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Fortnote – 27th May

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

The day job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, er, plenty to be getting on with.

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

Wider Producting 1: Return to Sender

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three unexpected delights:

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

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

Good luck everyone involved in taking it forward!

Wider Producting 2: unProduct

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

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

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

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

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

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

The getting things wrong is essential.

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

Wider Producting 3: The Network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wider Producting 4: Miscellany

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

Elsewhere

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

Dandelion leaves, in a lawn
My nemesis

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

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

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

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

An extracted weed.

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

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

Two windscreen wiper blades on a car bonnet.

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

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

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

Culture Corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On and up for the week ahead, everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, somehow, the penny dropped. Several pennies.

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

So luckily I had these ideas already in my head:

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

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

Anyway, it’s this:

Almost all user research is obvious in hindsight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So my plea to Product Managers everywhere is as follows.

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

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

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

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

Do let me know how you get on.

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…