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And done…hopefully

OK, so this should mean that everything has now moved over safely – and everything’s now really on www.leaningforward.com’s new hosting space, rather than the fake playground I created yesterday. Let me know if you spot anything weird. Ta!

Weeknote – 28th Jan – Explorations and Unearthings

This unusual juxtaposition may be a metaphor later.

Hopefully something of a short weeknote this time around – because mainly I’m sensing and processing at the moment.

It’s been a bit of an onslaught on the senses this week, with well over 30 meetings or gatherings of various kinds – ranging from individual catchups with team members to rooms with over a hundred people in. The open-tab count rather reflects this – I’m back up to over seventy again.

Being fair, this is possibly as much down to using this week’s “Meeting-free Wednesday Morning” to tick off mandatory learning backlog before it’s too late and it ends up in the “maybe soon” pile FOREVER. Previously the meeting-free block had enabled a good few hours of taming the inbox – and I definitely felt the lack of that focus.

Next week is sadly likely to be ‘more of the same’ as I’ve got to squeeze in a funeral and a lot of other Real Life things alongside the work. There’s been a LOT of Real Life over the last few weeks, and everything’s spread quite thin. There are a few coaching people I badly owe some emails as well – hopefully Monday!!!

I’ve managed to spend a lot of time with individual team members, getting to know a bit more about them, their projects and the constraints. Had a truly wonderful hour with one of our LPMs, standing in front of a flipchart and looking at how some of the components in our “subscribe” journey fit together. Even though there were a few moments where I was slightly “ouch” about what I was being shown, I’d forgotten how much I miss being involved in the making and the technology, having spent quite a long time in the more academic end of ‘the craft’.

One thing I’ve been trying to do this week in these chats is bottom out the OKRs so they work for the teams, have a clear thread to value for our leadership, and are actually agreed, rather than slightly ‘drifting organically into being’. I’ve been trying to stay in coaching mode as much as possible, but next week I may need to be a little more strident to get a few things over the line. Everyone’s genuinely lovely and wants the best, but I think I bring a slightly new way of doing things…and we’re all still getting to know each other and how we work when agreeing how that ‘best’ should be described.

I went to two Really Big Meetings (TM) this week.

The first was a gathering of all ELT – the board members and everyone who reports to them. This meant there were about 40 new names and faces to take in at once – which I didn’t exactly succeed at – but there were a few new good relationships started, including discovering some people I know I’m going to genuinely enjoy working with over the next six-ish months.

There were some new rituals to understand as well. Which? has a set of “high performing team practices” embedded into most meetings of any size, all of which are new to me. I got to hear that we no longer do the “Hu” part of “HuWuMu”, but that didn’t exactly mean a lot at this stage. I’ve been sent an email, which will be another set of open tabs, I’ve no doubt.

The other big group gathering was The Forum – an all-staff get-together to talk about how things are going. This was fascinating, as the organisation is unbelievably transparent to everyone about financial performance etc; there are even dashboards about money, subscribers and our other KRs on a telly in the kitchen, for example. There were some pretty crunchy questions from the floor, but nobody shied away from answering them – and answering them pretty honestly as far as I could tell. There was a really good presentation about the three strands of our retention strategy – which was only marred by the slight creeping dread that in three months I’m likely to be one of the people standing at the front talking through similar slides.

What else?

  • I’ve been talking to our user researchers about some of their work to date – but I need an absolute ton of time to get into the many links they’ve sent me, and work out what strategic research we really need to answer the questions forming in my head.
  • There were two more “trio” chats with my design and engineering counterparts about some of our bigger challenges. We now have a Jira board – in lieu of any other way to organise our list of reckons, ideas and worries. (We seem to be a Trello-free zone). I think this could be the first time I’ve used Jira in anger, but perhaps I’m wrong. (Maybe some of the Brexit stuff?) Anyway, these chats are going to lead to some of that strategic research.
  • I’ve sat in a few meetings about the forthcoming Data Strategy, with an agency that’s helping develop it with us – and feeling very lucky that I got to work with the excellent Sian Thomas and see how some of these choices might play out. Some other smart people are involved from our side, and hopefully we’ll find a way to prove some hypotheses cheaply before we make any big investments.

Other than that, I’m really trying to just explore and understand. There are a few things where I think “we can perhaps do better than this” – but I also know that nobody appears to be daft or wilful. This means I need to work out how we got this way – what organisational or external forces led to this particular setup – otherwise I’m going to just be wishing things were better, rather than supporting the teams in getting to any better place. I’m also trying to remember some of my heuristics about “measuring buy-in” from this blog-post shortly after I started at GDS.

On a related note, I’ve been starting to get out and about in the streets around the office. Albany Street, which leads up towards Camden, is a truly fascinating mix of eras. Lots of classic white townhouses facing into 1970s housing estates. A Ladbrokes on one side of the road, and Marksons’ workshop – full of fancy grand pianos – on the other. A disused police station that surely has some new surreptitious government purpose. Even the grotty Troutbeck estate is more than it seems – with loads of tiny businesses ranging from dentistry to sandwich delivery to film production companies, all crammed in to the basement floor. And then you walking into said estate, and it’s been built around a Victorian church – as seen in the picture at the top of this post. I’ve not yet found out more about how this planning weirdness happened, as I was running out of time before a meeting, but I’m going to keep digging.

Things closer to the Euston road are all pretty recent – but architecturally still very wide-ranging. Office blocks and luxury flats, but intermingled with video art and a tiny theatre and exorbitant-looking craft breweries.

“Regent’s Place”, I think this is called.

Culture corner: esp ‘The Motive and the Cue’

Photo of Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flyyn utterly ‘borrowed’ from the NT website.

We took Daisy to see this brilliant play as one of the presents for her recent birthday. Yes, it was a brilliant study in what it takes for a director to find their way against a wilful cast…but it also featured Johnny Flynn in his pants.

I was expecting the play to be mainly about the challenges between Gielgud and Burton, but actually it’s mainly about Gielgud’s struggles with himself. It’s set in a period of 60s-70s wilderness I wasn’t aware he’d gone through. I also wasn’t expecting it to be so much Mark Gatiss’s show. So a lot of surprises.

There’s some really imaginative scene changing, with three nested-room sets and shutters that constrain your field of view so you don’t really notice that the stage has changed size…but also actors move out of those rooms onto the apron and perform apposite bits of Hamlet while everything’s moving around, before moving seamlessly back in again.

That Sam Mendes is quite good. He’ll probably go far.

It was quite wordy, and fairly cerebral, but there was still lots of conflict and jeopardy. It certainly wasn’t deliberately tugging the heartstrings in the way that ‘Totoro’ or ‘Cabaret’ or ‘Dear England’ did, so I was even thinking (as a bit of an inveterate theatre-weeper) “blimey, we’ve got to the end of this and I’ve not even had the faintest sniffle”. And then suddenly it’s the final scene. “Zadok the Priest” kicks in, and you realise just how much tension had quietly been built up over the course of two hours. Floods. Everyone was on their feet for the curtain call, almost instantly. Fabulous stuff.

Elsewhere: had some very long drives (of which more shortly) and as a result I got to listen to the whole of Peter Gabriel’s extremely long latest album “i/o” without interruption. I even got into the second “dark side mixes” disc – and actually I prefer a few of these. They’re bit more intense, and you can overtly hear more of the instruments playing, rather than the delicate “So”-like production of the ‘bright side’ mixes. Still a strong recommend. But I’m still rinsing Caroline Polachek for balance, obvs.

Booked to see Craven Faults playing live in a few weeks’ time. Still pondering a few other gigs. But making plans right now feels a bit optimistic, given there’s no shortage of…

Real Life

Quite a bit of this going on. Mum had a fall on the way to a library story-time session at the start of the week. Thankfully only a bad sprain and a lot of bruising, but I was briefly on standby to hop into the car for a weekend visit. Thankfully it turned out not to be needed, and she seemed in better spirits this morning when I chatted to her, which is a huge relief. Sending all good vibes up north.

Finn (the Human), the cat, has had another round of eyewatering blood tests – and they still don’t know what’s wrong with him. But he does appear to be putting weight on again. And showing off by climbing trees in the garden once more. So perhaps he’s getting better again.

Daisy’s headed back to UEA for her birthday party this weekend. Sadly she left the dress she was planning to wear back in London, so I got to spend a few hours driving to a retail park outside Thetford to hand it over. We managed to grab a coffee from Costa and pick up some fruit from Sainsburys, but resisted the temptation to go and feel the new carpets.

Lovely skies though.

One unusual feature of this retail park was that it’s in the middle of army territory. So, as you sit in the car sipping your latte, you also get to hear gunfire from the Thetford Ranges just on the other side of the A11. Not 100% relaxing, but I suppose the locals get used to it.

Right, that’s enough for now. Time to go and watch a Ted Lasso or Hannah Fry or something comforting. Have a good week, everyone.

Tom’s Roadmap Heuristics – a work in progress

I’ve previously trailed a massive blogpost-that-might-be-a-book about roadmapping, but I suspect it’ll never get finished enough. However, earlier this week I was at a chat about the future of Product Craft within government, and mid-discussion spontaneously reeled off a list of my top reckons on the subject. Given that I had managed to do it on the fly without much thought, I decided to have another go – using largely the same scrappy approach.

A kind of roadmap of sorts – this early one got thrown away almost immediately.

Caveats: 1) this is ‘perpetual draft’; 2) unlike a lot of product writing it’s aimed at larger organisations where technology/digital is seen as a supporting function to “the business”; 3) these are in no particular order of priority; 4) these comments are aimed at no particular team I’ve ever worked with.

Roadmapping is more important than an actual roadmap. Too often we do a massive one-off exercise and then never look at the damn thing again. We need to get good at these discussions. And at turning them into an artefact that’s up to date.

External milestones can go in, delivery dates can’t come out. If something needs to be delivered by a particular date because something else essential is happening, like a transmission date or an event launch, then that’s essential context for the team. Not telling teams that context is pretty negligent on the part of leadership. But…beware external forces loading extra fake external milestones to try and make projects go faster.

(In the image above, you’ll see the pink postits at the top. This is another aspect of capturing context – me saying to the team “what I think will be happening in the organisation at this point”)

Now/next/later may be your friend – it isn’t everyone else’s. Too often I see “later” being used as a catch-all for everything we’ve ever thought about ever – a place to put stakeholder promises we’d rather forget. The new “icebox”. But this leads to two problems. Firstly that teams haven’t truly thought about which parts of “later” are the most important – they don’t know the critical path to getting “the most likely thing” to happen. Secondly, because they don’t know much much “later” there is to be done, they don’t know how quickly to declare their “now” done so they can move onto “next” and get to that important pile of “later” before funding or patience runs out. Which leads to…

Roadmaps aren’t delivery plans. But you should regularly have a go at trying to create one. The process of trying to turn that pile of ideas into a delivery plan is – in itself – an important activity. It flushes out truly critical unknowns – what’s it going to take to know whether that crucial item will be one month or six? How soon is it sensible to investigate that?

Include discovery activities in your roadmaps – what are you trying to find out? You really don’t want to be taken by surprise when starting something new, and you also need to focus the minds of your stakeholders on any decisions that they need to have made, or the most important things they need you to find out, if those precious developers are going to keep on working on the most important things. Don’t have the team hanging around for two weeks while you wait for something to be signed off!

Changing your roadmap based on new information is important – but is part of your governance. Too often changes to roadmaps or changes in scope happen quietly in the corners. We had all those caveats on the slide saying “this may change at any time”, right? And hey, we don’t want to worry people, do we? Sadly, this means that we end up hiding important knowledge from those who most need to know it. What have you found out that means the plan is wrong? How might it affect the overall strategy? The biggest danger is that your leadership are still out there proudly defending a plan that you know is wrong, and they don’t. They’re doubling down on bets to give you air cover, that you know they should be backing away from. Projects used to run late, but the decisions about why led to inspection and improvement. Just because we’re agile, it doesn’t mean we should let ourselves off the hook on this important process.

Know how to safely change your roadmap. Find out who needs to know, and when. Make sure they’ve always got easy access to the latest version, and know what’s changed. Showing a senior leader a roadmap, but then saying they’re not allowed to show it to anyone (because you’re worried it might change) helps nobody. Like planning, you need to learn from devops or incident management. If it hurts, do it more.

The best roadmaps are made of problems to solve, with value attached. I love outcome-based roadmaps. Ideally there’s a supporting document that expresses them as a set of candidate/possible OKRs (depending on how far out they are). OKRs are harder than they look, particularly if done as a process or culture not an artefact i.e. properly, but the thinking behind them is really important. And hard. Which is why people try to get out of doing it. HOWEVER, if a team doesn’t have a sense of how much value is going to be released by looking at a particular problem – and there’s not a business stakeholder on the hook for getting that change to happen in the real world – then there’s no way of knowing how long to spend on that particular problem. So people over-research, or gold-plate features. Know how many weeks of effort would be break-even, at the very least.

Sometimes it’s ok for the roadmap to have nouns in, if that’s the best way to create alignment. Don’t be synthetic and bury the lede. Sometimes the end result really is “replace legacy system x before the contract runs out”. Don’t dress it up as an outcome and confuse the teams.

Everything on the roadmap should have lots of context, that’s easy to find. Sometimes we’ve talked about possible ideas that could release the value, which might not be terrible as starting points. We waste time getting teams to think about it from scratch. Sometimes there have been lengthy discussions about why this thing needed to be on the roadmap. The team shouldn’t be five weeks into the quarter when someone finally digs out a deck containing critical information from their inboxes. “I thought you’d seen this” is a way of offloading the lack of preparation onto the teams. Lead with context, or it’s your own fault. Have a folder/confluence page for every big outcome, as soon as it’s on the roadmap.

Make sure the roadmap is tied to something based in the real world that shows why this is the roadmap. As Janna Bastow says, your roadmap is a prototype for your product strategy. Explain your product strategy that led to you making the roadmapping decisions. Make it easy to understand and easy to find. What are the even/over statements or principles you use to prioritise; what’s your understanding of the business context that led to you making these calls? Transparency here is critical. Radiate intent, so that if one of those principles turns out to be false, people can help you alter your roadmap to deliver the right value sooner. It also shows you understand your organisation. Which leads to another point…

A roadmap is a strategic alignment tool for building trust. The way you use your roadmap, the way you explain the decisions behind it in ways that have empathy for those that depend on you, the way you show your thinking…it’s all part of a two-way conversation. You need to use it for user research and to build understanding, not just for telling people why you’re right. You want people to know you’re acting in the organisation’s best interests, with integrity.

There will always be someone who wants to use it as a delivery plan. To defend against this, make sure that you have the air cover about these ways of working, and is prepared to back this at a senior level. (Which means giving your leadership something useful to work with – they need some of the raw material, and the behaviours, above). If you’re behaving responsibly and sharing bad news appropriately, the organisation should be able to say that they were foolish for taking it as something concrete, rather than being able to “hold you to account” for a document they clearly misinterpreted.

But dependencies, Tom?

I’d also say that sometimes you do have to commit to a date. Marty Cagan talks about these as “high integrity commitments” where the team is given the time to do the investigation to work out how long something is likely to take. But I’d say you can only have one high integrity commitment at a time – because there will be unknowns and other stuff is going to have to flex. (Remember, the BBC adopted agile methodologies on the Wimbledon set-top-box application because it kept missing deadlines, and agile was what let them ship something in time.)

However I must admit I worry about this phrase. It should be the team making the high integrity commitment. But, like “Minimum Viable Product”, I think there’s a risk of it being devalued when leaders think it’s their job to make the high integrity commitments – that it’s their integrity that matters – and the teams are just there to deliver against that spent political/social capital. I hope I’m wrong. But let’s see.

Show your decision points – added 4th December

I touched on this in the session last week, but forgot to include it in this post. We tend to act as though a given team or initiative can just trundle along, working through the quarters – but sometimes we need to call out a point where we take stock and make some hard choices. Everyone needs to know that’s happening, so they’re ready. In traditional GDS-style life-cycle this would be “has your alpha proven you should do a beta” (or – even better – “has your alpha disproven the hypothesis that a beta isn’t worth it”). But it might also be when you decide whether getting from 20% to 50% on a metric is worth the effort.

I tend to put these in the “context” – and yes on a quarter-based roadmap that’ll be a clear timeline, but in a now-next-later roadmap it needs to be somewhere that everybody knows about and which is discussed regularly. A slide that appears in every checkin/huddle/show&tell, as appropriate.

The reason we should make this very visible is because the team need to be ready for that decision to be the best one possible. And they need to talk about it to the decision-makers early on. “Dear Senior Civil Servant, what will make you think that this service/app/portal is delivering OK, but ultimately is a great/terrible idea – so we can get you the evidence for a good decision”. It’s a constraint that helps people prioritise the most important learning to get to the next good decision. And it helps prioritise discussions with wider stakeholders about what matters when: “I know you want us to look at feature x, but is this going to help us make sure we’re ready for that big meeting in July, or is the team going to look unfocused and then put onto something else?”

But dependencies, Tom? (Take 2) – added 4th December

OK, so I slightly got distracted by the above rant about High Integrity Commitments. And yes, I was also tired and just wanted to press ‘publish’. So here’s a better answer. But it’s probably not the one anybody is looking for.

People worry about how you use roadmaps to track dependencies between things. Rightly. But the problem in this is a twofold one of forgetting:

  • Even in old-style project management, dependencies were a total pain to manage, and often a lie. Yes, there’s a bar in MS Project saying that something’s going to finish at point x and then a different bar can start work. But in practice, this was a mess of handoffs and delays and horsetrading and miniature scope-creep/disappointments. That little dependency tool is a fractal mess. So please don’t put the blame on roadmaps for this being hard.
  • Many folks haven’t done tons of this in more traditional environments, so it takes them by surprise – we have forgotten how to have these conversations as a practice.
  • Within the world of empowered agile teams, we see anything that stops every given developer running at 100 miles an hour as an impediment to be reduced – rather than The Actual Work Itself. And that leads too easily to power imbalances – that this is ideally someone else’s problem. We’ve forgotten how to collaborate in an authentic fashion.

So there are a few techniques to apply, and they’re not really even “roadmapping”.

Firstly, as Marty Cagan says in “Empowered”, make sure the teams working on the same things have the same OKRs. Someone’s side-project or favour can’t derail a whole quarter’s work.

Think about the layers of dependency.

  • sensibleness – should we do this
  • feasibilty – can we do this
  • approach – how will we do this
  • confidence – how much it’s likely to change
  • delivery – when will it be ready

Some of those you may be able to put into a team’s OKRs. Team A: by the end of the quarter, you need to have shown this has value and can be done, and have a draft approach you and Team B are 70% sure they can work with. Team B: you need to be 70% sure you can adopt the thing they’re talking about, and it’s going to be valuable for you too.

Perhaps the delivery date is the key thing – in which case you’re in the world of scope management and making sure everyone knows the minimum feature set across both areas – and this is all anyone talks about. You’re storing up risk for the teams further down, but hey.

But the detail of how those five factors unfold and mesh together over time is not something you can just leave to chance on a roadmap – just like you couldn’t on project plan. Making it happen is the real work. And doing in such a way that anyone in any team can pull the (conceptual) andon cord because after user research or tech spikes they’re not convinced this is a good idea any more – rather than just delivering blindly and hoping – that’s the real hard work. But we have to do it if SAFe and its false certainties aren’t going to somehow take over.

Update (24th March): Be disciplined about “later”

I’ve been meaning to add this for a while. I remember an old designer chum talking about the reason why apps and websites have “hamburger menus”. You know, the three horizontal line that reveal a whole host of features and other bits that don’t quite fit anywhere else. He described it as “the place you put your stakeholder debt”, by which he meant the features a team know will clutter up the core user journey and distract people – but represent an idea they can’t persuade someone senior to abandon. You grudgingly build it, and put it in the hamburger menu, so honour is satisfied – but the users are none the wiser.

The same can be true for a lot of the tail-end of roadmaps. They’re far too often a pretty unstructured mess of random “things the team and stakeholders think we ought to look at, at some point”.

I was chatting to Janna Bastow – inventor of the Now/Next/Later format – about this before Christmas. In particular I was saying that, in practice, I don’t think it’s as good at managing expectations and plans as people think it is. “Later” ends up doing a lot of jobs, in my experience, and most of them pretty badly. I was also saying how much I liked the “candidates” feature of her software Prodpad – which is used for things that might go into the roadmap at some stage, but where a team don’t yet have the information to know where and when.

I was suprised to hear her say that she never intended “Later” to be used in this way. She’d always used it for things that had still been sufficiently validated with users, plus there was some technical discovery, and the team had a rough idea how big it was. Maybe they didn’t know in fine detail – things are still agile – but that item had earned its place in the roadmap, and the team were pretty sure it would already wash its face as an area to explore at a price they could afford.

So yes: don’t chuck just anything into the “later” section of your roadmap. It’s not the hamburger menu. A “later” you never get to will just disappoint people.

Weeknote 26th Nov – the unexpected uptick

Hello again. Well, it’s lovely to say that some combination of covid receding, some milestones out of the way, plus a bit more exercise mean that things are slowly starting to look up a bit. It’s been a week of getting things done, taking up space, and looking at the long game. The last from a perspective I really wasn’t expecting.

Meeting impressive people at scale

Things kicked off on Tuesday, when I dashed straight from running the Mind the Product ‘Product Leadership’ course, onto a train, and then into the world of the Government Transformation Summit. As previously trailed, I was hosting a “discussion table” on the Wednesday, and there was a speaker’s dinner the night before – a chance to meet some people we’d only chatted to on Teams/Hangouts in person…and so we actually looked like a bit of collective wisdom rather than some random people who’d been randomly tagged to talk about “joined up services”. I’d been through about two other tables before I ended up on this one, as the organisers juggled various folks last-minute availability, but thankfully I have no shortage of opinions on most things.

As it turned out, there was no shortage of interpretations of the subject of “joined up services” either – everything from user-centred design in local government, through to setting up an office for your business in (heavily federated) Australia, through to “why do I have to use Google Drive *and* Office365”. But I think the four of us were lightly helpful. I got to talk to some nice people from IBM about how you build understanding of AI in non-specialists (to avoid the current dichotomy of either ‘magical thinking’ or ‘technology in search of a problem’ around a lot of data science). I don’t think we had any magical answers to that one – but I did decide it was time for me to book a few days off and properly start to have a play with it all/do some reading.

The star of the show, at both the speaker’s dinner and during the main conference, was Gulsanna Mamediieva. She’s now working at the Georgetown University “Better Government Lab”, but until recently she was Director General at the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation.

Over fifteen jaw-dropping minutes she took on Ukraine’s firehose-like adoption of digital technologies. Until recently they were in the same sorry state as many other governments – with no interaction between state registers, authorities providing services according to different standards, complex non-joined up procedures with many offline visits even for the digitial services – and then often an official making a very human decisions about the result from imperfect information, with the associated high risks of corruption.

But this has all gone. Everything’s digital, accelerated by the Russian invasion. They created a state super-app called Diia. It has an ID wallet, functions as a digital signature, allows for e-democracy and more. But it’s become absolutely essential as other parts of infrastructure have fallen. It’s possible to get a document that functions as a recognised identity in Poland; you can sign up for benefits if you’re unemployed (because your workplace has been hit by the war); you can register your house as being destroyed during the war; you can buy state bonds to pay for the defence costs. Given that Russia attacked the TV masts, it’s even replaced TV – allowing citizens to want (and vote in) Eurovision.

Alongside that, they’re doing some major investment in building digital skills. The aim is to have all services online, and have over 10M Ukrainians with the digital skills needed to create and maintain a new digital economy. Bold stuff – and hugely inspiring.

Other takeaways I bothered to write down:

  • “Why do you talk about digital transformation? In Estonia, everything is already digital – it’s just ‘transformation'” – Marten Kaevets
  • “Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets” – Kevin Plank, Under Armour (cited by one of the speakers)

I also had some lovely chats with old friends like Jeremy, Sally, Anais and Erica. I made some new fledgling friends at DVSA, DfT, Kin&Carta, CQC and more – who I look forward to bumping into in the future around government. Sadly there were a bunch of people who couldn’t make it due to “Real Life Things” that I’d have loved to catch up with. Liz, Sian and the rest of you – next time!

I’ll finish off this segment with the highly impressive wallpaper from the venue for the speaker’s dinner. There’s no way I’d be allowed this in the house, but could I put it in the studio?

Looking up

Reflecting on the day, I realised that there’s a bit of me I need to kickstart again. I used to have crazy-big dreams. Things about changing the nature of media. But somehow I’ve got caught up in improving process. I’ve become an amazingly good “settler” – fixing the over-ambitious projects others probably shouldn’t have started – but it’s not where I started. And perhaps it’s time to invest in some different types of curiosity and move back into “pioneer” mode.

I think I’ve become disillusioned with quite a few things over the last few years, and lost my near-endless optimism. I remember someone saying that cynicism is caused by the inability or unwillingness to imagine a better future.

It’s time to start playing more. As fellow Head of Profession Natalie says, we need to follow the spirit of “How Tom Beat Captain Najork” and do more ‘fooling around’.

Filling Out

On Thursday we had the GDS Learning day. Well, afternoon. Across all the professions (and some of the other non-Digital bits of GDS) we had three hours of learning interventions for staff – with permission to step away from the day job and just think alongside those colleagues you hardly ever get a chance to chat to.

Of course finding meeting rooms to have that many sessions simultaneously became a nightmare, but we got away with it.

For the APMs/PMs/SPMs we had a 3h workshop on roadmapping. And how roadmapping the process can lead to many different artefacts called roadmaps – depending on your audience. It seemed to go well, but it’s really hard to tell. My own Product Manager (stroke lightweight User Researcher) skills kicked in when I found myself asking people “was that good” and “was that useful”…to which the only answer can be “yes”. So there’s a more neutral survey going out – but early vibes seem pretty positive.

I also made the decision to treat our Leads and Heads as a different group. This was slightly controversial as loads of them really wanted to go to the roadmapping session, but I’ve seen (and occasionally been part of) how very senior people in mixed groups can accidentally upset the learning dynamics. Because we spend so much time looking at the big picture or thinking in the abstract, in can actually lead to groups skipping over the fundamentals that many of the other people in the room *haven’t* yet come across before. They still need to work through our “obvious”.

So instead they had sessions on leadership skills. Firstly on how to improve team checkins (when you’re caught in the middle between teams and senior civil servants) which was kindly based around a chat with lovely Sian Thomas, Chief Data Officer and my first partner-in-crime at DIT. She was just great, and very thought-provoking. Then two other DDs from GDS ran ‘chatham house’ style sessions about their own journey into leadership from Individual Contributor roles. I can’t say a lot about these – but they were very powerful, and very generous. I suspect we’ll do more.

We also had to say goodbye to Neil Hayes, a Lead Product Manager on GOV.UK – but also one of the first people I line managed at GDS about six years ago and the last time I was there. He’s off to go and do contracting things in the South West, which I hope go extremely well for him.

Two other observations from Learning Day:

  1. It happened less than a week after the ministerial direction that civil servants must return to the office 60% of the time (plans on how, to follow). I know a lot of people are still very worried about how they’re going to adapt to that, but I must say that having the office fairly full of people did give the place a real buzz. It felt quite exciting to be there.
  2. Odd bits of supply chain will break as a result of these changes. I’ve hypothesised to people that an immovable bottleneck on ‘return to office’ may be how quickly after-school clubs can grow to meet new demand. But on a more prosaic note – after a day of full occupancy the GDS kitchen ran out of blue mopping-stuff up paper, and then out of hand towels.

Leading Through…oh, some actual influence?

Product Managers are used to the idea that they’re not “in charge of the team”. The good ones anyway. They have a particular perspective and skillset, but use that to try and shape the team’s work – as a collective – to be on the most valuable things possible. But amigos/trios/quads should be the normal way of doing things.

Of course, once you start getting into more senior roles, things change a bit. Senior PMs may be more ‘in charge’ of junior PMs – even if they’re working as a collective with their Senior peers. Leads are slightly more ‘in charge of’ again – although a key skill is how to do work collaboratively with the team. Heads have the same thing with Leads – they’re in charge, but if they blindly use the “in chargeness” too often then something’s possibly a bit wrong. (If they never use it, that can also cause trouble – but that’s another story).

However, as a Head of Profession, absolutely nobody works for me. Influence is all I have. It’s been really quite tough trying to build a product community under those circumstances, and sometimes it’s been really draining – feeling that if I wasn’t there trying to will stuff into happening, then everything would just wither, but having to keep turning up every week bringing the jazzhands.

But early last week, a weird thing happened. I was chatting to a Senior PM about one of our community learning resources – a list of articles/books product folks should read, and how I thought it could be made more useful. And at the end of it they said “ok, I’ll do that then”. And I was left not quite knowing what had happened. I’m not going to have to chase it up. They know what to do. They can do all the organising, and it’ll be great. It felt utterly unnatural after nearly a year, but I’d accidentally delegated something – and the kind person I’d been chatting to was happy to just run with it.

I think I might now have just enough trust and social capital that I can start to do this a little more – but let’s see.

Blaster from the Past

As some of you will know, Doctor Who is finally back on our screens, ready for the 60th Anniversary. BBC Studios were proudly talking about it on LinkedIn, including the excellent news that excellent chum James Goss is making the official podcast. And then I started getting notifications. Down in the comments thread, someone had mentioned that this was something to do with me, when Fictionlab – the little corner of the BBC that I worked in for a few years – had made the animated version of Douglas Adams’ unreleased episode “Scream of the Shalka”. Which yes, did lead to the TV series coming back.

Now, my memory of this time is that I was a lightly-benign force offering sympathy and tea and hope, while Martin Trickey et al did all the actual work – but to those who were there apparently I did more than I thought. It’s not the first time I’ve belatedly discovered I left a bigger mark on things or people than I knew at the time, but it’s nice to be in such esteemed company.

And yes, Martin Trickey et al definitely did do the bulk of the work. Although I do make a good cup of tea.

Endings and Startings

We went down to Brighton to visit Vicky’s stepdad at the weekend – one of the reasons this didn’t go out on Sunday. He’s in the final stages of cancer, has lost lots of weight, and is living in a bed in his living room. It’s quite strange to see someone who was such a big person and big personality be so physically small and constrained – but he is unexpectedly very serene about the whole thing. He seems at ease, reconciled, and that life makes sense.

I was expecting it to be a truly difficult visit – and it was pretty hard going at times – but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite inspiring.

Why wait until the end to be reconciled to it all? Why not get on with it now? There’s so much more to be got on with!

I’m reminded of what I was writing at the start of all this about cynicism being a failure to imagine a better future. There’s no point waiting for the conditions to be right. It’s time to start making things happen now, imperfect as the world is.

Miscellany

I finished Tom Standage’s “A Brief History of Motion” which is just fab. Some top takeaways:

  • The wheel was briefly in vogue when chariots were the latest thing, but apart from that flurry, it took the best part of 3,000 years to catch on as part of human transport. For lots of that time, if you were a real man, you rode a horse. Not least because Roman roads fell into disrepair and there weren’t any decent surfaces to use your wheels on.
  • SUVs were invented to get around emissions and fuel economy restrictions, because they counted as light trucks.
  • There was a period when electric cars were outselling petrol cars in the early 1900s, and looked like they could have won
  • Pompeii had a one-way system, because it was built before carts were a thing
  • When public transport in cities became a thing, subsidies were also invented – so that people in the centre taking short frequent journeys helped pay for those out in the sticks taking longer ones. These were called “commuted fares” which is where “commuter” comes from.

Picked up a copy of “The Lean Product Playbook” following a recommendation from Steve as I’m considering a list of ‘set texts’ for the team at work. But bloody hell, the reading backlog has got huge. I need to start booking in long afternoons at the pub with a notebook to start getting through everything. Nacho Bassino, the new Melissa Perri, Itamar Gilad’s “Evidence Guided” etc etc. With MtP’s course out of the way, I’m hoping I’ll have a bit of time for things like that again.

Piano is going really well, but winding back even further. A few weeks ago I was struggling to take in a Bach Partita, and thinking this wasn’t fun any more. Admittedly I was going down with Covid at the time, but the piano was definitely feeling more like Another Job, and no longer the charming distraction from work troubles it had been when I started again back last summer. But now I’m doing Schumann children’s pieces, and Satie’s Gymnopedies, and rinsing every last bit of joy and expression I can get from them.

And I also fired up the modular system for the first time in weeks. And just noodled. Poked around to see where it took me. I even pressed record. There might have been some singing. I had Actual Fun.

And yes, I also spent slightly more than I should have done on music plugin upgrades on Black Friday – some things never change.

And I was delighted to see that Baby Queen made it to number 5 in the charts. You should really buy her album, you really should. For either the brilliant production or the brutally funny and scathing lyrics.

Coming up?

  • The last MtP leadership session
  • A chat over at Deloitte about product management in government, with a ton of lovely people like Scott and Maxine and Priya and…
  • Vicky’s Christmas choir concert up in Chingford
  • Putting up the tree, with the kids home, and then the “glow up” of our road, where everyone puts their lights on on Sunday night and we have an outdoor concert, mulled wine etc. It’s the street whatsapp group but with actual humans talking
  • Trying to make progress on the DIY modules I bought a few months ago, but haven’t had the patience to sit down with a soldering iron until now

Weeknote 11th-ish March – Lean life (GDS week 4)

Last week was pretty epic, and I remember writing that I considered myself “tired, but not exhausted”. This week there’s lots less to say, but somehow I feel absolutely shattered.

Some of that is because I’ve been in many more “pretending to be extrovert” scenarios, but also I suspect I’m slightly running out of mental swap space – there’s not quite enough autopilot yet to process some of the increasing numbers of things I’m working on.

I know it’ll come though. It always does. I try to remember this phase of any new role is like the arc of when we were new parents. Week four was always the worst, because you’d run out of mental and emotional reserves from before it all started – but weren’t yet seeing many tangible benefits. You just had to endure until week six or seven, when unexpectedly things would start to make a bit more sense.

The people, meanwhile, continue to be generally lovely. It’s just my brain that needs to catch up.

My week at GDS

  • I had a delightful chat with another of the Deputy Directors, as I start to do my rounds of the organisation. We rather hit it off, and I hope we’re going to get the chance to work together soon. I’m seeing two more next week – and I really hope they go the same way.
  • I had another of my open “meet Tom/Ask Me Anything” sessions for the Product Managers to find out a bit about me and how I work. There were lots of good questions from PMs ranging from senior to associate. It was particularly nice to be able to talk about my plans for how we can make career progression a bit more transparent. In the “vanilla” DDaT framework for product managers, it merely says that staff should be able to use product techniques with greater confidence – but doesn’t actually get into the specifics of what those are. So…one of my plans is that we should actually write down our detailed expectations at the different grades. When should you be focused just on usability? When might we expect you to be confident with A/B or landing page tests? When should you be able to create a prototype to test assumptions? How do you make the judgement on the risks around concierge tests? Etc etc. And that’s just product craft. We can do the same around how people think about value-for-money (and therefore the risks associated with any given bet). This all seemed to go down well, so now I just need to get on with bringing it together. The word “just” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there.
  • I was part of a panel sifting a large number of CVs for a new role in our Digital Identity team, and the moderation session was a really good way to beter get to know some team members and see what they valued in Product Management in their particular context.
  • The three of us got to collaborate on finessing the interview process a bit, bringing in some of the scenario-based techniques I introduced at DIT. The HoP did a fab job of coming up with something that I think is really going to give the best candidates a chance to shine – so 🎉.
  • I also got to have a good in-depth chat with one of the Lead PMs from that programme, and it was super-useful to hear in detail about their background and current work, and start thinking about how I might best help them.
  • And finally, I had my first “Heads of Product” get together – bringing together the HoPs from the three big directorates at GDS. We’re all so busy it took ages to find a diary slot, but I’m really glad we met. The four of us got to cover loads of really important stuff, in terms of what we’re doing for staff, how we can build a product leadership community, and how we can support each other. (We talked about early talent, mentoring, skills, L&D offer and loads more. Plus a bit of group therapy, of course.) I’m also picking up a few things they’ve had on their “I should do this for the greater good of the community, but dayjob argh” lists, which is a nice bit of help to be able to offer them already.

I’m trying to be ultra-ultra-Lean in how I approach many of these things. Do as little as possible to give people something to react to – I can fill in the detail later once I know things are ‘more true’. For example with the HoPs gathering I was pretty sure we’d end up with some sort of trello board, how our flow might work, and I had some ideas about what topics we should cover – but I knew that if I engineered flow too heavily around my reckons, I’ve wasted a big opportunity for everyone to tell me what they really need. (But yes, we do now have a trello board, and I’m very pleased that loads of the bigger things on it aren’t the priorities I first thought of.)

Similarly, we had a session about roadmapping with all the heads of product and delivery. I’ve joined a central team thinking about how we might improve things. I kicked off the session with a bit of a roundup of the thinking that had been going on – and on our hypothesis for improvements. But I deliberately didn’t over-engineer the Mural board we might use for testing the next stage work, or force anyone into an activity – because I wanted a chance to test the underlying value proposition of the work (always producting, me). We got a lot of interesting feedback to our approach, and it’s clearly going to need a bit of iteration, but we also got one team saying they’d be interested in doing a light-weight experiment with us to see how it plays out in reality, and another wanting to get involved in April. As ever, I’m always wondering about the least possible work we can do to get the next bit of insight we need.

It was also interesting when telling our story to a new group people that I spotted a slight creeping assumption. It would be incredibly convenient if it was true (which is why I’d not spotted it) but it definitely needs checking. So in some ways I’m actually glad we aren’t “go go go!” and have been gifted a little bit of time to validate. It’s funny how saying things out loud, to a completely new set of people, can reveal things like that.

An unexpected tour into meta-kanban

On Thursday evening I got to drop into a Zoom chat from one of the original masters of Kanban, Dave Burrows. Kanban isn’t a specialist area of mine, but I always like to stay curious, and Dave had come highly recommended by my fellow Head of Profession for software engineering.

(An aside on curiosity: I remember signing up for a quite expensive workshop on the “Accelerate” book about DevOps with Nicole Forsgren and Jez Humble, thinking it would be an interesting perspective on my work with PaaS – and having SOOOOOO many new perspectives and insights and tangents and books from that day, lots of which I still use. Metrics hierarchies? Corporate culture mapping? How to measure anything? Storytelling with data? All from that day. As a result, I’m always prepared to take a chance on something new. Plus, one of my favourite books is Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From”, which highlights the importance of cross-pollination between disciplines to foster sustainable innovation. He calls this exaptation, and I’m a fan. I’ve rarely regretted going to a talk about something a bit leftfield.)

It's a complicated powerpoint diagram showing feedback loops between teams at varying levels of a hierarchy. It's a visual metaphor, and it's better explained in the text that follows.
One of many fascinating slides – well, abstract slides, accompanied by fascinating chat.

Mike’s talk was actually wonderful. I sadly had to join it late because I was in the first “Heads of Product” meeting mentioned above, but there was a ton of great things to think about – mainly textural rather than anything to do with what’s going on now, but a few highlights:

  • “Watermelon projects” – Green on the outside, red on the inside. This term caused quite a virtual cackle from all of us on zoom. We’ve all seen them, some of us have worked on them, and now they have a name.
  • A disaffection with the increasing process-centricity around agile. I’ve always worried about the lack of upward flows of insight within frameworks like SAFe, but Mike put it really well: “we’re in danger of reinventing waterfall, and losing all the benefits of this way of working.”
  • He also talked about a list of “dysfunctions” – not in the Patrick Lencioni sense – but he would occasionally use throwaway lists like “dysfunctions of power, of levels of detail, of…” that I didn’t have time to write down. And I didn’t want to ask about because it may have been in the bit at the start that I missed. So I’m going to wait for the recording, and if it’s not covered I’m going to ask him on LinkedIn! (It may be I have to sign up for his course to find out, but hey – that’s quite tempting already.) The term “dysfunction” might be a bit ‘strong’, but there’s definitely something in it.
  • One example he gave of this was in a context I’d simply never considered before, and was a total eye-opener. It’s what the diagram above represents. He talked about work dependencies or flows between teams – all happily working in a kanban way.

    But there’s also a layer of kanban *between* the teams.

    Handoffs in multi-team delivery can sometimes end up being “we’ve done our bit, it’s now on them”. (Guilty as charged here!) But he calls this a dysfunction of power: the first team feels they can push work into the next team’s queue before they’re ready for it, breaking the kanban pull flow of the team that inherits the work.

    Another potential way to look at it is: why was that team working on something before it was going to be needed by the team inheriting the work? Perhaps that work should remain “not fully delivered” within the first team’s board until it’s ready to be worked on by the new team? Would that create better visibility around bottlenecks and flow to management, making it easier to spot the overall tensions in the delivery/learning system?

    I need to do a lot more thinking about this, but that meta-kanban approach is something pretty new to me. (It might be buried in “Lean Enterprise” of course, but I didn’t spot it 5-6 years ago because I didn’t have enough experience/context!)

We were also in the presence of Dave “Cynefin” Snowden – who clearly has a “resting unimpressed face”. Perhaps he was also thinking “5:30 on a Thursday evening, what kind of a time for a talk is this?”

Dave Snowden on Zoom, resting his chin on his fist.
Are his feelings complex? Complicated? Chaotic?

Elsewhere…

  • I got to enjoy my first tentative visit to Rough Trade East as “the local record shop”. I’m going in gently – I picked up an online order of the new Orbital album – but I can see this is going to be a very fruitful (if financially ruinous) relationship.
  • Managed to get out for a run on Tuesday morning before work, and also did Parkrun today – so last week’s excuse-making has been seen off, and I’m managing to hold onto the exercise habits I built up during January.
  • It was a really unfocused week of piano practice this week – I felt I needed to play more for pleasure than to sort out any specific problems. So I don’t know how the lesson will go in fifteen minutes or so.
  • Which reminds me: someone at work asked me “when do you find the time to write this”. In general I’ll write a list of key topics on Friday night – either in Notes on the phone, or maybe in wordpress if I’ve got the laptop to hand. But I simply don’t have the energy or perspective to try and synthesise anything meaningful from it all at that point. That generally comes out when I do the bulk of the writing – which is during Milo’s piano lesson, just before mine. Sometimes I realise I’ve got a lot more to say than I thought – or I spot there are bits of “thinking about thinking” that other people might find useful. Frameworks I realise I’m using, or implicit knowledge I can try to make more explicit. This is how last week’s turned into a bit of an epic, that needed to be finished off on Sunday!
  • SXSW has kicked off. I’m slightly missing not being there – but not $10K-levels-of-missing. I’ve signed up for the online streaming/on-demand version, so there’s now an absolute ton of stuff I’ve now got queued up to watch. Obviously I don’t get to see Self Esteem or Baby Queen or Nova Twins from three feet away, nor go to premieres of Sandra Bullock/King Crimson films – but I also don’t get horribly, horribly homesick.

Weeknowwte 13th Jan – Moving On

Feeling a tad fragile today, it must be said.

Last night a whole bunch of very lovely DIT people got together and said goodbye to me. In a pub. And then after that there were cocktails. And you can see where this is going. But I was so pleased to see everyone, and to hear all the lovely things said about me, and particularly all the individual people who said how I’d helped them over the last four years. As a contractor you have these Mary Poppins moments where you just have to shrink into the background, and there’s been three waves of that this year alone, so it’s doubly wonderful when people take the time. Oh and I was given some lovely presents too.

Bottle of fancy Bollinger champagne, a Dinosaur Comics mug saying "you're doing a good job and your hair looks nice" - a shared reference to former boss Miranda and I - and a large leaving card.
A subset of the lovely things.

I was also able to share some big news with everyone – what I’ll be up to next.

From mid-February, I’m going to be the Head of Profession for Product Management over at GDS. It’s a very similar role to the one I’ve been doing at DIT, combining the people/capability/community side with developing a bit more of a strategic view of each of the various GDS directorates’ plans – to come up with a coherent product strategy and roadmap for the whole organisation.

Moving from 17 to 30 PMs is going to be a new scale of challenge, but I know that lots of the things we’ve put in place at DIT are going to be transferrable. I also know there are some genuinely lovely people I’ll be working with in the new role to try and shape things. And they’ll already have some good stuff in place or ready to go – that probalby just needs me to shepherd along. I’ve got a whole new set of fellow Heads of Profession to get to know and work with, of course. Plus my new boss Neil Warsop seems just excellent and I’m excited to be working with and learning from him.

As at DIT, eventually I’ll be looking for my own permanent replacement. But not for six months at least.

So that’s the big news out of the way.

Elsewhere, it’s been a week of light socialising and there’s not much else to report. I’ve managed to get an hour of piano practice in a day. I’ve watched a lot of BAFTA films. We went to see Punchdrunk’s “The Burnt City” down in Woolwich, which was bewildering and spectacular…and we might need to go and see it again, but having read the actual plays it’s based on beforehand.

But for now, back to endless cups of tea and some light groaning.

Weeknote – 7th Jan 2023 – in which I find it hard to be still

An unusual week. Between the betweens. Not fully stopped, not fully started, not fully anything.

An empty calendar week.
THE VOID!!!

It was my first week of of full-on unemployment. This wasn’t quite the five-day sea of solo serenity I’d imagined back in November, because – of course – lots of people were still off school/work and so the house was really busy at the start of the week.

I hid away and spent a lot of Tuesday on my blogpost about everything-non-DIT that happened in 2022. It’s more about SXSW, MTP and music than anything hugely work-related, but with the looming demise of twitter it felt important to retell the story in one place.

On Wednesday, Vicky was back at work, and so that was my first day of true decompression. I found it incredibly hard to settle to, but was really determined not to just fill the day with random tasks to hide from the mental noise. I had to somehow be still, and try to become bored. This was hugely, HUGELY uncomfortable after so long being in ‘always on’ mode. But I got a lot of meditation done, and well over an hour of piano practice – probably more. In fact, I’ve managed more than an hour most days – but I’ve found I can emerge from those long sessions and back into reality feeling like I’ve not had any time to myself, because I’m in such a flow state that I don’t notice how long I’ve been playing.

I also started my self-assessment and got a really nasty shock about how much I owed HMRC, so Jolly Well Done to my umbrella company’s tax algorithms.

I got near the end of the day and was regretting not having recorded anything much, nor heading out to get daylight/fresh air. After all that time passing without much positive to show for it (and a huge negative) I was feeling pretty miserable, but again decided to ‘just be’ in the boredom and frustration. Oddly I then found myself just feeling instruments. Getting used to their tangibility. That they were for playing, not thinking about. I don’t know quite why, but that seemed to be what was needed.

From there I started doing some tiny bits of tinkering, and then tried to test the vocal recording setup for a technical project I’ve got looming with my friend Victor, and before I knew it there were some little loops going. And then I binned that and did something else – which became a sort of short proto-sea-shanty. I suspect everything with my vocals on ends up being a bit folky, whether I like it or not.

And then I just practiced singing Divine Comedy songs, trying to make sure I was actually hitting all the right notes as per the manuscript, rather than my memory. And this slightly bleak hour somehow became several hours of quite interesting play. Nothing really to show for it other than the time passing, but that’s probably enough?

I then hurried out to the Jazz Café in Camden to see Art of Noise with an old friend:

Men with laptops playing in front of a large video screen
AON legends Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik centre stage

The gig was just lovely – there was a proper sense of playfulness going on, watching remixes being created live in front of us. I got quite tearful during Backbeat/Beatback – even though there was no Anne Dudley playing that beautiful piano part.

This turned into something of a late night, putting the world to rights. We clearly both needed it. And hey, I didn’t have work in the morning.

Although, sadly, I did have to try and deal with Loki, who needed to go to the vets for an injury on his leg. He wasn’t keen. And I was still pretty hungover.

My poor arm with some big cat-induced scratches in.
These scratches still look pretty gross even three days later. Hurrah for savlon.

He came home later that day, complete with bandaged leg, cone of shame and very disoriented because of the general anaesthetic. We only found out that he would need to be kept indoors once I’d picked him up, so this meant that I had to immediately do a mercy dash to pick up a litter tray/litter before the shops closed. And before toilet-based disaster happened in one of the kids’ rooms. I was getting a lot of stressed text messages about that.

So I’m now £500 lighter. But he’s doing well. And I managed to drown my sorrows over a very fine curry in Buckhurst Hill thanks to the generosity of an old friend.

The piano tuner came round and worked absolute magic on the tone and action of our little baby grand – I don’t know why I didn’t ask him to do it sooner. Probably because I wasn’t playing it enough, or skilled enough, to notice all those little idiosyncracies.

I’ve been learning ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ from Childrens Corner, alongside many of my other longstanding Debussy projects, and I’ve been reading Stephen Walsh’s biography to ‘Painter in Sound’ to understand a bit more about the man. Suffice to say he seems to be a bit of an arse – but a lot of that feels like it’s potentially down to class and poverty. He came from incredibly humble beginnings, and I wonder if he was just trying to keep up with those around him – so had a slightly grey approach to promises and relationships. He’s quoted as saying “why is everyone allowed to divorce apart from me?” which sounds like another indicator he was used to being looked down upon by those around him. Anyway, here’s Pascal Rogé playing the current piece much better and faster than I can. And I’m enjoying the book – a pleasant change from tracts about Product Management!

I spent a lot of yesterday picking through folders of documentation associated with some of the things I might do next. It was quite draining trying to assemble these vast programmes in my head, and definitely not “taking a break from work”, but I suspect I’m getting close to making my choice. I think it’s going to be a really good move for me, but I’m going to sleep on it over the weekend.

Next week brings breakfast with Rico, the very first PM I ever worked with back at ITV – followed by dropping off the DIT laptop/phone. There’s Punchdrunk’s ‘The Burnt City’ immersive thing about the Trojan wars. Then Thursday is (finally) my leaving drinks. I am incredibly touched by how many people are making the effort to come along to these – from Turkey, Belfast, Cardiff, Eastbourne etc. Thank you in advance, everyone.

Right, back to the music gear…

2022 – And then there was everything else

OK, so that’s four years at DIT very loosely summarised. But it was a busy year in tons of other ways. And it’s mainly captured on twitter, so for the sake of durability, here’s a more narrative recap of all that!

We’re going to talk about

  • South by Southwest
  • Getting more involved with Mind the Product
  • Cultural adventures
  • Self-care
  • Music gear
  • And everything else…

SXSW

In February I finally got to go to Austin for this epic festival/conference/thing. I remember this being something that friends at the BBC and elsewhere were getting to go while I was head-down on mobile projects at MTV, and I’d hear about things like Twitter being launched. Slightly jealously. But in those days I could never persuade anyone to fund me going.

Thankfully, in 2020 the L&D budget of my very own company had a different view and bought me a platinum pass, just in time for it to get cancelled because of COVID. But two years later I finally made it over. I’d thoroughly recommend getting the “everything” pass if you can run to it – the extra money is a drop in the ocean compared to the hotel bills, and it allows you to dive between so many different worlds. Picking up contexts and ideas you wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

The move to a hybrid event had other benefits, because most things were available to watch on-demand later. This meant there wasn’t the pressure to go and see so many of the Rockstar Keynote sessions – you could amble and be curious, particularly if you had that platinum pass, knowing you’d catch up on the big stuff in downtime. And – as I found out – you’re really going to need downtime. It’s quite overwhelming, and I was very glad of my friend Hilary’s advice to just take every fourth day off and potter in the hotel/go shopping/sightseeing.

But I still loved it. The ability to see so many different things was just fabulous. I could flit between seeing Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathway at premieres, talks about the regeneration of San Paolo’s water system or the creation of new digital entrepreneurship in West Arkansas, or bands you’d kill to see in the UK…playing effectively in somebody’s back garden.

Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto at the Q&A after showing the first episode of WeCrashed. She was delightful – and he was Quite Hard Work. But they also had a truly terrible interviewer.
Real Sandra Bullock at the premiere of the charmingly silly “The Lost City”.
She is just as lovely in real life as you’d hope.
Nova Twins at BBC Introducing – I helped them rescue some drums that were accidentally forgotten by the porter at my hotel after this show. They were very pleased and sweet.

Some particular highlights on the music front:

I got to see Self Esteem playing the self-described “worst gig of my entire life – they had click coming out of front-of-house”. But from about six feet away. “Prioritise Pleasure” was already one of my absolute favourite albums by this point, and regularly brought on light lip-trembling, but I was in absolute floods of tears by the end of even this technically troubled set. Just so moving, and I felt so priveleged to see her that close up.

Self Esteem – at Augustine in Austin, Texas

A few nights later I got to see her doing it all again at the “British Music Academy” – a showcase of British bands put on by BBC Introducting/DIT/BPI etc etc that ran over several nights.

The whole self-esteem band, this time in Sheffield tribute kit.

Self Esteem’s first night was at a little venue called Augustine that was a very charming bar, if eye-wateringly expensive when it came to drinks, and I amused myself by turning up early and making the amazing discovery of Baby Queen.

Bella Latham (for that’s who Baby Queen actually is) was mainly playing to dense pop backing tracks, so the slightly punky picture above is a bit misleading, but she’s basically a slightly-“slacker” Taylor Swift. Really deft songwriting with huge huge layers of irony. For example, “Narcissist” is actually someone in their 20s pointedly raging about the harm that folks my age have done to their mental health. At that stage her biggest hit was basically a paeon to Jodie Comer called “Love Me”, which I think everyone can get behind.

I was totally sold. She’s going to be really big. And I also knew Daisy would love her. Of which more later.

And then I got to finally see amazing Ableton Live-looping genius Rachel K Collier in the flesh. I became one of her patreons during lockdown, and she has been incredible – sharing her own ableton sets, monthly writing challenges etc etc. So it was fabulous to meet her in real life as there’d been no chance to see her previously. The first time was when she closed the night at Patreon’s very own venue.

RKC in full flow, live looping her vocals and keyboard parts to build up the track “Paper Tiger”.

You can see her in action in this video: And there’s some familiar-looking curly hair in the preview thumbnail, I can’t help but notice…

Afterwards she was gushed at by Patreon founder/Pomplamoussist Jack Conte. As Rach was slightly in shock I did a bit of filling in the back story and bigging up the patreon experience while she gathered her breath. But pretty soon she was in her element again.

Rachel K Collier talking to Jack Conte

But this is just a tiny part of what I got up to. There were also amazing sessions about:

  • The semiotics of nuclear waste labelling – how will you convey “this is scary, don’t go further” to beings 10,000 years in the future, given that this didn’t stop people breaking into the pyramids
  • Arthur Brooks talking about reorienting what matters in your life when you get to 50, because continuing to be a striver will just make you disappointed in life. This was a hugely powerful session that I’ll keep coming back to – and his book “From Strength to Strength” is highly recommended (you can read past the faith-based elements quite easily, if – like me – that’s not quite your bag)
  • Professor Laurie Santos talking about happiness (of course), but how her thinking has changed post-pandemic
  • Catherine Price talking about how to have true fun – great talk, but the book feels a little bit hectoring if you’re a massive introvert like me
  • Colossal Bioscience’s attempts to rebuild a mammoth – they showed some really promising results on the gene editing, and also talked about their work on artificial wombs
  • What data science can tell you about long-term changes in traffic patterns in Austin post-pandemic (the mixed news is that there are fewer accidents…but if you’re in one then it’s more likely to be fatal)
  • How VR is changing the gallery experience, for better or worse
  • Mass community science online (with some bloke who used to be in Star Trek)

Plus Neal Stephenson, Jade Bird, Beck, Priya Parker, Brian Eno etc etc. Sadly I didn’t get to have my hair done by Jonathan van Ness, much to my similarly-coiffed boss’s disappointment.

Overall: it was bloody marvellous, exhausting, inspiring and I hope to do it again in 2024 or ’25.

Mind the Product – turning gamekeeper

I’ve long enjoyed this conference and the London ProductTank gatherings. I’ve also massively enjoyed the pub sessions after ProductTank, which handily were in one of my favourite pubs from GDS days – The Enterprise. I’d stay late, chatting to Martin Ericsson, or Randy Silver or Emily Tate about all sorts.

I was utterly delighted when they asked me to get involved in their training programme, and I’ve become one of the regular trainers for their “Communications and Alignment” course. I’ve got to learn a lot more about my own practice from teaching this, and having new problems and perspectives from outside government has been a great way of staying refreshed.

It’s also been a great excuse to tackle the more scholarly side of this – catching up on background reading, finishing (or starting) countless books I’ve bought over the ages, buying the ones I’ve not got round to yet…

I was even more flattered when I was asked to be part of their Leadership training. Firstly because I got to work with amazing Beata Barker as her co-trainer, but also because we got to take twenty product leaders from around the world on a journey together over four weeks. Twice. It’s a curiously emotional experience for all involved, creating a real cohort of fellow travellers through the challenges it brings. It’s incredibly hard work, and takes a lot of preparation, but it’s one of the best things that’s happened to me in the last year.

Going out

It was also quite a big cultural year, even if you ignore SXSW. Here are a few things I got up to…

Lonelady – Cambridge Junction.
One of “Electronic Sound” magazine’s artists of the year in 2021, who’s signed to Warp. Very tight, and she gave a great tour of the whole catalogue – sadly I only knew the most recent album ‘Former Things‘ really well. Amazing guitar playing, and in terrifying heels too. Bit odd that she didn’t say anything to the audience at any point though.

Jane Weaver – Storey’s Field Centre, Cambridge
Another ‘Electronic Sound’ favourite. Some really great musicianship, and she sang some great songs beautifully – the tracks from Flock were particularly great. Much taller than I expected. A slightly subdued crowd, which probably isn’t that suprising given that it was a Monday and at a venue slightly in the middle of nowhere. I’m also not 100% sure she was feeling it in turn, as a result. But I’m really glad I saw her, and would do so again – preferably later in the week and not in such an austere venue.

Cyrano de Bergerac – Harold Pinter Theatre
OMG, this was amazing. James McAvoy repeating a his National Theatre show for a short run – I was so lucky to get tickets for me, Daisy and Vicky. A truly incredible performance, and a wonderful supporting cast too. Really inspired Daisy too. Highly recommend watching online.

Baby Queen – Camden Electric Ballroom
Another chance to see Bella do her thing, but this time with a full band and to the audience size she deserves. It was odd to revisit this venue that I’d probably last gone to over 25 years before. The floor is no longer black and sticky, which is a welcome change. But I was also taking Daisy, and it was really odd to see that sort of gig through her eyes – and remember what it was like back in those days myself.

Daisy got to meet her afterwards, complete with SXSW backstory of how her dad had returned raving about her.

2021 may have been Self Esteem’s year, but this gig fully confirmed that this was my song of 2022 – although I may have overplayed it just a tad by now:

Abba Voyage
I really don’t know quite how to describe this other than to say it was an amazing experience. It’s not exactly a gig – although there’s a live band. It’s not exactly a film – although there’s a huge screen projecting tons of video. It’s more like being in a two-hour magic trick. The way they blur the boundaries between the projections and the room are just incredible – so many different small bit of misdirection contributing to the whole. And I suspect it’s a show that has the ability to get better – that because so much is software they can carry on tweaking the initial “MVP” now they know it’s a hit and have the rolling revenues to pay for it.

It was also a huge treat to see synth whizz Victoria Hesketh (aka Little Boots) playing keyboards and doing vocals in the truly amazing live band.

I went with Vicky and Daisy, plus old friend and Abba fan Steve. As you can see from the photos, we really bloody made the effort didn’t we? (Disclaimer it was really boiling hot that day)

Tom and Steve getting ready to head into the Abba show.
We got told off by the door staff for not trying hard enough.
Although Vic did give me a wave when she saw the t-shirt.

No photos from during the show inside, but look at all these happy faces! Suffice to say that I’m definitely planning on going again.

Happy people post-Abba

Genesis – the O2
This was an evening with an incredibly unexpected twist. I’d originally bought the eye-watering ticket well over a year ago from a reseller, having realised that absolutely nobody wanted to go with me and I’d missed the chance to get them directly while I waited. Then the shows got rescheduled because some of the band/crew caught Covid, and so these were then tacked onto the end of the tour.

Which meant – as it turned out – that I got to see Genesis playing live together for the very last time ever.

Tony Banks – my absolute musical hero when I was a (rather odd) teenager.

The visuals were incredible, the music was brilliant (if you like that sort of thing), and there were moments when the vocals were great too. There were places where Phil was a bit all over the place as well, but the good definitely outshone the bad. And what a night to have been there.

Divine Comedy – Retrospective at the Barbican
Another covid-delayed treat – the Divine Comedy celebrating thirty years of making music by playing all of their albums in chronological order. Vicky and I initially got tickets for the first night – where he was playing “Liberation” and “Promenade”.

Divine Comedy’s setup for the first night at the Barbican

The above is the only photo I took of the first night. Those albums mean so much to us both, we just wanted to be in the moment. I wept several times, and “Lucy” was just as beautiful as ever. Lots of lovely encores from more recent records too.

We were also lucky enough to benefit from our friend Des’s planning ahead on the second night – he’d bought tickets for his wife and daughter to go ‘just in case’. Only they weren’t that fussed, so Vicky and I got to go along again to see “Casanova” and “Short Album about Love”. Which were just brilliant, but the shows had a very different vibe that night – these two albums were much more popular and the audience felt broader in comparison. More chatting and ‘general gig going’ people compared to the hardcore crowd on night one.

Elsewhere…
I went to see Alex Jennings be brilliant in The Southbury Child at the Bridge Theatre; I got to see a performance of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto with Abba-friend Steve in the orchestra playing percussion; I also got to see some silly modern-prog-rock in the form of Frost* supported by old friends Quantum Pig.

Frost* are probably playing in 7/8 at this point. And why not.

I also went to loads of lovely talks organised by the Wanstead Fringe or at local venue The Wanstead Tap. I got to see so many lovely speakers, ranging from Marina Hyde, Rory Cellan-Jones, Ian Dunt, and Adrian Chiles all the way through to local psychogeographer John Rogers and Wanstead House historian Hannah Armstrong. And we managed to squeeze in two whole sessions of Robin Ince’s “Nine Lessons…” at Kings Place, seeing a huge range of comedy, science and music – including lovely friend Ben Moor.

Adrian Chiles talking to Wanstead Tap owner Dan Clapton about the benefits of drinking slightly less.

Looking after myself

I started running a lot more, and managed to lose nearly a stone by eating a bit less. I started going to the osteopath more regularly to sort out my stupid posture. I found an amazing podiatrist who gave me exercises that have helped fix my flat feet and help me regain arches.

Of course I then got cocky, and picked up a stupid tendon injury in September from pushing myself too hard. This was still causing me trouble into December, so I’ve only just started running again now. Thankfully the weight didn’t pile back on, and the times I’m doing now I’m running again aren’t as bad as I feared.

I also realised my world had got a bit small and over-focused on too few things due to work, so I started piano lessons again, to try and get me a bit more out of my head and into other areas of progress – that has been going brilliantly.

I also improved my diet and can bore people about gut bacteria. But let’s not go into that here.

The Ever-expanding Modular Habit

This wasn’t as big a year of acquisition as I first thought (feared?) it was – it turns out there was an absolute ton of eBay purchases at the very tail end of 2021, but the blatant shame clearly hung around for much longer. However I did buy considerably more rackspace so I could keep everything out in the rig at once, so the whole setup certainly feels bigger.

Of course I still need to take the time to get to properly know much of the gear bought in 21′, but there were a few nice 2022 purchases that I’m looking forward to getting stuck into. Anyway, I still maintain that this has been my small part in stimulating the economy – or at least the small part of it based in Stokes Croft, down in Bristol.

  • Expert Sleepers Lorelei – this is a rather curious little oscillator module that makes sounds unlike anything else, particularly when you’re using the ‘x-mod’ option that kind of “masks” the oscillator based on an external signal. You end up with almost ‘sync’ sounds – but something still quite different. It sounds particularly good when put through…
  • Mannequins ‘Three Sisters’ – a linked set of three (very good) filters that you can use to create vocal sounds in forman mode, or do all sorts of fascinating sweeps. Everything sounds good through this, and it comes alive in all sorts of interesting ways when you start mutating it through other things
  • Mutable Instruments Marbles – a random trigger/voltage souce that I’ve ended up putting into almost everything. Like a turbocharged Turing Machine, it just brings all sorts of stuff to life
  • ADDAC Intuitive Quantiser – a lovely little box that takes four signals and maps them to any musical scale you set on the front panel. I’m slowly getting more into using this in performance mode – actually changing keys, to create more shape on generative aspects of the music
  • VPME.DE quad voice drum expander – makes my go-to drums module even more flexible and useful. I suspect. The manual’s…opaque. A January project, for sure.
  • Mordax Data – an amazing oscilloscope thing so you can see what’s going on in your rack. This is going to be so useful for understanding everything else. We are going to have a lot of fun together!
Mordax Data, Marbles and the ADDAC quantiser.
You can just see the top of QEx and Lorelei under Marbles as well.

And the rest of it…

Ilfracombe, where the lumpy journey of rebuilding began
  • Daisy’s gone off to UEA, and Milo’s started in sixth form – so the rhythm of the house is very different.
  • We are now a two-car house, so Daisy’s got something to practice in when she’s home. I feel a bit odd about this wanton luxury.
  • We had a truly lovely and luxurious holiday in Ilfracombe, where I realised that a load of things in life had got quite badly out of balance and I needed to deal with some quite enormous emotional and work burnout – I’ve mentioned this above already.
  • Aside from things like taking up the piano again, a bit more meditation, and spending a lot more time ‘being in the moment’ with my family, this precipitated lots of little random changes, like deciding I’d had enough of my two standard smells: Paul Smith for Men (weekend) and Tom Ford Black Orchid (weekday). They served me well for over a decade, but it’s time for something different. I’ve now got a terrifying and shameful Penhaligons habit, thanks to Mark O’Neill.
  • (Oh, and I’m doing a lot better now. But this January is definitely going to help even more.)
  • And, hugely sadly, we lost Vicky’s mum after a long illness. We’ll remember her as she used to be – she was just ace.

So it’s been quite a year. I’m hoping for some similar highs in 2023, but could do without quite so many of the lows.

DIT – a look back

(This is a heavily edited version of an internal email sent to the people I worked with in our Digital, Data and Technology team. I’ve tried to make it generally applicable, and nothing personal or ‘official’ should still be in here, but – former colleagues – please let me know if syou spot anything that needs an urgent tweak! There’s also another post coming shortly about *everything else* I got up to in just 2022, because there was no shortage of that either!)

Goodness – nearly four years have flown by. It seems just moments ago that I first arrived at Windsor House to be the first Product Lead for Data Hub – an internal core-CRM platform with a name I never managed to improve. Ironically this was also the project that ended my time at DIT, but it’s fair to say that things changed Quite A Bit since then.

As an Agile/Lean/Product person I was obviously quite keen to understand our work-in-progress. Not least because whenever teams got together to talk about the roadmap everyone seemed really busy, but there didn’t seen to be a ton of meaningful progress being made. To get to the bottom of this I declared a “secret project amnesty” and one of our PMs admitted to 23 side problems he’d been given to look after! As I leave DIT, everyone still feels we’re trying to do too much with too few people – but it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. 

There was also new management to worry about – the person that had hired me was suddenly leaving, and someone called Sian Thomas was apparently taking over as Chief Data Officer. We also found out we had three weeks to present a new vision for Data Hub, to some big senior management committee that neither of us had heard of or understood, even though she’d not even left her job at Food Standards Agency yet.

Thankfully this Sian person turned out to be an amazing colleague and leader – something that’s just been recognised when she was deservedly awarded an MBE for her services to trade, investment and cross-government data standards. I’m feeling like I need to try a bit harder!

I realised my role was just as much a delivery lead as product lead, and together we started to tackle some of the systemic problems we could see, trying to redesign our ceremonies and rituals to encourage the behaviours we thought we needed. We put in fortnightly checkins where we asked about team health – something of a novelty. We introduced a cross-team wallwalk that was focused on knowledge-sharing. We moved to show-and-tells that were about individual teams ‘showing the thing’ rather than contributing to a big slide deck full of progress updates. We got our fortnightly release cycle up off the floor (it was multi-release per day by the time I left DIT). We slowly took the teams on the journey to meaningful OKRs. We got to introduce and celebrate better product practice – even supporting the legendary ‘Flintstone car’ wizard-of-oz service for matching our existing company records Dun&Bradstreet data; this initially ran for an hour a day through a PM’s inbox, who’d then make the API calls by hand, allowing us to really rapidly iterate the frontend to improve effectiveness and success without rebuilding all of the backend every time we made a mistake. Proper product management!

A large whiteboard wall covered with post-it notes and printouts.
The Data Wall – an internally-highly-public roadmap of all our mission teams, their OKRs, what’s shipped, and a now/next/later roadmap for each in columns. Top left is ‘The Vision’, and a big reminder of the weekly ritual – the questions each team was expected to answer before they could get into ‘being busy’.

Everyone did sooooo well changing their ways of working, talking to each other, reducing duplication, and becoming more usefully focused on impact. I was really proud of all the teams. But a civil servant successor had been found, and I spent a few months handing over to her.

I was sent back to the shopfloor of shipping things, to look after two vast and scary services called ‘Check How to Export Goods‘, and ‘Trade with the UK‘. These databases of tariffs and other guidance had previously been provided by the EU, and MVPs had been created in time for one of our potential exit dates – but never launched. My job was to try and understand the real user needs, and get them updated before 31st December (this is when we were expecting to sign our deal with the EU around September, so I’d have ages to process the data).

Of course this was just in time for lockdown, and suddenly – like all of us – I was finding I was creating a roadmap on the last spare bit of wall in the studio!

A roadmap made of different sized postits
How I did brexit.

I’m still amazed at how much everybody achieved during those times of huge challenge and change, with almost vertical learning curves around data and context, and a political environment that wasn’t short on complications. Everyone worked so hard, and supported each other so brilliantly. Kate, Kevin, Nick, Tom, Andrzej, Abigail – thank you all.

We also did properly user-centred policy in places: I was presenting UR findings in trade negotiations, and to the cross-government team that were trying to explain the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The team then did a great alpha for an improved service based on the CHEG data, which I hope will still see the light of day once it’s the right priority given everything else that’s going on. I’ll always be happy to come back and re-explain, of course. But then it was time for me to move on once more.

I’d been asked to take on a role as Head of Product in the last days of our Brexit work, and this became ever more critical as we started to move to a matrix structure. I was really excited by the idea of trying to fix the way we did line management, to try and make sure our people were developing properly and given the right challenges. But on a more practical note, a lot of staff left after EU Exit/the launch of the GREAT ‘learn to export’ platforming, so initially it was just about crewing up. I had to create new product recruitment materials, iterate the cross-government capability framework to reflect the product discovery skills DIT needed (rather than the more old-skool approaches in the big operational departments), and get a ton of new people in – initially mainly contractors. I also had to do quite a lot of juggling what we were even working *on*. It turned out that lots of people had differing ideas about what had been promised, and who got to decide, so making sense of what was going on across the whole of DDaT became almost a full-time job.

Thankfully I had a new partner in crime – Miranda Savage, who’d taken over the Chief Digital Officer role on an interim basis. I’d never even met her before because she’d joined during COVID times, but this unexpectedly turned out to be one of the most fulfilling working relationships I’ve had in my career. Miranda is a natural product leader, but with huge empathy for the people side of the job. There were definitely times when it was like we were separated at birth, give or take twenty years, but we had just enough points of difference that we quickly became soooo much more than the sum of our parts.

Together we got the product community up and running, got the capability framework signed off, collectively tried out techniques like Opportunity Solution Trees, put in quarterly prioritisation processes we needed for the time, and kept on iterating how we planned and scheduled work – and fixed some of the systemic challenges that were repeatedly causing teams to get stuck. We were able to properly sort out line management and L&D. I also got to learn some amazing ways of seeing the organisation as a system from her.

I could do a whole blogpost series just about our work together. Or maybe an album. Or perhaps we’ll get back together in a decade and write a business book about it all.

She also had the incredible ability to track down quite amazing cocktails. Even in Cardiff. One of the very many things I will miss. Thank you Mrs S.

A table full of cocktails and other drinks
This was a London Dry. Miranda’s cucumber-based concoction is just to the right. Astute observers of us as a pair will be unsuprised that we then ordered each other’s drink for our second round. 🙂

Of course ‘fixing recruitment’ also involved replacing myself, and after one failed attempt we were lucky enough to bring in the amazing Matt Jukes to take over in my stead. I know I leave things in really safe hands with him, and I’m really grateful that he applied, stuck with it through the security clearance process, and was so sensitive to my feelings when letting go of my baby. His marking of the “formal handover of the product community” was done with huge care, kindness and respect. Thank you Matt.

(Similarly, huge shout outs to my fellow “Delivery and Product Leadership” colleagues – I’m really going to miss The Best Meeting Of The Week, but I know you’ll all be fine. And you all know where to find me if you need a coffee and chat.)

Finally I ended up back where I started, on a “special project” in case I was needed post-handover, in this case worrying about (once again) what to do with Data Hub and how to reframe it as part of a wider CRM ecosystem. I’ve already written a little bit about that product strategy work elsewhere on this blog.

But now I’m done. It’s the 1st Jan and I’m no longer even under contract.

Once again, thank you everyone at DIT. You’re some of the most dedicated and creative people I’ve worked with, and I’ve learned loads from every one of you. Carry on being amazing.

(And please keep an eye on their jobs page if you want somewhere fascinating to work)