Category Archives: weeknotes

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.


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 19th November – Keeping Going, Somehow

John Crace, being interviewed by Jessica Elgot at Wanstead Library

Hello. Another late night weeknote. A sensible person who cared about their brand would have these ready to go on Friday lunchtime or Monday morning…but I do really write these for myself as a way to reflect. And also for a very old friend with an RSS reader who lives just outside Malibu (waves).

This week has been much better than last, thanks the very welcome return of a few more working braincells and a slightly lightening mood.

On the former I’d been continually feeling like I’d got way too many tabs open in my brain, with only limited ability to make coherent progress. I was definitely still getting useful stuff to happen, but it was quite reactive and slightly random. And therefore quite hard to feel a sense of accomplishment. But on Wednesday I caught myself writing a Slack message saying “so here are the current list of open issues, and what I think we need to do about each of them”. It was a wonderful moment of “oh, I can see the whole again, like I used to be able to”.

On the latter – I’ve heard on the grapevine from therapist friends that they think the current variant is making people feel a bit lower. So if you’ve picked it up and are finding it hard to get going again, take a small amount of comfort that it’s more likely to be the bug than you. Hang on in there – and if I’m someone you want to compare notes with, you know where I am. It’s nice to be feeling a bit more optimistic once more, and it’ll happen to you too.

Randy Silver, just getting going.

On Thursday, we had the delightful Randy Silver come in to GDS to give a talk as part of our monthly “Show&Tell/Speaker Series”. Two teams gave lovely talks at the start. Firstly there was a chat about the recent utterly epic ‘Design System Day’ – and how to make events like that go well. Then there was a very moving talk about lived experience of neurodiversity and disability, from one of our own staff. A tough act to follow, but Randy did brilliantly. Inspiring, funny, and practical – hopefully for everyone, not just Product managers. You can read a little about what he said in this LinkedIn Post about it – from where I stole the photo above.

We’ve finished the first complete round of interviews using the new processes I brought in, which feels great. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to recruitment and HR colleagues about how to make this process as simple and fair as possible, but also tighten up some loose ends – everything from how we ask questions to how we store files. Some of this has been an extension of work I did at DIT, but other bits have been going back even deeper. Like, “what is a job description actually for”.

I’ve also been writing a lot of interview scripts, and tweaking the script documents and sift sheets to make them a bit more usable “in the thick of it”. I’m hoping I’ll be able to share a little of that once it’s been road-tested.

It’s still a longer process than I’d like, but it’s tricky when sometimes you’re robustly assessing “do candidates pass the bar” and at other times “how much breadth do they have”. As I finally get time to start looking at updating the government Product Manager DDaT framework again, in the back of my mind I have the notion that ideally I’d like to be able to hire using just that. I can still see the value of the civil service behaviours list, but I think I can make the two align in a more useful way if I squint. Let’s see. But hey, I’ve also got a lot of people across governement to chat to about this. And my brain’s still getting to the point where it can handle this sort of 12-dimensional chess.

Learning Day plans are coming together. We’re doing an experiment with creating a separate strand for our Grade 6 Product Leads/Heads – more news on that if it becomes a thing. I also spent some time with Phil and Justin from “Talking Roadmaps” chatting about the best way to make their session with APM/PM/SPMs go well. Oddly the trickiest part of it all looks like it’s going to be to do with Mural permissions. I’ll post about that once we’ve come up with a cunning plan!

It’s also the day where we are hoping to launch our MVP learning offer – something that reduces the friction for Associate to Senior PMs in knowing what courses would be useful for building the skills needed to settle into their roles, as well as progressing to the next stage. This will build on loads of great work from Jonathan Forman, and hopefully embed it a little more. We’re also trying to be more strategic about how we use the central learning budget to get a bigger bang for our buck, and let staff/line managers concentrate more on the day job – rather than beauracracy. Of course, as a product person, the biggest part of that document is going to be about “and how we make the plan better”, but hopefully it’ll still sound like a step forward.

Next week I’m co-hosting a discussion table at the Government Transformation Summit. I’d originally been asked to sit in on a chat about Government Efficiency, which I’ve got a good few opinions on, but as they tweaked the various attendees I found myself being asked if I’d mind joining a chat about “joined up services”, which was higher up my list of preferred topics – so I’m happy about that. My fellow hosts have got a nice broad range of perspectives, so we should get some nice discussion going. If you’re going, there are four 30 minute sessions you can join us for. I suspect between the hosts we could fill the time ourselves if we had to, but fingers crossed we will have some really good questions and viewpoints being shared by other attendees – and might help inspire people to keep doing the right thing. (I’m also hugely looking forward to seeing a pile of old friends in the margins – Liz, it’s been too long!)

I’m looking forward to week 3 of teaching Mind the Product’s “Product Leadership” course. The group are starting to gel more, as always happens. Cris Valerio was wonderful as a co-trainer for the first two weeks, and we’re going to carry on chatting long after this. For the last two weeks I’m joined by Dharmesh Raithatha – which will be fab.

Sadly I didn’t get to chat to the new coaching client because of delays getting contracts sorted. You know that thing where you dig out the flatbed scanner, install the drivers to get it working again, finally create a digital version of the signed document…then forget to attach it to the email and nobody notices for a few days? Yeah, that. But it’ll happen soon.

What’s been happening in Real Life?

Vicky and I got to see John Crace chatting about his new book at a Wanstead Tap/Newham Bookshop event (photo at the top). He was very very funny, but also talked very poignantly about the toll that writing a daily politics sketch – given the turbulent last few years – have taken on his mental health. He definitely ended on an optimistic note though, and I felt quite inspired given my own slightly rubbish few weeks.

Got to see Penguin Café playing live at the Union Chapel, with lovely percussionist friend Steve. So many truly beautiful moments – “Galahad” in particular. Some tears were shed.

Baby Queen on stage

On Wednesday I made it along to the Forum to see my ‘artist of 2022’ playing live again. Sadly Daisy couldn’t make it down from Norwich to join me, due to commitments with a play she’s producing/in, but I wasn’t going to miss this for anything. Bella was on truly excellent form, and clearly having the time of her life. I dialed Daisy in by phone for “Dover Beach” and the encores, and it was lovely to have her almost-there. A lovely new layer of memories.

I was so pleased that her new album “Quarter-life Crisis” debuted in the charts at Number 5 as well. It’s a great record.

Finally managed to feel well enough to get out for a run today too. Could feel myself becoming more sluggish and I wasn’t liking turning back into a potato. Just under 6K, just over 31 minutes, which isn’t bad after five weeks away and A Disease.

What else?

  • Good piano lesson that was more talking about the nature of emotion in music than hamming through any particular piece
  • We’ve been decorating the spare room – that corpse-green wall colour turns out to have been a terrible idea, and it’s feeling a lot warmer now
  • Some lovely long evening chats with Vicky over dinner
  • Didn’t go and see “The Witches” when offered a spare ticket as I was just too tired after everything else
  • Ordered the Christmas tree!

Right, that’s enough for now. Bedtime. I hope you all have a lovely week. All probably-one of you.

Weeknote – 12th Nov 2023

As ever, getting my excuses in early, and the weeknote in late. It’s going to be another short one.

Covid is still hanging on, sadly. Oxygen levels are fine, but I still get pretty tired very quickly – and a bit breathless going up too many stairs. Managed nearly a full work week this time, which is huge progress. I’d originally aimed to finish at lunchtime on Friday, but a few things dragged on – as they do – and so it was only a ‘get away early’.

I made it into the office on Wednesday, which was quite a exhausting thing to do, but a) the Heads of Profession gang had a team planning session, b) I’d got a much-postponed chat with a Product person at DfE in the diary at the end of the day, c) I hoped it might be a way of kickstarting a few sluggish bits of my brain. I think I might have been a bit right on the last one, but there’s still a long way to go. On the upside, it meant I was lucky enough to be in Aldgate when I got the call to say that the legendary Liz Sarginson happened to be in her favourite haunt ‘The Bell’, just up the road. She’s doing well, and hopefully she’ll get the all-clear from her next set of tests. Watch out world!

It’s a testament to my affection for these two people that I’m including this picture even though I look awful.

It was a delight to see her, as ever, even if my own light feebleness meant I wasn’t able to hang around for as long as I’d have liked. But I’m looking forward to the next one.

I started the next round of Product Leadership training for MtP, with new partner-in-crime Cris Valerio. She’s been at Uber, Instacart, IDEO and all sorts, and brought new things out of the material that I’d not spotted in there before. Just as the participants did. Week one is always slightly uneven, because it’s about creating a baseline understanding, and the social bonds that we’ll use to shape the next three weeks, but it went pretty well I think. Back into the fray again on Tuesday.

Other than that, there was a lot of recruitment stuff, mixed with frantic planning for the forthcoming ‘Learning Day’ at GDS. I’d been too ill to pick up the latter, but obviously the clock hadn’t stopped ticking. I’ve got someone coming in to help our APMs/PMs/SPMs think about planning and roadmapping, and some slightly-more-coaching sessions for our Leads and Heads. Thanks to Natalie Baron for tons of logistics while I was off, and to DD colleagues current and previous for being so generous with their time to help our G6 folk. Phil Hornby of “Talking Roadmaps” has also been a brick for taking so much of government procurement on trust. I hope neither of us regret it!

Had a quick run through of Randy Silver’s forthcoming chat for the GDS Speaker Series – I think it’s going to be funny and inspiring. A bit different from Matt Edgar’s recent excellent talk, but complementary I think.

I’m looking forward to being one of the table co-hosts at the Government Transformation Summit in just under a fortnight. It’s looking like great chance to talk to colleagues here and overseas about doing things better. I’m probably leading discussion about improving Transformation Strategies, which is something close to my heart, but there are a bunch of topics I can also cover and I’m leaving it in the hands of the organisers. Registrations are still open, so if you want to be part of chats about everything from service design to data to personalisation to people, do feel free to sign up – it’ll be lovely to see you. (There’ll be beautiful promotional images for this up on LinkedIn soon…but for some reason the widgets that create them are just not working on my account at the moment.)

That’s enough work stuff. What else has been going on?

  • It’s winter. That means putting the garden furniture away. And every year I forget that the dining table is almost exactly the same width as the gap between our house and the neighbour’s. So I should get it the right way round before I go into the narrow bit. Anyway, I only got one hand on the brickwork, and I’m sure it’ll grow back.
  • Had a really good piano lesson. Quite slow and deep. Tackling two pieces from Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” at the moment, and Seb caught me doing quite a lot of things right. We also spent a bit of time unpacking some of the twiddly-twiddly rhythms of a Bach Sarabande that I didn’t have the brain for two weeks ago. On the back of that, I’ve been reading the two part inventions silently to myself just to practice parsing various quaver/semiquaver/demisemiquaver groupings. Which is more fun than it sounds, honestly.
  • Went to see the Taylor Swift Eras film again – this time with Vicky. Wasn’t quite as weepy as last time, thankfully.
  • That led, in turn, to a lovely evening down in the studio together, listening to records, drinking champagne and toasting the first anniversary of her mum’s funeral. Sharing memories, that sort of thing.
  • Lovely big walk through the woods this morning, with coffee at the end.
  • Some new trail shoes arrived, but I’m still not quite up to running with them. Maybe a very gentle parkrun this Saturday?
  • And – of course – the new Baby Queen album came out on Friday. A truly worthy successor to ‘The Yearbook’ which was pretty much my soundtrack to 2022. There’s a nice profile of her on the BBC News site, if you’ve not come across her before. A sort of very-messed-up Taylor Swift, with a lot more grit. I absolutely love loads of the tracks – the impeccable production, the brilliant wordplay and rhyme schemes, the scathing attitude and irony. Current favourite is “kid genius”, which even has snark about people not using punctuation or upper case. Plus of course, she’s rinsing the ‘Heartstopper’ connections with some really beautiful Alice Oseman artwork on the special edition. Her London gig is on Wednesday. Daisy’s going to be with me again, and I can’t wait.
Go Bella!

That’ll do for now. Have a good week ahead, everyone.

Minimal weeknote – 5th Nov – dragging on, and dragging myself back

A covid test showing only one bar.
Allegedly better

So, this has been an almost anti-week. On Monday evening I finally did a covid test that came back negative. This was a bit of a relief in terms of family contact, as I was going a bit mad staying largely on my own in our bedroom, or flitting masked through the kitchen down to the studio at the bottom of the garden.

I’ve had no energy to do anything beyond the absolutely essential really. Physical or emotional.

  • Kept some important and time-sensitive bits of recruitment moving along.
  • Managed to get a slot at a conference signed off, after a month chasing a cloud of internal vague bureaucracy.
  • Spoke to my new co-trainers for the forthcoming Mind the Product Leadership cohort.
  • Arranged the first f2f slot with my new coaching client.
  • Booked in the annual ‘BBC Fictionlab Execs Xmas Lunch’.
  • Bought some Terrifyingly Expensive car insurance, now Daisy’s passed her test. Turns out we’re in a high-risk area for theft. Rats.
  • Made a few dinners.
  • Got to see some daylight occasionally.
  • Finally hung a lovely picture I got for Vicky when we were up in Hexham in the summer

But that’s about it really.

  • I had to bail on going to see Baby Queen in Norwich with Daisy, which I was absolutely gutted about.
  • I abandoned trying to learn a movement of one of the Bach Partitas, as my brain wasn’t up to it (but I am making good progress on something much simpler).
  • I bought a fancy new gaming/data-science PC, but have been too tired to really do anything other than say “ooooh” at a few games. I’ve not even managed to turn off/down the garish RGB fans that came pre-installed. It does keep the living room quite warm though.
  • Tidied the studio, and set up all the modular gear just the way I like it. Have been too tired to turn it on.
  • Still can’t smell particularly, so all these nice dinners I’ve cooked are a bit moot. Only Penhaligon’s “Much Ado About the Duke” manages to cut through . Pah.
  • Can’t do any exercise really, to shake off any of the post-viral low moods. Returning to work tomorrow doesn’t fill me with delight, but I suspect I need to get back into it now if I’m going to at all.

I’ve not really managed to make any progress on sorting out the ‘Learning Day’ content for my profession. Had a few ideas before I got ill, but they’ve stagnated a bit, and I know that at least one has fallen through. I’m determined not to do the teaching myself – particularly as I’ve got things like the DDaT Product Management Career Framework to worry about – but time is now not on my side. Still have a few cunning thoughts though, so let’s see how the start of the week plays out.

Meanwhile, I’ve realised I’m suffering quite badly from a lack of any meaningful feedback or management interest at work, and am stagnating a bit. I’m considering how best to get some coaching of my own – particularly as the end of the current contract hoves into view. It’s a weird one though, as I’ve got lots of friends who are coaches – but would that be Just A Bit Weird? I feel I need someone I don’t actually know, but also knows enough about my work they can help me professionally. And that’s going to be a bit tricky in this small world.

So, on and up. But after a huge great sleep.

Weeknote – 29th October – it got me, and I didn’t listen

So earlier this week, I opened up wordpress and wrote the following…

It finally got me. After years of managing to somehow dodge COVID, I finally tested positive first thing on Monday. I’d assumed it was just a really crappy cold on top of some epically overcommitted times (of which more shortly), but no. So I’m finally going through the whole “oh, no sense of smell” and “oh, brain fog” business that nearly everyone else had years ago and is Not Remotely News. So I’m not going to talk about that, but I am going to use this time where I’m trapped in the bedroom on my own to try and lightly catch up on the Weeknotes That Weren’t. Because the last blogpost was all the way back in late August, and it’s been quite full-on here since then. In both personal and work life.

And then the post just sat in draft form, as a vast list of bullet points I planned to expand, while I completely failed to be in a fit state to do anything about finishing it.

It’s possibly the fault of this:

Des Burkinshaw on bass and Olly Betts on drums, plus a load of my midi master keyboards in the foreground.
Des on bass and ‘Olly from Duke Spirit’ on drums – probably doing one of the Beatles numbers, as I’m not playing and had time to take this photo.

About three months ago, Des approached me asking if I’d be in a band for his brother’s wedding. “Just a few covers”. I didn’t really notice the exact timing, and also didn’t pay a ton of attention to what we were covering, but it became something of a personal car-crash, with rehearsals needing to be squeezed in the night before I was training for Mind the Product – that sort of thing. The songs also turned out to be pretty epic – “Sledgehammer”, “Livin’ Thing” etc. I had a LOT of learning, and TONS of programming to do – which I had to fit in around trips to Norwich to see Daisy in plays etc. I was running on fumes for a good few weeks trying to make everything happen. Anyway, somewhere in among rehearsing, training, and conferencing COVID finally tapped me on the shoulder. And then punched me hard in the face during the final performance on Saturday. I got home safely from Suffolk, and then just collapsed into bed for all of Sunday and Monday.

More musicians and keyboards
Peter, Simon and Tim – and I think the laptop is getting ready for that ELO moment

Ever the optimist, I had incredible hopes for all the things I was going to do with this new-found recovery time. And yes, I finally finished the dense and weighty “Push Turn Move – Interface Design in Electronic Music”. Yes, I started to understand the (Arturia emulation of an) Buchla Easel synth a bit better. But mainly I was caught between “being too exhausted to do anything” and “being too stressed about work to be able to sit back and relax”.

It’s always an odd leadership challenge, when there’s too much going on and you’re Actually Quite Ill. You want to show the behaviour you’d expect in others – to take the time to look after yourself. But you also know that doing this will basically leave everyone else doing any time-bound work you can’t do. And in some cases that won’t be “a development opportunity”, it’ll just be a big pile of “being dumped on”. So I had to walk the line of “mucking in when I felt able” and “actually getting better”. Being freelance adds even more spice to this mix.

A lot of the big pile did get cleared, yay. Sadly one thing that only I could do has definitely ended up in the “gift to my future self” category, and I know it won’t be anywhere near as good as if I’d been able to make the time. But…I also know that I absolutely overdid it. A week on, I’m not truly better, and I’m going to have to work much harder at not working harder over the next few days. It runs against everything in my being to not just try and push on through, but I have to remember this is a rare occasion this wouldn’t be wise. I’m not one of these young people that can just get it countless times and bounce back after a few days – this could have repercussions. Boo.

So I didn’t get to write the long blogpost. I didn’t read the large pile of books I accidentally ordered (as displacement activity from ordering music gear while feeling bored). I didn’t get out for walks. I didn’t practice the piano.

Because I was too tired.

I also didn’t sleep as much as should have. Because I was too stupid.

And you know what? Next week I’m planning on doing less work, and still not doing these things – so I can actually get better this time.

Four books on product management and agile teamworking.
A small subset of the books and magazines that built up by the bed this week.

So a gentler next week beckons. Where also I’m not going to have all the downside of having to be isolated from my family. That was a properly miserable aspect.

Some other notable things from the last fortnight-ish:

  • I’ve got a new coaching client. Waiting for the terms of the NDA to see if I can talk about that.
  • Should be leading some good discussions at in an interesting governmenty conference in late November – just waiting for final sign-off from the powers that be.
  • Training for Mind the Product was an absolute delight, despite having an absolutely raw throat after seven hours of talking. One of the participants said that the communications and alignment course “had given them hope”. Which makes all the prep worthwhile. Alongside Westrum Typologies and the usual favourites, a few unexpected references made onto the wall, based on converations in the room – Steven Johnson’s “Farsighted” and Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat”. Another reason I love teaching this stuff – I always find something new.
  • I didn’t make it to the MtP Leadership Forum (because I was training), but I did get invited to the drinks afterwards (because I was training). As ever, a delightful chance to catch up with many old friends, as well as making new ones – one of my favourite meetings of the year. A few people I’d hoped to see weren’t there – but hopefully we’ll catch up another way.
  • The conference was great. Slightly poignant, as last year it was where I heard that my mother-in-law had passed away. Lovely talks from Randy Silver, Tim Harford, Keji Adegeji, Nilan Peiris and others – going to write them up at some point.
  • Hugely enjoying Tom Standage’s book “a brief history of motion” – that’s possibly also going to be at least one blog post in its own right. Chapter one, on how much we get wrong about the 5000-year history of the wheel, has already given me so much to think about.
  • Going back about a fortnight, we drove up to Norwich to see Daisy acting in a play at UEA – Char D’Angelo’s “Disco Dick”. She was just fabulous – utterly committed to quite a physical role, incredibly natural and very funny.
  • Yesterday we were back at UEA again for Minotaur Theatre’s “Shorts festival’ – to see Daisy a) in Todd Bell’s 25-minute “The Conspiracy”, where she was *completely* different but again extremely funny, b) directing a play of her own – “The Devil Wears Sensible Shoes”, set in the underworld and with staggeringly good demonic makeup.
  • And, as if that wasn’t enough time spent on the M11/A11, I also managed to sneak up to Norwich last Saturday – while the happy couple were getting married – to see Taylor Swift’s “Eras Tour” film with Daisy. It was bloody amazing, we both wept buckets, and I’m going to see it again soon if I can. Songs like “the 1” totally came into their own when performed live – I’d always liked it, but wow.
  • And of course – 1989 (Taylor’s Version) came out. And I absolutely love it. Almost exactly the same, but everywhere subtly bigger and better.
Sneaky evidence that Daisy and I made it. Note the “fire exit” sign bottom left.

What else is coming up?

  • MtP Leadership kicks off in two weeks time
  • Off to Norwich (again) to see the wonderful Baby Queen at the Riverside with Daisy. I’m also seeing her in London two weeks later – with a spare ticket if anyone wants it?
  • Penguin Cafe at the Union Chapel, with lovely Steve H.

…But I’m mainly going to try and stop for a bit – concentrate on getting better. Look after yourselves too. And maybe I’ll talk about some of the amazing other things that happened in September and October when I get a chance.

Kinda-weeknote 27th August – killer heirloom

It’s the Sunday of the August bank holiday, so of course I’m writing this while waiting for a barbecue to heat up, drinking a glass of rough-ish red, and wishing I was no longer wearing shorts. Hope yours is going as well.

It’s the slight end-of-an-era-beginning-of-a-new-one in music-land this week. I finally had to admit defeat on trying to rescue my very very old 88-note piano-style master keyboard, which had stopped sending MIDI notes despite various proddings. My writing approach rather depends on being able to make more than one sound at once – and only having the Prophet as an input device wasn’t really working – lovely-sounding as it is. So the mid-90s SL880 has been whipped out, to be replaced by an inherited early-90s Ensoniq synth that’s built like a tank and is somehow still going. That’s it, in the photo above.

Now, while it’s not up there with “the ‘Penny Lane’ piano” as a musical treasure, it’s a fairly noteworthy piece of hardware if you’re a video games person, as it’s the very actual instrument used on the theme for the Rare arcade classic ‘Killer Instinct’. You can hear it playing the lead line here:

Weirdly this changeover is part of a general feeling of renewal and revitalisation that’s going on. There’s a ton of stuff I’ve been turning over for a while, and I’m finally making real progress. It feels like I’ve actually got a lot more brain cells available – particularly compared to last autumn which was just rubbish. I had relatives and godparents dying, kids heading off to university, and a very rapid cadence of changes at work, etc etc. The studio – originally intended as a place to get away from it all – still had memories of being “the place where I did Brexit” or “led that difficult prioritisation round” or… well, everything really. And I just think I’d never really come to terms with all the fallout from lockdown – I was too busy holding it together for everyone else. I just felt a bit – numb.

My January of alleged-music-writing didn’t really work out because of loads of this. I was trying to have ideas in the same rooms as those tricky things had happened, when I wasn’t actually sure I even wanted to think about them. I didn’t want to write music about all that, but there wasn’t mental space for much that was new either. I certainly didn’t want to embed those difficult memories in my little sanctuary even more deeply, let alone be labouring over layered vocals ready for uploading to Soundcloud. (Obviously there are 23-year-olds who write amazing albums under far worse circumstances, and with far less fancy gear…but they may not have to also turn on Professional Highly-paid Jazzhands every day.)

BUT, it’s rather lovely that there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s fallen into place recently. A load of stuff is making a lot more sense and I’ve been slightly more at ease. I feel I’m not carrying quite so much stuff around with me in the same way – like it’s some burden that’s a part of me. I think I’m ready to start writing again, and about things that I wouldn’t mind singing about or living with long-term. I can genuinely see things a little more clearly – I’m noticing stuff more. Even small details like the designs of the faceplates of bits of synth, or the colours in a particular book cover. I’m able to concentrate a bit more. I’m holding onto thoughts for longer.

[BBQ update: there’s a slug slowly crawling across the patio, directly along the route between my chair and the food. This is adding an air of jeopardy every time I turn the sausages.]

This also means I’m planning on changing how I use the blog. I’d ended up trying to wrap massive articles into individual weeknotes, and then somehow ended up doing neither. The massive articles would get stuck in ‘perfect is enemy of done’. Any bits short enough to get finished would then get lost in the middle of a weeknote. So expect lots more half-thoughts and work in progress. Stuff around roadmaps, governance, creativity, planning, empowering teams – plus a smattering modular synthesisers and highly produced pop, of course. But a lot less waiting for perfection and having all the answers.

I’m using social media a lot less too, which is proving quite good for the brain. Catherine Price’s book “How to Break up with your Phone” is full of delightful recipes for disrupting the dopamine habits. Plus I’m reading more fiction and less Improving Work Books. In particular I’ve been devouring Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea” trilogy – having only read the first book when I was younger. What a romp they are – but with a lot of depth too. I keep finding it’s accidentally past midnight, rather than losing interest in Techniques after four pages. Hopefully I’ll continue to break the distraction habit.

I’m going to be teaching for MtP a little bit more, which is great. I had some rather heart-warming feedback from the last Product Leadership course – we genuinely made a difference to the attendees. Foundations looms in about a fortnight, then an in-person Communications & Alignment session the day before the main conference. And another Leadership in November. Which should all be very rewarding.

At work I’ve been involved in some good coaching chats – but am also starting to hear about things that I suggested in previous weeks finally paying off. I made it into Steve’s blog as having been lightly useful, even if I couldn’t remember why at first. This is very welcome, given that the bulk of the day-job is currently about the important-but-dull world of “better recruitment artefacts”. There was a good community session on Team Health Metrics, in an OKR style, where people got to try creating them as groupwork. Loads of people who’d never met each other got to chat and compare notes, which was wonderful. When you hear the words “our projects have more in common than we realised” that’s a moment to hang on to. Similarly there was a lovely gathering of the Heads of Product where they spent most of the time chatting to each other. It’s reassuring to see that some of these things are becoming a little bit more self-sustaining – even if the community’s taking quite a lot more energy and enthusiasm than I’d like. We’ll get there though.

[BBQ update 2: the slug is getting closer. If I don’t make it, please send my best to the family. And can I have “Approximate Mood Swing No. 2” by Art of Noise played at my funeral please?]

I’ve also been taking the collective “Heads of Profession” through an OKR-setting cycle in a series of workshops. These got postponed from last week because I realised that there was a conceptual issue I needed to think through. Anything I came up with as a prototype just wasn’t making sense. Essentially it’s because the *collective* Professions have certain shared things they need to achieve, and we’ve got some shared tasks we need to do to collectively achieve that. However, because each profession is such a different shape, scale and level of maturity we have hugely differing tasks for how to adopt any shared patterns or data. Or timescales on which things would be realised. there were basically several one-to-many joins buried in the middle of what I was trying to summarise in our OKRs, breaking everything. To extend Teresa Torres’ “you’re not comparing apples and oranges, you’re comparing apples and fruit”, we’re comparing apples, oranges, pips and the promise of a series of orchards.

But having the realisation that we were creating a set of interlocking plans, all running at different paces, but with some shared core enablers, has enabled us to make quite a lot of progress in terms of how we talk about our goals. It’s also made clear the breadth of the organisational friction and BAU that make our individual progress so tricky. However, we’re getting much better at sharing knowledge and processes as a result of this clarity. For example I had a long chat on Friday morning about the semantics of Job Descriptions vs Objectives…so nobody else had to. Kara, our head of profession for design, went off in search of some data we need. And so on…

It’s still not the strategy work I was promised the job would involve, but I guess it’s valuable in the meantime.

I had a wonderful and…extensive…night out with Randy Silver on Wednesday, planning a talk he might give for us, and putting the world to rights. Anything that started like this couldn’t be bad:

[BBQ update 3: phew. Food is cooked. I’m heading indoors now to eat. Will pick this up later. Unless it’s an incredible house-eating slug.]

[Update 4: It wasn’t, but watching more “Good Omens 2” with Daisy was far more tempting than resuming this.]

That’s enough wittering on about work.

I had a stupid splurge on bandcamp the other day. Bought a lot more Cate Brooks, which is proving to be lovely working music – Maritime in particular – although so far nothing’s quite as lovely as the album ‘Easel Studies’ that I wrote about last time. Caterina Barbieri’s Myuthafoo is quite spiky and cerebral, but still fun. And I’m loving the deep streak of Imogen Heap lurking under the surface of Caroline Polachek’s “Desire, I want to turn into you“. I kept thinking “what is it this reminds me of?” on every listen. “It’s not PCMusic. Or Jack Antonoff.” In hindsight, as ever, defaulting to male influences was a foolish lazy move.

The running’s ticking along nicely. 11.5km in 1’05” yesterday. A 25-minute parkrun last weekend. And the first time out on the bike in months – 28km in just over an hour, which I’m very pleased with. Trying not to think about the 40-mile sportive that’s coming up.

I also bought some eye-watering tickets to see Cabaret in January on the back of the ensuing bit of news, and that’s before I found out Jake Shears is going to be playing the Emcee. I really can’t wait:

I’ve also bought two sets of tickets to see Baby Queen in November. Initially I got a pair for London, and then I realised Daisy will be in Norwich at the time, so I bought two there as well. So if anyone fancies accompanying me to a gig in Kentish Town where I will embarrasingly know far too many of the words and occasionally be a little tearful, do please shout!

Next week I’m looking forward to catching up properly over a pint with Will Myddleton, having a nice remote chat with Stephen Culligan, and perhaps learning some ELO string parts for this gig in late October. Plus piano lessons restart quite soon…eek.

So let’s leave it there, but with a small farewell to a friend that’s seen me through over 25 years. Hopefully I’ll swap some capacitors and you’ll be back? Won’t you???

Weeknote – 6th August 2023 – taking steps

I’m on holiday, so it’s going to be a shorter-than-usual blogpost today. We’re up in Northumberland, in a rather lovely house with an amazing internet connection, a beautiful view over the Tyne Valley (barring some mysterious smoke that hints at the UK’s largest chipboard factory) and a lot of history on our doorstep.

It’s been a really busy week, on the back of a weekend of cold so horrible it also knocked me out of work on Monday.

Tuesday afternoon brought the final Mind the Product ‘Product Leadership’ session for this cohort. The last of the four weeks is a bit of an anxiety rollercoaster, because after three weeks of Really Dense Content, it’s “and now just ask us about everything else you had on your mind”. Two hours of Lean Coffee, but for a group of people with words like “VP” and “Director” in their job titles. You totally have to bring your A-game. However it was a hugely successful session, with lots of sharing between group members and some practical advice from co-trainer Stephen Culligan and myself. I genuinely felt like we’d given our participants a good mixture of hope, tactics, mindset and motivation at the end of it all. But blimey I needed a BIG glass of wine at 7pm.

I’ve also spent a lot of the rest of this week doing coaching with various teams and team members – often through the medium of roadmap reviews. This is a bit of the job I genuinely love. Helping teams fix their storytelling, realise that slightly wrong things have been clustered together, merging ideas into one outcome or splitting ideas apart to improve clarity, adding focus where they’re trying to do too much at once, and asking (very kindly) “yes, but what does that get us” many, many times.

It’s also been great to bring in the perspective of what it’s like to be at the top of all this, something teams often don’t consider. One of my favourite conversations this week was talking about longer term plans for a particular (highly adept but slightly abstract) team. These are necessarily a bit vague, and there’s some big foundational discovery work to be done – which is set out earlier in the roadmap – but the optics just didn’t feel right. I eventually managed to explain it as “yes, but you are asking [senior leader] to spend several hundred thousand pounds per quarter on your team – and I know you’re all really competent – but at the moment it doesn’t sound like you’re taking that responsibility to them seriously enough, in either how you frame the discovery nor your current assumptions about the potential work that might follow”. This turned out to be quite a useful lens, and it’s to the huge credit of those involved that they rose to that challenge in improving how the look at their plans.

These conversations can often be a bit challenging, particularly for people going through it for the first time – so if you’re doing this type of work with your own teams I do recommend that you remember to check in with team members at the end of the day. Make sure the pros of the experience genuinely outweighted the cons!

Elsewhere I’ve been chipping away at the highly entangled work of improving recruitment processes, the DDaT framework, and L&D plans. I was pleased to finally work through which of the civil service behaviours I think it’s worth interviewing on, and where the DDaT skills are better indicators of suitability for a given role. That stuff has been in my head for ages – but never written down for anyone else to look at. There’s also an epic spreadsheet in progress that’s comparing different options for future versions of our capability framework – but I’m trying to remember the key point from “storytelling with data“, that there’s a messy exploratory spreadsheet where you work it out for yourself, and then there’s the simpler one you use to tell the compelling story. They aren’t the same thing.

I’d hoped to tick off a first pass at some new cross-GDS Job Descriptions before I left, but at 6:30pm on Friday I sadly had to finally admit defeat and prioritise looking at suitcases.

Packing was an exercise in minimalism, at least for me. Very little music gear has come along on the trip. There’s only a few books. No bike.

It was a wrench to leave the modular system at home, but I think it just adds more pressure that I ought to be doing things. The laptop with Ableton Live is here, but my only input devices are a Push 2 and an ageing SM58 microphone. I can create things if I feel the urge (indeed, today I was just mucking around with one of the built-in synths), but it won’t feel like a waste if that’s all that comes of this week musically.

The reason for this stripping-back is to try and make the time to be a bit still, and re-centre myself to remember my own priorities. I need to make a plan for the rest of the year that’s a bit less reactive and has more solid underlying principles – ones which have come from me. No biggy.

Other bits of IRL stuff:

  • Starting to run a tiny bit again, after a few weeks of being too ill. I’m rubbish once more, and keep coughing like mad, but at least I’m going again
  • Nice trip into Hexham today – buying walking boots, accidental books and too much sparkling wine
  • Did a teency bit of visiting Hadrian’s Wall
  • Cate Brooks’ “Easel Studies” remains a delightful album and great to work to. Thanks Hazel Mills for the recommendation
  • Also bought the rest of the back catalogue of “A Winged Victory for the Sullen” as I’ve hugely enjoyed “Invisible Cities”. Fans of Marina Hyde might be amused by their most popular track on Spotify
  • Making good progress on reading “Sense and Sensibility”. To my shame, while I’ve watched a lot of film adaptatioons, I’ve never actually read any Jane Austen. Blimey I’ve been missing out. She can capture in just a few sentences what must have been an excruciating couple of hours of enforced social fun. Soooooo bitchy, which was totally unexpected. The book is also divided into several volumes and the first ends with this Utterly Magnificent Sentence about smiling sweetly through heartbreak:

After sitting with them a few minutes, the Miss Steeles returned to the Park, and Elinor was then at liberty to think and be wretched.

Taylor Swift is good and all that, but…

Weeknote 29th July – a gentle return

Hello again. Yes, it’s another attempt at getting weeknotes going once more. There’s so much going on in my brain at the moment that everything feels far too trivial/early to write up, or is so vast I’m never going to finish it (that blog post about roadmaps). So it’s been a few weeks, accidentally.

The big work-related thing this week was probably going to Marty Cagan’s “Transformed” workshop. I’ve written up my takeaways from that as their own blogpost. Absolutely tons to think about there.

I also ran week three of the Mind the Product “Product Leadership” course, with Stephen Culligan as my co-trainer. Only one more to go, and then we start it all again in November. Oh, which you can sign up for, if you’d like me to help you! (I’m also teaching “Communications and Alignment” virtually on September 6th-7th and in-person in October the day before the MTP conference).

This week I’ve been doing some really fulfilling work with the product teams in one of our directorates, just helping them with the storytelling and value propositions in their roadmaps. It’s been so interesting hearing about the problems they’re trying to solve, and the feature ideas they’ve got, but also fascinating to see how hard it is to not get lost in the team-level detail when telling the story more widely. I’ve been gently asking “and why” repeatedly, and often finding the real reason for doing something is mentioned in an almost throwaway fashion – some enormous piece of value that’s being unlocked or preserved, or a huge risk being mitigated. Often in the tens of millions of pounds. But to the teams that’s just become so normal that they forget to communicate it upwards – so it’s been wonderfully rewarding helping them with that.

My role at GDS was originally supposed to involve creating a shared roadmap and product strategy, but it turns out things aren’t quite set up in a way that makes this particularly easy. I’m hoping that this kind of activity might be a way to start shaping a little more of that – because it’s the sort of thing that gives the other necessary work around L&D/recruitment etc a sense of purpose.

One other thing I’m taking the reins on over the next few weeks is starting to reshape the cross-government Product Management capability framework. There are a few small bugfixes I’ve got going in ASAP for associate product managers, and I’m hoping to publish some draft guidance about how we assess capability levels that span grades (I often refer to this as “‘Expert’ is never ‘done'”) more widely pretty shortly. But the big bit of work is making this framework reflect how the craft of Product Management has evolved since it was first created. There’s very little about experiments, or different types of discovery, or strategic user research, or assumptions testing. Hopefully we can get a draft together by late September that can be sent out for feedback across government, and which can give some teams a little more permission to do the right thing. I’ve got a vast group of contributors, and I’m borrowing from some great prior work done by Jon Foreman and Scott Colfer, so hopefully that timeframe won’t break me.

Real life

With MTP Training in the air, there’s not been a ton of time for other things, but…

Went to see “Dear England” at the National Theatre with Daisy. That’s the set before kickoff in the picture above, but there’s a fabulous gallery on the NT’s own page. Joseph Fiennes was just brilliant as Gareth Southgate, and Gina McKee was as wonderful as ever – playing the psychologist he brings in and then pushes away. I’m not a massive football fan, but I absolutely loved it and bawled my eyes out at various points. Behind the main characters, there’s a wonderful transition journey for Harry Kane, and even Jordan Pickford changes from this wiry ball of aggression into someone much wiser. It’s open for a little longer, and much recommended. It might have too much commercial music in it to ever make it onto NT At Home or NT Live, but let’s see.

‘Barbie’ was bloody brilliant. I can’t wait to see it again. A deeper and richer film than I’d imagined, and while the plot isn’t *vast* there’s a lot to be got from it. This is a movie that can do stupid dog-poo jokes in one moment, then pivot to a vast Wes-Anderson-style formal piece a moment later. And it’s a film that talks about invisible privilege in the patriarchy, through the medium of an allegedly perfect matriarchy. Bravo Greta and Margot!

Music-wise: this week saw the release of the new Georgia and Carly Rae Jepsen albums. Neither was quite as amazing as I’d hoped. Georgia feels like she’s got a bit swamped by the Vampire Weekend bloke’s production, and it just sounds like any other female singer-songwriter rather than distinctively her. CRJ’s is the traditional “and all the other bits” album to accompany the magnificent “The Loneliest Time”. There are some great tracks on “The Loveliest Time” but definitely not quite up with its predecessor.

Of course, I’ve not been posting for a while, so there are also amazing records like Alison Goldfrapp’s “The Love Invention” and Matthew Herbert’s “The Horse” and Jake Shears’ “Last Man Dancing” still in heavy rotation.

And we said goodbye to Sinead O’Connor. Still trying to get my head around that.

I’ve not written a ton of music of my own, but I’m still settling into the piano keys more confidently, and re-learning some old pieces through the lens of my new left-hand technique. I’m also starting to do a bit of DIY modular stuff – bought a Music Thing Turing Machine to make for myself, and the Voltages expander. Hopefully that’ll also help me work out why the one I bought off eBay is playing up? But yes, a lot of remembering how to solder over the next week.

Previous Weeks

I’ve been busy and a bit ill, but a few other highlights:

  • Managed to get under 24 minutes at Parkrun. Never thought that would be a thing.
  • Went to see “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” again – really really good, and it still fills the bigger venue.
  • Likewise “Guys and Dolls” at the Bridge Theatre. Truly spectacular bit of immersive theatre. Can’t wait to go and see it again but stand in the pit this time!


Weeknote 4th June 2023 – Spaces for Stories, and Sparks

This has been an odd and slightly schizophrenic week, both feeling out of my depth and like I’m retreading old ground. Trying to make progress on lots of tasks in parallel, and not really getting to close many of them off.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time working on interview scripts for the new GOV.UK Head of Product role. Devising questions that are going to be the best and fairest way to make choices between the candidates, but also make sure we can get them any feedback they’d need. I’ve also been thinking about the exercise we’re going to get them to do – what we’re trying to prove and evaluate through it. Which is all basically like writing some sort of interactive adventure – we set up the situation as best as we can, and hope the candidates go on the right twists and turns, and there aren’t any holes in the format that we’ve missed.

Of course, some of these bits of thinking come back to talking through the nuance of what the Product Leader’s role really IS in any given context. So it’s been quite helpful as a medium for talking to the GOV.UK leadership about my own thoughts on that, given that they’ve barely had a chance to work with me properly, and to look at where I can support this in the future.

Once the script was agreed I then needed to turn it into something all the panel could use in the sessions. I started trying to recreate some of my old DIT templates from memory in GoogleDocs, and it was only then that I realised “hang on, this artefact is a thing I’m quite good at”. So look forward to a future dedicated blogpost on the usability of interview scripts – bringing together stuff from Saturday evening telly and the rules of the Civil Service Commission.

I’ve been running a series of “listening sessions” to try and help gather ideas for how we might better organise some of our teams in future. They’ve been really useful to people I think, but it’s been quite hard work facilitating sometimes over fifty people at once. I came up with a few interesting approaches to grouping them for dump-and-sort activities:

  • If your birthday is Jan-March group this section, Apr-Jun do this etc (when we had lots in each area)
  • Go and look in calendar at your birthday in this year, and if it’s Monday then do this smaller group of postits, Tuesday or Wednesday this bigger one etc (when the categories were very unevenly populated)

Always up for other ideas to improve my facilitation, so if you know of other good grouping tips please leave them in the comments.

Anyway, I definitely used up pretty much all my fake-extroverting with all that, so was glad to have some other ‘depth tasks’ going on:

  • Digesting a skills survey the collective ‘Heads of Profession’ sent out to Deputy Directors/Grade 6es, trying to find out where we needed to focus our energies in each profession. Some interesting gaps in expectations between different groups emerged. But also some stuff we probably wouldn’t have spotted so quickly for ourselves. As ever, surveys leave you with more questions than you started with, but they’re often better questions.
  • Kicking off some improvements to our product ops
  • Working on a forthcoming FutureLearn course

I also got to hang out at the cross-government Product Heads/Leads gathering, which is such a lovely group of people. Rose W was talking about some learning stuff she was doing in her area, as impressively and passionately as ever. Don’t know quite how she does it. Next time I’ll be boring them with potential improvements to the DDaT capability framework.

And no, I’ve still not made any more progress on the epic blogpost about roadmapping, although I’m using lots of the ideas in it around the office.

There’s been no shortage of “real life” either.

At the start of the week I went to see Sparks live at the Albert Hall, with Mr Everest. Just a wonderful gig, and so utterly, utterly ‘them’. Russell can still hit all the notes, which is incredible. The set was quite wilful – lots of very austere minimalist-inspired ones in the middle, before they returned to The Hits at the end.

We all whooped and hollered as you’d expect, and the encore duly began with “Love Song” – one of the hardest-to-love tracks off the new album. “That’ll show them”, they must have thought. But normality was quickly resumed and we went into the singalongs of “My Baby’s Taking Me Home” and “All That” to end. The former was a remarkable experience, having that many people singing their hearts out to this hypnotic minimalist gem.

I got to see my parents twice this week. They’re down to see the Bridge Theatre’s immersive production of “Guys and Dolls” on Monday, which my sister worked on. She’s also finishing off the costume supervising on “Patriots” right now, so is the busiest woman alive. I had a slightly more relaxed time of it, taking them out for dinner at BAFTA on Thursday, and then visiting Uncle Phil’s fancy flat in Berners Street where they were staying. I now have HUUUGE roof-terrace envy, it must be said.

What else?

  • Lots of piano practice, in new and interesting ways.
  • Bit of vocal practice to old Divine Comedy favourites – Jesus I’m rusty and croaky
  • Not much music written as I’ve been out loads
  • I got a security alert about some really old Wiki software I had running on this server, and decided it was time to clear out a ton of old Perl and PHP. And yes, in the process managed to trash this blog. There may have been quite a bit of trembling bottom lip going on. But thankfully a nice support person managed to work out that I’d deleted php.cgi, put it back, and I’m able to post this again for you now.
  • Running’s continuing to get better, but I suspect I’m about to plateau. I can’t believe I’ve managed to get to the point where I can do a 5K in under 25 minutes, and that my knees aren’t in agony as a result. But I can tell it’s going to be a long time before I come down much further – and I don’t know if I can be bothered to put the effort in.
  • I’ve discovered that I have lost over a stone in the last year – and possibly need to replace a vast number of 36-inch waist 501s with 34-inch waist ones. But this could also be a hubristic tragedy waiting to happen.

Mini-weeknote – 21st May

Robin Ince, in full flight, and 72 tangents in.

Lots of projects ticking along at work, lots of new things kicking off, but few tangible things to talk about at this stage.

  • I’m helping design the interview process for the new Head of Product for GOV.UK. It’s quite a different gig from hiring my own replacement at DIT, but there are definitely some common themes…and I lightly wish I still had access to the interview scripts to steal a few bits and bobs, but hey.
  • Thinking I really really need to finish this massive blogpost about roadmapping, or more specifically, different ways of planning and using the artefacts of those different types of planning – particularly in an area of high uncertainty. Loads of the themes are coming up in other conversations, and I really need to do the Marina Hyde thing of ‘writing it all down so I genuinely know what I think’.
  • Went up to Manchester this week for one of the GDS all-staff events, to run a Learning and Development breakout workshop with my UR partner-in-crime Natalie. Seemed to go pretty well, and we had GDS’s CEO Tom Read in the session, so that’s Quite Handy.
  • While there I also got to have a good chat with two of the Directors and a brief hello with a couple of DDs I don’t normally get to see too often as I’m mainly in London. Something I could do with fixing a bit. I’ve still not been to Bristol – pah.
  • “Heads of Profession” have finally got a set of agreed objectives.
  • I’ve got a LOT of workshops to design/write suddenly. I like doing these, as they’re a bit like designing pieces of interactive theatre – when will the audience move, what will they be thinking/saying/learning. But my own production values can also be a bit of a curse, and I’m trying to make sure I manage the pace; there was a period of doing tons of these back-to-back at DIT which accidentally led to a huge pile of burnout and a slightly ruined holiday.
  • The dynamics of getting a large group of senior *peers* in leadership roles to function like a team rather than individuals, without acting like you’re their boss, remains super-tricky. And really hard to explain to people who’ve not done time “in the trenches”. If anyone has tips? Otherwise I’ll share my own once I’ve made a few mistakes.

Meanwhile, in real life…

Went to see Robin Ince talking about neurodiversity and comedy and a million other things at the Wanstead Tap on Tuesday. That’s him in the header image above. He was launching the updated version of his book “I’m a Joke and So are You” which I know several other people would love. Quite a few unexpected tender moments, and I got very teary when he was talking about “things you blame yourself for that weren’t really your fault”. You can get the vibe in the following:

Piano keeps on improving, but sometimes painfully so. Lots of boring stuff with metronomes doing things at half speed, and trying to build up the strength in my little fingers to the point where they can support the whole weight of my arm reliably because of some fiddly changes in a Bach two-part invention.

Ran over 15km this week – including doing my first ever 10K. Just under 55 minutes, which I was very pleased with.

Hazel Mills’ full EP is out at last, and it’s amazing – been on heavy rotation while I did the gardening today. You can listen to it on Bandcamp – loads of lovely Kate-Bush-meets-Goldfrapp-meets-Hannah-Peel bits in there. “The Embrace” is still the one that melts my heart though. So very, very beautiful.

Also, I got to use the wonderful Ultra-lounge album “Organs in Orbit” during my workshop. Hard recommend if you need a bit of high-quality cheese.

On which note, it’s bedtime!