Data Protection folks looked through the checkin decks and got a bit spooked by some of our discovery and exploration about personalisation; I needed to reassure them that things were fine because no actual persons were involved yet. In a lot of ways this is the process working utterly as intended – they knew enough about what was going on to tentatively sound the alarm – but also I realise it’s yet another thing I need to industrialise so the nuance doesn’t rely on my and my own highly-tuned post-government spidey-senses about PII.

Had my first proper “line managers meeting” this week – which might seem odd after three months, but there hadn’t been a particular thing to coalesce around until now. It would have been a meeting for the sake of it, when most things until that point really could have been an email or Slack message. But with the right catalyst it was a good chat; some useful perspectives were shared, and we’re going to keep meeting fortnightly to make progress on some of the bigger gaps we all talked about.

Tuf Gavaz – the Head of Product at John Lewis – came to speak at our All Hands meeting, and had a lovely story about Growth. In the chats afterwards I managed to come up with a good next step for an idea that’s been kicking around the organisation for a few years, and brought various people together to chat it through face-to-face, so that was handy.

But I also had an odd reminder that – while we spend a lot of time worrying about subscriber numbers and member retention – that work mainly exists to fund a really important charity.

Many many years ago I worked for an oil distribution company that got bought and rebought, and eventually ended up as part of BP…as did the tiny pension I built up during the few years I was there. But this means I still get occasional letters from the trustees – and here they are saying that we’re the best place to go if you want to find out more about scams:

A letter from BP Pensions, directing people to Which?'s scam alert service.

Perhaps this is them offloading their own responsibilities onto us, but it shows there’s an important gap that needs to be filled. And – thanks to our endless fretting about user journeys and value for subscribers – we’re one of the organisations filling it.

Work-adjacent things

Found out that the slides from my old 2004 talk “Shit I’m a Manager” are still being circulated and found useful after all this time. Perhaps you might find it helpful too? (Please ignore the domain name – I was working in interactive entertainment and it all made some kind of sense back at the time.)

Had a really good catchup with some of the folks I’m talking on a panel with next week. Funny how we all had a bit of impostor syndrome with each other – but then we probably wouldn’t be Product People otherwise, would we? Embracing the doubt and uncertainty runs deep.

There was also a lovely (if compact) Product in the Aether session with some old, and a few new faces. Numbers were down (because a zapier integration had broken), but that also meant a few other interesting topics cropped up.

Obligatory bit about the new Taylor Swift album

I had a day off on Friday, and accidentally it turned out to be the day ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ arrived in the post. So that did slightly take over everything.

The LP of "The Tortured Poets Department", lying on top of the cardboard packaging it arrived in.

My first impressions varied, much like many others. Initial take was: yes, there’s some great songs on it, but a few bits that feel slightly on-the-nose. Disappointingly clichéd lyrics in a couple of places. Production is very detailed but perhaps a bit too smooth. Not enough bangers. And bloody hell those are some poky song titles!

(Obviously the album packaging is just BEAUTIFUL, being a vast book with all the lyrics in and tons of photos. The white vinyl helps complete the overall vibe. But that’s pointless if the music isn’t up to it.)

Things got a bit more interesting on further listens.

Firstly I realised I was going to have to ration my time with the album. It’s incredibly, incredibly sad, and it’s hard not to have that rub off on you. I was reminded of Radiohead’s “OK Computer” or “Kid A”, which are objectively great records…but can leave you in a pretty dark place at the end. As she said, it’s about a moment in time that was both sensational and sorrowful in equal measure, and that really comes through. Particularly as it’s also a massive grower, and gets wittier as it unfolds. I particular this series of lines from “I can do this with a broken heart”:

I’m so depressed I act like it’s my birthday
every day
I’m so obsessed with him, but he avoids me

like a plague
I cry a lot, but I am so productive,

it’s an art
You know you’re good when you can even do it with a broken heart

The other thing that keeps coming through, across songs like ‘The smallest man who ever lived’ was best summed up by something my daughter said. “They were only together for a month. What did Matty Healy do?” We eventually decided the answer was “being Matty Healy”. Ho hum.

Wishing you well Tay.

She also released the video for Fortnight, which she directed. It’s utterly rammed with Easter Eggs – typewriter keyboards with no “1”, blank spaces, etc etc. So I now have to admit that, as well as being a better songwriter than I’ll ever be, she’d also have been a better ARG designer than I ever was. Sigh.

Other Music Bits

Alongside the TS shenanigans, I had a few loose ends of work plus wanted to make some music. But I badly needed it to not feel remotely like “being at work”. So I decided that the rule was “no computer screens”. The work bits were done quickly on printouts, for typing in on Monday, and I threw myself into modular mucking around – linking up the drum machine and the sequencer and countless other bits – but all entirely in the analogue domain.

A large modular synthesiser, spread across two major physical units, connected to a Roland drum machine, with a lot of coloured cables between the various sections.

I had a lot of fun making 3 filter modules do things they shouldn’t have done. I also gave myself some terrible earworms, which were handy for removing the sadder TS songs, and even lightly impressed the daughter.

Piano restarted too, and my attempts at grappling Grieg’s “Arietta” into shape appear to have paid off. Lots more to do, but from Seb’s reaction I’d clearly done OK over the Easter holidays. We’re trying to work out where to go next – making progress on these miniatures is very rewarding, but I also need to build up some chunky stuff to work on over the summer. It might be time to revisit Dr Gradus or Rachmaninov’s C#m prelude, but there’s plenty of time to think about that.

Elsewhere: (i.e. stuff that would have been on Twitter)

As a family we’ve been making the most of the daughter’s last week before she headed off back to university. This includes playing some of our favourite boardgames together, in particular a ‘comfort game’ from early days of lockdown: the fabulous “Just One“.

It has the premise that everyone has to provide a unique hint to help the current player guess a secret word. Any duplicates are removed, so the pressure is on to find the right balance of helpful and individual. Now we are older, it’s got considerably more oblique at times…

A plastic sign used in the boardgame "just one" as a little whiteboard, with the word "cocklice" written on it.

Even Finn was getting in on the trying to make the most of every last moment:

Finn the cat, sitting on top of a jigsaw in progress.

Former colleague Sian ran the London Marathon today, and you should belatedly sponsor her if you can spare a few quid.

Bluebells

Also:

  • the bluebells in Wanstead Park are gorgeous, but probably only have a few days left this year
  • a fabulous meal with friends, based round some eye-wateringly expensive roast beef from the Ginger Pig.
  • Some lovely walks around Norwich.
  • Some new social plans made.
  • Progress on revisiting Ratchet&Clank: A Rift Apart.
  • And much more. No wonder I’m knackered!

Hell, that’ll do for now. It’s nearly Monday. Have a good week everyone.

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.

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.

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.
Boing!

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.

Weeknote 3rd March – Readiness

A heron, perched on the ridge of a roof
This bastard’s got an eye on my goldfish.

It’s been quite a week.

On Tuesday I had to present a mid-quarter OKRs update to the Which? leadership team. It was a very different meeting to the type I’m used to from the civil service, as a) everyone had read the slides beforehand and b) it wasn’t a discussion about the numbers per se (and my failings as a human being for letting it get that way), but about culture and how we could better enable teams to focus and succeed. I was hugely glad I’d done all the preparation for the meeting I feared, but I was delighted with the much more useful and important conversation. We talked lots about long-term planning, and how we make space for strategic discovery (or ‘obvious’ improvements that somehow never happen) alongside the day-to-day. Apparently I did OK, too, so that’s nice.

On Thursday, in among team checkins, I spent a grand total of 2.5h with our CEO – of which 1.5 was just the pair of us. We talked about all sorts, including how we might come up with ways to instrument our digital products to help us measure ‘trust’. I got to wheel out Larry Macherrone’s trust formula, of course. I think we inspired each other in equal measure – although I’m worried about what I may have accidentally voluntered myself into making happen because I got enthusiastic. And at the end of the day, loads of the product folk went to the pub – which was just lovely.

We’ve had an absolute ton of candidates for our Delivery Manager/Agile Coach role – and I’ve had to learn all the new recruitment processes around that (although I remain very grateful to a colleague for taking on the bulk of the sift). I think I’ve also identified a GSuite setting that will make everyone’s lives easier when it comes to recruitment workflow…but let’s see if that can be turned on in practice.

I keep having lovely chats with our head of PMO as well, who seems eminently sensible and pragmatic. We’re talking about how to improve the agility of traditional projects, but also how to build the planning skills and governance around agile working – not to constrain teams, but to empower and protect them. An unexpected but fabulous alliance.

The other big event was that I took Wednesday off from the day job, recalibrated my brain, and went to help an old government friend think about their product teams and organisational forces. Loads of good discussion about what makes good product management/managers, irrespective of the working context. I also helped with moderating a few of their staff’s capability assessments, which was fascinating. The work may be so different, but you can still spot the people trying to do the right thing the right way a mile off – even if it’s just early potential.

One of the other strange discoveries from that day was that my mic-drop work on the government product capability framework is still alive. Not only are people trying to continue the work to get it adopted formally, some people are already using the documents I created as the “target state”. I was genuinely quite touched. I now find myself in contact with senior people in CDDO on the subject. Even though I’m no longer part of government.

The upshot of this is that, contrary to last week’s glum worries about whether government needed a break from me, there are folks that actively want me to carry on taking up space there – so I’m going to do that. Well, as much as I can alongside the day-job and while not being paid for it, of course. Strange to find out that a personal-passion project, which GDS wasn’t that fussed about and I dashed out in my last few days, may turn out to be the most important thing I did while I worked there.

As a result of all this, I ended the week with an inbox that was something of an absolute car-crash. I’m still trying to recover some sense of sanity from it all – none of my cleverly-constructed filters can save me now.

On Friday morning I also closed a window with about 40-odd tabs when I needed to reboot the mac, and then (while looking at said inbox) let the tab group scroll off my browser history before I could do “restore all”. Erk. Hopefully anything critical will come back with decent warning, rather than as a nasty surprise. But I suspect I am starting to get enough of a sense of the bigger problems that I now know which documents I’ve seen – and I could probably get them back if needed.

I’ve also started to spot some underlying trends with the products – things I’ve noticed are broken and where we’ve possibly been misreading signals in the user feedback, but also areas I think are likely to be strategically important which I’m not sure others have yet fully seen. And, as ever, I’m trying to get more specific and empirical about “better” – because we’ve only got the capacity to work on some of our ideas, which means ensuring we’ve got the insight needed to choose between a whole bunch of things that are individually half-decent opportunities.

Miscellaneous work-ish bits

  • Really enjoyed joining my first “Product Coaches in the Aether” remote meetup on Monday (thanks Randy!) where I got to see some familiar faces like Adrian and Christopher and Spencer…but also a whole host of new folks, some of whom I have only seen as name going through my feed over the last few years – a litany of friends-of-friends. I didn’t say tons, but really enjoyed hearing about the problems they were going through, and the wisdom they had to overcome some of them.
  • Anais back at DBT published a blogpost about the service owner role, which I found a bit of a hard read – as I was definitely around for some of the roller-coaster phase she mentions. With the right people in those roles, I think there can be hugely successful enabling partnership between service owner and product manager – where the service owner worries about the business context and enabling change, alongside the product person thinking about what to be built to get the right outcomes in ways users will love. I’ve had lots of great Service Owner relationships where we were a really strong partnership working together. They’ve sometimes been the person who can see political landscape I can’t; I’ve sometimes been critical in helping change policy mindsets to gently embrace fallibility. But there is a deep and powerful gravity well around it becoming an “account director” role, where product teams do just become a delivery function for a solution that’s already been decided, and business context is hoarded to leave folks delivering what the business wants as feature teams. If I was to rewrite *that* framework, I’d put in some very strong guardrails against it. But, in the meantime, I wish everyone well.
  • Loved this satirical take on the downsizing going on in certain areas of the industry at the moment, again thanks to Randy. Please keep on going to the final paragraph – we’ve all been there.
  • Pivotal Labs’ practices – an internal staff manual, republished to the outside world, now the inside doesn’t really exist (I think via Stephen). Some workshop formats you’ll know, detailed instruction manuals for those you don’t. But a great toolkit to delve into – it’s going to stay in the bookmarks bar for a good while.
  • Caught up with Chris who I know from “Product in the Aether” lean coffee events, for a good chat about the pros and cons of different industries. I’ve left government, Chris is settling into it. We talked a lot about finding and celebrating the people who are allowed to be uncertain, and helping spread the stories of success that come from it.

Real Life

Piano’s been going really well. Had a lesson where Seb looked over some fingering I’d come up with on Howard Skempton’s “Well, well, Cornelius” and basically said “yeah, that’s fine”. Apparently the Schumann piece is miles better than last week – which I couldn’t hear personally, but I’ll take it.

Managed to make it out for a run this morning. Currently averaging once per month, thanks to the new work regime, rather than the intended 1-2 per week and the occasional 10k. Clearly it’s going to take a while to get back to the sub-24-minute 5k runs, but at least I’ve started doing something again. And I was still a fair bit quicker than the depressing run I had on 3rd Feb. I should probably bit the bullet and start getting up early enough on Saturday that I can make it to Parkrun. Sigh.

It looks like my favourite filter module ‘Three Sisters’ is going to be in stock again soon. I don’t need another one, but I do use the one I’ve got on almost everything, If you are a modular person you should totally sign up for the waiting list. Not cheap, but worth every penny.

Oh, and I got paid, so we have cracked and finally ordered a new ‘Emma’ mattress. We laid on lots of different variants, but there was one which just kept making me nearly fall asleep because it was so comfortable. Sadly got to wait 4-6 weeks for it to turn up, and so every night will now be like “The Princess and the Pea”.

Given the recent vast influx of wine to the house, I decided I could probably afford to pass on 2022 Rhone in-bond.

Have been thoroughly enjoying discovering ‘Pye Corner Audio‘ and the whole “hauntology’ music scene, but through them I discovered the wonderful work that Andy Bell (guitarist of Ride) has been up to in the electronica space – through collaborations and also his own work as ‘GLOK’. The latter has inspired me and guitarist-friend Pete to start doing something similar of our own, which is rather lovely.

Nature Corner

Where I live in Wanstead is based around the ornamental waters of an old palladian mansion (whose portico inspired The White House, and much else) so we get a lot of bird life. It’s always rather special to have the local herons come by – even if they’re just after the contents of your pond. One was perched on top of the neighbour’s roof for nearly half an hour. They’re so curiously alien – you can see the dinosaur lurking – but also very beautiful and elegant. Picture at the top of this post.

And of course, you’re all waiting for the latest in “suggestive Amaryllis” photos, aren’t you?

An amaryllis bud, just starting to open, with a few dark red petals showing.

Have a good week, all!